Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Assholery is Apathy

Hello. I have a really bad question cause I’m a really bad writer but how do you make a character seem like an asshole or mean without making it sound too forced and/or fake? I’m a generally nice person (I guess) and have a difficult time writing characters with a mean personality type so any help would be greatly appreciated. (If youve answered this question before or a similar one I apologize and would appreciate if you could point me in the direction of that post)

You’re not a bad writer. Everyone starts someplace. Everyone works with material they’re not familiar with and learn from their experiences. A bad writer is someone who doesn’t even realize they need to ask the question, assumes they already know, and charges full steam ahead without any self-reflection. As a writer learning to think from the perspective of someone else, whose personalities we don’t share and often have difficulty understanding is a learned skill. You are not a negative moral judgement for having limited experience with a personality type, or not understanding that personality.

However, to write from the perspective of a personality you disagree with it is also necessary to reject morality and knee-jerk moral judgements. This is especially true with assholes.

The asshole don’t care.

When it comes to the feelings of others and how their actions are interpreted, the asshole is apathetic. They also don’t care about the consequences or the aftermath of what they say. They don’t see themselves as being mean, to be mean would require they care about someone else’s feelings and they don’t. They don’t give a flying crap about you, how you feel, how you interpret what they’re saying, or about your dog. Or, they’re in a situation where they think everyone is on the same page with the not caring.

How to sell an asshole in fiction and in real life is that oftentimes they are actually fairly accurate with what they say. Yes, what they said was mean, but it was on point. The best insults are the accurate insults, they get into our insecurities and dig their way past our defenses into the very core of who we are. That’s why they hurt. Mean people, successfully mean people as characters in fiction, are daggers and arrows with unerring accuracy that will strike into the very heart of you.

Make no mistake, this is not a state of being. The ability to accurately assess another person and strike without mercy in a way that is both witty and funny is a skill, and you should respect it as one.

Sometimes, assholery is a defense mechanism. Sometimes, it’s learned from parents. Sometimes, it’s the result of an emotionally abusive home. Sometimes, it comes from being bullied. Sometimes, it just evolves on its own. Sometimes, it’s a way of lashing out. Sometimes, it’s just a means of driving other people off. Like everything else, apathy, cruelty, cruel people, mean people, are all products of their environments.  This doesn’t let them off the hook for their actions. Knowing where someone came from and how they got to where they are doesn’t absolve them of the harm they do, but it does help in terms of understanding who the character is.

Your problem, right now, is you think people just are the way they are. This is the problem with ascribing morality to personalities, and looking from the perspective of who they are rather than what they do and why they did it. You’re also looking at social and cultural mores

You got a cruel kid on the playground, there’s a good chance they got it from somewhere or from someone. That, or they know they won’t have to deal with the consequences of what they just did.

However, if you care about either what will happen to you as a result of saying these things or about the other person’s feelings (even in your own head), this is going to be a very difficult character for you to write. You’re going to have to teach yourself to turn society’s judgements off, and find your inner asshole.

Aggressive Asshole – The aggressive asshole is aggressive.

Weaponized Asshole – This is the person who is normal 90% of the time, but when they turn it on they can go. The weaponized asshole uses their assholery as a legit weapon, the same way one might use their fists or blades. Their goal is to make the other person exit as fast as possible. Instead of just saying get out, they’re going to hurt you so you don’t want to be around them anymore. It can be surprising, sudden, and incredibly painful.

Passive Aggressive Asshole – The passive aggressive asshole strikes when you think you’re safe. They come at you sideways. They’re the dagger in the dark, and they’ll let that comment rip the moment you’ve dropped your defenses. In the hands of a master, you’ll find the blade buried in your back with your sense of self annihilated. Their cutting comments are not only highly accurate,  but you’re going to wonder if it happened. This is the assassination style of assholery.

The passive aggressive asshole doesn’t have the courage to be the aggressive asshole or the funny asshole because they know society will strike them hard for acting out. Often, they are white women (all the passive aggressive masters in my family are) and looking for ways to let their inner aggression out. This often someone who has been punished for saying “mean things” and is going to say them anyway, just in ways that can’t be caught.

Regarding women, it’s usually WASP women because societal rules regarding what white women can and can’t say before they’re no longer perceived as acceptable are much stricter than for other groups. When you’re looking for passive aggression, it’s going to come from people whose behavior is heavily moderated and controlled by external forces. The way assholishness asserts itself is heavily dependent on social mores and acceptability, thus ethnicity (more so than race or skin color), culture, and class must be taken into account.

Domineering Asshole – The domineering asshole is the asshole who knows they’re better than you and they’re going to tell you all about it. The worst case scenario with the domineering asshole is that they’re right, and they often are. That’s why they’re an asshole.

Honest Asshole – The honest asshole is someone who is brutally honest when it comes to their opinions. In fact, they don’t even see their opinions as opinions but rather as fact. They will tell you what they think, regardless of whether or not you want to know. And if it’s hurtful? Well, the truth hurts.

Funny Asshole – The funny asshole is very similar to the weaponized asshole and the honest asshole. They say mean and offensive things, yes, but they’re also funny.  And hey, you laughed. See: Denis Leary in all his stand up routines. (Caveat: it is very difficult to write or be the funny asshole. Most assholes who think they’re funny and take refuge in it are just assholes.)

50% Asshole – Can be other shades of asshole, but they’re only an asshole about fifty percent of the time.

Regular Asshole – This is the asshole who turns it on and turns it off, usually at will. They can be any of the other types, but the key to understanding them is they’re assholes to some people and not to others.  They understand what is and isn’t appropriate for social situations. The natural state asshole might be an asshole to their teacher but they’re an asshole to everyone, while the regular asshole is only an asshole to their classmates or only to their teacher or only with their friends when everyone’s an asshole together.

Natural State Asshole – This is the extremely unpleasant asshole, because they do not moderate their assholery and they cannot turn it off. They are an asshole to everyone, all the time. Think, Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets.

Beyond assholes, there are a lot of different kinds of mean people out there. Too many to really cover in a single post. I haven’t even covered all the shades of asshole, and there are many more than are here. That is the problem with asking about meanness in general, there are many, many, many shades and they’re all different types.

The two types are those who don’t care and those who want to hurt the other person. It is very important to not mistake one for the other. Sometimes, the asshole hides someone with a fragile self-esteem that’s beating others down to build themselves up. However, this is not always the case. This isn’t even usually the case. Lots of people are this way because they like it, or because they’re rewarded for it, or because the people they surround themselves with are like them. Most assholes are fully aware that what they’re saying hurts others, and they said it either because they wanted to or because they didn’t care if they did.

There is a certain enviable freedom in that, which is why they’re often so attractive as characters. Not because they can be redeemed, but in the ways they encourage others to break free of society’s rules or social etiquette.

Why do girls want bad boys? Because bad boys are far more likely to encourage them to unshackle themselves from society’s constraints and expected good behavior.

Engaging with your inner asshole means learning to act the way you want rather than how society expects. In some ways, it is an act of rebellion. Therefore, the shape the assholery takes and the act of rebellion itself is going to be different from culture to culture. In some, certain versions won’t be a rebellion at all even when they feel like they are. If you don’t understand the culture you’re working with, then understanding the role of the asshole is difficult.

The way you learn how to write “mean people” is by teaching yourself how to say what you want to say without fear of reprisal, even if it’s just in the quiet dark of your mind or on the page.

We all have our own inner mean streak, I have mine and you have yours. You’re caught up on applying moral judgements to yourself over certain kinds of behaviors, which is why you’re not used to exercising it. A mean streak that has not been given air and life, or even acknowledged is not going to be particularly sharp. If you sit there worrying about what others will think of you, then you can’t do it.

True cruelty is art, and built on observational skill. As is the kind that gets others to side with the asshole over the victim. It requires practice. If asshole is not a state you’ve come by naturally, then you’re going to have to learn how to fight through your own internal hangups and tap into those parts of yourself you haven’t let come out to play. Take note of characters in film who are cruel or assholes, and try to mimic them. This will be uncomfortable for you, either because you aren’t used to it or because you’ve been taught not to behave that way.

This starts with writing your character’s saying things you know are inappropriate, and then teaching them or yourself not to care when someone else responds badly. Like everything else, apathy is learned. It is a learning not to care. You can figure out later why they don’t, or what part of their past led them to learn how to cut themselves off, or why they said it. Begin though with saying the thing. Once you’ve uncovered your own particular brand of slumbering assholery, you can begin branching out into others.

