Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Description is Context

tinker-tanner said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on how to write description? Whenever I think of something to write it’s purely dialogue, not even minimal stage directions like a Shakespeare play. Just voices in a white void.

Then, that’s what you start with.

Write the scene purely as dialogue so you get it out of your head. If you can tell who is talking, you’re golden. So, it will look something like this:

“How’s it going?” Jayse asked.

“Seeing the other Blooded’s problem,” Chastity said.

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

“Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914,” Isolde said.

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” Isolde hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

“You would know all local bus routes, Chaz,” Jayse said.

Think about description as context, filling in the blanks and that white noise. Once you’ve got the dialogue out on the page, you have the luxury of asking yourself what the hell is happening in this scene. Your best friends are: What? Where? Why? When? How?

Once you’ve got your dialogue out, ask yourself some questions:

What are the characters doing?

In this case, they’re hunting some sort of monster and we know from “time dilation” it (probably) has supernatural powers.

Where are they?

Well, they’re clearly somewhere modern because they’re referencing the bus routes.

What is the monster doing? Why are they trying to catch it?

This we don’t know, because we have no description. It can look like anything. So try and figure out what you want it to look like, think about it.

Okay, so think about that. Let it take shape in your mind, imagine how the world sounds, tastes, feels. What do your characters hear? What are they looking for? What do they want? How do they plan to get it? What do they think inside their heads that they wouldn’t say out loud?

Got it? Let’s try again.

Chastity Dumont lunged across the open space between buildings. Foot slamming down on the ground and thrusting her body back up in a great leap, she flew over the busy street below. Her mind barely had time to register the cars whizzing past as she tucked, landed on her shoulder, rolled to her feet and raced after her prey.

He wasn’t too far ahead of her, long arms flailing as he tried to run. A short creature with a bulbous head and slick gray skin in a violently bright orange Texas Longhorns jersey. Thick webbed feet slapped the concrete roof. His pace a leisurely jog level rather than someone running for their lives.

He is running, she thought. He just doesn’t think I can catch him. Time wrapped around him, sped him up. In his wake, she slowed immeasurably.

“How’s it going?” crackled a voice in her ear, snapping electricity down her jaw.

Chastity slid over an air conditioner unit. “Seeing the other Blooded’s problem.”

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah.”

Okay, we have the first half of the dialogue. Now we can see how Chastity came to her conclusion of time dilation while hunting her prey. This means that this is a problem she can deal with, unlike the other Blooded she referenced. We know what the monster looks like, we know we’re in a city, and we’ve got some action going on.

Pay special attention when you’re reading over the dialogue you’ve written for breaks that feel unnatural, where it feels like something else should be there. The comment, “Whiz shit” is an unnatural jump.

Ahead of her, the bulbous head alien dropped off the roof edge and disappeared into the darkness between brightly colored apartment buildings.

Chastity came to a stop, watching fluorescent orange and gleaming white bounce between steel fire escapes down into a thin alley. As he hit the ground, his form shifted, lengthened, and grew more human. She suspected he’d put on pants and maybe shoes too, just to fill out the shit sundae. Her head tilted backwards, filled with the familiar whine of a large, heavy vehicle sliding to a stop. She inhaled deeply, air full of greasy ass diesel. “Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914.”

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” she hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

That got a laugh. “You would know all local bus routes, Chaz.”

Figuring out your own creative process can be difficult, so if you don’t have the right images or words don’t be afraid to turn to outside sources. Google Image Search is your friend. That can help you get the necessary context to filling out your narrative if the images don’t come on their own.

Think about the dialogue you write, and how your characters might react to the comments. How do they feel? Do they scrunch up their eyebrows or nose, curl their lips, sneer or smile? Do they laugh? What do they look like when they’re talking? Are they animated, sedate, or somewhere in between? What does they look like, just in general?

The alien stepped forward, purple-blue light shimmered between two round paws. Same color as the crystal burning beneath the jersey, rays spilling out through the holes. Illuminating the bus’ roof in a dazzling array of tiny pentagons, shifting, shimmering, and spinning round across the cracked white surface like a 70s disco ball.

I suppose this would be the wrong time to joke about stayin’ alive, Chastity thought. Jumbled bits of numbers, words, lines of code flashed around his fingertips. Rattling off a few thousand sigils in rapid succession. Spell type. Detonation rank. Expected area of damage. Electromagnetic region detonation. Grade B spell. Class Type D. In an attempt to stop her, he’d vaporize half the city block and everyone in the radius. Well, everyone except his intended target. Her hands clenched around the rebars. Metal spur piercing out of her heel, slicing through cotton, leather, and rubber of her boot to grip the metal. She jerked upright as her wings thrust her to her feet.

The alien blinked.

Throwing herself forward, Chastity drove the rebar in her left hand through the glowing purple ball. Sudden impact of iron disrupted the electricity, sending arcs across the bus widows and splashing out over the asphalt. As his eyes widened, she drove the right rebar into his stomach. She felt the first blow crush sensitive internal organs, burst the stomach sack, and sent him flying.

It’s seems silly to ask, but what are they wearing? Really, what are they wearing? Are their bangs short or long? Do they tug at their hair when they’re nervous? Does their hair fall across their eyes when they tilt their head?

Getting what you already have in your head out on the page means you don’t have to worry about losing what you’ve come up with and can focus on the parts of your story which are eluding you. The more practice you get, the better you get. Again, don’t be afraid to turn to art, photographs, and other images if they help you. Pulling up some images of a lake at sunset when you want to write about your characters confessing their love by the lake at sunset, can really help with the visualization for the scenery. Is the grass short or tall? How large are the strands? How big is the lake? Do people commonly visit this lake or is it out in the middle of nowhere? Are there ducks, geese, swans, other birds that make noise? How does the light reflect off the water? Is the sun low enough for a true red or are we fading into purple twilight?

Your style is going to determine the amount of description you need, and how much is too much. You want to experiment and practice. Writers can be successful with incredibly sparse and prose so flowery it turns purple, all that really matters is whether or not the reader is given the context they need to understand the character’s behavior, reactions, and surroundings.

The more you add in, the more questions you can ask and continue refining down your image. Sometimes, you have to start out general to end up specific. This can be simple as “What does Character B look like?”

Your answers might start out general like: female, medium height, blonde, blue eyes, nose, mouth, long fingers, etc.

Take the vague image you have, and sharpen up the detail.

Then, Chastity turned her head. The gold-yellow irises surrounded by a black cornea turned a warm crystal blue, the rest of the eye fading into the usual human color. The silver and ruby wings retracted, slipping back through the ripped gaps in her leather jacket and white cotton shirt. Silver gashes in her skin cutting out of her jaw disappeared and smoothed back to the usual soft pink. Clawed gauntlets slipped back beneath the human skin coating finely boned, delicate hands.

One could easily see a slightly battered seventeen year old in a grungy shirt, torn apart jacket, and ripped jeans, but Jayse knew better than anyone — Chastity Dumont had never been a human girl.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The best way to learn how to do something is to just do it. Start with what your brain has already given you and start filling in the blanks. Probing questions are important. Use your What, Where, When, Why, How. Think about your five senses. Get curious about your dialogue. If your story excites you, you should want to know more. Why did your character say what they did? What was their motivation? What did they look like when they said it? How do they feel?

If you get: anger, ask yourself what anger looks like. What is the bodily response? How do they deal with confrontation? Do they stare the other person down, lock gazes, drop their eyes, look up, look away, or physically turn away?

Ahead of Chastity, the alien had fallen in another attempt to crawl away and trapped himself between the cars. His frantic head turned back in her direction, massive eyes blinking. Sparks crackled across his hands, the remnants of his disrupted spell. Small body slumped, squirmed, wriggling as he inched his way down the road.

