All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Knee to the Face

If my protag managed to get the person they’re fighting to kind of double over (probably by punching them in the gut) would it be at all realistic for them to break the other guy’s nose by slamming his head down while also bring long their knee up?

Yes, that’s an extremely common and effective strike combination. Well, the sucker punch, less so, but running a knee into their groin or stomach, then following with a quick knee strike to the face is. Face strikes are an excellent stun, and it’s more effective than relying on a knee to the groin incapacitating your opponent. There’s the added bonus of a lot of blood from the nose, but the real kicker for the knee strike to the face is the force generated by slamming their head down into the rising knee. The force comes from two directions, not just one. This is what makes the knee to the face more effective than the knee to other parts of the lower body.

You’re going to do more to them than break their nose. They’ll be dazed, disoriented, and bleeding profusely from their nose. They’ll also be crying, not from the pain but because a broken nose will do that to you. Depending on your character’s combat tactics and amount of time they have available, they’re free to bring the head up (because they’ve still got hold of it) and repeat steps two and three. Or, they may move on to working the body over because they’ve got the other character in a state where they’ll have difficulty fighting back.

A lot of combat combat works like this. Create an opening, and immediately exploit it before your opponent can react. This is how real combat works, but you don’t often see it from writers without a background in violence. They’re working off the attack, defend, attack rules turn based combat from RPGs, or the queing system from television. Real violence is a function of taking the initiative from your opponent and pound on them until they can no longer retaliate. Combination strikes, the process of stringing multiple attacks together into a cohesive combat strategy, are often difficult for the unitiated to wrap their heads around. For a lot of readers, thinking ahead in combat like this will impress them.

A lot of basic attacks utilize a simple one-two setup-exploit structure like the sucker punch with the follow up knee to the face. Getting your hands on your opponent’s head and bringing it into a solid knee strike is an effective tactic utilized by many different martial arts from around the world. The technique is also an easy one two the slightly better than average schoolyard bully can master.

The big thing with head strikes is making sure the bones you’re connecting with are more solid than the bones you’re striking. For example, you do not want to strike the forehead. It’s basically just a large, heavy, bone plate. Either side of the forehead, where the plates meet, is an excellent target. You’re aiming for a structural weakness. The face is made up of a lot of relatively fragile structures, with a chunk of soft cartilage for good measure. Your thigh, in contrast, is a massive, solid, load bearing, bone, reinforced with heavy musculature. Yeah, hit them with the end of that. Their face is way more fragile. (Your kneecap should be pretty securely locked in place when you connect, unless you’ve got some serious medical condition.)

This is the same danger with punching, and other hand strikes. Your hand has twenty-seven delicate bones, they allow for fantastic flexibility, and utility, but your opponent’s skull has eight fused plates, and fourteen in the face. Still want to punch them there? Personal advice, aim for someplace softer, or use something better suited to abuse than your hand. (Your knee is much better suited for that.)

So, let’s talk about combat inertia for a second. This is an abstract concept, but it’s a way to explain why combos like this work. It’s easy to get into a “turn-based” view combat. Your character takes an action, their opponent acts, your character acts again. In the real world, combat rarely works like this unless both fighters are completely exhausted.

Combatants are often looking for ways to exploit their opponent’s defenses, find/create an opening, and use this lead in as a launchpad for their real attacks. Tagging someone in the groin, or in the gut, won’t incapacitate your opponent, but it can buy you a little inertia to follow up. Usually, a knee to the face won’t put your opponent down. But, use the first to transition into the second and you’ve bought some time. No turn for them right now.

Here’s a fun thing about this specific combo. You can do it from nearly anywhere. If you’re on either side of your opponent, or facing them, you can deliver a quick strike to their gut, and follow it with knee strike. Usually from one knee strike to another, though punches and elbow strikes can certainly get you started depending on the exact positioning. Anything that will make your opponent double over. Depending on placement, this can smoothly transition into a number of chokeholds. This is a tool, and it can be mixed with fluidly mix with other options. The sucker punch to the stomach, into a knee strike to the face, can easily transition into a guillotine choke when forward facing or a standard triangle choke from the side. The strike can transition into a push kick, such as sucker punch, knee strike, push kick to the stomach where you crank the knee to your chest and shoot your foot outward. Or, simply rinse, lather, repeat with the knee to the face until they can’t stand up anymore.

Also, inertia doesn’t mean you have to stop at two strikes. You can keep going until you wear yourself out. The important thing is being efficient, and not getting into a situation where you’ve exhausted yourself against a fresh foe.

Combining, or chaining, moves like this is an important part of hand-to-hand combat. Surviving a fight means keeping control of a situation, and refusing to let your opponent(s) do the same. Preventing them from ever attacking, because they’re too disoriented by your attacks is a good way to do exactly that.

-Starke

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Q&A: Abuse and Training

I read something about coaches hitting or dragging athletes around when they make mistakes. Some see this as abuse and others as standard that produces winners. But this reminded me of the post about abusive teachers not being very effective. Any thoughts? Where is the line? Is it different or the same for sports? Should athletes or martial arts students tolerate what might be considered abuse because they want to be there or is there a line they should look for between conditioning and abuse?

The line is when it transitions from conditioning to abuse. What you’re describing? That’s abuse.

