All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Prosthetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Q&A: Women in Star Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Q&A: Desperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Q&A: Professional Interrogators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And neither will your readers.

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

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

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

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

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


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Q&A: Style and Your Audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Q&A: Audience Disconnect

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

You don’t want your audience disconnecting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Q&A: This Space Intentionally Left Blank

Hi, I’m writing in a medieval/high fantasy setting and would love your ideas on how this scenario could go. A deserter on the run in alpine terrain, chased by both the unit he deserted from, who need to capture him alive, and local militia intent on killing him. He has training, gear and a crossbow, sword and fighting knives. I know this situation is dire. The plot outline is to eventually have him captured by his former comrades, but my question is how this would realistically play out?

You’ll see an answer pop up on multiple choice quizzes, “The question cannot be answered with available information.” That’s apt here, because there’s just too many potential factors.

Let’s start with the consequences and work back. Desertion is (almost always) a very serious offense. Combat, especially in war, is extremely frightening, so running is a very natural response. The result is that any organized militant force needs to deter that behavior. You understood this because you had him being hunted.

Here’s where the unknown factors become a problem. Let’s start with the organization that trained him. Depending on who he was working for, the consequences could be anything from being dragged back in chains and spending decades in prison, to being used as a target in live weapon practice for the next wave of recruits. After all, nothing says, “don’t do this,” quite as much as getting recruits to serve as executioners. So what happens? I don’t know, but it’s probably somewhere between these two extremes. And, yes, being court marshaled and imprisoned is about as benign as it gets.

There’s a wrinkle here, though. So he might not make it back to face the music after all. There are few insults more repugnant to a soldier than cowardice. Deserters are viewed as cowards; they were too scared to do their job. This is also a direct betrayal of their former comrades. Again, the best possible outcome is some minor psychological abuse on their trip to a cell. It’s entirely possible that your character would be mutilated and allowed to expire. Again, this depends on the characters involved. Depending on the structure of your setting, but, realistically, the results would not be pretty. If your character is lucky, their former commanding officer may simply summarily execute them once captured.

So, that’s a personal problem.

I’m not even going to question why their buddies were sent out to apprehend them. It seems like a mistake, unless you’re going full supervillain, with something like, “find him, or you’ll all be executed.” Which would not endear him to his former friends, (in case there was some confusion on that point.)

So, that’s what happens after, but it still leaves a lot of blank spaces working up to it.

Alpine terrain tells me very little. This could be high altitude, it could be mountain ranges near the coasts which are relatively low, but still, “alpine.” If it’s the former, and he wasn’t acclimated, altitude sickness is a serious pain in the ass.

Assuming a roughly earth like atmosphere, altitude sickness starts to manifest at around 2,000m above sea level. At 3,000m above sea level, the rate of incidence exceeds one in four. There’s good news, you can antagonize it, resulting in symptoms at altitudes as low as 1,600m, if you’re so inclined.

Altitude Sickness is hypoxia resulting from there not being enough oxygen in the atmosphere. Symptoms include, nausea, vomiting, headaches, insomnia, fatigue (there’s a fun combination), and vertigo. Short version is, if this goes acute, you’re not doing much of anything until your body acclimates.

Physical activity for extended periods, for example, fleeing through the mountains while pursued by local, acclimated militia, would probably end badly. Also, overall physical fitness is not a factor in resisting altitude sickness. Just because your character is a soldier doesn’t mean they’ll be mysteriously immune.

There are chemical ways to help cope with altitude sickness. Historically, indigenous people in the Andes chewed Coca leaves for their stimulant effect. This also had the effect of combating altitude sickness. I suspect this is because coca functions as a vasodilator, increasing blood flow, and as a result, the available oxygen in the user.

If your character is dependent on chemical assistance to survive, they’d face a logistical problem. They could only carry a limited amount or supplies, while their pursuers would have access to resupply.

Also worth noting that, historically, the Coca plant was viewed as having religious significance, and as a result, consumption among the Incas were restricted to royalty, senior officials, and the military. It’s not implausible that a similar situation may exist in your setting.

In case this was somehow missed, the altitude will make engaging in melee combat basically impossible, as even one skirmish could easily incapacitate your character.

Finally, I’m not even sure if your character can escape. High Fantasy doesn’t automatically mean your character has to deal with magic, it’s likely that magic is a factor. Unless you’ve specifically written around it, and created a reason why it doesn’t exist, mages would be incredibly useful in a military context. Be that as heavy combat units, advance recon, communications, logistics, or even as meat based artillery. Now, it is possible that some of those roles simply aren’t available to mages in your setting for whatever reason.

