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Q&A: The Sword is King of Mid Range Melee

We got a bunch of sword questions all in a row that don’t require particularly detailed answers, so I figured we could do them all together for efficiency.

So are swords really useful/practical weapons, or just iconic/popular for media and fiction?

The sword is one of the best weapons mankind has ever designed for killing other humans. While there are other weapons we could focus on (like the staff, spear, and other longarms that don’t get enough love), don’t fool yourself in selling the sword short.  This weapon has ruled as a fixture of combat since it’s invention, and only recently fell out of popular use. We know this because of how enduring the sword is throughout history and with countless cultures across the globe who all developed their own variants then refined, refined, refined them until we finally outdid ourselves by developing the gun. Even then, we’ve had guns since roughly the late Middle Ages, and it’s only in the past 100 years or so that swords have really fallen off as the preferred sidearm used in addition to other combat weapons. The sword was also a weapon of self-defense in Europe, and wasn’t just a weapon of the upper class.

The 20th century still saw swords being fielded as part of mounted cavalry units, and were used right up until WWI where they became obsolete in the face of modern weaponry.

The sword is the preeminent king of mid range melee combat.

Weapons endure because they are useful. Weapons are discarded when they are no longer useful, or no longer appropriate to the threats faced on the battlefield.

This is the rule of the weapons. It doesn’t matter how cool they look if you’re dead. If the weapon doesn’t work then cast it off. Weapons that no longer fit the combat of the day get you killed.

The ironic truth is that the sword is actually a much better, more well rounded, and versatile weapon than popular media makes it out to be. It is also a much lighter weapon than popular media would have you believe, which means there is no strength requirement. They weigh less than your average housecat, and a lot less than your laptop.  If your protagonist can’t lift two to four pounds then they’ve got bigger problems than just one weapon.

Some sword variants are more specialized than others, and are designed around specific battlefield functions. Not all swords are created equal, and some will work far better in some circumstances than others. It is very important that you view weapons from different time periods in terms of scientific advancement and ever changing battlefield requirements.

Your protagonists are doing more than accessorizing when they choose a weapon or martial art. Suitable is decided by the world they live in and the threats they face, and then, after a host of other practical considerations, by what appeals to them.

not sure how many questions you get like this and i’m sorry is it’s been asked, but world a dagger be effective with someone with a sword. would a weapon like Asuma’s from naruto actually be useful

Asuma wields a real weapon that saw use in real combat, primarily in the trenches of WWI. The weapon is called a trench knife. One part knife, one part knuckleduster or brass knuckles, this weapon excels in tight, close quarters combat. The name itself should be a  dead giveaway for the purpose it served in combat. This is an aid for hand to hand combat, and therefore not particularly useful against swords because the person with the trench knife risks getting cut to pieces by the sword wielder before they ever get into the range their knife is suitable for.

This is, in essence, the problem for knives or daggers versus swords. In a straight up fight, the sword has the range to attack at will while the person with the dagger is forever on the offensive with no means to break past them. You don’t have the option to attack, while they can attack you whenever they feel like it. Swords face similar problems against long arms like staves and spears.

This is a martial concept called range. Range is dictated by the distance it takes for you to reach your opponent versus the distance it takes for them to reach you. Range matters most when dealing with weapons. A common misconception about range is how much that distance given by height matters in hand to hand.

The end of this story is you’ll need to kill the guy with the sword before he has the chance to get his pants on, which actually makes a knife like the trench knife the perfect weapon for an assassin like Asuma. After all, they never planned to give you the option of fighting back. The knife is the “surprise! death!” weapon, and one of the fastest combat weapons from hit to kill.

Would a left-handed knight fight with their sword in their left hand and their shield in their right? I’m writing a left-handed character who fights with sword and shield, and I want to be aware of any advantages/disadvantages such a style will give them.

Listen to me when I say this, the shield is a weapon. That is the most important lesson I have to teach you about the sword/shield combination. The sword is a weapon, the shield is also a weapon. You can hit people with it. You can also kill people with it. More importantly, you can use it as a tool to lock up your enemy’s weapon  and kill them with your primary weapon. This is an active, not a passive, article working in conjunction with your sword and a defined part of your character’s strategy in their approach to combat.

The sword/shield is an offensive combo, not a defensive one. Video games and DnD will teach you that the shield is only good for defense. You’ll find people everywhere, including those giving advice on the shield outside the HEMA community who will parrot that assumption. It is a lie.

As with anything, the combo can be used defensively but you’re not actually giving up your offensive opportunities. You are, in fact, maximizing them by giving yourself one more means to break through your enemy’s defenses. You are dual wielding, and the off-hand shield serves a similar purpose for what you’d be doing with a second weapon like a knife or sword in that off-hand and with less risk of the two getting caught cross-ways of each other. The shield lets you be bolder in your attacks because you have more defense, but you’re not just going to sit there in the midst of battle and turtle like an MMO tank. No, you’re going to be proactive. More defense gives you more options to be aggressive because there are fewer risks involved.

What you sacrifice is the extra power, finesse, speed, and control lent by the second hand (your non-dominant hand) on two handed weapons like the long sword. This is the drawback: you give up the power, precision, fine control, and utility of a single weapon. Note, power does not mean strength in the way you imagine. That second hand is needed as a lever to provide your weapon with greater momentum than you can achieve with a single hand or arm. The front hand or gripping hand is the guiding hand and the back hand or the hand on the pommel is the power hand. You’ve limited yourself to attacks based on the movements of that single arm,and the power you can generate from that arm. You’ve also given up the utility provided by your off-hand for the shield.

In martial arts, the off-hand or the non-dominant hand is the control hand or the utility hand. It is much more important than your power hand, in fact losing your non-dominant hand is much more catastrophic as a fighter than losing your dominant one. The control hand lacks the power of the dominant hand, but because it’s harder to learn to control the side your worse with due to that hand being less natural during training you end up developing a lot of fine motor control. You use this hand to strike, to defend, to grab,  and create openings for strikes with the power hand.

Martial artists are mostly ambidextrous by necessity, all the parts of your body are going to be used. A character who is left-hand dominant will actually use their right hand in combat more often than their left, and vice versa is true. I’m right handed, but my left will almost always strike first. This is the side I predominately turn to for any and all utility. This is the opposite of my regular life, where my right is doing most of the work.

A left-handed person will use their dominant hand in a fight, but that doesn’t mean their right is useless. Their non-dominant hand is one of the most important combat assets they have. This is their defense hand, their blocking hand, the set-up hand, the fast striking hand, the risk-taker hand that seizes for joint locks. The non-dominant hand is the one with all the finesse. This is why the finesse hand/arm holds the shield, you’ll be taking complex actions with it.

This is going to be a backwards way of thinking if you’ve never done martial arts. Your dominant hand is not the hand that’s better at “doing things”. The dominant hand is the power hand, the finisher hand, it’s really good at hitting harder than the non-dominant hand which is why you want it handling your sword.

A left handed person can have an advantage over someone who is right handed because the left hand being dominant is less common than the right hand, and therefore someone who is right handed encounters left handed fighters less often. However, a left hand dominant fighter is nowhere near rare enough to hang your character’s hat on that as a decided advantage over the other warriors they encounter.

