All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Firearms Training

While practicing shooting, what are the most common mistakes that could happen? I mean, like hurting your shoulder with a shotgun when you fire and that kind of thing.

It’s not going to be that, probably. Shotguns are fairly low power, so the recoil is surprisingly light.

I’m actually going to step back and make a blanket statement: while you’re practicing shooting, injuries of any kind are fairly rare. Firearms are quite dangerous if handled poorly, but mishandling is more likely to get you thrown off a well managed range before you have the chance to injure someone.

With that said, if you’re renting your firearm, the most common issue (although it’s not really a mistake) will be non-critical mechanical failures.

Rentals see a lot of use, and in some cases they will start to suffer failures. This will usually manifest as issues like failure to feed, though the exact malfunctions will vary with the individual gun. “Limp wristing”a firearm can also cause failure to feed situations. This occurs when the user fails to properly brace the firearm against recoil, and allows it to recoil too far.

In rare cases, these issues can extend to catastrophic mechanical failures, but most reputable ranges would remove guns from use long before that becomes an issue. However, the occasional idiot will try to load their own ammo into a rental, with similar results. This is why most ranges that rent will require you to also buy the ammunition you intend to use, or will roll the ammunition costs in with the rental fees.

Many common mistakes arise from people who fail to follow the basic gun safety rules. Most of the time, these don’t result in actual accidents.

Another common mistake for shooters is proper finger placement on the trigger. This can result in the gun pulling to one side or the other. This affects accuracy, but won’t result in any injuries in a controlled environment.

I’m not going to harp on people with poor stance. I know this is a somewhat popular choice, but there is a truth to stance with firearms: If it works for you, and you can get solid placement, that is far more important than making sure your stance is textbook. In a live situation, shot placement is king, no one cares if you’re in a perfect Weaver, just if you lived through the night.

In fact, the only, “injury,” I’d associate with practicing on the range is sore thumbs from packing magazines. This is mostly a consideration when you’re dealing with high capacity automatics, particularly Glocks, where the spec mag capacity is extremely tight. Obviously, if you’re practicing with anything that doesn’t use detachable box magazines, or you pre-packed your ammo, this isn’t a consideration.

It is possible to bruise your shoulder firing high power rifles. It’s often advisable to start someone out with lighter recoil weapons like 9mm or .223s, but once in awhile you will find some idiot who really wants to start out on a .44 magnum, or an even more massive hand cannon. Not so much a common mistake, but it is a piece of good advice: start on lighter guns, and then work your way up to the beefier stuff once you’re used to recoil. Learning on a 9mm handgun or a shotgun is vastly preferable to getting your introduction to shooting on a .50BMG bolt action Anti-Material rifle. That said, there are plenty of ranges that will gleefully advertise their biggest and loudest, and there is an allure to being able to say you’ve fired an S&W .500. Just, maybe, don’t make that your first firearms experience. I’d also recommend avoiding fully automatic weapons until you’ve had some experience with semi-auto, and learned to control recoil for yourself. I’ve heard way too many stories of people accidentally killing themselves or someone else from uncontrolled barrel climb.

None of this is the most common mistake about practicing with firearms, though. That one’s very simple: Not doing it.

I’ll say this again for emphasis: The most common mistake most people make is not practicing with their firearm.

This, honestly, happens a lot. Someone will buy a gun for self-defense. They may go to a training course. That training course may even be good, and teach them how to properly operate and maintain their gun. And then they never practice.

We say this all the time, but it’s worth remembering. When you’re in a life threatening situation you do not have time to think. We also tell you, natural instinct will get you killed. You need to train and practice to create new instantaneous responses. Firearms are no different.

If you’re in a situation where you honestly need to use a weapon, taking time while trying to remember what someone told you seven years ago will get you killed. You need to drill those movements down until they’re your new instinctive response. At that point, it doesn’t matter if it’s a knife, a gun, or your own body. You need to practice until you can perform the necessary actions while your heart is pounding and your hands are shaking from an adrenaline rush.

Adrenaline is very important for keeping you alive, but in the moment it sucks. It makes precise actions (including driving and marksmanship) far more difficult than they need to be. Also, the aftertaste is horrible, though, maybe, that’s just me.

Immediately following this, the second mistake is probably not practicing enough. This one’s more understandable, ammo and rental fees are expensive, so that’s a factor. This is also less critical. In the case of getting practice, too much is preferable to enough, but getting some in will help.

If you’re unfamiliar with basic gun safety rules (and there are some variations) here’s an amalgamated list to start from:

  • Always treat a firearm as if it’s loaded.
  • Never point a firearm at anything you do not intend to shoot.
  • Never place your finger on the trigger until you are ready to fire.
  • Always remain aware of your target’s surroundings, particularly what is behind it.
  • Keep your weapon on Safe until you are ready to fire.
  • Always unload your firearm before storage. Never store a loaded firearm.

