Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Science Fiction Melee

Are there still advantages to bladed weapons in a futuristic setting? (Assuming sci-fi weapons like laser guns are commonly used in the setting) There are obviously uses of small blades like knives, but are swords still plausable? I’ve seen a few shows and books set in the future where energy swords or similar weapons are used

Without accounting for specific situational factors, no. Once you have ranged weapons that can be used to quickly neutralize multiple opponents in short succession, and remain viable at melee ranges, there’s no real place for a pure melee weapon.

Knives, axes, and hammers are something of an exception because they have value as utility tools, that can double as an emergency weapon. Though, I am reminded of the email in Doom 3 questioning a shipment of chainsaws to Mars. It’s probably worth remembering what those tools are used for before you simply drop them into your ship’s storage locker.

While we’re on the subject of using tools as emergency weapons and video games, I’m also reminded that most of the arsenal from the Dead Space were re-purposed mining and engineering tools. (At least in the first two games, anyway.)

So, that’s without specific settings that would justify the existence of a sword in your space opera. There’s, obviously, quite a few science fiction settings that do gleefully chuck a box of swords at the combatants and force them to sift through for various reasons.

The primary reason you’d be seeing swords in sci-fi is cultural. Lots of settings envision a distant future where culture has degraded to some prior point for whatever reason. Dune is probably the ur-example here, where human civilization has been reduced down to a feudal state, governed by noble houses. In a setting like that, you could easily see the sword used as a ceremonial weapon, in duels, or other specific circumstances. To be fair, Dune also replaces the sword with daggers for mostly aesthetic reasons, but the effect is still similar. Dune also challenges the use of ranged weapons with body shields. These, expensive, items block kinetic ranged weapons, and detonate in a nuclear blast when struck with lasgun fire. So, there’s an exemption to the ranged only rule above.

The lightsabers from Star Wars are another special case. In the hands of a trained force user they can (effectively) negate incoming blaster fire, meaning they do offer an exemption to the ranged rule.

Warhammer 40k finds a similar exemption by simply increasing the resilience of its inhabitants until you have a setting where fans sarcastically refer to energy rifles capable of reducing humans to red mist as “flashlights” because they do nothing to many of the setting’s inhabitants. To be fair, if something can survive direct lasgun fire (40k “borrows” the term directly from Dune), you’re probably not going to get very far swinging a mundane sword at it.

Because, sci-fi settings encompass such a massive range of potential environments, it’s probably important to point out that there are a lot of reasons you might see melee weapons on the loose. The above just a couple possible reasons, but let’s codify these without tying them to explicit examples.

Ceremonial usage is a big one. This means you probably wouldn’t see swords being used during boarding actions, but you would see them around, and people from the social classes who needed them could be reasonably expected to know how to use them should it be the most expedient option. This could be because civilization has degenerated into a kind of clan or great house structure. Generally speaking, ritualized dueling works in a system where you have disputes between individuals, but can’t politically afford to adjudicate punishment. This makes the most sense in feudal systems, or intra-faction conflicts in an unstable coalition. Again, Dune‘s Great Houses are an excellent example of this kind of situation.

Another big, potential, reason is if ranged weapons are rendered ineffective or risky in certain situations.

One of the classic examples is using high power kinetic weapons on a starship where you’re risking a hull breach with every gunshot. Depending on the nature of your energy weapons, (and the overall technologies used for maintaining structural integrity) this may be more or less of a consideration. If your setting’s ships can use force fields to maintain atmosphere punching a hole in the hull with a stray gunshot will be far less dangerous than if that means the ship is losing air, with no way to replace it. As your weapons become more powerful, this risk becomes more significant. That said, the hull breach situation comes with a mix of other considerations. If your setting has body armor that can resist small arms fire, it’s likely that your ships would share that construction. It’s also entirely possible that boarding teams would operate in sealed environmental suits, capable of exposure to hard vacuum, and more ruthless groups might intentionally trigger hull breaches during their boarding actions. The risks involved may also heavily depend on kind of ranged weapons your characters are using. Kinetic weapons with very high penetration may pose a much greater threat here than handheld particle beam weapons.

Another potential situation where you have technologies specifically designed to suppress the effect of specific weapon types. Personal shielding technology, or exosuit armor are potential examples. Of course, if it is armor, simply pulling out a sword probably isn’t going to do much, unless the sword circumvents the armor somehow. But, if you have a setting where body shields that can survive multiple plasma hits are semi-common, you might very well see people using swords, or similar weapons, to bypass them. To, be fair, you may also see the development of new weapons designed to bypass or overload those shields, so it’s not like this automatically means you’d see melee weapons.

Another possibility is when dealing with primitive cultures. If you’re dealing with a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting, where some prior galactic civilization fell, leaving colonies cut off, you might come across planets where advanced technology fell completely out of use. I’ve argued against this in a strict context of post-apocalyptic settings before, but colonies introduce a new wrinkle, where you could potentially have a population base who knew how to use advanced energy weapons, did not have practical knowledge of  kinetic firearms, and lost access to the latter. This could result in a full on regression, over a long enough time frame (figure several thousand years, at a guess.) So it is, theoretically possible you might have lost colonies that have regressed back to spear and bow warfare. What happens if human ships visit one of these lost colonies is, of course, up to you.

There is one hard part when it comes to defining a state of existence for science fiction, and it does show in this question. I used a few examples. Star Wars is generally accepted as existing in its own timeline. It’s science fantasy, and that’s fine. Both of the video game examples, along with a lot of sci-fi settings like Star Trek are near future. They’re set within one thousand years of present day. Stuff like Dune or Warhammer 40k are a lot harder to pin down. Dune is set sometime in the 24th millennium, and 40k draws it’s name from being set in the 41st millennium. Both of those settings juggle their overall technology by technological dark ages, but it does start to peal the lid off questions of, “what will the technology look like?” Meaning you need to address those concepts in much more general terms.

So, in short, “probably not,” but you might be able to assemble a setting where swinging swords around like it’s the golden age of piracy does, in fact, make sense.

-Starke

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Q&A: Computer Logic is not Human Logic

Hi! A question inspired by the androids of Detroit: Become Human. If an otherwise human android (or gynoid) had only faster reflexes (and inability to feel pain), being able to compute the best possible approach in any hand-to-hand combat situation from move to move, how much of an advantage would that be? Is there an advantage to human unpredictability or can melee combat be optimized by artificial intelligence?

Have you ever played chess against a computer?

They cheat. They don’t even cheat intelligently, they just cheat. They go right for the jugular, and the “game” is over in one to maybe two moves. An android in combat is going to do the same thing, in that it will do precisely what you programmed it to do and that logical outcome is: to go directly to instant death every. single. time.

Total neutralization of the threat before they have time to react.

Well, that’d be after the AI realized that it couldn’t just not fight or put the world on pause forever. Or it might just shut itself down after activation like that Security Robot which committed suicide in a fountain. Not fighting is winning. You can achieve victory by never fighting or simply shutting down. However, if you must, immediate total obliteration is the most optimal approach when it comes to conventional ideas about violence. You cut your enemy off at the knees, act preemptively once you register the situation, act before the enemy has time to get their pants on, and knock them off the proverbial cliff via straight up murder.

The computer does not distinguish, the computer does not regulate, the computer does not care. The computer is doing exactly what you told it to do and subtle nuance like deciding whether one crime is worse than another is beyond it. You told it to deal with a threat, the threat has been dealt with in the most efficient way possible regardless of future consequences. The computer wasn’t programmed to consider those.

Now, I know that some of you are going, “but what if it was?”

Well, let’s be honest, this is a perfectly logical, reasonable, rational solution that plenty of real people have already come up with. Plenty of self-defense professionals will tell you that this is the best, least risky, and ultimately safest solution is recognizing the threat before the threat occurs and acting. The two sets of mores which will hold us back are moral and social. This is not a societally or socially acceptable method of dealing with other human combatants.

Let us remember, you asked for the most efficient hand to hand solution and not the most socially acceptable one.

That method is sudden, violent murder. The computer will then escalate from there into preemptive action… like murdering all humans everywhere because that will definitively end the threat humans pose to each other.

