All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Sword Injuries

Would actual sword fights end with a lot of cuts on both combatants or is it more of a “you get tagged first and your out” kind of deal?


This one can really go either way, depending on injuries sustained. So, let’s parse this out a bit, because I might not have been really clear about this in the past.

Shallow nicks won’t do much. You’ll lose blood, but not at an appreciable rate. You’ve almost certainly sustained a few of these in your life. From a writing perspective these are basically cosmetic. From a medical perspective they’re not much more. A sword or knife can absolutely inflict these.

There are rare circumstances where these immediately relevant. Cuts to the forehead can cause blood to get in the victim’s eyes. In combat, this is a debilitating situation. Blood that gets onto the palm can make it more difficult to grasp objects or weapons. (Fresh blood is quite slick. As it dries it will become sticky, so the effect is reversed at that point.)

When you’re talking about lots of cuts, then you’re probably talking about this kind of injury. Individually these aren’t dangerous, but if they start stacking up, blood loss is cumulative, so they can potentially become life threatening, but that’s not a likely outcome for a duel.

Incidentally, if you’re writing a scene where characters are dueling to first blood, then these cuts qualify. In fact, that’s what the duelists will aim for. It’s the easiest kind of injury to sustain, and if the participants don’t want to kill one another, this is the safest route to victory.

When I’ve been talking about injuries that create a decisive advantage, I’m talking about deeper cuts; ones that open up veins or debilitate limbs. Injuries where bloodloss will lead to impairment and death.

In a duel, these will kill you. When I say things like, “with first blood, the clock is ticking, and your character will die if they don’t find a way to turn the fight around,” I’m talking about these deeper injuries. A person can survive a few shallow cuts without much ill effect, and in most cases can survive quite a few without aid. Deep cuts are immediately dangerous.

Here’s the problem with this: I’m talking about these like they’re two separate kinds of wounds; they’re really not. They’re both cuts. If we’re being technical, the deeper variety are “lacerations.” But, that makes it sound like there’s a clean delineation between these injuries which simply doesn’t exist.

So, I’m going to step back and put this in abstract terms, as they apply to characters for a moment.

Characters can suffer “cosmetic injuries.” These will result in bleeding. As I mentioned earlier, blood After the fight is over, they’ll hurt. Unless your character is getting covered in these things, they’ll never kill them. These can be sustained anywhere, but when you’re talking about strikes to the forearm (except along the inner arm) or to the face, bone will usually stop the strike before it gets to deep.

Characters can suffer “wounds.” These will result in a lot of bleeding, way too much bleeding. These, “start the clock.” Without medical attention, even just self inflicted first aid, these will kill your character. Usually these are sustained to limbs or the torso. Places where you can get fairly deep without striking bone.

In the real world, blood loss will impair the fighter, slowing them down, confusing them, making combat more difficult. This means their defense (if they have one) will suffer, and it will be far easier for their opponent to get through it with a kill strike. A blade through the throat or chest, for instance. This isn’t always true in fiction, but it’s a function of how the human body works that’s worth remembering.

If you’re asking, “is it plausible for a character to win a swordfight with lots of tiny cuts?” Yes. If you’re asking, “is it plausible for a character die in a swordfight with one or two deep, lethal wounds, and to be otherwise untouched?” Again, yes. It really depends on the circumstances of the fight.

I hope that clears things up some, and am genuinely sorry if I’ve confused any of you by glazing over this. That one’s my mistake.


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Q&A: Double Bladed Weapon

Is it realistic to have a bladed weapon that operates sort of like a double ended light saber? As in you press a button or lever in the center of the hilt and blades come out of either end? Furthermore, could you see a bladed weapon fight club as something that may exist (it doesn’t have to be legal and definitely probably wouldn’t be)

On the first part? Not really.

You’ll see collapsing knives that are designed for push button deployment, out the front of the grip. But, for a full sword? No, or at least not with modern technology. Wear and abuse from normal use would quickly wreck the mechanical components. To say nothing of the blood and gore getting forced into the mechanism when you collapsed it after use.

So, again, limited to modern technology, it would be theoretically possible, but they’d have an incredibly short lifespan (maybe only single use), and be extremely annoying to clean and care for (if not outright impossible).

If you’re talking about some kind of hypothetical future tech, then, it will probably be an option some day. Self cleaning tolerances, and a mechanical stability that can’t be achieved with modern materials may make this viable. Though, at that point, this would probably be more of a novelty than a practical combat tool.

