Q&A: Block versus Block, Innie versus Outie

In judo I learnt to deflect a punch by pushing on the outside of the forearm (so punch from left = push to my right) and I was taught to then grab the wrist and pivot, following the attacker’s original motion and pulling them off balance. This works great because 1. you’re not opposing their motion, 2. they can’t resist, and 3. they end up with their back to you. But would it ever make sense to grab the INSIDE of their arm? >Not writing: drew a pose which feels off for this reason, and wondered.

Yes… there are even ways to perform blocks that don’t involve your opponent going past you. Judo uses this particular block as a primary foundation because it’s a great for setting up a variety of different throws. The eventual goal is not for this to end with their back to you, but for them to be on the ground. However, that particular block is Judo and there are other blocks with a similar motion that create very different options.

So, does it ever make sense to grab the inside of the arm?

Yes, when you want direct access to their entire body. Yes, when you want to knock them over onto their back. Yes, when you want to grab them by the head and put them into a throw using your front leg. Yes, when you want access to their stomach, chest, and neck.  Yes, when you want to go directly from your block into a headbutt. Yes, when you want a straight vector.

You can go up, down, in, out, get onto a variety angles for blocks and deflections depending on the following techniques you’re intending to perform. You can block kicks with your knee/shin/thigh, deflect punches with your hand or your forearm. It all depends on what you’re going to do and what tactics/strategies you’re martial art relies on.

With a inside deflection, knocking your opponent’s arm away, you catch the forearm before the arm reaches full extension and apply opposing force using your wrist rather than your hand to redirect the punch away from you on the same side rather than a cross-block/cross-deflection of lefty/lefty or righty/righty. Doing that inside block opens the body up for direct strikes. You can also gain control of the arm, and the body. Use the opportunity to go right into grappling range, past the point where they can punch you.

There are so many available options that you can do from this position that I really can’t overstate how basic it is. Everything from joint locks, to throws, to pressure points can be done by grabbing the inside of the arm. If you continue with Judo, you will eventually learn what some of these are yourself.

However, what you really want to get rid of from the very beginning are ideas about “the best” or “makes the most sense”.  All blocks and all martial arts are situational. There is no best way to do anything, ever.  There’s a multitude of ways, and most of them work.  You’ll hamstring yourself creatively if you let the fanboy attitude which creeps into martial arts debates take control. Weapons are situational, techniques are situational, blocks are situational. They all have situations where they work and where they don’t. The goal of your training is to expand your horizons so you have a multitude of options available for a variety of situations.

Whenever you ask, “is this the best way?” Know that the answer is, “well, that’s one way.” It may be a good way, but it isn’t the only way.  However, it might be the way you chose and if it is then that’s good enough. Just don’t cut yourself off from learning more, and giving yourself more options when your first instinct is “this doesn’t feel natural.” Of course it’s not, you haven’t learned how to do it yet. That’s no reason not to keep looking.

-Michi

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Q&A: When it comes to women, “Realism” is often wrong

I’m writing a story set in the Victorian era, something I have done a lot of research on, and my female character (a teenager) is a skilled fencer. I have been told that this is ‘unrealistic’ despite research telling me noble women would have actually been ENCOURAGED to fence, as fencing was seen as graceful. I was going to have her get into a duel but I’m worried readers aren’t going to believe woman could fence back then and impose even more restrictions than were in place at the time.

So, with fiction, you can essentially normalize whatever you want. You’re not limited a very narrow view of someone else’s reality. You create the reality your readers experience. You shape the world to your liking. You have that control, you have that power, and, when you get good at crafting new realities, your readership won’t question it because you never gave them the opportunity. However, the trick with normalization is understanding there needs to be more than one. You need many characters from in a multitude of age groups in order to normalize a behavior pattern in a setting.

Never forget, you are the creator and they are the consumer. The consumer doesn’t dictate what the creator creates. A well-written story will always find a home, even one filled with uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Be confident that you’ll find yours.

Remember, perception of history doesn’t outweigh real history except when we ignore the real history’s existence. The fact women were encouraged to fence as they were encouraged to participate in other sports like tennis for the benefit of their health doesn’t outweigh the sexism which existed in Victorian England. It also doesn’t reject women’s participation in sports as being seen as secondary to men’s. Their participation treated as less “legitimate”, less serious, and entirely hobbyist. Which is not so different from how women’s professional sports are treated today.