This is why Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics exist.

Computers have trouble with complex moral quandaries and subtle nuance when it comes to decision making. You just don’t want them to be able to hurt people.

This, of course, is predicated on the idea that the programming works and the android can actually predict “the best possible” solution in hand to hand combat at a speed rapid enough to keep up with the human. (Which is why I say “preemptive instant death”, the computer will figure out quickly that this is the least risky approach which requires minimal overall computing power.) Hand to hand combat has a myriad of complex permutations and approaches which would be extremely difficult for a computer to keep up with, and the android could only do this with what it was programmed to know.  With a learning algorithm of some sort it’d be a kludgy person, ultimately slower and less capable. It not being able to “feel pain” would actually be a detriment for it. Working through pain is what teaches humans to ignore it, to know when they’ve reached their limit, when they truly are injured, and discover which pain actually matters.

This quality is often ignored by popular media outside of sports films, war movies, and fighting anime, but pain is extremely important to a combatant’s development. Pushing past pain is necessary for your mental barriers in martial arts training, which are key to developing conviction, determination, courage, and general grit. You don’t just train your body, you train your mind and your spirit. By going through difficult and frustrating experiences you grow, and get strong. That mental and emotional strength is what we use to push past our limits, to achieve new heights, and keep going when we’re certain we’re spent.

During training, you push past pain, past exhaustion, past your own insecurities, your self-defeat. You stand up. You keep going.

This quality? This comes from facing and defeating yourself, your own internal expectations of yourself and your own strength. You get past the first hump, and every hump you get past after that is a little easier even when the trials you face are more difficult.

The “One More Lap” mentality is the Determinator.

This is the difference between the mediocre student who showed up every day and worked their butt off to get better versus the talented student who was content to coast on their genetically gifted laurels.

This inner quality, earned by blood, sweat, and tears, is the foundation of every single champion.

It’ll screw up an algorithm.

And that’s why the computer cheats.

Against an overwhelming threat, the computer will react to protect itself the way anyone else would. Like so many other humans before it, the computer reduces risk to the smallest possible margins by turning to other options. It ultimately settle on the safest solution: preemption, and if not preemption then rapid escalation into brutality and murder.

If at any point during this post you went, “but no, that’s wrong!”

Exactly.

That’s an error checking your computer can’t do.

More than that, you can’t program a computer to work off information you don’t have and it doesn’t know. You can’t program the computer to “find the best solution in any hand to hand scenario” because you can’t program it with all that information. You won’t have access to nearly all the necessary information, and the possibilities are too numerous. Even if you program your computer with a magical learning algorithm it will only have access to the information it has experienced. The computer does not have the ability to be prescient.

I mean just look at all the actual AI experiments out there. Computers are very good at some aspects and terrible at others. Check out this video where an AI plays Tetris, and in order not to lose pauses right at the end. It can’t lose now, it’s indefinitely paused. Computer problem solving is different from human problem solving in some very fascinating and, in some cases, extremely literal ways.

Violence is very simple in some ways, but extremely complex in others. There are the moral and ethical quandries, such as when is use of force necessary but also complex kinetic motions requiring supremely good coordination in order to perform. This is the kind of force generation that’s very difficult to program because there are a lot of moving pieces. Those pieces are several steps beyond just programming the android to pick up objects, walk, or run.

The Terminators are the way to go. They don’t fight in conventional hand to hand, they just throw, flick, and crush on their way to victory. They have that option. They’re durable, most modern damage won’t slow them down, and they’re choosing motions that aren’t that mechanically complex. After all, why program the android to perform a 540 kick when they can throw someone through a wall? Easy, effective, involves fewer moving parts, and there’s ultimately less risk of damage.

The problem with Detroit: Become Human is that the androids are in the hands of a human player. They’re being controlled by a person, so, of course, they’ll behave like people. Games where you play the android are a terrible exploration of whether or not a computer can feel empathy. Think instead about NPCs in all your other video games. How do they behave? What do they do? There are plenty of learning AI in strategy games, and a lot of them cheat.

So, could a human fight this potential android and win?

Yes, fairly easily, because humans not only also cheat but because our brains prioritize the accumulation of different data that a computer will ignore. Information about the environment, for example. Developing tactics in regards to utilizing that environment during combat are another. We call this the “Let Me Hit You With A Trash Can Lid” approach. You can look at your environment and see items in it that you can use as weapons. The computer? The computer is going to ignore those. A human can also anticipate secondary and tertiary consequences to their actions, which means their decision making is ultimately different. It is very difficult to anticipate an enemy you ultimately don’t understand. Programming a computer with martial arts techniques is one thing, programming the computer to understand what people might do with those techniques is actually a different process altogether, and programming the computer to perform all those techniques (if they can even gain access to the full spectrum) is going to give some poor robotics expert a real headache.

I got a headache just thinking about it.

-Michi

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Q&A: A Hunter’s Tools

In fantasy stories, the bow and arrow is an overused choice of weapon. What other weapons are there that I can give my huntress heroine for effective use in the woods? She’s skilled in a variety of weapon use, such as swords and daggers and other things, but I want to give her one weapon that she excels at.

I’m not sure if it’s really overused. The bow is a very versatile hunting tool. Slings were used to deal with predators, and could be lethal, but aren’t usually associated with hunting in the same way, at least in fiction. Slingshots can be used to deal with small game, though those date to the 19th century.

Slings date to the neolithic period, and are formed with multiple lengths of cord connected to a pouch which holds a (usually stone) projectile, called a “bullet.” The user spins the weapon, releasing one of the straps to release the projectile into flight. With practice, these can be surprisingly accurate. Historically they were used as military weapons during the bronze and iron age. Though, as I said, I’m not sure on their use in hunting.

The bolo is somewhat similar to the sling. This is a thrown weapon with multiple weights, joined together by a flexible line. The weapon is thrown by spinning one of the weights and releasing, so that it will tangle the target’s legs dropping it.

The atlatl is a paleolithic weapon, dating back approximately 30k years. These consist of a simple shaft with a cup designed to hold a spear (or dart.) The butt of the spear is loaded into the cup, with the atlatl’s shaft under the spear. The user then launches the spear by “swinging” the atlatl. Because of the length of the shaft, this effectively magnifies the initial launching force from the projectile. I’m unsure of the exact timeline for use in Europe. There are surviving examples dating back 17k years, but I don’t know exactly when they fell out of use. In the Americas, they were still used, sometimes in preference over, bows up to the time of European colonization. (In fact the name, atlatl is of Aztec origin.)

Failing that, it’s worth remembering that the spear. These things have been around longer than homo sapiens, and we’ve been using them to catch dinner and poke holes in people we don’t like for almost all of our existence. They’ve been used for hunting, in warfare. They’ve been thrown, used as melee weapons. If your character hunts, especially in a low-tech setting, it’s a virtual certainty that they’d use a spear, at least some of the time.

Also, the spear would be the preferred tool for killing a wounded animal, as it allows the hunter to remain at a safe distance; closing in with the knife would be borderline suicidal, especially against wounded herbivores.

Following closely behind the spear are traps. We’ve been getting creative and killing things by turning the environment to our advantage throughout history. These include pit traps, where you dig a small trench, and line it with sharpened sticks, cover it with leaves, and then startle an animal through it. Deadfall traps, where a rock or other heavy object is suspended over bait, when the targeted animal approaches it, the suspension is removed or cut. Finally, snares are another common trap, where a cable or rope latches onto and holds the animal that trips it. In some cases, these are combined with bending tree branches to tension, in order to suspend the target. We don’t usually think of traps as weapons, but they’ve been an important part of human hunting throughout our history.

I’m going to say this again for emphasis. If your character is a hunter in anything other than a modern setting, they should be using traps. Full stop. These were a vital tool for hunters historically, so it’s worth your time to look into those in a little more depth.

Another incredibly important hunting tool is a dog. They’re not as durable as a human, but they are far more mobile, especially in dense areas, and can be incredibly useful for driving prey into traps, or tracking wounded prey across difficult terrain. It’s easy to think of dogs as companions, but many breeds did have specific working roles, including hunting.

