Q&A: Looking for A Man to Die for All the Wrong Reasons

kradeiz said to howtofightwrite: I just read your ‘Emotions are not a Weakness’ post and found it very illuminating, especially its analysis of ATLA’s themes of enlightenment and martial arts. I was curious, at one point you say, “Aang defeating the Firelord through violence at the end of ATLA is actually a failure by the narrative to understand its own genre inherited themes.” Going off the themes the series was trying to convey, what might’ve been a more appropriate way for Aang to stop the Firelord?

By living up to the Airbender’s ideals and philosophies of pacifism, using that genuine optimism and hope for change to break the cycle of destruction. Remember, Aang is supposed to be the setting’s version of the Dalai Lama and Baguazhang is a martial art dedicated to introspection, peace, and seeking enlightenment through harmony between body and spirit.

Think of Luke Skywalker throwing aside his lightsaber at the end of Return of the Jedi, facing the Emperor and saying, “I’m not going to fight you.”

As the Dalai Lama says, “The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred.”

Mastery in the martial arts is not the mastery of techniques, but mastery of the self. You reach a point where you can no longer just focus on the techniques themselves, but their use and their purpose in the world. You must consider yourself, who you become when you use them, and the affect they have on others. In the real world, you will eventually be forced to face the consequences of your own actions. Not just your suffering, but the pain you inflict on others both intended and unintended. Martial training gives you real power and control over your environment, and, in the face of grief and suffering, will ultimately teach you how powerless you really are.

Upfront, violence often seems like a great solution to your problems. However, you quickly learn its only good for short term solutions and causes more problems than it solves through unintended consequences. You can go to war for the right reasons, but war creates an endless cycle of more war. Pain and suffering, anger, fear, and hatred breed more in others, including the desire to inflict their own suffering back on you. In the small globe, this is how children who are abused grow up to become abusers. We put this thirst for vengeance, control, and power on the large scale by many people who have experienced the same thing, who want the same thing, and who go out to get it. “I need to make them hurt like I’ve been hurt.”

You can win battles, but not forever. You can win the war, but not forever. You have until the next generation grows up or your enemy rebuilds their forces, and then the cycle begins again.

The discussion of how you should behave when you have this power has birthed thousands of philosophies in both the East and the West dedicated to responsible use of force. This discussion is the central focus of many martial arts adventure narratives because our response to the journey, what we learn through our successes and failures is the crux of truly attaining wisdom.

One of the most common themes of the martial arts adventure is the great warrior becoming the great sage. Through the adversity he faces and the suffering he witnesses (and causes), the warrior comes to the realization that violence no matter one’s intention merely contributes to more violence and that the means of achieving lasting change comes from changing hearts.

“I cannot control who others choose to be, only myself.”

Aang as the Avatar with his mystical spiritual powers should have a means of reaching Ozai and give him the opportunity to change where no one else can. He could find the Fire Lord, together with Zuko and Iroh, and bring him to face with the harm he’s caused. The harm he’s spent his life insulated from. Aang never seeks to understand the human in the evil, what drove Ozai to murder his father, steal his brother’s birthright, drive away his wife, to abuse his children. Aang never sees himself in Ozai, sees in him the dark mirror of what he could become and what he has personally done which echoes the Fire Lord’s own behavior.

There are shades of Ozai in Aang because there are shades of Ozai in all of us. Who we are is not determined by what we are, nor by the place in society to which we are born, but in who we’ve chosen to be.

The Dalai Lama says, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”

Pacifism takes real strength because kindness and compassion are easy to pay lip service to, but difficult in practice. Not harming those who’ve hurt you, seeking to understand them even as you hold them accountable is difficult. To not say, “it’s okay for me, but not you” and instead say, “it’s not okay, period” is hard. Approaching the world openly and honestly, seeking to see clearly even in the face of disappointment, pain, and prejudice is difficult.

We see Aang pay lip service to the ideals, but when push comes to shove he abandons them in favor of lashing out at the world around him. An example is the Sand Benders after stealing his flying bison Appa, Aang loses his head and attacks them. He drives away the people who hurt him, first destroying their sand barges (their means of surviving in the desert) and then enters the Avatar State to punish them some more all at the cost of finding Appa more quickly. Lashing out in violence to punish someone for hurting you feels good, but ultimately the one who truly suffers for Aang’s choice is Appa himself.

(The realization of the consequences of his actions in this case is not a plot point in Avatar leading to self-reflection and eventual change, but an excuse to force the Gaang to travel on foot.)

One of the core problems of Avatar: The Last Airbender is that neither the narrative nor Aang ask what it means to be the Avatar, it never asks what being the Avatar means to Aang, never seeks to ask if Aang or the Avatar are truly necessary for the health of the world, and really doesn’t want to ask if Aang as the Avatar is necessary at all. It states that he is, but never wrestles with why.

Why is killing the Fire Lord wrong? If you’re answer is because killing is wrong, again, ask yourself why. Why is killing wrong? If you’re answer is… it just is, you need to think on it some more.

There’s a bigger question though at the heart of this question, which is, “what are you willing to die for?”

Delenn: If I fall, another will take my place, and another, and another.

Sebastian: But your great cause!

Delenn: This is my cause–Life! One life or a billion, it’s all the same!

Sebastian: Then you make the sacrifice willingly? No fame. No armies or banners or cities to celebrate your name. You will die alone and unremarked and forgotten.

Delenn: This body is only a shell. You cannot touch me, you cannot harm me. I’m not afraid.

[after Delenn offers to sacrifice herself for Sheridan, who’s being tortured by Sebastian]

Sebastian: You can go. You’ve passed, both of you.

Delenn: Passed what?

Sebastian: How do you know the Chosen Ones? “No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother.” Not for millions… not for glory… not for fame. For one person, in the dark, where no one will ever know or see. I have been in the service of the Vorlons for centuries, looking for you. Diogenes with his lamp, looking for an honest man willing to die for all the wrong reasons. At last, my job is finished. Yours is just beginning. When the darkness comes, know this: You are the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

-Babylon 5, “Comes the Inquisitor”

The great leader is not one who wins by strength of arms, but from their ability to inspire change in others. When the hero falls, a hundred will stand up where he or she fell to face the darkness in their place. To carry on their values into a new generation. The hero’s legacy will outlast them.

The Avatar shouldn’t be necessary for policing peace in the world because the world should be able to police itself by following their example. If the Avatar is necessary as a club to enforce good behavior from the surrounding countries and the countries aren’t really able to band together in order to defend their people after he disappears, then the system wasn’t sustainable to begin with.

If Aang cannot defeat, make peace with, face, or even acknowledge his own darkness, how can he help someone else defeat the darkness within themselves? How can he inspire someone to face theirs?

Telling someone what is right and expecting them to change because you said so doesn’t work, the only people who will listen are the ones who already agree with your perspective. Being sympathetic to their plight, showing them compassion when they don’t expect it, understanding the source of their struggle, and recognizing the pain lying behind bad behavior does work when it comes to changing hearts. Empathy works.

Naruto is a hilarious counterpoint to Aang. Naruto is a character who was rejected by his society not for who he was, but for what he carried inside him. He was written off as dangerous, neglected by the village, and he knew they hated him even if he didn’t know why (because everyone was forbidden to tell him.) He grew up alone, and lonely. His vandalism, class clowning, destructive acting out is brought up by the Third Hokage in the first episode as coming from his desire to have his existence acknowledged by someone… by anyone. Even if the attention is negative, it’s positive for him. Something is better than nothing. Naruto’s dream, which everyone derides, is to become Hokage himself so the whole village will have to acknowledge him. This is standard behavior for neglected children, including smiling to pretend you don’t care, things don’t hurt you, even when they do.

