Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Damascus Steel

Sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for a dagger that (I think) was mentioned on this tumblr. I can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called. I remember that how they were made has been lost, and that the blades have swirly patterns on them. I also know that there are only so many of them left.

You’re probably talking about Damascus steel. Technically, this wasn’t just used for daggers, there are some surviving swords as well. Damascus steel is part of a larger family of historic alloys called crucible steel, because of how they were produced. While we can easily produce crucible steels today, the specific process that produced Damascus steel was lost sometime in the 18th century.

I’m not an expert on smelting, so I’m probably going to botch some of the details here, but the basic idea with crucible steel is that you take multiple forms of iron or steel, usually of significantly different carbon content, stick them in a sealed clay receptacle (the crucible), and then melt them together into a solid slug. This often includes adding impurities into the material in the process to adjust the carbon content, or into introduce additional materials into the alloy, such as nickel. Because the metals have different melting points, the resulting mixture will not mix completely, and the result is a “banded” or “wood grain” pattern. (If you’d like to see some professionals smelting crucible steel, and forging it into a blade, the guys at Baltimore Knife and Sword had a Man at Arms Reforged video last year, where they created a replica Ulfberht.)

Research in the last couple decades has suggested that authentic Damascus steel was actually a superalloy, with carbon nanotube structures. While the smiths working it wouldn’t have known about that, the resulting metal did have exceptional characteristics that made it famous, and drove demand.

Specifically, Damascus steel weapons were renowned for being unusually durable, and applicable of holding very fine edges. As a result, their survival rate is pretty good in comparison to contemporary weapons. (That said, there aren’t a lot left, you’re correct about that.)

While there have been numerous attempts to replicate Damascus steel, to the best of my knowledge, none of those attempts have yielded similar compositions. Modern “Damascus steel” knives and swords replicate the visual appearance, and may actually be crucible steel, but lack the incredible durability, and hardness of the original examples.

The name itself is a little bit of a misnomer; while the smiths who forged weapons from the metal were in Damascus (or at least in the Middle East), but the material itself came from India via trade routes (and the technique originated in Sri Lanka sometime in the third century.) So, the forging techniques weren’t, really, lost. However the supply ceased. It’s unclear what the cause was. Theories include failure to transmit the process to new smelters, loss of some critical ingredients, the British Raj, and eventual occupation of India, or some combination of the above.

A lot of the time Damascus steel gets described as a lost technique, and that’s, kinda, true. But, it would be slightly more accurate to say, “we lost the recipe.” We still know how to make crucible steel, and we can certainly still forge weapons, but the exact process that resulted in that variant is lost.

-Starke

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Q&A: Acrobatic Shooting

Guess that using firearms contemporary or futuristic, with acuracy is quit impossible during acrobatics jumps, right?

Pretty much. Even putting a round where you want it while moving is difficult. Doing so while you’re bouncing off the walls is effectively impossible, without some kind of extremely sophisticated auto-targeting system.

That said, if your character explicitly has some kind of superhuman affinity for firearms and ballistics, they might be able to make it work. I’m talking about superheroes or maybe some kind of cyborg or android. Not something a normal person could do, though.

For what it’s worth, the idea of simultaneously firing dual pistols at separate targets is a similar situation. You could, if you wanted, use a pistol in both hands, alternating between them, but firing at guys who are on either side of you with a pair of pistols wouldn’t work without some ability to track exactly where the gun is pointed without looking.

Something like Shadowrun’s Smartguns, which link a camera feed to the user (either with a helmet’s HUD, or cybernetically), could theoretically allow for precision blind firing, and (with additional cybernetics) might allow for precision shots during acrobatics. So, when you open up the gates on future tech, this might be possible, but, probably not in the near future.

-Starke

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Q&A: Realism

Do you look down on people who don’t write certain scenarios as “realistically” as they could? I generally try and do research but sometimes I just want to tell a story, you know, I’m working towards the character journey and emotional fulfilment, I’m not writing non-fiction. Especially with fanfiction where I’m not getting paid and I’m just doing this for fun.

This is going to be one of those “it depends” answers.  In this case the answer centers on what you mean by “realistic”, and even then it isn’t “look down on” so much as be “disappointed by”.

Here’s the criteria:

1) Does the scene behave in accordance with the setting rules set forward by the narrative?

2) Are the characters behaving in accordance to and making decisions which jive with their previous decisions/who they’ve been established to be?

3) If they break with those, is the narrative exploring the consequences of those choices and the impact on the character? i.e. Showing me what happens when a character who abhors violence is suddenly forced to engage in violence?

4) Are the characters behaving in ways that jive with their established skill levels? Is the character who has never engaged in violence before carving their way through experienced combatants with no issues? Is this explained or any in-narrative justification given for the behavior? Are there consequences?