Also, worth remembering, the sword is for use on people. If your character is also hunting people, then that’s a natural fit. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t own, or even know how to use a sword, unless there were other cultural factors at play. (For example, if your character is a game warden for some feudal lord, or a retired soldier they may have and use one.) The sword isn’t useful for hunting. So, unless your character is also a combatant, you can safely ditch this.

Depending on setting, it’s entirely possible your character would go hunting with a spear (or spears, if they intend to throw them), a sling, some snares, and a knife (for setting the traps.) They may also carry an axe, which might also double as a shovel for digging pits. Though that’s somewhat less likely. If they found themselves threatened by another person, the spear would function as an entirely effective weapon, so at that point the sword is somewhat unnecessary. Depending on context, it’s entirely likely they’d have a dog (or some other animal that acts as a hunting assistant.)

I’d also recommend you take some time to research hunting tactics, with things such as lures and blinds. If you’re wanting your character to be a hunter, it’s probably a good idea to have a fundamental grasp of their job skills, even if you can’t replicate them in the wild.

-Starke

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Q&A: No Obligations

Are readers supposed to root for morally ambiguous/decidedly immoral protagonists?

If you want to. Same thing applies to moral protagonists, antagonists, vehicles, inanimate objects, or creative wall ornaments. As a reader, you’re under no obligation to do anything. You don’t even have to keep reading if you don’t want to.

You root for the characters you choose because you want to. Not because of some arbitrary criteria was met. No one else can tell you who you should or shouldn’t root for. It doesn’t need to be the protagonist. Sometimes you’ll root for the villain. That’s cool.

Getting you to root for a character is entirely on the author. If you’re the writer, keeping your audience invested in your work is your job. Getting your audience to root for your characters is your job. You do that by making your characters compelling and interesting. You can’t make them like your, “cool” character just because you want them to, and audiences tend to be fairly resistant to overselling characters as, “so damn awesome,” in an attempt to sell them. Just look at the 80s and 90s comics industry if you want to see how badly this fails.

As the reader, you have no obligations. If someone tells you that liking a specific character or relationship is compulsory, they’re wrong. If someone tells you that endorsing some unsupported relationship is mandatory, they’ve disconnected from reality.

Root for the hero if you want. Root for the villain if you want. Hell, root for both. I’m not the boss of what you find compelling, and neither is anyone else.

If you think something’s trash, or unappealing, you can put that down and walk away. It doesn’t matter what some unhinged fan tells you. In the end, it’s your time, you don’t need to commit it to something that doesn’t interest you.

There are certainly reasons to read something you don’t like, or don’t enjoy. There are excellent works of art that don’t appeal, or are downright uncomfortable. Sometimes there is a purpose to perseverance. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s without merit. With that in mind, sometimes it is worth sticking it out and finishing book. As writers, we’re strengthened by the things we dislike or disagree with as much as the things we love. In fact, reading things that challenge your views and perspectives can help you grow as a writer. However, aside from, “read something,” you have freedom to pick what you want. Just, for a balanced literary diet, pick and finish some things you might not like, read them, and try to form a comprehensive critique of them that extends beyond, “this sucks.”

When it comes to reading, do not let another dictate how you engage the material. Especially not someone who’s, “a fan.” They may have a better order to experience the material in, but ultimately how you engage with it, what you take away when you’re done, how you view it, is all up to you. Others may offer insights or opinions you appreciate or disagree with, but if you adopt them, again, that is your choice; no one else can tell you what to think about the story you read.

If the writer did their job, they’ll get you rooting for who they want you to. If you don’t like a character, you’re free to choose that, and no one else has any authority to tell you otherwise.

-Starke

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Q&A: Treachery

Since you guys deal a lot with fighting, you might not be as able to help here but I wondered if you had tips for handling betrayals in a mafia type setting (and the subsequent fighting)? General tips? Are betrayals in the beginning of the story cliche? How do I make it more interesting if the betrayer does so as a move for more power? How do you foreshadow without making it so the audience sees it coming? Is Loki a good example of this trickster character?

Aside from, maybe, Tim Bentinck’s portrayal, I can’t think of a single version of Loki that would fit within a Mafia setting. I mean we’re talking about a mythological figure that gave birth to Sleipnir. So, all I can say to that is, “what?”

“Someone needs to ice Jimmy. Send Frankie and spider-horse’s mom.”

Okay, so two things, and I’ll take them in order. You’re not looking for a trickster. These are antagonistic, mythological figures tasked with tormenting or bedeviling believers and heroes. They’re a specific kind of mythological test, and sometimes Loki is one. Like many mythic elements, their function is proscribed.

To a certain extent, mythic storytelling fits comics fine. The superhero genre lends itself to that style of narrative. However there are no mythic stories about mobsters. There might be some way to do this, it’s not automatically impossible, but they’re part of an entirely different, far more grounded, narrative style. I’d call it “a different genre,” but that really doesn’t encompass how different these kinds of stories are.

Loki will stab you in the back because it’s in his nature. He doesn’t need a grandiose plan, he’s not motivated by his bank account, or some abstract power of controlling the rackets in Flatiron, or worrying about rubbing out competition in Hudson Yards. If he steps down to that level it’s because he’s doing it to catch someone who’s worthy of his attention off guard, and he wouldn’t do it while wearing a name tag.

A mobster will stab you in the back because you’re a stepping stone on their way to a larger goal, because you annoyed them, or because they’re a psychopath.

If you’re looking to have your characters engage in a well crafted betrayal, those characters need achievable goals, and plans to make them happen. Then they just need to be circumspect when they go make it happen.

View your betrayer as someone with a limited amount of resources to work with, so they need to be as efficient as possible. (This extends to writing as well; be efficient with your words.) The more they do, the more of a footprint their actions will leave, the more likely they’ll be discovered before they’re ready. The easiest way to avoid that is to be careful and deliberate.

When your characters need to act to further their goals, that’s when you foreshadow what they’re doing. ideally you want to provide enough information that your readers can understand what they’re doing after the fact, but don’t realize anything’s amiss in the moment.

Innocuous actions can have sinister implications upon return. You don’t need to point out those implications, your readers will fill that in on their return trip. You also don’t need to fully detail every action you foreshadow. A character may do something innocuous with little justification, because they needed to. An event may occur in the background with no direct ties to your characters, even when your betrayer is responsible, but slipped away undetected, or orchestrated it remotely. One cautionary note: try to make sure when your characters are foreshadowing something that they’re acting to advance their agenda and not because The Power of Plot Compels Thee.

Think of foreshadowing as setting the stage, rather than hiding something from your audience. Additionally, don’t worry too much about foreshadowing in your rough draft. This is something you should be working on when you’re redrafting, once you already know where the story’s going, and what you need to make that happen.

At a quick glance, the real danger of cliches is when you insert something into your story because, “that’s how it works in stories,” without critique or a critical thought. If your character is betrayed because they need to be betrayed to start the story, that’s probably a cliche. If they’re betrayed by their friend, because said friend has a specific goal in mind, and it furthers the story as a natural event, it will resist being a cliche. Fleshing out your characters so they have distinct personalities, and their actions make sense can help avoid this.

If we’re talking about someone who’s aggressively trying to advance through the Mafia, I would strongly recommend reading The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. This is far more specific than it may sound; multiple members of the American Mafia, including John Gotti read, absorbed, and even committed it to memory. The Prince is a blueprint for taking power through ruthless means, and it was a natural fit for organized crime.

Want to avoid a cliche? Carefully plot out your villain’s powerplay, and each step in it, so that when it happens, the last thing your reader will think is, “wait, didn’t I read this before?”

-Starke

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Q&A: Firearms and Advertising

A woman asks her lover to show ask her how to shoot because „good w a gun can stop bad guy w a gun“. He is a soldier & will say no, he thinks someone unexperienced with a gun is someone potentially dangerous. Iho it‘s much more likely she will hurt someone unintentionally than anything else, because she can never get enough training to become comfortable a& accustomed to a gun. Is that a realistic opinion for someone with an army background, or should I think of something else to deny her?