Double bladed weapons do exist. Well, I should say, double bladed knives exist, I have one somewhere. It’s awkward, difficult to hold, and I’ve still got a scar on my index finger from the first time I picked it up. These are a novelty. You buy one because you think it looks cool, not because you intend to use it.

There are a few examples of weapons that are designed to be double ended, mostly polearms, which would sometimes include functional spikes on the reverse end. It’s also not unheard of for a sword to have a sharpened, spiked pommel. That said, mounting an entire reverse blade onto a sword is something you’d usually only seriously consider if you’re either a Sith or Klingon.

On the second part, about fight clubs, “No, never; except they did.”

The basic idea of a fight club where people who don’t know what they’re doing wander in and start beating the ever living snot out of one another? Yeah, that can happen. I’ve actually been out on a farm in the middle of the night, dueling friends with plastic bokken because it seemed like fun at the time. It’s not exactly what you’ve got in mind, but that’s possible.

Thing is, there’s a huge difference between dueling with a high impact plastic katana, where screwing up means you’ve got new bruise on your knuckles, and screwing around with a live blade, where a mistake means critical injuries and death.

Organized, underground dueling also has some real world history. The only examples I’ve run across came out of 19th century military academies. I assume the reasoning is roughly the same as why I was on that Indiana farmyard in the middle of the night, it seemed like fun at the time.

Of course, in the case of military academies, we’re talking about students who’d actually been trained to use their blades, so it’s not exactly a fight club. Still stupid and dangerous, but they (kind of) knew what they were doing.

So, my first impulse on this subject is wrong. I’d say, “no one can possibly be that stupid,” except of course, I have been exactly that stupid. I also knew a couple idiots that decided to fight each other with a fire axe and cheap katana in their living room, without ever considering that, maybe, this was a horrifically bad idea. Tragically, they both survived unharmed.

As for a full on fight club? Not so much. When you have people who don’t know what they’re doing throwing punches, the potential risk of injury is, somewhat, limited. Untrained combatants are not a huge threat to one another. They can get some good shots in, and can make it hurt, but actually messing someone else up requires concepts like power generation and a vague idea of where to connect. Without them, it’s just guys flailing impotently at each other.

Blades are inherently dangerous. You don’t need to know how to put together an effective defense, or understand how to generate force, driving four pounds of steel into some poor schmuck doesn’t require training. Training does help; it teaches you how to put up a defense, and how to circumvent your opponent’s, but it’s not necessary for accidental death and dismemberment.

The fundamental problem with a bladed fight club is that the participants need to survive. They need to be in a condition where they can fight again next week. Getting carved up by a stray blow will put a damper on that. To say nothing of a stray death.

In Fight Club, the titular club was an expression of violent catharsis. For random guys who’ve never experienced real violence, it was an escape that presented the illusion of danger, without putting the participants in actual jeopardy. This kept the attrition rate fairly low, and allowed the group to grow. For something like this, that is absolutely critical.

If you start arming the participants, it would only take watching one guy getting opened up, and spraying blood all over the place before you might think, “maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” When you start hemorrhaging members like this, it becomes impossible to keep the numbers up, and the club would die off quickly; figuratively or literally.


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Q&A: Bayonets

Would it be useful or realistic to attach a knife to a gun? Would it be in anyway helpful in a fight in a smaller space or would it just get in the way and be unhelpful?

Well, that’s called a bayonet. They do exist. These date back to single shot firearms, where you’d be left without a functional weapon while reloading in an era when melee combat was still the norm. As with a lot of elements of military tradition and hardware, bayonets have massively outlived their usefulness.

Modern bayonets are (usually) functional combat knives with attachment points designed to lock onto a rifle. That said, some rifles do include integrated bayonets, which can be collapsed and stored on the gun.

Generally speaking, the only time you’d use a bayonet is when the rifle cannot be fired. Either because it’s out of ammunition, malfunctioning, or you’re in some incredibly specific situation where firing it would be a profoundly bad idea. Otherwise, even in close quarters, you’re better off pumping two or three rounds into someone.

Which leads back to the question about usefulness; not very. Detachable ones can be useful in the sense that you need a knife and just happen to be carrying one, but a well equipped combatant should have a knife or other cutting implement in easy reach regardless. In very rare circumstances, it’s a good augment for your rifle, but that’s more of an, “in theory,” consideration than a practical application.

Sticking a bayonet on a pistol (or revolver) isn’t a great idea. You’ll see these occasionally as novelty items, but you’d be better off simply bringing a separate knife. The one advantage a bayonet has, when it’s mounted on a rifle, is reach. Slapping one on a pistol makes the blade harder to control, without increasing its range.


