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Suppose you wrote Ocean’s Eleven with an all-female gang. How would it change?

Me? Ocean’s Eleven? I wouldn’t change much at all, if anything. Ocean’s Eleven is the kind of movie that’s only a boy’s movie because men are in it, not because their gender is plot critical. You could run the movie’s con almost exactly the same with an all female crew or a mixed gender one.  The only reason why you’d run this with one gender or the other is because it’s a Rat Pack movie. Part of the reason why the George Clooney remake of Ocean’s Eleven ran so well is because it was built off the actors’ friendships. In both the Sinatra version and the Clooney one, your essentially just watching a bunch of buddies mess around on screen. This is the main reason why the film is seen as a quintessential “boys movie” rather than the plot itself. The chemistry between the actors is what both movies run on.

As for the con itself? It isn’t gendered and doesn’t rely on a specific gender to pull off, rather it involves exploiting character motivations and personality.
All I’d need to do is make sure I did my research on the updates to casino security and the tech used for 2017 instead of 2001, which would lead to some minor plot
restructuring.

When it comes to the love triangle surrounding Tess, the motivations are love and jealousy. Danny is exposing Terry so Tess can see the kind of man Terry is, that’s part of distracting Terry in the con but the motivations don’t change when the genders are switched. It’s just a love story involving three lesbians, or a lesbian, a bi woman, and a man, or two bi women and a man, or a woman, a man, and another woman, or whatever you want. Beyond that conflict, none of the specialists parts are gendered from your hacker to your demolitions to your wheelman, the faceman positions like your eccentric high roller can be female just as easily as male and a female bureaucratic functionary is about as annoying (if not more so).

When thief Daniella Ocean is released from prison, she already has her next score planned: a simultaneous robbery of the Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand. A plan so big, it’s never been done before. Together with her best friend Rusty Ryan and embittered casino mogul Varvara Tishkova, they put together a team of eight female specialists from card sharks and hackers to frontment in order to pull off the world’s greatest caper.

Their plan run smoothly until Daniella’s second goal comes to light. She’s got a motive other than money. Her ex-wife Tess is firmly ensconced in the arms of the casinos’ owner Terry Benedict, and Daniella intends to win her back. One way or another.

The issue with any kind of story genderswap doesn’t lie in the genders of the characters themselves, but rather on the part of the author or whoever is controlling the story. The question is do you believe a group of women could pull this off with nothing in the script changed except the pronouns? Are there aspects of the Ocean’s Eleven story you feel need to be changed based on the gender of those involved?

When you remember there’s nothing in this story gender specific, then these mix ups can be a great way to test your own gender biases. Those biases will insist the narrative be changed in order to “fit a woman better”, which will mostly involve changing the facemen’s cons into something more appealing. The old woman becomes younger. The bureaucratic functionary becomes sexy and flirty rather than just annoying. Though these changes will undermine the con itself, they’ll happen due to the belief they need to in order for the story to be believable.

This is the problem we face with any character filling in the role of a character who was originally another gender. It doesn’t matter whether your writing about a female action hero, a female conman, or a male librarian. There’s a knee jerk insistence to box them back up into their appropriate roles. Change the story to fit the outside gender roles.

This is an issue of human error and human biases, rather than a problem with female characters fulfilling a male narrative role. It includes a tendency to say certain qualities or approaches are “men only” when they’re not. The idea that a beautiful woman can only ever appear beautiful is silly. As is the idea a woman will always attempt to appeal to a man’s sexual preferences in order to gain access. There are plenty of attractive, annoying bureaucratic functionaries out there which we put up with but just want to go away. The handicap for female spies in a lot of fiction is the “sexy, pretty, beautiful” appeal to men rather than utilizing other traits usually considered negative… like being annoying or forgettable or suffering from hay fever and spewing germs all over the casino.

So, these are what I’d consider important to remember:

1) This is a buddy story, the character interactions and motivations are the all important narrative backbone. The con itself is fun, but flexible based on the emergent personalities combined with whatever research I pull up on Vegas casinos.

2) Remember to keep the character goals at the forefront, remember their different personalities, keep the point of the con front and center rather than have characters automatically run a gender specific approach. (The great thing about having lots of women in a story is you’ve got room to shimmy with a variety of personality types including the Flirt or Sexy Seducer without undermining the core narrative.)

3) Keep watch for specific changes I’d want to make based on my own gender biases that will self-sabotage the con.

4) Re-watch both Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s Eleven to break down their specific cons and character interplay as motivating factors.

If we’re talking about the remake with an all female cast, then I’ve got no idea how they’re going to change it.

-Michi

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I’m writing a character who starts out fragile, but joins a band of adventurers and becomes increasingly better at defending herself, javing no othet choice. However, reading through your blog it seems like the gap between skill levels is wider than I thought. As in, it might not be worth it for someone to learn fighting unless they plan on throwing themselves into it. Would it be worth it for her to learn to fight marginally well, or should she focus on getting better at running away?

The question isn’t “should she learn to fight?”, it’s “how skilled do you expect her to be in a short period of time?”.

The answer to the question posed in the ask is both. She should focus on learning to fight and getting better at running away. Both are necessary survival skills. In fact, learning to run away is part of learning to fight. Learning to assess a situation to determine the threat level and decide when it is time to go. Learning to defuse situations to avoid a violent confrontation is also part of learning to fight.

Here’s the problem with the general outlook most people have on combat training. They think you’re learning to handle all the situations which come your way violently. That’s not it. You’re learning how to asses the situations to determine whether or not its within a range you can handle. The best warriors are the ones who know when to fight, when not to fight, when to call for backup, and when to leave.

Those skills are the ones she needs. It’s entirely possible to learn fighting as a defensive option when her other skills fall through. This is not someone who is going to be going at it with practiced swordsmen in a one on one duel, but might get good at cutting themselves free and learning how to create exits so they can find a safer position. They’re not particularly good at violence in the professional sense, but it works as a fallback when the situation grows desperate.

Combat is a skill set. With consistent practice she’ll get better at it and the more scenarios she’s thrown into then the faster she learns how to survive.

She’s going to spend a lot of time running away at first, which she will grow better at. Then, eventually, she’ll learn how to turn and fight. She’ll get better at that too as time passes. She’ll never be the equivalent of the team’s muscle, but that’s not the point. She may end up being a “fight only when I have to/last line of defense” character, but that works fine. I’m going to assume she has other skills she’s developed which are more useful to this merry band than her combat ability. Even if she doesn’t, she still works as a character. I mean, Merry and Pippen are some of the most beloved characters in The Lord of the Rings and they contribute almost nothing except moral support.

People play bards in Dungeons & Dragons. (Kidding, bard lovers, they’re awesome and can be incredibly deadly.)

The issues come when we start thinking a character needs to have certain qualities in order to be legitimate, rather than figuring out what their skill sets are and using those as the basis for how they solve problems.

Create a scenario and solve it based on what the character can do rather than what they can’t do. The assumption that a situation needs to be solved violently or that there’s only one outcome is faulty. Your story is in a character’s ability to problem solve, what the issue is and the way they went about finding a solution. Flattering your way out is just as legitimate as fighting, even more so as it draws less attention and creates fewer additional problems.