Yeah, that, “good guy with a gun,” statement is bullshit. It’s an advertising slogan masquerading as policy.

So, let’s talk about the most basic element of advertising for a second. When you’re selling someone to someone, your first goal is to create a need, then you provide a product to fill that need. Most people aren’t going to spend 20 bucks on something they don’t have a use for. Some products generate their own need, food for instance, while others, not so much.

Selling someone a gun requires you create a need first. Most people don’t work in occupations where a firearm is useful, to say nothing of necessary. If you’re working middle management, or as a retail cashier, you’re never going to be in a situation where your job will be improved by going strapped.

If you’re in law enforcement, a soldier, a handful of other occupations, then yes. Having a firearm is an important tool for being able to do your job. It’s necessary, and your job will either provide one, or point you in the direction of where to obtain a weapon.

Unless you need a gun for your job, you don’t need a gun. Full stop. So, for someone in marketing, their job is to create that need.

Then, in an era of mass shootings, we get this, “good guy with a gun,” line. It’s creating a need. It’s telling you, “hey, you see all those bad things happening out there? You could be a hero and stop them, if you were there, and armed.” It’s a lie. Like a lot of good marketing, it plays off of desires to present an illusion. It’s saying, “you need this if you want to be able to play the hero when the time comes.”

This need is there to get you to spend $400 you don’t have, on a product you’ll never use, because of a hypothetical situation, where you could live out your fantasy… and then shot by SWAT.

So two things: mass shootings in the United States are frighteningly frequent, and you’re more likely to win the lottery. Last year there were 345 mass shootings (which was a record), in a nation with a population of 325 million people. Now, that’s not quite a one in a million chance, because mass shootings do involve multiple people, but at the same time, your odds of ever actually being in an active shooter situation are vanishingly rare.

So, you’re being sold a fairly expensive piece of hardware, and spending more to train on, and become proficient with, that piece of hardware. Ammo and maintenance is not cheap. A responsible shooter could easily rack up a $1200 a year bill on ammo, to say nothing of range fees and other expenses.

You’re being sold this on the idea that, “but, what if,” where the odds of it happening are already incredibly low. Even then, if you carry that, “what if,” to it’s natural conclusion, things don’t get better.

Like a lot of power fantasies, the “good guy with a gun” is dependent on things playing out perfectly, and in direct contrast to how things are far more likely to go.

I mentioned your character getting shot by SWAT earlier, but this is a real risk. If you do find yourself in an active shooter situation, the police will come in looking for a civilian, armed with a weapon, firing at people. If you pull a gun and start firing on the shooter, you will be a civilian, armed with a weapon, firing at people. There is no way for police to distinguish “good guys” from “bad guys” when the bullets are flying, just police and suspects. This, ironically, puts you in more danger because you will be targeted by a better armed, more numerous group than you would if you were dealing with a single lone shooter, and you will be dealt with as if you were one of the perpetrators.

The “good guy with a gun,” phrase survives because it’s effective marketing. It creates a need, and then offers a product to fill that need. “Don’t want to die? Buy this thing.”

The idea that she can never become proficient enough to use it in an emergency isn’t true. It is something that depends on spending a lot of time with the weapon, practicing. So, it’s possible she could learn how to handle it, to the point that she’s able to operate it during an adrenaline rush. Not likely, but it is possible, it just takes a lot of work.

However, the simplistic, “good guy with a gun,” sort of skirts around training and practicing to become proficient. It’s just, “here, if you have this thing,” which would be forgivable if we were talking about selling microwaves or vacuum cleaners, but instead we’re talking about selling firearms to untrained civilians, then actively encouraging them to use said firearms in crisis situations.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with recreational shooting. Something that may get missed is guns are fun to shoot, they’re mechanically fascinating, and there’s a ton of history there. There’s a lot of benign reasons for someone to collect, or even use them. However, when someone takes that recreational or utility element, and says, “okay, but you use those to be ‘a hero,'” everything goes off the rails.

If you’re in an active shooter situation, you can do far more good by keeping your head, finding ways to secure yourself and other survivors away from the shooter, and finding ways to contact the police. Going in playing cowboy is a recipe for tragedy.

-Starke

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Q&A: You can be thinking or fighting… Listen, you want to be fighting.

When somebody is fighting, how much space is in their head for thinking? Sometimes you see writers put entire monologues in their character’s head, and that seems a bit excessive, but once moves become instinctive is it easier to notice/observe and process thoughts? So maybe it would be somewhere between “Thinking constantly of my movements” and “Let me theorize about my opponent’s background for paragraphs on end.”

You have enough time to make snap decisions, but that’s about it. If you actually stop and think during combat you’ll get hit because you weren’t focused on what was happening in front of you. The point of training is to internalize combat techniques to the point where they, and even combinations, become reflexive. This is because you don’t have time to think about how a technique is performed during combat where a fraction of a fraction of a second can be the deciding factor between victory and defeat. The goal is to give you the choice to act rather than just react. The time link between your brain and your muscles is dropped to near instantaneous in reaction so you know what to do next without having to think about it because you don’t have time to think.

See > Decide > Act is reduced to See > Act.

There’s no realization. There’s just action.

While you were thinking about what you wanted to do, I hit you. Your indecision is my opening to exploit. The world will not wait for you to be ready, and your narrative shouldn’t be waiting for your character’s either.

Consider this:

In the real world a street fight is over within twenty five seconds. With specific techniques, you can kill another human with your bare hands in seven seconds. That includes both the time it takes to do the technique and the time it takes for them to die. The reduction of time from seconds to fractions of seconds is the ultimate goal because the faster you are then the better chance you have. You want to get out ahead of your enemy’s brain and finish acting before they have a chance to realize what’s happening/happened to them.

All real observations and decisions happen before the fight begins. This is why tactical awareness is a key skill for any warrior, martial artist, or self-defense practitioner. This where your ability to be aware of your surroundings and observe human behavior will help you know when you are in danger. You can get into the necessary mental state where you are ready to fight before the fight begins, saving yourself on crucial seconds which could be the difference between victory and defeat. Being prepared for a fight reduces your reaction time before the first bullet is fired or the first punch is ever thrown. You don’t need to realize you’re in danger, figure out what you’re going to do, come to terms with harming another human being, and try to buy time until you’re ready, at which point the battle is already over. No, you know you’re in danger and you react accordingly in the moment.

“I didn’t really have time to think about what I was going to do. By the time I realized I was in danger, I was dead.

I saw myself falling, I remember that. The world shifted sideways. I hit the ground. My shoulder landed first. Then, I saw his face. Saw him looking down at me.

He grinned, a big toothy grin. The gun barrel moved. A blinding flash, then everything… you know, everything went dark.

I woke up here. With you.”

When you’re writing a fight scene, it’s important to realize that each sentence represents the progression of time and time doesn’t wait for your character to be ready. Speaking and thinking are not free actions, they represent critical seconds where your character could be acting either by attacking or defending. The narrative’s progression shouldn’t stop just because they’re thinking. Their opponents shouldn’t politely wait for the character to be ready.

Now, dialogue can be used as a defensive action and a strategic means of buying time for recovery. However, if your character strikes up a conversation with their enemy understand that what they’ve done is actually end the fight scene, ended the engagement  until the start of the next engagement. Dialogue can disrupt the flow of combat as a combat tactic, but thinking can’t.

For violence in the narrative, you actually need to stay on point or you lose your tension in the scene. In a visual medium like comics or movies, violence is often treated as spectacle. In a movie, what you’re actually enjoying isn’t the violence itself but the acrobatic movements of professional stunt performers. Certain types of movement on film are incredibly engaging visually and the film doesn’t lose much by letting these actors go at it for prolonged periods.

As writers utilizing a written medium you don’t have that option. You’re not a professional stunt choreographer and stunt actor, and even if you were you don’t get the perks visual action buys for you. You don’t get spectacle, you get novelty, and you’ve got to keep the scene moving quickly so your audience remains invested.

You want short and sweet with lots of little fights interspersed by running for your life or buying time or getting to cover instead of long, drawn out battles.

Treat each sentence like it’s a second. That’s enough time for an attack and for the attack to be over. Enough for several attacks if you’re good at conserving time.

