Q&A: Diamond Swords

Hello! I was wondering if a sword with a diamond blade be of any use. I know that diamonds are often used for cutting things and are (to my knowledge) one of the hardest materials on Earth. Note: This is a fantasy story and a few people have the ability to manipulate diamonds like other metals so getting it the shape wouldn’t be a problem and there aren’t enough people with this ability to make it a weakness on the battlefield. Thank you!

I honestly thought I answered this ages ago, but apparently I never wrote the post.

Diamonds are usually presented as the hardest substance, but this is a little misleading.  In mineralogy, “hardness,” is not the same thing as “toughness.” Hardness is used to evaluate how well a substance resists scratching. In this regard, Diamonds are amazingly hard, and it’s almost impossible to scratch the surface. This also makes it difficult to selectively cut a diamond. They are not particularly tough, however. Toughness is the evaluation of how resistant a material is to fracturing.

So, your diamond sword will never be scratched; that’s kinda cool. However, your diamond sword will crack and shatter if you parry an incoming strike with a steel blade. Now, those shards won’t pick up a scratch but you’d be hard pressed to use the remains as a sword.

To be fair, I’m not certain if this will happen on the first blow, or if it’ll take a few hits before it breaks. I’m also fairly certain it could break after stabbing someone if the blade was torqued incorrectly on the way in or out. Dropping your diamond sword is also a bad idea, for the same reasons.

There’s probably some larger metaphor here for the entire idea of creating invincible forces, but not being able to shore up the actual system that supports them, or just the idea of having one unassailable defense, but nothing shoring it up, allowing your enemy to simply skirt around.

Okay, that’s the part where this doesn’t work. So, what does?

You could, potentially, use some kind of synthetic diamond coating over a blade. I may have a synthetic diamond knife sharpener around here somewhere, come to think of it.

You could have a blade where the primary core is steel (or some other material), but the blade itself is a thin diamond inset. For what it’s worth, there is some merit to this design, as the concept is somewhat similar to the real macuahuitl, from Mesoamerican civilizations. At that point it might not even matter if individual stones shatter in combat as they might be replaceable. It might also be possible to “coat” a steel core in diamond and use that. It would still crack, and eventually shatter, but it would probably see some use before that happened.

Steel weapons with carbon nanotube structures do exhibit extraordinary durability. Though those aren’t how we usually think about diamonds. This probably includes Damascus steel, and does include some other superalloys.

If your setting had the capacity to make diamond weapons, then you could reasonably see those as ceremonial pieces, or given as gifts. You might be able to come up with some other uses, such as medical tools. But, ultimately, the applications are severely limited.

However, if there’s magic in your fantasy setting with the ability to overcome the detriments of brought on by real diamonds then feel free to go hog wild.

-Starke

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Followup: Mafia and Children: The Camorra

lirenel

Interesting, since I was just reading an article in the Economist about Naples’ mafia, the Camorra, using kids as hitmen: https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21723865-camorra-turns-teenagers-enforce-its-rule-organised-crime-naples-hit-men-are

Okay, this is worth quickly talking about, and yes it is interesting. The very short version is that, the Neapolitan Mafia (called the Camorra) has been pushed to the edge of extinction in recent years by police.

The senior leadership of the Camorra are in prison, and command has passed to their children, literally. This means that at present, segments of the Camorra are being run by teenagers. In turn, they employ other teens, and we get the headline up there.

There’s another wrinkle in that, In Italy, children under 14 cannot be held criminally liable for their actions. At the extreme end, that (apparently) means they cannot be charged with murder if they kill someone.

So, what we have is equal parts desperation by the Camorra, an unintended consequence of successful policing, and a lack of adult supervision (in the organization itself.)

Now, one thing that is happening here is a kind of Lost Boys effect, where you have kids leading younger kids. This has never been a factor in the American mafia, but it does appear with street gangs. I think Michi wanted to do a full post on that, so I’ll let this sit there. This is a good find, though, lirenel.

-Starke

Q&A: The Mafia and Children

On the topic of child killers, would a child who was raised by people in the Italian Mafia (and joined at 16) be more like a Child Soldier or a Gladiator as you described in your last post? This person is young but would be expected to kill. He wants to be in the Mafia. He isn’t forced. I’m having trouble because some of your post say children/teens will immediately be negatively affected later in life but what if the MC didn’t see it as wrong? What would be realistic here?

At the same time, witnessing violence IS traumatic and anyone involved might have psychological problems or know someone who does, especially if they aren’t shown how to take care of themselves. Believing what you do is right and having other criminals to look up to wouldn’t completely erase psychological trauma for everyone. So I’m not sure how much trauma (or what kind of attitude toward violence) would be realistic.

