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Q&A: Knives Out

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: What are the odds of winning a fight when one character is skilled in daggers more than swords, and in this fight, the opponent uses a sword?

The short answer to this question is almost none, barring being indoors, especially if you’re envisioning a straight forward fight. The answer to why is a concept called reach.

Reach is commonly misunderstood by a lot of writers and even some martial artists when it gets applied as a blanket statement to all combat (including hand to hand, where the difference between two people of different heights is centimeters), but with weapons of two different lengths it’s a game breaker.

The dagger wielding character has weapons that are between three to six inches. The sword, if its a longsword, is probably between thirty-six to thirty-nine inches. That’s a three foot difference full of bladed steel. Your dagger wielding character needs to get past the three feet, to be eight inches away from their target before that steel stops being a danger. (And, that’s if the sword wielder doesn’t half-hand, or chooses to hit your dagger wielder with the pommel of their sword.) Even then, the blade can still cut.

There is no guarantee your swordsman isn’t also trained in hand to hand along with their swordsmanship, allowing them to utilize their blade (or simply fight) in close-quarters. Most were.

Say it with me, “daggers are for shanking.”

The Kill Zone: Who hits first?

The first problem for the dagger wielder is that the swordsman can hit them long before they ever manage to close. This allows the swordsman to control the battle tempo, allowing them to attack without giving the fighter with the daggers opportunity for recourse. Daggers will be on the defense, looking for an opportunity to close so they can strike and, if the swordsman is just mildly competent, those opportunities will be few and far between.

The second problem is that the sword’s greater range also gives them a wider array of targets than the dagger wielder has access to. For example, the swordsman can aim for the foot and, from there, carve up the groin to the chest without an issue. Thrusts easily transitions to slices with the point, which change to hews across the body. The sword’s defense is total. If they keep up attacks, all daggers can do is respond.

The third problem is blocks and counters. They can’t, daggers really aren’t designed for that. They could try to Deflections? The sword will recover in a few fractions of a second. While that’s enough for another swordsman to move from parry to strike, the daggers are too short. They’d be about midway to the swordsman, and take a hewing strike or just a retreating cut to the their side (or somewhere more vital to continuing combat, like their arm. The arm/leg/foot/hand get caught in just a basic slice and that’s it for using those body parts.)

The fourth problem? Well, they can’t bull rush. All they get out of a rush is plowing headlong into the steel end of a long blade. A swordsman can set their weight in stance to take that hit without being forced to even take a step back.

You should never fight a superior weapon on that weapon’s terms. You have to fight on your own, where you negate the other wielder’s advantages. If your dagger wielder isn’t planning ways to use their environment to negate the swordman’s massive advantage, you may want to rethink your fight scene. (And yes, fighting in an alley makes the situation worse for Daggers. Indoors where the sword’s movements are limited by tightly clustered objects like furniture, or in ambush before the sword is drawn.)

Targeting Extremities: How do you run when you can’t move?

What many authors forget about, because they don’t normally work with bladed weapons, is how dangerous they actually are. They also think you need to go directly for the interior parts of the body, such as the heart, the head, stomach, and neck.

Combat is, ironically, far more sophisticated than that and, with an unarmored opponent, cuts and lacerations can be debilitating to any part of the body you hit. While your heart is pumping, your heart will be pumping that blood out of your body. Holes in the body mean the blood leaves the body, the more holes, the faster that happens. This is the strategy with both sword and dagger, you can target major arteries with your daggers or your swords, but anywhere actually works.

The primary targets are usually the best defended. So, you don’t go for those unless the enemy puts up a very poor defense. You start outside, on the extremities, and work inward. If you take the arm, they can no longer use it or will be forced to use it more slowly, to their own detriment. If you take the foot, you cut off their maneuvering. If you pierce their thigh, similar problem. Keep in mind, you don’t have to cut the extremity off. A cut or piercing thrust is enough. Cut muscles or pierced muscles, even surface cuts, mean debilitated muscles. With their defense disabled, you go in for the kill.

On the other hand, your dagger wielder cannot reach the swordmans extremities without closing past the three foot bladed steel barrier that is constantly in motion.

Eliminating Threats: How the combatant thinks.

Combat is all about calculated risk. Every action, every decision is a trade off. You want to maneuver past the enemy’s defenses without taking injuries. No injuries is preferable, but unlikely. Any injury means recovery time, which can severely hamper you’re ability to move forward to the next fight. You want to fight from the position which favors you, and gain nothing in fighting from an underdog position. If you’re forced to, you work with what you have. If you choose to, prepare to suffer.

All weapons are not created equal. Every weapon has a field which is favorable to it. The sword, for example, loses out to the staff or spear when out in the open. However, in areas that are denser like a marketplace or city street, the spear or staff will run into maneuverability issues just like the sword does when indoors.

Canny fighters know how to turn their disadvantages into advantages by changing the field of battle, such as luring the swordsman indoors where his strike pattern is more limited. At worst, they know when to disengage and retreat. Survival is more important than ego.

As a writer, you should always try to understand the threats your characters are facing so you don’t accidentally tip the scales too far in one direction and then try to treat the ensuing battle as equal. Bringing knives to a swordfight is a lot like bringing knives to a gunfight, the upset can be brilliant if you plan your scene around getting past the gun/sword’s advantages or horribly one-sided if you don’t.

Your dagger wielder should shank like their life depends on it (because it does.)

The Sliding Edge: Why blocks and deflections with daggers don’t work.

The short answer here is simple: the dagger is actually too short for deflecting another bladed weapon. Outside of parrying daggers (which are a different animal entirely, and paired with a long blade like a rapier), daggers do not deflect other daggers. That’s what your off hand is for.

If you have chosen two daggers, you’ve chosen that offensive life. This means your fighting style is all offense, all the time. Offense is your defense. You will run headlong into a wall when you encounter a weapon which forces you on the defensive.

You might be wondering, “but why can’t I just cross my blades?” Because, while it’s a favorite move for anime, it doesn’t actually work. A pincer block like that is about pressure and you can’t apply enough pressure to stop the incoming blade before it hits.

Swords and daggers don’t clang together when they hit, they slide on those sharp edges. The goal of the swordsman is to protect his blade’s edge, and the same goes for the daggers. The goal, even when parrying, is to apply opposing force to redirect the opponent’s weapon away from its chosen course. Sword combat isn’t about strength, it’s about geometric angles. A dagger wielder doesn’t have that option if they have two weapons, their blades are too short, they have no choice but to attack and keep attacking. This is great if they’re against an unarmed opponent, but a problem if they are not in range to hit anything.

Choose your field of battle wisely. Or? Better yet? Carry additional weapons. Most real warriors throughout history carried multiple weapons to avoid this problem. The conceit of single weapon styles is from anime and role-playing games like DnD or video games. A warrior carrying a spear, a bow, a sword, and a dagger was not unheard of. They’d also carry a variety of more specialized weapons depending on the type of battlefield they expected to encounter.

You could lure the swordsman into territory that doesn’t benefit him, only to have him switch up and come at you knives out.

The well-rounded warrior was the warrior who survived.

-Michi

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Q&A: If Cowardice is the Absence of Courage, Clichés are the Absence of Detail

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on writing a “cowardly” character without making them “cliché”? Usually people write “brave” characters as not being afraid of rushing headfirst into combat, or the “cowardly” character is also shy but I find that boring. 

Well, you know there is the saying, “only fools rush in.”

The issue with the labels of brave versus cowardly is not that the issue is complex, but rather that people tend to apply them to actions instead of motivation. The same action can be brave or cowardly or neither, depending on who is doing it and why. 

I’ll break it down for you:

Coward – Cowards always take the easy way out.

“Cowardice is a trait wherein excessive fear prevents an individual from taking a risk or facing danger. It is the opposite of courage. As a label, “cowardice” indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge. “ – Wikipedia

Whether you will be a coward or not depends on the challenge you’re facing, those challenges can be physical (commonly understood as part of physical conflict and violence), but they’re also emotional, social, or facing what causes you fear or anxiety. A coward is defined by specifics, not abstracts.

Example: a great hero who goes on a quest to save the world in order to escape the emotional difficulties of dealing with their significant other or loved ones is, ironically, a coward.

Example: an anti-social individual who is circumspect and distant from strangers, but not afraid of social interaction isn’t a coward.

Example: an individual who rushes in because being called a coward negatively affects their self-image is… a coward.

There are plenty of times when people are called cowards when they aren’t, usually this has to do with confusion over action versus motivation and cultural bullshit about courage.

Courage – Merriam Webster’s definition of courage is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”

I think the key word for you to understand is “difficulty.” Courage is not about being fearless, it’s about facing what you’re afraid of. In a limited scope, only the individual can define what actions are courageous for themselves. No one else can tell you what to be afraid of, or define what’s difficult for you. If you are someone for whom the words and labels applied to you by others define who you are, then rejecting those cultural standards may be courageous.

