Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Swords

Can a sword cut through steel bars, or is that fantasy? Also, how much space is needed to use a sword correctly and is there a lot of difference between say, the space needed to use a long sword as opposed to a short sword? I’m guessing an enclosed space the size of a closet would suck. I’ve tried searching through your tags for an answer to this but didn’t find it.

For the first question, the short answer is no. There’s a full discussion to be had on metal hardness

As I said, there are a lot of relevant factors here as well, such as how easily the object will bend out of the way, but when you’re talking about trying to cut your way through a bar of metal, you’re going to need a lot more than just, “a sword.”

I should probably add, you also don’t simply hack through metal armor with a sword. It doesn’t matter how sharp the blade was when you started out, that kind of brute force will wreck the weapon. Instead, you’re looking for openings, which are necessary to allow the user to move.

This still applies for cutting through bars. While the bars and sword may have similar hardness as materials, the blade’s edge will be more fragile, and any attempt to simply hack your way through won’t end well for the sword.

When it comes to simply hacking through objects, you’re better off with an axe. Those are designed to deliver a lot of blunt force along the edge. You still shouldn’t expect much from taking a steel axe to steel bars, but it is better suited for that kind of abuse.

Now, if you’re using some kind of fantasy weapon, like an impossible blade that breaks down anything it connects with on a molecular level, like Warhammer 40k’s power weapons, or a lightsaber, then steel bars aren’t going to pose much of an obstacle. However, in cases like that, you’re not really concerned with how sharp it is.

Okay, back to the second question. There isn’t a concrete answer, because it will be determined by the sword and the techniques your character’s been trained in. It is entirely possible to use swords, even fairly large ones like the zweihander, in fairly tight quarters.

For a lot of European sword combat, the tip of the blade is the most important point of contact, so you’re more interested in linear thrusting strikes, rather than large slashing patterns.

Even when you are whipping the blade around, there’s still a major focus on being efficient with your motion (at least in most of the surviving schools of thought). There are still a few surviving manuscripts and approaches which focus on wider arcing strikes, which would require more space.

Remember, one major use for swords in Europe was in tight quarters while assaulting castles and fortresses. If the sword couldn’t be used in close, it wouldn’t have remained in use for long. This does mean that, sometimes, you need to get creative. There are a number of grips where you’ll control a sword with one hand on the blade (called half-handing, or half-swording), and others where you’ll strike someone with the pommel, which can be executed at much closer ranges.

With very few exceptions, you don’t wave your sword around in large telegraphed strikes unless you need to. It may look cool, but it’s far easier to defend against. Just like in hand-to-hand, exposing your movements to your opponent is something you want to avoid whenever possible. Keeping movement inside your silhouette makes it harder to track. With that said, the circular sword styles you’ll see in something like The Witcher 3 do have a basis in history, and those can work, for a trained practitioner on open ground.

Historically speaking, shortswords weren’t really a thing, sort of. Bladed weapons in the range of 12 to 24 inches existed, were, and are, real, but, like the greatsword or bastard sword the term is almost certainly modern.

Depending on the era, a shortsword would either be a sword, or a variant of knife. This has to do with the overall technological development. The Roman Gladius was a sword, but, turn the clock forward 1500 years, and a similar weapon would have been a knife or bayonet.

If it’s a sword, it’s probably a sidearm. An early iron era soldier would probably carry a spear or some other polearm as their primary weapon, with a backup sword if their primary weapon was lost or destroyed.

If it’s a knife, it’s probably a backup sidearm. An early modern solder, or even a soldier today, will likely carry a knife as an emergency backup should their primary weapon and sidearm fail, or if they need to use it in very tight quarters. For example, if a soldier was tackled to the ground, stabbing their opponent with a knife would be a legitimate option.

It’s probably worth mentioning, a smallsword is actually a rapier, epee, or another sword with a similar long, slender, blade. The name referred the weight of the blade, rather than it’s length.

Sideswords are another descriptive variation. These were longswords specifically intended for use as sidearms. Depending on the individual blade’s country of origin, these could also be a smallswords. They’re not so much a distinct kind of weapon, as a distinct use for one.

There’s an entire discussion to be had on how modern sword names actually make things more complicated than they need to be. The abbreviated version is: A lot of descriptive sword names come from the 18th or 19th century. They classify a lot of  blades idiosyncratically. It’s where we get the modern meaning for terms like long sword, bastard sword, or short sword. Historically you would not have had “a short sword,” it would have simply been, “a sword,” or, “a knife.” There are a few more egregious examples, like the broadsword, which was never used historically. And, as I’ve mentioned, the term “bastard sword,” isn’t new, but on one knows what these referred to historically. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use those terms, just understand, most never really meant anything, historically.

So, in spite of not being a thing, short swords, or long knives, or bayonets, had a role as an emergency backup weapon. That, really hasn’t changed. The way you’d use a combat knife today is fairly similar to what they would have been used for eight-hundred years ago.

-Starke

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Q&A: Shotguns

You talk very often about shotguns and seem to have them in a high esteem. Could you, perhaps, tell us some more about what’s so great about them, what meaningful differences can there be between models and how to make sure the OC will use them to their fullest effect? I’m from a country without easy access to weaponry, so my knowledge is not too good.

There’s a kind of weird irony here. Generally speaking, I’m not a particular fan of shotguns. However, we do get a lot of questions that slot, pretty directly, into the kinds of situations where they excel.

If your character needs to put “weird” things down a gun barrel, then a shotgun is going to be the easy answer. These things will spit out nearly anything you can crimp into a shell.

For mundane uses, this includes things like conventional shot loads or solid slugs. On the more exotic end, this can include things like less than lethal rounds like beanbags or riot slugs. Those will hurt, but they should keep the target breathing (usually), and commercial payloads that can get downright weird, like Dragons Breath (again, highly reactive metal shrapnel which will ignite on contact with the atmosphere), TAZER slugs, or even flaregun shells. This is before you get into the utterly bizarre stuff that people will hand load into one and fire. Spend some time on YouTube, and you’ll see people making and firing shotgun shells loaded with ceramic magnets, silly putty, stacks of coins, glass, whatever they can think up and fit in a shotgun.

So, when someone says they need to decapitate a monster, the first thing that came to mind were bolo shells, which fall under commercial payloads. This expands further when you’re writing with monsters that require specific methods to dispatch. Granted, the idea of someone putting down a vampire with a copper clad wooden slug is a lot less horrifying than if your characters need to administer a stake directly, but it’s is a safer option.

The other situation where shotguns excel is when you have an inexperienced shooter.

So, when you’re talking about something like home defense, a problem with handguns (which I prefer), rifles, and most firearms is overpenetration. You put a bullet into someone who’s trying to kill you, and the bullet usually doesn’t stop there. It will punch through the person your shooting, go out your wall, through your neighbor’s wall, and maybe come to rest in someone’s engine block, concrete, or the ground. Before someone gets defensive about this, this is more of a problem with rifles than handguns, and it is an issue for shotguns. But, the background of where you’re putting a round is very important.

Pull a handgun in an apartment and fire at an intruder and your rounds could very easily kill your neighbor. With something like an AR15, you need to worry about your background out to around 200 to 300 meters. That bullet will not stop until it makes friends with something solid.

So, as I said, this is a consideration with shotguns. Buckshot won’t be deterred by your couch or some plywood, however, for the amount of damage they can inflict, shotguns are remarkably low power weapons.

Shotguns rely on delivering most of their payload into the intended target. Stray balls of shot are still dangerous, but they’re far less dangerous than putting a bullet somewhere over the rainbow and hoping for the best.

Shotguns do not spray pellets everywhere. They do eject shot in a cone, but it’s a fairly narrow one. This means that even if the shooter miscalculates they have a better chance of downing an attacker than if they were using a slug based firearm. Most hunting shotguns will have a 40 inch spread pattern at 35 meters. (To be fair, this is highly adjustable using chokes, so the user can configure their spread to fit their preferences.) If you’re in the same room as your target, you’re not going to see a lot of missed pellets.

Another factor is that shotguns have unusually light recoil. This makes them much easier to operate and control for inexperienced users.

When it comes to selecting the right shotgun, they’re fairly forgiving. A basic pump action will get the job done pretty reliably. In some cases, with exotic shells, a pump will actually outperform a semi-auto variant. Full auto shotguns exist, but are fairly rare, and again will have issues on non-standard ammo types. For example, loading Dragons Breath into a semi-auto or full auto shotgun will require the operator to manually cycle the bolt after each round.

If you’re looking for a simple, straightforward shotgun to give a character, something like a Remington 870, Winchester 1300, Mossberg 500, or any number of simple pump action shotguns will get the job done. (All of the above are used by military and law enforcement agencies. ) The basic pump design has been around for over a century at this point, and there are a lot of functional examples in existence.

So the short version is, I’m not a particularly big fan of shotguns, but sometimes they really are the right tool for the job.

-Starke

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Q&A: Basket Hilt Broadsword

so silly question(s), time. Was/is there any account of people wearing gauntlets while wielding a basket/complex hilted sword? I feel like most of the appeal of the basket hilt is how it functionally replaces arm protecting armor when expecting a fight, and if not expecting a fight isn’t so much to lug around. but then are people Doing (insert type of sword with a simple cross guard)Sword Wrong because they aren’t wearing the appropriate armor? it’s probably more complex than that ….