Most criminal organizations aren’t going to use kids for killing people. They’re too useful in other roles. (The exception here are street gangs, which use violence or killing as a right of initiation. There’s more here, but it’s mostly unrelated to the question at hand.)

From what I understand, historically the Mafia, at least in the US, used kids as couriers, lookouts, and in other support positions where a child would draw less attention than an adult rather than directly exposing them to the violence early on.

In particular, they’d pull kids in by offering the kid respect and a place in the family. To be fair, I’m calling them children, but realistically we’re talking about teenagers.

As they got older, they’d gradually transition into more important responsibility in their crew.

Now, I’m not clear on exactly how much of this was pragmatic (such as keeping them away from information that could truly damage family operations), or how much was a result of cultural norms that the Mafia was paying lip service to. I’m also pretty sure the line between lookout, and helping shake down a business was fairly slim at times.

Generally speaking, kids that get into organized crime (including gangs), aren’t really forced into the life. They often come from broken or otherwise dysfunctional families, where the organization takes the place of their parents and normal support structures. This results in members that are exceedingly loyal to their organization, because The Family is their family.

The mistake you seem to be making is thinking that a teenager would be tasked out as a hitman. To the best of my knowledge, that didn’t really happen. If you’re running a massive criminal enterprise, you don’t want to trust a high school dropout with something as potentially explosive as a contract killing. Most Mafia hitmen I’m aware of started working as killers in their late 20s at the earliest. A few did start out running errands for the mob as teenagers, and gradually moved up the ranks, but giving a contract to a teen is a huge liability that no credible Family would want.

The only thing a teenager in the mob would be expected to do is keep their mouth shut. Now, a teenager who spent a few years in prison because they took the fall for a member of the family would probably be well regarded once they got out, and might even be on the path to becoming a hitman later in life, but it wouldn’t be where their career started.

The irony is, that someone who joined the Mafia as a teen probably wouldn’t view violence as wrong. In theory the Mafia maintained a code of honor, though in practice the actual members were extremely violent individuals, and any sense of honor was, at best, a pretext they followed, lest they end up on the wrong side of it. Meaning you’re very likely looking at someone with an extremely cavalier attitude about violence and death, with little to no empathy for anyone outside The Family.

Any trauma would probably derive from violence directed at their friends or (biological) family. Watching their buddy being killed by another outfit would leave a mark. Violence against random civilians, not so much.

However, there was an entirely different “career path” for kids in the mob, or, more accurately, outside of the mob. Some mob bosses, would perform “outreach,” exercises to troubled youths. (The most famous case I’m aware of is “Whitey” Bulger, though his example doesn’t exactly fit the behavior I’m describing.) The boss would continue to provide support and cultivate a patron/client relationship with some of the children as they aged. The entire idea was to create family members with no criminal background, allowing them to infiltrate organizations that would normally be impervious to the Mafia. Particularly law enforcement and Family lawyers were particularly desirable, though political office was another potential goal. It’s also not entirely clear how well these efforts actually worked out. (In the case of Bulger, it started a friendship with John Connolly, who would eventually become a member of the FBI, and provided protection for Bulger from the Boston PD, and federal scrutiny.)

So, no, your Mafia hitman probably didn’t start pulling the trigger until they were in their late 20s at the earliest. Using kids as soldiers and assassins is for street gangs and despotic warlords, not for criminal enterprise.

-Starke

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Q&A: Psychology and Exposition

So. I don’t know if you can help me, but I feel like a lot of the general public’s ideas about psychology are wrong. Should I spend time trying to explain in the book or just portray something more realistic knowing I’ll probably have someone saying it was wrong in a review? I have a psych degree and am working on a master’s.

The simple truth about criticism is, it’s only useful when it’s giving you information that can help you improve your work.

Someone saying, “you suck,” is not useful criticism. It’s something you can ignore. Someone saying, “you’re wrong,” is not useful, especially when you’re working in your chosen field. You have a BS in psychology, and managed to get into grad school. That is your field; you cannot expect to win an applause from someone on the toad licking end of a Dunning-Kruger continuum.

You know what you’re talking about; they don’t. At that point, their criticism will offer extremely limited value. It can tell you, that you may not have clarified enough, but ultimately, when someone goes off about how it doesn’t match what they learned from their favorite TV show, you can stop there. You don’t need to account for them, and you shouldn’t engage in self-censorship to appease idiots.

There’s a disturbing tendency to fetishize a wide range psychological conditions. It’s not okay. It’s extremely unhealthy to the people who deal with these on a regular basis. People consume that media and then expect reality to conform.