Coming to a stop over him, Chastity lifted the last rebar. Her wings flared wide, casting long shadows across the road, blacking out the twilight sky.

Someone in the crowd screamed.

The alien rolled, weakly lifting his hands.

Chastity rammed the rebar down, through the lower torso, and into the asphalt.

Gray-green blood splattered a black surface.

This time, the alien shrieked.

“Turnabout,” Chastity said.

Her Comm implant snapped her jaw, flickers of electricity singing up her ear. Jayse’s voice came in loud. “Got him?”

One hand dropped to her jeans pocket, and Chastity fished out a small silver coin. Held it up between her thumb and forefinger. Gave it a squeeze. She tossed the coin onto the alien’s torso. Eight silver spider legs extended off the disc, latching into his chest. A tiny blue light beeped. She brushed her jaw with a finger. “Beam us up, Scotty.”

Jayse groaned.

Chastity grinned as she and the alien disappeared in a brilliant flash of bright white-blue light.

-Michi

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Q&A: Welcome to Writing

my imagination (when it works) tends to conjure up scenes fully formed and devoid of context, and trying to put them to words – let alone make a story out of them – is really tough. it’s like i’m trying to write a movie that’s already been filmed and i’ve only seen bits and pieces of it.               

Welcome to writing.

I’m not going to say this is what writing is like for everyone, but it is for most people. At the very least, your experience is true for me. I see my stories in scenes filmed in my head and patchwork them together into a narrative after lengthy consideration. Plots come together in fits and starts, and often change. What I envision in my head rarely ends up on the page, often I get something different than what I intended. Learning not to be disappointed by that was a process, and something I still struggle with. Learning how to bring what I imagined to life for others to enjoy was also a process, one I’ve worked at for a very long time.

What most people won’t tell you about writing is that it’s a skill. Anyone can write, anyone can learn how to write, but the good storytellers are those who’ve worked very hard. Developing any skill takes time, it takes practice. You’ll fall down a lot. You’ll face disappointment. You’ll fail. This is true of every novelist and every book you pick up. They’ve all failed at certain points in their lives. They all felt they were terrible. They all wanted to tear their hair out over their characters, their plots, their descriptions, their backstory, their setting not working quite the way it was supposed to. The only difference between a success and a failure is the willingness to pick yourself up and try again.

There’s a great quote from the manga Black Clover, which is a sentiment that’s been paraphrased many different ways but one I think is important to remember when you’re getting down on yourself.

“Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is,” Fuegoleon Vermillion tells Noelle.

What Fuegoleon means is choosing self-pity over self-improvement is weakness, but there is nothing weak about a person who is trying to improve. They may be struggling, they may not be where they want to be yet, the skills they want to acquire may not come easily, but they aren’t weak.

You may have difficulty crafting characters, context, and plot for the sequences you imagine right now but it’ll get easier and easier if you keep working at it. The only way to improve is through practice. Devote yourself to writing for a certain period every day, or every few days. I personally really like Terry Pratchett’s 400 words a day rule. (You can set any metric you like.) The 400 is the right amount for me that is easy to reach, and if I surpass it? Great. If I don’t, well? I got some writing done. Sometimes, I have to take breaks to work on other projects when I’ve exhausted myself but, in between the point I stop working on one book and start on another, I’m still writing. I’m keeping my skills sharp, and through working with a different narrative may come around the piece I need to move forward with the other one. Following this rule, I’ve written over 60,000 words so far this year. I wrote over 200,000 last year in for various fictional projects, not counting the work I did for this blog. I write a lot, and I follow the basic tenants set down by Ernie Reyes’ Black Belt Code. The Code felt silly when I recited it at thirteen, but means a lot now as a reference point. There are ten steps, but the first five are the only ones I remember.

  1. Set a goal.
  2. Take action.
  3. Pay attention to detail.
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice.
  5. Change if it’s not working.

Rinse, lather, repeat. These steps will eventually lead to mastery.

There are going to be plenty of times where the idea you have isn’t going to work or will require change. You’ll go back to the drawing board multiple times. You’ll realize you don’t have the skills needed either in description, or dialogue, or character building to craft what you want; which means you need to go out and acquire those skills. Then, come back and try again.

Identify your weaknesses. Study works by those whose writing is strong where yours is weak, figure out the techniques they used and try applying them to your own work. You can turn anywhere for this, so don’t let people fool you into thinking it can only be fictional novels. You can learn a lot about world building from strategy games, from pencil and paper RPGs, from video games, history, sociology, political science, and plenty other sources. You can study television and film for to learn about different sorts of dialogue beats, episodic structure, learning how to describe human interaction and facial expressions. You can people watch, then experiment with conversations you heard later. In order to improve my skills writing dialogue, I used to listen to video game dialogue snippets on YouTube over and over and over. I could’ve read a transcript of the dialogue, but I wanted to familiarize myself with the tone, cadence, and vocal patterns of the actors in order to translate that into my writing. So the character sounded like the character, even when their dialogue was read. I do this even now where I’ll pick a film or television show with a character I like to put on as background noise so I can get into the right frame of mind for what I’m writing. There are plenty of writers who do this with music, I have whole libraries and playlists for different characters.

If you don’t know how to do something then work on learning. A large part of writing is taking what you see and what you know and applying it into a specific format. Nothing is off limits, everything is a reference for you. You want to work on character development? You can read lots of books with characters you like, paying attention to how they changed. You can also then go read breakdowns and character analyses to see what others took from the same material. There’s so much information freely available today, many barriers to what was once secret knowledge have been removed. You just have to start taking advantage of your local library and your internet connection.

To be a writer is to be a lifelong student, a jack of all trades, knowledgeable about many things but a master of none. If you want to write myths, epics, and mythic characters then you should be reading myths but I also recommend reading Joseph Campbell. I don’t just mean A Hero With A Thousand Faces and patterning your narrative on “The Hero’s Journey”, but understanding how myths worked, what they meant to the cultures of the people who created them, and the resonant narrative themes which are found in many cultures worldwide.

There’s copying and there’s understanding, copying can bridge into understanding but only if you take the time to really evaluate why a specific narrative technique works the way it does. Learning how something works gives you the freedom to apply it how you want to your own narrative instead of trying to force fit someone else’s vision into your own. This is how you can build your work, your own vision while looking to others for guidance and advice.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Give yourself permission to suck.

Remember, everything you read is the work of months, often years. You don’t see all the author’s failures, their previous bad writing, when they sucked, their points of depression, and (in some cases) their drug fueled benders. You don’t see the endless edits, the previous drafts, the subplots begun and abandoned. You don’t see where the characters began in the finished product, just where they ended up. You don’t see their previous attempts. You might be reading their latest work written in their late fifties rather than the one they wrote in their mid-twenties, early thirties. You’re probably not reading the works they produced at ten years old.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to write and write and write until you start writing well. Physical exercise is like that too. You keep at it until something clicks, you get over the hump, you adjust and it gets easier. Do the best you can right now. Work on surpassing those limits. Once you get over the hump, once it gets easier and you’ve gotten comfortable, set your next goal and work passing those limits. It may feel impossible at times, the mountain insurmountable. When you’re getting down on yourself, you can always go back and read what you wrote in the past. You’ll see where you improved, and realize you weren’t nearly as terrible as you thought.

As Fuegoleon Vermillion said, “Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is.”

Overcoming adversity is about building character and, when it comes to life getting you down, not taking “no” for an answer. It takes courage to face yourself, and acknowledge you’ve got flaws. Review your failure. Acknowledge your strengths, identify your weaknesses, and work on turning those weaknesses into your strength. The non-dominant hand/side is the most technically proficient in martial arts because you struggle when learning to control it. While the power hand, the dominant hand, is important, the non-dominant hand does the technical things.

