Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Black Markets

What do people actually buy on the black market? Some of the things they supposedly buy (hair, sperm) seem odd or are things you can easily get for free. Male order brides seem silly because no one is going to believe you got a Russian wife in a day (or wherever they’re from). Buying babies seems more like pedophilia than adoption. Organs also seem strange because you don’t know what you’re getting or if they’ll be comparable. Aside from guns, what do people actually buy if they aren’t silly?

The simple answer to the first question is: products and services where the demand is not satisfied by the legal markets.

The conventional products you’d expect to see here are weapons and drugs, though depending on the economy supporting that black market you could also see more essential items like medical supplies, fuel, or even food.

The easiest way to calculate this is to look at the open market value for a product, slap on the markup for going through the black market (this will modify based on how difficult or expensive it is to obtain, and how dangerous it is to be caught with it), adjust up a bit more based on perceived risk of using the black market (and, yes, this a subjective modifier), and then ask, “is the product available for less than that on the open market?” If the answer is, “no,” then the black market wins out.

Let’s focus on medicine for a second. Under normal circumstances, medicine is a fairly well regulated industry. It’s also one where the consumer has no choice whether to participate or not. There is a strong governmental interest in imposing quality control. The consumer doesn’t chose to need medicine, and when they do, they’ll be under duress. This need can be easily exploited by the unscrupulous. “Go into horrific debt or die.” At that point, a black market option starts to look a lot more viable. The downside is that all of the normal quality control you’d expect to see isn’t there, this isn’t the same stuff you’d be getting through legitimate channels, it’s the bathtub brewed equivalent. In some cases, it may not even be the same medication, it’s something just close enough.

So, the classics are weapons and drugs. There’s always a market for weapons, and you’ll always see advantages for bypassing legal channels. Drugs vary, but, if they’re illegal, that’s black market. Essentials like food and medicine only hit the black market when they’re not readily available.

Luxury items that are otherwise unobtainable also end up on the black market. Usually this is because the luxury items cannot be imported or possessed legally. This is most common in oppressive or isolationist regimes. While this might sound sexy, more likely it will be mundane objects to anyone living outside of that space. We’re talking about things like posters, music, movies, and other pop culture paraphernalia which isn’t legally available.

If you live in the US, an excellent example of a black market luxury item is the Kinder egg. These are small egg shaped chocolates which include a capsule with a toy inside. They’re illegal in the the US, as the design runs afoul FDA regulations, so you cannot legally bring them into the country, or (somewhat obviously) sell them. There is, in fact, a significant black market for them, both as candies and among collectors (for the toys inside.)

Finally, and this is really important, there is no unified, “Black Market.” There’s many small black markets for a number of different products. A drug dealer is a black marketeer, that does not also make him an arms dealer, nor does it mean they’re going to have a supply of Kinder Eggs to sell.

Okay, let’s revisit some other parts of this:

Some of the things they supposedly buy (hair, sperm) seem odd or are things you can easily get for free.

Citation needed. Actually, strike that, I don’t want citation on this. I’ve never heard of black market sperm. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a potential black market for bovine sperm, but human? Yeah, I’m not going to dig into that.

The only market I’m aware of for human hair is high end wigs. Most commonly, you’ll see this quality associated with patients undergoing chemotherapy, though there are a number of other reasons someone would want (or need) a wig. I’m not familiar with much of a black market for this stuff.

Male order brides seem silly because no one is going to believe you got a Russian wife in a day (or wherever they’re from).

The phrase that comes to mind in this case is, “doesn’t matter; had sex.”

“Belief” doesn’t factor into this. It’s not about being able to go to your friends and say, “yeah, see, someone likes me.” It’s about the sex. No one cares why you’re in a relationship, unless it’s clearly unhealthy.

Mail order brides may also be about the domestic duties associated with marriage in a given culture. Ultimately, the mail order bride is the recourse of someone so narcissistic they don’t even want to look at their sexual partner as a person.

Buying babies seems more like pedophilia than adoption.

Ew.

Second, no. This one does track back to the same factors which control a black market. Someone wants to adopt. They may not be able to have children themselves. There may be other factors. They’re also unable to adopt through conventional channels. So, they turn around, and throw money at the problem.

I’m not giving this a pass. There may have been very good reasons they weren’t able to adopt through normal channels. Also, legitimate adoptions do cost money. It’s not a free service, there’s fees and sometimes legal expenses involved.

To immediately jump to human trafficking is a bit extreme.

Organs also seem strange because you don’t know what you’re getting or if they’ll be comparable.

Last I checked, black market organ harvesting was basically an urban legend. Like you said, there wouldn’t be much of a market if the organ isn’t compatible. On top of that, extracting the organ isn’t really something you can do in a hotel room on short order. (At least, not without killing the donor.) Also it’s not like you can just show up at the hospital with a spare kidney and say, “yeah, plug this one in!”

Since I should probably say, non-consensual organ harvesting is possible, it’s just not the kind of thing that works at a black market level. This requires extensive institutional support.

Black Market anon: I had a thought! Are the organs actually for cannibals instead of organ donations? Apologies if this is too weird.

No. What? Why?

-Starke

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Q&A: If Cowardice is the Absence of Courage, Clichés are the Absence of Detail

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on writing a “cowardly” character without making them “cliché”? Usually people write “brave” characters as not being afraid of rushing headfirst into combat, or the “cowardly” character is also shy but I find that boring. 

Well, you know there is the saying, “only fools rush in.”

The issue with the labels of brave versus cowardly is not that the issue is complex, but rather that people tend to apply them to actions instead of motivation. The same action can be brave or cowardly or neither, depending on who is doing it and why. 

I’ll break it down for you:

Coward – Cowards always take the easy way out.

“Cowardice is a trait wherein excessive fear prevents an individual from taking a risk or facing danger. It is the opposite of courage. As a label, “cowardice” indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge. “ – Wikipedia

Whether you will be a coward or not depends on the challenge you’re facing, those challenges can be physical (commonly understood as part of physical conflict and violence), but they’re also emotional, social, or facing what causes you fear or anxiety. A coward is defined by specifics, not abstracts.