What makes Naruto different from so many other characters like him is that his ability to connect with others and change them with the power of friendship is rooted in his own suffering, his experience of being rejected by those around him. His sympathy and empathy for those who share his plight, his attempt to communicate his feelings to them even in battle, all tie in with his growing understanding of the Hokage’s responsibilities. He doesn’t lose his optimism, doesn’t lose himself to hatred even though he’s hated. It would be easy for him to hate, but he chooses not to. He tries to understand his enemies instead, winning them over with genuine kindness, how hard he tries, and how he tells them not to give them up. “Look at what you still have,” Naruto says, “not at what you’ve lost.”

I’d rather have Naruto around than Aang, because Naruto is the obnoxious loudmouthed friend who headbutts you when you’re getting down on yourself. The one who sticks with you through thick and thin, and stays without judgement even when you’re the ugliest version of yourself. The one who hops down into the dark hole with you, the one who says, “I’ve been down here before. Come on, I’ll show you the way out.”

Aang is not this character, he tries to be but he’s too selfish and thin skinned. Aang is the character who gives you a sanctimonious speech after pretending to commiserate. He’s not willing to face the idea of being a bad person, or being perceived as a bad person. He’s hurt by rejection if the other person doesn’t immediately change after he tries. He’s not willing to empathize, even though he shares parts of Naruto’s backstory. He’s lost everything, but he wields his loss as an emotional crutch. We should feel bad for him, for the weight of his responsibilities, and how he doesn’t get to have what he wants. Aang is afraid of losing more, and that fear brings out the worst version of himself more often than not. He wouldn’t be the Avatar if someone wasn’t dragging him into being the Avatar. He ran away from being the Avatar, after all. He can’t reach people lost in their own darkness, and when he tries its usually because he has a genuine interest in them for a specific reason.

Avatar’s narrative says some people can be helped but they’re exceptions, some people can change but they’re exceptions and they would have anyway because they were actually good to begin with. Monsters, though, can’t be helped, can’t be reached, can’t change. Avatar’s narrative will tell you to abandon the people who bought into their society’s values, that they have to save themselves in isolation. Avatar will tell you there are good people and bad people, and bad people deserve what happens to them.

And… that’s not quite living up to the philosophy the narrative insists it espouses.


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Q&A: Facepaint

Any thoughts on using war paint in your novels? Aside from culture, does it serve a purpose, like disguise or intimidation?

Apparently the origin of eyeliner among the Egyptians was to reduce sun glare on the sand. From what I remember, cheek stripes have a similar function, though I can’t remember the details.

Of course, grease paint can function as camouflage.

It can also be used for the reasons you suggested. Painting your face to resemble something unnerving (like a skull) could shake enemies who saw your face, giving the wearer an advantage. This isn’t strictly about intimidation, but to “fake out” enemies into believing the fighter is supernatural in nature, and giving them the impression they can’t win. This may sound juvenile, but the belief that an enemy cannot be defeated is incredibly effective.

The simpler and easier to recognize the image is, the more effective it will be, so the skull suggestion wasn’t random. Some kind of demon might be another option. Stuff more complicated than that would (probably) not have the desired effect. (This can also occur with masks. So a fighter might wear a skull bandana under their helmet to similar effect.

You can use makeup to effectively disguise yourself in a number of different ways (regardless of gender.) It’s technically distinct from war paint, but the possibility is there.

If you’re trying to impersonate another faction that had distinctive face markings, then, yes, war paint could probably replicate that.

So, yes, face paint in war is a practical consideration, not just an aesthetic or cultural choice.


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Q&A: Emotions Are Not A Weakness

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

Put. The. CW. Down.

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

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

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

At the beginning of your question you asked,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Q&A: Left for Dead and Threats

So there’s the cliche where a character is wounded and left for dead – but what is a plausible escape when enemies are bayoneting all the bodies to be sure? My MC is able to get her revolver point-blank, hair-trigger against a soldier’s foot to get him to back off (it’s late 19th century and he doesn’t want to lose his leg). But I feel like that’s too easy.


There are two different issues.

This is not a cliche about being left for dead. That’s where someone incapacitates another character and doesn’t care enough to check and make sure they got the job done. (Or, if it’s their allies, they don’t go back to see if they survived.)

When it’s an antagonist, it can indicate a callous disregard for the survivor, or it could it could simply mean they have more important things to do and survivors don’t matter to them.

If it’s allies, it could indicate that they don’t care, but it could also be because they didn’t have the opportunity to go back and check. There’s a lot of potential scenarios on this, so I’m hesitant to label the entire thing a cliche because it’s not.

The former ally who comes back as an antagonist because they were left for dead by their friends, especially when those friends had very valid reasons not to go check on them, can a bit cliche, but there’s enough scenarios and potential variety that I’d hesitate to mark the entire thing down as cliche. It’s not.

This may seem obvious, but if you’re sending out soldiers to execute any survivors, that’s not being left for dead, that’s making sure.

I’m saying this because, in fiction, being left for dead is very survivable. (In real life, less so.) If you don’t see a character die there’s a serious chance the author did that because they want to bring them back later. That part is cliche, and bringing back “dead” characters is something you should use very sparingly, but not every writer feels that way.

Second problem is the threat. I’m going to say some fairly obvious things I want you to think about. Bayonets attach to rifles. A rifle is a ranged weapon. Your character is threatening someone who is pointing a gun at them right now, and is clearly willing to kill them because they were just killing other survivors and can still kill them even if they back off as requested. Soldiers do not (as a rule) work alone. (And if one was alone poking around through corpses, they’d be looting, not making sure.) They are part of a larger organization. Much like cockroaches, if you see one soldier, there are many more there.

We’ve talked about this before, but for a threat to work your character has to be able to articulate a coherent harm to the target, and the threat has to persist for the duration of the coerced action. I’m pointing this out, because threatening a character who is better armed than you is a losing proposition.

Your character has a revolver, the soldier has a rifle and friends. This is a very bad situation to be in.

The only way out is to remain undetected until the soldiers wander off, or someone else intervenes.

The revolver is useless as a weapon for getting out of this situation. Shooting your way out isn’t an option, and the gunfire will (almost certainly) draw more soldiers. While your character could probably dispatch one, having more, better armed foes swarming in is a death sentence.

Your character’s only real option is to avoid detection, and play dead. If they’re lucky, the soldiers don’t really care about checking the bodies, and as a result might poke their stack and move on, or that something else, more pressing will come up and the soldiers will be called away. Worst case, it may mean they need to hold their tongue if they are stabbed someplace non-critical.

This scenario is incredibly disempowering for a character in it, because almost anything they do is going to be a death sentence. This isn’t a bad thing: It can create genuine fear for the character’s survival. But, turning that around by threatening a soldier undermines the scene. Your character has just demonstrated there is no real threat, so the entire sequence suffers.

And, of course, as soon as he backs up, he’ll shoot her.

If you want to turn this into an empowering moment, it’s probably by enduring pain. She gets stabbed non-critically and that wound will be with her for awhile, but she needs to remain quiet and resist the impulse to cry out. Then escape with the added pain of the wound, and (eventually) get it treated, before it gets infected and kills her. Injuries like this tend to add all sorts of complications down the line.

As a writer, “extra complications” is a good thing. I’ve said before, your job is not to make life easy for your characters. You benefit when they suffer, because you turn situations that would been trivial into new challenges. If her leg’s been injured she will have a harder time walking out. If her arm is injured, she’ll have a harder time climbing or fighting. These things can take simple (or uninteresting) solutions and make them far harder (or impossible) for the character, which gives you more material to work with.

