Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Lightweight Firearms

I have some characters that need to have lightweight firearms. Research is telling me that while aluminum guns HAVE been made, they require special ammunition to avoid misfiring. What other material options do I have? Carbon fiber?

There are a lot of firearms that incorporate aluminum alloy components to reduce weight. This is fairly common, though not as popular today as it was twenty to thirty years ago. There are still a lot of popular, well respected, aluminum frame pistols and rifles on the market, including the Baretta 92s (including the M9), and the SIG P226 (though there was a heavier stainless steel variant sold in small quantities). With rifles in the AR15 family, there’s a lot of aluminum lower receivers in circulation.

So, if you’re wondering how that works out, there’s a critical piece of information to remember: The Barrel, bolt, and battery will be steel. In most handguns, that means the entire receiver will be, though with rifles that’s less certain.

Weight is, already, a huge consideration for firearms. This is why a lot of pistols used aluminum frames, and their manufacturers have since moved on to polymer frames. Similarly, a lot of rifles have moved over to polymer furniture to reduce weight. Carbon fiber is an option for some common firearms, for example, you can replace the walnut stock of your Remington 700 with a carbon fiber variant. This will set you back around $600 dollars, though the actual weight reduction is debatable.

Off hand, I’m not aware of any pistols with carbon fiber frames standard. (Only a few high-end “designer Glocks.”) Though, that’s probably a matter of time as well.

There’s also some oddities like the Professional Ordinance Carbon-15. This was an AR-15 pattern rifle that had a bunch of its components replaced with plastics, including the lower receiver. The early examples were rather fragile, but it did deliver a 5.56mm rifle at around four pounds.

Beyond swapping out the materials, there are a couple things someone can do to reduce the weight of a firearm.

Porting is the practice of cutting out unneeded material. This may range from simply cutting into a slab of metal or plastic, or it may involve cutting full slots through it.

On rifles, one option is to remove or redesign the stock. At the extreme end, this can involve replacing the stock with a simple wire structure, or a sling system. Worth noting: this is not an option with AR15 pattern weapons, including the M4 and M16. These rifles incorporate their gas return system into the stock.

In contrast, the AK family of rifles have gas return systems that run over the barrel. This means you can completely remove the stock from AK pattern rifles without ill effect. To be fair, the AK takes this design decision from the StG44, and any other rifle that patterned off that design, like the FN FAL, or H&K G3 will (usually) have a similar gas system.

One quick way to do some of your work for you would be to look for paratrooper variants of existing rifles. These are designed to cut as much weight from the weapon as possible, without sacrificing structural integrity. These often feature shortened barrels and collapsible stocks to reduce the weight.

Another option, depending on your characters’ objectives, would be to use SMGs instead. These are (usually) going to be considerably lighter than full rifles, though you’re losing the power, and range of a rifle, in exchange for a lighter, more compact weapon. For example, an H&K UMP45 is a little over half the weight of a full sized assault rifle, and is already firing a subsonic round. You can’t use it at long ranges, but if your characters are slipping in undetected, it will be far easier to conceal and much lighter.

There are, also, already a wide range of weapons intended for clandestine use. It’s easy enough to come up with a scenario and say, “well, this is unusual, I don’t know how I can equip my characters for this.” But, when it comes to military hardware, it’s often helpful to remember that weird scenarios with strict equipment requirements are something special forces groups plan for. Beyond that, it’s often easy enough to find out that, “oh, this rifle variant was designed specifically for situations like the one I’m looking at.”

Hell, if your special forces operator needs a completely silent tool for picking off sentries they can request a crossbow or mechanical compound bow from the armory. These same guys are going to know not to use it in a firefight, but the tool is available to them.

Lightweight firearms are a real thing. In part because no one wants to be carrying around a 30 lb rifle, unless that puppy can put a round through the engine block of a ’57 Buick.

I mean, if it’s me, and I was looking at this, I’d check what their nation of origin actually uses for hardware, and then pick something like a SIG553, H&K G36C, or an AKS-74U. For reference, my laptop weighs more than any of those three rifles.

There’s an, unusual, example that fits your suggestion at the top, and it might be what you’re thinking of, even though it’s not exactly relevant to the discussion. In the mid-60s a company called MB Associates designed and sold a 13mm pistol and carbine using a self-propelled cartridge called a Gyrojet. These are fascinating historical footnotes. The weapons had a minimum kill range of around 10 meters. (This number is a bit fuzzy. The rounds might get to a lethal velocity before this, but getting reliable ballistic data for these pistols is a pain.)

The pistols themselves were made from a zinc alloy, and were incredibly light weight. This was partially because the pistol didn’t need to deal with the explosive forces a conventional firearm.

To the best of my knowledge a little over one thousand of these were produced. There’s at least four variants, two pistols (chambered in 13mm and 12mm) and a few rifle and carbine variants. I know of a few other prototypes, though I have no idea how many of those existed.

These days, unspent cartridges are exceedingly expensive ($100-$200 a round), and the extremely light weight can leave you feeling like you’re holding a toy, rather than a real, functional, firearm.

MB Associates was hoping to land a military contract, and some of the pistols did see use in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the minimum lethal range was a serious flaw. Beyond that, the rounds themselves suffered from production issues, resulting in wildly inaccurate shots. The bullets had four angled ports, which, once the propellant was ignited, would keep the round moving, and would cause the round to spin, stabilizing it. Unfortunately, on some production cartridges, one of those ports would be partially obstructed, meaning the round would corkscrew unpredictably in flight. I’m honestly unsure if this is more horrifying or hilarious.

I don’t have hard data on exactly when MBA went under. I want to say it was in the early 70s. Either way, this remains a weird historical footnote. It might be what you’d heard about, even though it’s not exactly relevant to your question.

-Starke

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Q&A: Detachment

A different sort of writing question. How to detach yourself from a character so you don’t feel awful you put them through the worst things a human being can go through? In one of my fics, I’m writing a person going through a lot of psychological torment. And it makes me feel bad, but I know I have to keep pushing it in order for the story to have the meat it needs. But it also means I can only write for so long before I break down. Help?

There’s a couple things to remember.

First: Your characters aren’t real people. Depending on where you are as a writer, this may sound glibly obvious, or disrespectful to your work, so let’s unpack this a little bit.

Your characters are simulacra. They experience their existence from their perspective. They do not exist with full knowledge of their nature as fictional constructs.

Somewhat obviously, you can’t always say how a real person would react to a scenario, so you’re left to make your best guess. Usually, the best advice here is to study up on who your character would be, and work to understand how someone with their background would approach their situation.

At this point it’s very important to remember that characters are (usually) not omnipotent. They only have access to the information they can get legitimately. Either from talking to each other, or from examining and studying their environment. Characters should never have a full picture of the world they live in, only the pieces they’ve worked out for themselves. You don’t, always, need to show characters passing information back and forth, but this can be a very important tool to keep track of what they know.

Within all of this there should be a spark of a person floating around. An individual with needs, goals, dreams, convictions, experiences, fears, and flaws. (Or, really, any other itemized list of how you want to define a person.) That person lives in the world you created. They don’t have access to you, nor what you know.

How much autonomy you give them is up to you. Same with how strict you are about regulating their world. These are stylistic choices that will affect the tone of your work. But, ultimately, it’s very important to remember your characters are artificial constructs designed to present a convincing illusion of a person, rather than the genuine article.

How do you keep enough detachment? By remembering this is an illusion you’ve created. As with all illusions, it’s far more important that this plays properly for the audience, even if it’s held together with duct tape and rage on your side from your position.

Let your characters take care of themselves, with the information they have, and the situations they’re in. They don’t need you to pull your punches. To an extent, they depend on that to sell the illusion you’re creating. Put another way, it’s okay to be cruel if the situation warrants it; you can trust your character to pull through. They’re probably a hell of a lot tougher than you’re giving them credit for.

Second: Your job is not to advocate for your character. I’ll go out on a limb and say this one’s not quite as obvious; you’re here to tell a story. Your character’s dreams are relevant to them. They can work towards their goals, and a general desire not to die horrifically. But, that is their problem, not yours.

Stories about conflict work off a simple concept: two or more sides come together, they challenge each other in some way, and whoever manages to achieve their goals, comes out on top.

I’m being very abstract here. This description could cover anything from a story about a parent dealing with their child coming out, to a thriller with a rogue nuclear device in a major metropolitan area. But, managing the conflicts is your job. You may be hoping a specific character wins, but you want everyone participating as appropriate.

Within this context, it’s important that your antagonists have a reasonable, plausible, path to victory. They need to have objectives, and a way to actually achieve them. They are just as much your responsibility as your protagonist(s).

Either group may lack information about what their path to victory is, and/or how to achieve it. In situations like this, their first goal needs to be obtaining that information, which can be a major portion of the story.

Remember what I said about your characters on the last point? Yeah, this applies to everyone in your story. How do you avoid playing a favorite? One way is to have lots of favorites working against one another. This is your job as a writer: playing all of your creations against each other in order to tell a compelling story.

This isn’t always true, but if your antagonist is uninteresting to you, chances are your audience will feel the same. You want a foe that excites and entertains you. Tinker with them or rework them until they really engage you. Then you will have two favorites, and it will help you avoid simply rooting for the hero.

Third: You don’t measure a hero by their merits; you measure them by the adversity they overcome. The more you beat them down, the stronger they come out the other side.

Remember that line from Nietzsche that I slapped around last week? “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” It’s not entirely true. Severe injuries can result in permanent impairment. Blows which shatter your psyche or your will to go on are not empowering. But, a character who has been abused and battered can come back more forcefully, with stronger convictions, and sometimes, a little smarter for what they’ve been through.

Slapping your characters around can be a sign to them that, maybe, it’s time for them to take a different approach. Every defeat and mistake can serve as a learning experience, if you’ll let it. Ironically, once you’re in the right mindset, it can be far more difficult to avoid being too destructive. Hurt them, let them learn, don’t kill them (even if that death is in their psyche.)

At this point, we’re back to the previous point; your job, is to orchestrate the story as a whole, not simply cheer for one character.

Never be afraid of being a bit too rough. If they break, curl up in a corner, and die, then you know you’ve gone too far, and it might be time to go back and tone it down a bit. This is one of the virtues of drafting, you can go back and fix your mistakes later. If you’re willing, you can let it ride. What happens when you kill the hero? The story isn’t over, and the supporting cast is still there, doing their part. What kind of a course to you chart through that aftermath?

Finally: Remember it’s okay for a character to leave empty handed. Just because they have dreams doesn’t mean they need to realize them. Granted, this will depend heavily on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, but there is nothing inherently wrong with a character who’s holding on to a false or dying hope, because it’s the only thing keeping them together. Victories can be Pyrrhic. Endings can be bittersweet. Just because your character wants something, doesn’t mean you need to give it to them.

Sometimes, by their natures, characters cannot get what they want. It’s baked into their very nature. Sometimes people look for goals they think will make them happy but it’s not what they’re actually missing, so even if they do get that think, the result will be hollow. Yes, people, not just characters. Depending on who your characters are, there may not be any possible happy ending. Knowing this in advance can go a long way towards having an idea of where your they will end up.