That’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a good starting point. Also, always respect a firearm. These are incredibly dangerous tools, and misuse can have horrific results.

-Starke

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Q&A: Indirect Consequences

Hi I’ve been reading your posts on Feel Good Violence and it’s very interesting. I’m writing a story which largely centers around a Sinister Dystopian Government Agency ™ that is pretty… liberal in its use of violence, and I’m worried about FGV when there is little to no personal consequence for their actions. The narrator (part of the agency) does experience emotional/physical effects (and the “necessity” of the violence is discussed at length), but is that enough to keep it out of FGV?

Let me reiterate something, I know I’ve said before, but, the entire feel good violence critique is based on violence that exists as a power fantasy. A lack of (plausible) consequences is a common symptom, not the cause.

Those consequences don’t need to be direct. It’s not necessarily a simple cause and effect relationship. It’s also important to understand, these consequences aren’t necessarily a punishment. A character engaging in violence that then affects other characters in your story is still a legitimate consequence.

For example: if you’re telling the story of someone who, in a moment of macho bravado beats someone into a coma, and then goes on with their life, that could be FGV. However, if you’re also focusing on the family and friends of the person who’s been brutalized, the entire narrative takes on a different, far less celebratory, tone, even without applying those consequences to the character who created this situation.

Violence is not a precision tool, it spills over onto others, and affects far more than just one character. If someone bombs a bar your characters hung out at, that’s gone, it affects them. If someone is killed, it affects the people in their life. That’s a coworker, friend, or loved one, that no longer exists in their life, and that absence is something that has consequences for them. Even if the killer walks away and disappears without anything befalling them. Not everything needs to be Crime and Punishment; you don’t need to torture your characters for what they’ve done, you do need to address it, however.

This is, actually, at the core of the bully vigilante scenario we’ve mentioned several times: A bully acts against a third party, the “hero” intercedes on the victim’s behalf. The problem is, there are consequences, but they wouldn’t have fallen on the character who interceded, it would be back on the original victim.

Okay, let’s step back and apply this to your setting: You have a dystopia that engages in state sponsored violence, that’s not feel good violence. If your setting was presented as a utopia, and your state sponsored violence was somehow limited to, “only the people who deserved it,” that would be FGV on an institutional scale.

To be clear, this can, and does, happen in Science Fiction. Someone’s writing a story about their utopia, and hands the police (or military) unlimited authority to chase after whomever they want. It also exists at the core of any special cadre that operates above the law in an otherwise idealized utopia. Unless that is handled very carefully, there’s a real danger of the violence being presented as a good thing, and the resulting effects are simply washed away.

There’s a lot of room to experiment with an otherwise utopian setting, where these kinds of organizations thrive, subverting the ideals they claim to protect. It would be significantly more challenging, but if you want to wrestle with that, there are certainly things to be said.

Strictly within the context of what you’ve said, there’s a lot of room for a discussion on ethics and the state’s monopoly on violence, mixed in. At that point, a general lack of punishment for your character’s actions is a very legitimate talking point. This is particularly relevant because it can easily create personal dilemmas for your character, centered on the difference between the their ideals, their ethics, and the world they live in. Especially when they’re working for an organization that uses the threat of violence as a coercive force.

It’s also possible you may have characters who enjoy violence. In those cases, they “feel good” about what they’re doing, regardless of the consequences to others. This would probably be part of a larger critique. This is something you can see from real world law enforcement and military. The consequences become something that other people have to deal with. So long as you’re remembering and addressing that, it’s not Feel Good Violence.

The issue with feel good violence has, and remains, the idea that you can use violence as a solution to any problem. The joke, “if force doesn’t solve your problems, you’re not using enough,” played straight in prose. If anything, your setting may have the framework for an argument about why these approaches don’t work.

-Starke

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Q&A: Superheroes and Comics

This isn’t really a fighting question but you seem knowledgeable about comics and pop culture, so I wanted to ask: If there was a story about people who had superpowers who are kind of discriminated against, would it be strange to mention a character liking comic books? Do you think it could depend on the superhero or would it not matter since a lot of superheroes aren’t born with their powers (or aren’t human)? Do you think comics would be different if there were superpowered people irl?

I think you just described at least a couple major comic book characters, including Hellboy, at least one version of the Flash, and maybe one Superboy variant. So, let’s take this apart, because there are a lot of questions here with no single, correct, answer.

Do comic books exist in your setting? Yeah, probably. It’s not particularly strange that your characters would have read them. Would they be the same ones we read? Probably not, but those aren’t for the reasons you’d immediately think of.

If it’s an off hand remark, then there’s nothing inherently wrong with referencing comics, if it fits the character. It’s also worth noting that comics like The X-Men or Daredevil can be inspirational to people. So, these are things that can carry special meaning. Having a character who’s obsessive would come across as a bit strange, but that’s true of pretty much anyone who obsesses about something, fictional or otherwise.