3) Does something happen?

4) Is it interesting?

5) Did I enjoy it?

Ultimately as a reader, I want narrative consistency. I don’t care if you break completely with how something would work in the real world so long as it jives with what your characters would do in the given scenario. The thing to understand about fight scenes is that what makes them interesting isn’t the violence itself but rather what the violence leads to. Acknowledging that skill and talent are separate, that it takes work to acquire new skills, accepting that your characters will not be perfect at everything, that they’ll have to learn and in some cases fail, will ultimately lead to better storytelling. Learning as much as you can about human behavior will make forging your way through easier for you because most of this comes down to logical/emotional reactions to stress.

With a fight scene, you’ve put your character in a boiling pot. What happens next is what’s most important, and what your characters do is what the audience is invested in. Learning all you can about how violence works in the real world doesn’t mean you’re beholden to it. Real violence is not entertaining. In terms of entertainment, violence is boring, it is over too quickly, and occurs too fast for one to fully process it. If you were to write a fight scene exactly like one would experience it in reality, you’d be up a creek. It wouldn’t be interesting to your audience. Totally accurate representation or imitation is what the audience thinks they’re supposed to want, and what some authors believe they’re supposed to give. However, neither are possible. Most of the fight scenes you’ll have people point to as being accurate are actually nowhere close.

I’ll level with you on this: I don’t find Luke Skywalker to be a boring character. I find him fascinating, and I have since I was about seven years old. His training with Yoda is “realistic” in that it jives with my own experiences when I’ve encountered martial arts masters and the way they’ve spoken about the more esoteric portions of martial arts. However, I’d have checked out with him if he beat Darth Vader in single combat during Empire Strikes Back. It wouldn’t be logical, it wouldn’t make sense for him to be able to fight on an even field with Darth Vader after so little training. Certainly not to a standstill, and especially not to victory. The only reason he held his own for so long was due to Vader attempting to capture him alive.

This is an example of narrative consistency, we have explanations for what happened and why. We know what both Luke and Vader were attempting to accomplish from that exchange, and more importantly what that failure taught Luke. The final battle of Empire Strikes Back not only moves the narrative forward but serves as a catalyst for Luke’s character development going into Return of the Jedi. He fails, but he learns from that failure and his failure is due to his personal flaws which have been shown throughout A New Hope and Empire.

What I don’t like is a hero suddenly being able to go toe to toe with the narrative’s main villain with no explanation and no reasoning, especially when it’s been consistently shown throughout the narrative that skill is learned and natural talent requires training.

Luke couldn’t have tackled Vader head on in A New Hope. Though he’s given the lightsaber, we never see him use it until the second movie and he only uses it with any real proficiency after his training with Yoda. This is in keeping with the established rules that the lightsaber is a Jedi weapon and requires specific training in the Force itself for one to be able to use it. More than that, the dueling in Star Wars is based in Kendo and following specific rules on swordplay. There is no assumption that skill in one kind of combat means one is proficient in all versions of combat.

Here’s what you should understand.

Your character doesn’t need to be good at fighting in order for me to enjoy or be invested in their fight scene.

Your protagonists can cower and curl up in a corner, hiding from everything and I will still be invested in their narrative if this behavior fits with their skill level, experience, and philosophy.

Your fight scenes are graded by me on how well they move your story forward, and a fight scene that is not true to who your characters are is, for me, boring.

The rules you established for your setting and how well you hold to them is what I care about because this is the thread which maintains my suspension of disbelief.

I am invested in your characters, I care about their narrative, and who I’m told they are. I don’t need them to be extensions of me or a stand in, I don’t need them to be something they’re not. I care about the rules of your setting which you established, and which you are honor bound to follow. Cheating at the rules you established is like cheating in the middle of a poker game. I don’t care you can peek at all the cards on the table, but when you start actively favoring one party at the expense of the others and changing the rules to make things easier is the point I check out. That’s not why I watch people play poker. If you start changing the rules on me, especially without explanation, then I can’t trust you anymore.

Between you and the reader is a clause of trust established on that first page. This clause needs to be honored. Ultimately, that’s the only piece of integrity you should care about. I’m not saying you should care about what they think or where they believe your story should be going, but the trust established between the two of you about the ongoing rules the narrative will function under is sacred. This core truth is the real point behind world building.

Without trust, there’s no one to read your story.

-Michi

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Q&A: Off Hand Shooting

Can you aim a handgun with your off hand?

I’d be pretty screwed if I couldn’t.

The short answer is: yes, you can train yourself to switch hands with firearms. For a lot of shooters, myself included, this is a fairly important skill, because many guns are designed for right-handed users. In some cases, the fire controls (safety, fire select, magazine release, ect) only on one side. In other cases, the grip and or stock will be contoured for the right hand, and attempting to use one of these with your left hand will be unpleasant or impossible.

