All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Facepaint

Any thoughts on using war paint in your novels? Aside from culture, does it serve a purpose, like disguise or intimidation?

Apparently the origin of eyeliner among the Egyptians was to reduce sun glare on the sand. From what I remember, cheek stripes have a similar function, though I can’t remember the details.

Of course, grease paint can function as camouflage.

It can also be used for the reasons you suggested. Painting your face to resemble something unnerving (like a skull) could shake enemies who saw your face, giving the wearer an advantage. This isn’t strictly about intimidation, but to “fake out” enemies into believing the fighter is supernatural in nature, and giving them the impression they can’t win. This may sound juvenile, but the belief that an enemy cannot be defeated is incredibly effective.

The simpler and easier to recognize the image is, the more effective it will be, so the skull suggestion wasn’t random. Some kind of demon might be another option. Stuff more complicated than that would (probably) not have the desired effect. (This can also occur with masks. So a fighter might wear a skull bandana under their helmet to similar effect.

You can use makeup to effectively disguise yourself in a number of different ways (regardless of gender.) It’s technically distinct from war paint, but the possibility is there.

If you’re trying to impersonate another faction that had distinctive face markings, then, yes, war paint could probably replicate that.

So, yes, face paint in war is a practical consideration, not just an aesthetic or cultural choice.

-Starke

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Q&A: Left for Dead and Threats

So there’s the cliche where a character is wounded and left for dead – but what is a plausible escape when enemies are bayoneting all the bodies to be sure? My MC is able to get her revolver point-blank, hair-trigger against a soldier’s foot to get him to back off (it’s late 19th century and he doesn’t want to lose his leg). But I feel like that’s too easy.

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There are two different issues.

This is not a cliche about being left for dead. That’s where someone incapacitates another character and doesn’t care enough to check and make sure they got the job done. (Or, if it’s their allies, they don’t go back to see if they survived.)

When it’s an antagonist, it can indicate a callous disregard for the survivor, or it could it could simply mean they have more important things to do and survivors don’t matter to them.

If it’s allies, it could indicate that they don’t care, but it could also be because they didn’t have the opportunity to go back and check. There’s a lot of potential scenarios on this, so I’m hesitant to label the entire thing a cliche because it’s not.

The former ally who comes back as an antagonist because they were left for dead by their friends, especially when those friends had very valid reasons not to go check on them, can a bit cliche, but there’s enough scenarios and potential variety that I’d hesitate to mark the entire thing down as cliche. It’s not.

This may seem obvious, but if you’re sending out soldiers to execute any survivors, that’s not being left for dead, that’s making sure.

I’m saying this because, in fiction, being left for dead is very survivable. (In real life, less so.) If you don’t see a character die there’s a serious chance the author did that because they want to bring them back later. That part is cliche, and bringing back “dead” characters is something you should use very sparingly, but not every writer feels that way.

Second problem is the threat. I’m going to say some fairly obvious things I want you to think about. Bayonets attach to rifles. A rifle is a ranged weapon. Your character is threatening someone who is pointing a gun at them right now, and is clearly willing to kill them because they were just killing other survivors and can still kill them even if they back off as requested. Soldiers do not (as a rule) work alone. (And if one was alone poking around through corpses, they’d be looting, not making sure.) They are part of a larger organization. Much like cockroaches, if you see one soldier, there are many more there.

We’ve talked about this before, but for a threat to work your character has to be able to articulate a coherent harm to the target, and the threat has to persist for the duration of the coerced action. I’m pointing this out, because threatening a character who is better armed than you is a losing proposition.

Your character has a revolver, the soldier has a rifle and friends. This is a very bad situation to be in.

The only way out is to remain undetected until the soldiers wander off, or someone else intervenes.

The revolver is useless as a weapon for getting out of this situation. Shooting your way out isn’t an option, and the gunfire will (almost certainly) draw more soldiers. While your character could probably dispatch one, having more, better armed foes swarming in is a death sentence.

Your character’s only real option is to avoid detection, and play dead. If they’re lucky, the soldiers don’t really care about checking the bodies, and as a result might poke their stack and move on, or that something else, more pressing will come up and the soldiers will be called away. Worst case, it may mean they need to hold their tongue if they are stabbed someplace non-critical.

