Awhile back, I picked up a copy of Throwing Lead: A Writer’s Guide to Firearms (and the People Who Use Them). As a writer of characters who typically belong to some form of law enforcement agency, I thought it would be fun – and a good idea – to read something like this just to make sure my writing was realistic. It was certainly an enjoyable read; I ended up giving it 4/5 stars just because I still don’t know enough about guns to know for sure how accurate everything was. But the authors seemed credible enough, and they wrote in such a way that you felt like they were just carrying on a conversation with you, not writing an encyclopedia article. I came away feeling like I’d learned something, which was the intention all along,
Then, as a writer of assassin-type characters who are generally cold-hearted, I was particularly drawn to a segment from Chapter 21: A Shooter’s Mindset that reads as follows:
Although almost every tool – from Cro Magnon’s hand axe to a circular saw to an automobile – can create violence and mayhem, the firearm is socially unique in that its only uses are directly related to violence.
Because of this, among people who do not handle the regularly, guns are not mere tools, they are totems. They carry with them a mystique, or an aura of power – or a terror – that is far in excess of what the tool actually merits. The gun functions – much as the sword before it did – as the symbol of the pleasure, disquiet, and destabilization that the power over life and death gives us.
We all know that feeling, the totemic attraction and repulsion a gun exerts on us, and because of that, most writers do very well conveying the anxiety of a first-timer dealing with a weapon. But not everyone has this reaction – there are a class of people, and they’re more common than you’d think, who do not view guns as in any way special, and these people have distinct psychological quirks that translate across culture and across generations, and it affects, in small ways, every aspect of life.
These people are not limited to sociopaths, criminals, and professional practitioners of violence – they include many ordinary folks who have no professional relationship with violence, and no personal taste for or tendency toward real violence of any kind.
Among such people, a complex relationship grows up between the shooter and her weapons. For someone whose gun is a tool rather than a totem, the tool is never lost. It’s never far away. If she’s expecting violence, even as a remote possibility, she always knows where to get a weapon, even if she’s not carrying one. She knows where her ammo is, and how much she has, even if her own weapon is hundreds of miles away. She can guess who around her is likely to be carrying – or have ready access to – a weapon.
But it goes deeper. Loud noises, sudden flashes of light, or anything uncanny will send her hand to a holster, or her mind checking the room for a handy weapon. She doesn’t do this as a security blanket, simply as preparation, much in the same way an experienced driver positions his foot over the brake pedal when he sees brake lights ahead. She’s merely reaching for a tool she may need on short notice.
We’ve all heard a new mother or father say “I would sacrifice myself for my child.” We’ve all heard the freshly smitten say “S/he’s worth dying for.” But we don’t hear people say the obvious corollary: “I would kill to protect her,” or “I would defend myself if I were attacked.”
When a person picks up a gun with the willingness to use it to defend herself, or others, or to fight in a war, or to subdue a criminal, or to commit a crime, she has made an irrevocable moral decision, one that forever changes the way she deals with every aspect of life.
That decision is seven words long:
“My life is more valuable than yours.”
It’s a statement of values. It’s a philosophical position, one whose ultimate expression is killing another human in self defense.
Most people, pressed to the point, will choose survival over slaughter, but very few are willing to admit to it in so many words. Saying “I’d die for her/him/them” lets us play into society’s definition of a good person: one who is willing to sacrifice themselves, one who would never harm another. It’s a polite lie that we tell each other, so that we sleep better at night.
But when one is forced to that decision, as hundreds are every day, it doesn’t just change the way you see the world, it changes you. There is a different context for every part of your life, and a different scale by which actions are judged. When you say “Stop doing that or else” and “or else” means “I’ll tell Mommy” or “I’ll smack you” or “I’ll send you to your room,” that’s one thing. When “or else” means “I will end your life,” it means something else – and when you’ve been in the position where you’ve ended (or been willing, able, and prepared to end) the life of another, that version of “or else” is always lurking in the background.
The ethical killer has a radically reordered scale of valuation. “It’s not worth killing for” is an expression of a literal moral choice, not a mere figure of speech. And it changes a person’s demeanor, often bringing with it an air of “stoicism” or “calm” that some people call “the thousand yard stare” or even “apathy.” But it isn’t apathy – quite the opposite. It’s the result of understanding what a “life and death” decision really is, and of accepting the responsibility of exercising power over another person’s continued respiration. And this shift in perspective – subtle though it is in the way it shows on the outside – is one that others who have stood on that cliff recognize almost instantly.
And it’s also why veterans, cops, homesteaders, ex-criminals, and others like them appear to be emotionally hardened, or difficult to get close to. Because you can’t talk about violence in polite society, because you cannot vocalize or otherwise communicate the ever-present awareness that you are capable of killing another human being, or that you see around you every day occasions where a situation could develop that would require you to act in a way that would forever alienate you from your loved ones, you carry a face of detachment about things most people consider important. You may play at fashion because it’s interesting, but not having the right shoes for a formal dinner is something you shrug off. You may adhere to the forms of polite society, but you’re not above saying the unthinkable to someone who’s really pissing you off – and doing so without malice, because for you saying the unthinkable is preferable to allowing the situation to escalate (because you know what “escalate” means). You tend to view petty conflict as either tiresome or entertaining, but rarely as worth your sustained attention. And finding a mate, or an intimate friend, or a lover, or a confidant becomes very, very difficult.
People like this walk alone, almost like aliens among us, and their interactions are always filtered. They’re highly situationally aware, and they’re almost never surprised (and if they are surprised, they often react with self-directed anger, because it means they’ve overlooked something that might have been a life-and-death issue). They’re the people who accidentally terrify their friends with offhanded remarks. They’re the people around whom cells of survivors form in natural disasters.
And, though you wouldn’t think it, they recognize each other at a distance, without ever talking to one another (ask an experienced cop how many people in a given coffee shop might be trouble – and ask him to explain why). It can be a powerful attractor that draws together people who feel unable to socialize without walling off an entire, uncomfortable part of themselves.
These people are not sadistic, they are not sociopathic. They are simply ordinary people who have been forced to face a kind of darkness and enormity that most people, thanks to the relative peacefulness of the developed world, never have to face.
These are the people who feature as heroes and villains in the bestselling fiction in the world.
For a writer (and even for an actor), grasping this transformed mindset is vital, because it shows when you don’t. John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, Mickey Spillane, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others like them have all either killed people or faced the choice of killing people, and as writers they have a certain, distinctive quality when it comes to power and violence. Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, and Jim Butcher – good writers all – don’t.
And, to bring it back around to weapons, these people (who don’t lapse into long-term paranoia, which some do) are as at ease with their weapons as a professional driver is with his car. For them, the weapons are not magical, they’re not scary, and they don’t make the shooter feel powerful in some power-junkie sense – they might even irritate the shooter or fill her mind with mild distaste, but in the end, they’re simply tools.
When guns become routine, they lose their capacity as fetish or totem, because they no longer symbolize the power to inflict death. People who use them every day have already looked death in the face, and they managed not to flinch.
And it changed them.
Call me a little morbid but I’ve always found this sort of mindset really fascinating. And as someone who often writes characters who have this mindset, I found this chapter extremely helpful and encouraging. A lot of the character development notes I’ve scribbled over the years fit all of this to a T, despite the fact that I’ve never really done any in-depth research on the topic.
*sigh* The sweet smell of troubled characters. I can’t get enough of it.