Q&A: Custom Sniper

setting aside the wisdom of “signing” one’s kills, how effective would a rifle chambered for a unique custom round be as a signature?

clarifying, i don’t mean like a special payload or anything like that. i mean like a rifle chambered for a bottlenecked 10x80mm cartridge


The issue is, you’re making a custom round for a custom built weapon. Because there is no existing cartridge, you’d need to make almost all of this from scratch. And, you’re doing all of this to create an (almost certainly) inferior analog to a CheyTac Intervention chambered in .408 (10.36x77mm.)

A 10×80 cartridge would be one of those hybrid sniper/anti-materiel rounds, along with rounds like the .338 Lapua, the .416 Barret, and at least a half dozen other relatively modern rounds. Designed in an attempt to bridge between 7.62mm NATO and .50BMG, a lot of these have been designed in the last 20 years. These are used at extreme ranges (around a mile).

This means your character, or their gunsmith, needs to be able to flawlessly design and fabricate the entire weapon from raw materials. Now, that’s not, technically, impossible, but it’s the next best thing. Converting an existing rifle to a custom cartridge is possible, but would also be extremely difficult. This is after you remember that messing around with any of these rifles requires a skilled gunsmith.

Doing full R&D to create a rifle like that from scratch would cost millions of dollars, and might be equal to an off-the-shelf L115A3. Also, bonus points in that, while the L115A3 isn’t civilian purchasable, .338 Lapua has made it onto the civilian market, so your character could get ammunition for their rifle without difficulty.

So, let’s step back from the 10x80mm for a second. If your character is using a milspec rifle chambered in one of these rounds, it’s very likely they’d be handloading their own cartridges. This can result in better performance than a mass produced shell, and gives the shooter the ability to fine tune a lot of factors in how their rifle will perform. In cases like this, the handloaded round will outperform off-the-shelf cartridges.

There are a lot of custom guns out there. In particular, some manufacturers offer high end custom pieces, so it’s possible you might see a one-of-a-kind rifle, usually modified off of a venerable pattern. Though at that point, it’d be extremely unlikely it’d be chambered in an experimental cartridge.

Realistically, there’s three combat applications for this kind of a round. Your character is a sniper, at which point, there are better, significantly cheaper, options. Your character is a government-backed assassin, at which point having any signature is a horrible idea, as it makes it easier to tie their actions together. Your character is a criminal assassin. I know we’ve talked about the problem for a hitman reusing the same gun, but, “there’s only one person out there who uses a 10mm rifle round,” is far worse. Though, to be fair, it’s not as dumb as someone blithely saying, “there’s only one man that uses a Walther PPK.” Fox Mulder? No, Robert McCall? No, wait, I’ll get this one eventually.


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Q&A: Grind it Down

Sorry with the (kind of) stupid question, but if you have to constantly sharpen a sword, would you be left with no sword left after a period of time?

This is kinda like the old tootsie pop ads. How many licks does it take? Who knows, because something eventually bites it. You could, theoretically, grind a blade to dust, but it would break long before that happened.

So, when sharpening most blades, you grind down, or shave off, tiny bits of the metal to create a new edge. Thing is, the amount of metal lost is, usually, minuscule. Now, if you examine the edge, you will see signs of repeated sharpening, but you’re not going to grind away the blade.

A critical thing to understand about swords, and most weapons, is that it needs to be solid. It’s going to experience abuse as part of its normal function. Now, proper sword use will try to minimize that damage, but it’s still going to be suffering wear. Sharpening is one of the things you do to keep operational longer. Eventually, these things still have a useful lifespan, no matter how well they’re treated. Maintaining them extends that lifespan, but it doesn’t fully restore the weapon.

So, you can see where someone has been sharpening a weapon, and with enough experience you can make an educated guess for how much use a given blade has seen. You can also, sometimes, make a pretty decent assessment for how it’s been used. A blade that saw combat will look very different from one that was used in a handful of duels. A knife that was used for utility will look different from one that was used to parry attacks, (and I’m not even talking about design differences, I just mean the wear on the blade.) You can assess the skill of the armorer who maintained the weapons. Though, this goes beyond simply looking at the blade and wear on it.

If you did have an armorer who was grinding down a sword to keep it looking fresh, the end result would be that, in combat, the blade would simply sheer off. It might botch a parry, or shatter on impact. You need the mass of the blade to maintain the structural integrity, and when you start grinding that down, you’re trading the long term durability for an edge. Now, that’s something people do, but they’re not going to be grinding the core, they’ll be grinding near the edge of the blade. (One of the ways you can tell the age of a blade is by looking at how much has been ground down, and how sharp the angle is leading to the edge. )

Nicks are another good indicator. The blade struck something and deformed the metal to the point that it couldn’t be hammered back into line. Now, that may mostly sheer off on its own, or it might need to be ground down. Either way, that’s another consideration. Of course a nicked blade does, also, function as a guide path for an impact to damage the blade, and we’re back to, “you won’t see it grind away to nothing, you’ll see it break.”

Even if you did try to grind a blade away, eventually the core would break. So, it’s possible to do this, but the grindstone would eventually break the weapon. The only time you might something like this is on mock weapons used to train armorers. Where they’re asked to grind billets instead of working on actual blades. So, that could happen. You’ll also sometimes see this with older kitchen knives. A knife that’s been in use for decades or centuries can be whittled down to almost nothing. But, that’s not a combat weapon, and faces far less abuse as part of its normal life.