You haven’t failed until you’ve truly given up. There’s no better time than now to start building your foundation.

-Michi

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Q&A: A Death in the Story

I’m going to break this question into two pieces. I don’t normally like doing that here, but the example really drifts into a separate topic, and I don’t want to simply cull that out.

Do you think, instead of killing parents off for books, they could allow their kids to go on adventure or take the kids with them on adventures?

Yeah. You’re asking about a specific sub-genre and then asking, “but what about stepping out of the sub-genre?” Those stories already exist, in a number of forms.

Not every story about kids adventuring on their own comes from dead parents. As much as you can joke about Pokemon being a, “child neglect simulator,” there is a narrative there about children simply going out and playing. The series was inspired by, Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood hobby of collecting insects, and his experiences in rural Japan. (With a healthy dose of imaginative fancy.)

I’m going to break this into three groups. The parents are dead, the parents are alive but disinterested, and the parents are alive and active participants.

These are all different kinds of stories, and I’m being a little reductive with these classifications because we’re tracking a specific element across all the kinds of stories that use that.

Live long enough, and you will bury your parents. It’s inevitable. At some point, growing up, everyone realizes this. There’s no escape, we will all die someday. Realizing that is one of those critical moments in your growth from child to adult. How you deal with that knowledge is deeply personal to you as an individual. However, it also means losing a parent does force you to grow as a person.

So, there’s two separate versions of this: the parent dies a catalyst for character growth. I’ll be honest, there’s an entire genre of this, in many different forms of media, where a child or teen escapes the trauma of dealing with a parent’s death either into fantasy, or by running away. In cases like this, the parent needs to die for the child to experience and learn from that. These will usually be coming of age stories.

In some cases, you can even see variations of this genre with adults dealing with the death of their adult parent. There’s also a related genre with parents dealing with the loss of their child or spouse. Again the focus is confronting death and grief (or retreating into fantasy to avoid that) so if there’s no death, the story’s beats aren’t going to work.

So, in these cases, the crux of the story is leaning to deal with the loss of a parent, so yes, they do need to be dead for these to work. (As a quick aside, I can’t really cite any of these off the top of my head. I find this genre deeply depressing and tend to avoid it.) There is a related sub-genre of children dealing with a parent’s illness (terminal or otherwise), and all of the above permutations also exist, though ultimately, that is a different kind of story, and trying to transition from dealing with death to only dealing with the fear of death seriously alters the context, and the kind of story you’re telling.

The other side of this is, you can have stories kill off the parent in a cheap attempt to raise the stakes. I’m looking at Batman here.

To be clear, I don’t have anything against the idea of an orphan protagonist, when their parent’s death is just backstory to where they are, however I do dislike the practice of executing characters to cheaply manufacture drama.

The orphan child hunting down the individual who killed their parent is cliche, but, as character motivation for a revenge story goes, it works.

Does the parent need to be dead? Well, in this case, not really. They need to be “gone,” but that’s not necessarily the same as dead. An, “orphan,” child hunting down the people who took their family doesn’t require their family to be dead, simply off-stage.

Similarly, an “orphan,” who’s family is gone and is accidentally on an adventure doesn’t require the family to be dead. It’s been a while since I read C. S. Lewis, but as I recall the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, aren’t coping with dead parents, even if they were sent to the countryside to avoid a very real risk of death.

I’m trying to keep things general here, but pretty much any portal fantasy that removes the child will start to get into this territory without needing to kill anyone.

I suppose, Harry Potter is a similar, though distinct variant here. Ignoring that Harry is an orphan, he is surrounded by the teachers who are, more or less, tasked with functioning as parents. While this is an awkward example, it’s worth remembering that sometimes there are other characters who take up a guardian role for a child, even if their actual family isn’t there. So, if I was being really serious about having a consistent continuity to examples, this should probably be further down the list.

One of the more disturbing transitions here is the idea that the child’s parents are there, but they don’t care. That may be a little harsh, because there is still some gradation between the protagonists of something like the Pokemon games, where the characters are set loose and assumed to be, “staying safe,” and examples like the film version of Buffy (1992), where her parents really don’t notice, or care, the condition Buffy comes home in. Though, as with Harry Potter above, Merrick (Donald Sutherland) does end up acting as a (slightly unhinged) parent to her.

There is a theme here I’m trying to ignore, but we should probably address. At some point, in the process of becoming an adult, you need to grow past the limitations your parents imposed, or can impose. Freud called this “killing,” them, and many writers seem to take that advice literally. Mentors (whether they’re your character’s actual parents or not) don’t need to die in service of the story. It’s an easy way to catalyze that transition, but, it is not necessary, and can be cheap through overuse.

I’m thinking of how a lot of fantasy stories have dead parents and I’m looking for a way to circumvent that for my own story without having the parents seem neglectful.

There’s a lot of stages in growing up, and stories can explore any of those experiences. This means: Yes, there’s room for stories about children adventuring either with their parents present and assisting, or absent for any number of reasons.

In normal circumstances, parents fill in as ad-hoc teachers for their children and their interests. This could overlap with their actual area of expertise, or it could be they’re trying to keep up with their kid’s interests. (Granted, the latter is less common in fiction.)

If you look back a second, there is an edge case where your character’s “parents” could be their actual teachers. It also fits with boarding school scenarios (like the Harry Potter example above.) It’s a slightly different dynamic, but you’re not chained to their adult oversight being blood relations.

So, you can have an adventure where the kids are going along with their parents, who are doing what they can to keep them safe. (So, they’re not going to intentionally put the children in harm’s way, or ask them to do something too dangerous.) They can still perform safe tasks, based on their age and aptitude, and start learning about that field.

Also, with older teens you can afford to give them significantly more autonomy. They’re not adults yet, but they are capable of operating on their own. Something their parents may rely on if necessary.

There’s a continuity here: as the child ages, they’re going to be able to take on more responsibility, be better able to actively participate in events, and they’ll gradually develop more autonomy. The exact age of your characters will determine where they end up, and on a longer timeline of events, that progress will form the core of their arc.

I know Steve Irwin brought his daughter with him (I distinctly remember him and a few others holding an alligator and him asking her to hold down the tip of the tail to help.) Thoughts?

I’m a little hesitant to use real world examples, especially since Steve Irwin did die doing what he loved. However, that anecdote about Bindi Irwin does illustrate what I was talking about a second ago. The alligator isn’t going to eat her with its tail, and he wasn’t asking her to just go grab an unrestrained, predatory reptile.

With that in mind, there’s plenty of stories about kids going off and working with their parents. The Amelia Peabody Mysteries by the late Elizabeth Peters comes to mind, where over the course of the novels, Amelia’s son eventually takes over as the primary narrator. (The books also transition from first person limited to an epistolary format when the in-fiction “author” changes.)

The important thing to remember is what their death means in a larger context to the characters. Killing a character (or “characters,” if it’s a package deal) should always have significant importance on the characters or plot.

This isn’t a, “sanctity of human life,” argument. As the author your job is tell the story, no matter how unpleasant it may be for the characters. The issue is simpler: You don’t want to waste your audience’s time and attention.

As a writer, you’re asking your audience to read your story. You’re asking them to pay attention to each detail. The unspoken promise is that this will somehow improve the experience. It can move the plot forward, it can offer important context, or it can build the texture of the world and its inhabitants.

It can be tempting to simply throw the kitchen sink at your story; you may have a grand idea of a massive world filled with people and their history, but you’re better served culling that down to the important details. There’s a piece of writing advice from Elements of Style, “omit unnecessary words.” Usually, we think about this at a sentence level, but apply it to your writing as a whole. Ask yourself, “does the story need this character?” If the answer is, “no,” you can’t simply kill them off, you need to remove them completely.