Example: a great hero who goes on a quest to save the world in order to escape the emotional difficulties of dealing with their significant other or loved ones is, ironically, a coward.

Example: an anti-social individual who is circumspect and distant from strangers, but not afraid of social interaction isn’t a coward.

Example: an individual who rushes in because being called a coward negatively affects their self-image is… a coward.

There are plenty of times when people are called cowards when they aren’t, usually this has to do with confusion over action versus motivation and cultural bullshit about courage.

Courage – Merriam Webster’s definition of courage is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”

I think the key word for you to understand is “difficulty.” Courage is not about being fearless, it’s about facing what you’re afraid of. In a limited scope, only the individual can define what actions are courageous for themselves. No one else can tell you what to be afraid of, or define what’s difficult for you. If you are someone for whom the words and labels applied to you by others define who you are, then rejecting those cultural standards may be courageous.

You want to be careful about saying bravery is the absence of fear, or logic. Stupidity isn’t courage. Someone who lashes out because they’re afraid isn’t more brave than the person who runs. Running at your problem can be the same as running away. When you don’t consider the problem, you’re still practicing avoidance. Building up walls, filling your day up with pointless tasks, putting off dealing with what’s bothering you, those are all symptoms.

A character who isn’t bothered by or afraid of physical conflict isn’t brave or courageous. There are plenty of characters, like people, who will use physical conflict or action to escape from what makes them emotionally uncomfortable.

If you’re retreating into what makes you comfortable, you’re not being brave. If you’re taking stupid risks trying to prove you’re not scared of something, you’re probably afraid of it. 

Example: adrenaline junkies aren’t brave, they’re looking for a high.

If your character is talking back to a villain who would kill anyone else who wasn’t the protagonist for doing the same thing, they aren’t being brave… they’re engaging in author sanctioned stupidity. (I mean it too, there are plenty of authors who can’t handle their protagonist being powerless and use witty comebacks as a means of restoring control. Undercutting their villain, and the scene’s tension, in the process.)

How do you write it?

This part isn’t easy.

Writing characters who are brave versus characters who are cowards requires sitting down and figuring out what your characters are afraid of. You have to figure out what situations and scenarios are physically, emotionally, or morally challenging for them. That’s complicated, usually requiring a fair amount of self-reflection. However, it’s the only way to escape clichés.

No one likes dealing with uncomfortable situations or making challenging choices. If you use your writing as an outlet for your personal fantasies then writing characters who are courageous can be difficult because what is uncomfortable disrupts that fantasy. The power fantasy, for example, is tenuous and reliant on a narrative where things aren’t specific even if they’re difficult emotionally. Fears begin to define a character and the more a character becomes an individual, the more difficult it is for the reader to insert themselves into the story.

Depending on what you’re reading, many authors will steer toward the generic rather than specific or gloss over the fears entirely. We can make as many jokes as we like about “Pants” the protagonist, but the vague outline and generics serve a specific narrative purpose. 

If you’re using a novel where the protagonist is Pants for reference, then you might run into difficulties when writing. The narrative outline will steer you into generics, specifically for your protagonists. Pants can’t really be brave because Pants isn’t a person, they’re a simulacrum cobbled together from stereotypes. A shadowy outline of a person designed for self-insertion. While this is an intentional choice on the part of the author, it won’t help you when you’re writing.

Your characters are built from you, so the best point of reference is always going to be yourself. Which means self-reflection, acknowledging situations social or otherwise which make you or made you uncomfortable.

It is easier, for example, to have a conversation about your emotions and struggles with a complete stranger than someone who knows you. The reason is that the stranger doesn’t know you, can’t affect you, and you don’t need to see them every day so the conversation can’t have any lasting impact on your life. If you’re afraid of change, of the consequences of voicing your opinion, of those you care about disregarding what you have to say, then this can be a safe release which ultimately changes nothing. Is this courage? Not really, no.

Delving into our own weaknesses isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable, and it isn’t always fun. Poking at the wounds inside your mind or figuring out what you’ve been avoiding, what makes you feel insecure or unsure. Then taking those feelings to your writing, to the scenarios you’re structuring. You ask yourself questions about what your characters are feeling. If it’s hard, then why is it hard? If they’re running away, why are they running away? If they’re charging forward, why are they charging forward? What motivates their actions?

Specificity combats clichés. Clichés are by their nature generic, a character who provides specific detail to make the cliché about their personal experiences isn’t.

-Michi

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Would supersoldiers actually be useful in a modern army, or would technology make them obsolete before they could even happen?

firebird766-blog

It depends. A supersoldier isn’t a specific power set, it is simply a character who’s been augmented in some way. This could be biological, could be cybernetic, could even be mystical. Those enhancements could remain useful on the battlefield, even as technology evolves.

If your world has supersoldier programs, that will be part of technological advancement. There is an uncomfortable element to it where soldiers would actually become obsolete in favor of newer, more enhanced, recruits. In that world, augmentation would be seen as a necessary technological advantage. You’d still be chasing the next iteration of supersoldiers in order to keep up with your enemies.

So, biological upgrades are, probably, going to be a one and done. You probably can’t keep tinkering with the same organism indefinitely. That said, things like improved vision, increased reflexes, even just modified clotting factors could be useful in combat. In some ways, this is the variation most likely to age into obsolesce, and in this case it really matters what’s expected from the soldier.

With biologically enhanced supersoldiers all you’re really looking at are a new baseline for your soldiers. I’m also lumping in chemical enhancements here. So, if your supersoldiers were created using some kind of chemical cocktail, this is what we’re talking about.

If you’re expecting a biologically enhanced supersoldier to walk out in the open, soaking incoming fire, that’s not going to happen. If you’re asking for people who are enhanced beyond normal human limits, but are still, functionally human, then, yeah that works. Even facing advancing technology. Some things you can do with hardware, but if you have a soldier who doesn’t need NVGs, that’s one less thing that can go wrong in the field.