What this won’t do is help you dual wield handguns. That really doesn’t work. Guns are, still, two handed weapons. You need your second hand to stabilize and manage reloading. So you’re sacrificing accuracy to burn ammo faster, for no real benefit. More than that, you really can’t sight two pistols at the same time. Getting them in line with your eyes will put the barrels way too close to one another, resulting in bashing the guns into each other when firing in tandem. This is one of the few situations where a laser could be useful, but even just the longer reloads, and loss of precision, mean dual wielding isn’t advantageous.

One variety of dual wielding that was entirely viable, was a sword and pistol combo. This was more common in the 17th and 18th centuries, with inaccurate, single shot firearms. During naval boarding actions, and other close quarters combat situations, it was fairly common to fire a shot from a pistol, before following with the sword. In these cases, the pistol would usually be carried in the off hand, with the sword in the dominant one, because it is far easier to shoot with your off hand, than it is to wield a sword in your off hand.

With firearms in modern situations, it can be advantageous to switch hands for a number of reasons. The specific example that comes to mind is cornering. When turning a corner to your right, if possible, you want your firearm in your left hand. This will give you a clear line of fire, while minimizing your exposure. Conversely, when cornering to the left, you want the firearm in your right hand for the same reason.

Being able to switch hands fluidly in a CQC situation is one of the many ways some gun disarms can go wrong. Many disarms rely on locking up gunman’s dominant arm. Against a shooter who has significant experience switching their weapon between hands, these techniques can quickly turn lethal for the person attempting the disarm.

So, yeah, I can shoot off hand. I’m not particularly accurate with my right hand when operating a pistol (I’m fine firing rifles right handed, go figure), but that’s just a personal issue.

-Starke

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Q&A: Superheroes Creating Their own Villain

Do you think real life masked superheroes would ‘create’ villains? I liked what I heard of Mr. Ravenblade and people who dressed to give food to the homeless but do you think this type of activity would bring out villains/criminals as some people say?

Kinda, sorta, not really.

So, the theory is that superheroes like Batman face so many villains because they, “create” them. That is to say, when you’ve got a mentally unstable guy dressing up as a bat and beating the snot out of criminals, that will encourage other mentally unstable individuals to pick similarly bizarre themed costumes, and then join in the fun.

With some characters, particularly Batman and Spiderman, there’s a direct correlation between their actions as superheroes, and their rogues galleries. With others, the connection is a bit more tenuous.

Even in a real world context, this is fairly plausible. Someone engaging in extraordinary acts of violence will provoke others. Either to oppose them, or to aid them. For example: a vigilante hunting Mobsters would encourage the mob to look for specialists to deal with their masked psychopath problem. They may also provoke other, more aggressive, criminal syndicates to move in and set up shop in the city.

So, why isn’t Seattle currently dealing with real life super villains? Because, people like Phoenix Jones and Mr Ravenblade (no matter what Mr Ravenblade liked to call himself) are not superheroes.

To be clear, both Phoenix Jones and Mr Ravenblade are Seattle based individuals who style themselves as superheroes. Ravenblade claimed membership in the “Real Life Superhero Movement,” while Phoenix Jones was a member of the “Rain City Superhero Movement,” until it disbanded in 2014. Since then he’s been operating under his actual name, Ben Fodor. (As far as I can tell, Mr Ravenblade is completely inactive now.)

As with so many other things, the reality is far from romantic. Ben Fodor is a professional MMA fighter, who spent four years wandering the streets in body armor with a can of pepper spray. He never became involved in anything big enough to really test the super-villain theory. (Though he claims to have prevented a bombing during the Occupy Seattle protests in 2012.)

To be fair, if you really want to look at the entire superheroes create villains theory in a serious way, I think it’s far more likely that the relation runs, primarily, in the reverse. If you had costumed villains, you’d be far more likely to see a spike in the hero population.

The problem for people like Ben Fodor is a search for purpose in their superheroing. There’s a kind of implicit promise in the genre that you go out, put on your costume, and foes will pop up for you to fight. As the RHSM has proved, that’s an unrealistic expectation.

The theory does have some legitimate basis. In the real world, threat-response patterns occur, both at an individual and organizational level. So, if superheroes posed a real threat to street level crime, then you would see individuals specifically targeting them. As is, they’re just not relevant enough to create their own villains.

-Starke

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Q&A: Handloading

how hard would it be to make bolo shells? i have a post-apocalyptic setting, and bolo shells sound like the perfect ammunition for the story (vampires), but idk the logistics of my character getting her hands on them or if it could be practical for her to make them herself.