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Q&A: Retired Assassins

How realistic is it for the retired agent/spy/assassin to come back and kick just as much butt as they did years before? Does such training come back to you easily if you haven’t used it in a long while or will you be rusty enough to get killed?

Parts of this are realistic, others not so much.

If you’ve spent enough time training techniques, this stuff gets baked into the way you move. It’s not, “oh, I’ll do this to someone;” it’s just there. Training can also affect how you look at the world; this is true as a general statement on life, but it also applies here. Again, as with muscle memory, this is always there, always affecting how you view your surroundings and the people in them.

So, in that sense, yes. A veteran character coming back after years away from the job will still have their skills and training. Some of that will be rusty, but this stuff sticks with you. Especially if you were maintaining your training for years. That said, they’ll still get their teeth kicked in.

Ironically, one of the more realistic takes I’ve seen on this was in the middle seasons of 24. In the early seasons, the protagonist, Jack Bauer, is a federal counterterrorist agent. After the third season he’s basically on his own, and no longer a part of the agency that trained him. By the fifth season (about 3 years later) he’s at a point where he’s getting his ass handed to him by a security guard.

The problem is something we’ve explained, repeatedly. Hand to hand combat is not static. The training I got 20 years ago doesn’t apply now. It will work against untrained opponents. Basic physiology doesn’t change. However, going up against opponents who’ve been keeping their training up to date, (or are some of the people responsible for updating the techniques in the first place), is not going to end well.

Something I know we haven’t discussed on this subject is how this updating happens. It requires contact with people who are actually using their training practically. Seeing what people are doing isn’t something that you can do sitting on a mountain top. You need to actually be immersed in the community. You look for how people are adapting to the techniques you’re training others in, and look for ways to get around those counters.

In the case of law enforcement, one major source if intelligence to guide updates is watching what criminals are teaching each other in prison. Career criminals will look for ways to counter police hand to hand, and once they have that, will (usually) share it with people they work and/or socialize with.

A veteran coming in after years away may be able to execute their training perfectly, and still get taken down by a rookie who received their training last year, because they were trained to counter the veteran’s approach.

Updating is about looking for the things that are most prevalent, and finding ways to defend against them. It’s very likely your veteran will understand this concept. Whether that affects their behavior is more of a characterization question.

Incidentally, this doesn’t just apply to hand to hand, it’s also a relevant concept when you’re talking about things like tradecraft.

Tradecraft is the shorthand for techniques used in intelligence gathering. It’s (somewhat) all encompassing. So, anything from social engineering to dead drops or even the way you set up surveillance could be lumped in under this header.

Just like hand to hand training, this stuff does go out of date. Usually once someone’s actually exploited a method and gotten caught doing it. Though, sometimes it’s preventative.

The irony is, when it comes to being a spy, the biggest problem is being a veteran, not being out of practice. It’s being a veteran. When a spy starts their career, no one knows who they are, they have no reputation, they’ve never turned up in strange places, they’re just someone walking around, taking in the sights, maybe doing a job for some NGO.

Even if a spy is never caught, as they work, their name will start ending up on desks, in lists of witnesses, employees, or whatever. Once is not a pattern, but as their name keeps coming up over the years, it becomes easier to identify them. Potential enemies start keeping files, and gradually filling them with what they know. This means it is much harder for a veteran spy to operate in the field undetected, than it is for a rookie.

There’s a similar issue for assassins. Either they’re a complete ghost, no one knows who they are, and may not even believe they ever existed, or (more likely), if they were working for a government (or any other large, overt organization, like a corporation), they’re in the same boat as a veteran spy. People may not know your character is an assassin, but they will know that they worked for someone. Which in turn, will put them on guard, and make your character’s life much harder.

There are concepts a veteran will have internalized, which someone without training won’t understand or grasp. Thing that just don’t go out of style. For example, bullets will blow through most residential walls and furniture. So, if someone’s taking cover behind a couch, kitchen wall, or car door, it’s far more expedient to simply shoot through whatever’s in your way. Another concept is one I’ve mentioned recently, you reload when you have the time, not when you’ve run your gun dry.

Similarly, experience they’ve learned from may still be relevant. Being able to read someone’s intentions, know when they’re about to resort to violence, or simply knowing the value of good intelligence aren’t going to go away because your character spent the last five years pretending to be a well-adjusted human being.


