All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Delta and HRT

Hi, I’m writing an urban fantasy where the deuteragonist is a former member of Delta Force and FBI Special Agent who works with the FBI Hostage Rescue Teams as an instructor. Any tips for the do’s and don’t for hostage rescue situations?

Okay, I’m going to chew on the background for a second. Your character sounds like a unicorn. It’s not. The combo is a lot more plausible than it first seems, but it sounds a bit out there.

Delta Operators are vanishingly rare. The exact size of the organization is classified, but best guess is that there’s only around 250 – 300 Delta Force Operators cleared for field work or hostage recovery at any given time.

I’m not clear on exactly how many Hostage Rescue Teams the Bureau maintains, but it’s also a short list. If your character trains the HRTs, that’s a full time job.

The reason the Delta to FBI thing strikes me as weird, beyond simply collecting alphabet soup, is that Delta trains FBI HRTs, and, the FBI’s HRT instructors train Delta. It’s a symbiotic ouroboros. Both groups practice some of the same tactics, though the exact methodology varies. This leaves me with a simple question of, “why?”

Why leave the military, to go to the Bureau to do the same job with the same people, and a fraction of the benefits? This doesn’t mean you can’t, or that someone wouldn’t, just remember it’s probably unnecessary. Your Delta instructor could very well know and have trained your HRT member protagonists with no extra layers mixed in.

Given this is urban fantasy, that might be your reasoning. Characters like Ultraviolet‘s Vaughn Rice (Idris Elba) come to mind. They’ve seen horrific things in mundane organizations, and were inducted into clandestine monster hunting agencies because of their experiences.

Though, I’m not 100% certain the HRTs a good fit. Especially if your setting has Delta, or more specialized groups tasked with countering supernatural threats and monsters. If that’s the case, you might want to trim one of those off. Your character went from Delta or HRT into their monster hunting organization, rather than stacking up multiple “elite” backgrounds, even if they are justifiable together. I guess, one entirely plausible explanation is if your character is setting up their own agency, and tap your Delta/HRT to bring the new program up to speed. That would track. Still strange that they’d follow that career path, but it would certainly bump their resume up the pile, when searching for recruits.

To be fair, there’s also a lingering question of, “why isn’t this guy your protagonist?” They may, very well, be a more interesting character than whomever you planned to run with. This isn’t a strike against them if you’re careful. Just, be aware that you may need to up your protagonist’s game to keep them engaging.

As for actual hostage rescue tactics, I’m not the best person to ask. My original primer was via The Negotiator. It’s a good film (if you can still stomach Kevin Spacey), but not something I’d call educational. A quick search did turn up this article on PoliceOne.com. I’m not particularly familiar with the site, but the information tracks with what I do know, and the psychological methods presented are solid, so, it seems legit. There’s also a much more in-depth primer on HowStuffWorks.com. It’s not comprehensive, but should fill in some minutiae that the PoliceOne article skimmed over. You may also want to ask @Skypig357 for his opinion.

I’m also left with questions for how viable hostage rescue would be when dealing with supernatural threats. Though, I suppose, in a context like the Nightwatch novels, or Men in Black, where you’re dealing with the supernatural as just another law enforcement headache, it’s certainly possible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Science Fiction Melee

Are there still advantages to bladed weapons in a futuristic setting? (Assuming sci-fi weapons like laser guns are commonly used in the setting) There are obviously uses of small blades like knives, but are swords still plausable? I’ve seen a few shows and books set in the future where energy swords or similar weapons are used

Without accounting for specific situational factors, no. Once you have ranged weapons that can be used to quickly neutralize multiple opponents in short succession, and remain viable at melee ranges, there’s no real place for a pure melee weapon.

Knives, axes, and hammers are something of an exception because they have value as utility tools, that can double as an emergency weapon. Though, I am reminded of the email in Doom 3 questioning a shipment of chainsaws to Mars. It’s probably worth remembering what those tools are used for before you simply drop them into your ship’s storage locker.

While we’re on the subject of using tools as emergency weapons and video games, I’m also reminded that most of the arsenal from the Dead Space were re-purposed mining and engineering tools. (At least in the first two games, anyway.)

So, that’s without specific settings that would justify the existence of a sword in your space opera. There’s, obviously, quite a few science fiction settings that do gleefully chuck a box of swords at the combatants and force them to sift through for various reasons.

The primary reason you’d be seeing swords in sci-fi is cultural. Lots of settings envision a distant future where culture has degraded to some prior point for whatever reason. Dune is probably the ur-example here, where human civilization has been reduced down to a feudal state, governed by noble houses. In a setting like that, you could easily see the sword used as a ceremonial weapon, in duels, or other specific circumstances. To be fair, Dune also replaces the sword with daggers for mostly aesthetic reasons, but the effect is still similar. Dune also challenges the use of ranged weapons with body shields. These, expensive, items block kinetic ranged weapons, and detonate in a nuclear blast when struck with lasgun fire. So, there’s an exemption to the ranged only rule above.

The lightsabers from Star Wars are another special case. In the hands of a trained force user they can (effectively) negate incoming blaster fire, meaning they do offer an exemption to the ranged rule.

Warhammer 40k finds a similar exemption by simply increasing the resilience of its inhabitants until you have a setting where fans sarcastically refer to energy rifles capable of reducing humans to red mist as “flashlights” because they do nothing to many of the setting’s inhabitants. To be fair, if something can survive direct lasgun fire (40k “borrows” the term directly from Dune), you’re probably not going to get very far swinging a mundane sword at it.

Because, sci-fi settings encompass such a massive range of potential environments, it’s probably important to point out that there are a lot of reasons you might see melee weapons on the loose. The above just a couple possible reasons, but let’s codify these without tying them to explicit examples.