You want to be careful about saying bravery is the absence of fear, or logic. Stupidity isn’t courage. Someone who lashes out because they’re afraid isn’t more brave than the person who runs. Running at your problem can be the same as running away. When you don’t consider the problem, you’re still practicing avoidance. Building up walls, filling your day up with pointless tasks, putting off dealing with what’s bothering you, those are all symptoms.

A character who isn’t bothered by or afraid of physical conflict isn’t brave or courageous. There are plenty of characters, like people, who will use physical conflict or action to escape from what makes them emotionally uncomfortable.

If you’re retreating into what makes you comfortable, you’re not being brave. If you’re taking stupid risks trying to prove you’re not scared of something, you’re probably afraid of it. 

Example: adrenaline junkies aren’t brave, they’re looking for a high.

If your character is talking back to a villain who would kill anyone else who wasn’t the protagonist for doing the same thing, they aren’t being brave… they’re engaging in author sanctioned stupidity. (I mean it too, there are plenty of authors who can’t handle their protagonist being powerless and use witty comebacks as a means of restoring control. Undercutting their villain, and the scene’s tension, in the process.)

How do you write it?

This part isn’t easy.

Writing characters who are brave versus characters who are cowards requires sitting down and figuring out what your characters are afraid of. You have to figure out what situations and scenarios are physically, emotionally, or morally challenging for them. That’s complicated, usually requiring a fair amount of self-reflection. However, it’s the only way to escape clichés.

No one likes dealing with uncomfortable situations or making challenging choices. If you use your writing as an outlet for your personal fantasies then writing characters who are courageous can be difficult because what is uncomfortable disrupts that fantasy. The power fantasy, for example, is tenuous and reliant on a narrative where things aren’t specific even if they’re difficult emotionally. Fears begin to define a character and the more a character becomes an individual, the more difficult it is for the reader to insert themselves into the story.

Depending on what you’re reading, many authors will steer toward the generic rather than specific or gloss over the fears entirely. We can make as many jokes as we like about “Pants” the protagonist, but the vague outline and generics serve a specific narrative purpose. 

If you’re using a novel where the protagonist is Pants for reference, then you might run into difficulties when writing. The narrative outline will steer you into generics, specifically for your protagonists. Pants can’t really be brave because Pants isn’t a person, they’re a simulacrum cobbled together from stereotypes. A shadowy outline of a person designed for self-insertion. While this is an intentional choice on the part of the author, it won’t help you when you’re writing.

Your characters are built from you, so the best point of reference is always going to be yourself. Which means self-reflection, acknowledging situations social or otherwise which make you or made you uncomfortable.

It is easier, for example, to have a conversation about your emotions and struggles with a complete stranger than someone who knows you. The reason is that the stranger doesn’t know you, can’t affect you, and you don’t need to see them every day so the conversation can’t have any lasting impact on your life. If you’re afraid of change, of the consequences of voicing your opinion, of those you care about disregarding what you have to say, then this can be a safe release which ultimately changes nothing. Is this courage? Not really, no.

Delving into our own weaknesses isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable, and it isn’t always fun. Poking at the wounds inside your mind or figuring out what you’ve been avoiding, what makes you feel insecure or unsure. Then taking those feelings to your writing, to the scenarios you’re structuring. You ask yourself questions about what your characters are feeling. If it’s hard, then why is it hard? If they’re running away, why are they running away? If they’re charging forward, why are they charging forward? What motivates their actions?

Specificity combats clichés. Clichés are by their nature generic, a character who provides specific detail to make the cliché about their personal experiences isn’t.

-Michi

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Q&A: Force Multipliers

lonewolfpawprints said to howtofightwrite: I’ve been told that the mere act of possessing a knife is as effective as 10 years of martial arts training. What do you think of this claim?

The claim makes sense in the statement’s original context, which was probably trying to articulate the dangers of force multipliers, the knife as an ambush weapon, or a self-defense professional discussing knives used in muggings against unarmed combatants. In every one of these examples, it’s a (admittedly bad) metaphor trying to illustrate a concept that can be difficult for individuals with limited backgrounds to understand.

What the claim isn’t is a blanket declaration of fact, because in that context it makes no sense at all. However, someone makes the statement, someone else parrots it, and we’re off to the races. Now, you’re here with a statement ridiculous on its face because it removes all the conditions and is basically saying knives are magic.

The knife is a force multiplier in hand to hand combat, making the individual who carries one far more dangerous than one without. The 10 years is trying to convey that the knife, especially as its one of the most common weapons encountered in a modern, urban environment, is a very dangerous weapon that has killed many experienced individuals.

Getting your students to grasp how dangerous (clear, and present, will kill you even in inexperienced hands) can be very difficult due to how the knife is often disregarded in popular culture or written off as a weapon for gang members or fantasy rogues.

The actual example is this: “You have two martial artists of equivalent skill who have both trained for ten years, but one of them has a knife. Add an additional ten years to the guy with the knife, and that’s what you’d be facing.”

This is not adding a literal 10 years of training, this someone trying describing the additional dangers presented by a force multiplier. What this example doesn’t mean is that a person without any training at all has ten years of martial arts training, will magically turn you into a martial arts master, or that the knife makes up for training you don’t have.

Someone utilizing the knife as an ambush weapon in a mugging can stab you multiple times to the point where you will bleed out and die on the street.

Someone with actual training in using the knife will kill you much faster than the mugger.

Someone with no martial training trying to use a knife for self-defense can brandish it, at best. If the threat of violence doesn’t work, they won’t know what else to do with it other than swing wildly. Swinging wildly will risk the blade being taken away.

The knife is not a replacement for martial training, it adds an additional force bonus to what you already possess, and makes you more dangerous in hand to hand combat; especially against an unarmed opponent.

Try to remember, for the most part, martial combat doesn’t have universal rules. There’s a lot of great advice out there, but everything is contextual. Everything is conditional, there’s always an exception, and those conditions and exceptions when utilized appropriately significantly change the field of battle.

Here are some basic examples:

Size doesn’t matter except when ground fighting.

Ground fighting, when lying on the ground, like grappling has to deal with the full weight of gravity. Here, weight, height, limb length, and leverage all play a significant role that they don’t while standing.

The gun is king except in close quarters, when you aren’t given time to draw.

There’s a double whammy for this one. If you don’t have time to draw or your opponent is past the gun, the gun is not king, which is where the eight foot or two meter rule (these are different distances) comes in. However, those rules only apply to Weaver/Teacup/most normal stances, and don’t apply to those individuals trained for close quarters shooting. (Like CAR.)

You might think some of these are obvious, but there’s often a rush to generalize information so its easier to understand. Generalizations can impede your understanding and, ultimately, take statements out of context. However, it is easier to generalize than itemize all the situations where a statement isn’t accurate.

-Michi

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Q&A: Remember, Fiction is a Lie

I read on here before that years of practice is very important and it is no surprise when an 80 year old master beats a 30 year old simply because of that. But how about if a character is able to live for hundreds or thousands of years. Wouldn’t it make such a character an absolute true master that no normal person can beat unaided by magic or tech? I’ve tried to look at fiction with such characters but it never really mentions this and these characters actually do get subdued unaided.

Well, consider this, when you’re reading about immortal characters, you’re reading fiction. Fiction is a lie. It may be a lie you want to believe, it may contain some semblance of veracity, but it is still a carefully crafted lie. It isn’t real and, because it is all in the author’s imagination, you can do whatever the hell you want.

In fiction, the author is not beholden to or have to consider any sort of realism outside of convincing their readership to believe the story they’re telling. More than that, fiction is notoriously inaccurate regarding violence in general. Often, these authors have never been in the room with actual individuals who are considered masters of their craft, experienced that remarkable chasm of awe, or felt the weight of being completely outclassed by presence alone. The end of the story is fiction lies to you. Again, the author crafts their own realism for their narrative and all that matters is whether or not their reader believes.

An immortal who was dueling with small-swords in France during the period when lost eyes and dual suicides were common isn’t going to be threatened by a seventeen year old with three weeks of modern sport fencing experience; especially if that immortal has kept up the practice.

This is a reasonable assumption if you extrapolate from the experiences of real world individuals. Fighting a master in the arena, utilizing their specialty, on an even playing field is asking to have your ass handed to you. In the real world, I’ve met men and women in their late sixties and seventies who are more limber than most teenagers. I once watched my martial arts master bend a solid steel rebar with the hollow of his throat. Crazy as that might sound, I kid you not. It’s a popular exercise shown at martial arts demos.

The irony is the upper limit of what human beings are capable of is, in fact, incredibly high, and most people are completely unaware because they have no exposure to it. Without experience, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the vast differences between individuals at various training stages and is, in part, where the trope “All Violence is Created Equal” comes from.

