Q&A: Prove it to Yourself, Not to Them

How do you suggest handling people (men who are friends of family, in my experience) who insist women can’t fight even if they have passed the classes they needed (I recently started a job that requires it and these men have been acting ‘concerned’ as if me taking this job is naive). I wanted to include something like this in a story I’m writing, but it would come across as me always thinking women have something to prove, as opposed to something from my own life I’m frustrated about. 🙁

Honestly? They can go fuck themselves.

You’re a grown ass woman. You know what you want. You know what you need to do. You can go get it. Trust that the training you get will help keep you safe, and you’re facing the same threats as the men who also have this job. Remember, real men who value you as a human being are supportive. They don’t equivocate, make differences between the girls and the boys. At most, they’ll talk about the additional threats women face and some approaches for dealing with them but those aren’t news. You already know about those, just like I did. I was fortunate to have a whole slew of these sorts of men as instructors in my martial arts program as a kid, and in a bunch of different martial arts classes I took as a young teen and young adult.

The truth is that men like that often have egos which are very fragile. They crave power and control by controlling the lives of others. They dress their “concerns” up as concerns (and if you’re taking a job that is dangerous, they should have a reason to be concerned) because, well, it’s dangerous for a woman isn’t it? Why don’t you just leave it to the boys? The idea of a woman doing this job makes them uncomfortable. It damages their self-image, because they’d be frightened to do it, because they think women shouldn’t. You need to remember, their comments (while they’re directed at you) are actually about them. These are the men who build their manhood around this culturally enshrined vision that doesn’t really exist. The one where (white) men are faster, stronger, smarter, better, more suited to the hard, violent, dirty jobs. You know the type. These men are weak, entitled, and need others to fail. They need women to consign themselves to the roles that they have assigned them so they can feel strong.

They may dress the damsel up with pretty words about being kind, pretty, sweet, and good often those often relate to their vision of who a woman should be. Nothing dirty, nothing dark, you’re always somewhere safe where you’re quiet, and biddable, and in your place. You’ve gotta be safely up on that pedestal. After all… “That’s just not how I see you, sweetheart.”

While these men are likely not going anywhere, and nothing we say will give them an epiphany or change their minds, you should remember that you don’t need their approval. You don’t need them.

These are men who society has taught they get to spout off like they’re an authority whenever they feel like it, not because they’ve anything of substance to add or done anything to deserve sharing their opinion but because they’re (white) men. There’s nothing that terrifies this type of man more than irrelevance. And, the second you realize that the power they think they have over you because of a family connection or your gender is only there if you give that power to them, that you can take that power away, that their opinion doesn’t control you, is the moment you’re free.

Now, that’s going to be difficult because society teaches women (in a variety of different ways) that we should let other people’s (usually older men’s) opinions decide who we are and what we can be. We can’t always change someone’s opinion, but we can decide whether we let their opinion affect us. We don’t need to be liked, we don’t need their approval, we don’t need them to decide our course for us. Their opinion is theirs, but we can decide otherwise. This is your life, not theirs. Learning to trust yourself when you’ve been taught your whole life that you can’t, that you need outside guidance, that outside opinions define the reality by which you live, is hard. You can do it, though. You went into your job with eyes wide open, you knew the risks, and you decided to take them because you’re an adult.

Putting these experiences into your writing can be a great way to work through your frustrations with people in your life. However, the power fantasy that usually rings hollow is the one where a chauvinist or misogynist turns around and realizes that yes, you really can do it once they see or experience it first hand. This is the fantasy your fear that you’d be writing “women have something to prove” is coming from. The reason why this fantasy sucks is because it puts the importance on the man’s acceptance of the woman’s truth, and sends the message his acceptance legitimizes her.

You’d make her proving herself about the men in her life rather than about her journey.

True power comes from realizing you don’t need to prove anything. You were always powerful all on your own. You gained confidence through your own sweat, blood, and tears. You conquered your frustrations, pushed past the doubters, shook off the detractors, and walked into the sunlight on your own power. The greatest empowerment comes from self-acceptance and self-love. In self-actualization, you realize loving yourself is the greatest gift you can give. You’re confident in yourself and comfortable in your own skin. You’ll realize you never needed those men and their approval anyway, and if they come around, well, that’s great… for them. Their decision won’t really affect you or your emotional health and well-being. You’ll just be rolling your eyes less at family dinners.

In your writing, you can practice not caring. You can have your characters try, and try. They may fail, they may succeed. It may take multiple drafts until you find the right note. Finding the strength to be your own person without the safety or approval provided by authority figures in your life is a real life issue both men and women struggle with. You just need to make sure you’re focusing on the character’s personal development and self-realization (“Yes, I can!”) rather than their actions being a source of proof that their detractors are wrong.

The people who doubt you don’t get to decide who you are.

You do.

– Michi

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Q&A: Ignoring the Pain

hi, is it realistic for a secret agent to become ‘immune’ to pain if they’ve had to experience a lot? i was watching a tv show the other week and the main guy is an ex-cia agent and it says that he has become highly resistant to pain. if this is possible/realistic how long would they have to train for to become resistant to pain?

You don’t really develop an immunity to pain. There is a serious medical condition where the sufferer doesn’t have any pain response at all, and this can easily result in fairly serious injuries, because they have no warning when they’re being harmed.

You also don’t really become resistant to pain. You’ll still feel the pain. That’s not going anywhere. However, intense physical conditioning can teach you to distinguish between pain you need to worry about, and pain that you can file as a problem for tomorrow.

In case it’s unclear, I’m not talking about something specific hand-to-hand training here. Pretty much any strenuous athletic ability will teach you this, whether you like it or not.