The line is consent. You go to someone; say, “I need to get better at this, push me.” That’s the road to conditioning. That’s training. You’re consenting, you’re signing up, and you’re asking someone to push you until you can do things you didn’t believe were possible.

In a lot of ways, Martial Arts training is all about this. It’s asking someone to help you push yourself past the illusory boundaries you believed were real.

Also, important to understand, this requires mutual trust. You’re trusting your instructor that they have your best interests at heart, and that they know what they’re doing. They trust you to give your all, and that you’re trying to improve.

This relationship is a two-way street. It’s not a relationship of equals, but you are working with your instructor to improve.

This is also true of coaches. A good coach is there to talk you through. To teach you about the game you’re playing. To guide. To help you learn. To push you. Because that’s why you’re there.

There’s a simple truth, personal growth is uncomfortable. Sometimes it hurts. It requires you to do things you don’t want to. A good coach, or instructor, will put a path in front of you and tell you to go. To push you. While also paying attention to ensure you don’t harm yourself in the process. It’s the goal you’ve set in front of yourself, and telling you how to get there. They’re there to help you get there safely.

An abuser doesn’t care what you want. Their goals are what’s important. There’s no two way street. You do what they say or else. Your well being is, at best, an afterthought. They may tell themselves that they get results, that they’re providing a necessary lesson. Tough love. But, in the end, you’re not working together, they’re just working you over until you do what they say, or you break. At best, you might get somewhere in the vicinity of where you wanted to be unharmed. More likely, you’ll be wounded (emotionally or physically) along the way. Your safety wasn’t a consideration, just the end abuser’s goal.

Physical abuse, like you’re describing, happens, but it’s somewhat rare. Emotional abuse is far more common and insidious. Again, it’s not cooperative. The difference is just whether the experience is physically or emotionally painful. Ironically, this is the easier of the two to recognize subjectively. If you have an instructor or coach that makes you feel like shit, who is pressuring you and using your connection to your teammates to push you past your established physical limits, that’s emotional abuse.

The worst part is this transition can happen after consent is given. You can ask for a push, and the instructor turns around and pounds on you. This doesn’t really change the line. You trusted them, and they violated it. Unfortunately, for many, the realization that something’s amiss only happens when a serious harm occurs. The lesser injuries, stresses, and psychological strain, tend to get missed.

The thing about abusive teachers is, they’re not effective. I can say that from personal experience. I had a swim instructor nearly kill me when I was younger. All I learned was to stay the hell away from swimming pools.

Abusive methods can result in short term behavioral changes. That is to say, yes, you can pound on someone to, maybe, make them do what you want right now. But, it comes with steep long-term costs. Anyone who says that abuse builds character, or toughens people up is coming out of a position where they really do not care about the well being of their charges.

Not everyone who’s abused realizes it. Depending on your background, this is one of those incredibly counter-intuitive statements. Someone who thinks that coming away from a lesson or training feeling wounded may legitimately believe that’s normal. That everyone feels that. If they’re still getting some value out of their training, they may even believe that this is the way things should be. This is where a lot of abusive coaches and instructors come from. They went through this kind of hazing, so they believe it must be necessary.

The hard part about this is, there’s a gray area which is entirely subjective. It’s abusive if the behavior is harmful, but not abusive, if both participants can build from it. As with a lot of social interactions, context is key.

-Starke

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Q&A: Handgun Accomidations

How can my character who is missing a thumb use a handgun? Can some kind of handicap device to built? Or would you recommend using their non dominant hand that does have a thumb?

So, this kinda depends on a couple things. In general, the first suggestion would be to learn to shoot off hand. It’s easier, and you don’t lose much accuracy with practice.

Normally, first metacarpis creates a natural resting point for a handgun grip (and most firearms), allowing the weapon to transfer recoil into the user. If your character is completely missing their thumb (as in all three bones are missing), this resting point will be absent, and without some kind of careful accommodation (such as a completely custom grip, or surgery), it would probably be impossible to control recoil.

If the thumb had been lost as the result of trauma, it’s likely that the first metacarpal would still be intact, meaning their grip would be less secure, but recoil would be manageable. Again, using the off hand would probably be preferable, but it would be possible for them to use a firearm with the thumbless hand.

There’s an additional consideration here. Some firearms are not designed to be used in the left hand. This isn’t a unique issue for your character. How ambidextrous friendly a handgun is varies by the individual models, sometimes even within different generations of the same gun.

Generally speaking, there’s three tiers of ambidexterity in handguns. Firearms that cannot be reversed at all, ones that are normally ambidextrous, or mostly ambidextrous, and ones that can be easily converted depending on the hand.

What this means for you is, you may need to check the specific firearm you’re thinking of.

The issues to look at on a handgun are the grip, magazine release, slide release, and safety.

Asymmetric grips are a little unusual in handguns. They’re more common with sporting rifles. In cases like this, you’d need an entirely separate replacement grip to fit the off hand. In a few rare cases, it may not be possible to replace the grip at all.

Asymmetric magazine releases are more common. This includes things like the 1911, Glocks, Beretta 92, and some SIGs. These use a simple push button magazine release, which is mounted at the bottom of the trigger guard. It’s easily accessible with your thumb, while holding the firearm with your right hand. However, depending on your grip in your off hand, you may need to adjust the pistol significantly to kick the magazine out when holding the gun left handed.

Additionally, because these magazine releases rest under the middle finger while holding the gun with the left hand, it’s possible to accidentally drop the magazine when firing, due to recoil on some models, for some shooters.