The trouble with the presentation of many female characters who fight (and this has been normalized) is that they’re the only one. They’re the trailblazer, the only one who fights, who earns her stripes by playing with the big male dogs, who is different from other women. This gives them the position of being special and unique. However, by being different from other woman in such a big way, we cut the setting off from normalizing female participation and the concept of a woman fighting is treated as abnormal. A single outlier is not normalization, and isn’t really proving anything.  In fact, the treatment of a female fighter as being different, unique, and special due to her gender throws the violence and combat ball squarely into the male court. By normalizing violence as the domain of men, these female characters are framed as infringing on spaces inherently male rather than just culturally male. This treatment of sex and gender ends up normalizing the very sexist stereotypes and cultural mores that the narrative is trying to combat.  The treatment posits that men are inherently and naturally better at combat than women because violence is male, and the truth that combat is a skill you practice and work at in order to be good gets lost.

Women have always fought. You’ll find at least two women in just about every martial arts class, and probably more. There will be older women and younger women, the women who threw off society’s rules to completely embrace their martial calling, the women who didn’t, the women who are there just for that bit of added grace, the ones who are there because their mother or father made them, the ones who love it, the ones who aren’t really interested in fencing. They’re just crushing on the salle’s fencing instructor or taking the opportunity to go husband hunting among the available gentry. You need lots of female characters with varying opinions on the subject and with their own reasons for engaging in the sport. The primary opponents for a female fencer are going to be other female fencers, and that’s also who she’ll be training with; even if the master is a man. Where women dueling women is acceptable, women dueling men will be socially frowned upon. This doesn’t mean a woman can’t duel a man on equal terms, they can. However, the social and societal consequences for breaking with tradition are much more severe.

This is where the sexism the audience has been trained to expect leaks back in. The mental jump is in the statement: “it is socially frowned upon for women to do X” and the logic then  becomes “women can’t do X!” because we don’t talk about the ones who challenged social mores. There’s the assumption, and then there’s the reality. Audiences demanding realism often overfocus on their assumptions, rather than what is real. Fiction is a poor substitute for the real world, which is often much more complicated. The reality is women’s fencing as a codified sport has been thriving for over a century. Women have been fencing and fighting for much longer than that. Women learned and practiced self-defense in Victorian England, there were women who did fight in live duels against other women, and there were those who participated in the sport purely as a means of exercise.

Women didn’t duel in Victorian England, they say? We have actual historical events of women dueling topless, and not for the entertainment of male or female spectators. No, they dueled topless to avoid infection and to keep cloth from going into the wound. In this particular instance, the countess and the princess were dueling over floral arrangements for an upcoming musical exhibition.

The reasons your characters have for dueling could be really, really out there. Violence over floral arrangements may not make sense to us, but it did to them. Humans can be really out there, and history isn’t a sham collection of men doing everything while women stayed home. History is littered with badass women from all over the world doing crazy things. I wouldn’t even say that a woman dueling a man in Victorian England would actually be all that out there because women did, what would be unrealistic is there being no consequences (societal or otherwise) for the act. There were certainly women who openly flouted convention. Novelist George Eliot is one example. Female prize fighter and all around bare knuckle boxing champion, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes is another.

However, culture involves more than one.

If you want to portray an attitude as normal, you need to have your characters treat the attitude like it’s normal and back that up with a robust mixed gender cast. Women are drawn to violence in the same way men are, and female members of the aristocracy certainly did duel each other. There were articles written on the subject of how fencing is good for women’s health.

So, should you fear detractors? No, you shouldn’t.

Don’t give them power over your work. Women have been carving out their place in the world of professional sports and on the battlefield for a long, long time. The tragedy is that our culture at large pretends they don’t exist in order to uphold the sexist mores underpinning our society. Remember, women make up half of the human race and half of every society. Honestly, read this article. The Boy’s Club may be societally acceptable, but it’s actually unrealistic.

So, if you want normal, jam your work full of female fencers of every age. Main characters, secondary characters, side characters, and cameos. Female friends, female rivals, female mentors, female teachers, female assistants, female family members, female characters who just don’t understand, female characters of every stripe imaginable. Women who fence, women who don’t, women who look down their nose at it, women who think its unseemly, women who long to be taken more seriously, and the women who just don’t care what society thinks. Those do it anyway. All these types of women have existed.

You’ll always find detractors, but the answer is easy.

Do it anyway.