No matter how you twist it, at least one of your characters will come out on top. It might not be who you expected, but so long as someone wins, it’ll be one of yours. Remember, your characters only exist for the story. You might revive and use them in the future, but their only life is within the confines you create. Within that context, it’s okay to run them over the coals with a clear conscience. Handling that is, quite literally, their problem, not yours.

You’re the writer, not a participant in the narrative. Your job is to make sure all the pieces interact, adjudicate your characters bouncing off one another, and to keep track of the wreckage they leave behind. Your job is to tell their stories, not to make friends with them.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Nature of Dehumanization

This may sound a little confusing but hear me out. In my story, I have a character who’s going through a more or less boot camp for a dystopian empire. The ultimate goal of this “camp” is to make killing the enemy less of a regrettable necessity and more like a game, or a challenge- basically twist the morals of the soldiers so they no longer care about who they kill, they just care about the kill. Would this be feasible, or does it go too far into the “hurr durr Spartans are tough” trap.

So, you don’t actually have to teach soldiers how to do this. Dehumanize an enemy enough and they’ll do it all on their own. In fact, they’ll dehumanize enemies all on their own. All you need is the enemy killing people they care about in the abstract. It doesn’t have to be people they know, family, or friends. They don’t need a personal stake. After all, dehumanization of the enemy is part of how we stave off that pesky mental limit which leads to psychotic breaks.

What many writers don’t realize is that in this case we honestly don’t have work that hard to justify the behavior. The behavior already exists, and happened in ways far worse than you or I can imagine.

If you have the stomach for it, I recommend looking at the Pacific Theater for WWII (though the Nazis are good too.) Specifically stuff like the “Contest To Kill 100 People Using A Sword” series run by a pair of Japanese newspapers covering a contest between Japanese officers Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda during the Nanking Massacre.  The quest to see who could kill 100 people with their sword fastest, this included Chinese civilians and POWs.

And, yes, it happened. That’s not dystopian. That’s history.

Japan’s war crimes during World War II are built on the specific variety of nationalism the country practiced during the period and their outlook on the concept of surrender.  Look no further than the extensive list of Japanese war crimes in the Pacific Theater, from The Comfort Women, Unit 731, and I would not look at the POW camps unless you have a strong stomach. However, I will say they did ship POWs back to Japan and vivisected them while still alive. I include this as its probably one of the less disturbing actions toward the treating of POWs during the war. When the men were recovered, they looked like what we’d expect from a Nazi concentration camp.

Japan is not the only example, there are countless others throughout history, and they’re not unique but they are relatively recent. Also, often, overlooked. The revenge Allied troops took on Germany, specifically those from territories occupied by German soldiers like the French is also there. In the words of a German professor from college whose family survived Allied occupation of Berlin, “no woman between seven and seventy was safe” in those quarters held by the French. At the time, her mother was a little girl and she told the story about how German citizens went running for those areas under American control. (The reason, of course, being that the Americans suffered less during the war with their civilians being an ocean away.) In the Pacific Theater, Allied soldiers would cut out the teeth of dead Japanese soldiers for their gold fillings. They called it “Jap gold”.

Kill counts, war trophies, every game you can imagine, and plenty you can’t have all happened during periods of wartime. War is an ugly business, and some wars are uglier than others.

The problem is assuming you need some sort of special training to get people there. The sad truth is such training isn’t necessary, and that’s what makes this topic dystopic. Dystopia is based in human nature, it what could happen in the future when the world is on course. The events and outlooks which led the Japanese to behave the way they did when they went to war are just as present and relevant now in countries all over the world. That includes the US.

Rid yourself now of the idea there’s ever such a thing as a “clean” war. All war is dark, all war is dirty, and all wars involve people doing terrible things to one another.

If you really want to write this story then you need to be learning everything you can about the mindset of soldiers and what they go through while on the battlefield. This means watching documentaries, shows based on anecdotes and biographical experiences like  The Pacific and Band of Brothers. You should be reading Starship Troopers as a primer if you haven’t already. Do so while understanding Heinlein is a fascist and that is what he endorses in the novel. You should be going over Vietnam. I’d even watch M.A.S.H., the show, the movie, and read the book. Growing Up Black In Nazi Germany is a stunningly eye-opening read if you’ve ever wondered how the German people were swept away by Hitler and what that looked like within their culture. Read the short story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch to get a look inside the camps run in Soviet Russia. Then tackle All Quiet on the Western Front. You want as much pro-war and anti-war media as you can get your hands on with history to fill in the gaps. Also, George Orwell’s 1984. Here’s the trick to understanding the best of the dypstopian genre: 1984 may be fictional, but similar events happened in the Soviet Union. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is entirely possible as a future for the United States, and it is plausible. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is dystopic and fictionalized, but the research behind it isn’t. The Jungle is part of why we have the FDA. There’s also Richard Wright’s Native Son.

You want to look at the cultures specifically that produced some of history’s most horrific war crimes and study up on the mindsets which led them there. That is how this happens, and that is what you need to write dystopias: an understanding of human nature.

Look beyond The Hunger Games to Rome. Consider the Spartan children whipped in stadiums to provide entertainment for the masses in simulation of ancient Spartan training, and that is only one small anecdote to the greater horrors of the Arena. See the horror in an entire culture reduced to a themepark attraction.

Remember, all dystopia is political and it is all based as a reaction to the real world. The best dystopias are talking about events that have happened in a fictional context with the warning they might happen again. We may all get upset at Animal Farm but that is a breakdown of how Soviet Russia came to be and it will teach you how the political system took hold.

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. – Animal Farm

Some people are more equal than others, some people are better than others, some people are more deserving than others. Be that their nation of origin, the color of their skin, their ethnic background, their accent, their education level, their economic background, or the part of a country they come from (much less the world). Dehumanization is all you need to justify great cruelty, and human beings do it to each other all the time.

After all, take any military shooter from the genre and do a hard contrast to Spec Ops: the Line. Take your experiences and what you feel while playing a military shooter, then imagine feeling those same emotions while killing real people.

You will. They’re not people to you anymore. After all, when was the last time you thought of the Stormtroopers from Star Wars IV: A New Hope as human beings?

When American soldiers called the members of the VietCong Charlies, what they were doing was taking letters of the alphabet VictorCharlie and translating their targets into anonymous individuals. They are no longer people. They’re all Charlies.

This is the key to understanding the horrors of warfare. Once you figure out how to write your characters from the perspective where they don’t see the people they kill as people, you’re off to the races. The only place you’re off is the idea they need to be trained to not care or turn it into a game.

Give them training.

They’ll make games out of killing their enemies all on their own.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Stress Limit

Low-priority question that I’m just asking out off curiosity: what is this psychological “break” that you keep mentioning?

It’s a psychotic break. Everyone has a mental limit to the stress their mind can handle before it becomes too much, and they have a psychological break. This isn’t the fictional “sexy” psychotic break where they turn into some kind of animal. This is just the mind temporarily losing contact with reality. It’s a period of high emotional stress where the mind reaches a limit to what they can handle. In a combat role, the individual can no longer handle what you’re asking them to do. They can still go on with their lives, go home, get treatment, and, possibly, recover. However, they can’t fulfill their combat role anymore. This isn’t the kind of injury you tough your way through, either. The damage is, for the most part, permanent.

From a martial perspective, the psychological break is when a combatant is stressed beyond the limits of what their mind can handle. Whether that is in training or on the battlefield itself. The kinds of abusive training scenarios that many writers envision serves only to hasten this break by layering so much trauma on the trainee so quickly that they’ve no time to adjust to the new stress levels. This is usually because the writer in question has limited experience with any sort of training, much less martial training.

The problem with having a character kill a friend or even just a training partner during training is it’s traumatic. This won’t actually make it easier to kill people you care about less in the long run, especially since killing people you don’t care about is, usually, less traumatic. Your trainee could kill their buddy and be fine, but they could also end up grieving, depressed, guilt stricken, and suffering from PTSD. They might be pushed to the point where they’re no longer suitable for high stress situations. You’re gambling a lot of effort on their mental stability, especially when there are plenty of other methods available to test whether their personality is compatible with the role they will be assigned. (Like the training itself.)

You see, killing someone at the end of your training is not a test so much as its an initiation ritual. If your character succeeds they will be welcomed into a new brotherhood, a graduating class among which all of whom share their experience and their sin. This post-trauma love bombing serves as a means of lowering their stress, and adjusting reality so what they did becomes normative. The kill feels like an accomplishment, paling in comparison to the goal they’ve spent their whole lives working towards. They’re not unique, and they’ve a whole collection of new brothers and sisters who can help them work through it. That’s ultimately what binds them to whatever group or organization they work for, and not the kill itself.

If your character is part of an organization like this, you can guarantee they’ve been mentally worked over and prepared for this point during the course of their training. Morals are fluid, ever shifting, and entirely adjustable. After all, the point of training is to teach your student how to handle more stress and avoid an overload.

Your mental limit isn’t a hard one. In fact, your mental and physical limits can be moved. They’re not static. This is one of the purposes of training, so you build yourself up over time by learning to handle more and more stress. The goal is to prepare the student for the crazy training they’ll see five years down the line by teaching them how to break through the mental barriers they’ve set for themselves on their physical limits.

The mental limit and the mental barriers are in two separate categories. The mental limit is the point their mind can’t go past and that’s much further out than the mental barriers. Mental Barriers can be broken because those are based in what the student believes they can do versus what they actually can. An example of this is that most students in high school, for all their moaning, can actually run a mile. Their bodies can handle that, but they don’t think their bodies can or they don’t want to. Unless they’re part of a sports team or run a mile regularly, most of them will end up walking the minute they’re outside their teacher’s sight.

The good trainers understand the difference between the mental limit and physical limit versus the “I can’t” mental barriers. Over time, you teach a student to push past the barriers they’ve internalized. Those are what they believe is possible for them to do, you move their mental limits and physical limits forward.  This allows you to push them to perform more challenging actions and pursue tougher training. The student learns to discern the difference between discomfort and actual pain, and then they are the ones who are figuring out when enough actually is enough. The elite fighters we talk about are the people who are constantly pushing those barriers forward on their own, they are finding their boundaries and working to break past them. That is the major difference between them and the more average trainees around them.

The crazy training most people imagine is a point we work towards, not where we begin. This isn’t these teachers “going soft” on their students, it’s acknowledging that everyone has limits and we’re going to work them toward that point rather than throw them at it.

If you asked a guy who just signed up to go through Special Forces training of seven days of constant work without  sleep, the vast majority are going to crack. They’re not mentally or physically prepared for it. They could be, though. If you gave them the time and training they needed to get themselves ready.

Like every other type of physical training, martial combat is a staircase. You are climbing toward specific goal points, these points allow you to take on more stress than you did before. This includes tougher training, more dangerous techniques, tougher conditioning, more reps added, more responsibility, and even teaching younger students as a means to improve your skills.

In this way, the stress your mind and body can bear is strengthened. You come out of it a stronger person.

This is especially important to understand when working with children. Children are still developing, their brains are making patterns, and this means they’ve a chance to go much further in what physical stress they can take when they reach adulthood. Properly conditioned with not just faster reflexes but reflexes honed specifically for martial combat. They’ll also be in peak physical condition.