There are several, semi-common, magazine release methods that are ambidextrous. A pair of levers located in line with the trigger guard, which can be pressed down to release the mag. Sometimes, instead of a single push button, there will be one on either side of the frame. These usually will work if either button is pressed. Finally, an older style is a simple mechanical catch at the base of the grip which holds the magazine in place. Pressing this back will allow the user to reload. This last variation poses a unique challenge to your character, because, you press the catch back with your thumb, then pull down on the magazine with one of your other fingers, without a thumb, it would be significantly harder to reload a firearm that uses this style of magazine release.

To be fair, reloading may pose a unique challenge to your character, as you use your thumb to manipulate the magazine. This might be less significant if they’re simply discarding partial and spent magazines, but that’s expensive.

The slide release is a lever or button which will allow the slide to close after it’s been locked open. Usually, it will lock open after cycling with an empty magazine. This significantly speeds up reloading on an empty firearm, and provides useful information to the user that the gun is dry. In many cases, this is mounted along the slide, and can be accessed by depressing it with your thumb. However, if you’re holding the firearm in your left hand, you may need to reach over the slide to close it and cycle the first round into battery.

Swapping the slide release over to the opposite side is sometimes possible, but requires the user to replace the slide, and release lever in most cases. Now, some manufacturers do release entire kits, or mirrored versions of their pistols for left handed shooters. Though, fully mirrored weapons are something of an oddity.

It’s also worth noting that, replacing the slide will sometimes also reverse the ejection port. This isn’t a huge thing most of the time, but can make the gun more comfortable for a left-handed shooter, as the brass will be ejected away from their face rather than towards it.

Also, as a bit of random trivia: Many first person shooters feature reversed ejection ports on their firearms, so that the gun ejects brass in front of the user. There’s no technical reason for this, it’s done to make the gun more mechanically interesting when fired.

Ambidextrous safeties are more common, but it’s entirely possible a left-handed shooter will have to reach over the weapon to adjust these controls.

Now, I’ve been saying left-handed, on the assumption that your character is right handed. If your character is left handed, it will probably be easier for them to operate a firearm with their right hand, and stabilize with their left. Reloading would still be a challenge, however, simply because of the size, and weight of the magazines.

So, it depends on the exact condition of your character’s hand. If they’re right handed, and only missing a digit or two from their thumb, it might still be easier to use it in that hand. If they’re left handed, firing right-handed is probably the way to go. If they’re right handed, and the thumb is completely missing, down to the wrist, then the left hand is probably the way to go. Though, it is possible there might be some kind of custom wrist locking grip, I’m unaware of, that would allow them to operate it in their dominant hand without issue.

-Starke

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Q&A: John Wick

so on the topic of hitmen, how do you guys feel about john wick? like, his skills and how he fights and how vengeful he is compared to real hitmen?

Compared to people who may not, actually, exist?

We’ve talked about this before, but the sort of “master assassin,” for characters like John Wick, Leon (from The Professional), Vincent (from Collateral) or Agent 47, probably, maybe, don’t exist. There are certainly assassins out there who’ve escaped capture, but it’s an open question if this kind of top grade, professional killer exists.

The idea of their existence makes sense. At least, the idea of former intelligence officers, and people similar skill sets going private, and killing for money, makes sense. It does happen with mercenaries and some organized crime groups (Cartels in particular actively court ex-special operators in their territory), so it makes sense.  But we don’t know that they’re real.

Within that context, it’s complicated.

Up front, I like what I’ve seen, but I’ve never sat down and watched the films in their entirety. Keanu Reeves is still a fantastic actor, and he puts in an excellent performance. He’s also spent a lot of time working out the technical aspects. So, his weapon handling, and hand to hand work looks authentic. This includes a lot of stuff with handguns you don’t usually see outside of CQB training.

In particular, the films are very good at showing Wick quickly transition between multiple stances and approaches. This has left some people with the perception that the Center-Axis Relock stance is some kind of firearm enhanced hand to hand style, which it’s not. He rotates between that and more conventional shooting stances as the situation warrants.

In particular, Wick’s stance shifts plugs one of the weaknesses of CAR. It’s more difficult to acquire targets if you don’t know exactly where they’ll be, while more traditional stances handle that better, and allow for faster aiming, but leave the user’s weapon more exposed. 

So, all of this makes sense, and looks consistent with someone who had significant combat training from some source. The only real nitpick here is that Wick’s training is a little bit too up to date for the character’s backstory. CAR is a very modern stance, and it hasn’t really disseminated into the general population yet.

I’m far more inclined to cut it slack than I am with something like Taken, where the character’s hand to hand training is unworkable for his situation. But, it’s a little out of place. That said, it is the right tool for the job.

Now, I’m going to blame The Internet, at large, for something. This is unfair, because I know better. But, the, “he’s avenging his dog,” meme is what got me to pass on the film originally. If you’re looking at that and saying, “this is the reason,” then, no, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s not the real motivation.

I hate being the one to kill a joke like this, because inevitably, someone’s going to say, “yeah, but we all understood that,” and someone’s going to pipe up that they didn’t get it was a joke, or just keep quiet.

So, no, this isn’t a guy taking revenge for his dog, it’s a guy who used to work for the Russian mob, who thinks his old boss is trying to wax him being proactive and taking apart the organization. That’s reasonable. Maybe even three films reasonable, depends on how thorough he wants to be.