Making a fictional superhero for your setting can be a little tricky, because it’s hard to invest the necessary weight without it coming across as goofy. Take, for example, Fallout 4‘s The Silver Shroud, which is an almost beat-for-beat reference of The Shadow (a pulp era superhero), but doesn’t quite carry the same presence, and often comes across as a strange side joke, more often than something you should take seriously.

This doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Arguably the most recent incarnation of The Tick is intended as a riff on a fictional superhero blended into that world. But, it’s worth noting just how much of the backstory sounds like weird jokes at first, until the series starts to confirm the details.

The problem with simply grabbing something like the X-Men for your setting is two fold. First, it’s owned by Marvel/Disney. If this is supposed to be a major plot point, that’s going to start running afoul of intellectual property rights pretty quickly. Second, if you have a world where superheroes were bouncing around in 1960, then why would Stan Lee (assuming he exists in your setting), have focused his creative energies on something that would have actually existed in your 1963, instead of creating something entirely new?

You’re not the first person to ask this specific what-if question however, and it’s worth looking back to where comic books have been in order to extrapolate where they’re going.

Comics, today, are utterly dominated by the Superhero Genre. Even if something’s technically outside of that, it often gets roped in peripherally. Books like HellblazerLucifer, and Sandman would work fine as independent books in their own genres, yet all of those series share their universe with Batman.

Yes, the Lucifer TV show with Tom Ellis? That’s was a DC Comic (under the Vertigo imprint), with crossover ties to Batman and the rest of DC’s front-line spandex crowd.

That said, there are comic books (and adaptations) that do distance themselves from the genre. Off hand, some good alternate examples include Men in Black (the original comic was published by Malibu, which was later acquired by Marvel), Queen and Country (an excellent spy series), The Walking Dead (even if the comics are incredibly bleak), FablesBoneTransmetropolitan (arguably), XIII, and Valérian and Laureline, to name a few. Here’s the problem, some of those are getting into fairly obscure territory, and tracking down the last two in English is a pain.

I’m skipping over some of the obvious tie-in fiction that’s wandered into comic form over the years. Star Wars and Star Trek have both been popping up in comics for over 40 and 50 years, respectively. If there’s a major film released, chances are someone will get a comic to press on the subject.

And there’s Archie, one of the longest running American comics, and in some ways more reflective of where the medium used to be, as opposed to the market that exists now.

In 1954, Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent. I’m not going recount all the details, but his basic thesis held that comic books were directly tied to teenage delinquency and serious psychological disturbances. To put it mildly, there was no real methodology, Wertham was pursuing an agenda and cherry picking facts to make his point. However, the result was a moral panic which lead to congressional hearings, and the creation of the Comics Code Authority.

Among other things, the CCA directly targeted Horror, Crime, and Romance comics. It’s a little debatable if this was intentional, but the result was that entire genres of comics that held substantial chunks of the market before 1954 were almost obliterated overnight.

If you’ve ever wondered what led to that weird, forced, upbeat, “wholesome,” tone from 1960s comics, it is at the feet of Wertham and his book. Ironically, Wertham was campaigning against superhero comics, and instead successfully enshrined them as the default genre for the medium.

If you’ve read Watchmen, hopefully the pirate comic interludes make a little more sense now. They’re a reference to EC’s real horror anthology series of the 40s and 50s. (They’re also a critical element to following several character arcs, and I’m kind of sorry they weren’t in the film, but that’s a different discussion.)

Another thing that’s worth remembering is that superheroes didn’t start with comic books. The Scarlet Pimpernel is usually cited as the first modern superhero; with characters like Zorro, The Shadow, and Doc Savage following in subsequent decades. (This is without stepping back and pulling characters from classic myth, like Hercules or Thor, and recasting them as superheroes. They fit in the genre comfortably, but that came later.)

So, here’s the real question. If he lived in a world where real world superheroes walked the earth, would Wertham’s book have garnered the same attention? Would readers have been interested in Batman or Spiderman in a world where actual superheroes fought in the streets and skies?

I mentioned this in passing, but Alan Moore’s answer was, “no.” In Watchmen, the rise of superheroes killed the superhero and vigilante comics of the 30s and 40s, as actual costumed figures started appearing. (Though, worth noting this is a setting where only one character has explicit superpowers.)

Brian Michael Bendis’s answer on the subject is, “yes.” Powers is built in a setting where superhero comics still exist, and dominate the medium, much like in the real world. The added wrinkle is that some of these characters actually licensed their likeness and adventures to some comic book publishers.

A similar take can be seen in Logan (2017), where Laura (Dafne Keen) produces some Claremont era X-Men comics. Remember, this is a setting that almost precisely matches what you’re describing. Young mutants, who are an abused and persecuted minority being inspired by comic books of their predecessor’s adventures.

So, who’s right?

Like I said, there isn’t a single correct answer to this question. Plenty of comic book characters have obviously read a few comics over the years, some have even read versions of their own adventures (accurate or otherwise), republished with (or without) their consent. There’s a lot of room, and there’s no single answer on what inspired your character.

