Q&A: Guns and Magic

In the story I’m writing, the overall feel of the setting is mid/early 1800s, technology-wise. There’s magic, and given the time period I’m having trouble justifying there not being guns, but I’m not sure how to have them present in the story without ‘just shoot the wizard’ killing the tension. My initial thought was to make them less advanced than guns were at the time, and expensive enough that they would be less common, but I’m not sure how believable that would be. Do you have any advice?

Well, one problem with simply shooting the wizard is being able to actually put a bullet where you want it. The 19th century covered a lot of technological development. When the century began, smooth-bore single shot, firearms were still the norm (though rifles did exist). While firearms did get steadily more accurate over time, flintlock muskets are not an example of that. Additionally, any missed shot means your character will be facing a long reload before they can fire again.

There’s also a lot of considerations with magic that can make firearms as much of a detriment as an advantage. First, gunpowder is exceptionally flammable. If your characters are using firearms, they’re carrying around a supply of improvised explosives, that a pyromancer could use to kill them on the spot.

If you have mages that can manipulate metals, then that’s a pretty serious threat for anyone trying to use a gun. (Or metal weapons and armor, for that matter.)

If your magic interacts with the physical world (which, honestly, magic in most settings does), guns are going to be physical objects, subject to magic in one form or another. You don’t need to fully remove them from the setting, but simply understanding this can give you options which can make firearms another tool, and challenge, for your characters to work around.

A lot of the fantasy genre today draws heavily from Tolkien’s work. He defined the genre, and his setting has become the base most writers work from. To the point that the phrase, “standard fantasy setting,” has inherent meaning. Modifying off of that template offers you opportunities to discuss things, or evaluate concepts, that you simply can’t otherwise use.

Modifying a fantasy setting with a specific technological threshold opens up a lot of technology you otherwise wouldn’t have. If you want a standard fantasy setting in the 1890s, you’re opening the door to things like revolvers, steam engines, trains, telegrams, photographs, electricity, and “all the wonders of the modern world.” That’s kind of the point.

Once you’ve done that, the best route is to ask yourself, “what would magic do to this technology?” For example: “how would magic have affected the creation of the telegram?” If your setting is one where magic allows for instant telepathic communication, then the telegraph is redundant. You could already go to a mage, and pay them to relay your message. But, that’s not quite the same thing, is it? It could be open to manipulation, or surveillance. Business interests who operate networks of telepath mages may work to discredit, or undermine the development of telegraphs as a viable technology, even if their own service is inferior.

On the other end of this is the basic firearms question. Would magic allow for more advanced firearms? It’s certainly possible. Mages may be able to concoct alchemical propellants that are more efficient, and cleaner than real world firearms, allowing for more mechanically complex weapons than the real world supports. It’s also possible that magic would allow for additional defenses against firearms. A spell that was originally designed to protect against incoming projectiles may be equally effective at stopping a bullet. These potentials may even interact with one another, where conventional bullets will stop, but (exorbitantly expensive) alchemical rounds will blow through the shield, hitting the mage.

Another possibility is that, where you have mages, you also have magical abominations, wandering the wilds. When dealing with things like that, it’s entirely possible that conventional firearms are ineffective, requiring something special to deal with the creatures.

If your fantasy setting has a legitimate reason to include firearms, my recommendation is to look at those as a challenge. The danger that someone could gun down one of your characters if they do something stupid, or don’t think through their actions is a fantastic motivator, and something that’s worth keeping around as a credible threat.

If your fantasy setting looks like it should include firearms, then, probably should. This is a technology that reshaped the world, and having to account for it challenging your setting’s history and traditions is entirely reasonable, and something you probably want to play into, rather than avoid.

-Starke

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Q&A: Let the Wookie Win

Is shocking/disgusting someone a good way to get an opening? My antihero was captured by a villain; the villain and are waiting for the right moment to strike. The villain starts the “we’re similar” routine and my antihero chimes in & describes being a cannibal to throw them off (the villain naively assumed that all heroes are self-righteous sheep of the gov.) and create an opening. Would it be an effective tactic, or would they be better just going at the guy w/ out the cannibalism confession?

Pro Tip: Never lie beyond what you’re capable of selling.

Your lie needs to be believable, and one you’re willing to follow up on if your bluff is called. This is the necessary quality of the liar. If your protagonist is not willing to happily eat a few bits of raw human flesh to prove their point then it’s a bad lie.

1) David Hasselhoff is my father.

You didn’t believe that, did you? Of course, you didn’t. Even if you were hopeful it might be true, you’d want proof. This is the problem of the unbelievable lie, the farther we are from what is expected then the more you need to prove that it is real. Saying you’re a cannibal is like saying your dad is David Hasselhoff, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. In this case, your mouth is happily eating sauteed bits of human flesh.  (If you’re savvy you’ll realize I pulled Hasselhoff from Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and are therefore even less likely to believe me than before. Also, this is a lie Peter Quill told when he was nine. Kids are terrible liars.)

2) People with certain backgrounds are naturally geared toward assuming dishonesty.

I’m not going to categorize this as a villain trope. It isn’t. If you’ve been lied to a lot in your life, you’re going to be naturally suspicious and assume people are lying to you. These include abuse victims, kids from rough backgrounds, victims of bad parenting, bullied children, latchkeys, criminals, spies, and, yes, supervillains. You’re problem is you’re working from the assumption that people are inherently gullible, and will believe whatever comes out of your mouth. Someone whom life has taught to be paranoid as a means of self-preservation and on the lookout for scam artists is much more difficult to lie to, and more difficult to reach in general. Natural skepticism is a kicker.

For example, you’re going to have a lot of trouble lying to a crime boss because the crime boss is used to being lied to. Self-preservation and survival requires they be savvy enough to discern truth from fiction. They’re likely to be even more suspicious when you start telling them what they want to hear.

3) What is the natural outcome of your lie?

“Shoot him.”

Bye, bye, little hero.

You say you’re a cannibal and this other person believes you. Say this is in complete defiance of the personality they assumed you had. Cannibalism is a violation of social mores, one that is way past what most people (including evil people) are willing to tolerate. Cannibalism is the sort of evil which makes a villain feel good about killing you. Yes, this is the disgusting that’ll get you killed by a group of criminals who profess any level of morality. You don’t want to tell lies that make people more likely to murder you. You didn’t create an opening, you made the situation more dangerous. Sometimes openings are created when a person gets angry, but this isn’t one of them.

Chances are though, they’re not going to believe the cannibalism assertion until they’re cramming human flesh down this character’s gullet. You could probably get them incensed if they saw your hero eating raw meat off a corpse like an animal or cooking a human over a spit. Anything less than that, and they’re just going to laugh in your face.

“Did you really expect me to believe that?”

4) Through the mirror darkly, we’re similar, you and I.

This requires the two to actually be similar. If the villain is assuming all heroes are the sheep of the government, and this includes the anti-hero, then why did they approach them? If this is their assumption, then why didn’t they double check with the character’s actual actions? Your anti-hero is taking actions that the villain relates to, sees a similarity with, and they are moving to make them an ally. This situation would require that the villain thinks they too are a government sheeple.

They are approaching the hero because they think the hero is a sheep and therefore gullible? What would they get out of that? Or because they are a sheep and they think the hero is like them? If it’s the latter, then the character is yelling, “I’m a cannibal!” at the top office in a Manhattan skyscraper. Those working in government understand how deeply the corruption runs, and there are far too many wolves wearing sheepskins in the government for this to be plausible. Also, despite their best intentions, the hero is a government bootlicker and been rounded up by a professional skilled at finding them. (The villain’s position is too precarious for them to be making stupid assumptions. Don’t undercut them like that, you’ll wreck your narrative.)

These scenes work in fiction and create tension because they’re true. The villain presents a compelling argument which appeals to the hero, they have something they want, they are something that the hero wants to be, or the hero has the potential to be them. (Or the hero’s own actions are making their case for them.)

“Look at yourself. They hurt you, and for what? For every person who thanks you, another curses you. They paint you as a villain. They think you’re bad as me, think you’re worse. Your actions have allowed the corporations to rake in billions. Allowed them to wreck lives, steal homes. You’re a schmuck in service to a status quo, oppressing the very people you insist you’re saving!”

If your villain is not presenting an argument which has the hero going, maybe you’re right. Then the scene isn’t good for much. The above example feels compelling, right up until you realize that the villain is working off the expectation that the hero cares about how others see them. Some heroes do. Some heroes really care about how other people view their actions, and let them decide what is or isn’t right. This could be a legit argument. The second half about serving the status quo is going to hurt the hero who thinks they’re doing the right thing and has never thought about the unintended consequences of their actions. Both are legitimate arguments, and could nail a hero on two levels.

You’re not a hero, you’re a villain. You’re worse than I am, and here’s why.

Drama is reliant on actual character struggles, and unless the villain is a cackling psychopath, they’ve got motivation for what they’re doing.  They have reasoning, logic, and self-justification. They can explain their position and sell that ideology convincingly to others. The means and choice of action may be the point of contention.

You could convince Frank Castle to gun down corrupt millionaires, but not their families unless those family members were equally guilty.  The villain might be killing everyone, snatching up their holdings, and re-purposing the cash to offshore accounts in full Robin Hood of the Guillotine style. They might be killing the rich to terrorize them, stealing from the rich, and feeding war orphans in Somalia. Or fueling their ill-gotten gains into non-profits meant to rebuild infrastructure in poor communities abandoned by their politicians.

5) We’re Similar is an ideological argument, forcing the protagonist to think through their position and allowing the audience to re-consider the narrative.

A “We’re similar” setup is utterly worthless if the two aren’t actually similar. Certainly not in a convincing way, if there’s no ideology or desire at play then the scene just ends up as an ego stroke for the protagonist. There’s a compelling setup which lets the audience and the protagonist think and decide their own ideology in context to the story, or there isn’t.

Vader’s “Join Me” setup is very compelling for Luke. Luke wants his father, he’s worshiped his father, Obi-wan’s stories about his father are part of the reason why he wants so badly to become a jedi. And everything he believed, everything he was told by the people he trusted turned out to be a lie. “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” No, that is a lie. The truth is his father is alive. He may be a villain, but he’s alive and, as far as Luke knows, the last of his family. Luke’s origins are tied up in Vader, his past, his family, his hopes, and his potential for darkness. That’s where the drama is. That is the choice. That self-denial is what makes Luke a hero, just as his trust in his friends, his willingness for self-sacrifice, and his belief in his father’s potential goodness/the hero he once was existing inside the monster.

“We’re similar” is about internally difficult choices for your characters, and externally they’re narrative echoes. One has the potential to be the other. Luke could become Vader, but Vader could’ve been like Luke.

Allow your villain a compelling argument, one which might sway your hero and disturb them to the point where they go, “I’m a cannibal!” because they’re so freaked out by the fact the villain has struck the core of who they are or how they see themselves.

You’ve got the setup flip flopped. Your villain isn’t the naive one, your hero is.

6) This scenario isn’t about making your hero look awesome, the scene is actually about your villain.

Your hero being compelling can be the outcome, when well handled, but that isn’t the point. Within the narrative, these scenes are actually about the villain. This is the audience’s chance to understand the villain, their chance to really see them for the dangerous enemy they are, and create a new level of tension between the narrative’s protagonist and antagonist. This is about showing why your villain is so very dangerous, beyond their physical skills and penchant for violence. We experience their charisma up close as new information is revealed,  we see them in a new light. More information is shown.

“You should be careful of him, Robbie.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s you. He understands how you think, knows what you’ll do and where you’ll stop. And you? You’re afraid if you start thinking like him, you’ll never give it up.”

The hooks are real.

“He showed me things, Alec. He showed me the future, showed my potential, and what I could be if I stop struggling; who I could be if just embrace the power.”

“And that frightened you?”

“No, the future excited me. The monster felt right, I felt right, I was whole and complete. I came home. That’s why I’m terrified. Now I know this thing sleeping inside me is who I really am.”

Your hero has to wrestle with some real emotion, face down their inner monster and consider what makes them a hero. This is especially important for an anti-hero. They do some very terrible things in the name of what they believe is right.

