Before I get started to seriously, let me make one thing clear. In my long career in the military and in law enforcement, I have never, ever been assigned Sniper Duty. Granted, I’ve done some really great, long distance shots (800 meters is my personal best with a Russian Mosin-Nagant), but at that distance I suspect (at least in my case) there was more luck involved then skill at hitting the target.
So, in my sequel to The Lawman, I have a sniper, and since there are things I’ve never done, but ended up writing about it, I had to do some more research.
Here’s the background. Will’s cousin, Tomas was a Marine Corp sniper. Will had only met him twice. Once when he was younger (Will has almost 15 years on him) and then ran into him in Kuwait City during the Gulf War. They’d had coffee and a meal together and talked some. So Will really doesn’t know much about him except that he liked him. And Tomas is wanted for murder, but seems to be an almost invisible, deadly, yet unasked for ally for Will.
So, to understand Tomas, and get his character together into a believable fashion, I had to study how a Marine Sniper is built. First, there’s the training they go through. I had to understand the equipment one might use, and the training they would go through. I also had to study tactics a lone sniper might employ, and how someone who really wanted to stay invisible might do that.
I also had to understand the culture of the sniper. Everybody has their own little subculture. I know what cops and fire fighters do. They tend to hang with other cops or fire fighters. They tend to talk about what’s happened, things they’ve done, and so on.
To get a look inside the military sniper community, I had to talk to a few current and ex-snipers. The first thing I noticed is they, like cops, tend to break the world down. There are snipers, there are targets, and there’s everyone else. If you’re not part of the fraternity, there’s a wall there. You’re allowed this far, and no further, and if you do make it into glimpsing inside their world feel honored. It means you’re trusted as a friend.
They also tend to brag only within the community. They can be the most humble person in the world, but put them among peers, and they think they’re a god. This is common among astronauts, fighter pilots, Special Forces types, cops, fire fighters, almost any occupation where they’ve had to hang their hides out over the edge.
What do they talk about in the sniper world? They talk about rifles and girls. Tactics and trucks. Ammo and food. In short, the same things I expected to hear about in any other subculture. They talk about life, but they also talk about what’s important to them. Sitting down and listening to a couple of them talk, can easily turn into a symposium on weapons, ammo, and how to get things done.
What struck me is how physically fit many are. They’re muscular, but lean as a wolf. As one put it, an enemy’s answer to a sniper is often times a helicopter or heavy artillery. The ability to get out of an area quickly is very important.
They’re also very smart and very disciplined. If they can’t run, they need to hide and they can be very good at that. I spoke to one old sniper who ended up doing work with the OSS. According to his account, during WW II he was behind enemy lines, doing some recon watching German movements. He was hiding right next to a road, counting German vehicles that went by. A staff car stops, an officer gets out, and he walked right up to where he was hiding. He was so well concealed, and so motionless, that the officer unzipped, used the bathroom (in this case, all over the sniper), and walked away. To flinch could have meant getting captured or killed. As he put it, “I was pile of weeds. I became a weed!”
So what does that have to do with writing a character? You have to understand their world if you want it real. You’ve got to understand that they have a viewpoint and it makes sense to them, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. You have to understand their strengths and their weaknesses.
Culture defines not only things like how we dress, or the foods we eat, but it also defines our viewpoints often times. In the case of Tomas, he’s a Marine first and foremost. The Marines gave him a huge purpose in life, and it agreed with him. His actions get defined by what the Marines built into him. His subculture as a sniper defines his position of strengths and to a large degree how he thinks. Both can at once open huge doors and shut others.
All this combines not to make him a mad dog killer, but an avenger. He knows he’s broken the law, but he also looks at it as he’s stuck in a war and that means taking out the people who might be threats.
So, when you create a character, especially one that’s going to be around for a bit, it’s important to study where they come from and how that makes them tick.