As far as I know, it should be fairly easy. Shotguns shells are, generally, more forgiving to handload than most firearms. The hardest part would be making the bolo itself, which should be doable if you’re familiar with making bullets, have a suitable supply of metal, and some steel wire to connect the weights.

So, let me explain terminology here, quickly.

Handloading is the practice of manually preparing your own ammunition for a modern firearm. This requires a few supplies. You need casings (sometimes called brass, though with modern shotguns these are plastic), bullets (as in the actual projectile you’ll be firing, sometimes simply called, “lead”), powder, and primers.

In this case, your character would be making their own exotic projectiles. When you’re looking at a normal firearm, you’d usually want to get your own supply of unused bullets, though with some practice it is possible to make your own lead. It is possible to make bullets from materials other than lead. For example, you could use tin, copper, or other soft metals. Depending on density, they’ll have different ballistics from conventional rounds.

It’s technically possible to melt down harder materials like steel, and make bullets from those, but the resulting round would damage the firearm’s rifling when fired. These are sometimes used, with a soft metal “jacket” layered over the harder core for armor piercing rounds. (These work because the harder core will not deform as easily on impact, and will deliver more force to a single focused point, rather than expanding out, distributing the force across a wider space.)

With powder, it’s worth remembering that modern firearms do not use black powder. If you’ve found a recipe for gunpowder that calls for potassium nitrate (strictly speaking, any nitrate will get the job done, saltpeter is just the most common suggested ingredient), sulfur, and charcoal (sometimes you’ll see this referred to as just carbon, but you do need some of the unburnt wood cellulose for the chemical reaction), that will produce black powder. Now, this stuff does work as a primary propellant, but it will also cause any firearm more mechanically complex than a revolver to foul fairly quickly. The issue is that black powder burns less efficiently than modern smokeless powders. This means your unburnt powder will form as residue in your barrel and in any exposed mechanical components. Additionally, the sulfur is mildly corrosive, meaning it will also damage your weapon from prolonged misuse. Not that it matters, but black powder also delivers less force, so your bullets would have less range, and penetration.

It is (theoretically) possible to synthesize your own smokeless powder after the end of days, but it would require getting access to some fairly specific chemical supplies, and some fairly sophisticated lab work. Primers are a similar situation, not impossible if your character has a strong background in chemistry, but not exactly the kind of thing you or I could whip up in a desperate moment.

That said, handloading is fairly common among some gun enthusiasts, so the supplies are out there. How long those would last after the end hit would depend heavily on how long people were able to hold out before dying. If the apocalypse claimed the vast majority of its victims in the first few hours, the existing ammunition supplies could last for decades. On the other hand, if the apocalypse was slow, and people were dying out over the decades, then these supplies could be incredibly scarce.

-Starke

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Q&A: Sadism

True or false: Pointless sadism can get in the way of winning a fight? Like, if you’re focused on inflicting as much pain as possible instead of finding the most efficient way of killing someone? Could a villain’s cruelty actually be his undoing, maybe? Or would the evil overlord either have died or learned his lesson long ago? What pitfalls should you avoid if you decide to go this route? Would this be the way to go in a story with a light tone (but not outright comedy) that’s light on realism?

The problem with too much sadism (or sadism that is self-admitted to be pointless) is that your villain needs to actually get around to doing their job and moving the plot forward. It’s important to remember that a character’s proclivities in combat are signs of their personality and hints into their ability to achieve success. A villain who cannot control their own sadism and has no one higher up to control it for them or direct those habits toward useful goals, a la Rabban and the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, is going nowhere fast.

This can be a real problem to the narrative if your villain’s self-motivation leads them to hole up in some small village high in the Caucus mountains in order to fully engage in their sadism unchallenged while a hero similarly lacking in motivation is twiddling their thumbs in the United States.

When you’re setting up your plot, you need a villain whose interests match the intended narrative course. This is especially true when the villain is the one whose action and motivations are driving the narrative forward, the one putting pieces into play for the hero to respond to. If they never do that, you have no story.

Like all predators, a villain that’s into sadism and who can’t control their own impulses is going to take the path of least resistance. Which is why I said a small town somewhere with a disorganized military, poor response times, and no ability to fight back. If all they want is to inflict their will on others, to indulge their worst base impulses, enjoy causing havoc, then they’re logically going to go the way of other tinpot dictators. They are going to go somewhere they can exploit poor conditions in order to get what they want.

The problem with these sorts of characters is not that they aren’t realistic or that this can be their undoing (it certainly can be), but that they have no motivation to be where they are. This is both a blow to your narrative and to you because you ultimately wind up with a substandard villain.