This scenario is incredibly disempowering for a character in it, because almost anything they do is going to be a death sentence. This isn’t a bad thing: It can create genuine fear for the character’s survival. But, turning that around by threatening a soldier undermines the scene. Your character has just demonstrated there is no real threat, so the entire sequence suffers.

And, of course, as soon as he backs up, he’ll shoot her.

If you want to turn this into an empowering moment, it’s probably by enduring pain. She gets stabbed non-critically and that wound will be with her for awhile, but she needs to remain quiet and resist the impulse to cry out. Then escape with the added pain of the wound, and (eventually) get it treated, before it gets infected and kills her. Injuries like this tend to add all sorts of complications down the line.

As a writer, “extra complications” is a good thing. I’ve said before, your job is not to make life easy for your characters. You benefit when they suffer, because you turn situations that would been trivial into new challenges. If her leg’s been injured she will have a harder time walking out. If her arm is injured, she’ll have a harder time climbing or fighting. These things can take simple (or uninteresting) solutions and make them far harder (or impossible) for the character, which gives you more material to work with.

The alternative option is for someone to rescue her. This could be indirect, an attack elsewhere could draw the soldiers away, a spy or traitor who knows she’s there could call the soldiers off the corpses before they get to her, or an officer could simply order them to do something else on pure coincidence. Realistically, those are the best possible outcome for her. She walks away uninjured. They may not build her character, but they should come as consequences for her prior actions.

-Starke

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Q&A: Villain Security Services

I was wondering what kind of guns security guards of a building would carry (not specific models, just the types). From my research it’s small guns. But are there any exceptions? I am writing about sketchy millionaires and their houses/facilities house small armies and small prisons. They have many enemies and they are really paranoid about safety. Could they insist on bringing heavier weaponry in? Would it be possible and convenient? I want to give a realistic approach. Thank you! 🙂

There’s a lot to unpack here, so, let’s take this in no particular order.

I’m not going to harp on this too much, until it’s relevant, but, millionaires don’t really have the funds to do what you’re talking about. This is more in the range of the billionaires. If you’re talking about someone who outright owns buildings in a major metro area, and controls a major corporation, that’s probably someone who’s net worth runs to ten digits.

With that said, small arms (or “small guns,” if you prefer) accounts for most firearms. Basically, if it fires a projectile under an inch (so, .100 caliber), it’s small arms. This includes, handguns, automatic rifles, shotguns, LMGs, DMRs. Basically, anything short of a rocket launcher.

Okay, so profiling this, there’s a wide range of situations here, and even with money, a lot of things that simply aren’t worth the legal scrutiny. So, suddenly you need to start considering the kinds of places you’re talking about, and what’s being done there.

First of all, even if your backing is a billionaire, funding is not unlimited. In the context of how you approach your day-to-day life, sure, but in the larger context of someone running a business, not so much. They may have the money to outfit everyone with top of the line military hardware, but that stuff’s expensive, and if you’re talking about a corrupt corporate exec in a developed nation, outfitting your office security with assault rifles is going to be more of a liability. On the other hand, the head of a drug cartel is going to get a lot more value out of arming their personal bodyguards with serious combat gear.

If your shady exec is operating an office in a major metro area, they’re going to have access to an armed response team from the police. That means, arming their guards with anything more than handguns (with, maybe, some shotguns or semi-auto rifles) in the security stations is a non-start. If something happens that justifies a more armed response, they can call in SWAT. Or, failing that, they may have mercenaries off site (assuming that local law enforcement can’t be trusted.)

This office building scenario also works off the idea that they’re not going to do anything visibly illegal in the middle of the city where anyone could see. Or, if they are, it’s going to be well hidden. That same building could have a high-security bunker dating back to the cold war, which has a very different security profile.

Assuming that the local police are effective, then having armies of mercenaries deployed in urban areas is going to require some kind of external authorization. Now, they might use them very selectively. Deploying a squad here or there to deal with specific problems and then slipping back into hiding once they’ve completed their objectives. In that case, we’re probably assuming the range of military hardware: Assault Rifles, Shotguns, DMRs, possibly even Anti-Materiel Rifles, as the situation warrants.

