Friday, October 16, 2015

Swords and Guns and Magic, Oh My

Characters can’t fight their nemeses without weapons, whether those be material hunks of metal, metaphysical abilities, or untapped attributes within themselves. In order to achieve a happily-ever-after, or at least a happily-until-the-next-installment, most of us want the characters we read about to change – to come up against their short-comings and surmount them. We expect them to learn and to grow. This is something they can only do when pressured by overwhelming force – internal or external (most of us, I think, expect both.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer did her change with a stake in her hands. Old school Star Trek crew had their phasers. Star Wars has its lightsabers. My characters have been awarded just about every weapon known to man.

Yet weapons, in and of themselves, aren’t that interesting. Every book, every movie, every TV show. They’re all a sort of genre and period specific Guns & Ammo magazine ad. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a thing. There’s really nothing edgy about weapons (ha) in a novel anymore. To me, the interesting bit is when weapons stand-in for the things most of us lack. They’re compensation. Usually for lack of power or lack of confidence. Which is interesting when any professional tasked with carrying a gun on a daily will tell you that the weapon is just a tool – a tool that should never be conflated with confidence or power, or you’re failing to comprehend the limits of the tool.

Compensation. The limits of the tools. Things just got interesting. Putting a weapon in a character’s hands is a great way to show up that character’s internal flaws. It’s a perfect way to make manifest that short-coming which the character must overcome in order to survive and succeed in the coming crisis point of the story. If a character’s journey through a story is a series of pressures and lessons designed to prepare him or her for the ultimate test at the climax, then a physical weapon is a talisman – a bit of a crutch getting them past each trial. And if a character is to prove he or she has internalized the lessons learned over the arc of the story, the weapon has to go away. (You’ve seen it in the movies – facing the Big Bad and the only gun jams or falls out of reach.) The character has to prove the compensation is no longer necessary because he or she no longer suffers from a lack of power or confidence or what have you. Which isn’t to say that the character offs the antagonist by means of wishful thinking – in the climax, it’s pretty common for a character to be stripped bare so that the final test is faced without benefit of hope. But if the story isn’t a Shakespearean tragedy that litters the stage with corpses, then the character out wits, out maneuvers, out-whatevers the villain. At that point, the weapon can be reacquired (or another co-opted) and the bad guy(s) dispatched. But in order to get a weapon back in hand, the character has to prove he or she has filled the gap the weapon once compensated for. Perverse, no?
It’s not like this is iron-clad law. Sometimes a gun is just a gun. But like Chekov is famously reported to have said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” For our novels, weapons prove to be far more versatile tools than they are in real life. A police officer can only use his weapon a few ways – most of them having to do with apprehending people who don’t want to be apprehended. The author can use that same gun to signify that officer’s inferiority complex in the face of her infamous older sibling, the rocket scientist. It can augment her frustration in dealing with her ex and her ambivalence about her worth. It can be a status symbol and the only thing she takes really good care of. So many options for exploring character. All with one bit of metal.

I’ll say it again. Swords and guns and magic, oh my.

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