The answer to pretending to be something you’re not is that it just takes practice. You learn to access those parts of yourself you intentionally avoid or suppress, then learn through experience and observation how to see through the eyes of others. You’re simulating experiences, and simulation requires experience. The more life experience you have, the more practice you have, and the more research you do, then the better you’re going to be at seeing from different points of view. That isn’t a flaw and it doesn’t make you a bad writer.  You’re just beginning at the beginning, and no one expects a beginner to know everything. Don’t judge yourself for ignorance, recognize ignorance as an opportunity to learn.

Allow yourself to make mistakes on the page, allow yourself to go to far, get in touch with that meanness without internally judging yourself. Think of all the mean things you would’ve said, might have said, wondered if you should have said but didn’t. Then, let them out.

The more you practice, the better you’ll get at writing likeable jerks versus unlikeable ones. You’ll learn how to balance them out, how to be unapologetic about it. Remember, pretending to be something you’re not doesn’t make you that person even when those feelings come from inside you.

TLDR: Just because your characters are shitty people doesn’t mean you are. So, practice makes perfect.


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Q&A: Drunken Punchin’

Does drunken fighting have any basis in reality?

I don’t think this is the question you’re asking, but, yeah, bar fights are a thing. People will do all kinds of stupid things while boozed up, as any bouncer or bartender can tell you.

I seriously encourage you look for work stories from bartenders and/or bouncers. They make for some very amusing reading, and can be very useful inspiration when you’re writing someone who’s been killing their brain cells for the past four hours.

Drunken patrons are mostly harmless. Most of them haven’t been in a fight since high school, and don’t know what they’re doing sober, to say nothing of when they’re unable to walk in a straight line. Mostly.

There are plenty of unfortunate accidents, or fluke occurrences, where a bar fight turns fatal. They’re the exception rather than the rule. But it is there.

There’s also plenty of unfortunate incidents where someone tried to run down the person who pissed them off, when they’re staggering out of the bar, or someone pulled a knife or gun.

But, I don’t think that’s what you wanted to hear about.

There are (at least) a couple Chinese martial arts variants that imitate drunken movements into their combat style. One is Drunken Monkey Style, which is, unsurprisingly, a variant of Monkey Style Kung Fu. The second is Drunken Fist, which is a variant of Shaolin. There’s also a Wushu Drunken Form, which is what you may have seen Jackie Chan practice on film. (At least, I think that’s the variant he’s using.) There may be others I’m unaware of.

The important thing to remember is that the practitioner behaves as if they are drunk, they don’t actually get wasted. In both cases, the martial artist uses exaggerated and relaxed movements to mask their movements, and make it more difficult for their opponent to read their body and react. There may be other benefits involving resisting restraint holds and taking hits, but I’m not an expert on these styles, so I’m not 100% certain what the full implications are.

There are real applications here when dealing with a trained opponent. There are also practical reasons you might want a foe to think you’re drunk until it’s too late to respond. Which goes beyond the scope of these martial arts.

So, if you’re asking, “is there a school of Kung Fu where you get drunk, and fight people?” No. There isn’t. However, there are multiple Chinese styles where you pretend to be drunk to confuse and distract your opponent; as tactics go, it’s not a bad one.


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Q&A: Creative Materials

I’ve been trying to think of “creative” materials to use in my fantasy world. How do you think bismuth would fair as the base for armor/weapons?

Not well. Bismouth is a brittle metal, and won’t hold up in combat. It was used as component in some bronze alloys but, as a metal, it’s unsuitable for weaponry.

If your setting is using bronze age technology, it’s possible they’d use bismouth contaminated tin and copper, to produce bronze, but unless your character is a smith, that’s not the kind of detail which would be relevant, and trying to wedge it into exposition could be awkward. Even then, it’s more likely that they’d view it as some variant of tin or lead.

So, let’s step back from this and dig into the more general question: How do you go about incorporating “creative materials,” into your setting?

Before you can answer that, you need to answer two previous questions. Why do you want those materials? And, what do you want to do with them?

When you’re creating a setting, introducing fantastical elements can help to make the world more memorable. Your setting has elves, has magic, has vampires, whatever. Over time, the audience will acclimate to certain elements in a genre. So creating a fantasy setting today where almost anyone can perform some basic magic isn’t nearly as memorable as if you were writing the same story in 1930. Within that context, unusual materials can go a long way towards selling that.

At this point, you can sometimes get more attention by eschewing parts of the, “standard fantasy setting.” Which is to say, if you want your fantasy characters fighting with bronze, iron, or steel weapons (depending on the technology they have), you’re not under any obligation to include these things simply to be different. One thing that doesn’t suffer from diminishing returns is creating compelling characters who behave realistically, in a way the audience can identify with. Unusual metals and mystical artifacts are there if they serve your story, or help you build build detail into your world, not because you must include them.

In very simple terms, you can use strange or exotic materials along with other fantastical elements to separate your audience from the world they know. You create a less grounded setting, which affords you greater control over your world. Depending on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, this can be a benefit or a problem.

The second part of this is, what your material does in your setting. There are a few ways this can go.

If you’re inserting a material as a replacement for something that existed historically, then that’s going to build towards your setting’s strangeness. If this sounds like it has to be a 1:1 conversion, that’s not strictly true. Your setting may have some kind of resin, or hard bones that function as a replacement for armor or weapons. You may have some kind of sea creature with a carapace that will hold up for decades after death, and can take a serious beating. You may, simply, have some alternative animals that are used as mounts or pack animals. The important thing is, you’re filling a cultural niche with something that doesn’t exist in the real world.

Replacing elements will lead to a less grounded, more fanciful setting, particularly as you stack up elements. Juggling elements like this can make your setting more complex and memorable, or it can render the entire thing obtuse, and difficult to understand. Handling these kinds of elements becomes a juggling act. Said juggling act becomes more difficult when you try to write to people who are familiar with the genre and newcomers. There are real rewards for this kind of approach, and it is something I’d recommend you experiment with or at least research, but it’s not something you can expect to nail on your first attempt.

You can introduce elements that replace anachronistic concepts that wouldn’t exist in your setting, but would be familiar to a modern audience. The idea of a fantasy setting with cell phones may strike you as odd, but there are plenty of settings that do incorporate modern technology into a fantasy setting under the guise of something else. Communication crystals or spells allowing telepathic contact and remote viewing.

The tricky part here is figuring out exactly what all of these pieces would reasonably do to your world. Even minor tweaks can start to have significant consequences. More aggressive wildlife will mean better fortified settlements. Without that, the settlements would be overrun and wiped out. So, this becomes a necessary precaution. If you have truly massive pack animals, then major trade routs could easily form along land routes instead of along waterways, leading to a very different geography, potentially one with far less interest in water travel in general. This is particularly true if you have vitally important materials that don’t naturally occur near the water.

Conversely, if your fantasy setting is dependent on something pulled from the water, they may go even further. Magical research, and even mundane technology could go far further towards deep sea diving if some leviathan down there is the source for carapace armor, or the only place to mine some otherwise unobtainable ore.

However strange your world becomes, it’s vitally important to remember one thing: For your characters, this is normal. (Unless they’re native to a different setting and get dumped into it. At which point, everyone around them will still be in the mindset of, “no, this is normal; stop gawking at the sledge, they get nervous when you stare at their eyestalks.”)

If you’re not chasing strangeness, then unusual materials often become a way to indicate that a given weapon or item is special in some way. The first example that may come to mind is Mithril, from Tolkien, but there’s actually a long history of people making up metals and imbuing them with special properties. Some quick examples include: orichalcum, which Plato ascribed to Atlantis, and adamant (which is where we get the terms adamantium and adamantite), which referred to an improbably strong metal or substance (and is the root for “adamant,” in modern English, if I remember correctly).

Unusual materials also have some basis in history. (Not counting orichalcum, which may have been an actual alloy, or could have been something Plato invented for rhetorical effect.) Superalloys like crucible steel and Damascus steel were quite real. Similarly meteoric iron was sought after because of how valuable the metal was to a smith. Chemically most of it is an iron/nickle alloy, but this stuff was one of the first sources of metallic iron, before smelting technology was developed.

If your setting has unusually advanced magic, it’s possible they’d have access to metals that just wouldn’t exist historically: like titanium. In the real world, titanium wasn’t discovered until the eighteenth century, and wasn’t refined into a metal until 1910. (Somewhat obviously, the minerals were always there, but they went undiscovered until 1791.) However, if your setting has magical means to locate and identify metals, and access to forge temperatures far beyond what real world technology allowed (specifically, high pressure, non-carbon based forges, for titanium), it’s possible you could have this stuff in your setting. (At that point it’s probably worth remembering that Titanium was, explicitly named after the Greek titans, so the name may not carry across, even if the metal does.)