The alternative option is for someone to rescue her. This could be indirect, an attack elsewhere could draw the soldiers away, a spy or traitor who knows she’s there could call the soldiers off the corpses before they get to her, or an officer could simply order them to do something else on pure coincidence. Realistically, those are the best possible outcome for her. She walks away uninjured. They may not build her character, but they should come as consequences for her prior actions.


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Q&A: The Quarterstaff

Exactly how effective is a Quarterstaff as a weapon? How much body strength would a young adult female require to wield one? And, if it isn’t that effective, do you know of any similar weapons?


Let’s just say there’s a reason the Little John of Robin Hood legend carries a quarterstaff.

The quarterstaff is a godly weapon that is the gateway for an entire family of weapons (in some Chinese schools, all weapons), and your female protagonist is going to need endurance far more than strength to wield it for prolonged periods. The basic strike patterns of the staff can be translated into… almost all weapons. This includes: all polearms, the sword, chain weapons like the whip chain/meteor hammer, the great axe/great sword, techniques like half-handing with swords, the list goes on.

The quarterstaff is: Welcome to Weapons, Beginner’s 101. How to use a weapon with a weapon that will not whip around and kill you.

This isn’t to say the quarterstaff isn’t dangerous compared to the others. It is very dangerous, especially in the right hands. However, it’s also the “safest” weapon to learn on which makes it the weapon you get to fuck up on and make mistakes with while you learn about how much contact vibration sucks. This is the weapon were the difference is bruised and broken fingers versus no fingers. Make no mistake, your fingers are target number one for even the most well-meaning training partner. You will hurt your fingers in staff training. It will be your fault because you failed to hold the staff at the right angle, and your opponent’s staff slid right down and… smack.

This is a necessary lesson, without it you’ll never realize how easy it would be for someone to cut your goddamn hand off. Or, how your own failure in technique helped them do it.

You don’t need to be strong to wield a staff, you need to physically be able to hold onto it for prolonged periods. When you strike something, whether this is your opponent’s body or their staff, the weapon will vibrate. Those shock waves will go through your hands, up your arms, and into your body. The harder you strike, the stronger the rebound. You get this with hand to hand too, but the effect is weaker. You can gain greater momentum with the staff, the weapon moves fast, and hits hard on impact. It’s like hitting a steel bell, over and over and over again. You are taking the force of your own strikes into your body, in addition to your opponent’s, when the two collide. You don’t need physical strength, you need endurance. You need to learn how to drive past resistance, how to keep going when your arms want to fall off, and how to mitigate that force through your technique.

There is no better weapon to learn this on than the staff. The weapon you don’t have to worry about keeping sharp, and which will teach you about how someone can deliver the full force of god into you even when you’ve successfully blocked their technique. Best of all? It’s cheap and easy to replace when you break it.

The concept of body-building levels of physical upper body strength being necessary for martial combat is a misconception pushed by video games, pencil & paper RPGs like DnD, and misunderstanding the incredibly heavy parade swords/display weapons versus the weapons used in combat. You’re going to get exhausted enough in prolonged melee without trying to swing around a weapon that weighs thirty to forty pounds. Power from a staff comes from momentum, generated by leverage, and the fact a combat staff is a very sturdy/solid piece of wood.

So, the short answer is: children can wield staves.

Your character’s staff is going to weigh a couple pounds at most. She’s going to need to worry more about having the space to wield her staff depending on location versus being able to pick it up. The skills learned hold up both for using other polearms like the spear, and can be passed on to other weapons like the sword and chain weapons depending on style. The quarterstaff has an advantage over swords in terms of reach (it’s longer), and the staff is one of the best weapons for fighting off multiple opponents. This is due both to the staff’s length and the fact you can transition between wielding from the front to the back and from the middle. It can be upgraded into a spear, which is the king of anti-cavalry weapons, and warfare in general. Also, the staff is an excellent weapon for self-defense. Did I mention you can kill people with it? You can. You can kill your enemies without putting a metal spike on the end, the metal spike just makes it even easier; with more penetration against armored opponents. The techniques flow from one right into the next, the building blocks in your ascension to a whole new world.

You may be wondering about what I mean when I say blocking hard hits is technique. Any idiot can swing a staff, but a trained warrior strikes well and with no wasted motion. That technical aptitude is the difference between high school bully hard and killing blow hard. This is the difference between a several minute long fight, a twenty-five second fight, one that lasts seven seconds, and a half second. This is the same truth for defense. Just like with a strong attack, a strong defense begins with the position of the feet. People like to think fighting is all about the upper body because the upper body is easy to understand, but you don’t want to be the person who skips leg day. Martial combat is about balance, it’s about using force to destabilize your opponent and creating the necessary openings for attack. Poor defense begins in footwork, with bad stances, and a weak base.

If your stances are bad, you halve your delivered force. If your stances are bad, a mediocre blow will break your defense. You can’t spread the incoming force or keep your balance when you’re hit. You’ll take the whole blow in your arms, rather than supporting your arms with your legs, your chest, and your core. When your defense breaks, the follow-up blow is what gets you. People who stumble after one hit? Bad stance. Too shallow, too deep, feet too close together, feet too far apart. The really skilled martial artists start manipulating the triangle, moving your feet to destabilize your opponent on the strike translates into foundational strategy. When this happens, you can’t transition that force into the earth where it belongs and take the brunt of it instead. Whether you can take the blow is dependent on where your feet are, not on the upper body strength of your opponent.

We’re talking about the importance of legs because, when it comes to weapons, writers often get confused and think the importance lies in the weapon itself rather than the person who wields it. After all, 90% of arm wrestling is getting your opponent’s arm on a vector where they can no longer resist. You think it’s about physical strength, but its really all properly applied pressure and angles. Physics, geometry, the “talent” which gets boosted to mystic levels is usually a person who has a phenomenally good grasp of their own body and being able to quickly apply what they see.

We mystify what we don’t understand. You can one hand a staff, from the back end, which is really how you thrust with it. Your other hand is just for guidance. You can spin a wushu staff around your neck, honestly. (I know someone’s going, “I don’t get how that works.” Don’t worry, that’s not a combat move. The neck spin is just a trick move that comes from playing around with speed, spins, and the weapon’s balance point.) The staff is a weapon that can be devastatingly quick in the right hands. It has incredible mobility, switching from high/low to low/high in a few simple motions. When it really gets going, you can hear it whizzing in the air.

If you want to write good fights with staves, you actually need to study staff work. You need an idea of how they move, and how people use/used them. Medieval staff work is going to be more useful to you if you want the quarterstaff. I recommend starting with someone like Lindybeige and moving on to how to videos on YouTube like Hroarr‘s quarterstaff series (keep in mind this is one school of Renaissance quarterstaff), before jumping straight to Sze-Man Tsang in The Iron Monkey. However, if you need confirmation that a 13 year old girl can wield a weapon much larger than themselves then, yes, watch this clip where she plays Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung. Also, if you’ve never seen the upper echelon of child performance martial artists in action… watch. This girl starred opposite Donnie Yen. She is a wushu champion who grew up to become a police officer. Unfortunately, you’re not going to get a lot of choreographed fight scenes outside of Wuxia, East Asian cinema, martial arts communities, and HEMA aficionados.

The Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce has a lot of focus on staves and staff work, with the glaive being the protagonist’s preferred weapon. However, keep in mind that Pierce draws heavily from Japanese staff forms and the naginata for her scenes rather than western weaponswork. You’re going to want to do your own HEMA research if the European quarterstaff is what you want versus the many other styles worldwide.