Somewhat obviously, if your mercenaries start opening fire on crowded city streets, that’s going to draw the attention of the police in short order, and no matter well equipped and trained they are, they’ll be outmaneuvered, outnumbered, trapped, and then either captured or killed. That’s something your millionaire can’t buy his way out of.

Houses are a little different. It’s easier to justify keeping a small security detail on site, and arming them with semi-auto rilfes and shotguns. In some states they could even kill intruders with impunity. But, there’s some things here you might want to consider that open their options up a lot.

If the house is a mansion outside of town, and police response would be (understandably) delayed, they can get away with a lot more. Your millionaire would have more room to simply kill and disappear someone. Now, this isn’t without limitations, but, keeping mercs on site, who simply dispose of someone who shouldn’t be there, and wouldn’t be missed (or at least, wouldn’t draw a lot of attention from their disappearance), is disturbingly plausible. At that point, the mercs simply need to be able to get rid of the body (which is easy), and any durable evidence, like the victim’s vehicle, which is doable. Dump their car in a bad part of town and let it get ransacked and towed? Or just torch it. There’s options here. Things like assault rifles might raise eyebrows, but they’re unlikely to draw attention out there.

When you say small prisons, you don’t mean small prisons, you mean black sites. These are incredibly illegal, and the kid gloves are off. These tend towards more conspiracy driven narratives because very few people will have the means to fund one of these without leaving a paper trail, and move enough people through them to justify the expense. Even if they did, the risks associated with discovery are astronomical.

Staffing a black site would involve mercs, full military hardware, and a somewhat remote location. We’re talking out in the desert, where no one will go looking. It also means they need to be able to fully shield themselves from anyone ever figuring out who they are. That requires a mess of shell companies, which, we’re back to the conspiracy, because those shell companies will leave a paper trail.

It also means your millionaire is now bankrupt. Maintaining personal bodyguards isn’t too expensive, even in the extreme you’re looking at less than $250k a year in expenses. Chances are, their income can cover it, if they’re so inclined. However, spending hundreds of millions on a remote Bond villain lair, and then outfitting it with henchmen? Yeah, that’s going to tap your millionaire’s net worth pretty hard. At that point, the question would be, “where did your money go?” With huge expenditures on a remote build site, where all it takes is one low level contractor accidentally posting photos to Twitter for the entire idea to start to coming apart at the seams.

I suppose it would be possible, for them to be hiding it under a ski resort or something, which would be all kinds of goofy, but we are, functionally, talking about the villain’s lair from a superspy novel at this point.

So, real talk for a second, your character has, functionally, unlimited funding, and wants to eliminate a foe. Do they:

  1. Spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a facility out in the desert, staff that facility with 50-100 people, any of whom could now destroy their financial empire or blackmail them?
  2. Hire a hitman to kill their foe?
  3. Or, feed information to their foe through a third party, and then litigate the hell out of them the instant they try to take the information public? Destroying their foe’s career, life, and reputation, in the process?

If you answered 3, you’re probably familiar with what happened to Gawker.

Or, you remembered that mid-2000s Spiderman comic where Norman Osborn (The Green Goblin) sued the shit out of Ben Urich for outing him as The Green Goblin. I suppose that’s possible too. And, yes, that is a plausible outcome for trying to expose a successful businessman as a supervillain, even when that successful businessman really is a goddamn supervillain.

Option 2 is cheap, efficient, and leaves far less of a paper trail. A one time payment from your character to someone else. Who may even be one of their employees (so this gets bundled into payroll as a bonus for whatever.)

It’s worth noting that, option 1 is only really, attractive to intelligence agencies (and, shadowy trans-national conspiracies that have been operating since the dawn of civilization because logic and reason left the building at this point.) You could make it work if you’re moving the victims across national boundaries into countries that really don’t care, but this is still the domain of actual spies, and state actors, not angry corporate executives.

The first option also, technically, works if you’re talking about criminal enterprises. If your character is a drug lord, it’s not really a surprise that they’re torturing people in the back of an auto body shop and dumping their body in a landfill somewhere.

