Q&A: Audience Disconnect

In general, is there anything writers should avoid when writing torture scenes?

You don’t want your audience disconnecting.

So, this is a term you’ll usually hear in marketing. Audience disconnect is when the reader tunes out. Not, literally changes the channel (it can be that too), but they’re no longer engaged with the material. At that point, as far as they’re concerned, your story’s over, they don’t care anymore.

This is a danger with any, significantly intense violence, but torture, particularly torture inflicted by characters the audience was previously sympathetic to, requires very careful management.

We’ve talked before about how the tension in torture is about the fear of what comes next. It’s not what the torturer has done to their victim, it’s about what they’re about to do. This is the fear that breaks the victim.

I don’t mean this as a pejorative statement, but most readers don’t have the stomach to read about your character inflicting pain on a defenseless victim for an extended period of time. The more detail you go into, the more discomfort you’ll inflict on your readers. Get them too uncomfortable, and they’re going to look for something they enjoy. Hint: it’s not going to be your story.

With that in mind, when one of your sympathetic characters is torturing someone, keep the sequences short. This doesn’t mean that the torture didn’t go on for longer, but you don’t need blow-by-blow documentation. Prose as a singular advantage of allowing you to cover events without having to go into detail. This is not fully possible in film or other media. If your character is working someone over for eight hours, you can do that in two one or paragraphs. Make sure you get the critical information in, but, after that, you can back off.

If your torturer is supposed to remain sympathetic you need the audience on board with their reasons and motivations to engage in torture. This is not easy to do well.

The kludgy solution is to make torture victim someone so repugnant that the audience won’t sympathize at all, or even cheer on your torturer. You’ve seen this. Rapists, pedophiles, human traffickers, lawyers. No, wait, that’s not right.

I don’t mean the lawyer joke, but that’s the problem. When you’re trying to implement this solution, it’s easy to lose track of your personal biases, and pick someone who your audience won’t completely, automatically, accept. This is especially true if you’re counting on elements of your world building to pick your victim.

You’ve probably run across this before with pieces from thirty or more years ago, where someone who’s mentally ill fell into that acceptable victim range. Read now, it’s horrifying, because the author expects you sign off on the torture and get on with your day.

Torture where your sympathetic character is the victim works a little differently. The same basic limitation applies, the more detail you go into, the more discomfort you inflict on your audience. Too much; they leave.

When your character is the victim, you need to be careful to track the consequences. This something that’s true of everything you write. Good stories come out of a flow from cause to effect, but when you’re selling a character who was tortured, the aftermath is at least as important as the event itself.

Torture changes everyone. This is as true in your writing as it is in the real world. Your audience will never look at your characters the same way again after a torture sequence. Plan accordingly.

Don’t use torture for simple shock value. It will do far too much to the way your audience perceives the work as a whole.

There are ways to use torture effectively in your writing, but, it needs to be managed carefully.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: War Prince, Peace Prince, or Athletic Prince? What’s the world he lives in?

Should a crown prince character learn how to fight? On one hand, learning to fight could be seen as ‘we expect the crown prince to be put in a situation where he would need to fight’ which would mean his guards have failed. On the other hand, learning to use weapons could be treated more like a sport to build dedication, endurance, confidence, etc. Then again, I’ve seen references to princes fighting in history so I’m not sure how this should be handled/explained if I want a fighting prince.

Depends.

The only rule for the conqueror throughout most of history is you can have it if you can take it, and it’s only yours if you can hold onto it. The idea of kings and princes being insulated from combat is one which we come out of England at the end of Henry VIIIs reign and into the Elizabethan era, but it’s worth remembering that Henry VII took the crown by force. The word Normans comes from Northmen, and the original province of Normandy in France was given over to raiding Vikings led by a man called Rollo by the Frankish king under the agreement that they would protect the Frankish coast from other invaders. Many a king, prince, and nobleman has been created by simply having the biggest and baddest raiding force. In the Middle Ages, the king was expected to lead his forces into battle.

You know Richard III from Shakespeare’s eponymous play? The real one was killed on the battlefield by Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s grandfather at the end of the War of the Roses.

William the Conqueror, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, Henry V, Edward the Black Prince, Empress Maude, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Owain Fawr, Llewellyn the Great, Robert the Bruce,  Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, and the list goes on.

You don’t have to justify it. History supports the conqueror prince and the conqueror king, and situations where the prince had to be able to fight because he was expected to lead his men into battle. If he couldn’t then someone else, a brother, a cousin, another nobleman, or even some nobody could swoop in and take the crown from him. You’ll find history is littered with instances like this.

So, here’s the real question: what kind of crown prince and setting are you imagining?

Is this the Fairy Tale Crown Prince? For all his trappings, the fictional fairy tale Crown Prince is post Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. He carries the aesthetics, but he’s not based on the warrior princes of Medieval Europe. This is the beginning of the modern era. When most people think about monarchies in terms of fairy tales, they’re essentially imagining Catherine the Great’s Russia without the guns. These are codified nations with standing militaries and treaties, which only go to war with each other frequently instead of constantly. Where the Crown Prince would be educated in the ways of the military, even be expected to serve in a ceremonial role, but never sets foot on the battlefield’s front lines. Similarly, this is also when the local nobility starts transitioning from warlords you need to appease to general rich dudes whose ancestors were great at killing people that you still need to appease.

The above is the Crown Prince you seem to be imagining.

Outside the Merchant Prince, who controls his kingdom through trade, the warrior Crown Prince is an auxiliary commander under his father or, in cases where the king is weak, the true commander of his countries forces. He’ll be landed in his own right as an earl or a duke with a province to rule over, his own vassals, lordlings, and young knights who strive to be in his service. He’s surrounded by followers and advisors with his own household and a vassal to his father, the king. He’s unlikely to be just sitting around spinning his heels until he takes the throne, unless he’s got a father who is very controlling about what powers he has access to.