There’s a lot of variance with the staff, and a lot more information readily available for research than there was ten to twenty years ago. One of the things you’re going to want to make sure you do is steer away from the idea of one weapon fits all. Weapons are designed for specific uses and situations. Your character is always going to want to carry a backup sidearm, be it a sword or a dagger or something for the times when their staff is not going to help them or their enemy breaks past it. A true warrior is the master of many weapons because they know they must fight under many different circumstances.

If you haven’t had any exposure to staff combat before, you might be be surprised by it. The staff is a weapon that’s all about momentum and leverage, your favorite word from physics. It hits hard, it’s very quick in the right hands, and changes positions faster than you probably imagined. If you crafted an image in your head of a big, hefty, slow weapon then the quarterstaff is not for you. This is an underrated weapon, but still a gold standard for breaking bones, skulls, and, well, everything else.

Your teenager will find this weapon to be the perfect jumping off point not just for her travels, but also for training in other weapons. All weapon combat is about leverage. If you pay attention to the quarterstaff training videos you’ll find the echoes the techniques in longsword combat. Basically, it’s a great choice.

Check out this video from The Modern Rogue, and remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.”


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Q&A: Villain Security Services

I was wondering what kind of guns security guards of a building would carry (not specific models, just the types). From my research it’s small guns. But are there any exceptions? I am writing about sketchy millionaires and their houses/facilities house small armies and small prisons. They have many enemies and they are really paranoid about safety. Could they insist on bringing heavier weaponry in? Would it be possible and convenient? I want to give a realistic approach. Thank you! 🙂

There’s a lot to unpack here, so, let’s take this in no particular order.

I’m not going to harp on this too much, until it’s relevant, but, millionaires don’t really have the funds to do what you’re talking about. This is more in the range of the billionaires. If you’re talking about someone who outright owns buildings in a major metro area, and controls a major corporation, that’s probably someone who’s net worth runs to ten digits.

With that said, small arms (or “small guns,” if you prefer) accounts for most firearms. Basically, if it fires a projectile under an inch (so, .100 caliber), it’s small arms. This includes, handguns, automatic rifles, shotguns, LMGs, DMRs. Basically, anything short of a rocket launcher.

Okay, so profiling this, there’s a wide range of situations here, and even with money, a lot of things that simply aren’t worth the legal scrutiny. So, suddenly you need to start considering the kinds of places you’re talking about, and what’s being done there.

First of all, even if your backing is a billionaire, funding is not unlimited. In the context of how you approach your day-to-day life, sure, but in the larger context of someone running a business, not so much. They may have the money to outfit everyone with top of the line military hardware, but that stuff’s expensive, and if you’re talking about a corrupt corporate exec in a developed nation, outfitting your office security with assault rifles is going to be more of a liability. On the other hand, the head of a drug cartel is going to get a lot more value out of arming their personal bodyguards with serious combat gear.

If your shady exec is operating an office in a major metro area, they’re going to have access to an armed response team from the police. That means, arming their guards with anything more than handguns (with, maybe, some shotguns or semi-auto rifles) in the security stations is a non-start. If something happens that justifies a more armed response, they can call in SWAT. Or, failing that, they may have mercenaries off site (assuming that local law enforcement can’t be trusted.)

This office building scenario also works off the idea that they’re not going to do anything visibly illegal in the middle of the city where anyone could see. Or, if they are, it’s going to be well hidden. That same building could have a high-security bunker dating back to the cold war, which has a very different security profile.

Assuming that the local police are effective, then having armies of mercenaries deployed in urban areas is going to require some kind of external authorization. Now, they might use them very selectively. Deploying a squad here or there to deal with specific problems and then slipping back into hiding once they’ve completed their objectives. In that case, we’re probably assuming the range of military hardware: Assault Rifles, Shotguns, DMRs, possibly even Anti-Materiel Rifles, as the situation warrants.

Somewhat obviously, if your mercenaries start opening fire on crowded city streets, that’s going to draw the attention of the police in short order, and no matter well equipped and trained they are, they’ll be outmaneuvered, outnumbered, trapped, and then either captured or killed. That’s something your millionaire can’t buy his way out of.

Houses are a little different. It’s easier to justify keeping a small security detail on site, and arming them with semi-auto rilfes and shotguns. In some states they could even kill intruders with impunity. But, there’s some things here you might want to consider that open their options up a lot.

If the house is a mansion outside of town, and police response would be (understandably) delayed, they can get away with a lot more. Your millionaire would have more room to simply kill and disappear someone. Now, this isn’t without limitations, but, keeping mercs on site, who simply dispose of someone who shouldn’t be there, and wouldn’t be missed (or at least, wouldn’t draw a lot of attention from their disappearance), is disturbingly plausible. At that point, the mercs simply need to be able to get rid of the body (which is easy), and any durable evidence, like the victim’s vehicle, which is doable. Dump their car in a bad part of town and let it get ransacked and towed? Or just torch it. There’s options here. Things like assault rifles might raise eyebrows, but they’re unlikely to draw attention out there.

When you say small prisons, you don’t mean small prisons, you mean black sites. These are incredibly illegal, and the kid gloves are off. These tend towards more conspiracy driven narratives because very few people will have the means to fund one of these without leaving a paper trail, and move enough people through them to justify the expense. Even if they did, the risks associated with discovery are astronomical.

Staffing a black site would involve mercs, full military hardware, and a somewhat remote location. We’re talking out in the desert, where no one will go looking. It also means they need to be able to fully shield themselves from anyone ever figuring out who they are. That requires a mess of shell companies, which, we’re back to the conspiracy, because those shell companies will leave a paper trail.

It also means your millionaire is now bankrupt. Maintaining personal bodyguards isn’t too expensive, even in the extreme you’re looking at less than $250k a year in expenses. Chances are, their income can cover it, if they’re so inclined. However, spending hundreds of millions on a remote Bond villain lair, and then outfitting it with henchmen? Yeah, that’s going to tap your millionaire’s net worth pretty hard. At that point, the question would be, “where did your money go?” With huge expenditures on a remote build site, where all it takes is one low level contractor accidentally posting photos to Twitter for the entire idea to start to coming apart at the seams.

I suppose it would be possible, for them to be hiding it under a ski resort or something, which would be all kinds of goofy, but we are, functionally, talking about the villain’s lair from a superspy novel at this point.

So, real talk for a second, your character has, functionally, unlimited funding, and wants to eliminate a foe. Do they:

  1. Spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a facility out in the desert, staff that facility with 50-100 people, any of whom could now destroy their financial empire or blackmail them?
  2. Hire a hitman to kill their foe?
  3. Or, feed information to their foe through a third party, and then litigate the hell out of them the instant they try to take the information public? Destroying their foe’s career, life, and reputation, in the process?

If you answered 3, you’re probably familiar with what happened to Gawker.

Or, you remembered that mid-2000s Spiderman comic where Norman Osborn (The Green Goblin) sued the shit out of Ben Urich for outing him as The Green Goblin. I suppose that’s possible too. And, yes, that is a plausible outcome for trying to expose a successful businessman as a supervillain, even when that successful businessman really is a goddamn supervillain.

Option 2 is cheap, efficient, and leaves far less of a paper trail. A one time payment from your character to someone else. Who may even be one of their employees (so this gets bundled into payroll as a bonus for whatever.)

It’s worth noting that, option 1 is only really, attractive to intelligence agencies (and, shadowy trans-national conspiracies that have been operating since the dawn of civilization because logic and reason left the building at this point.) You could make it work if you’re moving the victims across national boundaries into countries that really don’t care, but this is still the domain of actual spies, and state actors, not angry corporate executives.

