All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Side Shooting

Is there actually any merit to pointing a gun sideways to shoot, or is that just more nonsense put in the “hood” movies just to look cool?

The short version would be to say, “mostly,” and leave it at that, though there’s a lot more information here that can be addressed if you want to dig in. There are a few rare circumstances where it is a valid grip for use in combat.

This is basically trivia, but the grip has been documented in fiction going back over a century, so it’s certainly not just a product of 90s films. That said, the modern use, and it’s place in modern American gang iconography can be traced back to films like Menace II Society.

Due to it’s use in films, and associated with American gang culture, it’s sometimes called, “gangsta style.” At this point the grip is almost exclusively associated with criminal elements, and is a pretty easy way to identify a shooter who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

There’s one big problem, and one myth, associated with it, so let’s take those in reverse order.

The myth is that firing sideways increases the chance of a jam. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense if you know anything about how firearms function. The theory is, that by holding the firearm horizontally, the shell will fail to eject properly, obstructing the ejection port, and causing a failure to feed. The idea behind this is that, somehow, gravity works differently if the gun is held at a 90 degree angle, instead of vertically. The problem with this is, shell casings go pretty much wherever they want. I’ve had off-brand M9 pattern pistols throw shell casings into my face. (I also, hate M9s as a result.) Because of how the case ejection system works in most handguns, you can fire them from pretty much any position without issues.

The problem is, most people side shooting will sight across the side of the slide. This, doesn’t work. Unless you’re standing next to the target, you need to use the sights to put a round where you want it.

There’s another accuracy factor, most competent shooters will brace their handgun with both hands. This stabilizes the pistol, and allows for far more accurate shooting. Side shooting will almost always result in the weapon, unsupported, at arm’s length. This results in greater barrel shake, and less recoil control. Even if you’re using the sights, it will be less accurate on the first shot, and recoil will be more severe.

So, I said there were some uses for this shooting position. I have a few specific examples, though there may be others.

Center Axis Relock is a modern Close Quarters Combat shooting stance popularized in films like John Wick, and video games like the Splinter Cell series.

CAR pulls the firearm closer to the body in comparison to a normal Weaver stance. This causes the user to raise their shooting arm’s elbow to partially protect their face, and rotates the firearm to a 45 degree angle. In some circumstances the user may raise their arm further, fully shielding their face on that side and rotating the firearm horizontal. Throughout all of this they will still be sighting using the handgun’s iron sights, additionally, they will keep their off hand on the firearm stabilizing it.

Worth noting, from a 45 degree angle, your shooting arm will not obstruct your vision on that side, raising it to horizontal will, making this less appealing unless necessary. For example: if there is a bright light shining in the user’s eyes from that direction, raising the arm will allow them to block that distraction.

The major advantage of CAR is that it’s incredibly difficult to safely disarm the user.

One of the few situations where someone will adopt a side shooting stance, basically without modification, is if they’re firing from behind a riot shield. These fully occupy one of the shooter’s hands, and partially obstruct their other hand. In most cases, the shield will include a transparent section to allow the user to see what’s on the other side without exposing themselves to incoming fire. In situations like this it is possible the operator will simply reach around the shield, line their sidearm up with the window, and fire. To be fair, a competent shooter in this situation will still attempt to use the firearm’s iron sights, however, because of the shield, and having to reach around it, the gun will be at a horizontal, or nearly horizontal, angle.

The third situation is far more contextual. In an emergency, a trained operator may aim and fire without adjusting their stance. Because of how your arm is put together, quickly firing to the left or right (depending on your firing arm) without adjusting your chest’s position, will result in the gun being at near horizontal. Also worth noting in situations like this, firing behind you will often result in the handgun being held upside down. This is less, precision shooting, and more, desperate reflexes, though. SWAT and similar groups will practice firing from these positions, however.

Note: You can correct the angle of your arm to keep the pistol vertical while adjusting, it is simply faster to pivot the entire arm, rotating the pistol.