With that in mind, it’s entirely possible your character, or their gear may be mystically, “marked,” so that it can be tracked remotely by a trained mage. Alternately, it’s possible your character could be tracked by a mage trained in remote scrying. Meaning that they wouldn’t be, “chased,” so much as hunted down.

It’s also likely that your setting may have some countermeasures, but unless your character is also a mage with similar training, they’d be unlikely to know the full range of tracking options available to a recon mage (or whatever term appeals, “auger” or “scrye” are good options.)

So, the short version is, your character’s going to have a very bad time. Desertion, is a very serious crime in any military, usually punished with death, often with a painful death. So, this isn’t going to end well for them, regardless of their intentions.


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Q&A: Pirates, Vikings, and More Pirates

hello! i wasn’t sure who to ask + i noticed you’ve answered some pirate questions before. my story’s set in a fantasy universe made from scratch. firearm is just being invented, it’s very popular yet. so i wanted to ask, do you maybe know how real pirates were armed/what they fought with before the firearm came into use?

The firearm wasn’t really, “invented,” in one moment. The technology evolved over the course of nearly 800 years. When you’re talking about Age of Sail pirates, they were using weapons that had seen four centuries of technical refinement.

Maritime raiders have been a threat since humans first took to the seas. The term itself has a Greek root, dating back to Hellenic Greece. Worth noting that peirates was used to refer to both seaborne and land based raiders. (This would later become pirata in Latin.) So the modern distinction between a bandit and pirate didn’t exist until more recently.

Bronze age piracy in the Mediterranean included a bustling slave trade, where sailors and other individuals captured by pirates were sold in major ports. This was aided by the rugged, Greek coastline, which was effectively impossible to fully scour. Beyond this, Hellenic pirates were, effectively bandits.

Arguably the most famous group of maritime raiders are the Vikings. Viking raids started in the 8th century AD, and continued into the early modern era. They were spurred by a variety of factors, and there’s no full consensus on exactly what caused their rise. Elements include the Medieval Warm Period, from 950 to 1250, Europe experienced an increase of average temperatures by almost two degrees C. This is believed to have spurred a population boom in Scandinavia. Combine this with a primogenitor inheritance system, which meant only the oldest son inherited from their father, and there was a strong need to bring in new resources to support a family. Raiding predates the MWP, so it seems plausible that this simply fueled existing behavior. This also resulted in Vikings aggressively colonizing elsewhere in Europe, as they found more favorable land and claimed it for themselves.

One example of this legacy is Normandy. The territory that became Normandy was given to a Viking Raider named Rollo by King Charles the Bald, after Rollo besieged Paris in 911. In exchange for swearing vassalage to the Frankish king, he was granted the territory. He effectively became the first Duke of Normandy, though, it’s unclear when that specific title came into use, as he never used the title Duke.

Piracy in the Caribbean was fueled by massive amounts of wealth moving through the region, and simple logistics.

Defending a set position is easy. You can fortify, dig in, and wait. At that point, the hardest part is avoiding boredom. This is a little harder when that point is somewhere you can’t fortify, but the same principles hold.

Defending a moving target is harder. You know the path it will take, and you can do some work to control potential risks. However, you’re going to have to go with the target. Knowing where you’re going will give you some cues on when you need to be alert, but ultimately, you need to be there.

Defending multiple stationary points is easy, if you can split your forces. However, in doing so, you’re less able to hold each one individually. It becomes a balancing act. In a modern situation you can rely on a highly mobile “floating” defensive force, which can be called in to deal with any defensive position coming under attack, which helps offset some of the problems, but this was not an option in the Age of Sail.

As a quick aside, having a small reserve force who can quickly reinforce your forces as needed can be incredibly valuable from a strategic position in battle. It’s only as part of a larger campaign, where they don’t have time to get where they’re needed in time to be useful, that this becomes less viable.

Defending multiple mobile targets from multiple threats, while still needing to defend ports. Yeah, that’s extraordinarily difficult. Mix in that European forces didn’t have full repair and refit facilities in the New World, that many different governmental and economic groups were operating in the area, and you should start to see why the Caribbean was a hotbed of pirate activity in the 17th century.

Simply put, there was a lot of money moving around, and no real way to protect it.

In an odd moment, the guns weren’t entirely important. They were in the specifics of how the European powers got a foothold in the Americas, but it was basically irrelevant to the reasons that piracy flourished there.

So, if you’re asking, “what did pirates look like before the invention of the firearm?” That’s the Vikings. Really. The firearm reached Europe in the 12th century. The pirates you’re thinking of were in the 17th. From the 12th century to now, the technology has never stopped advancing. Even now, firearms developed in the last 20 years are incorporating new technical developments that aren’t present on Cold War era armaments. The chemical composition of primers and powder has changed significantly in the last century.

