Do your research: Diversity

Hello and welcome to a new episode of Do your research. This time we’ll take a look at something mainstream media is painfully guilty of. A blatant lack of diversity.

Out of the last five Hollywood productions you’ve seen, how many featured women in the main role? How many had people who were not white, not straight, not cis or disabled?

Maybe you say all five did feature a minority, at the very least in a side role. Almost every cast consisting of more than three people has at least one woman and one poc. Sometimes compressed into the same person. In an effort to bring more diversity into their story, writers like to take the easy way, leading to the token girl and/or the token black guy, who are just there to make the cast look more colourful. This is not how representation works. But how does it work?

The short version

Avoid tokenism and stereotypes. Every character has to drive the plot forward.

The Scenario

The time for the reckoning has come. Woodrow and Gustav are united once again ready to face anything thrown in their way. The Big Bad doesn’t come unprepared however. He brings a robot army (oh, come on. You knew there would be robots at some point.) and the two alone do not have the strength to go against this force. So they gather a team, from all around the world. Edmund, the Educated Englishman. Fabien, the Fabulous Frenchman. And Laquisha, a wise shaman from an African tribe, who functions as healer of the team.

The Science

So now we have four white dudes and one black girl, acting as the resident minority representation. But this character will never represent anything. She is a handy excuse for writers to appear political correct, without actually changing anything. It is a way to avoid confrontation, from both sides. Every movie that has a setup like this – three to four white men and one minority – would likely work without that minority character. They add nothing to the plot and have little to none character development. Short, if you cut them out, hardly anyone would notice. That’s what people mean when they speak of tokenism. Adding a character for the sake of variety without them actually adding anything meaningful to the story.

And to top it all of, just about anything about Laquisha is stereotypical. I used the overused trope of the Magical Negro, and googled ‘stereotypical black girl names’ to come up with a name. If I were to go any further into her backstory, the likeliest course would be to think of the first African tribe name that sounds appealing to white ears and add some voodoo lore. I would have a character that is a horrendous mashup of different cultures that may or may not actually belong to the person for whom I am choosing the backstory. No black person nor any woman is ever going to identify with her.

To understand why all this is a problem we need to look at the reason you should write diverse in the first place.

If every book, movie or video game we ever consumed would center only around a white, straight, cis man, then we would limit ourselves to the perspective of a very narrow demographic. Ultimately we can gain, in terms of entertainment and moral growth, more from having a vast array of different backgrounds. Each group of people face different struggles, see the world out of different eyes.

A story is the closest approximation to living another’s life. As a white person you will never know how it is to be of colour. But watching a movie about a person of colour gives us understanding. Mostly by seeing how many things aren’t any different. The same goes for sexuality and gender.

Reading and watching diverse stories broadens our horizons. Without ever having been more than one person, we understand the minds of a million people. Which ultimately makes us understand the world better, because we have looked at it from other angles.

That is why stereotypes are such a bad thing. A stereotype prevents understanding. It’s a wall that keeps us from stepping into another’s shoes. If all white, straight men were ever doing on TV was make crude jokes and repair cars, all the people who aren’t straight, white and male would have no idea that there is a whole person behind that. We’d assume that this was all this demographic was there to do.

The second problem is, of course, tokenism. Adding a character without having them contribute anything to the story. They have no development and no layers.

What this says is: Any minority in a story is useless. They can not be heroes.

Especially in children’s literature we see hardly any diversity. Considering how few of the population are straight, white and male, there are an overwhelming amount of children growing up believing that their stories don’t matter. The only role models they have are nothing like them.

And if they are featured in a stereotypical way, they learn they have to act in a certain way to have any significance. Girls seeing girls in fiction only doing ever traditionally feminine tasks – caring for others, cooking, etc – will assume this is what they are supposed to do. Unless they are reading diverse and well represented books, they will shy away from ever doing the heavy lifting, since there is no example they could be acting from. No one would put the idea in their heads that they can be more than cooks and mothers.

For these reasons – putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and giving every person the validation of their own existence – it is also important not to have minorities only as distant side characters. They need to have strong roles. They need to be the main character or at least a strong side character. In a story, these main roles are the only ones we ever hear about in detail. It’s the only place where a character is portrayed three dimensionally, faces struggles and overcomes them. Putting a minority somewhere in the background and giving them one or two lines will never make anyone empathise with them.
To diversify Harry Potter, for example, it wouldn’t do to have some of the students in the background be non white, straight, male. It would need to be Harry, Ron or Hermione, the characters who are featured dominantly throughout the story. Hermione is a good example of representation of women being done right. She has good character development, contributes to the overall plot and drives it forward, and has complex emotional and moral foundings.

Dumbledore being announced as gay is a bad example. He is not a dominant side character. He is needed for the plot to function, but at no point in the books is his homosexuality ever called out. There is little to non development and little to no personal struggle. We don’t identify with Dumbledore. He is a much liked character but nothing more. For queer representation to work, a character would have to be openly queer who features much more heavily. Even someone like Draco would have done, since we follow his character arc from Book One, and see how he grows emotionally.

The Alternative

Here is one thing that may seem crass but really isn’t hard to implement in your storytelling.

Stop using the straight, white, cis man as a main character.

This is a narrow demographic, so overrepresented that excluding it from the pool of available main characters will hardly limit your options at all. That isn’t to mean you have to go to the other extreme and only write about black transgender lesbians. We have limited ourselves to one very specific type of character for so long that it does take a while to see the possibilities when forsaking it. You don’t have to change everything at once. A straight, white trans man is already something we see very little of in mainstream media. A straight, asian, cis man is often subjected to stereotypes, so we obviously need more proper representation. You don’t even have to switch the gender to have access to such a vast array of demographics that you couldn’t write about them all in one lifetime.