Cybernetic augmentations are bit more complicated, because depending on the implant architecture, you could simply swap out obsolete components. If you replaced a soldier’s eyes 20 years ago, and there are now better versions available, you can just pull them out and plug fresh ones in. In more extreme cases, like if their old eyes are using an interface that fell out of favor, you might have to replace a larger swath of components, but the basic idea is still solid. So, a cybernetic supersoldier probably wouldn’t be rendered obsolete if they had access to regular upgrades.

I suppose if you want to go the full Ghost in the Shell route, a human consciousness in a synthetic body would probably fall under this category as well.

There’s also some edge cases here, if you’ve got a cyborg where their implants are proprietary, you might not be able to upgrade them at all. This is trending into some really messed up discussions on human obsolescence, but the option is there.

There’s also a consideration here where you might be looking at supersoldiers who are enhanced by non-invasive technology. Technically anyone with contact lenses is a cyborg, so you could have supersoldiers wearing incredibly futuristic armor and qualify as “cyborgs,” even if it’s not what you’re normally thinking of.

Either way, cybernetic supersoldiers are more of a question whether you can stay ahead of the curve on tech.

Mystically empowered supersoldiers could be pretty much anything. Your soldiers are mystically enhanced somehow, and the results are going to directly follow the rules for magic in your world. More than the examples above, this stuff really can transition over into superheroes. Can this keep up with advancing technology? It depends on your magic. If the enhancements grow stronger over time, or manifest new abilities, then absolutely. If its fixed, then, maybe not.

In this case, more than the others, the major question becomes whether their foes can find to subvert the supersoldiers’ advantages. This isn’t about technology advancing, it’s about probing your enemy’s weaknesses, and finding a way to exploit them. If your characters are mystically enhanced and your foes realize that, they might have magical tricks up their sleeve. This is also true for the other varieties as well. For example: A cybernetically enhanced supersoldier might be shut down by their enemies using EMP weapons, or even exploiting software weaknesses.

Also worth knowing that developing supersoldiers is (probably) illegal under Article 35 of the Geneva Conventions. This is more of a real world consideration, so it’s something you may wish to disregard in your work, but it could also spur some story threads. The specific legal analysis is contested, so if you want to research that in more depth, feel free.

Finally a major consideration with supersoldiers is, what do you do with them when you’re done? Especially in more invasive modifications, like the cybernetic options above, it’s awkward. Eventually your soldiers will rotate out of the military and back to civilian life. Taking that out of the equation is incredibly messed up, and if you don’t, it’s a serious worldbuilding consideration.

Can supersoldiers be viable? It depends on your technology and what you want from them. Will they find themselves outdated by the newest iteration? It’s quite possible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Bad Opinion, No Biscuit

So… I have a protagonist and some of their opinions are supposed to be wrong. I know I’m supposed to show in the text that they’re supposed to be wrong, but how exactly do I do that? Thanks.

By calling them out on it.

I’m going to preface this by pointing out, depending on what those opinions are, this could be a lot more complicated than I’m going to address. Particularly if you’re lumping political, religious, or philosophical beliefs in with opinions.

So, how do you show when your protagonist is wrong about something? By showing that they’re wrong. By illustrating the errors in their judgement.

You can do that by having alternate PoV characters who bring external context to the reader. You can put this directly on the character, where their expectations don’t play out. You present the evidence they’re ignoring to the reader. You show that they’re wrong.

I’d say you don’t reward them for their opinions, but this does, actually, happen. People’s baseless opinions can be accepted as fact, and they can find success through that. However, in a fictional environment, you can regulate how much success someone finds with their views.

Important to remember that you cannot control who your audience sides with, even if you make it pretty clear where you stand. There are lot of people who look at Bill Foster (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down (1993), and can relate to the character, even though he’s a psychopath. This is intentional in the material, even as you’re supposed to understand how destructive his views are.

Fight Club is a similar situation. A lot of readers take Tyler Durden’s philosophy and accept that as the thesis of the book, even though the novel is satire, and is arguing against toxic masculinity.

Satire is an important thing to remember. Satire as a genre is where you forward an argument against your position, and then attack it. Depending on how you want present your position, having a protagonist with views you violently oppose can be a critical component for satirical work.

If the point is that your protagonist’s views are wrong, and you want to tear them down over that, you’re talking about satire, and you probably want to spend some time familiarizing yourself with that genre. A Modest Proposal is always the first example that comes to mind. However, satire can be a little tricky to read, because it does depend on your familiarity with the position it’s arguing against.

In the example above, Fight Club assumes you’re familiar the modern cultural stigma over men showing emotion (or in some cases, even admitting to experiencing them.) If this is new information, then you’re going to have a harder time understanding what the novel is about. It is a repudiation of the “solving your problems through violence,” solution that culture will happily place in front of men. Tyler Durden’s opinions and ideology are wrong, but that’s the point. Incidentally, this is the actual definition of “toxic masculinity”: the cultural stigma among men against expressing emotions, and being encouraged to look for aggressive outlets.

It’s also possible your character is an idiot, or at least, uneducated. No judgement there, there’s plenty of room for fools as protagonists. It’s a different kind of writing. If this is the case, then you’re looking at a character where they’re going do, and say, things that just unwise. When called on, they’ll offer responses that are consistent with their understanding of the world, but don’t really match the reality. There’s a lot of room for this. If this is what you want, it’s a fine approach. You just need to be careful to cue your readers in that their hero is a moron. Note: This isn’t incompatible with satire, if that’s your goal. It’s a bit heavy handed, but these aren’t mutually exclusive.

So, how do you manage your protagonist’s bad opinions? You show the audience that their view doesn’t mesh with empirical evidence.

-Starke

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Q&A: Bringing Fear to Your Fight Scenes

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: How can I bring emotions like fear and anger into a fight scene without making it too long? I’m writing a blacksmith who’s never fought before, donning a suit of crude steel plate armor before being attacked by an experienced killer with a spear. The armor is supposed to be the only thing that saves him while the other guy smacks him around, and I want to capture how it would feel to be in that position… without taking up half a page to do it. Any advice?