Attack > Hit > Next Action.

Attack > Deflect or Attack > Deflect + Counter > Next Action.

Character A punches. Character B catches punch, steps forward, uses other hand to strike under the chin with their palm and force A’s head up.

If B sits around thinking about what they’re going to do next from this position then they give A time to attack them and take back the fight’s inertia. Once you have the inertia, you want to keep moving. While you’ve got your opponent off balance you want to make the most of their defenseless state while you still can. Consistent action doesn’t give them time to recover, but waiting does. Drifting into your thoughts while you consider your next move also gives your enemy time to recover.

Notice also, Character B just changed ranges within a single second. They went from punch range straight into grappling range and put A into a bad situation where they can’t see what’s going on. They’ve set themselves up for several options. One is to force A backward by applying pressure to their head until they fall over or transition their hand across A’s face to their ear and put them into a sideways throw utilizing the head, the wrist they captured, and their front leg.

If you just went… what? It’s this:

The hand on the wrist yanks backwards and pulls their opponent forward. This puts them off balance. The hand on the head applies pressure sideways and forces the head sideways. Where the head goes, the body follows. They turn sideways, catching their opponent’s back leg with their front leg and use that calf/knee as the tripping mechanism. This forces all the balance onto the destabilized front leg, which while already on the ball of the foot will give as the ankle twists, and when it does they are put on the ground.

Now, A is on the ground and B is still standing. B can do what they want from here to A, but unless A is very good at fighting while prone and finds a way to take B to the ground with them then the fight is over. Likewise, your fight scene is over in less than a minute.

That’s the other side of training.  You don’t just spend your time learning one or two techniques so you can do them without thinking about it. You train to link those techniques together into combinations so when the time for the next action comes you already know what to do.

The character doesn’t have to plot out: “I’m going to catch his punch, put my hand under his chin, and ram my opponent into that wall over there. After, I’ll rest my forearm on his windpipe to apply pressure and cut off airflow but not completely choke him.” They already know because they trained to do all that without thinking about it. This gives them time to perform an entire string of complex actions before their enemy has time to realize what’s happening to them. There’s also the classic, “From the position with my hand under his chin, I’ll transition my arm up and around his throat into a guillotine with my forearm on his windpipe then knee him in the groin before lifting up into the choke.”

“I hit you with the roundhouse to your ribs with my front leg and knock the air out of you, then retract into a chamber, swing my leg across to hit you in the head with a hook kick while you’re stumbling sideways, which dazes you and gives me opportunity to transition into a standing jump roundhouse off my back leg. Bye bye.”

This is the slightly more advanced concept called setup. You use your basic techniques in combination to fire off the large action finisher. This is actually what your characters beyond green belt level are fighting for the opportunity to do. (And… yes, some variants of taekwondo jump kicks and other discipline’s jump kicks can be performed with one foot already off the ground because the power leg that initiates the jump is the one which transitions into the kick. That’s where the momentum is.)

The ultimate goal is to reduce risk for yourself while maximizing the other person’s. Your character should be doing their observations and planning in the moments before the fight begins, not while the fight is occurring. You can get most of what you need through observation, and if you get a chance to observe their fights before you fight them then all the better.

You want your exposition in the moments between fights as a padding out breather for your audience before the next fight starts. Whenever the fight ends, the fight scene part of the scene ends. You’ll probably have multiple little fights which constitute a larger fight, but it’ll be easier for you to think of the scenes as scenes.

What you don’t want to be doing is thinking about what you’re going to be doing in the moment because then you’re not focused on acting and are instead taking a ridgehand to the head, which at worst will cost you two points on the sparring scorecard. This is much better than taking the bladed inside of your enemy’s hand to your temple. You didn’t just give them the opportunity to hit you, you let them hit you with an incredibly powerful but heavily telegraphed strike.

Your body will react for you, but you’re still piloting the vehicle. In some ways, it’s like driving and not driving on a highway. No, this is driving in a winding canyon with everyone around you going sixty to eighty miles per hour. If you space out that could be difference between your survival and you going off a cliff. You’ve got about enough awareness to say, “there’s an asshole tailgating me, and I better ease off the gas ’cause that’s a twenty mile an hour turn ahead.” So, if you’re not focused then your body won’t be either. So, you’ve got to focus on what’s immediately happening in front of you in order to react to it. Training just carves away all the excess thinking which will slow you down, like trying to remember how to do a technique, or trying to decide on which technique, or spend too much time focusing on strategy, or cracking wise. This way your reaction times have been shaved down to .25 seconds and you can perform several actions before the single second is over.

Realize > React > Act.

“I need to fight now” is a sentence you don’t have time for because by the time you’ve said it the punch has already arrived. The air is also now gone from your lungs, so you’ll need to breathe again before you act. On the page, a fight flowing at the pace time progresses while you’re thinking will look like this.

Shit!

Punch.

He’s not—

Punch.

Giving—

Punch.

Me—

Punch.

Time to—

Punch.

React!

That’s five potential punches per thought, and only if they miss. If you’re very lucky, your character may manage to multitask by thinking and dodge at the same time. However, because their focus is split they will be slower and may miss objects in their environment which can trip them.

So, was the time spent on thinking worth it?

For all that people talk about the simplicity of violence, you should know that hand to hand violence is actually very mechanically complex. You’ve got to be doing a lot of complex actions at the same time, which is why you train to perform them. However, that doesn’t mean the time you rid yourself of thinking of how to perform them is freeing you up for other things. You’ve freed yourself up for near instantaneous action. This is your trade off. If you pack other thoughts in where those previous thoughts were then you’re actually slowing yourself back down. Your focus is spent on the action itself. Your character’s goal is actually to finish the fight within a single sentence rather than an entire paragraph. That’s what all participants of violence want, for the fight to be over as quickly as possible. H2H is also the slowest form of violence with the least amount of risk when it comes to sudden death. With weapons, you better not be thinking because a mistake will result in broken arms, fatal stabbings, and getting shot.

You can think or you can fight.

Trust me, you want to be fighting.

-Michi

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Q&A: Eight Decades of Bats

You’ve said in the past that Bruce Wayne having a job a job program for criminals was out of character. And even just watching the animated series again, I don’t think I agree. He has wanted to help people, even criminals, many times. Harley Quinn is a big one. Jason Todd tried to steal his tires and might have been able to get away with it. There’s Two-Face as well. Bats may not have the same views as, Nightwing, but to say he’s all about Tomas Hobbs and nothing else is missing some nuance.

It’s not nuance. The issue is that these characters have passed through the hands of many writers. That’s not a criticism of your position, per se.

You’re not wrong. Take Adam West’s Batman, and you have a character who truly looks for the best in everyone. Scattered through the years there have been a lot of truly altruistic versions presented. The key word there is, “versions.”

These are different writers takes on the character. We exist in a world where one set of writers looked at the character and created a lighthearted romp where the greatest foes he faces are lovable (if dangerous) buffoons. And another set of writers turned him, literally, into a vampire, who preys on the unwary. This can make life really tricky when you’re trying to offer up a concise critique of a character like this. It’s not just Batman by the way. Many comic book superheroes, and even most mythological figures suffer from this.

Now, obviously, if you’re wanting to talk about something like Thor, you can pick from a vast array of different, conflicting, sources, and (to some extent) chose the scope of your examination. The scope is actually pretty important. Do you look at the modern interpretations or a specific subset, (like “Thor in video games”), do you look at the actual myth, or the changes to the figure’s presentation over time as cultural and other factors changed? Do you intersect them with something else, for example, looking at “how Norse mythology interconnects with Arthurian myth.”

Modern franchise characters offer some similar options. You can look at Batman in specific eras, under certain writers, or how the character reflected changing social trends over time. In some cases you can even splice off specific pieces, such as reboots or alternate versions, and analyze those examples.

