All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Expert Weirdness

Is it possible someone unskilled in fighting may be able to get a one time move to disable an expert fighter, simply by coming up with a weird move that made them go wtf and lose concentration? Something like bringing the fight to the next room and on entrance someone else clangs a cymbal in the expert’s ear to make them wince and let go and subsequent clangs smashes the guy’s head in the middle.

Taking this one piece at a time, it’s possible someone with no combat experience could get the drop on an experienced combatant and end the fight before it started. This example offers none of that.

There’s something to be said for the take the third option, “do something crazy” mentality for self-defense. However, that involves hopping up and down on one leg while singing a little song until the guy with the knife thinks you’re too much trouble to bother with. This is a real example of how a woman escaped a mugging. People don’t like crazy and the unexpected can throw someone off. However, you’ve got to actually throw them off. This scenario you’ve created for yourself is too much within the range of an actual fight. These are the choices of someone who knows nothing about violence and thinks they’re being out there when the scenario proposed is what I’d expect from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. You want someone to go, “what the ever-living fuck was that?” Kill someone with a rubber chicken. Wait, what? how? Who knows, but that’s going to result in some confusion.

So, let’s dig into some advanced concepts that your character wouldn’t begin to understand.

It takes someone a moment to register a threat they’re unaware of. This runs around a quarter of a second for unexpected visual information. That’s basically dead time while their brain is processing what’s happening. (Sound is processed faster, and reflexes from touch stimuli are the fastest at 0.15s.) (All of this is, “average,” so there is some range here.) If you have the capacity to end a fight on the edge of that window, it is impossible for your opponent to respond.

If your character’s cunning plan was to hide behind the door and mace them when their foe entered, that’d work, (with caveats.) If they were behind some sound equipment, they might be able to topple the stack on the other character, though that’d be less effective.

Cymbals? Nope. The sound isn’t going to be debilitating enough, and before you suggest, “but maybe if they’re bigger,” that’s the problem. Small symbols aren’t going to produce enough noise to have any appreciable effect, though you could box someone’s ears with them. If you’re using symbols larger than their head, those will get caught on the target’s shoulders, reducing the impact. At large enough sizes, these will collide with the shoulders, and then each other, meaning there will be little to no force applied to the head. Also, larger symbols are noisier; I don’t mean they make more noise when used, they’ll do that too, but they also produce noise when held, picking up and amplifying small oscillations. Remember the thing a moment ago about reaction times? Actively making noise informs your opponent that you’re there and their brain processes that information faster, telling them where you are, and significantly carving down reaction times.

Giving your position away also significantly reduces your opponent’s reaction delay. Once they know you’re there, they can start preparing to deal with you. Now, in fairness, we’re talking about a difference of less than 100 milliseconds, but in the context of combat, that’s significant. This is also part of why the trained vs untrained thing is such a hard line. If you’ve had sufficient training, you can intelligently react to what you’re seeing, hearing, and feeling. You don’t have to stop and decide what to do next. If you don’t have sufficient training, you need to stop and think between strikes. This means, under most circumstances, an untrained fighter cannot maintain the initiative.

You might also, now, have a better idea of why ambushes work so well. Storming through a door is a good way to take a bullet. Especially if your foe knows you’re coming, they’re listening for you, they’re actively ready, and they only need the visual confirmation to go. This is also introducing us to a lot of problems with your, “expert.”

You didn’t specify how they’re an expert, and that’s kind of an issue, because they’re making a lot of very inexperienced mistakes here.

Your expert has decided to enter a new room. Since you said, “let go,” I’m going to assume they have one of two things, a weapon or a hostage (possibly both.)

Your expert’s first task would be to “sweep” the room. This starts happening as they enter. You divide the room into “pie slices,” from the door, and as you open the door, you verify that there’s no threat, panning from the side opposite the door’s hinges, across until the door is fully open. This means they’re going to see the “musician” before they can act. They’re also actively looking for threats, which means their reaction will be far faster. They’d also use their foot to block the door so that it couldn’t be used against them as a weapon. (I’m working off the assumption that the door opens into the room, because that is how architecture works in most places, the exact process for scanning a room (or corridor) from the other side varies a little, but the basics above hold true.

There is a good element in here; your character has a plan to disorient their foe. This can open up options for finishing the fight. Except, your character doesn’t have a plan to finish the fight. Boxing someone’s ears is disorienting, (though your character would be better off doing that with their bare hands), and it will put an opponent off balance, but it won’t finish a fight. Your character needs a way to incapacitate their foe.