When an author has no experience with violence in any of its forms, they’re liable to treat all their combat characters as the same. We are all limited by our imaginations, just as our imaginations are limited by our knowledge and understanding of the world. A tiered system of power differences is easier to establish when you have experience. When you lack that experience, it can be more difficult to imagine the concrete ways your protagonist is disadvantaged by their immortal adversary. The author might not even realize how great an advantage experience is all by itself. Especially if they don’t understand predictive strategizing based on prior experience is more valuable than most of the techniques in a warrior’s arsenal. Fiction often treats strategy as separate or distinct character trait, rather than part of the package. This is part of why immortal characters inexplicably fall for obvious traps or ploys they should see coming a mile away, or acting in ways their narrative establishes is out of character for them. It’s all well and good to call your character a master fighter, but describing a master warrior and crafting a convincing character is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Violence is a vast, messy, constantly evolving business with a community that’s difficult to penetrate if you aren’t already a member. Martial combat skills and techniques are generally shrouded in mystery and hidden as a strategy to keep counters from being developed. The more information your opponent has about you, the easier it is for them to craft a solution to stop you. Combine this with media misinformation, urban legends, myths, and power fantasies, the novice faces a lot of difficulty figuring out what is and isn’t bacon. While the internet has given a lot of people more access than they had ten to twenty years ago, it can still be a difficult slog to sift through fact and fiction if you don’t already know what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, on the subject of martial combat, it’s a lot.

Fictional tropes often won’t help you much in unraveling the mystery, they’re far more liable to be even more confusing when sorting out how they relate to reality. The presentation of fictional violence in film or in literature is an art form all by itself. Understanding this art requires admitting that violence crafted for entertainment is its own animal, one which draws from the same source but is only tangentially related to the practical side. Add in the framing of youth versus the experienced elder, which is a central theme in many martial arts narratives and many narratives in general, and you have authors taking cues from stories which have no real relation to the one they’re telling.

An immortal whose body is frozen in their early twenties to early thirties is at their peak, they don’t suffer from the same issues as an the eighty year old human. The danger of the evil martial arts master isn’t their physical prowess, but their experience. Their aging bodies put them at a disadvantage against younger opponents, while their wisdom and skill make them deadly. An immortal doesn’t suffer from this weakness, they have the battlefield experience, the cunning, the skill, the wisdom of all their years, and the physical prowess of someone in peak condition. The scale is weighted even more heavily in favor of the immortal rather than the young protagonist, which is why mythological themes surrounding immortal beings favor ingenuity and cleverness over combat and brute force.

In the cases of the novels you’re reading, the author settled on artistic license to get the scenes and sequences they wanted for their narrative. The fight scenes might be there just to prove the protagonist knows how to fight or to showcase their skills. Usually, in the cases of immortals, that means they take a bath. They have to, if they’re a skilled warrior, in order to bring the protagonist up to par.

As a writer, you’re balancing audience enjoyment and your own desires against, in some cases, cohesive world building and realistic portrayals of violence. For all the smokescreen complaints about realism, people don’t want realistic portrayals. They just don’t want the character’s actions to break their suspension of disbelief. Learning this answer, many people might say, “then, if it doesn’t really matter, then what’s the point of learning about real violence and how it works?” The answer is so you can fake it. The general audience will accept it and claim realism achieved while only a slim segment realizes the truth.

In the end, reality gets in the way of the fantasy. If you look objectively at an immortal being who has survived through the centuries, crossed numerous battlefields, and survived as a soldier in warfare’s constant evolving environments, honing their skills against warriors who were also masters of their craft, you might think that a sixteen year old fighting them with a rapier and six months of sport fencing (consider the problem here, sport fencing doesn’t include the rapier and it won’t actually train you to duel in the old fashioned way either) sounds a little ridiculous. However, fiction is the great con and, like all cons, all about the slight of hand. If you can get your audience invested in the sixteen year old and their defeat of the immortal, you won’t get called out for being unrealistic.

As a writer, you control the perceptions of your audience. You give them the information you want them to retain. You direct the narrative. You can’t control what people take away from the experience of reading your story, but you can control what they read. As a result, you decide what matters.

The vast majority of folklore and myth across many cultures will tell you that fighting an immortal warrior in active conflict without any advantages of your own or just seeking to understand your enemy is a losing proposition. Modern fantasy often doesn’t agree — unless its specifically chasing or introducing folklore elements. The result is two very different narratives where the immortal is either just like everyone else or an immovable wall you need to strategize around. Go try smacking Koschei the Deathless around and see how far brute force gets you.

The answer you’re ultimately looking for is that the media you’re consuming was written by authors who picked a side. They weren’t interested in applying the experience factor, it didn’t fit with the story they were trying to tell, and that’s fine. There are plenty of other authors out there who have explored this experience side of immortals in depth. Highlander, Highlander: The Raven, Hellboy, Hunter: The Reckoning (most of White Wolf’s archives really), Dracula, and Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist immediately come to mind. Hell, even Lord of the Rings is filled with main characters who are technically geriatrics. (I’m looking at you Aragorn and your 87 years. And Legolas? 2900. Gimli is around 102.) There are many more out there, including a number of mythological monsters which require a specific set of circumstances to induce death. Most of the horror genre will drag you kicking and screaming into the dark where understanding the unknown is necessary for even a slim chance at victory.

You just need to expand your horizons.

-Michi

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Q&A: Just Make It Their Phys Ed Class

Kids in my story are taught flashy stage staff fighting to build endurance, confidence and coordination. They complain about it and are told if they can successfully master a complex method of not hurting each other, then the simple methods of real staff fighting should be fairly easy later on. Would this be realistic? Not talking child soldiers, just kids who think they’re getting dumbed-down lessons.

No, it’s not realistic and, in this context, the kids would be right. They are being lied to by their teachers.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is a much more complicated discussion about stage fighting versus real fighting, how you get children to learn, and the very real question of how you intend to sell flashy stage fighting that looks really cool as something that’s boring. I can already tell from the way you’ve structured your question that you’re looking for a “safe” way to get what you want i.e “cool” staff fighting without having to answer questions about how one responsibly trains kids to use weapons. Kids training on staves is realistic because it does happen in modern American suburbia without the drugs, the abuse, or the mental scarring, or the shitty Hollywood Orientalism.

Now, let’s start with stage fighting. There’s two kinds of stage fighting. One is actual stage fighting and the other is martial arts choreography which is in the category of stunt work. They’re in the same field but you don’t get to both from the same place. You can learn the first kind of stage fighting without learning anything about martial arts, this usually gets rolled into a side note course in theater classes. The second kind works best if you have a solid base in martial arts to start off with because it draws off real techniques. In both cases, stage fighting relies on making big eye-catching motions that are visibly distinct and easy to see which is the exact opposite of what you want from practical combat.

The first kind of stage fighting is what we’ll call, “The Art of Whiffing While Looking Good”. The looking good part relies on you only looking at the motions from a specific line of sight otherwise you’ll be able to see them miss by a mile. It’s all about big, eye-catching motions that work as slight of hand to convince the audience that something is happening which isn’t. It is a real art form, one which takes a lot of skill and control to be good at in the upper echelons of professional stunt actors, but it’s not real. Lots of people mistake this for being “safe” fighting. It is the same as a magician’s stage trick. There are plenty of theater kids who do think that learning stage sword fighting means they can fence. (We’ve gotten questions from a young fencer before about their theater friend who always wanted to fight them with a sword, and how they didn’t want to. The reasons should be obvious.)

If you teach stage fighting to kids first then it will actually be much harder for them to learn the real thing later. You’d have to completely retrain them from the ground up, retrain their foundation, their reflexes, their stances, their ability to apply power. On top of that, you’d have to give them real endurance training too, which is the actual boring part of martial arts training all the kids complain about.

Now, if you’re thinking about the fight sequences choreographed and performed by actual martial artists, then that’s just martial arts. The kids won’t be good at this “stage fighting” unless they master the techniques underlying it… which is again martial arts. This would undercut them if your end goal is for them to actually be able to effectively use a staff in combat because skill in the substance is what makes you good at the flash.

The basic rule is you can’t train people to whiff and then expect them to be able to hit things. You have to train them to hit things first, then you can teach them how to whiff. (You already taught them to whiff while you were training them to hit things, because they spent a lot of time practicing not hitting things or hitting things gently at different stages while learning to hit things full force. This is where the real control comes from.)

Kids can’t initially tell the difference between flash and substance. You can use that flash as the carrot to get them excited about learning and to push them into applying themselves through the boring, repetitive parts. You can hold out the cool technique as the reward for wind sprints until they reach a point where what’s hard becomes enjoyable. You’ve got to be careful with this method though, because what kids can do is smell bullshit. As an authority figure you need to maintain their trust.

You can’t continue to sell stage fighting as a pathway to real martial arts if your students get exposed to the real thing. As a writer, you shouldn’t be so terrified of the child soldier specter that you think learning violence has to be all or nothing. Also, that’s not what a child soldier is. Child soldiers are kids who’ve been stolen from their families, given very little training, hopped up on drugs, and sent out to die. Conflating a child soldier with an Olympian judoka or just a regular six year old practicing martial arts for forty-five minutes three days a week disrespects everyone. Martial arts training is not by its nature abusive or dangerous for children.

This scenario reads like you’re looking for a roundabout way to get what you want while avoiding both the idea of kids learning about violence and the necessary repetitive, boring parts which make up the bulk of martial arts training.

