Agents of ERROR

We are definitely living in the Information Age. Between Google and Wikipedia, it’s extremely easy to research and find new information – without opening a single dusty old encyclopedia. That’s why it’s all the more frustrating when writers – even bestselling ones – get it wrong, especially when it comes to very, very basic information, such as the general roles of basic government organizations. It’s not entirely the writer’s fault – Hollywood also has a way of perpetuating these misconceptions over the years. So I figured I’d write out some noteworthy misconceptions on law and government that keep popping up in books and movies.

Interpol doesn’t arrest people.

I can’t really blame anyone for this. Interpol just sounds cool. It’s an organization of international police officers. The implications of the name are just plain awesome, like Law & Order meets James Bond.

But the truth is much less glamorous. Interpol is, in reality, a network of law enforcement agencies throughout the world which work to clamp down on transnational crime. They have no agents, do not make arrests nor do they issue warrants. The legwork is conducted by traditional law enforcement agencies within the country, not Interpol itself.

Keep in mind that you can bend the rules a bit if you are writing fiction. Maybe your main character works is an Interpol employee swept into a conspiracy of some kind (which isn’t far from the truth – as Interpol has been the center of corruption scandals in the past). Just keep in mind your main character is probably not a secret agent. Interpol is not SHIELD or MI6.

The CIA doesn’t arrest people.

This one is less common, but still crops up from time to time. It makes sense, because often the FBI and CIA are used interchangeably by Hollywood. But the Central Intelligence Agency is a spy agency focused on collecting and disseminating intelligence. It is not a law enforcement agency like the FBI.

It’s especially frustrating to read or watch a scene where someone identifies themselves as CIA with a badge and then carts off someone in handcuffs. Since they are a spy agency, there are very few situations where a CIA agent would announce their presence, especially to arrest someone. The CIA would most likely share intelligence with other agencies, whom would ultimately make the arrest.

Of course, when writing fiction, there is still a little leeway – especially in this day and age. It’s certainly feasible for the CIA to arrange someone to be detained and perhaps even harshly interrogated – especially if the person is a suspected terrorist. Just realize such a situation includes many moral and legal challenges. In any case, the CIA would not officially arrest anyone because it lies outside the scope of their duties.

The United Nations is not a superpower.

As with a lot of things on this list, this one makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the UN is a powerful organization, capable of rallying multinational peacekeeping missions and police actions, leveraging sanctions against rogue nations and providing humanitarian assistance throughout the world. So it makes sense that some writers might perceive the organization as a massive superpower with the ability to supersede the will of individual nations.

The truth is the United Nations has rather obvious limitations to its power. First off all, it has no standing military, and relies on its individual members to contribute to its peacekeeping forces. Secondly, the five permanent members of the Security Council – the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom – all have veto power to block resolutions, so its difficult to see them being forced to do something by the UN.

If you are writing science fiction, it’s easy to picture a world where the United Nations plays a far bigger role in world governance. The video game series Halo has the United Nations Space Command, which stands as a perfect example of this. Just know United Nations would have to adopt key changes to its structure for this to happen.

The Coast Guard are not glorified lifeguards.

Think about it. How many movies about Coast Guards have been made? The Perfect Storm, The Guardian and The Finest Hours are the only ones that come to mind. Now think of every film made about any other branch of the military. Hollywood is never wrong, right?

While it’s true the Coast Guard are most associated with maritime safety and rescue, the scope of their operations extended far beyond that. Existing as both a military and law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard’s mission also includes drug interdiction, international ice patrol and homeland security. Their Maritime Security Response Teams are trained in hostage rescue while boarding and seizing vessels. Their Precision Observer Marksmen Teams are capable of disabling boats from long range by firing a sniper rifle from a helicopter.

The move is yours, Hollywood.

Special forces are not dumb.

This one is admittedly rare, and when it happens in fiction and movies, it starts out innocently enough. Say you have a henchman who needs to more threatening, so you make him ex-black ops, which is code for “extra tough and menacing”. But this guy has an obvious weakness – he’s crude, xenophobic and/or downright dumb. (The same pattern can also be applied to redshirts on the side of the heroes). After all, all the military teaches is how to point and shoot, right?


Special forces are comprised as some of the most capable soldiers in the world, tasked with complex, high-risk, multi-faceted missions. It’s no surprise that many special forces branches prefer their candidates to have some form of college education. In fact, the CIA’s Special Activities Division, which frequently recruits from ex-special forces, requires its candidates have a four year bachelor’s degree for consideration, and some even come from Ivy League schools. The Green Berets require their soldiers to complete six months of language training, primarily because their mission is to provide foreign internal defense.

Whether good or bad, all characters need to be flawed in some way. That said, nothing bores me more than the expendable space marine with a gun bigger his entire body and an IQ less than his shoe size. Military characters especially should be handled dynamically and not as one-note, one-dimension cliches.

That’s it for this blog. Did I get anything wrong? Even though there’s a lot of resources available today, its still easy to make errors – especially when you are using the Internet as a primary source. But more to the point, what are some of the most groan-worthy errors you see in popular fiction and movies?







A Word About Honorable Mentions

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an “honorable mention” as “a distinction conferred (as in a contest or exhibition) on works or persons of exceptional merit but not deserving of top honors”.

They are not participation trophies. I repeat, they are not participation trophies!

So what do writing contests have in common with reality TV competitions like “America’s Got Talent”, “The Voice” and “American Idol”? The answer is not crazy judges (or at least, not necessarily). Instead, both of these contests operate in similar fashion – by slowly whittling down the eligible entries over the course of several cuts, until only the finalists are left. Those entries which survive a cut or two but don’t make it to the semi-finals are usually conferred with some sort of “honorable mention” depending on their overall ranking. Thus, they aren’t given to everyone who enters – just to those who make it past the first cut.

How many writers eliminated per cut depends on the size of the contest, but it could be anywhere from thirty to seventy percent. Just ten percent of the submissions to the high-profile “Writers of the Future” contest receive some kind of “honorable mention” in a contest of hundreds if not thousands of entries. While it might not carry the cash or the publication of higher rankings in the contest, “honorable mention” is still nothing to sneeze at.

Why does all of this matter? Because writers need to celebrate their victories, even if they aren’t as big as they would like. Unfortunately, in a time of Millennial bashing, some confuse “honorable mention” with a “participation trophy” everyone receives. This just isn’t the case (nor would it be very helpful even if it was the case).

An unexpected victory, no matter how small, can fuel a writer’s passion for months to come. Whether it’s a kind word during a critique, a personalized rejection letter, or yes, even an honorable mention, a win is still a win. Writing is a solitary and often silent endeavor, making counting our wins all the more crucial. But there’s also plenty of negativity out there – so don’t let take your victory into the jaws of defeatism. Tune out the noise and focus on what you’ve accomplished – and where you are going next.