Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Tenth Degree Black Belt Takes Awhile

not sure if this is the right blog to ask this question but its the closest one that i know of, i have a character who started doing Karate at the minimum age (Age 6 from what i see) and so i want to know what is the minimum realistic age for him to become a first degree all the way through tenth degree black belt?

Assuming we work from the commercial martial arts school metric (which is the quickest), it’ll be around 45 years. A black belt past a certain rank (anywhere between two and five) will need to start journeying Japan on a semi-regular basis in order to be tested for their next belt ranks. And if they’re not, their master is the one who is making the pilgrimage. That also assumes the belt testing for the higher echelons is handed by one master, which it may not be. It something like eight official karate strands recognized by the World Karate Federation, and more unofficial. So, your character doesn’t just know karate.

That assumes the school goes to ten.

That assumes this is the belt system used by the school. (The classic martial arts legend is that in the old days, you trained so long that your belt turned black and that was when you achieved mastery.)

Assuming they allow any underage student to test for black belt. (Some schools don’t. If not, minimum age for a tenth degree is 63.)

Assuming they don’t have specific time constraints on your belt progression that has nothing to do with curriculum and everything to do with X amount of time spent in the school before they’ll consider it.

Your martial arts master is the one who decides when you get to test. If they say you’re not ready then you’re not testing. It is possible to fail the belt rank test, at any level. Commercial martial arts schools hold rank tests at specific intervals, usually spaced two to four months apart depending on belt rank level. You’ve got to be ready when the time comes, or you’ll have to wait until the next round. The Ernie Reyes school held black belt tests twice per year, but they were a large organization with over a hundred testing participants. In smaller organizations, it may happen less often. Usually, there’s a pretest before they allow you to test for your black belt. You can fail the pretest, and they reserve the right to fail you out of training prior to the test at any time.

Forty-five years training is a generous estimate. You’re not likely to hit tenth degree until you are eighty years old. Achieving mastery is a lifelong process. This is better than the traditional Chinese method for establishing a new martial art, which was go around and beat all the other masters in duels.

Trust me, having your ass handed to you by a sixty year old man is not a fun experience. It.. will also happen. Tradition in martial arts is you get tested in combat, to go up in rank you defeat those at rank, to become a master you defeat yours. “Now, I am the Master” is not just a trope, it’s tradition. (Not today, obviously. It used to be, in some cases.)

You’d reach the point around second or third degree in the higher ranks (and depending on style proliferation) where you’d be making the trip to Japan in order to be trained and tested by the school’s Grandmaster. A high ranking black belt would need to be at least partially fluent or speak passable Japanese, even if they could not read it. This is true for most Japanese martial arts, and for other martial arts too.

In the Ernie Reyes Organization, there is a monetary cost to testing. That metric rises by around a hundred dollars per black belt stripe. Fourth degree test costs around 400-500 dollars. Again, this is assuming a commercial martial arts school, not a school that is specifically training for active combat. If the school is training you for active combat, it’ll all take a lot longer.

In modern era combat, karate does not work unless it is modified. I got that from a Shotokan master who was also a Police Officer, and tested for his last black belt rank in Japan. (Third or Fourth degree.) He knew what he was talking about, and he was in his late thirties.

I was a third degree in Taekwondo by the time I was eighteen, but that’s out of a commercial system and that’s actually unusual. When looking at third degree tests, usually, they’re in their early to mid twenties.

In a traditional school, you can usually age your black belt rank per decade. First degree in the tens, second in the twenties, third in thirties, fourth in the forties, etc. 35-40 is the lowest age for a martial arts master, younger than that they’re usually technically good but not spiritually good and the spiritual component is what’s necessary.

Realistically, your character will never see tenth degree. When we talk tenth degree black belt in a martial arts system, that’s a number you can count on one hand and they may not exist at all. I’ve trained with seventh degree black belts and order grand masters in hosted seminars, but I’ve never seen a tenth degree.

The upper echelons past around rank five are spiritual journeys rather than technical or acquired skills, and this is especially true of tenth degree. You’ll get there when you get there, if you get there at all. That also assumes commercial approach rather than traditional, because traditional means you’re lucky if you see black belt at all. Ever. My shotokan master, one of his adult brown belts had been in training for about seven years, and his green belt training for five. Under this system, it could easily take ten years to reach black belt and you wouldn’t see a black belt testing under eighteen. (Not just danger, also maturity.)

The more sacred the belt ranks are in the system, the longer time it will take to reach and the harder it will be to reach them. However, those are the systems where the rank means something.

I’ll tell you right now, most martial artists at twelve who hold the rank of black belt aren’t actually worth anything on a technical level. (I say that having been a thirteen year old black belt.) The belt rank means something else in the commercial system. A child who got their black belt at twelve will be great by the time they’re twenty if they keep training, but they aren’t right now.

The amount of time necessary with traditional martial arts for rank progression is pretty much the reason why martial artists have the reputation for being godlike. The problem martial arts have in the modern era is they still have their place but combat moves too quickly for that kind of specialization. The counters are being developed while your character is training, so a hard counter will exist when they’re ready to put their skills into practice. However, many professionals train in martial arts because of the health and mental benefits and the flexibility the additions or alternative skill sets provide.

Traditional martial arts is not fair, it is not quick, and it takes decades of work. Commercial martial arts is/can be quick, but it’s balancing the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with money. That is survival, and martial arts schools cannot or will have great difficulty surviving in the US without the commercial/business side. Usually, the first two black belt ranks get sacrificed to the commercial because kids are where most commercial martial arts schools make their money. That first black belt test is all important to the school, to the kid, and their parents. It’s an achievement, it’s a journey, and it looks great on a college application. It is real, but it means something else than what it would mean in a traditional system to someone who trained for ten years. Five years is much more reasonable/palatable to a parent and a child than ten. (That’s a long time, you’ll still have something like a 60% drop off between the kids who come for a few months to those who stay.) I know, that information kills the mystique some.

Understand, that every black belt earned their rank by the metric set for them. The question is do others agree, and the answer is usually no when we’re discussing more stringent systems. A lot of really popular martial arts will have that accusation leveled against them by others, and a lot of popular schools will as well. That their business model produces inferior students. Whether that is true or not is a matter of opinion and the opinions are diverse. I suggest carrying that knowledge with you into your fiction.

If you can’t tell me or anyone in your book which version of Karate they are practicing, then that’s where you should start working. Karate also gets used in the US as a catchall term for martial arts, just FYI.

-Michi

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Q&A: Setting the Rules in Horror

One thing that always bugs me about ghost stories is how there doesn’t seem to be any consistency In how a Ghost operates. Theyre built up as scary only to have them be really incompetent. There’s this particular case in IT. Where one of the kids gets grabbed by Pennywise then just wrestles out and runs away. It makes Pennywise seem really incompetent. Other ghost stories do this. Where the ghost can hurt you. . . except when it cant. No logic behind it. How can a writer avoid this?

The short answer is: By making sure there are logical rules underpinning your setting. With horror this is a little harder than it seems, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

Start by writing up the rules for the monsters in your setting. How are they created? What are their powers and limitations? What do they want? How do they go about getting that?

To an extent, this is something you should probably do anyway, if you’re creating an elaborate setting. But, it can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with monsters, or other fantasy creatures.

Exactly how you format this is, obviously, up to you. There’s no strict list of things you need. If you’ve got multiple kinds of monsters, the document doesn’t even need to be uniform between them.

Also, if anyone’s wondering, there is no “One True Set of Rules for Ghosts,” or any other kind of monster. There’s a lot of variety in folklore, which gets even more diverse when you start taking other cultures into account. When you’re creating a monster, either from scratch or from some basic template, like a ghost, you have a lot of latitude to decide how they work in your story.

Once you have those rules, keep them with you when you write. Depending on how large it is, and how you work, you may want to physically tape it to your wall, or you might simply keep them open in another window while you’re typing on your computer. It doesn’t matter where the document is, just make sure you keep that stuff close and accessible.

So, I said this is a little harder with horror. Most horror, as a genre, thrives on fear of the unknown. Once you’ve taken the rules for a horror setting, dragged them out in the open, and poked them with a stick, the illusion collapses, and much of the fear escapes. If you want to scare someone, you need their imagination to do the work for you.

This means, you do not want to put those rules out in the open for your audience. Even in a normal setting, you’ll probably want to hold back a bit, and spool those out over time, as your characters learn, and discover new information. But, with horror, hiding those rules, while still clearly enforcing them is a difficult, but vital, skill to master.

There’s an important detail here. Even if you clearly infer a rule in your horror, so long as you don’t go out and explicitly define it, there’s going to be a degree of unease. Horror thrives on that space, where you should be safe, but you’re not completely sure.

The other set of rules you should keep in mind, are the ones your characters create for the monster. If it’s trying to kill them, they’re going to be trying to figure out how to avoid that. Looking for what the monster’s limits are, and trying to identify its methodology. After all, if they know that it can’t kill them under certain circumstances, then they’ll want to find a way to engineer that situation.

The thing about your characters is that they can be wrong. They can look at the information available, and make an entirely rational but incorrect assumption. This can create situations where the monster is suddenly able to “break the rules,” because the rules your characters worked out aren’t the real limitations you set at the beginning. This should send your characters back to the drawing board, looking for something they got wrong.

Now, obviously, if your character is a veteran monster hunter, then they’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the rules are. Though, even with that, there’s a lot of room for a character to prepare for the wrong monster. To be fair, this kind of character doesn’t usually work well in horror. It’s not a hard, “no,” but it does make your life more difficult. This is because they’re likely to have a (mostly) accurate version of your rules internalized. Point of view characters like this can work, but it requires you to be a lot more creative. If you think you’re up to it, feel free to experiment. However, stories with characters like this will often trend more into supernatural action rather than horror.

One more vitally important thing: Don’t pull your punches. Not in horror. If there’s a monster out there in the forest trying to kill them, and it gets the opportunity to pick someone off, kill them. The only time I’d caution against this is if you’re late in the story and running out of characters to snuff. In those cases, I’d suggest stepping back a scene or two, and figuring out how to keep them alive by avoiding that situation entirely.

Even then, I’d still recommend you roll with a death, even if its your designated protagonist. As a genre, horror is an indiscriminate killer. The story will survive your favorites dying. Also, sometimes, the monster wins, and your story ends with the last survivor down. That’s okay. It’s far better than a situation where your monster loses credibility because it fumbles a kill. If you find the story really doesn’t work without them, then that’s what rewrites are for.

I should add, I’ve been approaching this from the perspective of a story where the monster is trying to kill the protagonists, but this isn’t a certainty. Sometimes in horror, the monster doesn’t want to kill your characters. If it wants something else from them, that can be even more horrifying. Another possibility worth mentioning is, sometimes you’ve got monsters that honestly do not care about your characters at all. They’re content to go about their business, oblivious to the damage they cause.

-Starke

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Q&A: Bullies and Superpowers

I was hoping you could help me with a problem my story. It complicated but the base of it is a boy who is a part of a superpower race. He was separated from his family as an Infant and adopted by human parents. They don’t notice his abilities (which in short is super strength) but still they raise him and let him attend a school. His powers are dormant and he gets bullied. I’m trying to find a way for him to accidentally activate his powers and harm the bullies but not kill them.

You know the answer to this one in your heart.

He kills them. Or, at least, he kills one of them.

That’s the situation you’ve created for yourself, and, you know, it is a great one for angst. This is a classic superhero setup, there are a certain number of power-types and power levels that won’t automatically result in accidental death when put under a stress test but the kind of punch through a wall/punch a bus super strength isn’t one of them. (Much less Superman or Hulk levels of super strength.) The only get out of jail free cards are against government agents, assassins, and other soldiers-types so far beyond the level of what a normal child can deal with that it’s obviously self-defense.