This Crown Prince may seem appealing, but the world he exists in is cutthroat, rough and tumble. There’s none of the stability provided by the Treaty of Westphalia, which is the unnamed factor seen in modern fairy tale kingdoms. The chances of him fighting to keep his crown or simply fighting on the battlefield at some point in his life is a certainty rather than a maybe. He has to know how to fight and he has to be damn good at it or else it will end badly for him. This includes if he’s living in a world under the medieval warfare rules where there’s the possibility ransom. Kings, princes, warlords, and leaders are always priority targets on the battlefield. Everyone wants to kill or capture them because that ends the battle/raid/war.

They’re not just rich guys, they’re expected to be leaders of men. If they can’t do that, and they’re not supported by excellent nobles then they lose the crown, lose their land, or lose their empire. As has happened with many an unfortunate prince throughout history.

Even if you’re going for the type of Crown Prince seen in fiction and post-Westphalia, military service is often considered traditional and is expected. A modern example is our current British royal family, many of them have served in the British military in some capacity whether they saw combat or not; this includes Elizabeth II.

However, the question of whether your character should learn to fight or not is heavily dependent on the kind of setting they live in and the social expectations their role places them under. The legacy of his family, the number of generations they’ve held onto their throne. Then, there’s the question of who he is versus who he expects to be, the boy versus the prince and the man versus the king. He might be expected to be good at fighting, but he might not want to be. Is it necessary for him to be a skilled combatant? Or can he rule without the need for those skills? Does he want to be good at fighting? Does he enjoy it?

These are the sorts of questions that only you, the author can answer. The situation, the politics, and the world your character live in all affect the role he has inherited.

So, start sorting out that world. Pick a period in history where princes fought. Learn everything you can about that time period, and why they behaved the way they did.

Do you want an athletic prince? Do you want a warrior prince? Or both? Both are fine. Does your prince live in a war time or a peace time? Which of the two does he long for? Quiet or conquest? If he isn’t bound to a parliament or some other body of government his nobles use to control him then he has the power and resources to make either happen.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you.

– Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: This Space Intentionally Left Blank

Hi, I’m writing in a medieval/high fantasy setting and would love your ideas on how this scenario could go. A deserter on the run in alpine terrain, chased by both the unit he deserted from, who need to capture him alive, and local militia intent on killing him. He has training, gear and a crossbow, sword and fighting knives. I know this situation is dire. The plot outline is to eventually have him captured by his former comrades, but my question is how this would realistically play out?

You’ll see an answer pop up on multiple choice quizzes, “The question cannot be answered with available information.” That’s apt here, because there’s just too many potential factors.

Let’s start with the consequences and work back. Desertion is (almost always) a very serious offense. Combat, especially in war, is extremely frightening, so running is a very natural response. The result is that any organized militant force needs to deter that behavior. You understood this because you had him being hunted.

Here’s where the unknown factors become a problem. Let’s start with the organization that trained him. Depending on who he was working for, the consequences could be anything from being dragged back in chains and spending decades in prison, to being used as a target in live weapon practice for the next wave of recruits. After all, nothing says, “don’t do this,” quite as much as getting recruits to serve as executioners. So what happens? I don’t know, but it’s probably somewhere between these two extremes. And, yes, being court marshaled and imprisoned is about as benign as it gets.

There’s a wrinkle here, though. So he might not make it back to face the music after all. There are few insults more repugnant to a soldier than cowardice. Deserters are viewed as cowards; they were too scared to do their job. This is also a direct betrayal of their former comrades. Again, the best possible outcome is some minor psychological abuse on their trip to a cell. It’s entirely possible that your character would be mutilated and allowed to expire. Again, this depends on the characters involved. Depending on the structure of your setting, but, realistically, the results would not be pretty. If your character is lucky, their former commanding officer may simply summarily execute them once captured.

So, that’s a personal problem.

I’m not even going to question why their buddies were sent out to apprehend them. It seems like a mistake, unless you’re going full supervillain, with something like, “find him, or you’ll all be executed.” Which would not endear him to his former friends, (in case there was some confusion on that point.)

So, that’s what happens after, but it still leaves a lot of blank spaces working up to it.

Alpine terrain tells me very little. This could be high altitude, it could be mountain ranges near the coasts which are relatively low, but still, “alpine.” If it’s the former, and he wasn’t acclimated, altitude sickness is a serious pain in the ass.

Assuming a roughly earth like atmosphere, altitude sickness starts to manifest at around 2,000m above sea level. At 3,000m above sea level, the rate of incidence exceeds one in four. There’s good news, you can antagonize it, resulting in symptoms at altitudes as low as 1,600m, if you’re so inclined.

Altitude Sickness is hypoxia resulting from there not being enough oxygen in the atmosphere. Symptoms include, nausea, vomiting, headaches, insomnia, fatigue (there’s a fun combination), and vertigo. Short version is, if this goes acute, you’re not doing much of anything until your body acclimates.

Physical activity for extended periods, for example, fleeing through the mountains while pursued by local, acclimated militia, would probably end badly. Also, overall physical fitness is not a factor in resisting altitude sickness. Just because your character is a soldier doesn’t mean they’ll be mysteriously immune.

There are chemical ways to help cope with altitude sickness. Historically, indigenous people in the Andes chewed Coca leaves for their stimulant effect. This also had the effect of combating altitude sickness. I suspect this is because coca functions as a vasodilator, increasing blood flow, and as a result, the available oxygen in the user.

If your character is dependent on chemical assistance to survive, they’d face a logistical problem. They could only carry a limited amount or supplies, while their pursuers would have access to resupply.

Also worth noting that, historically, the Coca plant was viewed as having religious significance, and as a result, consumption among the Incas were restricted to royalty, senior officials, and the military. It’s not implausible that a similar situation may exist in your setting.

In case this was somehow missed, the altitude will make engaging in melee combat basically impossible, as even one skirmish could easily incapacitate your character.