Your body will gleefully lie to you and say that something hurts and you should stop when you’re fine, it’s just uncomfortable. At the same time, pain is something to be aware of, because it can indicate that something really is going wrong.

A character can learn to distinguish between different kinds of pain, but, it’s not really an immunity or resistance, even if those terms probably get the concept across.

A character can make a decision to ignore pain that indicates something’s wrong, and simply power through. This comes with all the problems associated with aggravating an existing wound. So, not behavior we’d normally encourage, but characters sometimes have more pressing considerations than their long term health. Hell, real people have problems with that, and can tend to ignore pain they really shouldn’t until its too late.

Conditioning teaches you to distinguish between kinds of pain, but it also teaches you how to push past it. Like I said, your body will complain about discomfort long before it transitions into actual harm.

Being able to power through pain isn’t really something to brag about. Ironically, it’s something that sounds less badass than the actual act is. Saying, “I’m immune to pain,” is kinda stupid; while a character who keeps pushing themselves and fighting, even as it’s killing them, can be make for a pretty effective sequence.

Ultimately, claiming resistance to pain is kinda pointless because you’re not immune to injury. Though it does remind me of the, “gain immunity to bullets by eating smaller bullets,” joke.

Is it realistic that an ex-CIA agent is unusually good at powering through pain? Yeah, sort of. Ignoring for a moment that spies are not superheroes, yeah, it’s reasonable that he’d be pretty good at ignoring pain. Not, “immune” or “resistant” to it, but I wouldn’t strongly fault someone for using those terms.

Is it realistic for a spy to gain immunity to pain from experiencing lots of it? No, not at all. This a very different question from the example. If someone’s suffered repeated trauma over their career, there’s a real risk they’ll suffer from chronic pain. So, they’ll be in a more impaired state. Chronic pain is no joke, it’s not something you can ignore, it doesn’t improve your relationship with pain. It sucks.

If you’ve got a spy who’s been beaten to hell and back many times over the course of their career, they’re going to be a mess. At that point, “immune to pain,” would be a sick joke. Now, I could see someone using that line in relation to emotional pain. It’d be a dark joke, but when has that ever stopped anyone?

-Starke

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Q&A: Broken Wrist

Hei, I just have a realistic question on fighting whilst injured sort of question, My MC has a broken wrist in a solid cast but is forced to fight for her life in a small corridor to snowy outdoors. She’s a highly trained agent but does get injured further by her assailant who is also highly trained t and much bigger, Would it be realist that her injuries (the wrist, a stab wound to the thigh, stunning blows to her head) would render her ability to fight useless in the long run?

So, three things.

First: Size is completely irrelevant. The faster you come to grips with that, the better off you’ll be. If you don’t know anything about combat, size can be intimidating. Being bigger does not mean your punches hit harder. It doesn’t mean you can take more hits. It doesn’t make you’re more resistant to throw. Your character has been trained; she would know all of this. At that point, dwelling on the size difference is just generating false drama.

If you’re trained, a large foe is just a bigger target.

A character who is in better physical condition is a serious threat. That’s not a function of size. Someone who’s 6’3″ can easily be laid out by a scrappy 5’nothing who exercises regularly, and keeps their training sharp.

When it comes to condition, your character is at a huge disadvantage, and it has nothing to do with size; it’s their wrist. Usually we think of “condition,” in the context of if they’re physically fit, but injuries, illness, and other impairments are relevant. Your character could be a top grade fighter, but if they’re drunk, that’s going to seriously impact their ability to fight.

Broken bones are a huge liability in a live fight. If it’s on a limb (including the wrist) you can’t use that limb at all. If it’s a broken rib, there’s a real danger that any blow to your core could force it into your internal organs resulting in some nasty hemorrhaging.

In the case of your wrist, a broken forearm means you really cannot use that limb for anything. Even in the cast. Abusing it by trying to block or parry is a good way to permanently lose the use of that hand. Best case, she may only need surgery to repair the additional damage inflicted.

Second: The first rule of self defense is avoiding situations where you’ll need to use your training. Violence is a bit chaotic, and even if you really know what you’re doing, you’re still at risk of suffering serious harm. The best way to avoid that happening is not putting yourself in that situation to begin with.

It isn’t possible to avoid all potential threats. The entire reason self-defense training exists is an acknowledgement that, sometimes, things happen outside your control. Sometimes an assailant will attack in a, “safe,” area. Sometimes you simply need to traverse spaces that aren’t secure.

When you’re writing a character who’s been trained, it’s worth remembering that this will influence their behavior. For example: If your character is going someplace unfamiliar, they’re not going to do it alone, and wounded, unless they really have no other option. In a situation like this, it would be better to bring allies, or not go at all and send others. Your character is wounded, if she has option to, she should avoid fieldwork until she’s fully healed.

Third: Let’s reconstruct this for a second. Your character is attacked by a highly trained assailant. He has a knife. His goal is to harm your character. Why doesn’t he simply shank her, confirm the kill, and move on with his day?

If the expectation is that she’ll have her head bounced off the wall (or something else) resulting in a minor concussion, why didn’t he simply kill her.

Again, one of the wounds was a stab into the thigh. Ignoring for the moment that taking a blade to the upper leg can be very dangerous, depending on where it connects, if he’s in possession of the weapon and willing to use it on her, there is no way your character walks away from this fight at all.

Even in the most generous situations, he’s stabbing her, she knows who he is (or could potentially ID him), there’s no reason to let her live. And, of course, if he’s willing to stab her in the leg, and bouncing her head off of something solid enough to inflict a concussion, he’s certainly willing to kill her.

