The photo on the left is a detail taken from the Guardian website. The photo is captioned, ‘A rebel from the Free Syrian Army fires down a street towards government snipers in the Bab al-Nasr district.’
Now I assume we can trust that caption. That is, we can believe that this is a real FSA fighter and that he really is shooting at people who are trying to shoot at him. In due course, fiction will try to tackle this conflict. Perhaps purely for entertainment, via an action thriller, or perhaps in a more considered way via some political / literary novel.
But of course how a writer approaches these things always comes down more than anything to a choice of details. What character do we pick to focus on? What choices does he make? How do we bring a particular scene to life?
And far too often, we opt for cliche. Or if not quite cliche, we grab onto things as as think they must be, not necessarily as they are. Take a good look at that photo – a scene of live combat in a conflict that is unfolding right now – and you’ll notice that the gunman in the picture is wearing flip-flops. He’s running: both feet are off the ground. He’s trying to take the life of some of those government snipers, who are simultaneously trying to kill him. And he’s wearing flip-flops. Not just that. He also thinks that a backwards pointing baseball cap is cool. I’m not too sure how you fire a gun like the one he’s holding, but I can’t believe a one-handed grip is the way you’re meant to do it. And do you notice the way his other hand is balanced out with that little crooked forefinger?
I don’t think most of us would have thought to draw our FSA gunman like that, but that’s really, really what they’re like. Or rather: that’s what this one is like. Or rather: that’s what this one is like in this moment. And driving down to the particular – right down to the flipflops and the little crooked forefinger that catches the sunlight – that’s the task of the novelist. More or less the whole difference between a wonderful novelist and a ho-hum one.