Physical damage to another person is path of least resistance, which means this boy could easily end up hitting back and putting his fist through the bully’s chest.  When you’ve got enough force behind you, you don’t hit people and they fly backwards. At a certain level of force, you just go through them. If he can crush a human skull with his hands when he’s controlling himself, then whatever he does when his powers activate is going to be 100x worse. If he’s powerful enough to stop a bus in its tracks, they’re dead.

This is the Uncle Ben setup from Spiderman. “With great power come great responsibility.” If you don’t figure out how to control yourself, then bad shit happens. Death is a great lesson about the necessity for control. Most superheroes have some secret shame or someone they accidentally killed when they’re powers activated, especially bullied teenagers.

Beyond that, bullying doesn’t play with superheroes and super-powered individuals the same way it would in a situation between two humans.  The problem is power dynamics.

Bullying is not about violence. Bullying is about power and control.

A bully attacks when there’s no fear of repercussions, no fear of consequences. This is why having consequences for violence in your fiction is so important, when you’re characters are making choices and taking action without fear of the consequences for those actions (and the follow through) they are bullies. They may be bullies we sympathize with, but they’re still bullies.

A character with superpowers versus the average human not only has the ability to act, but the ability to act without repercussions. If you imagined that their superpowers opened up a whole new venue for their fight against injustice against non-powered humans then that’s exactly what I mean. Their powers give them the freedom to act without fear and control others through the threat of violence when they are at no risk themselves. That is a bully and that is the logic behind how a bully operates.

Bullies act when they are entirely safe, when they know their opponent can’t fight back. Superpowers upend the scales, even when the character doesn’t know, a superpowered individual standing up to a bully who can’t actually hurt them is just another bully. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy in the accomplishment, nothing to bond the reader to them. There is nothing impressive about a character standing up or inflicting violence on another individual when the individual in question is powerless to stop them.

Violence in fiction is built on balance. Balance creates tension, two people of similar ability balance each other out and we as the audience know there’ll be some consequences to the scuffle. Audience expectation is not necessarily based in reality, but this is why weigh ins at prize fights are so important. The weight is supposed to show that they’re at least equal in this very narrow respect, regardless of any other aspect.

When you set the scales out of balance, you want your hero to be the underdog. Not secretly empowered, just an underdog. The odds are weighted against them, they’ll have to work harder in order to win. When the scales are weighted in the protagonist’s favor, they have the responsibility to act accordingly. This is where a surprise death can be so effective. An example is when a soldier character is in a recently conquered village and killed by a subdued villager. The situation was safe and then boom: death.

There are certain traits that will ensure the scales are permanently weighted in a character’s favor against certain opponents. Combat training, for example. Superpowers are another. Both require restraint and responsible use against specific opponents for the character to be perceived as a good person.

Remember, you’re never just balancing how reality works in your fiction. You’re also balancing audience expectation, genre conventions, pacing, and narrative tension. For obvious reasons, fictional fights and entertainment work differently than they do in real life. Fiction has a hierarchy of power that dictates expected behavior based on the skills one possesses. Working off generic assumptions rather than situational specifics based on your characters will only lead to a bad fight scene.

There is no narrative tension in a situation where the character was never actually in any danger. If you have no narrative tension, you have no scene. You’re just mashing puppets together.

Whenever you set out to write a fight scene, there’s one question you need to ask first: is my character in danger? If they’re not, then the tension’s got to come from somewhere else.

It’s got to be more than just an excuse to get your character to show their powers. That’s a narrative inevitability, not tension. Is my character going to kill this guy? That’s tension when the question jives with the character’s personal state and mentality. If not, then it’s a false question. The question has to be real and relate to the character as a genuine possibility.

Stories are built on the pervading question of: what happens? Answering that question creates the scenes which move the story along. Those questions create other questions, all of which should have a myriad of possible outcomes. Or, at the very least, a tick and a tock. Both the tick and the tock should have an equal chance of happening with the narrative consequences hanging on the outcome. Yes, or no. Life, or death. Kill, or be killed. However, these questions must be genuine, honest, representative of who your characters are, and relevant to their circumstances. If they’re not, you have no tension.

Narrative tension shifts as your characters make decisions, and moves based on desired outcomes versus the negative outcomes while weighted by audience expectation. There’s no tension in a character who wants to die dying, but there is if they realize they want to live and dying is still on the table. If they still plan on dying, and roll with “I’m taking you with me” as a heroic sacrifice then the tension lies in whether they succeed or fail. If they do die, but succeed then we get a cathartic release. The tension then shifts and lands on the surviving heroes, who realize they just lost one of their most valuable warriors on whom they can now no longer rely. Or, they live, and are cut off from helping our heroes anyway. Or, they get murdered by the Big Bad and the stakes have been tripled.

See, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re looking for that little part of you that goes, No! whenever some terrible event is about to happen.

Take Jedi Knight Ganner Rhysode’s heroic last stand in Matthew Stover’s Traitor to cover Jacen Solo and Vergere’s escapes from the Yuuzhan Vong seed world. A lackluster and generic Jedi formerly interested only in personal glory and recognition, fighting an alien warrior race from outside the galaxy who’ve already killed countless better Jedi.  A joke of a Jedi now the only one standing between Jacen Solo’s freedom, the galaxy, and conquest by the Vong. He’s framed in a gate, unlikely to defeat even one Vong warrior instead of the hundreds coming. Wielding Anakin Solo’s lightsaber, he battles until he’s standing on a pile of bodies, until the pile is a mountain, until… finally… he’s cut down.  Alone, in the dark, where there’s no one to witness or remember his heroism except his sworn enemies.

That’s tension.

Let’s get back to bullying.

Combat is 90% mind games and 10% actual physical harm. The bully lives in the 90% more than the 10%. They have a finely tuned understanding of risk assessment, and a need to establish control over their environment. They are frightened individuals whose lives are out of control, and they regain control by inflicting their fear on someone else. They’re taking out their insecurities on their victim. Ultimately, the bully is punishing their victim for the bully’s inability to control their own life. The bully builds their self-identity off their ability to take power from their victims, and that’s what makes them dangerous. From the bully’s perspective, a bully’s bullying is always about the bully’s self-esteem and self-identity. Their victim is a tool whose pain and powerlessness they utilize in order to make them feel good about themselves.

There’s a fantasy in conventional wisdom that lies with the idea that if you just stand up to the bully they’ll go away. They won’t. Often, the bullying will escalate and get worse. If a bully’s identity and self-esteem relies on their victim’s powerlessness then they must exert control over their victim. When their victim challenges that control, challenges their authority, they double down. You can have a character with superpowers retaliate against bullies but, unless they’ve got the perspective of Eleven from Stranger Things, all they’ll manage to do is get them to retreat for a short period. Then, they return with a new plan and new ways to bait their victim.

Say you’ve got a character with super strength who is trying to hide their powers from the public. The bullies discovered this character has powers because the character used those powers against them. However, they lived and said character wasn’t in control. Which means… they now move the bullying into a public sphere with other people present. Minor stuff in the hall, during PE, in class, all to get said other child to lash out. Bullies do this. If private doesn’t work anymore, they’ll move over to public. Slightly more risk but they’ll use social order and the victim’s own fears of discovery to enforce their control. After all, the stakes for the character with superpowers are much higher than they are for the bully.

A bully doesn’t care about what their victim can do. They only care about what they will do. A bully is making and taking calculated risks based on the knowledge of their environment and the power they wield. They almost always have some sort of safety net behind them, a powerful protector who lets them get away with their behavior.  Like most humans, the bully will revert to their first impression and work off that. You can have superpowers, but that doesn’t mean those superpowers will protect you from a bully.

Duncan versus Scott Summers in X-men: Evolution is a great example of the bullying continuing even after Duncan learns Scott is a mutant. He knows what Scott is willing to do, what Scott won’t do, and that the cost of the outcome is much higher for Scott than Duncan. By baiting Scott, Duncan potentially gets what he wants which is Scott kicked out of school. If Scott opens his eyes after Duncan steals his glasses, bye, bye Bayfield.

The kids on the bus bullying the school bus driver are usually the ones with influential parents. Or, they know that the stakes for the adult if the adult retaliates are higher. Maybe the kid gets a dressing down, but the adult loses their job.

Another great example of bullying in fiction is the first season of Stranger Things with Mike and his friends. Where when Eleven shames the bully by forcing him to pee his pants in front of the whole class, the bully just waits for an opportunity where she’s not there. He escalates, comes back with a knife and threatens to cut out Dustin’s teeth if Mike doesn’t jump into the quarry. (And kill himself.) Eleven saves Mike, but what ultimately drives the bully off for good isn’t just Eleven breaking bones. It’s the knowledge that she will kill him, mercilessly, quickly, and without remorse because this child is no different to her than the Federal agents who abused her. It isn’t the broken arm, or the superpowers, it’s the fact that Eleven is goddamn terrifying. It all happens at a speed too quickly for the bully to comprehend.

Bullying is about who can escalate further faster, bullies live in the comfortable state of knowing they can get there first, and they can go higher than you can. Whatever they’re showing in their hand, they’ve got a lot more lined up. Bullies are all about calculated risk. They wouldn’t be bullying if they didn’t have a firm grasp of social politics and an ability to manipulate the surrounding power structure to their own benefit. They’re sharp, and they pick their victims. They’re going after a personality-type, someone who is socially isolated and easy to intimidate. Someone without connections, someone whom when they’re both dragged up in front of an authority figure they can point at the victim and the authority will believe its the victim’s fault. Or, at best, equally to blame.

You can’t beat bullying with violence and you can’t stop a bully with violence, not as a long term solution. I don’t mean this as advocating for pacifism. Bullying is about power and power dynamics, it’s about control. I wish punching a bully was enough to make them go away. I wish having superpowers and punching a bully would be enough to make the bully go away. I honestly wish the catharsis of this entire setup was more than just an exercise in catharsis and Feel Good Violence. However, none of these states are true. In point of fact, violent bullying itself is Feel Good Violence. That’s why bullies engage in bullying. Controlling another human being is cathartic, it feels good and it makes them feel good. This why you authors who’ve never personally experienced violence or engaged with violence beyond the schoolyard should be careful with your characters. The first step on the path your imagination will lead you when it comes to violence is bullies, because bullying feels good. It is easier to simulate abuse and abusers as violence in fiction than it is any other form of personality, especially when you’re trying to exert some measure of control over your environment through your art.

When a bully is beat up, the bully only ever learns the same lesson that the bully already understands. For a character with superpowers, by beating up a bully they become a bully.

Superman can’t beat up bullies because the bullies can’t actually hurt him. They can hurt his feelings, but when they shove him into the locker he can’t feel it. In fact, he doesn’t have to move if he doesn’t want to. He could stop being bullied at any point in time, but he doesn’t. The reason why Superman doesn’t stop bullies from bullying him isn’t just about keeping up appearances. The truth is that when you deflect a bully off yourself, you don’t stop them from bullying. They just find a new target. This is why you can’t save someone from being bullied, you can make the bully afraid of you but that does a fat lot of good when you’re not there. With Superman, or Peter Parker, or Scott Summers, the bullies bullying them is safer than it would be if they were bullying the average human being. In some ways, these superpowered characters save those vulnerable characters around them by taking up the bully’s attention. (This is not a method you should be replicating in real life, these are rules for characters who can survive being tossed off a fifty foot cliff.)

The problem in fiction with human bullies versus superpowered characters is power dynamics. A character with superpowers inherently has more power than a human being, therefore the rules are different for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Two Weapons From Two Periods In Versus = Bad News Bears

I’m working on this story and for plot reasons there’s gonna be a spear vs. Poseidon-style trident one-on-one fight, so I’d like to ask your take on the trident’s viability as a weapon? And how much of a difference would it make between the other person having a hoplite-style setup of shield and spear, or just a two-handed spear like in Chinese wuxia stories? Thank you very much.