You don’t have to belong to a particular minority to write about it. Part of being a writer is to change our point of views. It takes a lot of research to write about someone other than ourselves. But that doesn’t go only for minorities. You will have to research writing about a trans person just as much as you will have to research writing about an astronaut (unless you are a transgender astronaut obviously).

Finally, if you choose to write about a certain minority, even if you do belong to that minority, I’d advise you to pull up a list of stereotypes regarding your topic, so that you can avoid them.

In the comming months this series will go into the representation of specific minorities, how to write them and how not to write them, so hopefully you will find some pointers here. But there are a lot of sources in books, on the internet and your social circle where you can find out about the people you want to write about.

To avoid tokenism, make your minority character an integral part of the story. The main character or a strong side character. Make them Harry, Ron or Hermione. They have to drive the plot, have their own subplots and strong character development.

One last bit of advice before we wrap things up: Writing diverse is never easy. We have repeated the same old stories for so long that they have made deep trenches into our minds. It’s hard to recognise sitting in such a trench, since it is all we’ve ever seen. Even harder it is to climb out and make a new pattern. But in the end, when you have a story that is truly new and not just the chewed again material of the last centuries, it will be worth it.

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Do your research: Go to hell

NaNoWriMo has started this week and to all you courageous souls participating this year: Good luck and may the muses kiss you, or if the kisses don’t suffice anymore, do depraved but inspiring acts.

In honour of this long and rocky road this month’s entry of ‘Do your research’ will be all about Hell and all it’s inhabitants.

What are the glaring inaccuracies that we unwittingly read through in any supernatural setting? What does Venus have to do with the devil? Why is every demon called Crowley?

The short version:

Much of the lore we have come to associate with the church have their origin in popular culture.
If you want to use it, do so consciously.

The Scenario:

After our spectacular failure of CPR last time, Woodrow’s dead. The unbreakable bond they developed in one paragraph demands from Gustav to come to his friend’s rescue. And so he sets forth into the deepest of the nine circles of hell, where Lucifer reigns from his throne of ice.
Once the brightest of all angels, he has now fallen from God’s grace, still beautiful in his defeat.
Gustav steps before the devil and makes a deal with him, to get his friend’s life back in exchange for his soul. The devil agrees under the condition that Gustav find his friend in hell. Aided by a demon named Crowley, Gustav searches hell up and down. Here, each sinner is punished according to one of the Seven Deadly Sins, the crimes God is not willing to forgive. They finally find Woodrow in Purgatory, where the souls undergo purification before being allowed to God’s side. One action packed scene later the two friends have broken out of the place and go on adventures once more.

The Science:

Speaking of the devil. Also called the wicked one, the liar and father of lies, the tempter, the prince and god of this world, the adversary, dragon and ancient serpent. Satan. Lucy. My sixth grade geology teacher. All his names are used as titles, have meanings of their own, seldom complimentray. But what is his real name?

Lucifer (latin for Lightbringer), a latinised version of the Hebrew heylel (Morning Star) is a title, mentioned as such only in Isaiah 14 and not associated with the devil until some time between 530 BC and 70AD and used synonymously with the term devil only in the 4th century. Before the word was a reference to one of the mortal Babylonian kings.

But why use the word Morningstar at all? A popular tale during Isaiah’s time told about a brave warrior (alternatively a god) who sought to overthrow God, but failed and ultimately descended to the underworld, just like the morning star, venus, never fully climbs the sky before falling down again.

Devil is the word that was used to translate the Hebrew word for Satan, deriving from the greek word Diabolos, which means ‘slanderer’.

The closest to the devil’s actual name is Satan, used as name as well as title, which is in fact the phonetic reading of the Hebrew שָּׂטָן, meaning Adversary. This is the name under which all of the stories, the Tempting of Eve, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, Job’s fall from fortune, the making of the Nephilim and the whole story of Revelation come together.

Originally all these crimes were committed by various entities, sometimes in defiance of God (like the serpent in Eden), sometimes carrying out His orders as a punisher. The angel associated with the Abraham and Job part was Mastema and he acted on orders of God with his full approval. He even got a tenth of the Nephilim as a sort of task force, so he could be more efficient in the whole human punishing thing.

Angels named Satanael, Samyaza and Satariel (all associated at one point with Satan) were mentioned belonging to the Grigori, the 200 angels that fell from Heaven so they could hook up with human women, which resulted in the Nephilim.

So what of the notion that Lucifer was the brightest and most beautiful of all angels? Crass case of having an Unrealiable Narrator, I’m afraid. The notion that Lucifer was anything but your regular fallen angel comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Lucifer as a protagonist describes himself as the most beautiful. He also uses the now famous phrase „Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven“. In the Bible, specifically in Revelations, the devil was cast into hell by Michael and suffered there just as much as anyone else. There hell has no ruler, only victims.

Since his worst sin is supposed to be Pride, refusing to defer to the clay-made human Adam, I’ll let you decide how accurate this depiction of handsome king of hell is. Satan’s beauty or lack thereof is never mentioned in the Holy Book.

