I’ve been thinking about the problem of guns far too much lately, and the underlying issue is that they are all but inevitable as a piece of technology, and once they are developed, you’re sort of stuck with them as a weapon. So I’m going that route in terms of the main weapons within my series, but there are two problems that are bothering me.
The first is about that of endorsement, especially considering the American politics of gun violence. It really seems hard to portray guns in a way that doesn’t endorse them one way or another, because they are so effective. It’s sort of like the argument that there is no such thing as a true anti-war film, because anyone who watches them will come away thinking it is cool.
The second problem is that guns mean that there is a single means of fighting that will generally dominate. Unlike an example like Avatar’s bending (plus boomerang) in which there are a large number of options for characters to fight, you can’t really have a combat-oriented character use anything other than guns as their primary weapon. While martial arts and other things can work in certain cases, they don’t work broadly as a universal solution in the way that guns do. This is made even worse because guns dictate that ambush tactics are the only ones worth using. If one side gets the drop on the other, they should almost certainly win. It just doesn’t lead to interesting fight scenes as easily.
Hey Adam, great to hear from you again!
Thank you for concisely explaining why I either set all my stories at tech levels too low for modern guns, or just make ignoring them one of the central conceits and then never mention them again. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for every story. Not every story can be set before the 1800s, when firearms began to clearly outstrip any other weapon available. Likewise, pretending guns don’t exist can work okay for masquerade-based urban fantasy, but it’ll feel weird in other genres.
If you’re stuck with guns, there are still a few options that can work, but you have to be very careful with them. A lot of superheroes are bullet proof, for example, which allows their fight scenes to be more interesting. Of course, then you have to give a plausible reason for why something other than a gun can hurt them, which a lot of super stories fail to do. Alternatively, if you set a story far enough in the future, you might have advanced enough tech to make guns less prevalent. If your heroes fight by controlling swarms of nanites, for example, then a firearm looks a lot less useful.
Other than that, your best option for making gunfights interesting is to focus on tactics and movement. There’s a lot more to winning a modern battle than pointing and shooting. Movies and films often have difficulty showing the complex maneuvers that go into a battle, but written works have an easier time there. If your hero does nothing but hide behind cover while taking pot shots, that’ll be boring. But if they have to lead a desperate flanking action over rough terrain, that’s a lot more interesting.
As for endorsing them, I think that ship has already sailed. Guns are everywhere in American media, so portraying your character using them effectively isn’t going to significantly add to that. However, there are certain things you can do to avoid making the problem worse:
- Avoid fetishizing specific real-world guns, especially the AR-15.
- Thor: Ragnarok does this and it’s really irritating.
- Don’t have plots where the character’s problems come from gun control.
- Like a zombie story where the survivors are doomed because of restrictions on private firearm ownership.
- Show the character observing proper gun safety.
- Film characters are always casually sweeping each other with their weapon’s arc of fire and it drives me up the wall.
- Be realistic about how guns operate.
- A lot of Americans idolize guns without really considering how they work, even people who actually own guns.
- Show that they need repair, show that they jam, show that they can damage your hearing.
None of this will fix America’s gun violence problem, but they can make sure your story isn’t pushing any particularly toxic ideas.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!
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Comments on How Should I Handle Guns in My Story?
I wouldn’t say per se that guns are a primary weapon for every main protagonist in a story set in a modern world.
My Knight Agency and Black Knight Agency stories are set in 2015, roundabout, and in Britain. My main characters – Jane, but also her colleagues – are excessively trained using guns. Two of the ‘inner circle’ of characters, Brock and Grand, are soldiers and thus definitely good with all sorts of guns.
Yet, Jane operates in the shadows, she’s infiltration. If she fights, it’s often close-quarter (you need a certain distance from your target to aim and take a shot and Jane knows how far that is…) or she’s taking people out through stealth, where using a gun would be counter-productive, so she uses knives or she breaks people’s necks or suchlike.
She has a gun. She can shoot with both a handgun and a precision rifle, being a trained assassin, yet there are few scenes where she’s using a gun, because that is not how the stories work.
In the Black Knight Agency, both she and Steven are criminals, yet there’s no constant use of guns there, either – keeping the underworld working is often more about diplomacy than about shooting people.