Matt Easton will explain the purpose of the basket-hilt broadsword better than I can. You can also look at the Wikipedia entry.

The short answer is that the basket-hilt broadsword is from the Napoleonic era and was primarily a military sword rather than a sword that saw use in civilian life like a rapier or a smallsword. So, yes, it would have been used with leather gauntlets and the armor of the period. (Like the Cuirassier.) More hand protection for the grip does not equate a replacement for armor. It just means more hand protection. Hand protection is important because the hand is one of the first (and best) targets to strike for with a sword, if they don’t have a hand or if the hand is injured then your opponent can’t use their sword. (The fact that the basket hilt exists at all should tell you how important that hand protection is to a soldier.)

Most people who’ve never engaged in any sort of martial training, martial arts tend to think the center is the first place one strikes toward because (obviously) that’s obviously the quickest way to end the fight. Ranged weapons aim for center mass, but in a duel, in hand to hand, or with an armored warrior on the battlefield, that center is going to be the most well-defended part of the body. Your extremities like your arms, your legs, and your hands are much easier to reach, and just as necessary to your opponent putting up a defense or retaliating. They’re also more likely to be open to attack, so you go after those first.

However, for every advantage given to a weapon, there is a disadvantage. The problem with the basket-hilt in civilian life is, as Easton points out in his video, the sword is potentially difficult to draw quickly and provides more opportunity for fumbling than a sword with a less complex hilt. The more protection you give a sword’s hilt then the fewer options you have to just grab and go. The same rules you’ve applied to your enemy also apply to you, the wielder. For the civilian, who has different priorities from a soldier, this is an issue.

A civilian is going to be going around their daily life with their sword sheathed, and need to draw quickly in case of emergency. They’re going to face surprise violence from unexpected places. The soldier will likely already have their sword drawn when the battle starts. The civilian needs speed over additional protection, where the soldier needs that extra defense. You see this concept painted most clearly with the Old West gun duels, but the general answer is: he who draws first wins. Your sword has a lot of hand protection, but that won’t help you much if you can’t get it out of its sheathe. (The same is true in the knife versus gun debate. The gun has range over the knife, but that doesn’t matter if the knife is out and close enough to strike while the gun is still holstered. The fight will be over before the one with the gun has time to draw.) The civilian, for the most part, doesn’t have extra armor to buy them time. They need to be quick, and they need to grip the hilt from any potential angle. In that scenario, the basket-hilt hinders more than helps.

Just because one person adds more armor doesn’t mean they’re doing that so they can take away from somewhere else. The soldier is still going to wear their gauntlets and gloves to protect their hands, they’re just reducing the chance of being struck further with the basket-hilt or quillions on the cross-guard. After all, the basket-hilt only protects the hand and not the rest of their arm. Someone sticks you in the bicep or triceps, good luck using your arm. After all, if you can’t use your muscles then there’s no way to move the arm, or you’ll be doing so while in extreme pain.

-Michi

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Q&A: Monster Hunting

If beheading was the surefire way to kill a monster (say, a vampire or a changeling) what kind of weapon would be preferable in a modern setting? I was thinking of something like an axe or a tomahawk, but would they be better than, say, a short sword?

In a modern setting? My first thought would be a 12 Gauge bolo shell. These are a pair of 12-15mm slugs connected by a metal wire. When fired, the slugs will begin orbiting one another, and the resulting projectile will cut through soft objects, like small trees, trash cans, car doors, and human bodies with relative ease.

There’s a simple problem here. If your monsters are superhuman, going into melee with them is a death sentence for an unmodified human. This is especially true if your monsters are significantly faster than normal, though superhuman strength that allows them to simply rip limbs off will quickly disarm your swordsman, no matter how good they are.

“Safely” dealing with monsters requires that you step back, evaluate your options, and pick the best tools for the job. With rare exceptions, that’s not going to be a sword. They may use a fireaxe to finish the job on a downed monster, but putting those things down will be much safer at range.

If your monster hunters have access to military grade hardware (and can use them without drawing heavy police scrutiny), then an excellent option would be FRAG-12 shells. These are a grenade round designed to load into a 12 gauge shotgun, and should be able to spread your unsuspecting vampire all over the walls.

If your monsters have particular weaknesses, then finding a way to deliver those at range will be far safer. For example: silver bullets are a real thing. They don’t make for fantastic rifle rounds, because the weight is lower than lead, impairing the ballistics, but if you need silver to get the job done, a handgun is a legitimate option.

Explosive and incendiary options can be delivered precisely, and at range. This can be anything from a Dragon’s Breath shotgun shell, which ejects flaming metals (specifically, highly reactive metals which ignite on contact with the atmosphere), or flare shells, to home-made explosive handgun rounds. (For example: Adding a fulminated mercury payload to a hollow-point round, which is an incredibly dangerous, but quite real, option.)

Hell, against a monster that’s unusually light sensitive, just chucking a flash bang in could seriously mess them up.

So far as it goes, a simple 12 gauge pump action shotgun, may be able to down a monster, giving your characters time to take its head off. Though, that is an inherently risky strategy, because they don’t know exactly how long it will stay down, and will need to get within arm’s reach.

There’s a slight difference here, between monsters and normal opponents: Humans, when presented with gunfire, will die. Monsters, particularly something that’s undead, may not. The basic idea behind a bullet is you’ll poke holes in something and let it bleed to death. If they thing you’re shooting can’t die from bleeding, there’s a real possibility that shooting them won’t get the job done. Makes sense. Except, that’s not the same thing as being immune to gunfire. A bullet that strikes bone will still break it. Shooting a vampire in the head may not kill it, but hosing one down with automatic rifle fire should still mess it up enough to put it down, at least for a few minutes (if not longer).

Incidentally, if you’re working with the idea of monsters that are, literally, fast enough to dodge bullets, long range rifle fire is your friend. Firing at ranges where the sound will not reach your monster before the bullet means they won’t know to dodge it. For example: A .50 HEAP round should be able to debone your monster from the next zip code over. Again, as above, this is military hardware, and the original intent for HEAP rounds were disabling vehicles and aircraft, but vampires are generally a lot less threatening when they’ve already been disassembled for easy storage.

As I mentioned earlier, for decapitation of a downed opponent in a modern setting, my money’s on a fire axe.  It’s nice, large, heavy enough to get the job done, and common enough that your characters could potentially grab one on the scene. If your characters aren’t squeamish, a sledgehammer to the skull may also finish the job (depending on your monster).

So, I’ve been talking about high end hardware, for the most part. If your monster hunters have the backing of some group that can kit them out. If your characters are just people off the street, faced with monsters, and have no protections, things can get a lot dicier. Dealing with cosmic horror, when you can potentially call in an air strike, is a lot less threatening, than when you’re dealing with the idea that your neighbor has come back from the grave, and is preying on your family.

If your setting is one where your monster hunters are just, “normal,” people, then picking your tools becomes more important, but you also have way less options, and anything they do will draw police attention. Luring a monster into an abandoned building, and setting fire to the place may kill it, but that’s also a good way to get arrested. Meanwhile, things like HEAP rounds, FRAG-12s, and FNX-45s loaded with Silver Bullets are way outside your budget.

If that’s the situation your characters are in, things like fire axes, or maybe an old 1911 are options, but if your characters have normal considerations, spending $30 a round, to load that .45 with silver is probably not a realistic option.

For writing this kind of desperate, street level monster hunter, one of my favorite reference sources is still Hunter: The Reckoning. There’s also some good advice on story-building mixed in, and the old World of Darkness remains an excellent urban fantasy setting, with a lot of moving pieces.

For government funded monster hunters (specifically vampires), Ultraviolet (the British TV series, unrelated to the 2006 American film of the same name) is an excellent examination of how modern technology can intersect with the supernatural. (Also, the first place I ran across Idris Elba.)

Regardless your approach, the best options for dealing with monsters in a modern setting are going to be getting creative with modern technologies. This may be as simple as tazering a werewolf, or chucking Molotov cocktails at a vampire.

-Starke

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Q&A: Joint Breaks

Is it actually possible to mess up someone’s leg by kicking them in the side of the knee, which seems to be really common in movies? If not, what would be a plausible, effective way to attack/disable the legs?

Yes, absolutely. Any joint you have that you enjoy using that bends in one direction, applying pressure in any other direction until it pops is going to be unhappiness. This is what joint locks do, and joint breaks are simply applying enough pressure or force to break it. It’s about leverage, not strength. Anyone can do it.

The common kicks for this are the sidekick and the shin kick, but you can also break the knee with your elbow, your hand, or a car door. Understand though, once the joint is blown, it takes major surgery to get it back if you can get the joint functioning again at all.

In a real life context, whatever you need to stay alive and escape. They can’t chase you without functioning legs. In a fictional context, you probably want to take this reality into account. This is a joint break, and the knee is a necessary part of a human being’s ability to move while on their feet. Blown joints are usually permanent, or have a long recovery time with modern medicine.

You’re going to want to take that into account according to your character’s own views on violence and it’s uses. The thematic aspects of violence in fiction are as important as the practical applications. Your character’s morals mesh with their approaches, regardless of what is or isn’t best or smart. Everything your character does says something about them, and if your character is one of the peaceable “Everyone must live!” types then a joint break in application creates implied hypocrisy and dysfunction. Catherine of Russia didn’t kill her political rivals, but she locked them up in prison, had them tortured, and this included children. So… what is benevolence? Breaking someone’s arm forever isn’t murder, but it’s also not a nice thing to do and weighing the morality of your character’s actions is something you should consider. One might consider locking a child up in a tower, away from their parents and the sun, refusing to allow them to learn to speak, read, or write, better than killing them. (That was the ultimate fate of Ivan VI.) Some might not.