Neither is the idea that the devil is trapped in hell. That comes from primarily Catholic literature and not The Book, where the devil walks the earth to tempt mankind. The idea of seven or nine circles of hell is rooted exclusively in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the Bible hell is a lake of fire, with some horny and possibly naked fallen angels chained to it. Oh, did I forget to tell you about what became of the Grigori, of which Satan may or may not have been a part of? Well, since you ask so nicely. After producing the Nephilim and teaching humanity a bit about the creative arts (which back in the day meant ‘War’), God sent his most loyal soldiers and captured the Grigori. He then made them watch their children slaughter each other and bound them to each other in the lake of fire. He also decreed that any sinner going downstairs from that day would be chained to these 200 fallen angels, who had the hots for women so bad, they chose to fall from Heaven for them. I will not make a joke about how being strapped to horny, and possibly naked, angels for eternity is a whole special kind of hell. I could have, but I won’t. Because I’m professional.

Still air left? Don’t worry, the worst is behind you. Reading this much about the devil has no doubt left a stain on you, so how about a bit of Purgatory to freshen things up?

May I see your Catholic Badge? Yeah, sorry, only the Catholics and related churches get to have a purgatory. The Jews’ hell, Gehenna, works similarily, in that people who gain God’s forgiveness are allowed up in Heaven after some time. But all other churches? No purgatory for you.
This stems mostly from the concept of sola scriptura, the Protestant dogma that everything you need for your salvation kit is contained within the Bible. Purgatory was invented by various saints and popes and is not once mentioned in the Holy Book. It is not even a separate place, except in medieval art, where everything is a place full of fire and brimstone. The Catholic churches stance is that it is a process rather than your local dungeon, where you are purified of all sins not bad enough to get you thrown into hell.

Fun fact: The Protestants believe that your actions, good or bad, are merely expressions of your faith that have no bearing on whether or not you go to heaven or hell. Rather it is the intensity of your faith. So if you are a really, really devout Christian you can mutilate and murder as many people as you want, you still get to go upstairs. As a Catholic you have to make a donation to the church first. I’m not being cynical here, mind you. A donation to the church or a related charity is officially a way to repent for your sins and thus a way to save up your Heaven-points.

I mentioned that you go to purgatory if your sins are not bad enough to land you straight in hell. But what sins are bad enough to get you into hell? Am I perhaps speaking of the Seven Deadly Sins?

I sure wish I did, because it would give me a wicked transition to the next part. Alas, a mortal sin is simply a grave sin which has to be enacted in full knowledge of both the sin and its consequences and full consent. Murdering a person with nothing but ill intent, knowing that it will get one out of God’s good graces and without being forced or persuaded to it would count for example. Even a sin like that can be forgiven though if one confesses and repents (also known as a hefty donation to the church).

No, the seven deadly sins are merely a guideline, a holy mnemonic device, written and changed multiple times throughout history. The modern list Wrath, Greed, Lust, Gluttony, Pride, Envy and Sloth was written by Pope Gregory I. in the 6th century. These were the ones Dante Alighieri used in his depictions of seven of the nine circles of hell.

A list of especially bad sins occur twice in the bible, the first being

a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plots, feet that are swift to run into mischief, a deceitful witness that uttereth lies, him that soweth discord among brethren [Proverbs 6:16-19]

The second, far longer one, lists as being especially sinful:

Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings and ‘such like’
[Galatians 5:19-21]

Fun fact: The Seven Deadly Sins are at times associated with specific demons who sort of specialise in them. In this list Satan and Lucifer are mentioned separately, the former being associated with wrath, while Lucifer reigns over pride.

Last but not least, let’s face the Antichrist. Or Antichrists. Holy shit, there are more than one?
According to the Book, yes. There an antichrist is simply a person who does not accept Jesus as their saviour, no more, no less.

What we have instead as a singular person is the ‘Lawless One’ and the ‘False Prophet’, both people who seek to usurp heaven and speak the devil’s word. At least the false prophet would be an antichrist, as he’s playing on team Satan. (The false prophet is sometimes three people, depending on translation and mood of the culture during the time the piece was translated in. Trinity is big with Christianity.)

One last fun fact, before we come to the end. Have you ever wondered why every other demon in literature seems to be named either Aleister or Crowley, sometimes both? It’s a reference to the occultist and Englishman Aleister Crowley, who wrote a book on his occultism and was casually referred to as ‘the wickedest man in the world’ during and after his lifetime.

The Alternative:

The biggest problem with using ‘Bible’ lore in fiction is separating the actual references to the holy texts from the literature that has grown around it. Per se there is nothing wrong with using a depiction of Lucifer from popular culture for your story, as long as you keep the source straight. Even a throwaway phrase along the lines of „This Milton guy? Got it spot on.“ will do. In many supernatural settings it’s explained which urban myths and folklore will be used and which not. Compare for example vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. Both establish specific ways to kill a vampire, Buffy keeping closer to to what we have come to expect as the traditional vampire lore – stakes and sunlight – while Supernatural explicitly mentions that the lore of stakes to the heart doesn’t apply in this universe.

Folklore and religion tend to grow with the people. Stories are added, changed or forgotten until there is no one correct way to use the information we have. As such the suspension of disbelief can be stretched almost indefinitely. Almost being the key word. New additions or deliberate deviations from canon (aka using Dante’s nine circles of hell instead of the traditional pit of fire) should always be mentioned as such.

 

Sources:
The Bible (No really, I read the important parts for reference)
http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/boe/ (for the parts described in the Books of Enoch)
Paradise Lost – John Milton (Raphael and Adam have a sex talk. As a fan of Supernatural, that scene was twice as hilarious)
Göttliche Komödie by Dante (yes, a German version. Sue me.)
An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism: History and Religion of the Jews in the Time of Nehemiah, the Maccabees, Hillel, and Jesus by Lester Grabbe (I actually bought a book for this entry. Okay, loaned it, in a library)
and, as ever, Wikipedia (because, let’s face it, there’s no way I’d have all those dates memorised)

Do your Research: Live, damn you, live!

