Place your hero

Good action scenes—car chases, gunfights, and exploding cars and buildings—are great at keeping readers busy turning pages. But, how does your hero survive the barrage of bullets, flames, and KABOOMS? Are you giving the star of your book a realistic way out of all the tough jams you’ve tossed her way? Is what you’ve written a true tactical maneuver, or, did you write yourself into a tired old cliche’ corner? You know what I mean—the karate chop to the wrist, forcing the bad guy to drop his weapon. How about this doozy…shooting the gun out of the villain’s hand. Yeah, those things…the things that are not only far-fetched, they’re downright silly.

As writers of fiction it is your job and sworn duty to deliver believable make-believe, and having your character(s) shoot the gun out of someone’s hand is far from achieving that goal. So, you ask, how do real-life heroes avoid meeting untimely ends when confronted with deadly situations? Well, for starters, they should…

– When confronting a long-gun-wielding suspect (shotguns and rifles are long guns) it’s best to have the hero approach from the side. By doing so, your protagonist has forced the crook to turn his entire body toward the approaching hero in order to continue the threat/potential shootout. Otherwise, the thug has no option other than to flee or surrender. And, that movement allows the hero the time needed to react to the threat.

– If possible, place your hero in a good light. By that, I mean to make use of bright lights, such as a setting sun or bright early morning sunlight. The bright light should be at the hero’s back, which makes it extremely difficult for the bad guy to see. Yet, the hero will be able to clearly see the bad guy and his movements.

– It’s okay to have your hero experience a bit of fear, because fear heightens our sense of awareness, which in turn increases the likelihood that we’ll do whatever is necessary to survive. However, fear can have a negative effect if allowed to overtake the situation. In short, a little fear is good, but too much fear combined with gunfire is the recipe for a badge-wearing babbling idiot.

– If possible, take a moment to focus on breathing. Yes, breathing properly during a tense situation can help bring things into perspective. It can also help lower the heart rate, and it can prevent fear from morphing into blind rage (sudden bursts of anger could turn into a deadly mistake—not thinking clearly and perhaps rush into a no-win situation). So, by taking a moment to focus on “combat breathing—” breathe in slowly for a count of four, hold your breath for another count of four, and then exhale to a third four-count. Count to four and then start all over again. The heart rate should be noticeably lower after a few repetitions. Of course, I don’t recommend taking the time to perform these deep-breathing exercises during a gunfight with bullets zinging by your ears. It’s been my personal experience that “timeouts” are not allowed during gun battles.

Okay, there you have it. So no more silly karate-chop scenes or shooting guns from bad guy’s hands, right? Good. Then you’re all set.

But, you know, I can’t recall ever seeing an extremely scared, deep-breathing Jack Reacher standing with bright sunlight to his back while walking sideways like crab toward a guy holding an AK-47.

I suppose an occasional fist to the throat, or a boot to the head is permissible, but only if you’re the hero in a Lee Child book. The trouble is…there’s only one Jack Reacher, and there’s definitely only one Lee Child.

Meet Lee Child in person at the 2012 Writers’ Police Academy!

  1. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I love the car blow up scenes I tell people hello not going to happen they told us that on Crimescene Writers lol.

    I was watching NCIS Los Angeles one night, big firefight middle of town etc. I looked at my nephew and said and how would they explain all of this? He said they’d cover it with gang shoot out. I went really.

    Do the law enforcement people have hair regs like the military? I always wondered about that. I was in the army and we had strict guidelines on our hair as females. I don’t get the women running around with hair hanging loose, or even just pulled back.

  2. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    You’re right, Rick. I guess I didn’t make it clear that the officer shouldn’t stand directly between the artificial light and the suspect. That’s like painting a bulls eye on your chest.

  3. Rick M
    Rick M says:

    The only thing about “the light behind you” would be anything other than bright daylight—an officer in low light doesn’t want to be backlit, because all they’re doing is making themselves a perfect silhoutte target like on the range.

    Also, everyone except Jack Reacher feels a shot of fear laced in with the adrenaline when a badguy has a gun and you’re about to confront them.

    A great post Lee.

  4. Mo Walsh
    Mo Walsh says:

    And maybe our hero could avoid some of those standoffs if he didn’t yell, “Police! I want to tslk to you!” when he’s still fifty feet away from the suspect. But then we wouldn’t need a chase scene, right?

  5. Ken Wishnia
    Ken Wishnia says:

    So Bruce Willis shooting at a high-tension wire with a snub-nosed .38 at night, while Jeremy Irons is shooting at him with a helicopter-mounted machine gun, hitting the wire and destroying the helicopter (in DIE HARD 3) is unrealistic? Who knew?

  6. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Sally – Be sure the light is behind her/him. The idea is to “blind” the bad guy. You’ll see patrol officers take advantage of bright lights when they aim their spotlights and take-down lights at the vehicles on the highway. The driver cannot see the approaching officer.

  7. Sally Carpenter
    Sally Carpenter says:

    I love the idea of the hero standing in a bright light(maybe a spotlight?). I plan to use that sometime in my books.

  8. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Another great post Lee. As to shooting the gun out of the bad guy’s hand, they actually busted this idea on Mythbusters.

  9. Coco
    Coco says:

    Again, a wonderful post from a Champion. Thank you Lee for all the information. As for ” combat breathing”, I might suggest that for the next MD appointment, use it to lower your BP, and “white coat fear syndrome”, though I doubt that you have that problem.

  10. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Tim. You’re right, it’s dumb and it’s totally “made-for TV.”

    The only times I can think of when an officer would be required to surrender his/her weapon would be when entering a jail or prison, some courts, and secured portions of a police department (booking, holding cell area, interview rooms, office areas where suspects or prisoners may be present, for examples). Never, though, when told to do so by a bad guy. Sure, the officers may retreat to safety, but they won’t give up their weapons.

  11. ~Tim
    ~Tim says:

    Another great post.

    What about when a bad guy takes a hostage and orders all the good guys surrounding him to drop their guns? And they do! That seems counter-intuitive [or just plain silly] to me. Under what conditions, if ever, is it recommended procedure for police to surrender their weapons?