The question is not just does the approach work, but does the action and its consequences fit with the character’s stance? The second is sometimes much harder to answer than the first, but, for me, the real problem is character actions not matching mentality and intention. Remember, “Does it work?” should always be followed with “Should this character do it?”

-Michi

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Q&A: Where there’s two guards, there’s ten.

I’m trying to write a hand-to-hand fight scene with an injured, yet desperate resistance fighter (who has had training) and two guards who are woefully under prepared to fight him. How am I best to approach this? I figure wrangling a weapon off one of them quickly is better than trying to have a drawn out combat scene?

The part of the question that’s missing is what the injury is, what the situation is, where the resistance fighter is, and what the resistance fighter’s goals are. What I’m telling you is without those pieces I can’t diagnose your fight scene, but the tldr for group fights is don’t if you can avoid it. Just because a character can fight doesn’t mean they should, and that is a practical statement.

When you’re writing a story about a resistance, never forget that they are in a hostile environment where everything is a danger to them, and you should approach every engagement violent or not as a cost comparison. The short version is that two on one is difficult to deal with for anyone, regardless of training. It will be almost impossible when injured because if you’ve no ability to take them out at once (like with weapons) you can only lock up one person at a time. This means number two is always free to move. Guards travel in pairs for a reason. The reason is two on one kills. Where there are two guards, there’s always more. Violence is noisy, violence draws attention. Violence takes time, time this character probably doesn’t have to spare. Now, all these things are fake in a fictional context, which is why it’s up to you as the writer to consider them and the greater narrative consequences. For a resistance fighter, there are always consequences intended and unintended for every act they engage in and every life they take.

For a resistance fighter, guards are the hornets. The problem with hornets is one on their own is mostly just annoying, but you never know when you’re going to run face first into the nest. Unlike hornets, human guards can call their friends.

There is a difference between an insurgent and a revolutionary in terms of training. Insurgents often have military backing and are filled with ex-members of the fallen government military versus the revolutionary where its more shaky. The training itself is less important in considering what they’re able to do in an action sense because regardless of desperation, unnecessary violence in an unwinnable scenario when other potential options are available spells death for the resistance fighter.

When you’re working with a resistance fighter, the resistance part is more important than the fighter part. These are not people with a very large margin for error, and who need to be incredibly good at threat assessment in regard to their greater goals. The greater goal is what’s most important to them, their priority, their mission, they have limited resources and that means they have to make compromises. For the resistance fighter, violence itself draws attention. Attention is bad.

Think about this, if he does manage to fight these two and kill them then whatever kills he makes will be taken out on the civilian population. If he doesn’t kill them, and they remember his face then he’s done as a resistance fighter. Again, attention is bad. Attention brings notoriety. In a hostile state, the consequences are many and they hit the innocent population hardest.

My point is this: your character is not making decisions on what he can do or can’t do, not in what’s morally right or wrong, if he wants to survive in a resistance then he’s making decisions based on risk.

Unless there’s a very good reason for it, (we’re talking he needs these two, specifically these two dead, to move people through their post) then he has no reason to fight them at all because he’s in no position to do so. Fighting puts him and, more importantly, his mission in more risk than not fighting does; especially if these two are unlikely to realize he’s a member of the resistance. 9/10 a resistance fighter is going to be talking their way out of trouble. Trouble attracts guards, sure, but violence attracts more guards and there are always more guards. Discovery risks his safety, risks capture, capture risks the safety of his cell, risks their plans, and risks the resistance itself.

Resistance fighters are the ones who run when their friends get captured, the ones who stand by and do nothing if they’re not at risk of being outed. They wait. They strike later, though usually not to recover their friends. Well, the smart ones do. The stupid ones try. They either get gunned down or captured because hot blood and hot heads get murdered in the streets by the gestapo. There are always more of them than there are you in a resistance, and violence attracts attention. The wrong kind of attention in the wrong place means death or capture, prison, interrogation, torture, and then the firing squad. The consequences for failure are high, not just for the single resistance fighter but for everyone they know, everyone they love, and for the very movement they’re fighting for.

Your character’s very existence hangs on that thread, their actions turn on the threat of discovery, their behavior on the axis of what their missions need done in order to succeed.

He doesn’t have the luxury to kill two guards when they’re standing in his way, because two guards mean there are ten more waiting around the corner. Battle runs the risk of summoning them. Even if he winds, the two dead bodies mean those bodies will eventually be discovered, the townsfolk endure search and seizure, and the city turned upside down as the district commander hunts this character like the rat he is. They may not catch him, but they will find sympathizers among the citizens, possibly friends, and, worse, whatever other resistance cell is working in the area. Someone will be made to pay even if the character himself is not the recipient of the punishment.

If you hadn’t thought of two dead guards being the catalyst for everyone in your character’s life suddenly becoming miserable, more men stationed at every entry and exit point, a ramping up of punishment, more sympathizers dragged off the streets and thrown into detention camps or worse, or a specialist being brought in then you probably should.

Your thinking about a fight, and we’ll get to why fighting these two is a bad idea just upfront in a moment, but for a resistance fighter consequences will spiral out from every person they kill whether they survive or not. These crackdowns can work to their advantage in terms of recruitment, but they will make their immediate life much more difficult. The costs versus loss are high for members of a resistance. For every piece your character and his friends take, the enemy will take five of theirs. He is in a rigged game where his own lack of resources will crush him unless the resistance can convince the populace at large to rise up. That is how a resistance actually wins in the real world, you know. If they can’t get the citizens behind them or receive aid from an outside power or train up an army on foreign soil, they’re doomed.

I will say it now, training is meaningless if you don’t know what it means and I can tell you right now that I don’t know what that means either because resistance fighters either come in with a background like soldier, special ops, my daddy taught me how to use a gun, or they get a crash course and are sent into the fray. If someone has set up training camps, then the situation has upgraded to guerilla warfare which is an entirely different scenario from member of the resistance.  So, what training does he have? From where did it come from? Who taught him? What did he learn how to do? Unless they’re ex-covert ops from the military like the Maquis, resistance fighters learn on the job.

Even then, training just means your character is better prepared than another character to engage in violence. It doesn’t mean they have a free pass. They need to be able to assess the threat and make decisions based on their overall needs or goals. Training is supposed to give you a better chance at threat assessment, and that is the skill by which a resistance fighter lives or dies.

Resistance fighters don’t fight in the conventional sense. This is the most important fact to know about them. The fighter part is misleading because what they are actually doing is engaging in sabotage, performing strikes on high priority targets, or blowing things up.  They can’t afford to fight the way other character types do, they can’t afford to leave a trail of bodies behind them, and they need to move quickly in service of their goals. Every battle they engage in is threat of discovery whether they win or not, if these guards are not a direct threat to them/their goal then the best thing to do is walk by them or let them continue on unawares.

There is one resistance fighter, but there are always more guards. There are these two, then there are their ten buddies somewhere nearby, behind those ten there’s fifty more, then there’s the prison warden, the district commander, and whoever else is up the chain of command. Every body will lead someone back to someone who leads to someone else, and a messy solution to your character’s goal can lead to twenty or more innocent people winding up in prison. Or dead. Which won’t go over well with the people they’re trying to save, if a resistance fighter cannot keep the support of the populace then they are dead. If you haven’t considered how their enemy will respond to their successes, then it is time to start.

Two people are a lot to deal with even for someone who is trained, even when those two people aren’t trained or barely trained, they would be a challenge even if he wasn’t injured. They are an even greater challenge armed and, considering he is without a weapon, the odds are not in his favor. Worst of all, if he can’t kill them quickly, then the fight will slow him down to the point where he may be caught by whomever injured him in the first place.

So, there are times in fiction when fighting is absolutely the 100% wrong choice or at the very least a bad one. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but the guards are guards for a reason. They’re paired together for a reason. They work together. He wrests a weapon away from one of them, but that gives the other time to respond. He doesn’t kill the guard he took the weapon from, that still leaves two guards and one of the guards still has a weapon.

This is why most places will have their guards or work in twos. Against a single attacker, they have the advantage. One will cover what the other misses, and the other will strike when the opponent is locked up. On the sliding scale, your character’s advantage will quickly transition to their advantage.

Time is on their side, not on his.

Besides that, he’s injured. Injuries could mean blood loss, especially if the wound is still open, that means blood will be pumping out of the holes in his body. Violence is a frenetic activity, the heart starts beating faster which in turn starts pumping more blood through the body to deliver oxygen to the muscles. When there are holes in the body, this means more blood exits through the holes. This means high frenetic activity could potentially kill him through a bleed out rather than being murdered by the guards. Or, at the very least, make him woozy, which will lead to him being  murdered by the guards.

Again, time is not on his side.

Threat assessment.

If he can hide his injury, pretend he’s someone else, and talk his way past them then that is actually the best choice. If he’s escaping a prison and he didn’t steal a guard uniform in order to avoid fights, then he is a very dead resistance fighter. If there are guns involved in this scenario then he is in some real deep shit.