Now, there’s an edge case here that’s worth considering, if your corrupt corporate exec is operating a mercenary company. That would justify the existence of a black site (as it’s intended as a military base), but we still have problems. Mercenary companies aren’t that valuable. And the risks they’re taking on are not worth what they’re getting out of it. Obviously, this is a little different if their activities are occurring on the other side of the world, but it’s still easier to simply have someone snuff a troublemaker or enemy and dispose of their corpse.

The funny thing about all of this is, 3 is a very safe option. Best of all, it’s legal. You don’t have to kill someone to destroy them, you just need to be able to throw money at them until they’re no longer relevant.

When it comes to the security itself, you’re asking to skip over what really does set it apart, the hardware.

A normal, armed security guard might be sporting something like an older gen Glock, Smith & Wesson 5900 series pistol, 1911, some M9 (Beretta 92) knockoff, or a number of other cheap, reasonably reliable, handguns.

In contrast, your millionaire’s security team may be equipped with higher end, or at least better looking, weapons. They may be carrying things like H&K USPs, Walther P99s, Beretta PX4 Storms, FNX series pistols, FN Five-Sevens, or SIG Pro variants.

In the cases of things like shotguns, the changes are more subtle. You might still see something like a Remington 870, or a Mossberg 500, but the better funded group would have higher grade examples of models.

With rifles, you would see a difference depending on the millionaire’s outlook. If they’re the ones looking for weapons, you might see things that look slick, like the War Sport LVOA, while if they have someone in procurement with a military background, you’re more likely to see things like the HK416.

In rare cases, where the millionaire’s interests are in the military industrial complex, you might see stuff that’s very recent, like HK433 rifles, Desert Tech MDRs, or Glock 46 pistols. Or, slightly unusual weapons, like the Kel-Tec KSG shotgun, or Vector SMGs.

The result is, the difference will be in how well equipped their guards are likely to be. In fairness, this also isn’t proof of anything, because a non-corrupt corporate exec, with reasonable security considerations, could outfit their security with high end hardware, as appropriate. (Yes, including up to full merc teams in some overseas locations.) And, it’s also possible your paranoid, corrupt, exec wouldn’t splurge for better gear on their office security. Again, if something goes wrong, they can call the cops. The same is true of their personal bodyguards. Things like S&W 5900s, or Glocks are still solid, reliable, service pistols. They’ll will get the job done. They may not be flashy, but how cool you look doesn’t matter in a gunfight.

-Starke

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Q&A: Writing Vader

Earlier on, I saw you answered an ask about a Darth Vader type character. You said that they usually don’t make good POV characters or protagonists, with the role they ordinarily are in; I was wondering if you had any thoughts about if you /could/ make them work in a POV/protagonist role, just out of curiosity?

The old advice: Show don’t tell, is appropriate, though this isn’t usually what we mean. Characters don’t really work like this in prose.

The problem is Darth Vader in Star Wars, isn’t a character, he’s an agent of the plot. He acts to further the story, and creating coherent character to back that up is extrapolation by the audience.

The compelling version of Darth Vader as a character? You created that for yourself. Your version of the character may not match what someone else took away.

Now, moving into Empire, and Jedi, Vader does start to have hints of a character, and ultimately a character arc. But, if you ever accidentally think that you know the definitive version of Vader, remember that Hayden Christensen’s Anakin really is Lucas’s intended vision of the character.

Characters like this work best when the audience is creating their own version of them. To do that you need to restrict the amount of information they have on that character’s state of mind, motivation, and other relevant information. This is easy on screen, but it becomes very difficult in prose.

In most forms of media, you’re an external observer viewing the participants. When you watch a movie, you’re seeing the actors playing their characters. When you read a comic, you’re looking at the characters and what they’re doing. Prose is different, you’re usually inside the head of one of the characters, and reading their experiences.

If your PoV character is interacting with something, the author is probably contextualizing that character’s experiences and perspective on the subject.

In contrast, in a film, when the PoV character is interacting with someone, the audience needs to extrapolate the context.

This is where film viewing becomes incredibly subjective, because you’re being asked to evaluate what you’re seeing and square that with the filmmaker’s intended reading of the character. In the end, you’re asking if the character’s behavior remains consistent and coherent throughout.