This gets back to the reason behind the second point; you don’t put yourself in dangerous situations without cause, because it can turn nasty, fast.

If the male character is the attacker, tracking her down and initiating the fight, then there really is no reason for him to let her live. His goal is to neutralize her, and the safest way to do that is to kill her.

As a writer, you need to look at violence as a tool in your story. Your characters will resort to violence based on who they are. A well-written character needs concrete goals. These don’t always need to be communicated to the reader, some can inferred, but, they need goals. At that point, their decision to engage in violence needs to be compatible.

If your assailant is highly trained, and bringing a knife to the fight, they’re planning to kill your character. At that point, it’s not going to be much a fight scene. A chase maybe, but if he catches up and puts a blade in her leg, she’s toast.

Now, maybe there’s justification for all of this, which doesn’t show up in the ask, but, it is something to be very careful of. Injuries to your characters aren’t simply damage tracking. They’re persistent effects that should influence future sections of your story. In fairness, that’s sort of here, but at that point you do need to keep track of how severe these injuries would be, and how debilitating it would be to stack them up. Part of the reason why you rarely see writers stacking more than one or two injuries on a character, it becomes a lot of work to keep track of how badly hurt they are.

-Starke

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Q&A: Sparring

My protagonist needs to win a “friendly” spar against a fellow Marine who has at least six inches and a hundred pounds on her. How does she beat him? He’s a bodybuilder who’s more into the aesthetic of strength than actual balanced fitness, so she probably has the edge in endurance and agility, but as long as they’re both at least pretending they’re not trying to seriously hurt each other, his sheer size still seems like it outweighs everything else.

I’m going to take issue with some things here.

We’ve said this before, but, apparently this needs to be discussed again. Sparring isn’t about winning or losing, it’s a part of your training.

Sparring is not, “play fighting,” it’s about learning to put techniques together.

Most of martial arts training consists of practicing the motions until they are reflexive and second nature. It’s about retraining your body until you don’t have to think about what you’re going to do, and simply do it. This won’t win a fight, for that you need to learn to transition smoothly from one technique to the next.

Sparring is the process of learning to turn the techniques you drilled with into something you could actually use against a real opponent.

Sparring isn’t about winning or losing. It’s not a low stakes fight your characters can do to show off. It’s your character learning to chain their techniques together.

How’s she going to beat him? She’s certified in MCMAP. She’ll do it using her training. But, they’re both trained in MCMAP, so this is the next issue.

When it comes to creating a character, who they are is the sum of their experiences, training, and views. Your characters are Marines.

Your marine can’t weight 100 lbs more than her. At most, he can weigh about 60 lbs more than her. This is because the Marines have very strict weight requirements. If your character is 66 inches tall, she must weigh between 117 and 170 lbs. Now, the Marines kinda expect her to be trending towards the upper end of that spectrum, because muscle mass is heavy.

If your character is 66 inches tall and her foe has six inches on her, that’d put him at 72 inches (6 feet), and he can weigh between 140 and 184.

See the problem? He literally cannot exceed her weight by 100 lbs with them both passing physical. You can adjust the heights a bit, but, without pulling apart the entire chart, there’s just not enough range for that kind of weight difference unless he’s much taller than her.

This is also where the whole, body builder idea doesn’t quite work. Marines are specifically pushed towards balanced fitness. The goal is to turn out effective combatants, not meatheads who think their pecs of steel will stop a bullet.

I get that the idea here was to show up the misogynistic meathead, but that’s not a marine.

Also, stereotypes aside, I’ve never met a dumb marine. A few idiots who were in the army, and at least one navy vet prone to dubious life choices, but never a marine. They’re weird, but not dumb.

The military’s training structure prioritizes teamwork. They are not single operators, they are a unit. They train with their unit, and fight with their unit. Soldiers live and die by their ability to work together. All the hellish training Marines go through is there in part to build that bond, not just between individuals but with everyone who shares a similar experience.

You don’t need to prove your female character can fight. She’s a Marine. She can kill someone. She’s trained to do it. That’s not a question. Writing a sparring session on the idea she needs to win puts you in the wrong mindset, because, again, sparring is not about winning or losing. Sparring is all about figuring out how to use the skills you’ve been drilling in a free-flow environment where you act and react to an opponent.

If you don’t believe me, let’s quote the Marine’s own training manual:

1. PURPOSE. The purpose of body sparring is to bridge from static to dynamic and inoculation to interpersonal violence.

a. Bridge from Static to Dynamic. Body sparring is the bridge between static punches and a dynamic environment. This is the final stage of training after executing punches in the air and on pads. Free sparring gives Marines the opportunity to apply the individual techniques they have learned in a realistic environment with a live resisting opponent. Executing techniques one at a time in the air is much different than using them together against another person who is defending themselves and also trying to hurt you.

b .Inoculation to Interpersonal Violence. Inoculation is the process of introducing something to the body so it can defend itself in the future. By introducing Marines to violence on a personal level, they will be more prepared for a real close combat scenario.

This is a learning experience, not a contest.

Sparring is just about providing a live experience with a resisting partner, not an exercise in who can hurt the other more.

The part you’re having an issue with is that you don’t know what it is Marines are trained to do. The good news is they make their training manuals available online. So, in the event you’re willing and able to do the research, you can write an entire sequence that is up to code.

2. CONDUCT OF THE BOUT. Free sparring is a training tool designed to develop Marines’ skills and confidence, and must not become a fight club or beat-down.