Is it possible to incapacitate a foe through sheer weirdness? Maybe, but probably not. You’d need to come up with an engineer a situation so bizarre your expert decides to throw in the towel and take up a career in making table candles. That’s a kind of strangeness, you’d really need to work up to.

Now, we have other problems with this scenario. Your expert is the driving force behind the pacing for the scene beyond just the fight. If your protagonist is running, then you should assume that they’ve already taken control of the initiative which means the protagonists reactions are a result of the expert’s actions. Outlining those priorities, goals, and skills for yourself will be necessary in working out either a plan of attack or escape. What does the expert want? What is their goal? What are they trained to do? How do they go about achieving that goal?

All these can decide whether or not this expert will even choose to fall into the protagonist’s trap and walk through that door, or simply lock the protagonist in. If the room has multiple exits, they might choose another method of entry.  One of the traps you shouldn’t fall into is trying to structure a fight based on what you want the outcome to be. Rather you should create the sequence with a focus on the strengths of these two characters. Grabbing the cymbals is the kind of attack someone without experience thinks is a good idea, so they try it and… it fails. (You’d need a something like a blowhorn, not cymbals to disrupt their concentration.) Now, what?

Depending on your character’s skills, they may have far more effective ways to deal with an expert hunting them, which could be as simple as working to avoid detection and escape. Having a character who isn’t trained to fight doesn’t mean you have an incompetent character, it just means violence isn’t an option they can use effectively. They will need to look for alternative options to achieve their goals.

Cheesing this so that your untrained protagonist can win by brute force weakens every character in your narrative, it diminishes your tension, and if this character is a dragon for another villain then you’ve devalued both of them. You’ve devalued your protagonist too.  Focus on what your character is good at, and make their strengths the backbone to their achieving victory. Don’t be afraid to let a scene slip sideways or for a character to lose, if you’ve created a scenario where your character doesn’t have the means to win then let the scene play out. Ask: what happens next?

-Starke

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Q&A: Training Bruises

Is it normal for a dojo student (10 year old) to have defensive bruises on their arms from training? There was a boy at school who was questioned by his teacher on where he got a bunch of bruises on his arms and that’s where he said he got them from. His instructor. Is that okay or is that abusive?

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This is a very serious topic so Starke and I are going to take turns answering this question. We’re going to have similar answers from different perspectives. Keep in mind we were both exposed to martial arts at very young ages, and I am a former martial arts instructor. I come at this from both the perspective of instructor and child martial artist. I have fourteen years of experience in the community of what we’ll call commercial martial arts which is where the martial arts studio functions as a business, which is the type this child is most likely practicing.

Starke:

Without seeing them, I don’t know. You’re asking me to render an opinion based on almost no information.

Michi:

Martial Arts is a physical contact sport. Bruising is as normal here as it is in any other contact sport. Would you ask the same question if the child was participating in one of them?

My initial response to this question is yes, that’s normal and doesn’t necessarily mean anything untoward occurred. I’d need to see the instructor’s practice in class and speak to the child before I could conclusively determine if any abuse took place. If the bruises are on his forearms then he was probably practicing blocking. If he received them from his instructor then the likeliest answer is they were practicing the techniques closer to full force rather than with another student where there’s no contact allowed. His instructor is the safest person to practice with because they have the best control.

That said, bruises happen. In fact, bruising is the most common injury you’ll receive during martial arts training. It is so commonplace you won’t notice it happening, and, depending on the severity of the bruising, this child might not have even noticed them until the teacher pointed them out.  Martial arts is a physical contact sport. You’re gonna get bruises, and you’ll get so many it’ll become so normal you don’t notice.

Other people do notice, though. If you’re not from the culture or community, and are used to bruises being a signal of something being wrong either at home or on the playground then you’re going to perceive the bruising on the wrists as being wrong. This child’s teacher’s response is also normal.

Starke:

Minor bruising in martial arts training happens.

In particular, learning to parry hand strikes can easily result in a pattern of bruises along the outer forearm. The bruises will be centered around the bone, as that’s the point of contact. The most basic form of these techniques involves catching the opponent’s incoming strike with the forearm, and redirecting it away from the body. Initial practice can be done very lightly, but, eventually, you’re going to get some minor bruises from practicing this with a partner.

How extensive and severe may indicate some issues with oversight in the dojo, or it may reflect actual abuse. From a very superficial, “hey, this is a thing I saw,” it’s very hard to render a professional opinion. In most cases, a public school teacher is not going to be qualified to render that opinion, and will react to any sign of physical injury.