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Q&A: Shock

In film often when characters get stabbed/assaulted they can often continue to fight or don’t pass out immediately. How does adrenaline or shock factor into the physical reaction, especially when the character isn’t a cop or military and isn’t accustomed to being in these violent situations. How long would they be able to function before they crash? Is it possible to run away or even fight?

Taking these questions in reverse order: Yeah, kinda, sometimes, and it varies wildly, based on the injuries sustained. Also, it’s not the adrenaline crash that kills you.

Adrenaline rushes mean that you’re often unaware of injuries sustained in the moment. I’ve never been fully certain if adrenaline actually dulls the pain response, or if it simply causes your brain to ignore it. Either way, while you’re under an adrenaline rush you can suffer injuries and be unaware of them. It’s why you’ll sometimes see characters (and, for that matter, real people, with prior experience) checking themselves for injuries after combat (or any other traumatic event). It is entirely possible to be wounded and have no idea it’s happened until you’re trying to figure out where all that blood is coming from.

Depending on what you’ve just been through, coming down off an adrenaline rush can be deeply unpleasant. Your brain is sure something’s fucked up, but it can’t pin down exactly what or where, so it’s going to take that out on you, and everything aches. Adrenaline crashes won’t kill you. (There may be some weird outliers here for people with heart conditions, but, in general.) A crash may make you wish you were dead, or make you want to throw up on people, but it’s not lethal.

In the moment an adrenaline means that you can suffer (fairly severe) injuries and keep on fighting. If the injury doesn’t outright disable a limb, you can keep using it, even if that’s a very bad idea. Getting stabbed or shot is no guarantee that someone will sit down and peacefully bleed to death. Actually, shooting someone is a pretty good way to ensure they won’t sit down and bleed to death without protest.

When you’re trying to figure out how long it will take someone to die, you’re actually asking about how fast someone bleeds out. This relates directly to the injuries sustained. Someone who’s had a knife driven into their neck isn’t going to keep fighting. Someone who had it run through their bicep or buried in their shoulder blade, probably can.

We’ve covered blood loss before (and I strongly recommend you take a look at that tag, if you haven’t), but that’s the real factor here that controls if someone can fight. If they still have enough blood in their body to function. Lose too much, your ability to fight is impaired, and you’ll eventually fall unconscious and die.

Blood loss is why concepts like, “first blood,” are important in duels. Once that happens, the clock is ticking for that character; the longer the fight goes, the more their ability will decay, and unless they find a way to turn it around, they will die. (Even if they manage to prevail, they may still die without medical attention.)

Fighting through a stab wound is a fantastically bad idea. Engaging in any physically strenuous activity that raises your heart rate, (for example: fighting someone, or running away), will speed up blood loss, meaning impairment kicks in sooner. Still, the point of adrenaline is to keep you functional after sustaining an injury, so that you can survive.

If someone suffers an injury which disables them in some way, such as breaking an arm, there’s no powering through that. Adrenaline won’t let you override shattered bones. The biomechanical pulley system of muscles and tendons simply doesn’t work with broken bones.

So, the short answer is, “yeah, kinda.” You can keep fighting after being attacked. So far as it goes, there’s plenty of cases where someone took a stray bullet and kept on fighting, only to bleed to death later.


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Q&A: Practical Wear

What makes an outfit practical or impractical to fight in? Would an acrobat’s outfit with some decent shoes be okay to fight in? Any suggestions on how to make an outfit frilly/girly without sacrificing (too much) practicality? (Trying to come up with practical[ish] Magical Girl outfits – know it’s not your genre probably – there are certain expectations for frilliness even for tomboyish characters)

You’re, basically, looking for three things: How well can you move in it, does it give potential foes anything to grab, and does it offer any protection?

If you can’t move freely in your clothes, you can’t fight in them. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about them being tight enough to restrict movement, or if they make it difficult to walk around. Tight skirts, high heels, tailored suits; it doesn’t matter; they’ll all limit your ability to fight.

With footwear, you’re looking primarily at how well you can stand and move in it. Shoes and boots designed to grip the floor are (usually) the best options here. So, things like sneakers or work boots are good options. Rubberized soles will help you keep your footing far better when you’re standing in someone’s blood than a dress shoe or high heels.

Things like long coats, ties, free flowing skirts, scarves, hoodies, or of course capes, won’t usually limit your mobility, but they can give an opponent something to grab. Once that happens, that article of clothing will limit your mobility (some). This is also a factor that’s difficult to completely eliminate. Practiced martial artists can, and do, go for collar or lapel grabs on clothing you might think would pass. That said, there are some special cases here.