I’ve got a character who can do magic, but isn’t good enough to be a combat mage. She can’t really fight. When she and her friends were captured by giants, she was small enough to slip out through the cage bars. Since she wasn’t good at lockpicking and they were too far away to get help, she decided to go talk to the giants. The story evolved from there.

“If I can’t do X, what else can I do?”

That’s where the story is.

There are a variety of different skill ceilings with combat, levels of what you can do and can’t do. A person with a weekends self-defense training isn’t going to be tackling Navy Seals, but they’ll be better at identifying danger in their surroundings. They’ll be better at creating exits to so they can escape to safety. They may have a better chance when faced with danger.

You said it yourself, the point of this character training to fight isn’t so she can throw herself into the fray against seasoned combatants but to help her survive. Focus on that and keep track of her skill level versus that of her opponents.

-Michi

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How do you write a fight scene without becoming repetitive? I feel like it just sounds like “she did this then this then this.” Thanks so much!

I watch her as she fights. Her left leg flies through the air – a roundhouse – rolling into a spin. She misses, but I guess she’s supposed to. Her foot lands and launches her into a jump. Up she goes again, just as fast. The other leg pumps, high knee gaining altitude. The jumping leg tucks. Her body rolls midair, momentum carrying her sideways. She kicks. A tornado kick, they call it. The top of her foot slams into Rodrigo’s head, burying in his temple. Didn’t move back far enough, I guess.

His head, it snaps sideways like a ball knocked off a tee. Skull off the spine. His eyes roll back, and he slumps. Whole body limp. Legs just give out beneath him. He clatters to the sidewalk; wrist rolling off the curb.

She lands, making the full turn and spins back around. Her eyes are on his body. One foot on his chest. I don’t know if he’s alive. I don’t know if she cares. Nah, she’s looking over her shoulder. Looking at me.

The truth twists my gut. I should’ve started running a long time ago.

The first key to writing a good fight scene is to tell a story. The second key is having a grasp of combat rules and technique. The third is to describe what happens when someone gets hit. The fourth is to remember physics. Then, roll it all together. And remember: be entertaining.

If you find yourself in the “and then” trap, it’s because you don’t have a firm grasp of what exactly it is your writing. “He punched” then “She blocked” then “a kick” only gets you so far.

You’ve got to get a sense for shape and feeling, and a sense of motion. Take a page from the comic artist’s playbook and make a static image feel like it’s moving. Try to remember that violence is active. Unless your character is working with a very specific sort of soft style, they’re attacks are going to come with force. So, you’ve got to make your sentences feel like your hitting something or someone.

“Ahhh!” Mary yelled, and slammed her fist into the pine’s trunk. A sickening crack followed, then a whimper not long after.

Angie winced. “Feel better?”

Shaking out her hand, Mary bit her lip. Blood dripped from her knuckles, uninjured fingers gripping her wrist. She sniffed, loudly. “I…” she paused, “…no.”

“You break your hand?”

“I think so. Yeah.”

“Good,” Angie said. “Think twice next time before challenging a tree.”

Let your characters own their mistakes. If they hit something stupid in
anger, like a wall or a tree then let them have consequences.

Injury is part of combat. In the same way, “I should be running now” is. When the small consequences of physical activity invade the page, they bring reality with them.

People don’t just slug back and forth unless they don’t know how to fight, or their only exposure to combat is mostly movies or bloodsport like boxing. Either way, when one character hits another there are consequences. It doesn’t matter if they blocked it or even deflected it, some part of the force is going to be transitioned into them and some rebounds back at the person who attacked.

Your character is going to get hurt, and it’ll be painful. Whether that’s just a couple of bruises, a broken bone, or their life depends on how the fight goes.

However, this is fantasy. It is all happening inside our heads. Our characters are never in danger unless we say they are. They’ll never be hurt unless we allow it. A thousand ghost punches can be thrown and mean absolutely, utterly nothing at all to the state of the character. This is why it is all important to internalize the risks involved.

The writer is in charge of bringing a dose of reality into their fictional world. It is much easier to sell an idea which on some level mimics human behavior and human reactions. The ghost feels physical because we’ve seen it happen on television or relate to it happening to us when we get injured.

You’ve got five senses, use them. You know what it feels like to get injured. To be bruised. To fall down. To be out of breath. Use that.

Here’s something to take with you: when we fight, every technique brings us closer together. Unless it specifically knocks someone back. You need specific distances to be able to use certain techniques. There’s the kicking zone, the punching zone, and the grappling zone. It’s the order of operation, the inevitable fight progression. Eventually, two combatants will transition through all three zones and end up on the ground.

So, keep the zones in mind. If you go, “she punched, and then threw a roundhouse kick” that’s wrong unless you explain more. Why? Because if the character is close enough to throw a punch, then they’re too close to throw most kicks. The roundhouse will just slap a knee or a thigh against the other character’s ribs, and probably get caught. If you go, “she punched, rammed an uppercut into his stomach, and seized him by the back of the head”, then that’s right. You feel the fighters getting progressively closer together, which is how its supposed to work.

Use action verbs, and change them up. Rolled, rotated, spun, punched, kicked, slammed, rammed, jammed, whipped, cracked, etc.

You’ve got to sell it. You need to remember a human’s bodily limits, and place artificial ones. You need to keep track of injuries, every injury comes with a cost. Make sure they aren’t just trading blows forever.

I’ve seen advice that says fights all by themselves aren’t interesting. I challenge that assertion. If you’re good at writing action, then the sequence itself is compelling. You know when you are because it feels real. Your reader will tune out if it isn’t connecting, and the fight scene is a make or break for selling your fantasy. It is difficult to write or create engaging, well choreographed violence that a reader can easily follow and imagine happening.

-Michi

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Going off the fighting with no pads+ live weapons+ sparring=death discussion, what would you suggest as an alternative? I’m working on a fantasy story where two of my characters are training in swordsmanship with the intention of becoming knights, but warfare is a lot different than using pads/dummies. What are ways I can have my characters realistically train for battle without mauling each other? Or should they just cross their fingers and hope they don’t die on the battlefield in real combat?

Well, for starters, they use training weapons. These are are weapons that are essentially what they’d be using and are blunted. The character gets the effect of training with the weapon and practicing their techniques against another opponent without risk of fatal injury.

This is a long standing practice in all martial disciplines and it is much safer than letting beginners murder each other. You never get to touch a real sword until you’ve reached the end of your training. They’re expensive, dangerous, and most knights aren’t going to have the money to replace all the weapons they’ve destroyed during training.

You start with wood, then move up to metal, then move up to the real blades.

You also don’t have your knights learning to joust each other with real lances either. It’ll be blunted lances like the ones used at tournament, and will use those at all times except on the battlefield. They’ll only be allowed to joust other students when their performance is satisfactory, and they will practice with a dummy first. They’ll keep practicing with that dummy for the remainder of their existence, because it’s safer than practicing with another knight and they can fine hone their skills. Then, they move up to a hanging ring.

They don’t just put you on a horse, thrust a lance in your hands and hope for the best.