If you have the time and money, there are a few things I would strongly recommend taking a look at:

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is the classic deconstruction of the superhero genre. There’s a lot going on in this book, some of which is less relevant now than it once was. The major thing for the time was a serious attempt to envision a world where superheroes existed, and mapping out all the political changes that would create. Watchmen is not the world that existed in 1985 with superheroes. It’s a very different world, where the changes are both subtle and significant.

Planetary by Warren Ellis and John Cassidy is a sort of quick recap of different popular media genres, ranging from old pulp heroes, to Hong Kong action stars. It’s built on the premise of archaeologists of the strange. Worth your time as this does an excellent job playing with genre expectations for comic book superheroes.

Powers by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Avon Oeming is a police procedural where the cops investigate crimes by superheroes and villains. It does an excellent job of blending the weirdness of the superhero genre into mundane police work.

Now, having said all of that, there’s a kind of cynical thread in Planetary that’s probably worth considering. The idea that the saturation, and subsequent crystallization, of superhero comics formula has paralyzed the genre’s growth. I don’t know if I fully agree with Ellis on this, but I can say that your own creativity, and your ability to convincingly articulate an original setting is more important than making sure you’re staying within some pre-codified set of rules.

-Starke

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Q&A: Assassin Career Counseling

Heyo! I read your post on assassins and they are really good. Like, goooood. I do have one question though: when being an assassin is the character’s “normal”, why would they ever stop? I find it highly unlikely one person could just change their mind, so what could be the circumstances for the character to quit?

There are some legitimate reasons someone might want out, or would want to pass on a job. For example, John Wick’s backstory of leaving because he met a woman isn’t that far fetched. An assassin wanting out because he’s made enough to retire is another valid option, though this is often delivered as the cliche, “one more job and then I’m out.” It’s also entirely possible an assassin may choose to pass on a contract simply because it’s too high profile or dangerous. This gets into a general truth: If the pay and perks aren’t good enough to justify the risks, you’re not going to want to stay with an employer. For an assassin, that may simply mean looking for contracts from other sources, but it could also cause someone to leave the workforce. It’s also possible your assassin is simply a government employee, in which case, mandatory retirement will come for them eventually. Even if they’re freelance, age does take its toll inevitably, and if you’re engaging in violence, that will severely increase that.

Now, none of this really answers your question, because you’re asking, “what could change their mind.” Some of these could inspire them to “be a better person,” but more often you’re looking at more pragmatic considerations. If you’re sitting on five million dollars, there’s not a lot of incentive to spend your nights in the rain looking through an 8x thermal scope at people half a mile away.

The cliche answer you’re probably responding to is the idea that an assassin runs across a target who violates some code of honor they keep for themselves. This requires a very specific degree of cognitive dissonance. “Yeah, killing people is fine, unless they can’t legally buy Cigarettes in Missouri; that’s evil, and I’ll turn on anyone who violates my code of honor.” That’s not ethics, that’s someone who’s dangerously unstable.

It’s not completely impossible for a character to have a moment where they sit down and ask themselves, “the fuck am I doing?” This can, and does, happen. But, foisting that moment onto your assassin because they just encountered someone they consider utterly innocent is probably going to come off as cliche.

That cliche is also, often, used to present an assassin as, redeemed. “See, he’s not evil because he doesn’t torture puppies!” Which is hilariously reductive. It was okay that they used to murder people for cash, but here’s their line, which is still way past any kind of moral event horizon, so they’re not evil? No. They just have standards, like any self-respecting monster.

Now, contrasts like this can set the tone and distinguish characters. If you have two assassins with conflicting codes of acceptable targets, that can help to get your audience to empathize with one of them. Just, remember, that doesn’t make them a good person.

I should probably add, this extends beyond just assassins. Anyone who hunts down sentient beings for a living can land under any of these points. Including: Bounty hunters, cops (dirty or otherwise), monster hunters, spies (government backed or freelance), some varieties of special forces, and many others. It would probably also apply to fanatical cultists and wandering adventurers, just in case you felt limited by the previous list.

Another cliche probably worth addressing, because it’s somewhat plausible, is where the assassin is betrayed by their employer. There are setups for this where it makes sense, but, in general, this is an incredibly stupid move on the part of the organization, as they’re making enemies with someone who has the skillset to seriously harm their operations. (Whatever those may be.)

It may also be possible to flip an assassin using blackmail. This is one of those complex, and highly situational options. For example, holding their spouse or child hostage, in order to force the assassin could get them working against their own interests. I shouldn’t need to say it, but this is an incredibly volatile scenario, because if the blackmailers lose control, then the assassin will be coming after them.

It’s probably obvious, but losing friends or family could also cause nearly anyone to reassess their career choices. Not, necessarily, something unique to assassins, but it’s certainly one possible outcome.

