All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Faked Deaths and Cheap Writing

Would an arc involving a character coming to terms with a friend’s death feel cheapened to readers if it is later revealed that the friend’s death was faked?

Not, unless your character knew their friend’s death was faked from the start, but you neglected to share that information with the audience. This is a little more complicated, depending on who the characters are, so let’s pull out some potential permutations.

Probably worth saying, but faking your own death isn’t something you come back from. You’ve just lied to everyone about something very serious, and that’s not the kind of thing most people are willing to simply laugh off. For someone who intentionally fakes their own death, there is no coming back from that.

Someone who’s been missing for years and was presumed dead will face some of this, but at least in that case, they may be able to present a legitimate narrative for why they disappeared. There’s some gradation here. Someone who intentionally vanished, and set up shop in another state is not going to be received the same way as someone who was presumed dead in a plane crash on the far side of the world, and was cut off from outside civilization.

If your character is dealing with the death of a close personal friend. As far as they know, everything’s above board, and they’re coming to terms with that. Then, no, having that friend pop up later would be a serious betrayal for your character, but, the audience is right there with them. Everyone was betrayed by that former friend, and there’s certainly a lot of ways you can proceed from there. (Again, there are some potential permutations, for example, if the friend was abducted, and their captors faked their death, or other singular circumstances like that. This is something I’d be cautious about recommending, because it could become melodramatic, but the option exists. Or, if said character didn’t fake their death, and has been resurrected somehow.)

You can flip this, if your point of view character is the one who faked their death and hid it from their friends and family. Again, nothing wrong with this from a writing standpoint, but expect their former acquaintances to be less than enthusiastic when they learn the truth.

If your character knows the truth, that their friend is alive, and they’re going through the motions, pretending to grieve, while the audience is kept in the dark, that’s cheap.

Cheap writing is when you decide to screw with your audience. Screwing with your characters is fair game. Whenever you decide to hide critical information from your audience, particularly information your point of view character have, you’re being cheap.

The idea of pulling one over on your audience can be very appealing, and there are ways you can deliver a good plot twist, but the cheap way to approach this is to simply deny the audience the information they need to know what’s happening.

There’s a wonderful phrase you can apply to this: being “economical with the truth.”  You are lying, but you’re doing it by carefully giving enough truthful information to mislead.

Writing can become cheap when you withhold too much information. There’s nothing wrong with putting enough out there so that some members of your audience can guess where you’re going. No twist “amazing” enough to stand on bad writing.

There’s also nothing wrong with putting out truthful information that is designed to mislead. An excellent primer on this would be the entire library of Agatha Christie’s work. She built her career on logic puzzles where the available information is designed to make you jump to the wrong conclusions.

If you have to choose between withholding information from your audience, and withholding it from your characters, you should err on the side of screwing over your characters long before you consider keeping your readers in the dark.

Lying to your audience is a very tricky thing. In most stories, I wouldn’t recommend it at all. The exceptions are genres where the entire structure is intended to mislead the reader. Mysteries and some varieties of thrillers are the normal examples here. Even then, you need to work very carefully to avoid betraying the audience’s trust, even while you’re engaging in slight of hand with them.

Lying to your character, and bringing the audience along is different. The audience will be predisposed to empathize with the protagonist in most cases, and if both have been deceived, then expect hostility directed at the former friend. At that point, it’s only cheap if your protagonist drops the ball, and doesn’t behave in a plausible way.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fantasy Weapon Selection

Bit of an unusual question, why are halberds and other pole arms curiously absent from most fantasy?

I’m just going to start out by saying, there’s no single answer to this. When many writers are making similar decisions, you can sometimes track back to a singular source, but when you’re dealing with an entire motif like this, writers (and world builders) are making their decisions independently of one another.

The first possible reason is inspiration. When you’re creating your fantasy setting it’s very likely you’re drawing inspiration from somewhere. Many fantasy authors (intentionally or otherwise) draw inspiration from Lord of the Rings. This is so ubiquitous that you don’t even need to explain concepts like Elves, Orcs, and Dwarves to an uninitiated reader. It’s so ingrained in the cultural lexicon of fantasy that defining these things doesn’t even seem necessary.

Actually, a bit of fun trivia to think about with this: the correct terms in English are “dwarfish” and “dwarfs.” The terms “dwarven” and “dwarves” aren’t completely original to Tolkien, but in modern literature they trace directly back to him.

If we’re going to lay blame at the feet of Tolkien, then it’s worth remembering that his work does include polearms, however, those weren’t the weapons used by the heroes. Tolkien’s heroes were designed to be legendary leaders, and their weapon choices reflected that to an extent.

If you’re creating an adventuring hero who is secretly the lost heir to the throne, you’ll give them a sword as their weapon (unless you’re deliberately being subversive.) There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a legitimate aspect of how western society looks at the sword as weapon, but it is worth remembering.

Now, if you’re drawing inspiration from a story about a character who’s a lost scion, or has a sword as their primary weapon for some reason, then it’s distinctly possible you’ll lift the weapon choice without thinking through why.

I’m less confidant that a similar logic applies with axes. I’m not completely certain what Tolkien was referencing when he picked the axe as the weapon of Dwarven kings, but here we are. If your setting is heavily influenced by cultural elements from Northern Europe, or he could have simply picked the weapon for more novel reasons.

In all of this, the spear, to say nothing of more advanced polearms, gets lost in the shuffle. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t fantasy settings that use polearms, but, like you said, they’re less common. In the long term, this creates a kind of “authorial confirmation bias,” where you’re more likely to be influenced by fantasy settings that eject or discount polearms, than you are to immediately think of these.