While it’s often tempting to show off your hero, the tension created by your villain is the linchpin of your narrative. Your villain is the shadow your hero works against. They ought to be better, smarter, and more clever than the hero. When you damage their street cred, you can’t get it back. If the hero overpowers them, whether its physically or verbally, they won’t be frightening anymore.

Luke escapes Vader by, essentially, falling to his death. He’s not just looking for an opening or trying to outsmart his enemy, he’s desperate to get away. You can escape the villain, but you can’t beat them. Well, not if you want them to last until the climax. Sacrificed in this scene? Sure. Otherwise, you need your villain functioning.

Writing a villain is like walking a tightrope, you need just enough victories for them to keep them dangerous. In the Adventures of Robin Hood, Erroll Flynn’s Robin keeps winning right up until he doesn’t. He has a major victory, then due to his own overconfidence gets captured at the archery tournament, thrown in the dungeon, and sentenced to death. He has to be rescued by his Merry Man and a plan devised by Maid Marian, who risks her own safety sneaking out of the castle to find their meeting place at the local tavern. We never question Robin’s competence, but we needed the reminder that Prince John, Gisbourne, and (especially) the Sheriff of Nottingham are dangerous. The audience gets overconfident right along with Robin Hood, then the wind is snatched out of our sails. The loss reminds us that Robin’s strength is in his friends and the loyalty he inspires, and he is vulnerable when alone.

Your hero can take more competence hits than your villain, they can suffer more losses, and they can come out ahead. Your villain has to win, and they don’t win when we make them look stupid, foolish, or naive. They didn’t reach whatever position they’re in by being any of those things. They worked hard to get where they are. The villain is in a much more precarious position both internally within the narrative and externally from the audience perspective. They must earn their place every second they are on the page, and their threat must remain genuine. It is tempting to focus on the hero, but your responsibility as a writer is to remember the villain’s danger must be consistently proven to your audience.

7) If you don’t respect your villain, your audience won’t either.

This one should be self-explanatory. Your villain isn’t dangerous just because you say they are, you’ve got to prove it. Show, don’t tell. Give them more credit. Excise ignorance and naivete from your vocabulary. They know what they’re doing.

8) Let the wookie win.

C3-PO still gives the best advice. Sometimes, you’ve got to play the losing hand in order to get out of a bad situation alive.

-Michi

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Followup: The Mafia

Thank you for the Mafia information. You mentioned the American/East Coast Mafia is defunct. Does that mean it would be inaccurate to write about them being active in present day? Because my research still brings up racketeering and drug/human trafficking cases.

It mostly depends on where you’re setting your story. So, there is a mea culpa here; I described as defunct, based on my experiences, and some quick, cursory research focused primarily on verifying names and dates.

In the late 90s, I lived in a city that had been mobbed up, and was still working out Mob influence. In retrospect, I kind of suspect that a few of the restaurants I frequented while there may have been mobbed up.

By 2000, most mafia holdings in the United States were gone. If you lived in one of the cities where they completely folded up shop, you could be forgiven for thinking they were entirely destroyed. This would be a mistake. The very one I made when I wrote the original post. So, for that, I am sorry.

Today, America’s Italian Mafia is a shadow of its former self. They started as East Coast immigrant street gangs in the late 19th century, transitioning into a fairly developed network of criminal syndicates by WWII. The post-war era allowed for explosive growth. American organized crime, effectively founded the modern incarnation of Las Vegas, and even had extensive holdings in Cuba (before the Castro came to power.)

There are a lot of factors which lead to their downfall. These ranged from backlash growing political aspirations, to the war on drugs, the RICO Act was a body blow for the Mafia, as it directly attacked many of their methods of operation. (Specifically, it allowed prosecutors to charge the heads of families for crimes they ordered, but did not directly participate in, closing one of the Mafia’s favorite methods for shielding their upper echelons.)

Today, the Mafia does still exist in a few places. The days when they had families running cities across the nation are gone. If you live somewhere like Texas or California, the idea of Mafia operating in your city is more of a novelty.

With that in mind, the Mafia still has holdings in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. The places where they were most strongly embedded, and where they’ve managed to somewhat survive.

The other major difference from the Mafia of today, and the one from 30 years ago, is a transition towards contracting labor, rather than using their own people at street level.

So, with all of that in mind, asking if it’s accurate is a bit of a loaded question, and it’s probably worth evaluating what you’re looking at with the Mafia. I’m going to pull two specific films, because they do an excellent job of establishing the dichotomy of who the Mafia wanted to be, vs who they actually were.

There’s The Godfather, and there’s Goodfellas.

The Godfather is an opera. It’s a massive story about honor, duty, sacrifice, and all of these other virtues, layered over the Mafia of the 50s-70s. It’s also, entirely, a fantasy. I don’t just mean the events, I’m talking about the organization it presents. The Corleone Family is what mobsters idealized themselves as. This sort of shadow nobility, benevolent, and honorable (to a certain degree), never existed in the real world.

If you’re looking at The Godfather and saying that’s what you want, it’s a fantasy. It’s accurate insofar as it presents an idealized self-image of who the Mafia believed themselves to be, but it doesn’t square with the reality of who mobsters actually were.

Goodfellas is not an opera; it’s not even, strictly, fictional. The film follows the life of Henry Hill (who died in 2012), from his introduction to the Mafia as a child, up through his eventual role as a witness against the mob. It’s not completely accurate, because it does abridge a few details. Some characters have their names changed, or are composites of multiple individuals. In one case, the motive behind a crime wasn’t exactly what the film presented, though the inciting incident is accurate.

The vast majority of the film is accurate to the actual behavior and identity of the Mafia. This isn’t the noble image of shadowy benefactors guarding and shepherding their community. It’s a bunch of psychopaths, kept barely in line by the threat of further violence, who have no qualms about turning on one another to save their own skins, or over imagined slights.

In some ways, the Mafia you see in Goodfellas no longer exists. RICO prosecutions, have shrunk their influence substantially.

That said, Organized crime still exists. The players are new, and in many cases it’s transitioned to new techniques, but where there’s opportunity, criminals will find a way. Skimmers, credit card fraud, ransomware, and other cybercrimes are all far more profitable, and less risky, than pounding pavement, and threatening to rough up store owners for the contents of their till in an era when anyone can have a security camera feeding images to off site data storage.

Organized crime has embraced globalization. In some respects, this is nothing new. The cartels were moving product around in large volumes forty years ago, but, things like smuggling and trafficking are far more appealing options for the modern criminal enterprise.

The very short version of modern organized crime is, if you want to do something, you no longer need to be there in person, unless you’re moving product (this includes people) in or out. If all you want is money, you can hide halfway round the world, and let your fingers do the walking.

So, here’s a fun and scary thought: If you live in the US, you’ve got a better than average chance of having been solicited by an organized criminal enterprise in the last decade. I don’t mean a few guys showed up at your front door, I’m talking about emails. In particular, where someone would contact you asking you to accept a wire transfer, and then relay it to them. This was actually about money laundering. You receive the funds from a fraudulent credit card transaction, then move it through your account. When the charges get reversed, your transfer out is fine, but the money coming in doesn’t really exist. Another popular one, from a similar time frame, was to take delivery of items for someone (usually “away on business,”) then repackage the stuff for shipping. Again, you would be used as a cutout, when the fraud was detected. So far as it goes, some of those, “secret shopper,” programs were also not on the level, and you would have been furnished with a cloned card, and sent off to turn that into actual cash.

The trick is to get the money across national boundaries and into a safe jurisdiction that won’t assist in a foreign investigation as fast as possible.

Beyond that, most of the organized crime groups that get brought up do still exist.

The Chinese Triads are real. They’re still around. There’s roughly a dozen major Triads. For reference, the largest (if I remember correctly) is the Sun Yee On, which has somewhere around 55k – 60k members worldwide. They’re active in Asia, North America, and Europe. The Triads derive income from drug smuggling, trafficking, and counterfeiting. (Not just counterfeit currency, but also media, like books, DVDs, ect.)

The Japanese Yakuza is real, and weird. Weird, because it pops up in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find organized criminal activity. For example, it’s not uncommon for Yakuza members to own hospitals, or other businesses that usually don’t attract the attention of organized crime. The explanation for this goes back to the 80s. At the time, Japan’s economy was exploding, they were seeing unprecedented economic growth, and had more money than they knew what to do with. Japanese banks were incredibly liberal with loans, because the money was pouring in (from their perspective). This lead to a lot of Japanese businesses purchasing foreign assets, and a general anxiety that they would financially rule the world in the coming century, which you’ll find in media from the late 80s and early 90s.

Around 1991 or ’92, the bubble popped. Before that happened, Japanese banks were happy to pass loans to pretty much anyone, on the idea that it would lead to further profits. This included many members of the Yakuza. (As I recall, there’s a bit of a question whether loan officers knew they were dealing with Yakuza, or if their due diligence was just that lax.) While they did buy into more conventional organized crime fronts, like shipping or construction, they were still left with more money than they knew what to do with, and proceeded to buy their way into other industries as well. Today, Japan is still struggling to clean the Yakuza out of their corporate culture.

When the bubble burst, many Japanese investors were suddenly on the hook for massive debt they’d incurred during the previous seven years. This included Yakuza members. In the face of this some committed suicide, however, many more retaliated, killing bank loan officers and threatening bank officials. This has resulted in a bizarre situation where the Yakuza (and uncollectible loans issued to their members during the bubble) is still a major factor in their current financial climate.

So, like I said, the Yakuza is real, and weird. If you’re wondering what I meant by “economic” research on them, in the earlier post, now you know.

My reading on the Cartels is spotty. As criminal enterprise goes, they are fascinating, because there’s an entire distinct sub-culture that’s built up over the years, including a distinct musical genre called Narcocorrido (culturally this is somewhat analogous to gangster rap, though it’s stylistically related to Northern Mexican folk music.) Beyond the obvious drug trafficking, kidnapping has also been a major money maker in the region. I don’t know how tightly the Cartels are involved in that industry, but it is worth mentioning.

Major street gangs are another factor. Again, these guys are active, and real. They’re a bit too diverse to quickly categorize, ranging from small, local, criminal groups, up to transnational organizations with worldwide members in the tens of thousands. Depending on circumstances, they may be working for, or with, other organizations, or they could be operating in house.

As I said earlier, the Russian Mob is more of a catch all term for a diverse group of criminals who share a common language, rather than a true organization. That said, there are criminal organizations that come from former Soviet states, but it’s not a single monolithic entity. A lot of the cyber crimes I mentioned above, are popular money makers, particularly for organizations that never left home, and now have access to the world via the internet.

So, no, it’s not inherently inaccurate. At that point any question about accuracy comes down to how you present the thing, not if it exists, or existed.

 

-Starke

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Myth Busters: The Groin Strike

We get questions about groin strikes a lot on this blog. The reasons for why should be fairly obvious. However, what fiction lies to you about is the idea that the fight is over after someone has been injured or defeated to the protagonist’s satisfaction. The groin strike and results most people imagine is a fantasy presented by media because humiliation feels good, especially when you’re on the side of whoever is doing the humiliating. The problem is in 9/10 scenarios using a groin strike makes your character look really goddamn dumb. If you ever imagined your character as a martial artist or combatant of any kind, I’d exercise this one from your vocabulary until you’ve figured out how to use it responsibly.

The groin strike is a nerve strike. If you just went, “wait, what?” I don’t blame you. Those who didn’t know that the reason why we strike the groin is because there are a lot of nerve endings in your private parts. Your nerves communicate pleasure and pain to your brain. This is why pressure point strikes work.

Pressure points mess with your nervous system, those are the places on your body where your nerves cluster. Hitting someone in a pressure point can force them to experience immediate, blinding, and horrible pain. However, you’re actually just tricking your opponent’s brain into believing they’re in terrible pain rather than inflicting lasting damage. Pressure points are stunners and openers, but they’re not finishers. The pain your opponent experiences is brief, short lived enough that it may not finish the fight against an inexperienced combatant much less someone who can force their way through pain. The primary ability gained in any martial training is the ability to push yourself past discomfort and very real pain in order to keep going. You aren’t immune to pain, you just ignore it.