So, why would an assassin stop killing people for a living? Because they didn’t want to anymore. No one else can provoke that choice for them; it needs to be a decision they make, on their own.

-Starke

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Q&A: Heat Followup

elerena  asked:

Just read your post on Heat and watched the clip, and while the whole clip was pretty horrific, the part that hit me the hardest was…… how in the nine hells did he justify taking that final shot? If the guy so much as twitched- not even deliberately using the girl as a shield, but maybe something happened off to the side- the cop would have wound up shooting a little girl in the head! Is he a sociopath or something?

A little bit. Vincent (Al Pachino) is not entirely stable, and Pachino has since gone on record saying his character was coked up throughout the events of the film, though we see almost no examples of that in this sequence.

So, a couple things worth noting. I didn’t cover the characters’ backstory at all, because it’s mostly irrelevant to an overall critique, however, Vincent is a marine. He mustered out and joined the LAPD, which is used as a point of comparison, because Neil McCauley (De Niro) is also a marine who ended up in prison after mustering out.

It’s very difficult to judge distance in Heat, because the film is shot, almost exclusively using 75-100m telephoto lenses which does very strange things to perspective, but Vincent and Michael (Tom Sizemore) appear to be within 30-50m of one another. At those ranges, someone with marine marksman training, using a reasonably accurate rifle on semi-auto, should be able to hollow out a dime.

You can see Vincent do two things before firing. He adjusts his shooting position, moving the sights into line for a precise shot, and he then holds the shot as Michael turns, to give him the cleanest possible shot. Note that the girl (Yvonne Zima)’s head is the furthest from Michael’s when Vincent fires. (Had Michael continued to turn, their heads would have been closer.) He is firing on someone using a human shield, but he’s doing his best to mitigate the danger to her.

If you really want a full, “use of force,” breakdown on the situation, then @skypig357 would be the person to ask, though, the short answer is that Michael was using the girl as a human shield while firing indiscriminately at civilians and police. He needed to be stopped. Unfortunately, given these specific circumstances, killing the perpetrator is the safest way to do that, for everyone else involved.

-Starke

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Q&A: Daydreaming Power Fantasies

So like, if you want to write Feel Good Violence but want to avoid all the problems mentioned, you should have it be in-‘verse fictional? Like, a character’s daydream or fantasy.

Not really. When you have a character indulging in a daydream, that’s not the same as a character who gets up and actually assaults someone. There is a real place in a story for characters to engage in  fantasy escapism, but doesn’t take the place of actual violence, and wouldn’t have the same consequences.

When you have a character who sits there fantasizing about all the things they’d do to someone, if they could, you’re drawing attention their inability to act. That may be simply because they can’t act openly, or it could be that they’re actually incapable of taking action.

Depending on your character arc, that can be a useful thing to show. A character who goes from powerless to empowered may begin their story fantasizing about the things they’d do if given the opportunity. Depending on if they’re the protagonist or the villain, you may even contrast this or replay it to more horrific effect, in the real world later. It’s also possible your character would attempt to enact their fantasy, only to be slapped down hard

Also worth remembering, indulging in violent fantasies is not really what you’d call socially acceptable. If anyone finds out what your character’s been dreaming about, it’s entirely reasonable that this would stick a monkey wrench in their life.

Intentionally, or otherwise, daydreams like this can provide important insight into how your character views the world. If they’re dreaming about all the horrific things they’d do to people who’d wronged them, that’s not a flattering image. It’s also setting the bar much higher when they try to come back from that.

Alternately, it can underline how disconnected your character is from reality. Someone who frequently engages in violent daydreams could have a tenuous grasp on reality, and be on the edge of completely spiraling out of control.

Dreams (of any variety) can be an important window into a character’s fears, desires, and inner psyche. However, they’ve been heavily overused, simply because they’re a useful tool, and as a result, it’s difficult to use them without being cliche. This doesn’t mean you should completely ignore the idea, but dreams (and daydreams) should be used very sparingly, only when you really need them. If you want to express a character’s inner frustration boiling dangerously close to the surface, you can cull the sequence down to a couple lines, describing what they’d like to do, without indulging in a full scene.

So, no, it doesn’t sidestep the problems inherent in consequence free violence, it’s an entirely distinct tool with it’s own uses.

-Starke

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Q&A: Violence in Sloppy Writing

I’ve seen you two use this term before, and often pretty negatively, so could you explain what you mean by ‘Feel Good Violence’ and why you dislike it so?

Usually, Michi writes these up, so this time, I’ll take a swipe at it. Feel Good Violence involves situations where a writer has their character engaging unnecessary violence, without any consequence, and, often with unrealistic resolutions.

In good writing, everything that’s there has to serve a legitimate purpose. A lot of FGV is unnecessary. These are establishing sequences where a character will engage in unneeded violence in order to establish a violent reputation. To be clear, there are situations where a scene like this may be necessary to explain who the character is.