If the article of clothing will tear away freely, it’s (kind of) a wash. You’re still talking about losing clothes, which isn’t usually something you want, but it means you’re not getting dragged out of position by an attacker.

If the combatant is ready for it, it’s possible to use something like this as a firing point to retaliate. If you know, roughly, where their hand is, it’s much easier to extrapolate where the rest of them is in relation to you. This still doesn’t make fighting in long flowing garments a good idea.

The final factor, almost by definition, doesn’t really apply with magical girls as a genre, and can get a little weird when you’re talking about any superhuman characters.

Ideally, if you’re planning to get into a fight, you’ll want durable clothing that will take a few hits, and hopefully shield you from harm. Materials like leather and denim hold up much better than lighter fabrics. Insulation in a jacket will take some kinetic force from a strike (not a lot, but still), so it’s better than just jeans and a tee, or even a denim jacket. This also gets into a discussion we’ve had before. Protection is often about making tradeoffs.

An insulated leather jacket will (slightly) reduce your mobility. It will give an opponent something they can grab. But, it will also offer protection from stray hits and while parrying incoming strikes. It won’t protect against gunshots, or against a sword, and if that’s what your character was likely to face, they’d need armor to deal with those threats instead.

Somewhat obviously, exposed skin isn’t offered any protection. Technically, skin itself is protection for your body, and it does function as your first line of defense against infection, but that’s mostly academic in this context.

This is also where, magical girls, and most superhero subgenres, deliberately start straying from reality, without actually being unrealistic (in the literary sense). What matters is if your character has some kind of protection from the threats they’re facing. It doesn’t matter if that’s an ancient alien artifact, a mystical gemstone, or the weaponized power of friendship. That is what protects your character, not her denim vest. You’re also talking about characters where the threats they face are, effectively, impossible to mitigate through mundane means. Again, a leather jacket, no matter how snazzy, won’t do much against a death beam from some snarling murderbeast, or blows from a sword with an enchantment that drains the soul from anyone who touches it. As I’ve said before, you select your armor to deal with the threats you’re likely to face, and when it comes to magical girls, those threats are (almost always) going to be far beyond anything you could physically protect against.

Normally, you wouldn’t want to fight off an arisen god of war in a school girl uniform, but it’s not like a flak vest would offer any more protection against a threat like that.


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Q&A: Kicking the Magazine

How feasable and/or effective would it be to eject an empty handgun magazine and kick it (accuratley) towards an opponent from mid-fall during a close quarters fight (say a melee attacker rushing down a corridor towards the kicker)?

No, and no.

So, first thing is that, depending on the handgun, the magazine may not drop freely. This is a preference feature. Some people prefer to release the magazine and pull it free, while others prefer to allow the magazine to drop freely into their hand when ejected. There isn’t really a, “better,” option here. Both positions come down to what the user finds more intuitive and comfortable.

If you’re wondering, this isn’t something that’s likely to trip up an experienced shooter. Anyone who’s spent time on a variety of firearms should be able to adapt to the gun they’re handling. You can also tell if the magazine will drop away when you load a magazine; based on the amount of friction experienced.

Even with a pistol where the magazine can drop freely, you’re not going to want to literally drop the magazine on the floor, or kick it. Handgun magazines are expensive; Depending on the model of handgun, those could cost anywhere from $10 to over $100 (on some rarer pistols). (I was specifically looking at a Bren Ten magazine for the upper end of the spectrum, if anyone’s wondering.) If anyone’s thinking back to the Desert Eagle post from a couple months ago, those magazines will set you back a little under $50 each. You do not use these once and discard them.

You also don’t, usually, want to eject empty magazines. Much like your car, you never want to run a gun dry. While it’s fairly easy, in a controlled situation, or on a range to keep track of how many times you’ve fired, and to know the exact state of your weapon; this is much more difficult in a real firefight.

You reload when you think you might be getting low, or when you’ve got time and ammo to spare, you put the partial magazine in a different pocket from your fresh mags, and replace it with a fresh one. The last place you ever want to be is in a situation like the one you just described: staring at someone who wants to kill you with an empty gun in your hand.

Fresh mags are heavy. That is to say, depending on the gun, a fully loaded magazine can easily weigh more than a pound. Most of that weight comes from the loaded rounds; the magazine itself is just a thin plastic or metal shell to hold and feed them into the firearm. They’re really not designed to take much abuse, and depending on the magazine, may be somewhat fragile.