Don’t let the movies lie to you, two on one is the most dangerous situation a person can find themselves in. The only worst being three and up. The trick to showing your character is good at fighting is sometimes knowing when not to fight. Wits are more important than fists. This is the moment in the resistance fighter’s life where he tries to find a way past them if possible that involves no violence, goes around them, holes up to tend his wounds, and tries to escape the city by hiding in a hay cart until he can regroup with his friends. He needs his friends but, when it comes to getting away, he’s on his own.

On top of everything else, group fight scenes are difficult to write because a lot of people will be moving at the same time. We have one injured man versus two who also have weapons, the injured man will be limited in his movements depending on his injury, that injury will become a target and exploited by his opponents. His opponents have a combined eight limbs, he has four and he can’t use all of them. His opponents have weapons. He has surprise, but surprise only lets him take one of them. The other is still free. After that, surprise is gone. Guns are not just dangerous, they’re loud and bound to summon assistance, so let’s hope they’re not here. Depending on his circumstances, he could attempt to take one hostage but there’s a lot of risk involved in that, it also assumes he could hold them with his injury. Even if he manages to take the weapon away from one, the other one will still have a weapon, and the opportunity to use it while he’s doing the wresting. The two of them part actually negates the surprise part, that’s why they travel in pairs.

If he had stun guns, if he had two knives, if he had a tool he could use to take both of them out at the same time then maybe. This, however, assumes they’ll both be facing the same direction and not see him approach. His risk is far greater than theirs.

All they need to do is have one of them lock him up long enough for the other guy to call for aid, then they’re back to two on one or in a few minutes five on one. He even if he manages to get a weapon, he’s now fighting all the guards. They don’t have to fight him. Fighting him is not their job, all they have to do is delay him long enough for help to arrive.

This is why a resistance fighter doesn’t behave like this. They don’t have the option of fighting all the guards. They will always be outnumbered and outgunned. He should have this information internalized. It doesn’t matter how much training he has because all it takes is one moron with a good angle and he’s dead. The more enemies there are, the more likely those enemies are to have the opportunity for a good angle. The more desperate he is then the more likely he is to avoid combat. He cannot afford to fight. If he’s on an assassination mission, he’s still going to try to get past the guards without fighting them. Why? It’s the smart play for all the same reasons above. The person he’s here to kill is the only one that matters, and if he dies before he reaches them then the whole situation was for naught. The more people he kills on the way to them then the more likely his target is to disappear. The more time he wastes on violence then the more likely the window of opportunity for his actual mission is to disappear.

A resistance fighter lives in a game of cat and mouse, and he is the mouse. Sometimes, he is a mouse with a very large explosion but he is still a mouse. He will run and hide, he will slip through the cracks and disappear. The clever resistance fighter gets past the two guards by pretending to be an injured bystander running for his life, and that these two need to help their friends capture the dangerous fugitive who is in the direction he just came from. He banks on them caring more about their fellow guardsman or getting glory than they will about him. He is the snake who lies still until he strikes.

This is about time and opportunity. I’m not saying your character can’t make a stupid mistake out of desperation. I’m just saying that this is the exact type of situation where a character like him gets caught by the enemy, and the story takes a new turn. If that ends up being the natural outcome, don’t run away from it. Failure is as much opportunity for storytelling as victory. Understanding the stakes is what’s important, and what happens as a result of your character’s actions. I can tell you from the situation you’ve presented to me, fighting these two is a catastrophic mistake for your character. This is not a situation that ends in victory, even if he manages to kill one or both. He’ll waste enough time for whatever injured him to catch up, he’ll draw the wrong kind of attention, and probably get surrounded by more guards.

Sometimes, you let a bad situation play out and see what happens. The simple answer is that while he focuses on his first target, the second guard takes him captive. (If you’re going, “but he’s good at fighting!” then I’ll remind you this is the situation that gets lots of skilled fighters in real life captured. They retreat for a reason.)

In other similar sorts of fiction, this situation results in the resistance/spy character going to ground, trying to find sympathetic contacts, avoiding the guards looking for him, and trying to find alternative routes out of the city.

-Michi

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Q&A: Guns and Magic

In the story I’m writing, the overall feel of the setting is mid/early 1800s, technology-wise. There’s magic, and given the time period I’m having trouble justifying there not being guns, but I’m not sure how to have them present in the story without ‘just shoot the wizard’ killing the tension. My initial thought was to make them less advanced than guns were at the time, and expensive enough that they would be less common, but I’m not sure how believable that would be. Do you have any advice?

Well, one problem with simply shooting the wizard is being able to actually put a bullet where you want it. The 19th century covered a lot of technological development. When the century began, smooth-bore single shot, firearms were still the norm (though rifles did exist). While firearms did get steadily more accurate over time, flintlock muskets are not an example of that. Additionally, any missed shot means your character will be facing a long reload before they can fire again.

There’s also a lot of considerations with magic that can make firearms as much of a detriment as an advantage. First, gunpowder is exceptionally flammable. If your characters are using firearms, they’re carrying around a supply of improvised explosives, that a pyromancer could use to kill them on the spot.

If you have mages that can manipulate metals, then that’s a pretty serious threat for anyone trying to use a gun. (Or metal weapons and armor, for that matter.)

If your magic interacts with the physical world (which, honestly, magic in most settings does), guns are going to be physical objects, subject to magic in one form or another. You don’t need to fully remove them from the setting, but simply understanding this can give you options which can make firearms another tool, and challenge, for your characters to work around.

A lot of the fantasy genre today draws heavily from Tolkien’s work. He defined the genre, and his setting has become the base most writers work from. To the point that the phrase, “standard fantasy setting,” has inherent meaning. Modifying off of that template offers you opportunities to discuss things, or evaluate concepts, that you simply can’t otherwise use.

Modifying a fantasy setting with a specific technological threshold opens up a lot of technology you otherwise wouldn’t have. If you want a standard fantasy setting in the 1890s, you’re opening the door to things like revolvers, steam engines, trains, telegrams, photographs, electricity, and “all the wonders of the modern world.” That’s kind of the point.

Once you’ve done that, the best route is to ask yourself, “what would magic do to this technology?” For example: “how would magic have affected the creation of the telegram?” If your setting is one where magic allows for instant telepathic communication, then the telegraph is redundant. You could already go to a mage, and pay them to relay your message. But, that’s not quite the same thing, is it? It could be open to manipulation, or surveillance. Business interests who operate networks of telepath mages may work to discredit, or undermine the development of telegraphs as a viable technology, even if their own service is inferior.

On the other end of this is the basic firearms question. Would magic allow for more advanced firearms? It’s certainly possible. Mages may be able to concoct alchemical propellants that are more efficient, and cleaner than real world firearms, allowing for more mechanically complex weapons than the real world supports. It’s also possible that magic would allow for additional defenses against firearms. A spell that was originally designed to protect against incoming projectiles may be equally effective at stopping a bullet. These potentials may even interact with one another, where conventional bullets will stop, but (exorbitantly expensive) alchemical rounds will blow through the shield, hitting the mage.

Another possibility is that, where you have mages, you also have magical abominations, wandering the wilds. When dealing with things like that, it’s entirely possible that conventional firearms are ineffective, requiring something special to deal with the creatures.

If your fantasy setting has a legitimate reason to include firearms, my recommendation is to look at those as a challenge. The danger that someone could gun down one of your characters if they do something stupid, or don’t think through their actions is a fantastic motivator, and something that’s worth keeping around as a credible threat.

If your fantasy setting looks like it should include firearms, then, probably should. This is a technology that reshaped the world, and having to account for it challenging your setting’s history and traditions is entirely reasonable, and something you probably want to play into, rather than avoid.

-Starke

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Q&A: Let the Wookie Win

Is shocking/disgusting someone a good way to get an opening? My antihero was captured by a villain; the villain and are waiting for the right moment to strike. The villain starts the “we’re similar” routine and my antihero chimes in & describes being a cannibal to throw them off (the villain naively assumed that all heroes are self-righteous sheep of the gov.) and create an opening. Would it be an effective tactic, or would they be better just going at the guy w/ out the cannibalism confession?

Pro Tip: Never lie beyond what you’re capable of selling.

Your lie needs to be believable, and one you’re willing to follow up on if your bluff is called. This is the necessary quality of the liar. If your protagonist is not willing to happily eat a few bits of raw human flesh to prove their point then it’s a bad lie.

1) David Hasselhoff is my father.

You didn’t believe that, did you? Of course, you didn’t. Even if you were hopeful it might be true, you’d want proof. This is the problem of the unbelievable lie, the farther we are from what is expected then the more you need to prove that it is real. Saying you’re a cannibal is like saying your dad is David Hasselhoff, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. In this case, your mouth is happily eating sauteed bits of human flesh.  (If you’re savvy you’ll realize I pulled Hasselhoff from Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and are therefore even less likely to believe me than before. Also, this is a lie Peter Quill told when he was nine. Kids are terrible liars.)

2) People with certain backgrounds are naturally geared toward assuming dishonesty.

I’m not going to categorize this as a villain trope. It isn’t. If you’ve been lied to a lot in your life, you’re going to be naturally suspicious and assume people are lying to you. These include abuse victims, kids from rough backgrounds, victims of bad parenting, bullied children, latchkeys, criminals, spies, and, yes, supervillains. You’re problem is you’re working from the assumption that people are inherently gullible, and will believe whatever comes out of your mouth. Someone whom life has taught to be paranoid as a means of self-preservation and on the lookout for scam artists is much more difficult to lie to, and more difficult to reach in general. Natural skepticism is a kicker.