Mixed with all of this is the idea to single out a weapon and indicate it’s special. This has some historical basis. Weapons made from superaloys or meteoric iron were highly regarded historically, and may be the origin of stories about magical weapons and artifacts. It’s entirely possible your otherwise grounded setting may have a sword made from starsteel, that’s a symbol of the king, or a “magical” sword with the wavy bands of Damascus steel. This stuff was real, and for users who were unfamiliar with the origins, Clarke’s Third Law holds. (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Somewhat obviously, there’s nothing to stop you from having an artifact made from some material that’s been otherwise lost. This is, sort of, how Plato used Orichalcum in his discussion on Atlantis. The material and objects created from it were almost forgotten, but (supposedly) still existed.

It’s entirely reasonable that your character may be questing for an onyx-jade sword, or something equally bizarre, in an otherwise grounded setting. This works particularly well if your setting has a pattern of fallen civilizations, and exists in a dark age after some lost golden era. (Incidentally, this fits with how Europe viewed itself through most of the middle ages, ending near the enlightenment. So, there is historical precedent in this approach.) This can also leak over into outright science fiction elements, if that’s what you want.

The most important part of incorporating “creative materials” into your setting is in the name, be creative. Look for opportunities where you can start to seriously alter your world. Ask yourself, “what would this mean to the civilizations of my world?” Look for opportunities to connect your ideas, and how they would interact with one another. But, most importantly, be creative. If you want to have something fanciful or strange, don’t feel limited to the periodic table.


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Q&A: Torture Is Anticipation

With torture, is it the pain or the expectation of the pain that makes people crack and give an answer (regardless of the answer’s truthfulness)?

It’s the anticipation of pain, which is like expectation but there’s suspense and uncertainty. The victim doesn’t know what’s coming. If they did, they could mentally prepare for it. That’s why unpredictability is important in a torturer’s repertoire. They are predictable and unpredictable, both at the same time. What they’re actually doing is using pain and other methods like starvation, deprivation, drugs, bright lights, and noises to break the brain’s internal rhythm. Your ability to recognize where you are and what’s happening to you. A torturer can actually torture a victim into submission entirely through the use of deprivation, without laying a finger on them (though they often do.)

What happens is the victim loses their sense of time, they’re disassociated from the world around them. They don’t know night or day, they don’t know how much time has passed. What torture is, rather literally, is the process of breaking a person down and retraining them into someone else so they’ll give the answers you want.

If you use torture in your fiction, it’s important to understand that it will effect your characters and it will change them. They will be different, and possibly never quite whole again. Withstanding torture is predominately a matter of mental strength and a willingness to continually say no, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune. The events the experience will take their toll on the character’s psyche, and may become a character defining moment or redefining moment for who they are. There’s also no shame if they do break under the strain. Torture is not (and should not be) a metric by which we measure a person’s courage or mental fortitude.

Please, don’t apply morals to abuse victims.

When torture is treated this way by an author as some sort of badge of honor, most of the characters they imagine surviving without any problems are the ones who’d break. Remember, snarky characters are characters with a fragile sense of self. They’ll break first. The damaged, the broken, the insecure, and the uncertain will go down. A torturer’s job is to assess a person for their weaknesses and attack those weaknesses. Everything your character is frightened of, nervous about, cares for will come roaring to the surface. This is the battering of the self. The resilient are those who know who they are. They’re certain in certainty, resolute. This isn’t everyone, this isn’t even most people. It is a tiny sliver of the population.

Fictional torture is the equivalent of throwing your character into the oven, dialing the heat up past eleven, and opening it up later to see how charred they got or if they crumbled into ash. You’ve got to know them and be willing to attack who they are down to the very core of their being or it’s pointless. The sequence becomes gratuitous angst that serves no real purpose and becomes grossly disingenuous in regards to the real thing.

Like when writing any other sort of fight scene, the author plays both sides against the middle. They are both torture victim and torturer. Don’t treat torture as a test to be beaten. Be honest with yourself and your characters. When we create these scenarios, our role is to play the scene out. The story is in the character’s experiences and how they deal with what they’re presented with, not in what comes after. To be honest with those experiences and introspective in regards to their effects. Strength is found in figuring out how to come to terms with what happened and what they do after, not whether it affected them. They were tortured, the torture did affect them. This is the reality. The question is where they and their story go from here.

Babylon 5, Season 4 episode, Intersections in Real Time (also this clip) is probably one of the best torture episodes I’ve ever seen. The full episode is brilliant, and if you truly want to understand the methodology you should watch it in its entirety. Almost nothing the torturer says in the room is true. Take this piece from the scene.

“Your father is being held in another facility. His case is being handled by an associate of mine. I passed him in the hall.”

If Sheridan’s father is being held and interrogated in another facility then it’s unlikely the torturer passed his associate or Sheridan’s father in the hall. However, that’s not what we hear first.

“Your father is being held in another facility.”

Personal information meant to instill fear. Someone Sheridan cares for deeply is being held and tortured in similar circumstances. There’s the threat.

“His case is being handled by an associate of mine.”

This translates to: “I have a personal connection with the person who is interrogating your father, if you cooperate with me I can help him.” This instills trust in the victim.

“I passed him in the hall.”

Sense of immediacy. “If you give me what I want, I could go out right now and stop all this.” Here’s the hope. The desire to save someone we care about from experiencing pain by making the sacrifice.

This is how the torturer gets you. It is not the pain, the pain is the layup.  It’s there to confuse you, distract you, get you desperate so you don’t hear their lies. You don’t hear what they’re saying, you start hearing what you want to hear. They overload you with information. They use you against you.

The people you care about, your past history, what you take pride in, your morals, your failures, and your insecurities. A torturer is similar in some ways to a psychologist or a con artist, they can read people. Their special skill is in making assessments of an individual’s psyche based on the information available to them and the victim’s own behavior.  They profile, much like a police officer or an FBI agent. The torturers ability to see through their victim, to know when they’re lying, to know what they can’t know, and to make educated guesses that are spot on is part of why they’re so frightening.

“I don’t care about you. I don’t have a personal stake in this. It’s only a job. If you give me what I want this could all stop.”

It’s all on the victim, no pleas will reach the torturers ears. They are sympathetic to the victim’s circumstances, but implacable. They want to help the victim escape their current predicament, but the only way to do that is for the victim to give them what they want.

The art of torture is the art of slow burn escalation. It starts with a conversation in a room between two people, sometimes after a sleepless night in an uncomfortable chair. The victim must wait for the torturer to come to them. They have no control over their circumstances, all information comes through the torturer and they have no interaction with anyone else. We have an image in our minds of the cackling madman in the black mask who takes psychotic glee in pulling off nails. That is one version, but it is not the successful one. The scary torturers are mild, well-mannered bureaucrats. Everything they do disrupts the victim’s expectations so they cannot anticipate what will come next.

They may feed you, but the food will be poisoned. A poison designed to remove whatever remaining liquids were in your system via a night of uncontrollable vomiting. Then, they come back the next day and ask the same questions. Repetition. Do you trust them this next time, when they offer you water? You’re so thirsty. You see a light in the hall when the door opens, you think its sunlight. Its not. Is it night or day? How many days have passed? You don’t know.

This is a game of trust and betrayal on the part of the torturer. They control everything about your life, everything about you. They tell you what to think, how to behave, and what to do. You must trust their version of events because there is no way to know otherwise. You are tired and hungry and thirsty. You haven’t slept, and what sleep you did get what interrupted. They return at odd intervals, and you have no idea when they’ll come. You’re too frightened to fall asleep. What will happen if you do? Always, they ask the same questions. Again, and again, and again. Did they come on the same day? Or on different ones? Was it fifteen minutes or thirty? How long did they stay? You don’t know. Panic sets in. Its driving you mad, you want it to stop.

One day, if you hold out long enough, they introduce another prisoner to your cell. Someone from your side, someone held here just like you. You’re starved for companionship, you don’t question it. The prisoner befriends you, they give you hope and together you plan to escape. You try and are caught, you see the other prisoner killed. You grieve and blame yourself. After all, it was your idea wasn’t it? Again, you’re left alone in the dark. Later, the torturer returns with the same prisoner you saw die. Perhaps the torturer apologizes for tricking you, or maybe they just act like the event you lived through didn’t happen. They take the prisoner away again. Time passes and you’re alone. Did it happen? You wonder. You’ve begun to distrust your own memory.

Then, the torturer returns and the cycle begins all over again. The previous events never occurred and nothing has changed. There’s only one way for this to stop. You know that now.

Give them what they want.

It is far more useful as a tool used against say political opponents and dissidents than it is as a means of intelligence gathering. You get your opponents to say what you want in order to break opposition to your rule. This includes journalists, professors, philosophers, rebel leaders, entertainers, business owners, community leaders, and politicians. Break them so those who follow and believe in them will also be broken. Torture has been best used in the past to force confessions of guilt (regardless of truth), so the victims say what their captors want.

