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Q&A: Rings Versus Brass Knuckles? There’s No Comparison

pomrania said to howtofightwrite: I’ve read that wearing rings while you punch someone can act as brass knuckles, and I’ve also read that it will break your fingers. Which of those is true? Both, neither?

Brass knuckles are one solid object that reinforces your fist and is designed to take the impact. More importantly, as a single object, it can spread the force across the surface, lessening the impact your hand takes.

Rings? Not so much.

A good rule of thumb is to remember that wearing jewelry during fights is inadvisable. Piercings can, and often will, be pulled out. Or, worse, if your opponent doesn’t take the easy gimmey to cause immense pain by tearing out a nose ring or dangling earring, they get can tangled on clothes or hair, stuck, and tear anyway. Someone’s probably not going to garrote you with your necklace, they usually don’t have enough integrity for that. However, like your clothes, they can provide a temporary handhold that forces you to choose between breaking free (and breaking your necklace) or stopping. Clothes are better for this tactic because your clothes are unlikely to tear enough to allow escape, but never discount the power of mental anguish.

Rings? Well, while some rings can provide superficial cuts or bruising depending on type, they won’t benefit you like brass knuckles. The real danger with rings is that you don’t really know what that hard metal band is going to do to you on impact. It could do nothing, or it could get caught and deglove your finger. Ring avulsion is not a joke (only look that up if you have a strong stomach.) That’s what happens if your ring gets stuck on something and tears off your finger.

Will it happen every time? Probably not. Is it enough of a risk you don’t want to take it? Yup.

There’s multiple problems with wearing an object that’s not reinforced and protruding off your finger when you’re punching someone. In a normal fist, the connection point is the first two knuckles/fingers which is to say your index and middle fingers. These are the fingers in the fist which are reinforced by your ring and pinky finger, and by your thumb.

If you put a protruding object on your ring finger or your pinky, that is the object which will hit first and take the full force of impact. With an object that has a small surface area, that’s even more force directed back into your hand. That’s where the potential break is going to come in. Instead of your whole hand and wrist (and forearm) taking the force of the blow, it’s just that one finger. Too much stress is how some breaks happen.

What most people who never do martial arts don’t understand is that your hits aren’t free. Whatever impact you deliver into someone else’s body in hand to hand combat, you will receive a portion of it back. The harder the region is that your punching (like the face, where the bones are heavily reinforced and close to the surface) then the more of that force you take. Vibration will wear out your muscles, though the risk for that is more pronounced with weapons.

When you punch someone (if you’ve been trained to punch someone), your whole body tightens on the moment of impact as the arm reaches extension. Your fist, your wrist, up the forearm becomes a singular funnel to both give force but to also take the force of the blow. The vibration of impact goes through the hand, up the wrist, and into the forearm. This lessens the risk of any singular part of your hand receiving the full directed force of impact.

You run less risk punching soft targets like the stomach or the throat than hard targets like the face. Even then, you’re still dealing with the force of impact.

Any sort of exercise causes increased/faster blood flow, resulting in minor swelling. The swelling isn’t normally noticeable, but you may find a ring that sits comfortably on your finger when you’re resting to be tighter when exercising. When you hit objects, even soft ones, your hands will swell. Impact does that. This is before we get to any major swelling resulting from real injuries.

Now, none of that is a guaranteed outcome. It’s risk. With combat, there are already so many other potential risks and possible injuries, taking on more just isn’t advisable. Especially for an object that really doesn’t offer much in return.

Let’s be honest, you’re not going to be wearing rings for self-defense. You’re going to wear rings because you like them. The whole bit about rings being the same as brass knuckles is just someone looking for a justification to wear their rings (or have their character wear their rings) in situations where they know they shouldn’t. The problem with wearing anything you like during a scuffle — and you may not be given a choice — is you risk that object being destroyed. One assumes you were wearing the ring because you liked it, and the value of it is personal.