-Michi

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Q&A: Sword & Gun

So my story exists in a modern-day setting where magic and supernatural entities are extremely common and well known. The main character is what is known as a “Bladesman”, a sort of modern-day knight who specializes in magical combat, as well as dual-wilding a sword and a revolver (no semi-automatic weapons- never got that far because magic was cooler). How do you think this fighting style would work out? What’s kind of strategies would be employed?

These actually came as two separate questions, hence the broken format.

So, I know I’ve said this before, but the problem with swords in a modern combat environment is range. If you have any kind of repeating firearm, the chances of getting into range where you can use a melee weapon drops dramatically. Even if your setting is only using revolvers, the chances of your character actually using their sword is fairly slim.

Gun and sword combinations are most prevalent when the firearm will not adequately dispatch your foes, but can function as way to open combat. If your setting is age of sail, with single shot, inaccurate smooth bore pistols which need to be reloaded after each shot, then carrying a saber for melee makes a lot of sense. Especially if you’re going to be fighting in close quarters.

Revolvers start to skew these situations against the gun and sword combo. It doesn’t mean you can’t use them. Just that your character is far more likely to carry a sword, and switch to that when their revolver isn’t working.

This is especially plausible when you’re dealing with creatures that are impervious to bullets, or require some kind of specialized equipment to dispatch.

I’d also caution against the, “magic was cooler,” bit. When it comes to weapons technology, people tend to look for what’s more efficient, or effective, before they worry about how cool something is. When it comes to aesthetics, sure, but that no one developed an autoloader because it wasn’t cool enough isn’t consistent with how people actually behave.

You don’t use a gun that can fire eight times, which is also easier and faster to reload over a six-shot revolver because it looks cool. You use it because you’re getting two extra shots, and a faster reload, because that’s a decisive advantage over someone who’s fumbling with their wheel gun.

There are legitimate reasons why your character might use a revolver, there are even legitimate reasons why semi-automatic firearms may not exist in your setting, but coolness shouldn’t be a consideration.

Some possibilities include the idea that the revolver itself is enchanted in some way. Your character may be loading unconventional rounds into it that wouldn’t function in an automatic. Your character may prefer the accuracy or even the feel of the revolver. If your character spends a lot of time unable to care for their weapon, a revolver might be a better option simply for the ease of maintenance, and overall durability.

You might also have a setting where advanced machinery malfunctions in the face of magic. This could render firearms more advanced than a revolver non-functional when dealing with magic users. Of course, this would also cause serious issues for other mechanical systems, like almost all modern vehicles. So, that’s a major world-building issue you may want to think through.

It’s possible the overall mechanical simplicity of a revolver makes it easier to enchant in your setting.

There’s also a legitimate argument for sufficiently advanced magic impairing the development of technology in a setting. After all, why would you need phones if you could communicate with someone else using enchanted objects. This can lead to a complex web of anachrotech as things like cellphones or even computers don’t exist in favor of magical alternatives. This may result in a situation where characters are using some kind of multi-shot cartridges for their firearms. As in you load a single shell, but can fire ten or more magical blasts from it. At that point, the idea of a conventional semi-automatic firearm wouldn’t have much of a place. Though, I suspect you’d see something more like a bolt action pistol, designed to be fired multiple times on the same chamber before cycling (which doesn’t exist in the real world, for obvious reasons.)

It’s also distinctly possible your character (or other characters) may carry talismans designed to ward off bullets. This would cause the swords to make somewhat more sense. Though, again, we’re back to the situation where your character would be using one weapon or the other, though probably not both at the same time. Though, they may draw both together, and begin by firing before switching to their sword.

Also, before I forget, what are some swords that you can wield effectively with one hand? Thanks!

Nearly any sword can be used effectively with one hand, even greatswords like the claymore or zweihander. It’s worth remembering, even the largest didn’t exceed 8lbs, (most greatswords were 5-6lbs.) Most European swords were designed for use in one hand, so, while they benefit from an off hand, they don’t need it. To be fair, wielding a great sword with one hand is not ideal.

There’s also a number of swords, mostly early modern ones, such as the saber and rapier, which were designed to be used in one hand exclusively.

So, nearly any sword. I suppose when you start mixing in magical enchantments, even those limitations start to become a bit more flexible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Conscription

How would military conscription work? Specifically wondering how the military would prevent/handle evasion of service, and the mental effects of getting signed on for a war you don’t want to fight.

How would it work, or how does it work?

Historically there have been many different forms of military conscription, ranging from press gangs, drafts and compulsory service.