The first option also, technically, works if you’re talking about criminal enterprises. If your character is a drug lord, it’s not really a surprise that they’re torturing people in the back of an auto body shop and dumping their body in a landfill somewhere.

Now, there’s an edge case here that’s worth considering, if your corrupt corporate exec is operating a mercenary company. That would justify the existence of a black site (as it’s intended as a military base), but we still have problems. Mercenary companies aren’t that valuable. And the risks they’re taking on are not worth what they’re getting out of it. Obviously, this is a little different if their activities are occurring on the other side of the world, but it’s still easier to simply have someone snuff a troublemaker or enemy and dispose of their corpse.

The funny thing about all of this is, 3 is a very safe option. Best of all, it’s legal. You don’t have to kill someone to destroy them, you just need to be able to throw money at them until they’re no longer relevant.

When it comes to the security itself, you’re asking to skip over what really does set it apart, the hardware.

A normal, armed security guard might be sporting something like an older gen Glock, Smith & Wesson 5900 series pistol, 1911, some M9 (Beretta 92) knockoff, or a number of other cheap, reasonably reliable, handguns.

In contrast, your millionaire’s security team may be equipped with higher end, or at least better looking, weapons. They may be carrying things like H&K USPs, Walther P99s, Beretta PX4 Storms, FNX series pistols, FN Five-Sevens, or SIG Pro variants.

In the cases of things like shotguns, the changes are more subtle. You might still see something like a Remington 870, or a Mossberg 500, but the better funded group would have higher grade examples of models.

With rifles, you would see a difference depending on the millionaire’s outlook. If they’re the ones looking for weapons, you might see things that look slick, like the War Sport LVOA, while if they have someone in procurement with a military background, you’re more likely to see things like the HK416.

In rare cases, where the millionaire’s interests are in the military industrial complex, you might see stuff that’s very recent, like HK433 rifles, Desert Tech MDRs, or Glock 46 pistols. Or, slightly unusual weapons, like the Kel-Tec KSG shotgun, or Vector SMGs.

The result is, the difference will be in how well equipped their guards are likely to be. In fairness, this also isn’t proof of anything, because a non-corrupt corporate exec, with reasonable security considerations, could outfit their security with high end hardware, as appropriate. (Yes, including up to full merc teams in some overseas locations.) And, it’s also possible your paranoid, corrupt, exec wouldn’t splurge for better gear on their office security. Again, if something goes wrong, they can call the cops. The same is true of their personal bodyguards. Things like S&W 5900s, or Glocks are still solid, reliable, service pistols. They’ll will get the job done. They may not be flashy, but how cool you look doesn’t matter in a gunfight.


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Q&A: Writing Vader

Earlier on, I saw you answered an ask about a Darth Vader type character. You said that they usually don’t make good POV characters or protagonists, with the role they ordinarily are in; I was wondering if you had any thoughts about if you /could/ make them work in a POV/protagonist role, just out of curiosity?

The old advice: Show don’t tell, is appropriate, though this isn’t usually what we mean. Characters don’t really work like this in prose.

The problem is Darth Vader in Star Wars, isn’t a character, he’s an agent of the plot. He acts to further the story, and creating coherent character to back that up is extrapolation by the audience.

The compelling version of Darth Vader as a character? You created that for yourself. Your version of the character may not match what someone else took away.

Now, moving into Empire, and Jedi, Vader does start to have hints of a character, and ultimately a character arc. But, if you ever accidentally think that you know the definitive version of Vader, remember that Hayden Christensen’s Anakin really is Lucas’s intended vision of the character.

Characters like this work best when the audience is creating their own version of them. To do that you need to restrict the amount of information they have on that character’s state of mind, motivation, and other relevant information. This is easy on screen, but it becomes very difficult in prose.

In most forms of media, you’re an external observer viewing the participants. When you watch a movie, you’re seeing the actors playing their characters. When you read a comic, you’re looking at the characters and what they’re doing. Prose is different, you’re usually inside the head of one of the characters, and reading their experiences.

If your PoV character is interacting with something, the author is probably contextualizing that character’s experiences and perspective on the subject.

In contrast, in a film, when the PoV character is interacting with someone, the audience needs to extrapolate the context.

This is where film viewing becomes incredibly subjective, because you’re being asked to evaluate what you’re seeing and square that with the filmmaker’s intended reading of the character. In the end, you’re asking if the character’s behavior remains consistent and coherent throughout.

This can create situations where two people can walk of the theater with vastly different opinions of a film. An example we’ve mentioned before is The Gambler (2014), with Mark Wahlberg. If you come to the film with an understanding of compulsive gamblers, the film actually makes a lot of sense. I’ve said before, it’s a good film, with some very good performances. However, it doesn’t do much to cue the viewer into the specific psychology of the main character, and many of the reviews I’ve read basically come to back to the point of, “the character’s behavior makes no sense.” It’s pathological, consistent, but not normal, and if you don’t have that frame of reference you can’t get into the character’s head.

Star Wars is content to let you invent your own version of Darth Vader. Chances are, that’s a very scary dude. The film then never, really, tests your knowledge. You don’t need to understand who he is to follow his role in the story. Even when the film hints at structures that make no sense, it’s okay, because you’re prone to just ignore them.

For example: How, exactly, is Tarkin? An officer in the Imperial Navy, holding Darth Vader’s “leash?” A Dark Lord of the Sith, who could literally kill him with a thought? I mean Peter Cushing was awesome, and my biggest regret of the prequels is that Wayne Pygram’s version of Tarkin was, basically, a cameo. But, how is this guy holding Darth Vader in check?

The films don’t care, and honestly, neither should you. It doesn’t impact the film. Being privy to Vader’s inner thoughts on Tarkin wouldn’t enhance those scenes. If anything, it would make it worse, because then the mystery would be lost. We’d know why Vader relented. We’d know exactly what power Tarkin had over him.

This is horror writing. Horror works off of restricting the information the audience has access to. The more you know, the less scary it is. If you’re reading a horror story, you’re probably not privy to the monster’s point of view. I won’t say, “never,” but, it’s not the norm. However, if you’re watching a horror movie, first person PoV shots from the monster aren’t out of the question. These do completely different things. In prose, it would start to inform you about the monster, and start giving you the tools to understand what it can, and cannot, do. In film, it can tell you how much peril the characters are in without their knowledge.

So, what I’m sort of saying is that, Darth Vader has more in common with antagonists like the Terminator or Predator, even though he exists in a much more politically complicated environment. You can’t really tell stories from their perspectives without destroying the horror, either, if you’re wondering.

The once place where you can, absolutely, tell stories about characters like this as the protagonist is video games. You want to see what Darth Vader looks like as a protagonist? You can look to the 2016 remake of Doom. All you know is that the denizens of hell are extremely terrified of the player character, to the point that they gave up on the idea of even killing him, chained him to a slab, and locked him away. In the context of a game, the idea that your foes are terrified of you just feeds into the power trip, and you don’t need a full explanation for why.

So, yeah, you can create a character like Darth Vader as the protagonist, but, prose is not the best form of media to present that kind of a story.


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Q&A: Description is Context

tinker-tanner said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on how to write description? Whenever I think of something to write it’s purely dialogue, not even minimal stage directions like a Shakespeare play. Just voices in a white void.

Then, that’s what you start with.

Write the scene purely as dialogue so you get it out of your head. If you can tell who is talking, you’re golden. So, it will look something like this:

“How’s it going?” Jayse asked.

“Seeing the other Blooded’s problem,” Chastity said.

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

“Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914,” Isolde said.

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” Isolde hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

“You would know all local bus routes, Chaz,” Jayse said.

