All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Ignoring the Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Broken Wrist

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

So, three things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Sparring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a learning experience, not a contest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember…

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

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

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

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

I will leave you with this last instructor note:

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

-Starke & Michi

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Q&A: Heavy Infantry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Gang Arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Crescent Moon Spade

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

That might not be best way to think about it.

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&a: Weapon of Choice

Is it possible to have a character using the sling and knives as their weapon of choice and trains for their one hundred year life because it’s more inconspicuous, even though they could use a spear and/or a sword decently? Idk, the character I’m writing is strange, but I don’t want to make it too overboard.

That sounds like someone who’s more of an ambush fighter, or assassin, rather than someone who trained for direct combat. Within that context, the sling seems a little strange, but it does make sense. The daggers and sling are both easy to conceal, so a character could carry both of them on their person, and have access to a ranged and melee weapon. Again, that’s more of an assassin or infiltrator’s approach to combat, rather than a straight up fighter.

Your weapon of choice is more about how you approach combat, rather than a preferred style, or aesthetic choice. Multiple weapons would further refine, or plug holes in that selection.

If your character is supposed to be a sneaky, backstabbing type, then a sling isn’t the weirdest ranged option. If they’re supposed to be a fighter that goes toe to toe with their foes, instead of someone shanking people in a back alley, then you’re probably going to want to trade the dagger for a sword. It’s still possible they’d carry both, and use the daggers clandestinely, while using the sword for open combat. That’s more in the range of plugging weaknesses.

If you have a character who operates clandestinely, (like a spy or assassin), it’s entirely plausible they’ve developed proficiency with a lot of weapons they don’t normally carry. This is also true for any character who has extensive combat training, but aren’t using it currently. Ex: Former soldiers or mercenaries.

Weapons are tools. You bring the tools you need for the job at hand. You may know how to use a much wider array of tools. Weapons of choice tell you how a character prefers to approach a problem. It doesn’t tell you everything about what that character can do. Your character could, very well, be proficient with swords and spears in addition to knives, but they’re only carrying a knife because they’re planning to do something specific, and openly carrying weapons would give them away. Especially if your character is more experienced, that’s not “over the top.”

The trade-off with a more experienced character is, they’re more likely to encounter people who know them, or know of them. If your character spent years training with a sword and developed a reputation as an excellent duelist, then that reputation would precede them. This isn’t over the top, it’s a natural side effect of having a character who’s been active for years, or even decades.

If your character is an assassin, having a reputation, and being recognized is a serious problem. Even if that reputation is for something other than being an assassin. It means, people will remember who your character is after the bodies are found, and remember that you were there. This can easily spiral into a complex problem for your character.

Spies have it worse, because being recognized is an immediate threat, and jeopardizes whatever they’re working towards.

Now, if you have a character who’s working as a thief or spy, and they need to infiltrate a situation where they can’t openly carry a weapon, they might choose not to carry any weapon. This is a complicated decision. The short reason is: If they’re caught carrying a weapon when they shouldn’t, it’s an immediate tip-off that they’re not who they say they are. Combine this with the part where a dagger isn’t going to do much good going up against a guard with a spear, however, a smart operator may be able to talk their way out of situation like that, if they’re found. (Obviously, this is contextual. A character who’s someplace they could have reasonably gotten lost can do this. Someone found on in a secret base under a volcano’s going to have a hard time saying they got lost looking for the bathroom.)

The basic concept is only strange if you say they intrinsically know how to use a sword and spear. If they train on a wide variety of weapons, they’d still be proficient with them, but they might only carry weapons that work for their current goals. That’s normal.

-Starke

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Q&A: Practical Torture Goals

I would implore you to do actual research on torture and how torturers behave. A lot of the information you present as fact is dangerously misinformed. Torturers are not ‘professionals’ and does not yield accurate information. You shouldn’t be answering any questions on torture if you haven’t read O’Mara. This isn’t about torture being bad. It’s about torture not working at all. I apologize if I seem harsh, but this needs to be said.

I have read Shane O’Mara’s work. Not all of it, and not recently. I skimmed through years ago. Though, judging by your question, I’m not entirely sure you are familiar with his work.

The irony is, there’s not a lot of difference between O’Mara’s position and ours, when it comes to torture. The biggest discrepancy is perspective. He’s a neurologist who had a focus on the specific effects of stress and pain on the brain. My background is political science, so my interest grew out of examining coercive methods used by nation states. As a result, my specialization is more focused on what it does at a policy level. And we both come to, nearly the same point:

People forget the reality of what torture was used for, and has been used for through the generations, a quite different purpose: To spread fear, extract confessions, all of those kinds of things. But, the royal road to gathering reliable information? No.