Not all weapons of similar category are the same, or those from a similar time period.

The wuxia spear seen in cinema transitions between being a one handed weapon and two handed weapon. The second hand in a two handed weapon is there for guidance and accuracy, but the techniques can be performed one handed.

For reference, the style you’re probably thinking of is more contemporary with the rapier than any ancient setting and some variants are even more modern.

There’s about two thousand years of technological advancement between the Hoplites and the Chinese martial art we’re talking about. The Wuxia of today is going to cover the martial styles that come out of Hong Kong cinema and Chinese film, rather than the ones that existed when the genre began as a form of Chinese storytelling in 300-200 BCE. This is the Warring States period, and foundational to modern Chinese storytelling. However, when looking at the Warring States period in modern Chinese cinema, it’s important to understand the period is depicted as a fantasy setting not unlike 14th Century Arthurian Camelot. Culturally important, not necessarily represented with accuracy. For example: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, The Emperor and The Assassin and many other films are set during this period. None of whose martial arts are historically accurate. The characters will also usually have superpowers by means of martial training/enlightenment as that’s a convention of the genre. This is the straight up origin of the Martial Arts Gives You Superpowers trope.

A wuxia hero can fly over/run up walls as a genre conceit, just like a Celtic hero can grow tall as a tree, talk to animals, or ride on the shoulders of salmon. (That’d be Sir Cai. Yeah, that Sir Kay.) Same with the Grecian mythological heroes. If we’re running mythology though, most of this post is moot.

The strength of the Grecian spear is the Phalanx formation, and it’s not meant for dueling. The modern version of the Chinese wuxia genre heavily relies on martial arts that didn’t exist or were not used in the historical period. So, having the wuxia spear go toe to toe with a trident from the Bronze Age would be akin to taking a rapier against an FN P90. It won’t end well. You’d end up with the same issue with any hopilite era weapon versus the basic wuxia spear, one is vastly superior in technological advancement and comes from a period where martial training was not only a thing but highly specialized in concept and materials.

The problem here is anachronism stew, and the assumption that all weapons within a single category are the same or equivalent. They’re not. Even when we step back and try to limit our options, those advantages present in one weapon style will heavily outweigh those in another with almost no way to make up the difference.

What I’m saying is that even if you took the anachronistic fighting style seen in 300, (mostly fine for the first part, but when we break from formation and hit dueling the fight choreography transitions into Chinese spear combat) or this fight scene between Hector and Achilles from Troy where the techniques with the spear are predominately and anachronistically Chinese. Even then, the style used by the wuxia staff/spear in Chinese cinema is going to wreck its day. If you see spear combat out of Hollywood cinema these days, the film choreography is taking its ques from Chinese cinema. This includes The Viper versus The Mountain in Game of Thrones. Compare to combat with the European spear.  Here, we have Roland Warzecha discussing dueling with the Medieval spear and a concept called “claiming the center” which is a necessary component to understanding blocks, counters, and striking distance. This concept did not exist for the Hoplites yet, but it will for any duels you see on screen today.

So, for wuxia, we’re talking a warrior trained in a complete and comprehensive martial style, who has been training for at least four to five years. You don’t pick and choose weapons out of Eastern martial arts, you don’t train in the spear and nothing else. Chinese martial arts are rooted in curriculum. Any wuxia style you look at is going to have movements which stem from a base in hand to hand, the staff transitions into spear, and even into the sword. Take a fighter of a Chinese martial style and they’ll have a grounded base in hand to hand, be able to use both the staff and spear, and possibly other weapons as well. These are martial arts where all aspects feed together to create harmony, and where one technique is the extension of another. While this is our modern understanding of how a martial arts curriculum works, this philosophy is unique to East Asia and India (where it originates.) The Greeks and the Europeans would not have viewed martial arts in the same holistic way, especially as Chinese martial arts are heavily reliant on Chinese philosophy like The Tao. (Also Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.)

There are cultures where you can just grab a weapon, get trained on that specific weapon, and run off with it. We still use these distinctions today with certifications such as knife training or sword training versus someone who is trained. Holistic systems are not built for a smash and grab, take one piece and you’ve consigned yourself to taking everything that comes with it. The weapon style isn’t built for the person wielding it to not understand the hand to hand elements. The concept of specialization is very different in Eastern styles than it is with its Western counterparts. The holistic approach is the purpose behind scenes in Chinese cinema like this one from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where the warriors are just working their way around the room switching weapons.

This is important to understand, not just because the Greeks existed in a period before the modern concept of a trained military existed. You can’t separate a weapon from the time period it belongs in because weapon’s technology is still technology. This is scientific advancement. The closest the Greeks had to a trained military were the Spartans and, in the modern sense, the Spartans were highly inefficient. A Chinese martial artist from the Boxer Rebellion would wreck them in fairly short order. The Warring States saw the emergence of personal defense martial arts for commoners, so martial training wouldn’t necessarily be limited to the nobility.

The second problem is here: the basic misconception about two handed weapons.

Most two handed weapons are actually one handed weapons in that they can be wielded entirely with that singular hand. You use the second hand for finesse and guidance, the the first serves for rotation and power. The vast majority of the techniques can be done entirely with a single hand. Light spears like the kind usually seen on screen in Chinese film, are very light. The trick to understanding their movement is controlling their balance point. So, rolling a staff between your fingers or bouncing it off your shoulders isn’t that impressive. They’re parlor tricks that work off the same concept as a soccer ball, you’re controlling and bouncing the staff off its balance point. The same is true when rolling it between your legs, around your neck, shoulders, and the rest of your body.

Drop/throw the staff forward, kick it at its center with the ball of your foot, bounce it off the incoming fighter’s chest, and catch when it rebounds back. Favorite tactic of wuxia cinema.

When you’re looking at the Chinese spear spinning, they’re actually messing around with the balance point to create momentum in order to change position. A foot swipe with the instep kicks the bottom of the haft up to the power hand and into an action position. This works because the guidance hand is already holding the staff halfway up the haft at or slightly above its balance point. The balance point on a staff is found at the point where you can balance it on a single or two braced fingers.

Control of all weapons is based in balance, not in strength. The power of a spear comes from its momentum, and greater ability to generate it. You halve the thrusting power of a spear by gripping it at it’s center, which is the point behind holding it lower and using two hands. (You also have a greater reach, control, and can use spears with longer shafts.)

With the wushu spear, it is not uncommon for the wielder to switch their grip from the end to three-quarters/midway up the shaft. And to shoot it at their opponents from a couched position. A shoot is when you thrust the spear with your back hand and let go, then catch it with the front hand or the back hand before it escapes your reach. This creates a sudden onslaught of speed and power which can be used to break past an opponent’s guard or allow for a quick transition in grip. There’s a spear technique in wushu where you spin the spear around your neck, lock it horizontal on your shoulders, and shoot it out in a strike or simply strike with it from that position while advancing.

This is what we’re talking about regarding attack vectors, a key part of martial arts is getting yourself on an angle the enemy can’t block and there are lots of ways civilizations all over the globe have developed as a means of achieving this goal.

The third problem is this: Chinese weapons work off a foundational concept called information overload.

This is a strategic battle tactic which involves overloading the eye with as much movement as possible. This is part of why these martial arts work so well on film because the same rules apply. The flags and red tufts on the weapons serve this purpose. The more motion there is then the harder it is for the eye to track and, like a bull, your eye is drawn to bright colors. In the case of the basic wushu spear, the figure eight rotation is not just a flourish but an attack. The tip is sharpened steel is capable of cutting, so you get more motion than as a single thrusting attack. The shaft is lightweight, made from softwoods but durable which aids in its flexibility. This is crucial to understanding strike patterns seen in wuxia films. However, you can get Chinese staves with a full steel shaft, which will wreck any bronze era weapon via contact. The spear techniques will coordinate a chain of attacks together in continuous motion to distract the eye and knock the opponent off balance for when the final attack comes.

A dual technique shifting between striking Low at the feet to High at the head wasn’t really a concept for the Hoplites practiced in their spear combat. The European spear will just go under the shield, a Chinese spear will attack the bare feet. You can’t get the vector while holding the spear half way up the haft, but you can when holding it two handed. The fast forward movement where your opponent is driven back is what the cross-step is designed for.

The cross step: Instead of coming at you forward facing, your opponent’s whole body turns sideways, bends the knees and one foot steps behind the other then in front of the other in shifting rotation as you strike downward at the feet in synchronization with each step. There are variants of this shuffle, but it allows the fighter to move forward at a half-run while they rush their opponent and strike at the same time. (This pattern will allow for shifts into different strikes as the body opens, and a myriad of alternate stances. Footwork is the least understood and most commonly underestimated element for non-martial artists.)

They’ll do this until spear/shield falls over, they hit their foot, or spear/shield manages to get them off that vector which they will then proceed to roll over onto another one because they’ve got the footwork to open up the full 360 around their opponent. Spin steps are for direction changes. The basic martial arts strategy is always to begin by attacking the unguarded parts of the body in order to reach the parts of you that are protected. If someone carries a shield, the first order of business will be to get rid of it.

However, the methods in how this is accomplished changes substantially in sophistication depending on time period. This is why you can never count on two similar weapons from two different periods in history being the same. Combat marches forward. Basically, when pairing weapons for combat, you don’t want to choose weapons from different periods in history because technological advancement will wreck your day. A Hippolite is not going to be prepared for a warrior who can shift from a direct line onto a diagonal, much less one who can rapidly circle behind them via footwork. They won’t have the footwork to keep up.

A Chinese martial art style will not only be more efficient in terms of killing, but also more efficient in terms of conserving energy. They can attack more often, more quickly, and be less tired at the end of it. They practice conservation of movement versus the wide swinging seen in Hollywood which is great for camera work but not efficient. The main focus in terms of dueling with weapon/hand to hand advancement is discovering new vectors on which to attack that cannot be blocked. Those vectors shift from major to minor, from shifts in direction, diagonals, to simple adjustments in strike direction. This begins with counters.

A counter is when you block and then shift into an attack, all modern martial arts have these baked in to their training. This is natural, but it wasn’t for the time. This is what happens when your trident or spear gets blocked the first time on its strike, the other spear adjusts past it and comes forward into a follow up strike.

A martial artist trained in a similar style will make this more difficult because of arm position, hand position, grip, stance, tension, and the expectation of pressure in the lockup between two weapons. Both participants would be trying for the same follow up in their attack. A block isn’t necessarily enough to stop a Steel Era weapon, and certainly not enough for weapon from the 1600s. Knock away and strike. Slide around, protect yourself from the counter, and strike. Claim the center.

If you’ve ever wondered why weapons are primarily held on diagonals for defensive positions, this is why. Circular rotation is better for knocking weapons away or applying pressure, thus making it more difficult for the opposing weapon to hold position. The triangle creates a fulcrum of force with both parties attempting to break, adjust, or ease past it.

We do this in hand to hand too, the front hand works for catching, blocking, or redirecting an incoming strike to create the opening while the second hand (your power hand) strikes. It doesn’t always work that way though, the second hand can become the grab hand and you can use to pull the other person forward into a strike from the first hand. While the vast majority of martial artists from holistic styles have a preference for their power side or power hand, they are ambidextrous. They’ll be more technically proficient with the hand that isn’t their right/left primary because that’s the hand which does the guiding/defense/detail work.

In the Hoplite era, the shield is going to be doing most of the work when it comes to blocking. The combat is not going to present much of a threat to a more modern combat style, as it isn’t designed with later martial art or military tactics in mind. The hoplite shield is reminiscent enough of the metal shields of later eras used by the Chinese, so it would have techniques to get past it baked in. You may be wondering what the shield has to do with a trident, but the point is the shield was the best defense they had.