Finally, I’m not even sure if your character can escape. High Fantasy doesn’t automatically mean your character has to deal with magic, it’s likely that magic is a factor. Unless you’ve specifically written around it, and created a reason why it doesn’t exist, mages would be incredibly useful in a military context. Be that as heavy combat units, advance recon, communications, logistics, or even as meat based artillery. Now, it is possible that some of those roles simply aren’t available to mages in your setting for whatever reason.

With that in mind, it’s entirely possible your character, or their gear may be mystically, “marked,” so that it can be tracked remotely by a trained mage. Alternately, it’s possible your character could be tracked by a mage trained in remote scrying. Meaning that they wouldn’t be, “chased,” so much as hunted down.

It’s also likely that your setting may have some countermeasures, but unless your character is also a mage with similar training, they’d be unlikely to know the full range of tracking options available to a recon mage (or whatever term appeals, “auger” or “scrye” are good options.)

So, the short version is, your character’s going to have a very bad time. Desertion, is a very serious crime in any military, usually punished with death, often with a painful death. So, this isn’t going to end well for them, regardless of their intentions.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Pirates, Vikings, and More Pirates

hello! i wasn’t sure who to ask + i noticed you’ve answered some pirate questions before. my story’s set in a fantasy universe made from scratch. firearm is just being invented, it’s very popular yet. so i wanted to ask, do you maybe know how real pirates were armed/what they fought with before the firearm came into use?

The firearm wasn’t really, “invented,” in one moment. The technology evolved over the course of nearly 800 years. When you’re talking about Age of Sail pirates, they were using weapons that had seen four centuries of technical refinement.

Maritime raiders have been a threat since humans first took to the seas. The term itself has a Greek root, dating back to Hellenic Greece. Worth noting that peirates was used to refer to both seaborne and land based raiders. (This would later become pirata in Latin.) So the modern distinction between a bandit and pirate didn’t exist until more recently.

Bronze age piracy in the Mediterranean included a bustling slave trade, where sailors and other individuals captured by pirates were sold in major ports. This was aided by the rugged, Greek coastline, which was effectively impossible to fully scour. Beyond this, Hellenic pirates were, effectively bandits.

Arguably the most famous group of maritime raiders are the Vikings. Viking raids started in the 8th century AD, and continued into the early modern era. They were spurred by a variety of factors, and there’s no full consensus on exactly what caused their rise. Elements include the Medieval Warm Period, from 950 to 1250, Europe experienced an increase of average temperatures by almost two degrees C. This is believed to have spurred a population boom in Scandinavia. Combine this with a primogenitor inheritance system, which meant only the oldest son inherited from their father, and there was a strong need to bring in new resources to support a family. Raiding predates the MWP, so it seems plausible that this simply fueled existing behavior. This also resulted in Vikings aggressively colonizing elsewhere in Europe, as they found more favorable land and claimed it for themselves.

One example of this legacy is Normandy. The territory that became Normandy was given to a Viking Raider named Rollo by King Charles the Bald, after Rollo besieged Paris in 911. In exchange for swearing vassalage to the Frankish king, he was granted the territory. He effectively became the first Duke of Normandy, though, it’s unclear when that specific title came into use, as he never used the title Duke.

Piracy in the Caribbean was fueled by massive amounts of wealth moving through the region, and simple logistics.

Defending a set position is easy. You can fortify, dig in, and wait. At that point, the hardest part is avoiding boredom. This is a little harder when that point is somewhere you can’t fortify, but the same principles hold.

Defending a moving target is harder. You know the path it will take, and you can do some work to control potential risks. However, you’re going to have to go with the target. Knowing where you’re going will give you some cues on when you need to be alert, but ultimately, you need to be there.

Defending multiple stationary points is easy, if you can split your forces. However, in doing so, you’re less able to hold each one individually. It becomes a balancing act. In a modern situation you can rely on a highly mobile “floating” defensive force, which can be called in to deal with any defensive position coming under attack, which helps offset some of the problems, but this was not an option in the Age of Sail.

As a quick aside, having a small reserve force who can quickly reinforce your forces as needed can be incredibly valuable from a strategic position in battle. It’s only as part of a larger campaign, where they don’t have time to get where they’re needed in time to be useful, that this becomes less viable.

Defending multiple mobile targets from multiple threats, while still needing to defend ports. Yeah, that’s extraordinarily difficult. Mix in that European forces didn’t have full repair and refit facilities in the New World, that many different governmental and economic groups were operating in the area, and you should start to see why the Caribbean was a hotbed of pirate activity in the 17th century.

Simply put, there was a lot of money moving around, and no real way to protect it.

In an odd moment, the guns weren’t entirely important. They were in the specifics of how the European powers got a foothold in the Americas, but it was basically irrelevant to the reasons that piracy flourished there.

So, if you’re asking, “what did pirates look like before the invention of the firearm?” That’s the Vikings. Really. The firearm reached Europe in the 12th century. The pirates you’re thinking of were in the 17th. From the 12th century to now, the technology has never stopped advancing. Even now, firearms developed in the last 20 years are incorporating new technical developments that aren’t present on Cold War era armaments. The chemical composition of primers and powder has changed significantly in the last century.

I’m not averse to the idea of a fantasy setting without firearms, but I would strongly recommend against thinking that a culture would go from discovering gunpowder, to making a wheel lock in a matter of years. This would also create a situation where most characters simply wouldn’t know what they were dealing with. Even just getting everyone on board with what a gun is, without access to mass communications, could easily take decades or longer. Also, worth noting that new technology in firearms tended to be pretty expensive. It’s possible that, for whatever reason, firearms are just transitioning from vanishingly rare to widespread use, due to production changes. Not exactly new, and people would know what they were. This saves you from the basic problem of your characters dying like idiots when they get shot by that guy waving a funny looking club around.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Practice, Practice Practice

Would learning to use a sword for the first time cause muscle fatigue or blisters? At what age should fantasy characters typically start learning? How long does it take to become ‘skilled’? For some reason I’m having trouble figuring out how to write a realistic progression.

There’s a certain level where this question can’t be answered because “fantasy” covers a vast range, and even medieval fantasy could cover a variety of different weapons that are all under the “sword” header. Besides that, the amount of time it takes for someone to become proficient depends on their dedication and opportunities for training.