This month we have another peek into the medical side of fiction. We covered head trauma before, now it’s time to go a step further, by killing a character off and seeing what happens when Gustav tries to revive them. CPR is one of the most crucial first aid techniques and one that always gets used the wrong way. Let’s do it better, shall we?

The short version:

CPR does not bring people back to life. It only makes sure that if they are revived they don’t end up vegetables.

The Scenario:

After failing to get rid of the Big Bad last time around, Gustav decides he needs to get a partner. And sure enough, as the plot will have it, there’s technological genius Woodrow, who used to be a gay exotic dancer before turning to the life of hacking into evil people’s accounts and giving all their money to Romanian animal shelters. The two quickly hit it off and form a dream team like the world has never seen before.

But gosh! The Big Bad has returned and, witnessing the world-changing teamwork these two put up, develops a master plan to both break Gustav’s spirit and get rid of that pesky kid Woodrow.

Soon, millions upon millions of nanites flow through Woodrows blood stream and at the push of a single button he drops dead, right before they can blow up the Big Bad’s base in the middle of Hungary.

Gustav is nothing if not a man of action. He drops beside his trusty friend and lays his fingers against his neck to check for a pulse. When none is forthcoming he folds his hands over each other and starts applying CPR, begging Woodrow to come back to him. He gives him mouth-to-mouth, even if he swore never ever to kiss another dude.

„Don’t you die on me. Don’t you dare die on me!“ he shouts and as if the Lord had taken mercy on him, Woodrow’s eyes open with a start. He inhales the breath of life, brought back into this life by Gustav’s quick action and true heart.

The Science:

Sorry to break the news, but Woodrow’s a goner. Yep, no saving that kid. Dead as a doornail.

To understand why, we need to look at what CPR actually does.

The abbreviation CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation, meaning the reactivation of heart and lungs. The name itself is misleading, because what’s dead is dead and can not be brought back except with a well aimed intervention from Thor. Or maybe a defibrillator. Whatever’s handy at the moment.

So what are you doing, if not bringing people back to life like a second coming on budget? And why do it at all?

The main problem with dying is the sudden lack of oxygen in your brain. Of course, there’s also long periods of boredom and lack of variety when it comes to afternoon activites. But mostly it’s the oxygen. If your brain doesn’t have oxygen it withers and dies, shriveling like an old raisin. Not all at once of course. Your brain behaves more like holding itself hostage, killing random parts off one by one if you don’t get the damn blood flowing now.

Since, being dead and all, your heart isn’t very much up to the job, you take on an outside source. Meaning Gustav kneeling over Woodwrow and frantically trying to remember what he learned in his mandatory first aid course twenty years ago.

Gustav is now Woodrow’s heart. By putting all his body weight on his chest he compresses the heart, making the stored blood in it flow up to the brain. When he lets up the pressure new oxygen rich blood flows into the heart chamber which are again compressed via bodyweight and pushed up to the brain.

The oxygen itself is provided by mouth-to-mouth, which is about as far from a kiss as anyone can get. If it isn’t for you, then you’ve probably doing kissing wrong for a long time. More to that later.

Nothing during CPR gives the body any incentive to resume living. It just keeps the brain fresh until Thor or the guy with the defibrillator arrives and can attempt to resurrect it.

This is why there is a very specific rhythm to the speed of compressions. Doing it to ‘Highway to Hell’ is often recommended by First Aid teachers, though you are discouraged from actually singing it.

If Gustav were to put pressure on the heart in too short intervals it wouldn’t have time to refill and thus less blood would arrive at Woodrow’s brain, ridding it of oxygen. Too slow and all the nice blood just sits there doing nothing and again, no blood in the brain.

If Gustav doesn’t press hard enough his efforts won’t go through all the ribs and other pesky biology standing between him and the heart.

There is a very real chance of breaking ribs during CPR. You shouldn’t aim for it, but that’s about the amount of pressure Gustav should be using. Consistently. For as long as someone with some electricity comes running. CPR is bloody exhausting.

There is a brief respite for the minute or so Gustav spends taking over Woodrow’s heart function. Let’s look at the kiss of life, shall we?

Homophobes among you, no need to avert your eyes. This is the least gay kiss you will ever witness in your life.

Image80

First, no real kiss requires of you to push your intended’s head back to his neck, so the line from mouth to lungs is straight. Second you shouldn’t hold your intended’s nose closed, unless you’re into that sort of thing. And there won’t be much lip contact. In fact you will pull your mouth over the other’s as if it was a condom. Nice and snug around with no chance of air getting by. Then you blow as if you wanted to fill a six liter balloon with air in one go. Because, essentially, that’s what you’re doing. See? Mouth to mouth is closer to a children’s birthday than romantic interaction. (It’s equally stressful and traumatising, too.)

So, no homosexual subtext. But what about that sudden gasp when Woodrow wakes up after a heartfelt plea to the heavens? A myth, sadly. Rule of thumb: If someone wakes up from CPR, he didn’t need it in the first place.

Although, sometimes it can be hard determining if someone is still breathing or not. Looking for a pulse at one of the pulse points like the wrists or the neck (there are seven in total, though at least one is where you don’t want to look for a pulse on a perfect stranger) isn’t a good way to determine heartbeat. Sometimes the heart beats so faintly that you couldn’t find a pulse even if the person was upright and walking. People with low blood pressure often have that. It could also beat so fast that you can’t detect it by pure sensation of touch. Then you have to take into account that you rarely search for a pulse while completely calm and collected. Even trained professionals who spend their career looking for the dead in people sometimes have trouble detecting a pulse. That is why you check for breathing instead and with three methods. By hovering closely over the patients mouth you can listen for breath and feel it should he exhale. Your turned head also allows you to watch the chest and determine if it rises or falls. This is the most sure-fire way but even there is a margin of error.