Under controlled circumstances, kicking a falling object is something that a practiced martial artist should be able to do easily. Putting it in the rough vicinity of where they want it is also quite doable. Being able to do either of these things in an actual combat situation, not so much.

This is the kind of stunt you’d expect to see in a John Woo film, (I’d be slightly surprised if he hasn’t done some variation of this), and I know I’ve seen it on film before, somewhere. It’s in that range of slightly ludicrous that plays well when you’re working with characters that are (at least) slightly superhuman. But, if you’re dealing with normal, mortal, characters, this is neither feasible nor effective.


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Q&A: Unarmed Parry

How realistic is stopping a knife from killing you by grabbing the blade with your hands?

Kind of. It’s realistic in the sense that it can and does happen. At the same time, it probably won’t save your life. Knife wounds to the palms, (called, “defensive wounds,”) are fairly common when someone has been attacked by a knife wielding opponent. Usually, what happens is they’ll attempt to block the knife by putting up their hands, palms out, and their palms and fingers will take the initial assault. That I’m most familiar with the term from autopsies should say a lot about how well this usually works out for the victim.

If you’re dealing with a situation, where someone’s trying to stab you and your only option is to catch the blade with your hand, it is better than dying. However, it is also a very temporary solution, and one you can’t repeat after using. It’s also, probably, not your best option.

When you bleed, your body is trying to do two things; first clean the wound and expel any foreign objects in it, then seal the wound over to allow the tissue to heal. Fresh blood is aggravatingly slick. Once exposed to oxygen, blood becomes tacky and coagulates over the course of a few minutes. (Specific clotting times vary based on a number of factors. For example: if your character is an alcoholic, their blood’s ability to clot will be severely impaired.) It only remains tacky for a few minutes, and will then harden into a solid mass, so the window here is fairly narrow.

When you take a knife to the hand, you’re going to bleed all over your hand. That means your hands will get slick, and have a harder time gripping the blade. This is before you consider the part where your hand is actually getting cut to pieces. Eventually the blood will clot (whether you survive long enough to see this or not), at which point gripping the blade would become easier, but that’s not a realistic consideration because the fight won’t last long enough to get there.

As I’ve said before, your body functions on a kind of pulley system. Your muscles pull on tendons which in turn tense against your skeleton, causing your limbs to move. When you start cutting tendons, the pulley system starts to break down. Some of the most delicate pieces of this system are in your hands and feet. Start carving those apart, and your hand will not work. This isn’t an, “oh, I can force my way through on sheer willpower,” situation. The mechanical components critical to making your hands work will be damaged or destroyed. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh has been turned into butterflyed steak. Catching a knife with your hand will stop that strike, but it means your hand will not work again. Yes, if you survive, it can be repaired surgically, but that’s not going to keep you alive.

The better option, if you have sufficient manual dexterity to catch the blade is to catch your opponent’s wrist instead. Again, this isn’t a great position to be in, and wrist grabs are some of the weakest and riskiest holds, but it is far better than trying to grab their knife. Your arm or hand might get nicked by the blade, but that is vastly preferable to taking a direct blade to the hand. Going for the wrist is a legitimate strategy and a part of some knife fighting doctrine. Granted, your best option would be to maintain distance, and never let a knife wielder get close enough to attack, but that’s not always a practical option.


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Death Threats

Well, Christmas has come early this year. We have an actual, fake, death threat.

I’m going to throw a TL;DR in the front of this. Usually, I’ll just type something snarky in these, like, “go back and actually read it,” but in this case: TL;DR: don’t make death threats on Tumblr. Or any social media, for that matter. Don’t make them in general, because it is illegal. But, the anonymity on social media is illusory. Just because I can’t see who wrote it, does not mean you’re magically invisible to the world. I say this as someone who has administered forums before; staff can see a lot of data you, as a user, don’t have access to. Using these venues for this kind of content is phenomenally stupid.

If you’re wondering why I’m not taking this seriously, there’s a few reasons. One: I know who wrote it, and yes, all five of those posts are from the same person. Two: No one cares about superheroes. Three: It’s less intimidating than the very bouncy dog that lives above us, because unlike the author, that dog both knows where we live, and could (theoretically) cause us harm. Finally: If someone were to decide to do horrific and unspeakable things to us, the original messages would give the police an immediate place to start searching.

So, let’s unpack how to actually make a death threat, if you ever need to create one for your writing. Because, if you’re going to do something, let’s do it properly.