So, how many grindstones does it take to get to the core of a blade? Crunch.


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Q&A: Immortals, Age Differences, and Consent

Okay, I don’t know who to ask, so I came here. Does pedophilia count if one person is immortal? I.e. Edward Cullen, who should already get a restraining order because stalking. Idk, just wondering.

In the specific case of Twilight, it’s ephebophilia. Edward Cullen engages in pathological attraction to a teenager. Ephebophilia is attraction to individuals in the 15-19 range. So, in short: No, but that’s not better. Cullen is still a sexual predator.

Except, that’s not exactly the question you’re asking. You want to know if the significant age difference between an immortal character, you cited vampires, and a mortal is pedophilia. It’s not, but it is still messed up.

If you have an immortal who’s actively attracted to children, that’s pedophilia. Just like if you have a mortal character who does the same. If they’re 11-14, that’s hebephilia, 15-19 is ephebophilia. They’re still part of the larger range of paraphilic behaviors. It doesn’t particularly bother me when people lump all three of these together under one heading, they can all result in extremely harmful abuse, but Cullen is an excellent example of an ephebophile.

Also, while we’re dragging up specific paraphilias and talking about vampires, hematolagnia is the sexual fetishization of drinking blood.

If you have an immortal that’s attracted to adult mortals, that’s not technically a documented paraphilia, given that, in the real world, we don’t have vampires wandering around targeting college coeds, but the behavior would probably be a paraphilia in a world where this actually happened, with a few critical caveats.

It’s worth remembering that vampires are parasitic. For all their claims of being nocturnal predators, these are creatures that are dependent on feeding on others. So, we’re really talking about sexual relationships with a people-shaped mosquito. The vampire may simply be exploiting their victim’s sex drive to get dinner. That wouldn’t be paraphilic, also wouldn’t be romantic, no matter what the victim believed.

Also, while we’re on the subject, the idea of someone maintaining a romantic relationship with their food is strange. I’m also thinking of the line from What We Do in the Shadows, “If you’re going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” But, the reasoning is sound.

Here’s an open question: Is it possible for an immortal to have a healthy relationship with a mortal at all?

Relationships with uneven power dynamics are possible, but extremely difficult and risky. When you’re talking about someone with significantly more life experience, holding them against someone who lacks that runs a serious risk for psychologically abusive behavior. This can happen in the real world when someone becomes involved in someone who’s significantly older. Ex: a college student and their professor. And, we’re just talking about normal humans, crank that out by adding an immortal, and the centuries spent practicing their social skills creates a very imbalanced situation.

Relationships require shared experiences. These don’t have to be things that happened while you were together, but it does require a common frame of reference. This in turn makes communication easier, as you’ll have a broader base of familiar concepts. Somewhat obviously, if someone has radically different life experiences, for example, they grew up in 14th century France and have been preying on humans for the last 600 years, that’s going to make a shared frame of reference a bit harder.

This isn’t insurmountable, but it means that, in order to have a healthy relationship, one participant is going to have to do a lot more to learn about the other. Specifically in the case of a mortal and immortal pairing, that will be a very asymmetric situation. Learning about 20 years you were there for, just doing other things, is vastly different from trying to learn about centuries of experiences in a non-academic context.

Also worth pointing out, this would be a problem for immortals pairing with each other. That said, they’d already have more shared context, and the idea that you’d see immortals bouncing off each other with centuries apart before reuniting isn’t really that strange. After all, they’d still have far more in common with each other than anyone else.

There is another, basically inevitable, outcome. Immortals who viewed mortals as an, “emotional sampler platter.” Because they’ll be around long after the human is dead, they wouldn’t take the time to create a serious emotional investment. Latching onto someone who caught their attention, and then abandoning them when their whims changed. Fueled by centuries of social skills, this could be trivial for them. Think of it as a slightly extended one night stand, but with the mortal unaware that they were just a passing fancy. There wouldn’t even be the potential for long term entanglements.

Granted, when we’re talking about immortals who have the capacity to convert others, (primarily thinking of vampires here, though there are other possible examples) you might have a slightly different set of dynamics. Still kinda messed up, and I wouldn’t expect that relationship to be healthy, long term. Especially since the mortal would, almost certainly, not be making a fully informed decision to become immortal.

The decision sounds deceptively simple, do you want to live forever? But the trade off is that you’ll be forever cutting yourself off from the vast majority of the world. You will live to see everyone you’ve known and cared about grow old and die (or, just die), while you’re trapped in amber, never aging. You’re also permanently anchoring yourself to a faction of immortals, probably with political baggage stretching back throughout human history. There’s no realistic way to stick all of that on the brochure when offered the possibility of immortality. Worse, if the immortal is acting out of infatuation, they’re not likely to go into the in depth history lesson of who pissed off whom in the Roman Republic and how that will affect your immortality. Even if they do, operationalizing that info into something you can understand is a stretch for someone who hasn’t graduated high school.

Stepping past all of that, you’ve heard the question, “where do you see yourself in five years?” Personally, I’ve never had an answer to that, but, “where do you see yourself in 500 years?” Fuck.