An evil overlord may be evil but they’re still an overlord, there’s an internal justification for how they achieved that position on their own merits. Overthrowing another government isn’t small potatoes, this is someone with the capacity for planning, who got the vast majority of the population on their side (at least temporarily), and who is capable of strategic thinking if not planning. They’re also politically savvy. All these traits belong to someone who can control their impulses, who may be a sadist and may enjoy torture but who also knows when to indulge. They know how to orchestrate the blunt instruments around them to their advantage, even when they are the biggest monster on the table.

One gets to the top by understanding what they need to do and then doing it. However, they need motivation to get there and this motivation must be specific to their circumstances rather than generic. When you’re looking at a specific Monster of the Week setup whether it’s Power Rangers or Sailor Moon, the big villain has a specific goal that they’re putting a specific piece into play in order to achieve. In the case of Sailor Moon, the bad guys in the first season were trying to locate the silver crystal and all the hijinks start from there. They had a reason to be where they were, had a specific goal they could verbalize, and a plan to achieve it. The heroes job was to disrupt that plan. In the case of Dune, we have three sadists from House Harkonnen, one idiot and two attempting to play each other while all being manipulated by House Corrino off an ages old feud with House Atreides. Arrakis is not a reward, it’s a killing ground used by the Emperor to rid himself of potential rivals.

When you lack A and B with just a sadist, we wind up with characters like Semirhage from The Wheel of Time who spends multiple books doing a shadowy something but whom we mostly just see kidnapping individuals in order to perform experiments on them. (This is because we don’t know initially where any of them are or who they’re pretending to be, sometimes for several novels on end.) The series’ game of “Find the Forsaken” sometimes had a bad habit of undercutting the Forsaken.

Your villain needs a plan which coincides with the heroes in order for them to clash. A specific, internal justification is always better and will always prove more successful than an external justification. They need to be there for the narrative never answers why they’re there in a satisfactory way for your audience. They’re there because they’re the villain is not actually an answer.

Why here? Why now?

Those are important questions to delve into. It may take the heroes and the audience the entire narrative to work out the true reason, but its important that both the villain and the author have the answer or some inkling of it from the onset. The secondary motivational why lies in the character’s backstory, but the initial one should be easy enough to find. Just remember to look for that internal justification from the villain, why they’re doing what they’re doing and what it is they want. The needs of the villain and the needs of the hero and the needs of the narrative must coincide. If you plan for your villain to do the thing (rather than ultimately fail at the thing on their own power rather than be stopped by a hero) then they must be someone capable of doing the thing. Someone who would have succeeded if there were no meddling kids around to stop them.

The Baron Harkonnen was always destined to fail, not because of Paul, but because the Emperor would have ultimately stopped him. Arrakis was too big a prize for him to ultimately control. The Emperor, however, could have succeeded in his plan to rid himself of both Houses if Paul and Jessica had both been someone else. If they’d been normal, a normal consort and a normal child of the nobility. In Paul’s case, Arrakis and the spice was a catalyst for unexpected transformation.

In answer to the question: if the head honcho villain never learned their lesson prior to meeting the hero then it is likely they’d never have achieved their position. They’d lack the ambition, control, and cleverness needed to pull off their plots. The important thing to remember is that the villain always faces resistance, and faced resistance before your hero arrived on the scene. Others have tried to fight the villain and they failed. You’ve got to answer the question of why those others failed and in such a way that doesn’t make their sacrifices worthless or meaningless. If it was some easy solution, someone would have come up with the answer and tried it.

An easy work around for this is to come up with the plans that were tried and did fail. This will pull double duty for you of better establishing your villain’s true capabilities and know when your heroes are making stupid mistakes. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the random population in your narrative is totally helpless or incapable of standing up for themselves.

Remember, a sadist incapable of controlling themselves is a blunt instrument. One put to purpose by another and given direction. The fear they inspire is real, but their weaknesses are obvious. One can’t win on fear alone. The fear is there to keep you from fighting back, but the structure put into place is what will keep the average person from going anywhere.

-Michi

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Q&A: Splitting the Party

How do I sideline my powerful fighters without sloppy excuses? My story is rooted in Asian mythology and there are powerful gods and creatures as well as weapons and shields.

The simple answer is: By making sure you have carefully thought out reasons, rather than simply trying to come up with an excuse at the last minute.

So, let’s talk about writing for a minute.

Your rough draft is when you first sit down and start typing up your story. Nobody’s rough drafts are perfect. Rough drafts are, by necessity, kinda sloppy. Stuff won’t always fit together. Ideas will get kicked around, and abandoned, sometimes mid-draft. There will be plot holes. That’s fine.

Then you start writing. When you go back and rewrite your draft, you know what your story is doing, where it’s going, what’s happening, and, most importantly, exactly what will happen. If you know you want a character split off, you know you need to start setting that up.