Writing combat with weapons requires an entire re-framing of what popular culture has taught you about combat, including concepts like “strength”. Power is not created by physical strength, but by momentum. Momentum is generated through proper technique. Proper technique is developed through training. Weapons are, by and large, not heavy because physically heavy weapons are difficult to wield for prolonged periods and you might have to fight for prolonged periods. A weapon you can’t wield is useless to you, and one which wears you out quickly is actively dangerous to you.  You don’t need a weapon to weigh much in order to generate the momentum necessary to kill another human being.

You’ll notice weapons like the warhammer and the morning star put most of their weight in the head of the weapon. Why? Not because you need to be physically strong to wield them, but to aid the wielder in generating more momentum on that downward swing.

Is a baseball bat heavy? Your answer should be no.

Someone in armor, with a shield and a sword has the opportunity to take more risks than the person without those. This leads to them being more aggressive, rather than less. That defense serves the specific purpose of allowing you to take actions you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Knights in heavy armor were both highly mobile and incredibly versatile, they weren’t slowed down much by that armor.

Weapons aren’t just an aesthetic choice for your character,  they’re designed with a specific purpose in mind. Most of what those weapons were designed for will, on occasion, actively roll against the grain of how they’re presented in popular fiction or used in video games. There’s a lot of missing nuance, strategy, and tactics in the application of a dice roll.

-Michi

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Writing Gangs

We got a few questions about gangs versus organized crime, and what the difference is. So, I figured we’d do a follow up post about gangs. (The Wiki article about gangs rolls organized crime in with them which is… not accurate, they’re organized, yes, but different beasts.)

The main difference between gangs and organized crime is time. If the street gang survives, it grows up to become organized crime. They’re the Lost Boys in the interim stages before they grow up to become the Pirates. The gang is the proto phase of organized crime, the beginnings of the group before it’s become entrenched. Most Mafia/Mobs do find their original roots in street gangs before they grew up into professional enterprises. The main difference between the Mob and the Gang is the Mob has had time grow, develop, and learn from previous experiences.

The way to think about “organized crime” like the Triad, the American Mafias, the Yakuza, and others like is that they’re a criminal enterprise. They’re a business, and this is where Russian organized crime meets up with the Mafias. The heads of these organizations are like CEOs, and they function almost exactly like any other corporation except their working outside the law in human trafficking, drugs, etc. This includes stealing fashion designs and using sweatshop labor to sell cheap knock offs as an industry, which is something the Triad does. “Organized crime” is money moving to the tune of billions as international business versus the most enterprising of the street gangs which may own, maybe, a city.

Easy difference, the Black Mafia family sells drugs. The Cartels produce drugs, and sell them, and they sometimes contract out to street/motorcycle gangs. This is the pharmaceutical company versus your local pharmacy versus a single location Mom & Pop shop. The street gang is Mom & Pop. The older well-established gangs that’ve been around for forty to fifty years are the Rite-Aids. The Triad are Bayer. Given time, and assuming they survive to adulthood, the gang can hit the big time and own some place like Las Vegas before moving on to bigger and better. That takes time though, and they’ve got to grow up first. There are quite a few gangs moving toward, if they haven’t already become, organized criminal enterprises. The Bloods and the Crips are close, the Black Mafia, and MS13 is aggressively pursuing its transition into criminal enterprise. It might be tempting to lean toward the cartels or mafias for the sense of legitimacy they bring to the narrative, not to mention the romantic relationship some groups have with fiction.

The Gang is rougher, but much more suited to any narrative involving teens and about growing up. Let’s face it, the gang is the angry teenage phase of organized crime. They’re the dark side of found families, they’re messier, and they will stress characters with themes of brotherhood/sisterhood, respect, loyalty, co-dependency, and the meaning of family in ways you won’t get from an organized businesses because they weed that shit out. They don’t have time for your angst. The Gang, though? They thrive on emotional narratives about brutality, trauma, broken bonds, and shattered friendships. They’re about getting in over your head from the word go; before you ever learned how to swim and long before you’re ever given the chance.

The Lost Boys

Gangs form in marginalized communities that are not protected by the bureaucracy of the ruling government. Their purpose, their beginning purpose, is to protect. Their originating goal is to provide security and safety to their communities, to protect them from outsiders, and they recruit on that honorable ideal. Any community which is treated as “Other” runs the risk of creating not one gang but multiples. The behavior and culture of the gang is dependent on the culture of its participants, before the gang develops a culture of its own, their ideals, their beliefs, their views come fractured through the eyes of disenfranchised youth. They combine with a teenager’s volatile emotions and impulsivity.

The main draw of the gangs is sense of family they offer, the brotherhood. They primarily exert influence on young, disaffected, lonely neglected youth with absentee parents. In plain terms, they hunt up Latch Keys. These can be impoverished children from single-parent households whose older family members work so hard to put food on the table they can’t be there, the ones from white-collar households in a similar boat, those whose parents genuinely don’t care, those from abusive homes, and came out of a similar life. The key theme is the offer of stability, purpose, guidance, and open to influence by the gang. The gang offers the child or teen the love, attention, and guidance they crave, but at a price.

You know all those tell-tale warnings you got about peer-pressure? This is peer-pressure reworked into targeted social engineering.

A character’s initiation into a gang is an act of violence. Sometimes, it’s a beating. Sometimes, it’s a murder. Sometimes, the initiated murderer is thirteen years old. And, yes, the street gang is where you’ll find that sixteen year old hitman who was recruited out of elementary school and started running drugs at nine or ten years old. They’re not “professional” in the conventional sense, but they go out to perform hits and the resulting collateral damage is often very messy.

There’s more emotional depth here than “just business”. Leaving the gang is a betrayal of the brotherhood, betrayal of the family. Killing can be seen as retribution, to claim turf, get respect, exert authority, or protect from invaders.

A major theme for gang characters is exerting their identity through violence, establishing themselves as adults, and lashing out at cultures/societies/institutions that they feel have rejected/failed them.

They’ve turned to the only figures in their lives they feel understand them, the older members of their gang. The relationship between gang members is elder sibling and younger sibling rather than the patron-client, mentor/student, parent/child relationships you’d find in gangs with organized crime.

If you want to learn more about child recruitment and culture in gangs, I highly recommend reading Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur.

The Lord of the Flies

The sort of “send a message” brutality you get out gangs, the behavior, the emotion, and the thematic resonance they have with coming of age stories is, I think, what most of our followers are really asking for whenever they ask about the Mob. It’s worth exploring the romantic aspects of the gang, what they offer, and why they so easily lure young people in.

This is a writing advice blog. I’m going to take this last part to talk about how you can use gangs in your narratives. First…

To write crime, you must understand crime.

Understanding crime requires understanding the culture which spawns the crimes, the society, and the laws of the world your character exists in. You can’t break a rule if you don’t understand the rules. Right? If your reader doesn’t understand the rules of your setting, they won’t understand the impact of your character breaking with them.

Spend as much time on your lawfuls as your chaotics, if not more.

To write the gang, you must understand the necessity and purpose of the gang.

You need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. The pressures of their world, the loneliness of it, and the desire to have someone, anyone, who understands them. The intoxicating effect of fear, how inflicting fear makes you feel powerful, and the need to exert control in an overwhelming world where your environment is wildly spinning out of your grasp.