Violence is very boring, and learning to do violence is even more so. You learn your new technique in pieces. You practice the pieces separately. You put the pieces together into a single bodily motion. You practice this for a while, then with a partner where you never touch each other but get used to the idea of spacing. Then, then, then you get to use slowly, carefully, and with great patience on the other person. Depending on the associated danger, the other person might be wearing a lot of padding. You get your cool technique moments interspersed between hours, and hours, and hours, and even more hours of repetition. You will practice the same techniques over and over and over again until you can do them in your sleep. When you’re not doing that, you’re doing your conditioning which is your pushups, your sit ups, your wind sprints, your mile-runs, etc. When you’re not doing either of those things, you’re stretching.

The average, recreational martial arts school is like PE class, except more fun. In fact, martial arts does get offered as Physical Education in some schools. I took Shotokan in college.

The mistake a lot of people who never practice martial arts make is the assumption that learning about violence inevitably makes people more violent. This is actually not true. Kids who learn martial arts are much less likely to mess around and use those skills outside of class than, say, the theater kids who learned stage fighting. Stage fighting is safe, so this leads to them more likely getting overconfident with it and practicing outside adult supervision. Kids who practice martial arts learn very quickly that martial arts can result in them or someone else getting hurt if they make a mistake, and the result is they become more responsible about using the skills that they acquire.

Real violence needs to be respected for the harm it can cause. Teaching someone “safe” violence sends the wrong message, and this scenario you’ve concocted is actually more likely to result in these kids hurting each other outside of where the adults can see. They were taught they couldn’t be hurt by the techniques they learned, so why not use them?

The irony here is that the real thing is actually safer for them and better for achieving all the things they’re supposed to be learning from it than the fake thing. It’s also more honest.

They also still won’t be able to whip around and take on a Navy SEAL because all martial arts training is not the same.

You’d be better suited to having these kids learn recreational martial arts which is martial arts training dedicated to health and exercise than stage fighting if what you want them to develop is endurance, confidence, and coordination. At the end of the day, martial arts is just sports and it fits as easily into your average PE class as baseball, soccer, dodgeball, and football. Most martial arts classes don’t run longer than a conventional PE period anyway. Wealthier schools often offer various extra class types for the kids who don’t want to do general Physical Education. It wouldn’t be a difficult sell that these kids’ school has that option, where you could sign up for fencing, karate, or taekwondo rather than taking the general. You also don’t run into the problem of asking, “do their parents know about this?” because their parents already signed the waiver.

I took Shotokan in college. I grew up next door to Stanford University, where they offered a whole slew of special programs and afternoon activities in the summer for kids that included fencing. These kinds of activities are a lot more common than you might imagine in the places where they can afford it.

If you’re serious about writing this story, I suggest hitting up your local YMCA or youth center and seeing what they offer as programs for kids during the summer. You might be surprised what you find.

-Michi

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Q&A: Emotions Are Not A Weakness

Do good fighters have to become emotionally distant/stunted/withdrawn in order to be effective? Often strength is seen as the same as being unemotional (not just being able to hide them) and not being ‘soft’ at all. Empathy, kindness, patience, etc, are considered weaknesses. Avatar: the Last Airbender is one of the only mediums I have seen that places some value on these traits even when the characters fight. Is there room for these traits in real life martial arts, other combat, or militaries?

Put. The. CW. Down.

If Avatar: The Last Airbender is the only example which comes to mind you either need to broaden your horizons or reevaluate what you’ve been reading/watching. You don’t need to expand beyond the YA, where this attitude flourishes, but you may want to read some better material or chase Avatar’s actual genre. Avatar: The Last Airbender is part of the martial arts fantasy adventure genre, known as wuxia in China, and for that genre it actually lives in the shallow end of the pool for the material its discussing.

I challenge you to go watch Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Letters from Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, M.A.S.H, Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, Bleach, Yu Yu Hakusho, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Black Clover, Claymore, That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime, Full Metal Alchemist, read Protector of the Small, All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey to the West, or countless other novels, manga, and comics which delve into this topic at length, and tell me they promote the idea of the emotionless combatant. Oh My General is on Amazon Prime right now. You can watch Ice Fantasy, Eternal Love/Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms, A Korean Odyssey, Violet Evergarden, Mr. Sunshine, Train to Busan, and many others are available on Netflix. I mean, watch Captain Marvel and Captain America: The First Avenger. Neither of these two are emotionless drones. I mean, have you watched The Two Towers? Aragorn and Legolas were in the process of becoming unglued at Helms Deep, they started yelling at each other in Elvish so the Rohirrim wouldn’t know how scared they were in order to maintain moral.

I’m not sure where you’ve gotten this perspective from. Though, it is a common misread of combat discipline, compartmentalization, and that someone must not have emotions if they don’t outwardly show their emotions in performative way or let their emotions rule them. The emotionless drone plot is one that does occur in many East Asian narratives, but its not presented as a strength. The plot revolves around the individual running away from a traumatic experience and giving up their humanity as a result, this is treated as a display of weakness rather than strength. You need your emotions, we make some pretty shitty choices without compassion, kindness, and empathy. You need your emotions like anger to give you purpose and to drive you. You need your frustrations to dig deep, to find the strength to overcome. You just can’t allow them to control you.

At the beginning of your question you asked,

Do good fighters have to become emotionally distant/stunted/withdrawn in order to be effective?

These three words are not the same, they do not share the same meaning, and to combine them is to misunderstand the difference between being emotionally distant or withdrawn and being emotionally stunted. You then go on to combine being stunted, withdrawn, and distant with the idea of having no emotions at all.

Someone who is emotionally distant has emotions, but is choosing not to connect to other individuals in the moment. This is a choice.

Someone who is emotionally withdrawn has exited their emotions from the situation. They are unreachable, and are trying to protect themselves.

Someone who is emotionally stunted is someone who has not actually developed their emotions, and as a result experiences them in an often explosive and immature way. Emotionally, they are a child in the body of an adult dealing with adult emotions. They are more likely, rather than less, to be controlled by their emotions.

Someone who is unemotional, is someone who does not feel at all and that is different from all of the above.

None of these are a person who practices combat discipline because combat discipline is a necessary survival mechanism for keeping yourself and your friends alive. Combat discipline doesn’t negate your emotions, but uses them for motivation while keeping the mind clear. They are able to review the situation logically, and make rational decisions. Combat discipline doesn’t necessarily follow someone out of a combat scenario. They can and do emotionally engage with others outside of violence. (They can emotionally engage with someone during a combat scenario also, however their emotions are not the basis of their decision making.)

Your emotions are positive and negative, and both can be manipulated by your enemy. They can also manipulate you. You can use your emotions to justify narcissism, use your anger to justify harming others, and can make incredibly poor long term choices for the good of others based on short term gratification. The desire to feel like a good person can be destructive when that desire blinds you to the reality of the situation you’re inhabiting, when your life and the lives of others are riding on that decision. There’s a lot more to violence than technical aptitude. There are a lot of ways to kill someone, many which involve maneuvering someone into a position from which they can’t defend themselves. An easy way to do that is by manipulating your opponent’s emotions, their desires, their anger, their greed, their compassion, their kindness, and their empathy. If you approach a situation blindly, you can fall.

There’s a combat tactic called a honeypot, where you specifically wound an enemy soldier and leave him/her out in the open. When the other soldiers come to rescue them, you kill them.

This is a tactic which specifically preys on the human desire to help a comrade who is suffering. The trap relies on you to jump based on a knee jerk emotional response, to act without thinking.

This is where your emotions can get you into trouble and why combat discipline is a necessary skill to develop. If you don’t, then even a high school bully can bait you into acting against your own interest and maneuver you into a bad situation.

Read Sun Tzu’s Art of War and you’ll start to get an idea.

The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. – Sun Tzu

You want to reduce the opportunities someone has to take advantage of you. Only by shoring up your mind and seeking clarity, can you defend yourself against an enemy’s mental attacks. We like to imagine that battle takes place only in the clashing of bodies, but strategies and tactics are provided by the mind. A clever enemy will strike at you in all the places you are weak, often in those you do not expect.

The mistake is assuming this means the character cannot have any emotional connections at all, that they must have no emotion and must be a drone to save themselves. Many writers have taken this direction on the assumption the emotionless approach is the best way to secure victory, even if it’s a self-sabotaging one which exists only in the fantastical.

The emotionless drone is also a misreading of Taoism/Daoism, Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and other philosophies and religions; just as Avatar also misunderstands the philosophies of the material it draws from. The search for enlightenment and transcendence has nothing to do with giving up your emotions, giving up what matters, and going to live on a mountaintop away from anything which can threaten your inner peace. Aang cannot give up Katara because Katara is not an object Aang can control or possess. Giving up your desires is code for giving up your illusion of control, giving up your preconceived notions of who someone else is, and realize only when you have given up the illusions which blinded you can you see clearly. The distinction between Aang’s love for Katara and Aang’s love for his idea of Katara is important. While the Avatar narrative is steeped in these themes of enlightenment and transcendence, it never delves into them and, as a result, the martial arts component of the fantasy becomes a prop. Aang defeating the Firelord through violence at the end of Avatar: The Last Air Bender is actually a failure by the narrative to understand its own genre inherited themes.