For example, you’re going to have a lot of trouble lying to a crime boss because the crime boss is used to being lied to. Self-preservation and survival requires they be savvy enough to discern truth from fiction. They’re likely to be even more suspicious when you start telling them what they want to hear.

3) What is the natural outcome of your lie?

“Shoot him.”

Bye, bye, little hero.

You say you’re a cannibal and this other person believes you. Say this is in complete defiance of the personality they assumed you had. Cannibalism is a violation of social mores, one that is way past what most people (including evil people) are willing to tolerate. Cannibalism is the sort of evil which makes a villain feel good about killing you. Yes, this is the disgusting that’ll get you killed by a group of criminals who profess any level of morality. You don’t want to tell lies that make people more likely to murder you. You didn’t create an opening, you made the situation more dangerous. Sometimes openings are created when a person gets angry, but this isn’t one of them.

Chances are though, they’re not going to believe the cannibalism assertion until they’re cramming human flesh down this character’s gullet. You could probably get them incensed if they saw your hero eating raw meat off a corpse like an animal or cooking a human over a spit. Anything less than that, and they’re just going to laugh in your face.

“Did you really expect me to believe that?”

4) Through the mirror darkly, we’re similar, you and I.

This requires the two to actually be similar. If the villain is assuming all heroes are the sheep of the government, and this includes the anti-hero, then why did they approach them? If this is their assumption, then why didn’t they double check with the character’s actual actions? Your anti-hero is taking actions that the villain relates to, sees a similarity with, and they are moving to make them an ally. This situation would require that the villain thinks they too are a government sheeple.

They are approaching the hero because they think the hero is a sheep and therefore gullible? What would they get out of that? Or because they are a sheep and they think the hero is like them? If it’s the latter, then the character is yelling, “I’m a cannibal!” at the top office in a Manhattan skyscraper. Those working in government understand how deeply the corruption runs, and there are far too many wolves wearing sheepskins in the government for this to be plausible. Also, despite their best intentions, the hero is a government bootlicker and been rounded up by a professional skilled at finding them. (The villain’s position is too precarious for them to be making stupid assumptions. Don’t undercut them like that, you’ll wreck your narrative.)

These scenes work in fiction and create tension because they’re true. The villain presents a compelling argument which appeals to the hero, they have something they want, they are something that the hero wants to be, or the hero has the potential to be them. (Or the hero’s own actions are making their case for them.)

“Look at yourself. They hurt you, and for what? For every person who thanks you, another curses you. They paint you as a villain. They think you’re bad as me, think you’re worse. Your actions have allowed the corporations to rake in billions. Allowed them to wreck lives, steal homes. You’re a schmuck in service to a status quo, oppressing the very people you insist you’re saving!”

If your villain is not presenting an argument which has the hero going, maybe you’re right. Then the scene isn’t good for much. The above example feels compelling, right up until you realize that the villain is working off the expectation that the hero cares about how others see them. Some heroes do. Some heroes really care about how other people view their actions, and let them decide what is or isn’t right. This could be a legit argument. The second half about serving the status quo is going to hurt the hero who thinks they’re doing the right thing and has never thought about the unintended consequences of their actions. Both are legitimate arguments, and could nail a hero on two levels.

You’re not a hero, you’re a villain. You’re worse than I am, and here’s why.

Drama is reliant on actual character struggles, and unless the villain is a cackling psychopath, they’ve got motivation for what they’re doing.  They have reasoning, logic, and self-justification. They can explain their position and sell that ideology convincingly to others. The means and choice of action may be the point of contention.

You could convince Frank Castle to gun down corrupt millionaires, but not their families unless those family members were equally guilty.  The villain might be killing everyone, snatching up their holdings, and re-purposing the cash to offshore accounts in full Robin Hood of the Guillotine style. They might be killing the rich to terrorize them, stealing from the rich, and feeding war orphans in Somalia. Or fueling their ill-gotten gains into non-profits meant to rebuild infrastructure in poor communities abandoned by their politicians.

5) We’re Similar is an ideological argument, forcing the protagonist to think through their position and allowing the audience to re-consider the narrative.

A “We’re similar” setup is utterly worthless if the two aren’t actually similar. Certainly not in a convincing way, if there’s no ideology or desire at play then the scene just ends up as an ego stroke for the protagonist. There’s a compelling setup which lets the audience and the protagonist think and decide their own ideology in context to the story, or there isn’t.

Vader’s “Join Me” setup is very compelling for Luke. Luke wants his father, he’s worshiped his father, Obi-wan’s stories about his father are part of the reason why he wants so badly to become a jedi. And everything he believed, everything he was told by the people he trusted turned out to be a lie. “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” No, that is a lie. The truth is his father is alive. He may be a villain, but he’s alive and, as far as Luke knows, the last of his family. Luke’s origins are tied up in Vader, his past, his family, his hopes, and his potential for darkness. That’s where the drama is. That is the choice. That self-denial is what makes Luke a hero, just as his trust in his friends, his willingness for self-sacrifice, and his belief in his father’s potential goodness/the hero he once was existing inside the monster.

“We’re similar” is about internally difficult choices for your characters, and externally they’re narrative echoes. One has the potential to be the other. Luke could become Vader, but Vader could’ve been like Luke.

Allow your villain a compelling argument, one which might sway your hero and disturb them to the point where they go, “I’m a cannibal!” because they’re so freaked out by the fact the villain has struck the core of who they are or how they see themselves.

You’ve got the setup flip flopped. Your villain isn’t the naive one, your hero is.

6) This scenario isn’t about making your hero look awesome, the scene is actually about your villain.

Your hero being compelling can be the outcome, when well handled, but that isn’t the point. Within the narrative, these scenes are actually about the villain. This is the audience’s chance to understand the villain, their chance to really see them for the dangerous enemy they are, and create a new level of tension between the narrative’s protagonist and antagonist. This is about showing why your villain is so very dangerous, beyond their physical skills and penchant for violence. We experience their charisma up close as new information is revealed,  we see them in a new light. More information is shown.

“You should be careful of him, Robbie.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s you. He understands how you think, knows what you’ll do and where you’ll stop. And you? You’re afraid if you start thinking like him, you’ll never give it up.”

The hooks are real.

“He showed me things, Alec. He showed me the future, showed my potential, and what I could be if I stop struggling; who I could be if just embrace the power.”

“And that frightened you?”

“No, the future excited me. The monster felt right, I felt right, I was whole and complete. I came home. That’s why I’m terrified. Now I know this thing sleeping inside me is who I really am.”

Your hero has to wrestle with some real emotion, face down their inner monster and consider what makes them a hero. This is especially important for an anti-hero. They do some very terrible things in the name of what they believe is right.

While it’s often tempting to show off your hero, the tension created by your villain is the linchpin of your narrative. Your villain is the shadow your hero works against. They ought to be better, smarter, and more clever than the hero. When you damage their street cred, you can’t get it back. If the hero overpowers them, whether its physically or verbally, they won’t be frightening anymore.

Luke escapes Vader by, essentially, falling to his death. He’s not just looking for an opening or trying to outsmart his enemy, he’s desperate to get away. You can escape the villain, but you can’t beat them. Well, not if you want them to last until the climax. Sacrificed in this scene? Sure. Otherwise, you need your villain functioning.

Writing a villain is like walking a tightrope, you need just enough victories for them to keep them dangerous. In the Adventures of Robin Hood, Erroll Flynn’s Robin keeps winning right up until he doesn’t. He has a major victory, then due to his own overconfidence gets captured at the archery tournament, thrown in the dungeon, and sentenced to death. He has to be rescued by his Merry Man and a plan devised by Maid Marian, who risks her own safety sneaking out of the castle to find their meeting place at the local tavern. We never question Robin’s competence, but we needed the reminder that Prince John, Gisbourne, and (especially) the Sheriff of Nottingham are dangerous. The audience gets overconfident right along with Robin Hood, then the wind is snatched out of our sails. The loss reminds us that Robin’s strength is in his friends and the loyalty he inspires, and he is vulnerable when alone.

Your hero can take more competence hits than your villain, they can suffer more losses, and they can come out ahead. Your villain has to win, and they don’t win when we make them look stupid, foolish, or naive. They didn’t reach whatever position they’re in by being any of those things. They worked hard to get where they are. The villain is in a much more precarious position both internally within the narrative and externally from the audience perspective. They must earn their place every second they are on the page, and their threat must remain genuine. It is tempting to focus on the hero, but your responsibility as a writer is to remember the villain’s danger must be consistently proven to your audience.

7) If you don’t respect your villain, your audience won’t either.

This one should be self-explanatory. Your villain isn’t dangerous just because you say they are, you’ve got to prove it. Show, don’t tell. Give them more credit. Excise ignorance and naivete from your vocabulary. They know what they’re doing.

8) Let the wookie win.

C3-PO still gives the best advice. Sometimes, you’ve got to play the losing hand in order to get out of a bad situation alive.

-Michi

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Followup: The Mafia

Thank you for the Mafia information. You mentioned the American/East Coast Mafia is defunct. Does that mean it would be inaccurate to write about them being active in present day? Because my research still brings up racketeering and drug/human trafficking cases.