Shane O’Mara – “Your Welcome” (Podcast Interview)

This gets into a fundamental misunderstanding about what torture is, and why you use it. Many people who’ve never looked at torture in depth, including the interviewer in that podcast, and the person who sent this ask, believe it’s about extracting information.

No.

The perception of torture as intelligence gathering is pervasive. It’s honestly difficult to point to uses of torture in popular media that get at the real point behind its use. The ur-example of this misconception would have to be 24, and it’s ends-justify-the-means embrace of torture.

The problem is, as the US Military’s Enhanced Interrogation Program learned in Iraq, torturing someone only makes them tell you what they think you want to hear. This was not new information. Nearly every organization in history that’s employed torture has understood this.

Most civilians do not. Many organizations have exploited this fact to further their agendas.

Torture excels at extracting false confessions. To make the suffering stop, you put a narrative in front of someone, and they will crack and sign off on it. This is the true power of torture. It doesn’t tell you what’s real, it coerces the victim to agree with your version of the truth.

Confessions are not reliable, in any sense. Someone may admit they committed an act for any number of reasons unrelated to the truth. Social norms put faith in the idea of a confession as, “the truth,” but that is just words; like everything else, it shouldn’t be taken at face value. As mentioned above, torture exploits this norm, and relies on that general acceptance of confessions to glaze over all the incongruities. Even when those confessions are patently absurd or downright impossible, people will still say, “but they confessed.”

I remember an example of this a couple years ago, from another person bringing their favorite academic into a discussion. In that case it was James Wasserman, an author who wrote a history of the Knights Templar. The end of that order came from confessions extracted under torture by one of the Inquisitions. (I don’t remember which one.) Even knowing that the confessions were coerced, Wasserman sees nothing wrong with taking them at face value. (Also the reason he comes to conclusions that radically differ from every rational academic that looks at the subject.)

That said, unlike Wasserman, O’Mara does something interesting. We’ve always known you can’t get good information from torture, and O’Mara decided to take neurology and look at why. The answer has to do with how memories work.

The brain stores memories as chemical chains. Under the best of circumstances, this is not a good, robust, long-term storage system. In some ways it’s surprising it works as well as it does. Stress and trauma both adversely affect your ability to form new memories and retain them. This has nothing to do with torture per se. If you’re put through six kinds of hell, you’re going to forget things.

Again, this isn’t exactly new information. It’s something that most therapists and investigators are well aware of. If you’ve been a victim of violence, even if it wasn’t perpetrated by a human, you may have experienced this. You might not realize it. I’m sitting here, thinking about my first dog attack and realizing, I don’t really remember that day. I remember that it happened, (and I can still find the scars on my left hand), but if I’m being completely honest with myself: a lot of the details are just gone. I do remember the sounds. Unfortunately, and if pressed, I could present a partial chronology of that day, but it would be reconstructed from information I have about when it was, what I was doing, things that happened before and after the attack.

Even without resorting to extreme events like that, your memory of traumatic or highly stressful experiences isn’t going to be completely clear. Ironically, this can also screw you over. If you get stressed out over a test in school, that will impair your ability to study, and even your ability to recover information during the exam.

Within this context, sleep deprivation has a significant effect on your cognitive abilities. This puts a fair amount of stress on your system for no real value. So, pulling an all-nighter before a test is not recommended.

Caffeine, and other stimulants don’t, really, help here. They’ll help you stay awake, they’ll help you feel more alert, but they won’t make up for the lost sleep, so the cognitive impairment will still be there, you’ll just look sober.

So, stating the obvious here but, having bunch of armed men attack and capture you, being dragged off to a dark room somewhere, isolated from any support network, being yelled at, and being threatened… That’s all kinda stressful.

In fact, many interrogators will seek to prolong the stress of capture as long as possible. They’ll use loud music, bright lights, keep the room cold, prevent them from sleeping (with all of the associated sleep deprivation considerations coming into effect) in an attempt to keep their captive off balance, to prevent them from settling into a new norm. While they’re in this state, they’re more susceptible to suggestion.

