Creating Plausibly Functional & Useful Tools, Gadgets, & Weapons For Fiction
If you're creating a world or setting where there might be fantastic or unusual technology of any kind and you'd like your tech to look and feel like stuff people really would develop and would use if they could, then here are some tips and guidelines.
Table of Contents
- First, ask yourself if there's actually in-story justification to use a fantastic tool, gadget, or weapon.
- What to do when you plan and design your object.
- How and why to spiffy your object up to look neat.
- However... poorly-designed tools, gadgets, and weapons do have their place in a realistic world.
- So, in summary...
First, ask yourself if there's actually in-story justification to use a fantastic fantastic tool, gadget, or weapon.
If you're considering using some kind of fantastic weapon or gadget in your story or setting, first ask yourself if it would really be worth using it from an in-story perspective. Consider the following factors:
Liability: A dead body killed by a shot fired from a generic pistol is a lot easier to chalk up to common criminal than a dead body that has obviously been killed in some highly unorthodox fashion. A fancy laser wire cutter that's only produced in limited quantity by one particular company narrows the suspect pool a lot more than a pair of ordinary wire cutters that could be picked up from almost any hardware store.
Efficiency: Many times in fiction, fantastic weapons and gadgets aren't actually any better at what they're supposed to do than their mundane counterparts, and in a few cases might even be worse. What if the batteries in one's laser wire cutter die, or what if it falls into water and shorts out? What's the point of a raygun that kills people by turning them stone if it's no better at making them dead than plain old bullets?
Cost vs. Benefit: Ask yourself if the actual usefulness of the item compared to ordinary alternatives would really justify its cost. Why spend millions, if not billions of dollars inventing a stonification ray in the first place if bullets are just as lethal and won't cost nearly as much to supply one's people with? Is it really worth buying a machine to tie one's shoelaces when tying shoelaces the old-fashioned way only takes a few seconds, or when one can simply purchase a pair of laceless shoes?
If there's no real benefit to using a fantastic alternative to a mundane option available in your world, then your characters should probably be using the mundane option.
What to do when you plan and design your object.
Rather than beginning your tool, weapon, or gadget by thinking up a design that looks cool (we'll get to making it look cool later), stop and think about what your object is supposed to do and try to come up with an object to do simply that and nothing more. Don't worry about making it pretty or making it look "nice" right now - just try to get something that would work, or at least looks like it would work. If any of your object's functions are the same as or is analogous to the function of any real-life objects, take a look at the design of their real-life counterparts, because odds are they're designed the way they are for a good reason.
Some other things to consider, depending on what you're trying to design:
Keeping users' hands and fingers where they should be: Basically, how you prevent users from dropping an object, having it slide around in their hands, or having them touch the wrong part by accident. Various methods of achieving this include:
- Using a low-slip material for the grip area, such as by covering handles in rubber or similar, or wrapping them in leather thongs or strips of cloth. For objects where relatively little force will need be applied (such as a trowel) or where the focus of force goes down rather than forward (such as on an axe or chef's knife), simply making the handle out of a material like wood may suffice.
- Texturing the grip, such as by cutting or etching lines (called "knurling") into the part of the object intended to be gripped, or molding raised lines, bumps, pits, or a bumpy surface onto the part or material intended to be gripped.
- Lanyards/wrist straps, such as with the controller for the Nintendo Wii, which was given a wrist strap to prevent users from accidentally throwing it during gameplay.
- Guards - which are very important if the user is going to be thrusting or pushing hard toward the object's business end (such as a sword designed with stabbing in mind), or if there's a serious risk of a user's hand slipping and coming into contact with a part that could be harmful to the touch (such as the hot end of a curling iron). They can also be important in preventing accidental discharge or activation - guns have trigger guards for this reason.
Points of structural weakness: If an object is going to hold up under use, then any areas that are likely to be put under strain should be designed to withstand it:
- Unnecessary narrowing should be avoided in spots likely to be put under pressure - a sword blade that narrows to a wasp waist before joining the hilt is at a higher risk of snapping off than one that doesn't.
- Sharp angles are a potential risk, as they don't bear and distribute stress as well as rounded ones do. (It's the same principle why water flows through curving corners better than sharp ones - sharp corners create more resistance, and rather than carrying stress/water smoothly, the stress compounds and builds up at the corners and if the force becomes strong enough, they break.)
- Places where parts and pieces are glued or soldered together are at risk for breaking if the object encounters substantial stress there.
Weight: An object that's particularly heavy can be unwieldy and tiresome to carry and use. On the other hand, making some objects too light can have an adverse effect on their effectiveness - for example, axes, hammers, machetes, and many swords rely on weight to deliver truly powerful blows. (For a quick reference, the average weight of a single-handed Medieval sword ranged between 2.5-3.5 pounds.)
Avoidance of "feature creep": Each feature that goes beyond the basic function of an object can result in overcomplication and actually reduce its usefulness. For example, a flashlight with just a couple of features that are activated with simple steps is typically much better than one with half a dozen features that require more complicated steps to activate them, as the difficulty of remembering what does what and the odds of fumbling or accidentally activating something you didn't want go up as something becomes more complicated and more convoluted. Furthermore, the fewer moving or electrical parts an object has, the less there is to potentially break - and that's pretty important if your object is likely to end up dropped, thrown, or generally banged around.