This can create situations where two people can walk of the theater with vastly different opinions of a film. An example we’ve mentioned before is The Gambler (2014), with Mark Wahlberg. If you come to the film with an understanding of compulsive gamblers, the film actually makes a lot of sense. I’ve said before, it’s a good film, with some very good performances. However, it doesn’t do much to cue the viewer into the specific psychology of the main character, and many of the reviews I’ve read basically come to back to the point of, “the character’s behavior makes no sense.” It’s pathological, consistent, but not normal, and if you don’t have that frame of reference you can’t get into the character’s head.

Star Wars is content to let you invent your own version of Darth Vader. Chances are, that’s a very scary dude. The film then never, really, tests your knowledge. You don’t need to understand who he is to follow his role in the story. Even when the film hints at structures that make no sense, it’s okay, because you’re prone to just ignore them.

For example: How, exactly, is Tarkin? An officer in the Imperial Navy, holding Darth Vader’s “leash?” A Dark Lord of the Sith, who could literally kill him with a thought? I mean Peter Cushing was awesome, and my biggest regret of the prequels is that Wayne Pygram’s version of Tarkin was, basically, a cameo. But, how is this guy holding Darth Vader in check?

The films don’t care, and honestly, neither should you. It doesn’t impact the film. Being privy to Vader’s inner thoughts on Tarkin wouldn’t enhance those scenes. If anything, it would make it worse, because then the mystery would be lost. We’d know why Vader relented. We’d know exactly what power Tarkin had over him.

This is horror writing. Horror works off of restricting the information the audience has access to. The more you know, the less scary it is. If you’re reading a horror story, you’re probably not privy to the monster’s point of view. I won’t say, “never,” but, it’s not the norm. However, if you’re watching a horror movie, first person PoV shots from the monster aren’t out of the question. These do completely different things. In prose, it would start to inform you about the monster, and start giving you the tools to understand what it can, and cannot, do. In film, it can tell you how much peril the characters are in without their knowledge.

So, what I’m sort of saying is that, Darth Vader has more in common with antagonists like the Terminator or Predator, even though he exists in a much more politically complicated environment. You can’t really tell stories from their perspectives without destroying the horror, either, if you’re wondering.

The once place where you can, absolutely, tell stories about characters like this as the protagonist is video games. You want to see what Darth Vader looks like as a protagonist? You can look to the 2016 remake of Doom. All you know is that the denizens of hell are extremely terrified of the player character, to the point that they gave up on the idea of even killing him, chained him to a slab, and locked him away. In the context of a game, the idea that your foes are terrified of you just feeds into the power trip, and you don’t need a full explanation for why.

So, yeah, you can create a character like Darth Vader as the protagonist, but, prose is not the best form of media to present that kind of a story.

-Starke

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Q&A: A Death in the Story

I’m going to break this question into two pieces. I don’t normally like doing that here, but the example really drifts into a separate topic, and I don’t want to simply cull that out.

Do you think, instead of killing parents off for books, they could allow their kids to go on adventure or take the kids with them on adventures?

Yeah. You’re asking about a specific sub-genre and then asking, “but what about stepping out of the sub-genre?” Those stories already exist, in a number of forms.

Not every story about kids adventuring on their own comes from dead parents. As much as you can joke about Pokemon being a, “child neglect simulator,” there is a narrative there about children simply going out and playing. The series was inspired by, Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood hobby of collecting insects, and his experiences in rural Japan. (With a healthy dose of imaginative fancy.)

I’m going to break this into three groups. The parents are dead, the parents are alive but disinterested, and the parents are alive and active participants.

These are all different kinds of stories, and I’m being a little reductive with these classifications because we’re tracking a specific element across all the kinds of stories that use that.

Live long enough, and you will bury your parents. It’s inevitable. At some point, growing up, everyone realizes this. There’s no escape, we will all die someday. Realizing that is one of those critical moments in your growth from child to adult. How you deal with that knowledge is deeply personal to you as an individual. However, it also means losing a parent does force you to grow as a person.

So, there’s two separate versions of this: the parent dies a catalyst for character growth. I’ll be honest, there’s an entire genre of this, in many different forms of media, where a child or teen escapes the trauma of dealing with a parent’s death either into fantasy, or by running away. In cases like this, the parent needs to die for the child to experience and learn from that. These will usually be coming of age stories.