The only thing about this that bothers me is the statement that those injuries came from his instructor. But, we’re in a game of telephone here. You told me that you heard that he told someone else, that… so, what happened originally?

It strikes me as odd that his instructor had him practicing parries with enough force to bruise. Though, some of that could, legitimately, be the kid’s enthusiasm. So, technically the bruises would be self inflicted (because he was striking his instructor’s arms with more force than was called for by the exercise), but the instructor would still be the one who “caused” the bruises, when someone asked the child.

Michi:

I’m going to disagree with Starke. At ten years old, it doesn’t actually take much force to bruise. I spent most of my pre-teen years wandering around with inexplicable bruises on my forearms, or halfway up my upper arm, or on the inside of the wrist, depending on what techniques we were practicing that week. I usually didn’t realize I had them until days later, and they only ever hurt if I poked at them. I’d sometimes show off particularly hideous ones to my peers (or ones I was proud of) just to freak them out.

I don’t know what you mean by “defensive bruising”, but my concern kicks in when the bruises are in unusual places that don’t correlate to the type of training the child says they’re doing.

You could easily get bruising on the wrist from practicing wrist releases, especially if you’re working with your instructor and they want you to experience breaking free from the real thing. The bruise you might get from the training could be indistinguishable from someone forcefully grabbing your wrist. Practice involves simulation.

We don’t know what his martial art is. “Dojo” is a common term in the US when referring to a martial arts school because everyone knows what it means. When I was a kid I’d tell people I was going to my “karate school” because no one knew what Taekwondo was and Taekwondo is the second-most popular martial art in America. So, we don’t know what he’s practicing and don’t know what’s normal at his school.

Lots of traditional Japanese martial arts don’t practice with pads, or use them in a very minimal way. If he’s practicing any strand of Karate — which he might be, karate is one of the most common martial arts — there’s going to be more bruising there.

Starke:

Is this abusive? Without a more comprehensive investigation, I wouldn’t be comfortable making that call. I’m inclined to think that it’s a credible story, so far as it goes.

Is it fine? Not exactly, but minor bruising isn’t automatically a sign that anything’s wrong with the Dojo. This could be the result of a cautious instructor making the right call, and not asking the boy to practice with his fellow students.

Ultimately, I don’t know. There’s not enough information on what happened here. I’m inclined to think everything’s fine, but I have scars from training, so my zero point might be a little off.

Michi:

Martial arts studios are businesses. The most common students studios make the most money on is children between the ages of five to twelve, and many parents use martial schools as after school day-care. These are usually family oriented establishments who put a heavy emphasis on child safety, they have to or else they don’t stay in business. I’m not going to say abuse doesn’t happen in martial arts schools, it does. However, we’d need a lot more information to make a judgement call.

I don’t know his martial art. I don’t know his belt ranking or how long he’s been training. I don’t know if these bruises are common for him or not, if this is a first or just the first time his school teacher noticed them. I don’t know if he’s had any serious behavior changes within the past few months which might indicate psychological signs of abuse which correlate with his injuries. From the information given, I’d say his bruises are most likely the result of normal training; especially if he wasn’t hiding them.

Exterior bruising on the outside forearms, upper arms, thighs, and shins is very common in Taekwondo because these spots are where you take the hits. Interior bruising on the inner arm/inner leg is less usual but not concerning. The severity of the bruises, the color and depth of penetration are the important factors because I need to know how hard they’re getting hit. I’d want to know about bruises around the core, and I’d still need an established pattern rather than knowing if it was a one off accident. The only place I’d initially be very concerned about is bruising on the face or neck. A ten year old should not be getting bruised on his face or neck, especially not by his instructor, but I have seen it happen from other students as an accident. I’d also need to observe the instructor, the demeanor of the students, the attitudes of the parents, and probably on multiple occasions to be certain.

Let me tell you though, the instructors are the ones who come away with the most bruises. We’re the punching bags, especially for younger students. Even when it’s something simple like holding out a paddle, you never know when they’re going to miss and… there go the fingers. I can’t tell you how many jammed and occasionally broken fingers come out of board breaking seminars. Someone is going to miss at least once. Again, you need to hit and get hit to ultimately test out whether your technique is working. Your instructor is the one who is safest to do this with because they’re the only ones with the control to hit just hard enough so the child learns whether or not they’re doing the block right. This lets them simulate the real thing without being in any danger, even from the other students. The worst bruises come from your peers, not your teachers.