In the real world, violence has consequences. There’s some variant of a cliche to, “win or lose, they’ll know they were in a fight.” It is true. Violence has many consequences. Physically, you will feel it in the morning, with aches and pains from everything you over-stressed. There are also legal and social consequences to consider. Again, there are legitimate cases where someone can dodge some consequences. For example: an assassin may be able to escape a job undetected, avoiding the legal consequences of killing someone. That said, there’s still social consequences for being an assassin. Even if they’re being careful about their real profession, the people around them will still have to deal with the fact that sometimes they’re just not available, and that can affect their relationships.

Something we’ve said before is that violence is a tool. It’s an option your characters have to achieve their goals. However, because we’re talking about (an approximation of) people, the changes you can actually force at gunpoint are somewhat limited. FGV often has unrealistic resolutions. One of the specific examples we’ve cited before were situations where characters chase after the whole, “cut off the head to kill the snake,” routine of simply killing the villain, and having their entire organization instantly crumble. Granted, there are situations where that would make sense, for example a necromancer or a vampire who keeps minions under his thrall, but it makes far less sense when you’re talking about a corrupt corporate CEO, or an organized crime boss.

So, let me give you an example that fails at every point: You have a teenage protagonist, early in the story they see a bully going off on another kid, they step in and beat the bully into submission, forcing them to give up their ways.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen variations of this.

So, is this necessary? No. To that scenario’s credit, it is a reasonable impulse, but unless this scene is setting the entire story in motion, it’s not necessary. Very often, scenes like this are used to say, “hey, look, my character’s a good person,” and, “look how badass they are.” That’s Feel Good Violence.

Are there consequences? Often times, no. In the real world, engaging in unrestrained violence would alienate the character from their friends, especially the love interest, get them in trouble with their school’s administration, and probably leave them with injuries. But, often times, when a scenario like this is presented, the scene could be cut with only minor edits. If the violence is only there to feed the power fantasy. It makes you feel good about the violence presented.

Are the resolutions realistic? This is a little different from consequences, because I’m talking about the specific goals that the character is trying to achieve. Most of the time when you have a scene like this, the goal is to get the bully to stop. Now, any of you who’ve interacted with bullies on a more than casual basis should understand the flaw here. The bully will retaliate against their original target, in more vicious ways, because their incapable of getting retribution against the kid who humiliated them. Bullies aren’t territorial alpha predators, they’re opportunists looking for a chance to work out their frustrations out on targets that can’t fight back. Interceding does not work, it just gives the bully more material to pass down the chain.

There’s also, often, an element of cognitive dissonance in all of this. The protagonist’s behavior is never fully analyzed by the author (or some members of the audience), because they’re the hero, and therefore, whatever they’re doing is inherently different from another character doing the exact same thing. The example I just pulled apart can easily result in situations where the protagonist is as much, or more, of a bully in that situation because they’re picking a fight against someone who has no hope of defeating them, due to superpowers or implausible levels of training. However, thanks to the marvels of cognitive dissonance, they’re the good guy.

Finally, it’s worth talking about tension briefly. As a writer, tension is one of the currencies you have complete control over. You can decide how much pressure your characters are under, and you, alone, can add and remove it as you see fit. The more that’s on the line, the more threats they face, the more problems that threaten to trip them up, the more tension you have. The harder you press your characters, the stronger they’ll become (or the more they’ll start to fray at the edges), and the more your audience will be invested in their struggles.

Violence vents tension at an incredible rate. You can spend 50k words torquing up your characters, and accidentally vent it all in a 500 word fight scene. In abstract terms, fictional violence is expensive as a writer. This is a large part of why I will continue saying you need to be careful, and surgical, with your fight scenes. Particularly when they involve your protagonists. Carelessly used, violence can cause your audience to tune out and wander off.

Feel Good Violence is violence as cheap catharsis. It vents tension, and throws your story’s credibility under the bus for a brief moment of, “didn’t that feel good?” It’s sloppy, and it devalues your work as a writer. It encourages you to rob your future for a brief rush in the present.

Write a character who endures, a character who is creative, a character who is persuasive, or even viciously analytical, and your readers will remember them long after they’ve forgotten about that power fantasy “badasshole” who started their story getting into a bar brawl against werewolves in order to prove they were “awesome.”

Write characters that don’t need to resort to violence at every opportunity. Let your reader always worry that, “no, this time, it won’t work out,” and make sure that occasionally, once in awhile, they’re right.

-Starke

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Q&A: Criticism

any advice for getting over a fear of criticism?

While this isn’t universally true, fear thrives in the absence of knowledge. Something you don’t know, or don’t understand is far more terrifying than the familiar. Trust me when I say, the idea of criticism is far more terrifying than the reality.

The simplest answer is to simply submit yourself to it, and see what filters back. But, that might not be appealing to you, yet, so let’s talk about what good criticism is, and how you can make the most of it.