There is a fourth situation which is particular to rifles. While firing from a prone position with a protruding box magazine (so, most assault rifles), some shooters will opt to rotate the firearm, rather than lift themselves up, exposing themselves to enemy fire. Depending on range there are a lot of factors to consider here, but in some situations, this is the best option available.

Another possible variant is operating a firearm in very tight spaces, such as cramped service passages, or those mythical air ducts that are large enough to allow a grown human to crawl around.

Usually, it’s either to look cool, and anyone who habitually draws their handgun in a side shooting stance is a pretty good indicator that they don’t know what they’re doing. For some writers, this stance is synonymous with criminals. An undercover cop may use a stance like this while protecting their cover, even though it runs contrary to their training.

Also, worth noting that it’s entirely possible to meet gang members who’ve had military firearms training, and as a result know exactly how to handle their firearms. At which point you wouldn’t see something like this.

Some writers may not realize that this stance doesn’t work, or is sub-optimal, and may imbue it with special characteristics. That’s, simply, not the case. There are good reasons that almost no one who knows what they’re doing would ever use this stance.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Assassin’s Journal

The chapters of my story are prefaced by short excerpts from the journal of the future assassin of the benevolent king my main character was welcomed into the court of. Since they are not dated, would it be confusing to readers if they were placed in reverse chronological order?

I realize this may sound like a non-answer, but, it depends.

Let’s break into two separate pieces. The use of journal and other epistolary elements, and non-linear storytelling.

Epistolary novels are constructed out of in-universe documents. Most often you’re reading correspondence between characters, their journal entries, and other various relevant documents. To a certain extent the genre assumes that the entire work will be constructed from documents. Though, nothing stops you from borrowing the format when it’s useful to you.

One of the major strengths of epistolary elements is that you can introduce information that would otherwise be unavailable to the reader without resorting to an omniscient narrator. If you’re working in first or third person limited, these can be very useful for breaking that format’s limitations without actually breaking the format.

If the journal is providing the reader with vital information, then that makes it useful. If it’s being used to tease them, I’d probably recommend restraint. That said, a lot of deciding whether or not to use epistolary elements comes down to execution and exactly what you have in mind.

For example: If the journal is a confession of sorts, or an attempt at justification, which runs parallel to the main narrative, with the assassin working through his reasoning, and reflecting on his actions, there’s certainly potential.

The journal could also be used to create a sense of unease and dread, as it gradually transitions from something innocuous into a more menacing document, as your assassin collects information for their plan.

Epistolary documents can also allow you to including background exposition that simply wouldn’t fit in the main narrative, particularly if it’s something your characters wouldn’t think about or aren’t aware of.

Your assassin may spend time writing about the politics, or economic situation that drove them to act, while the main characters remain completely oblivious to the events taking place outside of court.

If you have a use for the entries, they have a place in your writing. If you don’t, you may want to reconsider using them.

Non-linear storytelling can work, but it’s much harder. Even with date stamps, it’s entirely possible your readers would miss that the journal entries were out of order. This doesn’t mean you can’t do it, just that it is much more difficult to juggle these, and it will probably lead to some confusion among readers. Notice all the conditionals there. I am not saying you cannot do it; just that this is more difficult.

Also, a warning: when telling stories out of chronological order, you run a real risk of not having an interesting story when the audience finally parses out the chronology.

Some time-shifting is, almost, inevitable. If you have multiple characters, in different places, at the same time, and you intend to follow both, then you can put them in whichever order, and see the results play out. That’s fine, and most of the time the audience can be cued in to what you’re doing fairly elegantly.

When you’re writing a story in reverse, things get much trickier. (To be clear, if you’re telling the story of the assassin in his journals, parallel to the main novel, you are telling a story in reverse.) So, for the moment, let’s ignore that these are part of a conjoined book, and just focus on that story.

If you are getting something valuable from disrupting the chronology, then it becomes a question of execution.

Breaking the chronology means you need to reevaluate pacing, and how information is distributed. You’re constantly in a position where your characters are responding to prior events that the audience isn’t aware of yet. Then they make their discoveries, events happen, and that information drops from the story, leaving them with mysteries that the audience already knows the answer to.