“One for Sorrow”, which is not yet part of a series, because there’s no more books with the Magpies, focuses on two jewel thieves in modern times. Naturally, neither Inez nor Tom are using guns. Inez gets shot once, but that doesn’t mean she’ll stack up on guns and use them from now one.
Depending on who your hero is and what your story is about, you will not even mention guns. Some people have no access to guns (not only through the law, also through their abilities or because they can’t afford one). Some jobs don’t get easier by carrying a gun (diplomacy gets harder…). It depends on the author how much guns feature and how they’re used.
Addendum: After I’d read through it again, I realized that Jane probably uses guns more often in the RPG she’s playing with her boyfriend and some of his friends (which are hers now as well).
Mind you, all of this comes from someone who lives in Germany and grown up there. Even our TV series don’t show that much in gun use. German police officers are strictly regulated when it comes to using their gun (soooooooo much paperwork per shot, not to mention if you kill someone…), same goes to soldiers outside of war zones. For a lot of people who are potential readers, owning guns is not as normal as buying a loaf of bread.
Re bulletproof superheros with other weaknesses: Superman is vulnerable to mind control and telepathic attacks, and also to magic. This has never struck me as contrived, since both things are so different from physical violence.
Might not be a good solution for every story (the DC superhero world is notoriously eclectic), but still, the general recipe of the weakness being something that’s sufficiently different from what they’re invulnerable to is probably a good one?
In a magic-using world, ‘anti-gun’ spells would be used, such as a spell that detonates gunpowder at a distance, making carrying a gun too risky. That’s assuming that guns were even developed when fireball spells were available.
In a non-magic world, it would be possible to focus on the difficulties and disadvantages of being a gunfighter. Anyone trying it in modern Britain, for example, would have problems.
Where would they get a handgun, to begin with? Even in the criminal underworld, handguns are rare, and ammunition correspondingly hard to come by.
How would they practice with it? In the movies, the protagonist can pick up a gun for the first time and immediately become an expert marksman, capable of outshooting groups of experienced opponents while miraculously avoiding a stray shot hitting some innocent passer-by, but in real life it wouldn’t be so easy.
How would they get away with it? Any incident involving a firearm becomes the focus of an intense police investigation, and if your protagonist is connected to, or seen at the scene of, two or more such incidents, then the investigation will focus on them.
What happens if they have to leave the country? Smuggling a gun through customs is extremely difficult, with severe penalties if caught, so any trip abroad will leave your protagonist disarmed.
American attitudes to guns are not the norm, so your story can simply avoid treating them as if they are.
In a sci-fi setting, you can have energy weapons that have phased out firearms.
In my setting, all the civilian models of energy weapon are restricted by hardware to only function on a stun setting.
For my current story, I just made guns terrible conduits for magic, so because my setting has really high magic, other weapons then become preferable for magical combat.
Guns are just a weapon like any other and should be treated as such. The problem arises if you treat them as overly powerful or make gun ownership look awesome by thematizing the whole issue with gun control. If you don’t do that, you have a weapon you can use like any other.
My Dad is a gun buff– I grew up hearing, through every movie we watched, some variation of “that’s not actually how that gun works”. So for me personally, I really appreciate a story that’s able to accurately portray firearms and their use.
My personal pet peeves are stories where guns are just mook weapons that somehow always miss. Looking at you, stormtroopers. A competent story should be able to make guns feel like an actual threat without making the heroes wielding them overpowered.
I like stories that either toss out guns completely or embrace their use and mechanics. That kind of goes for every weapon in any story, no matter what it is: it should make sense, and also meet the appropriate threat level.
Another option is to invent other weapons that are competitively balanced with guns. One of my settings has something called a Wirecaster. Wirecasters are special maybe-magical-maybe-technological rings that fire a thin filament at a target. The filament is covered in microscopic bristles, so it goes in smoothly, but shreds tissue on the way back out. The Wirecaster is semi-intelligent, and so the filament weaves and winds it’s way through the target before retracting, and so the victim is usually shredded outright in the blink of an eye.