I’m looping around this topic, but problem ultimately is consent. If you have an immortal and mortal attempting to start a relationship, it’s very difficult for the mortal to provide informed consent. Even in situations where there’s no malicious intent it’s, at best, troubling. In most cases, it will be downright predatory.

If the frame of reference is Edward Cullen, he is sexually preying on, and psychologically abusing a teenager, using a mix of his experience and powers. It doesn’t help that Bella isn’t exactly the sharpest crayon in the box, but the entire situation is profoundly messed up.


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Q&A: The Villain In a Heist is reliant on the Wall

quietemptydiariess said to howtofightwrite: I’m writing a female lead heist film with two lead characters. The villain is one of the women’s best friends. However, I’m having writer’s block on creating the villain character. I haven’t come up with anything.

The antagonist of a heist film is the security systems put into place to prevent the theft of the valuable object the thieves want to steal, the villain of the narrative is either someone who protects the valuable object (like the art museum’s security director) or the owner of the object the thieves want to steal. They can be the owner of the object, another thief who stole the object first, a private collector, the runner of a museum, an interpol agent, an FBI agent, or someone like an insurance investigator put in place to protect the millions of dollars the insurance company will need to dole out if the valuable object gets stolen. Or, there can be multiple secondary villains/antagonists set in multiple positions in the narrative. We have the criminal who owns the piece the thieves want and will kill them if they catch them, the interpol/FBI/insurance agent who is investigating the thieves and applying external pressure, and the security director who is the primary head to head nemesis our thieves are working around.

With a heist narrative, the big antagonist is always the security systems put in place to protect the valuable object. If you don’t have that then you don’t have a story and you don’t have villains.

A heist narrative has two primary antagonists, one are the characters actively working to prevent your thieves from stealing the object and the security systems being put into place to keep the object from being stolen in the first place. The foe in the heist story has to catch their opponent, they can’t simply find and kill them. They investigate them.

The security systems are a wall antagonist, your characters have to find their way around or over a wall. The live antagonist is ultimately secondary to the security precautions, which is the problem your characters are looking to solve.

Heist films aren’t about a race against other people, but your characters are the ones setting the tempo. How do you get the information you need arousing suspicion? When you’re under suspicion, how do you ensure you don’t move too fast that you start making mistakes but also don’t move so slow that you miss the window of opportunity? Your characters are putting themselves on the clock, they need just enough time. They need to be precise.

You, as the author, are setting up a puzzle box.

If you’re having trouble with your villains, you’re having trouble with your puzzle. If you’re having trouble with the villains, you need to be spending more time on your puzzle. The live actor is not the driving force of the narrative, they are reacting to the actions of your thieves. The thieves are the ones who are pushing the story forward. The live actor, the villain, is someone who is just doing their job and the tension with them in the end is they either do their job or they don’t. It’s up to you to build the character drama on whether the best friend will turn one of your heroes in at the end of the film or give them a pass.

The heroes of the heist narrative are active rather than reactive. This can be difficult if you’re not used to working with the heist genre and female characters specifically can have issues with proactivity. Women in fiction tend to be passive (by design), in supportive roles or acting under the direction of an authority figure, they’re reactive rather than proactive. You’re going to have to fight against that impulse, which is to step aside and let someone else (usually male) set the tempo. The villain of a heist narrative doesn’t have to do anything, if your characters never make the first move then what they have isn’t under threat and they don’t need to defend it. Your characters have to get in first and keep moving because if they do nothing then the other side wins by default.

What do you want?

What do you need to get it?

How do you get it?

How do you avoid getting caught?

What are the complications?

This is a chess game. Your heroes are playing white, the villains are playing black. White moves first, black responds. If white doesn’t move, there is no game. You’re playing both sides, and occasionally trap doors will open to take your pieces. After all, this game is about winning and not about rules. White will cheat, but if black catches them cheating it’s also game over.

Heists are exercises in your characters’ creativity.

Your villains are reacting to your characters’ actions.

Relax, and focus on the circumstances surrounding the object the characters intend to steal and how this other character relates to that object.

Once you have your puzzle, you’ll have your solution and then your answer.


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Q&A: Similar, But not the same (Improvised Weapon Follow-up)

rainbowfoxes said to howtofightwrite: Would someone who’s been trained in a particular weapon be able to adapt to a makeshift one? For example, if someone was trained in the chain whip, would they be able to use a bike chain to similar effect?

A bike chain not so much, but only because it moves on a single plane and isn’t flexible. A regular chain? Sure. You put a heavy steel lock on the end of a regular chain and you’ve got a makeshift flail/meteor hammer.

However, improvised weapons are not the same as the real weapon and they are more limited in capacity. So, you could probably use a length of chain with movements derived from the whip chain but only the basics (single hand with the other holding the rest of the chain, no redirecting off your upper arm/elbow) and most likely without the same range. This doesn’t mean a simple length of chain cannot be used to devastating effect because it can be, but it won’t be exactly the same with the same techniques. They don’t transition fluidly, and you have to be very specific about the weapons and every day objects you pick out for to combine for improvisation

A tire iron is not designed to beat someone about the head even when that’s what it’s being used for. The benefits of the tire iron lie in the fact its a length of solid steel with a handle and hitting someone with it will hurt a whole hell of a lot. However, given the choice, you’d rather be using a tactical baton. The tactical baton will transition much better to a skill set learned on, say, eskrima with fewer limitations than a tire iron. If you took your tire iron up against someone wielding a tactical baton, you’d be at a disadvantage with subpar weapon.