There are also a great many situations where pressure points will not work, or are unreachable. There are people pressure points won’t work on at all, whether they came by that naturally or through injury. Every person’s body is difficult, and a groin shot doesn’t generate enough pain to automatically put you in the safe zone.

The problem is, you’re not thinking about what comes next.

1) In fiction, the groin strike is for humiliation and domination.

Let’s be clear, the groin strike works on both men and women. What you’re actually aiming for is the scrotum or the clitoris, which is where the nerve endings congregate. From the immediate reaction, one might think this would be an obvious or effective place to hit someone. The problem is it’s over sold. However, by and large, in fiction the groin strike is used against male characters as a means of sexual domination (by either a male or female character) for the purposes of Feel Good Violence. Most often, the strike is just used as a justification for humiliation. Specifically sexual humiliation, and more specifically emasculation. The thought process works off the bully mentality that if you humiliate someone enough they will go away forever.

This only works if you believe insults to manhood matter, and that someone who has (up until this point) thoroughly ripped into the character that just humiliated them will just politely back off.

After this moment of catharsis, what comes next? If your character didn’t finish the fight with a follow up strike, they could easily end up in a worse position against a more motivated combatant.

Groin shots in fiction are about establishing superiority.

2) The groin isn’t a particularly effective place to aim.

Trust me, if you’ve got a male character who engages in violence, they’ve been hit in the groin before. Most men have, just on accident. Women too. However, that’s not the main issue. When taking inventory, the groin is just a stupid place to aim. It is difficult to reach and outside a brief moment of pain, not damaging in the long term. You’ve done nothing to them that could stop them from getting back up and continuing. Lots of guys do in sparring when they get clipped (if they’re not wearing a cup.)

There are easier to reach places on the body more guaranteed to have the desired effect. Forgetting a knee strike to the head, kicking someone in the shin is actually more effective as a setup. When you’re a fighter, you actually want what’s easy and effective. The groin shot is neither. It will take work to get there, it’s not particularly great compared to other/better tactics, and everyone’s going to know what you did. In a friendly real world setup, they’ll side eye the person who kicked the other person in the groin rather than the person who got kicked in the groin.

Besides, if your character isn’t doing a follow up then this experienced martial artist is also a moron; especially if they’re dumb enough to stick around and lecture.

3) The groin strike is a setup, not a finisher.

The point of a setup is causing pain to open up the defenses. This strike is a distraction meant to get to a better protected or more difficult to reach target. Fiction will tell you that the groin strike is all you need. This is untrue.

The problem with the groin strike is the pain is temporary. As I said earlier, boys do get accidentally clipped in sparring from time to time. When this happens, the fight breaks. The instructors ask if the person who got clipped wants to continue, and if they say yes then they go right back to sparring. Hitting someone in the groin isn’t a serious injury, they can power through it. Recover quickly enough to get back on their feet, and back the match in fairly short order.  So, even if you’re character manages to land the full monty with knees, tears, and vomit, nothing is going to stop the tear stricken guy from climbing up out of his own vomit to smash your character’s head into the opposing wall.

You didn’t stop him, you just made him uncomfortable, hurt for a brief period of time, and maybe embarrassed him. While humiliation and retribution are cathartic, shaming often makes the situation worse. Martial training itself is often an embarrassing experience just in practice rather than by intention, you fail, you mess up, you slip up, you fall down, and get compromised.

Any groin strike in a martial system has an accompanying followup, like every other setup. The setup is the distraction. You’ve got to finish it with a second strike, which is the one that actually does the necessary damage. For example, one might knee someone in the groin to gain access to their head which they then slam down into their knee. However, in a fictional sense, that would defeat the idea of an emasculation and thus make the entire event less satisfying. After all, the point of this setup is to humiliate the other character by attacking his masculinity. This isn’t attractive because the strike itself is effective.

4) What Happens Next.

This is a real question I’ve seen plenty of writers fail to consider. They see the fight scene as an isolated incident that has no continuing effect, and is over when they say it is. Learning to take what will happen next both immediately and down the line is key to creating great scenes. More importantly, predictive failure is what gets combatants killed in the real world. Your characters need to be considering what will happen as a result of their actions, and if they’re not then that is a failing which should be addressed. Hotheads who get into fights aren’t static characters, they’re creating problems. Often, this behavior is self-destructive. Their actions will have results outside of them as the violence’s effects ripple outward. Consequences result.

This isn’t about good and bad, right or wrong. If you take a moral approach to violence, treat it as an overarching means of punishing bad characters, of deciding right from wrong, then all you get is might makes right. This might be a way a character approaches the situation, but you the author should think beyond it. This about action and reaction. Let go of the idea your character, especially a female one needs to prove her superiority. This is very important regarding violent male versus female interactions in fiction. Regardless of the author’s gender, female characters are often sexualized by default. Learning to let go of internalized stereotypes will help you be a better writer in the long run.

Start considering what happens as a result of a character’s actions, immediately. Don’t look at your female character as an example of all women everywhere. If she fails to think things through, if she doesn’t consider what will happen next as a result of her actions, or if she makes a mistake and doesn’t finish the fight then that is on her. That is not a universal example of women everywhere, or an indicator women can’t fight, or even that she’ll be on this level forever.

Every character in your scene is an actor, they are all important. Stories are about events, one leading to another both small and large.

5) Humiliation isn’t defeat. Defeat isn’t the end.

The fight isn’t over until it’s over. If they’re still able to chase you then it isn’t over.  If your character is escalating the situation, it will go from bad to worse. Defeat isn’t a moral victory or a complete victory, winning is now and not forever. Violence won’t actually solve your problems. If your character is attacking someone they see on the regular, then the same problem will still be there. In real life, you don’t have two people who hate each other spar because Defeat =/= Friendship. It will inflame the competition between them, escalate their issues, and make the situation worse.

Defeat doesn’t prove whether or not someone is superior. Defeat is just defeat. A symbolic win is even more meaningless.

5) This doesn’t prove anything about your character or anything about the male character, but it does say a lot about you.

Many female writers get nervous about female characters taking on male characters because they’ve been convinced that men are superior. This is part of why the groin strike is so enticing as a narrative tool because it feels like it’d be successful, it feels like it’s humiliating, it feels emasculating, because the symbolism of masculinity is what is threatening to you rather than the man himself. The male character is just a convenient tool.

No.

The man is the danger. You undercut yourself by making a fight scene about men versus women rather than a character versus a character. You cheapen the scene, the characters, and the message which is, I assume, that girls kick ass. The irony is that by focusing on emasculation, especially in a sexual way using the private parts, you make the scene about the man. You establish that men are superior, and you place the focus on them rather than your female character. You made the scenario about sex. More, you fell into the same objectification trap you were trying to avoid.

You don’t need it, and you hurt your own message by chasing a brief, momentary moment of disingenuous catharsis and fake girl power. You objectify your female character, you make her about sex rather than as a person or a warrior. You set her up in direct comparison with men and the concept of masculinity being superior. You didn’t defeat the concept, you embraced the idea. You made masculinity a centerpiece. You undercut her.

This is the ultimate problem with the groin shot. Regardless of whether it works or it doesn’t, regardless of whether it works in some scenarios and not in others, the groin shot isn’t about the violence. The groin shot in fiction is about framing your scenario as a sexual exchange between two men or a man and a woman, wherein one asserts sexual domination over the other. Thereby reducing both to caricatures. You explicitly link the violence to sex, making the violence in your fiction about sex, and reducing your female character into a sex object. You think it’s about one character asserting their superiority, which may feel good, but the relationship between the two fighters becomes sexualized and hyper-masculine. If you say you’re a feminist, understand this is what feminist fiction specifically seeks to avert. It directly undercuts your female protagonist to wrap the violence up with sex.

This isn’t a heroic moment anyone is going to celebrate in setting. Your audience might, but be honest: you were thinking about their reaction and not what was happening internally.

Groin shots.

They’re just a terrible idea.

-Michi

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Q&A: Don’t ask if the weapon works, consider what you did with it instead

I have a character whose weapon is a broomstick, like in Mulan’s training. I was pretty young when I came up with that, but should I change it ? Can a broomstick actually make a good weapon ? If not, what should I use instead ? All my characters have improvised weapons that they use for an extended period of time

Well, a broom is just a short or long staff with the side benefit of being able to potentially throw dust and detritus in the face of your enemy (and yourself) if wielded broom end first. (When did Mulan use a broomstick? Or a broomstick used like the staff Mulan trained with? Or when she was play fighting at home before she goes to training?) So, you’re asking if someone can do this with a broom? Then graduates into something more like this (starts 2:46,  for reference: this is high level martial arts choreography in competition from the SEA Games – Singapore (2015). This is equivalent to high level gymnastics. They’re choreographed fight scenes. Yes, there is a category dedicated to choreographed like a movie fight/dance sequence duels. Yes, this is one of the most popular and prestigious categories at some martial arts tournaments.)

The basic question to begin with is this: do you want the weapon to be a broom? Do you want the scenes to be serious or not? You can have a serious story with a silly weapon, but there is a vast difference between a Jackie Chan-esque fight sequence played for laughs when the experienced martial artist picks up the broom because it’s what they have available versus the character who has no idea what they’re doing and picks up the broom just because.

A Jackie Chan fight sequence will work like this:

 The experience martial artist finds themselves jumped by several guys, grabs the first weapon they come across. This weapon is a broom. They brandish it. (Pause.) The broom is a silly weapon, everyone (including the audience) laughs. Moment ends, and the fight begins. Experienced martial artist holds their own, kind of. Probably a few scenes where the broom head is shoved into someone’s face and used to wail about an enemy’s head. (This is Jackie Chan, so cleaning supplies may also be used.) However, this proves ineffective whenever the experienced martial artist attempts to fight with the broom end. They wield it like they would a staff, but only one end is helpful. They’re mostly free when more enemies arrive, someone brings an edged weapon.

New fight commences against more dangerous/experienced opponents. Experienced martial artist is pressed. Broom = advantage over unarmed enemies, less helpful against actual weapons. Fight sequence will have that broom head cut off by whichever enemy comes in wielding an edged weapon on the break beat. So, fight with the broom and kind of works; then broom becomes staff = accidental upgrade. Hero given new chance to make their escape.

Jackie Chan’s humor in his fight scenes, especially his early ones, is sophisticated in that it plays into your expectations and will subvert them several times in a single scene for laughs. We know the broom sucks as a weapon, so that brings in the uh-oh, but the martial artists/martial arts movie goers know the broom’s length and similarities to the staff will give the protagonist a slight chance against the enemies they’re facing.  Oh yay! Enemies underestimate the hero because their chosen weapon sucks. Hero proceeds to flail because the improvised weapon doesn’t behave the way a normal weapon would, hijinks ensue, but in the end they succeed… kind of. Hero either manages to make their escape from the bad situation or a new enemy shows up with higher stakes to raise the tension. (More skill, better weapon.)

Underdog > Winner > Underdog.

The beat goes like this:

1) We know the broom is a silly weapon. (Audience and Enemy expectation.)

2) After overcoming their own surprise/shock, hero does the first thing they can think of in line with their training: wield the broom like a staff. Proves to be successful. (Enemy and Audience surprised.)

3) Hijinks. (The hero turn tables and is winning… kind of. This is the period where the surprise is behind the hero, so they’ve a little room to mess around. Someone’s nose is getting tickled, or they’re taking a broom head to the face.)

4) The broom fails at key moments. (Enemy adjusts past their surprise.) Hero will find themselves in a position of accidentally striking with the broom head; which does nothing because, (surprise), you can’t wield a broom exactly like a staff. (Hero and weapon incompatible.) The hero becomes pressed as smarter enemies come up with new strategies.

5) Weapon conveniently breaks to create the needed staff against stronger enemies. Hero still at disadvantage.

What Jackie Chan does is a pretty sophisticated in the balancing of audience expectation combined with an understanding of how to balance weapons, enemies, and genre convention to create both humor and tension. That’s the root of his success as a choreographer, and why I do recommend watching his fight sequences compared to other less successful martial artists. His storytelling through action is much better, especially when you want unconventional surprises.