If you want to write a character who exists in the criminal underworld, and never spent any time looking at the criminals in question then you will come up short. I understand that it’s not a comfortable subject to research.

Romanticization station…

“The Gang” as a narrative trope lacks the prestige and legitimacy brought by more established organizations such as “The Mafia”. With youth, however, comes flexibility. Rogues living outside the system, renegades struggling to make it in a world overwhelmingly weighted against them, Band of Brothers, Rebel Without A Cause, Protect the Family, Paint the Town Red, and all your James Dean tropes can be applied to and claimed by gang members.

For your narrative, it’s always worth looking at the romanticized aspects of gang life because those tropes are often embraced and used as justifications by the gang members themselves. They’re also good recruiting tools.

With youth comes opportunity…

Where the greater adult world won’t take an underage character seriously, the gang will. Where a group like the American Mafia will turn up their nose at a sixteen year old hitman because they’ve already got a kid who acted as a courier, parked their cars, and went into the military to get the skills they needed, the gang will give the sixteen year old the chance to prove themselves and couch the hit as an opportunity for advancement.

They also see murder as a means of binding the gang member to the gang, even incarceration is a means of binding them tighter into the family. They care a little less about the character getting pinched. They might expect it. After all, everyone mucks things up that first time and most gang members have felt the weight of the juvenile justice system. Better to make the big mistakes while you’re still young so you can do better next time. Well, you can do better if you survive on the inside.

I got harder, I got smarter in the nick of time…

Take a hard look at your character, their motivations, their experiences, and how those resulted in the actions they’ve taken. They’re in a situation rife with manipulation and betrayal, where they’ll be pressured to take actions they may not feel comfortable with. Caught in an inevitable cycle of escalation where the violence they commit in the name of their brotherhood/sisterhood becomes more and more brutal, where they need to do more and more to prove themselves, are motivated to do so by advancing up the chain of command. Breaking this cycle is difficult.

In conclusion:

I’ve gone on long enough, and this post got longer than I intended. Gangs are a subject you can write whole books on and not even scratch the surface of. We’re probably not done with this subject, but if you want a teen criminal then the likelihood is that they’re in or have been involved in or, at least, aware of their local gangs to varying degrees. Your narrative should always have more than one, some run by kids, some run by older teens, some run by adults, and so on. You want to research the history of gangs, the current famous gangs that exist, and so on. The answers won’t always be easy or easily digestible. They’re not quick.

So, food for thought.

-Michi

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Q&A: Bloodsport Isn’t Soldiering, It’s Entertainment

When it comes to child soldiers, how realistic do you think the “Careers” kids are in The Hunger Games and the participants as a whole? Honestly, I think they suffer from the “writing children like mini adults” problem that most bad writing has. That, and it ignores emotion and trauma. They react and fight like emotionless drones or trained fully adult soldiers instead of scared, bumbling children.

I want you to understand something exceedingly crucial before we get into this. Starke and I both technically qualify as Careers. I started doing martial arts when I was five years old, I knew how to kill another human being when I was twelve, I could perform disarms when I was fourteen, and before I was eighteen I was working to teach other kids the same age as myself when I started.  Starke is an Eagle Scout, and that should really say it all.

What I am essentially telling you is that I grew up around other kids, children to teens and young adults who spent their life doing martial arts, some of whom competed on a professional, national to worldwide competitive level and in the care of adults who grew up doing martial arts, some of whom competed on a worldwide competitive level. I’ve seen all sorts of kids do all sorts of things, and what a child can do is heavily dependent on the child we’re talking about. Yes, the average child might be bumbling, but the lifer? The one picked out early and heavily trained? Like these kids? Like Jade Xu? Ernie Reyes Jr? Jet Li? Then, there’s the seven year olds in Thailand who compete in Muay Thai bouts. There’s these kids. And these kids.  And these kids.

Did you know this is a worldwide industry that utilizes children’s performance art for the entertainment of the masses? You just participated in it by watching these videos.

Congratulations.

If there’s an aspect of The Hunger Games that’s incredibly unrealistic, it’s the fact that the novel ignores all of the above. This is not some far flung future, this is now, and its a billion dollar industry worldwide. When you’re looking at a character who is a Career, this is what you should be thinking of. We call this phenomenon: sports.

The Hunger Games is YA, which provides a mistaken impression that kids wouldn’t be able to compete in arena style gladiator death matches. That’s untrue. They already do. The fights aren’t to the death, for the most part, because adults intervene but the ability is there. Children are actually a lot better at bloodsport when pitted against other children than The Hunger Games gives them credit for. You’ve seen child athletes. Add the fact that it’s mentally easier for children to kill because the concept of death and the permanence of it doesn’t really register for them, you have a situation where bloodsport games would be very easy. Condition them an environment where this type of killing is okay, even acceptable, where they’re rewarded for their success, and they’ll be perfectly happy to keep at it. They’ll even be perfectly sane and mentally well-adjusted without any abuse or forcing necessary.

This is the one criticism I’m going to really level at The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games does not understand the mentality of violence, specifically the mentality behind bloodsport, and what draws people to it both as participants and as a form of entertainment. The novel really can’t grasp what draws people to it, what makes bloodsport a billion dollar industry, and why someone would want to participate. The Careers are gladiators, they’re not child soldiers. They’re professional athletes in the Olympic level category, which is the sort of competition they’re training for. They won’t have the same hangups an ordinary child would in regards to violence because this event is not just what they trained their whole lives for, but the competition they competed fiercely to gain access to.

They’re not going to have the kind of trauma you might expect because they’ve spent their lives preparing for this. We’re talking someone age sixteen and seventeen who has been training for around twelve to thirteen years.

What should really disturb you about gladiators is they’re entertainers. They exemplify the commodification of violence and of human beings as vehicles of violence for entertainment. They’re putting on a show, putting on a spectacle, and, yes, there may be death at the end of the experience but that’s part of the experience. The crowd came to watch the bloodsport for the enjoyment of it, and your success in the arena is decided by how well you can put on that show. How well you entertain the audience while you beat the living shit out of someone else. It’s disingenuous to say one would ever need to force people to watch bloodsport because they don’t, they don’t need to force them to participate either. Humanity’s appetite for violence as entertainment is about as old as humanity, and its a cornerstone in many cultures around the world.

The Careers are not child soldiers, which is a very specific term identifying very specific circumstances. They don’t fall under that category. They’re children raised to violence. From a mental outlook perspective, they should have more in common with Olympic athletes, competitive martial artists, and those children in the real world who are raised for bloodsport. You want to find a decent comparison to a “Career” type character, you’re going to be looking at the kids participating in competitive sports martial arts.

Twelve year olds who participate in scheduled Muay Thai bouts against other twelve year olds for the enjoyment of the masses do exist. In Thailand, they participate as young as seven. Olympic boxers, Olympic athletes competing in Judo, Taekwondo, Fencing, Greco-Roman Wrestling, Free-Style Wrestling, you’ll find most of these combatants were training from a young age and competing from a young age in appropriate age group categories in order to get their foot in the door. Martial artists like Jackie Chan and Jet Li technically qualify under the Career title. Jet Li won his first wushu changquan champion when he was fourteen years old. This is before we get into backyard wrestling, where we have kids imitating what they see on the TV on friends or family members in their own homes. However, none of these children are child soldiers.  Child soldiers aren’t really trained, they’re children stolen from their families, brainwashed, and hopped up on drugs then sent out to kill. They’re competitive athletes which, when you really stop and think about it, is another can of worms all on its own.