Ceremonial usage is a big one. This means you probably wouldn’t see swords being used during boarding actions, but you would see them around, and people from the social classes who needed them could be reasonably expected to know how to use them should it be the most expedient option. This could be because civilization has degenerated into a kind of clan or great house structure. Generally speaking, ritualized dueling works in a system where you have disputes between individuals, but can’t politically afford to adjudicate punishment. This makes the most sense in feudal systems, or intra-faction conflicts in an unstable coalition. Again, Dune‘s Great Houses are an excellent example of this kind of situation.

Another big, potential, reason is if ranged weapons are rendered ineffective or risky in certain situations.

One of the classic examples is using high power kinetic weapons on a starship where you’re risking a hull breach with every gunshot. Depending on the nature of your energy weapons, (and the overall technologies used for maintaining structural integrity) this may be more or less of a consideration. If your setting’s ships can use force fields to maintain atmosphere punching a hole in the hull with a stray gunshot will be far less dangerous than if that means the ship is losing air, with no way to replace it. As your weapons become more powerful, this risk becomes more significant. That said, the hull breach situation comes with a mix of other considerations. If your setting has body armor that can resist small arms fire, it’s likely that your ships would share that construction. It’s also entirely possible that boarding teams would operate in sealed environmental suits, capable of exposure to hard vacuum, and more ruthless groups might intentionally trigger hull breaches during their boarding actions. The risks involved may also heavily depend on kind of ranged weapons your characters are using. Kinetic weapons with very high penetration may pose a much greater threat here than handheld particle beam weapons.

Another potential situation where you have technologies specifically designed to suppress the effect of specific weapon types. Personal shielding technology, or exosuit armor are potential examples. Of course, if it is armor, simply pulling out a sword probably isn’t going to do much, unless the sword circumvents the armor somehow. But, if you have a setting where body shields that can survive multiple plasma hits are semi-common, you might very well see people using swords, or similar weapons, to bypass them. To, be fair, you may also see the development of new weapons designed to bypass or overload those shields, so it’s not like this automatically means you’d see melee weapons.

Another possibility is when dealing with primitive cultures. If you’re dealing with a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting, where some prior galactic civilization fell, leaving colonies cut off, you might come across planets where advanced technology fell completely out of use. I’ve argued against this in a strict context of post-apocalyptic settings before, but colonies introduce a new wrinkle, where you could potentially have a population base who knew how to use advanced energy weapons, did not have practical knowledge of  kinetic firearms, and lost access to the latter. This could result in a full on regression, over a long enough time frame (figure several thousand years, at a guess.) So it is, theoretically possible you might have lost colonies that have regressed back to spear and bow warfare. What happens if human ships visit one of these lost colonies is, of course, up to you.

There is one hard part when it comes to defining a state of existence for science fiction, and it does show in this question. I used a few examples. Star Wars is generally accepted as existing in its own timeline. It’s science fantasy, and that’s fine. Both of the video game examples, along with a lot of sci-fi settings like Star Trek are near future. They’re set within one thousand years of present day. Stuff like Dune or Warhammer 40k are a lot harder to pin down. Dune is set sometime in the 24th millennium, and 40k draws it’s name from being set in the 41st millennium. Both of those settings juggle their overall technology by technological dark ages, but it does start to peal the lid off questions of, “what will the technology look like?” Meaning you need to address those concepts in much more general terms.

So, in short, “probably not,” but you might be able to assemble a setting where swinging swords around like it’s the golden age of piracy does, in fact, make sense.

-Starke

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Q&A: A Hunter’s Tools

In fantasy stories, the bow and arrow is an overused choice of weapon. What other weapons are there that I can give my huntress heroine for effective use in the woods? She’s skilled in a variety of weapon use, such as swords and daggers and other things, but I want to give her one weapon that she excels at.

I’m not sure if it’s really overused. The bow is a very versatile hunting tool. Slings were used to deal with predators, and could be lethal, but aren’t usually associated with hunting in the same way, at least in fiction. Slingshots can be used to deal with small game, though those date to the 19th century.

Slings date to the neolithic period, and are formed with multiple lengths of cord connected to a pouch which holds a (usually stone) projectile, called a “bullet.” The user spins the weapon, releasing one of the straps to release the projectile into flight. With practice, these can be surprisingly accurate. Historically they were used as military weapons during the bronze and iron age. Though, as I said, I’m not sure on their use in hunting.

The bolo is somewhat similar to the sling. This is a thrown weapon with multiple weights, joined together by a flexible line. The weapon is thrown by spinning one of the weights and releasing, so that it will tangle the target’s legs dropping it.

The atlatl is a paleolithic weapon, dating back approximately 30k years. These consist of a simple shaft with a cup designed to hold a spear (or dart.) The butt of the spear is loaded into the cup, with the atlatl’s shaft under the spear. The user then launches the spear by “swinging” the atlatl. Because of the length of the shaft, this effectively magnifies the initial launching force from the projectile. I’m unsure of the exact timeline for use in Europe. There are surviving examples dating back 17k years, but I don’t know exactly when they fell out of use. In the Americas, they were still used, sometimes in preference over, bows up to the time of European colonization. (In fact the name, atlatl is of Aztec origin.)

Failing that, it’s worth remembering that the spear. These things have been around longer than homo sapiens, and we’ve been using them to catch dinner and poke holes in people we don’t like for almost all of our existence. They’ve been used for hunting, in warfare. They’ve been thrown, used as melee weapons. If your character hunts, especially in a low-tech setting, it’s a virtual certainty that they’d use a spear, at least some of the time.