Right now, you’re trying too hard to front end everything you want into one scene. In a fight scene, especially against an experienced opponent, all your character will have time to do is react and they won’t be able to react much because it will be over within the first few paragraphs.

Your protagonist may have time to get scared, but he won’t have time to get angry. He may not ever have time to get past shock and surprise before it’s over.

Unlike what you might have come to expect from video games or tabletop RPGs, a set of ill-fitting armor won’t actually protect him much. In fact, he may not even be able to put on all the pieces before he gets attacked.

Put Your Tension in the Lead Up:

It’s important to remember that fight sequences are payoffs, they’re supported by the other scenes in your novel. If you want to make it clear to your readers that your character is afraid and put time into showing that fear, you put those moments in the scene preceding the fight. They’ll have time to reflect, panic, slip up, stumble, as they try to decide what they’re going to do.

In this case, the best place to put the tension, anxiety, and anticipation comes from the action of this character putting on armor that doesn’t fit. In his case, plate armor was probably the worst choice because each set of plate is designed for a specific individual. Unlike what you’ll find in video games, plate is form-fitting and only works for the individual whose body it was created for. Putting on plate is an intensive process, it takes more than thirty minutes (even with armor designed for him) so this would be the perfect time to show exactly how ill-prepared this apprentice is.

Plate Mail Isn’t Grab and Go:

If this blacksmith’s apprentice doesn’t work for an armorer he may not even know how to put that plate armor on, and, even if he does, he may never put armor on himself without someone else there to help him. You can build a lot of desperation out of the mere act of his struggle to put the armor on. Armor is actually pretty complicated, properly putting armor on when you’re alone is a pain in the butt, and it takes a fair amount of time even when you know how. It would take more than thirty minutes, and, given it’s full plate, he may not be able to put all the pieces on without someone else there to help him. So, he’s not going into this battle in full plate, he’s got piecemeal plate.

You’ve probably never had the experience of wearing a garment that’s tailored specifically for you, to your measurements, to your body, made for you and no one else. Medieval armor, however crude, was not one size fits all. Putting on someone else’s armor could be debilitating all by itself, even if you were roughly the same size. This is why people didn’t just grab a fallen knight’s armor off the battlefield and wear it themselves. They couldn’t, it wouldn’t work right because it wasn’t their armor.

Plate armor is not like in video games, you can’t just slot a piece you find and go to town. The armor has to contour properly to the body in order to absorb the impact, otherwise it won’t work right.

You’re apprentice isn’t putting on the armor because its the smart choice. He’s putting it on because he’s desperate. He knows that (or he’s an idiot), and you need to let the audience know that too.

Your apprentice will be struggling with the ties, having inappropriate undergarments, feeling the metal slipping on his body, exposing vulnerable and vital parts of himself. The gauntlets rattling because his hand is too small or squeezing because his fingers are too long, too large. It’ll rattle, flop, slide, shift, and he may not be able to secure the knots tightly enough to keep it from exposing vital points.

Survival Depends on the Enemy’s Whims:

To have your own survival be entirely dependent on the whim of someone trying to kill you is a terrifying situation to be in.

The problem you’re running into on your assumptions is three fold:

  1. You’re treating armor as a applying a flat stat bonus to the character.
  2. That the enemy attacks the armor instead of the parts of the body still readily available.
  3. You assume that the experienced killer can’t easily get past the armor (that doesn’t fit right and that the protagonist can’t fight in) to kill the protagonist.

The answer is this “experienced killer” can get past the armor by going for the parts of the body which are exposed like the joints, or the neck. Plate armor has gaps, and if the armor is not made for this character those gaps are going to be even less protected.

An experienced killer will go for those like the armpit, the knees, or (if exposed) the groin, or they’ll put him on the ground, brace the spear to put the tip directly through the breastplate, or drive the spear through the eye slit in the helmet. They won’t waste time playing pinball, and his best hope is that they’re in enough of a hurry that they won’t confirm the kill. Or, that he’s not their target, they genuinely don’t care if he’s dead, and they just want him out of the way. Dead or not, so long as he’s not moving, it doesn’t make a difference. He’s irrelevant.

His survival depends entirely on the person trying to kill him and how sloppy they decide to get. He has no control over living or dying, and the armor he’s put on? That gives him the illusion of protection, it might prolong his death, but it’s not what saves his life. The experienced killer is the one who saves him by deciding to (or not being given the chance to) be thorough.

They assume they’ve killed him. So, he lives.

Loss of Agency is Terrifying All By Itself:

There’s a mistake a lot of writers make when setting up scenarios with lopsided power dynamics where they call it a “fight scene” in an effort to inject some sort of equality into the sequence. There is no equality here. You need to call the sequence what it is. This isn’t a fight scene, this is a murder.

Your character is being victimized. They’re a victim.

Your protagonist has no control, no power, no ability to save themselves. They’re stripped of their agency and left defenseless. This is the fight scene you’ve constructed for your protagonist, which is why his survival is dictated by the whims of experienced fighter. The experienced fighter holds all the power.

One of the problems with this sort of scenario is that most writer’s don’t want their character to experience this kind of powerlessness.

However, this is helplessness is the true source of fear your character is going to be experiencing in the sequence.

Nothing. They. Can. Do. Will. Save. Their. Life.

Their life is in the hands of the person trying to kill them.

That’s terrifying.

You’re Not Giving the Experienced Killer the Respect They Deserve:

The real issue you’re having with your scene is that your treating this Experienced Killer character as a mook. A minor character who shows up to get this protagonist the experience they need then wanders off to never be seen again.

You’re not afraid of them, and, if you’re not afraid of them, why would your audience be?

It is very important to establish motivations and characters for your minor characters because their actions shape your narrative. This one character is formative for your protagonist, the memory of them is going to drive your narrative.