What you’re missing about these kids in this specific mold is the part where they’re professional athletes, they’re not soldiers. Soldier is the wrong skillset for a gladiator. It’s a good starting skill set, but you need more than that in order to succeed in the entertainment industry. What’s easy to forget when you’re looking at novels like The Hunger Games is we already have a billion dollar industry in bloodsport, and watching humans beat up other humans for audiences everywhere is, at this point, a staple in entertainment. Careers are gladiators, they’re professional athletes, and that’s pretty much where they land on the spectrum. They’re somewhere in the collegiate to Olympic levels of serious with a lowball at Friday Night Lights.

Have you ever spent much time around professional athletes? If they’re good at what they do, they have the potential to be worth a lot of money. If they’re at the top of their game, they know it. They’ve beaten out a lot of people to get where they are, and, in the case of bloodsport athletes, those beatings are literal. No, they don’t kill anyone but the reasoning behind that is there’s no money in it. There’s a lot of resources invested in training a gladiator and, whether they’re successful or not, you can make your money back off them over the course of their career. Even in the Roman arenas, the professional gladiators rarely died. They had fans, they were worth a lot of money, and it’s better to have them around to fight next weekend than bury them.

The Hunger Games has the same problem a lot of YA has which is formula. The Careers aren’t emotionless drones, they’re the popular kids in your high school cafeteria. They’re the jocks and the cheerleaders with a touch more homicide rather than the ones who can never show up to any functions or hang out with friends because they’re training from six to eight and then three thirty to eight with eight hours left in the middle of the day for school.

The problem with this set up is that professional athletes and kids training to become professional athletes aren’t “normal” kids. The Best is a competition, the closer you get to that pinnacle the rougher the competition gets. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to put in the effort. To be the best requires a lot of work, a lot of dedication, a lot of sacrifice. You can throw in blood, sweat, and tears but that still won’t be enough. Talent can pave your way, but it isn’t enough to be a winner. You have to be all in, you’ve got to want it, and be willing to sacrifice everything to win.

The formula for The Hunger Games is wrong because you need to be using the formula from your average sports film about the kid trying to make it big. The kids in the new Karate Kid movie with Jackie Chan, for example. That’s the expected level of competency you’d be getting out of a thirteen year old training for high level sports competition. You ever gone ahead and watched high level gymnastics? That shit is fierce, and the behind the scenes competition for top spots on national teams is about as fierce. This is before we get to other countries like China where the prospective child candidates are scouted early and taken into custody of the state to be trained.

The Careers are gladiators, which means (under normal circumstances) they’d be trained to be one part killing machine, one part actor, and one part stuntman. The training part here is key, and that’s what would keep them emotionally and physically stable. Gladiators are showmen. They’re bloodsport, and bloodsport is honest-to-god entertainment. This is an industry which makes billions every single year worldwide, and there are kids the same age as the Careers preparing for their debut UFC bouts out there right now in the United States.

Reality TV isn’t real, it’s entertainment. The WWE is entertainment some people do believe is real. Bloodsport is real… ish, but to be successful at it you need to be more than just good at fighting. Fighting another human being for the enjoyment of the masses is a different skill set. Gladiators are the one place where I’ll say, yes, the flashy additions to their fighting style suits a real purpose. They can kill their opponent or beat them to a bloody pulp and they’ll look good doing it. With someone who is very good, you’ll find yourself enjoying the bout even when you didn’t want to.

When we’re talking about “Careers”, we aren’t discussing kids most middle class Americans would consider “normal” teenagers, not by any stretch of the imagination. They’re trained for a very specific utility, and working the arena is their job. They’re like every other sort of young professional from child models to child actors.

The key component to understand with professional bloodsport is poverty.  Like professional sports, this is a route people choose when they have limited options. They often don’t come from privileged backgrounds, and for most of these kids in the real world this is a way out. There aren’t better options for them to choose, and by the point they’re seventeen or eighteen they wouldn’t choose another path. They fought for this, they’re invested in this, and this part of their life is an important aspect of who they are. However, to really delve into the dystopic aspect of this part of society we’d end up in Lord of the Flies territory.

A career is a job. You can take a child of five and train them for eleven to twelve years, by the time they’re sixteen to seventeen they’d be perfectly capable of doing much more than we see from the Careers in The Hunger Games. In fact, the entire problem with the Careers approach to the Hunger Games is that they don’t treat it like a job. We have hyper specialized characters who’ve trained their whole lives to compete in bloodsport, perform, and win the heart of the crowd. They’d be capable of taking someone like Katniss, who was competent in their own right but not prepared for the Games, and incorporate them into their performance. Like in any good reality TV show, you use your actor plants to stoke drama and create entertainment. There’s a real aspect to preliminaries in sports where you use them as an opportunity to size up the competition, which is why you should always be carrying around more than one routine.

In the Roman arena, the thumbs up symbolized the gladiator performing well enough to kill their opponent. The thumbs down indicated they hadn’t performed well enough. The right to kill another warrior was one that had to be earned, and this was difficult to do. These rules were put into place because gladiators are valuable commodities, they are worth more alive than they are dead. At least, until they reach the point where they’re no longer useful.

Looking at a Career would be similar to the feelings inspired when you look at a gif with some martial artist performing martial arts that seem to be outside the laws of nature. Whether that’s climbing up a willing partner to use their legs in a scissor to bring them swinging to the ground or a gun disarm that involves kicking someone’s legs out from under them from a kneeling position. It’s the Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This was the aspect of the Roman arena that was so demoralizing. You can’t figure out how they did what they just did, they seem so incredibly superior, and now your entire culture is ripped apart into bits for the titillation and tantalization of the masses, but goddamn if some part of you doesn’t enjoy it. (See: the Roman treatment of Sparta.)

The trick to understanding any violence is understanding the kind of training they receive, the purpose of the role they’re preparing to serve. All violence is not the same.

If you’ve never spent any time around children who participate in high end sports or martial arts, you’re not really fit to judge what they are and aren’t capable of. The truth is that children are much more capable than you might think, especially when you train and prepare them for what they’re going to experience. There’s an assumption they’ve suffered abuse, be it mental, emotional, or physical, but that’s actually unlikely. You get more out of a willing participant than you do from one that’s been forced, and bloodsport has never in human history had a shortage of individuals willing to sign up. Modern bloodsport is all volunteers, and many of them began training as children in one form or another.

We can debate the nature of traumatized children, how young is too young, but it is important to remember that in sports like gymnastics you’re often looking at children who are sixteen to eighteen years old. These kids train from four in the morning to eight in the evening, and, for the high fliers, their entire education is probably home schooled. Ballet requires a lifetime of preparation in order to achieve professional status. We have child actors. And, of course, there are the Muay Thai kids I mentioned earlier. They get into the ring and give each other injuries that make their brains look like they’ve been in car accidents. But, if you ask them, most would be happy to keep doing it. The rewards outweigh everything else.