There is one thing that bugs me a little. So, Wick’s hand to hand is (mostly) Judo, his handgun stances range between CAR, Isosceles, and Weaver. This is all entirely reasonable for someone with a background in the American military, police, or intelligence communities. It’s a little weird on someone who was supposed to be a hitman for the Russians. At least, with the character’s background, and the film’s apparent time frame (CAR is a very recent pistol stance.) It’s not a deal breaker, and I still think it’s some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in years. So, this is more of a nit-pick than a serious criticism.

So, on the whole? My impressions of the films have been extremely positive. I’ve simply haven’t kept up with my to-watch list of films.

-Starke

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Q&A: Prosthetics

Do you have any thoughts in general on disabled characters fighting or disabled people wanting to learn to fight in general (inside or outside of a classroom setting)? Realism is important but I find the way people dismiss the idea overly pessimistic so as to be kind of unrealistic in itself. But I suppose it depends on the disability and who the characters are fighting. Edward Elric is the only positive example I can think of that doesn’t put Ed on the sidelines for missing limbs.

The thing about characters like Edward Elric, and I suppose Adam Jenson, is that they have combat grade prosthetic replacements. (Not sure what it says that my immediate thought after FMA is the Deus Ex reboot, but, whatever.)

The thing about a disability, when it comes to combat is, it’s only a disadvantage if it impairs the user. At some levels it doesn’t matter if someone has all of their original parts, so long as they have all the parts they need.

In the case of both examples I just gave, the replaced limbs are actually upgrades. They incorporate functionality beyond the originals. Unless, they were supposed to have arm blades to begin with.

There’s historical precedence as well. Götz von Berlichingen was a 16th century German mercenary who lost his right arm to canon fire during a siege on Landshut in southern Germany. He replaced it with a prosthetic and continued to fight as a mercenary for decades. Incidentally, on the anime theme, Götz is almost certainly the inspiration for Guts from Berserk.

So, there is some, real precedence, for someone to be combat capable with a missing limb. And, of course, when you’re talking about a setting with combat grade cybernetics or magic, it’s entirely possible they may have the technology to replace lost limbs.

So, in settings like that, if your character has their prosthetic in working order, that’s not really a disability in the specific context of combat. In some cases, it’s an advantage. A metal or cybernetic replacement will be more durable than the original meat. That said, unless it’s specifically able to self-repair, any damage is persistent, and it would (probably) require maintenance and upkeep of some sort. Same thing holds true for eyes, ears, other things. If your setting allows those to be replaced with a prosthetic that is at least as good as the original body part, there’s no problem here.

If someone is straight up missing a limb, that’s going to seriously impair their ability to fight. This isn’t just a disability issue either. If you’ve two functioning arms, and one of them is seriously injured to the point where you can’t use it in the fight, that’s basically the same disadvantage as someone who lost the use of theirs years ago, or never had one.

Also worth noting that in the real world, prosthetics have come a long way in the last few years. I haven’t seen anything I’d call combat grade out there, but it will happen, sooner than we’d expect.

I mentioned it in passing, but it’s a similar story with eyes or blindness. If your character has cybernetic replacements, or has gems of true seeing fused into their sockets and connected to their mind through enchantment, it really doesn’t matter if they don’t have their original eyes, they can see. In some cases they may have superior functionality.

There’s another edge case here, a character with an enhanced prosthetic eye might not need both eyes to function, provided it offers range finding function. You can file this under, “be creative.”

Also, if you do have a character with prosthetics, you’ll probably want to spend some time focusing on that. It’s an important part of who your character is, and how they interact with the world around them. It’s also aspect of their experience which is going to be unfamiliar to most readers.

The manga version of Full Metal Alchemist pays a lot of attention to Edward’s prosthetics, and their effects on him. So, the arm isn’t just a cosmetic freebie, it’s a part of the character and something that needs constant attention and work. It’s a good model to take if you’re wanting to go this route.

I’m just going to add here, there’s nothing wrong with someone who has a disability wanting to learn Martial Arts. This happens all the time, and it can be an excellent, positive, experience for them.

Not every teacher or school is the same, and I’m sure there are some out there who don’t live up to the standards I’m about to set, but any good martial arts instructor will seek to aid each student, and adapt for their physical limitations.

I’m all for people with physical disabilities finding a martial art that fits them, if that’s what they want. It can be helpful, both on an emotional, and physical therapy, level.

If you are disabled, regardless of the severity, and want to learn a martial art, go for it. Seriously. It will require effort on your part, but that’s going true of everyone, disabled or not. Special accommodations may be necessary, but that’s part of your instructor’s job. Above all, be honest with your instructors about your limitations. 

-Starke

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Q&A: Women in Star Wars

Are the amount of women in the military in the new Star Wars really unrealistic? I saw a guy complaining about how the movie didn’t explain why there were so many women in positions of power when I thought this was unfair. We have Leia, Holdo, and Phasma. Leia is a Princess with a lot of power and a great reputation— of she can make herself a general even if she wasn’t good at it. Phasma might be the only high-ranking woman in the First Order. That leaves Holdo. But is it really that shocking?