Also, the spear would be the preferred tool for killing a wounded animal, as it allows the hunter to remain at a safe distance; closing in with the knife would be borderline suicidal, especially against wounded herbivores.

Following closely behind the spear are traps. We’ve been getting creative and killing things by turning the environment to our advantage throughout history. These include pit traps, where you dig a small trench, and line it with sharpened sticks, cover it with leaves, and then startle an animal through it. Deadfall traps, where a rock or other heavy object is suspended over bait, when the targeted animal approaches it, the suspension is removed or cut. Finally, snares are another common trap, where a cable or rope latches onto and holds the animal that trips it. In some cases, these are combined with bending tree branches to tension, in order to suspend the target. We don’t usually think of traps as weapons, but they’ve been an important part of human hunting throughout our history.

I’m going to say this again for emphasis. If your character is a hunter in anything other than a modern setting, they should be using traps. Full stop. These were a vital tool for hunters historically, so it’s worth your time to look into those in a little more depth.

Another incredibly important hunting tool is a dog. They’re not as durable as a human, but they are far more mobile, especially in dense areas, and can be incredibly useful for driving prey into traps, or tracking wounded prey across difficult terrain. It’s easy to think of dogs as companions, but many breeds did have specific working roles, including hunting.

Also, worth remembering, the sword is for use on people. If your character is also hunting people, then that’s a natural fit. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t own, or even know how to use a sword, unless there were other cultural factors at play. (For example, if your character is a game warden for some feudal lord, or a retired soldier they may have and use one.) The sword isn’t useful for hunting. So, unless your character is also a combatant, you can safely ditch this.

Depending on setting, it’s entirely possible your character would go hunting with a spear (or spears, if they intend to throw them), a sling, some snares, and a knife (for setting the traps.) They may also carry an axe, which might also double as a shovel for digging pits. Though that’s somewhat less likely. If they found themselves threatened by another person, the spear would function as an entirely effective weapon, so at that point the sword is somewhat unnecessary. Depending on context, it’s entirely likely they’d have a dog (or some other animal that acts as a hunting assistant.)

I’d also recommend you take some time to research hunting tactics, with things such as lures and blinds. If you’re wanting your character to be a hunter, it’s probably a good idea to have a fundamental grasp of their job skills, even if you can’t replicate them in the wild.

-Starke

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Q&A: No Obligations

Are readers supposed to root for morally ambiguous/decidedly immoral protagonists?

If you want to. Same thing applies to moral protagonists, antagonists, vehicles, inanimate objects, or creative wall ornaments. As a reader, you’re under no obligation to do anything. You don’t even have to keep reading if you don’t want to.

You root for the characters you choose because you want to. Not because of some arbitrary criteria was met. No one else can tell you who you should or shouldn’t root for. It doesn’t need to be the protagonist. Sometimes you’ll root for the villain. That’s cool.

Getting you to root for a character is entirely on the author. If you’re the writer, keeping your audience invested in your work is your job. Getting your audience to root for your characters is your job. You do that by making your characters compelling and interesting. You can’t make them like your, “cool” character just because you want them to, and audiences tend to be fairly resistant to overselling characters as, “so damn awesome,” in an attempt to sell them. Just look at the 80s and 90s comics industry if you want to see how badly this fails.

As the reader, you have no obligations. If someone tells you that liking a specific character or relationship is compulsory, they’re wrong. If someone tells you that endorsing some unsupported relationship is mandatory, they’ve disconnected from reality.

Root for the hero if you want. Root for the villain if you want. Hell, root for both. I’m not the boss of what you find compelling, and neither is anyone else.

If you think something’s trash, or unappealing, you can put that down and walk away. It doesn’t matter what some unhinged fan tells you. In the end, it’s your time, you don’t need to commit it to something that doesn’t interest you.

There are certainly reasons to read something you don’t like, or don’t enjoy. There are excellent works of art that don’t appeal, or are downright uncomfortable. Sometimes there is a purpose to perseverance. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s without merit. With that in mind, sometimes it is worth sticking it out and finishing book. As writers, we’re strengthened by the things we dislike or disagree with as much as the things we love. In fact, reading things that challenge your views and perspectives can help you grow as a writer. However, aside from, “read something,” you have freedom to pick what you want. Just, for a balanced literary diet, pick and finish some things you might not like, read them, and try to form a comprehensive critique of them that extends beyond, “this sucks.”

When it comes to reading, do not let another dictate how you engage the material. Especially not someone who’s, “a fan.” They may have a better order to experience the material in, but ultimately how you engage with it, what you take away when you’re done, how you view it, is all up to you. Others may offer insights or opinions you appreciate or disagree with, but if you adopt them, again, that is your choice; no one else can tell you what to think about the story you read.

If the writer did their job, they’ll get you rooting for who they want you to. If you don’t like a character, you’re free to choose that, and no one else has any authority to tell you otherwise.

-Starke

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Q&A: Treachery

Since you guys deal a lot with fighting, you might not be as able to help here but I wondered if you had tips for handling betrayals in a mafia type setting (and the subsequent fighting)? General tips? Are betrayals in the beginning of the story cliche? How do I make it more interesting if the betrayer does so as a move for more power? How do you foreshadow without making it so the audience sees it coming? Is Loki a good example of this trickster character?

Aside from, maybe, Tim Bentinck’s portrayal, I can’t think of a single version of Loki that would fit within a Mafia setting. I mean we’re talking about a mythological figure that gave birth to Sleipnir. So, all I can say to that is, “what?”

“Someone needs to ice Jimmy. Send Frankie and spider-horse’s mom.”