If in doubt, apply CPR. Except for hurting like a bitch, it won’t harm your potential dead guy, but will save him a world of trouble should he actually need it.

To sum it up, you should apply CPR everytime you think someone’s dead to keep the brain blood saturated until the heart can be jumpstarted. If there is no such help forthcoming, as hard as it may be, don’t bother. There is nothing you can do without an electric shock.

On a side note: When resucitating people via a defibrillator, sometimes adrenaline is adminstered as well. It is believed it also can get a heart beating again or at least help in the process. It’s standard procedure in Emergency Rooms and ambulances, but it’s effectiveness hasn’t been proven. It may help or it may turn out to be the 21st century equivalent of blowing smoke up ones ass.

The Alternative:

Three Rules to keep in mind:

Number 1: CPR is only useful when there is further help coming

Number 2: Waking up from CPR is not a result of the technique but of your chest hurting like hell

Number 3: Mouth to mouth is only romantic for a very select people.

The best way to get familiar with CPR and all other forms of First Aid is to do a course. It will help you get the viewpoint of administering CPR much better than if you just read about it. For example, people tend to underestimate the sheer strength and stamina needed to apply CPR for a longer period.

Courses are held practically everywhere and don’t cost much. I would strongly urge you to take one, not just for your writing but for general life as well. You could save a life with that knowledge.

 

 

 

In case some of you wondered why I gave sources for the post about guns but nor for the one before. This is because I am working in the medical field and write mostly from first hand experience. Guns are a topic I was not inherently familiar with, which is why I had to do a lot of manual research. If enough people are interested in the professional literature I used during med school or some of the manuals we use in our daily lives I will post them.

Do your research: Armed and dangerous

Welcome back everyone!

This episode of ‘Do your research’ is all about shooting. No wussy heroes being brain-damaged by a knock on the head, no this time we’ll bring out the big guns.

This issue will be concentrating on semi-automatic pistols, with a side-dish of the differences to a revolver, though most of the things I’ll speak about go for rifles and shotguns as well. If there’s enough interest, I will do a follow up with them as well, addressing issues particular to these weapons.

So let’s return to Gustav, our hero and see what we can do wrong before whacking him with reality.

 

The short version

You can avoid many mistakes writing about guns by knowing exactly which model the character is using and what its features are.

 

 

The Scenario

After his involuntary trip to Siberia, Gustav is back and he’s out for revenge. By his side his trusty Glock 19. He releases the safety and enters the Big Bad’s secret underground lair, shooting two guards on sight. The shot rings through the building, the guards thrown back by the impact of the bullet, and sure enough not a minute after there’s te-  thirty mooks blocking the path.

Gustav prefaces with the patented Action Hero Smirk and racks the slide, the classic tchk-a thus informing his enemies that he means business. Thirty hits later he steps over the neatly piled bodies of his enemies and on to the Big Bad.

No hero worth his money would just shoot the Big Bad on sight. It’s personal, Gustav wants to know the why. This time his archnemesis won’t get away. He presses the pistol’s muzzle against the Big Bad’s head, demanding for him to explain himself.

But whatever self-preservation instinct the human mind possesses, it floats into nothingness the moment you have to proof you are the more aloof in a dangerous situation. The Big Bad provokes Gustav. Probably makes a mean joke about his dead girlfriend.

Gustav cocks the hammer, reminding the Big Bad who’s in charge here. After a bit more of snarky banter he pulls the trigger. An empty click is all that happens. The gun’s magazine was empty. The Big Bad seizes his chance, knocks the gun out of Gustav’s hand and opens up the scene for a badass melee battle.

 

The Science

This scene contains nearly every mistake you can make when writing about firearms. Most of them occur because I tried to write about four different guns at the same time.

See, the reader doesn’t need to know every detail about the gun Gustav is carrying. But you as the writer, do.

First, let’s look at what are we actually going to talk about.

 

GLOCK_19

This is the Glock 19 used by Gustav in our scenario.

Glock is a big and one of the most popular manufacturer of pistols. It’s a good all-around gun, not the best in anything but it has no major flaws either. That’s one reason it is used by law enforcement and military all around the world.

Let’s go through the list of mistakes in order of their appearance, shall we?

 

The first thing Gustav does is to release the safety on his gun.

… Notice the safety on the picture above? No? Good, because the Glock doesn’t have one. It uses an internal safety system, that keeps the gun from firing unless the trigger is fully pressed down. Some models have a manual safety switch (many single-action do), but this one? Not really.

 

He shoots the first guard and – hold your horses, no shooting yet. The Glock is a semi-automatic pistol.

Semi-automatic means that the gun uses the energy from recoil after every shot to automatically load a new round from the magazine into the chamber. But before your first shot you have to do it manually, by pulling back the upper part of your gun (the slide).

Now, usually, you don’t have to mention anything of this, but later in the scenario Gustav is shown ‘racking’ the slide when he clearly doesn’t have to because he’s between shots and his weapon’s mechanism would have pulled a new round into the chamber by itself.

So if you want to mention the motion for dramatic effect, make sure you do it when it’s appropriate. Meaning, after your Gustav reloaded his gun.

 

The shot fired by Gustav throws back the guard. Only it doesn’t. Even if Gustav’s pistol would have miraculously transformed into a shotgun loaded with giant slugs (the ammo, not the animal. Though the latter would shake routine up), there would be no throwing back. The human body is simply too big and heavy to be thrown back by gunfire.