Another factor is, very often, a polearm isn’t a good weapon choice for the kind of character you’re writing. This is a little more subjective, because your world building could easily go either way. However, in general, the wandering adventurer is more likely to be in situations where they need a sword, axe, or dagger, far more often than ones where they’d need a spear.

There’s a slightly speculative quality to this logic, which then becomes self-confirming when you combine it with the previous element. If your character is a specific kind of roving adventurer or mercenary, and you expect that kind of a person to carry a sword or axe, then you’re more likely to give them a sword or axe. Again, historically, in Europe (and elsewhere) they’d probably carry a sword or axe as their sidearm, with a spear or other polearm as their primary weapon.

To be fair, there is some basis for this. If you have a character who’s a member of the city guard, or isn’t in active combat, they may not carry their primary weapon around with them everywhere, and might restrict themselves to their sidearm. This is somewhat analogous to a modern era character who carries a handgun, but they’re not going to wander around with a shotgun or assault rifle as part of their day to day gear. It’s likely something they’d have on hand, but wouldn’t carry regularly.

Also worth noting that in early modern Europe, it was fairly common for nobility, and other members of society to carry a sword as a normal accessory. Over time this fell out of fashion, but there is some basis for the idea of a character who carries a blade, instead of a polearm.

Ironically, greatswords and greataxes would fall into a similar situation. Those are primary weapons, not sidearms, but many fantasy settings will gleefully include them while ignoring polearms.

Another factor which may be relevant, though I’m not sure exactly how relevant is swashbuckler films and literature, and the resulting pulp genre. This included scenarios with combatants who would have eschewed polearms for various reasons. For example: Anyone who engaged in ship to ship combat, such as pirates, or naval officers hunting pirates. To be clear, I’m not blaming The Three Musketeers for squelching polearms in fantasy literature, but there is a progression from this material, through early fantasy pulps like Robert E. Howard’s Conan or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser into modern fantasy.

Modern fantasy takes, pretty much, equal measure from the early sword and sorcery pulps, and blends that with Tolkein’s intricate worldbuilding. The result is, slightly idiosyncratic, but it does start to explain why a lot of authors might eschew spears or halbards when they can just give their characters a huge axe. It’s also part of where fantasy settings become anachronistic.

If you’ve never read it, Conan is deliberately anachronistic. Robert E. Howard loved history, and gleefully grabbed the bits that appealed to him, mashing them together with reckless abandon. The result is fantastic writing, but there is no way to reconcile the Hyborian Age with real world history. The names are the familiar, but everything else went into a blender.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is a similar situation, though the names are alien in ways that should be immediately familiar to anyone who has read modern fantasy. In some ways, it’s even more significant, because the fictional city of Lankhmar was designed to be a fantasy allegory for 1930s New York, with completely inconsistent technological advancement scattered across its setting.

To be fair, I may be overthinking this. As I mentioned earlier, authors read one setting, it becomes a part of their understanding of the genre, or at least a familiar touchstone. When they go to create their own works, the things they’ve read (or viewed, played, consumed in whatever form) influence their work. So, while the specific examples I’m giving influenced a lot of writers, it’s not like those are the only possible paths. It’s also worth remembering that many authors will get their point of contact further down the line. So, they’re picking up on the influences of someone else’s influences.

This may sound like a nonsequitur, however, no one’s work is ever, truly, original in some cosmic sense. You’re influenced by everything you’ve read, watched, played, or otherwise engaged with. It becomes a part of you, and a part of how you look at the world. When the time comes to write, those influences will affect what you create. Being aware of this means you can step back and have the self awareness to start to deliberately change things.

If you want to see fantasy that uses polearms more heavily than what you see now, you’re certainly welcome to. There are plenty of reasons for your characters to use them. Especially in character archetypes that normally eschew polearms in conventional roles. For example, spears have been used in hunting for thousands of years, so it would make perfect sense for your ranger or druid to carry one as their primary weapon. Of course, most polearms saw use on the battlefield, and that’s certainly one use. You may have characters who are members of the city watch, or a similar group, who break out the polearms when things get dicey. This is before you consider the idea of arming characters like your clergy or mages with weapons you usually don’t associate with them. Again, there could be any number of reasons, you’re only limited by your creativity, and the ideas you found abandoned along the way.

-Starke

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Q&A: Collapsed Lungs

Hi there! I have a character who gets stabbed in the side and into one of her lungs. The wound is deep enough for air to start seeping out and collapse it. I have a fairly decent idea of how it’s going to be treated, but I’m also wondering about blood entering the lung and how to treat that. Google didn’t help much there, I’m afraid. For the record, this takes place during medieval times and I’m aware I’m going to have to use some plot armor for the character to survive.

That’s not plot armor, your character needs magic, superpowers, or modern medical treatment to avoid a rather unpleasant death. If your character is lucky, they die from an infection, if they’re not, then it’s going to be pneumonia.

Okay, if you’re wandering around today, get run through by an especially strange individual wielding a large knife, and your lung is punctured and collapses, that’s bad. However, it is survivable, if you get medical treatment. The lung can be surgically repaired, you can be put on antibiotics, as needed, and your lung can be re-inflated. I’m not sure on all the options for this, but I know one common example is to simply force air into the lung via a plastic tube inserted down the throat.

I’m not 100% certain what getting blood in your lungs will do, but I am sure having blood in your lungs is a potentially lethal situation (even today). In particular, blood quickly coagulates into a solid clot when exposed to oxygen. In your lungs, this means you cannot extract oxygen from the atmosphere, and it’s not going anywhere. Over time clots break down, but the results are not something you really want to deal with internally.