Okay, so two things, and I’ll take them in order. You’re not looking for a trickster. These are antagonistic, mythological figures tasked with tormenting or bedeviling believers and heroes. They’re a specific kind of mythological test, and sometimes Loki is one. Like many mythic elements, their function is proscribed.

To a certain extent, mythic storytelling fits comics fine. The superhero genre lends itself to that style of narrative. However there are no mythic stories about mobsters. There might be some way to do this, it’s not automatically impossible, but they’re part of an entirely different, far more grounded, narrative style. I’d call it “a different genre,” but that really doesn’t encompass how different these kinds of stories are.

Loki will stab you in the back because it’s in his nature. He doesn’t need a grandiose plan, he’s not motivated by his bank account, or some abstract power of controlling the rackets in Flatiron, or worrying about rubbing out competition in Hudson Yards. If he steps down to that level it’s because he’s doing it to catch someone who’s worthy of his attention off guard, and he wouldn’t do it while wearing a name tag.

A mobster will stab you in the back because you’re a stepping stone on their way to a larger goal, because you annoyed them, or because they’re a psychopath.

If you’re looking to have your characters engage in a well crafted betrayal, those characters need achievable goals, and plans to make them happen. Then they just need to be circumspect when they go make it happen.

View your betrayer as someone with a limited amount of resources to work with, so they need to be as efficient as possible. (This extends to writing as well; be efficient with your words.) The more they do, the more of a footprint their actions will leave, the more likely they’ll be discovered before they’re ready. The easiest way to avoid that is to be careful and deliberate.

When your characters need to act to further their goals, that’s when you foreshadow what they’re doing. ideally you want to provide enough information that your readers can understand what they’re doing after the fact, but don’t realize anything’s amiss in the moment.

Innocuous actions can have sinister implications upon return. You don’t need to point out those implications, your readers will fill that in on their return trip. You also don’t need to fully detail every action you foreshadow. A character may do something innocuous with little justification, because they needed to. An event may occur in the background with no direct ties to your characters, even when your betrayer is responsible, but slipped away undetected, or orchestrated it remotely. One cautionary note: try to make sure when your characters are foreshadowing something that they’re acting to advance their agenda and not because The Power of Plot Compels Thee.

Think of foreshadowing as setting the stage, rather than hiding something from your audience. Additionally, don’t worry too much about foreshadowing in your rough draft. This is something you should be working on when you’re redrafting, once you already know where the story’s going, and what you need to make that happen.

At a quick glance, the real danger of cliches is when you insert something into your story because, “that’s how it works in stories,” without critique or a critical thought. If your character is betrayed because they need to be betrayed to start the story, that’s probably a cliche. If they’re betrayed by their friend, because said friend has a specific goal in mind, and it furthers the story as a natural event, it will resist being a cliche. Fleshing out your characters so they have distinct personalities, and their actions make sense can help avoid this.

If we’re talking about someone who’s aggressively trying to advance through the Mafia, I would strongly recommend reading The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. This is far more specific than it may sound; multiple members of the American Mafia, including John Gotti read, absorbed, and even committed it to memory. The Prince is a blueprint for taking power through ruthless means, and it was a natural fit for organized crime.

Want to avoid a cliche? Carefully plot out your villain’s powerplay, and each step in it, so that when it happens, the last thing your reader will think is, “wait, didn’t I read this before?”

-Starke

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Q&A: Firearms and Advertising

A woman asks her lover to show ask her how to shoot because „good w a gun can stop bad guy w a gun“. He is a soldier & will say no, he thinks someone unexperienced with a gun is someone potentially dangerous. Iho it‘s much more likely she will hurt someone unintentionally than anything else, because she can never get enough training to become comfortable a& accustomed to a gun. Is that a realistic opinion for someone with an army background, or should I think of something else to deny her?

Yeah, that, “good guy with a gun,” statement is bullshit. It’s an advertising slogan masquerading as policy.

So, let’s talk about the most basic element of advertising for a second. When you’re selling someone to someone, your first goal is to create a need, then you provide a product to fill that need. Most people aren’t going to spend 20 bucks on something they don’t have a use for. Some products generate their own need, food for instance, while others, not so much.

Selling someone a gun requires you create a need first. Most people don’t work in occupations where a firearm is useful, to say nothing of necessary. If you’re working middle management, or as a retail cashier, you’re never going to be in a situation where your job will be improved by going strapped.

If you’re in law enforcement, a soldier, a handful of other occupations, then yes. Having a firearm is an important tool for being able to do your job. It’s necessary, and your job will either provide one, or point you in the direction of where to obtain a weapon.

Unless you need a gun for your job, you don’t need a gun. Full stop. So, for someone in marketing, their job is to create that need.

Then, in an era of mass shootings, we get this, “good guy with a gun,” line. It’s creating a need. It’s telling you, “hey, you see all those bad things happening out there? You could be a hero and stop them, if you were there, and armed.” It’s a lie. Like a lot of good marketing, it plays off of desires to present an illusion. It’s saying, “you need this if you want to be able to play the hero when the time comes.”

This need is there to get you to spend $400 you don’t have, on a product you’ll never use, because of a hypothetical situation, where you could live out your fantasy… and then shot by SWAT.

So two things: mass shootings in the United States are frighteningly frequent, and you’re more likely to win the lottery. Last year there were 345 mass shootings (which was a record), in a nation with a population of 325 million people. Now, that’s not quite a one in a million chance, because mass shootings do involve multiple people, but at the same time, your odds of ever actually being in an active shooter situation are vanishingly rare.