He understands the boundaries of realism, and incorporates the failings of an object into his fight scenes as well as the successes. He’s thinking from multiple angles, which is what makes his characters so relatable. Jackie Chan is king of making his fight scenes feel spur of the moment, his characters go with their gut and training when put under pressure. However, the situation doesn’t always fit that training perfectly (broom =/= staff) and so this creates new problems for the hero. He shifts the hero’s advantages into disadvantages and their disadvantages into advantages, this happens on multiple levels in the scene.

Hero has superior fight training (advantage), but there are too many enemies (overwhelming disadvantage) so they must run. Hero finds a weapon similar to one they’re used to using (advantage!), but the weapon is improvised (surprise disadvantage!), their training works to fend off multiple enemies (advantage!!), but fails to be totally successful so they end up only holding their own (disadvantage!!), then new enemies arrive with better weapons (overwhelming disadvantage!!!), and the pattern repeats with higher stakes.

The problem with improvised weapons is in the name: improvised.

A broom can be wielded like a staff but, when wielded just like one would a staff, it will fail at key moments. The broom is not a staff, a broom is a broom. For the most part, you can only use one end of the broom successfully where a staff uses both ends. For a character (like Jackie Chan) who is utilizing Chinese staff work, this is a big problem they’ll end up stumbling into. Staves are either used with the tip to stab if wielded by holding the bottom like one would with a spear, or from the center where they rotate between top and bottom in their strike pattern. A staff can strike at your head, and on the next strike at your opposing thigh. As a weapon, the staff is one of the most versatile and very easy to use. However, in this case, you’re going to end up switching between hard end/soft end on every second or third strike. (You can use this for humor too because humor is in patterns and expectations broken at surprising moments.) Hard (ouch), soft (fine), hard (ouch!), soft (fine?), hard (ouch!!), soft (fine?!), CRAP! Both characters glance at the broom head. Enemy smiles. Hero starts wailing on enemy with the hard end, and breaks the pattern.

Jackie Chan knows how to fight and understands audience expectations (primarily Chinese audiences) and genre conventions (primarily wuxia action scenes), which is why his visual gags work. He’s, honestly, in a class of his own when it comes to fight choreography because of this. Like most martial artists, he knows you can take the broom end off and then you’d just have a staff. Like a great choreographer, he’ll see the potential failings and weaknesses in the improvisation. Then, he’d plan to incorporate them into his scenes for humor. Funny comes from failure and surprise success.

The version of this for the character who has no idea what they’re doing (and therefore is not using Chinese martial arts), is Rapunzel from Tangled and her frying pan. The frying pan is an unexpected weapon, but it works and serves to emphasize to the audience that Rapunzel has no idea what she’s doing when it comes to violence. This is where a frying pan is different from, say, a machete or a tire iron. So, again, there’s humor in subverted expectations. We don’t expect the frying pan to work, then it does more than she expects. We’re consistently reminded that the heroine doesn’t really know what she’s doing and she’s never given a real weapon, which keeps her safely in the non-combatant role while allowing her to be active/assert herself at key narrative moments. Her character has other skills that are more useful, and the frying pan shows the audience Rapunzel’s resourcefulness as a character.

In fiction, weapons show us something about the character and create certain expectations that are based in genre cliches. The hero who picks up a named sword is the narratively anointed Chosen One, whether that is played straight or not. Improvised weapons serve primarily as a means of showing resourcefulness, but they are either props (like in the Jackie Chan example) to be discarded when a better weapon comes along or they’re character defining like in the Rapunzel example where the weapon is a symbolic representation of personality and role.

Rapuzel, as a character, doesn’t know enough about martial combat to reach beyond what works in the moment whereas a Jackie Chan protagonist isn’t going to stick with the broom because they know the broom won’t work long term. The threats a Jackie Chan protagonist is going to face will be primarily physical, and the resourcefulness he exhibits is the “whatever works” mentality. Meanwhile, Rapunzel’s on an emotional journey of self-discovery and her primary antagonist is Mother Gothel.

Mother Gothel’s violence is entirely emotional. Flynn using the frying pan is a callback to Rapunzel using the frying pan which serves late story as a means to firmly unite the two characters together on a thematic level, so we the audience no longer question his loyalty. It also serves the character on a “well, it worked on me” level. We understand why Flynn might think using the frying pan is a good idea, which is the dual overlay you need. Internal justification to serve the narrative’s external thematic needs.

So, the question about using a broomstick as a weapon is entirely on you. It will certainly work in general as either a scene prop or an expression of identity. The question is whether or not it will work for the story you’re telling and the challenges your characters are facing.

An improvised weapon is spur of the moment. You can wrap the toaster to your hand and use it as an impromptu set of brass knuckles, but that doesn’t make it the same as brass knuckles. If you had a choice between the toaster and brass knuckles, you’d probably pick the brass knuckles. There’s the recognizably violent improvised weapons associated with mobsters and gangs like tire irons, baseball bats, crowbars, wrenches, etc; and those will put your character into the (middling) combatant category. There’s the machete which is practically a sword, and the sledgehammer which is practically a two handed warhammer, and the shovel which is potentially a spear. The last form of improvised weaponry is chemical warfare with household items and bomb building. The closer we get to the weapon category, the closer we get to live combatant territory. The narrative expectations are different for non-combatants and combatants, the behavior is also different.

The warrior is going to be looking for the better weapon. You’ve got a character with Mulan-style Chinese military training then the first thing they’ll do once they’re in a safe space is break off or cut off the broom end to make either a staff or a sharpened end for a spear. They’ll modify whatever they have to make it more dangerous. They’ll find the kitchen knives or the box cutters or whatever else is lying around that’s sharp. They’ll grab the tire irons and the wrenches; they’ll grab multiple objects because that’s how their mind works. They’re looking for what’s going to give them an advantage in the situation, especially when they don’t know what that situation is.

The staff is a helpful weapon because of it’s reach advantage. As I pointed out in the Jackie Chan example, you can use a staff to fend off multiple attackers and gain an advantage when you’re overwhelmed. Numbers are overwhelming, in that situation you’re better off armed than unarmed, and the distance the staff provides means keeping multiple enemies at distance is easier. In the Jackie Chan scenario, the broom is actually a great choice. The surprise is the broom doesn’t seem like it would be on the surface because we don’t think of brooms as staves. However, the underlying theme in the Jackie Chan scenario is you use the weapon until it ceases to be useful. While the drawbacks are funny, they’re also realistic.

The non-combatant like Rapunzel will grab what works and, for the most part, they’ll stay there. They have no experience, so if it worked once then it’ll likely work again and they’re going to approach every scenario the same way until personal experience or the wisdom of another more experienced character teaches them not to do that anymore. For example, Rapunzel wants to escape from the guards. She doesn’t want to fight them. They’re outside of what she’s capable of handling as a character, and violence is not her purpose. Her advantage is surprise, and the fact her enemy underestimates her because she is seemingly helpless, she’s a genuine, kind, mildly confused young woman without a combat background, and gives no sign of being dangerous to someone else who is vastly more qualified. Her character arc is her learning to stand up for herself. (Never make the mistake of believing “female” is universal for being underestimated. The character’s background is more important and more influential than their gender/sex.)

One of these setups has the violence at the forefront, and in the other the violence is on the back burner. There’s action and conflict, but the physical violence is not what you’d get in a wuxia film or Hollywood big budget summer action flick. You’ve got to answer which story you’re telling. That has nothing to do with whether or not the broom will work as a weapon and is entirely dependent on who your characters are. (For example, they can’t use a broom like a Chinese staff without training but they certainly could use it successfully as a self-defense weapon.)

Like with Rapunzel, an improvised weapon can be a great limiter that allows you to set a character’s ability at a certain level and say, no further. It is a hard limit, reflecting their personality; emphasizing what the character is capable of both in terms of their combat ability and their resourcefulness. It limits the kind of violence you’re going to allow in your story, because it limits the potential violence your characters can successfully participate in, and potentially the level of graphic detail.

In fiction, a character tackling a Navy Seal head on with a broom is going to be a joke and an act of desperation whether it’s played straight or not. You could certainly tackle a Navy Seal with a broom, you might even win, but it wouldn’t be a good idea. That’s the point of the improvised weapon, they’re weapons of desperation. You use it until you can figure out something better.

Or, they’re magical. Everyday household item imbued with magic to transform it into Weapon X is a weapon the protagonist is just stuck with. See: The Spoon of Perpetual Torment. (“It’s perpetually tormenting me, okay!”)

If you plan to play this for laughs, the broom and other improvised weapons aren’t a joke that will last you 60,000 words. The spoon of perpetual torment won’t last that long either. You’ll get a scene out of the gag, maybe two if you’re clever. They require you understand how to use the broom, creativity, and an understanding of how staves work in combat in order to pass the gist on.

Humor requires you keep moving because you’re subverting patterns and expectations. The surprise broom weapon is a surprise once, the nervousness and tension accompanying its use will last you one scene. This is why, in a wuxia setup, the broom gets broken at an opportune moment to become a staff. We continue with the surprises by turning the tables one way or the other in order to keep the audience invested.

The weapons your characters choose are reflections of their decision making, they will say something thematically about them whether you wanted that connotation or not. Fight scenes are built on stacking advantages against disadvantages. Instead of just building a single chessboard, you put the chessboard on a spit, play for a bit, and then spin it to rearrange all the pieces when a new challenger enters. That shifting tension is where the interesting parts of the fight scene happen. How you get that tension doesn’t matter, really. The first step is recognizing that it’s there. The underdog serves an important conceptual purpose when balancing out what the character can and can’t handle.

That’s the external logic.

There’s also the character’s internal logic of why they chose this particular weapon. It can be as simple as they ran through the hall closet or past a bunch of cleaning supplies left out by the janitor.

They started by grabbing the bucket, threw gross soapy water at their enemy, then ran out of things to do with the bucket. So, they threw it at their enemies and grabbed the mop. The enemies slip on the soapy water spread over the floor, buying the protagonist time. The mop worked okay at keeping the enemies away, but the head was heavy because of the water and didn’t swing well. So, they threw it and ran. The time their enemies spend getting past the mop buys the protagonist time to find a new weapon, but less than last time. The bad guys are almost on them when, finally, they locate the broom. Trapped in an empty hall without a good exit, against three (now soapy) enemies. They went, “well, why not?”, whip around, and brandish it broom head first.

They look at the bad guys, the bad guys look at them. Then, the three bad guys look at each other and laugh. While they’re distracted, the protagonist lunges in. Attacks with the broom.

In this example, you see the internal logic based on character’s choice of action combines with the Goldilocks pattern of threes.  We know the third option is just right. The second is we get closer and closer to the right/best available choice.

The bucket didn’t work, and has no reach. The worst that happened was the bad guys got wet. However, the water on the floor provides the character time to get to their next weapon. The mop sort of worked, but the head was too heavy. When they throw it, their enemies trip over it, buying them time but less than before. The broom isn’t perfect, but we’ve seen how its a better version of the mop. However, the situation has changed and the protagonist is now in a worse situation than before.

The audience receives catharsis, has confidence in the character’s choice, but new problems have arisen to create new tensions. On top of that, the scene has served the secondary purpose of showing the character’s problem solving skills.

The changing environment gives the protagonist a chance to shine without hampering the tension provided by the three unnamed mooks, whom we know are dangerous because the protagonist wants to escape from them. The protagonist isn’t trying to beat the mooks, they’re trying to escape (because they’re smart, they know three on one is terrible odds. Take note from The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. Six bullets, seven enemies. Numbers kill.) They try to run, but the situation forces them to fight their way out.

Here’s what we learned from the scene: they picked the best weapon available to them, they’re capable of using their environment to help them, the change in terrain can provide an advantage (enemies trying to get across a slick floor), long weapons are good against multiple enemies (they create barriers), and light weapons with smaller heads are better than heavy ones.

Our protagonist is clever enough to turn a situation where they face overwhelmingly poor odds that should get them killed or captured to their advantage. The audience gets a tense fight and a chance to become invested in the main character’s survival. We answer all our narrative questions.