Add to this the fact you are used to wielding a whip chain and not used to wielding a regular length of chain, you’re going to run up against some problems. The chain is going to be heavier, it will be less fluid, more difficult to spin, your tempo will be slowed, and you’re going to be heavily reliant on the most basic of techniques. The ones you might normally transition into will be out, and there’ll be specific patterns (like the ones where you’d catch on your ribs and stomach) that you will need to avoid for your own safety. Your reflexes will be trained to transition smoothly from one technique to another, which can lead to costly mistakes with a heavier weapon you’re not used to wielding. Those fractions of seconds in delay, the parts where you actually need to stop and think about control rather than react and let your body act, where you’re splitting your attention between your environment and the techniques you’re trying to carry out, can cost you the fight.

This is the advantage of the trained combatant over the untrained combatant. The trained combatant has their techniques ingrained into their reflexes, their reaction times are ten times faster, and this frees their conscious mind up to focus on what’s happening around them rather than on what their body is doing. This is the result of practice, practice for hundreds and, on occasion, thousands of hours retraining their body’s reflexive reactions. Training their muscles to respond, cutting those reaction times down, slimming down the time it takes for their brain to send orders to their limbs. All of this will give them an advantage over someone who does not have similar preparation.

However, weapons are not interchangeable and they are not the same. You hand someone a meteor hammer when they’re used to using a whip chain or rope dart and it will still take time for them to learn how to use the meteor hammer effectively. They’ll learn more quickly than a raw beginner, but they still have to learn. The same truth follows for improvised weapons. This is not the weapon your character is used to using. Similar, yes, but not the same.

This distinction is important to grasp because it can be an excellent source of tension in your scene. In fact, it is one of the hallmark handicaps for experienced fighters handed off by fight scene coordinators. Experienced fighters being forced to rely on weapons they’re not used to can provide uncertainty, and part of stacking the odds against them. Others are numbers, unfamiliar terrain, unexpected combat, without weapons, and forced improvisation. These can all be used to great effect to transform even the most experienced and talented of fighters into underdogs.

And you want them to be underdogs, you want your hero in situations where they’re out of their depth, you want them in situations where they need to get a little creative, you want them in situations where they’re forced to run. You want to establish their limits because once they have limits you can create scenarios where they start to shine, where your audience has a chance to bond with them, and you build up your antagonists in the bargain. It is not very fun to read a fight scene where we know the outcome, even when we already know the outcome. If your hero is not under pressure, if they’re not facing difficulties, if they’re not uncomfortable, if they’re not just a little out of their depth (but not so far that they drown) then the scene has no tension.

Improvised weapons are one means of turning the experienced into the underdog, especially when the enemy has actual weapons. If you can beat the idea into your brain that actual weapons trump improvised weapons no matter who is wielding them (hero, villain, or mook), then you’ll have a better chance of establishing your tension. A character can be unconcerned due to their own ego if they’re outnumbered and outgunned, but you, the author, should be giving your audience reason to be concerned. That starts with establishing limitations.

No two weapons are the same, even those of the same type. Each weapon has its quirks, its flaws, and imperfections that the character who wields it has learned to account for. A character may be able to wield someone else’s longsword, but they won’t wield it as well as their own. Two different weapons of two different types, even those from the same family, are not interchangeable. Improvised weapons suffer from severe limitations because they are not, really, weapons.

Understanding limitations works to your advantage because limitations, external, internal, physical, mental, and moral are key to building tension. Tension is what keeps your narrative interesting.

Your character has her whip chain but she is used to wielding it in open areas with room to swing it and is forced to fight in a crowded street filled with parked cars against five or six enemies who are hunting for her.

This could be a great scene if you’re able to make the most of the presented limitations: numbers, populated area, unfamiliar terrain. You can use the whip chain in close quarters, but the advantages of the whip chain against numbers are out. So, the character must fight in a way the audience was not primed to expect given the weapon choice.

See? Similar to what might’ve been, but not the same.

There’s your wrench. Throw as many as you can.


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Q&A: Common accidents are not cliche

For a beginner attempting to use rope/chained weapons, how cliche would it be to have them getting it wrapped around themselves?

I kid you not when I say the first and most common injury you’ll get from the three-section staff when first learning to wield it involves hitting yourself in the head.

Chain/rope weapons are about gaining force with momentum, which means you’re learning to keep the weapon in a state of constant motion. With a weapon like the shaolin dart, the nunchaku, or the whip chain, you use your body as the guide to redirect the weapon while it is moving. This is not just your hands and your wrist, but your upper arm, your shoulders, your sides, your legs, and even, in some cases, your neck. The more complicated the motion, the more difficult the weapon, the more likely you are to make mistakes during training, and chain weapons are the pinnacle for weapon difficulty.

Look at the three-section staff, if you can’t imagine it rebounding at the wrong angle and hitting you squarely in some place very painful during the learning process then… well… lol. That’s unrealistic.