Fortunately, Batman makes this somewhat easy. Most of the time, the character is fairly consistent but there’s always going to be stuff like Stephanie Brown or Jean-Paul Valley that is not, and breaks character on his behavior. Batman hiring a brainwashed assassin and putting him in a powered armor batsuit was a fixture in the 90s in Knightfall after Bain broke Batman’s spine. We also have Batman killing the teenage girlfriend of Tim Drake through neglect after taking her on as Tim’s replacement and trying to use that event as a teachable moment. (See also, Batman: War Games.) DCUO’s Bats, who often sounds like he’s in the middle of a nervous breakdown while handing out quests to a number of nascent MMO heroes might be another.

Consider this, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Frank Miler, Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, Jeff Loeb, Chuck Dixon, Bruce Timm, Garth Ennis, Gail Simone, and many, many more have all written for Batman either in his own books or in other comic incarnations. If you haven’t been paying attention, these writers all have vastly different approaches and outlooks when it comes to presenting their characters. Grant Morrison honestly believes that Batman snaps and kills the Joker at the end of “The Killing Joke”, and he presents this as objective fact. Alan Moore, who wrote “The Killing Joke” thinks Grant Morrison is a moron. We haven’t even gotten discrepancies with the way Batman is presented on film. Remember, Batman and Robin is the film adjacent to Batman Begins, they’re both technically canon. Do you imagine Christian Bale grew up to be George Clooney or Adam West? The Adam West Batman is one of Batman’s most famous versions. There are lots of different versions of Batman to choose from.

As a fan, you might pick and choose your canon but many of the versions which don’t appeal to you are just as valuable from an analytical and critical perspective. So, keep that in mind as we move forward.

I did not say that it was out of character for Batman to seek to redeem people. The issue here is the methodology. At the core of Batman, you have a guy who dresses up as a bat to scare criminals into line and when that fails, he resorts to violence. I mean, at the extreme end, we’re talking about a character who kept a yellow power ring around, “just in case.” Except, sometimes, with some writers, he abandons this entire philosophy when convenient.

At this point, I should probably step back and abstract Hobbes a bit.

Thomas Hobbes wasn’t saying that it was impossible to govern, or that people couldn’t be productive members of society. He simply argued that, if left to their own devices, people suck. That they will do whatever they want to one another, unless kept in line somehow. That’s Batman; people suck, and the only reason they follow the law is because they’re afraid of what could happen if they don’t.

What’s not (usually) Batman, is Hobbes answer. He argued that the way to “deal” with people was to form communities, bound together by a social contract. While this is somewhat reflected by Bats, it’s not usually articulated as such. You can see this a lot more clearly articulated with the Adam West era stuff. While being one of the most optimistic versions of the character, he’s also, very strongly arguing that social structures need to be adhered to for the good of all.  It’s still Hobbes’s commonwealth, just not how you usually think about Batman.

With that said, as cynical as Hobbes is about human nature, the overall tone of the Leviathan isn’t nearly as bleak. He is arguing that people can transcend, their state of nature. Put simply, “people suck, but they can be better.” He then goes into excruciating detail how he thinks that’s possible.

So, I said Bats’ outreach programs were out of character, and I stand behind that.

Let’s talk about the personal stuff. His relationships with Jason Todd, Harvey Dent, Stephanie Brown, Damion… those are consistent. They’re not completely out of character, though I have to wonder about Jason. The Red Hood murdering people with guns goes against everything Batman supposedly stands for, but DC has embraced Jason back into the Batfamily when he’d kick Damien out for doing the same thing… let’s move on.

Bats’ is forming, or trying form, a community. Dent is outside of that, but Bats desperately wants to believe reform is possible and (re)include him. This is arguably true with several of his villains. He does believe they can be reformed. That’s not in conflict with Hobbes. Hobbes believed that people could be better, and Bats follows that ideal. The issue is the exceptions he makes.

Most of the outreach programs Bruce Wayne runs build off of an idea that all someone needs to succeed is a little help. That normally, people are decent, and that when someone gets out of line, it’s a product of other factors pushing them to behave in that way. That’s not Hobbes. This is Superman. Superman believes that people are, by nature, decent. That they are driven to do bad things, either because they’ve become misguided,  or because they’re forced to.

Now, the irony in this is that Batman is in a far better position to affect change from Superman’s outlook. He has the resources to engage in civic works. He could put money into Gotham in ways that would actually reduce crime and corruption. He could improve the city he lives in. This is the legacy of Thomas Wayne; a man trying to make Gotham a better place through strategic philanthropy. Bats doesn’t. At my most generous, I’d be inclined to chalk this stuff up as an element of his cover and as such, in-character. Because rich celebrities throw money at charity, Bruce Wayne does. And, there’s a potential to write this stuff off like that. It’s not something Bats believes in, but he does it to keep public opinion on Bruce’s side.

There’s probably something to be said, in the vein of Watchmen‘s thesis: You can’t really make the world a better place by punching muggers. It just doesn’t work. The problem is, that’s Batman’s plan. Beatings will continue until morale improves. At the same time Gotham is a complete mess, much like Watchmen‘s New York. To be fair, this is not an intentional correlation. Bats needs muggers to punch, so Gotham needs to be a hell hole.

When you’re writing, it’s very important to remember that you and your characters are different people. They (probably) have a different philosophical outlook from you. At that point, simply doing something because it would be nice, or because you want to is insufficient justification. It needs to be something your character would do. You need to justify their decision, at least to yourself; check that it is consistent with how they view their world.

When you are analyzing, it is equally important to asses the ideology a work, and its characters. Translating that to the author’s ideology can be tricky, even if you know what you’re doing. Understanding the ideology of a character comes from looking at their words and actions. Finding idiosyncrasies and discrepancies is a vital step in determining the nature of that character. Writers often look for behavior that may be considered out of character, because they are attempt to assess the work. It’s a literary acid bath. This isn’t malicious, it’s not trying something you love. It’s a writer looking at a piece and trying to learn from it. Eventually, it’s something you need to do as well, to grow.

Also, you can love something stupid. You can love something that doesn’t make any sense. There’s no accounting for quality. I’ve watched some terrible movies that I’m still quite fond of. But, it is kind of important, to be honest with yourself. Fandom can constrain your growth as an artist. You love a thing, and that’s good, but then you let that stake out your borders. Don’t let that happen.

I like Batman, but he is a mess.

-Starke

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Q&A: Haladie

Hi, so my character uses a haladie in their fighting, i was wondering how that fighting style would look? Thank you! your blog is awesome and super helpful!

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure.

In spite of being a fairly widely distributed weapon, ranging from India to Syria. I can’t find much information on the haladie. This is especially surprising given the weapon was still in use into the early 20th century.

Often times, my first impulse when someone says, “how do you use this,” is to refer them to google, but this time, that doesn’t really work.

What I can find is slightly conflicting. The original haladie were status symbols for the Rajput in India. The Rajput were a militant caste in India, though I should say, “are,” since the Rajput still exist today. There’s also a lot of discussion about their history, and debate whether they were descendants of invading groups, or if they were of indigenous origin, who rose to leadership. (They’re not the only militant caste, so this isn’t like, “these are the warriors tasked with defending our lands.”) Also, worth noting, the entire concept of the militant castes vs, the non-militant ones has it’s roots in the British occupation, so this whole topic is a little bit complicated, and the term itself is somewhat indiscriminate, including multiple clans.

If you seriously want to dig into this, I’d recommend researching the Rajput, and India in general. The haladie is not simply “another weapon,” it is a part of culture and civilization in India, and it is strongly tied to those social structures.

So, with that tangled mess on the table, the simple answer is that the Haladie was a status symbol (in India).  Though, I’m unclear how exclusive these weapons actually were. They were clearly traded outside of the Deccan Plateau, as they did appear in Syria, and were later produced there, even being called Syrian Daggers by those unfamiliar with the provenance.

The haladie is one of those weapons that are more dangerous to an untrained user than their opponent. (I can vouch for this from personal experience; I have a scar on my right index finger from mishandling one almost 20 years ago.) Normally, I would say that means the weapon probably never saw use, except, but this is an Indian weapon. Indian martial arts never shied away from weapons that were difficult or dangerous to wield. In particular, the Urumi still comes to mind as an excellent example of this.