There is a continuum to all of this. It’s part of why studying for tests in an academic situation is such a good example: In the entirety of your life, it’s a pretty minor stress, but it is stressful, and the details you’re being asked to retrieve are trivial. So that’s some of the first information your brain will dump when things start fraying. When you put someone in real danger, the stress will start dumping much more important things. It’s not like you’ll forget your name, or where you were born, but it could easily dump information an interrogator would be interested in; like the names of people you met at a party last week.

All of this information also applies to witness testimony. Even when the investigators aren’t leaning on you, the stress from the original event can easily play havoc with your memory. This is one of the reasons why investigators need to be careful when they’re interviewing victims, because they can easily corrupt the victim’s memories simply by asking the wrong questions, and getting the victim to reconstruct their memory on the spot, which won’t necessarily match what happened. Of course, an unscrupulous investigator can push a victim to remember things that didn’t happen, simply by asking leading questions. If you’re suddenly feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea eyewitness testimony right now, good. You should. As with confessions, as a culture, we put way too much faith in them.

When you put this together, it explains why torture doesn’t yield accurate information. Again, this was known, but the neurology wasn’t. So, in this sense, O’Mara does make an interesting and useful contribution to the lit. He’s connecting stuff we already knew in different fields and saying, “this is how it works together.” He’s also getting into the neurochemistry, which is interesting to a degree, but not particularly accessible. The exact reasons that your brain has issues with sleep deprivation make for a fascinating discussion, but if I start talking about neurotransmitter reuptake again, people are going to glaze over.

You should start to see why torture excels at getting people to confess to things they didn’t do. Even confessing to things that aren’t possible or are patently absurd.

In most cases, someone will do anything they can just to end the suffering. Being tortured sucks, and if you just need to sign on the line to make it stop, a surprising number of people will do so. Even if it’s not the truth. Even if they’re signing their lives away.

On the other end of the spectrum, torture someone for long enough, and the lines between the real world and fantasy start to blur, or come apart entirely. You’ll get confessions about how they summoned up The Devil for an orgy and bake-off, or how they were plotting to mount laser cannons on frogs to assault New York. It sounds bonkers, but the victim may be so broken, they can’t tell the difference anymore.

I’m honestly unsure where this line about, “no professional torturers,” comes from. Especially given O’Mara has talked about the NKVD, CIA, Enhanced Interrogation Program, and many other intelligence agencies. That is to say, groups that do employ professional interrogators. I’ve seen this line come up several times, and the only way I could possibly attribute it to O’Mara is by deliberately misreading his methodology. The idea that no one gets paid to lean on others is patently absurd. Even the Mafia and Cartels have professional torturers. How well they do their job is a different question, but I’ve seen some genuinely disconnected comments about torturers being nothing but unhinged psychopaths, and that’s not supported by any reputable source.

I get the appeal of being able to say that, “a rational person couldn’t do this,” because it makes the world feel safer, but the truth is, there are people out there who come across as normal and are paid to do horrific things to other human beings.

The other side of this is that some of the EIP interrogators did end up with PTSD. It takes a pretty specific mindset to be able to do this to someone without suffering psychological harm in the process. That said, it’s not that different from other careers where you deal with horrific experiences on a regular basis, such as EMS, LEOs or soldiers.

The horrible thing about the real world is, torture works. It doesn’t gather usable intelligence, and if you thought that was the point, you fell for the big lie. Torture is about making someone confess to things they never did. It’s about making them agree with your version of the world, irrespective of the truth. It’s about scaring people. Convincing them to never oppose your organization. It does all of those things, and if you’re stepping back and saying, “no, it can’t possibly be that bad,” it worked on you.

Torture is scary; it shows how horrible the world, and the people in it, can be. There’s no shame in looking away and saying, “I can’t deal with this.” I don’t blame you. But there’s no virtue in lying to yourself and saying, “no, it doesn’t do anything. It can’t. I need the people who do this to be cartoonish super-villains.” I don’t blame you for the instinct, that’s better world, but not the one we live in.

-Starke

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Q&A: Learn, Write, Revise

I’m writing a sword fight, but no matter how many times I feel like I’m writing it wrong. I can only get maybe 4 paragraphs out of it and that’s not even including the action or feeling. When I try that I just end up deleting it. Do you have any advice on how to write a realistic one? And what are some of the most common stances in sword fighting?

The first piece of advice is, don’t delete anything. If you’re writing a scene and feel it’s not working, finish it anyway. You learn by doing, and finishing the scene gives you the material you need to dissect your own work. This also applies to stories as a whole. If you’re not satisfied with the final result, you have more to pick through, and you can see what works and what doesn’t.