Minimizing risk of damage: Basically, measures taken to keep the product from getting damaged during normal use. As mentioned above, having fewer moving and/or electrical parts means having fewer things to potentially break or malfunction. It also means designing objects so that they won't take damage easily, which can mean making them from strong and durable materials and/or materials that will absorb concussive force - EG, a protective rubber phone cover.
Pocketability: If your object is meant to be small enough to fit into a pocket or similar, it'll likely have to compromise on available features, performance, and ergonomics to keep it small and prevent it snagging, or from standing out conspicuously if it's meant to be concealable. Depending on what it is, it may have to be designed in a way to prevent it from discomforting or even harming its owner while carried.
Do note that designing the "perfect" tool or gadget is often impossible - in almost any design, concessions and compromises will have to be made. Improving a tool in one way might mean sacrificing something in another way - for example, crossbows have a far more powerful shot than compound bows, but they also take longer to reload. Nintendo kept the power requirements and commercial price of the of the Game Boy down by opting for a liquid crystal display instead of a backlit color display like the Atari Lynx. (And given that the Game Boy was a commercial success while the Lynx was ultimately a failure, it seems that Nintendo made the right call in choosing functionality and low price over looks.)
How and why to spiffy your object up to look neat.
Now if you want to make your object look nice as well as functional, you need to consider and weigh the reasons for and against it and weigh the benefits and drawbacks where your particular object is is concerned.
Reasons for making objects look nifty can include:
- Being able to identify objects: If your phone is a different color from your friend's, then you'll instantly be able to tell which one is which if they end up together. If you put different objects into differently-colored totes, then it's much easier to figure out at a glance which tote you want when you're trying to find something specific.
- Making it stand out from the crowd: Something with a unique and distinct design is more likely to be memorable, and it will be more likely to stand out from and not be confused with functionally-similar items.
- Self-expression/identity assertion: People often like having their stuff look different from other peoples' stuff for the fact that they feel that they can express their identities and individuality thus.
- Making it pleasant to look at: Because things that are nice to look at are good for mood and morale.
Reasons against spiffying up your doohickey can include:
- Being detrimental to the function of the object or to its user: For example, combat gear covered in bright glittery paint would be easily spotted by the enemy. Pointy embellishments might make a small object uncomfortable to carry in one's pocket. Memorability might turn out to be a bad thing if an object's unusual or unique appearance helps identify someone trying to stay on the down-low.
- Prohibitively increasing the cost of the object: Any additional detail work done to an object is going to make production take longer and drive up its cost, and most people just looking for equipment to get a job done aren't going to want to spend money on making their stuff look pretty when they could be spending it on other things they need.
- Likelihood of the decorative additions becoming damaged: For example, rhinestones glued onto a Zippo lighter would be likely to get knocked off as it was used and carried around in one's pocket. (On the other hand, designs that are engraved, molded, or painted on aren't so likely to get damaged.) Anything that might pick up and hold dirt and is stuck permanently to an object that can't be washed would be a poor choice if the actual functionality of the object would likely outlast its cleanliness.
However... poorly-designed tools, gadgets, and weapons do have their place in a realistic world.
Many designers often sacrifice function for flash, relying on an eye-grabbing design or a glut of gimmicks to entice unsavvy customers into buying their products. For example, many knives are designed to look cool, wicked, or graceful despite the fact that these designs actually hamper their usefulness. Other knives are designed to supposedly be everything at once, but instead usually end up being good for nothing at all because the designs necessary to be good at the intended functions are mutually exclusive. Similarly, USB drives designed to be worn as jewelry are often heavy and can easily damage or break due to being made more for looking nice than being either good USB drives or good jewelry.
Furthermore, because designers aren't perfect, oversights and errors happen during any development process. While most products with glaring flaws don't make it to the market before they can be worked out, some do - usually to vanish after a short while when they fail to sell. (And anything that does something another product does just fine already, only with a bigger price tag attached and/or with significantly less functionality than its competition, will usually fail.) Also, products may even be deliberately designed to break or lose functionality after a certain period of use so that consumers have to buy new ones after awhile (part of a concept called "planned obsolescence").
So for these reasons, any realistic world will have its share of stuff that's just junk floating around.
So, in summary...
- Ask yourself if there would be any real benefits to using a fantastic tool, gadget, or weapon over something that already exists. If not, your character or characters should probably be using the thing that already exists.
- When you design an object, first design it to do its intended purpose, and nothing more.
- When/if you decide to dress it up, weigh in the benefits and drawbacks and figure out how much and what kind of decoration would be best and most likely for your object.
- In any realistic world, there will be a certain amount of poorly-designed objects around due to the fact that a certain amount of people will be naive enough to buy stuff that simply looks neat or is advertised as having a lot of features, or because flawed products occasionally make it to the market, or even because a product was designed to fail after awhile.
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