Writing the Prepared Professional

The operator is preparing for battle. He will face a team of elite commandos, armed to the teeth, hell-bent on hunting him down. They have the advantage in numbers, firepower, technology. The only way for him to survive is to do unto them before they do unto him. He has chosen the time and place for the engagement. Now he needs to choose his gear.

He chooses a pistol and a knife.

When I read this scene in a bestselling novel, I had to fight the urge to facepalm. The operator in question is described as a highly-trained and -experienced assassin, with the connections to procure any kind of gear he needs. He has previously been described acquiring long guns, ammo and special tools through his supplier. He was shown as someone who will carry out meticulous preparations before combat, and places a lot of thought into his kit selection.

So why on earth did he choose to take a pistol to a rifle fight?

The answer revealed itself later: so that he can be outgunned at the climax of the firefight, allowing a secondary character to show up and save the day.

From a writing perspective, it makes for high drama. But from the perspective of a writer and an operator, it makes for sighs and eye-rolls. It becomes plainly visible that the writer made this alleged operator deliberately act outside of character so that he can set up the climax. And just like that, the magic of the story was broken, the illusion of immersion shattered.

The hallmark of a professional is that he is prepared for any eventuality he may face. He thinks about the situations he may expect to encounter, then procures the gear and training that allows him to address this situation. He may not be able to predict every possible scenario he will find himself in, but as he gains experience, he further refines his craft. This creates a virtuous cycle of constant self-improvement, taking him to the razor’s edge.

A certain fictious superspy has starred in 23 novels, as of time of writing. Throughout the length of his career, he and his colleagues have been captured, tortured, interrogated, and either rescued or released multiple times. Practically every major operation they execute results in a friendly being taken alive by the enemy, forcing the team to adjust their plans on the fly.

With so much experience in captivity, one would imagine that Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training would be a priority for the spy and his team. One would think that they would undergo counter-custody training and conceal escape tools and hidden weapons on their persons. Lack of preparation may be excusable the first time it occurred. But after the third, fourth, fifth, tenth time?

One would think that the spy and his team would have figured out a pattern by now. One would hope that they would at least account for the possibility of capture in their plans. Instead, they simply carry on with whatever they were doing, making no changes to their gear or training. And so they keep getting captured again and again and again.

Humans are tool-using creatures. A mechanic has his toolbox. An artist has his instruments. In the same way, characters in specialist jobs will also have their own toolboxes. And the truly dedicated professionals will constantly seek to learn how to use his tools more efficiently—or to learn how to use newer and better tools.

Here’s a real-life example. An American police officer is assigned to undercover narcotics enforcement. Among his duties involve setting up sting operations with drug dealers. He sets up a buy with a suspected dealer. When the suspect hands over the dope, he signals his team to swoop in for the arrest. But the suspect may not want to go in quietly.

The officer will be in arm’s length of the suspect. Should the suspect choose to resist, the officer will be the first person in the line of fire. The officer needs small, concealable weapons to carry to the meet, one that the dealer can’t spot before and during the meet. He needs to carry the weapons in such a way that he can access them quickly in the middle of a fight. The suspect may grab one of his arms during a fight, so the officer either needs to position his weapon so that he can access it with either hand, or carry multiple weapons. The officer needs the skills that will allow him to earn his draw, by fending off the attacker long enough for him to deploy his weapon.

This officer is Craig Douglas, better known as SouthNarc, and he developed the Clinch Pick and his Extreme Close Quarters Combat program to deal with the situation described above.

Here’s another example: someone in a similar yet wildly different role. He, too, is a counter-narcotics specialist—but he operates in Mexico, fighting the drug cartels. His duties include raiding drug labs, narcotics investigation and enforcement operations, and searching and detaining suspects. He experiences combat of a higher intensity than his counterparts in America.

To prepare himself for the demands of extreme close quarters combat, he sought out a special kind of knife, designed for a special kind of threat. The cartels equip their soldiers with soft body armour. He needed a knife capable of penetrating bullet-resistant vests, as well as specialised knife training to counter armoured threats. He acquired knives, tested them on Level IIIA armour, then adopted the blade that demonstrated the deepest penetration. He studied blade-based martial systems, sought out instructors with specialist knowledge, and focused on learning a system designed to deal with armoured threats. With his blade and his training, he survived his career in counter-narcotics, and now works as a consultant and trainer.

This operator is Ed Calderon, the knife he adopted was the Emerson Persian, and the system he sought out was Libre Knife Fighting.

In the world of fiction, the gold standard is Barry Eisler’s John Rain. A hitman specialising in ‘accidental’ deaths, he operates in non-permissive environments where weapons are a liability. Barring exceptional circumstances, he does not carry anything that can be identified as a weapon. When he engages in combat, he uses the environment to his advantage, as well as his superior athletic conditioning and judo training. But as he gets older, he acknowledges that he no longer possesses the physical conditioning needed to finish off well-trained opponents with his bare hands. He adapts to this by carrying weapons, presenting himself as a harmless older man, and teaming up with younger and stronger operators.

Here we see how professionals think about his job. First he visualises the kind of scenarios he may encounter. Then he acquires tools and knowledge to meet that eventuality. After gaining real-world experience and/or carrying his tools, he modifies his approach.

To convincingly write such characters, you have to think the way these characters would think. What problem will they expect to encounter? What environment would it take place in? Who will be around them? What specialist training will they need? What resources will they have access to? What limitations do they face? What language will they use to describe their operational requirements and limitations?