However, the manner in which you could hurry an eighteen to twenty-one year old who signed up for the military through extensive and rigorous training and quickly escalating over a matter of weeks can’t be done with a child of nine. Their minds aren’t developed enough yet to handle that kind of stress, much less the murder party stress some writers imagine.

This is when emotional or psychological trauma comes in. When we reach a point where the mental limit breaks, the trauma endured puts them into a state where they can’t function, at least not in the way you want them to. Everyone has a mental limit for what they can endure and when you push them past it, especially with extreme situations, they break down.

Trauma is the main issue with most fictionally imagined abusive training scenarios. You can’t traumatize people into being better soldiers. Trauma specifically is putting intense pressure on that mental limit, this training is not attempting to forcibly push it forward but actually break it within a short span. The way abusers want to break their victims, so it’ll be easier to make them behave how they want. The problem with this mindset, especially when turning out combatants, is that you need your soldiers to be able to make decisions in the field. Extraordinary skill is all well and good, but that’s all it is. What makes a combatant truly great is their mind, their willpower, and understanding they can push themselves farther than they might ever be made to.

With children and violence, they don’t understand what they’re doing in the moment. The ability isn’t there to process what’s happening. Grief in children is different than with adults, and the true weight often hits as a delayed reaction at some point later in life. So, when you put adults through traumatic events the emotional and psychological bill for it will eventually come due.   With kids, they’re still developing as people. They don’t know what normal is.

You can ask kids to kill people. The problem is they will, eventually, realize what they’ve done and they’re not absolved within their own heads just because they didn’t know what they were doing at the time. That’s a bill coming due, and ultimately will affect the long term health of your fighting force. Worse, you have no idea when or how it will manifest. The goal is to get your trainees through their training without giving them a nervous breakdown.

This is actually even more important with warriors who need to operate anywhere on their own for prolonged periods of time, like special forces, spies, and assassins. They need to be stable enough to do their jobs and what their jobs ask of them, make decisions, plan operations, and act as their own agents where there’s no possibility for backup.

You can have a guy who just does what he’s told as a regular soldier. That’s a good grunt, he’s not going anywhere up the ranks but he’ll serve his purpose and may take on more responsibility if he manages to survive. His job isn’t to do any thinking, but to follow the orders he’s given. The issue is you need your warriors who work in isolation to be able to think. They have to plan, problem solve, and create their own initiative. They don’t sit around waiting for orders. Even when they’re given an assignment, told to go somewhere, and kill someone, they’ve got to do the ground work themselves. This means establishing their cover, do their scouting, build on the information they’ve been given, and perform all other work associated.

You actually have to train them to think. If you never contemplated the idea that your assassin or covert operative as a highly driven and intelligent individual, you probably should consider it. If they’re used to working solo they could break from whatever organization they’re in, provided they’re willing to accept the associated risks. They’d be looking over their shoulder for the rest of their life, but they have all the skills they need to create a false identity and just go teach at a primary school somewhere or work as an office bureaucrat. Lots of spies end up working for corporations as security services. Your hitman easily could land a cushy office job somewhere with a major company cleaning up small problems on their dole. If they want to lay low, they could land a job as a small time bounty hunter hunting down bail jumpers.

Always remember, whenever you’re writing training sequences, these characters have options. Also remember: their teachers know they’re imparting a useful skill set.

For certain personality types, assassination is going to be one of the most stressful kinds of work. Not just as combat work, but getting close to people, earning their trust, and ultimately breaking that trust wears on the mind over time. This is a stressful job with a lot of responsibility where you’re constantly simulating connections that you don’t feel. There’s no reason to jumpstart that stress during their training outside a set of limited and controlled circumstances. It won’t help them do their job. Worse, it could sabotage their development in the end.

When working with training for field operatives or real world combat, trainees are always prepared on the assumption they may die. This is already a fact of life for soldiers throughout history, and the idea they may watch their friends die is going to be a given. This is going to be a major source of trauma. Survival is just as much luck as it is skill. Abusive training methods won’t change that.

The mental limit is when the mind endures so much psychological trauma they have a nervous breakdown. You can’t psychologically scar someone past that damage. People don’t tough their way through it, they can work through it with the aid of therapy but not on the battlefield. On the logistical side, someone who has been mentally compromised to that degree is unlikely to be making sound decisions. That, or the trainee breaks for freedom at first opportunity. This is also a bad thing. They’re taking whatever knowledge your organization gifted them with into the wild.

Again, abusive training is ultimately a form of self-sabotage. This is why smart people don’t do it. The people who are good at combat are ultimately the people who want to be there. Loyal combatants are better combatants. If they’re part of an organization, assassins aren’t just making themselves money. They’re making their organization money.

Always ask: why is my character fighting? Why are they here? What are they getting out of this? Why are they doing this?

If they answer is “they were forced to”, you may want to think on it further. Human beings aren’t automatons who blindly do what they’re told, and anyone who’s been in business for awhile will know incentivized training is more effective than forced. Students work harder when they want to be there.

Why grab kids from nice suburban homes when you can grab runaways and orphans from the gutter instead? They’ve already got the mental outlook you want, no one will miss them, and they’ll be happy to have three square meals a day. Worst case you’ll have to dry out the drug addicts. This was actually the plot of the original La Femme Nikita and the film(s), by the way. The government pulled runaways and drug addicts off the street,  cleaned them up, and taught them to be assassins. No one was going to miss them, and if they died? Well, they link back to no one.

-Michi

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Q&A: Spartan Military

So how would a “spartan-esqe” military work? If you’ve already answered all of this, can you just link me to the article(s)? Thanks!

The very short answer is, it wouldn’t. Which may sound somewhat strange given the Spartans certainly enjoyed some success with their methods, so why am I saying it doesn’t work?

It’s more accurate to say the Spartans tried a lot of different things, some intentionally, and others accidentally. Some of those factors made them more effective, while others actually undermined their ability to operate and (to varying degrees) lead to their destruction.

The stuff that worked, has been adapted and, in many cases, become the norm. The stuff that doesn’t work gets picked up by people who don’t know what they’re doing and emulated, often with disastrous results.

It’s also worth remembering that it is impossible to separate the Spartan military from their society as a whole. In most societies, you can segregate their military out and examine it as a distinct entity. This isn’t possible with the Spartans.

The biggest advantage the Spartans enjoyed game from the concept of a professional soldier. This is something that should be familiar to any modern reader. You have soldiers who are, primarily, soldiers. You’re not fielding a military of craftsmen and other professions who you pressed into service, or who volunteered to form a militia when called for.

This is true of every modern military. However, for the Greeks it was unusual. The norm was for someone to have a domestic profession, but when called they would set their daily life aside and go to war.

Spartans would train for combat, and their entire culture revolved around preparing for war. When the time came, they were far better prepared to deal with the challenges and foes they faced.

On the whole, their abusive training methods, particularly against their children, were a net negative. They couched it as removing the weak, and strengthening their survivors, but that’s not really true. It did impair their ability to replace lost soldiers.

There’s a kind of sick irony here. Malnourishing kids (which the Spartans did) will permanently impair them. They’ll miss growth milestones, which you never really get back. So, the result will be smaller, weaker adults with cognitive impairment, and diminished immune systems. (This is a partial list, if you want to look it up, childhood malnutrition can result in a horrific list of symptoms.)

Starting at age 7, Spartans would take male children from their mothers and send them to be trained in Agelai (“herds,”) at the Agoge. The individuals in a herd would be overseen by older boys in their mid-teens, who would be responsible for their discipline and training. In turn those older boys would be disciplined by adults. The important takeaway is that there was brutality all around.

Children in the Agoge weren’t provisioned food. They were expected to forage for food from the surrounding farms, stealing what they needed. There were harsh penalties for getting caught, so the goal was to become an effective thief. This is where that malnutrition thing comes in, because no matter how skilled they became, it’s a safe bet these kids weren’t getting enough food.

The intent was to build up toughness. There’s a certain logic there, not logic that applies to reality, but it should be familiar to anyone who’s read a tryhard YA novel which takes Nietzsche’s, “that which does not kill me,” line a little too literally.

Take a similarly aggressive approach to training, but make sure your recruits (or kids) are well fed, and aren’t freezing to death in the night, and you’d see dramatically better results. (This also involves incentivizing the recruits, to get them actually committed to the training, but that’s another issue.)

Training is also one of the easiest, and most useful components to emulate. Ironically, looking at something like the Boy Scouts you get a similar result without damaging the participants. Scouts (who reach Star rank or higher) have a solid background in wilderness survival, orientation, and other skills with direct paramilitary application. I’d say, you don’t teach them combat skills, but then again the Marksmanship and Archery badges exist. It’s also where I got my medical training, some of my hand to hand training, and where I first learned to shoot. It’s also where I first learned the basics of Criminal Investigation. So, kids who come out of the BSA with an upper rank do end up with a surprising skill set, even if I tend to think of it as normal.

I’m singling out their training methods, perhaps unfairly, because it’s not the major reason their forces became irreplaceable.

The military forces we think of as Spartan, were the full citizens, called Homoioi (I’m told this roughly translates to “Equals,” or “Similars.”) A male Spartan Homoioi would be put through the training I’m mentioning above.

Spartans who failed in a wide varieties of ways were permanently removed from the Homoioi, and became Hypomieones (Inferiors). A Hypomieones, and their descendants, could not reascend to the Homoioi. Someone could be demoted for a wide range of transgressions, including insubordination, cowardice, showing fear in combat,  failing to be recruited by a communal mess hall at the conclusion of their training, or failure to pay dues to their mess. (These last two may sound trivial, but the Syssitias were a significant component of the way Spartan society was organized. It was, however, still a very easy way for a prospective Homoioi to be removed from their culture’s elite over a relatively minor social infraction.)

The Spartans also maintained a very strict victory or death outlook. According to Plutarch, their soldiers were told to “come back with your shield; or on it,” when leaving for war. (Worth noting that Plutarch lived four centuries after the Spartan collapse. So the exact phrasing may be apocryphal, though the philosophy was accurate to Spartan philosophy. By Plutarch’s time, Sparta had been reduced to what Josiah Ober has called, “an antiquarian theme-park,” where tourists from the Greek world would come to see recreations of classic Spartan training turned spectacle.) Something really important to understand, if you’re going to learn from your mistakes, you need to actually survive those mistakes, and learn. The Spartans disagreed, if you survived a losing battle, and you could be blamed for cowardice, there was a pretty solid bet that anything you saw would be regarded as irrelevant. This kind of, “accept no failure” approach has a long term effect of crippling your ability to adapt to changing circumstances. It doesn’t matter if your character is soldier in 550BC, or 2017AD, they need to be able to learn from their mistakes, or the mistakes of others. Modern social behavior among cops, soldiers, and even martial arts predisposes you to tell stories about, how someone you knew screwed up and got severely injured or died. You may not think about why, or how, but this does serve a very real purpose. It’s normalized to the point where this is borderline instinctive behavior, but, this is one very solid way that modern combatants learn from mistakes. If your social structure penalizes this severely, that’s not going to happen, and your military force will become insular and inflexible.