Hilariously, the first cue that this is all from the same person is that their writing is terrible. I mean their actual writing, but also this. The thing about writing is, it’s actually substantially harder to identify the author when it’s in the median. Proper punctuation, grammar, and capitalization go a long way towards masking who you are. Word choice will betray you, and even within the US there are substantial dialect changes, depending on where you are in the country, which can give away who (and where) you are.

For example: if the sentence, “The Hamburger’s all,” makes sense to you without further context, you’re probably in Pennsylvania, or somewhere thereabouts. Or, if you refer to an ATM as a Cash Station, there’s a pretty good chance you’re somewhere in the Chicago sprawl. Though, if they weren’t trying to write like someone who was just paroled from 4chan, it might be more apparent. Seriously, there’s thousands of these little tells in regional dialects, and they’re worth learning about, if only for your writing.

As it stands, it does tell me the second post (reading from the bottom up, because Tumblr’s like that), was typed in on their mobile phone. Autocorrect will “fickle sick” you every time. So they were bouncing around between multiple devices, while typing. At that point, I do have to give her a little credit, because that’s a lot of effort to go through while still hiding behind an anonymous label.

If I was an asshole, I’d probably say something about how the anon icon is a weak attempt to look cooler than they actually are, with those dated Ray Bans, so I will. I mean, this is a death threat, so a little fun is in order.

At this point, I should probably also rabbit track and remind her that “your” is the possessive. “You’re,” is the contraction of, “you are.” As a writer, it’s one of those little annoyances you need to keep in mind at all times, especially if you want to be a professional some day. To be fair, this could be autocorrect striking again. Though, I can’t remember “talking about kill yourself,” so maybe more punctuation was in order. Also, turns out, due to the amount of coffee I consume, I’m immortal. So, there’s that.

The second thing is, no one cares about superheroes, especially not the author of the death threat. Now, before you try to correct me, I don’t mean individual characters. We all have our affectionate loyalty to various characters. But, no one cares about them as an aggregate. It’s easy to find someone who will get pissed off because you badmouthed Batman, or Spiderman. It’s a lot harder to find someone who’s really pissed because you made a crack at Nightman, or Raver.

Everyone’s got a few superheroes they despise. Sometimes it’s going to be big controversial picks, like Wolverine, or Superman. Sometimes it’ll be safer picks like third tier X-Men. Sometimes it will be the truly bizarre, like Dogwelder. Sometimes it’ll be characters you’re really not supposed to like, such as Elite, The Holy, and Mr. Payback. Everyone’s got a few superheroes where you step back and go, “nope, not that one.”

So when I say, “no one cares about superheroes,” what I mean is, the death threat lacks specificity. This is actually a problem for a lot of writers. Always be specific when you’re writing. If you’re talking about a dog, talk about the dog, not the idea of a dog, out there somewhere, but this one. If you’re talking about a death threat, make it an actual goddamn threat. It helps ground the reader into the world you’re creating. Even when that world is just an idle threat to, “do stuff,” to someone you’ve never met.

A real death threat is going to be specific. It’s not, “how dare you impugn the concept of the superhero,” it’s, “you said untoward things about this character I am emotionally invested in to a profoundly unsound degree, prepare to die.” If it was the former, then you’d need to line Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Frank Herbert (necromancy may be necessary for this), and (possibly) Grant Morrison up against the wall ahead of us.

We occasionally get questions about how to threaten and intimidate characters, so let’s bring that topic up again. For a threat to work, it needs to be credible. You need to articulate actions your intended victim believes you’re capable of. I’d say, “actions you can actually do,” but there’s a little bit of wiggle room here. The threat also needs to create an image in the victim’s mind. This is, really, like any writing; if you’re not conveying an idea coherently, you need to start over and redraft it. To be fair, this is a problem the author struggles with, so I’m inclined to cut her some slack.

She wishes she could find us, because… you know our real names aren’t hidden, right? I mean, we post under pseudonyms here, but our actual names have been published on the site, and on our Patreon page. And, our mailing address is available online, as a result. Again, the purpose is to instigate fear, but, because the author didn’t do any research, it really misses the mark.

Doesn’t matter if it’s a novel or a death threat, you need to do your research. Learn what you can on the subject. You need to keep your audience engaged with the material. When it becomes blindingly apparent that you haven’t done the research, and the facts don’t mesh with reality, the suspension of disbelief breaks. Your audience has disconnected from the piece, and the best you can hope for is that they sit back and riff the hell out of what follows.