We have way more than that. Even if we restrict ourselves to screen canon, that includes Sabine and Hera from Rebels, Jyn Erso from Rogue One, Ashoka from Clone Wars and Rebels. I’m also skimming over mountains of background characters from the original trilogy who, technically, have names. Even in 1983, the version of the Rebellion on screen had a substantial number of women in their ranks, and was led by Mon Mothma (Caroline Blakiston.) In the original films, Leia Organa was more than a princess. She was a politician in the Senate, a key agent and leader of the rebellion. She smuggled the Death Star plans and got Artoo off the ship at the beginning of A New Hope.

This is without dipping into the old Expanded Universe, which had loads of significant female characters, including Mara Jade. I’m still somewhat baffled that, if Disney was going to salvage anything from the EU, Mara wasn’t on the top of the pile, even ahead of Thrawn. Worth noting that in the Old EU, Leia was the New Republic’s Chief of State.  

Important to remember that in almost all of the Star Wars media, women appear semi-consistently at nearly every cross section. There are leaders, support personal, junior officers, pilots, commandos, and soldiers, with a few notable exceptions. For example, I’m not aware of another female Stormtrooper aside from Phasma (outside of EA’s Battlefront games.) That could simply be a personal oversight.

Star Wars hasn’t always been extremely female friendly. There’s always the infamous metal bikini, and some of the stuff with Xizor was more than a little rapey in the old EU. I’m also not inclined to wave this off; it is a problem, and something that needs to be considered in the larger discussion.

However, complaining about fairness is a trap. It tries to derail the overall discussion with irrelevant minutiae. “But, it’s not fair, because it should have been [insert male character who hasn’t appeared in print since 1996 and is probably no longer in canon here] instead of…”

It’s not that there can’t be an intelligent discussion on fairness, it’s just that in this context, the discussion would be pretty damn short: “Is it fair to evaluate the competency of a candidate based on their genitalia?”

This also doesn’t mean that everyone in a position of power is the right person for the job, or even the best qualified. There’s nothing fair about it, but their genitals are irrelevant to that discussion. Someone whining about how “it’s unfair there are so many women in positions of power,” is deliberately conflating these two threads.

So, is the number of women on screen realistic? Maybe. I’d argue that, if anything, it’s still a bit low. Slightly over half of the human population are women, so it’s entirely reasonable to have a setting where your military is pretty evenly split. Is it realistic for women to hold positions of power in a setting where modern day gender discrimination doesn’t exist at all? Yeah.

The person you’re reacting to has no interest in an honest discussion. They’re not shocked, they’re throwing a petulant tantrum, because they see female representation as a zero-sum loss of prestige for themselves. Realistic? No. Fair? No. Shocking? Only in so far as they can milk it. They’re horrified of the idea that they might need to engage with women as human beings, and as a result, they’ve gone to the internet in search of a venue to cry about it, where they hope someone will toss some concessions their way.

Also worth noting, on average, people like your example here will start complaining about, “over-representation,” when the number of female characters exceeds ~30%. Long before you’re actually including a greater than average number of women to your story. Just, something to consider, the next time someone starts crying about how there’s too many women in a story, when more than half of the cast are male.

So, let’s move on to world building: It’s entirely possible that a resistance or other underground organization would include disproportionate female membership. This time with 20th century examples:

During World War II, the French resistance (the Maquis) made extensive use of female operatives for both support and combat roles. This was in part because the French military had been decimated prior to the occupation, but it was also pragmatic, because women would draw less attention from the Nazi occupation.

Similar examples occurred with German Intelligence operations in the United States during WWII, where the vast majority of the adult male population was subject to the draft, and as a result, men were far more conspicuous. This strongly incentivized the use of women as spies.

Another example, this time after World War II, is slightly more ironic. During the Algerian revolution, the rebels made extensive use of female operatives because the occupying French forces were resistant to interact with them, and as a result, they had easier access through, and around, security.

The Maquis are particularly relevant when discussing Star Wars, because there are intentional parallels between the Rebellion and the French combination of surviving military units mixed with and reinforced by civilians with limited combat training, engaging in guerrilla hit and run tactics.

When you’re making your own setting, there’s no reason you should think you need to adhere a specific quota of characters by gender. Except, maybe, to check yourself, and make sure you’re not being biased. Otherwise, yes your character’s gender is an important part of their identity as an individual, but that doesn’t dictate what their jobs can (or can’t) be, unless you’re baking rules like that into your setting. Star Wars doesn’t, and it’s stronger for that.

Diversity is an important part of your media consumption habits. It helps you see the world from new perspectives. Seeing how other people look at the world and respond to it. The guy you found was, quite literally, complaining about being exposed to a perspective he didn’t want to have, because he might accidentally empathize with a member of the opposite sex.

-Starke

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Q&A: Desperation

How does desperation affect people who are or at least feel like their lives are at stake? Is a desperate person really more dangerous than one who feels like they have more (and maybe less costly?) options left? I feel like probably a trained fighter who’s been psychologically conditioned to deal with such situations this would be the case, but what about like…average people? Do they panic, try things that aren’t likely to work, get more aggressive, etc? Does it vary from person to person?

The short answer is, “Yes, it varies.” Not just person to person, but also within the specific circumstances of that individual. There’s no unified, “a desperate man/woman/escaped wombat will behave in this specific way.”