By the fifth century BC, the Spartan military did employ auxiliary units that were pulled from the Hypomieones, and other lower castes (including the Helots (serfs/slaves. Worth remembering that the Hypomieones who saw combat may not have undergone Spartan training, as it was entirely possible that their ancestor had been demoted.) This was more an act of necessity, as their military was getting into a place where there were no longer enough Homoioi to reliably field them exclusively.

Because of the way demotion worked, and the artificial attrition the Spartans applied to the children of citizens, battlefield losses were irreplaceable. Specifically, the infants of citizens would be examined at birth for any defect or weakness, and if they failed this they would be left to die of exposure.

There’s an application here that’s a little abstract. Having elite forces can be a major advantage in warfare. However, when the entirety of your forces are, “elite,” you’re going to have a hard time fielding enough people to actually fight. A modern comparison would be trying build an entire fighting force off of Special Forces and eliminating everyone else from the system. You would get some very effective combatants, but you wouldn’t be able to replace standing forces lost to attrition. Which was exactly one of the problems that late Sparta faced. Where battlefield victories with hundreds of Spartan casualties, set the stage for later conflicts where they couldn’t field enough soldiers to fight.

The other major advantage the Spartans had was an illusion. In the Hellenistic world, Spartan soldiers were seen as virtually invincible. Particularly during their early campaigns, the rigorous training applied against inexperienced combatants lead to the belief that Spartan warriors were an indomitable force. There’s plenty of surviving records of enemies routing at the sight of a Spartan advance.

To be clear, this reputation was earned. However, as the other Greek city-states became more familiar with Spartan tactics, they began to learn how to exploit them. In part, Spartan tactics were predictable, but deviated from normal Greek military doctrine, resulting in a decisive advantage against foes who were unfamiliar with their methods, but could be countered by an opponent who’d seen their approach to combat before. The end of the illusion was The Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, when the Spartans were dealt a crushing defeat by Theban forces lead by Epaminondas.

This particular illusion can be very potent psychological advantage for a military force. Particularly when you’re dealing with a small elite cadre that can be selectively deployed. Your foes never know where they may pop up, and will be on edge facing your conventional forces.

It’s also, somewhat apparent (from surviving reports), that the Spartans actually believed this illusion as well. From a military standpoint this is borderline suicidal. You want your enemy to fear your forces and think you’re invincible. You don’t want your own troops, or especially your leaders, to believe the same thing.

Sparta wanted soldiers who were absolutely loyal, with unlimited conviction. In the long run, they created an inflexible, unrelenting system that ultimately cannibalized themselves. There are a lot of lessons that can (and have) been taken from the Spartans, but those are peppered with cautionary examples of what not to do.

-Starke

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Q&A: Shooting Strung Up Humans Is An Ineffective Training Method

Until what age would a responsible adult wait to give a kid real bullets to shoot? The kid is training to be an elite assassin/met/hitman and begins target practice at age 5 with nonlethal laser guns that mark where on the target they hit and are gradually introduced to recoil to prepare them for real guns. Not long after switching to real bullets, they switch to living targets (the organization training them buys people who have been sentenced to death and uses them as targets).

Stringing people up for target practice and putting bullets in them is a pointless exercise, especially with children. It won’t make them better at killing people, or less likely to hesitate. All you get is a shattered psyche and a nervous breakdown not long after they reach adulthood. That, or they’ll be a sociopath and lack the necessary emotions to be good at the social engineering. Unlike the fantasy sociopath, the real life sociopath has a great deal of trouble functioning when among neurotypical people. If a child soldier was your end goal then this method will work great, and they’ll be broken by the time they’re twenty. That’s a lot of effort to put into someone just to break them before they make their first kill as a working assassin.

This is probably the best advice on assassins you’re ever going to get, so it’s best to internalize it:

Assassination is one percent shooting, ninty-nine percent preparation: anticipating moves, devising approaches, recruiting sources, finding the perfect opportunity so the bullet’s almost an after-thought. Usually that’s when a target’s on the move, when there are too many variables to control them all… There are ways to lessen the risk: an armed escort, taking an unpredictable route to your destination, having back-up in a trail car. But ultimately, as long as the assassin knows where you’re going, they have the upper hand. – Burn Notice, “False Flag”

When it comes to writing children and their training, the trick is understanding they’re children. Unless you want to have an “elite” assassin who is a “one and done”, their teacher must be very careful with the pace.

The point of an assassin is not to be good at fighting. They are good, but that’s an extra component. Assassins are covert-ops, and they function like spies. The difference is in their end goal, but they aren’t like a regular soldier or even special forces. If you’re going to structure their training then it isn’t about killing off their emotions or making it easier for them not to hesitate. You’ll get that recruiting young adults from rough backgrounds and broken homes. What you need with an assassin is preparation and, like with Batman, that prep work is what elevates them to elite.

Assassins use people the same way spies do, they assume false identities, they make contacts, create assets, observe the situation, scout locations, all in order to find the best way to their target. They don’t just sit in a watch tower waiting. They’ve got to learn about the person they’re going to kill. This includes their schedule, and where to find them. They need to plan their method of attack. They might walk into the target’s house when they’re not there or even when they’re sleeping, hack their computer, stand over their kids in the middle of the night, look through family photos, steal their datebook, stalk them on social media via some internet cafe, and go through their trash.

Whatever helps them figure out how to make the kill, and pass the blame off on some other poor schmuck in the target’s life.

They need to be able to use their emotions, learn how to turn them on, learn to shut them off, and distance themselves from what they’re doing. They are actors. They need empathy, they need compassion, they need to understand their emotions so they can manipulate others. This can’t be forcibly taught by asking them to shoot people strung up for target practice. That teaches all the wrong lessons.

A basic rule of covert ops, is let someone else do your dirty work. Let someone else find the guy you want to kill. It’s a great technique… as long as you’re not the someone else. – Burn Notice, “False Flag”

If you’re going to train kids to be assassins, then combat training comprises about 25% or less of what they need to be learning. The ancient order of Assassins, from where we get the term, were for the most part what we’ll call “one and done”. The expectation was they’d die in the attempt to kill their target or afterward, which is exactly what happens with most assassins. They may make their kill, but they’re going to die on the way out. This is why the preparation component is so important. Beyond just making the kill, the assassin must have an exit strategy.

When working with individuals who begin as children and whom you plan to keep using, you need to ensure they’ll be functional adults at the end of their training. This is why starting with adults is generally preferable. They’re fully developed, they have the ability to make choices, it takes less time to train them, and you can push them a lot harder. With kids, one must go slowly. We’re talking a time investment of nearly two decades per assassin.

Focusing on your would be assassins killing people in order to kill off their feelings is nice and sexy, but that’s not great for long term health or sanity. If you’re going to spend lots of time developing assassins, you want them to keep working for at least a decade rather than burning out or having a mental breakdown to compromise your organization.

Most kids in this situation don’t get to do any murdering until the final test. This is the first of two, usually. One test happens in a controlled environment and then when they succeed, they get sent out in the world with their first contract.

Depending on the motives and methods of the Organization, that first kill will be them killing a comrade they trained with (the way of true sadists is with their roommate) or running down some person provided for them by their trainers. Or, both.

The first contract happens under the supervision of another more experienced assassin (or two), who will take over if the new assassin proves unable to finish the job. If they succeed at that, they may then serve as an apprentice to this other assassin for the duration of their apprenticeship and learn about functioning in the real world from them. This is the culmination of their training though, and they’ll be somewhere around sixteen to eighteen by the time these events occur.

Children need to be given the opportunity to grow up before they’re put on the fast track to killing. Children are still developing as people, both their minds and their bodies. You can’t force them to do anything. You encourage them with rewards. You push their bodies and their minds, develop their self esteem, provide breaks in their physical training with the education they’ll need to be able to pass themselves off as an actual human being. This education is going to comprise most of their training and act as a way to give their young still developing bodies necessary relief time. For extra motivation and fun, you provide them with games like you would any other child.

These games are going to be structured training, putting them in a controlled environment where they learn and practice their new skills while having fun. One example is Viking children throwing spears back and forth as a childhood game, which graduated to them catching Roman javelins as adults and throwing them back. There are plenty of games we have today from tag to capture the flag that will work when training children and adults.

Fifteen to twenty years of training is a long time, the purpose of a prolonged training period is not to break your trainees by moving too fast. Instead, you want to push them so they are slowly breaking past their internalized physical and mental limits. When you’ve got a character pushing themselves past what they believe is possible, tapping into their desperation, anger, fear, to force themselves beyond their physical exhaustion then you’re at the more advanced methods of martial training. This is the extreme end purpose behind conditioning like running, sit ups, push ups, etc. This is not just to build up your body, but also your mind. Conditioning teaches us how to work through our exhaustion, when we’re tired and want to quit, and find the fortitude within ourselves to keep putting one foot in front of the other. How to find that last spurt of energy, even when we believe there’s nothing left.

You can’t start a child in extreme training, especially since this extreme training isn’t a learning component. This is a pushing component. You can build them toward it, but you need to train them up first. Training them in the physical techniques and all the boring stuff which goes with it. You also need to include the necessary spy school stuff such as infiltration, surveillance, pickpocketing, breaking and entering, chemistry, general education skills like reading, writing, arithmetic, languages, politics, etc, all while slowly pushing them harder bit by bit beyond where they’re comfortable.

You can teach a kid how to make poisons, for example, without actually hurting their mental development. There was a ninjutsu master who talked about how when he was a child, his father would take him around to houses in the neighborhood while the owners weren’t home and he’d have to break in. (Also go through their things, memorize the original positions, and then put the objects back exactly as found.) Supervised at all times, of course, but this is also something you can do with a child that won’t cripple their emotional development.

Even when they do reach the point when they’re ready to make a kill, a responsible/clever organization or handler is going to be there to support them through it which further binds the trainee to their trainers. These children are valuable, and they know it.

Guns will comprise a (comparatively) small part of their training. They don’t take that long to learn how to use. We’re talking a couple months here at most, and after that its just drilling.

You can give kids real bullets at almost any age, so long as they’re not shooting another human being. You want them on the gun range and under supervision with an adult who knows what they’re doing. There are plenty of parents who train their kids kids to shoot, either for hunting or for other reasons. The trick is understanding the supervision component. This is going to be the same in any martial system where children are given live weapons to handle. Supervised at all times is what a responsible adult does, and drilling weapon safety as the first lesson before they ever learn to point and shoot.

Again, killing is potentially damaging to the human psyche at any age, even when we know that the person who is being killed is objectively “bad”, an enemy, or we feel they deserved it. Some people genuinely are fine with it, others aren’t. The difference is in the individual, however these people are all adults. An adult can rationalize killing, they can understand it, and they can make peace with it. A child can’t.

The biggest mistake in fiction is treating children as little adults. Children lack an understanding of permanent consequences, and they cannot rationalize in death in the same way an adult can. They lack the tools to process these complex emotions because their brains are still developing. You can’t treat them like adults because they’re not, and if you do you’ll break them. A broken child or broken adult is too unstable to be a good assassin, much less an elite one.