If you’re getting foreign matter of any kind into your lungs, that’s a vector for infection. Lung infections are extremely dangerous and can easily kill you. Symptoms include a fever, increased respiration rate (with an increased heart rate), chest pains, and increased mucus production (which, incidentally is what’s actually causing the problems in the first place, because that stuff is interfering with your ability to breathe in the first place.) If I understand correctly, getting blood in your lungs basically guarantees an infection, or infection like symptoms.

So, in short, without modern medicine, there’s no way to properly treat the collapsed lung. And, assuming the blade wasn’t clean (which, it wasn’t), any medical treatment your character did receive wouldn’t account for concepts like bacterial infection (because that wouldn’t be discovered for centuries), so your character would get sick, and die.

I realize I haven’t written a hard shutdown like this in awhile, but, yeah, this injury, with that level of medical technology is a textbook example of how to kill a character in an extremely painful, and agonizing way.

-Starke

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Q&A: Drowning in Armor

Hello, I was wondering if it would be possible for a man’s armor to weigh him down enough to cause him to drown? Like of he were on a ship and was wearing really heavy armor, and he fell off the ship would be be unable to float

The short answer seems to be: yes, though that’s not really a full answer.

Generally speaking, the position is you can’t swim in full plate, and this appears to be mostly true. The extra weight and lack of articulation mean it will be much harder for you to break surface. In deep water, for example during a naval engagement, this is likely a death sentence.

Worth noting that full plate, usually, only weighed around 70 pounds at the most. (Your average full plate combatant would be wearing around 50lbs of armor.) It was entirely possible for someone wearing this to recover after being knocked down, and while there is some impaired mobility, the wearer still has plenty of freedom to actually fight, and move around their environment. Heavy armor doesn’t mean you’re trapped like a bug, if you fall over.

The weight is a factor. Any extra weight will reduce buoyancy, and making swimming much more difficult. Plate armor is quite capable of weighing you down, to the point that it really is possible (if dangerous) to walk along the bottom, while wearing heavy armor.

I’m aware of testing in the last decade, where someone attempted to swim in armor, and the results were mixed. He could, barely, and was unable to break the surface from a depth of 12ft (roughly 4m). Now, it’s possible that someone who was fully accustomed to fighting in plate may do better, but you’re still looking at a situation where your combatant would lose energy much faster, may not be able to tread water, and if they sank, would probably die.

Plate armor also limits articulation. This isn’t to the extent that it will prevent someone to get back up if they fall, but, it does cause problems with swimming. It limits your range of motion, and slows everything down a little, which has a severely detrimental effect if you’re trying to keep your head above water. So, it’s possible to swim for short distances (though, I think all of the credible reports involve knights simply walking along the bottom, and climbing out.)

Though it’s not surprising, water is not good for armor, and salt water is particularly corrosive. Just sea spray alone would seriously rust up your character’s armor long before they saw combat. This is still an issue today, and part of why most navies used gold for their rank insignia. Gold does not corrode, meaning their insignia would survive sea conditions, where most metals would not.

The other thing is, until relatively recently, armor, beyond a breastplate, was pretty uncommon shipboard. They may have some armor, sealed away below decks, being maintained for when they made landfall, but they wouldn’t wear it, even in combat. Again, the exception may be a light breast plate, and helmet, but someone trudging around in full armor would be far less safe than someone in a shirt and coat.

Even if your character wears full armor when they’re on land, they’d probably store it below, while at sea, and carefully clean it at every opportunity.

Somewhat unrelated, but also worth knowing that, historically, it was a pain to transport horses by water. Historically, this was accomplished by placing the animal in a canvas sling, to support its weight, and prevent them from being injured by the movement of the boat (or ship), while at sea. Apparently, even under the best of circumstances, sea travel was extremely stressful for the horses, and the resulting mortality rate was high. While I don’t have any hard information, I can’t imagine that many of the animals would survive if the ship came under enemy fire.

Looping back, it’s not impossible for someone to swim with 50lbs of extra weight distributed across their body, but that will require they’re a strong swimmer. It’s not impossible for someone to swim with impaired range of motion, but that will require more energy. When you put these two things together, it’s probably not impossible for someone to swim in armor, but realistically, it’s not happening.

It’s also distinctly possible that your character wouldn’t know how to swim. Historically, particularly in the early modern period (so, during the golden age of piracy), it was surprisingly uncommon for sailors to actually learn how to swim. I’ve seen speculation for why this was the case. Some reasonable factors were that many sailors, particularly in the navies, were pressed into service, without much training beyond being able to do their assigned job. Other relevant factors include the lack of agility with helming a large sailing vessel, and as a result, if you went overboard you were doomed.

So, yes, going overboard in heavy armor would kill your character, but it’s highly unlikely they’d be in heavy armor to begin with, if they were operating aboard a ship.

Since someone will probably bring this up, if I skip over it: There’s also The Battle of Agincourt in 1415, where numerous French knights became mired in knee high mud and drowned in their armor. When you read full descriptions of the battle, it sounds like they were pressed under infantry who died on top of them, and then drowned, rather than it simply being their armor killed them. The major factor here was that combat was funneled into very tight choke points, and the mass of combatants simply piled on top of each other, like a heavily armed mosh pit from hell. As a result, any of the French fighters who fell (literally fell over, not killed), were trapped as bodies pressed in behind them, and couldn’t escape the mud.

-Starke

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Q&A: Asymmetric Armor

Hi! What is the real meaning for a character like Cloud Strife to have a single shoulder armor? Is it to rest their sword on their shoulder only, in a safe manner? I have a OC child who wears a shoulder pad just for fun but I want to know if it serves a purpose for real. Thank you, love your blog!