 

Okay, the mooks don’t perform air tricks after being shot once each, wounded fatally. Think about this. Shooting targets at range is an olympic discipline. And there the contestants shoot in a safe environment, worrying about having all their dreams crushed in case they lose, instead of, say, having their kidney’s pierced.

On a battlefield over 90% of all shots fired never hit anything remotely living. (They are not even meant to. Most of them are just a tactical way to advise the enemy that it might not be such a good idea to raise your head and take your time aiming.)

 

But, let’s just say Jesus helped Gustav aim (if he can take the wheel, he can pull the trigger, just saying) and now he confronts the Big Bad, who promptly proves to be a major asshole by making an inappropriate remark about Gustav’s girlfriend. Cue cocking the hammer, aka, pulling that tiny lever on top of the gun down. That means it’s asskicking time.

It’s what makes that delicious ‘click‘ noise prior to any well-done shooting. Let’s do it again, shall we? Look for that lever on the picture above, to cock the hammer. What do you mean, you can’t find it?

Should have gone with a M1911.

 

Beware, because it gets a bit technical.

Firearms are classified into single-action and double-action mechanisms.

The Glock 19 is a double-action (actually, it uses a different system entirely, called ‘safe-action’, but that distinction is not important for our purposes).

Double-action means that the trigger performs two actions on being pulled. The first is, well, triggering the shot. The other is cocking the hammer, which on these models is placed on the inside of the gun. Nothing to cock for you there.

On a single-action pistol, like the M1911 you have to do that manually, but only before the first shot. After that the slide cocks the hammer for you on a semi-automatic. On a revolver you have to do it after every shot.

If you want that click, make sure you pick a single-action gun.

 

There is a special type of semi-automatic handgun that’s called SA/DA, a mix between single-action and double-action. The difference there is that it can work like a double-action, aka you don’t have to so much as look at your hammer. But if you want to, you can cock the thing yourself.

 

Back to business. After Gustav cocked his non-existent hammer, he finally decides to shoot. Only, the magazine is empty. No bullets left. A sad click is all you get.

Except you don’t even get that.

A semi-automatic pistol doesn’t click on an empty magazine. The trigger is disengaged, you can do as much as you want with it, without ever hearing anything. The only gun that clicks on empty is the revolver, because the cylinder keeps rotating each time you pull the trigger.

 

And here’s another mistake right on top. If you kept count, you know Gustav shot 32 mooks on his way to the Big Bad without ever reloading.

A standard Glock 19 comes with 15 rounds capacity. You can load an extra bullet into the chamber beforehand (called ‘topping off’) which raises your capacity by one. That still makes only 16.

With a Glock you can however use magazines with different capacities (even use magazines from other models as long as the caliber is the same or other brands, since they often design their magazines to fit into a Glock). On this specific model you can get up to 33 rounds, topping off makes 34.

That’s why it’s important that you keep track of your shots. In this situation Gustav would either have run out of bullets halfway through the mook slaughterfest or actually have two rounds left to shoot the Big Bad with.

So there’s our reality. Now how to make reality and Rule of Cool kiss and make up?

 

The Alternative

Know your guns. Even if you write about fictional guns that shoot blue-eyed fairies, write down some facts that you stick to.

Here are some of the most commonly used handguns in the United States to help you along.

 

Name: Glock 19

Caliber: .9mm

Capacity: 10, 15, 17, 33

Fire Modes: Double-action (safe-action)

Used by:

Law Enforcement Agencies from all around the world. Among them Australia, Brazil, France, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Iraq, Israel, Mexico, Russia, Switzerland and the United States.

Some branches in the US and UK military also use the Glock 19 or it’s larger sister the Model 17.

 

Name: Sig Sauer P226

Caliber: .9mm, .40 S&W, .357 SIG

Capacity: 10, 12, 13, 15 (.40 & .357)

10, 15, 17, 18, 20 (9mm)

Fire Modes: Double-action, DA/SA

Used By: Mainly Military from around the world, especially Canada, Finland, France, UK, US, Germany as well as many others

 

Name: Beretta M9

Caliber: .9mm

Capacity: 10, 15, 17, 18, 20, 30, 32

Fire Modes: DA/SA

Used By: Along with the P226 it’s the main semi-automatic pistol used by the US military, also used in Libya, Afghanistan, among others

 

Name: M1911

Caliber: .45 ACP

Capacity: 7

Fire Modes: Single-action

Used By: The standard semi-automatic pistol for the US Military until the 1970s, widely used around the world until replaced with more modern guns like the Beretta and the P220 series

Additional Notes: There are many alternative versions of the M1911, with different calibers, capacities. It also allows for much customization. It’s the one gun where you can get away with pretty much anything

 

Name: Desert Eagle .50

Caliber: .50 Action Express

Capacity: 7, 8, 9

Fire Modes: Single-action

Used By: Pretty much nobody, except for Poland, Portugal and Israel (certain branches only)

Additional notes: Widely described as one of the worst guns in existence. The main point of critique is the insane recoil and unusual caliber but there are many other points. I included this because it seems to be a fiction-favourite.

(for reference, it’s the gun that’s used by the girl in this video)

 

Name: Smith & Wesson Model 27

Caliber: .357 Magnum, .38 special

Capacity: Six-round cylinder

Fire Modes: Double-action

Additional Notes: One of the most widely recognised revolvers

 

This list is of course only a peek into the vast array of handguns available on the market. The best way to write well about guns is to know exactly which model your character is carrying. But remember, the reader doesn’t need to know every single detail. Experts can fill in the blanks themselves, amateurs wouldn’t know what to do with the information either way. Make sure you stay consistent with the amount of detail you describe and to remember that a gun fight is badass in even the most realistic setting.