Capture Shock is one method that’s been employed by the CIA in the past. (I would not look if you are squeamish.) Fear Up Harsh is an enlightening book on the torture methods used in Iraq.

The use of drugs is very common in association with the pain because, again, the goal is to break the captive from their ability to recognize what’s happening to them.

There’s no one size fits all method for torture, and if you over focus on the pain then you’ll have missed the point. You’ll miss the person in the chair. There is purpose to the pain. It is relentless, controlled, and decisive. The pain is used to make you afraid, so you feel powerless. Confuse you, so you lose track of yourself. Break you apart, so you can be rebuilt.

This is why torture is frightening and so difficult to overcome. Survival is by itself success. Without these components in your fiction then it is just gratuitous violence and, essentially, torture porn.


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Q&A: Gauss Rifles

So, how would a gauss sniper rifle work in real life (i.e. What kind of kick would it have, would it make a sound, what would the energy consumption be, etc)

Well, you’ve hit on the problem with all energy weapons, there. Power consumption is obscenely high. The entire reason that modern rail guns are ship mounted is because they are extremely energy intensive.

I’ll stick a caveat here that I may be doing the math incorrectly in my head, but: a handheld gauss weapon may actually have a substantially higher energy requirement per shot than a ship mounted weapon.  The energy used is based on getting the projectile to speed. With rail guns this creates two factors. First, a handheld one will have a shorter barrel, meaning it needs to accelerate the object faster, and small arms have, nominally, higher muzzle velocities than artillery meaning, in theory, you’d need to get the round to higher speeds than you’d need with a ship mounted system.

I say, “in theory,” because the muzzle velocity of the prototype rail guns the US Navy is using are somewhere in the range of 2400m/s. Which is ludicrously high speed, and gives the weapon an effective range of around 100 miles. In practice that is a bit overkill for an infantry weapon, and you could scale that back somewhat. But, you’re still left needing to accelerate an object to several times the speed of sound in a tiny fraction of a second.

I’m going to make a guess and say that recoil would be slightly more severe than with a modern gunpowder firearm. The problem is still basic physics. You’re accelerating an object into motion, which means Newton’s Third Law will take vicious revenge on your shoulder one way or the other.

What I’m not clear on is exactly how much, because of two factors. First you’re probably talking about a smaller round, and second, it will probably be going much faster than a modern firearm. A 2mm tungsten needle would have less recoil than most conventional firearms today, but muzzle energy is calculated (in part) based on the velocity and mass of the bullet when it leaves the barrel. (This is an easy point of reference for how destructive a bullet will be on impact.) In order for that 2mm spike to be more destructive than a modern bullet, it would need to be traveling significantly faster. So any recoil you saved on the lighter round would be replaced by requiring a higher muzzle velocity to do the same work.

One minor perk is that, while the projectile would have a higher velocity after exiting the barrel, it would build up speed in the barrel, meaning the recoil would be spread out a bit further. Does this matter? Maybe, but on a handheld weapon, probably not. If the overall length of the barrel is 36″ and you’re talking about a velocity of a projectile leaving it somewhere north of 1500fps, the difference between that and ignited powder would be mostly academic.

While I’m not sure what the rifle itself would sound like, I’d guess some kind of electric humming, simply because the magnetic coils would pull a lot of energy, (the prototypes sound a bit like someone shorting out a transformer), the actual gunshot would sound a lot like a modern rifle at long ranges. Again, physics is here to apply unfortunate limitations.

The speed of sound is, roughly 343m/s (or about 1125 feet per second). Any physical object that exceeds that limit will create a small air shock as it passes. (Technically, the exact point an object will create a sonic boom varies based on elevation, humidity, temperature, barometric pressure, and probably a few other factors I’m forgetting.)

Most modern rifles send rounds down range at speeds of at least 600 m/s. Even most handguns will exceed the 343m/s threshold. At long ranges, the loud crack from a rifle is a result of the bullet breaking the sound barrier. Now, if you’re operating a gauss rifle, that’s still going to happen. You’re dealing with basic physics. Firing the rifle will produce a loud crack along the path of the bullet.

Probably worth remembering the term, “rifle,” is a bit of a misnomer here. There’s no actual rifling in the gun, and bullet stabilization would probably occur via fins on the projectile itself. Probably with some kind of sabot system.

The choice of tungsten above wasn’t (completely) at random. The atmospheric friction will create a substantial muzzle flash. Where normal firearms eject burning powder, a rail gun would be ejecting flaming steel or whatever the sabot was made of. Having a projectile that can withstand the heat generated by atmospheric friction, and ferromagnetic enough to respond to the coils seriously limits the options. As mentioned above, you can’t fire a steel slug at 2400m/s because it will melt. Tungsten on the other hand has one of the highest boiling points for a metal. (It might actually be the highest, I don’t remember off hand.)

While I’m not 100% certain, it’s entirely possible the projectile may produce a visible tracer effect from atmospheric friction alone.

Now, there is another caveat here. I’m assuming you use similar velocities to a the navy’s prototypes. That’s not strictly necessary, and projecting a cartridge at, say, 800m/s would have vastly different characteristics, and may not generate enough heat to melt steel. It would also require roughly 1/3 the power per shot. However, the power consumption would still be extremely significant.

Some other details worth considering.

Because the barrel is responsible for the speed of the shot, it may be possible to fine tune how fast the resulting bullet leaves the gun. Depending on the design, this could allow for a kind of multipurpose assault/marksman rifle that isn’t really possible with modern firearms.

As I mentioned earlier, the navy’s prototypes have an effective range of 100 miles. (Or 160 km). At those ranges it would be basically impossible to fire accurately without extensive computer control, and possibly some kind of satellite aided targeting system. However, there are a couple reasons to tune one that high.

First, drop and drift. Bullets are, as we’ve said before, physical objects. There’s an old physics experiment where, if you fire a gun (parallel to a flat surface) and drop an identical bullet simultaneously, both will hit the ground at the same time. Depending on the cartridge, this does become a factor sooner or later. Spitting a round out at Mach 7 will have very limited drop in the first mile or two, meaning it will be somewhat easier to predict where the round will land at those ranges. This isn’t fully necessary, but it helps.

The second thing is transonic speeds. As a bullet travels through the air, it loses speed. When it gets down close to 343m/s, it will drop through transonic speeds. When that happens, it will be overtaken and hit by its own sonic boom. This destabilizes the bullet’s flight, and effectively destroys accuracy beyond that distance. The initial speed determines when that happens, and by extension, how far you can fire the weapon. If you can radically increase the initial speed of a bullet, you extend the effective range. This is part of why that prototype is so impressive.

Incidentally, if you get the velocity over, about 11.7k/s (so a little over four and a half times what the prototypes fire), you can put a round into orbit. Not particularly relevant for the question, but worth knowing. (Also that’s Earth’s escape velocity. It wouldn’t be the same for other planets. For example: those same railguns can achieve lunar escape velocity now.)

Of course, the biggest issue with these is still power consumption. Regardless of the factors, you’re still using electromagnets to propel a slug of metal to hypersonic speeds. With modern energy technology, that’s not really feasible.


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Q&A: Uneven Balance is a Tension Killer

I have a scene in my book where the two main characters fight soon after meeting one another, in an area where no one else gets in their way and they have a lot of flat empty space. Both are very skilled, but only one of them has weapons. It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such. The character that isn’t armed needs to win, and I’m not entirely sure how, realistically, he would.

I’d ask what two highly skilled characters are doing getting into such a silly situation when they know better, especially the one caught without their weapons. However, real people do stupid things too.  For all I know, they might of been drinking. Just know, the higher the level of training then the less likely it is for two characters to fight when they don’t absolutely have to.  Justification is good. Make sure you’ve got a reason for them to fight that feels natural for both characters beyond needing them to fight for the plot. I don’t know why they’re fighting, for all I know it could’ve started off a drunken row with one yelling, “Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you!

These characters don’t actually exist, but it’s important to get yourself in the habit of thinking they could die. I could die is one of the major thoughts that will occur in the mind of anyone who is highly skilled, and more likely to occur than it is with someone who isn’t sufficiently trained.

Hotheads to who jump into fights at a moments notice over a slight or insult with something to prove are beginners. They’re not (usually) seasoned soldiers. Seasoned combatants understand the costs and consequences of violence, both to themselves and the people around them. They’re more likely to make mental calculations regarding risk, assess risk, and decide whether they will or won’t fight. The soldier understands that violence is unpredictable, that death is sudden, and no form of combat is ever truly safe. One mistake is the difference between life and death. Characters who are skilled will avoid violence because they understand its costs. They have nothing to prove. Remember, a knife is one of those “hell no” weapons. No one wants to be anywhere near a knife when they’re armed with one of their own, much less unarmed.