They’ll spar with padded armor. When they reach a point in their training where the time has come for them to wear armor, they’ll be using older suits rather than new ones. If they spar with live weapons at all, at any point, the rules of the duel will be to first blood and will be watched very closely by their training instructors.

Training happens in stages.

You practice the pieces of the technique, broken down. You learn the stance, then you learn what you’re doing with your hands. How to hold the weapon. Then, you learn how to move the weapon. Then, you practice the technique all together incorporating your whole body. Then, you practice that singular technique with another human (drilling), then, you learn other techniques, then you learn to connect all those techniques together, then you learn the defenses against those techniques, then you practice them with your partner, and then… then you spar.

In between these stages, you condition. You drill. You condition more. Drill more. Learn more techniques. Sparring becomes a reward. As you go up in rank, the targets you are allowed to hit in sparring expand. The more difficult techniques you learn. You may then advance to other weapons, or you’ll be doing most of them at the same time.

Round and round we go.

Practice with the sword before you hold the shield. Practice with the shield before you hold the sword. Learn to wield the sword with one hand. Then with two. Then with a shield. Learn horseback riding. Learn the staff. Learn the bow. Learn the knife.

Then, once you have a base and you are lucky, you will spar against different weapon types.

If he is confident in your abilities and you have the time, he may hold a melee or allow you, his trainee, to participate in one. Or you may do so while squiring to a knight, depending on your master. What is a melee? It is a practice battle, like a real one without the death (usually).

Or, you may not get any of this. Be thrown into battle up front and be forced to learn as we go.

There’s a target point for what you want to have, and then there’s what you get. A medieval knight or squire or even a page may very well be forced into battle long before they’re “ready”. A page’s training also depends heavily on who is fostering him/her and if they care.

Knights were not given the same training. The concept of training, armed warfare, and mass conflict as we understand it today didn’t exist. They were dependent on which local lord took them under his wing, funded them, and how invested he (and his arms master) was in their training. If they got a sadist for a teacher then they got a sadist for a teacher.

The problem with the romantic “live weapon” idea most people have is that “live weapons” will better prepare you for real combat. They don’t, because nothing compares for real combat. These characters may also see combat long before they become a knight, as they’ll be squired out first and their experiences depend on what their knightly master will be doing.

Knights are a training investment of fourteen years. You don’t waste that lightly. It also costs way too much to outfit them with real shit that they will then misuse and break. Especially not when you can just give them the sturdier, more reliable shit that many others have used before them.

The same is true for the horses. They get the training ponies with the hard mouths before they ever approach a warhorse. They need to prove themselves worthy of the substantial investment which comes with equipping them.

Yes, even the sadistic masters do this. The only difference is the mind games they play while it happens.

And, yes, with the first battle it will always be “hope for the best”. Anything else, they’re kidding themselves. Training is about getting you as prepared as you can be for the real thing, but it is not the real thing and no amount of live blades in a practice arena will change that.

Which is why you don’t do it.

Besides that, there’s the injury risk. Students who don’t know what they’re doing have a greater chance of injuring themselves and others. Injuries are costly. Training relies on consistency. If you’re stuck in your room with a twisted ankle, a bruised collarbone, nevermind a serious injury like a broken bone, then your training will lapse. A student needs to stay active in order to remain viable. If they’re not then its a waste of money, equipment, and other resources like food.

You’ve got to feed them, billet them, and everything in between. If you want shock troopers that’s what the peasants are for. A knight is an investment. You push your investment. You do not break them. They then repay you with their service.

A single soldier in the United States Military costs the taxpayers around a million dollars. Their training is also among the cheapest things the military can buy. In terms of resources in the Middle Ages, the feeding, training, and equipping of a knight costs far more than that.

Think about it. And maybe do some more research.

Otherwise, you’ve got a trainer going, “I want to blow through fourteen years and nine million dollars to soothe my students’ egos!”

No.

“Anything Goes” is a Hollywood creation. You train all combatants on the assumption they’ll be killed, you want to give them the tools to survive but they’ll probably die. For this reason, you need every single one. You can’t waste them on each other. That’s a major reason why tournaments came to exist, so you could have the war and the skill without the death.

-Michi

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So I got a question about the sparing and padding post that you recently made. I like to read Assassin’s Creed fanfictions that shows Altair (the main character) in his early years, which often includes his training to be an assassin. In most of these fics they focus more on the sword and knife fighting but some does include the hand to hand fighting too (without protection). So realistically what kind of injuries would someone training without any kind of protection should expect?

Death.

I’m only sort of kidding, because I know the kinds of fanfics you’re talking about and like every writer trying to be edgy, they have them spar without protections and with live weapons. There’s a reason why we use practice weapons during training and in sparring matches, where rules are in play. 

Now, the Assassin’s Creed variant of the Hashashin live for that super edgy, very stupid state of supposed badass where one must constantly prove their worth so I totally believe they’d do it. I’d also believe this would lead to an incredibly high turnover with their recruits, which is not sustainable in the real world.

I’m going to point out here that the “Asassins” or Hashashin were real. That’s the etymology for the word. The suicide jumping is also real and, instead of landing on bales of hay, they jumped to their deaths. There are a couple of stories about that piece of the order. The real Assassins were religious fanatics. These stories are not so much a testament to the quality of their training so much as their fanaticism.

For what it’s worth, the Knights Templar were also real and a prominent militant order up until they were excommunicated by the Pope.

The history of both groups is actually far more interesting than the Assassin’s Creed franchise. This is a persistent problem with the games, they invariably include historical figures who are far, far, far more interesting, competent, and badass than we’re presented with. If you encounter a historical personage in an Assassin’s Creed game, remind yourself of this simple fact: the real one is about 200x more awesome. It’s this weird inverse where the reality consistently surpasses the fiction.
(Black Flag, I have my eye on you. Honestly, how do you mess up Stede Bonnet, The Gentleman Pirate? And that’s the least of your sins!)

The more serious answer is that unless you’re training with weapons or making an active effort to hit each other, in the real world we don’t train using pads on the regular. The pads are so you can essentially go full out against another person under controlled circumstances and then come back for training tomorrow. If your students are constantly getting injured that hampers their ability to train, then they fall behind and you turn out fewer fighters. Injuries on the training floor should not be a common occurrence.

Barring accidents and mishaps, if you’re simply practicing your techniques on your own or against a wooden dummy then all you should expect afterwards is standard muscle pain (maybe some bruising). The same should be true for practice with human opponents (which is not sparring) and sparring itself.

Anything else is a waste of time, energy, and resources.

Remember, injuries take time to heal and if you’re prepping someone to go out and murder that’s time you don’t have.

In the land of “edgy training”, try to remember that you want evil as opposed to incompetence.

The vast majority of training, like the kinds you listed, are edgy incompetence. They don’t serve a purpose other than sadism and your students don’t learn anything. Unfortunately, cruelty on its own doesn’t teach much (the Spartans were abusive jerks, but their methods worked). The beat up, abuse them, cruelty methodology simply doesn’t work unless you understand the kinds that work and, from a storytelling perspective, it also isn’t interesting.

The kind of “edgy training” you see in most stories is a round of Kinder’s First. People mimicking what Hollywood has taught them or what they’ve seen in fiction elsewhere. The assumption in this line of thinking is that the more brutal the training then the more dangerous the fighter. This isn’t true. More importantly, there are much better ways to sadistically mess with your students’ (and audience’s) heads.