Media dresses up martial arts training to be more harsh and nefarious than it actually is. We deal with those questions on this blog all the time. The real world is much less salacious and more mundane. Martial arts training for kids is very safe, much safer than some other sports (I’m looking at you football and gymnastics), but it does involve physical contact which can result in bruising.

-Starke and Michi

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Q&A: Adrenaline and Pain

Hi! I dug through your page and found that adrenaline can numb a person’s pain, as I though it might. However, my character is supposed to die of her wounds (a stab into her stomach by blade and into both of her arms, cutting through muscles). It is not like a gunshot wound that could go unnoticed, so do you think adrenaline would be enough? Since adrenaline is a hormone, would it kick in instantly? Or only some time after the wound was inflicted?

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Adrenaline usually kicks in before the injury is sustained. That will happen sometime before combat starts, when your character realizes they’re in danger. So, technically, yes, there is a delay between when the adrenaline starts pumping and when it kicks in, but it will be up and going before your character’s injured.

Also, the biological half-life is only a couple minutes, so your character will come down from adrenaline pretty quickly once the threat has passed. Strictly speaking, when medically administering adrenaline, the dose only lasts about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on metabolism, when your own body is producing the stuff, the effect can last longer, as it’s regulating the adrenaline.

Once she crashes, she’d feel the pain. Personal experience is that the pain gradually filters in. The intensity doesn’t change, but your ability to ignore it fades. (Michi’s personal experience with a broken leg is the pain kicks in quickly, especially once your body realizes there’s something seriously wrong.) For example, there’s not going to be any ignoring or powering past an arrow piercing through your calf.

Blade and arrow wounds tend to directly impair your body’s ability to move in a way that gunshots, normally, do not. Your muscles form a kind of complex “pulley” system over your skeletal structure. Unless a bullet shatters bone or specifically severs tendons (before someone asks, no your character can’t make a called shot for someone’s tendons with a gun), the system will continue to work, more or less, until something does break.

Blades tend to sever the meat. Meaning they cut through muscle tissue, reducing your ability to use the associated body part. Deep cuts on the arm can impair or prevent use of that limb.

Arrows are a similar story with a slightly different detail. Muscles are layered, and these layers move over one another as you act. When you’re struck by an arrow, it skewers those layers together, which can completely arrest movement in anything controlled by the affected tissue. If you take an arrow to the shoulder that completely immobilizes the upper arm.

So, adrenaline can keep your character from noticing the pain of a sustained injury, but they would probably notice that they couldn’t lift their arm. The gut wound might be something they could overlook for a few minutes, but in that case, the blood loss would slow them down pretty quickly.

Now, one important thing to remember, pain is transmitted to your brain through your nervous system. As with your muscles, nerve damage is more likely when you’re getting carved to pieces. Depending on the nature of the injury, this can result in partial (or complete) paralyzation of the affected limb. In a case like that, severed nerves cannot relay information to the brain, so there would be no sensation whatsoever. Pain or otherwise. However, if the nerve was severed along with a chunk of meat in the upper arm, that’ll hurt.

Another detail worth remembering, adrenaline increases the heart rate, and blood flow through your body, significantly.  This means you will bleed out faster while you’re in an adrenaline rush than if you’re not. This is mostly an academic detail, because if you’re bleeding to death, you’re probably going to be a bit stressed, but it is part of the reason why you’d want to keep someone calm, after they suffered a traumatic injury.

Finally, new detail for the day, since I didn’t know this before I went and double checked my research: It seems that adrenaline increases the intensity of newly formed memories. As you pointed out, it is a naturally occurring hormone, so it should be unsurprising that it has a variety of effects depending on the affected tissue. I have no idea if my inclination to agree with the statement is simply power of suggestion, or if that really does mesh with my own experiences, though I’m inclined to believe the latter.

-Starke

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Q&A: Firefight

Hello there! I’m trying to write a fairly grounded gunfight (trading shots from cover, moving up with covering fire, not spraying rounds everywhere, etc.) and I’m wondering how I can keep it tense and engaging for the reader. Any tips?

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Remember that all it takes is a single bullet to end a firefight. Each gunshot can seriously wound or outright kill one of your characters, removing them from the fight. So, the tension comes when you remember that at any given moment anyone could die. If your characters are outnumbered, their chance of getting out alive takes a nose dive.

Concealment is not cover. A character who hides behind a residential wall, a couch, or something similar will not be protected from incoming fire. In the real world, someone hiding behind an overturned conference table is only, “hiding,” they’re not safe.

A bullet that misses your character will still damage their surroundings. It will tear holes in walls, punch holes in metal, and blow chips of concrete out. This means, you can be injured by flying shrapnel.