It is important to remember when asking questions about the real world and real world martial arts, that the bending martial arts of Avatar are based on four distinct Chinese martial arts: Baguazhang (Air), Tajiquan (Water), Hung Guar Kuen (Earth), and Northern Shaolin (Fire). All these martial arts have a real history, with real philosophies, ones that are often contrary to their use in Avatar. Baguazhang and Tajiquan are what are commonly referred to as “soft” martial arts in the West, but better definition for them is “internal”. They are meditative, philosophical, and introspective martial arts with a focus on Daoist transcendence.

Part of Avatar’s problem is the idea that only specific people are born with the ability to bend, and therefore only specific people practice the martial arts rather than manipulating the elements being the result of interest, hard work, and training. This piece of worldbuilding is in defiance of all the martial arts and genre conventions it utilizes, such as Martial Arts Gives You Superpowers. Bending should be attainable to the average person even if they’re not born with natural talent, but isn’t. Transcendence through enlightenment, harmony, and understanding of the natural world is barred based on the luck someone has when they’re born. Avatar has the same problem as Star Wars after the introduction of midichlorians.

Compare to Naruto, which as a shounen manga/anime has a far better grasp of chi/qi/ki baked into its world building, where the distinction for the average person becoming a ninja is access, and where the discussion about the place of emotion in warfare is contrasted with individual loss and suffering and the prejudice which results from it. There’s also a lot of ugly crying in that first episode. Never let it be said real men don’t cry.

Most of war, shounen, and other martial arts fantasy narratives discuss the importance of relationships, of the bonds created between people which give them motivation to survive through horrific circumstances, through trauma and loss. How those bonds cause pain which can destroy you, and how they can save you in the hard times, how we can mistake one emotion for another, how feelings are an important component of what it is to be human.

The idea of characters being emotionless is mostly just a cheap out to avoid needing to write the characters as having difficult emotions which can be hard to express, are frightening, make us ugly or unlikeable, self-obsessed, or, in romantic stories, letting in that one special person who awakens their long buried feelings. In poor writing, kindness, compassion, patience, empathy are the province of certain characters rather than regular human traits because possessing empathy makes those characters look better.

So, no, being emotionless doesn’t make someone a better warrior. Giving up your emotions is the coward’s way out, it’s a means of escaping difficult feelings and pain, and repressing so you don’t have to deal with them. Facing your feelings takes real courage.

The truth is someone can go to war and return fine without any trauma, not be damaged, still be a loving parent, sibling, child, husband/wife, even after they’ve ended the lives of others. This can be difficult for some people to wrap their heads around. Likewise, compartmentalization can be hard to understand. They don’t have to find the act of killing hard, usually they take more exception to losing those they care about.

-Michi

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Q&A: Similar, But not the same (Improvised Weapon Follow-up)

rainbowfoxes said to howtofightwrite: Would someone who’s been trained in a particular weapon be able to adapt to a makeshift one? For example, if someone was trained in the chain whip, would they be able to use a bike chain to similar effect?

A bike chain not so much, but only because it moves on a single plane and isn’t flexible. A regular chain? Sure. You put a heavy steel lock on the end of a regular chain and you’ve got a makeshift flail/meteor hammer.

However, improvised weapons are not the same as the real weapon and they are more limited in capacity. So, you could probably use a length of chain with movements derived from the whip chain but only the basics (single hand with the other holding the rest of the chain, no redirecting off your upper arm/elbow) and most likely without the same range. This doesn’t mean a simple length of chain cannot be used to devastating effect because it can be, but it won’t be exactly the same with the same techniques. They don’t transition fluidly, and you have to be very specific about the weapons and every day objects you pick out for to combine for improvisation

A tire iron is not designed to beat someone about the head even when that’s what it’s being used for. The benefits of the tire iron lie in the fact its a length of solid steel with a handle and hitting someone with it will hurt a whole hell of a lot. However, given the choice, you’d rather be using a tactical baton. The tactical baton will transition much better to a skill set learned on, say, eskrima with fewer limitations than a tire iron. If you took your tire iron up against someone wielding a tactical baton, you’d be at a disadvantage with subpar weapon.

Add to this the fact you are used to wielding a whip chain and not used to wielding a regular length of chain, you’re going to run up against some problems. The chain is going to be heavier, it will be less fluid, more difficult to spin, your tempo will be slowed, and you’re going to be heavily reliant on the most basic of techniques. The ones you might normally transition into will be out, and there’ll be specific patterns (like the ones where you’d catch on your ribs and stomach) that you will need to avoid for your own safety. Your reflexes will be trained to transition smoothly from one technique to another, which can lead to costly mistakes with a heavier weapon you’re not used to wielding. Those fractions of seconds in delay, the parts where you actually need to stop and think about control rather than react and let your body act, where you’re splitting your attention between your environment and the techniques you’re trying to carry out, can cost you the fight.

This is the advantage of the trained combatant over the untrained combatant. The trained combatant has their techniques ingrained into their reflexes, their reaction times are ten times faster, and this frees their conscious mind up to focus on what’s happening around them rather than on what their body is doing. This is the result of practice, practice for hundreds and, on occasion, thousands of hours retraining their body’s reflexive reactions. Training their muscles to respond, cutting those reaction times down, slimming down the time it takes for their brain to send orders to their limbs. All of this will give them an advantage over someone who does not have similar preparation.

However, weapons are not interchangeable and they are not the same. You hand someone a meteor hammer when they’re used to using a whip chain or rope dart and it will still take time for them to learn how to use the meteor hammer effectively. They’ll learn more quickly than a raw beginner, but they still have to learn. The same truth follows for improvised weapons. This is not the weapon your character is used to using. Similar, yes, but not the same.

This distinction is important to grasp because it can be an excellent source of tension in your scene. In fact, it is one of the hallmark handicaps for experienced fighters handed off by fight scene coordinators. Experienced fighters being forced to rely on weapons they’re not used to can provide uncertainty, and part of stacking the odds against them. Others are numbers, unfamiliar terrain, unexpected combat, without weapons, and forced improvisation. These can all be used to great effect to transform even the most experienced and talented of fighters into underdogs.

And you want them to be underdogs, you want your hero in situations where they’re out of their depth, you want them in situations where they need to get a little creative, you want them in situations where they’re forced to run. You want to establish their limits because once they have limits you can create scenarios where they start to shine, where your audience has a chance to bond with them, and you build up your antagonists in the bargain. It is not very fun to read a fight scene where we know the outcome, even when we already know the outcome. If your hero is not under pressure, if they’re not facing difficulties, if they’re not uncomfortable, if they’re not just a little out of their depth (but not so far that they drown) then the scene has no tension.

Improvised weapons are one means of turning the experienced into the underdog, especially when the enemy has actual weapons. If you can beat the idea into your brain that actual weapons trump improvised weapons no matter who is wielding them (hero, villain, or mook), then you’ll have a better chance of establishing your tension. A character can be unconcerned due to their own ego if they’re outnumbered and outgunned, but you, the author, should be giving your audience reason to be concerned. That starts with establishing limitations.

No two weapons are the same, even those of the same type. Each weapon has its quirks, its flaws, and imperfections that the character who wields it has learned to account for. A character may be able to wield someone else’s longsword, but they won’t wield it as well as their own. Two different weapons of two different types, even those from the same family, are not interchangeable. Improvised weapons suffer from severe limitations because they are not, really, weapons.

Understanding limitations works to your advantage because limitations, external, internal, physical, mental, and moral are key to building tension. Tension is what keeps your narrative interesting.

Your character has her whip chain but she is used to wielding it in open areas with room to swing it and is forced to fight in a crowded street filled with parked cars against five or six enemies who are hunting for her.

This could be a great scene if you’re able to make the most of the presented limitations: numbers, populated area, unfamiliar terrain. You can use the whip chain in close quarters, but the advantages of the whip chain against numbers are out. So, the character must fight in a way the audience was not primed to expect given the weapon choice.

See? Similar to what might’ve been, but not the same.

There’s your wrench. Throw as many as you can.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reality Or Entertainment? You need both.

Hi! You raise a good question on choreography. Actors can’t do realistic fight scenes and it has to look entertaining. Well, then why are we creating realistic fight scenes in writing instead of entertaining? Of course on screen it’s restrictive by the medium. Are realistic fight scenes in writing more entertaining than unrealistic movie fight scenes in writing? Or is it just because it’s writing we have free rein and not restrictive to what can be done for a movie.

Why does it have to be one or the other?

The answer is both. You want fight scenes that are entertaining and convincing, and the only way to learn how to do that is study the applications of practical combat, martial arts, choreographed fight sequences, and everything in between.