1) Depending on your teaching style, you may murder a student on occasion to motivate the others. However, the control over who lives or dies remains with the instructor because the instructor is god. If a student gets a bright idea to kill another student without your approval, kill them.

2) Live weapons should never be used by students on each other except as a graduation gift. The graduation gift being only one of them will be accepted into the Order, so prove your worth. (In the real world, you’ll probably need them both but in fantasy land… why not?)

3) Use the threat of death to keep your students from getting comfortable, make good on this promise every so often. Bring in an established warrior to kill off your best student in demonstration to the others. (Why? It reminds them at no point are they safe.)

4) Encourage your students to break the rules, punish them severely if caught. (Playing favorites? Punish them more, push them harder.)

5) Limit their resources. Make them fight each other for their food. Survival isn’t a given. It’s earned.

6) In the early days, force them into physical exhaustion. Keep them up late. Wake them early. Limit their sleep to the minimum of hours they need to stay functional. Tired minds are easier to manipulate.

7)
Force them into direct conflict with each other.

There’s never a solid baseline they can achieve, and they’re always watching over their shoulder. Furthermore they never become loyal to each other. They are only loyal to you. Appeasing their teacher is their only means of survival.

8) Got a problem child who won’t play along? Don’t make an example of them. No, no, make them your new favorite. That’ll turn the others on them, and they’ll solve the problem for you.

9) Change the goalposts regularly, so they never know what to expect.

10) You’ve got someone who doesn’t want to participate? Say okay. When others move to join them, punish those students viciously instead. Do it in front of the class and for everyone to see. (This is called: creating heroes and wrecking them.)

11) Have your students inform on each other.

If this is starting to sound like abuse, well.. you’re right. It is. It also very successful in terms of achieving its goal. The goal is attacking the student’s perceptions, beliefs, and their understanding of the world while reshaping them into who you want them to be.

Real cruelty is clever and inventive. It is also patient. Like a good interrogator, this teacher will leave their students so they’re never sure of exactly what the teacher wants or how to please them. They give them hope, then snatch it away. Someone who excels at social manipulation will use this position of power to maneuver their students feelings and their expectations, indirectly point them at certain targets by stoking negative feeling such as jealousy, paranoia, anger, or fear. In the other hand, those rare moments of kindness offered will ensure gratitude. When a good teacher wants their uncooperative students to band together, they make themselves the target the students need to fight against. The abusive teacher does the opposite. They ensure they are the only boat in the storm and turn their charges on each other. They make sure their students never know what to expect. This includes going hot and cold. They change up to batter expectations, handle some problems themselves and let the students handle others.

An experienced teacher will have seen plenty of student characters, all the versions you can imagine. A good one will break the problem kids to bridle without them ever realizing it happened, and they exit the experience more hardcore than the ones who invested themselves honestly. The purpose of “brutal training” isn’t to churn out a better warrior. It’s to break the individual down so you can reshape their mind and ensure the weapon you’ve created is loyal to you. That level of conditioning is very difficult to break. You’ve re-oriented their entire training into status positions they’ve fought for and earned. This training becomes a foundation for their identity, and you’re not going to get it out of them.

So, before invoking the trope, choose wisely and understand the purpose for what it is. Actively abusive training is done with the express intent to recondition and brainwash. More than that, in competent hands, it’ll snap the “rebellious teenage hero” contingent like twigs.

As a member of a fanatical cult, Altair is a direct example of this sort of training writ large.

-Michi

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Any advice on how to write a heist story something like oceans Eleven?

Well, you can start by watching Ocean’s Eleven, and Ocean’s Eleven, and then Leverage, and then Burn Notice, and then The A-Team, and then Mission: Impossible, and then all the other heist stories like The Italian Job or Heat. Watch, read, uncover as many stories about criminals as you can from fiction to nonfiction to reading security analyst blogs. Read the spy memoirs, the thief memoirs, the fake ones and the real ones. Check out magicians, hypnotists, card tricks, and sleight of hand. Watch the making ofs and director’s commentaries looking for clues behind the thought process of these stories. The hows and the whys as you look into the research they did. Burn Notice, for example, is famous for using stunt props and technological rigs that work in real life. Like using cell phones to create cheap bugs on the go.

The worlds of criminal fiction and spy fiction rely on being able to present (or convincingly fake) a world which feels real. A heist is all about exploitation. So, you need a world with security structures to exploit. You’ve got to know how things work before you can craft a way to break them. Social engineering, hacking, and every other criminal skill is about breaking the systems in place. So, you’ve got to get a baseline for how law enforcement and security analysts work. What security systems are set up to look like. The ways we go about discouraging thieves. Better yet how people behave. Real, honest to god human behavior.

So, you know, pick somewhere in order to start your research. Get an idea of what you want write about stealing, then learn everything about the object, the museum, the city, the country, and its customs as you can.

If you’re setting a heist in a futuristic or fantasy setting then luck you, you get to make all of it up.

Learning the plot structure and conventions of the heist genre is the first step. This means watching lots and lots of heist movies, shows, and reading books. Over time, as you become better at critical analysis, you’ll begin to see specific story structures and character archetypes emerge.

The Heist Story is a genre. Like every other genre, it comes with its own structure, cliches, archetypes, plots, and genre conventions which necessitate the narrative. The better grasp you have of those, the better you’ll be at writing a heist.

For example, a heist story like Ocean’s Eleven relies on a collection of thieves rather than a single individual. The character types are as follows:

The Pointman – Your planner, strategist, team leader, and the Jack of All Trades. Can also be called the Mastermind. They’re the one who can take the place of anyone on the team should they fall through. They’re not as good as a specialist, but they’re very flexible. Narratively, he plans the cons and subs in where he’s needed.

The Faceman – Your experienced Grifter, here for all your social engineering needs. These guys talk their way in.

The InfiltratorYour cat burglar or break-in artist. Basically, the conventional genre thief. Your Parker, Catwoman, Sam Fisher, or Solid Snake. The stealth bastards, they’re all about silent in, out, and playing acrobatic games with the lasers.

The Hacker – The electronics and demolitions specialist. Usually this is the guy in the van overseeing stuff remotely. Your Eye in the Sky. Their skill set can be split up and swapped around as necessary.

The Muscle – The one who is good at fighting. They’re combat focused characters, usually with mercenary and special forces backgrounds. Though, that’s optional.

The Wheelman – The one who handles the getaway. They’re your often overlooked transport specialists. It’s not just that they can drive, they’re skilled at getting lots of people around, figuring out how to move your valuables, and exiting hostile cities or countries undetected. They get the team in and they get them out.

For an example of these archetypes, I’m going to use Leverage. Nathan Ford, The Pointman (technically, he’s written like a Faceman). Sophie Devereaux , The Faceman. Parker, the Infiltrator. Hardison, the Hacker. Eliot, the Muscle. They all take turns being the Wheelman.

Other examples like Burn Notice: Michael Westen, the Pointman. Sam Axe, the Faceman. Fiona, the Muscle. They all take turns with explosives, Michael will invariably take all the roles during the course of the show.

