Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Indirect Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Superheroes and Comics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, who’s right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Feel Good Violence is Universal

So I’ve seen a lot of your posts on violence but how does that stuff pertain to a fantasy novel where fighting is a character’s way of life? Like his job is to fight off monsters and stuff so does fight scenes still fall under feel good violence or any other pitfalls you’ve discussed?

Feel Good Violence is the trope which makes a lot of our readers go, “I came out to have a good time and I’m feeling so attacked right now.” Mostly because they’re misunderstanding what it means, and assume that this relates to over the top violence, or exciting superhero movie fight scenes, or scenes that are written purely to be exciting and fun. That’s not what Feel Good Violence refers to.

Feel Good Violence is about violence written without consequences and scenes that have no narrative impact, which ultimately serve no purpose in the story except to show us how awesome the hero is, by itself, alone, and are scenes ultimately not worth anyone’s time. Feel Good Violence is your hero initiating a beat down on some poor schmuck in a bar at a level they certainly didn’t deserve, where they destroy the bar in the process, and everyone cheers. If you ignore the pitfalls of Feel Good Violence, you will cast your hero as a bully and most of your readership may not notice because violence as wish fulfillment translates directly into bullying and bullying really does feel good.

Feel Good Violence is your character contextually behaving the same way as a nasty anon sending nasty messages into someone random person’s inbox in the name of their fave and then being celebrated for it. Without context, without perspective, this is violence designed to feel good and violence where the action leads the narrative nowhere.

Violence has a high price tag, whether that price is paid physically through exhaustion or injury, socially through its impact on those individuals around you and the way they treat you, and culturally through the rules and laws put down by whatever governing body rules your setting. Fight scenes are great for your fiction because that high price tag (which will impact every aspect of their life) is an easy road to high key drama with high stakes.

Feel Good Violence ignores the stakes, negates tension, and destroys drama, these scenes exist purely as an abstract and float outside the narrative’s actual plot. They do nothing, they influence nothing, they incite nothing, and ultimately mean nothing. They are the character acting without fear of consequences in a narrative sanctioned environment where those consequences can never occur because the author won’t let them threaten the protagonist. Consequences to their behavior simply don’t apply, no concept of long term pay off exists, justification is broken down on the lines of “good” and “bad”. The police officer will threaten the snitch who provides them with information, beat them up, throw them into walls, in order to remind the audience that the officer is tough. Forgetting that the snitch provides the police officer with important information, information where in the same situation and in a better narrative would no longer be available down the line when the police officer needs it.

The problem with Feel Good Violence is that consequences and fallout from your character’s actions are what create tension. In fact, most characters that general audience adore adore them in part because they’re walking drama bombs. Like the bad boy loner with a temper who punches out the school bully and lands both himself and the protagonist in detention.

Inciting Incident > Negative Action > Consequences

Feel Good Violence would just have the bad boy punch the school bully, and wander away while the bully lies on the floor crying while the in-scene audience cheers.

Inciting Incident > Negative Action > Poot

In characters that are supposed to be combat professionals, the mentality this trope creates will lead to abdication of responsibility and them behaving in ways that are unprofessional in the extreme. You won’t have any respect for the damage the character is capable of doing because you discarded the price tag. A real professional, or even just a recreational martial artist, knows they must moderate their behavior to react in ways which are situationally appropriate. They carefully weight their response because just hauling off on some stupid motherfucker can have some terrible consequences.

Now, while those consequences can be bad for the character in-setting they could be great for the narrative and the plot as a whole; but only if you let the consequences of those choices play out.

A cop beating up a snitch and then the snitch turning on them down the line is great drama. The monster hunter who accidentally destroys a town, whose actions have unintended consequences, or pulling a Geralt and hacking off some idiot’s hand in order to get hired for a job is great drama.