No one’s rough drafts are perfect. Everything takes rewrites. There’s no merit to presenting a final version and saying, “this was my rough draft.” Rather than mastery of your craft, it shows a complete lack of respect for your work.

The second piece of advice is to remember that, in written works, speed is conveyed by the length of your sentences. An action scene with entire paragraphs will read much more slowly than one where your characters are acting with a handful of words. Economic use of language is key.

Carefully consider each sentence in the scene, and cut them down to as few words as possible. (Example: Remove unneeded words.)

At this point, remember to give your audience time to breathe. This will naturally fit in the combat lulls. When characters break contact, and catch their breath, you may be able to afford a short paragraph, before going back into the fray.

As to learning about sword combat, I’d strongly recommend Matt Easton’s YouTube channel, Scholagladitoria. Depending on the era, and the cultural reference points, there’s an enormous range of possible styles, and different weapons. I realize, with almost 1,400 videos at the time I’m writing this, Easton’s channel may be a bit intimidating, but he’s always interesting and educational.

-Starke

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Q&A: Structural Collapse

Beg pardon, but I was wondering what kind of survivable injuries could be expected from someone having a building fall on them. I presume that in the immediate term you’d have crushing injuries from large pieces of building fall on them, but what kind of crushing injuries would be most survivable? I also assume that there would be deep penetrating trauma from exposed rebar, but in what parts of the body could someone have rebar in them and survive? Thank you for your time and attention.

eliasraine

It depends on how flexible your definition of, “survivable,” is.

The big threats from having a building drop on you are: Something you need gets crushed. Think, your head or chest. Lose those, and you’re done. Limbs are negotiable. Getting run through by rebar is a threat and can lead you to bleed out, but this is more forgiving than you might expect. Search and rescue.

Because of the rough surface, rebar has a tendency to bind into wounds, sealing them against bleeding, with a couple major caveats. You do not want to aggravate the wound, by moving, you do not want to pull it out. This means, if you take a chunk of rebar through a limb, it probably won’t kill you on its own. That said, this is a major risk of infection, and getting impaled through the torso is extremely dangerous, even if you don’t bleed to death. Also, if you do struggle to move around, it’s entirely possible you’ll work the wound lose, and bleed out that way. Especially if you’ve taken it through the leg. Finally, even if you do survive, it will result in some serious deep tissue trauma. Figure a leg or arm that’s been run through will never be quite the same again.

Getting crushed under concrete, or other reinforced structures are a similar story. If it’s a limb, it can potentially hold the artery closed, acting as a kind of accidental tourniquet and save your life. The limb itself has been reduced to pulp, but you can live through it. Obviously, having your torso or head crushed is going to be less survivable. Though, having the lower torso crushed is particularly nasty, as it won’t result in immediate death. There’s also some nasty permutations, where simply cutting off the flow of blood to a limb for an extended period of time can do horrific things to you when blood flow is restored, even if the limb itself is mostly intact.

Note, in both cases above, this is only buying time. Someone who’s had a chunk of rebar run through an artery will still bleed to death, but they may have hours instead of minutes. Similarly, if your thigh has been pulverized, the weight will keep you from bleeding out for awhile, but it probably won’t stop the loss of blood entirely.

After surviving the initial collapse, a major threat is asphyxiation. This can occur either because there’s insufficient access to breathable air (pulling fabric over the mouth and nose as an improvised mask can help), or because of weight on your upper torso interfering with breathing (without it actually crushing you.)

A major danger is the search and rescue teams who come in to find survivors. This is for a couple major reasons. Moving the ruble has a real risk of causing the debris your under to shift. This could either allow you to start bleeding again, or it could crush you. The second major threat is once they’ve found you. Successfully extracting victims from a collapsed building is dependent on having on-site medical attention. Again, any of these injuries that won’t kill you on the spot are survivable with medical attention. Now, the good news is that most well trained Search and Rescue teams understand the things I just outlined, and have sophisticated tools for finding survivors, and understand the need for on site paramedics.

Also worth knowing, the odds of survival start out pretty good, but drop off sharply after the first day. So, it is possible to be trapped under the rubble for up to a week (depending on injuries), but if your character has suffered serious trauma, the clock is ticking, and without rescue, and medical attention, they will die.

So, this is survivable, but it’s also going to be a life changing moment. It can get pretty horrific before it kills you.

-Starke

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