Impressment was the practice of forcibly “recruiting” people into the military, usually via the use of a press gang. In most situations, they would simply go out, grab some civilians and drag them back. This was at it’s height in the 18th century, and is basically unheard of today in developed nations. In most cases, impressment was naval, so press gangs were looking for sailors.

Worth noting, impressment didn’t, necessarily, restrict itself to members of one’s own nation. For somewhat obvious reasons you wouldn’t want to forcibly conscript civilians from a hostile power, and then place them on your warship, but at the same time, there were a number of incidents where British press gangs picked up American sailors in British ports in the late 19th century, and even an incident where a British sailor was pressed into service on the U.S.S. Constitution.

Drafts are a form of conscription where military recruits are drawn from the general population. The exact method of selection varies, but again, if selected, off you go.

Mandatory service still exists and several countries including Switzerland and Israel require that every citizen serves at some point. Though, there are additional nuances to this. Such as, any civil service being eligible, or potential exemptions, such as medical conditions. (These also tend to exist with drafts.)

How does the military handle evasion of service? Well, they can lock you up, or kill you. That’s not an idle possibility. Under British rule the penalty for resisting impressment was execution by hanging. In the case of drafts and mandatory service, criminal penalties, either by the civilian courts, or military ones, exist. Attempting to avoid a draft could result in a warrant, arrest by police, and imprisonment.

Once you’re in the military’s hands, they have all sorts of creative forms of punishment available to them, not including actual Courts Martial for serious crimes such as desertion, or dereliction of duty. Also, remember, that desertion in wartime is frequently a capital offense. So, what can they do to make you comply? Well, they can lock you up, and or kill you.

As for the mental effects, historically it’s a grim picture. Until the last thirty to forty years, combat induced PTSD was viewed as cowardice. Not a psychological condition. Not something that needed to be addressed. Just cowardice. Called things like, “combat fatigue,” or “shell shock,” these weren’t regarded as psychological conditions that needed treatment. It was, simply, viewed as a soldier trying to shirk their duties, and would result in punishment.

But, I mean, we’re talking about a military that has no qualms about dragging someone off to die alone, on foreign soil, thousands of miles from anyone they ever knew or loved. Why do you think they’d give a moment’s consideration to anyone’s feelings?

Concern for a soldier’s psychological well being (regardless if they’re conscripts or volunteers), is shockingly recent, and there’s still a long way to go on that front. Some are doing better than others, but still.

-Starke

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Q&A: Large Swordbreakers

Would a swordbreaker that is scaled up to the size of a one or two handed sword be useful, or too situational?

I’m unsure if it would even be possible, or at the very least, useful.

The entire idea behind a swordbreaker is to have a parrying tool you can use to catch and lock up your opponent’s blade. So, you’d carry a sidearm in your main hand, this could be a sword, an axe, whatever, and you’d use the swordbreaker in your off hand, to parry with. These wouldn’t necessarily break the blade, but they would allow the user to torque it and keep hold of the blade, while retaliating with their own primary weapon.

A longer, sword sized, swordbreaker would much harder to produce, and much more fragile, which starts to undermine its intended use. The two designs that come to mind off hand were comb style blades, which could hook and catch a blade between the teeth, and two pronged, “forks.” (I’m including trident daggers under this, if anyone is wondering.) I suspect making a sword length comb would result in an unreasonably fragile item. Too fragile for use as a swordbreaker.

Extending a fork to sword lengths would be similarly pointless, because you’d still only be using the six inches near the grip, and the extended tines would just get in the way and slow you down. Someone could make one, but I doubt it could be used, at least not as a swordbreaker. I’m also not even considering the structural stability on a long fork, because, really, it wouldn’t be able to work as a swordbreaker.

There are examples of existing swords that include sword breaker features, such as tines designed to trap the opponent’s blade near the guard, though these features are more common on parrying daggers. You will also, sometimes, see heavier piercing blades, like the estoc described as swordbreakers. This is technically incorrect, as those weapons were designed to deal with armor, but the term is used that way sometimes.

So, no. It’s not even a situational consideration, just a practical use problem.

-Starke

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Q&A: Eagle Project

Hello I am a life scout in America and I was wondering what was your eagle project and the reason I am asking is because I am looking for things to do, and have a good idea of what I can do. Thank you

The actual answer might not be useful to you; I moved a library. More specifically, I recruited, and organized volunteers to move the stacks from the old library building, which had been in continual use for nearly a century and was in dire need of full renovations, into a new facility half a block away.

This may sound slightly strange, but good Eagle Projects are “opportunistic.” They depend on knowing what’s going on around you, in your community, and finding someplace where you can step in and facilitate something that needs to be done.