Desperation comes from an inability to deal with some kind of jeopardy. This may be personal to the character, or it may be a threat to something or someone that character cares about. The threat may be realistic, it may be existential, or it may be imagined. All of these things will drive that character to behave in ways they wouldn’t normally. (Or it can result in complete shutdown. That’s possible too, though it’s distinct from what we usually think of as desperation.)

At very simple level, desperation will drive people to do things that would not normally do, (assuming they act at all.)

So, two things about your question. Even highly trained individuals can succumb to desperation. This can be a threat to them, their ideology, or their friends and family. The difference is, they have wider skill set, meaning they’re less likely to get into a desperate situation. Once they are there, like their skills, their options are also far more extensive, and could be far more destructive.

This is a long way to say, “yes, you’re right, but also wrong.” They’re not really conditioned to deal with desperation, but they’ll still have options left when most “normal” people have run out, and started entertaining desperate measures.

Put it in this context: A highly trained operative may engage in desperate acts to protect a loved one. The desperation may drive them to set aside restrictions on who they will use their particular skills on. This could result in severe violence against individuals who would normally be, “safe,” from them.

Second, their actions may work against their actual goals. It’s entirely possible to act out of desperation, and drive away, or even harm, the people you’re trying to protect (including yourself.)

You can never be fully sure of what restrictions someone will set aside first when desperate. This is where the, “dangerous,” part comes in. Desperate people are difficult to predict. You can make an educated guess how someone will break, but it’s harder than when you’re dealing with someone in an emotionally stable state.

The way someone was put into desperation will affect how they act. This is not predictable. It is cause and effect, and the effect is not random, but for anyone not inhabiting that character’s mind, it’s not possible to predict.

This also means, you need to get into your character’s mind to run this stuff through. You need to get into their hopeless place, to understand what they’re willing to sacrifice. When the desperation is provoked by threats to someone else, that may include themselves.

I hit this in passing, but it’s worth expanding a little bit: Desperation can drive someone to push harder than they normally would. Often that comes with sacrifice. Your character is deciding (rationally or not) that they’re to give up things to protect other things. This is where the unpredictability comes in, because you can’t be sure what venue they’ll use.

I’ve been talking about this in the context of someone who’s competent being pushed into desperate acts by threats to someone else, but the truth is, this can still be the result of threats against them.

The difference in training is simply the number of options they have available. That said, if the initial threat is severe enough, it may cut off most of their normal options prematurely.

Also, you can never be sure how far desperation will take you. Desperation can easily give way to despair, as the losses mount. It’s entirely possible your character will simply break down.

Desperation is a useful concept to understand, and one you probably want to examine and internalize. The entire thriller genre builds off of putting characters in desperate situations, and watching them react.

Really, desperation comes down to asking your character, “what if you’re about to lose everything you care about?”

-Starke

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Q&A: Professional Interrogators

In media, torturers tend to be portrayed as a extremely competent and have complete control over themselves. In real life, they tend to be the opposite. I have a group of soldiers who torture a prisoner of war (it isn’t meant to be a good thing even if they try to justify it to others later). I showed the scene and aftermath to betas and a lot of them say my torturers are hard to take seriously because they’re competitive and incompetent. Is this fixable if I want it to stay realistic?

And, you’re basing this knowledge on your decades of experience dealing with police, military, and intelligence interrogators?

Your readers are right; The idea that there’s no such thing as a professional interrogator is absurd, and I’m almost curious where you got that idea. Almost. So, let’s step back and reevaluate. What you’ve created is neither realistic, nor true to reality. (These are not the same thing.)

Amateur interrogators are, absolutely a thing. Anyone with access to a tool shed, a captive, no experience, and a misguided belief in the value of torture as an interrogation technique can become an amateur interrogator, making a horrific mess out of the situation.

Professional interrogators also exist. You’ll find them in the police, and nearly any investigative service. Any half-competent private investigator is going to learn the basics. By necessity, intelligence organizations require professional interrogators. Of course, many other groups may also have a staff of professionals on hand.

Of course, it’s also possible to find amateurs mixed in with the professionals. A guard who thinks that the professional isn’t getting the desired response could choose to intervene, making a mess out of a controlled situation.

Now, I’ve been talking about interrogation, you’re talking about torture. This is the same thing, basically. Torture is one tool that an interrogator has access to. Their options range from simple Q&A sessions, through psychological manipulation, to torture. As a general rule, torture is not the most flexible option.

For gathering information, physical torture is not a good option. It’s useful when you want to demoralize, or break a captive, but when the goal is to get someone to confess, and you don’t care how much blood you get on the paperwork, torture is a valid option. That said, some people confuse coerced confessions for the truth, and will gleefully recommend the use of torture. Some professionals may not care. They’re here to do their job, the rest doesn’t matter.

There are very few constants about interrogation, everyone’s unique, however: An interrogator needs to maintain control of the interrogation. Nothing will disrupt that control faster than getting a bunch of different people competing with and trying to one up one another. Interrogation is about creating an asymmetric relationship with the victim, where they give you what you want. You cannot do this as an open mic night event, competing with your buddies to see who they like the best. You certainly can’t do this if you don’t know what you’re doing.

On that topic, let’s talk about the Dunning-Kruger effect for a moment, and how it affects you, and your characters: Dunning-Kruger is a cognitive processing quirk, the more know about something (a skill, a field of research, whatever), the better you’re able to accurately self-assess your performance. Put another way, the more you know, the more you understand what you don’t know.