I could die. Is this worth it? I don’t want to die. Is this worth my life?

Often in well-written fiction when you’ve got an incredibly skilled character jumping into fights all the time for no real reason, it’s because they have a death wish. When someone does want to die, simply doesn’t care about living any longer, or sees themselves as already dead then that changes the stakes. There’s also, “I like to fight” which often translates into “I like to kill” in regards to unrestrained violence. Unless there’s a rules set down, two highly skilled characters have an excellent chance of killing each other. The weapons one of these characters has brought to this fight, say, “yes, I do intend kill you. I will make you very dead.”

This doesn’t sound like its a duel, but if you were thinking it might be then I’ll lay down some facts.

Duels are highly ritualized as a form of combat, and come with very specific rules of what does and doesn’t constitute a duel. (Much less the people who can take part in them.) Duels, Code Duello, Medieval Duels. If you’re up for reading some Medieval Charters in regards to dueling as a legal means of settling disputes, here’s some. In some cases, they’re a means of settling a dispute or challenge to ones honor.  We still have duels today as a point of fact, it’s just the duelists and their swords have been replaced with lawyers. For a duel to be a duel, they’d both need to be armed. Usually with the same weapon, otherwise its not a test of skill or fair. Weapons inherently offer advantages over each other, and if you’re not fighting with the same weapon then that would be cheating. This fight between these two is not be what we’d call Right Honorable Combat, and its probably illegal.

“Daggers and such” covers a lot of ground.  It could mean one of these characters has daggers, swords, polearms, or even a flail. Also, when fighting with weapons, you’re usually fighting with intent to kill. If that wasn’t the other character’s intent, they might put their weapon away when facing off against the character who is unarmed. I’m going to assume this unarmed character is squaring off against an opponent who carries a dagger. However, I did note the plurality of weapons. You will immediately run into trouble if you don’t hammer down which weapon the unarmed character is facing, or if they decided to dual wield with the second weapon as defensive. Different weapons require different approaches as each comes with its own concerns. Distance is a major one. The only universal rule is: don’t get hit.

Start with the assumption one of these characters is actively trying to kill the other, if he wasn’t then he’d put the weapon away. Outside of highly ritualized and carefully moderate dueling structures where one might call for time at first blood, a highly skilled character will understand weapons are for killing. With weapons, especially bladed weapons, skill level isn’t a matter of deciding when you kill and when you don’t. It is a matter of deciding whether or not you care to risk your opponent’s death. If they were interested in a test of skill or even just a friendly hand to hand bought, they wouldn’t pull it to begin with. Your main character needs to win this duel because if they don’t, they’ll be either grievously wounded or dead.

Working under a predetermined outcome when writing a fight scene is the worst decision. What we want in our heads won’t necessarily translate to the page, and more importantly characters who know they’re going to live will behave differently from characters who don’t know they will. Simulating the chance of death in your mind by entertaining death as a possible outcome will force them and you to work harder. They’ve got to earn their right to survive.

Now, your character isn’t planning to win because the plot needs to progress. He’s fighting because he wants to live.

Feel the difference? We’re now six inches closer to real tension.

Highly skilled doesn’t translate to guaranteed survival, it just means you’ve got a better grasp of what’s happening, how screwed you are, and potentially have more tools to escape a bad situation. They allow the character to recognize the danger their facing, what the intent of their opponent is, and, hopefully, act accordingly before its too late. There is, however, only so much training can give. Weapons are one of the situations where an unskilled character can make up the difference against one who is highly skilled. Weapons are the great equalizer. A guy with a knife is a guy with a knife. Whether you’ve been training for five minutes or eight years, there’s a extremely high chance of death if you’re unarmed and unarmored. The difference between the person who has trained for five minutes and the one who trained for eight years is that the experienced one has a better understanding of what it means when someone pulls a knife. They know it means they’re at an 80% or greater chance of death. They know a wrong move could, at best, result in an injury they may never recover from. Their chance of victory is razor thin where the margin of error is next to none. This is why smart warriors don’t fight other people with weapons without weapons of their own or, if they cannot avoid it, change the rules.

I’m going to assume too that you’re going with the old Defeat Means Friendship trope. You want Character A to be fought to a standstill by Character B who disarms them, then when put under threat to their life surprises Character A by letting them live and giving them back their weapon. (Which promptly causes Character A to stab them if we’re being realistic, but that’s not what the trope is about. If you want this trope, please give the weapon back later.) The problem, of course, is you’ll completely undercut Character A’s combat ability if you do it wrong.

Personally, my favorite rendition of this trope is the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood film with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland where Robin Hood dueled Little John on the bridge with a staff after Little John called him out over his bow. Robin took Little John’s challenge (he can’t resist a challenge), dueled with a weapon he was less familiar with, lost, and got dunked in the river. Their friendship was born out of Robin Hood’s good humor over his bath and his appreciation for Little John’s skill. (This is a great foreshadowing for the archery competition later in the movie.)

In the film, we had plenty of opportunities to see Robin’s skill earlier. Little John needed to establish himself. By having him beat Robin with the weapon that is his specialty, we as the audience understand how skilled he is. Just as when Friar Tuck fought Robin to a standstill later as Robin attempted to recruit him. (And his men pranked him about the good friar’s skill with a sword, aka they lied.) Robin’s friendships with his men evolve not from his skill or how he’s better than they are, but in his ability to handle defeat gracefully and genuinely appreciate their skills. In both moments, we see him duel to test out these potential recruits. In both, he gets a good dunking in the river that is entirely his own fault.

You see, Robin establishes his ability much earlier in the movie when he lays claim to the deer killed by Much the Miller to protect him from Sir Guy of Gisborne. He then carries it into Nottingham Castle. (Saxon taking an illegally killed deer into a castle full of Norman knights alone.) Dumps the deer carcass on Prince John’s table in the Great Hall during dinner, and proceeds to tell Prince John, Sir Guy, The Sheriff of Nottingham, Maid Marian, the Bishop of the Black Canons, and all his knights over the dinner he’s invited himself to that he’s planning sedition to fight John’s rule. After hearing him out, John attempts to have him killed by the castle’s men at arms and all the knights present. Robin, still alone, then fights his way out of the Castle.

In the process he shows off his sword skills, his archery skills, his moxie, his fluency with treason, his strategic/tactical ability, and his quick thinking. (The fight scene that follows is probably one of the best if you ever want to write one person versus a whole room full of people. It involves the fine art of running away with purpose and the occasional murder.)

We know about about Robin. We know he’s brash, reckless, and incredibly skilled. That’s why the later fights with Little John and Friar Tuck have so much meaning when it comes to establishing their skills. They can go toe to toe with the guy who strutted into Prince John’s castle as a wanted man then got back out again while the heavily armed and armored inhabitants tried to kill him.

Whatever purpose you have for this fight scene, it’s important to remember what it is establishing in the relationship between these two characters. Take the lesson from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and understand it isn’t enough just to win. The fight scene needs to be there for a reason. Perhaps, more importantly, the kinds of fight scenes you write must revolve around what you’re trying to say about these characters abilities. Two characters you want to be seen as evenly skilled need to fight evenly. Friendships aren’t built on superiority. The protagonist being beaten is a different category from all other fictional defeats, it doesn’t delegitimize them the way it will a character we spend less time with. For the protagonist, defeats they survive are learning experiences and we learn far more about a person by how they handle defeat than we do when they win.

Robin Hood isn’t less awesome because he loses to Little John at the bridge, he’s actually that much more incredible than he was before. We learn its not just his skills he appreciates, but those of the people who best him. We know Robin is willing to fight others on their terms for the fun of it, rather than his own. Little John being better than Robin at one skill doesn’t take away from Robin’s previous victories. Robin’s acceptance shows his abilities as a leader better than being superior with a staff he made five minutes prior.

A character fighting another character when they have a weapon and the other character doesn’t isn’t showing that both are equally skilled. It’s actually showing one with a significant advantage over the other. When the underdog beats him, the underdog is shown to be much more skilled. That’s the point of unevenly balanced fights in fiction.

Little John: “I’ve only a staff and you threaten me with a long bow and a gray goose shaft. Are you not man enough…?”

Robin Hood: “Give me time to get myself a staff.” – The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Two characters fighting with the same weapons are on an even field, this is a battle of skill. Two characters fighting with different weapons are unevenly balanced, the shifting advantages make the combat difficult and the scene becomes about one character problem solving around their disadvantage. A scene where two characters are highly skilled but one is armed and the other is not will end with the unarmed character either dying or proving they are that much more skilled than the one with the weapon.