Repair or restoration of a city park is one common goal. More than one Scout camp is maintained by the joint efforts of Eagle Projects and OA events.

This may be as simple as repainting camp structures (though, depending on how much effort is involved, your board may want something a bit more ambitious), or it may be more extensive, like tearing up and renovating a trail. (I have participated in the latter.)

There’s a weird possibility that organizing a recruitment drive of new scouts might be something your Review Board would be willing to sign off on. Provided you can convincingly argue that it is to the benefit of your community.

Ultimately, all of this rests with your Eagle Board. Your project is a demonstration that you’re learning how to function as a leader. Sometimes that means asking for advice and help. Being a leader doesn’t mean having all the answers; it often requires knowing when you need to ask others for their input, and understanding where to fill in the blanks when those answers are incomplete.

Once you have a plan in mind, then you can go through the additional necessary steps.

One major change, from when I did my project, was the amount of required planning before the Board would sign off. I had to have an entire project detailed out, only to then find out if it was suitable, needed minor reworks, or was outright rejected.  That’s not longer true. You can present an overall plan of what you want to do, and get direct feedback, before you invest a lot of time into the project.

Ultimately, your Eagle Project is going to be a reflection of your community, and what you can do to contribute to it. That is part of what the project is testing.

-Starke

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Writing Gangs

We got a few questions about gangs versus organized crime, and what the difference is. So, I figured we’d do a follow up post about gangs. (The Wiki article about gangs rolls organized crime in with them which is… not accurate, they’re organized, yes, but different beasts.)

The main difference between gangs and organized crime is time. If the street gang survives, it grows up to become organized crime. They’re the Lost Boys in the interim stages before they grow up to become the Pirates. The gang is the proto phase of organized crime, the beginnings of the group before it’s become entrenched. Most Mafia/Mobs do find their original roots in street gangs before they grew up into professional enterprises. The main difference between the Mob and the Gang is the Mob has had time grow, develop, and learn from previous experiences.

The way to think about “organized crime” like the Triad, the American Mafias, the Yakuza, and others like is that they’re a criminal enterprise. They’re a business, and this is where Russian organized crime meets up with the Mafias. The heads of these organizations are like CEOs, and they function almost exactly like any other corporation except their working outside the law in human trafficking, drugs, etc. This includes stealing fashion designs and using sweatshop labor to sell cheap knock offs as an industry, which is something the Triad does. “Organized crime” is money moving to the tune of billions as international business versus the most enterprising of the street gangs which may own, maybe, a city.

Easy difference, the Black Mafia family sells drugs. The Cartels produce drugs, and sell them, and they sometimes contract out to street/motorcycle gangs. This is the pharmaceutical company versus your local pharmacy versus a single location Mom & Pop shop. The street gang is Mom & Pop. The older well-established gangs that’ve been around for forty to fifty years are the Rite-Aids. The Triad are Bayer. Given time, and assuming they survive to adulthood, the gang can hit the big time and own some place like Las Vegas before moving on to bigger and better. That takes time though, and they’ve got to grow up first. There are quite a few gangs moving toward, if they haven’t already become, organized criminal enterprises. The Bloods and the Crips are close, the Black Mafia, and MS13 is aggressively pursuing its transition into criminal enterprise. It might be tempting to lean toward the cartels or mafias for the sense of legitimacy they bring to the narrative, not to mention the romantic relationship some groups have with fiction.

The Gang is rougher, but much more suited to any narrative involving teens and about growing up. Let’s face it, the gang is the angry teenage phase of organized crime. They’re the dark side of found families, they’re messier, and they will stress characters with themes of brotherhood/sisterhood, respect, loyalty, co-dependency, and the meaning of family in ways you won’t get from an organized businesses because they weed that shit out. They don’t have time for your angst. The Gang, though? They thrive on emotional narratives about brutality, trauma, broken bonds, and shattered friendships. They’re about getting in over your head from the word go; before you ever learned how to swim and long before you’re ever given the chance.

The Lost Boys

Gangs form in marginalized communities that are not protected by the bureaucracy of the ruling government. Their purpose, their beginning purpose, is to protect. Their originating goal is to provide security and safety to their communities, to protect them from outsiders, and they recruit on that honorable ideal. Any community which is treated as “Other” runs the risk of creating not one gang but multiples. The behavior and culture of the gang is dependent on the culture of its participants, before the gang develops a culture of its own, their ideals, their beliefs, their views come fractured through the eyes of disenfranchised youth. They combine with a teenager’s volatile emotions and impulsivity.