Don’t think of these kids as props. They’re very real, and they have very real desires, real wants, and real goals. You can’t become good at something if you don’t love it.  If you want to write these kinds of characters, you need to try thinking from the perspective of the kids who actually want to be there. Who want to do this. Who looked at the glamour, and the blood, and the cheers of the crowd, and said, “YES! I WANT TO BE THAT!” Not as a passing fancy, not in a way that discounts their experiences or chides them for being childish or naive, but the ones who understood what they were getting into. The ones who were raised in the environment and never wanted anything else, and nothing anyone can offer will ever make them feel quite as good. The harder one works to be good at something, the more invested they become. You can be proud of your skill, how hard you worked, and how you struggled without being proud of your ability to kill. This is who they are.

You can cringe from it, you can be terrified by it, you can feel sorry for them, but while you’re doing all that pearl clutching you can’t write genuine stories about their experiences. You can’t write them if you don’t understand. At best, your writing is patronizing. At worst, it ignores the real dark side of their experiences, their struggles, their sacrifices, and the cost of their dream. You also ignore the good that comes from their actions, like the Muay Thai children who are so successful in the ring they can buy their parents houses, the family bonding with parents and siblings who also fight. The friendships, the families, the community, the support, and what its like to be around people who want the same as you. The ones who truly understand your experiences.

Honestly, if you want to be doing anything gladiator, you need to be looking at sports and the influence sports has on our culture. If you want to discuss the evils of bloodsport or violence as entertainment, then you need to understand the cultures we’re talking about. You need to grasp why people like it in the first place, what draws them to watching children beat the shit out of each other, and why they enjoy it without just outright initially dismissing them as psychos. You also need to grasp performance and sports martial arts as their own skill set, with one not completely rejecting your ability to kill people.

In those videos, you’re watching some kids who are twelve and thirteen years old with enough physical control to perform the same sort of stunt fighting you see in a Hollywood film. That’s forgetting Ernie Reyes Jr, who could do the same when he was about five.

What I’m saying is: The Hunger Games doesn’t give children enough credit.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reject Cynicism. Inner Strength is about Courage

Thoughts on the gentle and compassionate character that is perceived as weak but has “inner strength”? What is your personal definition of inner strength in the context of this archetype, and would it actually be beneficial in a semi-realistic setting? And how would you go about deconstructing, and subsequently reconstructing it? I hate cynical endings that show kindness is meaningless or a hindrance, I was wondering if I could subvert such a message without eyeroll-ness using such a character.

Coming out with the hard questions, huh?

The truth is there is no right way to write this type of character because “inner strength” isn’t a generic term but a personal one. In terms of meaning, strength changes from individual to individual. So, for a writer, that means defining what “inner strength” means to you.

Strong is a State of Mind.

Let’s redefine “inner strength” as courage. Courage is not being without weakness, it’s about overcoming fears and insecurities. It’s about facing uncomfortable truths even when the lies those truths hide make up the fabric of your memory.

There’s no single right answer or way to go about portraying a character who is courageous in their daily life, who stands up, who faces down what makes them afraid, and who tries even knowing they might fail. Kindness is a gift given to someone else, and while you might hope for reciprocation you’re not guaranteed a response.

“This is about what I can do,” this type of character says. “This is not about what you or what you deserve. I’m kind because I believe in kindness. You can be cruel to me, that’s you’re choice. I’ll continue to be kind to you because that’s the approach I’ve chosen.”

You don’t need to subvert, or deconstruct, or reconstruct. What you’ve got to do is play the archetype straight. Write the character who genuinely believes kindness can change the world. You don’t need a character who starts out “strong” and inner strength isn’t easily quantified in the general sense. You need a character who is wiling to stand up for their beliefs, even when their insecure, frightened, unsure, and hopeless. Creating a character who genuinely is mentally and emotionally strong is creating a character who is learning how to be strong as they go through their experiences, in figuring out what that means for them and for you, discovering how they got there, throwing aside cynicism, and in the end believing that  kindness really can make a difference.

You’ve got to decide what “inner strength” is in the context of your story. For me, inner strength is the most important quality for any character. I define “strength” by their emotional experiences, how they deal with them, if they face them, their decisions, their beliefs, and how those shape their story within the narrative. Each one has their own qualities, their own strengths.

“Yes, the world can be a dark and dangerous place. Yes, people can by cynical and self-interested. Yes, cruelty, indifference, and ambivalence are all easier to accept. Yes, sometimes, changing even one small aspect of this world seems impossible. Hope can be frightening, it’s painful to see your dreams crushed. I know this task is Sisyphean, every time we get that boulder to the top of the hill it just rolls back down. Sometimes, for me, even just getting out of the bed in the morning can be herculean. But you? You’re just using cynicism to excuse action. In your world, we’re already doomed. That attitude just protects the status quo. I won’t stand aside. I won’t do nothing. I won’t let fear stop me and I won’t let you stop me either. I’m going whether you come with me or not.”

The irony for all the cynics will tell you their way is more “realistic” is that it’s much more difficult to maintain hope, to stay hopeful, positive, and to keep chasing after your dreams. It’s more difficult to be kind than it is to be cruel. You risk more in being open to others than you do in being closed, and its much harder to keep sticking your hand back into the fire after you’ve been burned. The mistake comes with assuming that being kind is easy. It is under most circumstances, but there are those where you need to dig deep to maintain that smile. It’s easy to see the flaws and failings in other people, and much harder to reach out. The mistake is in assuming these characters have never seen the world’s darkness, that they’re sheltered, and that once they’re exposed to that darkness they’ll change their tune. That’s not necessarily true.

Now, there are those kinds of characters whose kindness is based in both innocence and ignorance. Who are open because they have the privilege of living in an environment where they don’t regularly encounter cruelty, where no one has specifically been directly cruel to them, where they’ve never had the values they espouse challenged. Then, there are the characters who have had their values challenged. The ones who locked hands with misery and despair, who went through their crucibles, and came out the other side fire forged. These characters genuinely believe in the values they espouse, all the way down to the extreme end of pacifism where even when their life is threatened they never raise a hand to defend themselves with violence. They choose words instead.

There isn’t anything unrealistic about characters choosing a path of peace over one of war. Diplomacy is a real skill set with real value in the real world. There are plenty of people out there every day making a difference, by giving time to good causes, who chase after their own dreams of a better world. There are plenty of examples out there to show you can’t make a better world through violence. Plenty of different philosophies on the subject too.

Strength comes from growth, from picking ourselves back up when we fall down, and standing up again. Like Sisyphus with his boulder, there’s no shortage of pitfalls to knock us back down to square one. That “inner strength” comes from fortitude, from the willingness to keep going, from acknowledging our own failings, and being patient with others for theirs.

So, the question becomes do you believe in the values this character espouses? Can you be genuine when you write them? Can you be honest with their struggles? Can you be honest? Can you write from the perspective where you believe in what they stand for, but are willing to challenge them and put those beliefs to the test? Are you willing to let them fall short? Willing to see them fail?

Maybe I don’t want to be gentle all the time? I always try to be kind! I try and I try, and I try, and I’m sick of it! I’m not getting anywhere, and when I do you’re there with some witty crack about how it couldn’t get better than this! Why are you doing this to me? How can you go through life like this doesn’t affect you? People are suffering! They’re suffering and I can’t do anything about it!