As far as I can tell, the haladie was used in combat. I don’t know what that looked like, and I’m not really sure if anyone alive does. From what I understand the primary weapon of the Rajput was the Khanda, a double edged straight sword with a flat tip. They carried the haladie, they used it, but I don’t know how, or more importantly, when. And, the information I can find on short notice isn’t particularly comprehensive.

I can’t fault you here. If you want to use this, and do it “right,” you’ve a lot of research ahead of you. We talk a lot about how the right weapon is about picking the correct situation to use it. In most cases, we’re talking about things when you should use a knife, versus a sword, versus a polearm or firearm. And, some of that is Eurocentric.

Europe has some symbolism with weapons. The sword has meaning as a badge of office, for the king, or knights. The gun has meaning. The kind of gun has meaning, just like the kind of sword has meaning.

When you step into another culture, (in this case: India’s), you need to assess what that weapon means. The haladie isn’t just a cool looking dagger. It’s a symbol that says, “this is who my character is.” For them to carry it, they need to be a specific kind of person, a specific caste, and clan. It’s not enough to just give them the weapon “because it belongs to that culture.” It’s also not their main weapon, or wouldn’t be.

In this case, I’d recommend reading up on the Rajput. I condensed what I could, but there are, literally, entire books on the subject. Their history, their identity. All of this is relevant to creating a character. You’re learning who they are. In the process, learning about where they’re from will create a richer story.

I am sorry I can’t give you a more direct, “this is how you use it,” answer, because all I can find are people experimenting with ones, nobody who knows what they’re doing.

If you just want a practical, “exotic,” knife in a modern setting, I’d recommend the karambit. It’s a curved knife of South-East Asian origin, with a lot of flexible combat applications. There’s also some pretty good demonstrations on YouTube for how to use these. (It won’t teach you to use one in a real situation, but it should give you some ideas how to incorporate one into your writing.)

-Starke

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Q&A: There’s no such thing as an accidental stabbing

I have a taller, drunker, more experienced, overconfident person try to stab a shorter, sober, less experienced person (they have SOME experience, but knives/close combat isn’t their specialty so they’re better at Disengage-and-Get-the-Hell-out-of-Dodge than prolonged fighting). I’d like it to go Shorty: Yeep?! A knife? Both: Struggle over control of knife. Drunky: Loses control of the knife Shorty: Accidentally stabs Drunky in the chest/heart. I’d appreciate advice on how to have it go. Thanks!

Someone who is experienced with a knife knows precisely what it means when they draw one, even when they’re drunk.

They want to kill you.

If they’re drunk enough to be tipsy with their judgement impaired enough to commit murder in a public place but not drunk enough to be tripping over their own feet, then they’re going to be a very dangerous opponent. Knives are very good for killing at close ranges and drunken people can be very difficult to anticipate. Think about this, Drunken Fist is an entire martial art built around learning to move like you are drunk while being sober. This is because the way you move when you are drunk will throw experienced fighters off. A drunken person is looser, faster, and has their tells muted by the strange movements of their body. (Writing drunken characters is made easier if you yourself have ever been drunk, or been around people when they’re drunk.) You end up in a place where things will either go fantastically well while you’re on autopilot i.e. performing complex gymnastics you were too afraid to do before or driving yourself home without incident, or horribly. Drunk crashing, murder, falling to your death, and all other terrible to straight up weird things that can happen when your brain is not firing on all cylinders.

Just remember, when they’re drunk they have all the skills they possess when they’re sober. Their inhibitions are gone, which makes them more dangerous and not less. An angry drunk person is more likely to run you down with a car because they’re running on impulse and the concept of consequences is a distant third. Martial arts retrains your reflexes so you can function without thinking, react without thinking, and do what you want in the moment when you want to do it. Alcohol takes away the inhibitions that will stop you from doing what you want in the moment when you want to do it.

Now, here’s the worse news. Being able to anticipate your enemy’s movements in order to intercept their strikes before they reach extension is necessary when you’re looking at any kind of disarm, but especially with knives. You have less than a second to recognize what’s happening and react, which requires you see the draw coming from starting movements in their eyes, shoulder and chest muscles rather than when they actually pull the knife.

Knives are no game, they are deadly and you are much more likely to get stabbed while attempting any disarm than you are to take the knife away. Knife disarms are less dangerous than gun disarms, but that’s like saying your 99.9% chance of failure has been bumped down to 95%. You’ve got slightly better odds of survival, but they’re not great. You’ve got a better chance if you know what you’re doing than if you don’t, but the likelihood is that you’ll still get stabbed or accidentally impale yourself trying the disarm. If you’re not used to working with knives, you’ll lose track of the knife and its length. Your body’s reflexes won’t be trained to move completely out of the way, and you’re likely to get stabbed just trying to stop the blade from hitting you. It’s important to remember that knives are very dangerous even when you’re practiced, and in a scuffle it is easy to misjudge distance. If you fuck up, you’re getting stabbed, possibly multiple times in rapid succession. If you grab the blade, you’re getting cut or stabbed. If you fail to stop the arm before the attack gains inertia and don’t get out of the way, you’re getting stabbed. If you block the knife with your arm/forearm, you’re getting stabbed.

Knives are often portrayed as the smaller, less dangerous brother of the sword. That is not at all true. They are more dangerous, more flexible, more vicious in close quarters against unarmored/unarmed opponents, and do not require much skill to wield effectively. They are fast, they’re blink and you’ll miss it fast. This is zero to sixty in a fraction of a second with a bleed out following not long after.

Knives used in the hand range and are supplemental to fists. The fight begins in the range where the knife will have access to the entire body, and it is a weapon that can puncture your gut, sever tendons, and cut open muscles. Not only that, but you’re not going to get stabbed the one time. If they get the opportunity, you’ll most likely be stabbed six or seven in rapid succession.

Remember, if someone pulls a knife on you, they are threatening your life. The same is true for your characters. If they are in a situation where someone has pulled a knife on them, their life is being threatened. If they pull a knife on another character, they are threatening that character’s life. Regardless of the character’s intention when they draw their weapon, it is important to understand what the action means and what the threat is.

So, let’s talk about knife disarms.

Some Golden Rules of Knife Disarms

Don’t. Touch. The. Knife.

In knife combat, your target is the arm that holds the blade and not the blade itself. This is especially true if you are unarmed. So, don’t grab the blade. Grab the wrist. Grab the arm. Then, once the arm stops moving, you can take the knife by grabbing the handle and rolling it against your attacker’s thumb to forcibly release the grip.

Get Off The Vector!

You have to get away from the blade when that blade comes at at you. Your choices are to go forward, back, or to the side. Forward to stop the arm before the swing begins, backward to keep from getting stabbed while you go for the knife, sideways to get out of the way. You always want the knife off an attack vector on your body so that when you try to take the blade they can’t just lean into the attack a little harder and stab you.

They will do that, by the way. If you get a bad grip or they twist out of it, they can just roll over and finish what they started. Meanwhile, depending on which angle you stopped it, you risk getting cut/cutting yourself just moving the knife into position for the disarm.

Your combat reflexes are also a problem when dealing with knives, most of the traditional ways you’d move to block an attack will get you stabbed (albeit in a slightly different place than your aggressor intended.) One of the big issues with knife disarms is if you’re not worked to working with knives is that you’ll walk right into the strike even if you successfully “stopped” it.

Catch Before Extension or After. Do Not Try The Disarm During.

The rules of blocks and deflections are necessary to grasp if you want to write knife disarms. Against fists the difference is getting hit. With a knife, failure means you will be stabbed. Blocks and deflections are not about physical strength, they rely on disrupting the body’s mechanics.

In many martial arts, a punch or kick is broken down into stages.

Chamber. Extension. Recoil.

Chamber is when the arm or leg is bent before they extend into the strike. Stopping a punch or kick must be done before the arm or leg extends. If you want to stop a knife thrust, you need to catch that thrust in the moments before the arm fully extends i.e. while the elbow is still bent.

Extension is when the arm extends into motion, when it has gained momentum, and the moment before the elbow or knee locks into place.

Recoil is when the arm or leg withdraws after the strike, pulling back into the chambered position before returning to position.