In some cases, you can even see variations of this genre with adults dealing with the death of their adult parent. There’s also a related genre with parents dealing with the loss of their child or spouse. Again the focus is confronting death and grief (or retreating into fantasy to avoid that) so if there’s no death, the story’s beats aren’t going to work.

So, in these cases, the crux of the story is leaning to deal with the loss of a parent, so yes, they do need to be dead for these to work. (As a quick aside, I can’t really cite any of these off the top of my head. I find this genre deeply depressing and tend to avoid it.) There is a related sub-genre of children dealing with a parent’s illness (terminal or otherwise), and all of the above permutations also exist, though ultimately, that is a different kind of story, and trying to transition from dealing with death to only dealing with the fear of death seriously alters the context, and the kind of story you’re telling.

The other side of this is, you can have stories kill off the parent in a cheap attempt to raise the stakes. I’m looking at Batman here.

To be clear, I don’t have anything against the idea of an orphan protagonist, when their parent’s death is just backstory to where they are, however I do dislike the practice of executing characters to cheaply manufacture drama.

The orphan child hunting down the individual who killed their parent is cliche, but, as character motivation for a revenge story goes, it works.

Does the parent need to be dead? Well, in this case, not really. They need to be “gone,” but that’s not necessarily the same as dead. An, “orphan,” child hunting down the people who took their family doesn’t require their family to be dead, simply off-stage.

Similarly, an “orphan,” who’s family is gone and is accidentally on an adventure doesn’t require the family to be dead. It’s been a while since I read C. S. Lewis, but as I recall the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, aren’t coping with dead parents, even if they were sent to the countryside to avoid a very real risk of death.

I’m trying to keep things general here, but pretty much any portal fantasy that removes the child will start to get into this territory without needing to kill anyone.

I suppose, Harry Potter is a similar, though distinct variant here. Ignoring that Harry is an orphan, he is surrounded by the teachers who are, more or less, tasked with functioning as parents. While this is an awkward example, it’s worth remembering that sometimes there are other characters who take up a guardian role for a child, even if their actual family isn’t there. So, if I was being really serious about having a consistent continuity to examples, this should probably be further down the list.

One of the more disturbing transitions here is the idea that the child’s parents are there, but they don’t care. That may be a little harsh, because there is still some gradation between the protagonists of something like the Pokemon games, where the characters are set loose and assumed to be, “staying safe,” and examples like the film version of Buffy (1992), where her parents really don’t notice, or care, the condition Buffy comes home in. Though, as with Harry Potter above, Merrick (Donald Sutherland) does end up acting as a (slightly unhinged) parent to her.

There is a theme here I’m trying to ignore, but we should probably address. At some point, in the process of becoming an adult, you need to grow past the limitations your parents imposed, or can impose. Freud called this “killing,” them, and many writers seem to take that advice literally. Mentors (whether they’re your character’s actual parents or not) don’t need to die in service of the story. It’s an easy way to catalyze that transition, but, it is not necessary, and can be cheap through overuse.

I’m thinking of how a lot of fantasy stories have dead parents and I’m looking for a way to circumvent that for my own story without having the parents seem neglectful.

There’s a lot of stages in growing up, and stories can explore any of those experiences. This means: Yes, there’s room for stories about children adventuring either with their parents present and assisting, or absent for any number of reasons.

In normal circumstances, parents fill in as ad-hoc teachers for their children and their interests. This could overlap with their actual area of expertise, or it could be they’re trying to keep up with their kid’s interests. (Granted, the latter is less common in fiction.)

If you look back a second, there is an edge case where your character’s “parents” could be their actual teachers. It also fits with boarding school scenarios (like the Harry Potter example above.) It’s a slightly different dynamic, but you’re not chained to their adult oversight being blood relations.

So, you can have an adventure where the kids are going along with their parents, who are doing what they can to keep them safe. (So, they’re not going to intentionally put the children in harm’s way, or ask them to do something too dangerous.) They can still perform safe tasks, based on their age and aptitude, and start learning about that field.

Also, with older teens you can afford to give them significantly more autonomy. They’re not adults yet, but they are capable of operating on their own. Something their parents may rely on if necessary.