So, yes, this one applies to everything you write regardless of genre because it directly relates to the consequences revolving around your characters actions. Violence is very expensive, regardless of how fantastical the setting is. Feel Good Violence is consequence free, these scenes exists purely to make you feel good without having to worry about anyone’s feelings or anyone (you care about) getting hurt. You see the best examples of this trope in wish-fulfillment characters where the end result of the mentality is a main character becoming a psychopathic bully. At least, they will when you look at the external context of the actions they’re taking. However, if you choose to never critically think as a reader, you’ll simply absorb these scenes and cheer.

You avoid feel good violence by bringing consequences home into your fiction, and having the character’s behavior impact their daily life and how others see them. For example, if your character is a monster hunter and the monster he’s hunting gets into the town that hired him and destroys it, they’re not going to be very happy with him. They will continue to not be happy with him even if he does kill it and ultimately saves their lives. There are other consequences to be had like their homes, equipment, and livelihoods have all been destroyed.  It’s like Spider-Man destroying your car by throwing it at Rhino to stop him.

Thanks for saving my life, buddy, but I still need to get to work tomorrow.

A good way to double check yourself on Feel Good Violence is to stop and think about what’s happening context wise in your story. Most of the issues with Feel Good Violence stem from being too connected to your protagonists and trying to smooth the way for them, or engineering events to try to control how others will react. Those reactions and consequences are part of what create realism and tension within your fiction. Step outside your protagonist and start thinking from the perspective of other characters in your story, about how you’d react if these events happened to you. If you saw X occurring, how would you react? What reaction would help the story to progress?

Essentially, treat violence and your fight scenes like events actually occurring in the setting with real effects on the narrative and you’ll avoid Feel Good Violence.

-Michi

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Q&A: Assassin Career Counseling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Daydreaming Power Fantasies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Violence in Sloppy Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Criticism

any advice for getting over a fear of criticism?

While this isn’t universally true, fear thrives in the absence of knowledge. Something you don’t know, or don’t understand is far more terrifying than the familiar. Trust me when I say, the idea of criticism is far more terrifying than the reality.

The simplest answer is to simply submit yourself to it, and see what filters back. But, that might not be appealing to you, yet, so let’s talk about what good criticism is, and how you can make the most of it.

Writing lives and dies on self-confidence. You’re creating and populating an artificial world with artificial characters. This is an elaborate illusion, and creating all of this from scratch will leave a few weak points. Good criticism can help you find and reinforce those points.

I could probably boil this down to simply saying, “believe in yourself and your work,” but it is important to look at criticism as an opportunity to improve your work; not an assault on your skill as a writer.

It’s probably worth reading and remembering this quote from Neil Gaiman:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Good criticism will show you where to start looking for weaknesses in your work. If it’s not doing that, or it’s telling you what you need to do, it’s not useful.

It’s worth remembering that  screaming, angry, people on the internet don’t affect you. There will always be people saying, “you suck,” or attacking you for having an idea. They are as irrelevant as their motivations. Just because someone says, “you can’t do something,” doesn’t mean it’s true.

There’s a certain truth to the statement that people only have the power that we give them. If you go to criticism hoping for a reassuring pat on the head, then you’re setting yourself up to be hurt.

If you think of criticism as an opportunity to abuse or stress test your work instead of validation.

In the end, remember, nothing is perfect. That doesn’t reflect on you as a writer. Criticism is about finding what doesn’t work so you can fix it, and improve the work; it’s not a test you pass with flying colors.

-Starke

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Q&A: Contact Poisons

I’ve heard of historical cases of people dying by poison being applied to fabric, accidentally or deliberately. Is contact poison a viable method of murder? Could it be used, not to kill altogether, but to weaken an opponent for someone else to fight?

It depends on the poison. There are a lot of poisonous substances that can be absorbed through the skin, including things like Anthrax, Strychnine and Cyanide. (Technically Anthrax is a biological agent.)

There are poisons that can disorient or impair the victim without killing them. Too many to even start to go into them.