Ocean’s Eleven has multiple variants of these archetypes, all broken down and mixed up.

You can mix and match these qualities into different individuals or break them apart like in Ocean’s Eleven, and more than one character can fill more than one role, but that’s the basic breakdown. For example, your hacker doesn’t need to be a guy in a van overlooking the whole security grid. One guy or girl with a cell phone can sit in the lobby of a building with an unsecured wireless network and crack the security. Welcome to the 21st century. The skills don’t necessarily need to take the specific expected shape.

What you do need is the basic breakdown:  You need someone to plan the con, you need someone to be your face or grifter, you need someone to break in, you need someone to watch the security/electronics, you need muscle to back you up, and someone’s got to cover the getaway.

These shift depending on your plan, but this is the expected lineup for a heist narrative. The first step of a heist narrative is not the plan because we don’t have one yet. We’ve got an idea. Pick your target. Maybe it’s a famous painting. Maybe it’s a casino. Maybe it’s a rare artifact from a private investor’s collection loaned to a museum for a short period of time. Maybe it’s art stolen by the Nazis during WWII. Whatever it is, figure it out.

The next step is simple. If you want the thing, you’ve got to find a way to get it. This is a big job, your standard thief won’t be able to pull it off alone. So, you gotta go recruiting. Get your team together. Make sure to establish the goals of the different members for joining. Who they are. Their pedigree. One might be an old flame or an old enemy. This is where we lay out some character driven subplots.

When everyone’s together, we’ve got to lay out the plan. Before we have a plan though, we need to establish where the object is and the issues in getting it. Why this has never been done before. So, what are the challenges? Invariably, an object worth a great deal of money will have a lot of security protecting it. Figure out what that security is, who the item belongs to, what sort of retribution do the thieves face beyond what they might expect. Lasers, pressure plates, cameras, security, other career criminals, mob bosses, the rich and powerful, whatever.

After that: How do you get it? Then you’ve got to plan the con, while taking everything into account.

Then, We prep the Con. There will be steps to take before the con can be put into place, your characters taking their positions in plain sight. Stealing whatever pieces you need to make it work. Casing the joint. Etc.

Then: Run the Con. This is the part with the actual stealing. Better known as the first attempt. Things go well, there may be a few mistakes, but things are going well and then we…

Encounter Resistance. While running the con, something goes wrong, pieces fall apart, the thieves come close to success but the object gets moved and they suddenly need a new plan. New information may pop up, it may be one of your artists was running a con of their own separate from the rest.
If there’s a double cross in the works then this may be when and where it lands.

We’re ready now, so it’s time hit up: Steal the Thing, Round Two. Your characters put their new plan into play and get about thieving the object of their desire.

Lastly: The Get Away. This is the part where your thieves make for the hills with their stolen treasure. This can be short or long depending on the kind of story you’re telling and other double crosses may occur here. It could be the end of the story or the beginning of a new heist.

Heist stories are like mystery novels. They’re all about sleight of hand and misdirection. You’ve got to keep just enough information on the table to keep your audience on the hook, and just enough information off the table to surprise them later on the twist. Yet, when they go back to re-read the novel again, they’ll find the answer was there all along. They just didn’t see it coming.

If anything, learning how to write a well-done heist or a mystery or any kind of novel in this genre will teach you a lot about how to manage your foreshadowing and create superb plot twists. Like any good con, you need to lay out all the conflicting pieces where people can see them, let them draw their own conclusions, withhold the critical context, and then hit them with the whammy.

Like lots of audiences, new writers (and even some old ones) can get distracted by the shock and awe. They see they’re impressed by the conclusion, not the lay-up. If you want to write any kind of fiction, you need to learn to see past the curtain and pay attention to the critical pieces leading into an important moment rather than the moment itself.

Good writing isn’t modular, you can’t just strip out pieces and run with them because you’ll end up missing the crucial, sometimes innocuous pieces that ensured the scene worked. Like the Victorian Hand Touch, every moment between the two leads and most of their scenes with secondary players are working for that singular instance of eventual, gleeful catharsis.

If you’ve got a plot twist coming in your novel, every sentence from the second you start writing is working towards it. You start laying out your pieces, funneling in your tricks, and playing with misdirection. You may have multiple twists, to cover yourself, divert your audience, congratulate them for successfully guessing your ploy, and reassure their initial suspicions before catching them again on the upswing.

The clever writer is as much a con artist as their characters. The only difference is the target of their con is their audience. The tricks in their bag are narrative ones, and they work with the understanding that it doesn’t matter if someone guesses the end so long as they’re entertained by the journey. A great story stays entertaining long after the audience has figured out all the twists.

So, don’t get caught up in Red Herrings and frightened about not being able to outsmart other people. Tell a good story with conviction and heart about a bunch of crooks out to steal their heart’s desire.

That’s all there is to it.

-Michi

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When I was 11 and training in martial arts (internationally​ competitive and consistently​ placed in every competition) I had to spar against an adult in clads for practice and did break their ribs with a well placed kick and because they’d forgotten their chest padding. So, just speaking from personal experience that a child could break an adults ribs, but I was a very highly trained kid who’d been in karate for several years at that point.

Well, that was the point of my response. The character in question had no training. You know as well as I do what someone with no martial arts training throwing a kick looks like. What chances would you give them in a managing to successfully perform the technique in a fight for their life? The odds are not in their favor.

Just from my experience teaching martial arts, the number of kids who could what you did at age eleven in a sparring match is tiny. Possibly by dumb luck. If you competed internationally then you were obviously in the top tier, and that puts you in a league far beyond what most kids are capable of. Most adults too, for that matter.

Consider though, the amount of time per day you spent training for your
competitions in comparison to your classmates including those in
whatever school you went to. In all the karate students in all the world, you were probably in the top percentile of a select group that ever makes it that far. I can list on one hand the number of martial artists I’ve known who went to international competitions. That’ll really skew your perspective.

And, of course, the chances of sparring injuries increase substantially when we forget our pads.

While we’re on the subject of injuries:

My brother almost lost his leg, for example, when he decided to throw a roundhouse kick at Starke when they first met. My brother was eighteen (and a fourth degree black belt, who should know better) and Starke had police self-defense training from a cop in Wyoming when he was a kid. The cop was a little on the crazier side and taught small children the standard joint breaks they were teaching at the time to regular officers. One of them was the defense against the roundhouse kick, which includes a knee break. My brother came very close to walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Instead, he went on to become a boxing national champion in the welterweight division.

Those of you who’ve heard about my brother before might remember the time he almost lost an eye when our instructors were dumb enough to let two young black belts spar with UFC fiberglass gloves and perform head blows. To this day, he is (just a little) walleyed.

Then, of course, there’s the story I got off Starke from one of his karate friends in college. The two brown belts that the black belts let spar without restrictions and each of them ended up with a broken leg.

Not everyone highly trained is smart or responsible. Sometimes, they’re really, really dumb. Or not paying attention. Or criminally negligible.

Let this be a lesson to every writer out there who wants to write a “No Pads” sparring session with beginners or… just in general. There’s a really good chance that if no one’s paying attention someone will be leaving with broken bones even if the match started with the best of intentions.