I’m not averse to the idea of a fantasy setting without firearms, but I would strongly recommend against thinking that a culture would go from discovering gunpowder, to making a wheel lock in a matter of years. This would also create a situation where most characters simply wouldn’t know what they were dealing with. Even just getting everyone on board with what a gun is, without access to mass communications, could easily take decades or longer. Also, worth noting that new technology in firearms tended to be pretty expensive. It’s possible that, for whatever reason, firearms are just transitioning from vanishingly rare to widespread use, due to production changes. Not exactly new, and people would know what they were. This saves you from the basic problem of your characters dying like idiots when they get shot by that guy waving a funny looking club around.


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Q&A: How Not to Hire a Specialist

How do normal non-criminal characters hire hit men? I wanted my normal character to get mixed up with the mafia but I’m not sure to write my character contacting/meeting the right people in a way that is believable but not so difficult as to take up the whole story. Criminals for hire (hackers, hit men, etc) must have a way to be contacted but I can’t think of how a person with no criminal past and no government connections would do it.

They go to Craigslist. Then they get arrested.

I mean, you’ve heard the advice, “write what you know.” You don’t know how to hire a professional killer. That’s not a personal failure, that’s what a lot of people face. They may want to hire a professional hitter, but they don’t know how or where. Simply put, they can’t.

If you’re professional criminal, sticking your name and number out there to be cold called is a huge liability.  You don’t know who’s on the other end of that line. It could be a job that won’t pay enough to justify the risk. It could be the cops. It could be someone you pissed off, a family member of one of your victims, or someone who you’re currently contracted to kill. Lots of people have reason to want you dead, or in prison. So, probably best not to list your name in the yellow pages.

Police, shadowy government agencies, and professional criminals pull from separate talent pools. There’s some crossover, and someone could potentially be on the radar for all three.

Police have access to professionals. They’re not going to be hiring assassins, though a dirty cop may avail themselves of the criminal talent pool for special situations. Ex-military is a nice background, but for the most part, they’re going to be working internally, or pulling people from the normal job market. You want to work for the cops? It’s as simple as filling out a job application for an open position. Police hire for support positions, without putting someone through full police training. You’ll be expected to follow the law, so no off-the-books hacking for fun, but there’s pay and benefits. This is for things like forensics.

There’s a related group, with lawyers hiring computer forensics experts to assist in court cases (usually civil, though it may be a defense attorney.) The guys do get picked out of the phone book. They’re not going to engage in criminal activity, but they may help you track down evidence of criminal tampering. Some of these guys have history working the police, in computer forensics, but it’s not necessary.

Intelligence Agencies like to recruit directly. They’ll show up at job fairs at major technical schools, sometimes they’ll put ads in the paper. Ex-military is very nice. In some cases, like the NSA, the agency itself is military. This creates an alternate path, where people will come out directly out of special forces programs, into working for that agency. Possibly, working for them while they still served, and then transitioning over after mustering out. Needless to say, you’re not going to be hiring these guys for an off-the-books kill.

When we’re talking about criminals, it’s a little fuzzier. How does a mob boss know who to call when they need a freelance contractor? References and people inside their organization. These may include ex-military or ex-intelligence officers. It’s a way to make money, and there’s not a lot of use in the civil sector for being able to put a .338 Lapua Magnum through someone’s head at over a kilometer. In fact, some criminal enterprises, including drug cartels, actively court ex-special forces for use as training instructors and in wetwork.

If these all sound like closed systems, it’s because they are. There’s no real access from someone who doesn’t have the connections to find a specialist. As I mentioned, this is deliberate. It’s a safety consideration; an unknown individual coming through your door is a major risk.

So, you may have a civilian who has criminal ties and can hire someone. The connections are already there, so they know who to call. In some ways this is a cheat, because, while it’s real and it does happen, it looks more like a contrivance.

People who don’t have those connections, which is most of the population, tend to do stupid things when they’re looking for a hitman or a hacker. This includes the Craigslist ads I mentioned earlier, and that does happen. There are more than a few situations where someone tried to hire a hitman or hacker for some bit of petty revenge and instead ended up talking to a cop. Because, turns out, if you start asking friends and family for how to hire an assassin, someone’s going to call the cops. Then your dream assassin will call you up on a tapped line, meet with you wearing a wire, and arrest you. This happens. If there’s one takeaway from this: Amateur criminals are dumb. Really dumb.