The problem with wearing your rings, just like wearing your favorite article of clothing is you could lose it. Your ring might need to be cut off to save your finger. You might, in the worst case scenario, lose your ring and your finger. Your ring could end up doing more damage to you than your opponent. You might have to choose between your ring and your safety.

A good rule of thumb to assume is when anyone says X objects that aren’t weapons are comparable to X weapons, they’re usually full of it. There are a few improvised weapons that really can get the job done (crowbars, tire irons, cans of spray paint, household chemicals) but most of them are subpar options in comparison to the weapon, which is an object designed for the job, or they’re not comparable at all.

In this case, there’s no comparison. Brass knuckles will straight up break the bones in your face, they will destroy internal organs. They deliver a lot of force with minimal cost for the user. They act as dual protection for the hand on force of impact and upgrade the partially blunted force (which spreads across the knuckles and fingers) behind a punch into a narrower focus. That narrower focus focuses the point of impact, strengthening the hit because less force is lost. The same punch with brass knuckles will have greater impact on the opponent than a punch without them. They are a weapon, a weapon that is relatively easy to use and easy to conceal until you need them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Recovering From Injuries Takes Time and Patience

phantomjedi1 said to howtofightwrite: Your blog is amazing – you’ve saved me from so many mistakes! If someone is trying to come back from injury, especially one that lays them up for an extended period, what are ways that their former level of skill would trip them up in a combat situation? And is there anything they can to more quickly adjust to their new mobility limitations, etc.? I have a character who used to fight well, but was injured and has trouble walking without pain. They’re trying to get some ability back. Thanks!

The major thing an injury takes from you is your conditioning, that’s your musculature, your endurance, your wind, your flexibility, etc. The toll is primarily physical, so this character (outside of their injured body part) cannot fight as well or for as long as they used to. They’re slower, their reach is shortened, and they find themselves breathing more heavily more often.

Now, they can get that back but it usually takes months of consistent effort as they slowly build themselves back into their previous levels of conditioning.

You have to think of conditioning, the working out part, like a mountain. A significant portion of any athlete’s day is spent working out. This isn’t just the exercise training in the techniques, it includes your conditioning. Your push ups, sit ups, pull ups, weight lifting, long distance running, wind sprints, etc. It requires a lot of effort to maintain your body at peak condition and any break (not just an injury) will cause you to start slipping down that mountain. An serious injury that requires you take months off to heal? Expect months of dedicated conditioning to get yourself back to peak performance, and that’s if the injury completely heals. You can’t just jump back in at the levels you were used to before your injury, you’ll actually hurt yourself all over again. You have to climb the mountain the same way you did the first time, bit by bit with a little more each day or each week.

This is what drives athletes crazy. Their minds say that they can go “this” hard, at the levels they were used to before their injury or they took time off, and they can’t. The trope will pop up in almost every sports movie where the main character suffers a major injury, and it’s accurate to life. Whether they’re martial combatants, Olympic athletes, or just a high school football player, they run the risk of hurting themselves all over again by pushing their body too fast and too hard to return to previous levels. Most of them will get impatient and try. Sometimes, they have good reasons, like the soldier who doesn’t want to leave his squad a man down. Sometimes, the reasons are selfish or based in fear, like missing a major competition.

Recovery is, in large part, psychological. The fastest way for a character to adjust to their limitations is to accept they have them. They need to figure out what their body can do, find their current limits, and start slowly pushing the envelope, rather than trying to get their body to behave exactly as it did before. The mind’s expectations are what’s actually lying to them. They have to retrain their brain to accept their new circumstances.

In the early parts of returning to training, the mind will constantly miscalculate because it’s relying on the body’s old reaction times. Every action will be slower. Their mind will move at a similar speed to what they had before, but their body won’t. The disconnect between the two is where most of the problems occur, and why coming back from an injury feels a lot like starting all over again. You know what you can do, but your body won’t cooperate to do it.