For reference, I did read both of your questions. If you’re having issues with your fights getting boring, you’re taking too long. Violence is fast. It’s here, it’s happened; and then people have enough time to get bored without dying.

What’s tripping you up is that you want a longer scene, but a contained firefight won’t deliver that. In the gunfire, you might have lulls, while people are moving, and re-positioning. The entire point of suppressing fire is to keep someone from sticking their head out, so not a lot of reason to waste ammo on their general vicinity so long as they’re keeping their head down. Sending someone out to get a better angle while your shooter keeps them pinned will take time. Of course, if there’s someone out there your characters don’t know about, any flanking tactic could quickly go horribly wrong.

Also, there’s no clean way to know for certain a gunfight has ended. Even in a simple situation, where one side opened fire on someone who took cover and killed them, it’s going to take awhile, before anyone can safely get over there to check, and make sure they’re dead. Simply stepping out of cover and walking over is a good way to get shot. Even if they see blood spray from a hit, there’s no grantee that the victim is dead, and not simply bleeding to death.

-Starke

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Q&A: Powers and Limits

How would you suggest subduing (not accidentally killing) a super villain with fire powers?

So, the villain has flame based powers, or you want your characters to subdue them without accidentally cooking them?

If your characters are going up against someone who has fire-based powers, then they’re going to need to understand the limits of those powers. This is something I feel we’ve said many times before. The entire idea of taking down a super villain (or superhero, for that matter) needs to start with getting accurate intelligence on what they can do, and (more importantly) what they cannot. In many cases, that means they’d need to find ways to test that character’s limits, though if this is a hero or villain who’s been active for decades (or longer), that information may already be out there.

Also, the overall power of a character is vitally important. A character with minor pyrokinetic abilities could be pretty easily subdued with mundane methods. A character who is a living avatar of flame, and no recognizable physiology, would require a significantly more specialized approach. What options are available is entirely dependent on your world building. So, at that point, “best,” is very flexible.

Now, let’s flip this, because dangling modifiers are awkward. If your character has flame based superpowers and they’re going after a villain, the answer is probably to incorporate more options into their toolset.

This might not be immediately apparent, but having the ability to set things on fire with your mind isn’t an incredibly useful ability. Sure, it makes caramelizing creme brulee a snap, but outside of bar tricks and setting people on fire, there’s not a lot of utility that doesn’t end in death, suffering, or BBQ. This creates the odd situation where you have a superhero who really needs to supplement their superpowers with abilities that won’t result in catastrophic property damage.

For your superhero that means they’re going to need to train in mundane skills. They may be able to subdue a foe using a tazer or tactical baton. They may need to know when to point someone else at their target, or when to walk in and draw attention while someone else subdues their errant supervillain. 

Social skills are another legitimate option. A character may be very persuasive, even ignoring their abilities, so it’s not entirely impossible that your superhero’s plan is to talk the villain into surrendering.

Talking a character down operates off the same process as above. It requires your characters learn about their opponent, discover what’s causing them to act, understand the reasoning behind it, and formulate arguments to convince them to take another path. Even then, your characters are probably going to need some good followup points. Dialog like this is as much of a fight as combat, it’s just the structure and outcomes are different.

Even if it doesn’t work out, trying to talk the villain down is a very “superhero” behavior. It is the best recourse before things get messy, and people get hurt. This is especially true for a character where their innate powers are inherently destructive.

-Starke

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Q&A: House Rules

I looked but didn’t find if you answered this before, but how would I write the very start of a “proper” fist fight? Like writing the character’s entering fighting stances without sounding awkward or just writing “they raise their fists”

I’m not sure what you mean by, “proper.”

If characters are engaging in a duel, there’s going to be societal expectations for how will be conducted. This includes a brawl between a couple kids on the playground. They’ll have rules they understand (implicitly), and grasp the idea that violating those rules is unfair (whether that will influence their behavior is another matter.)

So, if your characters are going to duel, then they have a ritual they’ll follow. This could be as simple as a round of insults followed by them squaring up, or it could be far more elaborate. This really depends on their culture. Also, if those cultures don’t match, it’s entirely possible for one of the participants to botch the ritual elements, offending their opponent.

I’m going to step back and define some terms, in case it’s not clear.

A duel is combat between two participants as a form of dispute resolution. This can range from armed combatants (which is the context you’re probably thinking of) down to bare knuckle boxing. This is culturally sanctioned by the participants and their peers, though society at large may not agree, and may punish them for their behavior. Duels have set resolution points. These can range from coercing submission to death, with any number of potential other acceptable stopping points between.