It mostly depends on where you’re setting your story. So, there is a mea culpa here; I described as defunct, based on my experiences, and some quick, cursory research focused primarily on verifying names and dates.

In the late 90s, I lived in a city that had been mobbed up, and was still working out Mob influence. In retrospect, I kind of suspect that a few of the restaurants I frequented while there may have been mobbed up.

By 2000, most mafia holdings in the United States were gone. If you lived in one of the cities where they completely folded up shop, you could be forgiven for thinking they were entirely destroyed. This would be a mistake. The very one I made when I wrote the original post. So, for that, I am sorry.

Today, America’s Italian Mafia is a shadow of its former self. They started as East Coast immigrant street gangs in the late 19th century, transitioning into a fairly developed network of criminal syndicates by WWII. The post-war era allowed for explosive growth. American organized crime, effectively founded the modern incarnation of Las Vegas, and even had extensive holdings in Cuba (before the Castro came to power.)

There are a lot of factors which lead to their downfall. These ranged from backlash growing political aspirations, to the war on drugs, the RICO Act was a body blow for the Mafia, as it directly attacked many of their methods of operation. (Specifically, it allowed prosecutors to charge the heads of families for crimes they ordered, but did not directly participate in, closing one of the Mafia’s favorite methods for shielding their upper echelons.)

Today, the Mafia does still exist in a few places. The days when they had families running cities across the nation are gone. If you live somewhere like Texas or California, the idea of Mafia operating in your city is more of a novelty.

With that in mind, the Mafia still has holdings in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. The places where they were most strongly embedded, and where they’ve managed to somewhat survive.

The other major difference from the Mafia of today, and the one from 30 years ago, is a transition towards contracting labor, rather than using their own people at street level.

So, with all of that in mind, asking if it’s accurate is a bit of a loaded question, and it’s probably worth evaluating what you’re looking at with the Mafia. I’m going to pull two specific films, because they do an excellent job of establishing the dichotomy of who the Mafia wanted to be, vs who they actually were.

There’s The Godfather, and there’s Goodfellas.

The Godfather is an opera. It’s a massive story about honor, duty, sacrifice, and all of these other virtues, layered over the Mafia of the 50s-70s. It’s also, entirely, a fantasy. I don’t just mean the events, I’m talking about the organization it presents. The Corleone Family is what mobsters idealized themselves as. This sort of shadow nobility, benevolent, and honorable (to a certain degree), never existed in the real world.

If you’re looking at The Godfather and saying that’s what you want, it’s a fantasy. It’s accurate insofar as it presents an idealized self-image of who the Mafia believed themselves to be, but it doesn’t square with the reality of who mobsters actually were.

Goodfellas is not an opera; it’s not even, strictly, fictional. The film follows the life of Henry Hill (who died in 2012), from his introduction to the Mafia as a child, up through his eventual role as a witness against the mob. It’s not completely accurate, because it does abridge a few details. Some characters have their names changed, or are composites of multiple individuals. In one case, the motive behind a crime wasn’t exactly what the film presented, though the inciting incident is accurate.

The vast majority of the film is accurate to the actual behavior and identity of the Mafia. This isn’t the noble image of shadowy benefactors guarding and shepherding their community. It’s a bunch of psychopaths, kept barely in line by the threat of further violence, who have no qualms about turning on one another to save their own skins, or over imagined slights.

In some ways, the Mafia you see in Goodfellas no longer exists. RICO prosecutions, have shrunk their influence substantially.

That said, Organized crime still exists. The players are new, and in many cases it’s transitioned to new techniques, but where there’s opportunity, criminals will find a way. Skimmers, credit card fraud, ransomware, and other cybercrimes are all far more profitable, and less risky, than pounding pavement, and threatening to rough up store owners for the contents of their till in an era when anyone can have a security camera feeding images to off site data storage.

Organized crime has embraced globalization. In some respects, this is nothing new. The cartels were moving product around in large volumes forty years ago, but, things like smuggling and trafficking are far more appealing options for the modern criminal enterprise.

The very short version of modern organized crime is, if you want to do something, you no longer need to be there in person, unless you’re moving product (this includes people) in or out. If all you want is money, you can hide halfway round the world, and let your fingers do the walking.

So, here’s a fun and scary thought: If you live in the US, you’ve got a better than average chance of having been solicited by an organized criminal enterprise in the last decade. I don’t mean a few guys showed up at your front door, I’m talking about emails. In particular, where someone would contact you asking you to accept a wire transfer, and then relay it to them. This was actually about money laundering. You receive the funds from a fraudulent credit card transaction, then move it through your account. When the charges get reversed, your transfer out is fine, but the money coming in doesn’t really exist. Another popular one, from a similar time frame, was to take delivery of items for someone (usually “away on business,”) then repackage the stuff for shipping. Again, you would be used as a cutout, when the fraud was detected. So far as it goes, some of those, “secret shopper,” programs were also not on the level, and you would have been furnished with a cloned card, and sent off to turn that into actual cash.

The trick is to get the money across national boundaries and into a safe jurisdiction that won’t assist in a foreign investigation as fast as possible.

Beyond that, most of the organized crime groups that get brought up do still exist.

The Chinese Triads are real. They’re still around. There’s roughly a dozen major Triads. For reference, the largest (if I remember correctly) is the Sun Yee On, which has somewhere around 55k – 60k members worldwide. They’re active in Asia, North America, and Europe. The Triads derive income from drug smuggling, trafficking, and counterfeiting. (Not just counterfeit currency, but also media, like books, DVDs, ect.)

The Japanese Yakuza is real, and weird. Weird, because it pops up in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find organized criminal activity. For example, it’s not uncommon for Yakuza members to own hospitals, or other businesses that usually don’t attract the attention of organized crime. The explanation for this goes back to the 80s. At the time, Japan’s economy was exploding, they were seeing unprecedented economic growth, and had more money than they knew what to do with. Japanese banks were incredibly liberal with loans, because the money was pouring in (from their perspective). This lead to a lot of Japanese businesses purchasing foreign assets, and a general anxiety that they would financially rule the world in the coming century, which you’ll find in media from the late 80s and early 90s.

Around 1991 or ’92, the bubble popped. Before that happened, Japanese banks were happy to pass loans to pretty much anyone, on the idea that it would lead to further profits. This included many members of the Yakuza. (As I recall, there’s a bit of a question whether loan officers knew they were dealing with Yakuza, or if their due diligence was just that lax.) While they did buy into more conventional organized crime fronts, like shipping or construction, they were still left with more money than they knew what to do with, and proceeded to buy their way into other industries as well. Today, Japan is still struggling to clean the Yakuza out of their corporate culture.

When the bubble burst, many Japanese investors were suddenly on the hook for massive debt they’d incurred during the previous seven years. This included Yakuza members. In the face of this some committed suicide, however, many more retaliated, killing bank loan officers and threatening bank officials. This has resulted in a bizarre situation where the Yakuza (and uncollectible loans issued to their members during the bubble) is still a major factor in their current financial climate.

So, like I said, the Yakuza is real, and weird. If you’re wondering what I meant by “economic” research on them, in the earlier post, now you know.

My reading on the Cartels is spotty. As criminal enterprise goes, they are fascinating, because there’s an entire distinct sub-culture that’s built up over the years, including a distinct musical genre called Narcocorrido (culturally this is somewhat analogous to gangster rap, though it’s stylistically related to Northern Mexican folk music.) Beyond the obvious drug trafficking, kidnapping has also been a major money maker in the region. I don’t know how tightly the Cartels are involved in that industry, but it is worth mentioning.

Major street gangs are another factor. Again, these guys are active, and real. They’re a bit too diverse to quickly categorize, ranging from small, local, criminal groups, up to transnational organizations with worldwide members in the tens of thousands. Depending on circumstances, they may be working for, or with, other organizations, or they could be operating in house.

As I said earlier, the Russian Mob is more of a catch all term for a diverse group of criminals who share a common language, rather than a true organization. That said, there are criminal organizations that come from former Soviet states, but it’s not a single monolithic entity. A lot of the cyber crimes I mentioned above, are popular money makers, particularly for organizations that never left home, and now have access to the world via the internet.

So, no, it’s not inherently inaccurate. At that point any question about accuracy comes down to how you present the thing, not if it exists, or existed.

 

-Starke

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Q&A: Don’t ask if the weapon works, consider what you did with it instead

I have a character whose weapon is a broomstick, like in Mulan’s training. I was pretty young when I came up with that, but should I change it ? Can a broomstick actually make a good weapon ? If not, what should I use instead ? All my characters have improvised weapons that they use for an extended period of time

Well, a broom is just a short or long staff with the side benefit of being able to potentially throw dust and detritus in the face of your enemy (and yourself) if wielded broom end first. (When did Mulan use a broomstick? Or a broomstick used like the staff Mulan trained with? Or when she was play fighting at home before she goes to training?) So, you’re asking if someone can do this with a broom? Then graduates into something more like this (starts 2:46,  for reference: this is high level martial arts choreography in competition from the SEA Games – Singapore (2015). This is equivalent to high level gymnastics. They’re choreographed fight scenes. Yes, there is a category dedicated to choreographed like a movie fight/dance sequence duels. Yes, this is one of the most popular and prestigious categories at some martial arts tournaments.)