The easy one to conceptualize is the overhead strike where the arm cycles into a downward arc to strike at the throat or shoulder. You catch the arm while it’s still behind the head before it reaches the zenith of the circle and begins to come down, i.e. while the elbow still points behind the head instead of facing you. This is the stage before the strike gains momentum. If you catch it too late, the strike will go through your block and hit you. With a knife strike, the stakes are higher. If you fail, you’re taking a blade to your shoulder, chest, or neck.

The second option with a knife is to catch the arm after it has extended, which means you must get out of the way of the strike first. The strike goes past you, and you catch the arm before it recoils for another strike.

Keep Track of the Knife.

You can deflect knife strikes, and that works under similar principles as a block. You redirect the arm somewhere else. The issue with this method is you need to have pinpoint precision for exactly how far the blade extends as part of their arm. In order to cut you, a knife just needs to connect. If any body part is within reach, it risks being cut. If your body is on line or on the same vector as the knife when you stop it, you risk your opponent pushing past the catch and stabbing you anyway. You need to track the extra reach of the blade at all times or risk being stabbed even when you do everything right. You always want your body off the knife’s vector, and the knife away from you.

When you’re writing knife combat this step is crucial to conveying tension and necessary to remember when you’re positioning your characters. In a fictional world, your characters will only be stabbed when you decide they will be. They only fail when you decide they will. This can lead to sloppy writing and negation of danger, which negates your tension if you’re not abiding by the rules. To convey that sense of danger, you need your audience aware of the knife; where it is, how close it is, what it’s doing, if your character let it stay on attack vector, tried to stop it, and didn’t get out of the way.

It’s All About The Thumb

Don’t fight four fingers when you can fight one. If you’re going to take a one handed weapon held in a forward facing grip away from someone, roll that weapon back against the thumb and twist. Focus on the weak points in the grip rather than attacking the whole grip.

Gotta Go Fast.

You don’t have time to play around with a knife, if you imagine a prolonged scuffle for the weapon or if your character gets into one then they significantly increased the likelihood they were getting stabbed. The closer that knife is to your body, the greater the chance of penetration, and even surface level nicks are deadly. They don’t need a single finishing blow, they can just cut away quick enough for you to bleed to death. This is the point of first blood, by the way. You take a wound to your body where you begin bleeding, no matter where that wound is, and you are at a serious disadvantage.

The longer this fight goes on, the more the advantage gets handed to the person with the weapon.

Onto some other problems.

The chest is not a good place to stab someone, you’re not getting to the heart unless you’re damn lucky. You’ve got an entire plate of bone called the sternum protecting it. The more necessary your body parts are, the more protection they get. You need a lot of force, and it’s just not worth the effort. Not when you have the stomach there and much readily available. Though, that’s not a quick death. You’re character can try but between their inexperience and the difficulty of the target, this drunk character isn’t going to die. The other major arteries are the same way, there’s not a lot of chance you’ll get them if you’re not experienced at finding them.

With a knife, you need to be skilled at using it in order to deliver sudden and immediate death otherwise you’re stuck with lingering, painful death from a slow bleed out after your major internal organs have been turned into chunky salsa.

Now, this fight is happening in a public place, so there’s a greater likelihood of this character receiving medical aid quick enough for them to survive or someone being close enough to intervene. More than that, where are their friends? And the other bystanders? And the bartender? I have a hard time imagining these two characters being the only ones duking it out in an empty bar.

A character used to disengagement isn’t going to take the option to fight a dangerous opponent against whom they’re outmatched if they can run away. That’s just… smart. A bar provides you with a lot of opportunities to do just that. There are a lot of options to get objects between yourself and the person attacking you in order to create the opening needed to get away. They’re also in the kind of tight quarters where they can’t control their own movement and could get forced into the knife by someone else in the environment or the environment itself. They’ve got no margin for error, and the bar is a situation where there’s a chance all the errors will occur.

You’re basically trying to engineer a situation where this character is forced to kill this other character. The goal is to use alcohol to force the situation and then level the playing field. The problem is you’ve got a character, by your own admission, where this kind of fight isn’t their forte and a situation where knife disarms need to be for them to be successful.

Taking a knife from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing with it is difficult and you’re at high risk of getting stabbed. Taking a knife from someone who knows what they’re doing, even if they’re drunk, is almost impossible. They’ve trained their body and their reflexes to do this, even when they’re in no condition to be doing this. The drunken fencer accidentally killing another sober person is ironically more likely than the drunken fencer getting killed. Depending on how much they’ve drunk and what their tolerance is, the alcohol actually makes killing easier because it removes their inhibitions. They don’t have to second guess anything, they can just do. They call it liquid courage for a reason.

Now, that’s from a practical standpoint. From a narrative standpoint, this piece of violence will be trivial unless the death of this other character leads somewhere interesting with real, severe consequences for your protagonist. If the violence doesn’t go anywhere and just exists for cheap guilting or to prove the character can kill then it just isn’t interesting. Violence is a high risk tool with high risk consequences that you can use to create real stakes, but when violence is misused you also cheapen your entire narrative. You can destroy your stakes, wreck your tension, and end up boxed in by your own writing.

What’s the point?

Did this other character have a real reason to draw their knife on this other character and attempt to kill them? Or are they just a puppet sacrificed to establish the protagonist?

It better be a really good reason, let me tell you. Alcohol takes away inhibitions, but it doesn’t make you do anything you weren’t already prone to doing. The beef better be real, and based in the sort of emotional reaction you’d be willing to ruin your life over.

Where are the other characters?

Where is the bartender?

Who else is going to intervene?

When setting up a versus in your head, it is really easy to over focus on that and forget about everything surrounding your characters. A drawn weapon is a danger to everyone in the room, not just the character who is being threatened. Other people, whether they’re friends, allies, enemies, or strangers, will be inclined to jump in. A bar fight has stakes for the owner and employees of the establishment, they can’t stay in business if their bar isn’t safe. Drawing a weapon represents a direct threat to that safety for the social order.

These consequences and considerations are part of your world building. Ask yourself, is there someone close enough to stop this fight?

You may not see it that way, but you should be aware of the fact that the bar brawl scene is cliche. One countless other writers have already used for some cheap, consequence free violence to show how their protagonist is a badass. The violence in fictional bars rarely goes anywhere. Cheap violence damages your narrative.

So, don’t be cheap.

You don’t need a character behaving violently to show that the character is dangerous or knows what they’re doing. In fact, doing so runs counter to showing that.

Lastly, there’s no such thing as an accidental stabbing. This is especially true when you’ve killed the other person. Knives are like guns. They’re weapons used to kill the other person. Characters who have any experience with martial combat know that. They know what holding a knife means, the threat it represents, and how the combat is going to end. They or the other person will be seriously wounded or dead. Even when you’re wielding one in self-defense or fighting someone else with a knife, that is the outcome.

“Oh, but I didn’t mean to do that” is not a good justification, legally or narratively. “He was going to kill me so I killed him first” is better. “I killed him because I had to.” “I killed him to protect someone precious to me.” “I killed him because I wanted to.” “I killed him because he threatened my life.” “I killed him.” “I… yeah, I did.”

If you’re going to have your character kill another character, you need to put on your grown up pants and have them mean it. This is especially true when they’re trained. Accidents are not a get out of jail free card, or a great way to show your character knows what they’re doing but just couldn’t control it, or particularly meaningful way of raising the stakes.

Killing another person requires commitment. You don’t get there through half-measures. Humans are actually rather difficult to do in. We’re impressively good at killing each other, but it takes a fair amount of work. Besides, I mean, this character is drunk. He’s got a better than average chance of stabbing himself with the knife or falling on it and killing himself, or falling into a table and stabbing some innocent bystander long before this other character has time to take the knife from him.

You gotta commit. Whether in martial arts, or in your writing, or in life, you won’t get anywhere with half-measures. We cross the threshold by acting, by believing we’ll get there, and by committing to what we’re about to do. The same goes for your Shorty.

There aren’t clean endings to knife fights. Violence requires you be willing to hurt and even kill another person. The same is true whether or you’re on the giving or the receiving end. If they can’t commit, they’ll never stop that knife to begin with.

-Michi

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