A truth about death is, it’s not the end. I don’t mean in some metaphysical sense; death does not end the influence of a person; their absence lingers and the consequences of their actions persist.

If you’re going to kill someone, you need to remember they’re still a part of the story, even after they’re gone.

-Starke

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Q&A: Writing that Intimidating Darth Vader Character

How do you illustrate someone that’s absolutely terrifying in a fight? I’ve got this plate-wearing, greatsword-wielding character designed in the style of Darth Vader or the Terminator, but I haven’t found a way to ‘show’ that she’s this terrifying, freakishly strong juggernaut without being sloppy or a blatant power trip, or turning other characters into ‘oh she’s so scary’ plot devices.

The answer is pretty simple, but also difficult in practice because the answer to writing intimidating characters is a concept called “presence”. In film, this is usually referred to as screen presence but in fiction (and in life) we’ll refer to this as body language.

There’s a mistaken assumption that you need to be large to be imposing, but what makes Vader and the Terminator so imposing is actually their body language and the way they’re framed. In their case most of this is visual, in the color palate, in the costume, but it’s also there in the body language. If you want to riff these characters in fiction, then you need to focus on how they behave and how the people around them react to their presence.

Why are they intimidating?

Why do they scare people?

You need to delve into the nitty gritty to translate what you’re feeling and seeing onto the page. You’re making a mistake in assuming that the character’s tools, the armor, the great sword, will do the work for them; but that’s not what makes someone intimidating in written fiction. You have to show what that armor and weapon mean.

The easy version of intimidation is total domination, total mastery, and total control. See below:

Lifting her eyes, Kadi took in her mother’s lazy stance, her blade in an almost ready position. She snapped forward, silver and green flashing in the mid-afternoon light. Re-appeared just behind her on the windowsill, ready to thrust.

Her mother’s blade caught her in the gut.

Kadi struck with her blade, blood spilling past her lips.

“Good,” her mother said, knocking the strike away. She caught Kadi by the collar before she fell, yanked back into the room, and flung her across it.

Kadi struck the wall, tumbled to the floor. Twisting, she landed on her feet. The blade spun in her hand. She rushed forward.

Her mother’s eyes gleamed yellow. “Your form and shape are tools.”

Their blades met in a clash of sparks.

“Control the flow of blood, and your body will not die until you wish it.”

She brought her blade up as her mother pressed inward, twisting sideways. Dodging her mother’s punch, she struck toward the inside of the thigh.

Her mother slipped away. “Never yield. Continue after the last enemy is dead.”

Their blades met again, and slid along the sharpened edges. Gritting her teeth, Kadi ignored the pounding in her ears. Her blood slipping down her stomach. She flicked the blade up, and drove the tip toward her mother’s neck.

Her mother’s foot caught Kadi’s gut wound, kicking her into the opposing wall.

Kadi landed hard.

“Get up.”

“Wake the Dead” by C.E. Schmitt

Keep in mind with this training sequence, the characters in this passage aren’t remotely human. So, you don’t have to worry about the long term ramifications of damage to a physical body. The purpose of the sequence is to teach both Kadi and the character about a body’s disposable nature. Kadi is learning how to fight through extreme injury, and even death.

You’ll notice Kadi’s mother doesn’t move from her position at all throughout the scene. Kadi attacks her, trying to break her defenses. We see her give Kadi a gut wound, save Kadi from falling out the window, and see her attack the gut wound. We see Kadi focusing while her mother instructs, multiple attempts by Kadi to attack her mother none of which are successful.

You don’t need to ask the question: who has the power in this scenario? It’s clear Mom does.

If you want your character to be intimidating in the classic villain sense then, not only do they have to win, they need to win without breaking a sweat. They should exude a sense of confidence whenever or wherever they go, regardless of what room they walk into. Other characters in setting get a chill just hearing their name. Knowing they’re nearby makes even seasoned established badasses freakout and suggest heading for the hills.

You have to let them do their thing, let them win, and let them keep winning until the time comes for them to lose.

Characters like Darth Vader and the Terminator put incredible pressure on the heroes until the end of the film, they evoke feelings of fear and desperation because they are so unfazed by the best warriors and conventional tactics. They represent overwhelming power, they are so unconcerned with ensuring their impending victory that they walk rather than run. By their own design, they’re better off used sparingly than spending the novel front and center or acting as the protagonist rather than the antagonist. These two aren’t just villains, they’re supporting characters. This is the Terminator, even in films like Terminator II where he’s a re-programmed good guy rather than a bad guy. He’s a bodyguard. There to kick ass, take names, and bond with John Connor. After all, Sarah Conner is the hero of both Terminator films. (OG Sarah Conner in Terminator II is not a bad character to look at for this kind of stone cold badass.) Due to their designed role as supports, you have to do a lot of work to remake them into protagonists.

As you’ve discovered, writing a character who is convincingly scary and intimidating is more difficult than it sounds. You have to walk your talk, and walk your walk. If you oversell and can’t make good, the character falls flat. If you tell without showing, then the tell has nothing to back itself up. You can’t tell me the character is a dangerous, unstoppable juggernaut and have the heroes defeat them two pages later. You oversell the character, and eliminate reader trust. They might not believe the next villain you trot out is a legitimate threat, which undercuts your narrative tension.

They need to live up to their reputation.

They need to inspire fear in others.

We need to see why people fear them and their skills.

Attitude – “I don’t have time for you.” These characters tend to be gruff, but they’re mostly condescending. They tend to be reserved even when they take up space. They’re in the rare situation where both their rudeness and confidence are justified by their ability to back it up. (You have to justify it, you can’t expect them to do it on their own.) You have to really stack up the odds for them to start getting ruffled. Therefore, it’s up to you as the author to figure out the narrative limits within your own setting. This way, you can keep your story consistent from scene to scene. One thing is common with all these characters is they take up space, they’re unapologetic about it, and when they walk into a room everyone notices. Also, get off my lawn.

One versus Many is an old hat narrative trick to establish a bad ass via fight scene. You need to be careful overusing this one, and then there’s the question of whether or not you as the writer can write a 1vX scenario. Juggling multiple enemies looks easy on screen, but isn’t when it’s just you trying to figure out how you write that.

The 1vX ups the ante when the seasoned antagonist takes on other top tier members of their group/established narrative badasses solo and handily wins. Well, you know they’re strong.

Deeds – What have they done to be worthy of their reputation? A warrior who slaughters farmers at the request of their overlord comes off as a bully. A warrior who slaughters the king’s best soldiers and then slaughters farmers afterward without mercy is goddamn terrifying.

The Power Stance – This is where the character stands forward facing, shoulders squared and chest lifted. Head up. The juggernaut fighting style involves not moving much unless you have to. They don’t draw their weapon unless they need it. You should probably view the weapon draw as the character signaling she’s getting serious, rather than her first go to. She’s not going to be serious in a bar fight because this is a character for whom the normal rules of safety don’t apply. (Also, the armor significantly limits all threats.)

Everyone Wants to Be the Best – The climb to the top is long, hard bitten, and fraught with danger. If you have a character who is the best at what they do like Darth Vader, you should respect the time and effort they put in to get themselves there. These characters often have very specific and job oriented personalities often to the point of obsession. For someone to be so on top as to have the reputation they do, they must have killed a lot of people. They’re the ones with a target on their back, the one everyone’s gunning for, who everyone wants to kill, and that doesn’t bother them at all.

Establish the Bottom – If you want to establish how much better a character is than everyone else, then you need to figure out and establish both the low bar and the average bar before jumping at the high bar. If the high bar is all people get, then they’ll think that’s where normal is. You need to establish why the power and skill gap between this character and others is so immense right from the get go, from our first interaction with the character. They should be pulling things off other characters can only imagine. For this reason, they usually don’t work well as POV characters.