The short answer is that it’s to make the character look cool. It’s primarily there to help differentiate his design. I’m not clear on exactly how much was intentional, but I suspect the art design for most of the FF7 characters was heavily influenced by hardware limitations. (I know this was a consideration in the earlier sprite based games.) Because the polygon budgets and texture resolutions were low, the hardware heavily favored bold aesthetic designs. Cloud wears one massive oversized pauldron, and has hair you can roast marshmallows on because it helps keep the character visually distinct.

So, with all that said, asymmetrical armor was a thing, sometimes. There’s two important considerations, cost, and what you need the armor for.

Cost is always relevant. Armor is expensive; regardless who is paying for it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a lone mercenary or adventurer, then they’re going to have to make some difficult choices on where they spend their money.  Depending on the era, it’s entirely possible that even a professional soldier would have been responsible for purchasing and maintaining their own arms and armor. This could (and did) result in situations where someone had incomplete armor, because it’s all they could afford.

So, could you end up with a mercenary who had a single pauldron, and basically nothing else? Theoretically, yes. However, they’d be better off selling that, and getting some body armor instead. Though, if you had to pick one arm to over-armor, the left would be the better choice.

Depending on the statistics you look at, somewhere between 70% and 95% of the population is right handed. That means the vast majority of the foes you’d be facing on the battlefield would be far more likely to strike at your left arm and side. You’re more likely to take hits on that side (again, in a conventional combat environment), and as a result, it does make sense to add some extra armor on that side. That may simply mean a heavier pauldron, or just some extra weight in your gear. This wasn’t universal, and was rarely to the extent that you’d ignore one side entirely, but there is a little bit of logic behind these aesthetics. It’s also worth remembering, this is mostly a consideration after you’ve already got effective armor, and you’re thinking about adding some more. While there are reasons to put heavier armor on your left arm, that won’t do you any good if you’re run through, hence, the body armor suggestion earlier.

The most extreme example of asymmetrical armor is jousting gear. It’s probably better to think of jousting as a sport, rather than as combat. It was a competition, with strict rules, and supervision. The skills it used were based in combat, (specifically running down enemies with a couched lance) but, the two competitors in heavy plate with crowds cheering them on, was pure spectacle.

Jousting armor had enormously exaggerated protection on the left side. If you know what you’re looking for, jousting armor is instantly recognizable. In particular, the cuirass is often visibly asymmetric, sometimes with the left arm partially shielded, or fused directly into the cuirass above the elbow (technically, the term cuirass may be inaccurate in this specific example.) The helmet is sometimes asymmetric, again, favoring the left side, though this is less universal. In short, you’re looking at armor that expected the user to take a hard blow to the left side of their body, and wanted them to survive the experience.

I know we’ve said this before, but getting the right armor involves knowing exactly what you’ll be dealing with, and choosing accordingly. With that in mind, there was at least one situation where combatants intentionally went into combat with partial armor.

Roman gladiators had predesigned “uniforms,” that filled numerous distinct roles. As with Jousting, this was more of a sport, rather than true armor, but the goals were different. In particular, gladiatorial combat was interested in drawing blood, while simultaneously prolonging the spectacle. In these cases, armor that protected one (or both) arms, while leaving the torso unprotected was a pattern for many of the roles.

Worth remembering in this case, that both a gladiator’s weapons, and armor, were selected based on their roles, and they would be paired against opponents with roles that couldn’t easily counter them. In some ways it’s the opposite of what you’d normally look for in combat, but, the point was to create matchups that would be bloody without also being decisive.

There was a theme with the various roles. Gladiators were “playing the part” of various foreign civilizations that the Romans had already defeated. These caricatures would have been instantaneously recognizable to the crowds, much like how stereotypes in professional wrestling are instantly familiar (and, potentially offensive) to modern audiences. Although, significantly bloodier, professional wrestling is a good analogy to the Roman arena, so it might not be the best example of asymmetrical armor in combat, but it is another situation where this concept appears.

In general, when it comes to designing a character, overtly asymmetrical armor is often simply a method to make the character stand out. That’s what you see with Cloud. It’s not that there’s a specific tactical advantage, it’s there to mark him as your protagonist, and make his character model easier to identify at a glance.

-Starke

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Q&A: Breath of the Wild, Game Design, and Combat Animations

How realistically/accurately does Link use swords/spears/greatswords/axes/bows in Breath of the Wild. I want to use his fighting animations as a visual reference for my fight scenes, but that only works if he’s a viable reference. Thank you!

The short answer: It’s not.

There’s some quick caveats, the spear usage isn’t, “inaccurate,” so much as incredibly basic. The bow draw is, “awkward;” it may be fine, but something looks off about it, to me, and, at a glance, I’m not sure what.

This is one of those times where I’ve got a vague sense of deja vu. I know I’ve addressed this with other games in the past, but I don’t remember if I’ve talked about it explicitly in the context of Breath of the Wild.

Games are, by their nature, not reflective of the real world. In some cases, you may seek to simulate elements of reality either because that’s the point of the exercise (most tabletop wargaming, and flight simulators are examples), or because you’re attempting to provide a sense of verisimilitude (weather effects that don’t affect gameplay, would be an example of this).

Game designers need to achieve many goals as part of their process. This includes reliably informing the player on the overall state of play. This includes considerations like what the other players are doing, or what options the player has to work with.

In a traditional poker game, the information the player has is restricted to the cards in their hand. They’re then asked to make assessments of the other players, and to evaluate their behavior. The state of play is the card combinations they can make, as well as the card combinations their opponents may posses.