This also isn’t counting what happens when the kids decide to spar and no one with sense is there to stop it. That happens too.

And then there’s the part that’ll horrify some of the readers out there, which is martial artists swap these kinds of stories around with each other and laugh about it after the fact. The explanation for this behavior is injuries get normalized when you’re in a culture where the chance for experiencing them is high. This happens with soldiers and cops too, in regards to their own. Then martial artists, soldiers, and cops will swap these stories with each other, because its one of the parts of all three cultures which cross over. It’s like the stories you tell about family vacations, and stupid things your friends did, except its about breaking ribs, dislocating joints and the time you watched someone’s leg turn into a screw. Panic in the moment, but funny later.

If you’re outside that culture, the casual disregard will sometimes sound absolutely bonkers. That casual attitude, however, is a nice tell for someone who’s been in the business awhile. The chance being injured or seeing an injury happen on a training mat or walking the beat is something you’ve adjusted too. Not that you want it to, but you’ve seen it. Plus, you’re getting little minor injuries all the time which helps when it comes to handling them.

Figuring out how to present various normalized mental states for characters of different backgrounds is hard because we’re so used to thinking about our state of normal. The problem is everyone’s version of “Normal” is different.

-Michi

hey there! thanks for answering all our questions on this blog + how possible would it for someone to crack ribs with a solid kick? there’s a character i have in mind that’s escaping captivity, but they’re also young, so i’m not quite sure how easily they’d be able to hurt the (adult) antagonist in such a manner, especially lacking any fighting experience to begin with?

Well, you can break someone’s ribs with a kick. That’s the entire purpose of the roundhouse, especially the version where you strike with the ball of the foot rather than the top of the foot. (And… aren’t like me when I was seven or eight, when I was new to sparring and totally stubbed my toe in another kid’s side at a tournament after my brain/body got confused between the two. I didn’t break my toe, but I could’ve.)

That story above is important, by the way. If you’ve got a character who doesn’t know how to fight then they’re not even going to get that far. If you don’t know how to kick then that’s a great way to get your leg caught by someone who knows what they’re doing. They catch the foot by the ankle, and then drag you wherever they want. That’s assuming the character can get their leg up and out without falling over. Even if they do manage that, say because they’ve watched a lot of martial arts flicks, they won’t know how to generate power and will be very slow. A, B, and C occur anyway. Your protagonist is going to end up back wherever they were being kept, this time in a much less comfortable position.

Even for an experienced martial artist, kicks require fairly constant bodily upkeep in order to be able to do them cold (much less perform them at all). That’s not a combat scenario, that’s just in general. You’ve got a great chance of pulling all the leg muscles you need to get away, including ones you didn’t realize you had and that’s if you don’t break your toes. Board breaks with the roundhouse kick are the most terrifying of them all because you’ve got to remember to curl your toes just right in order to carry your foot through the board.

Kicks are off the table.

More importantly, this is an exact rendition of the “Feel Good Violence” trope: My Instincts Performed A Wheel Kick.

The protagonist is suddenly and randomly enough good at fighting to not only fight, but win when making their first attempt at a violent altercation. They use techniques which require a fairly high level of dedication and aptitude out of “natural ability” and “instinct”.

Unless you’ve got an ironclad reason for invoking the trope (past lives/ immortality/memory loss/the matrix) it will undercut your narrative credibility in ways the story cannot recover from.

When you’ve cracked your foundation, you’re done.

“The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible,” – Mark Twain

Narrative integrity is based on the rules or limitations we’ve set for ourselves, those limitations are the ironclad rules by which the narrative functions. They exist on two levels: in behavior and actions of characters within the world, and on a secondary level the setting’s behavior around them. Everything in your story must be working to uphold the fiction. When it doesn’t the audience’s “suspension of disbelief” starts to crack. You are beholden to the rules and limitations set down by your setting. Without them, you have no story.

When you’re setting out to create a character, there are four questions you should ask yourself:

1) What can the character do?

2) What can’t the character do?

3) What is the character willing to do but can’t?

4) What can the character do, but is unwilling to?

Within these four circles you have your character, their ethics/morals, and their limitations. That is the box you’ve created for yourself. It is important to own it and abide by it. When dealing with a protagonist, those limitations are not just the foundations of a character but the entire narrative.

Your character cannot fight your antagonist in a one on one and come away with any victory because you have established they don’t know how to. That
is a limitation you set for yourself. That the audience knows and
understands, so they will expect this character to act in accordance
with it. They may want to walk up to the antagonist and kick them in the ribs so hard those ribs break, but they can’t. That desire could be a driving force behind them learning to fight later. As of now, though, their powerlessness in active violent conflict serves to reinforce the antagonist’s position. Reinforcing the antagonist’s position is for the narrative good.

They should be making choices based on the Venn diagram’s center: when what they can do meets what they are willing to do.

If what they can’t do conflicts with what they’re willing to do and they go with it anyway then the result is a failed escape attempt. A captive’s survival is based on their value. If they’re valuable enough for the antagonist to go through the trouble of capturing them in the first place, then they’re probably not going to be killed. At least, not until their value runs through. They lose and wind up back in captivity under more scrutiny, more security, and with fewer exit options. This reminds us why they were captured in the first place, and reinforces our villain’s position.

A protagonist can fail and retain their legitimacy many more times than an antagonist can. While this is a perfectly legitimate narrative outcome, I don’t think its the one you’re looking for.

This is the second issue with your question:

A narrative’s antagonist is its backbone.

Your antagonist is one of the most important pieces of your story, if not the most. They are the lingering threat, the shadow hovering over the story, and the knife at your protagonist’s throat. They are seventy percent threat, and the last thirty relies on their ability to make good on it.

One of the biggest mistakes an author can make is assuming their antagonist’s position in their narrative and the threat they provide are impervious to harm.

Unlike your protagonist, your antagonist is always in a precarious position. They must constantly re-affirm themselves and the threat they represent through their actions. That threat is all consuming and when challenged, it must either be defeated or confirmed.

If defeated, then the threat is gone.

If confirmed, then the threat level is heightened because now we imagine what they might do next.

An antagonist can re-affirm themselves after a defeat, but they’ve got to double down on their effort and create a new threat rather than relying on their old one. You as the author must work harder to make up for what you lost, and even then you’ll never have the initial fear ever again.

The first rule of the antagonist is: your capital is limited, so spend it wisely.

When you undercut an antagonist in favor of the protagonist before its necessary, you damage the antagonist’s credibility and, subsequently, their position in the story. When you lose your antagonist, you lose most of your narrative tension.

A character who doesn’t know how to do something is applying a limitation to the character. You are applying a restriction to what they can and can’t do. If you’re character doesn’t know how to fight, then fighting will be off the table. More importantly, having your character succeed at a skill set they have no experience in doesn’t make them “awesome” or “cool”, it means instead that the other characters who put time and effort into honing these skills suck.

When those characters are your antagonists… that hurts.

If you’ve got a protagonist with no hacking experience who manages to overcome a supposedly great hacker on their first or second go round with no time spent learning how to hack, then who looks bad? The second hacker. They’re the ones who are supposed to be good at hacking. If the narrative hinges on them being a major antagonist, then the author just shot their narrative in the foot.

