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.

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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:

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:

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:

Reasons against spiffying up your doohickey can include:

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...

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External References & Resources:

What did Historical Swords Weigh?
Tactical Flashlight User Interface
Game Boy — Nintendo dominates the portable market

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