Even then, killing a “bad person” who “deserves it” is the wrong motivation for an assassin. Assassins kill for money, they kill for country, or they kill because they’re told to. You can get the rogue assassin who has turned on their organization and is seeking redemption as a vigilante, killing the people they think are bad. Still, that’s not how most assassins function and certainly not the ones who survive for extended periods. The organization might hold to some higher principles, but at the end of the day their killing has nothing to do with a moral good. Righteousness from a world of black and white will break someone who must function in shades of gray.

An assassin needs to be able to make the choice of who will die. They must decide how they will die, and if anyone outside of the contract they’ve been given must die. They have to do a lot of groundwork before they ever fire a bullet. They may need to do unsavory things like arrange a kidnapping, or murder the spouse or children of some target’s family. They may be hired to target children. Their job is to identify and create the situation where they can make their kill.

Learning to accept that part of who they are can be difficult if the writer is looking for a way to morally justify their behavior or excuse it. Assassins are, at the end of the day, like every other hired gun.

They’re a hired gun.

Assassin is a nice way to phrase it, but they’re just mercenaries skilled at targeted killing and social engineering. That’s what these kids are in training to be: killers for hire.

-Michi

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Q&A: Critique Partners and the Dangers of Posting Online

Do you know anyone who could read my story and tell me what should change? Like a website or an app or something?

If you’re just asking for a grammar checker, those are fairly common features on word processors. Off hand, Word and Scrivener have built in grammar checkers. They won’t tell you how to fix an error, but it will tell you when the algorithm thinks something’s messed up. There’s also a couple with aggressive advertising campaigns on YouTube.

Basic grammar errors are something you can farm out to an algorithm fairly safely. It’s one step above running a spellchecker (which you should be doing as well.)

You’ll also, occasionally, see style checkers, which attempt to assess the overall tone of a piece, and tell you if it fits the format you’re writing to. (Creative, Academic, Technical, ect.) I’ve never looked at these closely, so, I have no idea how well they work, or if it’s just secondary functionality for a grammar checker.

The problem with all of these systems is that they’re band-aids. If you’ve mangled the English language, they’ll stick a judgemental green line under it, and wait for you to fix your error. (Strictly speaking, the green line is Word. Most software will run the grammar check in a separate dialog box, when you request it.)

I realize, I may sound a little dismissive here, but these are useful tools. Checking the available menu options in your document, or a quick Google search should tell you if your software has a native grammar checker, or suggest some free options, if that’s all you need.

If you’re looking for advice on the substance of your work, that’s not something you can safely farm out to an algorithm. You’re looking for an editor (or at the very least, peer critique.)

There are a lot of forums and sites where you can get access to other aspiring writers, and get some feedback. Off-hand, DeviantArt comes to mind.

Now, before you scamper off to DA, and sign up, there are a couple things you’ll want to keep in mind.

First, think about what you’re posting. If you’re simply posting a short story or novella that you have no intention of ever professionally publishing, and you’re simply interested in getting better as a writer, then these kinds of communities can be very helpful.

If you want to take what you’ve written, and market it professionally, then you don’t want to post it on DA (or a similar site).

This gets into a concept called, “first publishing rights.” These revolve around being the first venue to publish that specific work. While it’s not a death knell for a piece, it does make it a lot less appealing to a prospective agent or publisher. (And it will be for some agents and editors, the same as if you publish it as an e-book.)

There are some counterexamples, but if you want to sell a story, don’t post it online. You can decide to do that later, if you want.

It’s important to understand, often in publishing, you’re not selling your work, you’re selling the rights to be the first publisher to distribute your work. If you’ve posted it publicly, that right has already been exercised. You may still sell the rights to distribute your work to another publisher down the line (depending on the contracts involved), but that first publishing right is something you want to hold onto.

The second thing to remember is, the people you’re interacting with on DA aren’t, necessarily, any better versed in writing than you are. That said, it can be a good site to start networking on, and it can eventually help you, down the line. (It can also function as a portfolio, so that may also be very useful to you.)

Put these two pieces together, and you should see where this can help you. You can meet other writers, and ask them to critique work you haven’t published. This can be a valuable resource, when you’re trying to improve material you do want to publish, before putting it in front of an editor.

Now, in general, your best option would be to find a local writer’s group. Your library or a local bookstore may host one, or events that will introduce you to other writers in your community. Interacting with other writers. I realize this is less convenient, and may feel more threatening, but being able to directly interact, and evaluate feedback does make this a lot more immediately valuable.

There’s also an element of risk with any online collaboration that doesn’t exist if someone else is reading a physical copy of your story while sitting across from you, or responding to you reading your work aloud.

So, here’s a fun little story: Back when I was a teenager, living at home, and writing on a laptop, my father would occasionally snoop through it. I’d been working on a novel. He found it at some point, and thought so much of it (and so little of me), that he chose to email the original document to a few family friends. One of those friends, CCed the thing to everyone in her contact list, because she was the, “oh, something bright and shiny is in my inbox, I need to inflict it on the entire human race,” kind of vapid.

I found out about this a couple months later, when I found the draft, published in its entirety on a website that will remain nameless by some random little shit, who was passing it off as their own.

Moral of the story: be careful who you show your work to online, if you intend to publish it. If your goal is to simply get it out there as an act of artistic expression, then posting on something like DA is a safe way to do so, and can be a good source for critique. It exercises your first publishing rights, but that only matters if you’re planning to sell it, and if someone steals it, you can point back and say, “hey, here, look at this,” then rake them over the coals.

One very reasonable approach would be to start with a community, post the stuff you’re not trying to get published, solicit feedback, learn from your mistakes, make friends, then when you start getting to the point where you feel like making the jump to professional publishing, you should already have a few people you can bounce ideas and material off of.

The safest approach is probably through a local writing group, though that is dependent on finding a group that meshes with your genre and overall tone. When working with other creatives its important to find those whose opinions you value, whom you trust, and who provide critiques you can use rather than deflating your spirit.

With that in mind, here’s a quote from Neil Gaiman to remember when taking criticism:

When people tell you there’s something wrong with a story, they’re almost always right. When they tell you what’s wrong, and how it can be fixed, they’re almost always wrong.

You will learn through experience how to tell the difference between good critique, helpful critique, and bad critique. Some of which you may not be ready to hear until several years down the line, when your confidence has grown to a level where you can look at it. Remember, critique is not someone saying something’s wrong with you. Even with an editor, you don’t want someone who will tell you how to fix a problem, just someone that will point out that an issue exists. You are still the author of your stories, and ultimately, you’re the only one who can fix them. All you need is someone who can point them out to you.

Remember, there are different levels in regards to critique partners and it is important to find those who are at your level, or at a similar place in their writing journey. This will change as you grow and improve, but jumping into the deep end with a professional writer when you’re just beginning without any warning to them is a terrible idea. They will eviscerate your confidence, completely by accident because what they’re looking for and what you’re looking for are entirely different. The same is true for a high school student sitting in on a Master’s program or even just a Creative Writing seminar at college. The priorities, understanding, and expectations during workshop will be wildly different. They might be valuable, but only if you’re ready to hear them. Critiquing requires people you sync with, whom you trust, and  whose opinions you value. However, they are also those you’ve confidence enough to listen to and disregard when their advice doesn’t help. No one but you can figure out what’s best for your work. Everyone else just aids in the journey.

These are the people who will sit down, evaluate the work on the basis of its merits rather than what they’d do with the story in your place. Someone who points out the feelings they had when reading, what worked for them and what didn’t.

Identify, for yourself, your ego boosting readers from your critique partners and keep them separate. The friend or family member who reads your work with enthusiasm and those other writers who are looking for weaknesses to help you improve are in separate categories. Both are helpful, but they are rarely a single individual. More than that, you want a group of other writers to work with so you can help them the way they help you.

Finally: if you’ve got a beta, especially one who is not a professional, it can help to give them specific guidelines to look for.

-Starke

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Q&A: Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Hi there, I’m trying to write a comic set in a dystopia, and your “feel good violence” post has really helped. BUT!! is there a way around the “killing your way to the top” trope? I can’t think of any other way for my heroes to complete the main story arc. the thing about dystopias is that they don’t change for anything less than a total kill-out, right? Thank you!

This somewhat depends on what you want to achieve.

There’s a real attraction to, “killing the bad guy,” to make the world a better place, it doesn’t really work. That doesn’t mean no one tries. It’s still perceived as a legitimate approach to getting rid of problematic organizations. The issue is, it doesn’t usually get rid of them.

So, let’s work with this in a few less abstract scenarios.

You’re a special forces operator from a first world nation with (nearly) unlimited resources and have been tasked with eliminating the a criminal organization that has overrun a nearby country.

Anyone you kill will be quickly replaced. If you wax someone, everyone below them gets an instant promotion. So simply assassinating the head of the organization would just mean his (or her) lieutenant takes their place. This may result in subtle policy shifts with the organization, but it’s still going to be there, doing whatever it was doing before. You haven’t removed the criminal syndicate. They’ll still be operating unaffected.

Ironically, the best you can hope for in this scenario is to weaken the syndicate. If you were able to sufficiently reduce their capacity (their ability to actually affect change) to the point where they’re no longer functional, you would actually kick off a power struggle with nearby syndicates moving in and trying to pick up their territory. If the leader you picked off was sufficiently prominent, you might be able to provoke this with one bullet. Unfortunately, you’d end up with a gang war in the streets and countryside of this hypothetical nation.

If you wanted to destroy this syndicate, the best route would be to cut off their financial support. That may mean destroying their supply lines, or production supplies. It may mean picking off their logistical experts, to reduce their efficiency. That said, even this approach isn’t 100%, and some of the most crippling blows you could inflict would be at a policy level, legalizing and regulating the behavior they’re exploiting to make money.

If the goal is to “send a message,” and your nation is seeking retribution for some previous harm, then the goal of assassinating the person who issued the order is… I don’t want to say, “legitimate,” but, killing them will achieve your goals. Unfortunately, it won’t discourage future violence. The people you’re killing are already under threat from their competitors, by joining the fray, you’re not doing something they weren’t prepared to deal with.

So, new scenario: same background, but you’re dealing with a warlord in a failed state or feral city. Ironically, a lot of the same issues apply. If you assassinate them, you’re not going to bring order back to the place. That would involve a full occupation, and a prolonged campaign to rebuild the local government.

Again, simply killing a warlord would mean their lieutenant would take control, or if they had multiple lieutenants and no clear line of succession, it may result in further violence as they fight with one another in an attempt to assume control. Again, if there are competing warlords, they’d be inclined to move in and try to expand their territory.

Now, it’s worth noting that not every nearby warlord would look at this situation and say, “yeah, don’t I want a piece of that,” however anyone who did would simply ramp up the bloodbath.

Again, this is a situation that can be handled with force, but it’s going to involve years of concentrated work, and a lot of troops operating as domestic police, while you rebuild the civil government. There’s some debate if this is even a possible solution.

Okay, new scenario: You’re tasked with suppressing a political movement. It has a clear, prominent, figurehead. Killing them is probably the worst possible solution to the problem. For one thing, it won’t remove the organization. The actual followers will still be out there, believing what they did (more or less), before the bullets started flying. So the organization will go on. At best nothing has changed, except the person rallying the people. You created a martyr who is now immune to character assassination. Good job.