This is the problem with almost all sparring sequences in fiction. If you’re using it for dramatic tension then you’ve already sabotaged the purpose of the exercise, and your character’s own training. No competent instructor will pair up two people who have a legitimate beef with each other, because neither will learn anything from it. Any instructor who wants to stack the deck against a misogynistic meathead will stack the deck so hard against him that he can’t win, and has no method of recourse. They use someone who has already finished training or one of the TAs. They can also turn it into a good learning exercise for said meathead about making assumptions and assuming size matters. There’s nothing like the experience of someone half your size tossing you around the room to bring the point home.

However, it won’t be your female character currently in training who makes that point. She can’t. She doesn’t have the experience or the skill for the defeat to be so total that it sticks in the student’s memory forever. The woman who makes this example will be someone who has finished their training. This teaches your male students a valuable lesson and gives your female students motivation, and a reminder to work towards when the going gets tough.

The only way this scenario works on face value with the antagonism angle is if she’s sparring someone much greener than her who she has no problems turning into mush.

b. Maturity. All Marines must control their egos and tempers at all times. Marines who demonstrate immaturity, lack of control, or unsportsmanlike conduct will not be allowed to participate.

Sparring is not a free space to beat the crap out of someone you don’t like. The only grading score here is that you can achieve a kill with a simulated weapon before your opponent. That’s all the Marines care about. And in case you thought they didn’t have rules for girls… you were wrong.

b. Safety Gear. The safety gear required for body sparring is head gear, mouthpiece, 16 ounce (minimum) boxing gloves, and groin protection. Females must also wear a flak jacket for added protection for the female anatomy.

Did you envision your characters wearing protection in this sparring session? They better be.

Remember…

Training not only the physical but also the mental is crucial to the development of the combative mindset. Body sparring prepares the Marine to function when faced with stress and violence. These skills are the building block to developing the physical skills and combative mindset vital to success on the battlefield.

Whatever other goals for this scene you may have as a writer, you want to keep the above in mind. This is what your characters’ sparring session is for. If they are not learning this lesson through this training in your narrative then you are failing them as well as yourself. You are also failing in showing their combat ability and professionalism. Marine is a mindset, it is a profession, and will become a core part of your character’s personal identity. If you haven’t begun researching who the Marines are, what they do, what their outlook on life is, and how they behave… now would be good time to start. This is who your character (male or female) is going to be at the end of their training.

How does your character “win”? By using her training. Now, go take another look at MCMAP (Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.)

Everything Milspec has to be available publicly. If you want to write soldiers, say thank you to Uncle Sam. You can read up on all of the training documentation online. Therefore, there is no excuse for you not to do your homework. They will tell you exactly how the Marines handle sparring, put together by Marines for Marines, and you too can follow the training outline.

I will leave you with this last instructor note:

Unsafe Conditions. It is the referee’s, and RSO’s, responsibility to immediately stop the fight if they see any unsafe condition such as a defenseless fighter, safety gear problems, or if a fighter is injured. A fighter is defenseless if they appear unable or unwilling to intelligently defend themselves by exposing their back, falling to the ground, dropping their weapons,or dropping theirs hands. If any safety gear is unserviceable, missing, or not fitted properly the fight must be stopped to correct the problem. If a fighter appears to be injured, by screaming or yelling, the fight must be stopped. Once the unsafe condition is corrected, the referee will restart the fight.

-Starke & Michi

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Q&A: Heavy Infantry

i feel like usually in fantasy settings you see characters combine super heavy armour with an equally heavy weapon, like a warhammer or a battleaxe, but how feasible is this realistically? i feel like the combined weight of both alongside the full body motion needed to control the weapon would wear someone out ridiculously fast, even if they are trained and have a lot of endurance

The first thing to remember is that, heavy weapons, weren’t really that heavy. Real warhammers often weighed less than 3 lbs. Even the heaviest battle axes rarely weighed more than 5 lbs.

Now, fantasy art can get kinda goofy. That’s reasonable enough, and can result with situations where you have cartoonishly exaggerated proportions on the weapons. This is where you end up with warhammers that look like supermassive sledges, and busterswords.

It’s also reasonable, in some situations, to see a character using a sledgehammer as an improvised weapon. Most sledges will run around 8lbs though you can buy much heavier ones. Pretty much anything your character’s doing will get by fine with an 8lb sledge. That is heavy, as weapons go.

So, yes, when you’re talking about characters in fantasy wielding supermassive weapons, that would quickly exhaust a real fighter. Sometimes this is just artistic license, sometimes there’s justification in setting (ex: if the characters aren’t human), and sometimes it’s legitimately an oversight. “But, Oblivion said my character could wield a 62lb greatsword!”

Armor does get much heavier. This where you’ll often see legitimate problems with the fighter wearing out quickly in the real world.

I’m not as confident on the weights of historical armor off the top my head, but 60-80lbs of armor wasn’t unreasonable for plate. And, yeah, someone could train, and get used to, that extra weight. The idea that someone could carry an extra hundred pounds of armor on them isn’t any stranger than the idea that someone who weighs 300lbs could still be physically active.

Armor can wear you out, but that more to do with heat. Armor is very effective at trapping body heat, and that heat will exhaust you. This is something you can learn to work with, but it’s why fighting in armor requires conditioning. The extra weight is a reasonable tradeoff for the the protection you get.

Again, artistic license will see comically exaggerated armor. It depends on the exact source you’re looking at. So, if you see someone walking around wrapped in what looks like half a ’57 Chevy, that’s probably not going to work. (There’s an edge case here where you could see armor that heavy if it is self-carrying. Though, that’s rare in fantasy, and more of a sci-fi thing.)