So, you’re being sold a fairly expensive piece of hardware, and spending more to train on, and become proficient with, that piece of hardware. Ammo and maintenance is not cheap. A responsible shooter could easily rack up a $1200 a year bill on ammo, to say nothing of range fees and other expenses.

You’re being sold this on the idea that, “but, what if,” where the odds of it happening are already incredibly low. Even then, if you carry that, “what if,” to it’s natural conclusion, things don’t get better.

Like a lot of power fantasies, the “good guy with a gun” is dependent on things playing out perfectly, and in direct contrast to how things are far more likely to go.

I mentioned your character getting shot by SWAT earlier, but this is a real risk. If you do find yourself in an active shooter situation, the police will come in looking for a civilian, armed with a weapon, firing at people. If you pull a gun and start firing on the shooter, you will be a civilian, armed with a weapon, firing at people. There is no way for police to distinguish “good guys” from “bad guys” when the bullets are flying, just police and suspects. This, ironically, puts you in more danger because you will be targeted by a better armed, more numerous group than you would if you were dealing with a single lone shooter, and you will be dealt with as if you were one of the perpetrators.

The “good guy with a gun,” phrase survives because it’s effective marketing. It creates a need, and then offers a product to fill that need. “Don’t want to die? Buy this thing.”

The idea that she can never become proficient enough to use it in an emergency isn’t true. It is something that depends on spending a lot of time with the weapon, practicing. So, it’s possible she could learn how to handle it, to the point that she’s able to operate it during an adrenaline rush. Not likely, but it is possible, it just takes a lot of work.

However, the simplistic, “good guy with a gun,” sort of skirts around training and practicing to become proficient. It’s just, “here, if you have this thing,” which would be forgivable if we were talking about selling microwaves or vacuum cleaners, but instead we’re talking about selling firearms to untrained civilians, then actively encouraging them to use said firearms in crisis situations.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with recreational shooting. Something that may get missed is guns are fun to shoot, they’re mechanically fascinating, and there’s a ton of history there. There’s a lot of benign reasons for someone to collect, or even use them. However, when someone takes that recreational or utility element, and says, “okay, but you use those to be ‘a hero,'” everything goes off the rails.

If you’re in an active shooter situation, you can do far more good by keeping your head, finding ways to secure yourself and other survivors away from the shooter, and finding ways to contact the police. Going in playing cowboy is a recipe for tragedy.

-Starke

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Q&A: Eight Decades of Bats

You’ve said in the past that Bruce Wayne having a job a job program for criminals was out of character. And even just watching the animated series again, I don’t think I agree. He has wanted to help people, even criminals, many times. Harley Quinn is a big one. Jason Todd tried to steal his tires and might have been able to get away with it. There’s Two-Face as well. Bats may not have the same views as, Nightwing, but to say he’s all about Tomas Hobbs and nothing else is missing some nuance.

It’s not nuance. The issue is that these characters have passed through the hands of many writers. That’s not a criticism of your position, per se.

You’re not wrong. Take Adam West’s Batman, and you have a character who truly looks for the best in everyone. Scattered through the years there have been a lot of truly altruistic versions presented. The key word there is, “versions.”

These are different writers takes on the character. We exist in a world where one set of writers looked at the character and created a lighthearted romp where the greatest foes he faces are lovable (if dangerous) buffoons. And another set of writers turned him, literally, into a vampire, who preys on the unwary. This can make life really tricky when you’re trying to offer up a concise critique of a character like this. It’s not just Batman by the way. Many comic book superheroes, and even most mythological figures suffer from this.

Now, obviously, if you’re wanting to talk about something like Thor, you can pick from a vast array of different, conflicting, sources, and (to some extent) chose the scope of your examination. The scope is actually pretty important. Do you look at the modern interpretations or a specific subset, (like “Thor in video games”), do you look at the actual myth, or the changes to the figure’s presentation over time as cultural and other factors changed? Do you intersect them with something else, for example, looking at “how Norse mythology interconnects with Arthurian myth.”

Modern franchise characters offer some similar options. You can look at Batman in specific eras, under certain writers, or how the character reflected changing social trends over time. In some cases you can even splice off specific pieces, such as reboots or alternate versions, and analyze those examples.

Fortunately, Batman makes this somewhat easy. Most of the time, the character is fairly consistent but there’s always going to be stuff like Stephanie Brown or Jean-Paul Valley that is not, and breaks character on his behavior. Batman hiring a brainwashed assassin and putting him in a powered armor batsuit was a fixture in the 90s in Knightfall after Bain broke Batman’s spine. We also have Batman killing the teenage girlfriend of Tim Drake through neglect after taking her on as Tim’s replacement and trying to use that event as a teachable moment. (See also, Batman: War Games.) DCUO’s Bats, who often sounds like he’s in the middle of a nervous breakdown while handing out quests to a number of nascent MMO heroes might be another.

Consider this, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Frank Miler, Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, Jeff Loeb, Chuck Dixon, Bruce Timm, Garth Ennis, Gail Simone, and many, many more have all written for Batman either in his own books or in other comic incarnations. If you haven’t been paying attention, these writers all have vastly different approaches and outlooks when it comes to presenting their characters. Grant Morrison honestly believes that Batman snaps and kills the Joker at the end of “The Killing Joke”, and he presents this as objective fact. Alan Moore, who wrote “The Killing Joke” thinks Grant Morrison is a moron. We haven’t even gotten discrepancies with the way Batman is presented on film. Remember, Batman and Robin is the film adjacent to Batman Begins, they’re both technically canon. Do you imagine Christian Bale grew up to be George Clooney or Adam West? The Adam West Batman is one of Batman’s most famous versions. There are lots of different versions of Batman to choose from.