However, it’s far more likely that the actual organization will radicalize. You’ll have members from that organization operating covertly against your interests. This could range from their own assassinations to bombings targeting civilians.

Using violence to suppress politics only leads to stronger, more aggressive, and often violent opposition.

If you’re wondering how that makes sense, when I just said engaging in violence will empower your foes, but lead your own faction to violence, it’s worth remembering that this is behavior that can easily consume both participants in a conflict. Once either one abandons discourse and turns to force in order to push their ideals, they encourage reciprocation.

To quote Babylon 5:

“You don’t have to respond in kind.”

“Of course we do. There’s a natural law. Physics tells us that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. They hate us, we hate them, they hate us back. And so, here we are: victims of mathematics.”

This is a pattern you’ll see frequently in sectarian violence and civil wars. There may have been political disagreements or grievances, but once the knives come out, the violence become cyclical. There is also a constant, direct, risk of escalation, and it’s often the civilian population that bears the greatest costs in these conflicts.

New scenario: You’re dealing with the CEO of a megacorporation that has marked your characters for death because of an off hand comment in a chatroom six years ago.

Yeah, killing him will remove him from the planet. You’re also now going to be going up on murder charges in a highly corrupt system, assuming corporate security doesn’t simply execute you on the spot. So, good job hero.

Killing him won’t take down the company. It probably won’t even change the company’s policies. You may have even done the board of directors a favor, allowing them to use the corpse as a scapegoat for any politically questionable choices they may have engaged in, while still keeping their hand firmly in the cookie jar. Not that said favor will buy your characters any clemency. They’re still looking at 25-life for murder.

Does any of this matter?

Yeah, kinda. If you’re going to use those characters or that setting again. Even if you’re just wrapping up the story, it’s probably worth remembering that surgically removing people from an organization doesn’t mystically cleanse it of all evil.

That said, people do look at this as a solution, and it makes perfect sense for someone to think, “yeah, that’s all we need to do.” It also creates a rich tapestry of interconnected consequences, which can really help if you’re setting stories further down the line in that setting, (regardless of if you intend to use your original characters or not.)

I mean, did they turn around and try to take the place of the crime lord, or warlord they waxed? It’s certainly possible, and they may well have become as bad or worse in their goal of doing something noble.  Did they turn a politically unstable metropolis into a feral city? Is that someplace you want to go back to, with new characters, because they need to get something, or rescue and extract someone?

There are a lot of potential ways to play it, and many of those could prove very interesting.

It’s also worth remembering your characters may not care what comes afterwards. If this is a personal vendetta, then the goal is to kill the guy. God, bad, doesn’t matter, they need to die. Everything that comes afterwards is unimportant to that motivation.

Also worth remembering: A lot of people genuinely believe this approach works. “Just go in and kill the dude, how hard can it be?” Only to be confused when the resulting consequences start kicking in. This applies to people who are relatively well educated, and know what they’re doing, so it’s not just some trap for the uneducated getting out of their depth.

If that’s the end of your story, so be it, but, I’d honestly recommend you keep pushing past that, and play with the aftermath. Probably with a new cast of characters, and after a few months or years, to let the new mess fully ferment.

-Starke

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Q&A: A Healthy Relationship Is Not Cliche

Is there any way for a reasonably smart girl to be involved with a dangerous rich boy? I really hate the trope of that kind of ‘healthy’ relationship, and I’m afraid to fall in that cliche. I apologize if this kind of ask doesn’t fit the blog’s specialty.

Well, the reasonably smart girl and the dangerous rich boy as presented usually isn’t healthy. It can be, but you’ve got to work at building the relationship and address the inherently lopsided power dynamics arising from the boy having all the resources and the girl having none.

As for reasonably intelligent girls making dumb choices? Intelligent young women don’t always make the smart choice. In fact, we all make stupid choices when we’re young. No one is going to be perfect 100% of the time. That isn’t a moral failing, that’s life. This is especially true when it comes to romance, and why its important to be forgiving regarding mistakes. Take into account what the mistake was, rather than the fact it happened. People make choices, sometimes they’re the wrong ones. Sometimes, they knew better and others they seemed right at the time. Mistakes are part of how we learn and grow. Sometimes, it takes sticking your hand into the fire before you learn not to do it anymore. This is especially true with intelligent young people. They may know the choice is bad, but they still think the outcome will be different for them. Sometimes, they’re right. More often, they’re terribly wrong.

We don’t always get to control who we’re attracted to, and sometimes we pursue them even when we know it isn’t a smart idea.  That’s human nature across the board. Doesn’t matter if the spark that started it is physical attraction, mental attraction, or emotional attraction. Smart girls and smart boys make dumb choices because the heart and libido aren’t driven by logic or reason, and sometimes the brain isn’t either! Ego gets in the way. Most teens don’t have the life experience to know the early warning signs of dangerous relationships. Or they lack the ability to tell a culturally pronounced “dangerous boy” who doesn’t fit the societal mold from one who actually is dangerous. There’s the appearance of bad and actually bad, and it can be difficult to tell the difference. These young people know what they’ve been told, but the experiences of another and your own are very different. Still, sometimes even when they consciously know and all the intelligent parts are telling them this is a terrible idea, their hormones are still in overdrive and off they go.

Don’t let anyone fool you, girls stumble around in the dark when it comes to romance just as much as the boys do and they make many of the same choices. Unless they luck out, girls don’t really get smart about relationships until they’re in their mid twenties  and by that point they’re women. Even then, intelligent women still make terrible choices when it comes to love.

The dangerous rich boy is one of those stunningly attractive stereotypes that young women have been conditioned to want even when they know they should know better. Or they’re in their late teens early twenties and a no strings attached summer relationship on a rich boy’s yacht could be the definition of a good time. (Remember, sometimes, the guy falls first in a no strings attached.  Girls get play too, often more. For all girls interested in this boy, there’s likely more than a few interested in the girl too. Rich boy probably has friends.)

It really depends on what ways this boy is dangerous and whether the risk he represents is worth it to our hypothetical female character. If it’s dangerous in the classic “I’ll break your heart” or “threat to virginity” way, then he may not be so bad and just is a player. (The virginity part is worth considering, because the idea of “purity” is still a fixture in most romantic tropes and it’ll ambush you in all its societally regressive nastiness if you’re not careful.) If it’s “I take out my anger issues on anyone who is close by and lash out, creating a codependent relationship where you feel responsible for me” or “threaten with physical violence” type, then that’s nowhere near a healthy relationship. If it’s the “I’ll get you addicted to designer drugs and alcohol” then that’s a little more serious. Lastly, if he’s the “I’m dating you so I can dump your drunk body in the ocean and watch you drown” type then chances are he’s murdered before and we’re in an I Know What You Did Last Summer scenario.

The romance genre is built on unhealthy relationships, unhealthy dynamics, power imbalance, and unattainable fantasies by choice. It’s wish fulfillment, a fantasy where the man society conditions us to want actually turns out to be the best choice. (Rather than an abusive, controlling trash fire.) That’s not all it has to be, but that’s what the genre often boils down to. The fantasy by itself isn’t bad, and if you want it that doesn’t make you bad either. The princess fantasy is incredibly appealing. In the classic sense, the dangerous rich boy is just another version of the Beast from Beauty & the Beast. He’s the princely hero here to be redeemed by the heroine’s good heart, then he carries her away from all her troubles to a life of safety and luxury. He is not, however, a Mr. Darcy. If you want a Darcy, you’re gonna have to work for your dinner.

The way to avoid cliche is to acknowledge the cliche, and remember that cliche is only a cliche in broad strokes. If you can get away from generalities and into people, then you escape its deathly grip.

Unhealthy relationships spawn for all sorts of reasons, and healthy ones do too. The major difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship is that the healthy one is shared growth while the unhealthy one tries to force the other person to change. Two people, together, who mutually respect each other and share a partnership is a healthy relationship.

Love is both inherently selfish and incredibly selfless. The difference between them is desirous or possessive love for your own sake, when you seek the other person for the fulfillment of your own happiness. That’s often an imaginary love, driven by your idea of who the other person is or should be. The other is sacrificial love, where the object of affection’s needs take precedence. Often, when we’re young, we can’t tell the difference. Are you nice to the object of your interest in the hopes they’ll notice you? Or are you nice to them because you genuinely care about them? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. When you reach a point where you realize you’d continue to do nice things for them because you want to and not for any potential outcome or relationship reward is the point where we’ve reached sacrificial love.

Unhealthy relationships are built on the bones of possessive love, on selfish love. It is not a give and take, it is often all one way. One gives and the other takes, one sacrifices their comfort in order to sustain the relationship and the other refuses to change. The emotional labor is entirely in one corner rather than a shared burden. Sacrifice for their partner revolves around whims, not needs. Demanded to fit the image their partner envisions for them or imagines them to be, rather than trying to understand them.

Behind Unhealthy Relationship Door Number One is the pedestal, and this is the one you’re most likely to fall prey to when writing romance. The pedestal is a fantasy construction and it is sexism, but it is also very attractive, extremely flattering, and safe. It tricks us into thinking we’re beautiful, treasured, and valued. The truth about the pedestal is its the realization of a societal construct where women have not only have no power over their lives but actively give their power up in pursuit of the fantasy. They are pretty objects who exist to be looked at and adored, much like a statue. This happens easily if you believe the pedestal is love, which it isn’t. The pedestal and the emotions it evokes often feel like they’re love, but true love is a relationship of equals. True love cannot exist when one person is set higher than the other and their value lies in objectification. (Men and women can both end up on the pedestal, but it is more common for women.)

The fantasy version of this trope is the prince or rich man who comes to carry the girl off. She is safeguarded, protected from the world, and her needs provided for. The best a young woman can hope for in a world where she cannot chart her own destiny. For all the perks that arrive with the pedestal, the trade off is power and freedom. It is easier to let others make the decisions for you, but the trade off is reduction into an object. The one who sets another on a pedestal doesn’t truly love them, they love the statue. Silent, voiceless, existing solely serve the whims of others and be admired. Safe, perhaps, but without control.

When you’ve got a male or female character talking about how beautiful someone is and never mentioning who they are and what they do, you’re halfway to the pedestal. Oh, those looks may be the first indicator of attraction (or not), but if the relationship never moves beyond it and if one character begins making all the decisions for the other then we’ll end up barrelling toward that pedestal.

Real love is mutual respect and partnership, it is a relationship of equals. The pair are a unit, keeping their own opinions but working together to become more than the sum of their parts. The relationship is built on a foundation of trust and good communication, rather than insecurity and jealousy.  They won’t be perfect. There may be drama, but the drama is built on real, external issues or internal issues and not the perception of wandering eyes. They work together to solve the problems with come up, and grow stronger as a result. They know they are loved. If a girl or boy starts flirting with their significant other, the answer is not going to be a jealous rage. They’re going to look at their SO, wryly raise their brow, and go, “really?”