The basic question to begin with is this: do you want the weapon to be a broom? Do you want the scenes to be serious or not? You can have a serious story with a silly weapon, but there is a vast difference between a Jackie Chan-esque fight sequence played for laughs when the experienced martial artist picks up the broom because it’s what they have available versus the character who has no idea what they’re doing and picks up the broom just because.

A Jackie Chan fight sequence will work like this:

 The experience martial artist finds themselves jumped by several guys, grabs the first weapon they come across. This weapon is a broom. They brandish it. (Pause.) The broom is a silly weapon, everyone (including the audience) laughs. Moment ends, and the fight begins. Experienced martial artist holds their own, kind of. Probably a few scenes where the broom head is shoved into someone’s face and used to wail about an enemy’s head. (This is Jackie Chan, so cleaning supplies may also be used.) However, this proves ineffective whenever the experienced martial artist attempts to fight with the broom end. They wield it like they would a staff, but only one end is helpful. They’re mostly free when more enemies arrive, someone brings an edged weapon.

New fight commences against more dangerous/experienced opponents. Experienced martial artist is pressed. Broom = advantage over unarmed enemies, less helpful against actual weapons. Fight sequence will have that broom head cut off by whichever enemy comes in wielding an edged weapon on the break beat. So, fight with the broom and kind of works; then broom becomes staff = accidental upgrade. Hero given new chance to make their escape.

Jackie Chan’s humor in his fight scenes, especially his early ones, is sophisticated in that it plays into your expectations and will subvert them several times in a single scene for laughs. We know the broom sucks as a weapon, so that brings in the uh-oh, but the martial artists/martial arts movie goers know the broom’s length and similarities to the staff will give the protagonist a slight chance against the enemies they’re facing.  Oh yay! Enemies underestimate the hero because their chosen weapon sucks. Hero proceeds to flail because the improvised weapon doesn’t behave the way a normal weapon would, hijinks ensue, but in the end they succeed… kind of. Hero either manages to make their escape from the bad situation or a new enemy shows up with higher stakes to raise the tension. (More skill, better weapon.)

Underdog > Winner > Underdog.

The beat goes like this:

1) We know the broom is a silly weapon. (Audience and Enemy expectation.)

2) After overcoming their own surprise/shock, hero does the first thing they can think of in line with their training: wield the broom like a staff. Proves to be successful. (Enemy and Audience surprised.)

3) Hijinks. (The hero turn tables and is winning… kind of. This is the period where the surprise is behind the hero, so they’ve a little room to mess around. Someone’s nose is getting tickled, or they’re taking a broom head to the face.)

4) The broom fails at key moments. (Enemy adjusts past their surprise.) Hero will find themselves in a position of accidentally striking with the broom head; which does nothing because, (surprise), you can’t wield a broom exactly like a staff. (Hero and weapon incompatible.) The hero becomes pressed as smarter enemies come up with new strategies.

5) Weapon conveniently breaks to create the needed staff against stronger enemies. Hero still at disadvantage.

What Jackie Chan does is a pretty sophisticated in the balancing of audience expectation combined with an understanding of how to balance weapons, enemies, and genre convention to create both humor and tension. That’s the root of his success as a choreographer, and why I do recommend watching his fight sequences compared to other less successful martial artists. His storytelling through action is much better, especially when you want unconventional surprises.

He understands the boundaries of realism, and incorporates the failings of an object into his fight scenes as well as the successes. He’s thinking from multiple angles, which is what makes his characters so relatable. Jackie Chan is king of making his fight scenes feel spur of the moment, his characters go with their gut and training when put under pressure. However, the situation doesn’t always fit that training perfectly (broom =/= staff) and so this creates new problems for the hero. He shifts the hero’s advantages into disadvantages and their disadvantages into advantages, this happens on multiple levels in the scene.

Hero has superior fight training (advantage), but there are too many enemies (overwhelming disadvantage) so they must run. Hero finds a weapon similar to one they’re used to using (advantage!), but the weapon is improvised (surprise disadvantage!), their training works to fend off multiple enemies (advantage!!), but fails to be totally successful so they end up only holding their own (disadvantage!!), then new enemies arrive with better weapons (overwhelming disadvantage!!!), and the pattern repeats with higher stakes.

The problem with improvised weapons is in the name: improvised.

A broom can be wielded like a staff but, when wielded just like one would a staff, it will fail at key moments. The broom is not a staff, a broom is a broom. For the most part, you can only use one end of the broom successfully where a staff uses both ends. For a character (like Jackie Chan) who is utilizing Chinese staff work, this is a big problem they’ll end up stumbling into. Staves are either used with the tip to stab if wielded by holding the bottom like one would with a spear, or from the center where they rotate between top and bottom in their strike pattern. A staff can strike at your head, and on the next strike at your opposing thigh. As a weapon, the staff is one of the most versatile and very easy to use. However, in this case, you’re going to end up switching between hard end/soft end on every second or third strike. (You can use this for humor too because humor is in patterns and expectations broken at surprising moments.) Hard (ouch), soft (fine), hard (ouch!), soft (fine?), hard (ouch!!), soft (fine?!), CRAP! Both characters glance at the broom head. Enemy smiles. Hero starts wailing on enemy with the hard end, and breaks the pattern.

Jackie Chan knows how to fight and understands audience expectations (primarily Chinese audiences) and genre conventions (primarily wuxia action scenes), which is why his visual gags work. He’s, honestly, in a class of his own when it comes to fight choreography because of this. Like most martial artists, he knows you can take the broom end off and then you’d just have a staff. Like a great choreographer, he’ll see the potential failings and weaknesses in the improvisation. Then, he’d plan to incorporate them into his scenes for humor. Funny comes from failure and surprise success.

The version of this for the character who has no idea what they’re doing (and therefore is not using Chinese martial arts), is Rapunzel from Tangled and her frying pan. The frying pan is an unexpected weapon, but it works and serves to emphasize to the audience that Rapunzel has no idea what she’s doing when it comes to violence. This is where a frying pan is different from, say, a machete or a tire iron. So, again, there’s humor in subverted expectations. We don’t expect the frying pan to work, then it does more than she expects. We’re consistently reminded that the heroine doesn’t really know what she’s doing and she’s never given a real weapon, which keeps her safely in the non-combatant role while allowing her to be active/assert herself at key narrative moments. Her character has other skills that are more useful, and the frying pan shows the audience Rapunzel’s resourcefulness as a character.

In fiction, weapons show us something about the character and create certain expectations that are based in genre cliches. The hero who picks up a named sword is the narratively anointed Chosen One, whether that is played straight or not. Improvised weapons serve primarily as a means of showing resourcefulness, but they are either props (like in the Jackie Chan example) to be discarded when a better weapon comes along or they’re character defining like in the Rapunzel example where the weapon is a symbolic representation of personality and role.

Rapuzel, as a character, doesn’t know enough about martial combat to reach beyond what works in the moment whereas a Jackie Chan protagonist isn’t going to stick with the broom because they know the broom won’t work long term. The threats a Jackie Chan protagonist is going to face will be primarily physical, and the resourcefulness he exhibits is the “whatever works” mentality. Meanwhile, Rapunzel’s on an emotional journey of self-discovery and her primary antagonist is Mother Gothel.

Mother Gothel’s violence is entirely emotional. Flynn using the frying pan is a callback to Rapunzel using the frying pan which serves late story as a means to firmly unite the two characters together on a thematic level, so we the audience no longer question his loyalty. It also serves the character on a “well, it worked on me” level. We understand why Flynn might think using the frying pan is a good idea, which is the dual overlay you need. Internal justification to serve the narrative’s external thematic needs.

So, the question about using a broomstick as a weapon is entirely on you. It will certainly work in general as either a scene prop or an expression of identity. The question is whether or not it will work for the story you’re telling and the challenges your characters are facing.

An improvised weapon is spur of the moment. You can wrap the toaster to your hand and use it as an impromptu set of brass knuckles, but that doesn’t make it the same as brass knuckles. If you had a choice between the toaster and brass knuckles, you’d probably pick the brass knuckles. There’s the recognizably violent improvised weapons associated with mobsters and gangs like tire irons, baseball bats, crowbars, wrenches, etc; and those will put your character into the (middling) combatant category. There’s the machete which is practically a sword, and the sledgehammer which is practically a two handed warhammer, and the shovel which is potentially a spear. The last form of improvised weaponry is chemical warfare with household items and bomb building. The closer we get to the weapon category, the closer we get to live combatant territory. The narrative expectations are different for non-combatants and combatants, the behavior is also different.

The warrior is going to be looking for the better weapon. You’ve got a character with Mulan-style Chinese military training then the first thing they’ll do once they’re in a safe space is break off or cut off the broom end to make either a staff or a sharpened end for a spear. They’ll modify whatever they have to make it more dangerous. They’ll find the kitchen knives or the box cutters or whatever else is lying around that’s sharp. They’ll grab the tire irons and the wrenches; they’ll grab multiple objects because that’s how their mind works. They’re looking for what’s going to give them an advantage in the situation, especially when they don’t know what that situation is.