Writing lives and dies on self-confidence. You’re creating and populating an artificial world with artificial characters. This is an elaborate illusion, and creating all of this from scratch will leave a few weak points. Good criticism can help you find and reinforce those points.

I could probably boil this down to simply saying, “believe in yourself and your work,” but it is important to look at criticism as an opportunity to improve your work; not an assault on your skill as a writer.

It’s probably worth reading and remembering this quote from Neil Gaiman:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Good criticism will show you where to start looking for weaknesses in your work. If it’s not doing that, or it’s telling you what you need to do, it’s not useful.

It’s worth remembering that  screaming, angry, people on the internet don’t affect you. There will always be people saying, “you suck,” or attacking you for having an idea. They are as irrelevant as their motivations. Just because someone says, “you can’t do something,” doesn’t mean it’s true.

There’s a certain truth to the statement that people only have the power that we give them. If you go to criticism hoping for a reassuring pat on the head, then you’re setting yourself up to be hurt.

If you think of criticism as an opportunity to abuse or stress test your work instead of validation.

In the end, remember, nothing is perfect. That doesn’t reflect on you as a writer. Criticism is about finding what doesn’t work so you can fix it, and improve the work; it’s not a test you pass with flying colors.

-Starke

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Heat (1995)

Someone asked for our favorite film fight scenes earlier, and I posted the bank shootout from Michael Mann’s Heat without comment. It’s here, if you didn’t see it:

Which lead to this response:

bookwormmaddy

that was horrific :/

Yeah, it was. So, let’s talk about my thought process here, why I think this is probably one of the best fight scenes in American film, why I agree that it’s horrific.

There’s a lot of parts with this, so let’s start with the difference between plot, and what a story is about.

The plot of Heat is that Lt Vincent Hanna (Al Pachino) is hunting a career criminal, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) who has recently started operating in LA. That’s it. There’s a lot of intervening pieces, and events, but you can, boil the plot down to, it’s Cops and Robbers without being reductive.

When you sit down, and watch the film, that’s the story your told. That’s not what the film is about.

The core theme of the film (or at least one major theme) is that violence is, inherently, destructive and alienating, on a physical psychological level, but also on a psychological and emotional level.

This isn’t, PTSD, it’s a particular kind of emotional detachment that should be immediately recognizable if you’ve interacted with people who’ve dealt directly with violence for extended periods of time. In particular, the film “gets” cops in a way you rarely see on film.

A recurring theme for Vincent is that he shows far more empathy to the victims and their family members than he can to his own wife (Diane Vinora) and step-daughter (Natalie Portman.) In fact, you can see this behavior in the final seconds of the clip above.

This is part of why I love the sequence above: It says a lot about who the characters are, without having them engage in overly flashy behavior to do so. Chris (Val Kilmer) is probably the biggest offender here. He’s very heavy on the trigger, firing long bursts, which is entirely in character, but he’s burning ammunition, while Neil is practicing short controlled bursts (for the most part), only transitioning into longer, less controlled fire after Chris has been wounded. Again, this entirely in keeping with the characters, even though it contradicts how Neil has been describing himself in dialog up to this point.

It’s worth taking note of this: As a writer, you can have a character who presents themselves as one thing, they may even believe it’s true, but when the time comes, their actions don’t match what they’re saying. This is behavior that’s entirely in keeping with the real world, and it’s something most readers can understand. However, you need to inform your audience of this. It can be subtle, but it needs to be there.

Also, note that Neil and Chris are both using matching rifles (Colt Model 733s), while Michael (Tom Sizemore), the third robber, is carrying an IMI Galil, and note how he’s the one split off from the group, while the other two remain together. This does something that we’re often asked about, which is to distinguish characters by their weapon choice, without compromising their ability to function as combatants.

Also, note that the police are operating their rifles in semi-auto, and the throwaway line from Vincent to, “watch your background,” meaning to keep track of where you’re firing and, more importantly, what’s behind your target. They’re firing 5.56mm rifles, which will pass through their target and continue to travel. Firing at someone standing in front of civilians is just as dangerous as someone using a human shield.

So, all of this lends itself to authenticity, which gets into a part where this film actually runs counter to advice I recently gave. It’s betraying audience expectations.

Up until this point, the film has staged its violence in spaces you probably don’t associate with daily life. There’s an armored car robbery which happens in an industrial area, there’s an ambush in an abandoned Drive-In theater, and a brief sequence in a truck stop. All of the sequences are staged to disconnect them from the world around them. Of these, the truck stop is the least contained, with other patrons, and parked cars, but it also is the most restrained as well. The Drive-In theater is an empty lot, so while it’s a recognizable space, it’s not someplace you’re used to, and the ensuing gunfight never feels like something happening in a place you’d inhabit. The armored car heist features a used car lot, but it’s curiously abandoned, and the sequence is shot to keep the background and surroundings out of focus and fuzzy. This happens in a place you don’t associate yourself with. To the viewer, the violence is, “safe.”