In contrast, a game like chess provides the player with a clear, open, state of play. Both players have a clear, unobstructed, view of the board, and full knowledge over every possible move that can occur. The player is then asked to make assessments on their opponent’s potential strategies, and act accordingly.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with combat, the answer is simple, depending on your goals as a game designer, either approach is entirely valid for your game. Combat that is difficult to read, and hard to predict can create a sense of unfairness, but it can also result in far more tension during combat. In contrast, if you create a combat system that is easy to read, you can produce a more generally entertaining experience, which the player feels they have more control over.

Breath of the Wild is going for accessible combat. At any given moment you have a clear idea of exactly what the enemies are doing (assuming they’re not out of frame), and what your character is doing. This is actually accentuated by the art style, which keeps the visual noise down, and makes it significantly easier to track movement on screen. (To be clear, the art design serves other purposes as well, but we’re talking about the combat systems.)

In order to make the combat easier to read, Breath of the Wild uses very exaggerated strike patterns. This is true of pretty much all the weapons in the game. Link swings them around in massive arcs, which makes it much easier to know what’s happening at any given moment. Even with the spears, it’s taking a basic concept of that weapon, and playing it up to a borderline comical threshold.

This may sound like I’m being dismissive, but Breath of the Wild has a kind of cartoon aesthetic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and if you’re going for an anime or classic cartoon infused style of violence, then the game is absolutely fine as reference material. However, an important part of taking inspiration is understanding why your subject made the aesthetic decisions it did, and what those choices mean for the material as a whole.

In the real world, combat abhors the idea of large movements, like you’ll see in Breath of the WildSkyrimDark SoulsDragon’s DogmaKingdoms of Amalur, Darksiders, NieR: Automata, or any number of other action games. There’s two (major) reasons. First is inertia, and the second is because of how the human brain processes objects.

When you look around, your brain parses objects by finding the outline, and then extrapolating the object from its edges. If you remember back to Jurassic Park and the whole, “hunts by movement,” thing, that’s how some animals track objects, with humans, we’re looking for the edges and then our brain fills in the rest. This means, when you can’t clearly find an object’s outline, it becomes much more difficult to accurately determine if it’s there or not. This is also the basic issue with camouflage, the idea is to break up the silhouette, and as a result the brain has a much harder time saying, “yeah, there’s a person there.” Your brain does track movement, but finding the outline is absolutely vital to making fast assessments of, “oh, they have a sword.”

When you’re fighting someone, you want to keep your arms, and weapons, inside your silhouette whenever possible. Yes, you can see someone’s holding a sword or a gun, but it’s easier to see it, if it’s held away from the body at a clear angle.

For example: when someone raises their arm, and they’re holding a sword over their head, preparing to strike. All of the information is clearly presented in a nice, clean, profile, for your brain to parse, and it will, fast enough to respond.

When someone holds their sword, pointed at you, inside their silhouette, and prepared to thrust, you’re not unable to see they have a weapon. This isn’t some lizard brain malfunction, where, “oops, I thought they had a thing, but I guess not.” However, it’s much harder for your brain to process what they’re doing with the weapon. Again, not, “you can’t see something’s happening,” but your brain is going to need a few more moments to keep track of what’s going on, and in that time you’ve just earned a few new holes from their blade.

The other part is inertia. It’s easier, and faster, to make small, precise, movements with a weapon, than it is to make large arcing sweeps. There are times when a large swing is appropriate, particularly with axes, but even then, the way Breath of the Wild uses them is more for visual feedback than combat practicality.

I’ll say this again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using something like this as an artistic base, so long as you’re not worried about realism. However, if you’re looking for brutally authentic fight scenes, then you’re better off looking at HEMA or classic training manuscripts.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Assassin’s Children

Would it be reasonable for an assassin to be able to raise a family? I’m currently writing an assassin in a world of superheroes who tends to specialize in taking down superhumans. Do you think he’d be able to balance a home life and his “night life” or is that nota possibility ?

I don’t see why not.

Okay, that’s not true, but I don’t see anything that makes this intrinsically impossible. Being an assassin doesn’t preclude the possibility of being a good parent. It’s just extremely unlikely.

Strip everything else down, and being a good parent means being there for your kids, and putting their well-being first. It’s not impossible for an assassin to do that, but that is one of those inflexible jobs, where sometimes, they really can’t be there, because of work. Not being there stacks the deck against being a good parent. It’s still possible, but the odds are vanishingly small.

There’s a lot of degrees here, and intent can outweigh the results sometimes. A parent who’s there but resentful, and passive aggressive isn’t better than one who would be there if they could, but really doesn’t have the option. For a good parent, even under the best of circumstances, there’s a balancing act between what you can do, and what you want to be able to do. Unfortunately, if you’ve got a high pressure job, that requires you keep a strict schedule, especially with lots of travel, that weighs heavily against your character’s kids.

There’s no, simple, yes or no, here. Plenty of parents in the real world fall short of the mark with less on their plate than your character, and some manage to excel in spite of far more trying circumstances. So, this comes down to a couple questions.

Do you think your character is a good parent? This can go either way, and this isn’t a simple pass/fail. If your character is a good parent, then there’s no shame in admitting that they’re not going to get the balance right every time.

Your character can tick the technical boxes of keeping their child breathing and still be walking human wreckage. They’re not a good parent, but again, intent can carry a lot of weight here. We are talking about a deeply personal relationship between (at least) two characters, and those rarely break down into simple black and white.

Remember, your character doesn’t evaluate how well they do as a parent, their children do. If he’s simply not there, because he’s hollowing out some arms dealer’s skull in La Paz, that’s not going to justify missing birthdays or other milestones. Also, it’s extremely unlikely your character would tell his kids that he was out there killing people. That’s the kind of information you really can’t trust to children, at least not when they’re young, so he didn’t miss a birthday because of that; as far as they know he was selling database software in Cochabamba.