The staff is a helpful weapon because of it’s reach advantage. As I pointed out in the Jackie Chan example, you can use a staff to fend off multiple attackers and gain an advantage when you’re overwhelmed. Numbers are overwhelming, in that situation you’re better off armed than unarmed, and the distance the staff provides means keeping multiple enemies at distance is easier. In the Jackie Chan scenario, the broom is actually a great choice. The surprise is the broom doesn’t seem like it would be on the surface because we don’t think of brooms as staves. However, the underlying theme in the Jackie Chan scenario is you use the weapon until it ceases to be useful. While the drawbacks are funny, they’re also realistic.

The non-combatant like Rapunzel will grab what works and, for the most part, they’ll stay there. They have no experience, so if it worked once then it’ll likely work again and they’re going to approach every scenario the same way until personal experience or the wisdom of another more experienced character teaches them not to do that anymore. For example, Rapunzel wants to escape from the guards. She doesn’t want to fight them. They’re outside of what she’s capable of handling as a character, and violence is not her purpose. Her advantage is surprise, and the fact her enemy underestimates her because she is seemingly helpless, she’s a genuine, kind, mildly confused young woman without a combat background, and gives no sign of being dangerous to someone else who is vastly more qualified. Her character arc is her learning to stand up for herself. (Never make the mistake of believing “female” is universal for being underestimated. The character’s background is more important and more influential than their gender/sex.)

One of these setups has the violence at the forefront, and in the other the violence is on the back burner. There’s action and conflict, but the physical violence is not what you’d get in a wuxia film or Hollywood big budget summer action flick. You’ve got to answer which story you’re telling. That has nothing to do with whether or not the broom will work as a weapon and is entirely dependent on who your characters are. (For example, they can’t use a broom like a Chinese staff without training but they certainly could use it successfully as a self-defense weapon.)

Like with Rapunzel, an improvised weapon can be a great limiter that allows you to set a character’s ability at a certain level and say, no further. It is a hard limit, reflecting their personality; emphasizing what the character is capable of both in terms of their combat ability and their resourcefulness. It limits the kind of violence you’re going to allow in your story, because it limits the potential violence your characters can successfully participate in, and potentially the level of graphic detail.

In fiction, a character tackling a Navy Seal head on with a broom is going to be a joke and an act of desperation whether it’s played straight or not. You could certainly tackle a Navy Seal with a broom, you might even win, but it wouldn’t be a good idea. That’s the point of the improvised weapon, they’re weapons of desperation. You use it until you can figure out something better.

Or, they’re magical. Everyday household item imbued with magic to transform it into Weapon X is a weapon the protagonist is just stuck with. See: The Spoon of Perpetual Torment. (“It’s perpetually tormenting me, okay!”)

If you plan to play this for laughs, the broom and other improvised weapons aren’t a joke that will last you 60,000 words. The spoon of perpetual torment won’t last that long either. You’ll get a scene out of the gag, maybe two if you’re clever. They require you understand how to use the broom, creativity, and an understanding of how staves work in combat in order to pass the gist on.

Humor requires you keep moving because you’re subverting patterns and expectations. The surprise broom weapon is a surprise once, the nervousness and tension accompanying its use will last you one scene. This is why, in a wuxia setup, the broom gets broken at an opportune moment to become a staff. We continue with the surprises by turning the tables one way or the other in order to keep the audience invested.

The weapons your characters choose are reflections of their decision making, they will say something thematically about them whether you wanted that connotation or not. Fight scenes are built on stacking advantages against disadvantages. Instead of just building a single chessboard, you put the chessboard on a spit, play for a bit, and then spin it to rearrange all the pieces when a new challenger enters. That shifting tension is where the interesting parts of the fight scene happen. How you get that tension doesn’t matter, really. The first step is recognizing that it’s there. The underdog serves an important conceptual purpose when balancing out what the character can and can’t handle.

That’s the external logic.

There’s also the character’s internal logic of why they chose this particular weapon. It can be as simple as they ran through the hall closet or past a bunch of cleaning supplies left out by the janitor.

They started by grabbing the bucket, threw gross soapy water at their enemy, then ran out of things to do with the bucket. So, they threw it at their enemies and grabbed the mop. The enemies slip on the soapy water spread over the floor, buying the protagonist time. The mop worked okay at keeping the enemies away, but the head was heavy because of the water and didn’t swing well. So, they threw it and ran. The time their enemies spend getting past the mop buys the protagonist time to find a new weapon, but less than last time. The bad guys are almost on them when, finally, they locate the broom. Trapped in an empty hall without a good exit, against three (now soapy) enemies. They went, “well, why not?”, whip around, and brandish it broom head first.

They look at the bad guys, the bad guys look at them. Then, the three bad guys look at each other and laugh. While they’re distracted, the protagonist lunges in. Attacks with the broom.

In this example, you see the internal logic based on character’s choice of action combines with the Goldilocks pattern of threes.  We know the third option is just right. The second is we get closer and closer to the right/best available choice.

The bucket didn’t work, and has no reach. The worst that happened was the bad guys got wet. However, the water on the floor provides the character time to get to their next weapon. The mop sort of worked, but the head was too heavy. When they throw it, their enemies trip over it, buying them time but less than before. The broom isn’t perfect, but we’ve seen how its a better version of the mop. However, the situation has changed and the protagonist is now in a worse situation than before.

The audience receives catharsis, has confidence in the character’s choice, but new problems have arisen to create new tensions. On top of that, the scene has served the secondary purpose of showing the character’s problem solving skills.

The changing environment gives the protagonist a chance to shine without hampering the tension provided by the three unnamed mooks, whom we know are dangerous because the protagonist wants to escape from them. The protagonist isn’t trying to beat the mooks, they’re trying to escape (because they’re smart, they know three on one is terrible odds. Take note from The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. Six bullets, seven enemies. Numbers kill.) They try to run, but the situation forces them to fight their way out.

Here’s what we learned from the scene: they picked the best weapon available to them, they’re capable of using their environment to help them, the change in terrain can provide an advantage (enemies trying to get across a slick floor), long weapons are good against multiple enemies (they create barriers), and light weapons with smaller heads are better than heavy ones.

Our protagonist is clever enough to turn a situation where they face overwhelmingly poor odds that should get them killed or captured to their advantage. The audience gets a tense fight and a chance to become invested in the main character’s survival. We answer all our narrative questions.

This is how you show a character is good at fighting. It’s not beating an enemy that matters, it’s how they did it, what the odds were, and how well you paced the fight itself.

The answer with everything is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea or not. Stories don’t exist in “good ideas”, they exist in “what happened when these two things combined?” What happens when a Chinese martial artist skilled at staff combat picks up a broom to defend themselves? What happens when a teenager picks up a broom? Both situations equally have the potential to be interesting. The question is, what happens? Munchkining your character to victory won’t help them, giving them better odds just means you do more work to stack the odds higher against them.

The odds and outcome will decide for the character whether their choice was right or not. Every weapon will have strengths and drawbacks. There is no one size fits all. A gun is great, provided you stay at distance but, eventually, you’re going to run out of bullets. Swords are great, if you know how to use them, but there’ll be situations where they won’t work. Both sword and staff could get stuck on a doorframe. Too many enemies is absolutely certain death, even for the most skilled combatant. A fight scene is heavily dependent on where it’s occurring, what’s happening around it, and where the priorities of the combatants are.

This is where the narrative’s internal logic is important. As the author, you can decide lots of things externally and be focused on Point A and Point B. You can get caught up on external themes. You can get caught on the plot you’ve envisioned, or the decisions you made prior to starting the story. However, if your characters aren’t justifying those choices through their actions in the narrative then all you have are dolls getting smashed together.

Essentially, like lots of authors, you skipped the question of: why the broom?

I don’t care why you decided on the broom. At some point in your life, author you thought it would be cool. No, I care about why your character decided they were going to carry this broom around with them. Why did they pick it up? Why did they decide to keep it? Spend some time thinking about the broom, and not as a combat weapon. Think about the logistics of carrying this thing around, what your protagonist is going to do with it, how other people react when they see it, how they feel about the broom. If this is challenging, just take a day and carry a broom around with you in a public place. If that’s too intimidating, then do it inside your house. Every time you move, everywhere you go, pick it up and carry it with you.

I can tell you, having had to carry staves around before, it’s gonna get annoying pretty quickly. However, you will figure out how to set it so it doesn’t fall over, rest it on your shoulder, and all the other day to day bits your character will need to do when they’re not fighting with it. Your ability to convey the broom and its importance to your audience is what matters, and the most important bonding factors have nothing to do with its usefulness to fighting.

She uses a broom because she either knows how to use it, is comfortable using it, or is confident in her ability to use it rather than another, better weapon. Or, ditch the broom and go with the staff. It is one of the most innocuous weapons.

Lastly, unless you’re really stuck on Mulan, I advise you to focus on figuring out basic staff movements in the cross-pattern before getting stuck trying to figure out (much less write) Chinese martial arts. Wushu is very pretty, but you may break your brain trying to figure out the mechanics of the neck spin trick as seen in the broom fight scene from Cowboy Bepop. If you haven’t figured out or conceptualized the concept of attacking with two ends interchangeably, grasping the reasoning behind the circular sweeps might be difficult.  (For reference, this is what the Mulan staff work translates to in real life martial arts competitions.) The question you need to answer is not just why your character fights with a broom, but why would they choose to if they were trained to fight with a staff? It is really easy to take one and get the other. So, why keep the broom intact?

-Michi

(Starke and I are still sick, so I apologize for any grammatical errors, slips in this post, and nonsensical sentences in this post.)

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