On the other half of the story, Vincent Hanna is repeatedly shown interacting with recognizable spaces where violence has occurred. You can actually see the transition of styles after the armored car scene, which transitions directly from Neil to Vincent. The sequence gets its first establishing shot after Neil’s crew has left, and the police are arriving, showing you that the entire event took place next to the used car dealership.

Once the bank sequence starts, we see violence injected into an identifiable world. You see the U-Haul on the street, there’s a Carl Jr.s Sign behind Vincent’s head when he checks his fellow officer’s corpse. This isn’t happening in a space you don’t identify with, these are bits of corporate iconography that would be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with modern America. In particular the U-Haul is very deliberate, it’s the single brightest color on the screen, when Chris opens fire. It climaxes when the shooting invades a supermarket parking lot.

A used car dealership, or a truck stop is a space you’ll enter sometimes. You may even enter the remnants of a Drive-In theater, though that’s less likely, but when you’re seeing people on a crowded street, or in a supermarket parking lot, looking around in confusion, while someone is hosing the place down with automatic gunfire, that is horrifying. This isn’t fun, choreographed, art, this has intruded into something that is far too plausible to set aside and comfortably enjoy. And, that’s kind of the point.

This isn’t real violence, but there’s an eye towards authentic details that sell the scene and makes it very uncomfortable. It also feeds back into the themes of the story as a whole. Remember, this is a movie about how violence damages people in fundamental ways that aren’t always immediately perceptible, and it asks you to get inside Vincent’s head, where this kind of a sprawling shootout is what he’s trying to prevent.

So, it is horrifying. And the movie isn’t even remotely over.

I really like this because it’s not gratuitous. This serves a very specific purpose. It’s not simply there to pad out the length, or say, “look how cool this is.” It’s a realistic consequence of the decisions of the characters leading up to this point. In a lot of ways it’s the film’s thesis. You miss out on a lot of fantastic acting, and all of the film’s female characters, but you do see what this is getting at.

-Starke

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Q&A: Contact Poisons

I’ve heard of historical cases of people dying by poison being applied to fabric, accidentally or deliberately. Is contact poison a viable method of murder? Could it be used, not to kill altogether, but to weaken an opponent for someone else to fight?

It depends on the poison. There are a lot of poisonous substances that can be absorbed through the skin, including things like Anthrax, Strychnine and Cyanide. (Technically Anthrax is a biological agent.)

There are poisons that can disorient or impair the victim without killing them. Too many to even start to go into them.

Ironically, the first thing that comes to mind and fits both of these is Lidocaine. Lidocaine, and a number of other similar anesthetics such as Novocaine and Oracaine, are synthetic relatives of cocaine, producing numbness on contact, and they’re commonly used in dentistry. You can kill someone with a sufficient dose, as well. Also, the normal topical administration method is via a gel, not a liquid but the idea is there.

One major, historical, issue with accidental poisonings was arsenic. When used as a dye, Arsenic produces a vibrant green color. This was briefly popular in the 18th century, for wallpaper patterns and paints. In a dry environment, it’s mostly safe, however when you add heat and humidity, low doses can be released as an (effectively) undetectable vapor. This won’t result in an immediate death, but prolonged exposure can result in chronic poisoning.

There’s a bit of history here, if you’re interested: In 1815, after his military defeat, Napoleon Bonaparte was sent into exile on the Island of Saint Helena. He’d previously been exiled to Elba in 1814, after a separate military defeat, only to return to France, and restart his campaigns, so this time he was sent to a far more remote island.  Six years later, on May 5, 1821, he died.

Napoleon’s autopsy listed the cause of death as stomach cancer, there were ulcers found during the procedure, and a family history (though that wasn’t, apparently, known at the time). And, that was that… until the mid 1960s.

This is where things get a little strange. Records kept, both before and after Napoleon’s demise, suggest that he may have died from chronic arsenic poisoning. This includes the symptoms he displayed as his health deteriorated on Saint Helena, as well as how well his body was preserved when it was eventually moved from the island to France in 1840. Additionally, surviving hair samples displayed arsenic traces one hundred times what you would expect today. (The biology involved is that, because arsenic is an element, it doesn’t break down in the body, so it is flushed through various sources, including your hair.)

Into the early 2000s, there was a persistent theory that, because he’d managed to escape Elba, the British had decided to finally finish him off (St. Helena was a British holding). Politically, they couldn’t simply execute him, so the theory held that they dosed his private wine stocks with low doses of arsenic.

The competing argument, of course, is that his wallpaper used an arsenic derived green dye, and that the elevated arsenic content found in the surviving hair samples was the result of atmospheric exposure, probably throughout his life, but particularly during his time on St. Helena.

I am skimming over a lot of details here, there are entire books on the subject of Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena and his eventual death, and rumors that the British were poisoning him, or plotting to kill him existed at the time. So, at some levels, this is nothing new.

-Starke

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