The main draw of the gangs is sense of family they offer, the brotherhood. They primarily exert influence on young, disaffected, lonely neglected youth with absentee parents. In plain terms, they hunt up Latch Keys. These can be impoverished children from single-parent households whose older family members work so hard to put food on the table they can’t be there, the ones from white-collar households in a similar boat, those whose parents genuinely don’t care, those from abusive homes, and came out of a similar life. The key theme is the offer of stability, purpose, guidance, and open to influence by the gang. The gang offers the child or teen the love, attention, and guidance they crave, but at a price.

You know all those tell-tale warnings you got about peer-pressure? This is peer-pressure reworked into targeted social engineering.

A character’s initiation into a gang is an act of violence. Sometimes, it’s a beating. Sometimes, it’s a murder. Sometimes, the initiated murderer is thirteen years old. And, yes, the street gang is where you’ll find that sixteen year old hitman who was recruited out of elementary school and started running drugs at nine or ten years old. They’re not “professional” in the conventional sense, but they go out to perform hits and the resulting collateral damage is often very messy.

There’s more emotional depth here than “just business”. Leaving the gang is a betrayal of the brotherhood, betrayal of the family. Killing can be seen as retribution, to claim turf, get respect, exert authority, or protect from invaders.

A major theme for gang characters is exerting their identity through violence, establishing themselves as adults, and lashing out at cultures/societies/institutions that they feel have rejected/failed them.

They’ve turned to the only figures in their lives they feel understand them, the older members of their gang. The relationship between gang members is elder sibling and younger sibling rather than the patron-client, mentor/student, parent/child relationships you’d find in gangs with organized crime.

If you want to learn more about child recruitment and culture in gangs, I highly recommend reading Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur.

The Lord of the Flies

The sort of “send a message” brutality you get out gangs, the behavior, the emotion, and the thematic resonance they have with coming of age stories is, I think, what most of our followers are really asking for whenever they ask about the Mob. It’s worth exploring the romantic aspects of the gang, what they offer, and why they so easily lure young people in.

This is a writing advice blog. I’m going to take this last part to talk about how you can use gangs in your narratives. First…

To write crime, you must understand crime.

Understanding crime requires understanding the culture which spawns the crimes, the society, and the laws of the world your character exists in. You can’t break a rule if you don’t understand the rules. Right? If your reader doesn’t understand the rules of your setting, they won’t understand the impact of your character breaking with them.

Spend as much time on your lawfuls as your chaotics, if not more.

To write the gang, you must understand the necessity and purpose of the gang.

You need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. The pressures of their world, the loneliness of it, and the desire to have someone, anyone, who understands them. The intoxicating effect of fear, how inflicting fear makes you feel powerful, and the need to exert control in an overwhelming world where your environment is wildly spinning out of your grasp.

If you want to write a character who exists in the criminal underworld, and never spent any time looking at the criminals in question then you will come up short. I understand that it’s not a comfortable subject to research.

Romanticization station…

“The Gang” as a narrative trope lacks the prestige and legitimacy brought by more established organizations such as “The Mafia”. With youth, however, comes flexibility. Rogues living outside the system, renegades struggling to make it in a world overwhelmingly weighted against them, Band of Brothers, Rebel Without A Cause, Protect the Family, Paint the Town Red, and all your James Dean tropes can be applied to and claimed by gang members.

For your narrative, it’s always worth looking at the romanticized aspects of gang life because those tropes are often embraced and used as justifications by the gang members themselves. They’re also good recruiting tools.

With youth comes opportunity…

Where the greater adult world won’t take an underage character seriously, the gang will. Where a group like the American Mafia will turn up their nose at a sixteen year old hitman because they’ve already got a kid who acted as a courier, parked their cars, and went into the military to get the skills they needed, the gang will give the sixteen year old the chance to prove themselves and couch the hit as an opportunity for advancement.

They also see murder as a means of binding the gang member to the gang, even incarceration is a means of binding them tighter into the family. They care a little less about the character getting pinched. They might expect it. After all, everyone mucks things up that first time and most gang members have felt the weight of the juvenile justice system. Better to make the big mistakes while you’re still young so you can do better next time. Well, you can do better if you survive on the inside.