Ultimately, the difference between a character who affects the audience and a character who is eye-roll worthy is whether you admit that they’re human. Even then, so what if they are eye-roll worthy? Sometimes, you need to start with a cliche and then when given context the character emerges. There’s nothing generic about this sort of character’s strength, they are an individual whose beliefs are challenged and shaped by their experiences.

Bravery requires we take risks. Risks mean that sometimes we fail, but we can’t allow fear of failing to stop us. Learning about “inner strength” requires taking a long hard look at yourself. There aren’t any special tricks to getting past the boulder, no special means of ensuring success. Sometimes, you just need to be willing to stand there and risk letting the boulder hit you. The cynic will tell you that its better not to try anyway because you were always going to fail. However, the honest truth is that you don’t know until you try.

The act of facing your fears is growth all by itself. Putting yourself out there, even if you fail, is an act of courage.

That’s really how we do it.

One step at a time.

-Michi

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Q&A: Feel Good Violence is Universal

So I’ve seen a lot of your posts on violence but how does that stuff pertain to a fantasy novel where fighting is a character’s way of life? Like his job is to fight off monsters and stuff so does fight scenes still fall under feel good violence or any other pitfalls you’ve discussed?

Feel Good Violence is the trope which makes a lot of our readers go, “I came out to have a good time and I’m feeling so attacked right now.” Mostly because they’re misunderstanding what it means, and assume that this relates to over the top violence, or exciting superhero movie fight scenes, or scenes that are written purely to be exciting and fun. That’s not what Feel Good Violence refers to.

Feel Good Violence is about violence written without consequences and scenes that have no narrative impact, which ultimately serve no purpose in the story except to show us how awesome the hero is, by itself, alone, and are scenes ultimately not worth anyone’s time. Feel Good Violence is your hero initiating a beat down on some poor schmuck in a bar at a level they certainly didn’t deserve, where they destroy the bar in the process, and everyone cheers. If you ignore the pitfalls of Feel Good Violence, you will cast your hero as a bully and most of your readership may not notice because violence as wish fulfillment translates directly into bullying and bullying really does feel good.

Feel Good Violence is your character contextually behaving the same way as a nasty anon sending nasty messages into someone random person’s inbox in the name of their fave and then being celebrated for it. Without context, without perspective, this is violence designed to feel good and violence where the action leads the narrative nowhere.

Violence has a high price tag, whether that price is paid physically through exhaustion or injury, socially through its impact on those individuals around you and the way they treat you, and culturally through the rules and laws put down by whatever governing body rules your setting. Fight scenes are great for your fiction because that high price tag (which will impact every aspect of their life) is an easy road to high key drama with high stakes.

Feel Good Violence ignores the stakes, negates tension, and destroys drama, these scenes exist purely as an abstract and float outside the narrative’s actual plot. They do nothing, they influence nothing, they incite nothing, and ultimately mean nothing. They are the character acting without fear of consequences in a narrative sanctioned environment where those consequences can never occur because the author won’t let them threaten the protagonist. Consequences to their behavior simply don’t apply, no concept of long term pay off exists, justification is broken down on the lines of “good” and “bad”. The police officer will threaten the snitch who provides them with information, beat them up, throw them into walls, in order to remind the audience that the officer is tough. Forgetting that the snitch provides the police officer with important information, information where in the same situation and in a better narrative would no longer be available down the line when the police officer needs it.

The problem with Feel Good Violence is that consequences and fallout from your character’s actions are what create tension. In fact, most characters that general audience adore adore them in part because they’re walking drama bombs. Like the bad boy loner with a temper who punches out the school bully and lands both himself and the protagonist in detention.

Inciting Incident > Negative Action > Consequences

Feel Good Violence would just have the bad boy punch the school bully, and wander away while the bully lies on the floor crying while the in-scene audience cheers.

Inciting Incident > Negative Action > Poot

In characters that are supposed to be combat professionals, the mentality this trope creates will lead to abdication of responsibility and them behaving in ways that are unprofessional in the extreme. You won’t have any respect for the damage the character is capable of doing because you discarded the price tag. A real professional, or even just a recreational martial artist, knows they must moderate their behavior to react in ways which are situationally appropriate. They carefully weight their response because just hauling off on some stupid motherfucker can have some terrible consequences.

Now, while those consequences can be bad for the character in-setting they could be great for the narrative and the plot as a whole; but only if you let the consequences of those choices play out.

A cop beating up a snitch and then the snitch turning on them down the line is great drama. The monster hunter who accidentally destroys a town, whose actions have unintended consequences, or pulling a Geralt and hacking off some idiot’s hand in order to get hired for a job is great drama.

So, yes, this one applies to everything you write regardless of genre because it directly relates to the consequences revolving around your characters actions. Violence is very expensive, regardless of how fantastical the setting is. Feel Good Violence is consequence free, these scenes exists purely to make you feel good without having to worry about anyone’s feelings or anyone (you care about) getting hurt. You see the best examples of this trope in wish-fulfillment characters where the end result of the mentality is a main character becoming a psychopathic bully. At least, they will when you look at the external context of the actions they’re taking. However, if you choose to never critically think as a reader, you’ll simply absorb these scenes and cheer.

You avoid feel good violence by bringing consequences home into your fiction, and having the character’s behavior impact their daily life and how others see them. For example, if your character is a monster hunter and the monster he’s hunting gets into the town that hired him and destroys it, they’re not going to be very happy with him. They will continue to not be happy with him even if he does kill it and ultimately saves their lives. There are other consequences to be had like their homes, equipment, and livelihoods have all been destroyed.  It’s like Spider-Man destroying your car by throwing it at Rhino to stop him.

Thanks for saving my life, buddy, but I still need to get to work tomorrow.

A good way to double check yourself on Feel Good Violence is to stop and think about what’s happening context wise in your story. Most of the issues with Feel Good Violence stem from being too connected to your protagonists and trying to smooth the way for them, or engineering events to try to control how others will react. Those reactions and consequences are part of what create realism and tension within your fiction. Step outside your protagonist and start thinking from the perspective of other characters in your story, about how you’d react if these events happened to you. If you saw X occurring, how would you react? What reaction would help the story to progress?

Essentially, treat violence and your fight scenes like events actually occurring in the setting with real effects on the narrative and you’ll avoid Feel Good Violence.

-Michi

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Q&A: Heat Followup

elerena  asked:

Just read your post on Heat and watched the clip, and while the whole clip was pretty horrific, the part that hit me the hardest was…… how in the nine hells did he justify taking that final shot? If the guy so much as twitched- not even deliberately using the girl as a shield, but maybe something happened off to the side- the cop would have wound up shooting a little girl in the head! Is he a sociopath or something?

A little bit. Vincent (Al Pachino) is not entirely stable, and Pachino has since gone on record saying his character was coked up throughout the events of the film, though we see almost no examples of that in this sequence.

So, a couple things worth noting. I didn’t cover the characters’ backstory at all, because it’s mostly irrelevant to an overall critique, however, Vincent is a marine. He mustered out and joined the LAPD, which is used as a point of comparison, because Neil McCauley (De Niro) is also a marine who ended up in prison after mustering out.