If your character is trying to come back from an injury and the injury hasn’t completely healed, like this leg injury, then they’re going to be forced to train around it. If they put too much pressure on the leg, if they push the injury too hard, the injury will get worse. They run the risk of the injury becoming permanent. They’re going to have to stay off it and when they’re on it, go slowly. They may not be able to train that leg more than fifteen minutes a day, and, depending on injury, are only able to stretch it out. Depending on the severity of the injury, they may only be able to put their full weight on the leg for a few seconds each day. Those few seconds can extend, they can become minutes, but that’s going to be the results of months of work. If they feel pain when they walk on it, that is their body saying no. Whatever pain they feel from just walking, strenuous activity will hurt a hell of a lot more.

Martial artists/martial combatants/athletes are trained to push past pain, but they also need to be able to tell the difference between the pain caused by the body’s resistance/laziness and serious injuries. Serious injury pain is the stop and no further pain.

The problem with leg injuries is that your entire axis revolves off the legs, if both legs don’t work then you can’t fight. You need both legs to be capable of bearing your body’s entire weight for at least a few fractions of a second multiple times throughout the fight. Both legs need to split that body weight. You can overcome that necessity and train one of the legs to carry more of the burden, but if the injury is permanent (like a knee injury) then they will always be limited in what they can do.

I’ve known a few individuals who’ve come back from major leg injuries where the doctors said they’d never be able to do martial arts again. The willpower, patience, and work they put into their recovery was monstrous. They really loved what they did. That love was their foundation, their foundation fueled their efforts and kept them from giving up. There are going to be times when the frustration sets in, when the climb feels impossible, where your body is not fixing itself fast enough to satisfy what you want, where you’ll want to throw in the towel, and the question you need to answer as a writer is, “what keeps your character coming back? What is the source of their motivation?”

To be at the top is not easy. Most people who don’t heavily engage in the world of sports, or martial arts, or martial combat, don’t really grasp how stiff the competition is. Or how hard it is to defend the seat once you’re there. Outside of true story sport’s narratives, many characters lack convincing motivation. “I don’t want to die” only gets you so far, and “I want to protect my friends” again only gets you so far. Those are the motivations of the mediocre, and, in most situations, mediocre is enough.

However, that’s not the motivation of the person who arrives first and leaves last. The person who always shows up, rain or shine. The person who sacrifices time with friends and family, the person who skips out on dates to train, the person who makes their training their life. The ones for whom their training is their life are the only ones who come back from extreme injuries because they find the motivation to go through the agony of starting over.

Recovery can take years, usually recovery from a major injury takes at least half a year and then, once you start training, there’s the three to four months (or more) of pushing yourself to return to the previous level.

For reference, when I was twelve, I broke my leg. I broke my leg in the fall and wasn’t able to get back into martial arts training until late spring, and even then, the order from the doctor was, “no jumping until June.” I went from no pressure allowed, to supported pressure with crutches, to walking, then running, and then finally jumping.

If you’re really interested in writing a character going through recovery after a major injury, I actually recommend watching the (admittedly sometimes cheesy) true story sports movies. They’ll cover everything, from the grieving period to the difficulties in recovery, to the points where it gets too hard and the character wants to stop, to when they finally get back into sync and come out stronger. Sometimes, they skate over some details but it is a realistic progression from one to the next in the cycle.

It’d be a good reference point for you.

Never forget mental fortitude when you’re writing a combat character. Willpower is their true strength, and it can be easy to forget when you’re distracted by physicality. The unwillingness to give up in the face of impossible odds. The faith they have in their own abilities to push through, even after that faith has been shaken.

It can be hard to get into that mindset, especially if you’ve never experienced a major injury (even if you’re not in sports) or been a martial artist/invested in physical training of any kind. You can do it though, but you’ll need to do a lot of research. In this case, sports movies where the character experiences a major injury and biographies/autobiographies written by sports professionals documenting their own recoveries are going to be key. You can then apply that structure to your writing, the crossover is really in the conditioning. If you really need it to be martial, there are a couple of war movies and boxing movies which cover similar material. This is well-documented, you just need to find the sources.