A trident is not a weapon, unless we’re talking about the version seen in Catching Fire. (Which is not, really, a trident.) Here is a historical breakdown on the different kinds of tridents from fishing to hunting to pitchforks and, finally, weapons. It discusses the Shaolin trident, which is also an axe. The trident has the potential to be a weapon, and the design was later featured in several European polearms like the spetum. However, again, the trident is not a weapon by itself. It’s designed with fishing, hunting, or farming in mind. Like the machete, it’s one of the better options you can turn to in a pinch. If its magical, that might give it a leg up, otherwise it will lag behind weapons that are actually weapons. The best advantage the trident has is using the outside tips to catch and lock up the spear to disarm. However, they’re not designed for that. They’d need to be able to catch the spear tip, lock up the spear, and disarm the spear before the other person recognizes what’s happening.

The main problem with the trident is that it’s a gladiator set up. Gladiators are arena combat in the same way prize fights, pit fighting, UFC bouts, and bare-knuckle boxing function. They’re designed to drag out combat as opposed to ending it quickly. Ironically, and much as I hate the stuntmen queuing in Gladiator, this scene emphasizes the point nicely. Maximus is a Roman General, he fights like a warrior. His intent is to finish the fight as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is counter productive to the goals of the arena. The Roman Arena was a show, it’s entertainment. Functioned in the similar vein to modern prize fights with similar priorities, the fighting was structured to extend the show long as possible. The goal is to be as inefficient as possible.

Hence: the Trident.

Visually stunning, memorable, wicked, and, unless redesigned, utterly useless for anything other than surface injuries. The problem is that due to the three heads, the trident can’t penetrate as deeply as a spear. It gets stuck. It’s designed to, in fact, because you don’t need much penetration for fishing and the barbs hold the fish in place. However, while it won’t go deep, it will cause lots of bleeding and surface injury.

This is why the Romans used it in the arena, most of the damage stays superficial and surface level. This is why they carried the net and the knife, because the knife is what would do the actual killing.  Add in some wonky balance issues in comparison to the spear, and you’ve got a weapon at a disadvantage.

This doesn’t mean the design never saw use. There’s the dangpa which is a 17th century Korean weapon. You’ll notice though, it isn’t exactly a Poseidon-esque trident. It’s more like a fork. The head is much smaller, the tips are bladed rather than barbed, and its going for limited penetration with extra pig-sticking damage on the internals. It won’t go as deep, but its designed to make big holes for lots of bleeding. The dangpa was meant to go after pirates, so you get distance, extra damage, and limited chance of the weapon getting stuck.

Just as a general rule, never pair Bronze Age weaponry against martial styles where going into the air is an effective strategy. The hoplite’s overhanded with the spear, which significantly limits it’s mobility options and power. The spinning with the Chinese spear allows the user to create a defense while transitioning up and down the length of the shaft. They can control how close or how far they are from their target without stopping the movement/momentum of the weapon. The weapon style allows for the wielder to use the weapon close to the tip in short form grip and transition back to the end of the haft in order to swing it one handed. The swing will then transition into another position to make use of the ground they’ve gained. Basically, you’d be looking at something similar to the Donnie Yen/Jet Li fight sequence from Hero. We’re talking about someone moving a metal spear fast enough and hard enough that the metal bends as a result. That’s something some styles take advantage of and build toward, depending on historical period. The basic concept here is why you’d never want to pit these martial systems against anything Bronze Age. What gave the Spartans and the Persian Immortals the advantage in their period was the fact they were training and no one else was, but they were outliers.

We’re talking about a combat system designed for a period where a professional military force is nonexistent. The Grecian city states didn’t have the resources to keep a standing military force, they were ad hoc militia. It worked for the period. It didn’t work against the Romans, who had a standing military force that was much closer to what we’d consider professionally trained soldiers.

This is why versus with weapons sucks. Weapons are a form of technology, they belong to specific time periods and they’re designed for the problems existing within those periods.

A character with a Chinese spear out of wuxia legends would get:

Comes from a period where standing militaries exist. (Huge advantage.) Likely trained from childhood, but even if they’re not it doesn’t matter. Trained in a comprehensive martial system. (It is really hard to overstate how important this concept is.) Can chain multiple attacks together, different attacks, different techniques, with footwork, blocks, and counters.  They’re likely a professional fighter.

A Hoplite gets none of these things, and a Spartan (which is the closest they have to professional soldier) would get wrecked in a duel. The guy wielding the Chinese spear is working off a conceptual understanding of martial arts that doesn’t exist yet for them as a culture and they don’t have the luxury to develop. The heroes of wuxia myth have more in common with the knight-errant than they do with the Grecian heroes.

This is before we get to the fact that the Chinese spear can be either steel or wood. The Chinese had the resources to do it, they could and did make spears entirely out of steel from tip to shaft. There’s a huge technological jump between bronze and iron. One will fall apart on you in battle while the other will make the other humans fall apart. You can’t really make longswords out of bronze (the Celts did and they would collapse during battle) because the metal wasn’t stable enough.

China is one of the great martial powers of its region and era, it is comparable to Europe in terms of militarized technological advancement. You’ll get people who argue they were more advanced, which depending on period is certainly possible if not likely. For comparison, it’s basically like saying, “I want a Roman gladiator to fight a knight.” That could happen, but it wouldn’t end well for the gladiator. Or wanting a samurai to fight a US Marine. It wouldn’t end well for the samurai. It didn’t actually, when they encountered the Black Ships.

You can’t strip the training that comes with a weapon to make them comparable to one from another period in history, especially an older one. Early Era spear versus trident would be a very boring fight. They’d both be overhanded and poke at each other until someone died. The one with shield has the advantage because defense and the spear has greater penetration, so that’d be the winner. Give the guy with a trident a net and we’ve got a gladiator arena. It’d be a slow fight, but it’d be more fair. The net provides options, and allows the opportunity to negate the spear/shield.

It might be entertaining though for story purposes, that was the point of the gladiator arena. Entertainment as opposed to efficiency. The goal of storytelling is to be entertaining. The reason for a trident is spectacle and/or desperation, which is still spectacle.

Or the trident is magic.

That might change the rules.

-Michi

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Q&A: A Hunch Is A Vague Suspicion You Can’t Explain… Yet

Just what is a hunch in fiction? They can lead someone to the exact right move they need to make but isn’t that just experience? How can someone feel someone watching them? Just how much of that fiction is realistic when a detective has a hunch and finds their target?

A hunch is a gut feeling, a suspicion, and recognizing a pattern that puts someone on the trail. Usually, this is a vague response and you can’t put your finger on the source or cause. You notice pieces that are out of place from where they’re regularly supposed to be, they don’t jive without your understanding of the world. They don’t jive with the other examples you’ve seen before of similar behavior.

That’s all a hunch is. You know something is weird, something is off, but you can’t put your finger on it. Maybe it’s a specific person, maybe its the way the room looks, maybe it’s the evidence. You know there’s something in this pattern that doesn’t fit, but you’re using your observational skills and looking at the environment around you to find the clues.

A hunch is not psychically knowing the answer. If the hunch is leading the character to perform the exact right move to find the answer they need in the moment (rather than just a clue), then that’s sloppy writing.

Check out this setup from Law & Order:

Detective Lennie Briscoe: [in Grimes’ apartment] Hey, Ed, do you always leave your phonebook out?
Ed Green: Only if I’ve been using it.
Detective Lennie Briscoe: Yeah. There’s an old PI trick. If you had it open to a certain page, it bends the spine. It’ll open there.
[he picks the phonebook up and drops it on the table]
Detective Lennie Briscoe: Hotels. Some cheaper than others.
Ed Green: Where do we start?
Detective Lennie Briscoe: At the bottom and work our way up, I guess. – Law & Order

That right there? That’s a hunch. You know how something works, you’ve seen it work before, and so you try it to see what happens. If you’re right, you might find a clue. In this case, you use a book on the regular and leave it open then the spine bends. It opens on the page you’ve been using. A detective comes along, wants to know what you’ve been looking at, they can use the PI trick Briscoe talks about to figure it out. That doesn’t solve the mystery, it just gives you clues. We don’t even know this guy went to any of these hotels, we know he was looking at these hotels.

Hunches augment evidence collection. Collecting evidence is how you solve crimes. Crimes are puzzles, you have the aftermath but have to work backwards to figure out method and motivation. Hunches are how you get the ball rolling on finding the pieces of the puzzle you need. That’s where your intuition, experience, and pattern recognition do the work. They’re here to push the detective in the direction the narrative needs. What they should not be doing is providing the detective or the audience with the solution.

In the hardcore mystery novel genre, its necessary to provide your audience with the pieces of the puzzle before the detective puts it all on the table. This gives the audience a chance to solve the mystery, letting them work through the same information the detective has. The structure of the mystery novel leaves the solution to mystery in the final chapter, giving the audience a chance to solve the puzzle for themselves. The solution comes after the climax.

For reference, Law & Order is a procedural and not a mystery. However, procedurals can be very helpful for figuring out how police carry out an investigation which will in turn help you be better at writing mysteries. Also better at understanding hunches.

When you’ve got a character who is predictive with laser accuracy, you know the author already has the solution in mind and the character has access to what the author knows. This works with a character who has access to outside knowledge or committed the crime themselves like Vick Mackie from The Shield. He’s working backwards because he did it, Shane did it, someone in his squad did it, and he’s covering it up.  It doesn’t work with a character who’s a “super detective” because they’re starting from nothing, even when they’ve got experience they still need to work through the crime.

The thing about general crime is that it’s usually not that mysterious, the pieces are often pretty obvious. Criminals aren’t that smart, especially those criminals who haven’t made crime a career. The vast majority of people committing crimes aren’t masterminds, and often this is their first time out. Which is also where they’ll make the most mistakes. If you’ve watched lots of people screw up over a prolonged period of time then you’ll get a sense for how people who’ve committed similar crimes behave.

One of my favorite examples of this is with Logan and Briscoe in an episode of Law & Order where they were called to a break in and the first five minutes of the episode was them discussing how moronic these people is because of all the mistakes they made. Such as the broken glass being on the wrong side of the window, and the door being broken in the wrong direction. (Because it swings out you see.) They broke out rather than in, and the screwdriver is from inside the office but was left outside. They went into the building to grab the screwdriver to then break back in. Genius.

The point of the story is most people don’t think like criminals. So, when they go to commit a crime they try to behave the way they think a criminal might be expected to but go after what they think is valuable. They try to break into the safe, rather than going for all the obvious and opportunistic stuff lying around. Thief is going to go after what the thief thinks is valuable, which is whatever is easily available and can be fenced fast so they can get in and out and gone. If you’ve got a thief who goes after the safe but never cased the desk or found the money in it, then that’s a sign something is going on. What the criminal on the street thinks is valuable versus what a guy who spends everyday of his life in that room and knows what in there is actually valuable are very different.

This is the sort of behavior that provides the opportunity for hunches. If something is out of place, you as the investigator is going to want to know why. If you’re not asking why, then something has gone wrong with the writing. A mystery is about asking questions, those questions lead to other questions that you then provide evidence for until you have the pieces you need to solve the puzzle. That starts with a gut feeling. The gut feeling leads you to your question because you’ve noticed something is just plain weird, and you as an investigator are a naturally curious individual.

You know how people are supposed to behave in a situation, but they didn’t. So, if the obvious is not the answer then what is? Well, now we need to develop the hunch into a theory and then find evidence to prove the theory. It is scientific, not instinctual. The detective’s experience with solving crimes couples with their empirical understanding of human nature which allows them greater pattern recognition. The major difference between you and me and a police detective is they’ve got a better idea of what they should be looking for and what it feels like when things don’t fit.