It’s very difficult to judge distance in Heat, because the film is shot, almost exclusively using 75-100m telephoto lenses which does very strange things to perspective, but Vincent and Michael (Tom Sizemore) appear to be within 30-50m of one another. At those ranges, someone with marine marksman training, using a reasonably accurate rifle on semi-auto, should be able to hollow out a dime.

You can see Vincent do two things before firing. He adjusts his shooting position, moving the sights into line for a precise shot, and he then holds the shot as Michael turns, to give him the cleanest possible shot. Note that the girl (Yvonne Zima)’s head is the furthest from Michael’s when Vincent fires. (Had Michael continued to turn, their heads would have been closer.) He is firing on someone using a human shield, but he’s doing his best to mitigate the danger to her.

If you really want a full, “use of force,” breakdown on the situation, then @skypig357 would be the person to ask, though, the short answer is that Michael was using the girl as a human shield while firing indiscriminately at civilians and police. He needed to be stopped. Unfortunately, given these specific circumstances, killing the perpetrator is the safest way to do that, for everyone else involved.

-Starke

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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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I don’t know if you watch GOT, but how hard would it be to fight someone like the mountain hand-to-hand? (well, armed, like in the show). Does being big like him really makes for a better fighter?

Hand to hand is a bit different from armed, especially armored, but okay.
The answer is pretty simple.

Start low.

Tall fighters, especially male fighters, have a rather serious issue that’s often
overlooked: their center of gravity. It’s higher up off the ground than the
average person, and a great many men (like the Mountain) do not drop low enough
into their stances to compensate. The taller they are, the lower they need to
go to counterbalance their size. Attack their feet, or their legs. Attack their
center. Whatever you need to destabilize them. A lot of tall fighters have
issues with their base. There are other flaws, but that’s often a big one.

Cutting the legs out from under of your enemy is a real tactic, or I should
say: cutting them down to size.

Stab him in the foot. (Yeah, no, real combat tactic.)

Here’s a question: you ever hear the story about David versus Goliath?
Probably, most people know the story of the shepherd boy who defeated the
greatest, largest warrior in single combat with a sling.

The story is a parable, and a life lesson. It’s also a little more
complicated than just brains over brawn. If you take anything from the story,
the big one is going to be: never fight your enemy on their terms.
Understand where their strengths are, where you’re strengths are, and change
the rules.

What a big fighter has going for them is the intimidation factor, and mind
games in combat are a huge deal. It’s not so much about physical prowess as
much as what your enemy believes about your physical prowess. Or you
believe about your opponent’s. What you believe will affect how you fight, how
hard you fight, and how well you fight. Go into a fight believing you’re at a
disadvantage or will lose and you’ll lose.

Assessing your enemy’s strengths for their weaknesses is the winning
strategy. If never addressed, big fighters will have a lot of flaws because
their opponents often cede them the field in their minds. This is especially
true when in training, and training is the foundation of skill. When people
treat you like you’re invincible, you’ll start to believe you are. And that’s
how you get an over reliance on a natural advantage with no compensation for
the flaws it brings.

The problem is that many people treat size and body types like they’re all
or nothing. For every advantage one has, there’s a disadvantage to go with it.
A fighter with a heavy reliance on what nature has given them (size, strength,
what have you) often neglects more crucial skills if never addressed. You can
have big fighters with exceptional levels of skill, but those are the ones
who’ve realized they can’t brute force their way through every problem. When
they don’t, their technique is sloppy.

Now, really, really, really big people often have to work doubly hard to
develop their coordination because fighting with a big, lanky body is
difficult.

The trick when you have (or feel like you have) the disadvantage is not to
meet the enemy on their terms. The best fighters figure out how to exploit
their opponent’s strengths in order to expose their weaknesses and fight with
an advantage. The bad fighters are the ones who choose to fight at a
disadvantage, who don’t prepare to face their enemy, and try to use the same
tactics over and over. The smart ones change up, they are proactive, and
understand the battlefield flows.

Ultimately, that’s what makes for the “best” fighter.

Fear is the biggest strength for someone who is massive in size, not
their strength and not their bulk. When you are frightened, you become
reactive, you cease to actively think, and fail to problem solve. The moment
you are defeated in your mind, that is the moment you lose. It doesn’t matter
how many steps it takes in the real world after the fact, cede the field in
your mind and it’s over. Intimidation can win that fight before the battle ever
begins, and the biggest kid on the playground is as natural as intimidation
gets.

The Mountain isn’t great because of his skill, but the fact that he makes
everyone around him afraid. His personal ruthlessness and cruelty back up that
size, and strengthens his ability to intimidate. When facing the Mountain,
you’re faced with fear over the (very real) consequences of what he’ll do to
you.

He’s valuable because he’s frightening, not because he’s good at fighting.
The good at fighting is the bonus that makes him more frightening.

Understanding the affect the mind has on combat is like 70% to victory.
Understanding the assumptions made and why we make them is important to writing
scenes with characters like this. If you put stock in the Mountain’s size,
rather than the Mountain’s reputation then you miss where his strengths
actually lie and why people are afraid of him.

The Mountain’s reputation is as a ruthless killing machine who delights in
rape, murder, and pillage. Torture is his specialty. He does not abide by the
code of chivalry or rules of knightly honor. He’s a sadist. For him, there’s no
such thing as just warfare. He thirsts for blood and battle. He’s protected by
one of the most powerful houses in the GOT universe, and he earns his pay as
their enforcer.

His size is just a plus. He could be just as terrifying at 5″4, and then
you’d have the joy of underestimating him before he put a knife through your
eye. If he was small, he’d be even more terrifying because there’d be more
bodies. His size doesn’t change who he is under the hood, it’s just one more
attribute he’s utilizing to its fullest potential.

Stereotypes about tall and short people are just that. Stereotypes.

Every body type has its drawbacks, and their natural advantages can be made
to work against them. Tall fighters are more gangly, their center of gravity is
further away from the earth, their weight puts additional stress on their joints
(especially their knees), and if they never work at addressing their issues
they can be slower to start. You can also have overweight/heavy weight martial
artists like Sammo Hung,
where there’s virtually no difference between them and a martial artist half
their size. Skill can close the gap. Understanding of your own strengths and
weaknesses also helps. Knowledge is power. Training yourself out of society’s
instilled biases is hard, but necessary. This is especially true if you perceive
yourself to be the underdog.

Not automatically assuming bigger equals better is the first step. The
second is realizing that the best warriors are not decided by outside metrics,
but rather through an inward understanding of how to utilize their strengths and
address their weaknesses.

On that note, I’ll leave you with a compilation of Cynthia Rothrock’s fight scenes. Cythnia Rothrock is a Hong Kong action star, a winner of world championships in the 80s, she has a wide variety of black belt level training in multiple martial arts, and is one of the most famous westerners to make it in the Hong Kong action scene.

Why end with this? Well, exposure to female movie martial artists runs the gamut between low to non-existent and that lack of exposure to different body types is where most misunderstandings about size come from.

-Michi

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If someone wants that angst factor, but also wants to be more accurate… what about a trainer who’s an abusive human being towards the character outside of training, but isn’t an abusive trainer?

