No, we’re not saying anthropomorphize your weapon. But here’s the thing, the best way to prove to your reader that your character knows what they’re doing isn’t what they do in the middle of a fight. It’s the behavior they exhibit outside of it, especially during their downtime.
Every weapon is unique and I don’t simply mean that in the way that a bastard sword and a broadsword are two completely different weapons. They may look almost the same, but when you look at them closely, you’ll notice many differences between them that are key to how they were used in combat. So make sure you know which weapon your character is using, calling it a sword or a gun is not good enough, know which one it is, what it was and is still used for, and how it works.
Now, it’s even more important to mention that even weapons that are direct off the factory line like handguns and rifles are all individually unique. No gun, even of the same make and model, is exactly the same as another. Each has their own individual tics and flaws in their construction for how well they work and what needs to be done to care for them.
Handguns specifically are more subject to wear and tear because of their internal mechanisms and more personal customization. For example, the Walther P99 comes with three different grips designed for the shooter’s hand to be configured out of the box. If you add a tactical flashlight to the weapon, then you change its balance and recoil. This means the weapon will look and feel different from weapons of a similar make.
Any character who has had their weapon for a long period of time will know the ins and outs of it. They’ll have to. For a character that fights their weapon is their lifeblood, it’s their most precious possession, in some cases it’s essentially their best friend. Now, a character that doesn’t properly care for their weapon and ignores basic safety is a danger to themselves and those around them. But in fiction, that can definitely be a distinctive character trait to that character. This is why it’s so important for authors to get to know the weapons they plan on using, simply because then they’ll know what makes a good practitioner and what doesn’t so they can adjust the character’s behavior according to what they need for their story.
No matter what the weapon is, a character who is a warrior or who fights will be defined by how well they care for that weapon and their gear.
Here are some ways a weapon can indicate a character’s state to the reader without any dialogue being necessary:
In the beginning of the story, Joe’s sword is pristine and in perfect condition, we constantly see him cleaning it and sharpening it after each battle as the novel progresses, Joe’s traveling companion Jason begins to notice small signs of wear in Joe based on the blood left on the hilt and that the annoying amount of time Joe spends cleaning his weapon is getting shorter and the blade is getting duller. The more battles there are and the worse it gets until Jason finally steps in to confront Joe about his behavior. This can lead to a moment of crisis for Joe that allows us to see into a character who wouldn’t normally converse about these emotions. The state of the weapon can also be used to show the reader, who may like Joe, that he’s not doing well and encourage emotional investment in his character because it’s obvious he’s having a difficult time.
In the hands of an aware author, this can be a way to humanize characters that are usually unlikeable without ever having to go inside their heads. You also can’t just take a character’s personal weapon from them and give them another with the expectation they’ll be interchangeable. Even a practitioner who is skilled with multiple different arts will have difficulty period adjusting a weapon they aren’t used to using. This is because every weapon is an individual and just like their wielder, should be a considered a character in their own right.
Ask yourself some important questions dealing with your weapon and your setting:
Is the weapon your character uses common in the setting they are living in?
If not and even if it is, where and who did they get it from?
How much effort will they have to put in to care for their weapon? If it’s a rare weapon or one that has fallen out of use, they may have to have some skills in basic chemistry to construct the gunpowder or the oils they’ll need.
Why do they use this weapon instead of another? Were they trained in its use or are they self-taught? If they did learn from someone, then who was it and who taught their teacher?
If it’s a projectile weapon is the ammunition for it readily available or will they have to manufacture it themselves? If you’re using a more exotic weapon like a matchlock or a flintlock pistol, this will be extremely difficult even if your character has the chemical understanding to manufacture the gunpowder because getting flint in the proper configuration will be a pain if it’s not readily available in the setting. Flint will wear down over time.