However, the detective’s biases are also at play and manipulating their hunches. The famous example of this is Sherlock Holmes with Irene Adler, where the conclusion absolutely makes sense if you remember Holmes is still a member of the British gentry and polite society. Or, if you understand anything about Victorian gender politics. Holmes’ opinion of women is a victim of British societal norms and he cannot imagine a woman behaving the way Irene does. Therefore, he misses her entirely. He’s a contemporary of the women in Jane Austen’s novels. Would you imagine Mrs. Bennet behaving like Irene Adler? No? That’s Holmes’ problem. He comes from a period where women were trained and not educated, of course he’s going to be biased.

The detective’s own selection biases will play a part in which hunches they follow and which they disregard. Often to their detriment.

Remember, detectives aren’t omniscient.

If they were, we wouldn’t have any reason to be reading the mystery. If the narrative is not a puzzle then it isn’t worth working out. The mystery genre is, in many ways, about the reader being smarter than the author rather than the other way around. You’re not supposed to be surprised or have the clues hidden, but rather you want the reader to figure it out. When they go back, it will all make sense.

On a basic worldbuilding level, your protagonist needs to be finding the evidence anyway. If you can’t get those pieces, you have no case and no means to convict and the criminal will get away. It doesn’t matter in the end whether or not the detective is right, what matters is whether or not they can prove it. Plenty of good detective fiction ends without the villain behind bars. While the detective ultimately solved the case, they had no means or power to bring the villain to justice. See: Chinatown.

Kostas Theodoulos: This lady, she was putting up a fight. The guy pulls a gun and just pops her. Bang.
Ed Green: Because she wouldn’t get out of the car?
Kostas Theodoulos: Looked like. This city’s a cesspool. Two years ago, guy comes into my shop, points a gun. Give him whatever he wants. Nothing’s worth your life.
Ed Green: Those are words to live by.
Detective Lennie Briscoe: Or die by. – Law & Order

As for someone watching you, sometimes that’s experience, sometimes it’s paranoia, and sometimes it’s both. Sometimes, you just can’t tell.

The traditional seedy Private Investigator is usually an exceedingly paranoid individual who sees the darkest aspects of humanity in every corner they look. When they start getting close to the real outcome of a case, they’re going to think someone’s watching them. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong.

Remember, they’re not omniscient and that question of uncertainty is part of what makes a mystery great. This is a game between the person trying to solve the puzzle and the person who doesn’t want the puzzle solved. The detective only has so many options and only so many chances at truth before their chances of being believed run out. If you contact the police with a solution to the mystery, you damn well better have your ducks in order. If you’ve made an enemy of every detective in the police station by being a total asshole, no matter how skilled you are at solving cases, that may ultimately affect whether or not one of them believes you when the time comes. Or is even willing to help. After all, they’re very busy people with cases of their own. If you’re a private citizen like a private investigator, your options of bringing a villain to justice under the long arm of the law are limited.

Before someone goes, “but Sherlock Holmes…” I’m going to point out that Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a complete a-hole to every investigator in Scotland Yard. There are quite a few he gets on with just fine. He was mostly a jerk to Lestrade. He’s unsociable by the standards of Victorian expectations, he’s weird, and he cultivates odd connections among the lower classes. In fact, it’s Holmes’ willingness to look past the strict cast confines of nineteenth century British social strata that allows him to be so effective as a detective. As a man and as a member of the gentleman class, Holmes does, however, have the option to be weird. The major complaint about him is not his arrogance, but his unwillingness to conform to convention and behave “appropriately”. This translates to: he’s a jerk to people in his own sphere, to rich people, and not poor people. He doesn’t follow society’s rules, and the society of his time was very closeted, very caste based, and extremely unsympathetic to those outside its very narrow band. For a gentleman in Victorian England, that’s a big deal. This is one of the qualities that has made Holmes so sympathetic and popular, his willingness to thumb his nose at convention.

What Holmes usually doesn’t do as a character is cut his nose off to spite his face. He understands the society he exists in, and knows what he can get away with. If you consider that he is a member of the gentlemen leisure class with familial ties to Parliament, the answer is legion. He gets away with legion.

The other thing to understand about Holmes is he was on the cutting edge of scientific advancements and techniques regarding the solving of crimes. Many of which are in practice today. If you simply bring Holmes forward into the modern era without any changes, he’d be subpar in comparison to your average police detective. He’s not just super smart, and time marches on. If you want a modern Holmes, he’d be on the technological cutting edge of disciplines like forensics rather than just a big brain.

A good detective is ultimately a master when it comes to understanding the culture he or she lives and works in.

In detective fiction, the hunch serves as the first clue in the case, the point at which the detective becomes invested in the puzzle rather than say the money.  The first we have that the case isn’t exactly what it appears to be. Things are weird. It isn’t open and shut.

Your first hunch can be wrong, by the way. The detective’s hunch can be entirely off base, and evidence will point them in a new direction. They may see something that was never be there to begin with. Or, their initial hunch may seem wrong in the middle of the book but leads them back around to the same conclusion just in a way neither they nor the audience expects.

There is always the possibility the detective is wrong, or will not accuse the right person. That’s part of what makes a mystery so exciting. The putting together of the pieces, the stakes involved with being right and the consequences of being wrong, rather than neatly wrapping up the story with the right conclusion. The process of the detective figuring out the story, putting the pieces together (as the audience theorizes with them) is the fun of a mystery novel.

A conclusion that the detective knew all along and we never had a reason to doubt them or events is not particularly exciting. In a well-written mystery the clues are all always there, and they make logical sense when the reader works through them. The detective’s hunches come from reason and the audience should be able to understand their thought process. Except for the times, the murders are just so weird they defy imagination. There’s no way you could guess, and the detective probably shouldn’t either as a gut reaction.

I mean, seriously, if your detective manages to get a hunch that tells them early in the narrative that the series of strange murders is the result of an escaped orangutan climbing through people’s windows and hiding up the chimney flue then that’s going to be really dumb.

I mean, why in the world would you think that without any evidence?

Why?

Why?

-Michi

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Q&A: Assholes

I got a character who might be a “deadpan snarker”. She loves the have the last word, troll people with words, taunts those she dislike, makes snide and sarcastic remarks about flaws or situation, and can be very abrasive and rude when she is angry or demanding. Does this makes her an asshole? Do likeable assholes exist? She can and will be nice to the people she loves and conform them, but she still trolls them for fun occasionally. She is not a bully, nor has low self esteem, just a big ego.

Yeah, sounds like you might have an asshole there, not just someone with a dry sense of humor and a never ending store of sarcasm.

Can an asshole be likable? Yes… with some reservations.

It’s a lot easier to like an asshole, if you never have to interact with them. This might sound counter-intuitive: if you never interact with them, how would you know they’re an asshole, or why would you care? Thing is, the momentary actions from an asshole, the snide comments, the sarcasm, even the egregious behavior, can be pretty funny, if you’re never the target of it.

If you’re watching a show, where a character is tearing the guts out of everyone around them, and you’re not interacting, that can be funny. You can like that asshole, secure in the knowledge that they’ll never direct one of their rants at you in particular. The same thought process carries over into other forms of entertainment.

You can center a story on someone who is a horrible human being, and still entertain your audience. The inveterate asshole protagonist is a staple for sitcoms as a genre. They’re not mandatory, but they can be incredibly entertaining and cathartic. Even in a non-comedy setting, an asshole protagonist can (sometimes) be compelling in their human misery.

It’s easier to like an asshole if they’re selective. Alternately, you can call this filtering if you want. A selective asshole picks who they go after. It could be certain groups of individuals, like people who dress a certain way, fans of some pop group, people who own small dogs, or some wide reaching collection of groups. If you’re not one of the people they target, it’s a lot easier to laugh it off. It becomes harder to stomach when they’re going after you.

Depending on who an asshole targets, you might even empathize or agree with them. It’s entirely possible to have a character who goes off on some group you hold in singular contempt. It doesn’t make their behavior appropriate, but if it’s something you would do or wished you could do, then that can certainly be engaging to you.

Unfiltered assholes are very unpleasant people. They lash out at anyone who gets within easy reach. No one is safe; nothing is sacred. The only people who stay in their lives are ones who don’t have a choice, or refuse to give up on some idealized version of them. I could probably write an article on people having an image of someone else that has no relation to reality, but the short version is that this exists.

Again, if you’re outside of their life, looking in, an unfiltered asshole can be hilarious. You never know quite where they’re going to go next, or what will cause them to flip out. Note: I said, “can be hilarious.” It’s entirely possible for them to simply be temperamental human wreckage with no redeeming value. The fine line between these two states is if the writer (and or actor) can land the jokes.

Comedy is a defense mechanism. No, really. Humor doesn’t all come from the same place, but the kind of vicious comedy you’re describing is, very specifically, a defense mechanism. It’s your character either trying to drive everyone around them out of their life, and create a safe space to inhabit, and/or it’s an attempt to invalidate their own insecurity by taking the people around them down a notch.

You’ll run across a concept from time to time stating that: In order to be a good writer, you need to have had a messed up childhood. I don’t think this is really true. It is possible to become a good writer, through hard work, study and effort. The inverse is not true, having a messed up childhood does not automatically make you a good writer, as anyone who has taught creative writing can confirm.

A messed up childhood will make you hypersensitive to your environment. This doesn’t mean you’ll break down on a whim, but it does mean you are far more likely to pick up on small changes in your surroundings, or in someone’s behavior. With a background like that, you’re wired to pay far more attention to exactly how other people in your environment behave. For writing this is an important skill. For comedy, this is absolutely vital.

It doesn’t matter if you’re making benign jokes, or taking someone out at the knees, comedy requires you’ve gotten into a fairly messed up place, and hung out long enough to get familiar with the mindset. So, when I say, comedy is a defense mechanism, it really is. More accurately, it’s the third stage of a self-defense system for someone who’s been through some serious psychological trauma.

The first stage is that hypersensitivity. Now, this can be acquired through benign causes. It can also build up as an adult.

“What are you talking about? You haven’t been through anything fucked up, I’d know.”

“No, you don’t understand; I’ve worked retail.”

To be fair, if you start developing this awareness as a child, it will be far more refined by the time you’re old enough to drink.

The second stage is learning to operationalize what you see. It’s looking for irregularities, and then connecting the pieces. Usually, when something doesn’t fit, you’ll pick up on it much sooner than a happy, well adjusted, individual would.

Again, if you’re living in a situation where knowing things are about to go pear-shaped is critical to your safety, you’re going to cultivate that skill because your life depends on it. This is also where comedy starts.

A lot of humor begins when you start realizing that something doesn’t quite make sense, then finding a way to articulate that to people who haven’t quite gotten there. Stuff your brain picked out, you noticed it didn’t quite add up, now you’re looking for a way to put that out there.

The trick to being funny is getting there before anyone else did. Jokes don’t play as well on repeat because you’ve already pointed out the idiosyncrasy or weirdness. Your audience knows. Time to find something new. (In fairness, there are concepts about repetition to land a longer joke. Sometimes telling the same joke again so you can flip it around later is a thing. As with any other kind of writing, humor has a large collection of malleable rules.)

The third stage is affecting your environment. This is where you take a joke and actually use it. There’s a lot of ways these can play, and it’s entirely dependent on the jokes themselves, but let’s focus on two approaches for the moment.

You can tell jokes to get attention. Get people to look at you and say, “hey, I like that strange being.” If you’ve been neglected, or just isolated, this is probably your goal. The humor will take the tone of the group you’re trying to ingratiate yourself with. I actually typed, “inoffensive,” but these can actually get pretty messed up; the important part is that the humor helps you blend into the community you want to be a part of.

You can tell jokes to get people to go away. This is the, “fuck you,” of an asshole who has been the subject of direct abuse, and just wants to shove people in their environment out.

Depending on context, there’s a real possibility of the exact same joke switching between these states. (Also, as I said, there is a lot more you can do with humor, but, for the purposes of this specific example, I’m trying to keep things simple.)