Believe it or not, when someone tries to break up a solid, healthy relationship the member that’s being hit on goes home and tells their SO about it. They don’t hide it, or if they do they eventually fess up and the fact they didn’t say anything is the source of the drama rather than the person hitting on them. Trust is allowing another to make decisions for themselves, and decide their own feelings. Protecting someone from the truth, even with the best intentions, isn’t a love of equals. Jealousy is the result of insecurity. It is often an early warning sign of trust issues, healthy relationships work those kinks out through communication. Respect is based in honesty. It does take courage to be honest, to give up control. If you’ve got a character who can’t give up the idea they don’t control how their partner feels or is trying to control them, then the relationship isn’t healthy.

The healthy version of the “dangerous” rich boy and the smart girl is taking a trope card out of Pride and Prejudice to run with called, “Challenged to Change.” (Encouraged to Change is more appropriate, no one is making ultimatums.) This is the card where two people bring their personal flaws and foibles to the table and their experiences with each other open up the opportunities for them to grow. Their joint character development occurs as a direct result of their interactions or relationship, allowing them to see themselves, their surroundings, and their potential in new ways. The most groundbreaking conclusions occur as self-discovery, they realize their behavior needs to change. They then take the steps to do so, often independent of their romantic partner. Or, with them, not out of fear of losing them but because they want to be better. They learn to communicate, they listen, and they compromise.

They may fight, but the fighting is key to character development. They go away in a huff, they reflect, they come to new realizations, and ultimately they change their behavior (with no promise of reward). They see themselves through new eyes, with new perspectives, and understand why what they did was wrong. They apologize. They don’t change for the other person in order to please them.

Remember, Mr. Darcy’s most groundbreaking character development happens when he is absolutely certain that Elizabeth has rejected him. He doesn’t help her family in the final act out of any desire to win her over, in fact he doesn’t want her or anyone in her family to know. He helps them because he loves her, he sees the damage done by Wickham to the Bennet family, and recognizes his culpability in allowing this event to occur. He shoulders the burden and the expense, in part because he cares for Elizabeth, but mostly because Wickham is his responsibility. Elizabeth’s rejection of him caused a realization of his behavior (which according to social traditions of Victorian England should not have happened), and encouraged him to change as a result. He didn’t just change toward her or her family, his behavior changed toward everyone. He got mad, yes, but he realized she was right. Upon reflection, she realized he was right about her family too.

It doesn’t need to be as drastic as Pride and Prejudice or start in dislike, the part where they encourage each other to change, act as catalysts to character growth, and pursue their dreams is what’s most important. The balancing of power dynamics so they learn to approach one another as equals, with valuable opinions, and respect each other is key to developing a healthy relationship in your fiction. The process where they come to this realization as they fall in love is your story.

Don’t be frightened of cliches, every relationship can be a healthy relationship or an unhealthy one. The narrative is defined how you explore the romance between these two, whether you paint in specifics or broad strokes. Do you follow the formula? Or do you carve out your own unique path based on your characters’ personalities?

At this point, perhaps, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may seem cliche. However, what is so enduring about her novels is their challenge to Victorian social structure and defiance of those expectations. Her heroines are struggling against the realities of the world they live in, trying to decide their futures beyond just their future happiness. Marriage for love was a revolutionary idea in Victorian England, a privilege accorded only to the very rich and sometimes not even then. For Elizabeth to refuse marriage to someone like Mr. Collins is, in itself, revolutionary considering her social situation. Refusing Darcy on his first offer is mind blowing, marrying him would secure both her and her family’s future.  The idea she said no out of a desire to pursue her own happiness was, for her time and for a woman in her financial situation, revolutionary.

Similar problems exist now, today. They are different, in their way, but taking into account the social requirements, expectations, the family members, and friendships surrounding your characters will help you path the external challenges as well as the internal ones between them.

What is it about this boy that attracts this girl? Why is the relationship a stupid choice? (Is it?)

What is it about this girl that attracts this boy?

Why is he considered dangerous? And by whom? Who is he dangerous to? Her? Girls like her? How did he come by this reputation? What are the rumors surrounding him?

What are the social circumstances surrounding him? His relationship with his parents? His family? His friends? What responsibilities does he have? Or will be expected to have? What is the danger in pursuing a relationship with her? What is it about this relationship that might disrupt his future prospects or his family’s plans for him?

What are the social circumstances surrounding her? Her relationship with her parents? Her family? What responsibilities does she have? Or will be expected to have? What is the danger in pursuing a relationship with him? What about him might disrupt those future prospects?

These characters are going to have flaws, foibles, backgrounds, and possibly morals which will cause them to conflict. Working through those conflicts is part of their relationship developing.

Let me tell you, I hated Starke when I first met him. I did not like him at all. He was this really annoying guy in my American Film class, who always asked questions that distracted the whole lecture. After every question it took forever to get our professor back on point. Those segues were interesting but after they happened five times in a single class, it got super annoying. Sometimes, we didn’t even get to finish the whole lecture. Every time I heard his voice, I wanted to smack him. (Not the cute kind of ‘attracted to him’ either. No, it was “not this guy again.” I just wanted to hit him.) Then, one night, we got paired up in a group to talk about the film we just watched. Then, we started debating the film. (It was 8pm.) After class finished we went out to my car, continuing to talk about the film, and ended up standing by my car talking about it until 1am. After the first night, this became a routine. We started hanging out together more and more. We talked about all sorts of things, and I discovered he was a very interesting person to talk to. Eventually (a year later), we started dating. And that is one (small) part of the story behind why this blog exists.

The moral of this story is relationships start for all kinds of weird reasons and they’re not always convenient, which is why we roll with them instead of constantly trying to justify their existence. Anything can be the catalyst, what happens after is where the story is.

-Michi

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Q&A: Amnesia is Autopilot

Hey! Are individual fighting styles recognizable? I’ve got a character who is a master with the glaive and before the story she has an encounter with another character who sees her fight. Neither recognize each other when they meet up again because he couldn’t see her face due to her armor and she lost her memory. However I don’t know how common the glaive was during its use or how recognizable an individual’s fighting style is so is it possible that he might recognize her by watching her fight?

Style requires there be more than one version of the weapon discipline. This is likely. Mastery requires an individual style that has been practiced long enough that it has been formally recognized by whichever group is the decider, and has taken on students or linked to a martial school or the single individual who created it. So, you wouldn’t have a “master of the glaive” but instead a “master of the Black Rose style, specializing in the glaive, recognized by the Seven Sisters.”  Unless the whole style itself revolved singularly around the glaive and even then it’s, “trained in Master Ferro’s glaive style.” or “the western reaches glaive style” or “farmhand glaive” or whatever. Beyond that “glaive” is just one term for the weapon and weapon family, there are others. It could be called something completely different in a different country. The naginata, for example, is a glaive. The Russians called it a sovnya. Usage of the weapon varied based on country and culture with a variety of styles surrounding its use. The most unrealistic thing in Protector of the Small series regarding Kel’s glaive/naginata is that the contemporary European Tortall didn’t have an easily recognizable version of its own.

It’s possible to identify what style a person has been trained in, but less likely to identify the individual unless they’re famous or practice a unique style. If the onlooker is familiar with the style or the style is incredibly unique as in its passed on specifically from master to apprentice and only two people in the world know it. That would require your female character killed her master as a graduation test, like Kenshin was supposed to when he finally completed the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu. That or the weapon just doesn’t exist in the part of the world where she’s traveling or uses a style wholly alien. Even then, the other character would have to know the singular individual who practices it and, like with Himura Kenshin, that opens her up to being recognized by everyone. Even if she is the progenitor of her own style like Bruce Lee and has taught it to others, she won’t be recognized on style alone due to being an amnesiac. That’s a severe hit to skill level, and she won’t be anywhere near at the level she’d need to be in order to be recognized as a famous warrior or master. (That is the point of an amnesia plot.)

The people who can identify a personal style are:

Your Master. (This is the person who raised you, they are your martial art parent. They know you, possibly better than your own parents do and they’ll recognize you anywhere.)

Your Training Partners. (This is not trained with them once, this is trained with them for years, as good as family, and are sworn brothers. People the character has spent a lot of time fighting with.)

Your Students. (Like with a master, students can recognize their teacher. Like a child recognizes their parent. They spend a lot of time watching them.)

Your Sworn Enemies. (These are the people you’ve spent a lot of time fighting. If someone spends a lot of time trying to kill you and you trying to kill them, they can usually recognize the threat at a distance without help.)

So, unless this other character is one of the above, him recognizing her by watching her fight is unlikely. He’d need to be someone who saw her when she wasn’t at her best, when she struggled in the beginning, or what she looks like when she’s either at her worst or on a bad day. If his only experience is he saw her once at a tournament or on the battlefield in passing then he’s not going to associate the current article with the distant memory. He’d be more likely to recognize her by fighting her, if he’s fought her in the past. The likeliest outcome is he’d recognize her as a talented beginner or at an intermediate level who is worth training further, which leads him to seek her out. That, or, they share the same style and had the same trainer so he feels comfortable going to talk to her. This outcome requires their civilization have some sort of training and patronage system.

I’d abandon the idea she still fights as well as she used to, and roll reacquiring of her skills into her character arc. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the same problem lots of writers run into when they make a character too good. If the character doesn’t struggle, the fight sequences suffer and lose their tension. If you apply the term “master” to a character they will be expected to win. Tension is challenge based.

A character who is at pinnacle skill level must fight characters at a similar or greater skill level while taking into account all that skill and experience implies. With hyper competent characters, we get more out of challenging them where their skills are lacking like Geralt from The Witcher dealing with politicians or solving puzzles where violence is the worst possible choice. This is why you should always be careful when metering out between beginner, intermediate, skilled, very skilled, and exceptional. The trade off for characters at the top of their game is they’re limited. There’s less about them to make them interesting, and new growth is required outside their attained skill set. Unless amnesia sends them back to start and they’re regaining skills faster than they can handle, it won’t be enough to change that.

Most of what makes a style unique to an individual happens cognitively in the choices they make and the skills they choose to utilize rather than what’s based in their muscle memory. A character fighting on autopilot (which is what’s happening here) is going to be very different from a character who is actively making choices based on past experiences and prior knowledge. Unless she’s working with Jason Bourne type amnesia (and even if she is), the amnesiac character is going to be missing key pieces that bring her style up to a master’s level. (I’d also rethink mastery if she’s anywhere under thirty-five, especially if you’ve never spent time around martial arts masters.)

A martial arts master is not a character who is very good, exceptional, or at the top of their martial art.  You can be all those things and not be a master of a particular style. Mastery is, ironically, not skill level. Technical skill is one part of it, the other half is esoteric and very difficult to explain. Mastery is more than just the all-encompassing technical understanding. It is all-encompassing understanding. You’re unlikely to find one under the age of forty, even if they’ve attained the belt rank because it is a state of being that requires enlightenment born from personal experiences. That enlightenment is developed through rigorous training and difficult tests of character.

More than that, one cannot be a master if they have not taken on students even if it is just a single disciple. A master is not just someone who is at the top, they are the head of and entrusted with carrying on the traditions of their particular style. Their time on the battlefield is, for the most part, done, and they have retired to instruct the next generation. Only the most extreme threats will force a master out of hiding because they don’t have the patience for that crap. Teaching others is required. Sifu, Sensei, Sabumnim all are just terms for teacher. It’s like calling your professor a professor. They teach. That’s their job.