The basic issue with writing a training sequence in fiction is that you are instructing the audience as well as the character. You have to write the teacher and student both. If you can’t do that, then you can’t write the scene. Teaching requires you have the knowledge necessary to, well, teach. If you don’t know then you need to learn, and learning requires a lot of work.

If you’ve never learned how to fight, never spent a lot of time acquiring a similar skill set, or never done any martial arts of any kind then, yes, you’ll have difficulty figuring out a realistic training progression that your character went through.

So, let’s start with something simple. The easiest way to figure out “realistic” progression is to:

A) Do your research on historical figures.

C) Do your research on the art of sword fighting. There’s a lot of great references available out there. I suggest starting with Skallagrim and Matt Easton.

B) Correlate to your own experiences.

Have you ever done sports? Even sports you were forced to do as part of high school gym class? Have you ever run a mile? You couldn’t get enough air, your muscles were killing you (including some you never knew existed), you wanted to die, some asshole teacher kept yelling at  you to hurry up, and you hated it?

In broad strokes, learning to fight is a lot like that and the people you hated in gym class like the teacher’s pets who enjoyed physical exercise and were really good at it because they were also athletes… those are the ones who’d be the good fighters in your story.

If you’ve never engaged in any other serious exercise then internalize your high school gym experiences. Especially the embarrassing, sweaty, tired, bloated, painful, red-faced, gasping parts or, you know, failing to do any pull ups at all when asked. Think about how much you hated pushups. Now, think about this, your character is going to be doing lots, and lots, and lots of those!

If your character gets to hold a sword during their first lesson (doubtful, but possible), it won’t be a real one. They’ll get a practice sword, which will either be made of wood or blunted metal.

Then, they’ll spend the entirety of that lesson learning how to stand, and (maybe) how to hold their practice sword.

Eastern martial arts like the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese martial curriculums won’t let you touch a weapon during the first four years of training. Many Chinese martial arts have a very specific progression between weapons because the techniques you learn feed into each other. The staff is the foundational weapon, then the sword, then upwards until you reach the chain weapons like the meteor hammer, dart, and whip chain which are the most difficult to control.

Western martial arts aren’t quite as structured, but they’re still structured. I’m going to assume this character is not some peasant farmer called up as a levy, who has a spear thrust into their hands and thrown out into battle to die for their lord. If you’re thinking of your character as a trained martial combatant, trained by someone be it the castle arms master or someone else, then they’re going to have to learn the basics, and those start with…

FOOTWORK!

This is the rule of all martial arts: if your foundation sucks then you’re going to die. Or, at the very least, you will lose.

You don’t start swinging a sword around, you start with your feet and your legs. You’ve got to learn to perform two actions at once, by moving your arm in a way that’s different from your legs, and combine both into a single movement then link them all together into a multitude of movements. You need to build up muscles in your calves, hamstrings, and thighs. You’ve got to develop balance. Balance starts with learning how to set your feet. You’ve got to have your stances or a stiff wind will blow you over.

You can’t just take blows, you need to learn how to, and the final arbiter of staying upright is not your arms or your upper body but your feet. A shallow stance means you cannot maintain your balance, bad footwork will let your enemy know you’re coming, and you’ll never reach them. You can’t close the distance.

Footwork is one of the main tells between a professional/trained fighter and an untrained fighter. Body position is ingrained from the beginning to the point where you no longer need to think about it.

When martial artists talk about foundation, they’re talking not just talking about basic techniques, they’re literally talking about where you put your feet.

Have you ever stood with your knees bent at a forty-five degree angle, leaning forward onto the balls of your feet for one to two, much less five to ten minutes? If not, then yes, you will experience muscular fatigue.

Now, let’s get to…

CONDITIONING!

You gotta build that endurance.

The average fight will only last around thirty seconds, but you will be sprinting all out. You may be fighting multiple small battles in a large engagement, and when your body gives out then you die.

What most people mistake about swords is the idea that they’re heavy. They’re not. However, keeping two to four pounds in continuous motion for a couple minutes much less the length of a full fledged melee is exhausting. You want to run in a flat out sprint for thirty minutes? No. No, you don’t.

So, what does this mean? A large portion of your character’s early (and later) training will involve conditioning similar to what you experienced in gym class in the beginning, and grow ever more intense!

You will do your morning exercises and stretches to loosen up your muscles (because starting cold is asking for injury), then go on your jog, then you get to practice techniques, then go on another run, get a bout of conditioning, then run up a hill, and then finish up with end of day stretches before eating dinner and falling into bed.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

The point of conditioning is not to push you past what you’re capable of, but to push you past what you think you’re capable of. Building wind and muscle requires work, practicing your techniques when you’re tired helps you learn to push through exhaustion, and you need repetition to ingrain these techniques into your muscle memory to the point they become instinctive reactions. You get used to your muscles being tired so you can force them to work when you need them.

Conditioning is a training ladder, you find a variety of humps to get over, and after you manage past each then training gets easier for a short period, then more gets added and you start all over again.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

You will do those basics over and over and over and over and over and over again before you ever get to try them on another live human being, and when you finally get to they will be slowly structured by a one two three count breakdown where the entire attack is broken apart, then you get to do it at slow speed, then half-speed, then full-speed, and then one day in the far flung future you’ll get to spar. Not with a real sword, but with a blunted training sword and in padded gear so you don’t kill your partner.

Proficiency is Practice, Practice Takes Time

How fast does it take for someone to become proficient? At the very least, in a couple of months you could train someone to be infantry fodder. Consider this, a medieval knight began his education at the age of seven and was considered battlefield ready by the age of twenty-one. He probably saw combat before then as a squire when he became one at fourteen, but we’re looking at a training period of seven years for live combat training and seven years prior for general education. So, timetable necessary to produce a combat elite is fourteen years.