Ritual just means that there an established social process. Again, if you’re thinking of an elaborate ceremony, that’s possible, but you could just be looking at something like a round of insults followed by violence.

In general terms, the more culturally acceptable a duel is, the more elaborate the ceremony will be. A society that permits dueling to the death will have a fairly elaborate ritual process to initiating a duel.

European dueling is an example: it required multiple non-participating witnesses, and a specific process of shuttling messages between the duelists well in advance of the actual fight. Failing to do that meant it wasn’t legally recognized as a duel, and didn’t enjoy the legal protections. As society evolved, the practice of sanctioning duels legally fell by the wayside, but the actual ritual was preserved for centuries.

If you wanted to twist it around, you could categorize the entirety of prize fighting as duels, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong. They are examples of ritualized combat, with extensive rules.

So, if your characters are having a proper brawl, they’re going to have rules they need to follow, even if they never think of them as rules.

Now, if this isn’t a factor, the answer is far simpler: the fight starts when someone attacks.

The danger of approaching combat as a ritualized exercise is assuming everyone will play by your rules. Violence, even unarmed violence, is dangerous. If the goal is to neutralize your opponent, there’s no prize for good sportsmanship. There is no, “proper, upstanding,” combat, only the living and the dead.

Mistaking live combat for a more ritualized exercise happens to people. It gets them killed. There’s comfort in ritual. It affirms that the world you live in is not so random and uncaring. It helps you define your place in the world. Many people have made the mistake of thinking combat works this way; that there are rules we do not make for ourselves.

The rules we make for ourselves define us. You’ll go this far, but no farther, and that is how you know you still have some humanity. This isn’t a bad thing. Like I said, it’s how you know you’re still human, and not a monster. The problem is when you assume the people you’re fighting will follow those same rules. In a duel, they (probably) will, but in an actual fight? Who knows?

So, how does a fight start? When someone attacks. Probably without declaring, as calling out your attacks is a phenomenally stupid idea.

How will a duel start? However it’s supposed to. The final stages of the ritual play out, and then the participants will engage.

So, in answer to your question, it depends on your characters and the world they live in.

-Starke

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Follow Up: Antagonists

Technically wouldnt the character still be the protagonist not the antagonist? The protagonist is the character you are witing for and the antagonist is their opposition. Its not the same as a hero/villain. The good guys could still be the antagonists of the person you are writing for.

No. Not even technically. The antagonist is the acting force that opposes the narrative, while the protagonist is the acting force that supports it. In almost all circumstances, the protagonist will be the point of view character. This is because it’s their story. Even in stories where the PoV changes from scene to scene, the current PoV is telling their story, this may conflict with other characters, but they will almost always be their own protagonist.

However, the antagonist can be anyone or anything, including that same character. This is why I said, it’s a very different kind of story from what the original query was interested in.

Usually, the acting forces are characters, but that’s not necessary. Personal issues such as addiction or psychological factors can easily be a story’s antagonist. Similarly, amorphous hostile forces, like, “the wild,” or “bureaucracy,” can be a story’s antagonist. You can’t really delve into an approaching winter storm’s motivations or it’s troubled childhood, but it will kill your character if they don’t find shelter and a source of warmth. It’s the antagonist (or, “an antagonistic force,” if you prefer.)

It is easy to come up with situations where the antagonist isn’t a character at all, and there numerous genres that build off that idea as standard. There also numerous sub-genres that play with the idea of the protagonist pulling double-duty as the antagonist.

Again, if your character is struggling with themselves. If they’re fighting addiction, dealing with mental illness, or just trying to find a way forward when their will has been broken, they are their own antagonist. They may not be their only antagonist, but they’re a factor. It really is possible to be your own worst enemy; when that happens in a story, that’s the antagonist.

Having someone other than the PoV as a protagonist is unusual. You can write a story where your PoV character is observing and recording the actions of another party. An example of this would be the Sherlock Holmes novels. Holmes is the protagonist, but the books and short stories are “written” by Watson.

Can you have your PoV character as the antagonist? Yeah, it’s possible, but unusual. The first example that comes to mind is A Christmas Carol, (and the endless riffs on it.) Ebeneezer Scrooge is the antagonist at the beginning of the piece. Now, the entire character arc is his transformation from miser to someone with some actual human empathy, so in the long term this might not be the perfect example. There’s also some room for discussion on self-destructive PoV characters.

One, inverted scenario, for protagonist/antagonist, would be a situation where someone was the subject of an intervention. The point of view character would be the antagonist in their own story, while their friends or family, trying to bring them back out, would be the protagonists. Though, this is a strange situation.