This is how you show a character is good at fighting. It’s not beating an enemy that matters, it’s how they did it, what the odds were, and how well you paced the fight itself.

The answer with everything is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea or not. Stories don’t exist in “good ideas”, they exist in “what happened when these two things combined?” What happens when a Chinese martial artist skilled at staff combat picks up a broom to defend themselves? What happens when a teenager picks up a broom? Both situations equally have the potential to be interesting. The question is, what happens? Munchkining your character to victory won’t help them, giving them better odds just means you do more work to stack the odds higher against them.

The odds and outcome will decide for the character whether their choice was right or not. Every weapon will have strengths and drawbacks. There is no one size fits all. A gun is great, provided you stay at distance but, eventually, you’re going to run out of bullets. Swords are great, if you know how to use them, but there’ll be situations where they won’t work. Both sword and staff could get stuck on a doorframe. Too many enemies is absolutely certain death, even for the most skilled combatant. A fight scene is heavily dependent on where it’s occurring, what’s happening around it, and where the priorities of the combatants are.

This is where the narrative’s internal logic is important. As the author, you can decide lots of things externally and be focused on Point A and Point B. You can get caught up on external themes. You can get caught on the plot you’ve envisioned, or the decisions you made prior to starting the story. However, if your characters aren’t justifying those choices through their actions in the narrative then all you have are dolls getting smashed together.

Essentially, like lots of authors, you skipped the question of: why the broom?

I don’t care why you decided on the broom. At some point in your life, author you thought it would be cool. No, I care about why your character decided they were going to carry this broom around with them. Why did they pick it up? Why did they decide to keep it? Spend some time thinking about the broom, and not as a combat weapon. Think about the logistics of carrying this thing around, what your protagonist is going to do with it, how other people react when they see it, how they feel about the broom. If this is challenging, just take a day and carry a broom around with you in a public place. If that’s too intimidating, then do it inside your house. Every time you move, everywhere you go, pick it up and carry it with you.

I can tell you, having had to carry staves around before, it’s gonna get annoying pretty quickly. However, you will figure out how to set it so it doesn’t fall over, rest it on your shoulder, and all the other day to day bits your character will need to do when they’re not fighting with it. Your ability to convey the broom and its importance to your audience is what matters, and the most important bonding factors have nothing to do with its usefulness to fighting.

She uses a broom because she either knows how to use it, is comfortable using it, or is confident in her ability to use it rather than another, better weapon. Or, ditch the broom and go with the staff. It is one of the most innocuous weapons.

Lastly, unless you’re really stuck on Mulan, I advise you to focus on figuring out basic staff movements in the cross-pattern before getting stuck trying to figure out (much less write) Chinese martial arts. Wushu is very pretty, but you may break your brain trying to figure out the mechanics of the neck spin trick as seen in the broom fight scene from Cowboy Bepop. If you haven’t figured out or conceptualized the concept of attacking with two ends interchangeably, grasping the reasoning behind the circular sweeps might be difficult.  (For reference, this is what the Mulan staff work translates to in real life martial arts competitions.) The question you need to answer is not just why your character fights with a broom, but why would they choose to if they were trained to fight with a staff? It is really easy to take one and get the other. So, why keep the broom intact?

-Michi

(Starke and I are still sick, so I apologize for any grammatical errors, slips in this post, and nonsensical sentences in this post.)

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Q&A: Cults and Killing

So is there really such thing as a stereotypical lovecraftian cult (ie hooded figures in dark dungeons who preform human sacrifices)? And how would you respectfully portray these, while still retaining creativity?

No.

Though it might be more accurate to say, “sorta, kinda, not really.”

Cults exist. These are usually small, radical offshoots of mainstream religions. In the US, most cults you’d encounter would use Christianity as their baseline, and then deviate significantly. Often times, these are the product of an individual or small cadre of individuals, who have hijacked a religion and re-purposed it for their own goals. (To be fair, agnostic cults do exist, these aren’t strictly a religious exercise.)

Because cults deviate from the normal, “baseline,” of their surroundings, most will attempt to conceal their behavior and beliefs from the outside world. Usually, this is by withdrawing and refusing to interact with outsiders. Lovecraft plays off the idea of cults that have a large enough stake in their local community that they attempt to pass themselves off as normal, keeping their true nature under wraps. Again, this is somewhat true to life, with real world examples.

Additionally, cults can be dangerous, both to their own members and to outsiders, depending on how the cult is structured, and how far it is willing to go in order to protect its interests. Crimes tracing back to cults are somewhat unusual, but it’s not unheard of. I’d almost be inclined to say it’s, “expected,” even they appear to have stayed inside the law.

Most of the time, when there are crimes being committed, they’re more in the range of abuse. Years of emotional and psychological abuse can take a serious toll on former members who attempt to break away.

Beyond that, I can think of a few cults that ended with NFA violations (illegal weapons), and even a few that ran afoul of the IRS over tax evasion.

Human sacrifices, not so much. Ritualistic murders do occur, rarely. However, these are the result of individuals, not entire cults. They’re also not the crowd of hooded figures chanting, that you’d get from Lovecraft.

So, the two pieces do exist independently. They just don’t intersect. Extensive research starting in the 1980s has showed no pattern of ritual killings associated with cults or other secret societies in the United States.

The cult killings I am aware of tend to be more in the range of accidents. (I mean, actual accidents here, as in, “we needed to beat the evil out of him, and accidentally went too far,” not, “oh, he was going to expose us, so we murdered him and made it look like an accident.”) There are also mass suicides of cult members, like Heaven’s Gate in 1997, and of course Jonestown in 1978.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are (rare) groups like Aum Shinrikyo. The Japanese doomsday cult responsible for a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Using Sarin gas, they killed 12, and injured over 4,000.

Now, having said all of this, it is important to remember that Lovecraft was racist as fuck. Lovecraft’s work plays upon early 20th century American xenophobia. His cults are centered on foreign, “primitive,” religions from distant parts of the world, transplanted to rural New England. The beings they worship are just punctuation on something that’s already, legitimately, pretty offensive. This stuff can be pretty easy to accidentally transplant when you’re picking through Lovecraft’s material looking for ideas.

There’s an irony here: Cosmic horror is probably one of the most philosophically interesting strands of the genre, but its iconography and structure is often saturated in hurtful, xenophobic stereotypes, or ghosts of the same.

Simply flipping the script isn’t really an option because of actual history. I mentioned extensive research into cults beginning in the 1980s. That was spurred by sensationalist reports of satanic cults engaging in ritualized child abuse, and blood sacrifices. Those reports led to extensive investigations, and in the end, the result was basically nothing to show for it. No mass network of ritualized killings. No massive, covert, organization. Even the initial reports were eventually debunked, but the result was, effectively, a modern witchhunt.

If you’re wanting to work within the genre, and using a modern setting, I would recommend reading up on real world cults, and working from that model. There’s no real way to be respectful, given the subject matter, but it will give you a much more concrete idea of what these kinds of groups are like.

-Starke

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Q&A: Tenth Degree Black Belt Takes Awhile

not sure if this is the right blog to ask this question but its the closest one that i know of, i have a character who started doing Karate at the minimum age (Age 6 from what i see) and so i want to know what is the minimum realistic age for him to become a first degree all the way through tenth degree black belt?

Assuming we work from the commercial martial arts school metric (which is the quickest), it’ll be around 45 years. A black belt past a certain rank (anywhere between two and five) will need to start journeying Japan on a semi-regular basis in order to be tested for their next belt ranks. And if they’re not, their master is the one who is making the pilgrimage. That also assumes the belt testing for the higher echelons is handed by one master, which it may not be. It something like eight official karate strands recognized by the World Karate Federation, and more unofficial. So, your character doesn’t just know karate.

That assumes the school goes to ten.

That assumes this is the belt system used by the school. (The classic martial arts legend is that in the old days, you trained so long that your belt turned black and that was when you achieved mastery.)

Assuming they allow any underage student to test for black belt. (Some schools don’t. If not, minimum age for a tenth degree is 63.)

Assuming they don’t have specific time constraints on your belt progression that has nothing to do with curriculum and everything to do with X amount of time spent in the school before they’ll consider it.

Your martial arts master is the one who decides when you get to test. If they say you’re not ready then you’re not testing. It is possible to fail the belt rank test, at any level. Commercial martial arts schools hold rank tests at specific intervals, usually spaced two to four months apart depending on belt rank level. You’ve got to be ready when the time comes, or you’ll have to wait until the next round. The Ernie Reyes school held black belt tests twice per year, but they were a large organization with over a hundred testing participants. In smaller organizations, it may happen less often. Usually, there’s a pretest before they allow you to test for your black belt. You can fail the pretest, and they reserve the right to fail you out of training prior to the test at any time.

Forty-five years training is a generous estimate. You’re not likely to hit tenth degree until you are eighty years old. Achieving mastery is a lifelong process. This is better than the traditional Chinese method for establishing a new martial art, which was go around and beat all the other masters in duels.

Trust me, having your ass handed to you by a sixty year old man is not a fun experience. It.. will also happen. Tradition in martial arts is you get tested in combat, to go up in rank you defeat those at rank, to become a master you defeat yours. “Now, I am the Master” is not just a trope, it’s tradition. (Not today, obviously. It used to be, in some cases.)

You’d reach the point around second or third degree in the higher ranks (and depending on style proliferation) where you’d be making the trip to Japan in order to be trained and tested by the school’s Grandmaster. A high ranking black belt would need to be at least partially fluent or speak passable Japanese, even if they could not read it. This is true for most Japanese martial arts, and for other martial arts too.

In the Ernie Reyes Organization, there is a monetary cost to testing. That metric rises by around a hundred dollars per black belt stripe. Fourth degree test costs around 400-500 dollars. Again, this is assuming a commercial martial arts school, not a school that is specifically training for active combat. If the school is training you for active combat, it’ll all take a lot longer.

In modern era combat, karate does not work unless it is modified. I got that from a Shotokan master who was also a Police Officer, and tested for his last black belt rank in Japan. (Third or Fourth degree.) He knew what he was talking about, and he was in his late thirties.

I was a third degree in Taekwondo by the time I was eighteen, but that’s out of a commercial system and that’s actually unusual. When looking at third degree tests, usually, they’re in their early to mid twenties.

In a traditional school, you can usually age your black belt rank per decade. First degree in the tens, second in the twenties, third in thirties, fourth in the forties, etc. 35-40 is the lowest age for a martial arts master, younger than that they’re usually technically good but not spiritually good and the spiritual component is what’s necessary.

Realistically, your character will never see tenth degree. When we talk tenth degree black belt in a martial arts system, that’s a number you can count on one hand and they may not exist at all. I’ve trained with seventh degree black belts and order grand masters in hosted seminars, but I’ve never seen a tenth degree.

The upper echelons past around rank five are spiritual journeys rather than technical or acquired skills, and this is especially true of tenth degree. You’ll get there when you get there, if you get there at all. That also assumes commercial approach rather than traditional, because traditional means you’re lucky if you see black belt at all. Ever. My shotokan master, one of his adult brown belts had been in training for about seven years, and his green belt training for five. Under this system, it could easily take ten years to reach black belt and you wouldn’t see a black belt testing under eighteen. (Not just danger, also maturity.)

The more sacred the belt ranks are in the system, the longer time it will take to reach and the harder it will be to reach them. However, those are the systems where the rank means something.

I’ll tell you right now, most martial artists at twelve who hold the rank of black belt aren’t actually worth anything on a technical level. (I say that having been a thirteen year old black belt.) The belt rank means something else in the commercial system. A child who got their black belt at twelve will be great by the time they’re twenty if they keep training, but they aren’t right now.

The amount of time necessary with traditional martial arts for rank progression is pretty much the reason why martial artists have the reputation for being godlike. The problem martial arts have in the modern era is they still have their place but combat moves too quickly for that kind of specialization. The counters are being developed while your character is training, so a hard counter will exist when they’re ready to put their skills into practice. However, many professionals train in martial arts because of the health and mental benefits and the flexibility the additions or alternative skill sets provide.