Now, the average knight knew how to do a lot more than swing a sword. He could handle a variety of weaponry, could fight on horseback, and presumably hold a leadership position over his lord’s infantry. A knight is a combat elite.

Your character who started training at eighteen will be overrun by the guy who started training at seven. They have a decade of training and battlefield experience on the other guy.

The men and women in their thirties are crazy good.

Masters have been doing this for thirty to forty years.

You should decide early on how good you want your character to be and plan their backstory accordingly. It’s fine if they’re not at the top, but it’s worth understanding that combat is baked into warrior cultures like the vikings or the germanic tribes. Their kids practiced spear throwing by throwing sticks back and forth as a game, then graduated as adults to catching javelins and throwing them back at Roman legionaries.

Development of Skill Requires Desire and Dedication

How quickly your character progresses will depend on their desire and their dedication. The person who wants to do this will progress faster than the person who doesn’t, who slacks off, and does the bare minimum. All the natural talent in the world won’t change that.

This is the problem a lot of fantasy novels and YA novels face with the protagonist versus their training rival. The training rival is often the guy working harder than the protagonist, especially when they don’t want to be there. A lot of the time, there’s no legitimate reason for the best in class training rival to even feel threatened by these protagonists. They’re no threat to them or their position in the class, and I use “threat” loosely.

I have a lot of experience with the kids in training classes who don’t want to be there. Trust me, as someone who once was one and who was their instructor, they don’t progress. Most of them quit at the earliest opportunity. The ones with a lot of natural talent who just put in the bare minimum because everything is easy end up middling to mediocre if not plain bad.

Physical training is pretty much 90% mental, which means you don’t become good just by showing up. You choose to commit. You chase excellence. You choose to push through the exhaustion and pain by sheer willpower. Most importantly, you don’t give up. You’re defined by tenacity, and your willingness to push past what you believe to be possible.

The guy or girl who is the best is the one who shows up to class earliest and leaves last. They eat, sleep, and dream their training.

Top level athletes are the ones who have sacrificed everything to their craft. The younger they are, then the more time they’ve devoted to that singular aspect of their life at the expense of everything else.

This is what they want.

So, decide early what your actual goal is for this character and their level of skill. Then, you need go learn about different kinds of swords, training, sports education, etc. Once you have those two things, it’ll be easier to figure out the rate your character progresses at.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: How Not to Hire a Specialist

How do normal non-criminal characters hire hit men? I wanted my normal character to get mixed up with the mafia but I’m not sure to write my character contacting/meeting the right people in a way that is believable but not so difficult as to take up the whole story. Criminals for hire (hackers, hit men, etc) must have a way to be contacted but I can’t think of how a person with no criminal past and no government connections would do it.

They go to Craigslist. Then they get arrested.

I mean, you’ve heard the advice, “write what you know.” You don’t know how to hire a professional killer. That’s not a personal failure, that’s what a lot of people face. They may want to hire a professional hitter, but they don’t know how or where. Simply put, they can’t.

If you’re professional criminal, sticking your name and number out there to be cold called is a huge liability.  You don’t know who’s on the other end of that line. It could be a job that won’t pay enough to justify the risk. It could be the cops. It could be someone you pissed off, a family member of one of your victims, or someone who you’re currently contracted to kill. Lots of people have reason to want you dead, or in prison. So, probably best not to list your name in the yellow pages.

Police, shadowy government agencies, and professional criminals pull from separate talent pools. There’s some crossover, and someone could potentially be on the radar for all three.

Police have access to professionals. They’re not going to be hiring assassins, though a dirty cop may avail themselves of the criminal talent pool for special situations. Ex-military is a nice background, but for the most part, they’re going to be working internally, or pulling people from the normal job market. You want to work for the cops? It’s as simple as filling out a job application for an open position. Police hire for support positions, without putting someone through full police training. You’ll be expected to follow the law, so no off-the-books hacking for fun, but there’s pay and benefits. This is for things like forensics.

There’s a related group, with lawyers hiring computer forensics experts to assist in court cases (usually civil, though it may be a defense attorney.) The guys do get picked out of the phone book. They’re not going to engage in criminal activity, but they may help you track down evidence of criminal tampering. Some of these guys have history working the police, in computer forensics, but it’s not necessary.

Intelligence Agencies like to recruit directly. They’ll show up at job fairs at major technical schools, sometimes they’ll put ads in the paper. Ex-military is very nice. In some cases, like the NSA, the agency itself is military. This creates an alternate path, where people will come out directly out of special forces programs, into working for that agency. Possibly, working for them while they still served, and then transitioning over after mustering out. Needless to say, you’re not going to be hiring these guys for an off-the-books kill.

When we’re talking about criminals, it’s a little fuzzier. How does a mob boss know who to call when they need a freelance contractor? References and people inside their organization. These may include ex-military or ex-intelligence officers. It’s a way to make money, and there’s not a lot of use in the civil sector for being able to put a .338 Lapua Magnum through someone’s head at over a kilometer. In fact, some criminal enterprises, including drug cartels, actively court ex-special forces for use as training instructors and in wetwork.

If these all sound like closed systems, it’s because they are. There’s no real access from someone who doesn’t have the connections to find a specialist. As I mentioned, this is deliberate. It’s a safety consideration; an unknown individual coming through your door is a major risk.

So, you may have a civilian who has criminal ties and can hire someone. The connections are already there, so they know who to call. In some ways this is a cheat, because, while it’s real and it does happen, it looks more like a contrivance.

People who don’t have those connections, which is most of the population, tend to do stupid things when they’re looking for a hitman or a hacker. This includes the Craigslist ads I mentioned earlier, and that does happen. There are more than a few situations where someone tried to hire a hitman or hacker for some bit of petty revenge and instead ended up talking to a cop. Because, turns out, if you start asking friends and family for how to hire an assassin, someone’s going to call the cops. Then your dream assassin will call you up on a tapped line, meet with you wearing a wire, and arrest you. This happens. If there’s one takeaway from this: Amateur criminals are dumb. Really dumb.