Disarms are difficult against someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. There is no room for error, especially with a knife which can cut six different times in six different ways before you’ve a chance to grab it. Disarming someone who knows what they’re doing with their weapon is much harder.

A knife offers no room for error, every strike has the potential to be deadly. In order to disarm your opponent, you need to catch them by the wrist (not the knife) which puts one in direct line to get stabbed. You’ve got to catch the knife while simultaneously keeping yourself outside of stabbing distance. You can kick a knife out of someone’s hand, but then you don’t control it. You can attack the person instead of the knife as some self-defense disciplines encourage, with the theory being the person can’t use their knife if they’re disabled but so long as the knife is in hand that’s the present danger. Understand that inside their range the knife is as dangerous as the gun, if not more so. The knife is still as relevant today as a weapon as it was a thousand years ago. Think about that.

Daggers are essentially short swords, but the same principle is here. To stop a knife when one is unarmed, you need an immediate and brutal response. You need an immediate and brutal response when you’re armed too. This is not a weapon where you’re given time, consideration, and distance. It is fast, brutal, and over quickly. Any hit, even a glancing blow, has the potential to be end game. Character B can’t allow themselves to suffer no injuries, otherwise they’ll spend the next few months hoping their stitches don’t get infected or they’ll bleed out before they can get medical attention. This can be a problem as, against a knife, it’s often necessary to give up a body part in order to take it. It can’t strike other, more vital places if it’s in your hand. (Not a great option.) Or buried in the bone in your forearm. (Better.)

When fighting, one actually has to work around the knife. This is easier said than done, again knives are fast. They’re near modern fencing levels of fast while also much more deadly. They’ve got a lot less distance to cover and they’re very sharp. Forget about catching the blade unless your character has solid leather gauntlets (though those might get cut), metal is better.  They’re going to need to stop the arm long enough to take hold of the wrist and twist the dagger out of the enemy’s hands.

Disarms against weapons, especially when you have none of your own, are always incredibly dangerous. Skill means you can do them at all, but it doesn’t make them any safer or any more of a good idea. Gun disarms are for when you were going to get shot anyway, and you might as well go down fighting because there’s less than a 50/50 of success. Knife disarms are the same way.

The sad truth is that disabling someone is much more difficult than killing them, it is much riskier, and you’re much more likely to die in the attempt. We double that against someone who knows what they’re doing. Weapons are serious business and they’re designed around killing human beings.

Good fight scenes are about progressing the story forward. They teach us about the personalities of the characters involved, how they work, how they think, what their morals are, and they communicate more through the character’s actions than you think. Be careful with what you’re attempting to say.

An unarmed character disarming a mook with a knife will tell us a lot about their character without damaging anyone (except the mook we may never see again.) An unarmed character encountering and disarming another major character with a knife is a very different story, especially when this is the first time we meet them.

By and large, the rules of action are these:

  1. The protagonist is the baseline for understanding all narrative violence. They are the net point, all audience understanding of skill within the narrative begins with them. You want a character the audience understands is better than the protagonist? They beat the protagonist or beat someone established as being better than. (The villain murdering your martial arts master.) By constantly winning the protagonist undercuts everyone else.
  2. Have your protagonist lose or fight opponents to a standstill, usually on mostly even ground.
  3. They can defeat and disarm an important enemy, but only that enemy has thoroughly proved their worth in battle and you don’t wish to use them anymore. It can be a redemption kickstarter, but we need to witness their villainy and skills first. The hero better earn this win.
  4. Keep your characters on a relatively even playing field for tension unless there’s a very specific reason not to. Unarmed characters versus armed characters may seem like an easy way to establish skill, but you are catapulting them into a level of action you and they may not be prepared to make good on. (Also if one character beats another at the previous character’s specialty, what’s the point of that character?)
  5. Violence escalates and your story will escalate with it. Unless utilizing a different sort of action (see: Robin Hood), you can get caught in a cycle of enemies ratcheting ever higher in skill in order to maintain tension.
  6. Your villain is either more skilled than your hero or on an even keel with their own advantages that ensure they remain dangerous, no matter the humiliations they may suffer throughout the story. (Robin Hood steals Sir Guy of Gisbourne’s tax collection while he’s traveling in the forest, kidnaps him and his men, humiliates them, and makes them walk home. Sir Guy sets up an archery tournament and takes him captive, planning to hang him. He is saved by Marian, who sneaks out of the castle and visits his men with a plan.)
  7. Set your hero at the disadvantage, but stay within the realm of reason even when that reason may feel ridiculous. (Wesley fighting Fezzik in The Princess Bride.)
  8. Understand the kind of action you want in your story. Realism is the rules of reality within your setting. Worry about abiding by them and maintaining suspension of disbelief.
  9. Do not be afraid to humiliate your hero in order to set up the skills of other characters. If Character A is the protagonist, then Character B taking the knife from him could result in a good life lesson. (This is a traditional plot point when the protagonist meets their martial arts master. Not so great for showing two characters of equal skill level.)
  10. Inside out, rather than outside in. The justification of a fight is character driven as the character justifies the narrative. Violence is a means of problem solving, if your characters are not problem solving then they’re not using their skills effectively.
  11. Fight scenes are there to support your narrative, they do not have to be there. Don’t let the fight scene override the rest of your story. Act to maintain your tension.
  12. All violence must be paid off with resulting character interaction later in the narrative. Violence almost causes more problems than it solves.

Saying two characters are highly skilled is not enough, you need to show it and show it as a means that undercuts neither. A character who has already been proven as a great fighter earlier can lose to another in order to bolster that character’s cred with the audience. Remember, the POV character and protagonist always have more starting cred to their name than any other character.

I know that doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I hope it helps.


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Q&A: Movement Hides Movement

I believe you’ve mentioned in the past about the ‘bouncing’ or ‘hopping’ that boxers/martial artists do to stay light on their feet, etc. but I don’t see HEMA/other weapon based martial arts doing this. Is there a reason why?

You see this in HEMA all the time, they’re just not bouncing with their feet. (Though you’ll see them do the shifting.) They’re moving their sword. Modern fencers bounce, they have to, they’ve got a lot of movement to cover. However, the sword tip flicking back and forth or circling off the wrist’s subtle shifting in the air working off the same principle as Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” It may not be as visually pronounced, but it’s there.

See, you’re thinking that its about feet. It’s not just that, beginners make this mistake a lot. They see an action and assume that’s the answer instead of looking at the underlying principle then seeking to apply that principle to a different context. A warrior wielding a sword has different needs in order to be successful than a boxer fighting under very specific rules. Staying light on your feet is a matter of adjusting your stance so you lean forward onto the balls of your feet rather than sitting on your heel. This position allows for a shift into immediate action like a sprinter on the starting line.

Bouncing is footwork. It is footwork to cover your footwork that covers your footwork. The point of bouncing is to cloak the tells signaling when you’re about to strike by constantly staying in motion.

Your body has lots of tells for when it’s about to attack, it will betray you. Your eyes will betray you. (I mean it, if you don’t train your eyes to take in the whole body then they’ll move to their desired target point. Even moderately skilled fighters watch their opponent’s eyes and their chest.) Your feet will betray you. Your chest will betray you. Your hips will betray you. Your arms will betray you. Your legs will betray you. With a sword, it’s… in all those things and the weapon itself. Action is predicated by action. Some of those tells are more visible than others.  A single technique may look fluid to the outside observer, but it is actually a multitude of little actions chained together. Those actions have a beginning and they have an end. The beginning of the action is where the tell is. The beginnings of a technique predicate the strike and where it will go.

Martial arts trains the eye, especially your peripheral vision, to watch for movement rather than specific techniques. Your brain is trained to recognize patterns and respond to those patterns, predicting and preempting the act before it comes. This is how we block and how we dodge. You move when they move, move as they move. You don’t wait to see what they’ll do, then move. From the beginning motion of the eyes to the pectoral muscles to the shift in the shoulder, you can see the punch beginning. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Blocking and dodging are about timing. You want to block an incoming attack, you have to preempt. Catch it mid motion. In the middle, before the action completes. When the action passes past the chamber and into extension then its too late. Their momentum is behind them. You either need to redirect or get out of the way.

Bouncing, or shifting your weight back and forth from your front leg to your back, acts as a means to cover those crucial early seconds before an attack. You’re basically overloading the eye with motion so the brain has difficulty tracking which limb is moving when. It’s the basic act of giving yourself cover.

