I want you to imagine you’re on a sidewalk. Are you:
a. On auto-pilot, listening to your ear buds, more or less staying with the crowd
b. noticing things around you like what someone is wearing or the dog out for a walk
c. assessing everything around you for potential threats
I think most of us know there’s a difference between auto-pilot and observant, but today I’d like to focus on the difference between observation and situational awareness which is all about threat analysis and very little about the colors of socks of everyone in the room.
Being observant is knowing there are three people seated at tables and one person behind the counter in this coffee shop. Being situationally aware is registering where the exits are, the agitation level of people near you, if anyone changes their behavior when you walk in, if there are locations from the exterior that would provide a clear shot into the establishment, and where weapons are likely to be, if any. It’s looking for the people or potential hazards that might do you harm and planning what you’d do in the event one of those threats materializes. Think like a bodyguard, y’all. We’ve seen too many shows with psychic cops and space marines that I think people think everyone gets to be Sherlock, and listen, friends,
there is one Sherlock and his name is Benedict Cumberbatch.
The Equalizer and Neo and Jason Bourne has made us confused, I think, about what a real person who is on alert would be thinking. It’s not eidetic memory or somehow anticipating the exact movement of any person–it’s not a super power, no matter what John Wick would have us believe.
It’s a space that’s thinking through risks and coming up with plans to deal with them. It can take training and experience to deal with those things, and that’s what research is for, babes. There’s room for license here, but (rant incoming) ohmigawd please stop already with the counting of things and people. You’re not a mathmagician, characters, only log the risks! Be Picard, not a puppet!. Status reports! That’s what you get!
Situational awareness is sort of like diagnosis. If you have a cough, you think you have a cold or have something stuck in your throat before you jump to tuberculosis. A person who was aware of their surroundings and the threats they face would therefore drink some water, get some lozenges and try to sleep more before calling their doctor. Same with threats. You can only plan for the most likely of circumstances.
This then leads to that favorite phrase of military personnel: The OODA Loop.
This is the basis of those “assess, execute” style narratives. It stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action, and is the cycle we all must go through to do anything.
Situationally aware characters will notice pertinent information. They’ll then orient themselves by recalling what they know about what this means to their mission, their safety, and the possible responses. They’ll make a decision, and act. Most awareness training is just about making sound decisions more quickly, which really means giving folks tools to observe more important details and orient within them faster. Some of it is knowing how to act, but knowing how to drive tactically or punch dudes isn’t nearly as useful if you’re always playing catch up with the goings-on.
I think these things a lot when I’m writing Summer–she’s a keyed up little basket case who fights people a lot, so weighing her responses and making them quickly is important. But you’ll notice she’s often surprised, too, because no one can stay perfectly aware all of the time, and no one is going to get to the jump on time every time. That’s the compelling part of characters who are trained–not that they can do something they know how to do, but when those limits are tested.
Think about what your character would notice, what they would find threatening, and what sorts of decisions they’d make if they were scared. Please stop telling me they “calculate the angles of interception” or “noticed the scars on every face.” The first thing is just called “running in the straightest line” and the second is “people watching.” What’s scary to them, and what can our characters do about it? If socks and scars and doggos fit that bill, great. But I feel like maybe they’re less important than pop culture would have me believe.