You’re going to lose control of a chain weapon at some point (probably multiple points) during training. And, honestly, you’re going to end up with it wrapped around you at some points on purpose simply because that’s a great way to make it stop moving.

The question about whether or not this will be cliche in your writing is going to depend not on the character getting their weapon wrapped around them, but how this occurs and what kind of motion they were going for to begin with.

Take a moment, (or an hour if you watch this instructional video with John Su) to familiarize yourself with the movement patterns of the weapon you want to write.

If your character is doing a forward spin at the side of their body, then the chain is unlikely to wrap itself around their whole body as part of a mistake. The chain is actually unlikely to wrap itself around anything. In fact, the weapon is more likely to lose the forward momentum, hitch in the middle, stop spinning, and fall to the ground. The chain whip is likely to only wrap itself around the neck, for example, if the practitioner is doing a specific technique which involves the neck. Or a technique which involves their body, and in those cases more likely to wrap around a specific body part in a tight spiral than the whole body.

So if you were imagining the whip chain wrapping itself around the character’s feet and body in such a way that they fall to the ground then you’re not just edging toward the territory of cliche but also that of unrealistic. Mistakes that come from the chain moving in an unnatural manner for the sake of showing the character making said mistake are going to be cliche.

You have to be going pretty fast for the weapon to wrap around you multiple times, and part of your training is learning to control it just enough so you can perform a catch and release. This involves learning to not just moderate your speed at specific junctures during the technique, but also mastering the patterns of circular movement. It’s not just that the weapon is going to wrap around you, but that you control when and how it does.

See take this example. They won’t be going this fast in the beginning, they should practice slowly and in individual pieces or they’re far more likely to hurt themselves. However, even an experienced practitioner can end up with the whip chain hitting them or wrapped around them in a way they didn’t intend.

Still, the term beginner is also a misnomer. The whip chain or nine section chain, the rope dart, the three section staff, the nunchaku, are all advanced weapons at the end of a comprehensive martial arts curriculum. They are Eastern weapons, and there is a specific pattern of advancement all students follow before they reach a point where the weapon becomes accessible. So, you don’t join a martial arts school and get to start using a chain weapon right off. You will begin building the whip chain’s technical foundation while studying the staff, just as you begin with hand to hand techniques before gaining access to the staff weapons. If the character you envision learning to wield the whip chain does not have at least three to five years of martial arts training under their belt with a firm foundation in hand to hand and, at least, some training on the staff then that is not realistic. More likely they’ll go through the staff weapons and the bladed weapons before they get to the flexible weapons. (This is especially true if you plan to have them using the whip chain in combat rather than exhibition.)

Your character may end up a specialist in flexible weapons, but they should have a solid foundation in martial combat before they get there. Remember, this is a weapon that specifically builds on the techniques of other weapons. They progress together, and you can’t learn one without the other.

Now, there are weapon traditions like some Western traditions where you can pick and choose what your character knows. These specific chain weapons are just not one of them.

Don’t forget.

The chain weapon isn’t just going to wrap around your characters so they get tangled in it, it’s gonna full on hit them too. More often than not. Sometimes in the face.

Example: Downward arc over the head, under the left armpit, across the right shoulder, and whumph right into the nose/mouth.

If you want this weapon wrapping around your characters, you gotta get that circular patterning down so your audience can visualize the misery your characters inflict upon themselves.


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Q&A: Mary Sues

Do you have any advice for writing female characters who fight without being accused of being Mary Sues? Miss Martian I’m Young Justice has been called a Mary Sue “because she is too powerful” even after an episode that revealed that she basically lied to her team and one where she has mind-wrecked/manipulated people. And yet several other characters are powerful are not seen as Mary Sues. It seems like male characters are allowed to be super gifted but not female characters, even flawed ones.

I can’t speak to the Young Justice example. I’ve never watched the show. If the idea is that she’s been psychically manipulating the team, that’s messed up. If they’re cool with it, then that might be Mary Sue-ish behavior. Identify a Sue can be as much about how other characters respond as what the character does. It’s not the kiss of death on its own, and there could be some valuable context I’m missing here.

Let’s unpack what a Mary Sue is, before we get into how to avoid it.

Depending on your preferences, the term Mary Sue isn’t gendered, or, at least the concept certainly isn’t. You can have a male character who’s just as much a Mary Sue. If you want to use the term Marty Stu for those, that’s your choice. Either way, it’s the same writing problem; changing the name does nothing. (I’m not going to be writing Mary Sue/Marty Stu for the rest of the post. Just remember, whenever I’m talking about a Mary Sue all of this still applies to male characters.)

A Mary Sue is a character who excels at everything, or at least everything put in front of them. These are often (though, not always) author insert characters. The desired result is for you to look at the character and think how awesome the author is. But, when the term applies, that failed somehow.

A couple things to keep in mind, as a kind of litmus test:

A Mary Sue is never really tested: Every challenge they face is well within their wheelhouse. Any serious adversity can be dispatched without serious effort.

A character can face every adversity successfully without being a Mary Sue. There are plenty of stories where the character triumphs over all. However, the real fine line on this is, “did the character have to work for their victories?” If the answer is yes, then that’s not (necessarily) a Mary Sue.