Armor needs to be maneuverable. You can find videos of people wearing full plate and doing handstands or basic gymnastics in the stuff. If your armor seriously impairs your movement, it’s not going to allow you to fight in it. This can be an oversight by an artist who doesn’t understand this, and that’s a fault with their design. There’s also a few rare outliers like jousting armor, which did impair movement, but was designed for very specific situations, and not combat.

Lack of mobility is something that you’ll sometimes see with heavy utility armor. For example: hazardous environmental suits may not give you a full range of movement, but if you’re not going to be fighting in them, that’s not a problem. However, when you’re designing armor for combat, if you can’t fight in it, it won’t work.

Heavy infantry did combine heavy armor and heavy weapons. There’s real history there. But, that can be played up in art. There’s nothing inherently wrong with playing fantasy out of the realistic. Even stuff like Lord of the Rings is, ultimately, more about superhuman characters, rather than any reality of historical combat. So, it depends on the story you’re going for. A world filled with wizards, monsters, and epic heroes can absolutely have an over the top comic book aesthetic. They may even be able to justify it against objective reality. The characters are wearing armor forged from some mystical metal, or enchanted to augment the wearer’s strength and endurance. Whatever the cause, it is defensible as an art design.

-Starke

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Q&A: Combat Training for Girls

If we have a 22 year-old woman taught to use a sword by her father (in a historical fantasy kingdom setting) what would have a been a reasonable age her to start learning (using wooden swords)? In this setting, there is no social norm against woman learning to fight in any capacity. And if my setting is more Western, what would be a minimum reasonable age when she could carry her own real sword?

At the same age as the boys.

This is the problem when you want to do these setups. You have to forget that your character is female. There is literally no difference between a girl’s combat training and a boy’s. It is exactly the same, the expectations are the same, and the part where she’s female is tertiary as best. If you over focus on the fact she’s female (any hint of her being treated differently) in a setting where social norms about women in combat don’t exist will result in you shooting yourself in your own foot.

The minimum age is going to depend on her father, and will depend on her social station, which also depends on the kind of training she receives. This also depends on the sword type in question, whether we’re in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, and if she’s expected to do anything else along with the sword fighting. For example, if she’s a knight versus a duelist. If her father is a mercenary who needs all hands on deck quickly, or can take his time about deciding when he lets her loose. If she apprentices outside of him, as knights did when they were sent out to serve as pages, then squires before they became full-fledged knights at twenty-one.

The problem here is that this girl’s training will go through several stages with weapons that are, technically, real. All training weapons are real. The wooden sword is a real weapon. The steel training sword which is blunted is also a real weapon. They are just not as immediately dangerous as a live blade, and she will never ever train with a live blade even after she receives one as her graduation present. The graduation present will probably coincide with whatever this setting considers her age of adulthood, which could be anywhere from fourteen to twenty-one depending on her social status. This one is going to depend on her father, and her setting. Her father might give her a real sword to take care of in her early teens which she gets to train with but not use on practice dummies or spar with, to teach her the importance of caring for her weapon. She might be allowed to carry it when traveling as her father’s second, but not use it outside a means of self-defense

There are a lot of different options here because Western training for combat was a highly personal experience dependent on the student’s master and, for the Middle Ages, tied heavily into ascension into adulthood rather than the regimented militarized structure or the comprehensive training systems we see coming out of, say, China.

So, the answer is when her father decides its appropriate for her to have one. Which is usually the point where he decides she can be responsible with it, and not kill herself or someone else. She still won’t be allowed to use it, but she can carry it. If she comes from a wealthy family then she’ll go through a few different swords because she’s constantly growing. If she doesn’t, she’ll probably just get the one she receives when her apprenticeship ends. Or whenever she has the means to buy her own sword from the local blacksmith, one that’s built to her specifications.

Carry and use are two different terms. Having and using are also separate terms. Your character can receive a weapon for the purposes of their training that they’re allowed to carry but not use.

You’ll need to study up on Western combat, specifically the era you choose to base the “historical” part of your historical fantasy on. With the resurgence of HEMA, there are plenty of fantastic resources online you can turn to for advice on sword combat. Matt Easton’s scholagladitoria channel is a great jumping off point. This can be great for defining the culture your character comes from and the type of combat she could expect to engage in. This, in turn, will hone the type of training she received from her father.

Writing a character’s training can be very difficult if you don’t understand the specific type of combat your character is going to engage in, and “sword combat” is not specific. There are lot of different types of swords with hundreds of variants in how to use them, and many that had their own specific purpose. Outside the Renaissance nobility, most sword combatants weren’t duelists. Duels, historically, were used as a means of settling legal disputes. While there were duels, the Middle Ages was more about various warlords fighting over territory. Their knights trained to engage as heavy infantry or heavy cavalry or both. They were usually trained on multiple different weapons, riding, hunting, and developed many other skills to aid them in warfare.

For purposes of writing your female character as a combatant, you need to forget she’s a girl. My answer about when the weapon gets carried would’ve been the same if you never mentioned the character’s gender. There are plenty of women who were, historically, trained in sword combat by their parents or were warriors due to circumstances. Too many for them all to be one offs or exceptions. The big thing to understand though is that the training doesn’t change regardless of whether your character is male or female. Her father would give her the same training he would’ve given a son.

If you haven’t considered filling your story up with female fighters in a universe that’s supposed to be gender neutral in terms of combat, then I encourage you to reconsider. To go any other way is to engage in a disingenuous girl power fantasy that does more to emphasize the female character’s special nature than it pushes the narrative that “women can do it too.” Normal requires there be more than one, and there be variety. This can be done specifically through minor characters peppered throughout your narrative, not just warriors or leaders but blacksmiths, farmers, merchants, etc. There also can be no, “but you’re a girl!”