Who are they? How do they behave? What are their mannerisms? Why are they trying to kill this kid? Is this a job for them? Are they here specifically for him? Or is he just in their way?

If this character doesn’t unnerve you in your protagonist headspace, if your gut doesn’t twist, and your body doesn’t tense up a little in anticipation of the arriving horrors, then go back to the drawing board. Focus on crafting a character who feels threatening from start to finish.

Stop Remembering Your Protagonist is Going to Live, Start Focusing on the Fact They’re Going to Die:

Fear isn’t actually that difficult to write. You’ve experienced fear. Everyone does at some point in their life. Fight/Flight is different, but fear is common. You’ve experienced anger. The problem is you’re not properly simulating the experience when writing your scene. The solution is behaving like your protagonist can actually die. Forget that you intend for him to live. He needs to believe he will die, and this individual going to kill him.

Embrace your powerlessness. How does that make you feel?

“I’ll give you six gold pieces to toss him out that window.”

“Seven and you’ve got a deal.”

Personally, if I had to choose how to deal with killing this character, I’d go with defenestration. I’d have the experienced fighter throw or kick him out a (probably second story) window. They’d assume the fall in combination with the forty to eighty pounds of armor killed him, and go on with their day. This way, they don’t take him seriously, the “death” is humiliating, they don’t care enough to finish it, and the protagonist is, for the moment, out of reach.

This is an old sleight of hand sequence in media from novels to film, and a good one because it allows you to make the scene about something other than the killing for the character holding the power. If they look seriously at the protagonist as a threat, the protagonist will die. If they’re focused on doing their job, the protagonist dies. So, make it about something else. Entertainment is usually a good alternative. Experienced professionals don’t, usually, play with their kills. I toss this method out to bored soldiers or mercenaries looking to spice up a Tuesday pillage.

Casual cruelty, especially dismissive cruelty, is terrifying all by itself because it highlights the protagonist’s powerlessness. The antagonist’s power is amplified because they don’t bother giving the protagonist the benefit of dignity or the illusion of being a challenge. The protagonist is going to die, and the villain is going to have their fun before they roll right over them onto their next victim.

-Michi

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Q&A: Constructed Languages

Random question: is there any languages that kinda look like elf languages, for example Welsh? Idk, I’m creating a new language for worldbuilding, and I thought.

That depends on your definition of “elf.”

Okay, so, we live in the aftermath of J.R.R. Tolkien’s rampage across fantasy literature. I don’t have much against Lord of the Rings, it’s very well written, and my reservations are more political. However, Lord of the Rings casts a very long shadow over the genre to the point that when you ask about elves, you’re probably asking about some variant of Tolkein’s elves.

Tolkein based his Elvish languages off of Finnish grammar, with elements pulled from other languages. Ironically, he did use Welsh, but it that was for the languages of Man.

So, is this right or wrong? It doesn’t matter. If you want to use Gaelic and say, “this is the language of the elves in my setting,” you’re not wrong. Just like if you wanted to use any other language that’s an option. You may wish to be a little sensitive when picking languages. Remember, these are real cultures and simply rebranding it can have some unfortunate connotations.

Stepping back from this for a second, Tolkien created his fantasy languages because that was his hobby. While it’s probably important to remember your fantasy characters aren’t speaking English (or whatever your native language is), your audience will be reading them in English.

Something really important happens here, if your character speaks both languages, they’ll be able to translate what the elves are saying. For that to be useful information for the audience, it needs to be restated in English. So, you can either write the same line twice, or skip the foreign language entirely.

In general, I’m not a fan of “Bilingual Bonuses,” unless the author is being clever about it. If you’re supposed to be going through the experiences of a character, either they know both languages, or they don’t. If they don’t, then as the audience, you shouldn’t have access to information they couldn’t use. Now, having said that, I’ll chalk this up to my aversion to metagaming in RPGs, so this isn’t the final word, but it is my bias on the subject.

When juggling alternate characters, you can get into situations where some are familiar with both languages, and others are not. It can be a little daunting to manage who can follow what parts of the conversation, and the dialog can become very messy, as characters bounce information back and forth, translating for one another. I wouldn’t, normally, recommend a scene like this, but it is an option.

Another option is to never provide a direct translation of what the elves are saying. So, instead of writing dialog you tell the audience what they’re talking about. I actually did this for a short back in college, where all of the dialog was described rather than written, and surprisingly, it kinda works. It feels weird after awhile, but if you’re using that to distinguish between two languages, it will keep them separate for the audience. It will also permanently separate your character from that language, and can allow you to articulate the experience of hitting a word or conjugation you don’t remember. Anyone who’s ever tried to use a foreign language they’re not fluent in, can relate.

Unless, like Tolkien, you’re really into the entire idea of creating your own language, this isn’t something I’d really recommend for world building. You probably want to have a grasp of how the language works, and if there are any weird omissions that tell you about that culture. However, actually sitting down and cooking up a full language is overkill unless you’re going to be using this for decades. You may want to create a few words or phrases that are left untranslated, but anything beyond that and you’re investing a lot of time into something you don’t need and probably won’t use.

Then again, I write up full setting bibles, so it’s not I’ve any room to judge what is, or is not, an efficient use of your time.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Roman Legion, Spies, and Cover Identities

My heroine is a secret agent who travels with one of Emperor Hadrian’s legions disguised as a camp launderer. (For context, she’s not spying on the legion or anything, but her mission is secret.) Could she feasibly hide Roman armour under civilian clothes?

No.

So, before we fully pry this question apart, the simplest answer is, “no, you cannot hide armor under civilian clothes.” This isn’t, 100% true. In the modern era you can conceal a light ballistic vest under heavy clothing, like a hoodie or jacket. It will still add bulk, but not to the point that you automatically assume they’re wearing armor.

When we’re talking about historical armor, the answer will, generally, be, “no.” In the case of a Roman Legionary, no, you could not.

A spy may have armor that functions as their uniform when they’re on home territory and openly interacting their military. Which is a long way to say, “yes they may have armor back at home,” but they probably wouldn’t bring it with them.