You’ve got to fake out the eye in order to get them to block, then strike somewhere unexpected. The high/low combination techniques you’ll see in many martial arts are devoted to this fake out. As are the bursting techniques of Krav Maga. (Krav Maga is extremely effective.) If you don’t do martial arts, I get why this might be a little more difficult to understand. This is maybe green belt level for strategic and technical understanding. Feints are easy to grasp in concept but difficult if you’ve never seen them in practice with other techniques. Also, there is a necessary component in understanding the interplay between a techniques success and its footwork. Or, even, just what footwork is. (Universally the most basic and fundamental part of a martial art, necessary to success, and also most overlooked.)

Muhammad Ali level bouncing is exhausting. Remaining constantly in motion is exhausting. 90% of the time when watching sparring practice, you’ll see the kids go from bounce, bounce, bounce to flat footed in less than a minute. It requires dedicated conditioning in order to sustain the pace. You will get tired much faster than if you remain still, you need to train for it and a lot of people don’t. This includes professional fighters.

Martial arts is not one size fits all, different schools are going to have their own means of cloaking their motion in order to hide their attacks. Different individuals are going to figure out their own ways of doing it. Though many in boxing mimic it now, Ali’s fighting style was revolutionary for his time.


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Q&A: Basic Energy Weapons

If Sci-Fi laser guns existed, do you think the bolts would act more like bullets or laser pointers in relation to how the various variables affect their path?

The thing about lasers is, they actually exist now. Which wasn’t true (or, at least, wasn’t as true) back when science fiction first picked them up as a concept.

A laser is, basically by definition, going to travel at, or very close to C. (Roughly 300 million meters per second.) So, if you’re thinking of slow moving projectiles that your eye can see and track, that’s never going to happen.

The other thing about lasers is, they’re just focused light. This is the same, basic concept as a kid with a magnifying glass, weaponized. It’s still going to reflect off, or burn through, anything it hits. It will also be basically invisible.

The only time you can actually see a laser beam, in real life, is if there’s particulate matter in the air, reflecting the light back to you. Smoke, fog, and dust will all pick up the beam, and reflect some back to you so you can see it. This isn’t a problem when you’re talking about a targeter or pointer; the beam isn’t particularly destructive, so this kind of blowback is harmless. But, when you’re talking about a weaponized laser, that starts to become a real concern.

This is a general truth about seeing things, by the way. For your eye to see something, light needs to strike it and bounce off, hitting your eye. Your eye processes that light, and tells your brain, “hey, there’s a thing here.” Lasers, by definition, avoid that until contact with their target. Thing is with a weaponized laser, the produced light is the weapon. So, if you can see it, you’re getting hit. Even if it’s bouncing off water vapor in the air.

Of course, as with any other variety of light, you can bounce it off a reflective surface. This means, the greatest defense against future soldiers with laser weapons may just be polished chrome surfaces. Not only would it reflect the laser off of it, it would send it back in the general direction of the original user or their buddies. Best of all, you couldn’t see exactly where it was going, because you don’t want that light being reflected back to you.

Now, there is a possibility it would burn through any dust or other atmospheric contaminants on the way through, leaving a faint, singed, after image of where the laser was fired, but in general, you wouldn’t be able to see the beam. Which isn’t that different from bullets, for that matter. There’s another possibility where it would reflect off something like water vapor or any other atmospheric obstruction, (the way lasers actually do), and diffuse to the point of worthlessness almost immediately. (To be fair, I’m not sure which is more likely to occur.) Either way, you’ve got a weapon that will face all kinds of problems on a battlefield.

If you’re trying for a hard-sci-fi setting, (meaning the science underpinning your setting is sound), then all of these factors will make lasers less appealing. If your setting is aimed at a less grounded, soft sci-fi, then lasers are (somewhat) less appealing, simply because their fantastical value has worn off. Lasers sounded like weapons of the future, when you couldn’t pick one up as a cat toy for $5 in most department stores.

With that in mind, you can try to keep the same weapon concept, but selectively trim off the issues, for your softer settings. Things like Star Trek’s phasers and disruptors aren’t, technically lasers, while Star Wars’s Blasters are an entirely different technology that you probably interact with in a non-weaponized capacity on a regular basis.

As with a large amount of stuff in Star Trek, whatever technology keeps phasers from reflecting around randomly is never clearly explained. The term itself is a portmanteau of phased and laser. So, it’s some kind of laser variant that won’t normally reflect (though it is shown happening a couple times in the franchise).

Disruptors are even more nebulous, and it’s helpful to remember this is more of a catch all term, including things like sonic weapons, up through a variety of molecular disruption weapons.

Star Wars uses the molecular disruption idea for their disruptors, when the writers want one, but basic blasters aren’t laser weapons. Blasters fire bolts of ionized gas, meaning they’re actually plasma weapons.

As with lasers, plasma is a concept we’re familiar with in modern day. In the simplest terms, it’s a fourth state of matter. You have solids, liquids, and gasses, with plasma sitting above gasses. Plasma is heavily affected by magnetic fields, meaning it is possible to contain and eject it with directed energy weapons (though, that’s not possible with current technology.) It’s not a very energy efficient technology, but you don’t need to worry about it reflecting back and killing the shooter because it struck a mote of dust en route to the target.

If you absolutely need an energy weapon that behaves more like a modern gun, firing glowing bolts of energy, plasma is probably your best bet.

There are problems. Magnetic fields on the target’s armor could mess with the plasma delivery, (which may help you understand that line about the Death Star’s trash compactor being magnetically shielded.) Also, any magnetic field it passes through on the way.

Plasma is also an option for beam weapons. In fact, the most destructive form of plasma you’ve probably encountered is a lightning strike. The electrostatic discharge instantly ionizes the atmosphere between the points, and you get a visible flash of light, followed by the sonic shock of that air being instantly converted into plasma.

Before I move on, it’s probably worth noting, most current plasma research is focused on power generation. That is to say, using magnetic fields to contain plasma for the purposes of safe fusion reactions.

Long term, plasma weapons are probably going to fall by the wayside for sci-fi the way lasers have. Most people don’t think of fluorescent lights as plasma, so the term sounds more fantastic than the technology really is. With refinement of magnetic containment technology, and the use of fusion as a power source, plasma weapons will probably lose a lot of their shine.

The railgun is another weapon you’ll see referenced in near-future sci-fi. Sometimes called gauss weapons, or mass drivers, these are, quite simply, a gun. Instead of using a chemical propellant, they use magnetic fields to accelerate a ferrous slug to speed.

I’m bringing them up for two reasons. First, it is one conceivable way to make a plasma weapon viable. Second, they actually exist.

Laser weapons are, at best, theoretical. Plasma containment and manipulation is an actively researched topic. Though the primary goal there is power generation, not weapons technology. Railguns do exist today.

Modern railguns are mounted weapons. You can stick these things on a naval vessel, or in a facility. They draw massive amounts of power to fire, but deliver a lot of destructive force on impact. Part of the reason is because they’re truly frictionless. You can accelerate their payload to speeds that would utterly destroy conventional firearms. You can also send payloads down range that are far harder than anything you’d ever load into a gun.

One of the mechanical limitations to modern firearms is, the bullet and barrel are in direct contact. When you fire a bullet, it, quite literally, scrapes the barrel on its way out. Part of the reason why we make bullets out of materials like lead and copper is because they are substantially softer than the steel barrel, and will result in significantly less wear.

When we do need to fire a round with something more solid as its payload, the harder core will be wrapped (called jacketed) by a softer metal. For example, a steel core round will have a copper or lead jacket, to protect the firearm. On impact, that coating will strip away fully, and the steel will (usually) punch through any light armor in its path. You’ll also see things like depleted uranium, or tungsten used as cores for armor piercing rounds.

With railguns, that’s not a consideration. Unless the material is magnetically inert, you can just drop it in, and fire it.

What we can’t do with a rail gun, is carry it around. Current technology is too energy intensive for that. But, if you’re looking at a future setting, where power generation is less of a consideration, then these may be an option. Ballistically speaking, they are guns, firing solid projectiles. The only difference is, they’re doing so at speeds that are impossible to achieve with conventional firearms.

I’m going through all of these, but all of them are built around the idea that we need something other than conventional firearms. That’s probably true, on a long enough timescale, but modern ballistic weapons are remarkably energy efficient, for their design. You have a cartridge which contains all of the necessary energy to propel a round at hyper sonic speeds. There are considerations like recoil, which can be minimized through mechanical developments. There’s also potential hybridization of other technologies into them, in order to make a more efficient design. But, if you’re working with a sci-fi setting, it’s worth considering that guns may stick around, simply because they work.

In a vacuum, lasers or plasma weapons are probably more desirable, because a mass projectile will continue traveling until it hits something, which could be in hundreds of thousands of years. But, a laser will eventually disperse to the point that it is too indistinct to cause damage.