She’s the rule, not the exception and therefore no one will give a shit.

-Michi

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Q&A: People Wear Armor Because They Want to Win

nipplepersecution said to howtofightwrite: I don’t know if you’ve already answered this at some point (I would be super greatful for a link if you have) but how would an unarmed and unarmored person trained in hand-to-hand combat take out a fully armored knight with a sword? Would it even be possible? Unarmed person is a strong built 5’5″, armored knight is 5’10”

So, you know that scene in any Jackie Chan movie where he hits overwhelming odds and goes, “nope!” then runs in the opposite direction? This sequence is that sequence, and sensible people who value their lives disengage and retreat. They run with purpose, but they still run. The height has no bearing on this fight by the way, the armored knight could be 5’5 and the person who was 5’10 wouldn’t have any better odds. The sword would be bad enough by itself, the armor just makes everything worse for the unarmed/unarmored person.

Would it be possible? Yes. However, possible doesn’t mean easy or that you could do it in a conventional way. I bring up Jackie Chan (not just because he choreographs amazing fight scenes) because he does a great job showcasing the age old tactic of utilizing your environment and finding higher ground or a place to fight that’s more advantageous. If the unarmed/unarmored person chooses to stand and fight this suggested setup is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrell. It’d be the same with just the sword, which can keep you at a range where you can do nothing or just the armor because you don’t want to go into fisticuffs with the guy or girl wearing a medieval equivalent to brass knuckles. (I assume you’re thinking of plate as opposed to chainmail, leather, or padded armor. It is worth remembering that none of those would make this situation better.)

Plate armor is the other person wearing forty to sixty pounds of solid steel, the weight distributed across the whole of the body, and the only weak points are usually at the joints or points of articulation where the armor pieces separate. The mistake most make is assuming that because armor is heavy, it is difficult to move in or significantly slows the fighter down. This is not true. Heavy armor infantry were highly mobile, and trained to develop the endurance to fight for prolonged periods in armor specially tailored to their body. Your unarmed fighter could wear this individual down but they’d have to work for it, and that’s the sprinting, jumping over walls, fences, climbing buildings, and running across rooftops types of work for it. Stand and fight will result in them being cut up by the sword before they can get into a range to be able to harm their opponent. And even if they do manage to wear the knight down, the knight still has their armor. The best wearing the knight down does is buy the unarmed fighter time to find a weapon like a longarm/polearm which might lend them some advantage or a friend who can help them turn the tables.

Would you enjoy punching a tank? The answer is probably no. And knights aren’t just tanks, and they’re not just good at wielding swords. There’s an entire hand to hand and grappling system for knights in armor, and they were usually trained to handle multiple weapon types. So, if you unarmed fighter can manage to get rid of the sword or get themselves into a tight quarters environment where the blade is more of a liability than a help, they’ll still have to deal with an armored opponent capable of punching their lights out.

There needs to be a strong contextual reason in your narrative for the unarmored character to even think about engaging in what amounts to an almost certain suicide by sword. Even then, if they must fight, there’s no reason to battle this armored character on their opponent’s terms or the ground which benefits the armored character. The armored character has every advantage, there’s no reason to give them more.

One of the issues with the way fiction writers approach arms and armor is they think of them like accessories, a trait you give one character to differentiate them from the others. Arms and armor are really about taking an advantage over your opponent, about getting the upper hand, and bettering your own odds of survival. You bring a knife to a fist fight because you want to win, not because you want to fight fair. There’s no fighting fair when your life is at stake.

The problem for the unarmed fighter is that a even decent swordsman, or a poor one, has the means to keep them at a range where they can do nothing while the swordsman slices them to ribbons. The armor ensures that even if they do get successfully themselves past the blade without dying (a challenge all by itself) then their attacks won’t do much. The steel will hurt them more than their blows will hurt the swordsman. Their lack of armor means that any blow the sword lands has the potential to be fatal, even if the wound is not deep. A sword doesn’t need more than an inch of penetration to land a killing blow. Once someone starts poking holes in your muscles, they stop working. The unarmed/unarmored fighter has to be better than perfect to succeed where the armored swordsmen can be merely okay to not great, and even then the unarmed fighter will likely still die.

None of this means impossible, it just means you’re going to have to work really goddamn hard to sell the sequence. This is where the Jackie Chan advice is helpful because you don’t need your character to win in order to cement them as a badass in your audience’s imagination. A chase scene can be as exciting as a fight scene, and a chase scene can easily transition into a fight scene. It’s important to know when your character is outmatched for the sake of your own narrative tension, so you don’t blow your story on a one off in a desperate need to prove yourself. Running from the guy who brought the gun to the knife fight, especially when he had the presence of mind to draw before the knifer could get in range, is having a sense of self-preservation. A sense of self-preservation and threat assessment are important skills for any trained fighter to possess.

-Michi

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Q&A: A sword is not load Bearing

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

So… There’s this scene in a book where a swordsman thrusts at a guy with two knives and the thrust was deflected so the swordsman stumbles forward. Knife Guy grabs the swordsman’s collar and then demonstrates to an apprentice that he can a) stab Sword Guy in the throat b) stab Sword Guy in the chest and/or c) cripple Sword Guy. Is Sword Guy just a bad combatant or is this actually usable?

I’m hoping this scene occurred in a safe training environment and not in a live scenario because so many more problems pop up if it did. They’d be a whole other post about why you don’t train people while fighting for your life (even against a subpar opponent, you’re confident your trainer character could beat.) That would be a whole other post about how stupid that makes characters look.