Also, I’m not an expert on the Roman Legions, but, my understanding was that the Legions on the move did not employ dedicated launderers. Laundry duties were performed along with bathing, and a Legionary was responsible for cleaning their own gear. The Legatus might have had a personal servant who handled their laundry, but I’m just guessing there, and that’s a long way from “the camp launderer.”

There were a number of potential intrigues within a legion. The Legion had 120 Eques Legionis, who were mounted cavalry, and their duties included scouting and relaying messages. As covers go that grants a lot of latitude for independent operation.

The Tribune was appointed by the Emperor as the Legion’s second in command (behind the Legate.) It’s possible (even under Hadrian) that the Tribune may have covert orders from the Emperor.

Additionally, there were the Immunes. These included surgeons, Venetorii (hunters), engineers, and other specialist roles. If someone had technical training that the legion used (even in its civil functions) they were probably an Immune. This mean they were exempted from the hard labor that most Legionaries engaged in.

Civilian camp followers offering laundry services was a reality, historically. But, that was (mostly) later in the middle ages. Camp followers were a serious weak point, as you had civilians following armies, without much scrutiny. They didn’t have access to the camp, proper, but they did have a lot of access to its soldiers, which was almost as good for intelligence gathering.

When it comes to women in the Roman Legions, they weren’t allowed to serve. Until recently, archaeologists have taken this to mean there were no women. Additionally, Hadrian’s rule came in the middle of a two century ban on married legionaries. (Note: I do mean the soldiers. This ban did not extend to officers.) So, on paper, these were supposed to be unmarried men. However, the legionaries would marry illegally. Archaeological research at Vindolanda (an auxiliary fort along Hadrian’s Wall), estimates that ~43% of the legionaries stationed there had a wife or children.

There is a problem: The Legionaries weren’t paid enough to support the families they weren’t supposed to have, so the women worked. It’s believed that the women were employed in domestic roles such as fort cooks and launderers. As a random note: Immunes received better pay than their fellow soldiers. Though, I suspect it still wasn’t enough to support a family.

So, this is not a Roman legion on the move, and more importantly, these jobs would have preferentially gone to the Legionary’s wives, not a Roman citizen showing up under strange circumstances.

Also, while you’re looking for something, it is worth remembering that the senior officers may have had family members present. Especially if they were deployed someplace for decades.

So, that’s the legion, let’s talk about spies, cover identities, and gear for a second.

When you’re picking gear for a spy, you need to consider their cover identity, and mission critical equipment. Nothing else. This is something we’ve discussed before, though that was about assassins. In many cases this means they neither need, nor benefit from, having weapons and armor.

If your job is to kill someone, you need a weapon. Okay, “need” is debatable, but you will seriously benefit from having one. Ironically, most people don’t carry functional weapons on a daily basis. It has been the fashion historically, and it’s not too hard to explain away a knife as a utility tool, but if your job as a spy doesn’t include combat, that weapon doesn’t help you do your job.

Likewise, most people don’t wear functional combat armor on a regular basis. If your spy is not in a role where that armor would be expected, it’s a major sign that something isn’t, quite right. The armor is, literally, more dangerous to a spy than its absence would be. Obviously, if you’re in a fantasy setting you might have armor options that wouldn’t be out of place for your cover, but that requires roles that are far rarer in the real world.

I suspect you thought about this, but when your spy is trying to set up a cover, they want one that will overlap with their actual job as much as is practical.

If you need to get information from someone important, get hired onto their personal staff. Preferably a position that will get you the access you need, so that when you need to extract with the information, you can pick it up and walk out the door without anyone thinking anything’s amiss.

The reason that service positions make for excellent covers is, they allow your spy to eavesdrop as part of their job. No one will question a waiter listening in on a conversation periodically, because their job requires them to know when the patrons need something from them. Getting caught isn’t the end of the world, because their behavior has the potential to be legitimate.

Additionally, most service positions are functionally invisible to the average person. If you interact with a lot of people on a daily basis, people who provide these services just kinda blend into the background. (Now, obviously, if you’re interacting with the same person for years, you’re more likely to remember them.)

Within this context, launderer isn’t as good. Because you will be tethered to the cover, and you’ll need to spend a lot of your time away from the people you’re trying to eavesdrop on. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad cover, just that options are more limited. Also, critically, you’ll probably to move away from the cover to do your real job, this is a problem. This makes your spy more noticeable. Nobody notices a bartender when they’re behind a bar, but when you see them sneaking into someplace across town, they’re going to stand out.

Maintaining a cover, really is, about looking legitimate until the last possible moment. Your character needs to pretend to be doing the job they’re supposed to, playing that role. Get caught out of character and it’s over.

To give your character the best position possible, she should probably be sent with the Legion along with the Tribune. Maybe assigned as his daughter (maybe actually his daughter.) That would give her a lot of autonomy, a lot of inferred authority, without any of the responsibilities, and a cover that will let her (almost) get away with murder.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Military Superpower

Would it break the suspension of disbelief to have the “most effective military by an immense margin” in the world (it’s basically the world police) be have only around 500 active fighters because they’re the only people highly trained to use magic effectively?

It will depend on your world building, but breaking suspension of disbelief is a real risk. Having only one military superpower in a world does some weird things. So, let’s talk international politics.

If your setting has multiple, viable, nation states, and one of them has an inordinate advantage, what you have is a monopolar system. Everything relates directly to that nexus state. Any interstate conflict will need to be measured, carefully, against riling the superpower, and any interactions need to be measured with consideration for their interests.

For example: If two if your states are negotiating a trade agreement, both sides are going to be concerned with how their treaty will affect their relationship with the nexus state.

If two states go to war, the presence of the nexus state’s interests will be a pervasive, and vital, strategic consideration. For example: If the nexus state citizen owns a mine in the disputed territory, the warring states are both going to need to be aware of it, and careful not to interfere with that holding’s ability to function.