The written medium is not the visual medium, so the way one entertains their audiences is ultimately different. Besides that, the vast majority of you are not a professional fight choreographers with multiple black belts in different martial styles and years of experience in the business. You lack skilled actors and stunt performers to carry out your vision, and, because movies are a visual medium, you don’t have a moving image or even an image like in comic books or art to attract the eye. You can create an image with words, but it isn’t the same. In visual medial, this is an image you are beholden to if you want to keep your audience engaged and entertained. Realistic violence is not engaging in the same way as choreographed fights in films. They are fundamentally different due to the necessity of motion. Movies specifically go in for wide sweeping attacks like the roundhouse punch or the roundhouse kick or the wheel kick because a spinning or circular motions look better on camera. Large easily telegraphed moves so the audience can see from a distance and follow along.

In a written fight scene there is no moving image, no sound effects, no music, no lighting effects, no jump cuts, no professional actors, stunt actors, choreographers, or costume crew.

There’s just you and what you, the writer, can bring to the table.

The visual medium has different requirements than written. Try as you might, you’ll never engage your audience at the same level because you lack the tools. If you try, you’ll end up with unworkable fight scenes which are too long, unwieldy, and ultimately bore your audience.

What use is a character performing six back flips or cartwheels on page to get to the other side of the room and grab the weapon on the opposing wall?

This is a visually engaging stunt piece on screen, but the effect lays in the quality of the movement and how your eyes are stimulated by it. The over the top aspects and overlong fight scenes of your traditional action movie are a liability because their goal is to create a visual spectacle and they take a long time to get to the point. You can get to the effect much faster in a written format and be just as effective.

Now, the question you should be asking about choreographed fight scenes is precisely what those six cartwheels are conveying to the audience about this character’s combat proficiency. Why cartwheels versus them running to the opposite side of the room and grabbing the weapon? Yes, gymnastics are entertaining to watch but that’s not the only reason why they had the character cartwheel. There’s no practical reason for it, but the act is communicating an aspect of the character and the plot to you. You should learn those signals, because you can figure out how to apply those to your writing (without needing cartwheels.)

However, you’ll still face a basic issue. Can you write interesting and entertaining fight sequences if you know nothing about violence?

Let’s look at this snippet below.

Katie smiled, her fingers grazing the .44 Magnum on her hip. She pulled it, grabbed the bottle of Jack, and rolled to her feet. “Hey, Josh.”

Joshua Barnett stood across from her, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his leather jacket. Obsidian bangs fell across one eye, jaggedly cut with a razor. His look was intent on some sort of punk aesthetic, all red and black rocker tee, thick silver chains, and black designer jeans. A loose, shark tooth earring dangled on a chain off his right earlobe. He cocked his head, studying her with one, visible, inky black eye. “Look at you stealing my look.”

Katie’s lips quirked, the revolver tucked in the shadow of her thigh as she swirled amber whiskey around thick glass. She never saw much point in spending one hundred and twenty dollars on an outfit that’d be ruined by sun up. Leather was a practical choice. Spirits had an aversion to tanned flesh. Besides, leather jacket and jeans held up better when doing dirty work. She steered away from wearing earrings, piercings had a nasty habit of getting torn out. And steel-toed work boots? All the better for breaking shins.

Tianna squeaked and ducked low behind the headstone.

Josh’s eyes moved past Katie, falling to where she tried to hide. “Step away. Me and this bitch’ve got unfinished business.”

Katie snorted.

Josh took a step forward, spreading his hands in his pockets. “Hey, I’m just doing my divinely mandated duty. Am I gonna have to snap you apart like a kit-kat bar?” He grinned. “I’m kinda looking forward to tearing your weak halfsie arm out of that socket, but, you know, Cass won’t like her pet coming home broke.”

Lifting the Jack, Katie took another long drink.

Josh stood stock still, his arms half-out, and his stupid grin stuck waiting for a response. Then, he looked away. He dropped his hands and brought the black jacket back to his waist. “You never were any fun.”

“You talk too much,” Katie replied.

He nodded to the Jack Daniel’s bottle in her hand. “Hey, I’m not the one who comes to the graveyard with a weak ass club like that.” He chuckled. “Didn’t Cass teach you? Don’t bring weapons to a fist fight when you plan to go mano a mano. In a duel, it’s not sporting.”

Katie walked forward. She didn’t like to talk. As she closed, she dropped her arm. On her last step, she swung the bottle at his head.

Josh grinned, and Katie knew why. He was a full-fledged Follower of Ma’at. To him, her fastest, hardest swing moved in slow motion.

That’s why I stopped relying on hand to hand.

His forearm came up, blocked her wrist.

Their eyes met.

The .44 Magnum appeared from behind her thigh, pointed at his knee.

Josh’s eyes dropped.

Katie fired. The bullet struck flesh, hollowed through muscle into bone, and exploded. The lower half of Josh’s leg went with it. Blown off.

He tumbled to the ground, screaming.

“Fulminated mercury rounds,” Katie said. “Can’t take normal hollow points against vampires. Dense bones, denser musculature. You need a little extra. Just like Followers, Joshua.”

“Wake the Dead” – CE Schmitt & Michael J Schwarz

So, how much of this is real?

  1. Jack Daniel’s bottles are made from dense, heavy glass, and unlikely to come apart in your hand like a regular glass bottle. They work exceptionally well as clubs. (If you want to watch one in action in a visual medium, you can find it used Dirty Laundry – the Punisher short film with Thomas Jayne by Phil Joanou from Adi Shankar’s bootleg universe. This is very R. Be wary if you’re squeamish.)
  2. Fulminated mercury rounds are real. You load fulminated mercury up into hollow point rounds and create an explosive. They’re liable to explode within the chamber of a semi-automatic handgun, but the .44 Magnum is a revolver. Different delivery mechanism. Boom.
  3. Hiding a drawn gun in the shadow of your thigh is a real tactic. The position masks the profile of the gun, your arm blends with the leg, so the eye doesn’t catch it.
  4. Katie distracts Joshua from the gun and her arm’s position with a visible weapon: the bottle, then by swinging the bottle at his head. She intentionally trips his fight reflexes i.e. flashing motion in his peripheral vision and forces him to focus high. (Standard martial arts feint, where you throw a false strike to camouflage your real intentions.) This keeps Joshua from seeing the second weapon until it’s too late.

In this scene, we’ve got an underdog character turning the tables on their opponent by immediately shutting them down with superior force of arms. The fight scene lasts less than a page, but it’s effective at teaching you who this character is along with the kind of combat tactics they use.

However, the point is not what’s real; only metric you’re graded on is what you can convince your audience of. There’s plenty of embellishment in this scene, but the actions and behaviors of the characters are grounded in a real place. They’re behaving logically, in ways which make sense to them, and are on par with what we might expect of someone with their combat background. While “realistic” is not what makes a scene enjoyable, it can help you create more interesting fight sequences and sell the idea your character knows what they’re doing. A large part of what makes this scene interesting is the entire ten page setup that you’re missing, the emotional investment in Katie and why she’s brutally murdering another teen, which is part of what’s needed to get the reader invested in the fight on page.

Remember, fight sequences are often a release of tension. They ultimately create more problems than they solve as violence invariably escalates out of control, but they serve as a stress valve for the narrative and, with good ones, a reward for your audience.

If you know nothing about violence, the weapons used, how strategy works, and what the techniques look like, can you write the scene you imagine? Can you telegraph to your audience through classic show don’t tell? Did you realize there was more to show don’t tell for written fight scenes than simply showing your characters fighting? Do you know what makes a fight scene entertaining?

A writer has different tools available in their arsenal to create an entertaining fight sequence, but in order to write that sequence you need to understand how violence works. The physicality of it, the kinetics of it, the psychology of it, the way violence feels, tastes, and smells.

You’ve made a basic mistake in your assumption about “realistic”. Narrative Realism is based in the substructure of your story. Realism is whatever the rules are in your setting say is real. What creates suspension of disbelief for your audience is how well you adhere to those rules, this covenant you create with your audience. When your audience cries, “unrealistic!” You’ve broken their suspension of disbelief, you’ve broken the established narrative rules of your setting. You broke your covenant with your audience.

The goal of understanding “realistic” lies in learning about the realities of violence as combat, understanding the entertainment factor requires looking at the art portion of martial arts.

You need both.

Structuring a scene requires understanding violence from both an unrealistic and realistic perspective. You need to know what you’re sacrificing in order to be entertaining, heighten your tension and character drama, and then what you’re keeping. Your characters’ goals, decisions, and the way they choose to take action will be based in realism and a realistic extension of what makes sense for them. Meanwhile, the combat element will be driven from the perspective of entertainment choreography which is based in, you guessed it, real martial arts.

He had a handsome face, far as humans went, and a smug expression. Her fingers clenched into fists. She wanted to beat his smug face in.

He lifted a hand, and flicked his fingers. “Give me your best shot.”

Lunging across the distance, Katie came at him low. Her first strike a feint, she cut under his block and drove her left fist into his solar plexus. The Mark above her heart burned, energy flowing into her fists. Pinpoint like a brass knuckle overlay. Her mind hazy with deja vu. She punched him a second time in his abdomen with her right, then cut up. Her strike caught him under the chin. She drove her follow-up elbow into his throat.