The short answer is that whether or not Sword Guy is supposed to be a good combatant is dependent on the narrative and the author who wrote it. There’s a lot about the scenario that doesn’t make sense and makes both characters look like idiots, along with a general side of “not how this works”. This includes a third arm problem. The author knew just enough to be aware of certain concepts like deflection, stumbling, and grabbing someone by the collar but not how they work or what causes them.

Let’s start at the top.

1. A sword is not load bearing.

Swords weigh between two to four pounds. They’re not heavy. The only way it’d be possible for the swordsman to stumble on a thrust would be if he had to throw his entire weight behind the sword, and have the forward momentum carry him forward. (Which is why the great axe is swung in a figure eight pattern.) However, you don’t need deep penetration with a sword and a thrust is about the tip, not the whole sword. A thrust moves off one leg, not both, in a step forward (if that) and a deflection will not unbalance your opponent on its own. If the weapon weighed twenty pounds, then it couldn’t be deflected. It’d have too much forward momentum. The swordsman would never come close enough for the Dual Wielder to grab him, and the Dual Wielder couldn’t grab him by the collar anyway because he’s duel wielding.

However, this is all predicated on the idea that the swordsman stumbled close enough to be in range for the Dual Wielder. Swords add an extra four or so feet of distance. He wouldn’t be close enough for the dual wielder to reach him. Dual Wielder would have to come to Sword Guy and not the other way around. An experienced knifer would know that.

2. Dual wielding knives is about a sacrificing defense for offense.

Outside specific tools like parrying daggers (which are not the same as regular daggers), knives exist to accentuate hand to hand. Using two means you’ve made a conscious choice to sacrifice utility and defense for more offense. Sacrificing utility includes collar grabbing. He would either need to drop one of his knives (bad) or he sprouted a third arm.

You can hold the knife or grab the collar, not both.

3. The sword is never out of play.

A good rule of thumb is: deal with the weapon first.

This technique that’s being shown off assumes that your enemy will politely stand there while you move two ranges in (from sword to hand to grappling) so you can grab them by the collar to stab them in the throat or chest or stab them in a joint to take them out of the fight. (Let’s ignore the chest too because you’ve got to deal with the breastbone and the unprotected stomach, abdominals, gut is just a few inches lower.)

Of course, Sword Guy still has his sword and edged weapons can cut you coming and going.

If sword guy is using two hands then he can rotate his sword and come back across on the deflection. It assumes the blade is not coming on a downward angle on the thrust, which is not getting deflected. This also assumes sword guy is not half-handing (where one hand is halfway up the blade) which can’t be deflected/parried.

So, all Dual Wielder did was open up his side to a blade that can be reoriented and brought sideways. Which assumes the deflection could happen in the first place, which is unlikely because…

4. You don’t parry with knives.

Again, that’s what your free hand is for.

There’s a problem with this scenario regarding the size of the knives in question. Some knives or daggers like bayonets are long enough they could concievably parry a sword, and get away with it. However, if your blade is long enough that it can parry a sword then grabbing someone by the collar is superfluous because you will be able to strike them before you are in range to grab their body. You’d also be putting your weapon outside the range where it is most useful to you, which is goes against the lesson this teacher is trying to impart.

5. There’s a misconception about depth.

You don’t need to go deep with a blade to do damage. Think about how painful a papercut is, or how easy it is to cut yourself while cooking. Surface level cuts to the skin can cause you to bleed out over an extended period, especially during times of high activity when your heart is rapidly pumping blood through your body. You don’t have to go deep to start cutting muscles in the arms or legs, which can debilitate your opponent.

A lot of writers obsess about stabbing someone in the heart or running someone through with a sword, but the true danger of bladed weapons is that it doesn’t take much against an unarmored opponent. That’s why people wore armor, and part of why the formality of first blood in duels exists. A single cut can be deadly. Surface level injuries with these weapons in the right place can kill you, especially if left without medical attention. Every cut you land is bad for your enemy.

6. We moved two ranges in.

We talk about range sometimes on this blog, but the key thing to remember is that range just means the distance it takes for a specific attack to hit your opponent. Grabbing hold of someone’s collar puts you in grappling range, which means that the person is right up next to you. This is close enough that your arm couldn’t reach full extension if you punched. This is the range where hooks, elbows, and upper cuts come into play.

The kind of stumbling this scenario is talking about is the kind you get when you grab someone and pull them forward. It’s actually very hard to get someone to stumble on a basic attack because most stances will have you set your balance, and your body moves together when you attack. So, in order for you to stumble a large amount of force must be delivered into you or you’re purposefully knocked off balance. All a deflection does is shift the strike off vector so that it misses. If you follow up with nothing, then the other person either resets to their original fighting stance or changes tack and like rotating the blade, kicking, or striking with their other hand. There’s no reason for Sword Guy to stumble at all, certainly not stumble through two other ranges (sword and hand) into grappling without the Dual Wielder needing to do anything. The best way to get someone to stumble forward is to catch them off balance and yank, which can’t be done if you’re holding a weapon.

Conclusion:

The basic problem of this scenario is that it sounds good on the surface but falls apart when you stop to think about it. The scene also lacks key understanding of how these weapons function and why they work. Dual Wielder has an overfocus on the neck/chest, neither of which are particularly good strike points. Remember, the sternum protects the heart from a stab or downward strike. If you want to get there, you’re going to need to go through the ribs. The neck is difficult because if you’ve got short weapons then you have to be up close. Both these places sound good to novices because they know they work or that they should work.

Writing weapons means brushing up on your anatomy. You need to study how the human body works, where it works, and how it breaks. You can cut someone on the wrist, either going after the artery in the forearm or just to distract them while you move in on the better protected target. With knives, two cuts are better than one. You don’t need a lot of penetration.