Characters who have to struggle, or have to learn and grow to face new challenges aren’t Mary Sues. In a real sense, the Mary Sue is a power fantasy for the author. So, a character who has to grow to face new threats doesn’t fit within that.

A Mary Sue gives up nothing: usually. This is a similar situation. The character does what they want, gets what they want, and it costs them nothing.

There is a special case here; sometimes the author’s goal is angst, and you’ll see comical amounts of misfortune heaped on their Sue to feed that.

Generally, if you have a character who does everything they want, without having to give up anything, that’s a Sue. A character who gives up friends, or suffers to achieve their goals is probably not a Mary Sue. (With the mentioned exception above.)

I’m reminded of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “you shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both.” Sues look at that and flip the bird.

A Mary Sue breaks the rules of their world: As tests go, this is a little more generic. There’s a lot of ways a character could potentially break the rules for their world, and in some cases, it’s entirely legitimate.

With a Mary Sue, it’s almost always about self-aggrandizement. Again, this is the, “look how awesome my character is,” played out against a setting where it doesn’t fit.

This often expands to how other character respond to and threat them. A character who doesn’t face consequences for their actions, without (a credible) explanation might be a Mary Sue.

A Mary Sue is always the center of attention: This goes back to the mindset that leads to the creation of a Sue. The author is writing a character to validate themselves. They’re inserting themselves into the story. The result is that character steals the attention from everyone else in the room.

It’s possible to have a character that is legitimately that charismatic. This is especially true in first person limited, where the narrating character really could be making everything about themselves. That’s fine, up to a point.

You can write a story about a character who’s an egomaniac and thinks everything has to do with them. I’ve read a few good books like that. But, you are setting a difficult bar to hit with this.

However, if a character starts pulling people into their orbit without effort or explanation, that’s something to keep an eye on.

A Mary Sue is not a powerful character: Power is a poor metric to judge a potential Sue. Their ability to affect the world in ways that are favorable to their goals? Sure. But, “this character is so powerful that they must be a Sue?” No.

Now, I said Sues aren’t gendered, and I stand behind that, but some people will use the term as a gendered shutdown against any competent female character. That’s sexism. That’s a double standard. They’re trying to use the term as an insult to disregard the character without actually looking at the character.

So, how do you avoid this?

First, know that misogynistic assholes are going to be misogynistic assholes. They have nothing of value to contribute to your work, and no power over the characters you create. They’re telling you that your character needs to sit down, be quiet, and smile, because they’re female. Ignore them.

Don’t get too invested in a single character: In theory, there’s nothing wrong with insert characters. The problem is when the author is overly invested in their insert and it becomes an Author’s Pet. It skews the work, and yes, your audience can tell.

Not every pet is a Sue, but there is a strong correlation.

Every character you create is a piece of you. You’ll carry them with you for the rest of your life. They’re reflections, moments, identities that you made. Just. Don’t. Play. Favorites.

Make sure your characters belong in their world: again, one of the biggest things you can do to make a Sue is have a character who doesn’t belong in their world. When you’re creating a character, figure out where they belong in that setting, and how that shapes their identity.

I’m not talking about characters who are literally from outside the setting, like wardrobe fantasy or fish out of water stories. That’s different. They belong in their world; they’re just not in it right now.

Remember opportunity cost is a thing: Opportunity cost is the idea that in order to do one thing, you’ve giving up the opportunity to do another.

If your character spent years training to fight, that would eaten into their social life. If they spent years training as a thief, same difference. These choices further shape who they are as a person.

Combat is a skill like any other. You can learn it, and it changes how you see the world. Your character can learn to fight. Your character can put in the time and become exceptional at it. But, that comes at a price. They have to give up other things to do that. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

The other side is, a character can develop a complex skillset over time. They can grow as a person, and that means that some of the things they used to do fall by the wayside as they go.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with creating hyper-competent characters, just remember to drag them out of their comfort zone.

Try to avoid, “the special” unless you need it: For everything, there are special exemptions. Special cases. Remember, you’re unique, just like everyone else. If your character is the last surviving member of their kind, a demi-god, the lost scion of a deposed royal lineage, or some other extraordinary, unique individual, that needs to be a central focus of their story. Note: “their story,” it’s possible they may end up split off in a different direction from the rest of your characters, to follow their story. Even if they’re trying to reject their legacy, others may not be so accommodating.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with characters that have something special about them, that’s fine. However, the more special they are, the more they’ll weigh on the story. Meter your plans accordingly.

Finally, this may sound a bit odd, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with a well written Mary Sue. The protagonists of 19th century lit are utterly saturated with characters that, to a modern audience, look a lot like Sues. The problem is when you have poorly written characters. That’s the issue here. Is the character well written? Do they feel like they belong in their world? Do they pay for their choices? It’s not a Sue.

Someone telling you that your character is too powerful because they’re female, and automatically a Mary Sue is applying a vicious double standard. Like I’ve said, while the name itself refers to a female character from a Star Trek fan fiction, the writing issues apply regardless of gender. Anyone saying, “no, your character is too powerful for a girl,” can fuck right off.


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Q&A: A Modern Warmage

What role could mages play on a Napoleonic Era-esque battlefield? I’ve gotten into debate with a few friends over what their role could be and I want to know if you would have any insight?