Now, having said that, this is something the epistolary format lets you cheat your way around. You can have a conventional, linear, structure, where your character is recounting events, out of order as they pertain to their current topic. They may start by explaining their reasons for acting, then discuss how they actually carried out the act, before moving on to the way they gained access, or the actual motivation behind their actions later. If the purpose is to hold back a revelation for why your assassin chose to act, that can be shifted to later in their journal. They know why, they just haven’t bothered to record the event.

Also, worth remembering, you’re not going to start your journal saying, “so I’m here to kill the king.” That makes it a very dangerous document for the (in setting) author. They may even hold off on mentioning their motive for acting until it’s almost too late. This could be foreshadowed. For example: If their loved one was killed because they were part of a cult, or a traitor, they may mention the loved one, even that they’re dead, but not why they were killed, until much later.

They may make mundane notes that appear to be benign, but actually serve an operational purpose. For example, talking about meeting a member of the palace guard could appear innocuous, but that could also function as reconnaissance data for where the guards are deployed, and potentially even weaknesses which would allow your assassin to neutralize them effectively, without immediately tipping their hand to what they’re doing.

In particular, the journal could be useful to demonstrate the character’s social engineering skills, without ever needing to step back and say, “but, they’re very good at manipulating people to get information.”

If you think the journal will be useful, then you should include it. You don’t need to include the entries out of order if you don’t want to. You can probably shuffle the chronology far more elegantly by allowing the assassin to record their thoughts somewhat out of order, and handle the transitions there, rather than actually breaking sequence. Just, remember, your assassin is a unique point of view character, like your protagonist, so ration their information accordingly.

-Starke

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Q&A: Dual Wielding Whips

Is it possible to dual wield whips? How big/small would they have to be for it to be possible or effective?

To the first question, yes. You’ll occasionally find people dual wielding whips as performance art.

As to making them effective, they’re not. Whips don’t make particularly good combat weapons. They can be very visually engaging, which means they can be quite appealing on screen or in art, but they’re not efficient.

Let me get this out of the way up front: There are a few people who advocate use of the whip as a self defense tool. They’re not completely wrong. There are ways to use a whip as a defensive tool. It’s also worth recognizing that these are some of the best whip users in the world and they can kinda make it work as a weapon.

There are also people who hunt big game with bullwhips. The whip can be a very useful tool in controlling (and apparently killing) animals.

None of this will make it more useful against a trained, armed, opponent, however.

So, this gets into a decision for you:

If you don’t care about being strictly realistic, and you’re more committed to a flashy story, the whip is an excellent choice, particularly in a visual medium (like animation, film, or comics.) A skilled whip user can create some truly stunning visuals, and as I’ve said, whips are very engaging visually. A skilled user can make them dance, and that’s certainly one way to keep an audience’s attention.

If you’re more interested in keeping your setting grounded and gritty, a whip is probably the wrong choice unless your character is in a truly desperate situation and has no other options.

While not technically a whip, a character using a length of chain as an improvised weapon is entirely plausible, and dangerous. Not something I would recommend starting out with, but, certainly a reasonable choice if nothing better is available.

On a similar note, whips are one of the few times you can legitimately set a weapon on fire and swing it around. It’s not really going to make it more viable, but it will look more impressive.

The one strength of the whip is the intimidation factor. They’re difficult to track and appear to present a far more comprehensive defense than they really offer. This isn’t insignificant, especially when dealing with an untrained opponent, and is the one viable element about the whip as a self defense tool; you can use one to make yourself appear more threatening. This isn’t something I’d be willing to stake my life on, but, anything’s a self defense tool, if you’re desperate enough.

So, short answer, yes, but it’s not effective.

-Starke

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Q&A: Firearms Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Indirect Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Superheroes and Comics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, who’s right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Assassin Career Counseling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Heat Followup

elerena  asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Daydreaming Power Fantasies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Violence in Sloppy Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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