Once you have the framework and the arc, you can apply it to your story. The basic steps are fairly simple and can be molded into any narrative and setting.

-Michi

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Q&A: Pay Attention

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: I see on this blog a lot of important self-defense lessons include avoiding sketchy situations, places, or people. However, a lot of women have been attacked by dates, friends, bosses, family members. Why does so much of self-defense seem to focus on potentially defending yourself against some mugger or, basically, a stranger and act like you won’t ever have to use your self-defense if you stay alert? How do you stay ‘on’ around your father or husband? Unless I am mistaken about this.

You are mistaken about this.

1) We’ve said multiple times that this blog is not a self-defense blog and it cannot teach you self-defense. No internet blog can. No post on the internet can. No pictures can. You can’t learn self-defense from a video or a gif.

You need a real class, or a real school that can actually physically instruct you because all articles on the internet do is… not much, actually. You need to train with professionals.

2) The people who have this perspective? They’re the people who aren’t in the community and who haven’t actually ever taken a self-defense class. So, you are trying to make a point about something you know nothing about.

The truth about self-defense is that there is no one single established curriculum, there’s a lot of different approaches. As many different schools of thought as there are martial arts. There are curriculums which focus solely on weapons self-defense from guns to knives. There are curriculums designed by women for women. There are curriculums, which may be the most common, based off a civilian designed variation of police adapted judo. There a curriculums which come off of the military strands. This is a big, complicated field that is constantly evolving. Some curriculums focus on home defense, some focus on muggers and stranger danger, others teach you skillsets for how to deal with someone right next to you. Some teach you how to deescalate fights starting between other people. Some do all of the above.

Right now, you’ve learned something about statistics and you’re scared. That’s rational. You’ve learned the world is a far more dangerous place than it initially appeared. However, while you have the statistics, you don’t understand how those statistics translate into the real world, or what you can do to protect yourself.

What you need is a self-defense specialist.

Again, the purpose of this blog is not self-defense. The irony here is that the self-defense posts we’ve written in the past are about threat management and threat evaluation. Threat management applies as much to people you know as it does to people you don’t.

Right now, the way you look at the world involves divvying spaces up between dangerous and safe. We’ve talked about spaces considered safe not being safe on this blog before, but you’re still applying it to muggers and scary alleyways rather than the party at your dorm, a bottle of booze, and an open door. You’re not thinking about the cute guy at the coffee shop, whose smile maybe puts you on edge, but he asked for your number. You’re not thinking about the college professor or high school teacher who touches your shoulder in ways overly familiar and says very complimentary things about your work. You’re not thinking about the team doctor who showers with you and the others after practice. The senior mentoring the lonely kid at the back of the classroom.

The problem is that you still think tells for dangerous situations come with road flares, that they’re framed in ways exceedingly obvious. Unfortunately, that’s a common assumption most people make about self-defense. The general culture has trained you to think that way, but it isn’t actually true. A lot of the lead ups and tells are subtle. You can train yourself to be alert for them. However, that involves admitting you haven’t been. Lots of people can’t or won’t, because they think they already do. Or, they feel they shouldn’t have to. If you think people aren’t aware of the statistics, because you weren’t, then you haven’t been looking or, in this case, listening.

Learning to constantly evaluate the people around you can become as natural as looking both ways before crossing the street. It’s not fear, or a result of paranoia, it’s habit. Checking their behaviors, their expressions, their postures, learning about their families, their backgrounds, noticing who their friends are, who they hang out with, who they talk to, and what they say.

Pay attention to what people around you say about your co-workers, or your classmates, or your family members. Pay attention to who men and women around you home in on, how they behave when they’re brushed off or encounter a no. Who do they favor? Who do they ignore?

When new information comes up, reevaluate.

Accumulate information, not out of paranoia but because information is good to have. The same habits which can save your life or tell you when to exit a bad situation are also great for figuring out the best presents for a friend.