Off the top of my head: Mobile Artillery, Sapper, Close Infantry Air Support (yeah, not a thing in the real world at this point in history), Communications, Intelligence, Counterintelligence (not anachronistic, oddly enough), Assassin, Propagandist (also anachronistic), Saboteur, Heavy Infantry, Combat Medic, Counter Artillery, Sniper (not completely anachronistic), Logistics, Necromantic “Recruiter…” Actually, let’s forget that last one. What kind of a mage are you talking about?

Also, if combat extends to the sea, that’s even more extensive, as your mages could potentially have some drastic effects on sea travel and combat.

The problem here is, you didn’t define the kinds of mages you’re dealing with, or that effects, your setting’s version of early 19th century Europe. The more powerful magic is in your setting, the more it will disrupt, “real history.” Also, the more options that open up on that list above.

I think I’ve talked about this before, but if you have powerful pyromancers, gunpowder weapons become way less attractive. It’s no longer an easy way to transport energy to power kinetic weapons (and, yeah, that is what gunpowder is, in abstract), instead it becomes a liability your foes can use to kill you. In an extreme enough situation, that could completely prevent the development of firearms, leading to a Forgotten Realms style setting where you have 16th century technology, but guns are unheard of because any mage could detonate your powder stores with a simple cantrip.

Though, while we’re thinking about that, a setting where alchemy could actually channel magical power would also sabotage the development of gunpowder long before we got this far. People spent a lot of time and resources looking for magic, and in the process, shaped a lot of the modern world in ways you might not realize.

Trade off is, you might open the door to technology that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. A setting with geomancers may be able to do things with passing signals through crystals that wouldn’t replicated in the real world until the development of radio. This is something that might have been in your setting for centuries.

Now, is still a mage, when your Napoleonic soldier can have a radio, even though the origin of the technology is magic, the actual method of using and powering it is mundane?

So, the problem with this question, and it’s probably where the arguments are resting is: how powerful are your mages? What can they do?

So, let’s pull that list apart and see what you need to make each one happen.

Mobile Artillery requires that your mages are able to cast large scale destructive spells. That’s it. A mage that can drop a fireball on the enemy can fill this role happily.

Sapper requires a bit more precision. They need to be able to breach fortifications, so a well focused blast would do the job. How they get there is a different question. Also, the ability to detonate gunpowder comes under this one as well. Detonate an enemy’s powder stores, and their ability to fight is going to diminish quickly.

Close Infantry Air Support requires the ability to fly and, that’s pretty much it. Though, being able to chuck destructive magic around would go a long way towards this. Also, this can get nuts. Think: Flying artillery platforms, powered my teams of mages. Combo this with mobile artillery mages, and that’d be a handful.

Communications requires mages that can communicate with each other remotely. That could just be simple augury, or it could be something else, like the geomantic radio suggested above.

Intelligence/Counterintelligence starts with the scrying, and the ability to create illusions. Get past that though, and the options get a lot more complicated. The ability to read minds, or influence thoughts, are huge boons for a spy. Invisibility is another massive advantage. Even just improving someone’s senses for a brief period could be incredibly useful at the right moment. As I mentioned, this isn’t anachronistic, spymasters go back a few centuries before Napoleon, so, while it’s not The Cold War, you could certainly have duels of Napoleonic spies. Not necessary, but subtle casting, (so, not having to perform a ritual or invocation) would be a serious perk.

Assassin a lot like the spies, difference is, they want someone dead. Most of the same power set remains useful, though magical methods of killing someone silently are a serious perk.

Propagandist (also anachronistic), this goes back to the mind reading and influencing thing. Serious propaganda didn’t get going until the 20th century, but if you’ve got mages who can manipulate people’s thoughts, or even just their emotional state, that could be extremely useful. Also, hostile empaths could significantly impact enemy morale, to the point that you might be able to drive a foe to break before you even fired a shot.

Saboteur a lot like the spy or assassin, just with a slightly different target list. Entropic magic that lets you decay things would be nice here. Rot their food stores, rust their cannons. Fun stuff like that.

Heavy Infantry requires mages that can augment their combat effectiveness. That’s it. Though, being able to use spells in melee could easily cross from heavy infantry to a “conventional battlemage.” Being able to cast quickly, or have enchants that last through the entire fight, are nice to have, and you kind of need one, or their mostly pointless.

Combat Medics require the existence of healing magic. After that, there’s a few things they might be able to do depending on how magic works. Shielding against incoming artillery or dispelling hostile magic are both, potentially, in their wheelhouse. (Though, I suppose technically, these may be alternate specialties, and could be performed by battlemages, or some other specialized countermagic role.) They may also fill that whole magically augment the front line role, instead of having dedicated Heavy Infantry casters.

Counter Artillery… I just covered this. Like I said, could be a separate specialty, could be the medic’s role. That said, you would probably need some dedicated countermages in your camp to protect from all of the horrific things I’ve just suggested.

Snipers require the ability to put a spell exactly where you want it at long ranges. This kinda mixes over with the assassin, without needing to sneak in, or the artillery, without needing to hit a large area. Though, you should start to see where having some defensive mages in your camp would become a mandatory precaution.