The danger with Dunning-Kruger as a writer (beyond the obvious), is that when you try to create unskilled characters in a field you’re unfamiliar with, you can make them, “non-functional.” If you’re not familiar with the basics of running an interrogation (regardless whether the method is torture), then you’re at the skill point for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Problem is: You need to be able to realistically portray the consequences of that lack of knowledge. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what the consequences will be. That’s fine for your characters, but when the person calling the shots for the universe doesn’t know, it’s easy to lose track of reality, or some vague approximation thereof, and lose your readers.

Write what you know. If you don’t know, study. In this case, you may need to study a bit further.

Now, without reading your work, I kinda suspect you’re dealing with something else, and it’s not related to the question you asked. You’re talking about torture as sadism. There’s no goal for information, just retribution. That’s a thing. People do that. Ordinarily, I’d say it’s not exactly a group activity, though the  example of a military unit it’s possible, when discipline breaks down. Though, in a situation like that it wouldn’t be competitive, it would communal.

Military units create a kind of familial comradery. If they were driven to torture a PoW as retribution for some previous act, it’s not going to be guys trying to prove who’s the best, it would be them working together. The important thing to understand about squads is the sharp us/them divide. When it’s just internal, they may compete with one another, but when it’s someone outside the team, they will have each other’s back (under almost all circumstances.)

Insubordination or criminal actions are one of the things that can start to break up a military unit. If you’ve got one or two characters that went psycho on a PoW, that’s going to create a fracture in your squad. It’s entirely realistic to have this as the start to a schism, if that’s your story. Just, remember, this stuff needs to be handled carefully. You also need to carefully track the various relationships in a situation like this. Knowing who’s on the fence or taking a side is vital to managing and writing a story like this.

The second thing about torture is it’s difficult to write. Much like in actual torture, it’s very easy for the interrogator, particularly an inexperienced one, to lose control. Go too far, too fast, as a writer, your readers will disconnect, and you’re done. The real world comparison is a victim who shuts down, and becomes completely unusable. Same problem. Fortunately, your audience is a little more resilient than your characters.

This isn’t about your characters being good or evil. Yes, torture is evil. I think we can all understand that point. Maybe you buy an ends-justify-the-means argument that sometimes it’s defensible; I don’t, but, it doesn’t affect me if you do.

I. Do. Not. Care. If. Your. Characters. Are. Good. People.

And neither will your readers.

I care if your characters are interesting. I care if they’re engaging. I care if you tell a story that gets me to invest in your characters and makes me want to see them to the conclusion of their stories. Torture makes this difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. Protagonists engaging in torture will quickly burn through audience good will.

Assuring me that this is a bad thing, and you want to show it as a bad thing, isn’t necessary.

I realize I’m getting off track here a bit, but let me step back and address morality for a moment.

As I said, it doesn’t bother me if you write evil characters who do evil things. There’s a lot of interesting material that can come out of people who are, “the bad guy,” or would be in another story. There’s a cliche of someone with an inner darkness struggling to be a good person that resonates for a lot of people, myself included.

You don’t need a morality tale style structure. In the real world, sometimes, good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. And those are not punished or rewarded in superficial ways. There are personal reasons and consequences. Things your characters will carry with them. Remember, this is about your characters and story being interesting, not about trying to say, “torture is bad.” It is, most people already understood that.

-Starke

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Q&A: Style and Your Audience

In the first episode of Cowboy Bebop, Spike throws a vial into the air and shoots it to break it. Is this possible? Probably not, but I’m just curious. Do you have advice for making stylized, unrealistic fights in written works without the sound and visual cues highly stylized TV shows have to let the audience know it’s meant to stylized and not just a mistake? Love the blog by the way.

Without finding and checking the scene, possible but not plausible. Professional trick shooters can do some pretty amazing things as part of their routine. Ironically, shooting a small thrown object is one of the easier things you’ll see professional trick shooters do. So, within that skillset, this isn’t that impressive. That said, trick shooting has nothing to do with combat, so while there’s a little overlap in basic marksmanship and weapons handling, being good at one will not make you good at the other.

There’s nothing realistic about it, but we’re literally talking about a sci-fi/western anime; realism was never a serious consideration in framing the material.

As for stylistic touches in your fight scenes, I feel like I’m covering material again. Style changes with the media. You’ll never convey a dayglow color pallet in text. Fully conveying state of mind is much harder in a visual media. You simply can’t put music into prose.

You can drive yourself insane looking at an image and saying, “I want that.” That’s fine, that’s part of your job as a writer. The other part is taking that, and telling your audience what it means. Telling them what you feel. You can’t share the image, but you can share the image’s impact. No other form of media allows you to do that.

The closest would be graphic novels, but those are a strange limbo, because in handing the audience your picture, you’re ceding control over how it affects them. You can talk about the picture with them in narration, but they control the image’s image. In prose, you control that moment.

Stylistic approaches in prose rely on finding a style for your own writing and blowing that out. As with any stylistic choices, this can be subtle or it can be heavy handed. The key here is the words chosen, sentence structure, and overall approach to violence.

Michi and I both have some pretty pronounced styles when it comes to writing violence. As in, the actual fight scenes themselves. Some of this comes from the way we write normally, and it’s even apparent on this blog.