There’s a continuity here: as the child ages, they’re going to be able to take on more responsibility, be better able to actively participate in events, and they’ll gradually develop more autonomy. The exact age of your characters will determine where they end up, and on a longer timeline of events, that progress will form the core of their arc.

I know Steve Irwin brought his daughter with him (I distinctly remember him and a few others holding an alligator and him asking her to hold down the tip of the tail to help.) Thoughts?

I’m a little hesitant to use real world examples, especially since Steve Irwin did die doing what he loved. However, that anecdote about Bindi Irwin does illustrate what I was talking about a second ago. The alligator isn’t going to eat her with its tail, and he wasn’t asking her to just go grab an unrestrained, predatory reptile.

With that in mind, there’s plenty of stories about kids going off and working with their parents. The Amelia Peabody Mysteries by the late Elizabeth Peters comes to mind, where over the course of the novels, Amelia’s son eventually takes over as the primary narrator. (The books also transition from first person limited to an epistolary format when the in-fiction “author” changes.)

The important thing to remember is what their death means in a larger context to the characters. Killing a character (or “characters,” if it’s a package deal) should always have significant importance on the characters or plot.

This isn’t a, “sanctity of human life,” argument. As the author your job is tell the story, no matter how unpleasant it may be for the characters. The issue is simpler: You don’t want to waste your audience’s time and attention.

As a writer, you’re asking your audience to read your story. You’re asking them to pay attention to each detail. The unspoken promise is that this will somehow improve the experience. It can move the plot forward, it can offer important context, or it can build the texture of the world and its inhabitants.

It can be tempting to simply throw the kitchen sink at your story; you may have a grand idea of a massive world filled with people and their history, but you’re better served culling that down to the important details. There’s a piece of writing advice from Elements of Style, “omit unnecessary words.” Usually, we think about this at a sentence level, but apply it to your writing as a whole. Ask yourself, “does the story need this character?” If the answer is, “no,” you can’t simply kill them off, you need to remove them completely.

A truth about death is, it’s not the end. I don’t mean in some metaphysical sense; death does not end the influence of a person; their absence lingers and the consequences of their actions persist.

If you’re going to kill someone, you need to remember they’re still a part of the story, even after they’re gone.

-Starke

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Q&A: Odd One Out

I was wondering, can three people practice sword fighting at once with each other or would it be better done by adding in a fourth opponent and breaking them into pairs?

I’m assuming you mean three characters “sparring.” Any number of characters can drill simultaneously. That is to say, they go through the motions, they practice individual techniques. There’s no need for a partner, so three characters can do that without any difficulty.

If characters are engaging in mock duels, then rotating someone out is probably the wisest option. There’s not much value in practicing 1 v 2 unless they’re working on an exhibition routine of some sort. (This would include stunt actors, if you’re wondering.)

Having said that, having a third person to watch can help, as they’ll be able to see things that the two participants may miss, and being able to bounce dialog between three people will be less monotonous than trying to manage dialog with just a pair.

Ironically, my recommendation, if you did choose to add a fourth character would still be to only have one pair practicing while the others watched from the sidelines. How, exactly, they rotate out doesn’t matter. For variety’s sake, I’d recommend against it being two specific pairs switching out. You’ll get more value out of the dialog if the characters stay in flux.

Remember, fighting requires a lot of attention, so your sideline participants are at a significant conversation advantage, unless your fighters stop what they’re doing to talk. If that happens it might be a reasonable moment to swap combatants. This isn’t about winners or losers, it’s about practice.

I’ll also throw out our normal warning about sparring: this is about practicing techniques, and learning to assemble them into a viable fighting style, it’s not about two characters fighting in a socially acceptable way. That said, 18th and 19th century European academies were somewhat lax policing their student’s behavior with swords, and there is an entire history of European dueling long after the practice became illegal. So, if your characters are, “playing,” that’s a bad idea, but it was something that happened.

-Starke

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Q&A: Ignoring the Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Broken Wrist

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

So, three things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Sparring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a learning experience, not a contest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember…

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

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

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

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

I will leave you with this last instructor note:

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

-Starke & Michi

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Q&A: Heavy Infantry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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