Combat skills are the same way. They’re a skill set, not an instinct. They don’t come naturally, and take a great deal of time and effort to hone.

If your goal is to show your dangerous antagonist is a bumbling moron when an untrained teenager gets a lucky shot so miraculous they manage to lay them up for the rest of the story, then that’s a job well done.

If your goal is for the antagonist to maintain their credibility within the narrative? Don’t use them for a punching bag.

Violent confrontation is based just as much on threat of force as it is on the follow through. The threat is usually more frightening than what follows, and your protagonist is already challenging the fear by trying to escape. From a narrative perspective, if they get over their fear enough to challenge their antagonist directly then it’s game over. You spent your all capital either at the beginning or midway through the story, and you’re not getting it back.

Remember, your antagonist has to do just as much work to earn their street cred as your protagonist. Their position is a delicate balance of power management and threat of force. They rely on show over tell. They need to live up to whatever it is you’ve been saying about them. They need to be as dangerous as they’ve been puffed up to be, unless their reputation itself is the real antagonist. Never forget, your antagonist (whoever they are/whatever it is) is the backbone of your story. They are often the driving force of action, the reason why the protagonist is struggling, and the focal point. In some ways, they are more important than your protagonist because without them the protagonist’s got a whole lot of nothing.

When you undercut your antagonist, you also hurt your protagonist’s development. You cheat them of their chance for growth, and deny them their ability to show off whatever it is that they’re actually good at i.e. using their bravery, intelligence, and cleverness to sneak out.

If your protagonist beats down their Goliath at the beginning of (or even the middle) of the story then there’s no reason for them to go to the mountain master and learn to throw rocks.

-Michi

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Hi there! I love your blog! I’ve seen you mention a few TV shows and movies for research, and I was wondering what your opinion is on the show Leverage and it’s accuracy for social engineering in potentially violent situations. I remember one character saying that “Thieves look for entrances, but grifters create them.” They’ll often use approaches like this to avoid violence.

If the question is: can you use social engineering in order to defuse or avoid violent situations? The answer is yes.

Grifters are conmen, and like spies, they don’t want to fight unless it is absolutely necessary. Whether they can fight or know how isn’t really the point: combat makes messes, big messes, and draws the kind of attention they don’t want/can’t afford.

As for the line, “thieves look for entrances, but grifters create them” the point of it is that grifters focus on people as the exploitative aspect to get what they want. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your security system is if your infiltrator is expected to be there. When someone opens the door for them, they didn’t have to break in.

It is worth pointing out though, being able to stop, defuse, avoid, or redirect violence via social engineering (especially when the character is the target) is very difficult and requires someone who excels at rapidly changing their story/manipulating under life or death pressure while also maintaining their consistency/re-establishing their innocence/regaining their target’s trust.

That’s masterclass social engineering. The average person, even the average grifter can’t do it. When we see Nate Ford, Sophie Devereaux, or Michael Westen on Burn Notice socially engineer their way out of potentially explosive and violent scenarios, we’re supposed to understand this level of manipulation is very difficult. You need a solid ability to read people, predict their behavior patterns, understand how to shift your role so you suddenly seem trustworthy, confuse them, and then redirect their anger somewhere away from you.

You can see another variant of this kind of social engineering on display in The Negotiator. Samuel L. Jackson’s character is a hostage negotiator. Deliberately maneuvering a man who’s taken a child captive around his apartment so he can be taken out. You can see him joking with the target, gaining his trust, distracting him, and guiding him off topic until he’s in a position to be neutralized.

The Grifter is not a fighter, they are a talker and their trick is getting people to move however they want. A skilled grifter can slip in, turn the best of friends against each other, and walk away without a care. Grifters don’t punch. They trick other people into doing the punching for them. When sitting down to write a Grifter, remember: their first instinct is getting others to act in their place, to create the openings they need, and be their fall guy.

On the whole, I’ve liked Leverage ever since the episode where Eliot pointed out that guns are ranged weapons, and the most common mistake people make is giving up the distance advantage by getting in too close. However, I’ve only watched the first season. I liked what I saw, it’s an enjoyable caper show in a similar vein to The Equalizer, Person of Interest, or Ocean’s Eleven. Not quite in there with the original Law & Order when it comes to accuracy (in this case for cops) but certainly better than White Collar, which uses similar techniques (though never, ever pay attention to White Collar’s usage of the FBI… ever). The X-Files, meanwhile, fudges a bit but it’s pretty good when you’re wanting to get a grasp of the FBI’s culture and what happens to someone who doesn’t come from a military/law enforcement background.

Of course, the patient zero for these types of shows is the original Mission: Impossible. The television show, not the Tom Cruise movies. Mission: Impossible is all about flipping people and manipulating them into positions to do what you want. The A-Team is its slightly more pulpy counterpart, but its a similar (though far less subtle) deal.

On the whole, Leverage tends to explain itself better, which is helpful when you’re trying to learn or take techniques from a television show rather than just absorb.

The reason why I often suggest Burn Notice and Spy Game is not necessarily just because they’re good, but also because they teach. The narrator on Burn Notice, especially in the first season will offer up a lot of helpful/beginner tradecraft for a variety of situations. This, ultimately, will help you more for taking pieces and creating your own characters than a show that’s trying for smoke and mirrors like White Collar. The same situation is there with Spy Game, where Robert Redford’s character is teaching Brad Pitt’s on how to be a spy. Ultimately, more helpful in the long run than just watching The Recruit. The Michael Mann films like Heat and Collateral are exceptionally good for learning tradecraft, but you have to know that’s what you’re watching/looking for. You’ll learn more by watching them together, rather than separately. The Borne Identity novels are also very good at showing the tradecraft, while the Le Carre ones tend to be a little more hit and miss.

When you’re new, you want sources that are free with their information. Who are good at getting you to think, to take what you’re seeing and apply it to new settings. You may not ever figure out how to build a car bomb, but learning about how the thought process of a spy, criminal, or conman works will serve you better for your writing than a hundred other movies that only show.

After you’ve drawn back the curtain then you can turn to those other shows, novels, and narratives with new eyes. Once you see what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why when they don’t explain you’ll get more out of those other sources than you did before.

When you’re watching a well put together show like Leverage, start questioning character motivations. Not just whether the social engineering there works, but why the characters are choosing to go that route or which routes they prefer. Leverage gives you five characters with different specialties, four thieves and the guy who made a career catching them. They all think in different ways and have different approaches when it comes to problem solving. Leverage offers up a heist per episode, so you have lots of opportunities to see the characters in action. Evaluate their problem solving methods and you’ll come away with more than just questioning whether or not it works.

How and Why.

Then, go find a good video on YouTube where a professional magician explains pickpocketing. It’s the art of misdirection.

Once you understand basic theoretical underpinnings (whether or not you could ever actually pull the real thing off) then you can apply it to many different situations in a fictional context.

When it comes back to applying this to the combat arts, learning to see the big picture is the first major difference between trained and untrained. The untrained only copy surface level, singular techniques, while trained delves deeper to understand how these techniques work together.