The Wirecaster has both perks and drawbacks compared to a gun. It is shorter range (twenty to thirty feet, depending on model), and little bit slower to fire, and is an extreme overkill on most humans. But Wirecasters are also smaller, easily concealed, has unlimited uses, and better for taking out certain targets. A gun is basically a way of poking holes in people; fatal for a baseline human, but something more durable, like a vampire or a super-healing werewolf, could shrug it off. A wirecaster, on the other hand, is more than enough even for those targets.
Depending on the local technomagical base, the possibilities to get really out-there with exotic weaponry is endless!
“Be realistic about how guns operate.
A lot of Americans idolize guns without really considering how they work, even people who actually own guns.
Show that they need repair, show that they jam, show that they can damage your hearing.”
That’s why I am fond of joking, that guns in Hollywood aren’t guns. They’re either magical Thundersticks of Doom, or glorified peashooters. XD
You can have a setting where there is gun control, so gunfights are less likely to happen. Even if the protagonists do have guns they may be reluctant to use them as guns are noisy and using them immediately escalates the situation. They may also get in trouble with the police if they don’t have a good enough excuse to use guns (or they’ll get in trouble with their superiors if they are the police).
Another way to avoid feeding into the worst of gun culture might be to focus on heroes from marginalized backgrounds. Gun culture here in the States seems more prone to glorify “self-defense” in the sense of privileged people asserting their power, so showing less privileged characters saving the day with guns might be less appealing to that crowd. (Compare how the NRA and Reagan actually supported gun control back when the Black Panthers were active.)
I can’t think of that many circumstances where i *would* write about guns, tbh, because even if they exist technologically, they’re not prevalent for many people/settings/types of conflict, unless if you’re writing about people who are or who are going up against law enforcement. Even then, i feel like there are lots of creative ways to set the story or scene in a place where gun violence would be culturally unusual, impractical, have too much collateral damage, or be too obvious (girls finishing school, crowded music fest, fireworks factory). Or give the protagonist a character-based reason not to use one (untrained civilian, refuses for moral reasons, poor aim/eyesight, etc). Then even if guns are being used in the story, the MC would be focusing on doing something else, and their saving the day would implicitly promote the moral that there are other ways to win.
Existence and availability of guns are two different things. Even without particularly strict gun control laws many characters who would like to shoot someone, because guns are effective, can be unable to do so: they aren’t police, hunters, criminals, fanatics, and other normally armed categories of people; they didn’t bother asking for a permit and buying a weapon, and now it’s too late; they don’t know anyone they could borrow a gun from or any place where they could steal it; they don’t have the criminal contacts needed to get illegal weapons; they have guns at home or in some cache (because regularly traveling armed is out of the question) but they need to fight right now, without them; they have so little ammunition that actually shooting is a major strategic commitment; and so on.
Not giving characters (both protagonists and antagonists) the kind of problems that can be solved with lethal violence would be, of course, even more effective against toxic gun enthusiasm.
A gun is a tool, and as such there are jobs that you can carry on with them and jobs that don´t. A too powerful gun will have a hell of a recoil, making it harder to control, and using anything outside hollow bullets will end up hitting someone two houses away.
Also they aren’t safe for anything but kill shots, as you can’t safelly wound someone when the bullet will ricochet in the bones.
All that things can make your MC to chose don’t using guns.
If you set your story in a pressured, enclosed space, like a spaceship or a plane using guns will be a terrible idea, both for heroes and villains.
To deter readers to idolize guns you can show what would happen to a “cowboy” character that idolize guns in your story (Just like in real life: ending up killed by his own gun when an assaulter take it away from him; ending up kiling someone by accident; being burned by an ejected brass…)
Past- Either before guns, or limited shots/long reloads/limited accuracy make them limited in use. In1500s Japan there were more guns to people than almost anywhere but that didn’t make bows/spears/ and swords obsolete. If anything the limitations of the technology could add another layer of tactics.
Modern- Look at modern gun warfare. Surprise is important, but establishing that ambush can be a huge advantage. Gun use brings down heat and attention. Make sure if used, they cost money, and draw unwanted attention. Nevermind the use of vehicles as a tactic. Bodyguards and escape plans are useful for the ambushees. On top of that, limited use to use guns in some spaces means other form of combat can be used, or emphasize stealth so disarming gunmen is important. (For example, in the heist show “Leverage’, their tough character almost exclusively uses his fists)
Future- Use personal shields, ala Dune that make guns obsolete. Or have multiple types of armor, some needing various combats to fight. Physical armor might need plasma guns, shields may need to be hacked or attacked with melee weapons, and space magic shields may need a space magic solution.