As a fan, you might pick and choose your canon but many of the versions which don’t appeal to you are just as valuable from an analytical and critical perspective. So, keep that in mind as we move forward.

I did not say that it was out of character for Batman to seek to redeem people. The issue here is the methodology. At the core of Batman, you have a guy who dresses up as a bat to scare criminals into line and when that fails, he resorts to violence. I mean, at the extreme end, we’re talking about a character who kept a yellow power ring around, “just in case.” Except, sometimes, with some writers, he abandons this entire philosophy when convenient.

At this point, I should probably step back and abstract Hobbes a bit.

Thomas Hobbes wasn’t saying that it was impossible to govern, or that people couldn’t be productive members of society. He simply argued that, if left to their own devices, people suck. That they will do whatever they want to one another, unless kept in line somehow. That’s Batman; people suck, and the only reason they follow the law is because they’re afraid of what could happen if they don’t.

What’s not (usually) Batman, is Hobbes answer. He argued that the way to “deal” with people was to form communities, bound together by a social contract. While this is somewhat reflected by Bats, it’s not usually articulated as such. You can see this a lot more clearly articulated with the Adam West era stuff. While being one of the most optimistic versions of the character, he’s also, very strongly arguing that social structures need to be adhered to for the good of all.  It’s still Hobbes’s commonwealth, just not how you usually think about Batman.

With that said, as cynical as Hobbes is about human nature, the overall tone of the Leviathan isn’t nearly as bleak. He is arguing that people can transcend, their state of nature. Put simply, “people suck, but they can be better.” He then goes into excruciating detail how he thinks that’s possible.

So, I said Bats’ outreach programs were out of character, and I stand behind that.

Let’s talk about the personal stuff. His relationships with Jason Todd, Harvey Dent, Stephanie Brown, Damion… those are consistent. They’re not completely out of character, though I have to wonder about Jason. The Red Hood murdering people with guns goes against everything Batman supposedly stands for, but DC has embraced Jason back into the Batfamily when he’d kick Damien out for doing the same thing… let’s move on.

Bats’ is forming, or trying form, a community. Dent is outside of that, but Bats desperately wants to believe reform is possible and (re)include him. This is arguably true with several of his villains. He does believe they can be reformed. That’s not in conflict with Hobbes. Hobbes believed that people could be better, and Bats follows that ideal. The issue is the exceptions he makes.

Most of the outreach programs Bruce Wayne runs build off of an idea that all someone needs to succeed is a little help. That normally, people are decent, and that when someone gets out of line, it’s a product of other factors pushing them to behave in that way. That’s not Hobbes. This is Superman. Superman believes that people are, by nature, decent. That they are driven to do bad things, either because they’ve become misguided,  or because they’re forced to.

Now, the irony in this is that Batman is in a far better position to affect change from Superman’s outlook. He has the resources to engage in civic works. He could put money into Gotham in ways that would actually reduce crime and corruption. He could improve the city he lives in. This is the legacy of Thomas Wayne; a man trying to make Gotham a better place through strategic philanthropy. Bats doesn’t. At my most generous, I’d be inclined to chalk this stuff up as an element of his cover and as such, in-character. Because rich celebrities throw money at charity, Bruce Wayne does. And, there’s a potential to write this stuff off like that. It’s not something Bats believes in, but he does it to keep public opinion on Bruce’s side.

There’s probably something to be said, in the vein of Watchmen‘s thesis: You can’t really make the world a better place by punching muggers. It just doesn’t work. The problem is, that’s Batman’s plan. Beatings will continue until morale improves. At the same time Gotham is a complete mess, much like Watchmen‘s New York. To be fair, this is not an intentional correlation. Bats needs muggers to punch, so Gotham needs to be a hell hole.

When you’re writing, it’s very important to remember that you and your characters are different people. They (probably) have a different philosophical outlook from you. At that point, simply doing something because it would be nice, or because you want to is insufficient justification. It needs to be something your character would do. You need to justify their decision, at least to yourself; check that it is consistent with how they view their world.

When you are analyzing, it is equally important to asses the ideology a work, and its characters. Translating that to the author’s ideology can be tricky, even if you know what you’re doing. Understanding the ideology of a character comes from looking at their words and actions. Finding idiosyncrasies and discrepancies is a vital step in determining the nature of that character. Writers often look for behavior that may be considered out of character, because they are attempt to assess the work. It’s a literary acid bath. This isn’t malicious, it’s not trying something you love. It’s a writer looking at a piece and trying to learn from it. Eventually, it’s something you need to do as well, to grow.

Also, you can love something stupid. You can love something that doesn’t make any sense. There’s no accounting for quality. I’ve watched some terrible movies that I’m still quite fond of. But, it is kind of important, to be honest with yourself. Fandom can constrain your growth as an artist. You love a thing, and that’s good, but then you let that stake out your borders. Don’t let that happen.

I like Batman, but he is a mess.

-Starke

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Q&A: Haladie

Hi, so my character uses a haladie in their fighting, i was wondering how that fighting style would look? Thank you! your blog is awesome and super helpful!

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure.

In spite of being a fairly widely distributed weapon, ranging from India to Syria. I can’t find much information on the haladie. This is especially surprising given the weapon was still in use into the early 20th century.

Often times, my first impulse when someone says, “how do you use this,” is to refer them to google, but this time, that doesn’t really work.

What I can find is slightly conflicting. The original haladie were status symbols for the Rajput in India. The Rajput were a militant caste in India, though I should say, “are,” since the Rajput still exist today. There’s also a lot of discussion about their history, and debate whether they were descendants of invading groups, or if they were of indigenous origin, who rose to leadership. (They’re not the only militant caste, so this isn’t like, “these are the warriors tasked with defending our lands.”) Also, worth noting, the entire concept of the militant castes vs, the non-militant ones has it’s roots in the British occupation, so this whole topic is a little bit complicated, and the term itself is somewhat indiscriminate, including multiple clans.