Walkin’ Into Danger Like It’s Tuesday – Yeah, you know the famous line from Bison, “The day I graced your village was the single most important day of your life but, for me, it was Tuesday.”

The horrors they inflict are foundational for other people but, for them, what they do is normal. They’re the chaotic tornado upsetting other people’s lives, memorable to other people, but other people aren’t usually memorable to them. After all, they’ve done this for so long the faces begin to blur together.

Again, See Below:

The hellbeasts stalked into a semicircle, their long jaws slavering as they grinned to display razor sharp teeth.

“Get behind me, Emma,” Chastity said, drawing her blade. She stepped forward. “It’s going to be all right.”

Beside her, Jayse pulled his pistol. He didn’t question Chastity, they didn’t need Emma freaking out. Still, with the five hellbeasts in front of them, more on the rooftops, neither of them could make any promises about keeping an untrained neophyte safe. Chastity lacked the skills to deal with this many wargs on her own, and she was low in the rankings. He’d have to dip into his own powers to even the scale, even then he couldn’t make any guarantees.

The hellbeasts lunged.

Emma screamed.

The world exploded in a flash of hot white light.

Sharon Kelso stood where the hellbeasts had been, watching dust particles left behind by atomized bodies drift through the air. Her right hand stuck in her jean’s pocket. Her eyes glowed bright white. A small, winged imp-like creature squatted on one shoulder. Casually, she broke off the end of a candy bar and handed it to shriveled green thing.

The little imp snatched the bar, stuffed it into its mouth.

Kelso tilted her head, surveying each surprised face in the circle. “Go home.”

“Yeah, yeah!” the little imp yelled. “If ya don’t, we eats ya!”

“Eats! Fucker wants eats!” cried a second, tucked behind her leg. It titled its head, mimicking its mistress. “Wait. Can we eats them, Boss?”

Keso smiled faintly. “Not yet.”

“We can’t eats ya yet!” the first imp yelled.

The second shook its fist. “Stay for dinner, and we will!”

Kelso looked away, her expression dispassionate. “Go.” Her blazing white eyes scanned the nearby alleys, studying the shadows. “I don’t babysit.”

Jayse got to his feet, brushing off his arms. He tried to catch Kelso’s eye. Failing, he sighed and slipped his dagger back up his sleeve. She was definitely in one of her moods. They’d have to talk about her people skills, or lack thereof later. He resisted the urge to shove his hands in his pants, that’d just confirm he was still the disgruntled teenager Stewart believed he’d let himself become. “We should do what she says.”

“S-s-she just disintegrated them,” Emma whispered.

“She does that,” Chastity sighed.

Emma blinked. “Just like that?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

Jayse pushed back his hair, his eyes on Kelso. “There’s a breach in the sewers, third level. You shouldn’t go alone.”

She glanced at him, the light dying in her eyes. Brown irises flickered yellow in the street lights, and, for a moment, he saw confusion there. Then, her lips curled into one of her creepy, villainous smiles. The light flared back up inside her pupil as she rubbed her nose. “Amateurs.”

“Amateur! Amateur!” the little imp on her shoulder cried in a sing-song voice, and the second joined in to chorus, “amateur ashes all fall down!”

Jayse stiffened.

“She’s Number One for a reason, Jayse,” Chastity said. She reached out, and tugged at his sleeve. “We should let her do her thing.”

She’s Number One?” Emma squealed. “Wait. Number One? What does that even mean?”

Chastity smacked her forehead. “I knew we never should’ve let Emma out. There’s a dimensional breach. We got crossways of Kelso. Stewart’s gonna kill us.” She sighed heavily, biting her lower lip. “Our luck sucks.”

“You’ve no idea how right you are,” said another voice from behind them.

Kelso looked away, and the fiery light returned to her eyes. She walked down the alley, her shadow spread up one wall but not the other. As her shadow moved across concrete and brick, a pair of wings lifted off her back. Kelso finished off her candy bar, tossed the wrapper, and kicked off the manhole cover at the alley’s end.

“See you later, suckas!” the imp cried.

Kelso, imps on both shoulders, dropped into the sewers.

“Great,” Emma muttered. “She’s an asshole and she litters.”

“And she could stick all your internal organs on the outside of your body with a wink,” Chastity said.

When you encounter this character, they should feel like someone you really wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley.

– Michi

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Q&A: Reaction to Punching

I know this may sound stupid but, how do you write what happens after the punch hits to person? Like, when the punch hit “Their head flung/snapped sideways” Is there a word/words to describe that moment?

itshighnowon

This isn’t a stupid question. After all, if you’ve never punched anything before or spent a lot of time around martial artists or practiced martial arts then you’re not going to be familiar with the after effects.

You can use many different words to describe a punch hitting someone, so there aren’t specific words you need to use. Some descriptions are better than others. You generally want to follow the rules of physics and force projection. The head is a decent example for big motion, outside the rest of the body, because the only structural support is the neck. When struck with a single hand instead of in dual motion (like say boxing the ears), the head will generally move in the same direction the force was applied.

Forward = back

Struck from right = swings toward left side (follow the force)

Struck from left = swings toward right side (follow the force)

Behind = forward

Under = Up

If you hit them hard enough they might be knocked off their central axis, at which point they will step in the appropriate direction to counter the incoming force. If enough force is applied to knock them off balance, they may stumble. Keep in mind stumbling is unlikely on the punch, especially against someone who knows how to set their balance, because upper body strikes aren’t as powerful as they’re presented on television.

So, if you strike someone in the face with a jab then their head might “snap backwards” or be “knocked backwards” depending on how hard they’re hit. The question is the image you want to present, verb “snap” implies a quick jerk where the reader might assume “knocked” affected more than just the head and led to a step backwards to regain balance. So, you might apply “snap” to a quick strike off the leading hand and “knocked” to strikes off the secondary power hand. I won’t say “left” or “right” because the hand positioning relies on which side of the brain is dominant. If you’re right handed then the right is most likely your dominant hand and your power hand, while the left is the front/light/fast hand. Vice versa for the lefthanded side.

This is just the head. If you were to punch someone in the stomach, their whole body would curl inwards to protect the injury and because all their air got knocked from their lungs. They might step backwards, they might fall to their knees.

Like with all writing, you want to think in depth about the verbs you’re choosing for your action sequences. Action verbs are not interchangeable. The question of “what is the physical response to someone being punched?” is reliant on the type of punch and where the punch lands. In a broad sense, you need to consider the point of impact and how far that impact is off center. You can consider center as the center line running up the middle of your body, strikes to that center, particularly in the upper body, are more likely to knock an opponent off balance. Not every punch will destabilize an opponent, not every punch will move them in an obvious way. Strikes to the shoulder, to the arm, to the legs, will cause responses in those single targets. The lack of an immediate, obvious reaction in those areas doesn’t mean the strikes are worthless. Punching someone in the shoulder can make it more difficult for them to lift their arm, which hinders both attack and defense.

Samantha knocked Joe’s arm away. With her right hand, she punched him in the shoulder. She didn’t wait for him to flinch, backhanding him across the temple. Joe’s head snapped sideways, and he stumbled. Seizing Joe’s loose wrist, Samantha drove a roundhouse into his stomach.

“Knocked” gives the impression of something going flying. Samantha “punches” him in the shoulder, which is a straightforward straight punch. Then, because she’s close, she “backhands” him with the same hand. Due to the force coming sideways, his head moves in the direction of the force inflicted, and, because it’s off center and he wasn’t expecting it, he stumbles. Then, Samantha grabs the arm he left free and kicks him. This is an age old tactic that works better with a sidekick, but the general idea is that you hold onto your opponent while delivering a powerful blow so the force cannot be mitigated by them moving backwards. They have to stand there and take it.