Logistics requires mages that can, somehow, aid with the transport of goods. The obvious, and extreme, answer is portals or even just levitation, but even just a cryomancer who can keep food cold in storage, or a mage who can use conjuration to produce other perishable items could be extremely valuable. Even, simply being able to track shipments remotely, through augury, would be a huge boon for any military. Being able to say, “yeah, that thing you’re looking for is over there,” is massive. This is before you consider the idea that you might have mages making weapons that don’t conform to the “real world.” After all, why deal with storing powder, if you have a mage in logistics that can recharge energy muskets?

What can mages do? Whatever they want. It’s up to you to set the rules for your story and your world. After that, it’s important to look at the real world and say, “how would this change things.”

After that, well, even the skies aren’t a limit.

If you want to look at a Napoleonic setting with magic, I’d recommend Pillars of Eternity, and not just because the update yesterday pushed the second game onto my feed. It’s an interesting setting that does break from conventional fantasy in a number of ways.


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Q&A: Slings

(Sorry if you’ve answered this before) How good as a weapon is the sling as opposed to the bow? I know bows are extremely dangerous, but the sling, especially with lead shot, seemed also very dangerous.

The sling is a dangerous weapon if you know what you’re doing. It’s not really useful to say, “in comparison to a bow,” because they’re fundamentally different weapons. Both weapons are lethal in the hands of someone who knows their weapon. After that, the value of the comparison starts to drop off.

Slings saw military use historically. They’re an appealing battlefield weapon because they can propel a target with lethal force at impressive ranges. (I’ve seen quotes suggesting they could lob a stone more than 400 meters, though I’m not sure what the lethal range is.) In the hands of a practiced user, they are also shockingly accurate. I’m not entirely sure how well their accuracy confers to combat, but a slinger can put a bullet where they want it with lethal force at a considerable distance.

One, unusual, advantage with the sling is that it will accept nearly any rock you put in it. This means that a bored sling user had plenty of potential ammunition around to practice with. In the case of shepherds, the sling became a semi-traditional weapon, and convenient outlet for boredom. This made for pinpoint accuracy with a stone flying fast enough to kill.

At an educated guess, I suspect the sling suffers most against armor. Bows are exceptionally good at penetrating armor. While a high velocity rock is still a serious threat, it’s significantly less dangerous when you’re protected by sheets of metal.

The sling is an effective weapon, and still sees some use today. It’s an excellent hunting tool for taking down small game. Particularly in survival situations, as you can make an improvised sling using bootlaces if you know your knots.


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Q&A: Downtime

How much recovery time would a superhero without healing powers need after a typical mission? Should I include downtime in my story as necessary for going out again?

It depends.

It feels like I write this a lot, but in this case, it is extremely contingent on a long list of factors.

The first one is, if they were injured. This one should be obvious, but a character who’s been seriously injured will need to recover from that before they can safely return to the field. This is also (probably) the only time a character’s rapid healing would be useful for this discussion.

Downtime is necessary. Without it, fatigue will lead to injuries. There’s no mandatory timeline for how much downtime you need. It depends on what you’ve been doing, and how much strain you’ve been putting on your body and psyche. Regardless, you’re going to need to step away from that and recover before going back in. I’m being vague because that’s life. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about your day job, or superheroics.

The hard part about figuring out how much downtime you’ll need is there’s no immediate penalty for ignoring it. Things like sleep deprivation can stack up over time, but it is something your character could put off, “in an emergency.” This can become a problem if your character is ignoring things like muscle aches or minor fatigue. And, it is entirely possible they’d put their mission, or the safety of others ahead of their own comfort. In extreme cases, they may even be ignoring actual injuries to get back into the field. This is a superhero after all.

If your superhero is engaging in direct hand to hand, the necessary downtime to fully recover will be at least a couple weeks. That said, this is something you can afford to abbreviate without risking the audience’s suspension of disbelief. This is one of those things that has become baked into the superhero power fantasy, to the point that it’s, practically, a genre convention. Your characters recover from physical fatigue with inhuman speed because, “superheroes.”

On the other hand, it is entirely reasonable to chart out a character gradually wearing themselves out by not having any downtime. As mentioned, this is natural behavior for a superhero, and punishing them for that behavior is entirely reasonable. The only thing I’d caution you on this subject is making sure you’re consistent. Don’t have one character who goes out every night without a problem, while having another who’s falling apart, unless their powers justify different outcomes.

There’s no hard and fast rules for how you need to itemize this, or if you even want to cover your characters’ downtime at all. The normal advice is, if a scene doesn’t advance the story, cut it. Downtime is incredibly vulnerable to this. It’s often ancillary events that have no relevance to the plot as a whole, and can be safely ignored. You might write some as a character study, but (most of the time) it isn’t relevant to the story you’re telling, so out it goes.

Now, it’s entirely possible to have a story where there are significant elements explored while the characters aren’t out there doing their jobs. In cases like that, downtime may be the story. It’s also possible you’ve got characters who take work with them wherever they go, so things that happen in those moments are still relevant to working out the plot. Downtime can also be an opportunity to see how your characters interact with other people in their lives that they don’t work with. There are a lot of ways you can use scenes like this, but there’s no credible rule saying that you must.


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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.