Also worth noting, this applies to cops, soldiers, and spies. There’s some social structures to help with the former two, but, you’re still talking about parents who have a job that requires their primary attention. It may make for dramatic characters, but it creates shitty parents, and messy divorces.

Over time, it’s worth remembering that mistakes and poor choices do have consequences.

Do you know what a good parent looks like? This one is a much harder question than it looks like. A lot of people think they had a pretty clear understanding of what a good parent looks like. This isn’t always, 100% accurate. Also, when the answer is no, it’s not always consistent what will tip you off. Personally, it was this article on Cracked, six years ago.

So, do you know what a good parent looks like?

I have seen writers, who never stopped to ask that question, put forward some pretty messed up images of their parents. This isn’t intended as a critique of yours, but, at some point you do need to step back and really think about this going forward.

For example: having a parent who will immediately employ violence against unknown children their house is not normal. Yes, I’ve seen a writer hold that up as normal parental behavior. No, I don’t want to know what gave them that impression.

As with any high stress job, being an assassin is going to make being a parent harder. It makes it more difficult to be there physically, it makes being emotionally available more difficult, it means you’re always going to be under some threat, meaning you can’t ever really relax. Kids pick up on that. Not consciously, but in more of a, “that’s normal,” kind of way. Over time, this can lead to some serious psychological issues. It’s not completely inescapable, but no matter how hard your assassin tries, he’s never going to be able to give his kids a “normal” upbringing. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a good father, but he’ll have to work a lot harder to get there, and it may be impossible for him to do his job and take care of his kids.

Remember his kids are people, not pets. They cannot simply exist to indicate, “no, really, my character’s a good person.” That kind of behavior actually makes your assassin less redeemable. There are people, real people, who do use their kids as pets. They parade them around, and (figuratively) use them to say, “look how normal, and successful I am.” Those people are human garbage. Trust me, I know. Remember, the kids know. They may not realize how messed up the situation is until later in life, but they’re there. They know.

And, the other part is superheroes; that changes a lot of things.

The entire idea of hunting down some world class assassin and kicking down the door of his apartment, before handing him over to the local police is mostly a dream in the real world. In a world where you have superheroes, the risk of identifying and tracking him down becomes a much more serious risk.

Once someone knows who he is, his kids are in permanent danger. If your character is out there hunting down superheroes or supervillains, it’s very likely that someone will seek bloody retribution for his kills, or use the kids as leverage. That’s another horrific option.

At this point, you’re going to want to answer some world building questions, and decide what you want to look at afterwards.

Who your character works for is very important. An assassin for hire, that works with the League of Evil as a contractor is going to have a very different life from someone who works for a Federal Agency hunting down rogue superheroes. Either one can be as stable or unhinged as your story calls for (though, the latter would need to hide their derangement).

So far as it goes, there are plenty of examples of superheroes and villains with their children. Hell, two of the three Batgirls are the daughters of super villains. Cassandra Cain is the daughter of a professional assassin who seriously abused her, and is a mute killing machine, while Stephanie Brown is the daughter of a D-Grade super villain, who’s spurred to heroism in spite of (or to spite) her father’s legacy (and idiocy).

There’s a lot of room for the children of villains growing up to be their own people either in spite of, or in the model of their parents.

This may sound harsh, but if you don’t plan for your character’s children to grow up into their own characters, I’d strongly recommend using them. If you don’t have a plan, you’re running a serious risk of using them as pets, which, as I said, is something you do not want to do. (Even if your character does exactly that.) These need to be characters in their own right.

When it comes to injecting some serious weight into the modern superhero genre, my first stop would be Powers. It’s about cops, not assassins, but it does a fantastic job of taking superheroes out of context, and putting it against the mundane texture of a criminal investigation.

If you’re willing to spend 100 hours working through the narrative, The Witcher 3, does an excellent job of putting you in the shoes of a man searching for his adopted daughter. On the whole, I usually recommend Sapkowski’s novels over the games, but this is the rare case where I can say a game is doing exactly what you’re asking for (even if it is a fantasy setting), but I’m not really going into full detail here.

Another slightly odd suggestion is Millennium. Set in the late 90s, this series was a rare example of Magical Realism as a genre. The main character is a retired member of the FBI’s Behavior Science Unit, trying to protect his family from the apocalypse. As with The Witcher 3, this is probably more apropos than it sounds initially.

If you want to look at a shitty parent having their child leveraged against them, the first season of 24 is pretty good. If you’re left wondering, Jack Bauer is not a good parent. The first season has some rough patches, but it does kinda illustrate the problem with this setup.

I’d still recommend taking a look at Collateral. Tom Cruise’s Vincent isn’t hunting down superheroes, but it’s not hard to see where his methodology could have real application. Also, if you have seen it before, listen to the what he says about his father. It’s not much of a stretch to say this may be the future your character’s kids would find themselves in. Especially if he tried to bring them into “the family business,” or even if he just tried to teach them how to protect themselves.

-Starke

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Q&A: When to use Gun Disarms

So is it better to attempt a (good, learned) disarm or not? Like, if someone’s pointing a gun at you, there’s already a chance you could get shot anyway because gun safety teaches you not to point guns at things you don’t intend to destroy. Or, when writing criminals, should you disregard some gun safety rules because they won’t be following them?

The purpose for gun disarms is when you’re in a situation where someone is going to kill you. The logic is; if you’re going to die anyway, might as well die trying to survive, rather than letting someone else make that decision for you.

I slap some variation of “gun disarms will get you shot” in the tags every time the subject comes up, because it’s true.  Attempting a gun disarm is a very good way to catch a bullet. Thing is, you’re supposed to be using these in situations where that was going to happen anyway, so getting shot isn’t a step down.