Garrett grunted, stumbling backwards.

She ducked past him when he retaliated. Wheeling, she kicked him in the calf. Her leg came up, and she slammed her heel into his kidney.

Garrett turned, seizing her ankle. With one arm, he flung her over the couch.

Katie landed hard on the coffee table. The table gave way, cracking apart in a spray of wood and glass. She hit the floor. Pain spiked through her back, glass shards cut through her jacket and skin. She tasted copper on her tongue. Electricity swarmed the fingers on her left hand, alive and tingling.

He wiped the blood off his mouth.

She rolled back, kicked up, and landed on her feet.

“Wake the Dead” by CE Schmitt and Michael J Schwarz

We’ve got two characters who are not human, so the normal rules don’t apply. Still, we’re following the standard progression in the combat from Katie based on distance. She lunges strikes him with her left then her right fist in his stomach, up into an upper cut, and then follows up with an elbow to the throat after creating her opening. The upper cut knocks his chin up, exposing his throat and the arm drops into a perfect position to deliver a powerful blow with a close-quarters strike. That is four strikes together. This is called a combination. More importantly, these are four strikes structured with an understanding of both distance and placement i.e. how close you need to be in order for the strike to realistically work.

Like Katie, Garrett is not human and he has super-strength. He can throw her like a ragdoll with one arm from a standing position without needing any extra help from her incoming momentum. He gets hit by her heel, has it driven into his kidney via some version of an axe kick, and then he retaliates by one arming her across the room. This is him showing his superhuman resilience, even though the reader is liable to brush it off because of what they’re used to seeing from action movies.

The goal here is to be entertaining, to attract the imagination, but what helps sell the fight is the writer’s familiarity with the subject matter.

As a writer, knowledge is your ouroboros. Everything feeds together in a never ending cycle. The more you learn, the better the writer you become. If you want to write entertaining fight sequences, you need to learn as much about violence as you can in all its different aspects. You need to figure out why violence is entertaining, why these acts capture the human imagination, and also how they actually work within the real world so you can bring that knowledge to your fiction. Every new bit of knowledge you uncover is a new tool in your box which can be applied to your writing.

And you shouldn’t stop with violence.

Learn as much as you can about everything you can get your hands on. The more you explore, the more you discover, and the more you learn to operationalize knowledge gained, the better the writer you will be.

Q&A: A Setting’s Philosophy is Realism

Wow, okay, didn’t expect a whole discussion on Sith philosophy… My question was more like, does Kylo Ren punching his own physical wound help him in that specific fight? Does it keep him from passing out, does it help his body perform any better, that sort of thing.

That’s because the most realistic aspect of Star Wars is the combat philosophy running behind the Jedi and the Sith, and they’re not totally terrible as a way to start learning about how philosophy influences martial combat. They are ultimately an extension of the trope: Martial Arts Give You Superpowers. This is not unique to Star Wars, and comes primarily from Eastern philosophies like the Tao and how they were applied to the martial styles developed there. Martial arts often do look like magic to the casual observer. Besides that, the enlightenment/understanding of yourself, your body, and the universe directly correlates with your ability to throw an opponent across the room. The best thing you can do for yourself is understand that Star Wars, specifically the Original Trilogy, are useful as an introduction to this side of martial arts.

There’s not much point in discussing the mechanics of the final fight between Kylo Ren versus Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens. It isn’t a great fight scene, and one that only serves to undercut Kylo Ren’s competency both as a combatant and as a villain. It’s bad on a multitude of levels from character, narrative consistency to choreography, though the cinematography itself is nice enough when we’re not comparing it to the Original Trilogy. Even injured, that was a fight which should’ve been no contest for Kylo Ren. Or allowed Rey to use the weapons she was actually good at using, rather than a weapon which is very good at cutting off your own limbs when you make a mistake. The lightsaber is the three-section staff of Star Wars, if you don’t know what you’re doing then you’re guaranteed a concussion first time out. (No, that is not a joke. The three-section staff does that to real martial artists all the time.)

On a setting or narrative level,  you can’t divest Kylo Ren from the Sith philosophy and the behavior patterns which make a Dark Side user strong. In this case, both the Jedi and the Sith are more bombastic echoes of what real people can achieve in real life. We can’t talk about the physical applications of what Kylo Ren does without talking about his mental state and mind set. The useful effects of beating your wounded shoulder depend entirely on your approach to pain. As for Ren himself, he’s a fantasy character in a fantasy environment powered by the Force, which is essentially a concept straight out of the Tao. Him beating his wound has about as much relevance as him destroying a console with his lightsaber, and its also self-destructive. The script calls for it so he’ll look tough or more badass, and to remind the audience that he’s wounded.

A discussion on the Sith philosophy is crucial to Kylo Ren’s behavior as a character and how he uses pain to motivate himself, because the Sith use pain to motivate themselves and that philosophy is an offshoot of a real martial arts philosophy which exists in the real world. Powered by pain is a philosophy which directly relates to your mental state, and Kylo Ren beats his wound because he’s… trying to look tough. There’s no realism worth discussing with his fight decisions. In that way, he’s a moron.

You don’t want to get the blood leaving any faster or at all because you will start passing out from blood loss. When you fight, your heart starts beating more quickly, the quicker beat means the blood moves through your body more quickly, if your body has holes the blood will exit those holes quicker too. You do any physical exercise with an open wound you will bleed out faster. If you have a wound like that, you want to seal it off as quickly as possible.

The short answer is that Kylo Ren beats his wound to be dramatic because he’s a drama queen, and he likes to remind the audience that he is in pain. If he actually wanted to do do something about his wound quickly, stop the bleed out, and motivate himself with pain he’d cauterize the wound with his lightsaber. If he wanted to double that up as an intimidation tactic, he’d cauterize while Rey and Finn are watching in order to terrify them before the battle begins. This is a Sith tactic, and a method you can use to intimidate your enemies in real life. Sith have even been known to intentionally inflict injury before a fight begins because it gets them fired up. Kylo’s really not that clever though, which is why I call him a cosplayer rather than a Sith Lord. He showboats without any real substance. A better example of what Kylo Ren tries to do is found in your average Wuxia film. The original Die Hard with Bruce Willis is also better, and probably more useful for discussing realism and realistic injuries someone would sustain in an action film.

For what Ren does to work, you need a character who’s determination goes up in conjunction to the number of injuries they sustain. As I said, this is a Sith. The more you beat on a Sith, the stronger they get. This is an outgrowth of a real world philosophy regarding pain taken to extremes, which is: the more you beat on someone, the more painful their situation gets, then the more determined they get and the more motivated they are to succeed. There are people in the real world who do this, and this is a natural outgrowth of someone who has had a very difficult life and experienced a great deal of emotional/physical pain. The more pain you experience, then the more you adjust to it, grow comfortable with it, and start shaking off injuries other people would find incredibly debilitating. Often, this happens without the individual even realizing it because their base state for “normal” is skewed beyond recognizable and they adjusted to meet that state of pain in order to survive. This is The Determinator. You can rip them to pieces and like a human terminator, they. just. keep. coming. This occurs on sheer force of will alone, because your mind is more powerful than your body.

Get up!

You beat your wound because it feels good, or you’re frustrated with your arm not functioning the way you want it to and insist on it working again. Pain feels good, and if you can’t imagine a character to whom pain feels good, who enjoys experiencing injury, or simply finds their body’s failings annoying then this character archetype is not for you. Running into real people who are shades of this in your real life might also terrify you. They’re out there, and they’re not just combat professionals, soldiers, or martial artists.

Kylo genuinely tries for this but his personality doesn’t match. Compared to other Sith in previous Star Wars movies (like Darth Vader or Count Dooku), he’s actually very wasteful in his combat style when it comes to physical action. He makes big sweeping moves, he’s ultimately very slow, leaves himself wide open, and he lacks Maul’s dramatic flair. He has a very heavy fighting style which is supposed to represent power, or link him back to Vader, but Vader had the benefit of a sword style performed by Bob Anderson. The first fight between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope is actually fairly accurate to Kendo as duels go.

Kylo is the sort of character where any injury he sustains is supposed to make him more dangerous. In old school Star Wars canon, the injury he sustains in TFA shouldn’t benefit Rey at all. His injury should ramp up his connection to the Force instead, resulting in him becoming more dangerous and more deadly. That’s what the injury beating is supposed to show. However, this sense of danger is undercut by the narrative because neither Rey or Finn have any sort of training with the weapon they’re trying to use. Kylo being forced to fight on an equal playing field with Rey, even after defeating Finn, actually undercuts him as a villain and as a combatant. It frames him as incompetent when compared to his other Dark Side brethren, who all had the benefit of fighting someone who knew what they were doing or were taking it easy on someone who didn’t. (Darth Maul versus Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Vader versus Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke versus Vader in Cloud City.) Kylo Ren is allowed none of those opportunities, and he is the least threatening as a result.