Ironically, the first thing that comes to mind and fits both of these is Lidocaine. Lidocaine, and a number of other similar anesthetics such as Novocaine and Oracaine, are synthetic relatives of cocaine, producing numbness on contact, and they’re commonly used in dentistry. You can kill someone with a sufficient dose, as well. Also, the normal topical administration method is via a gel, not a liquid but the idea is there.

One major, historical, issue with accidental poisonings was arsenic. When used as a dye, Arsenic produces a vibrant green color. This was briefly popular in the 18th century, for wallpaper patterns and paints. In a dry environment, it’s mostly safe, however when you add heat and humidity, low doses can be released as an (effectively) undetectable vapor. This won’t result in an immediate death, but prolonged exposure can result in chronic poisoning.

There’s a bit of history here, if you’re interested: In 1815, after his military defeat, Napoleon Bonaparte was sent into exile on the Island of Saint Helena. He’d previously been exiled to Elba in 1814, after a separate military defeat, only to return to France, and restart his campaigns, so this time he was sent to a far more remote island.  Six years later, on May 5, 1821, he died.

Napoleon’s autopsy listed the cause of death as stomach cancer, there were ulcers found during the procedure, and a family history (though that wasn’t, apparently, known at the time). And, that was that… until the mid 1960s.

This is where things get a little strange. Records kept, both before and after Napoleon’s demise, suggest that he may have died from chronic arsenic poisoning. This includes the symptoms he displayed as his health deteriorated on Saint Helena, as well as how well his body was preserved when it was eventually moved from the island to France in 1840. Additionally, surviving hair samples displayed arsenic traces one hundred times what you would expect today. (The biology involved is that, because arsenic is an element, it doesn’t break down in the body, so it is flushed through various sources, including your hair.)

Into the early 2000s, there was a persistent theory that, because he’d managed to escape Elba, the British had decided to finally finish him off (St. Helena was a British holding). Politically, they couldn’t simply execute him, so the theory held that they dosed his private wine stocks with low doses of arsenic.

The competing argument, of course, is that his wallpaper used an arsenic derived green dye, and that the elevated arsenic content found in the surviving hair samples was the result of atmospheric exposure, probably throughout his life, but particularly during his time on St. Helena.

I am skimming over a lot of details here, there are entire books on the subject of Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena and his eventual death, and rumors that the British were poisoning him, or plotting to kill him existed at the time. So, at some levels, this is nothing new.

-Starke

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Q&A: Violence Is All About Efficiency

if i recall correctly you all have talked before about how being a little faster or stronger isn’t nearly as important as the better choice of armor or weapons and having competency with them, but from what i know of HEMA, in general the weaponry and so the armor of europe generally trended toward more of a style of finesse in fighting (which involves a large amount of training with your weapon of course), would that be accurate to say?

No, assuming strength, dexterity, finesse, or any other trait involves missing the most important one of all: efficiency.  In order to write good fight scenes, this is one you need to internalize. There are two terms to familiarize yourself with:

The Economy of Violence.

Conservation of Movement.

If you are not efficient with the energy you have, you will die.  No matter how much endurance you have and how much you train, your energy pool will always be limited. The entire goal of martial combat is to expend as little energy as possible while protecting yourself as much as you possibly can. Finesse, strength, dexterity, any other attribute comes in second to this goal, and you do not need a long period of training to learn to be efficient. Small, minute movements rather than large ones conserve energy; weapons make it easier to kill your enemies, and the more efficient the weapon, the easier it is to learn in a short period of time. The weapons Europe gravited toward were weapons that required little time to learn and were effective with marginal training, because you didn’t need to waste time getting someone up to snuff. The easier a weapon is, the more individuals gravitate towards learning how to use the weapon, the more widespread it becomes, and the quicker it is adapted as a cultural mainstay.  See: the handgun.

In the modern era, we can train a combat ready soldier in three months. They won’t be the best, they won’t be perfect, but they’ll be effective and, more importantly, efficient in their fighting style.