In some ways, this is the definitive answer: How do you avoid sloppy writing? By going back and rewriting once you’ve written the piece. Writing really is rewriting. First drafts suck. That’s not on you, it’s a truth every author needs to acknowledge, and remember, “you’re not stuck there.” Once you know what you’re doing, go back, and improve it.

So, how do you sideline your characters? There’s a lot of options, but a simple one that will almost always give you more material to play with is, give them something else to do.

In very broad strokes there’s two sub-categories here. They can act in their own interests and pursue personal agendas, or they can work towards the benefit of the group, they just need to do it somewhere else. These can lead to very different characters, and vastly different stories, so let’s look at both of those.

Remember, your characters are distinct simulacra of people. They have their own wants, dreams, and goals. Depending on who they are as a person, those may take priority over helping your hero. (Or, if we’re talking about your hero, this may take priority over loyalty to their allies.)

If your character has spent centuries questing to find their lost love, they may abandon the party of wandering heroes they met in an inn a month ago when they find a lead. If they’ve been exiled from their home, they may even turn on their allies if it means they could go back. They may betray their allies because they’ve become convinced that your heroes are more destructive harmful than the forces they oppose.

There’s an unlimited number of potential permutations here, ranging from the selfish to altruistic. These are also incredibly contextual. Choosing how to fit these pieces together will come down to assessing your characters, their world, the forces they’re opposing, and figuring out who your characters are.

These kinds of events tend to be irrevocable. If your characters are betrayed by someone they called a friend, you really can’t walk that back, even if they come to regret their actions.

The alternative is that, sometimes, you just need to be in two places at once. One or two characters may need to split off from the rest to accomplish separate goals. A cadre of heroes may stage a doomed assault, to create enough of a distraction for one of their members to sneak in and assassinate a leader, or deliver some critical plot coupon.

Events like this can be thrilling. You’re putting a lot more weight on your characters’ shoulders. If anyone fails to carry out their plan, then everything will go horribly wrong.

Again, there’s an infinite number of possible permutations on this concept. They may not be killing someone, they may not even be in the same area. They may have split off awhile back to deal with something privately, but now, when needed, they’re leagues away.

There’s also a lot of options to blend across between these categories, and there are a lot of other possibilities. For example: A character who’s been poisoned by some mythical substance and put into a coma isn’t going to be much use in a fight.

This is your story. You’re only limited by your imagination. Look for conflicts of interest that will test your heroes. Look for the consequences of their past actions. Don’t worry if your rough draft seems off. That’s why, “writing is rewriting.”

-Starke

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Q&A: Gallows Humor

Do you have any advice on injecting black humor into my assassin’s narrative without being tasteless?

You can’t. Gallows humor revolves specifically around being tasteless, around saying very inappropriate things, and making a mockery of the situation. You are, after all, laughing at the pain of others.

The question is: were you funny?

That is the make or break rule of comedy, and understanding how to be funny with gallows humor requires understanding gallows humor. When you fail at gallows humor, you are just that asshole who said an inappropriate thing at the wrong time and then laughed at their own terrible joke.

Humor is the connections your mind makes before other people get there. As such, it tells us a lot about a person, who they are, how they think, what kind of experiences they’ve had, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, and who they are. This is part of why funny people break first, your sense of humor will tell your interrogator how you think and they’ll use that against you. (There’s some black humor in turning the knife on yourself, especially unwittingly.)

In real life, gallows humor is a sign of what experiences you’ve had, how you respond to them, and what you’ve become inured to. Gallows humor by its very nature is a societal taboo, you’re saying something shocking but the shock or the inappropriateness is not what makes the joke funny. For gallows humor to be successful, it must also be insightful. The outrageous comment served a purpose, had a point, drew a connection that their audience couldn’t see.

Humor is taking the situation you’re in, drawing insight from it, and making an observation. If you don’t do that, then your joke will fail. Gallows humor represents a high bar because it is offensive by its very nature, but the observation and the unexpected connection of two pieces are why we laugh. Gallows humor has to be relevant to the situation at hand, it is directly related to what is happening in front of you. You have a better understanding of what is going on around you than others who have not been inducted into this view of the world. Gallows humor directly relies on your ability to look at a situation before you, gather up the pieces, and make an observation for a joke that will not work anywhere other than in this exact moment. You can’t, really, save this shit for later, except when telling the joke to someone else who was there at the time.

Soldiers, cops, doctors, customer service reps, people who work in retail, they all have very specific forms of humor that can be shared because of their shared experience. If you lack that experience, then you will be outside of it.