If you seriously want to dig into this, I’d recommend researching the Rajput, and India in general. The haladie is not simply “another weapon,” it is a part of culture and civilization in India, and it is strongly tied to those social structures.

So, with that tangled mess on the table, the simple answer is that the Haladie was a status symbol (in India).  Though, I’m unclear how exclusive these weapons actually were. They were clearly traded outside of the Deccan Plateau, as they did appear in Syria, and were later produced there, even being called Syrian Daggers by those unfamiliar with the provenance.

The haladie is one of those weapons that are more dangerous to an untrained user than their opponent. (I can vouch for this from personal experience; I have a scar on my right index finger from mishandling one almost 20 years ago.) Normally, I would say that means the weapon probably never saw use, except, but this is an Indian weapon. Indian martial arts never shied away from weapons that were difficult or dangerous to wield. In particular, the Urumi still comes to mind as an excellent example of this.

As far as I can tell, the haladie was used in combat. I don’t know what that looked like, and I’m not really sure if anyone alive does. From what I understand the primary weapon of the Rajput was the Khanda, a double edged straight sword with a flat tip. They carried the haladie, they used it, but I don’t know how, or more importantly, when. And, the information I can find on short notice isn’t particularly comprehensive.

I can’t fault you here. If you want to use this, and do it “right,” you’ve a lot of research ahead of you. We talk a lot about how the right weapon is about picking the correct situation to use it. In most cases, we’re talking about things when you should use a knife, versus a sword, versus a polearm or firearm. And, some of that is Eurocentric.

Europe has some symbolism with weapons. The sword has meaning as a badge of office, for the king, or knights. The gun has meaning. The kind of gun has meaning, just like the kind of sword has meaning.

When you step into another culture, (in this case: India’s), you need to assess what that weapon means. The haladie isn’t just a cool looking dagger. It’s a symbol that says, “this is who my character is.” For them to carry it, they need to be a specific kind of person, a specific caste, and clan. It’s not enough to just give them the weapon “because it belongs to that culture.” It’s also not their main weapon, or wouldn’t be.

In this case, I’d recommend reading up on the Rajput. I condensed what I could, but there are, literally, entire books on the subject. Their history, their identity. All of this is relevant to creating a character. You’re learning who they are. In the process, learning about where they’re from will create a richer story.

I am sorry I can’t give you a more direct, “this is how you use it,” answer, because all I can find are people experimenting with ones, nobody who knows what they’re doing.

If you just want a practical, “exotic,” knife in a modern setting, I’d recommend the karambit. It’s a curved knife of South-East Asian origin, with a lot of flexible combat applications. There’s also some pretty good demonstrations on YouTube for how to use these. (It won’t teach you to use one in a real situation, but it should give you some ideas how to incorporate one into your writing.)

-Starke

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Q&A: Kill Bill

Kill Bill has a group of assassins called the “Deadly Vipers” and the main character gets out of the job because she becomes pregnant with Bill’s child and doesn’t want her baby to grow up in that kind of environment. Is this at all believable or realistic for an assassin in the real world sense, or is it just sentimental garbage?

This isn’t a simple up and down, there’s three different pieces here, and there’s no single, “yes/no” answer. And, yeah, I’m going to be spoiling this film, but since the question already kinda did, it’s a little late for a warning.

The Vipers aren’t consistent with the real world. They’re not supposed to be. Kill Bill isn’t that kind of film. Films, really, because in spite of being two parts of the same narrative, they are very distinct pieces, rather than two acts in an ongoing story. Most of what I’m saying revolves around Volume 2, not the first film.

At the center of the second film, there’s a very realistic, and almost healthy, emotional core. More healthy than many people in similar situations tend to react at anyway.

The shell story for Kill Bill is: A woman wakes up from a coma and then goes on a rampage of revenge (the films actually use this phrase) against the former friends/coworkers who put her there.

That’s not particularly realistic. I mean, the general motivation, sure, but the entire thing is very formalistic. This also, classic Tarantino. He loves working with very pulpy genres (in this case, martial arts films), and then digging into them. In the case of Kill Bill, you can think of the shell story as a candy coating designed to keep you from realizing what you just bit into. Like I said, this is something Tarantino loves to do. He’ll offer you a bit of violent escapist fantasy, and then offer up some really vicious commentary once you’ve bought in. Sometimes, you don’t even realize it’s there until someone else points it out.

With that in mind, Kill Bill is not about a woman taking revenge against her attackers. That’s the story, not what it’s about. It is about a woman and her daughter getting away from an abusive, controlling, ex. The violence, and story are Tarantino’s candy coating, so you would sit down and engage with that material, even if, you’re not the kind of person who would willingly watch that.

We have ample opportunities to see Bill’s (David Carradine) behavior through the film. This is someone who sought to maintain ownership of Kiddo (Uma Thurman).

I’ll be honest, my feelings are, Kiddo isn’t bothered by the kind of life she lived, even though she says otherwise. And, I’ll defend this with a detail that may seem fairly flimsy, but the film she and her daughter sit down to watch before she goes to confront Bill is Shogun Assassin. If you’re unfamiliar, the protagonist is a falsely accused man, who goes into exile becoming an assassin with his young son. This is a little too on the nose to be an accident.

Wanting to get out of a toxic relationship, with a controlling and abusive partner is entirely reasonable, and realistic. Bill’s actions are a little extreme, but certainly within the range of the legitimate threat people like him pose.