In hand to hand combat, some measure of force delivered will be mitigated by movement and some will be absorbed by you on the moment of impact. This is why you lock your joints and muscles in the moment before the strike, and why you can injure yourself when hitting someone else. While these are technical details which will slow down your scene with experienced combatants, they become an important point with inexperienced ones. Inexperienced fighters will tense up too early or too late on strikes, resulting in them being slower and failing to put all the force they’ve generated by their momentum into their opponent. They will also stop their strike before or at their opponent’s body instead of striking through them. This limits their force projection and, again, halves what they put into an opponent. In context, this is what martial artists mean when they say beginners don’t hit very hard.

What you need to do is practice visualizing the scene you want, then finding the words to describe it. When writing fight sequences, familiarize yourself with much imagery regarding the subject as you can. I recommend searching YouTube for How To videos on various martial arts and paying close attention to what happens when these various martial artists strike pads. Even when you’re not looking at someone fighting another human being, seeing how the impact affects the pads can be instructive for describing different situations.

The answer to finding the right words is trying out different verbs and different descriptions until you find ones that evoke the imagery or feeling you want for your scene. Unfortunately, this latter half is part of being a writer. There’s no right way to do it. The authenticity of the sequence will come from how well you portray your physics on the page. Almost nothing you write will come out perfect off the cuff. Ultimately, in this case, practice makes perfect.

-Michi

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Q&A: Valentina Shevchenko is Awesome!

The women’s deadlift record is less than 700 pounds, the men’s is more than 1100. Every medalist of the 2016 800m women’s Olympic race was XY intersex. Denying science doesn’t make you progressive.

I want you to know, every other martial arts I read this question off to has burst out laughing. This includes male martial artists. Then, they all pointed out why it was dumb.

Using unrelated scientific data to support a reactionary position doesn’t make you progressive either. Turning to weightlifting for “proof” in relation to the combat arts is the number one most common refuge by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. They turn to weightlifting because they think that physical strength i.e what you can deadlift is important proof for superiority, even if it’s meaningless in context.

Men can lift more. So what? We know they can. Men have a much easier time building up their upper body strength than women do. I’ve said it before on this blog. Women have an easier time building up their lower body strength. Women also have a lower center of gravity, which makes them more difficult to throw if they’ve learned how to properly set their weight. The overspecialization of the weightlifter with their musculature means they can’t actually achieve full extension on their strikes and halves their power. Which is why this specific argument is funny. They’re also ineligible for military service because they’re overweight.

My friend who has competed in archery tournaments internationally once had a group of bodybuilders come into her archery range. They wanted to do a marketing photo shoot where they were drawing the bows. Here’s the funny part: they couldn’t draw the bows. They’d developed their biceps and triceps, but hadn’t properly developed the necessary muscles in their shoulders. They couldn’t draw. After learning the proper technique, they still struggled.

You’re offering up statistics that don’t apply in hopes that they’ll prove some kind of point about male superiority. However, the question is male superiority in regards to what?

I’ve never argued men aren’t capable, just that women’s skills and ability are misrepresented. Nothing stops me from appreciating individuals for the skills and experience they bring to the table. Barfing up statistics that mean nothing in context to the argument you’re trying to make does nothing for the argument itself. Misrepresenting those statistics does a disservice to everyone involved, and just makes you look like a fool.

I don’t care about gender or sex because what matters is the person in front of me, not general assumptions about superiority which may or may not apply.

On to question number two:

In other words, you believe with a straight face that Valentina Shevchenko would have even odds against Stipe Miocic?

After having looked at these two fighters and their records, I’m going to assume you didn’t do any research because Valentina Shevchenko is a straight up terrible pick for your argument.

We’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s start with the UFC problem.

We’ve talked about the UFC before. Prize fighting is entertainment, the structure of prize fighting is for entertainment, and they will never put forward fights that are not for entertainment. This is gladiator combat, the big brother of the WWE. There is no point in speculating about matchups that will never exist. Given “even odds” are dependent on a betting structure designed to make the fight as exciting as possible rather than be a reflection of skill… well, the obvious answer should be obvious. They wouldn’t give her even odds because the whole point of selling such a the match up in the current UFC system is underdog versus the big dog. Not because it’s true, but because it’s more exciting that way. The UFC would need substantially different rules regarding matchups to give this question any validity.

Why are you insulting these two professional fighters in some mistaken drive to prove male superiority? Why are you foolish enough to assume “odds” mean anything in a sports system designed specifically to drive viewers to bet? The odds are literally the betting odds, and the betting odds are decided by a very different system unrelated to the fighter’s skills. Therefore, they’re not a good source for scientific veracity.

If you’re question is do I think Valentina Shevchenko could fight Stipe Miocic and win, the answer is: have you looked at this woman’s record? She is awesome!

She’s been active since 2003, from 2003 to 2015 Shevchenko collectively won more than 50 amateur/pro matches in K-1, Muay Thai, and kickboxing. She has 81 total bouts today, including UFC, across these three sports to her name. Of those 81, she has 74 wins. Miocic has 21 bouts, and 18 wins. Miocic has been active since 2010. He has 21 and only in the UFC. Miocic is considered the best UFC heavyweight fighter. His major background is wrestling and football, and he has trained in boxing. Shevchenko is considered to be one of the best female Muay Thai fighters in the world. She’s one eight gold medals, five of them consecutive. When she was twelve, she knocked out a twenty-two year old. Her background is taekwondo, Muay Thai, kickboxing, and judo.

I don’t think you did any research before you picked these two off a list. This is why you shouldn’t judge people based off their height, weight, and looks. Between the two fighters, she has vastly more experience and a precision style that specifically counters his. This is a bad match up for him. You should’ve cited Ronda Rousey.

However, it wouldn’t mean anything if he lost and she won or if she lost and he won. The whole argument is pointless because combat in the real world doesn’t care about statistical advantage. Whoever survives wins. There’s more to winning than a weight difference. You’ve already disrespected both these combatants who have impressive backgrounds and accomplishments to prove… what, exactly? Women can’t compete with men in the heavyweight division? Men in the heavyweight division are better fighters than every other division? Or did you choose the heavyweight division and its fighters because it’s the most celebrated one? (Do you not like the welterweights?) You don’t honestly believe Stipe Micocic is the best fighter in the UFC because he’s the current heavyweight champion, do you?

There’s a women’s division in the UFC now. Ten years ago, people like you said there never would be because women either couldn’t fight or no one would want to watch them fight. Yet, here we are. People ignore there’s a long history of female fighters in gladiatorial combat, but it’s there. There are female warriors scattered throughout history, in countless cultures, who fought on many battlefields. After all, Julie d’Aubigny, also known as La Maupin, was one of the finest fencers of her day. She was trained alongside the boys by her father at birth, she fought and defeated many men in duels in 16th century France.

None of this means anything in regards to you anyway. After all, you’re not Stipe Miocic. Stipe Miocic defeating Valentina Shevchenko in a hypothetical contest does nothing for you. It proves nothing for you. Not when Valentina Shevchenko would wipe the floor with both of us. I don’t think you’d want to stand in the ring with her during a fair bout.

Supposed male superiority won’t help you much when the person you’re making comparisons to is light years ahead of you, the person making the assertion. This is why this argument is pointless. Combat is about whether or not you can fight the person in front of you and win, it’s about dealing with the situation you’re in, not some hypothetical best who is over there somewhere. If I’m not fighting them, then, in the moment, I don’t care about them.

I’m not going to worry about men, plural, but the singular man, what he can do and what he can’t. This must be the most terrifying concept for you, that you will be judged not for what you are but who you are. Viewed for your accomplishments, your personality, what you have to offer, and not some predisposed standing society has gifted to you by the benefit of your sex.

Step back, start asking yourself some hard questions about why you need male superiority in all respects to matter. That says more about you than you’re willing to admit.