The second part, actually fails research. I’ve talked about taking people’s eyes out with your thumbs, and been in a situation where I seriously considered doing that for about half a second. We talk about horrific, disfiguring, injuries on a weekly basis. You only need to dig up the Starke Is Not a Real Doctor and The Only Unfair Fight tags, if you want to see discussions on this kind of material. So backing out and saying, “the most painful way possible,” is making threats you can’t deliver on, and failing to do the research.

The fact that I’m sitting here, trying to remember if I’ve done a post on pouring molten metal into wounds, should speak volumes about where someone would need to go to actually deliver on the, “most painful,” phrase.

Now, if you’re coming to something like this, and setting concrete goals, like, “I’m going to take your eyes out with a rusty grapefruit spoon, hope you’ve had your tetanus shots,” that’s a much more realistic goal, and a more credible threat. (Also, tetanus shots are their own flavor of torture, so that’s a perk.) It’s something you can actually do. Threats can be vague, like, “no, Mr. Bond, I have other plans for you.” But, a threat needs to be coherent, articulatable, and plausible.

I mean, sticking someone in an industrial microwave is a pretty painful way to die, but it requires that, you know, you have access to an industrial microwave.

Finally, if you read the TL;DR at the beginning, this should be familiar information, but don’t make death threats, especially not on social media. It’s profoundly stupid. Criminals, it should be noted, aren’t usually known for their intellectual prowess, but this is dumb. Florida Man dumb.

Social media isn’t like the US Postal system, or calling from a payphone. It is, absolutely traceable. There’s a very simple reason for this, if you could get true anonymity from the platform, it would rapidly find itself under scrutiny by law enforcement agencies like the DEA. You may wonder why, but the answer should be self evident. There are many people out there who make their living breaking the law. Just like you or me, the internet is a major boon for them. A truly secure and untraceable communications network buried on an easily accessible, and overtly legitimate site? Yeah, that would be way too good to pass up.

Now, the anon tag will conceal who sent the message from the recipient. At least it would, if the author’s writing style wasn’t instantly recognizable. That’s the point. It will not, however, shield your identity from law enforcement agencies.

At this point, it’s probably worth it to bring up a very brief discussion on The First Amendment. If you’re in the US, you’re probably vaguely aware of this. This is usually abbreviated as “Freedom of Speech,” and that’s accurate so far as it goes. But, what it really means is freedom from government retaliation over speech. It does not protect you from private response. To borrow a phrase, invoking the First Amendment is simply stating that whatever you said was not so incredibly stupid as to actually be illegal. It’s not a shield from criticism.

So, why am I bringing this up? Because it is also not absolute. There are exempted types of speech which do not enjoy First Amendment protections. You can dig the full list up online, if you really want, but one of the excluded groups is credible threats. If, the author had said, “I will find you, torture, and kill you,” well… actually, first I’d complement them finally finding their comma, but that could be construed as an actual threat. As a result, they could actually face criminal charges over it.

Historically, law enforcement has been pretty lax on these kinds of threats. However, it’s entirely possible that could change at any moment. Especially with increased attention on cyberstalking, online harassment, and internet bullying making the evening news. So, when I say, “don’t do this, it is illegal,” part of the reason is, you don’t want to be the poster child for a crackdown on internet threats.

If you’ve been the subject to this kind of behavior in the past, here’s the good news. You’re actually safer from your anonymous harassers than if they simply acted without warning. The reasoning is above. They said what they would do, before following through, and (figuratively) signed their name to it ahead of time. Any investigation of a physical attack against you will lead back to your harassers.

You can also avail yourself of the cyberbullying help organizations that have been getting press in recent years. You should also probably read this list. (And, yes, I am breaking the first couple rules at the bottom.) Granted, that list assumes the bullying is happening in a school environment, but things like site terms of service do still apply, after you’ve escaped into the real world. If you’re someone who sees a post like those pop up in your inbox, report them. Click the ellipsis next to the pencil icon and select “Report.”

Yes, people can and do use sockpuppet accounts, so blocking won’t always work. But, always remember, anonymous strangers on the internet only have the power you give them. Someone posts hateful, hurtful shit, directed at you personally; don’t try to understand, don’t make sense of it, just feed it to a grue, and find people that are supportive. They’re out there. Alternately: “If you’re getting death threats, you must be doing something right.”

Finally, if you ever want to be a professional writer, don’t stoop to this shit, seriously. This is the kind of thing that can come back, without warning, when someone with an axe to grind and access to old information wanders in and turns it into a huge mess.


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