The moment gallows humor crystallizes is when the character really does stop giving a shit. Other humans become ambulatory bags of meat and then it’s okay to laugh at their suffering, or make jokes at their expense. This doesn’t mean it’s societally okay, if your character utilizes black humor they can and should expect to be called out for it. However, the character no longer cares how their listener is going to receive the joke because the joke was funny to them. What they’ve been through has been normalized, they’re no longer horrified by it and now it is just funny.

Humor in fiction functions much the same way, except with the added dynamic of the purpose it serves to clue the audience in through those observations made by the characters. M.A.S.H. and Law & Order are both a masters of utilizing humor as a form of exposition without the audience ever realizing it. The jokes serve a specific purpose, while also underscoring the natures of the characters’ themselves.

If your characters humor does not serve a purpose then it won’t be funny, they’ll be tasteless and an asshole instead of a tasteless funny asshole. For an assassin, this kind of humor could be a weapon they use against others. It could be a dead give away to their nature, and expose them to normal people around them. Or, they just spend so much time alone they tell jokes that are only amusing to them and that the people around them don’t find funny. (Though, the audience might.)

George Carlin is right, any joke can be funny no matter how inappropriate, that you will laugh at despite yourself, and you can find humor in any situation. He’s also right in that it has to be funny. The shock is not what’s funny, the taboo is not what makes it funny, the observation and the unexpected connection between two different pieces somehow applicable to the situation are where the joke is.

The trick to grasping gallows humor is that you first need to own it. No wishy-washy, “but I don’t want to offend someone”, this form of humor is offensive by its very nature. However, the next step is in understanding the offensive part wasn’t what was funny. Humor comes from disrupting audience expectations at key points. You can’t get there just by being shocking, you’ve also got to get them to laugh. In this case, it’s funny because it’s accurate.

Gallows humor is often utilizing people’s pain to mock something else occurring in the scene. In the case of M.A.S.H. for example, the point is the realities of war and death versus the jingoistic illusions sold to the populace at large. The humor works to firmly root our understanding in the horrors happening, and make us aware of them. Humor also transforms the horrors into something less incomprehensible. It connects the incomprehensible to the absurd in ways that can make performing “meatball surgery” on hundreds of teenagers who were torn apart into an almost manageable experience.

Gallows humor is often specifically targeting cultural illusions about death, about the way people die, about the arbitrary nature of it.

“He was such a brave and noble soldier. Too bad he shat himself right there at the end, and then again after his corpse went cold. You’d think the human body could only stack up so much shit, but no. There’s always more.”

The joke is you shit yourself when you’re scared and after you die, and the fact the whole situation was shit to begin with.

Gallows humor is often biting, bitter, and disillusioned. It has a target, though that target may not be what you initially think. After all, a gallows humor joke at a funeral is usually targeting the mourners themselves. The disconnect between the person who died, who they were, and what is said about them. Gallows humor at a crime scene or over a dead body could very well be about the situational irony or an observation of the person’s unexpected nature or the nature of their death. It can be crass and cruel, and very difficult to hear.

The ending point is that humor is about who your character is as a person and how they express themselves. However, to successfully carry the humor off, you’ll need to be realistic about how other people would respond. (Specific people, not a generic response.) You’ll also need to get used to not giving a shit. This is not the kind of humor one uses in order to make people like them. It’s more the kind that gets people to like you in spite of themselves. This is a very specific type of humor which appeals to a very specific type of character, and is an example of the way they look at other human beings. The kind that gets people to call you an asshole, but, you know, a funny asshole.

Try to remember, assassins are not nice people. Assholes can indeed be very funny. You’re character doesn’t have to be likeable to be a good protagonist. Humor is an expression of character, experience, and the way the mind puts information together.

Again, there’s only one real metric: was it funny?

Your character has three audiences, themselves, the people around them, and the audience at large. If you tell the joke right, then the audience will sympathize with your character. Tell it wrong, and they’ll sympathize with the people who got offended. If you don’t provide them with that outlet within the narrative because you’re desperate for your character to appear funny, you risk taking them out of the narrative entirely. You need a good foil, and a way to catch yourself when the joke fails. Don’t get so caught up in trying to be funny that you lose the perspective on when your character goes over the line. This is a high bar, your character is going to fall down a few times. Jokes just don’t land.

You’re never funny 100% of the time, even when you do it for a living. Add the dynamic for your character of when the joke doesn’t land, and those who don’t find them funny.

It makes them human.

-Michi

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Q&A: Secret Identities

Would pointing out that they bear an uncanny resemblance to their alter ego and following it up with a comment that a specific feature is slightly different help my character prevent the people they consort with from realizing that they are the secret identity?

The short answer is, no. Saying, “yeah, but this one thing is different,” underlines how everything else is the same. To be clear this is a bad situation for your character to be in. It jeopardizes their secret, and may put them in extreme danger, if it doesn’t get them killed outright. Now, a character who panics may blurt out, “but he doesn’t have this fake scar on his knuckle!” But, no, it’s not a great way out. At that point, even a simple, “you must have me confused with someone else,” might carry more weight. Not, much more weight, but still.