I got harder, I got smarter in the nick of time…

Take a hard look at your character, their motivations, their experiences, and how those resulted in the actions they’ve taken. They’re in a situation rife with manipulation and betrayal, where they’ll be pressured to take actions they may not feel comfortable with. Caught in an inevitable cycle of escalation where the violence they commit in the name of their brotherhood/sisterhood becomes more and more brutal, where they need to do more and more to prove themselves, are motivated to do so by advancing up the chain of command. Breaking this cycle is difficult.

In conclusion:

I’ve gone on long enough, and this post got longer than I intended. Gangs are a subject you can write whole books on and not even scratch the surface of. We’re probably not done with this subject, but if you want a teen criminal then the likelihood is that they’re in or have been involved in or, at least, aware of their local gangs to varying degrees. Your narrative should always have more than one, some run by kids, some run by older teens, some run by adults, and so on. You want to research the history of gangs, the current famous gangs that exist, and so on. The answers won’t always be easy or easily digestible. They’re not quick.

So, food for thought.

-Michi

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Q&A: Diamond Swords

Hello! I was wondering if a sword with a diamond blade be of any use. I know that diamonds are often used for cutting things and are (to my knowledge) one of the hardest materials on Earth. Note: This is a fantasy story and a few people have the ability to manipulate diamonds like other metals so getting it the shape wouldn’t be a problem and there aren’t enough people with this ability to make it a weakness on the battlefield. Thank you!

I honestly thought I answered this ages ago, but apparently I never wrote the post.

Diamonds are usually presented as the hardest substance, but this is a little misleading.  In mineralogy, “hardness,” is not the same thing as “toughness.” Hardness is used to evaluate how well a substance resists scratching. In this regard, Diamonds are amazingly hard, and it’s almost impossible to scratch the surface. This also makes it difficult to selectively cut a diamond. They are not particularly tough, however. Toughness is the evaluation of how resistant a material is to fracturing.

So, your diamond sword will never be scratched; that’s kinda cool. However, your diamond sword will crack and shatter if you parry an incoming strike with a steel blade. Now, those shards won’t pick up a scratch but you’d be hard pressed to use the remains as a sword.

To be fair, I’m not certain if this will happen on the first blow, or if it’ll take a few hits before it breaks. I’m also fairly certain it could break after stabbing someone if the blade was torqued incorrectly on the way in or out. Dropping your diamond sword is also a bad idea, for the same reasons.

There’s probably some larger metaphor here for the entire idea of creating invincible forces, but not being able to shore up the actual system that supports them, or just the idea of having one unassailable defense, but nothing shoring it up, allowing your enemy to simply skirt around.

Okay, that’s the part where this doesn’t work. So, what does?

You could, potentially, use some kind of synthetic diamond coating over a blade. I may have a synthetic diamond knife sharpener around here somewhere, come to think of it.

You could have a blade where the primary core is steel (or some other material), but the blade itself is a thin diamond inset. For what it’s worth, there is some merit to this design, as the concept is somewhat similar to the real macuahuitl, from Mesoamerican civilizations. At that point it might not even matter if individual stones shatter in combat as they might be replaceable. It might also be possible to “coat” a steel core in diamond and use that. It would still crack, and eventually shatter, but it would probably see some use before that happened.

Steel weapons with carbon nanotube structures do exhibit extraordinary durability. Though those aren’t how we usually think about diamonds. This probably includes Damascus steel, and does include some other superalloys.

If your setting had the capacity to make diamond weapons, then you could reasonably see those as ceremonial pieces, or given as gifts. You might be able to come up with some other uses, such as medical tools. But, ultimately, the applications are severely limited.

However, if there’s magic in your fantasy setting with the ability to overcome the detriments of brought on by real diamonds then feel free to go hog wild.

-Starke

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Followup: Mafia and Children: The Camorra

lirenel

Interesting, since I was just reading an article in the Economist about Naples’ mafia, the Camorra, using kids as hitmen: https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21723865-camorra-turns-teenagers-enforce-its-rule-organised-crime-naples-hit-men-are

Okay, this is worth quickly talking about, and yes it is interesting. The very short version is that, the Neapolitan Mafia (called the Camorra) has been pushed to the edge of extinction in recent years by police.

The senior leadership of the Camorra are in prison, and command has passed to their children, literally. This means that at present, segments of the Camorra are being run by teenagers. In turn, they employ other teens, and we get the headline up there.

There’s another wrinkle in that, In Italy, children under 14 cannot be held criminally liable for their actions. At the extreme end, that (apparently) means they cannot be charged with murder if they kill someone.