He’s not a character who’s personality matches one you can kick out of a plane in a desperate attempt to get rid of them only to have them show up three weeks later, royally pissed off and ready to kill you all over again. This character is the outgrowth of and natural extension of the injury beating we see Kylo Ren do. This really is who he’s supposed to be and who he’s trying to be because that’s who Vader was. Vader got all four limbs cut off by his master, half-burned to death by lava, lost/attempted to murder his wife, lost his children, and went on to terrify billions across the galaxy.

-Michi

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Q&A: Powered By Pain

Can you use pain to keep yourself going? I’ve experienced back pains where the waves hurt like hell but at the same time sort of feel good to endure. As a fiction example, I’m think Kylo Ren punching his own wound at the end of TFA.

Yes, you will learn to do it if you engage in any kind of exercise on a regular basis, especially if you do any sort of competitive sport. You don’t need to train in martial arts or be a martial combatant, but there are entire philosophies built off the concept of using the general discomfort you experience while working out as a  motivating factor. Mind over Matter is one example. The Determinator as a character archetype is another. Sith philosophy is built around this concept dialed to eleven and taken to its most toxic extreme.

The healthy usage of pain involves learning to distinguish real injuries from your body’s complaint. In this way your body protesting when you push yourself to a sprint over the last half lap at the end of a mile feels really good. Pain becomes a mental and physical block to overcome and push past to new heights. That discomfort feels good. This becomes a tool for self-empowerment, and its a cultural cornerstone for anything… and everything. It’s everywhere, you just never learned how to look for it.

I get knocked down, but I get up again. You ain’t never gonna keep me down. – Chumbawamba.

In the real world, this tops out with some very toxic behavior by athletes, martial artists, soldiers, etc, where they will themselves through serious injuries in an attempt to ignore them for short term gains and result in permanently injuring themselves. Not resting when you’re sick and trying to power through it is one example, being restless and frustrated by your injuries, getting back to training before you’ve fully healed, etc.

Whenever we come through a difficult or painful experience, that experience empowers us. What we’ve endured, whether that pain is emotional or physical becomes a source of strength. We’ve overcome, and we’re proud of that. On the flip side, Positive Pain is also the philosophical basis for “oh, you’re so weak” attitudes, putting people down because they’re not “strong enough”, and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” are based on the idea that the pain and hardships you experience are good for you. That if you’re having trouble then all you need to do is toughen up. See also: child abuse as a disciplinary tool.

Kylo Ren is a terrible example of the Sith utilization of pain as a tool for personal empowerment, he’s not on the radar for the crazy stuff they get up to, and barely for the real philosophy. He certainly doesn’t use the philosophy or purse it in a meaningful way. Lord Sleeps With Vibroblades is probably the best example of this Sith taken to the extreme end. (In Legends, the Sith are secondary to the true Pain Kings of Star Wars i.e. the Yuuzhan Vong. They make the Sith pain obsession look healthy by comparison.) Kylo Ren’s not really out there for a Sith or martial arts philosophies about using pain to give yourself a power up/invincible/make you immortal. Which is a thing in Star Wars with the Force. The more you beat on a Sith, the more you fight them, the more powerful they become. In the case of Darth Sion, you literally have to talk him to death.

Luke fighting against Vader is Luke playing to Vader’s strengths, which is why Vader spends the entire battle in Return of the Jedi attempting to emotionally unsettle him. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader is a philosophical conflict, which is part of what lends the scene so much weight.

The Sith use their emotional conflict, inner turmoil, and internal strife to empower themselves. That is… Sith. Their training is actively physically and emotionally abusive in order to transform them into a character Powered By Pain. They don’t whine about it, they conquer it, they take pleasure in it, they enjoy suffering. They turn that pain into power, and inflict their negative emotions, their own suffering onto others. Some of the most powerful Sith are internally being torn apart, all the time, they’re tearing themselves apart. They start out abuse victims and those who survive conquer to become abusers themselves, that is the Sith cycle at its core. They’ll inflict trauma and misery and pain and suffering and and loss and terrible injury because the emotions those experiences will bring out make you strong. Access the Dark Side with raw rage, terror,  constant/immense physical pain, weaponize all three, add a dose of killer ruthlessness, and you get Darth Vader.

Look at him.

He’s in constant pain, his pain makes him angry,  leaves him enraged, and his hate for the world makes him a terrible force to be reckoned with. He is empowered by pain, by fear, and by rage. He’s mastered his emotions, weaponized them, and now forces others to experience shades of what he has.

Through pain, find strength. Through rage, find clarity. Through injury, know thyself.

A Sith is a wounded animal lashing out at the world around them,  raw, passionate, terrified, selfish, self-obsessed, incredibly destructive to those they encounter and just as desperately self-destructive. They taught to be that way by their master, then become it themselves as they learn to their own inner struggle. A Jedi finds strength in making peace with their wounds, in healing, where a Sith takes strength from letting themselves bleed. A Sith stalls out the healing process, and breaks their drivers stick in order to remain stuck in Stage Two out of the Five Stages of Grief: Anger.

If you lack a solid understanding of the way rage presents itself within the human condition, its varied nature, and varied approaches then you’ll end up with an angsty, whiny, immature teenager like Kylo Ren. You end up thinking the pain is what’s important, the rage is important, but rage poorly directed is impotent in the narrative scheme. Without maturity in your understanding, you get a child lashing out in a temper tantrum. They’re going nowhere.

Kylo Ren destroys a console with his lightsaber (wasteful) when things don’t go his way, he actively destroys what he needs to succeed. Darth Vader murders the admiral or captain responsible for the mission’s failure and immediately replaces them with a more motivated underling, he’s getting rid of impediments to success. One is a petulant self-sabotaging child, the other is the worst day shift manager who is still getting shit done.

Pain is not the important part, the willpower and drive to endure and overcome is. You’ve got to do something with your pain. This pain becomes part of what motivates you to succeed.

This is ten percent luck
Twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure
Fifty percent pain
And a hundred percent reason to remember the name.
– “Remember the Name”, Fort Minor

“The world treated me poorly so I will respond in kind” is really the starting point for a Sith, and this attitude upgrades into high key drama with black cloaks and sworn oaths of vengeance. They are living incarnations of the Id run amok, often wallowing in the worst aspects of humanity driven to the darkest extremes, but their pain (usually) comes from a real place. What makes them so compelling, I think, is that their behavior and their experiences are a natural extension of what the audience has experienced in their own lives. Their response to that pain is cathartic, and the attitude is natural; even sympathetic. We’ve all wanted to be selfish, devoted to our own ambitions at the expense of all else without societal judgement. The Sith are easier to understand than the Jedi.

Kylo Ren is a terrible example of this philosophy because he doesn’t take ownership of his pain, he blames others for his injuries, he doesn’t weaponize his suffering. In comparison to other Sith, his pain and internal strife are window dressing. They don’t mean much on a narrative level, his pain isn’t driving him to become stronger. He’s not using his passionate and painful emotions to fuel his strength, achieve greater enlightenment, or his strengthen connection to the Dark Side of the Force. He complains about the pain he experiences, he complains about how unfair life is, he complains about being in pain and seeks audience sympathy for the “unjust circumstances” surrounding his life. He’s like a whiny teenager,and, since he’s thirty, his development’s pretty arrested. That’s… not great, Bob. Compare him to Dooku, Ventress, and Anakin Skywalker. Their pain and rage catapulted them into actual narrative action, became the foundations of their characters, and led to ambitions they pursued for their own personal gratification.

Powered by Pain is a personality type that finds its extreme in The Determinator, they are willpower embodied. The more difficult the situation becomes the stronger they get, the more they’re energized by events, and they just keep getting up time after time. No matter what you inflict, they keep coming.

Characters who embody this philosophy even just a little are either those who find strength in what they’ve endured, or bullies lashing out at the world around them as they run from pain. You will either be a slave to pain, or you will face pain and take control of what hurts you. In this process, you’ll either become a kinder, more compassionate individual or someone who is colder, crueler, more distant, less sympathetic, and even elitist toward others’ “weakness” on the emotional spectrum.

The TLDR to your question is: yes.

Overcoming pain is absolutely one means of personal empowerment, both physically and psychologically, and an experience every single person reading this has shared to varying degrees (even if they don’t realize it.)

The problem is the conversation is so much larger than you might imagine, so fundamental to a multitude of cultures around the world, so embedded in the human psyche and popular culture that we really can’t have a quick discussion about it.

‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off.
– “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
Yes, even Taylor Swift has this philosophy going on.

So, do me a favor, and leave Kylo Ren at the door. He can’t come in. He’s a weak-willed, lilly-livered wannabe with delusions of grandeur. He’s a bully, he has a “strong” exterior but his insides are crumbling. He’s more a vague cosplay than the genuine article, playacting. The Elric brothers from FMA are much better examples when it comes to using personal tragedy and physical injury as a motivating force to achieve your goals. They’re a much more positive example too.

If you want to be empowered by pain, you’ve got to run at your problems and not away from them. Use your fear as a catapult, let it propel you toward conquest.

-Michi

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