The best way to go about getting the angst factor is with the trainee themselves post-training, where you have someone who genuinely did buy in and then came to a realization later. They hate what they were trained to do, more importantly they hate what they did, and they hate themselves for it. They’re still excellent at what they were trained to do as they trained hard for it, it’s in their bones, an inextricable part of who they are, but the idea of doing it again makes them sick.

This is the setup of an internal conflict that is realistic, but requires an admission of personal responsibility. The “I Once Believed But Now I Don’t” is the foundation of a few hundred, grizzled and experienced action protagonists.

The trick behind this set up though is to go all in, the Atoner needs to have something they’re atoning for. The “I was forced” bit just weakens the motivation and gives them an easy out where they can divest themselves of responsibility. Maybe they do come from a background where they were taken/stolen from their parents at a young age and maybe they did fight against what was done to them in the beginning, but at some point they did give in. At some point, they made the choice and committed. That’s where the Atoner’s drama is. It’s born from personal choice and regret over actions taken. It really was their fault, and now they’re either running away or making up for it.

Abuse in martial combat training isn’t on the floor, it’s in much more subtle and coercive elements used to convince someone to do something they don’t want to do. It’s certainly possible to be victimized by martial combat training, used and abused. That abuse is just unlikely to come in the form of a physical beating. The problem is that martial combat is also, simultaneously, empowering. Adrenaline makes you feel good, and the act of taking control over yourself makes you feel strong. Add control over another person into the mix, get a head rush.

A good example of an abusive martial arts setup are the Karate Kid movies with the evil martial arts master. The other important reference point from these movies is a somewhat universal truth: the student is a reflection of their teacher.

Debates about use of force aside, you will occasionally find abusive setups in the real world as bullies are, unfortunately, a phenomenon where fiction reflects life. Students who come from these setups are likely going to be either abusers themselves or more prone toward falling into that category.

Strength first. Weakness is to be punished. Finish your enemy.

“Do not stop when our enemy is down. No mercy in the studio. No mercy in competition. No mercy in life. Our enemy deserves pain.” – Master Li, The Karate Kid.

Sentiments which all feel right, except the contexts they’re applied in are universal. Notice too, it’s all “us versus them”. Master Li in The Karate Kid remake is a well respected martial artist with a huge school and is famous for his ability to produce winners. The issue is where his values lie, and how he pushes his students. His hardcore, aggressive training tactics are applied only to those students who merit his personal attention, who excel. We see the values he’s instilled in his students through Dre’s conflicts with them. They all look up to him. He’s their father figure.

You’re right in that the attitudes of the trainers are the place to look
for when looking for abuse rather than the training itself. You’re
looking for scenarios that are emotionally abusive rather than
physically abusive, and they run in a pattern similar to those used by
emotionally abusive parents.

If you want to use these dynamics in your stories, it’s important to recognize the affect these figures will have on your characters. The student/teacher dynamic is a tightly knit one. This person is akin to a second parent. They are part and parcel to the character’s values, who they are, and how they’ve been shaped. Combating abuse takes real work, and it’s not as simple as shuffling the blame onto someone else.

Most of the issues when the fictional “abusive training” tropes pop up involves the author’s desire to get angst and allowing the character avoid taking personal responsibility through their victimization. Their experiences aren’t character defining, but rather perfunctory and act as a means of giving them some angst. It’s also a key means of identifying that this character is special, unique, and different from all the other rubes. In true cognitive dissonance, the presentation of this character is aces with their backstory except all the traits they’re claiming should be the ones they’re rejecting.

Atoning is an exercise in service and humility. A true Atoner is someone who has been humbled. This is a character type directly at odds with wish fulfillment. After all, the western version of this trope is Catholic. However, Atorners come from all over the world. Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin is a classic example of the trope, where in his desire to help others perverted his training and became the era’s most famous warrior (and mass murderer). He becomes a wanderer traveling Japan with a katana whose blade is reversed and blunted so he’ll never kill again. (Ignore for a moment that most of Kenshin’s techniques would absolutely still kill people via blunt force trauma and go with it.)

There are a myriad of places to take someone who has turned the people who trained them, on the system, or on their past beliefs. The Punisher is an example of a character who has decided to strike out on their own, he’s not truly atoning but rather is vengeance driven.

The problem with angst is that the good kind can’t be cheated into existence. Quality fictional angst comes from a personal place, usually resulting from a sense of personal responsibility for a situation (whether or not its their fault). A character can still be a victim of a system while also regretting the actions they took. The trick is understanding that being a victim is not automatically absolving, especially not from a personal point of view. A person can be both victim and victimizer at the same time. A bully with abusive parents isn’t automatically absolved for the bullying they’ve done, even if we feel sympathy for their situation and understand them better.

If you want to write an abusive trainer, this is going to be someone who is first and foremost emotionally abusive. If there’s physical abuse (and there may be), it will come long after the victim’s emotions have been secured. The victim will model themselves after their teacher, much like they would a parent, and become a “mini-me” because that is the best way to avoid punishment. They will become good at shuffling blame onto someone else, or trying to escape it because punishment is painful. That pain is likely to come from an emotional source rather than a physical one.

It will be difficult for the student to recognize their trainer is abusive. Their teacher will be someone they want to please, and the training will reinforce what the trainer says justifying the victim’s treatment in their own minds. All the good emotions you feel from doing exercise and the power felt by taking control over your body/over your mind becomes a parcel used to justify the emotional abuse. The student links their good feelings to what their teacher does to them and pursues it harder.

The key aspect to understand about an abusive training environment is that it is not automatically different from a normal training environment on a basic level. Which is to say, it’s not any better or any tougher or makes one a better fighter. Those in the abusive environment will believe their abusive training is the foundation of their skill and they wouldn’t be the same in a different program, but that is not necessarily true. What makes the training abusive is the way their teacher treats them and the values that are instilled. An abusive environment is often dominating, top down, and everything reflects back to the teacher.

Abuse is about control.

You can have two different teachers who do exactly the same things, but is abusive and one is not. This is why it’s so hard to tell whether or not a situation is abusive, because it’s based in attitude and outlook not in teaching techniques. The difference between an abusive teacher and one who is not is the psychological damage they leave behind.

A character with an abusive instructor may become a great fighter, but they will also be emotionally crippled. Like a bully, they will feel the need to exert control over their environment, create their own little kingdoms, and lash out at those who threaten their authority.

A character who cannot embrace their teacher’s outlook will be shattered, chased by self-doubt, and end up too mentally insecure to succeed at warfare. Their confidence is crushed, and whatever they learn from their teacher they don’t have the fortitude to use.

That’s the consequence of an abusive instructor.

You embrace them and become like them.

Or…

You reject them, and they break you.

This is not physical, they break their student emotionally through neglect, through failure, by critically hampering their ability to succeed, by undercutting them, or changing the goalposts on them.

This is where the fantasy of “the hardcore abusive training creating the best warrior ever who was never into it from the beginning” falls apart. A student is a reflection of their master.

A student in an abusive system survives and succeeds only by buying in. They can come to a different conclusion later and abandon it, but at some point they’ll be a True Believer. With the abuse serving as a means of motivation, a desire to please their teacher because of what that will earn them. Whether that’s glory, success, or just not being hit is all up to the teacher.

I hope that clears this concept up some.

-Michi

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