You are not supposed to use gun disarms in situations where you probably won’t get killed. This is why any good self defense program will tell you to simply hand over your wallet when someone mugs you at gunpoint. Yeah, you’re losing money, but you’re not going to take a bullet, and the contents of your wallet aren’t worth your life. In a situation like that, attempting a disarm and failing is far worse than the alternative.

Most combat is pretty sloppy. Even for things like grabs, and joint locks, you don’t need to do it exactly, you just need to be, “close enough.” The same is true of firearms, put a couple bullets center mass, and they’re done. Being able to put pinpoint shots into a target at 50 meters with a handgun is impressive, sure, but if you can get two or three hits on a man sized target at that range while struggling through an adrenaline rush, that’s all that matters.

Gun disarms are fairly simple from a mechanical standpoint, but firing a gun at some idiot in close quarters is easier, and far harder to screw up.

Gun safety is very important, but, you’re right, some people just ignore it, and that behavior is not limited to criminals. I’ve seen some egregious mishandling on the range. I still adore this example of cause and effect (warning: mildly graphic.) I have friends (yes, legitimately, friends) who I will not go out on a range with, simply because their weapon handling is just that horrifying.

People do stupid things all the time, and this cuts both ways. People mishandle their guns, and get hurt, sometimes people die. More than a few martial artists have attempted disarms in situations that really didn’t warrant one and took a bullet, with varying survival rates.

There’s also, plenty of mass shooters that were tackled while reloading. Those are, by definition, one of the few times where you have nothing left to lose. If you don’t try, they’ll put a round in you, and anyone in the vicinity, so you might as well, make the attempt.

Yes, there are applications, but the only time you should seriously consider a disarm is when they’re going to kill you anyway. That’s the threshold to aim for.

That’s what that disarm from the knees was about. Someone’s lined you up, on your knees, and they’re going to execute you. That’s also a specific scenario that both of us were taught disarms for. You’re on your knees, they’re going to kill you, “really, what’ve you got to lose if you screw up?”

-Starke

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Q&A: Using Violence

Hey I’m pretty far along in a book I’m working on, there’s a lot of hand to hand combat mixed with swords, bows and arrows and some guns (flintlock style). I’ve been doing a good job of keeping things fresh but as I’m coming towards the end of it I’m having a hard time varying the different styles so it doesn’t get stale. I was wondering if you had any tips to help my action scenes from getting stale? Thanks!

This is going to be one of those concepts that sounds utterly bizarre at first, but violence isn’t interesting.

It might be slightly more accurate to say, violence by itself is not interesting or engaging. Real world violence, especially, is not entertaining and violence for entertainment often follows when the violence is expected to carry itself. What makes an action sequence work is the mise en scène. Violence, in a narrative, has diminishing returns. If you prefer, you could phrase it as the audience builds tolerance to violence over time, but either term works.

So, let’s unpack these two pieces.

Violence, by itself is rarely interesting. This is, probably, the main issue you’re running into. The stuff that sells a fight scene is all of the stuff accompanying it. It’s the stakes.

When writing an action sequence, the important thing to remember is why your characters are there. It can be very easy to lose track of the larger context in the moment, but that’s what keeps the reader invested.

There are exceptions to the, “never interesting,” position. With some martial artists, the appeal really is simply the spectacle. They’re putting on an impressive physical performance, that’s engaging. Cool. But, it’s not the violence, which may sound like an incredibly fine distinction until you really think about it. You don’t watch someone like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Van Damme for the story or the acting, it’s the sheer spectacle of the physical performance.  Though, Jackie Chan may be a bad example, because you’re probably watching him for the comedy beats.

I realize this might sound slightly pretentious. “No one cares about your hero punching that guy, they need to experience why he punches them.” But, the reality is remarkably grounded. Your character decided to engage in this way. You need to convey that to the reader. And yes, sometimes the reason really is because: “damn that was cool.” There are ways to make that kind of spectacle work, but in general, it’s easier to remember why your character is acting, and keep their behavior rooted in who they are, and reflect that back to the audience.

 

The other thing is that violence is exhausting. This is true for both the real thing, and for your audience. The more violence you use in your story, the harder it will be to keep them engaged with the material. This also applies for severity, though it’s a little easier to see at work there; include a scene that’s far too brutal, and watch your readers disconnect from the material and wander off.

Unfortunately, precisely defining how much violence your story can support is not a hard and fast system. I would say, when writing and you come to a potential action sequence, ask yourself if you really need a fight there.

There’s a weird irony with violence, sometimes, the anticipation is better than the delivery. You can tease the audience with the idea that a fight is about to break out, and then find a way to release the pressure, rather than forcing your characters into combat. The anxiety over what could happen, especially if your characters are seriously disadvantaged, can vastly outweigh the impact of just another fight scene. As with outright violence, this will lose its impact over time, but it can help you keep your audience on their toes.

Over time, violence is fatiguing. Keeping fight scenes short and to the point can help. If you’ve got a fight that’s lasting more than a couple pages, you might want to consider breaking it up, and reusing parts for different encounters.

Repetition is another concept that can kill the flow of a story. If you’re writing another fight scene ten pages later, and it’s basically the same as the previous ones, just with one or two slightly modified details, it might be time to cut it. There are writing techniques that employ repetition, particularly in comedy, but that’s about creating callbacks and payoffs, not regurgitating the previous scene with slight variations.

As a writer, violence is a tool you can use. Using it can work, threatening it can also work, but, in order to keep its edge, you need to use it sparingly. Otherwise, the entire narrative can easily bog down in an endless procession of boss fights.