Kiddo’s behavior is also realistic, to an extent, at least as metaphor. The desire to get her child away from Bill is reasonably grounded. Her entire campaign of revenge probably isn’t exactly a healthy response to an abusive partner, but cutting ties with someone like that is, including mutual acquaintances who will take their side. Not, you know, killing them in front of their children, but cutting them out of your life.

So, is it realistic? Yeah, kinda. Not the surface layer of people spraying blood like malfunctioning lawn sprinklers, but the emotional meat of the second film has more weight than than the hyper-violent fights would suggest.

Is it a good film? I’m not sure. It’s not my favorite Tarantino film, and I can’t blame anyone who looks at it and writes it off as violent spectacle without any redeeming qualities (especially the first film). There is more, and some of that is grounded, but more as parable than at face value.

Are any of Tarantino’s films realistic? Not using the metric you asked for, but that’s kinda missing the point. Tarantino’s talking about something, usually in parallel to the story. Habitually he wraps those themes in an incredibly violent, almost surreal, setting (his films share a setting). That said, I can’t remember if Kill Bill is explicitly part of the same world as Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs, or if it’s intended as a film in that setting. (This is the case with Dusk ‘Till Dawn, for example.)

Something worth saying, again, if these films are not your thing, I don’t hold that against you at all. Tarantino’s entire career has been characterized by violence designed to be uncomfortable. This is entirely intentional. If that’s something you honestly can’t deal with; no judgement.

-Starke

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Q&A: Bows and Crossbows

Which medieval weapon took more training time to become proficient with, a short bow or a cross bow? Which took more strength to use? Some writers portray crossbows as much harder to load but easier for untrained persons to hit targets with devestating effect on heavily armored opponents. Is this true?

So, in order.

The bow. I’m talking about bows in general here. To the best of my knowledge, the term “shortbow,” only dates back to the 1890s, so, not exactly a medieval weapon. This doesn’t mean that smaller bows didn’t exist for specialized purposes, just that they weren’t called, “shortbows.”

Training, again, goes to the bow. Training an archer takes much more time, and is significantly more difficult. This leads into your question about it being easier for an untrained user to put a bolt where they want it. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it is much easier to get someone up to speed on the crossbow. Getting an arrow where you want it does require more skill, training, and practice.

Strength also goes to the bow. At least for upper body strength. You’re pulling a lot of weight with every shot, and assuming your archer is getting enough to eat, they’re going to be stacked after a few years. I think I’ve said this before, but the image of a willowy archer from fantasy just does not track with the reality of the weapon. If you’re effectively pulling 80+ pounds of force with every shot, that’s going to be a workout.

“Reloading” a bow is pretty trivial. Drawing and nocking another arrow is a very simple motion, and there’s almost no mechanical considerations. Reloading a crossbow may be more complicated, depending on the arming and firing mechanisms.

Light crossbows can be rearmed by hand. You simply take the bow string and reset the weapon to fire. Heavier weapons often require mechanical systems (called “spanning mechanisms”) to rearm the crossbow before reloading. These range from a stirrup, to allow you to hold the crossbow in place while you draw the string with both hands, to lever systems, and even cranks (both Cranquins and Windlasses were used). Once the crossbow has been rearmed, the actual reload is fairly simple, but that’s a mostly academic distinction.

Saying that it’s harder to reload a crossbow is fair. A little bit of an abstraction, but that’s entirely fair. They do have a much lower cyclic fire rate. With a bow, you simply need to draw another arrow, nock it, draw, and you’re ready to fire. With a crossbow, you need to rearm it (which may be simple, or it might not be), draw and load the bolt, and then you’re ready to fire.

So, when you have crossbows that are delivering force a human archer could not replicate, then, yes, that’s going to impact a target with more power than you could get from a bow. There’s a lot of factors here that I’m glazing over, so, this doesn’t mean that a crossbow will always, automatically, hit harder, and penetrate armor more easily, with heavier designs, especially ones with crank systems, that’s certainly possible.

So some basic physics, when you launch an un-powered missile (doesn’t matter an arrow, bolt, or bullet), it will lose velocity and be affected by gravity (called drop) as it travels. This means, at shorter ranges, these weapons will exhibit better armor penetration, than they will at a distance. So, if you have a character in fairly tight quarters, like a city street, firing a crossbow, it might have better armor penetration than you’d see from a longbow on a ridge.

In fact, crossbows saw most of their use in urban environments, while bows were more common in rural areas, and among standing military forces. The reason is not just tailoring the right weapon to the right situation, but also economic; crossbows were expensive. Even the light crossbows were more mechanically complicated than a bow, so it was easier to produce low quality bows, than low quality crossbows. Cities, with significant economic and production resources could afford to outfit their armories with crossbows, but equipping a village armory, meant you’d probably have to do without. This also meant that crossbows saw use among mercenaries, since they’d be paying for their own gear. European armies transitioned from bows to crossbows at varying points starting in the 12th century. By the 15th century, almost all of Europe had transitioned over, with the notable exception of the British.

Early firearms began appearing in European warfare, in the 14th century. There’s actually a timeframe where the choice would have been between primitive muskets, and crossbows. This persisted into the early modern era, as well. During this period, the crossbow would have been the an alternative with better armor piercing capabilities than those early guns. Also, for awhile, better accuracy and faster reloads. Once you move out of the middle ages, and into the early modern period, firearms start improving beyond the crossbow, but for awhile they both had a battlefield role.

It’s also worth remembering that in these situation, most soldiers would have carried a sword as their sidearm. So, it’s not like your character would have only carried a bow or crossbow, they also would have had something if they ended up in melee.

-Starke