The danger is not from riding the bus at midnight, the potential danger is the other person on the bus. If the danger comes from people and opportunity, then there’s no difference between that person on the bus at midnight and your creepy cousin cornering you in the garage. By extension, the creepy cousin in the garage isn’t any different from being screwed over for promotion by your co-worker or dealing with an emotionally abusive parent. They all have tells.

Unfortunately, while you can learn situational awareness from martial training, it’s far more common among children and adults who grew up in unstable environments. If you don’t have the habit, you probably haven’t encountered a situation where you’ve needed to develop it.

Self-defense training should be preemptive, just like learning to drive a car, but for most people it isn’t. Part of this is the way violence is presented in media, which is as a natural extension of the self rather than a skill to be learned. The other half is most people feel they don’t need to learn because they believe the world they live in is inherently safe. While danger exists, it exists elsewhere. Or, if it does, there’s nothing they can do about it. The vast majority of people you’ll find in self-defense courses are law enforcement professionals, recreational martial artists, people who’ve already been victims of violent crime, and kids like boy scouts/girl scouts who are there for the extracurriculars.

When my high school had a mandatory self-defense PE course, the students mocked it. They thought they wouldn’t need any of the techniques or the theory. Statistically, some of them did.

The problem is that you think about threat management and situational awareness directly relate to physical violence or threats of violence. As a result, you think of it as a state of mind to turn off and on. Instead, you should think about it as habitual, observational skill. No different from noticing which of your friends is the one with an explosive temper, seeing the tells for when they start to rev, and intervening before they can explode. Violence isn’t just physical, it’s behavioral, and behavior patterns are the warning signs.

Look both ways before you cross the street.

Again, you cannot learn self-defense from the internet. You can’t learn it from self-defense blogs, from videos, from pictures, or from gifs. Anyone who says you can is lying to you. You can’t learn self-defense from books. You can pickup some good theory, but for practical you need an instructor. If you want to learn self-defense, you need to seek out programs in your area. Usually, your local community centers (if you have one) or local precincts are good places to start. Like with everything, there are different self-defense specialists with different focuses. You want a specialist, not a recreational martial artist who moonlights with a few evening courses every few months to round out the curriculum.

If you feel you need a self-defense program, find one. If you have questions about what a self-defense program offers, speak with a professional instructor. Speak with multiple instructors. Quoting statistics will not help you, learning to determine the behavioral tells in the people around you will.

As a writer, you really should be learning to observe the people around you for your craft. You’re a student of human behavior, and you can’t find stories if you don’t look for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reject Toxicity, Prepare for Apathy

Any advice for female writers on showing trauma and recovery in men without toxic readers saying he isn’t masculine enough?

You’ll never satisfy toxic people. The game is rigged. Even if you acquiesce to their demands, it will never be enough. The reason for this is because of their desire for control over you, your beliefs, your ideas. They bully to invalidate anyone who isn’t like them. They lash out because they feel threatened. If they do, you can take comfort in the knowledge you not only did it right but your writing affected them in ways which left them deeply uncomfortable.

Your writing making people, especially toxic people, feel uncomfortable is good. Trauma is uncomfortable. Trauma is painful. Trauma leaves you feeling vulnerable and exposed. This is the antithesis of all our cultural bullshit surrounding masculinity, the whole “real men don’t cry or show their emotions” crap fest. Repressing your emotions doesn’t make those emotions go away. Ignoring your pain, especially emotional pain, because you don’t want to deal with how it makes you feel leaves you with a compounding bill in the future. You can avoid dealing with your suffering, but avoidance isn’t healing. Avoiding a problem doesn’t make it go away. Processing your emotions is a skill, just like any other, if you never learn to then it will be difficult until you do.

The answer to for dealing with toxic people is either to antagonize them, which is not recommended unless you have a strong stomach, or ignore them. Delete their comments, don’t publish their complaints, and ignore them if you have no control over their reviews. Give them the middle finger at every opportunity. Strangle them in darkness.