-Michi

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Q&A: Gang Arms

hi i’m writing a story set in the present day and my MC is part of a street gang. realistically, what kinds of weapons would they have?

This is heavily dependent on where the gang is based, and how connected they are. For example: a street gang in the UK or Hong Kong won’t have access to firearms the way a gang in south central LA will. Really won’t, but we

When creating any organization, with armed members, you need to ask, “what could my characters realistically get their hands on?” There a lot of relevant factors. Does the organization have a centralized armory, and the ability to buy equipment (including weapons) for its members? Does it enjoy official sanction that allows it (or its members) to obtain restricted (police/military) weapons? Is there money to buy gear? What’s available on the market?

When we’re talking about a street gang a lot of those choices are made for you, and the primary consideration, “what’s available, and what can they afford?”

In countries with strict firearms regulations, guns are going to be expensive, and rare, on the black market. This also requires that your gang has access to black marketeers, which isn’t a certainty. At that point, you might have individual members who have firearms, but those are probably going to be relatively senior members, and probably ones with ties to organized crime. It’s also distinctly possible that even if a character does have access to firearms, they might not carry them because the weapon itself will bring too much attention from local law enforcement.

Conversely, if you have a nation that was a warzone, or where a previous military regime collapsed, black market weapons could be very common. I’m thinking former Warsaw Pact states here, though, it’s also true elsewhere. At that point, it would be entirely plausible that gang members would have access to things like AK variants.

It’s difficult to generalize because, we’re talking about the entire world, and there are a lot of factors. So, if you have place in mind, I’d suggest you research crime in that area. In the modern era of Google, there a lot of resources. I’ve got an academic paper on gang violence in modern Australia open in the other window right now. Probably not relevant for you, but this information is out there.

In the US, you’d usually expect to see a mix of low end civilian weapons. Things like cheap handguns and shotguns. That said, even in the States, you can start to get into some unusual territory.

Historically there have been a lot of, “join the military or go to prison,” stories. There’s truth to this, and it was used as an alternative sentencing option in the past. In recent years, this has fallen out of favor, and while some courts may attempt to offer military service as an alternative sentence, these, “recruits,” are now expressly forbidden by most branches of the US Armed Services.

We’re still living with the fallout of this. Because of their experience in the military, some gang members in the US received advanced combat training, and developed connections that allowed them to procure military grade hardware after they filtered back into civilian life, and rejoined their gangs. So, while your average street gang wouldn’t have an M249 floating around, it’s not impossible they’d have someone with the hardware, training, and ability to instruct others in its use.

Another possible factor is organised crime connections, though this has less effect than you might expect. If you have a street gang that’s working with an organized syndicate, you might see a slight shift in their hardware, but it wouldn’t be particularly drastic. This because organized crime and black market weapons aren’t, really, synonymous. Both gangs, and organized crime benefit from a robust network of black market arms dealers, but neither one really runs that. Arms dealers are their own factor. However, gang members may have access to a better quality of black marketeer if their gang is working with a syndicate, and more cash to spend on their weapons.

Remember that gangs are opportunists. If a gang member gets their hands on a high-end tactical handgun, they’re probably going to keep and use that. So, while I said they’d probably have a mix of cheap weapons, that’s because they could afford (or easily steal) those. But, there is a real possibility for some diversity, particularly if they’re operating in more upscale areas.

Some gangs have started recruiting upper middle-class latchkey kids, via social media. This means you may, rarely, encounter gang members who have much better quality hardware available to them. Either, because they stole their parent’s gun, or because they helped their gang knock over one of their neighbors, and found it when tossing the place. (This is also possible if you have a gang that’s aggressively expanding its territory.)

For gang members, or most criminals really, the handgun is ideal. It’s easy to conceal and useful in close quarters. It doesn’t matter that they’re low power; you’re not going to be using them against armored foes. Also, you’re not going to be engaging at long range, so that limitation doesn’t matter.

So, it really matters where your fictional gang is located, and what its resources are.

-Starke

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Q&A: Crescent Moon Spade

How good of a weapon is a Shaolin spade? Because I saw a page about it that said that it was originally just a *spade*, and I just thought of your improvisatory weapons posts.

That might not be best way to think about it.

Shovels and similar tools are already pretty solid choices for improvised weapons. You have a blade on one end of a pole (or a grip, in the case of something like a trowel.) While they’re not designed for use on people, they are designed to drive a lot of force into an object (the soil.) At that point, applying that force into an opponent isn’t much of a stretch. You’re doing what it’s designed to do, just on “an unapproved target.”

The Monk Spade or Crescent Moon Spade is, basically, an augmented staff. The hooked blade would function as a defensive tool, allowing for some parrying, while the flat blade would function as a striking tool.

When we’re talking about improvised weapons, we mean picking an object in your environment and repurposing it as a weapon. In the case of the Monk Spade, someone looked at the shovels used by Taoist or Buddhist monks (I’ve seen it attributed to both groups) and decided to make a weapon based off of that design. At that point it’s no longer an improvised weapon; it is a weapon.

How good is it? As far as I can tell, historically these were used by traveling monks. The overall design is sound, and in the hands of a trained martial artist, they work, they’ll do their job. That’s what matters.

In a larger scale of, “how good is it in comparison to other weapons?” I don’t know. Like I said, it’s effectively an augmented staff. It was, apparently, well chosen for the situations it was used in, and it survives in the martial arts disciplines that trained with it. There’s no really value in saying, “but, this other weapon is so much better,” because if it consistently keeps the practitioner alive, while dealing with their foes, that’s the only metric that counts.

-Starke

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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.