If you like to continue reading on guns and how fiction butchers them, Cracked has an interesting article about how movies gets gun-fights wrong. Be sure to check it out

 

 

See you next month on a new episode of “Do your research”.

I’ll also announce any news on my Twitter

 

 

 

Sources

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/List_of_weapons_used_by_U.S._Armed_Forces#In_Service

http://www.genitron.com/Handgun-Basics/

http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/GUNS/GUNANAT.html

http://www.thebigthrill.org/2014/03/special-to-the-big-thrill-top-ten-firearms-mistakes-in-fiction-by-chris-gall/

https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081023160237AA0RufX

http://simplyaboutguns.com/types-of-handguns/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glock#9.C3.9719mm_Parabellum

http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2012/03/foghorn/gun-review-sig-sauer-p226/

http://www.gunsandammo.info/guns/guns-101

Do your research: A tap on the head

This is the start of a series intended to help writers who wish to get their facts straight. It will be updated once a month. Follow me on Twitter (https://twitter.com/ChelseaMurchadh) to get notified when a new post comes up.

The infamous tap on the head is arguably the most unrealistic device used to knock someone out, to a degree that even medical professionals who don’t deal in head injuries that often get it wrong. It is so prevalent in movies, shows and books that almost no one bothers to check it for realism.

Obviously there is an interest in doing things right in fiction. Technobabble has fallen out of grace, there are fanfiction out there showing off more research than the early star trek episodes.

But still every action or suspense oriented work of fiction insists on hitting people over the head and having them unconscious for a plot-convenient time ranging from minutes to several hours.

Don’t know what’s wrong with that picture? Then read on. Beware, though. You may want to rewatch your favourite scenes with your heroes fainting, before you inevitably lose your willing suspension of disbelief over the matter.

The short version:

Extended unconsciousness without lasting damage is impossible. Instead focus on confusion and disorientation experienced during a concussion, which does the same thing – incapacitate the character – without breaking willing suspension of disbelief.

The Scenario:

 

Everyone knows a scene like this. Our hero, let’s call him Gustav, sneaks past enemy ranks, a plan to halt the Big Bad’s plan firmly in place. Since the audience knows about the plan, it is destined to go wrong. And sure enough there’s the Dragon right behind him. He hits Gustav hard over the head and everything goes dark.

Cue thirty minutes later, Gustav is neatly tied up, two hundred kilometres away on his way to a Siberian Gulag. He, after momentary disorientation lasting about ten seconds, promptly proceeds to break out of his bindings and the plot goes on.3812840962_cb3d19d492_z

 

The Science:

Let’s take a look at what really would have happened, shall we?

Let’s jump to the point where the Dragon attempts to knock Gustav unconscious. Obviously the Big Bad wants him to remain alive, otherwise he could have simply told the Dragon to shoot him. Which puts the Dragon in a tight spot, since any knock on the head the sufficient enough to cause unconsciousness is also sufficient enough to cause death.

See, the brain is sort of prissy about the space it occupies. Something as small as a single raptured blood vessel can cause the pressure inside the head to rise to fatal levels.

So, if your virgin-sacrificing, kitten-eating boss told you to incapacitate his nemesis but keep him alive, would you resort to a way that had only a fifty-fifty chance of Gustav surviving?

But let’s say the Dragon is willing to take that chance.

The probability of fatal brain hemorrhages happening is lowest with young, healthy people who ideally diet and exercise. Which applies to a reasonable portion of heroes, so let’s assume the Dragon indeed only knocked Gustav unconscious and no brain damage has incurred.

He will now proceed to drag Gustav through the base of operations, tie him up and put him on that train to Siberia. That process takes him thirty minutes, give or take. If Gustav has not woken up in that time, chances are, he won’t at all. And if he does, he may be safely categorised as a vegetable.

That’s not a matter of chance anymore. Gustav can safely fall unconscious for up to a minute, though in almost all cases unconsciousness lasts way shorter than that.

Anything that goes beyond that means brain damage. Period.

Here’s where even medically trained personnel get it wrong. Paramedics, nurses and doctors technically learn about this stuff. But they also watch TV. If they aren’t confronted with head injuries all that often, chances are they simply forget. (The same goes for those websites that attempt to enlighten you about medical matters. Six out of ten will state that people can be totally unresponsive for up to thirty minutes. That’s advice that can quickly get dangerous.)

But back to topic. Unconsciousness lasting for longer than three minutes is a symptom of brain damage. That doesn’t apply however, if Gustav can be woken up by, say, screaming loudly in his ear or slapping him a bit. If he can, that just means he went to sleep after being knocked out.

However, if he couldn’t be woken up by getting dragged around the floor, aggressively tied up and probably thrown around a bit in the train, then it’s a deep coma.

The kind you miraculously wake up from thirty years later or, well, not at all. It is almost always the kind that has you breathing with the help of a machine.

But, short-time comas do happen. Say Gustav got lucky (considerably) lucky and he indeed woke up from his plot-convenient coma after thirty short minutes rather than thirty years.

Remember what I said about the brain-damage?

If you swapped out Gustav’s brain with mashed potatoes at this very moment, his cerebral functions would actually improve.

We don’t talk about silly concussions here anymore. This is way out of the area of dizziness and a bit of nausea a head injury induces if it feels generous.

We’re talking about complete or partial loss of motor control. He may be able to spasm around a bit but anything more delicate than waving is out of the picture. Forever if not brough to medical rehab.