The thing is, generating those connections is doable. It doesn’t even need to take up your entire story. It does require your character to take some time, and commit some resources, into cultivating them though. The danger here is that cops and criminals share most of the same social circles. Meaning, someone staggering in from the outside may very well run into the police, rather than finding a professional hitter, even if they do things, “properly.”

One of the advantages of prose is that you can glaze over some details. You can compact significant amounts of time into a few paragraphs. The exact process your character goes through to cultivate access to the criminal underworld can be covered in a few pages, punctuated by individual moments. Now, obviously, this can run up against stylistic choices. But, if you need to cover a drawn out, complex process, compacting it down is an option. Particularly one that will take months.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the issue is strictly a time issue. If you’re planning to have your character find an assassin in a couple hours, that’s not happening in any realistic context. Cultivating a network of criminal contacts that can put you in touch with an assassin takes time.

Hackers are a slightly different different story, but again, it’s a different set of connections. Probably not something your character could set up during an all nighter trolling forums. That said, some simple exploits which will work against non-hardened targets could be within your character’s grasp. Basic social engineering and script kiddie stuff is already out there. So, it kinda depends on what you’re expecting a hacker to be capable of. To be fair, there’s also a kind of approach to hackers as techno-sorcery that I’m honestly not fond of, so, again, looking at what’s possible as opposed to having an all seeing auger is probably a good idea.

Remember, whatever your character does to cultivate their network will, probably, show up when the cops start investigating. So, if your character suddenly started fishing around for a hitman, that’s probably going to come up.

When it comes to creating a character, having access to specific kinds of specialists is the kind of thing you need to “buy into” with their background. If they don’t have the connections to do it, then they don’t, and that’s simply not an option for them. If your plot needs this, then you need to change who they were before things got started. Otherwise, the simple answer is, “they can’t.”

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Emotions vs. Logic

Should fight scenes be fueled by emotion or logic? Is it possible to separate the two? I feel like nowadays people take pride in their ability to be ‘logical’ and completely emotionless when debating so I wondered about physical fights. I’ve seen a character who expresses little emotion win fights because they don’t get hotheaded but I’ve also seen them portrayed passionless compared to a genuinely emotional hero. Which is best realistically?

Generally speaking, either one is realistic. As in, both occur in the real world. There are police blotters filled with stories about some idiot who let themselves get riled up and did something stupid. People who got into altercations because their emotions ran wild.

Also, there is a legitimate point where the kind of character you’re writing might not be particularly analytical. A lot of people do make their decision based on “gut” or emotion. A lot of people value, “grit,” or conviction as a deciding factor in who they think has more merit.

This also breaks down to the idea that the victor must be the one with the “correct” position. “Might makes right.” It’s easy to take the extra step to say that the person who “believes” should be the victor. This is a mistake.

Victory is dependent on two things: having a clear objective, and way to achieve it. Going into a fight without a goal is a recipe for defeat, even if you emerge victorious in the moment.

So, here’s the problem. An emotional fighter who isn’t thinking will be outmaneuvered by a logical one every time. Having goals, making assessments, changing those in the moment, are all key to victory. Again, there’s an old adage that: no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Just because you had a plan doesn’t mean it will work, and sometimes you simply need to scramble to fix the situation.

So, you actually asked if fights should be emotional or logical: the answer is, “yes.” As much as logic and rational thought are important, emotion part being human. Fights need both. There need to be emotional stakes, and those will affect your characters. There needs to be a rational element, or your characters will be trivial to subvert.

People aren’t a single continuum between logical and emotional. You can be both. If you want to talk about emotion, it’s more important to think of that in the context of how strong a character’s emotions are, and how good their control over them is. That’s not really related to their ability to think critically, but their current emotional state is. So if they’re under a lot of stress, or getting desperate, their ability to think clearly will be impaired.

The clearer your character’s mind, the better their judgement will be. That said, this doesn’t make someone an emotionless rock, and depending on how your characters operate, it’s entirely possible they’ll be deteriorating over the course of the story, meaning their ability to function will be increasingly impaired. How far you take that concept depends on your story and the kind of story you’re talking about, though I’d recommend measuring any deterioration like this carefully. Also worth noting, these states can shift during a fight. So, it’s possible a character could degrade as the situation around them changes. That said, something truly traumatic would need to occur to significantly shift their state of mind in a mater of moments.

Someone who keeps their emotions in check still has them. It can be harder to identify their emotional state, but they still have them. Just because someone is extremely cold and analytical, that just means they’ve got their psyche under control, not that they’re an emotionless robot. Keep track of characters like this carefully, because when they do show hints of emotion, your audience will know something has started going seriously sideways.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Where do I begin? Anywhere you want.

Hi I can’t decide the timeline to start story. What should be the main event in story?

You included either a lot of backstory or potential plot hooks for your narrative in the question, all of which have the potential to be very interesting stories in their own right, and that’s why we’re going to talk about something else.

Where do I start my story?

This is the question a lot of authors wrestle with and the answer is surprisingly simple — anywhere you want.

You don’t even need to start writing at the start of your story, you can start writing the middle first, or even the ending, and then start from the beginning once you know where you’re going. When I get stuck, I often write the parts in the future which I find interesting and work my way towards it because that gives me a point to aim for.

You have to start somewhere, so start with what interests you.

If you find yourself getting caught up in massive details for a fantasy setting spread across multiple dimensions and lifetimes then… write the ideas down, make note of them, fill up your notebooks with all that detail for your setting bible. That way, you can always come back to it later for more inspiration. Once you’ve done that, move on to your characters. Take a moment to step away from the big world changing events, but on the individuals in your story. The ones who will ultimately be the driving force behind these events.

These smaller, individual stories are the ones which carry the overarching plot and a narrative that could encompass anything from multiple books, or simply be the epic backstory of just one.