The thing is, generating those connections is doable. It doesn’t even need to take up your entire story. It does require your character to take some time, and commit some resources, into cultivating them though. The danger here is that cops and criminals share most of the same social circles. Meaning, someone staggering in from the outside may very well run into the police, rather than finding a professional hitter, even if they do things, “properly.”

One of the advantages of prose is that you can glaze over some details. You can compact significant amounts of time into a few paragraphs. The exact process your character goes through to cultivate access to the criminal underworld can be covered in a few pages, punctuated by individual moments. Now, obviously, this can run up against stylistic choices. But, if you need to cover a drawn out, complex process, compacting it down is an option. Particularly one that will take months.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the issue is strictly a time issue. If you’re planning to have your character find an assassin in a couple hours, that’s not happening in any realistic context. Cultivating a network of criminal contacts that can put you in touch with an assassin takes time.

Hackers are a slightly different different story, but again, it’s a different set of connections. Probably not something your character could set up during an all nighter trolling forums. That said, some simple exploits which will work against non-hardened targets could be within your character’s grasp. Basic social engineering and script kiddie stuff is already out there. So, it kinda depends on what you’re expecting a hacker to be capable of. To be fair, there’s also a kind of approach to hackers as techno-sorcery that I’m honestly not fond of, so, again, looking at what’s possible as opposed to having an all seeing auger is probably a good idea.

Remember, whatever your character does to cultivate their network will, probably, show up when the cops start investigating. So, if your character suddenly started fishing around for a hitman, that’s probably going to come up.

When it comes to creating a character, having access to specific kinds of specialists is the kind of thing you need to “buy into” with their background. If they don’t have the connections to do it, then they don’t, and that’s simply not an option for them. If your plot needs this, then you need to change who they were before things got started. Otherwise, the simple answer is, “they can’t.”


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Q&A: Emotions vs. Logic

Should fight scenes be fueled by emotion or logic? Is it possible to separate the two? I feel like nowadays people take pride in their ability to be ‘logical’ and completely emotionless when debating so I wondered about physical fights. I’ve seen a character who expresses little emotion win fights because they don’t get hotheaded but I’ve also seen them portrayed passionless compared to a genuinely emotional hero. Which is best realistically?

Generally speaking, either one is realistic. As in, both occur in the real world. There are police blotters filled with stories about some idiot who let themselves get riled up and did something stupid. People who got into altercations because their emotions ran wild.

Also, there is a legitimate point where the kind of character you’re writing might not be particularly analytical. A lot of people do make their decision based on “gut” or emotion. A lot of people value, “grit,” or conviction as a deciding factor in who they think has more merit.

This also breaks down to the idea that the victor must be the one with the “correct” position. “Might makes right.” It’s easy to take the extra step to say that the person who “believes” should be the victor. This is a mistake.

Victory is dependent on two things: having a clear objective, and way to achieve it. Going into a fight without a goal is a recipe for defeat, even if you emerge victorious in the moment.

So, here’s the problem. An emotional fighter who isn’t thinking will be outmaneuvered by a logical one every time. Having goals, making assessments, changing those in the moment, are all key to victory. Again, there’s an old adage that: no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Just because you had a plan doesn’t mean it will work, and sometimes you simply need to scramble to fix the situation.

So, you actually asked if fights should be emotional or logical: the answer is, “yes.” As much as logic and rational thought are important, emotion part being human. Fights need both. There need to be emotional stakes, and those will affect your characters. There needs to be a rational element, or your characters will be trivial to subvert.

People aren’t a single continuum between logical and emotional. You can be both. If you want to talk about emotion, it’s more important to think of that in the context of how strong a character’s emotions are, and how good their control over them is. That’s not really related to their ability to think critically, but their current emotional state is. So if they’re under a lot of stress, or getting desperate, their ability to think clearly will be impaired.

The clearer your character’s mind, the better their judgement will be. That said, this doesn’t make someone an emotionless rock, and depending on how your characters operate, it’s entirely possible they’ll be deteriorating over the course of the story, meaning their ability to function will be increasingly impaired. How far you take that concept depends on your story and the kind of story you’re talking about, though I’d recommend measuring any deterioration like this carefully. Also worth noting, these states can shift during a fight. So, it’s possible a character could degrade as the situation around them changes. That said, something truly traumatic would need to occur to significantly shift their state of mind in a mater of moments.

Someone who keeps their emotions in check still has them. It can be harder to identify their emotional state, but they still have them. Just because someone is extremely cold and analytical, that just means they’ve got their psyche under control, not that they’re an emotionless robot. Keep track of characters like this carefully, because when they do show hints of emotion, your audience will know something has started going seriously sideways.


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