Why your character cracks jokes will affect how they use their humor. Someone who’s using it as a weapon is more in the range of trying to push people out. Someone who’s attention seeking is going to try to find an in. Normally, the former would be an asshole, and the latter would not. This isn’t 100%, because context is king here, but the behavior you’re describing is solidly in the asshole camp.

Someone who’s dryly sarcastic can end up in either group. It’s a flavor of delivery, and somewhat agnostic for what you’re doing.

Similarly, deadpan is just a comedic delivery. Literally, the term simply means, “dead faced.” “Pan” was slang for one’s face in the 1920’s. For reference, that was also when the term was coined. You stand up, deliver your joke, but show no emotion or response. It’s almost entirely agnostic to the jokes.

So, this is a long road to get to saying, “yes, your character’s an asshole.” She might also be funny. I haven’t read what you’ve written with her. I’d also question the idea that she’s doesn’t have self-esteem issues, and isn’t a bully.

Now, I’m just going to step back and say, this isn’t automatically a bad thing. Like I’ve said before, your characters don’t need to be good people. They can be walking dumpster fires.

However, you need to be honest with yourself about your characters. They can lie to themselves about who they are. That’s fine, it’s a little messed up, but still it is fine. You can lie to your audience about who your character is. That’s also fine, a little tricky, but still fine. But, you need to remember who your characters really are, under the surface, flaws and all. Also, remember that your character is fictional. You do not need to advocate for them, that’s their problem, your job is to make their story interesting and compelling.

The behavior you’re describing sounds a lot like a bully. Not, the kind of schoolyard kid, who roughs up others. An adult with serious self-esteem issues who looks around, and seeks opportunities to bring others down a peg in order to feel better about themselves. The methods change, but the ultimate goal remains. Someone who looks at the world, and lashes out at the people in it in a desperate bid to feel better about themselves. Internally they may couch this as justified behavior, that their vindictive behavior is justified by prior actions. It’s not. But, they can tell themselves that if they want, and many real people do.

Normal assholes. The kinds who try to keep people out of their lives, can, and do, filter. Well, some of them can anyway. In those cases, it’s entirely possible for someone to have hard lines between people who they’ll go to bat for, and people they’ll take the tar out of.

This kind of approach is incredibly common among people who’ve had abusive childhoods, or engage with human misery on a regular basis, especially as part of their job. Cops, social workers, EMS, people who work retail on Black Friday. In each case, there are subtle differences to how they approach things. Occupational hazard. Because you really don’t want to talk about the drunk boating accident where the underside of the DUI’s hull was smeared into the faces of a dead family. It’s not funny. It’s just fucked up. “How was your day?”

The important thing to keep in mind, when you’re writing this kind of an asshole, is that their aggression needs to be laser focused. They have certain things that will set them off. Everything else can kinda slide. Someone who is this kind of a selective asshole may be an otherwise normal-ish person. It’s not the character you’re describing, but people like this do exist. Some of them will be reading this post.

Someone who started with a finely filtered flavor of asshole who’s letting their focus slip will likely see their life fall apart. People who used to be safe will be getting driven away. Their behavior may become erratic. And, yes, this can happen. Sometimes the strain of the job can lead someone to deteriorate.

At that point, the smart choice is to cut them loose before they snap and make the evening news. Of course, if this was your friend, or someone who’s turned out decent results for years, you might be inclined to turn a blind eye, or try to get them to come back. This can lead to an entirely realistic situation where someone has deteriorated into a complete asshole, but has yet to drive everyone out of their life.

Again, having a character who’s going through this kind of a breakdown, can be an element of a good story. So long as you remember that’s what’s happening, and are keeping track of the bridges your character burns. Having a character who’s at risk of alienating the people they need to do their job, is one way to create tension. Particularly if they started the fires before they realized they’d need them.

-Starke

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Q&A: In Tragedy, Reject Despair

How can a writer avoid putting a happy face over a tragedy ? There was this show I watched that really made me angry because of the way it kind of had a forced happy ending that completely undermined a characters arc and really made me angry. The message of the show basically is people can get over ANYTHING if they’re optimistic enough. No, they cant. They can’t get over a concentration camp.

Honestly, if this show left a bad taste in your mouth, I’ll direct you to Elie Wiesel. Read the works of those people who lived through the experience, and you’ll have a better understanding of how to avoid a forced happy ending. However, remember, some of the people who survived the Holocaust did have happy endings. Or, what we would consider happy.

“I am pessimistic because I don’t trust history. But at the same time, I am optimistic. Out of despair, one creates. What else can one do? There is no good reason to go on living, but you must go on living. There is no good reason to bring a child into this world but you must have children to give the world a new innocence, a new reason to aspire towards innocence. As Camus said, in a world of unhappiness, you must create happiness.”

– Elie Wiesel, New York Times interview, April 7, 1981

You can have a tragedy be a tragedy, and still have hope.

In fact, we must have hope.

Remember, all these quotes from Elie Wiesel come from a man who survived the Nazi death camps and experienced it first hand. In fact, if you ever want to read a story about concentration camps Night is a good one to start with. The whole of Wiesel’s catalogue actually, Night deals specifically with the camps but it’s a trilogy.  Of the three, it is a memoir based on his experiences in Auschwitz. However, Dawn and Day both deal with struggling in the aftermath. In Dawn’s case, the story is about a holocaust survivor traveling to Palestine to join the resistance against the British and tasked with the assassination of a British officer.

In fact, a key piece of a lot of Holocaust literature written by survivors is hope. Not in the classic Hollywood happy ending, but hope nonetheless. They’re about who we choose to let tragedy make us into,  come to an understanding of suffering, and find a measure of peace. When faced with monstrosity, you can either embrace it or reject it.

In fiction, we build to our endings. In a well crafted piece of fiction the ending is never false, because its a natural conclusion to the characters experiences and their arcs.

You avoid putting a falsely happy face on a tragedy is in all the events that come before the end. If this is not where they’re character arcs are leading them then the ending will feel false. (Any ending forcing happy endings will be false if they defy the setup that got them there.) The end is a conclusion, it is the fulfillment of everything your story promises. If you want an honestly “happy” ending for characters, you need to acknowledge their experiences and the conclusions those experiences led them to. Tragedy is sad in abstract, but it means something different to those who experience the tragedy firsthand. Their experiences are unique, and their relationship to the tragedy is unique. This is a defining aspect of their character arc.

I’ll point out, Shakespeare’s Comedies and Tragedies follow the exact same story structure. They’re the same until we hit that final act, after the ground shaking horrible event X happens whether that’s Hero being framed for adultery or Mercutio’s death. These are the points where the dominos begin falling, the only difference is in how they do. The question is does it all go to pot? Or do the characters figure it out? Romeo and Juliet could’ve been a comedy, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing have similar story beats and Much Ado‘s John is the proto Iago. Shakespeare structured his plays so he could flip a coin and whichever way the final act played out it’d still be in character.

The difference between a tragic ending and a happy one is a knife’s edge apart, dependent on the decision making of the characters in question. When it is a natural extension of a character arc, no happy ending is false. The key piece to understanding how to handle tragedy in your fiction and, in some ways, real life is to grasp that you don’t get over the tragedy. You deal with tragedy. You find the courage to face the emotional aftermath, to not let the experience define who you are, to believe in kindness, in goodness, to reach out in compassion. Then, in time, to move on.

This act is part of your character’s arc. This is a choice.

The difference between a happy ending and a forced happy ending is the characters are creating their happy ending for themselves. They aren’t given happiness. They choose happiness. They march toward happiness. They make their continued survival a choice, an act of defiance and rebellion.  They make kindness and compassion choices, they choose kindness when the world laughs at them. This is an action, not a reaction. Active, not passive.

This is the very definition of “earn your happy ending.”

Except, they don’t earn their happiness. They take it.

They choose. They create. They live.

Tragedy can bring out the worst in a character, but it can bring out the best in them too. In tragedy, we find the strength to continue forward. Life becomes precious, happiness precious, courage precious. All these are active choices by the individual and as a result are powerful. A natural happy ending in a narrative is when the characters create the happy ending for themselves. Their determination in the face of extreme horror, their struggles against cynicism, and their ultimate rejection of despair.

The characters choose happiness. They can’t be given happiness. They’re the only ones who can find happiness for themselves, that’s the only way “happiness” has any meaning.

“People say occasionally that there must be light at the end of the tunnel, but I believe in those times there was light in the tunnel. The strange way there was courage in the ghetto, and there was hope, human hope, in the death camps. Simply an anonymous prisoner giving a piece of his bread to someone who was hungrier than he or she; a father shielding his child; a mother trying to hold back her tears so her children would not see her pain—that was courage.”

– Elie Wiesel, Days of Remembrance remarks, April 9, 2002

In tragedy, we find the worst of humanity. We also find the best of humanity. We find strength, real strength in hope. When the happy ending is not provided, we must create one for ourselves. We aren’t past it, we aren’t over it, but even just going on living is an act of defiance. An act of rebellion, a middle finger to all those assholes striving so hard to take away everything you are and kill you.

Honestly, admire the pure grit of the survivors to come through such horrific situations and keep moving forward. Who see the worst the world has to offer and reject it. Admire the strength it takes. To experience what they did and look optimistically to the future takes an unimaginable level of emotional strength, but coming to that place of strength isn’t easy. Emotional strength isn’t a state of morality, it isn’t guaranteed. The scars will continue, but that doesn’t mean hope is impossible or the experiences are forgotten. Or that the experiences of the parents won’t affect the next generation.

There’s an entire literary genre based on the second generation experiences of the adult children of Holocaust survivors working through the fallout of their parents’ experiences. Of them trying to understand their parents through the generational gap. Maus is one example. This is secondary to the literary genre of holocaust survivors working through their autobiographical experiences. The children’s experiences are unique, they work through the tragedy experienced by their parents; experiences they cannot wholly understand. They mourn the grandparents, aunts, and uncles they never met. Their parent’s previous partners who died in the concentration camps. The siblings they never got to know, who died, who were abducted, or otherwise lost. The scars of the parents are scars on the children who love them, who struggle to understand their experiences and forge their own identity.

“I know and I speak from experience, that even in the midst of darkness, it is possible to create light and share warmth with one another; that even on the edge of the abyss, it is possible to dream exalted dreams of compassion; that it is possible to be free and strengthen the ideals of freedom, even within prison walls; that even in exile, friendship becomes an anchor.”

– Elie Wiesel, Days of Remembrance remarks, April 23, 2009

A story and its characters can come out of horror with courage and hope for the future. The question to the author is did they earn that happy ending? Was that the path of progression their characters were on? Were they finding the best of humanity in tragedy? Did they remember kindness exists in all the cruelty and misery? That when given the option to be their worst selves, some human beings can and do rise above?

The answer to a happy ending after a tragedy is the author finds a way to allow the experiences  of their characters to become a source of personal strength. That strength and compassion is not cheesy or silly or unrealistic. These stories are powerful and moving.

If you believe these stories are cheesy, if you believe them impossible, if you look at the darkness and cannot see how someone could come through the experiences to find the light then you won’t be able to write these stories. They don’t come prepackaged. They take work, hard work, to tell. Cynicism and pessimism are easier than optimism, hope harder to hold onto than despair. It is difficult to believe in yourself, especially in the face of adversity.

The character must find that strength as part of their narrative arc, come to their own conclusion of what their experiences mean to them, to heal themselves, and to get themselves to the point where they can look at Wiesel’s quotes and not feel they’re cheap.

Many nights we prayed
With no proof anyone could hear
In our hearts a hope for a song
We barely understood.

Now we are not afraid
Although we know there’s much to fear
We were moving mountains
Long before we knew we could.

There can be miracles
When you believe
Though hope is frail
Its hard to kill.