Think about description as context, filling in the blanks and that white noise. Once you’ve got the dialogue out on the page, you have the luxury of asking yourself what the hell is happening in this scene. Your best friends are: What? Where? Why? When? How?

Once you’ve got your dialogue out, ask yourself some questions:

What are the characters doing?

In this case, they’re hunting some sort of monster and we know from “time dilation” it (probably) has supernatural powers.

Where are they?

Well, they’re clearly somewhere modern because they’re referencing the bus routes.

What is the monster doing? Why are they trying to catch it?

This we don’t know, because we have no description. It can look like anything. So try and figure out what you want it to look like, think about it.

Okay, so think about that. Let it take shape in your mind, imagine how the world sounds, tastes, feels. What do your characters hear? What are they looking for? What do they want? How do they plan to get it? What do they think inside their heads that they wouldn’t say out loud?

Got it? Let’s try again.

Chastity Dumont lunged across the open space between buildings. Foot slamming down on the ground and thrusting her body back up in a great leap, she flew over the busy street below. Her mind barely had time to register the cars whizzing past as she tucked, landed on her shoulder, rolled to her feet and raced after her prey.

He wasn’t too far ahead of her, long arms flailing as he tried to run. A short creature with a bulbous head and slick gray skin in a violently bright orange Texas Longhorns jersey. Thick webbed feet slapped the concrete roof. His pace a leisurely jog level rather than someone running for their lives.

He is running, she thought. He just doesn’t think I can catch him. Time wrapped around him, sped him up. In his wake, she slowed immeasurably.

“How’s it going?” crackled a voice in her ear, snapping electricity down her jaw.

Chastity slid over an air conditioner unit. “Seeing the other Blooded’s problem.”

“Time dilation?”


Okay, we have the first half of the dialogue. Now we can see how Chastity came to her conclusion of time dilation while hunting her prey. This means that this is a problem she can deal with, unlike the other Blooded she referenced. We know what the monster looks like, we know we’re in a city, and we’ve got some action going on.

Pay special attention when you’re reading over the dialogue you’ve written for breaks that feel unnatural, where it feels like something else should be there. The comment, “Whiz shit” is an unnatural jump.

Ahead of her, the bulbous head alien dropped off the roof edge and disappeared into the darkness between brightly colored apartment buildings.

Chastity came to a stop, watching fluorescent orange and gleaming white bounce between steel fire escapes down into a thin alley. As he hit the ground, his form shifted, lengthened, and grew more human. She suspected he’d put on pants and maybe shoes too, just to fill out the shit sundae. Her head tilted backwards, filled with the familiar whine of a large, heavy vehicle sliding to a stop. She inhaled deeply, air full of greasy ass diesel. “Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914.”

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” she hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

That got a laugh. “You would know all local bus routes, Chaz.”

Figuring out your own creative process can be difficult, so if you don’t have the right images or words don’t be afraid to turn to outside sources. Google Image Search is your friend. That can help you get the necessary context to filling out your narrative if the images don’t come on their own.

Think about the dialogue you write, and how your characters might react to the comments. How do they feel? Do they scrunch up their eyebrows or nose, curl their lips, sneer or smile? Do they laugh? What do they look like when they’re talking? Are they animated, sedate, or somewhere in between? What does they look like, just in general?

The alien stepped forward, purple-blue light shimmered between two round paws. Same color as the crystal burning beneath the jersey, rays spilling out through the holes. Illuminating the bus’ roof in a dazzling array of tiny pentagons, shifting, shimmering, and spinning round across the cracked white surface like a 70s disco ball.

I suppose this would be the wrong time to joke about stayin’ alive, Chastity thought. Jumbled bits of numbers, words, lines of code flashed around his fingertips. Rattling off a few thousand sigils in rapid succession. Spell type. Detonation rank. Expected area of damage. Electromagnetic region detonation. Grade B spell. Class Type D. In an attempt to stop her, he’d vaporize half the city block and everyone in the radius. Well, everyone except his intended target. Her hands clenched around the rebars. Metal spur piercing out of her heel, slicing through cotton, leather, and rubber of her boot to grip the metal. She jerked upright as her wings thrust her to her feet.

The alien blinked.

Throwing herself forward, Chastity drove the rebar in her left hand through the glowing purple ball. Sudden impact of iron disrupted the electricity, sending arcs across the bus widows and splashing out over the asphalt. As his eyes widened, she drove the right rebar into his stomach. She felt the first blow crush sensitive internal organs, burst the stomach sack, and sent him flying.

It’s seems silly to ask, but what are they wearing? Really, what are they wearing? Are their bangs short or long? Do they tug at their hair when they’re nervous? Does their hair fall across their eyes when they tilt their head?

Getting what you already have in your head out on the page means you don’t have to worry about losing what you’ve come up with and can focus on the parts of your story which are eluding you. The more practice you get, the better you get. Again, don’t be afraid to turn to art, photographs, and other images if they help you. Pulling up some images of a lake at sunset when you want to write about your characters confessing their love by the lake at sunset, can really help with the visualization for the scenery. Is the grass short or tall? How large are the strands? How big is the lake? Do people commonly visit this lake or is it out in the middle of nowhere? Are there ducks, geese, swans, other birds that make noise? How does the light reflect off the water? Is the sun low enough for a true red or are we fading into purple twilight?

Your style is going to determine the amount of description you need, and how much is too much. You want to experiment and practice. Writers can be successful with incredibly sparse and prose so flowery it turns purple, all that really matters is whether or not the reader is given the context they need to understand the character’s behavior, reactions, and surroundings.

The more you add in, the more questions you can ask and continue refining down your image. Sometimes, you have to start out general to end up specific. This can be simple as “What does Character B look like?”

Your answers might start out general like: female, medium height, blonde, blue eyes, nose, mouth, long fingers, etc.

Take the vague image you have, and sharpen up the detail.

Then, Chastity turned her head. The gold-yellow irises surrounded by a black cornea turned a warm crystal blue, the rest of the eye fading into the usual human color. The silver and ruby wings retracted, slipping back through the ripped gaps in her leather jacket and white cotton shirt. Silver gashes in her skin cutting out of her jaw disappeared and smoothed back to the usual soft pink. Clawed gauntlets slipped back beneath the human skin coating finely boned, delicate hands.

One could easily see a slightly battered seventeen year old in a grungy shirt, torn apart jacket, and ripped jeans, but Jayse knew better than anyone — Chastity Dumont had never been a human girl.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The best way to learn how to do something is to just do it. Start with what your brain has already given you and start filling in the blanks. Probing questions are important. Use your What, Where, When, Why, How. Think about your five senses. Get curious about your dialogue. If your story excites you, you should want to know more. Why did your character say what they did? What was their motivation? What did they look like when they said it? How do they feel?

If you get: anger, ask yourself what anger looks like. What is the bodily response? How do they deal with confrontation? Do they stare the other person down, lock gazes, drop their eyes, look up, look away, or physically turn away?

Ahead of Chastity, the alien had fallen in another attempt to crawl away and trapped himself between the cars. His frantic head turned back in her direction, massive eyes blinking. Sparks crackled across his hands, the remnants of his disrupted spell. Small body slumped, squirmed, wriggling as he inched his way down the road.

Coming to a stop over him, Chastity lifted the last rebar. Her wings flared wide, casting long shadows across the road, blacking out the twilight sky.

Someone in the crowd screamed.

The alien rolled, weakly lifting his hands.

Chastity rammed the rebar down, through the lower torso, and into the asphalt.

Gray-green blood splattered a black surface.

This time, the alien shrieked.

“Turnabout,” Chastity said.