Asking how to write stylistically requires you have some confidence in your own tone, your style of writing, and the willingness to put that in front of everyone. You, probably already have a style; if you somehow don’t, it will develop as you practice. Just remember, stylistic writing is not the same as snazzy visuals.

All of this said, that’s not exactly what you asked for. You’re also looking for how to present an over-the-top sequence. I know that’s not how you phrased it. When you look at stylish violence in media, it tends to be over-the-top. (Not always.)

As an artist, you need to earn that from your audience. You need to sell them on the idea that you’re going to do something that directly challenges their suspension of disbelief.

So, let’s talk about this using a transactional model: Everything you do, in your story, has a cost. Your goal is to keep the audience reading. This means you need to quickly hook the reader. Ideally in the first or second sentence. From there, you need to continue to earn that engagement, or they will leave. You do this by gradually taking larger risks. As you build your story and world, you run the risk that some detail will alienate your audience. There’s an implicit factor here, you can risk as much as you want early on, but the more you risk, the better the immediate and long term payoffs need to be.

This is where younger writers often run into trouble, setting up characters. It’s easy to, “over spend,” trying to create pre-made badasses, when you can’t back that up in the material that follows.

In this model, authorial style is, “free money.” If someone digs the style of your work, they’ll stay invested longer; it can provide an enormous cushion for you and your writing.

Ever wonder why some people absolutely loathe anime, regardless of context? If the style doesn’t appeal at all, there’s not a lot of reason to hang around. Also part of why pre-made badasses can be so hard to write; In film, you have actors and visuals to sell you on the characters. In prose, it’s just you. The stylistic cushion you’re perceiving just isn’t there. Instead you need to make the character interesting, and you need to do so, immediately.

Now, what I just described would indicate that all narratives need to build towards a larger climax. Which precludes stories that break from normal narrative structures, and tragedies. With that in mind, I did say, everything has a cost. You’re using this to measure your audience’s connection to the material, not a systemic, “oh, it’s bigger and more dangerous, it must be more expensive.” That logic dies every time someone decides that destroying the planet must be the highest possible stakes. So what? It’s not my world, if I’m not invested in it, I really don’t care if you blow the thing to pieces.

Sometimes, the most intense moments can be deeply personal. You can earn far more audience engagement in a single dialog sequence than a massive battle between thousands. It depends on how well you can write it.

You want a story with over-the-top anime inspired violence? Write it. Find a style that fits you, and what you’re trying to do. I can’t give you that. Create characters and a world that readers will care about. If they’re already hooked, they’re not going to have a problem when you occasionally bend the rules a little.

-Starke

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Q&A: Audience Disconnect

In general, is there anything writers should avoid when writing torture scenes?

You don’t want your audience disconnecting.

So, this is a term you’ll usually hear in marketing. Audience disconnect is when the reader tunes out. Not, literally changes the channel (it can be that too), but they’re no longer engaged with the material. At that point, as far as they’re concerned, your story’s over, they don’t care anymore.

This is a danger with any, significantly intense violence, but torture, particularly torture inflicted by characters the audience was previously sympathetic to, requires very careful management.

We’ve talked before about how the tension in torture is about the fear of what comes next. It’s not what the torturer has done to their victim, it’s about what they’re about to do. This is the fear that breaks the victim.

I don’t mean this as a pejorative statement, but most readers don’t have the stomach to read about your character inflicting pain on a defenseless victim for an extended period of time. The more detail you go into, the more discomfort you’ll inflict on your readers. Get them too uncomfortable, and they’re going to look for something they enjoy. Hint: it’s not going to be your story.

With that in mind, when one of your sympathetic characters is torturing someone, keep the sequences short. This doesn’t mean that the torture didn’t go on for longer, but you don’t need blow-by-blow documentation. Prose as a singular advantage of allowing you to cover events without having to go into detail. This is not fully possible in film or other media. If your character is working someone over for eight hours, you can do that in two one or paragraphs. Make sure you get the critical information in, but, after that, you can back off.

If your torturer is supposed to remain sympathetic you need the audience on board with their reasons and motivations to engage in torture. This is not easy to do well.

The kludgy solution is to make torture victim someone so repugnant that the audience won’t sympathize at all, or even cheer on your torturer. You’ve seen this. Rapists, pedophiles, human traffickers, lawyers. No, wait, that’s not right.

I don’t mean the lawyer joke, but that’s the problem. When you’re trying to implement this solution, it’s easy to lose track of your personal biases, and pick someone who your audience won’t completely, automatically, accept. This is especially true if you’re counting on elements of your world building to pick your victim.

You’ve probably run across this before with pieces from thirty or more years ago, where someone who’s mentally ill fell into that acceptable victim range. Read now, it’s horrifying, because the author expects you sign off on the torture and get on with your day.

Torture where your sympathetic character is the victim works a little differently. The same basic limitation applies, the more detail you go into, the more discomfort you inflict on your audience. Too much; they leave.

When your character is the victim, you need to be careful to track the consequences. This something that’s true of everything you write. Good stories come out of a flow from cause to effect, but when you’re selling a character who was tortured, the aftermath is at least as important as the event itself.

Torture changes everyone. This is as true in your writing as it is in the real world. Your audience will never look at your characters the same way again after a torture sequence. Plan accordingly.

Don’t use torture for simple shock value. It will do far too much to the way your audience perceives the work as a whole.

There are ways to use torture effectively in your writing, but, it needs to be managed carefully.

-Starke

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