Every industry has its own jargon. In the world of special operations, terms include non-permissive environment, ECQC, counter-custody, SERE, endemics, low-visibility operations. If you want to write a story in such a setting, you have to know what these terms mean. With this knowledge, you will know how your characters will think, talk and act, and the kind of gear they will carry.

This line of thought goes beyond the world of thrillers and killers. Firefighters have their own jargon and gear needs. So, too, do park rangers, gardeners, chefs, technicians, and virtually every profession that requires the use of tools and special training.

There is no single best loadout, only the best for a person’s circumstances. Consider a medical kit. A firefighter will optimise his kit to treat burns, broken bones, bleeding, smoke inhalation, and exposure to hazardous materials. An American police officer will need to address gunshot wounds, while a British constable is more likely to encounter knife injuries. A civilian in a First World country only needs to treat minor wounds and to stabilise major ones long enough for emergency services to arrive. A soldier or contractor in an austere environment will need to do everything from delivering babies to performing surgery, and then manage a patient for days or weeks, until the patient can be safely evacuated to a higher standard of care.

To figure out what a character would carry, you have to place yourself in his shoes. Learn what he knows, see the world the way he sees it, imagine the situations he expects to face (not the ones you will put him through). It will require dedication and research, but the payoff is a character seamlessly integrated into the world and the story.

When a character is highly prepared for a situation, then you run the risk of boredom. He overcomes all challenges with minimal difficulty. The bad guys can’t touch him. The outcome was never in doubt. The only question is how he accomplishes his goal, with style.

To make things interesting, have characters encounter situations that they aren’t prepare for. In the TV series Burn Notice, protagonist Michael Westen and his allies prepare extensively for every job. They carry out reconnaissance, they acquire special kit, they prepare for various contingencies. But when things go wrong, they are forced to improvise.

Here we have the best of both worlds. We get to see how professionals prepare for a mission. We also see how missions can go wrong anyway. The bad guy calls in reinforcements, law enforcement bumbles into the situation, the opposition executes their own operation. When the opposition is as prepared and professional as the protagonists, it becomes a question who makes the fewest mistakes—and who can force the other side to make a mistake.

On the other side of the equation, we have characters who are over-prepared. They walk around carrying enough gear to outfit a small army, just in case. Sure, they can be counted on to have the right tool for the job (usually), but most of the time they haul around a lot of junk they will never use.

Why is this bad? Because gear has weight and bulk. Bags have finite capacity, and also possess weight and bulk. The more stuff you carry, the more you encumber yourself and slow down. In the tactical community (and the backpacking community), an old saying goes, pack light, go far. Mobility is extremely important. The point of carrying all these tools is so you can go to where you want to go. If you’re carrying so much stuff that you can’t go where you need to go, there’s no point in carrying all that kit.

The titular hero of Goblin Slayer is renowned for wearing his armour everywhere he goes. Day and night, he lives in his modified three-quarters plate harness. His helmet is specially designed so that he can eat and drink without taking it off. His armour is his trademark, so much so that the manga adaptation dedicated an entire chapter to the one instant he does take it off for maintenance.

(No, you still don’t get to see his face.)

In reality, this would not be practical. Plate armour traps heat and prevents sweat from cooling the wearer. In medieval Europe, knights only wore plate armour when they expected to enter combat. Even then, they stayed away from the frontline, waiting in reserve, until they were summoned to turn the tide of battle. This helps them preserve their strength for combat, and prevent heat exhaustion. In summer, a knight could pass out from heatstroke long before he sees combat. During winter, it is impossible to wear metal armour without thick padding for insulation.

Someone who wears three-quarters armour all the time the way Goblin Slayer does, even in safe zones or in times of peace, will suffer heat exhaustion long before he reaches the battlefield. For someone who has dedicated his life to goblin genocide, this would not do.

About a decade and a half ago, I read a novel featuring a Strong Female Character who was a soldier-turned-artisan. During the story, she was called to return to battle. One scene showed her kitting up with an arsenal of blades. Everywhere she could strap on a knife, she did. Her hips, her wrists, her shoulders, her ankles, all told the number of knives she carried numbered in the double digits.

Even the craziest knife nut will tell you that that’s overkill. Especially since she had to make a long overland trek. All that weight would slow her down and take up space that could be used for survival gear. For slightly more important things like water, a compass, or a map—none of which she used, because plot.

Being a former warrior, she would know that knives are tertiary weapons at best. There are far more effective battlefield weapons out there, weapons that allow you to engage a threat from a safe distance. She would be better off with a dedicated weapon, such as a spear or a longsword, with one knife as a backup. That would be far more practical, allowing her to carry essential gear, reducing her load, and improving her mobility in combat.

And here’s the best part: she never got to use any of her knives in the end.

When writing a professional, there are two pitfalls to avoid. The first is to have him be woefully underprepared for a situation he expects to face. The second is to have him carry a ton of stuff he will never use, to overcome challenges he will never encounter. Both extremes portray him as someone less than who he should be.

Find the middle way between under-preparation and over-encumbrance. Have your character be ready for what he expects to face. Then either show how he uses his tools and training to get out of a mess, or throw him a curveball and force him to improvise.

That is what a professional would do.

Gear selection and preparation plays a critical role in Saga of the Swordbreaker.





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