So, who interests you? The great hero at the height of their reign? The Rise of the Big Bad? The hero reincarnated into a new world, scrabbling to put together the pieces of their past life? Or, is it someone else? The rebellious general who realizes the evil they serve isn’t creating the world they hoped for? A young scribe keeping notes in the halls of an evil sorcerer  who steals the mcguffin and runs off to join the rebels? A battered, down on their luck bounty hunter after the relic so they can sell it to the highest bidder? A frustrated and angry high school student stuck in a small world, who dreams of a more fantastical one, where they’re the hero winth incredible powers, who wants the world they’ve seen in their dreams, but when those dreams become a reality realizes it might be more than they ever bargained for?

Epic narratives (rather than epics, the genre) can come from any narrative. The bounty hunter could be hunting the scribe, who could wind up on a buddy/road trip adventure as they carry a mystical object toward their world’s salvation or destruction. This could be an epic narrative filled with humor, potential romance, and heartache. Or, it could be cliche.

The story could be cliche, or it could be fantastic, it might even be cliche and fantastic. (This is, frankly, my favorite type of story.)

You won’t know until you sit down and start writing it.

You won’t know until you’ve finished your first draft. (All first drafts are terrible.)

You won’t know until you’ve restructured the whole thing in your second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts.

You may end up with a story wildly different from the one you imagined when you first sat down to write. This is part of why the place where you start doesn’t need to be your beginning. Writing is a journey of self-discovery, a discovery of your own creative process.

So, pick somewhere. Don’t worry if it’s the perfect character, or the right place. You can end up at right and perfect, but you can’t expect right and perfect in the beginning. You can accept messy, clumsy, and unsure. Trust yourself to get to the gem you imagine inside your mind, keep working at it and you will. Remember that what you read from a published novel is the end result of a product polished to a shine. Where we start is with a diamond, or even a rock full of diamonds we’ll need to chip out of the mountain before we can show them off. Creation is often a messy, embarrassing process filled with horror, joy, and terror. There may occasionally be hair pulling and screaming. You’ll give yourself a lot more grief trying to avoid this, than you will by just embracing it.

You don’t have to write in a straight line.

You do write one line at a time.

So, start writing.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Lethal Superheroes

Whats your opinion of the whole ‘Superheroes shouldn’t kill’ argument that always pops up? Why is it say Iron Man is given a pass for killing Jihadists, but Batman or Superman aren’t?

I wouldn’t say it “always pops up,” because I see it fairly rarely. The important thing about Superman or Batman isn’t that they shouldn’t, it’s that they choose not to.

So, the short version with Batman is his prohibition against killing was added after the character was created. Initially he had no qualms about gunning people down. His aversion to firearms and killing in general, came as an attempt to move further from another fictional, nocturnal, New York vigilante and their brace of nickle plated .45s.

It’s kind of weird now to say that Batman’s refusal to kill was because he looked like a rip off of The Shadow, but here we are. Gotham is rarely used as a nickname for New York now. The Shadow gained actual superpowers to simplify the character for the radio show. And of course, Batman became wildly popular while The Shadow slipped into obscurity.

Superman, it’s a choice. It’s just his ethics, and a line he refused to cross. Not because he can’t, or because it would cause some horrific backlash against him: Killing a sentient being is against his code of ethics.  This is a line he won’t willingly cross. It gets into a complex discussion about who he is as a person,(or character.)

There are plenty of supreheroes that don’t kill people, for a variety of reasons. So, there’s nothing wrong with a character like Batman, Superman, or Daredevil saying they won’t kill.

There’s a lot of legitimate arguments for killing your foes when they’re literally supervillains. This is especially true for Bats, every time The Joker decides to nerve a mall. “Dude, you could stop this, but you won’t. He broke out of Arkham again, so you’re taking him back instead of just ending here?” There’s a lot more to that argument, but, it makes sense.

So, Tony Stark kills people. A lot of people. Not just the ones you see. (I’m going with the films here, because the Jihadists thing is from the movies, not as much the comics.) Stark Industries is a high-tech weapons manufacturer. They make so many weapons. It makes sense. I mean, Tony wasn’t there, pulling the trigger, but this is a guy with a lot of blood on his hands, seeing as he’s also their primary venue of arms R&D.

Kind of a, “what if Steve Jobs, made weapons instead of computers,” thing. Though, even in the films Stark Industries is also in the Telecom and Computer markets.

So, part of Tony’s arc is moving from this guy who sold the weapons that killed a ton of people and didn’t care about that, to a guy who’s far more selective in his violence. Given the circumstances, that makes sense. Hell, his alcoholism makes sense. Tony doesn’t get a pass for killing people. The people around him don’t care, they’re willing to accept that, but he’s not willing to accept that about himself. It also consistent with his personality and personal history, so this isn’t just some act of self-flagellation, but it does fit neatly into the character.

This is why characters like Superman don’t kill people. It’s not that they can’t; they don’t want to live in the aftermath. Tony already does, and that’s reasonable behavior. It’s also what drives him to be a hero; he’s trying to atone for past actions. By itself, this could be cliche, but expression is unique enough that you don’t think of him as someone who’s trying to make up for who they used to be.

Superheroes can kill people, but it depends on who they are. No one bats an eye when Black Widow, or The Punisher, blow someone away. It’s in character for them. They approach lethal violence as a tool to deal with their opponents. Also, I don’t want this to sound like it’s just a Marvel thing, DC also has a bunch of lethal heroes, (ironically, including The Shadow.)

Usually when someone’s questioning if a superhero should be killing people, they’re coming from one of two places. Either, they aren’t familiar with the character at all, or it’s out of character.

The best illustration of the former is that quote from Deadpool:

You’re probably thinking, “My boyfriend said this was a superhero movie but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a fucking kabab!”

So, no shame here. If you aren’t familiar with a character like Ghost, The Mask, or The Tick, you might think they’re not going to kill people. Well, credit you can figure out which of those characters are non-lethal from their names.

Alternately, it may be that it doesn’t fit the character. Having Bats suddenly decide to gun down a foe is a problem. Not because lethal heroes aren’t a thing, but because it’s out of character for him. That’s not Batman. You know it. I know it. It’s not right for the character.