Her Comm implant snapped her jaw, flickers of electricity singing up her ear. Jayse’s voice came in loud. “Got him?”

One hand dropped to her jeans pocket, and Chastity fished out a small silver coin. Held it up between her thumb and forefinger. Gave it a squeeze. She tossed the coin onto the alien’s torso. Eight silver spider legs extended off the disc, latching into his chest. A tiny blue light beeped. She brushed her jaw with a finger. “Beam us up, Scotty.”

Jayse groaned.

Chastity grinned as she and the alien disappeared in a brilliant flash of bright white-blue light.


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Q&A: Welcome to Writing

my imagination (when it works) tends to conjure up scenes fully formed and devoid of context, and trying to put them to words – let alone make a story out of them – is really tough. it’s like i’m trying to write a movie that’s already been filmed and i’ve only seen bits and pieces of it.               

Welcome to writing.

I’m not going to say this is what writing is like for everyone, but it is for most people. At the very least, your experience is true for me. I see my stories in scenes filmed in my head and patchwork them together into a narrative after lengthy consideration. Plots come together in fits and starts, and often change. What I envision in my head rarely ends up on the page, often I get something different than what I intended. Learning not to be disappointed by that was a process, and something I still struggle with. Learning how to bring what I imagined to life for others to enjoy was also a process, one I’ve worked at for a very long time.

What most people won’t tell you about writing is that it’s a skill. Anyone can write, anyone can learn how to write, but the good storytellers are those who’ve worked very hard. Developing any skill takes time, it takes practice. You’ll fall down a lot. You’ll face disappointment. You’ll fail. This is true of every novelist and every book you pick up. They’ve all failed at certain points in their lives. They all felt they were terrible. They all wanted to tear their hair out over their characters, their plots, their descriptions, their backstory, their setting not working quite the way it was supposed to. The only difference between a success and a failure is the willingness to pick yourself up and try again.

There’s a great quote from the manga Black Clover, which is a sentiment that’s been paraphrased many different ways but one I think is important to remember when you’re getting down on yourself.

“Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is,” Fuegoleon Vermillion tells Noelle.

What Fuegoleon means is choosing self-pity over self-improvement is weakness, but there is nothing weak about a person who is trying to improve. They may be struggling, they may not be where they want to be yet, the skills they want to acquire may not come easily, but they aren’t weak.

You may have difficulty crafting characters, context, and plot for the sequences you imagine right now but it’ll get easier and easier if you keep working at it. The only way to improve is through practice. Devote yourself to writing for a certain period every day, or every few days. I personally really like Terry Pratchett’s 400 words a day rule. (You can set any metric you like.) The 400 is the right amount for me that is easy to reach, and if I surpass it? Great. If I don’t, well? I got some writing done. Sometimes, I have to take breaks to work on other projects when I’ve exhausted myself but, in between the point I stop working on one book and start on another, I’m still writing. I’m keeping my skills sharp, and through working with a different narrative may come around the piece I need to move forward with the other one. Following this rule, I’ve written over 60,000 words so far this year. I wrote over 200,000 last year in for various fictional projects, not counting the work I did for this blog. I write a lot, and I follow the basic tenants set down by Ernie Reyes’ Black Belt Code. The Code felt silly when I recited it at thirteen, but means a lot now as a reference point. There are ten steps, but the first five are the only ones I remember.

  1. Set a goal.
  2. Take action.
  3. Pay attention to detail.
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice.
  5. Change if it’s not working.

Rinse, lather, repeat. These steps will eventually lead to mastery.

There are going to be plenty of times where the idea you have isn’t going to work or will require change. You’ll go back to the drawing board multiple times. You’ll realize you don’t have the skills needed either in description, or dialogue, or character building to craft what you want; which means you need to go out and acquire those skills. Then, come back and try again.

Identify your weaknesses. Study works by those whose writing is strong where yours is weak, figure out the techniques they used and try applying them to your own work. You can turn anywhere for this, so don’t let people fool you into thinking it can only be fictional novels. You can learn a lot about world building from strategy games, from pencil and paper RPGs, from video games, history, sociology, political science, and plenty other sources. You can study television and film for to learn about different sorts of dialogue beats, episodic structure, learning how to describe human interaction and facial expressions. You can people watch, then experiment with conversations you heard later. In order to improve my skills writing dialogue, I used to listen to video game dialogue snippets on YouTube over and over and over. I could’ve read a transcript of the dialogue, but I wanted to familiarize myself with the tone, cadence, and vocal patterns of the actors in order to translate that into my writing. So the character sounded like the character, even when their dialogue was read. I do this even now where I’ll pick a film or television show with a character I like to put on as background noise so I can get into the right frame of mind for what I’m writing. There are plenty of writers who do this with music, I have whole libraries and playlists for different characters.

If you don’t know how to do something then work on learning. A large part of writing is taking what you see and what you know and applying it into a specific format. Nothing is off limits, everything is a reference for you. You want to work on character development? You can read lots of books with characters you like, paying attention to how they changed. You can also then go read breakdowns and character analyses to see what others took from the same material. There’s so much information freely available today, many barriers to what was once secret knowledge have been removed. You just have to start taking advantage of your local library and your internet connection.

To be a writer is to be a lifelong student, a jack of all trades, knowledgeable about many things but a master of none. If you want to write myths, epics, and mythic characters then you should be reading myths but I also recommend reading Joseph Campbell. I don’t just mean A Hero With A Thousand Faces and patterning your narrative on “The Hero’s Journey”, but understanding how myths worked, what they meant to the cultures of the people who created them, and the resonant narrative themes which are found in many cultures worldwide.

There’s copying and there’s understanding, copying can bridge into understanding but only if you take the time to really evaluate why a specific narrative technique works the way it does. Learning how something works gives you the freedom to apply it how you want to your own narrative instead of trying to force fit someone else’s vision into your own. This is how you can build your work, your own vision while looking to others for guidance and advice.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Give yourself permission to suck.

Remember, everything you read is the work of months, often years. You don’t see all the author’s failures, their previous bad writing, when they sucked, their points of depression, and (in some cases) their drug fueled benders. You don’t see the endless edits, the previous drafts, the subplots begun and abandoned. You don’t see where the characters began in the finished product, just where they ended up. You don’t see their previous attempts. You might be reading their latest work written in their late fifties rather than the one they wrote in their mid-twenties, early thirties. You’re probably not reading the works they produced at ten years old.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to write and write and write until you start writing well. Physical exercise is like that too. You keep at it until something clicks, you get over the hump, you adjust and it gets easier. Do the best you can right now. Work on surpassing those limits. Once you get over the hump, once it gets easier and you’ve gotten comfortable, set your next goal and work passing those limits. It may feel impossible at times, the mountain insurmountable. When you’re getting down on yourself, you can always go back and read what you wrote in the past. You’ll see where you improved, and realize you weren’t nearly as terrible as you thought.

As Fuegoleon Vermillion said, “Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is.”

Overcoming adversity is about building character and, when it comes to life getting you down, not taking “no” for an answer. It takes courage to face yourself, and acknowledge you’ve got flaws. Review your failure. Acknowledge your strengths, identify your weaknesses, and work on turning those weaknesses into your strength. The non-dominant hand/side is the most technically proficient in martial arts because you struggle when learning to control it. While the power hand, the dominant hand, is important, the non-dominant hand does the technical things.

You haven’t failed until you’ve truly given up. There’s no better time than now to start building your foundation.


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Q&A: A Death in the Story

I’m going to break this question into two pieces. I don’t normally like doing that here, but the example really drifts into a separate topic, and I don’t want to simply cull that out.

Do you think, instead of killing parents off for books, they could allow their kids to go on adventure or take the kids with them on adventures?