-Michi

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Q&A: No

Can you make a post about size in a fight? People like to argue in the comments. And usually when they go on and on about how size DOES matter in a fight, they usually use a woman as an example of a smaller opponent.

I’ll be honest, the people you’re talking about in the comments are misogynistic pricks who aren’t worth my time. They’re not worth yours either. You can tell they’re either chauvinists or misogynists because their worldview doesn’t allow for the existence of tall women, or a woman who is six feet tall. If you point out that the woman might be taller of the two in the scenario, you can watch them combust as they try to move the goal posts. (That happened about four months ago, or so.)

On the professional side, “How to Fight Write” now has 40,000 followers and we lend them more legitimacy by responding to them directly than we do just letting them stew in the comments. Besides, we’ve talked about the realities of size and its (rather negligible) effects on combat before and at length. They read this blog. Their complaints aren’t an honest attempt at discussion, they’re just bait to stir the pot.

The issue of size is one that will come up again and again because it’s culturally enshrined as “common sense” wisdom. The theory supports a broad narrative based in what “everybody knows” and is used to de legitimize those wanting to break with the status quo. This concept has no basis in reality and there’s plenty of evidence everywhere that will tell you human beings come in all shapes and sizes, and learning to deal with that is just a fact of life.

The real conversation happening here is not about size. Size is just the verbage used to keep themselves from being called out as misogynistic pricks. They’re talking about women, and about men being better than women because their worldview, their self-image, and need to be relevant demand it. We could go over what we’ve gone over already, but I don’t feel like it.

Instead, I’m going to talk to you about size from the perspective of someone who has done martial arts since they were five years old.

I’ve told the story in the past about how when I was eleven a girl in my class tried to physically intimidate me. We were in sixth grade, and she was class bully. She had a little tag along friend who stuck close to her side, whom she was the protector of. She reached her growth faster than the rest of us, and she felt much larger and taller than me then than Starke (who is a very large, broad, and physically intimidating 6″) ever has. Having spent most of her young life being taller (and more filled out) than everyone else, including the boys, she was used to using her size for intimidation. I got cross ways of her over a class role-play we did on the Greek Gods. We had a debate. I won. So, after it was over, she came up to me, leaned down over me, with her arms crossed over her chest, and told me to never do that again or else. I think she may also have told me to meet her behind the gym. And I… didn’t notice.

I was confused by her behavior. It took a couple days of contemplation to realize she’d been threatening me with physical violence if I didn’t acquiesce to her demands, and expected me to back down because she was five to six inches taller. However, I’d been doing martial arts for about five years by that point, and if there’s one thing about being a kid in a martial arts program it’s that you get used to working with people of all shapes and sizes. I trained with people who were taller than me all the time and because I grew up in the company of friendly giants, I’ve never found large people intimidating.

So, that day I biked home like always did instead of meeting her behind the gym (because why?) and a few days later she wrote “bitch” in pencil on my desk.

This girl was used to getting her way not because of her size, but because of the intimidation factor her size gave her. It probably worked on both girls and boys who got in her way, and she expected size intimidation to work on me because I was small, mousey, and wore glasses.

As most self-defense experts will tell you, the battle is played out in the mind rather than the body. If you decide you’ve lost, you will. That’s why the advantage game is worthless. If you treat this someone’s physical attributes as a definitive sign that they’re better than you, then you will lose because how can you beat someone who is better than you? There’s a lot more that goes into combat than a few yes or no check boxes, and all the DnD stats in the world won’t translate over. Someone being large doesn’t mean they’re strong, big doesn’t equal slow, and tall doesn’t translate to an automatic advantage outside of it giving the tall person a false sense of confidence like the girl who tried to bully me.

Trust me, all it takes is seeing the biggest guy in the class struggle with a technique which came incredibly easy to the smallest person for the myth about size to be dispelled right quick.

When I was five and a little white belt I did my first “sparring” with Alan, a second degree black belt who was a young, very leggy African-American man in his early twenties. The reality was a bunch of little five and six year olds tumbling at him like excitable puppies while he lightly tapped (our fully protected/fully geared) little chests lightly with a roundhouse kick as we tried to get close. Talk about impossible odds… I definitely couldn’t win against him, my head couldn’t reach his waist!

And, yes, that’s small children.

With adults, you’re not dealing with such a monumental size difference and women, despite what some people in the comments might think, aren’t children. A man’s arm is not double or triple the length of theirs. At most, it’s a few centimeters, maybe a few inches, and you reach full extension on impact so you drive the force into your opponent rather than just stretching your arm out full length. Size in people is not the first thing I look for when I’m sizing them up. Stance, foot and shoulder placement, hand placement, eyes, and their ability to project their presence are what I pay attention to. Someone who can project their presence and who knows how to stand will always be intimidating, no matter how large or small they are.

My brother is five inches taller than me and, honestly, when it comes down to sparring I feel like we’re the same height.

Starke told me when we first met that people were usually intimidated by him, and my response was, “why?”

The answer is because he’s big, broad and tall, usually wears black jeans, biker boots, a black leather jacket, has a mile long stare, and long hair.

That’s it. That’s the only reason.

I, however, have broken bricks with my palm. Two in a single strike. I’ve also broken a brick with my elbow. I did that at eighteen which is about the same age or younger than most of you reading this blog. (I know the truth, I see your Google Analytics.)

Now, the same ninnies in the comments will tell you that it doesn’t count unless you’ve been in a real fight. You can hear the “but, but, but, but” from here, that is their only means of invalidating opinions they don’t like, or experiences which disagree with their worldview.

And I never said brick breaking was, but if you had to pick let me ask you, if all you knew about me and Starke was that Starke was an imposing 6″ who liked to wear black leather and that I can project enough force through my fist into a single target to break multiple bricks in a single shot, which would you think was more dangerous?

Obviously, the taller human.

You can always tell someone doesn’t respect violence when they talk about real fights as the barometer for valid experience, and that lack of a respect is the sign you’re dealing with an amateur. The irony here is that the more training you have the less likely you are to engage in violence. You have a better understanding of the dangers, the cost, and consequences.

-Michi

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Q&A: Odd One Out

I was wondering, can three people practice sword fighting at once with each other or would it be better done by adding in a fourth opponent and breaking them into pairs?

I’m assuming you mean three characters “sparring.” Any number of characters can drill simultaneously. That is to say, they go through the motions, they practice individual techniques. There’s no need for a partner, so three characters can do that without any difficulty.

If characters are engaging in mock duels, then rotating someone out is probably the wisest option. There’s not much value in practicing 1 v 2 unless they’re working on an exhibition routine of some sort. (This would include stunt actors, if you’re wondering.)

Having said that, having a third person to watch can help, as they’ll be able to see things that the two participants may miss, and being able to bounce dialog between three people will be less monotonous than trying to manage dialog with just a pair.

Ironically, my recommendation, if you did choose to add a fourth character would still be to only have one pair practicing while the others watched from the sidelines. How, exactly, they rotate out doesn’t matter. For variety’s sake, I’d recommend against it being two specific pairs switching out. You’ll get more value out of the dialog if the characters stay in flux.

Remember, fighting requires a lot of attention, so your sideline participants are at a significant conversation advantage, unless your fighters stop what they’re doing to talk. If that happens it might be a reasonable moment to swap combatants. This isn’t about winners or losers, it’s about practice.

I’ll also throw out our normal warning about sparring: this is about practicing techniques, and learning to assemble them into a viable fighting style, it’s not about two characters fighting in a socially acceptable way. That said, 18th and 19th century European academies were somewhat lax policing their student’s behavior with swords, and there is an entire history of European dueling long after the practice became illegal. So, if your characters are, “playing,” that’s a bad idea, but it was something that happened.