Traditional martial arts is not fair, it is not quick, and it takes decades of work. Commercial martial arts is/can be quick, but it’s balancing the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with money. That is survival, and martial arts schools cannot or will have great difficulty surviving in the US without the commercial/business side. Usually, the first two black belt ranks get sacrificed to the commercial because kids are where most commercial martial arts schools make their money. That first black belt test is all important to the school, to the kid, and their parents. It’s an achievement, it’s a journey, and it looks great on a college application. It is real, but it means something else than what it would mean in a traditional system to someone who trained for ten years. Five years is much more reasonable/palatable to a parent and a child than ten. (That’s a long time, you’ll still have something like a 60% drop off between the kids who come for a few months to those who stay.) I know, that information kills the mystique some.

Understand, that every black belt earned their rank by the metric set for them. The question is do others agree, and the answer is usually no when we’re discussing more stringent systems. A lot of really popular martial arts will have that accusation leveled against them by others, and a lot of popular schools will as well. That their business model produces inferior students. Whether that is true or not is a matter of opinion and the opinions are diverse. I suggest carrying that knowledge with you into your fiction.

If you can’t tell me or anyone in your book which version of Karate they are practicing, then that’s where you should start working. Karate also gets used in the US as a catchall term for martial arts, just FYI.

-Michi

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Q&A: Setting the Rules in Horror

One thing that always bugs me about ghost stories is how there doesn’t seem to be any consistency In how a Ghost operates. Theyre built up as scary only to have them be really incompetent. There’s this particular case in IT. Where one of the kids gets grabbed by Pennywise then just wrestles out and runs away. It makes Pennywise seem really incompetent. Other ghost stories do this. Where the ghost can hurt you. . . except when it cant. No logic behind it. How can a writer avoid this?

The short answer is: By making sure there are logical rules underpinning your setting. With horror this is a little harder than it seems, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

Start by writing up the rules for the monsters in your setting. How are they created? What are their powers and limitations? What do they want? How do they go about getting that?

To an extent, this is something you should probably do anyway, if you’re creating an elaborate setting. But, it can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with monsters, or other fantasy creatures.

Exactly how you format this is, obviously, up to you. There’s no strict list of things you need. If you’ve got multiple kinds of monsters, the document doesn’t even need to be uniform between them.

Also, if anyone’s wondering, there is no “One True Set of Rules for Ghosts,” or any other kind of monster. There’s a lot of variety in folklore, which gets even more diverse when you start taking other cultures into account. When you’re creating a monster, either from scratch or from some basic template, like a ghost, you have a lot of latitude to decide how they work in your story.

Once you have those rules, keep them with you when you write. Depending on how large it is, and how you work, you may want to physically tape it to your wall, or you might simply keep them open in another window while you’re typing on your computer. It doesn’t matter where the document is, just make sure you keep that stuff close and accessible.

So, I said this is a little harder with horror. Most horror, as a genre, thrives on fear of the unknown. Once you’ve taken the rules for a horror setting, dragged them out in the open, and poked them with a stick, the illusion collapses, and much of the fear escapes. If you want to scare someone, you need their imagination to do the work for you.

This means, you do not want to put those rules out in the open for your audience. Even in a normal setting, you’ll probably want to hold back a bit, and spool those out over time, as your characters learn, and discover new information. But, with horror, hiding those rules, while still clearly enforcing them is a difficult, but vital, skill to master.

There’s an important detail here. Even if you clearly infer a rule in your horror, so long as you don’t go out and explicitly define it, there’s going to be a degree of unease. Horror thrives on that space, where you should be safe, but you’re not completely sure.

The other set of rules you should keep in mind, are the ones your characters create for the monster. If it’s trying to kill them, they’re going to be trying to figure out how to avoid that. Looking for what the monster’s limits are, and trying to identify its methodology. After all, if they know that it can’t kill them under certain circumstances, then they’ll want to find a way to engineer that situation.

The thing about your characters is that they can be wrong. They can look at the information available, and make an entirely rational but incorrect assumption. This can create situations where the monster is suddenly able to “break the rules,” because the rules your characters worked out aren’t the real limitations you set at the beginning. This should send your characters back to the drawing board, looking for something they got wrong.

Now, obviously, if your character is a veteran monster hunter, then they’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the rules are. Though, even with that, there’s a lot of room for a character to prepare for the wrong monster. To be fair, this kind of character doesn’t usually work well in horror. It’s not a hard, “no,” but it does make your life more difficult. This is because they’re likely to have a (mostly) accurate version of your rules internalized. Point of view characters like this can work, but it requires you to be a lot more creative. If you think you’re up to it, feel free to experiment. However, stories with characters like this will often trend more into supernatural action rather than horror.

One more vitally important thing: Don’t pull your punches. Not in horror. If there’s a monster out there in the forest trying to kill them, and it gets the opportunity to pick someone off, kill them. The only time I’d caution against this is if you’re late in the story and running out of characters to snuff. In those cases, I’d suggest stepping back a scene or two, and figuring out how to keep them alive by avoiding that situation entirely.

Even then, I’d still recommend you roll with a death, even if its your designated protagonist. As a genre, horror is an indiscriminate killer. The story will survive your favorites dying. Also, sometimes, the monster wins, and your story ends with the last survivor down. That’s okay. It’s far better than a situation where your monster loses credibility because it fumbles a kill. If you find the story really doesn’t work without them, then that’s what rewrites are for.

I should add, I’ve been approaching this from the perspective of a story where the monster is trying to kill the protagonists, but this isn’t a certainty. Sometimes in horror, the monster doesn’t want to kill your characters. If it wants something else from them, that can be even more horrifying. Another possibility worth mentioning is, sometimes you’ve got monsters that honestly do not care about your characters at all. They’re content to go about their business, oblivious to the damage they cause.

-Starke

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Q&A: Bullies and Superpowers

I was hoping you could help me with a problem my story. It complicated but the base of it is a boy who is a part of a superpower race. He was separated from his family as an Infant and adopted by human parents. They don’t notice his abilities (which in short is super strength) but still they raise him and let him attend a school. His powers are dormant and he gets bullied. I’m trying to find a way for him to accidentally activate his powers and harm the bullies but not kill them.

You know the answer to this one in your heart.

He kills them. Or, at least, he kills one of them.

That’s the situation you’ve created for yourself, and, you know, it is a great one for angst. This is a classic superhero setup, there are a certain number of power-types and power levels that won’t automatically result in accidental death when put under a stress test but the kind of punch through a wall/punch a bus super strength isn’t one of them. (Much less Superman or Hulk levels of super strength.) The only get out of jail free cards are against government agents, assassins, and other soldiers-types so far beyond the level of what a normal child can deal with that it’s obviously self-defense.

Physical damage to another person is path of least resistance, which means this boy could easily end up hitting back and putting his fist through the bully’s chest.  When you’ve got enough force behind you, you don’t hit people and they fly backwards. At a certain level of force, you just go through them. If he can crush a human skull with his hands when he’s controlling himself, then whatever he does when his powers activate is going to be 100x worse. If he’s powerful enough to stop a bus in its tracks, they’re dead.

This is the Uncle Ben setup from Spiderman. “With great power come great responsibility.” If you don’t figure out how to control yourself, then bad shit happens. Death is a great lesson about the necessity for control. Most superheroes have some secret shame or someone they accidentally killed when they’re powers activated, especially bullied teenagers.

Beyond that, bullying doesn’t play with superheroes and super-powered individuals the same way it would in a situation between two humans.  The problem is power dynamics.

Bullying is not about violence. Bullying is about power and control.

A bully attacks when there’s no fear of repercussions, no fear of consequences. This is why having consequences for violence in your fiction is so important, when you’re characters are making choices and taking action without fear of the consequences for those actions (and the follow through) they are bullies. They may be bullies we sympathize with, but they’re still bullies.

A character with superpowers versus the average human not only has the ability to act, but the ability to act without repercussions. If you imagined that their superpowers opened up a whole new venue for their fight against injustice against non-powered humans then that’s exactly what I mean. Their powers give them the freedom to act without fear and control others through the threat of violence when they are at no risk themselves. That is a bully and that is the logic behind how a bully operates.

Bullies act when they are entirely safe, when they know their opponent can’t fight back. Superpowers upend the scales, even when the character doesn’t know, a superpowered individual standing up to a bully who can’t actually hurt them is just another bully. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy in the accomplishment, nothing to bond the reader to them. There is nothing impressive about a character standing up or inflicting violence on another individual when the individual in question is powerless to stop them.

Violence in fiction is built on balance. Balance creates tension, two people of similar ability balance each other out and we as the audience know there’ll be some consequences to the scuffle. Audience expectation is not necessarily based in reality, but this is why weigh ins at prize fights are so important. The weight is supposed to show that they’re at least equal in this very narrow respect, regardless of any other aspect.

When you set the scales out of balance, you want your hero to be the underdog. Not secretly empowered, just an underdog. The odds are weighted against them, they’ll have to work harder in order to win. When the scales are weighted in the protagonist’s favor, they have the responsibility to act accordingly. This is where a surprise death can be so effective. An example is when a soldier character is in a recently conquered village and killed by a subdued villager. The situation was safe and then boom: death.

There are certain traits that will ensure the scales are permanently weighted in a character’s favor against certain opponents. Combat training, for example. Superpowers are another. Both require restraint and responsible use against specific opponents for the character to be perceived as a good person.

Remember, you’re never just balancing how reality works in your fiction. You’re also balancing audience expectation, genre conventions, pacing, and narrative tension. For obvious reasons, fictional fights and entertainment work differently than they do in real life. Fiction has a hierarchy of power that dictates expected behavior based on the skills one possesses. Working off generic assumptions rather than situational specifics based on your characters will only lead to a bad fight scene.

There is no narrative tension in a situation where the character was never actually in any danger. If you have no narrative tension, you have no scene. You’re just mashing puppets together.

Whenever you set out to write a fight scene, there’s one question you need to ask first: is my character in danger? If they’re not, then the tension’s got to come from somewhere else.

It’s got to be more than just an excuse to get your character to show their powers. That’s a narrative inevitability, not tension. Is my character going to kill this guy? That’s tension when the question jives with the character’s personal state and mentality. If not, then it’s a false question. The question has to be real and relate to the character as a genuine possibility.

Stories are built on the pervading question of: what happens? Answering that question creates the scenes which move the story along. Those questions create other questions, all of which should have a myriad of possible outcomes. Or, at the very least, a tick and a tock. Both the tick and the tock should have an equal chance of happening with the narrative consequences hanging on the outcome. Yes, or no. Life, or death. Kill, or be killed. However, these questions must be genuine, honest, representative of who your characters are, and relevant to their circumstances. If they’re not, you have no tension.

Narrative tension shifts as your characters make decisions, and moves based on desired outcomes versus the negative outcomes while weighted by audience expectation. There’s no tension in a character who wants to die dying, but there is if they realize they want to live and dying is still on the table. If they still plan on dying, and roll with “I’m taking you with me” as a heroic sacrifice then the tension lies in whether they succeed or fail. If they do die, but succeed then we get a cathartic release. The tension then shifts and lands on the surviving heroes, who realize they just lost one of their most valuable warriors on whom they can now no longer rely. Or, they live, and are cut off from helping our heroes anyway. Or, they get murdered by the Big Bad and the stakes have been tripled.

See, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re looking for that little part of you that goes, No! whenever some terrible event is about to happen.

Take Jedi Knight Ganner Rhysode’s heroic last stand in Matthew Stover’s Traitor to cover Jacen Solo and Vergere’s escapes from the Yuuzhan Vong seed world. A lackluster and generic Jedi formerly interested only in personal glory and recognition, fighting an alien warrior race from outside the galaxy who’ve already killed countless better Jedi.  A joke of a Jedi now the only one standing between Jacen Solo’s freedom, the galaxy, and conquest by the Vong. He’s framed in a gate, unlikely to defeat even one Vong warrior instead of the hundreds coming. Wielding Anakin Solo’s lightsaber, he battles until he’s standing on a pile of bodies, until the pile is a mountain, until… finally… he’s cut down.  Alone, in the dark, where there’s no one to witness or remember his heroism except his sworn enemies.