As for ambushes- throughout history, surprise attacks and guerilla warfare have always been effective. Romans could be defeated by less militarized forces, Khan used bows, a spear attack on a flank you didnt expect could be brutal. All warfare benefited from ambushes throughout time. If fantasy/historical fiction can pull this off by being an inconvenience rather than almost always decisive, then so can modern fiction based on guns. Have them make a choke point and always realize just in time to get behind cover and the situation is usually handled.
If using more grounded reality, perhaps emphasizing the lethal nature of any combat and tactics of any kind become much more effective.
Many movies have guns with silencers be really quiet. I’ve been brought to understand that even with silencers, guns are still loud. Looking at you, Terminator Two.
I’d disagree with some of the initial assertions. Far from inevitable, it seems like something of a fluke that firearms were invented. Gunpowder was the result of Daoist alchemists seeking secrets of transmutation and eternal life, i.e. discovered by accident. It’s entirely conceivable that in an alternate timeline or in another world, the combination of chemicals or their function as an explosive could go undiscovered.
I don’t really think endorsement is inherent in depictions of their use. Guns are the most effective basic tool of modern combat – that’s an objective fact, not any kind of message to the audience. We wouldn’t go back to fighting with swords if they stopped making war movies. And if their effects are depicted realistically, especially in use against the protagonists, that does anything but glorify them.
Barring an alternate reality, there are a few ways to avoid having them involved. It’s too early for them to have been invented, new technology renders them ineffective or obsolete, or they could simply not be widely available. Not everywhere is the United States, and there are places culturally similar enough that a simple rewrite would often be possible. Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, none would seem overly foreign, but gun ownership and use are much more restricted and comparatively uncommon. In Great Britain, even most police officers don’t use them. Using such a setting could allow the large-scale omission of firearms from a story without need for further explanation. This can even be used to fun and creative effect – the film “Shaun of the Dead” came about in part because its creators wondered how different a “Night of the Living Dead” scenario would look in the UK, since firearms are not readily available. It isn’t used as a message opposing gun control, but instead keeps the characters more on the defensive and creates the opportunity to arm them with such weaponry as a shovel, darts, and a cricket bat. The characters do at one point get ahold of an antique rifle, but are unable to use it very effectively due to inexperience and very limited ammunition.
People opposed to gun control regularly make the argument that it won’t matter since criminals will just disregard the law, but it can still make it difficult enough to obtain firearms, and dangerous enough to be caught with them, that many criminals wouldn’t consider it worth it, so absence due to unavailability can still hold up to some extent even when dealing with shadier circles.
Obviously geographic solutions don’t work if the military is going to get involved, though.
It isn’t unlikely that gunpowder would have been invented somewhere else, had that Daoist alchemist not done it. Many inventions have been made several times and in several different areas and the components of gunpowder are not rare. Yet, there could be an alternate reality in which guns don’t exist – or at least not to the extent to which we have them today. Unless you are in certain close-quarter situations, the gun also is the most effective weapon right now (that could, of course, change with the invention of an even more effective ranged weapon).
I agree that moving the action from the US, where guns are far-spread among regular civilians, to other places (those you mentioned, but also others) would change things to a degree. Where firearms are usually not worn by anyone outside of the police force and the army, there are different weapons to use.
In the UK, for instance, knives are far more common as weapons for the criminals, mostly because there aren’t that many guns in circulation in the underworld (less to steal or buy from civilians). Knives are popular in the UK not only for being easily available (although they are), but also because the punishment for being caught with a knife during a crime isn’t as high as that for being caught with a gun.
I never understood the notion of enforcing gun violence with portraying firearms in your media, or any other kind of endorsement for that matter. I can’t control what other people think and if someone chooses to interpret my work how they see fit in their extreme ideology, I shouldn’t take the blame. You don’t accuse a fencing school for the acts of a sword wielding madman, so why should we consider that here?