They are not voices you should be listening to. You shouldn’t fear them. Don’t let them control your creative process.

You will never make them happy, so don’t bother trying.

I really do mean that. As women, we are taught to put aside our needs for those of others, and prioritize the care of those around us even if we are suffering. If someone else is angry, it is our fault. The onus is on us to make amends, rather than the individual who reacted badly in the first place. We’re told we shouldn’t expect any rewards for these sacrifices, and, if we’re suffering, we should suffer in silence. You know, what? That’s stupid.

You’re not responsible for the behaviors of others. Other people are outside your control, how they choose to react is on them. Lashing out is a choice. The sooner you engrave your lack of control over others into your soul, the happier and freer you’ll be.

Always remember, there’s a difference between critical and cruel. The opinions of others are, similarly, just opinions. Sometimes, a critic will offer you something helpful, but the helpful only reinforces what you already knew. The rest of it isn’t.

Toxic people are never useful. They aren’t critics. They’re bullies.

Toxic people know, whether its conscious or not, the behavior patterns they are exploiting in their victims. They expect you to give them legitimacy through an apology, for “making” them upset. They expect their temper tantrums to carry weight because the person they’re angry at has been trained to pacify in order for the problem to go away. In their mind, the angriest dog pile wins. They can suffocate dissent or narratives which make them uncomfortable by attacking the source. They intimidate you into doing what they want.

Intimidation, though? It’s just fear. They have no control over you, and on the internet? They have less access than they realize. Intimidation and scare tactics work when the person who is being intimidated lets them. Maybe their intimidation tactics make you afraid, maybe they hurt your feelings, but you’re the only one who gets to decide what you do about it. They can say mean things, but those mean things are just words. Those words can hurt, but they can’t stop you. Abusers only have the control you give them.

The risk of putting your work out into the world for public consumption is that you may run into people who disagree with you, who criticize what you’ve written, or who will say nasty things about your work. You may also find lots of people who say positive things about your work too, but those positives are often lost in the negatives if you focus on what people didn’t like. You’ll never escape criticism. There is no “right way” to avoid being targeted. You cannot control what someone else will do or say about something you’ve written. What you can do is prepare yourself to decide what criticism you’ll accept versus the comments you’ll stick in the trash.

The truth is that not everyone knows better than you do. Just because someone has an opinion, doesn’t mean they’re opinion can help you. Complaints and criticism aren’t always a sign you’ve done something wrong, sometimes they mean you’ve done something very right.

The response of individuals to creative works isn’t good or bad. Most of the time what you’ll get is apathy. The vast majority of people who read what you write will never comment on it. If they didn’t like it, they’ll just leave in silence. People will ignore your work if it doesn’t appeal to them, they may read your book or short story but never bother with a review. If you’re writing upsets someone? Great! You’ve broken through their apathy and gotten an emotional response, that’s better than silence.

Don’t let fear of criticism decide what you write. If you want to write about trauma and recovery then you owe it to your readership to do your research rather than giving in to schlocky tropes. Approach the subject with respect, learn as much about it as you can, and take your risk. There’s so much information available on the internet for free, but don’t forget your libraries and reading texts by doctors on the subject. Regardless of what you do, you need to write. We learn by doing, you won’t improve unless you try. You won’t get it right on your first time, no one does. Everyone when they start is bad, regardless of talent. The practice, the learning from your failures, and the way you build off what you’ve learned are what make you good. You get more than one shot, you have as many as you choose to give yourself.

Regardless of what you do, if you get stuck worrying about what might happen, you’ll never finish your story.

Write now, worry later.

The eventuality you should prepare for now isn’t that toxic people will hate you, or target you, but that they won’t care. The most soul-crushing outcome is for your work to never move anyone at all, that it will be read only by a few people, if read by anyone, and the returns are much less in the way you hope they will be. The silence can be far more soul-crushing than any negativity you receive.

If people do react badly, give yourself permission to tell an unwanted critic, especially a toxic one, to fuck off.

– Michi

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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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