That’s tension.

Let’s get back to bullying.

Combat is 90% mind games and 10% actual physical harm. The bully lives in the 90% more than the 10%. They have a finely tuned understanding of risk assessment, and a need to establish control over their environment. They are frightened individuals whose lives are out of control, and they regain control by inflicting their fear on someone else. They’re taking out their insecurities on their victim. Ultimately, the bully is punishing their victim for the bully’s inability to control their own life. The bully builds their self-identity off their ability to take power from their victims, and that’s what makes them dangerous. From the bully’s perspective, a bully’s bullying is always about the bully’s self-esteem and self-identity. Their victim is a tool whose pain and powerlessness they utilize in order to make them feel good about themselves.

There’s a fantasy in conventional wisdom that lies with the idea that if you just stand up to the bully they’ll go away. They won’t. Often, the bullying will escalate and get worse. If a bully’s identity and self-esteem relies on their victim’s powerlessness then they must exert control over their victim. When their victim challenges that control, challenges their authority, they double down. You can have a character with superpowers retaliate against bullies but, unless they’ve got the perspective of Eleven from Stranger Things, all they’ll manage to do is get them to retreat for a short period. Then, they return with a new plan and new ways to bait their victim.

Say you’ve got a character with super strength who is trying to hide their powers from the public. The bullies discovered this character has powers because the character used those powers against them. However, they lived and said character wasn’t in control. Which means… they now move the bullying into a public sphere with other people present. Minor stuff in the hall, during PE, in class, all to get said other child to lash out. Bullies do this. If private doesn’t work anymore, they’ll move over to public. Slightly more risk but they’ll use social order and the victim’s own fears of discovery to enforce their control. After all, the stakes for the character with superpowers are much higher than they are for the bully.

A bully doesn’t care about what their victim can do. They only care about what they will do. A bully is making and taking calculated risks based on the knowledge of their environment and the power they wield. They almost always have some sort of safety net behind them, a powerful protector who lets them get away with their behavior.  Like most humans, the bully will revert to their first impression and work off that. You can have superpowers, but that doesn’t mean those superpowers will protect you from a bully.

Duncan versus Scott Summers in X-men: Evolution is a great example of the bullying continuing even after Duncan learns Scott is a mutant. He knows what Scott is willing to do, what Scott won’t do, and that the cost of the outcome is much higher for Scott than Duncan. By baiting Scott, Duncan potentially gets what he wants which is Scott kicked out of school. If Scott opens his eyes after Duncan steals his glasses, bye, bye Bayfield.

The kids on the bus bullying the school bus driver are usually the ones with influential parents. Or, they know that the stakes for the adult if the adult retaliates are higher. Maybe the kid gets a dressing down, but the adult loses their job.

Another great example of bullying in fiction is the first season of Stranger Things with Mike and his friends. Where when Eleven shames the bully by forcing him to pee his pants in front of the whole class, the bully just waits for an opportunity where she’s not there. He escalates, comes back with a knife and threatens to cut out Dustin’s teeth if Mike doesn’t jump into the quarry. (And kill himself.) Eleven saves Mike, but what ultimately drives the bully off for good isn’t just Eleven breaking bones. It’s the knowledge that she will kill him, mercilessly, quickly, and without remorse because this child is no different to her than the Federal agents who abused her. It isn’t the broken arm, or the superpowers, it’s the fact that Eleven is goddamn terrifying. It all happens at a speed too quickly for the bully to comprehend.

Bullying is about who can escalate further faster, bullies live in the comfortable state of knowing they can get there first, and they can go higher than you can. Whatever they’re showing in their hand, they’ve got a lot more lined up. Bullies are all about calculated risk. They wouldn’t be bullying if they didn’t have a firm grasp of social politics and an ability to manipulate the surrounding power structure to their own benefit. They’re sharp, and they pick their victims. They’re going after a personality-type, someone who is socially isolated and easy to intimidate. Someone without connections, someone whom when they’re both dragged up in front of an authority figure they can point at the victim and the authority will believe its the victim’s fault. Or, at best, equally to blame.

You can’t beat bullying with violence and you can’t stop a bully with violence, not as a long term solution. I don’t mean this as advocating for pacifism. Bullying is about power and power dynamics, it’s about control. I wish punching a bully was enough to make them go away. I wish having superpowers and punching a bully would be enough to make the bully go away. I honestly wish the catharsis of this entire setup was more than just an exercise in catharsis and Feel Good Violence. However, none of these states are true. In point of fact, violent bullying itself is Feel Good Violence. That’s why bullies engage in bullying. Controlling another human being is cathartic, it feels good and it makes them feel good. This why you authors who’ve never personally experienced violence or engaged with violence beyond the schoolyard should be careful with your characters. The first step on the path your imagination will lead you when it comes to violence is bullies, because bullying feels good. It is easier to simulate abuse and abusers as violence in fiction than it is any other form of personality, especially when you’re trying to exert some measure of control over your environment through your art.

When a bully is beat up, the bully only ever learns the same lesson that the bully already understands. For a character with superpowers, by beating up a bully they become a bully.

Superman can’t beat up bullies because the bullies can’t actually hurt him. They can hurt his feelings, but when they shove him into the locker he can’t feel it. In fact, he doesn’t have to move if he doesn’t want to. He could stop being bullied at any point in time, but he doesn’t. The reason why Superman doesn’t stop bullies from bullying him isn’t just about keeping up appearances. The truth is that when you deflect a bully off yourself, you don’t stop them from bullying. They just find a new target. This is why you can’t save someone from being bullied, you can make the bully afraid of you but that does a fat lot of good when you’re not there. With Superman, or Peter Parker, or Scott Summers, the bullies bullying them is safer than it would be if they were bullying the average human being. In some ways, these superpowered characters save those vulnerable characters around them by taking up the bully’s attention. (This is not a method you should be replicating in real life, these are rules for characters who can survive being tossed off a fifty foot cliff.)

The problem in fiction with human bullies versus superpowered characters is power dynamics. A character with superpowers inherently has more power than a human being, therefore the rules are different for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Two Weapons From Two Periods In Versus = Bad News Bears

I’m working on this story and for plot reasons there’s gonna be a spear vs. Poseidon-style trident one-on-one fight, so I’d like to ask your take on the trident’s viability as a weapon? And how much of a difference would it make between the other person having a hoplite-style setup of shield and spear, or just a two-handed spear like in Chinese wuxia stories? Thank you very much.

Not all weapons of similar category are the same, or those from a similar time period.

The wuxia spear seen in cinema transitions between being a one handed weapon and two handed weapon. The second hand in a two handed weapon is there for guidance and accuracy, but the techniques can be performed one handed.

For reference, the style you’re probably thinking of is more contemporary with the rapier than any ancient setting and some variants are even more modern.

There’s about two thousand years of technological advancement between the Hoplites and the Chinese martial art we’re talking about. The Wuxia of today is going to cover the martial styles that come out of Hong Kong cinema and Chinese film, rather than the ones that existed when the genre began as a form of Chinese storytelling in 300-200 BCE. This is the Warring States period, and foundational to modern Chinese storytelling. However, when looking at the Warring States period in modern Chinese cinema, it’s important to understand the period is depicted as a fantasy setting not unlike 14th Century Arthurian Camelot. Culturally important, not necessarily represented with accuracy. For example: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, The Emperor and The Assassin and many other films are set during this period. None of whose martial arts are historically accurate. The characters will also usually have superpowers by means of martial training/enlightenment as that’s a convention of the genre. This is the straight up origin of the Martial Arts Gives You Superpowers trope.

A wuxia hero can fly over/run up walls as a genre conceit, just like a Celtic hero can grow tall as a tree, talk to animals, or ride on the shoulders of salmon. (That’d be Sir Cai. Yeah, that Sir Kay.) Same with the Grecian mythological heroes. If we’re running mythology though, most of this post is moot.

The strength of the Grecian spear is the Phalanx formation, and it’s not meant for dueling. The modern version of the Chinese wuxia genre heavily relies on martial arts that didn’t exist or were not used in the historical period. So, having the wuxia spear go toe to toe with a trident from the Bronze Age would be akin to taking a rapier against an FN P90. It won’t end well. You’d end up with the same issue with any hopilite era weapon versus the basic wuxia spear, one is vastly superior in technological advancement and comes from a period where martial training was not only a thing but highly specialized in concept and materials.

The problem here is anachronism stew, and the assumption that all weapons within a single category are the same or equivalent. They’re not. Even when we step back and try to limit our options, those advantages present in one weapon style will heavily outweigh those in another with almost no way to make up the difference.

What I’m saying is that even if you took the anachronistic fighting style seen in 300, (mostly fine for the first part, but when we break from formation and hit dueling the fight choreography transitions into Chinese spear combat) or this fight scene between Hector and Achilles from Troy where the techniques with the spear are predominately and anachronistically Chinese. Even then, the style used by the wuxia staff/spear in Chinese cinema is going to wreck its day. If you see spear combat out of Hollywood cinema these days, the film choreography is taking its ques from Chinese cinema. This includes The Viper versus The Mountain in Game of Thrones. Compare to combat with the European spear.  Here, we have Roland Warzecha discussing dueling with the Medieval spear and a concept called “claiming the center” which is a necessary component to understanding blocks, counters, and striking distance. This concept did not exist for the Hoplites yet, but it will for any duels you see on screen today.

So, for wuxia, we’re talking a warrior trained in a complete and comprehensive martial style, who has been training for at least four to five years. You don’t pick and choose weapons out of Eastern martial arts, you don’t train in the spear and nothing else. Chinese martial arts are rooted in curriculum. Any wuxia style you look at is going to have movements which stem from a base in hand to hand, the staff transitions into spear, and even into the sword. Take a fighter of a Chinese martial style and they’ll have a grounded base in hand to hand, be able to use both the staff and spear, and possibly other weapons as well. These are martial arts where all aspects feed together to create harmony, and where one technique is the extension of another. While this is our modern understanding of how a martial arts curriculum works, this philosophy is unique to East Asia and India (where it originates.) The Greeks and the Europeans would not have viewed martial arts in the same holistic way, especially as Chinese martial arts are heavily reliant on Chinese philosophy like The Tao. (Also Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.)

There are cultures where you can just grab a weapon, get trained on that specific weapon, and run off with it. We still use these distinctions today with certifications such as knife training or sword training versus someone who is trained. Holistic systems are not built for a smash and grab, take one piece and you’ve consigned yourself to taking everything that comes with it. The weapon style isn’t built for the person wielding it to not understand the hand to hand elements. The concept of specialization is very different in Eastern styles than it is with its Western counterparts. The holistic approach is the purpose behind scenes in Chinese cinema like this one from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where the warriors are just working their way around the room switching weapons.

This is important to understand, not just because the Greeks existed in a period before the modern concept of a trained military existed. You can’t separate a weapon from the time period it belongs in because weapon’s technology is still technology. This is scientific advancement. The closest the Greeks had to a trained military were the Spartans and, in the modern sense, the Spartans were highly inefficient. A Chinese martial artist from the Boxer Rebellion would wreck them in fairly short order. The Warring States saw the emergence of personal defense martial arts for commoners, so martial training wouldn’t necessarily be limited to the nobility.

The second problem is here: the basic misconception about two handed weapons.

Most two handed weapons are actually one handed weapons in that they can be wielded entirely with that singular hand. You use the second hand for finesse and guidance, the the first serves for rotation and power. The vast majority of the techniques can be done entirely with a single hand. Light spears like the kind usually seen on screen in Chinese film, are very light. The trick to understanding their movement is controlling their balance point. So, rolling a staff between your fingers or bouncing it off your shoulders isn’t that impressive. They’re parlor tricks that work off the same concept as a soccer ball, you’re controlling and bouncing the staff off its balance point. The same is true when rolling it between your legs, around your neck, shoulders, and the rest of your body.

Drop/throw the staff forward, kick it at its center with the ball of your foot, bounce it off the incoming fighter’s chest, and catch when it rebounds back. Favorite tactic of wuxia cinema.