In literary terms, a master is a mentor. They serve the same purpose in fiction that they do in real life. They’re there to facilitate the growth of the next generation and guide them on their path to becoming masters themselves. They are parent, teacher, and spiritual advisor. Unless you know how to work with them and the tropes surrounding them, they will kill your narrative even as an amnesiac. There is nowhere for them to go as characters within conventional arcs. A master’s character development and narrative arcs are entirely spiritual. Their best use comes from the teacher/student dynamic like the kind seen in The Karate Kid. Or as a character struggling to reach that state. They are one of the most difficult character types to write, especially if you have no prior experience. They are impossible to write if you lack an understanding of the martial style they practice. If they’re not your protagonist, you can fudge it like with Yoda or Master Li or any number of other quasi-masters seen in fiction. If the master is your protagonist then you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, all the time and in every scene. Even then, their job will still be facilitating the growth of the characters who surround them rather than growing themselves.

Without their memory, this character is no longer a master and if they never took on the responsibility of training others then they aren’t one anyway. Renown for their skill at arms and a master are two very separate characters, and it is best not to get them confused. For example, Inigo Montoya is not a master swordsman. Goku, Kenshin Himura, Yuusuke Urameshi, and other shounen characters of similar power are also not masters. Meanwhile, Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi are both Jedi Masters.  They’ve reached a point where they’ve taken on students, and while they may still have adventures those adventures still revolve around their position as teacher. We have the some of surviving training manuals of some the master swordsmen who came out of Europe, and they had students. You can find them on Wikitenauer.

“Master” sounds good, but you’re going to want a full understanding of what the term means before you apply it.  The terminology has a long history of use in fiction, especially now as we’re getting more media from China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Your readers are going to know what it means in concept, even if that wasn’t what you intended. So, you want to be sure of what you want from your character before you start applying it.

A master is literally one of the worst characters to have as a protagonist, unless you know the story you want and their purpose fits with those needs. They’re like an admiral. If you want to write a story around an admiral being an admiral, then that’s great. However, the admiral cannot just take off for parts unknown or lead a battlefield charge. Well, they can but there’s going to be fallout for that failure of leadership. They’ve reached a point where they can delegate and they’re far better at facilitating growth in others than they are at being the main event. Masters are perfect for telling stories about teachers, a teacher struggling with their inner demons as they grow in a new skill set.

In martial arts, teacher is the next step on the road to mastery. Teaching is a method of self-discovery and gaining greater understanding of your martial art. In teaching others, we attain a greater technical understanding of our skills than we did before. We approach our old skills in a new way and with new eyes, learning from our students as they learn from us.

“Those who can’t do, teach” is a faulty statement. A good teacher may be less renown than singularly focused professionals but is often the most skilled person in the room. They’re the ones who can translate what they know into new contexts so they can be understood by beginners. When one focuses on themselves alone, they reach a skill ceiling they can’t break through and at which point they no longer grow. It is through reevaluation of those skills through new eyes that they discover new ways they can be applied. Martial artists often develop their best techniques through teaching. In the process, they build communities.

Think for a moment about all your favorite teachers and those you’ve loved in your life. What would happen if they suddenly vanished without explanation? How would you feel?

This character is a master of the glaive, so where are all the people who went looking for her after she disappeared? A master martial artist isn’t like a spy, they don’t usually travel alone and even when they do someone is going to go looking for them when they disappear. The amnesiac martial arts master is a trope in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, but by the time we reach the third act (or even the second) their students have come barreling in and found them. If it wasn’t one of their disciples who located them to begin. “Master went missing (again), we need to find them” is an actual narrative arc. This is also, usually, kickstarts a traditional master/student narrative with whomever takes the roving amnesiac in hand and helps them recover their memory.

A character who is an amnesiac takes an extreme hit to their skills, so this character is not going to be fighting on the level she was before if she can at all. Autopilot is still autopilot, and autopilot will screw you over against anyone who knows what they’re doing. It is entirely likely she will have an entirely different style, if she can fight at all. Muscle memory is one part of the equation, experience and the knowledge necessary to use learned skills is another. She won’t be able to strategize, for instance, or have any tactical awareness. Her pattern recognition will probably be shot, which means that while she can block and counter she’ll be reacting instead of acting. Reaction may be good, but she’ll be at the whim of a more experienced actor. In a tournament setup, she’s going to end up middling at best and low tier at worst. She’ll make most of the same mistakes beginners will, but she’ll have the skills to get herself into deeper trouble and lack the necessary experience to get herself out.

High level martial skill is experience, not technique. Being good at dueling is based in experience, understanding how to react and counter is experience. Decision making is experience, as is understanding the full range of techniques available. Your female character’s technique may look fantastic due to her muscle memory and her reaction time may be flawless, but understanding feints and tactics requires a level of experience she either no longer possesses or what she’s gained in new experience up to this point. Those new experiences will have changed the look and feel of her martial style, as she is ultimately a new person. This character is in the process of uncovering and rediscovering her skill set, but she cannot and may never use them the same way she used to. It’s pretty common that when some of that experience goes, it is gone forever.

Outside of that, she’ll still need to practice those skills she can remember on the regular to keep them up to snuff. Failing at either, she’ll fall behind. This means she’s likely working off a limited number of techniques rather than the full scope  she previously possessed. If she has been trained by someone else, it will likely be in another style using the glaive and that will change her style as a result. If all she’s done up to this point is rely on her own muscle memory to provide her techniques, then she’ll only have control over those she’s remembered and practiced. The new ones she remembers in battle will occur on autopilot. Autopilot is outside her control, and that is exceedingly dangerous both to herself and whomever she’s fighting. This means she could kill someone in a friendly bout or end up using a controlling technique when she needs to kill. Blind technique is blind technique, the body moves according to its own will. Trained reflex is the same as instinct, it cares nothing for situation or circumstance. Her body will act in accordance with what its been trained to do with no guiding input from the head. The head is where the morals and contextual understanding are, the head understands the importance of limitation and behavioral changes depending on circumstance. The body doesn’t. Use of force is cognitive. The body just responds, and what it responds with will be what it is most used to using. These are usually the basics, and while basics are foundational, most people from beginner to intermediary levels understand how to counter them. Advanced fighters know how to take advantage of them. Advanced combat happens entirely with the head, utilizing controlling and changing circumstances.

(This is a common thread in the martial artist amnesia plot, the amnesiac formerly skilled martial artist can fight off the untrained and beginners by rote muscle memory.  They struggle against the intermediary usually to the point where they either lose or almost lose, and are demolished by advanced combatants. This is often before they hit their final antagonist, which prompts them to realize they need to train and meditate to recover themselves. Then, their past catches up with them.)

Limited experience with specific weapon types will probably mean her body doesn’t know how to react to them at all, because it didn’t have enough time to get them down by rote. That is what her muscle memory is. Rote. The techniques she didn’t regularly practice will be gone, the techniques she used but rarely will return later to last, and her ability to change her fighting style depending on situation is entirely beyond her control and entirely reliant on what her body remembers how to do. This isn’t a magic switch.

If she recalls some of the experience with the technique in fragments of memory, then she’ll inevitably create openings. An experienced fighter will take advantage of those. It may happen in a fraction of a second, but that fraction is the difference between a block and a killing blow.

This other character may look at her and see something in her style reminiscent to someone he once knew, but the level is so below what it once was that he dismisses it. Maybe he seeks her out wondering if she’s a student of a friend or copying a style she saw in passing, only to discover she’s the master and an amnesiac but that would require her having a school with students. The same would apply if he was impressed by her talent, but working under the assumption she needed more training.

Skill without knowledge or experience necessary to use it is a recipe for disaster.  An amnesiac has to learn all over again, and what they re-learn will never be exactly what it was before. The shades of the other self are there, the muscle memory is there, the skills are there in part, but they aren’t the same person in total and they can’t be used to the same degree of finesse. The technical aptitude is missing. There is a vast difference between being able to recall or copy a sonnet you wrote versus being able to compose one that is entirely new.

Basically, if you’ve got one character going through the motions and the other character looking at them but to recognize them they’d need to be going full throttle.

The solution is probably going to be he seeks her out on the basis of her talent, only to be surprised to discover she’s the master he planned to send her to and now in need of his help. (Not that she wins, she may lose and probably should but that this mystery warrior is talented enough to warrant the offer of training.) He’s more likely to overlook her if she’s exceptional. The middling to intermediate are the ones who get sought out at tournaments by more skilled instructors. There’s not much reason for a skilled warrior to seek out a skilled warrior if they weren’t planning to in the beginning, they’re more likely to ask around about the mystery person.

Tournament social groups break down by skill level, previous experience, and likelihood of consistent attendance. New people usually keep to themselves or are introduced to a group by more experienced attendees, while those who frequent the circuit gather together. There are the social butterflies who hang with each other until they’re called and watch the matches. The ones who linger alone on the sidelines, watching. The serious ones won’t spend time with anyone else, who limber up and practice alone. To immediately get attention from a stranger at your skill level, you need to be exceptional. One punch or single hit exceptional, and over in less than five seconds. Otherwise its slowburn.

She’s probably been killing a lot of people just off rote muscle memory. It’s going to be worse in a tournament where similarly skilled martial combatants will be in attendance and quite likely more familiar with dueling than she is or was in her previous life. (Master doesn’t mean master of everything or can handle everything.) If she’s not knocked out early, the end likelihood is her killing another participant entirely by accident after they’ve pushed her body past the limit of what its comfortable with and it begins responding outside her control. Again, muscle memory does not mean your body will do your fighting for you. It isn’t an out to give your characters high skill levels when you the author doesn’t know what those skills mean or how they appear. Reflexes and muscle memory mean the body will do what they’ve been trained to do regardless of circumstance and if the head doesn’t know what that is then the head can’t control it.

Basically, an amnesiac participating in a tournament in order to quickly regain their skills sounds like a great idea but the problem is the character is not in control of what’s going to happen. This happened in The Bourne Identity, Bourne wakes up with no memory, is attacked, and then kills his attackers. This may have been for the best, but he had no control over what he did or how he did it and it took him awhile to recall how to do the same thing intentionally. The Long Kiss Goodnight is another good one, but she’s still fighting mostly on memory and her memory is getting mixed up with her cover identity.

Amnesia with combat skills is rolling the dice. You don’t know what will set them off or what’s going to happen when they do. They could disarm the guy, they could crush his throat. Amnesia with weapon is the fast track to accidental death and dismemberment. There’s a lot more at stake and many more opportunities for the situation to go wrong. The basic attack patterns and combinations are going to revolve around killing. That’s the purpose a weapon like the glaive. Meanwhile, they have no ability to defend themselves while fighting on autopilot and completely cede control of the field to someone else because again, how their body behaves is outside their control. The most skilled character fighting on autopilot will end up at the mercy of any character marginally able to hold their own and function on all cylinders. Advanced skills and their application are beyond what muscle memory can provide. They can retrain but they will never fight the exact same way they did before they lost their memory, and, unless they are very lucky, will never be the same person.

New people make new choices and therefore fight in new ways, and the person is the one who creates stylistic identifiers. The act of recovering her fighting ability will change her fighting style in minute ways, enough to ensure its no longer personally identifiable.

-Michi

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