How effective are using people as human shields. In a lot of shows to protect themselves from getting shot characters pull people in front of them. How realistic is this and does it actually offer some protection from small caliber weapons.

There’s no guarantee that the hostage is going to stop the bullet, the point of holding someone hostage is to stop the other person with a gun from shooting in the first place.

It is, unironically, the exact same reasoning behind holding someone hostage with a knife or any other implement. The idea is that the person trying to stop you will care more about the innocent getting hurt than they will stopping you. Or they will want to get that person to safety before apprehending you, giving you time to potentially maneuver into a better position and/or escape.

It’s worth understanding that taking a hostage is usually an act of desperation. They’re taking a big bet on the morality and/or ethics of the person they’re trying to escape from. They are betting on the value of the hostage, whether that’s personal or political or simply because they’re an innocent.

This is part of why its an act of desperation, the other part is that moving while holding someone else and forcing them to come with you is difficult. The hostage taker is also betting on the hostage’s willingness to be compliant, that they will value their life more than they will attempting to get free or fight. They’re banking on fear, mostly. It’s hard to split your focus on two at once.

Now, hostage taking happens in real life though I honestly have no idea if it occurs with the same frequency we see on television. Television and movies, especially those surrounding cops, are addicted to the hostage narrative. It has become a genre cliche as much as a genre trope at this point. However, it serves as a cheap, fast point of narrative and character development for both the audience and the protagonists.

Hostage taking usually acts a convenient moral and ethical dilemma for the protagonist. This is more true of some shows than others, but its a staple trope in procedural and television dramas involving cops. Often, it’s here to tell us what kind of people these protagonists are and, if there’s more than one to make the choice, where their breakdown is. The good cop will usually try to talk the hostage taker down. The one who threatens them down by being a worse person. The “by any means necessary” risk taker often just shoots through the victim. There are other variants, but that’s the common breakdown.

Compare Law and Order to The Shield or 24 for comparisons in how the protagonists deal with hostages, hostage takers, and even, sometimes, take hostages themselves.

The ethical quandary is the centerpiece of a hostage negotiation. Whether you risk their deaths by acting, whether you try to save them and allow the villain to succeed, what you do when you can’t choose both. Lives are hanging in the balance. The greater good is pitted against the importance of an individual life. Either way, someone will die.

It’s great drama.

If you want to a fun fictional glimpse into the minds behind a hostage negotiation, working from procedure, then I recommend watching The Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. The plot of the movie is Jackson’s character, a hostage negotiator being framed for murder and he tries to clear his name by… taking people hostage.

If you ever want to try your hand writing a professional in a hostage negotiation or just talking someone down, then this movie is a must see.

Burn Notice has some great episodes regarding this topic as well, offers up some information on the thought processes of those taking the hostages in various scenarios from bank heists to professional kidnapping, which will be helpful.

Television doesn’t do it because it’s a smart choice, because taking a hostage is never, really a smart choice. When someone has taken a hostage, it’s usually because they’re backed into a corner and are trying to bargain for an escape hatch. They’re betting on the fact that they’re willing to go further, faster, harder than whomever they’re trying to escape from. It’s a time buy, an attention getter, and a negotiation whether they actually intend to kill their victim or not. Outside of just human shields, the hostages often do die. Television plays this sequence for the drama.

When they really want to up the ante, they have the hero’s girlfriend, boyfriend, wife end up in the hands of the villains either as a human shield or on the other end of the line. That’s when it gets personal. Die Hard plays this one like a violin. The Chicago cop trying to stop terrorists who have taken the building hostage, while his estranged wife is one of the victims and constantly in danger of discovery.

The trick to making a hostage situation, whether its a human shield or people trapped on the 100th floor is to ensure the hostages are characters rather than moveable objects. They need personalities, agency, opinions so the audience has a reason to connect and relate to them. They don’t necessarily have to fight back, but its important for the author to recognize their importance as minor characters because a successful scene hinges on them rather than the major actors.

In fiction, the audience always needs a reason to care. Death or threat of death isn’t enough to create tragedy. If your audience isn’t following along with your hostage and facing the same moral dilemma as the hero, then the impact of the outcome will be lessened.

If you want to know why scenes like this fail, why death scenes in fiction fail, then understand its a failure to make use of the supporting pieces. Whether its a big death or a small death, a major or minor victory, those supporting characters need to get used. If you don’t put any effort into developing them before their untimely demise, then death is meaningless. We can hate them, love them, want to strangle them, but we do need to feel something.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.