Who knows what miracles
You can achieve
When you believe somehow you will
You will when you believe. – “There Can Be Miracles (When You Believe)”

Did the author allow the possibility for miracles? Or are they telling a story that says, “life sucks and then you die”? If its the latter, then that forced happy ending will be cheap. It’s meaningless. The characters didn’t just fail to earn it, they don’t even believe in it. They don’t put any value in happiness or the possibility of it and, as a result, the audience won’t either.

You may not “get over” the experiences in a concentration camp, but, by god, you can live a happy life. People have. They did. They saw the horrors of humanity, and beat it. They refused to stay victims. They went on to lead happy lives with their families. They won.

A character arc can involve someone who is depressed, angry, in pain,  whose emotions are ugly and they’re lashing out at everyone who gets close. They can transform, and that transition is their arc. As they find that light at the end of the tunnel, come through it into a new understanding. Find compassion, kindness, and inner strength to carry them forward. To not give up. To hope. To be happy.

What that arc isn’t is a natural state or inevitable conclusion. The story can just as easily go the opposite direction. The path of darkness and despair is just as natural, and doesn’t mean the person who loses faith and collapses under the weight of their experiences is any weaker. Those who became the worst versions of themselves in order to survive. Those people existed too, and their stories are just as powerful.

Kindness and compassion are not givens, they’re not guarantees. You aren’t guaranteed anything. Certainly not a happy ending. We find happiness in ourselves. You’ve got to fight for that goodness, fight to hold onto it. Sometimes, we fail. Sometimes, we see embracing the darkness as the only way to survive. That’s a different kind of hope. It’s ugly and it’s cruel, and it is part of us.

Some rose up, and some didn’t.

Whose story are you telling?

You give a tragic story an honest ending by being honest about what happened with your characters. Where did they end up at the end? What did they do? What life they will live now?

Stories are like life.

You’ve got to fight.

As Elie Wiesel says, you must reject despair. This is a conscious action, it is a choice. That is what makes stories of hope so powerful, because finding hope in the darkness isn’t easy.

We choose to hope, we pursue hope, we fight for hope.

“Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope. If dreams reflect the past, hope summons the future.”

– Elie Wiesel, Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1986

If your characters are not fighting for hope, if they are not choosing to reject despair, if they are giving up optimism and embracing cynicism, if they have accepted cruelty as a state of nature, and nothing they or anyone do will ever make it better then they will not have a happy ending. And any happy ending given to them will feel false until they go on a quest to find hope again.

Suffering is not what earns happy endings. We don’t get happy endings because we deserve them. We get them by fighting for them, through soul-searching. By clinging tenaciously to hope. We find that ending in perseverance and continuing to strive for a better tomorrow. Choosing hope and rejecting despair is where happy endings come from. That’s where happiness comes from.

The choice is why happiness, compassion, kindness, and hope are so very precious. Remember, no one said choosing happiness and optimism in adversity was easy.

Anyone who did lied.

“I cannot cure everybody. I cannot help everybody. But to tell the lonely person that I am not far or different from that lonely person, that I am with him or her, that’s all I think we can do and we should do.”

-Michi

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Q&A: How to Fight Write

When writing about a sword fight (or sword and magic fight, in this case) is it better to give a general impression of the fighting, or go into play-by-play detail?

Have this bit from my current Nano efforts:

Dropping into a crouch, Orlya shifted. Head lowered, she prowled sideways along the gnoll. The end of her great tail rose, whipping back and forth.

We need to get out of here, Leah called to her dragon.

Orlya’s rage bubbled in Leah’s brain, a definite negative. There is no time.

Leah swallowed, hand falling to the plas-pistol holstered to her thigh. It wouldn’t do much against the spinosaurus other than make it angry. Pray the spino wants the fish more. Large predators didn’t like to fight unless pressed, and the spino wasn’t a carnosaur. With a closer food source and carcasses on the shore, Orlya’d be less appealing as potential prey. Pass us by, pass us by.

The spino’s head swung, noting the fish carcasses Orlya left. Head lowered, it took a step toward the lake. Paused. Then, the long snout swung back. Great yellow eyes narrowed.

Cor, Leah breathed.

Screaming, the spinosaurus raced forward.

Leah drew her pistol, fully merging into their telepathic link as Orlya sprang sideways. She aimed for the spino’s sensitive parts, the eyes and the nostrils halfway up the creature’s snout. Too small to register as a threat, she moved slowly. The spino’s eyes followed her dragon. Adjusting course toward the cliffs, the creature crossed the ground in massive strides. Leah waited until the spino closed, and fired. Neon-blue blasts struck the spinosaurus dead-on. The blast caught the creature’s snout, left a small hole. No larger than the width of her thumb.

The spino screamed.

Springing off her haunches, Orlya lunged. She came in low, seizing the underside of the spinosaurus’ neck. Her powerful teeth sank deep, blood spurting from the gash. Her jaws latched, unfurled claws sinking deep into the soft ground, and she dragged the creature down.

The spino screamed, scrabbling for a grip with its claws.

Orlya slammed her shoulder into its side, pinning its arms. She yanked, powerful jaws hauling the spino sideways. Stumbling, the spino threw its head up and whipped toward the cliff wall. Dragged about, Orlya lifted off ground. Swung in a circle. Her hindquarters slammed into the rock wall, hard. Pain lanced through their shared bond.

I mean, yes, that is a dragon fighting a dinosaur. However, notice the scene is neither vague nor an exact play-by-play of the situation. The characters are giving you enough of an understanding to follow, but it doesn’t feel like an “and then, and then, and then.” You may start out that way, which is fine. You won’t get it perfect on your first go, it may start out vague and grow more specific as you redraft or start out as a list of what you want that you then break down into action.

The keys to writing a good fight scene is this:

Understanding logical behavior patterns and how matter interacts. The above is a pretty good example of three different species fighting with various approaches based on their natural advantages.  (Though not necessarily scientifically accurate.)

Animals are pretty simple to write in fight scenes once you get a basic understanding of their attack patterns. They’re often extremely effective, but they don’t change much. They fight mostly on base instinct, behavior changing on learned experience. This is going to be different from humans, who are primarily tool users and problem solvers.

In this scene, we’ve got the dragon, a four-legged winged beastie whose fighting tactics are somewhere between a lion and a wolf. (I based her on my cat. Likes falling from great heights to break the back of whatever she’s hunting, it works.) She’s all springing and pouncing, but a pack predator working together with her human partner. Not unlike what you’d expect from a traditional relationship human and their hunting/working dog. This is a symbiotic relationship between two beings who need each other, not a human and their pet.

The spinosaurus is a solo actor, when under threat it uses its greater size to intimidate, close, and ultimately get away. What is its first reaction to a smaller predator latched onto it’s throat? It tries to claw it off. When it can’t uses its greater weight to gain momentum and try to throw them In this case, into a nearby hard surface.

The human would, under normal circumstances, be mostly useless in a battle between predators this big. However, she uses her brain. Of the three, she’s the most strategic fighter. She creates the openings for her dragon to attack. Her weapon can’t kill the spinosaurus on its own, not before it kills her, The creature is too large. However, by hitting it in the vulnerable places where it hurts (the eyes, places where the bones are close to the surface/hitting the nerves, other parts the dino is going to feel necessary to protect), using pain to distract the creature and split its attention. In this way, Leah shows the audience why her dragon needs her just as much as she needs it. The human provides the strategic understanding which makes the dragon a more effective predator in an environment where it isn’t the apex. Symbiosis goes two ways.

You wonder what this has to do with sword fights and magic?

On a simple, conceptual, and very basic overview, all combat works the same. This doesn’t mean you write it the same way because that’s silly. The approach and thinking stays.

What is the situation? The needs? The goals?

What is the environment?

What are the available tools? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages?

A character who is a mage and primarily defends themselves with magic is going to be limited by the rules their magic functions under. Specifically: the length of time it takes to cast a spell. Unless they can cast very quickly, they’ll be ranged bombardment or will attempt to stay at range. (Like how you should be behaving with a gun, keep your distance.)

You’ve got a character who can do magic and you can’t? You need to take them down before they get their spells off. If they get their spells off, you dead.

So, you’ve got the one guy who wants to get the mage and the mage who needs to get away. This is how you get a basic setup. Now you know how both are going to behave as actors on the battlefield. Now, you can start strategizing on how one gets to the other.

In order to hit the magic user, the guy with the sword needs to get close enough to hit them. The magic user doesn’t want the guy with the sword to get close because then they focus enough to cast or it becomes more difficult. Their battle is going to function around these basic needs as they try to take advantage over the other, and the increasing difficulty of survival.

Next is the environment. They’re going to use their environment because terrain is a primary means of gaining advantage, often whoever uses it better wins. Whether that’s the spinosaurus throwing the dragon into the cliff face in order to dislodge them, or your sword user running from cover to cover hiding from a mage’s fireballs. They can’t stay in cover because fire. Even if their cover isn’t burning, the area around them is. Fire means smoke and fire is eating up the oxygen they need to keep their muscles moving and stay fighting.

These essential needs and limits are going to change how your characters behave and the strategies they employ in order to win. What’s important is grasping the movement of the battle, the physical ramifications of the actions, and how those affect the characters participating. There are set limitations on the battle i.e. how long your character can fight before reaching exhaustion, and the amount of damage they can do in that time frame. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes someone else gets there first.

The spino screamed in defiance, sides heaving. Blood raced down its neck, pooling on the dirt. Air sick with the stench of raw flesh.

Oh, c’mon! Leah leveled her plas-pistol, sighting down the barrel.

Orlya fanned her wings and frills, hissing.

The spino took another few lumbering steps, preparing to charge.

A flash of silver and ruby dropped from the sky, slamming onto the spino with the full force of its weight. Wings unfurled, body arched over the sail, a red dragon sank his claws into the creature’s sides; seizing the spino’s neck with his teeth. Leah saw his rider perched on his back, pike in hand, wearing red plasteel armor. The dragon too heavily armored.

The spino shrieked in agony, legs giving way. Unable to stay upright, fell forward and landed in a cloud of dust. Jaw smacking the dirt with a sickening crack.

The red dragon’s armored head gave a great shake before ripping upwards. White bone clenched in his teeth, he leapt free and landed on the gnoll. His wings tucking as he fixed Leah and Orlya with his yellow gaze. Blood dripping from his jaws, he grinned.

In Orlya’s case, she doesn’t win. Or, doesn’t have the chance to win.

All the little surface things most writers get caught on that they think are all important are ultimately ancillary. Your characters personalities and how that affects their decision making is ultimately secondary to their available tools and the needs of the situation. What comes after is their unique approach, which is the solution they come up with to win.

Then you add in Newton’s Laws. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” When you throw a bowling ball at a bunch of pins, what happens? You want a fight scene to feel real, you need to have your characters reacting to the imaginary harm in ways that jive with your audience’s expectations. Dem’s the rules.

If you shove someone, what happens? They move or they don’t, but either way their body has to take the force. You got a two legged creature suddenly hit with the great force of another monster pouncing on it from a great height, what happens? It’s going to be destabilized. It’ll fall. What happens when it hits the ground? Hard surface, the force is going to rebound back into it and the environment will respond accordingly. Fall in a dusty area, you get dust in the air.

You stab someone in the leg with your sword, what happens? They bleed sure, but blade’s gone into their muscles. Depending on which muscle that was and where it was, that could be very bad. You ever tried moving with a sprain? Or a cut? Now imagine doing it with a hole right through those muscles you need to move. How do people respond to pain?

Writing a character using a technique and naming said technique is only useful if you understand what the technique does and the effect it has. The effect is what’s important here. That is the show versus the tell.

You’ve got five senses. Use them.

Sight. Sound. Touch. Smell. Taste.

The sound of a scream. The scent of blood in the air, charred skin. Copper on the tongue when a character’s bitten through their lip or gotten blood in their mouth.

Action. Reaction. Action. Reaction.

You did X. I will negate and follow up with Y. However, both actions will do something. Both lead to their own results depending on success. So, what was it?