The Economy of Violence is the cost of violence, the toil it takes on the body, the time it takes to kill your enemy, and what you must pay physically, mentally, and emotionally in order to win. Violence has both costs and consequences, internalizing this concept is necessary as a writer to bring realism to your fiction. This is an economy you must create within your own writing, and keep at the forefront of your mind. Unlike the real world, you’re creating the rules and, while that sounds great, the rules are what sustain Suspension of Disbelief. Violating those rules will break the disbelief, and dispel the illusion. Not so terrible compared to the real world where misunderstanding the cost and consequence of violence will get you injured, killed, shamed, and shunned.

Fictional characters are often wasteful to the point of becoming unrealistic because they don’t need to face physical, mental, emotional, and societal consequences of their actions if the writer chooses to exclude them. They can fight forever if the writer wants.  They can do whatever you want them to. Of course, these stories lack tension, audiences cry about their believability, and there’s not much point to reading them. Still, you can if you want.

Efficiency is a lesson which carries beyond violence. Embracing the Economy of Violence and learning to be efficient in your own writing will help you grow into a better writer. Your scenes will flow better, your narrative will stay on point, your characters will feel more like real people, your sentences will be uncluttered, and your writing will have purpose. You’ll understand what you’re doing, where you’re going, and what toll you’ll need to pay in order to get where you want to be. Your characters will start making choices dependent less on what the narrative needs and more on their own survival. They’ll start choosing violent actions that are more than set pieces, but based in their emotions and their smarts. Their narrative structure will support them with natural fallout.

Understand this, the make or break is in how well you control your resources. The tension is in the cost and consequence, in the time it takes to achieve objectives. Waste not, want not, after all.

If you study the evolution of violence and martial combat styles worldwide, even without the ancillary details, the focus is always not just on what works but what takes the least time. Effectiveness is the order of the day. After all, why use three strokes to achieve the same goal when you can just use one. When looking to improve, the focus rests on streamlining and raising the effectiveness of the tool at hand. The tools are discarded when better or more effective/efficient tools come along.

This is why your fight scenes need internal justification from your characters. They shouldn’t be taking out the inhabitants of whole castles on extraction missions just because they can. This path isn’t better because it wastes time, because it involves putting in more work than you need and involves taking more risks than necessary. Outside of a character justification like hubris, there’s just no point. The more capable a character is, the more efficient they’re going to be and more focused on economizing their violence. They’ll maximize their input if it achieves maximum output in the trade off. They’ll waste less time than other characters, be more capable of assessing a situation, and they’ll be ending fights in fewer blows. Everything will be contracted and concise, because it’s ultimately less wasteful and saves energy in the long run. That energy saved can be applied to the next opponent, or escape, or a half a dozen other scenarios. The goal is to be as quick as possible, and how you get there is ultimately up to you.

This is why applying physical attributes like strength, dexterity, and finesse ultimately shortchange the conversation. You can make any of those work, and can gain them with any body type, but what you can’t work with is someone who isn’t efficient, who wastes time, who makes big visible motions that don’t amount to anything. Someone who can’t conserve their energy, and who wastes it. Even when they don’t seem to be efficient, all the surviving martial arts are, in their own unique ways. Fortifications, as an example, are designed to get your enemy to spend more energy reaching you and setting up natural traps where invaders can be safely mopped up by the defenders. It’s all about making your job easier, and, keep in mind, your enemy wants the exact same thing.

I’ll grant you, finesse sounds cooler than conservation, economy, or efficiency. However, to cleave to that will miss the ultimate point which helps you write better fight scenes. More than any other aspect, you need the Economy of Violence to set up rules for your violence within the narrative. Those rules fuel suspension of disbelief, and help keep your audience invested in the narrative. They are the part of violence that is “real”.

-Michi

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Q&A: Faked Deaths and Cheap Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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