Speaking? Good luck with that. Moans and slobbers might be in.

And that’s even if Gustav is still aware of himself and his surroundings. Chances are he won’t be able to tell the difference between squares and circles, much less concoct a genius plan to escape from a moving train.

Think 90 year-old in the end stages of Alzheimer’s and you have a rough picture of what Gustav looks like right about now.

The guys in the Gulag won’t have any use for him despite maybe as fertiliser.

So that’s the fate of every character in fiction ever hit on the head for a bout of plot-convenient unconsciousness if reality suddenly decided to kick in.

For a world that puts pain-staking research in how dragons technically could exist, fly and vomit fire, that’s stretching the boundaries of Artistic License.

The Alternative:

 

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What then do you do if you need your Gustav put on a train to Siberia?

I mentioned earlier that a knock on the head always comes with the risk of hemorrhage, but that risk is lowest with young and healthy brains. It is also not too much of a stretch to say Gustav would come out without his brain bleeding itself to death.

Say the Dragon did give him a firm tap on the head to incapacitate him. Gustav does not need to automatically lose consciousness to be eligible for an involuntary train ride.

A concussion comes with a variety of symptoms that even by themselves do not put you in a position to put up much of a fight.

Here’s a list of symptoms ordered from most to least likely. Not all of them need to turn up everytime:

(I haven’t added the short-time unconsciousness, since that has gotten enough coverage just now)

Headache

That’s the main reason even a relatively harmless concussion is not at all a walk in the park. Gustav’s head will hurt like a bitch. Characters with a military background will have received training that allow them to ignore a fair measure of pain. They could theoretically keep fighting, especially if there’s enough adrenaline to block out the pain temporarily. But an Average Joe like Gustav is in no position to do much of anything except maybe lying down and pleading for an aspirin.

Short-time memory loss

This mostly means that Gustav won’t remember being hit on the head. It can be more extensive, reaching back hours, days or even weeks. More rarely it affects not recentness of memories but is more theme-oriented. Aka not remembering your name or address, but being perfectly capable to tell how you got where you are.

Fun fact: There is such a thing as anterograde amnesia. I first witnessed it with a patient who got into a bar fight and got hit on the head. According to the paramedics he seemed perfectly oriented, made small talk, cracked jokes.

However, when they arrived at the hospital my colleague asked him if he knew how he got here. He had no idea. From the moment he got hit to the moment he arrived at the hospital he had no memory whatsoever, despite being conscious and aware of his surroundings. This is called anterograde amnesia and it means essentially that for a time the concussed person is unable to store new memories.

After having him checked up and assigned a room he prompty fell asleep (contrary to popular belief you are allowed to sleep with a concussion) but we woke him every few hours to check. The first time I woke him like this he was quite confused as to how he got there, seeing as the last thing he remembered was getting into an argument at a bar. He hadn’t been unconscious for the time but to him it was like he had been.

Confusion or disorientation

The clichéd expression of “Where am I?” has some merit after all. But usually not because of an actual change in location but rather an inability to comprehend said surrounding as familiar. It’s an almost sure-fire way to tell if a person’s got a concussion. If talked to the concussed person may only register about half what is said, which is why it is so important to speak slowly and in simple terms. Having trouble paying attention is also a sign of this. So instead of focusing on escaping the Dragon who is in the process of putting him on the train, Gustav might well be distracted by the shiny buttons on the Dragon’s uniform.

Dizziness/Blurry Vision/Ear ringing

Here’s the source of “How many fingers am I holding up”. Seeing double, triple or quadruple only adds to the fun of the general disorientation mentioned above. Imagine you don’t know where you are and that place keeps multiplying. Not enough? Have a nice, obnoxious tinnitus for good measure. Still not enough? How about feeling as if you are about to pass out, with lights or black spots popping up and out. The ear ringing is especially prelavent when hit on the side of the head (aka close to the ears) and typically comes with a loss of balance as well.

Nausea

With all the symptoms above we have already established that the Dragon could do everything he wanted with Gustav without fearing of getting into a fight. Unless our hero has mastered the art of projectile vomiting, that’s not about to change.

It does not always involve throwing up, but the nausea itself is usually enough to ground even the most unshakable person.

All these symptoms will usually clear up within a few hours, but can (especially in the case of blurry vision and ear ringing) last for up to several weeks.

If confronted with immediate danger the ensuing adrenaline can temporarily suppress some of the symptoms. Gustav will still not be able to win a chess tournament, but should at least be able to moderately defend himself. However, the symptoms will resurface as soon as the perceived danger is gone or exhaustion kicks in.

 

 

Other methods of inducing unconsciousness are of course anesthetics. Which is equally risky, if not even more so.

The famous room being gassed:

Almost impossible, since the dose is almost impossible to get right. If it is too small or our hero doesn’t breathe that deeply he might never feel anything more than slight dizziness. If the dose is too high or our hero takes a couple of deep breaths, he might as well drop dead.

Added difficulty when there is more than one person in the room to be gassed. The dose that would be required to send the 250 pound heavy wrestler dreaming will almost certainly kill the 90 pound scientist, while a dose tailored to the latter will leave the former mostly unfazed.

As a liquid or pill:

Easier, though as with all drug-induced sleep the vital signs have to be monitored closely, lest the patient suddenly stops breathing. That is one of the reasons an anaesthesist has to be present for every surgery.

The chloroform-handkerchief:

Impossible. Unless our hero stands still for at least five minutes and calmly inhales the chloroform he won’t even pass out. It also requires being administered after in short intervals to keep the patient unconscious.