-Starke

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Q&A: Prove it to Yourself, Not to Them

How do you suggest handling people (men who are friends of family, in my experience) who insist women can’t fight even if they have passed the classes they needed (I recently started a job that requires it and these men have been acting ‘concerned’ as if me taking this job is naive). I wanted to include something like this in a story I’m writing, but it would come across as me always thinking women have something to prove, as opposed to something from my own life I’m frustrated about. 🙁

Honestly? They can go fuck themselves.

You’re a grown ass woman. You know what you want. You know what you need to do. You can go get it. Trust that the training you get will help keep you safe, and you’re facing the same threats as the men who also have this job. Remember, real men who value you as a human being are supportive. They don’t equivocate, make differences between the girls and the boys. At most, they’ll talk about the additional threats women face and some approaches for dealing with them but those aren’t news. You already know about those, just like I did. I was fortunate to have a whole slew of these sorts of men as instructors in my martial arts program as a kid, and in a bunch of different martial arts classes I took as a young teen and young adult.

The truth is that men like that often have egos which are very fragile. They crave power and control by controlling the lives of others. They dress their “concerns” up as concerns (and if you’re taking a job that is dangerous, they should have a reason to be concerned) because, well, it’s dangerous for a woman isn’t it? Why don’t you just leave it to the boys? The idea of a woman doing this job makes them uncomfortable. It damages their self-image, because they’d be frightened to do it, because they think women shouldn’t. You need to remember, their comments (while they’re directed at you) are actually about them. These are the men who build their manhood around this culturally enshrined vision that doesn’t really exist. The one where (white) men are faster, stronger, smarter, better, more suited to the hard, violent, dirty jobs. You know the type. These men are weak, entitled, and need others to fail. They need women to consign themselves to the roles that they have assigned them so they can feel strong.

They may dress the damsel up with pretty words about being kind, pretty, sweet, and good often those often relate to their vision of who a woman should be. Nothing dirty, nothing dark, you’re always somewhere safe where you’re quiet, and biddable, and in your place. You’ve gotta be safely up on that pedestal. After all… “That’s just not how I see you, sweetheart.”

While these men are likely not going anywhere, and nothing we say will give them an epiphany or change their minds, you should remember that you don’t need their approval. You don’t need them.

These are men who society has taught they get to spout off like they’re an authority whenever they feel like it, not because they’ve anything of substance to add or done anything to deserve sharing their opinion but because they’re (white) men. There’s nothing that terrifies this type of man more than irrelevance. And, the second you realize that the power they think they have over you because of a family connection or your gender is only there if you give that power to them, that you can take that power away, that their opinion doesn’t control you, is the moment you’re free.

Now, that’s going to be difficult because society teaches women (in a variety of different ways) that we should let other people’s (usually older men’s) opinions decide who we are and what we can be. We can’t always change someone’s opinion, but we can decide whether we let their opinion affect us. We don’t need to be liked, we don’t need their approval, we don’t need them to decide our course for us. Their opinion is theirs, but we can decide otherwise. This is your life, not theirs. Learning to trust yourself when you’ve been taught your whole life that you can’t, that you need outside guidance, that outside opinions define the reality by which you live, is hard. You can do it, though. You went into your job with eyes wide open, you knew the risks, and you decided to take them because you’re an adult.

Putting these experiences into your writing can be a great way to work through your frustrations with people in your life. However, the power fantasy that usually rings hollow is the one where a chauvinist or misogynist turns around and realizes that yes, you really can do it once they see or experience it first hand. This is the fantasy your fear that you’d be writing “women have something to prove” is coming from. The reason why this fantasy sucks is because it puts the importance on the man’s acceptance of the woman’s truth, and sends the message his acceptance legitimizes her.

You’d make her proving herself about the men in her life rather than about her journey.

True power comes from realizing you don’t need to prove anything. You were always powerful all on your own. You gained confidence through your own sweat, blood, and tears. You conquered your frustrations, pushed past the doubters, shook off the detractors, and walked into the sunlight on your own power. The greatest empowerment comes from self-acceptance and self-love. In self-actualization, you realize loving yourself is the greatest gift you can give. You’re confident in yourself and comfortable in your own skin. You’ll realize you never needed those men and their approval anyway, and if they come around, well, that’s great… for them. Their decision won’t really affect you or your emotional health and well-being. You’ll just be rolling your eyes less at family dinners.

In your writing, you can practice not caring. You can have your characters try, and try. They may fail, they may succeed. It may take multiple drafts until you find the right note. Finding the strength to be your own person without the safety or approval provided by authority figures in your life is a real life issue both men and women struggle with. You just need to make sure you’re focusing on the character’s personal development and self-realization (“Yes, I can!”) rather than their actions being a source of proof that their detractors are wrong.

The people who doubt you don’t get to decide who you are.

You do.

– Michi

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Q&A: Ignoring the Pain

hi, is it realistic for a secret agent to become ‘immune’ to pain if they’ve had to experience a lot? i was watching a tv show the other week and the main guy is an ex-cia agent and it says that he has become highly resistant to pain. if this is possible/realistic how long would they have to train for to become resistant to pain?

You don’t really develop an immunity to pain. There is a serious medical condition where the sufferer doesn’t have any pain response at all, and this can easily result in fairly serious injuries, because they have no warning when they’re being harmed.

You also don’t really become resistant to pain. You’ll still feel the pain. That’s not going anywhere. However, intense physical conditioning can teach you to distinguish between pain you need to worry about, and pain that you can file as a problem for tomorrow.

In case it’s unclear, I’m not talking about something specific hand-to-hand training here. Pretty much any strenuous athletic ability will teach you this, whether you like it or not.

Your body will gleefully lie to you and say that something hurts and you should stop when you’re fine, it’s just uncomfortable. At the same time, pain is something to be aware of, because it can indicate that something really is going wrong.

A character can learn to distinguish between different kinds of pain, but, it’s not really an immunity or resistance, even if those terms probably get the concept across.

A character can make a decision to ignore pain that indicates something’s wrong, and simply power through. This comes with all the problems associated with aggravating an existing wound. So, not behavior we’d normally encourage, but characters sometimes have more pressing considerations than their long term health. Hell, real people have problems with that, and can tend to ignore pain they really shouldn’t until its too late.

Conditioning teaches you to distinguish between kinds of pain, but it also teaches you how to push past it. Like I said, your body will complain about discomfort long before it transitions into actual harm.

Being able to power through pain isn’t really something to brag about. Ironically, it’s something that sounds less badass than the actual act is. Saying, “I’m immune to pain,” is kinda stupid; while a character who keeps pushing themselves and fighting, even as it’s killing them, can be make for a pretty effective sequence.

Ultimately, claiming resistance to pain is kinda pointless because you’re not immune to injury. Though it does remind me of the, “gain immunity to bullets by eating smaller bullets,” joke.

Is it realistic that an ex-CIA agent is unusually good at powering through pain? Yeah, sort of. Ignoring for a moment that spies are not superheroes, yeah, it’s reasonable that he’d be pretty good at ignoring pain. Not, “immune” or “resistant” to it, but I wouldn’t strongly fault someone for using those terms.

Is it realistic for a spy to gain immunity to pain from experiencing lots of it? No, not at all. This a very different question from the example. If someone’s suffered repeated trauma over their career, there’s a real risk they’ll suffer from chronic pain. So, they’ll be in a more impaired state. Chronic pain is no joke, it’s not something you can ignore, it doesn’t improve your relationship with pain. It sucks.

If you’ve got a spy who’s been beaten to hell and back many times over the course of their career, they’re going to be a mess. At that point, “immune to pain,” would be a sick joke. Now, I could see someone using that line in relation to emotional pain. It’d be a dark joke, but when has that ever stopped anyone?

-Starke

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