Ultimately, the thing about labels like protagonist and antagonist is, “they’re labels.” These are a tool used to analyze a story after the fact. It’s not something you need to worry about when you’re writing. When you are writing, worry about things like character motivation, and action. What they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Think about the opposition they’ll face, and how they will, or won’t, be able to deal with it. Asking, “who’s the antagonist?” comes after you’ve finished the work and handed it off to someone else.

-Starke

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Q&A: Antagonistic Heroes

So, I’m trying to write a horror/physiological book but the main character is the antagonist. I’ve seen many people saying the main character has to be relatable and I’m not sure what to do about it?

 So, there’s a catch here, I need to point out. Having your main character as an antagonist, in the strictest sense, isn’t necessarily that out there, but it’s also not what you’re thinking of.

So the antagonist is the character who works against your heroes. It doesn’t matter who they are, and there are entire genres built around stories where the main character is also their own worst enemy.

Technically, you can break this apart. Usually it’s aspects of the character working against themselves. For example: and alcoholic character’s antagonist could easily be their own alcoholism. In that sense, your main character would be both the protagonist and the antagonist.

A specific example would be The Gambler, with Mark Wahlberg. The main character is a compulsive gambler. It’s part of who he is, and that aspect is the film’s main antagonist. So, the main character is the antagonist.

Now, there is another side to this, and I suspect this what you were thinking of to begin with. You can tell stories where the protagonist is the villain. The immediate example that comes to mind there are the Ripley novels by Patricia Highsmith. These can be, reductively, described as a series of mystery novels where the killer gets away. Your protagonist can be the villain.

Making a character relatable helps, but what you need is a protagonist that’s compelling. One that grabs the audience and holds their attention. Being someone the audience identifies with can help getting there, but that’s not the real goal. It’s mistaking the shortcut for the destination, understandable, but potentially deceptive.

Also remember, most villains should have compelling, plausible, motivations driving them. The trick to getting an audience to side with your villain is digging into that motivation. There are many villainous or borderline villainous characters that audiences are quite happy to excuse their behavior, because they look at their behavior makes sense.

So, you can a villain who’s getting revenge for whatever, or working to defend their home. You can present a scenario like this, where your protagonist is the bad guy. Not even, the least bad, but straight up the villain.

There’s also plenty of room for protagonists who are evil, but principled. Such as an inquisitor for an evil empire. Even a corrupt cop can make for a compelling protagonist.

Ironically, a couple Nicholas Cage films come to mind immediately, including Lord of War (where he plays an arms dealer) and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (which is both a very long title, and an equally bizarre film where Cage plays a corrupt cop.) Seriously, Bad Lieutenant is a really strange trip of a film; if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch. (Also, a film where the protagonist pulls double duty as the primary antagonist.)

In some ways, all you really need for a villainous protagonist is a character who doesn’t care about social norms, ethics, morality, or any other pesky distractions on their path towards getting what they want. This can persist even if their goals are laudable.

Some long-form examples of heroic villains include, Michael Chiklis’s Vic Mackey in The Shield, or Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer in 24. In both cases, we have characters who are presented as heroes, but are willing to “do whatever it takes” to achieve their goals, justifying it to themselves that they only people they really harm are deserving of their fate. This can be a seductive mindset, but it’s also worth remembering these characters are doing some pretty horrific things. That said, The Shield put this conflict at the front of the series as a major theme, while 24 had a hard time admitting Jack wasn’t a good person.

Your villain needs to have a coherent plan. Then they just need to look for the most efficient path to their goals. Note: this does not mean they need to create an unnecessary bodycount to get their message across. There’s no value in killing everyone in your path if you only need to kill one person. Of course, if other people try to get in your way, that’s their funerals. I’m not saying your character can’t be a sadist, just that they don’t need to be one.

-Starke

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Q&A: Anxiety

This might an odd question but I hoped you could give me advice. I’m currently in grad school for counseling and hope to work in a prison. I know I’ll have to pass a self-defense course in order to work there (and probably to intern there as well in two years). I’m less than 100 pounds and not very strong at all and have lots of anxiety about not being able to pass the class (more than the actual internship and potential job). Would it help to get a personal trainer to relieve the anxiety or no?

There’s a couple parts to this.

First, you’re going to get a variant of police hand to hand training. Probably very similar to what I got twenty years ago. When you’re done, if you keep up with that, you’re going to be able to defend yourself against 95% of the people you’ll encounter in your day to day life.