Now, I’m gong to contradict myself here a little, violence can be entertaining. However, you need to understand that the violence is there for entertainment. All the violence and fight scenes you see on television are devised with this in mind. When unsupported by every other narrative aspect, they exist purely to entertain. The difference between these choreographers and most authors is that they are professional fight choreographers often with black belts in multiple martial arts. They understand how to pace a scene, what will look good on film, which actions will be visually impressive and have a vast toolkit to work from in order to bring the entertainment portion of the fight to life. Violence is not entertaining on its own, it is created to be visually interesting and a massive amount of work is put into creating functional entertainment. What you enjoy when you watch an action movie is the work of the choreographers involved, the skill of the stunt doubles, the hard work put in by the actors, the musical scoring, the set design, and everything else which keeps the movie running.

To mimic this in fiction, you must internalize this understanding and learn to do similar work on the page. The writer is the fight choreographer, the actors, the stunt doubles, the set and costume designers. You are creating a musical score in the structure and rhythm of your sentences, in your visual descriptions. You are going to do the entire work of a full set crew in order to achieve about half as much. Creating interesting violence on the page requires understanding that martial arts choreography is an art form in and of itself. And it is, you know, there are entire divisions in many different martial arts tournaments now devoted to structured competitive choreography. These are creators who agonize over every punch and kick, every physical transition, every throw, carefully putting together the scene, practicing it out over the course of months, for, at most, forty-five seconds to a minute’s worth of action.

Writing convincing and entertaining action takes a great deal of practice, and involves actively working as hard as you can to learn everything you can about violence. In knowledgeable hands, two swords of slightly different lengths could become a tense fight where the protagonist faces a significant disadvantage and a hard uphill climb in a terrific test of skill. Or, it could just be a scene about two people with two swords. The trick is understanding concepts like reach, order of operation in fight progression, the advantages provided by different sword types, the techniques used by fencers, and more to make a fight work. The smallest differences in a fight can create incredibly tight stakes, but you need to know they’re there in order to include them.

Start by sitting down with your favorite novel sequences and movie fight scenes, start asking yourself what you liked about it and why it worked for you. Look into who created it, the work that went in, and what the surrounding narrative stakes are. What are the internal stakes within the scene itself, why is the protagonist fighting at a disadvantage? What caused their disadvantage? Why is that interesting? What tools are the characters using? Are they making full use of their available options? What is the decision making process? How is that helping and hindering them?

If you’ve reached the point where the violence is boring, then move on to understanding that you need to be the one who makes the scene interesting. You first must pinpoint why the violence has become boring, and usually that begins with a lack of stakes.

-Starke

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Q&A: Crossbows and DOPE

For a character with a military background and proficiency in modern firearms, would any additional training be necessary for them to master a crossbow? If so, what kind?

For actual training? Not much. They’d need to be run through how to reload, and maintain the weapon. If they were a fairly quick study, that should only take a couple hours. Mastering the weapon would require lots of practice.

The problem is, the crossbow fires a much slower, heavier, projectile. This doesn’t invalidate basic concepts of how to aim and fire, but it does change the parameters where the weapon will be effective. Drop will be far more severe, meaning they’ll need to compensate for that, and the overall range will be much more limited (roughly 50 – 60 meters.)

In order to do that, they’ll simply need to spend time on a range practicing and gathering data on how the weapon performs.

When shooting, it’s very important to collect Data on Previous Engagements (or DOPE) for that weapon. This primarily involves learning how that individual weapon behaves at various ranges. (So, your character would be learning how their rifle or crossbow behaves, not necessarily all rifles and crossbows.) Some will keep DOPE as physical records, others will simply internalize the information based on how the weapon handles. You can collect some of this information online, but ultimately you need to confirm it with the actual weapon before you can count on it.

The end result is, they can probably swap over to a crossbow with a minimum of effort, but they would need to spend time on the range getting a feel for how the weapon handled, particularly in relation to compensating for bolt drop.

Drop is a concept in shooting involving the projectile as a physical object. While it is traveling away from you at high speed (~400 feet per second with a crossbow bolt) it is also falling. Gravity does not give bullets, bolts, or arrows, a pass simply because they’re already going in one direction. This is referred to as, “drop.” When aiming you need to account for this. Drop can be compensated by either zeroing the sights/optics for a specific range, or manually by the shooter.

For example, a shooter who zeroes their scope for 100 meters, will need to aim below the target at closer ranges, and above the target at ranges exceeding that range. To the point that at ranges over 500m the shooter may be aiming several feet above the target.

Factors like relative elevation can further affect calculating drop, with targets above the shooter requiring them to overcompensate for distance, and under-compensate for targets below them.

Another major factor is wind, which can affect a bullet, and may require the shooter to adjust their drop expectations, as well as left to right drift. (If the bullet has a backwind, it will travel faster, and as a result, will reach it’s target sooner, requiring less drop compensation. A headwind will slow the bullet, increasing the effect of drop. Crosswinds will require assessing the speed, and adjusting the aim point to compensate.)

Because the bolt is larger, and slower, all of these factors will be far more pronounced than with a bullet. Meaning a prospective crossbow user will need to collect new DOPE for that weapon. The rough values can be extrapolated from math that can be calculated from available data (the speed of the bolt, its mass, distance to target, ect), but that will only provide a starting point, it won’t be sufficient to really, “master” the crossbow. For that, your character’s simply needs to spend some time practicing, and getting a feel for their weapon.

Incidentally, all of this is also true for a character picking up a new gun. Those will be similar to comparable weapons, but even then, getting highly precise shots off requires spending time with that, specific, firearm. Practicing, and getting a feel for it. Now, with practice on a wider variety of firearms, collecting DOPE for new guns will become faster and more intuitive, but it’s still something your character would need to do.

-Starke

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