In an atmosphere, a gun, or gauss rifle may be a much better option for the situation presented.


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Q&A: Hit Points

One thing I’ve always used to depict “Hit Points” as is not necessarily damage, but rather, a character’s ability to avoid serious damage. For example, Tanks have a better sense of how to mitigate whatever damage their armor isn’t fully protecting them from. In this sense, 0 HP is more like actually receiving a real wound; a bullet finally hits, the sword goes through your lung, etc, and that’s why your character really goes down; they take a genuine, serious injury. HP is more like stamina.

To be fair, hit points are a somewhat necessary abstraction to begin with. The ability of the human body to survive horrific injuries doesn’t neatly render down into a single statistic. (Nor a discrete collection of numbers.) At the same time, characters aren’t (usually) invulnerable, and you need a system that can quickly approximate combat.

Since, I don’t think I’ve really discussed this in detail recently: at an abstract level, when you’re writing, you’re playing a game. It’s not incredibly dissimilar from a GM running a tabletop RPG session. You set rules to establish a rough illusion of fairness, and sometimes cheat a bit, to push the story in the direction you want.

When you’re actually playing a game, the rules are concrete and there to provide an element of fairness (or a uniformity of unfairness, depending on the game in question.) Within that context, HP serves a vital function, informing the players exactly how badly they were just mauled, without automatically removing a player from the current play session.

That analogy a minute ago, about writing being a lot like being a GM? I stand by it, but this is one very specific point where you might want to seriously consider what rules you’re working under.

Large hitpoint pools (in relation to the damage received) work better when you’re trying to provide a system that draws things out, and slows down combat. For the most part, this is what D&D, and most D20 based games, do. At higher levels, you’re very unlikely to be one-shot from full health (though it can happen.) Which leads to the exact issue you’re describing a workaround for.

You take a character, with a large pool, empty a shotgun in their face, and they keep ticking. Even when the rules are relayed transparently, that’s going to leave a few people scratching their heads. Thing is, you don’t actually need this (for games or writing.)

What you described is one way to reconcile this without altering the rules. As I recall, it was the official interpretation for D&D at one point. Your HP wasn’t your health, but a measure of your character’s ability to avoid life threatening injuries, and trudge on.

If you’re writing a story about fantasy heroes or superheroes, then this approach makes sense. It fits within the genre conventions. To be fair, when we’re talking about D&D, and a lot of heroic fantasy RPGs, that approach is consistent. Improbable health pools strain credibility, but the ability to just keep fighting is part of the genre.

Now, if you want to chalk some of that up to their armor soaking some of the damage, that’s fine. It is consistent with how D&D, and a lot of games, present combat roles, so that abstraction isn’t really that strange.

Thing is, this only really works if you’re aiming for superhuman characters. If you’re wanting something more grounded, you want a much smaller pool of health (again, in relation to the incoming damage.)

At the extreme end of this, you can get stuff like White Wolf’s storyteller system, where you have seven HP. That’s it. Each point lost indicates specific thresholds of increasingly severe wounds.  The game boosts survivability by giving you more opportunities to resist damage, but it creates a situation where any combat encounter has the potential to go horrifically wrong without warning.

When you’re talking about armor, you’re not going to be fully protected. Even if you have a character in full plate, just impacts from combat will still wear on the user. It probably won’t result in critical injuries, but it can be exhausting. Even simply fighting while wearing full plate will be extremely fatiguing. Part of this is because armor will effectively trap body heat, leading to the exhaustion mentioned above. This is part of why you’re less likely to see combatants in full plate wandering around desert environments (if the writers know what they’re doing.)

To a certain extent, it’s more accurate to say impervious armor actually moves damage around, into different kinds. You’re trading blood loss for heat exhaustion, which can be just as lethal. That said, this doesn’t make for entertaining game play. “Fight the guy until he’s too exhausted to move and falls over,” may work as a gimmick, but it’s not a mechanic you’d usually want to build into your core game design. As a result, you’ll almost never see armor in games that will fully mitigate all incoming damage. Usually there’s some upper cap on resistances. Sometimes this is 50%, 80%, at least one point of damage must be inflicted, ect.

That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a character who’s an impervious juggernaut. Either as an ally or enemy of your PoV character. The important thing is to remember that they’re not immortal, just very resistant.

All of this can be pretty useful, if you’re tailoring your story carefully. Rules, under the surface, can help you keep track of how badly someone was just hurt, or how close a character is to keeling over. At the same time, it is very important to match your characters’ durability to the genre you’re working with. Games that tend towards ludicrous amounts of HP (regardless of if that’s their actual health, or some kind of mystical ability to avoid suffering harm) won’t get the results you want from  a horror story. Just like an epic Sword & Sorcery romp will be seriously hampered if everyone goes down after taking a stray hit.


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Misconceptions of the Rapier (Women do the Thing)

I don’t know if you’ve answered this before, but I’ve read that a rapier is actually harder to learn to use, then another sword (i think the longsword was the other comparison) if that’s true, how easily would a woman be able to wield it, with the proper training and teaching?

I’ll link Matt Easton’s video about misconceptions with the rapier.  It talks about what the rapier is in comparison to the longsword and what it isn’t, which is lighter and faster like a smallsword.

The question about women is irrelevant, swords literally weigh two and a half pounds. How easily would a woman be able to wield it? The same as it would be for a man.

I know the man versus woman debate is the initial knee jerk for most everybody, so the question on its own is not your fault. However, now is the time to start ridding yourself of it. When you’re looking to write action heroines that question is going to debilitate you far more than help. Cling to “can a woman do it?”, and you’ll never find the action hero’s mindset.  That question is valuable when looking at lens or perceptions through which others might judge the character, the questions the character asks themselves, or their own internal struggles against enforced gender norms, but has nothing to do with actual physical ability.

Skill in martial combat is a matter of training and experience. Patience, dedication, a willingness to try, and a teacher are all one needs. Arguments over sex and gender have even less value when it comes to weapons than they do when looking at hand to hand. Weapons are the great equalizers, they are designed to overcome the body’s advantages. The playing field is never level, not for anyone. However, writing female action heroes begins with the understanding that the challenges women face are social rather than physical. Just because society at large says, “not for you” doesn’t mean it’s true and that goes for everyone.

As for swords? Swords are designed to suit difference purposes. The rapier is a long sword (not a longsword), and primarily designed for its reach advantage rather than a speed advantage. It is longer than the longsword, which means it is more likely to hit first in a standard duel.

As for training? Asking about the difficulty in learning a basic subject is pointless, because your character is simply not going to have many choices when it comes to learning. The weapon you choose locks you more or less into the time period where the weapon comes from, and further limits the available choices. Weapons are designed to deal with the dangers of the times they exist in, they’re specific design choices rather than arbitrary. In this case, your needs against the opponents you’re facing are as important as your desires. An easy way to decide a character’s weaponry is this:

Time Period > Education Level/Income Bracket/Social Status > Available Training > Weapon.

Now, the rapier like many variants of swords was available for all levels and the skill level varied.  So, this is more a question of research ergo: “my character is an English peasant living circa 1568 AD” or “I’m basing my fantasy setting on the War of the Roses, my character is a noble…” etc.

Or we do our research in reverse:

Desire > Weapon > Time Period > Education Level/Income Bracket/Social Status > Available Training

Your character begins with a desire, “I saw X in a duel when I was five and decided I wanted to learn to wield a rapier like him!” then goes out to find a teacher, convinces teacher to teach them, learns weapon, then fights with weapon.

This is the evolution of how humans choose to pursue the combat arts. Inspiration creates a Desire, the desire then becomes a Goal, the goal leads them to Pursuit of Action, and that is their origin story.

We become good at a thing based on our enthusiasm for the thing, and that applies as much to martial training. The only time this rule doesn’t apply is when your character is a Chosen One, which yes, they have to do the thing regardless of whether they want to or not.

The world your character exists in decides which weapons they use. Weapons that no longer suit the field of combat are discarded, and new weapons are created. Those new weapons are not necessarily better than the old ones, they simply change based on survival needs. Weapon advantages and disadvantages aren’t universal either, so it’s best not to try and munchkin our way to victory in the stat pools.

If you were in a HEMA club and trying to decide which sword style you wanted to study first then a question of difficulty would be relevant. (Though the answer about difficulty will differ depending on who you ask, so its usually better to go with what interests you.)

There are women throughout history who wielded all sorts of weapons in combat. You just won’t hear about them if you don’t go looking for them.

There are tons of women who do HEMA.

The question as to whether or not a woman can fight with a rapier is dependent on a single question:

How much time has she dedicated to becoming proficient?

If she’s not practicing or isn’t consistent with her practice, then the answer is no. She isn’t.

If she is then the answer is probably.


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