Most modern American self-defense courses use an adapted version of Judo, with a few tweaks. This focuses on leverage and momentum to control a fight. Size and mass only really help in the ground fighting component of that, and even then, your training will include means to minimize those weaknesses. Things like the throws are remarkably easy, with the appropriate training. Size works to your advantage here because a lower center of gravity makes the throws easier.

The anxiety is something you’ll need to address. Being able to project confidence is absolutely critical to maintaining control of a situation. and, probably, a major part of why this is in your curriculum.

Any combat training helps with self-confidence. It might be as simple as knowing you have a little more control over your environment. So, in a counter-intuitive way, your self-defense training will probably help with your anxiety.

There’s a number of ways to deal with it. Understand that everyone faces some anxiety in unfamiliar situations, and simply walk in. You can get to know the instructor outside of class before starting that class, during office hours is probably for the best. At that point you can decide if you’d want to broach your anxiety issues there, based on your read of them. You can audit the class, which is another opportunity to interact with the instructor, if meeting with them during office hours doesn’t appeal or is difficult to schedule.

I’m not sure a physical trainer would help with your anxiety. A psychiatric therapist may be a better option if you truly find this anxiety debilitating. If you don’t, then it’s probably helpful to remember that everyone experiences some anxiety. Anxiety over the unknown and unfamiliar is a normal experience. At that point, you may simply need some tools to help manage it. Ironically, one very good method is martial arts training, and the best way to become exposed to something unfamiliar is to dive in.

You’re not the first person who’s had anxiety about learning to fight. You’ll be fine.

-Starke

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Q&A: Horse Transport

I have heard before that transporting horses on ships is difficult and tends to be fatal for the animals. Would this still be true for fantasy creatures like centaurs, or does being sentient negate that issue? How reasonable is the concept of naval combat with centaurs or similar creatures?

kikon99

This depends on specific elements of your centaur’s physiology that you might not have considered.

Keep in mind: I’m not an expert on horses, so it’s entirely possible I’ve missed something critical.

The biggest problems with transporting horses are, stress, instinctive and immunological. This isn’t just by sea, but in other circumstances as well.

Horses find the isolation combined with tight spaces, and the actual movement vehicles, extremely stressful. This provokes an adrenaline response, which raises the heart rate, and can have numerous secondary effects down the line, including compromising their immune system.

The loading process can easily result in the horse critically injuring itself. This isn’t universal, but if the horse startles, it’s easy for them to stumble or slip, particularly on carpets or other runners. Though this can also result in the horse falling on pavement when backing away from the ramp.

Horses instinctively avoid entering dark, cramped spaces. Exactly like the kind of space you’d try to load them into for transport.

Factors like ramp angle can further agitate the horse. The steeper it is, the more this will bother them.

The fight or flight response triggered by their stress means they put additional strain on their immune system. When exposed to unfamiliar pathogens, their immune system is already compromised. Meaning, they’re at much greater risk of becoming ill. This can, in turn, kill the horse.

Worth remembering that acquired immunity is a major consideration for human travel as well. Travel to new ports comes with a host of pathological threats. A fact that I ran afoul of earlier this year on a flight to Baltimore.

The stress can also leave horses on edge for prolonged periods, this can come with it’s own medical risks, as well as potential behavioral issues. This varies by the individual, but it’s something to consider. A horse may become more aggressive while stressed. Though, I suppose that’s just as true for humans.

In the end a lot of these factors depend on your centaurs, and how well the can cope. Naval travel will probably be less dangerous, but no less unpleasant. Some factors like the instinctual aversion to cramped spaces may still be present, but the individual could make an informed decision to work against it. This wouldn’t be fun for them, but it is possible. Other factors like the constant swaying making it difficult to maintain balance would be constant agitating factors. So they may be more stressed than normal.

I’m not sure about the idea of naval combat with centaurs. It doesn’t strike me as a good fit. At least not without radically different ship designs. D&D’s Dragonlance does run with the idea of Minotaur sailors, though. Most of that setting’s Minotaurs man ships at sea. It’s not completely insane to suggest your fantasy setting may have classic mythical monsters who operate in any number of mundane positions, though seaborne travel strikes me as more something a centaur would do out of necessity, getting from point A to B, rather than a career path of choice. Though, certainly room for rationalization in your setting.

I’m not going to pretend that the list above is a comprehensive set of problems facing horse transport. As I said at the beginning, I’m not an expert on horses, by any means. I’ve been on horseback once, and have no interest in repeating the experience. So, my research has been pretty limited.

-Starke

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