How durable is the weapon? Will it require a lot of special care? If your character is using a katana, it’s best to keep in mind that there is a significant difference between blades forged in Japan today and older blades made using the natural iron deposits found in Japan. The older katanas are very rare because though they didn’t see a lot of use, they weren’t very durable. If it’s a different sort of bladed weapon, they’ll need something like a whetstone to be able to keep the weapon sharp and hammer out the inevitable dents the weapon will receive if there’s no blacksmith readily available. (You won’t be able to do this with any katana that pre-dates WWII. You may be able to hone one though, research as needed).
Is this a weapon that another trained practitioner or even local law enforcement will recognize? If yes, will carrying it get them into trouble with the local authorities? If not, why not? It’s important to remember that even today in states like California, the bow and crossbow are regulated weapons that require a permit to be purchased and owned legally. If your character is living under a restrictive regime, the number of weapons they will have access to and be able to effectively hide will be limited. So pick one that makes sense for the world they live in, not just their profession and their skill set.
Here are some ideas for how to include weapon cleaning scenes in a narrative:
You don’t need to take time out to specially point out that your character is doing this or make a big deal out of it. Besides, that would be strange for them since for most warriors these tics in behavior come naturally and are a package part of their training.
You can have them cleaning and caring for their weapon while they are in the middle of a conversation with another character if they are a center of that scene.
You can show them cleaning their weapon in the background of a tense conversation that they may be watching but doesn’t involve them. It will only take a few lines to show what they are doing through other characters basic observation skills.
Sometimes, it’s important to show non-combat characters feeling threatened by the fact that they have the weapon out and annoyed by the fact that this character isn’t paying attention to them even though they are.
Depending on a character’s martial style, they may have an annoying habit of being up and mobile. They’ll pace, they’ll stretch, even just during normal conversation. Character A stretching can be very distracting for Character B if they are sexually attracted to them. It’s important to remember that stretching can be done in complete innocence or with the intention of arousal, depending on who the characters are and what their personality is.
Weapons are an easy source of tension because for many people who don’t fight (and even some who do) they are threatening. One of your characters may not even realize that the fact they have their rifle out and in pieces on the table with a loaded handgun right next to it might be perceived as a threat by another character. Or, the fact that they are cleaning their weapon could be a threat, such as sharpening their sword with a whetstone. It could be a way to indicate annoyance. So, think about where they lay out their weapon, what direction it’s facing, where they choose to look, and how fast they are going. A character’s body posture can communicate a lot without them ever having to say anything or it could suggest to the reader (and the other character if they’re good at reading body language) that they mean the opposite of what they are saying.
The time it takes for a character to get their weapon ready or put away can be a hindrance, especially if it’s a weapon like the bow where such action is necessary to maintain the battle-readiness of the weapon. This action can be used to cause narrative tension between those who just want to get on with it while the first character needs to make sure their weapon is prepared right.
Here’s an example of a good use of an exotic weapon in fiction and how it affects the character:
Marcus in Babylon 5 is an excellent example of how to make use of an exotic weapon in a narrative without it being either ostentatious or aggravating. In the show, Marcus carries an Mimbari fighting pike, which is an alien weapon carried by the race Humanity was at war with ten years before the series starts. It’s a rare weapon even among the Mimbari, used only by high ranking members of their warrior caste. In the weapon’s natural state it has the advantage of not looking like one. But even in combat, it’s a weapon that most people won’t recognize. The problem for him, though, is that veterans of the war will (and do in the show) recognize it as a Mimbari weapon and they react, often according to old prejudices. The weapon also puts him at odds with members of the Mimbari warrior caste when he encounters them because it’s offensive for him to be using one of their traditional weapons. It also means he was extensively trained in what his own people consider to be an alien fighting style and a fighting style used by the enemy. The people who see the weapon for what it is are left uncertain of where his loyalties lie and whether or not he can be trusted.
The pike serves as a method of showing to the audience how Marcus is a balance between the two races while also being isolated by it and pushed to the outside edge of both communities. It’s an excellent demonstration of what a weapon can mean for a character beyond them just carrying around a unique shiny that makes them special.
Every aspect included in your story must be there for a reason. This includes a character’s weapon.