It can be very easy to transition from poorly executed writing to, “that shouldn’t happen.” In a stray moment, from someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time reading comics, that could turn into, “superheroes shouldn’t kill.” It isn’t consistent with actual superhero lit, but it’s an understandable mistake to make.

On an ethical front, sure. If superheroes were real, with actual powers, yeah, use of lethal force should be very careful measured, and only used as an absolute last resort. In practice, it probably wouldn’t be as carefully measured, and there is an entire discussion about law enforcement dealing with superheroes, that usually gets skimmed over. I mean, if the cops decide to arrest Superman, what’re they going to do? What can they really do?

This can also be a justifiable restriction based on the genre you’re working with. If working from a Saturday morning cartoon or four color 1960s comic flavor, having characters who are lethal is a serious decision and probably shouldn’t be introduced lightly. If you’re trying to write a post-Watchmen critique of the superhero as  “unrealistic” no one’s going to bat an eye at your character carving people up like a Christmas Turkey.

It’s also possible for a non-lethal hero to break their personal code. This could be increasing stress, this could be the result of some traumatic event that causes them reevaluate their position. It could be a desperate act because there really is no other option, or it could even be an accident. When you have the ability to dead lift five tons, people are made of tissue paper. Apply a little too much force and you’ve got the world’s worst Will it Blend reboot.

That’s the other thing about Superman. He makes life harder for himself by not killing his foes. Simply put, he believes killing is wrong, and doesn’t stoop to that level. I mean, this does make sense with the character’s personality and beliefs. He’s nominally invulnerable to harm, and firmly believes that anyone can mend their ways. As a result, he’s willing to make life difficult for himself to protect others, including his foes, which is certainly one definition of a hero.

The inverse is, of course, also an option. A hero who backs off of killing people, or has a change of heart is entirely possible. I mean, we were talking about Tony Stark earlier, though he’s certainly not the only example. This can also create a situation where a selective killing is more of a setback than a full failure,  This could also be baked into their origin story. Though, to be fair, there’s also plenty of room for a superhero to have a change of heart as part of their creation and continue mowing people down on their very messy road to personal redemption.

Is your character inclined to kill people? It depends on the hero. If your hero was an academic, a reporter,  jazz musician, or some other “normal” profession, then it could go either way. They might, or they might not, depending on their personal outlook. If your hero was a soldier, hitman, or intergalactic warrior before taking up the mantel of superhero, there’s a decent chance they’ll be smearing their opponents across the walls.

Should superheroes kill people? It depends character, and their story.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: A Thousand Words

How do you convey the feeling of an ominous/sad close up shot through prose? I have a scene that ends with a character taking off their SciFi armor because they are about to set off an EMP-like device that would make it a burden. The narrator doesn’t think much of it, but I want to give the reader a sense of trepidation.

The problem here is you’re asking how to write a picture. To a certain extent, this is natural; we’re all influenced by the media we consume. Sometimes you see, or read something, and want to use parts of that for your own writing. Sometimes you can. Sometimes you need to step back and completely reevaluate what you consumed, and realize that some of it doesn’t directly translate into your chosen medium.

You can adapt what you see into prose, but you cannot fully recreate it. You can’t exactly mimic the colors, you can’t get the totality of scope, or incorporate all of the detail work. In the case of film, you can’t replicate the musical cues. You can write a script, and work with other people to realize that image, but in a written work you can’t get everything. You shouldn’t want to, because you can do better.

Writing gives you easier access to the inner workings of your character’s heads. It also opens up the gates, and lets you start sketching out your world in ways that would be impossible in another format. In writing, you don’t need to force emotions onto your audience, because they have direct access to your characters’ states of mind. If your character is scared, worried, or anxious, you can say it. You can talk about it. You can talk about why, and go into details that would kill the pacing of a flow.

What you can’t do as elegantly is show the device. But, to an extent, beyond basic mise en scene, it doesn’t really matter that much if it’s riveted, or if it has slick, beveled plates. You might mention that when describing it, but it really is just set dressing to sell the moment. The important thing getting into your character’s head. Again, in writing, that’s really easy. It’s film where the director and actors need to take extra steps to sell the moment.

Case in point: your character doesn’t need to take their helmet off. Think about this for a moment. The entire reason to take the helmet off is to see the character’s face. If you’re inhabiting their skull as a PoV character, you wouldn’t “see” it when you take it off anyway. You don’t need to see the actor’s performance because there is no actor, just your character, and your audience stuck in their mind as the moments tick down. You actually miss out on things too. If their helmet has a built in HUD, you miss out on that frying and going dark when the EMP detonates.

Visual media excels in providing spectacle. If you’re shooting a fight sequence, you can let it run far longer than a real fight could ever last because you’re relying on the choreography to keep the fight interesting. You can mix this with a changing environment to make things even more engaging. All of this applies when you’ve got stunt guys going through the motions, performing visual art. In prose, you lose that. Long fights become exhausting for the reader, and replicating the spectacle is (effectively) impossible. So, you need to tell a different story with your fights.

Different media have different strengths and weaknesses. As I mentioned, prose gives you the most control over your protagonist’s state of mind. Film and other visual media provide the most spectacle. Again, you’re never going to replicate the visual detail in text. Comic books stand between these two points, gaining some visual elements, but the trade off is that your audience is outside of the character’s head looking in, even if they have limited access to their thought process. Video games will give you an unparalleled connection between the audience and the events, as they’re an active participant rather than an observer, the trade off is, you give up a surprising amount of autonomy as a writer, as you have to find a way to align your audiences views with the character and their actions, otherwise they’ll disconnect from the material, or at least from your stories.

So, the short answer of, “how do I do this in text,” is to evaluate the scene in the context of your medium. How do you write a scene where a character is looking at a weapon of mass destruction about to detonate? In prose you’re going to spend a lot more time working through your character’s emotional state, rather than trying to get your audience to share in that experience via visual cues. They’re already in your character’s head. In that sense, you get to jump ahead of the line.

-Starke

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.