How all of this will manifest depends heavily on how the nexus state works, and how presents itself.

Real world international politics is based off hard power, and soft power. Hard power is military capacity. (Technically, hard power is the capacity to coerce or force other nations to do what you tell them.) For your purposes, your nexus state has unlimited hard power. That is, kind of, how military superpowers work. (Though the actual math tends to be a little more sophisticated than this, because applying hard power usually comes with a cost in attrition.)

You can think of soft power as an “influence currency.” It’s the ability to go to another nation’s government, ask for something, and get what you want. Hard power can affect soft power (both positively and negatively), but there’s nothing inherently nefarious about soft power. It’s not coercive.

The interesting thing here is, while your nexus state has unlimited hard power, the other states can cultivate power in their interactions with one another. So, there is room for political maneuvering between them.

How your nexus state chooses to express their power will seriously affect your setting. If they’ve set themselves up as guardians of the world from all external threats, then they may be relatively hands-off. Individual states aren’t going to pick a fight with them, but they may feel free to squabble with one another. If your nexus state is involving itself in ruling the world, and views the various other nations as extensions of itself (as an imperial power), then those interstate conflicts are going to be mostly fought through political means, and may only engage in actual violence through proxies.

There is an interesting detail here that I’ve skimmed over, because it doesn’t apply in the real world, but might be a factor in yours. The rarer magical talent is, the easier it will be for your nexus state to maintain control over it. If your state has unlimited hard power, they may be able to parlay that into the ability to simply take any prospective mages from other nations. This would encourage the situation you’re describing. They control the only 500 mages in the world, and as a result, have complete power over magic. (You might be able to make a nuclear proliferation allegory out of this, depending on the specific scenario you’re working with.)

However, if they’re taking mages from the other nations, that would breed resentment. It’s possible those states might seek to keep some of their potential mages, hiding them, and training them in secret. Their training might not be as good, but if your mages are powerful enough to completely warp the balance of power, one or two could be incredibly destructive forces, giving a state some covert options that, “break the rules,” for how the world is supposed to work.

It’s also possible, when employing the mages against other nations, you could see some internal dissent from mages who were originally from those nations, being asked to attack their own people.

Another consideration, I mentioned in passing earlier, is attrition. In the real world, any military action will come with losses for both sides. In your case, this means your nexus state could find itself into a prolonged conflict eroding its power. So, while a single incident wouldn’t bring them low, years of campaigning on multiple fronts could wear them down.

Having a scenario where 500, magically empowered warriors have completely tipped the balance of power in their world won’t make, or break, the reader’s suspension of disbelief. The world you create will do that.

-Starke

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Q&A: Time Travel

My character is a modern guy, an avid swordfighter and has had a bit of basic military training. He then time travels to the Ancient Rome and joins the Roman Imperial Army. How easily could he adapt, since he’s never fought in armour and with a shield before? Would his modern techniques cause issues of integration? Also, if his swordfighting skills aren’t set for killing as he learned it as an art form, would that be an issue too?

Ironically, any combat training he’s had will be among the least useful skills he takes back with him. Basic, modern, knowledge you take for granted is far more significant. Particularly anything technical. A basic grasp of chemistry, medicine, or even metallurgy could radically alter the course of history.

So let’s start with the sword fighting. HEMA practitioners do not fight using historical techniques; they use recreations. We have the training manuals but we don’t have access to the masters themselves. Meaning there’s a huge skill drop.

In martial arts, it’s extremely important to have a trained practitioner on hand while you’re learning. They can see the mistakes you make, and correct those as you go, so you do not train them in.

In the case of HEMA, because there were no living masters, any mistakes made by the people studying initially became baked into the martial art itself.

Training in mistakes is a serious issue, and is one that can haunt a martial artist. When your muscle memory tells you to do one thing, and you’re not supposed to, it’s very hard to break that behavior. This is something that could be a serious issue for your character, though, honestly, all of their training is going to be irrelevant.

HEMA seeks to recreate a fighting style that saw use in European warfare. The modern use is recreational (or educational, if you prefer), it’s not intended for actual battlefield usage.

If a HEMA practitioner is honest with themselves, they’ll admit that they would not stand a chance against actual soldiers from the timeframe they’re recreating. Their training just isn’t good enough to keep up with people who leaned this stuff to avoid death.

Beyond that, HEMA is still sampling from a specific timeframe. One which, for the most part, does not overlap with Imperial Rome. There are Roman Legion reenactments. It is possible your character did that. But, when you’re talking about “an avid sword fighter,” that’s either someone who follows either Italian or German school fencing. In either case, you’re talking about training with a weapon that won’t exist for, at least, another thousand years.

One thing your character may have in spades is a level of strategic skill that is uncommon or impossible to replicate historically. This is due two things, first, if they have a background in military history (even if it’s just as a hobbyist) they’ll have extensive knowledge over what’s been tried and worked, or hasn’t.

In some cases, they may even have a pretty good read on who their facing.

Another hobby that can pay dividends is strategy games. Now, there’s nothing new about the idea of wargaming. Chess is a wargame. But, the level of sophistication, and the variety of potential scenarios has increased dramatically over time. The war games today are far more instructive on commanding a large force than historical games would have been.

None of this matters if your character isn’t in a command position (and they probably wouldn’t), but it’s worth remembering.

Basic medical knowledge, the kind you passively pick up, living in the 21st century, has numerous, significant, advantages over someone living in the first century AD. For one thing, you know to disinfect a wound. You know you can use clear alchohol to do that. And you understand that if you don’t, the wound could become infected. You also probably know you could boil bandages to kill anything on them (even if we don’t do this today, because bandages are usually disposable), and that you should change the bandages out for clean fairly regularly. All of this to prevent bacterial infection, because that will kill you.

Your average Roman Legionnaire did not know this. Your average soldier in the mid-19th did not know this.

Modern wound care, something so basic, you’ve probably learned about this from entertainment, is an enormous technological advancement over what the characters in the past would know.