Yeah. You’re asking about a specific sub-genre and then asking, “but what about stepping out of the sub-genre?” Those stories already exist, in a number of forms.

Not every story about kids adventuring on their own comes from dead parents. As much as you can joke about Pokemon being a, “child neglect simulator,” there is a narrative there about children simply going out and playing. The series was inspired by, Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood hobby of collecting insects, and his experiences in rural Japan. (With a healthy dose of imaginative fancy.)

I’m going to break this into three groups. The parents are dead, the parents are alive but disinterested, and the parents are alive and active participants.

These are all different kinds of stories, and I’m being a little reductive with these classifications because we’re tracking a specific element across all the kinds of stories that use that.

Live long enough, and you will bury your parents. It’s inevitable. At some point, growing up, everyone realizes this. There’s no escape, we will all die someday. Realizing that is one of those critical moments in your growth from child to adult. How you deal with that knowledge is deeply personal to you as an individual. However, it also means losing a parent does force you to grow as a person.

So, there’s two separate versions of this: the parent dies a catalyst for character growth. I’ll be honest, there’s an entire genre of this, in many different forms of media, where a child or teen escapes the trauma of dealing with a parent’s death either into fantasy, or by running away. In cases like this, the parent needs to die for the child to experience and learn from that. These will usually be coming of age stories.

In some cases, you can even see variations of this genre with adults dealing with the death of their adult parent. There’s also a related genre with parents dealing with the loss of their child or spouse. Again the focus is confronting death and grief (or retreating into fantasy to avoid that) so if there’s no death, the story’s beats aren’t going to work.

So, in these cases, the crux of the story is leaning to deal with the loss of a parent, so yes, they do need to be dead for these to work. (As a quick aside, I can’t really cite any of these off the top of my head. I find this genre deeply depressing and tend to avoid it.) There is a related sub-genre of children dealing with a parent’s illness (terminal or otherwise), and all of the above permutations also exist, though ultimately, that is a different kind of story, and trying to transition from dealing with death to only dealing with the fear of death seriously alters the context, and the kind of story you’re telling.

The other side of this is, you can have stories kill off the parent in a cheap attempt to raise the stakes. I’m looking at Batman here.

To be clear, I don’t have anything against the idea of an orphan protagonist, when their parent’s death is just backstory to where they are, however I do dislike the practice of executing characters to cheaply manufacture drama.

The orphan child hunting down the individual who killed their parent is cliche, but, as character motivation for a revenge story goes, it works.

Does the parent need to be dead? Well, in this case, not really. They need to be “gone,” but that’s not necessarily the same as dead. An, “orphan,” child hunting down the people who took their family doesn’t require their family to be dead, simply off-stage.

Similarly, an “orphan,” who’s family is gone and is accidentally on an adventure doesn’t require the family to be dead. It’s been a while since I read C. S. Lewis, but as I recall the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, aren’t coping with dead parents, even if they were sent to the countryside to avoid a very real risk of death.

I’m trying to keep things general here, but pretty much any portal fantasy that removes the child will start to get into this territory without needing to kill anyone.

I suppose, Harry Potter is a similar, though distinct variant here. Ignoring that Harry is an orphan, he is surrounded by the teachers who are, more or less, tasked with functioning as parents. While this is an awkward example, it’s worth remembering that sometimes there are other characters who take up a guardian role for a child, even if their actual family isn’t there. So, if I was being really serious about having a consistent continuity to examples, this should probably be further down the list.

One of the more disturbing transitions here is the idea that the child’s parents are there, but they don’t care. That may be a little harsh, because there is still some gradation between the protagonists of something like the Pokemon games, where the characters are set loose and assumed to be, “staying safe,” and examples like the film version of Buffy (1992), where her parents really don’t notice, or care, the condition Buffy comes home in. Though, as with Harry Potter above, Merrick (Donald Sutherland) does end up acting as a (slightly unhinged) parent to her.

There is a theme here I’m trying to ignore, but we should probably address. At some point, in the process of becoming an adult, you need to grow past the limitations your parents imposed, or can impose. Freud called this “killing,” them, and many writers seem to take that advice literally. Mentors (whether they’re your character’s actual parents or not) don’t need to die in service of the story. It’s an easy way to catalyze that transition, but, it is not necessary, and can be cheap through overuse.

I’m thinking of how a lot of fantasy stories have dead parents and I’m looking for a way to circumvent that for my own story without having the parents seem neglectful.

There’s a lot of stages in growing up, and stories can explore any of those experiences. This means: Yes, there’s room for stories about children adventuring either with their parents present and assisting, or absent for any number of reasons.

In normal circumstances, parents fill in as ad-hoc teachers for their children and their interests. This could overlap with their actual area of expertise, or it could be they’re trying to keep up with their kid’s interests. (Granted, the latter is less common in fiction.)

If you look back a second, there is an edge case where your character’s “parents” could be their actual teachers. It also fits with boarding school scenarios (like the Harry Potter example above.) It’s a slightly different dynamic, but you’re not chained to their adult oversight being blood relations.

So, you can have an adventure where the kids are going along with their parents, who are doing what they can to keep them safe. (So, they’re not going to intentionally put the children in harm’s way, or ask them to do something too dangerous.) They can still perform safe tasks, based on their age and aptitude, and start learning about that field.

Also, with older teens you can afford to give them significantly more autonomy. They’re not adults yet, but they are capable of operating on their own. Something their parents may rely on if necessary.

There’s a continuity here: as the child ages, they’re going to be able to take on more responsibility, be better able to actively participate in events, and they’ll gradually develop more autonomy. The exact age of your characters will determine where they end up, and on a longer timeline of events, that progress will form the core of their arc.

I know Steve Irwin brought his daughter with him (I distinctly remember him and a few others holding an alligator and him asking her to hold down the tip of the tail to help.) Thoughts?

I’m a little hesitant to use real world examples, especially since Steve Irwin did die doing what he loved. However, that anecdote about Bindi Irwin does illustrate what I was talking about a second ago. The alligator isn’t going to eat her with its tail, and he wasn’t asking her to just go grab an unrestrained, predatory reptile.

With that in mind, there’s plenty of stories about kids going off and working with their parents. The Amelia Peabody Mysteries by the late Elizabeth Peters comes to mind, where over the course of the novels, Amelia’s son eventually takes over as the primary narrator. (The books also transition from first person limited to an epistolary format when the in-fiction “author” changes.)

The important thing to remember is what their death means in a larger context to the characters. Killing a character (or “characters,” if it’s a package deal) should always have significant importance on the characters or plot.

This isn’t a, “sanctity of human life,” argument. As the author your job is tell the story, no matter how unpleasant it may be for the characters. The issue is simpler: You don’t want to waste your audience’s time and attention.

As a writer, you’re asking your audience to read your story. You’re asking them to pay attention to each detail. The unspoken promise is that this will somehow improve the experience. It can move the plot forward, it can offer important context, or it can build the texture of the world and its inhabitants.

It can be tempting to simply throw the kitchen sink at your story; you may have a grand idea of a massive world filled with people and their history, but you’re better served culling that down to the important details. There’s a piece of writing advice from Elements of Style, “omit unnecessary words.” Usually, we think about this at a sentence level, but apply it to your writing as a whole. Ask yourself, “does the story need this character?” If the answer is, “no,” you can’t simply kill them off, you need to remove them completely.

A truth about death is, it’s not the end. I don’t mean in some metaphysical sense; death does not end the influence of a person; their absence lingers and the consequences of their actions persist.

If you’re going to kill someone, you need to remember they’re still a part of the story, even after they’re gone.


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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.