My advice for when you’re wanting to pick and choose television shows for accuracy is to check who their consultants are/were, and what experts in the show’s chosen field say about it. That doesn’t always guarantee accuracy, but it will help you flip through the rave reviews.

If you want to watch more fun shows with Timothy Hutton or just like detective shows, I recommend Nero Wolfe.

-Michi

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Could you list all of the tropes that you consider “feel good violence”?

Okay, “Feel Good Violence” is very simple as a concept. It’s violence that feels good, when you’re reading it, when you’re watching it on screen, because for the perpetrator violence can feel really damn good. However, that is violence when taken outside of context. It is violence without consequences. It is violence for the sake of violence. Violence that serves no purpose but to prove the character or person is tough.

Protagonist Sanctioned Bullying – Bullying in general is a fairly popular method to achieve “Feel Good
Violence” because bullying does feel good. The audience sympathizes with
the protagonist, so when the protagonist acts they cheer for it. Its
not presented as bullying by the narrative, but it is still bullying.

Usually it’s a rival or a character set up to “deserve it”, but sometimes not.

Making people afraid makes you feel tough. Many authors will fall prey to the sweet lure of bullying and not even know it because bullying is violence without fear of consequence. Most often, they’ve been the recipients rather than the perpetrators, and acting as the bully is a very different ballgame. It is an emotional and psychological high. You feel big, strong, safe, and untouchable. Powerful.
In their worst incarnations, most superheroes become bullies.

Bullying is all about control, protected status, and freedom from consequences. An entirely fictional world creates the opportunity for all these things, with the narrative itself siding with the bully. Bullying is Feel Good Violence writ large in real life. It’ll follow you into the fictional world just as easily. Power is a high you never forget.

This is very common trope for characters who also act as a means of self-insertion by the author. For them, it isn’t bullying. It’s an example of how awesome their character is and how tough they are.

Everything But Dead

– When the only morals applied are if someone died, the rest is sanctioned without comment. There are no narrative consequences for the character’s behavior, and everyone cheers them on. Anyone who calls them out is an acceptable target, usually evil, or the protagonist wins them over in the end because their actions are “justified”.

By Any Means Stupid – This is the “by any means necessary“ trope, where the violence really isn’t necessary and the author just wanted an excuse to paint the room red.

Unprovoked Violence Is Always the Solution – This is the one where the protagonist skips all the other steps and goes straight to preemptive violence against a total stranger, for no reason other than it makes them appear tough. Usually not framed by the narrative as bad, but it is. Oh, yes, it is. Worse there usually aren’t any consequences for the hero physically assaulting someone in a room full of witnesses because everyone knows they’re the hero, right?

Random Violence Before Strangers is A-Okay –  The
protagonist disembowels a bully in front of their victim in order to
protect them and receives effusive thank yous. Nothing comes from this.
The bad guy is dead. We all feel good. All is right in the world.
Except… violence freaks people out.

Acceptable Targets – These are people designated by the writer as non-entities and targets for violence regardless of narrative context. A very slippery slope that is ever descending. But, you know, it feels good? Sure, so long as you’re not on the receiving end. This kind of dehumanization happens in real life too, just in case you were wondering.

Beating Up My Source – You have a character who collects information from an old standby, they threaten and beat up that standby regularly to show they’re tough. At what point does this seem like a terrible idea? Never! Hey, they’re a bad person so you feel good, right?

Waving My Gun Around – Trigger discipline is just the beginning of this problem.

A gun is not a toy. but you’ll find a vast array of narratives who use it that way in order to look tough.

Killing Your Way to the Top – You can’t really destroy organizations like this. Killing the people at the top will just lead to someone else taking their place. Whenever you create a power vacuum someone will fill it. You can’t destroy an organization by killing. It doesn’t work. But, it feels good!

Must Obviously Be Boy – Because female fighters are unicorns and the mooks have never laid eyes on a woman before. Usually part of a larger narrative issue with violence, but acts as a “get out of jail free” card.

Clear the Building – That time the character decided to knock everyone out to prove that they are tough. Weirder when it happens on stealth missions.

I Am Not Gaining Levels – When you’re reading a book and the character is fighting like it’s a video game. They fight everyone like they’re in an RPG chasing XP. Why? We don’t know, but it makes them feel good.

Let Me Shoot Him Twenty Times – We could call this spray and pray, but let’s pretend for a moment the magazine could run dry.

Magic Bullets – The bullets that go where you want, stop when you want, and don’t cause accidental casualties. You know, like the protagonist blind firing through a wall and hitting a four year old playing in the yard across the street.

Body Armor Always Prevents A Blow-through – Nope!

New to Training, Perfect Sparring – That time the main character took on their evil rival (school’s top/better trained student) in a sparring match and won, especially when it was their first day.

Sparring Just In General – The vast majority of Western media doesn’t understand the concept or purpose of sparring. Many authors seem to think its a UFC match where you just beat each other up and the first thing you do during training to “assess your capabilities”.

Queuing for Combat – This is an old Hollywood trick where the burden of a group fight is lifted as the stuntmen wait their turn to fight the protagonist. Particularly egregious in written action sequences where the author doesn’t grasp the concept of teamwork. It also warps the understanding of how many people its possible for a human to fight at once.

Terrible At Torture – Torture is a terrible way to gain information in general because it doesn’t lead to a confession so much as confirmation bias. The subject will tell you whatever you want to hear because they want the pain to stop. It’s even worse when done poorly, which it is 90% of the time. Usually, media uses it for shock value or to prove how tough a protagonist is. Torture is not putting a blowtorch to someone’s foot and hoping for the best. It’s far, far more complicated than that. Neither torturer nor subject come out of the experience whole. Besides, the unimaginative protagonists say, “screw you!” The clever ones lie.

What Is: Dress for Success – How we dress our characters is often necessary for crafting a sense of narrative realism. This comes in often as a reason for why its so difficult to take female action heroes seriously, but it happens to the guys too. Not a bad trope on its own, but often symptomatic of a larger narrative approach to violence that ends with “feel” and “good”.

Beautiful and Badass – This one is a very specific female fantasy, which is that you can meet all the cultural standards and definitions for beauty while being in direct defiance of them. These are the female characters who are never touched by the combat they engage in. They are always graceful, always elegant, always beautiful in motion and the narrative will pause to tell us this often. “She fights like she’s dancing.” For these characters, their supermodel-esque beauty is a natural extension of their being. They don’t work at it. Combat is incidental. It’s a set piece to tell you how awesome the character is. It generally amounts to nothing, serves no real narrative purpose, but by god the author is going to walk us through it in excruciating detail. Combat and character are separate, and consequences are for other people.

My Instincts Performed A Wheel Kick – Your instincts just don’t work that way.

There’s probably more, but that hits most of the major sins.

Keep in mind that many of these tropes are not issues by themselves. They often work when context and consequences are taken into account by their narrative/setting. Generally, this results in characters with no accountability for their behavior and exhibit no responsibility for their actions. The issue, of course, is that responsibility and accountability are what make well-written violence work. Violence often drives the narrative. It’s part and parcel to who the character is, and their decision making. It’s the difference between a character who presents themselves as tough or skilled and one who actually is.

-Michi

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