If your character has an actual medical background, (a doctor, a nurse, an EMT, even just a veterinarian), they have just become the most skilled medical practitioner in the world. The information they have is literally thousands of years more advanced than anyone else. This is far more valuable than their ability to swing a sword.

If your character has background in chemistry, buckle up. You can synthesize black powder using a mixture of carbon (so, charcoal will work), sulfur, and sodium nitrate (saltpeter). You’ll need to work a bit on getting higher quality metals, but that’s not much of an ask for a chemist. Congratulations, your time traveler just invented guns using reasonably available materials. They aren’t particularly good guns, but a bullet’s a bullet.

I’m also going to point out, for someone with a background in chemistry, this is one of the least disruptive things they can do.

If you took chemistry in high school, you probably made a potato battery. There’s a lot of ways you can generate electricity if you know it’s a thing, and want to do something with it. You can make liquid batteries that can be refilled. Now, if you’re living in the first century, this is a big, “so what?” You wouldn’t know what you could do with the stuff. For someone with a modern background? You know what you can do with electricity. It’s easy to think, oh lights, but, if you understand how the components are put together, you might be able to construct something like non-portable radios. Sure, you can’t actually talk through them, but that’s why things like Morse Code exist.

Metallurgy is another one that can get downright nuts. If your character knows how to make crucible steel, and understands basic, modern, forging techniques, they’re going to be able to make weapons that are without peer in the past. Sure, it’s not guns, but being able to take, even low quality, modern steel blades into combat against foes equipped with bronze and iron? That’s not going to end well for their enemies.

When you’re dealing with time travel, your character’s combat prowess is one of the least useful assets they have. Their weapons (if they brought any), are more significant, but your character’s technical knowledge is real advantage here.

I know I focused on it, but in many cases, it’s not even, really, the combat applications for skill sets. Their non-combat skills are immensely more valuable to the civilization they just landed in. Hell, even just a modern understanding of economics would be world changing for a merchant in the first century.

It’s easy to look at what you know, and think that this stuff is obvious, and everyone must have known this. Truth is, we stand on the shoulders of giants. The world we live in today, the knowledge we have today, is the product of millennia of advancement. Fold that over, send some of that information back, and everything changes.

Have fun.

-Starke

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Q&A: Resident Evil

I always wanted to know if Ada Wong could really have survived after the tyrant threw her at the control panel in the original RE2, and how could someone survive the type of fall she suffered in the remake RE2, could you answer the doubt of an Ada enthusiast?

Going in reverse order, the remake is on my to do list. It’s installed on my PC right now, but I haven’t had the time. I’ve seen Ada do a lot of things over the years that are, flat out, not survivable. So, without seeing the fall your talking about, if you’re asking? Probably not. Or at least, not without serious injuries. That’s never stopped her before, but Resident Evil has always had a “tangential” relationship with realism.

The console in the original game? No. Mr. X chucks her into that with enough force to put a huge dent in it. The thing appears to be steel, and she goes in directly against her head and spine, so no, Ada should not be able to survive that.

When you slow down the animation, (for example: Because you’re watching it in a blurry .avi to analyze exactly what happened) it starts to look even less survivable, as the first point of impact is pretty clearly, her skull.

We do find out that, as an adult, Sherry can survive those kinds of injuries in RE6. Something about the specific G-Virus strain she’s infected with (I do understand the lore explanation, but, it’s not relevant), so she should be resilient and recover from injuries like those seen. (When she’s under player control, her health mechanics are consistent with the other characters in that game.)

I’m bringing this up, because I’m not 100% sure that Ada isn’t modified to some degree. To the best of my knowledge, the games have never tipped their hand to say that she might also be a carrier for some unique viral strain. I don’t think that’s the intended read, simply because it would have become a plot point by now, but it’s one of the only ways to justify Ada’s resilience, aside from just shrugging and saying, “action movie rules.”

That is the real answer here, by the way. Ada, Leon, and Claire all run on action movie logic. They take ridiculous amounts of punishment and keep going. I do like it when a setting has justifications for that kind of durability, (again, Sherry comes to mind in RE2 & 6), but it’s genre acceptable behavior. And, as much as they are horror games, even going to the original Resident Evil, there’s action movie DNA mixed in.

Also, having kinda trashed the original game over the console damage, it is worth remembering that Resident Evil 2 came out on the original Playstation, 21 years ago. At that point in time, the technology available was limited. The game used prerendered backgrounds, because the PS1 couldn’t handle rendering the entire image in 3d. That would have been over the hardware budget. The damage we see to the console is over the top and cartoonish, because the actual game hardware had a very limited polygon budget, and needed to convey to the audience that Mr X had damaged it when he threw Ada into it. Within that context, if we assume the damage to the console is grossly exaggerated for visual clarity, not to indicate the amount of force used. It’s possible Ada could survive that. Travel distance and speed are both pretty low in the cutscene, so the force shouldn’t be extreme enough to mangle the console like that. By extension, Ada hitting it like that drifts into the territory a potential for serious injury, but, one you could walk away from with superficial damage, if you got lucky on the impact.

There’s a weird bit of trivia here, and this could be an issue with watching the .avi at 60hz, when it was originally designed to be viewed at 24hz, but there’s a frame where Ada does not render when she’s being thrown. I suspect the version held by Mr X is swapped out for the normal Ada model roughly at the moment when you get the blood spray on impact, and the console swapping out. Someone who has more familiarity with the PS1’s architecture might be better able to better explain this, and it is possible I’m simply misreading the .avi compression blur. I’m only bringing this up, because I have been digging through that video while working on this post, and saw some weird things.

So, to the original question, “Yeah, maybe?” Looking at Resident Evil and asking about realism kinda misses the point. Ignoring RE6, the games usually start from a fairly grounded point, and gradually escalate into insane antics. This is a pretty common narrative structure, but when Resident Evil goes big, it gets really crazy. I’m not mocking either, because, to the series credit, it usually manages that escalation very well, to the point that you don’t realize just how insane its gotten until you’re punching boulders in a volcano.

-Starke

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