Orlya grabs the spinosaurus by its neck, a vital organ. The spinosaurus tries to grab her with its claws to drag her off.  In order to stop the spino from hurting her, she turns sideways and yanks the creature around and negates its arms by ensuring it can’t get an angle.

Your body is limited by its options for motion, arms can only bend so far. This is a universal truth, whether you’re a human, a dog, or a dinosaur. A key part of strategy in combat is getting on angles that cannot be countered. Animals will do this out of learned experience, just like humans do.

The spino’s first choice fails, but it doesn’t give up. Next, the spinosaurus lifts its neck to get her off the ground. Using it’s great weight it whips into a turn, gains momentum to throw her into the wall. Like a horse, bull, or other animal, it drags the unfortunate predator on a nearby tree or wall or rolls in hopes the stun will dislodge them, crush them, or break some vital bones. Like the Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that directs the tank into a mountainside while a hapless Indy hangs helplessly.

This is how you theorize a fight scene, and after that its just putting words on a page, drafting and redrafting until it works.

-Michi

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Q&A: Mafia Training

Do you know anything about how the Mafia trains their members?

They don’t, really. At least not in any formalized way. The same is, generally true of most professional criminals. The mafia relied more on able bodies who they could trust, than looking for very specialized skillsets. When you look at the bread and butter operations in organized crime, this starts to make sense. Sending a couple guys into a business to rough up the staff, or engaging in vandalism isn’t going to require specialists. Whatever mooks are lounging around should be able to get those jobs done.

In Mafia families, you’d start seeing people with formal educations higher up the ladder. Again, this wouldn’t be training per say. You might have members who’d been sent to law school and passed the bar, who could operate as lawyers for the family when needed. In at least a few cases, lawyers like this would invoke privileged to impede criminal investigations. Another common profession that you’d see wrapped up in family businesses were accountants. Again, actual accountants who’d been educated, gotten a degree, and then worked for the family.

A third group that would get formalized training were police infiltrators or double agents. These were rarer, but did exist. These were cops. They’d gone through academy training. They may have had a military background. On paper they looked clean and had never been directly associated with the family. The biggest red flag would usually be that they’d grown up in a neighborhood that was mobbed up, though this was not a prerequisite. The most famous example is Special Agent John Connolly who was involved with Boston’s Irish Mob in the 70s, while working in the FBI.

Street level enforcers, or even hitmen couldn’t expect to receive any significant training. At various times, there were Mafia members with military backgrounds. They’d served in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, came back, and went back to working for the family, but with far more extensive combat training. In some cases, they’d impart some of their learned lessons to the mobsters they worked with, but this was not the norm.

There is one other exception, but it doesn’t exclusively involve organized crime. Prison functions kind of like graduate school for career criminals. The perk of getting locked up with lots of other felons is that you now have the opportunity to network with and learn from one another in an environment where you can be pretty sure no one’s a cop. Networking was less important for a Mafioso, but access to criminals who had learned specialized trades, and the potential to learn from them, even if that required some form of payment, could be a major silver lining.

Now, I’ve been focusing primarily on the Italian and Irish mobs. East Coast, American, and basically defunct, so let’s grab a couple more off the pile.

As far as I know, the Yakuza doesn’t have any real formalized training either. Their cultural norms are different, so their social role isn’t exactly the same. To be fair, most of my research on the Yakuza has been economic, rather than street level operations. They’re extremely unusual, as organized crime goes, because during the 80s, they started pumping cash into businesses you wouldn’t normally associate with organized crime. This means, in Japan, you can find things like Hospitals or Software companies which are mobbed up. A lot of this folded when their economic bubble popped in the 90s, but some still persist.

The Russian Mob isn’t, really, a thing. Okay, let me back this up and explain. Frequently, it’s convenient to talk about Russian organized crime as a unified entity. Russian criminals willing to work together to achieve their goals are a thing. Large coherent organizations, not so much. These are, ultimately, more like freelance criminals, who came up during the Soviet system, and have that shared experience. This causes them to behave in ways that mimic organized crime elsewhere in the world, but it is ultimately a collection of freelance criminals who are willing to put their differences aside for a paycheck. As with any other group of criminals, you’re looking at a large range of potential backgrounds, which could range from uneducated street kids to ex-special forces, who went freelance when the Soviet Union stopped paying them in the ’90s. On unusual feature of Russian criminals is, they’re unusually well equipped. This dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union. The government stopped paying employees, and if you were overseeing a state run armory, you had a huge stockpile of weapons, but no food. So, they started selling arms, and bigger things. There’s actually a story floating around from the mid-90s where the Cartels were looking to take possession of a nuclear submarine from the Russian black market, though that deal fell through.

As far as I know, the Triads do not have much in the way of formalized training either. Though, I’ll admit, I’m not particularly well versed on them. Though it is worth noting, these are the largest criminal enterprises on the planet, by a significant margin. The Triads are massive.

Like the Triads, I’m not particularly well versed in The Cartels. As far as I know, there’s not much in the way of formalized training there, and it really is a distinct flavor of organized crime. It’s just one that I’ve never done a lot of reading on.

Finally, North American street gangs are an unusual situation. On the surface it’s similar to the other examples given, no formal training programs. However, in the 90s and 2000s a number of judges revived the old conscription punishment. Sending gang members into the US military. In theory this was supposed to, “set them on the right path,” but, what it actually did was introduce elements of those gangs into the armed services, and gave gang members training and experience on military hardware. When they mustered out, they now had connections that could get them military hardware, and the knowledge to use them, which were also shared with fellow gang members. I’m not sure on the full current status of this situation, but it is an unusual circumstance worth examining.

-Starke

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Q&A: Conditioning is the Punishment

Sorry if you’ve already answered this, but does hitting/hurting your student as training help teach them anything?

I think we did a run on this really recently. Children in Combat, Child Soldiers, Writing Training, Writing Assassins, are usually good tags for the beat downs on abusive training methods.

The basic issue: people do get hit in training, fact of life.

The kind of scenarios people who’ve never done martial arts imagine happening? Those don’t. At least, not in a way you’d learn anything from.

Now, I won’t say the sorts of evil instructors to be found in all The Karate Kid movies don’t exist. The mentality gotten out of Cobra Kai dojo, for example, is real. ‘No pain no gain’ taken to extremities is also real. However, the difference between mentality and a uncontrolled beatdowns is vast. With characters that engage in violence the mentality they manifest and their approach in how they use their skills and who they use them on is the deciding factor in “good” versus “bad”.

When it comes to training, pain in martial arts functions a lot like sticking your hand on a hot burner. The point of “ouch” is to teach you not to do that anymore. This is contact training. Everything you do is going to hurt, or at least, it will at first. This is like the pain your receive when you walk into a wall. You get thrown by your partner and forget to slap the mat? That’ll hurt. 10/10 you’ll try to remember to slap when you land next time. (Which is better than landing on your head.)

However, your muscles hurting when you do a pushup versus your instructor kicking you across the room when you did something wrong are nowhere near equivalent. Number 2 is a lot of wasted effort for the teacher. They can get ahead by combining the stuff their students don’t like to do but need to and what they want to do in a carrot and stick system.  This is pretty much how punishment in a martial arts class works, how it works on a sports team, and how it works in the military. Using the fun stuff as a carrot and conditioning as a stick, you can trick most of your students into focusing on the boring repetitions in between the two. The boring repetitions are most of what you’ll be doing when training to fight. Practice makes perfect, perfect practice makes perfect, and, as Bruce Lee said, fear the man who has practiced the same kick a thousand times instead of the one who has practiced a thousand kicks.

The big reward everyone is eager to get into (and treats as most important) in martial training is sparring. Everyone knows sparring, everyone loves sparring in concept. Everyone is eager to put together what they’ve learned in the ring and hit the other guy.

This is why sparring is a reward. Sparring is mostly superfluous, it’s the biscuit in your meal. Learning techniques, repetition, and conditioning are the main course. Conditioning is like your vegetables. Most kids don’t want to eat their vegetables.

Now, you’re always going to have to eat some vegetables and you’ll always get your biscuit. In the beginning though, punishment in training is basically your teacher putting more vegetables on your plate with the promise of maybe getting another biscuit if you eat everything.

You know what 90% of punishment is going to be in a martial arts dojo when you mess up? Pushups. Situps. Burpees. Wind Sprints. Oh, and you don’t get to have any sparring.

Trust me, sending a teenager on a lap around the track is a great means of motivating them to pay attention. This is especially true when the assistant goes with them, nagging the whole way. And hey, bonus points if you make them responsible for each other.

“Guys, Lionel missed the turn again. Y’all know what that means. To the wall and back. First one in doesn’t have to drop and give me ten. Go.”

Cue groans.

That’ll hurt, but the punishment doubles as a means of adding in extra conditioning and gets the students to work harder in order to avoid it.

Punching the bag is going to hurt if you forgot to tighten your fists and lock your wrist, if you do what teacher says then it’s gonna hurt a lot less the next time you hit it. Pairing up and kicking each other in the stomach (lightly) is going to hurt, but the point is to train the student to expel air and tighten their abdominals on the moment of contact so they won’t get bowled over by a sucker punch.

You know that moment where a character tries to punch another in an Anime and end up slamming their fist into rock hard abs? And it does nothing? That’s not just the muscles, that’s the result of training to tighten your stomach against impact. Your muscles are your body’s version of armor. That’s what the exercise is training you to do.

You’re going to get hurt in sparring (not broken limbs and bloody noses hurt) because contact hurts. You’re going to get some bruises learning to block because contact hurts. Stretching hurts, but it’ll hurt a lot more if you try to force someone into full splits (with long term detriment) versus letting them develop into it incrementally. You push a little further each day, going a little past the point where you’re comfortable but not to the point of real pain.

You’ll learn how to handle that pain naturally, just over the course of your training. Develop higher tolerance to pain as a result and learn to distinguish between real pain versus inconvenient pain.

However, forcing someone is the worst approach.

Forcing a kid, even a naturally flexible one, to do full splits will wreck them to the point they probably will never be able to do a full split. You’ll tear the muscles in their legs, and that damage is mostly permanent. A kid who can do full splits can, potentially, do really high kicks like a vertical sidekick. However, tear the muscles in their legs and you’ll limit how high they’ll ever be able to kick.

This is why you don’t abuse your students during training. There are means of motivation perfectly able to achieve better results than punching a kid in the face because they did something wrong. Why do that when you can develop their wind instead? Conditioning when your body is already tired is one way to break past the artificial limits your brain sets based on what you believe you can do. A new student will hate it, I guarantee you. They will not want to do it and the threat of wind sprints when they’re tire is enough to motivate them.

Punishment for technical screw ups in martial arts is always dual edged. The student may not see it, but there’s a secondary purpose to the training method. Conditioning is a great example.

Take the class’ least favorite thing and make that your stick. Imagine it like someone combining gym with all your classes, the worse you do in school then the more you get to run.

How motivated would you be to pass French if everyone who got a C or lower on the test had to go run up a really steep hill? Then, had to attend an extra study hour?

Welcome to martial arts and military training. Why would we physically abuse you when you’ll do it to yourself instead? Oh, and you’ll end up in better shape afterwards. Better shape means more stamina, more endurance, better wind, and the ability to fight longer. It’s a win, win. The more times you mess up, the more often you run up the hill.

If I can punish you and improve you at the same time, why wouldn’t I go with that method? It also always works, versus hitting a student which only works for a limited amount of time before you need to escalate. Also it lasts longer and will carry over into tomorrow, and they’ll still have to get right back to training without needing a week off.

Your muscles will still hurt tomorrow and you’ll still have to train. This comes with the added benefits of not only building your endurance but teaching you to dig deep for new reserves and work through exhaustion. You’re going to hate me, but you’ll be in much better shape by the end of the week and that ability to focus when completely spent may save your life.

-Michi

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