When you’re looking at the Chinese spear spinning, they’re actually messing around with the balance point to create momentum in order to change position. A foot swipe with the instep kicks the bottom of the haft up to the power hand and into an action position. This works because the guidance hand is already holding the staff halfway up the haft at or slightly above its balance point. The balance point on a staff is found at the point where you can balance it on a single or two braced fingers.

Control of all weapons is based in balance, not in strength. The power of a spear comes from its momentum, and greater ability to generate it. You halve the thrusting power of a spear by gripping it at it’s center, which is the point behind holding it lower and using two hands. (You also have a greater reach, control, and can use spears with longer shafts.)

With the wushu spear, it is not uncommon for the wielder to switch their grip from the end to three-quarters/midway up the shaft. And to shoot it at their opponents from a couched position. A shoot is when you thrust the spear with your back hand and let go, then catch it with the front hand or the back hand before it escapes your reach. This creates a sudden onslaught of speed and power which can be used to break past an opponent’s guard or allow for a quick transition in grip. There’s a spear technique in wushu where you spin the spear around your neck, lock it horizontal on your shoulders, and shoot it out in a strike or simply strike with it from that position while advancing.

This is what we’re talking about regarding attack vectors, a key part of martial arts is getting yourself on an angle the enemy can’t block and there are lots of ways civilizations all over the globe have developed as a means of achieving this goal.

The third problem is this: Chinese weapons work off a foundational concept called information overload.

This is a strategic battle tactic which involves overloading the eye with as much movement as possible. This is part of why these martial arts work so well on film because the same rules apply. The flags and red tufts on the weapons serve this purpose. The more motion there is then the harder it is for the eye to track and, like a bull, your eye is drawn to bright colors. In the case of the basic wushu spear, the figure eight rotation is not just a flourish but an attack. The tip is sharpened steel is capable of cutting, so you get more motion than as a single thrusting attack. The shaft is lightweight, made from softwoods but durable which aids in its flexibility. This is crucial to understanding strike patterns seen in wuxia films. However, you can get Chinese staves with a full steel shaft, which will wreck any bronze era weapon via contact. The spear techniques will coordinate a chain of attacks together in continuous motion to distract the eye and knock the opponent off balance for when the final attack comes.

A dual technique shifting between striking Low at the feet to High at the head wasn’t really a concept for the Hoplites practiced in their spear combat. The European spear will just go under the shield, a Chinese spear will attack the bare feet. You can’t get the vector while holding the spear half way up the haft, but you can when holding it two handed. The fast forward movement where your opponent is driven back is what the cross-step is designed for.

The cross step: Instead of coming at you forward facing, your opponent’s whole body turns sideways, bends the knees and one foot steps behind the other then in front of the other in shifting rotation as you strike downward at the feet in synchronization with each step. There are variants of this shuffle, but it allows the fighter to move forward at a half-run while they rush their opponent and strike at the same time. (This pattern will allow for shifts into different strikes as the body opens, and a myriad of alternate stances. Footwork is the least understood and most commonly underestimated element for non-martial artists.)

They’ll do this until spear/shield falls over, they hit their foot, or spear/shield manages to get them off that vector which they will then proceed to roll over onto another one because they’ve got the footwork to open up the full 360 around their opponent. Spin steps are for direction changes. The basic martial arts strategy is always to begin by attacking the unguarded parts of the body in order to reach the parts of you that are protected. If someone carries a shield, the first order of business will be to get rid of it.

However, the methods in how this is accomplished changes substantially in sophistication depending on time period. This is why you can never count on two similar weapons from two different periods in history being the same. Combat marches forward. Basically, when pairing weapons for combat, you don’t want to choose weapons from different periods in history because technological advancement will wreck your day. A Hippolite is not going to be prepared for a warrior who can shift from a direct line onto a diagonal, much less one who can rapidly circle behind them via footwork. They won’t have the footwork to keep up.

A Chinese martial art style will not only be more efficient in terms of killing, but also more efficient in terms of conserving energy. They can attack more often, more quickly, and be less tired at the end of it. They practice conservation of movement versus the wide swinging seen in Hollywood which is great for camera work but not efficient. The main focus in terms of dueling with weapon/hand to hand advancement is discovering new vectors on which to attack that cannot be blocked. Those vectors shift from major to minor, from shifts in direction, diagonals, to simple adjustments in strike direction. This begins with counters.

A counter is when you block and then shift into an attack, all modern martial arts have these baked in to their training. This is natural, but it wasn’t for the time. This is what happens when your trident or spear gets blocked the first time on its strike, the other spear adjusts past it and comes forward into a follow up strike.

A martial artist trained in a similar style will make this more difficult because of arm position, hand position, grip, stance, tension, and the expectation of pressure in the lockup between two weapons. Both participants would be trying for the same follow up in their attack. A block isn’t necessarily enough to stop a Steel Era weapon, and certainly not enough for weapon from the 1600s. Knock away and strike. Slide around, protect yourself from the counter, and strike. Claim the center.

If you’ve ever wondered why weapons are primarily held on diagonals for defensive positions, this is why. Circular rotation is better for knocking weapons away or applying pressure, thus making it more difficult for the opposing weapon to hold position. The triangle creates a fulcrum of force with both parties attempting to break, adjust, or ease past it.

We do this in hand to hand too, the front hand works for catching, blocking, or redirecting an incoming strike to create the opening while the second hand (your power hand) strikes. It doesn’t always work that way though, the second hand can become the grab hand and you can use to pull the other person forward into a strike from the first hand. While the vast majority of martial artists from holistic styles have a preference for their power side or power hand, they are ambidextrous. They’ll be more technically proficient with the hand that isn’t their right/left primary because that’s the hand which does the guiding/defense/detail work.

In the Hoplite era, the shield is going to be doing most of the work when it comes to blocking. The combat is not going to present much of a threat to a more modern combat style, as it isn’t designed with later martial art or military tactics in mind. The hoplite shield is reminiscent enough of the metal shields of later eras used by the Chinese, so it would have techniques to get past it baked in. You may be wondering what the shield has to do with a trident, but the point is the shield was the best defense they had.

A trident is not a weapon, unless we’re talking about the version seen in Catching Fire. (Which is not, really, a trident.) Here is a historical breakdown on the different kinds of tridents from fishing to hunting to pitchforks and, finally, weapons. It discusses the Shaolin trident, which is also an axe. The trident has the potential to be a weapon, and the design was later featured in several European polearms like the spetum. However, again, the trident is not a weapon by itself. It’s designed with fishing, hunting, or farming in mind. Like the machete, it’s one of the better options you can turn to in a pinch. If its magical, that might give it a leg up, otherwise it will lag behind weapons that are actually weapons. The best advantage the trident has is using the outside tips to catch and lock up the spear to disarm. However, they’re not designed for that. They’d need to be able to catch the spear tip, lock up the spear, and disarm the spear before the other person recognizes what’s happening.

The main problem with the trident is that it’s a gladiator set up. Gladiators are arena combat in the same way prize fights, pit fighting, UFC bouts, and bare-knuckle boxing function. They’re designed to drag out combat as opposed to ending it quickly. Ironically, and much as I hate the stuntmen queuing in Gladiator, this scene emphasizes the point nicely. Maximus is a Roman General, he fights like a warrior. His intent is to finish the fight as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is counter productive to the goals of the arena. The Roman Arena was a show, it’s entertainment. Functioned in the similar vein to modern prize fights with similar priorities, the fighting was structured to extend the show long as possible. The goal is to be as inefficient as possible.

Hence: the Trident.

Visually stunning, memorable, wicked, and, unless redesigned, utterly useless for anything other than surface injuries. The problem is that due to the three heads, the trident can’t penetrate as deeply as a spear. It gets stuck. It’s designed to, in fact, because you don’t need much penetration for fishing and the barbs hold the fish in place. However, while it won’t go deep, it will cause lots of bleeding and surface injury.

This is why the Romans used it in the arena, most of the damage stays superficial and surface level. This is why they carried the net and the knife, because the knife is what would do the actual killing.  Add in some wonky balance issues in comparison to the spear, and you’ve got a weapon at a disadvantage.

This doesn’t mean the design never saw use. There’s the dangpa which is a 17th century Korean weapon. You’ll notice though, it isn’t exactly a Poseidon-esque trident. It’s more like a fork. The head is much smaller, the tips are bladed rather than barbed, and its going for limited penetration with extra pig-sticking damage on the internals. It won’t go as deep, but its designed to make big holes for lots of bleeding. The dangpa was meant to go after pirates, so you get distance, extra damage, and limited chance of the weapon getting stuck.

Just as a general rule, never pair Bronze Age weaponry against martial styles where going into the air is an effective strategy. The hoplite’s overhanded with the spear, which significantly limits it’s mobility options and power. The spinning with the Chinese spear allows the user to create a defense while transitioning up and down the length of the shaft. They can control how close or how far they are from their target without stopping the movement/momentum of the weapon. The weapon style allows for the wielder to use the weapon close to the tip in short form grip and transition back to the end of the haft in order to swing it one handed. The swing will then transition into another position to make use of the ground they’ve gained. Basically, you’d be looking at something similar to the Donnie Yen/Jet Li fight sequence from Hero. We’re talking about someone moving a metal spear fast enough and hard enough that the metal bends as a result. That’s something some styles take advantage of and build toward, depending on historical period. The basic concept here is why you’d never want to pit these martial systems against anything Bronze Age. What gave the Spartans and the Persian Immortals the advantage in their period was the fact they were training and no one else was, but they were outliers.

We’re talking about a combat system designed for a period where a professional military force is nonexistent. The Grecian city states didn’t have the resources to keep a standing military force, they were ad hoc militia. It worked for the period. It didn’t work against the Romans, who had a standing military force that was much closer to what we’d consider professionally trained soldiers.

This is why versus with weapons sucks. Weapons are a form of technology, they belong to specific time periods and they’re designed for the problems existing within those periods.

A character with a Chinese spear out of wuxia legends would get:

Comes from a period where standing militaries exist. (Huge advantage.) Likely trained from childhood, but even if they’re not it doesn’t matter. Trained in a comprehensive martial system. (It is really hard to overstate how important this concept is.) Can chain multiple attacks together, different attacks, different techniques, with footwork, blocks, and counters.  They’re likely a professional fighter.

A Hoplite gets none of these things, and a Spartan (which is the closest they have to professional soldier) would get wrecked in a duel. The guy wielding the Chinese spear is working off a conceptual understanding of martial arts that doesn’t exist yet for them as a culture and they don’t have the luxury to develop. The heroes of wuxia myth have more in common with the knight-errant than they do with the Grecian heroes.

This is before we get to the fact that the Chinese spear can be either steel or wood. The Chinese had the resources to do it, they could and did make spears entirely out of steel from tip to shaft. There’s a huge technological jump between bronze and iron. One will fall apart on you in battle while the other will make the other humans fall apart. You can’t really make longswords out of bronze (the Celts did and they would collapse during battle) because the metal wasn’t stable enough.

China is one of the great martial powers of its region and era, it is comparable to Europe in terms of militarized technological advancement. You’ll get people who argue they were more advanced, which depending on period is certainly possible if not likely. For comparison, it’s basically like saying, “I want a Roman gladiator to fight a knight.” That could happen, but it wouldn’t end well for the gladiator. Or wanting a samurai to fight a US Marine. It wouldn’t end well for the samurai. It didn’t actually, when they encountered the Black Ships.

You can’t strip the training that comes with a weapon to make them comparable to one from another period in history, especially an older one. Early Era spear versus trident would be a very boring fight. They’d both be overhanded and poke at each other until someone died. The one with shield has the advantage because defense and the spear has greater penetration, so that’d be the winner. Give the guy with a trident a net and we’ve got a gladiator arena. It’d be a slow fight, but it’d be more fair. The net provides options, and allows the opportunity to negate the spear/shield.

It might be entertaining though for story purposes, that was the point of the gladiator arena. Entertainment as opposed to efficiency. The goal of storytelling is to be entertaining. The reason for a trident is spectacle and/or desperation, which is still spectacle.

Or the trident is magic.

That might change the rules.

-Michi

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