So, what we have is equal parts desperation by the Camorra, an unintended consequence of successful policing, and a lack of adult supervision (in the organization itself.)

Now, one thing that is happening here is a kind of Lost Boys effect, where you have kids leading younger kids. This has never been a factor in the American mafia, but it does appear with street gangs. I think Michi wanted to do a full post on that, so I’ll let this sit there. This is a good find, though, lirenel.

-Starke

Q&A: The Mafia and Children

On the topic of child killers, would a child who was raised by people in the Italian Mafia (and joined at 16) be more like a Child Soldier or a Gladiator as you described in your last post? This person is young but would be expected to kill. He wants to be in the Mafia. He isn’t forced. I’m having trouble because some of your post say children/teens will immediately be negatively affected later in life but what if the MC didn’t see it as wrong? What would be realistic here?

At the same time, witnessing violence IS traumatic and anyone involved might have psychological problems or know someone who does, especially if they aren’t shown how to take care of themselves. Believing what you do is right and having other criminals to look up to wouldn’t completely erase psychological trauma for everyone. So I’m not sure how much trauma (or what kind of attitude toward violence) would be realistic.

Most criminal organizations aren’t going to use kids for killing people. They’re too useful in other roles. (The exception here are street gangs, which use violence or killing as a right of initiation. There’s more here, but it’s mostly unrelated to the question at hand.)

From what I understand, historically the Mafia, at least in the US, used kids as couriers, lookouts, and in other support positions where a child would draw less attention than an adult rather than directly exposing them to the violence early on.

In particular, they’d pull kids in by offering the kid respect and a place in the family. To be fair, I’m calling them children, but realistically we’re talking about teenagers.

As they got older, they’d gradually transition into more important responsibility in their crew.

Now, I’m not clear on exactly how much of this was pragmatic (such as keeping them away from information that could truly damage family operations), or how much was a result of cultural norms that the Mafia was paying lip service to. I’m also pretty sure the line between lookout, and helping shake down a business was fairly slim at times.

Generally speaking, kids that get into organized crime (including gangs), aren’t really forced into the life. They often come from broken or otherwise dysfunctional families, where the organization takes the place of their parents and normal support structures. This results in members that are exceedingly loyal to their organization, because The Family is their family.

The mistake you seem to be making is thinking that a teenager would be tasked out as a hitman. To the best of my knowledge, that didn’t really happen. If you’re running a massive criminal enterprise, you don’t want to trust a high school dropout with something as potentially explosive as a contract killing. Most Mafia hitmen I’m aware of started working as killers in their late 20s at the earliest. A few did start out running errands for the mob as teenagers, and gradually moved up the ranks, but giving a contract to a teen is a huge liability that no credible Family would want.

The only thing a teenager in the mob would be expected to do is keep their mouth shut. Now, a teenager who spent a few years in prison because they took the fall for a member of the family would probably be well regarded once they got out, and might even be on the path to becoming a hitman later in life, but it wouldn’t be where their career started.

The irony is, that someone who joined the Mafia as a teen probably wouldn’t view violence as wrong. In theory the Mafia maintained a code of honor, though in practice the actual members were extremely violent individuals, and any sense of honor was, at best, a pretext they followed, lest they end up on the wrong side of it. Meaning you’re very likely looking at someone with an extremely cavalier attitude about violence and death, with little to no empathy for anyone outside The Family.

Any trauma would probably derive from violence directed at their friends or (biological) family. Watching their buddy being killed by another outfit would leave a mark. Violence against random civilians, not so much.

However, there was an entirely different “career path” for kids in the mob, or, more accurately, outside of the mob. Some mob bosses, would perform “outreach,” exercises to troubled youths. (The most famous case I’m aware of is “Whitey” Bulger, though his example doesn’t exactly fit the behavior I’m describing.) The boss would continue to provide support and cultivate a patron/client relationship with some of the children as they aged. The entire idea was to create family members with no criminal background, allowing them to infiltrate organizations that would normally be impervious to the Mafia. Particularly law enforcement and Family lawyers were particularly desirable, though political office was another potential goal. It’s also not entirely clear how well these efforts actually worked out. (In the case of Bulger, it started a friendship with John Connolly, who would eventually become a member of the FBI, and provided protection for Bulger from the Boston PD, and federal scrutiny.)

So, no, your Mafia hitman probably didn’t start pulling the trigger until they were in their late 20s at the earliest. Using kids as soldiers and assassins is for street gangs and despotic warlords, not for criminal enterprise.

-Starke

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