That said, there’s basically two routes for this question, so, I’ll take a stab at both.

If you’re talking about a character who’s working undercover (either with a group backing them, or on their own), then all of the normal issues come up. If they’re working without some organization backing them, then their best option will be to go in as themselves. Not necessarily to be upfront about why they’re there, but ultimately trying to hide who they are is a recipe for disaster.

For example: if your character is trying to investigate a corporation, then their best option for infiltrating is to get hired, that means they’d need to pass a background check, and get through the hiring process. In all of that, pretending to be someone they’re not won’t really work. The entire system is designed to weed out someone who isn’t on the level. Obviously, there are relevant considerations, but the way in is through the front door and into the HR office.

To be fair, if your character is investigating some kind of criminal conspiracy without any backing, they’re going to need to be very creative in order to avoid getting caught up in any police investigations, while still maintaining their cover identity. As it turns out, saying, “but I was only infiltrating them to find out what they were doing,” is not a particularly solid affirmative defense for waxing a witness. (Writing stories like this require a solid grasp of operational planning. Your character needs to be able to identify their goals, and then set about dismantling the organization in critical ways without blowing their cover. That last part is much easier said than done.)

If your character is operating with backing from an organization that can create a convincing cover identity, that’s different. This could be an intelligence agency, law enforcement, or even some well connected, shadowy conspiracy. If this is the case, the organization has a lot more flexibility to put someone unknown on the ground. Cover identities are a thing, but the critical part is that the people your character is infiltrating never meet the people who actually know them in their day to day life. So, the situation where someone recognizes your character for who they are, is something they need to avoid at all costs.

Also worth noting that, under some circumstances, you could have a character with multiple cover identities, which are drawn into conflict with one another. For example, a character who went undercover in one group years ago, and has since gone undercover with a new group could be in a very awkward place if they discovered an old associate from the previous cover while they were operating under the new one. These situations can quickly get very tangled, and make for fantastic plot complications in espionage fiction.

The other possibility that comes to mind is superheroes. For the flying tights crowd, secret identities are kind of a genre convention. You want your superhero to have a normal life you can switch out to and ground the character for the audience. Which is much harder when your character is also a major mythological figure, the last survivor of an alien race, or a rich boy with daddy issues.

If we’re talking about superheroes, then that’s almost a viable answer. I mean there’s a slightly absurd element to the entire idea of superheroes and their alter egos. People would notice that your character was staggering into work looking like they’d been in a fight with fifteen guys. Alternately, sooner or later someone would notice that your superhero never got injured, never got sick, and didn’t react that time someone spilled boiling coffee on their hand.

Depending on context, there’s a fairly smart critique of superheroes how regularly interact with reporters, cops and other investigators. Their plainclothes allies probably figured out who they were years ago, and keep those secrets as well. Personally, I still really like the Ben Urich line about knowing who Peter Parker is, because, “sometimes you smell like burnt buildings. You know who else sometimes smells like burnt buildings?”

In a context like this, even if your character isn’t a superhero, it’s possible that friends and allies may let their cover slide, if they understand what’s going on. Of course, if they don’t, or are about to make a scene, then they are a threat to whatever your character is trying to achieve.

There are also possible situations where an antagonist may seek to keep information about your character secret. Realizing who they are, but holding onto that for whatever reason. This could be due to conflicting loyalties. It could be they’re planning to use that information to their own advantage. They may even intend to blackmail your character with this information at a later date. It really depends on what their goals are, and their relationship with your character.

There are much better lies your character can use to protect their identity. So, here’s something to watch, it’s about a minute long, and light on the details, but keep it in mind. Someone who is aware of their mannerisms, and can adapt to their current “role,” can become effectively unidentifiable and blend into their surroundings. Specifically, things like posture, body language, preferred clothing and speech patterns (such as verbal crutches), can be far more identifiable than just physical appearance. The original Jason Bourne novel by Robert Ludlum actually talks about this kind of a technique in detail.

None of this will help if you’re talking to someone who’s known you for years, but when you’re walking past a casual acquaintance, they may not recognize you. Also, to be clear, this is a learned skill. It’s not quite as simple as just changing into a clean set of clothes and staggering off.

If you’re going the superhero route, sometimes secret identities get exposed. It can be a major transition in your character’s life, as they go from masked crimefighter to public figure. There’s no hard and fast rules there, on what happens as a result. Partially because there isn’t a real world example, but also because superheroes are such a diverse group to begin with. As with everything else, think through all the possible outcomes. Pick the ones that feel the most natural or appropriate.

-Starke

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