In the current climate, I’d actually say, “going with the flow,” is incompatible with your education, or at least the ethical responsibilities of someone who chooses to become a practicing psychologist. You can make the world a better place by taking your education and digging into the details. It won’t change overnight, but there is a real benefit to saying, “no, this is how this stuff actually works.” Especially when you’re talking about the human brain, and how people behave. Something that all of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

There is also real harm in simply accepting the image of a disorder as a fetishistic auteur, who’s “genius” is unimpeachable, and therefore all behavior is acceptable.

The other part of your question, is about exposition balance. You know you have enough exposition when your readers can follow the story, and the background information. You have too much if the story starts to drag. You don’t have enough if your readers are getting confused by what you’re doing. I’ve never discovered a shortcut to finding this balance; it simply takes practice.

There’s no universal truth to how much exposition you can use. Some writers handle it better than others, and can get away with chunky exposition dumps that would choke most.

The old writing advice, “be efficient with your language,” is in full effect. If you don’t need an explanation to keep your readers up to speed, don’t include it. If your audience reports confusion, then you may want to expand some explanations.

However, if your goal is to educate, then you’re also going to want to work as much information into your story as you can. You may want to consider burying exposition into events taking place, the insights of other characters, or even the environment  (when appropriate.)

To be fair, you should be doing most of those things anyway. You don’t need a character to tell you something if you can simply show it. You may need a throwaway line saying, “this is why,” but you can farm a lot of exposition onto the world, and move it out of dialog. This doesn’t specifically help you, but it’s good advice for dealing with exposition in general.

No, don’t worry about writing something that conflicts with, “common knowledge,” when it’s really just a harmful stereotype, or even a flat out myth. Having your preconceptions echoed back to you may be momentarily gratifying, but it’s intellectual junk food. This is your field, show people what you know.

-Starke

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michi

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Q&A: Cuirasses

So my characters wear armor like gladiators and Amazon warriors and I have no idea how to describe the things that they wear. All I can think of is “Chest plate” Please help me.

I think we’ve talked about Roman gladiators before. The short version is that most gladiators didn’t actually wear chest armor.

There was one exception, the Provocator wore a cardiophylax. The cardiophylax is a simple metal plate held in place with leather straps, and worn over the heart. Often they’re paired with a second plate that is worn over the back. This was the case with the Provocator, but it wasn’t universal for this style of armor.

The Provocator gladiator was specifically modeled on late republic military units. They would only be matched against each other. (There was an overt theme in the Roman arena where gladiators were designed to represent various defeated enemies of the state. Apparently, pairing someone designed to be a character of the standing Roman military against a defeated foe and losing would have been “off-message.”) Over time the designs apparently changed to reflect arena spectacle more than their original militaristic theme.

The formal name (or at least one of the formal names) for a full breastplate is the cuirass, (from the Latin: coriaceus). though there are other names. A cuirass is two seperate metal plates (usually Iron or Steel), designed to protect the torso, fastened to one another.

Worth noting that depending on the era, Roman Legionaries wore cardiophylaxes or coriaceus.

Moving over to the Amazons, we’re probably, effectively talking about Hellenistic civilization, here.

The Hellenic Greeks often used a bronze breastplate called a linothorax. Because they lacked standing professional militaries (with a notable exception in Sparta), instead favoring a volunteer system. Individuals were responsible for purchasing and maintaining their arms and armor. As a result, there was no uniform equipment for Greek soldiers, though the linothorax was apparently widely used, to the point that it’s discussed in passing by several writers without going into much detail.

You’ll sometimes see these presented as a metal breastplate with contoured abs molded in. This probably didn’t exist, or at least didn’t see battlefield use if it did. Primarily because you never want armor with a molded intent in the surface. That will lead strikes into the body, rather than deflecting them away. This is the primary problem with boob plate, incidentally. Actual Linothoraxes were bulky, with layers of cloth, leather, and other materials built up over the bronze.

That should be enough to get you started, also there’s a lot more information on Hellenistic era armor, and of course gladiators, if you want to do some digging online.

-Starke

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Q&A: Side Shooting

Is there actually any merit to pointing a gun sideways to shoot, or is that just more nonsense put in the “hood” movies just to look cool?

The short version would be to say, “mostly,” and leave it at that, though there’s a lot more information here that can be addressed if you want to dig in. There are a few rare circumstances where it is a valid grip for use in combat.

This is basically trivia, but the grip has been documented in fiction going back over a century, so it’s certainly not just a product of 90s films. That said, the modern use, and it’s place in modern American gang iconography can be traced back to films like Menace II Society.

Due to it’s use in films, and associated with American gang culture, it’s sometimes called, “gangsta style.” At this point the grip is almost exclusively associated with criminal elements, and is a pretty easy way to identify a shooter who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

There’s one big problem, and one myth, associated with it, so let’s take those in reverse order.

The myth is that firing sideways increases the chance of a jam. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense if you know anything about how firearms function. The theory is, that by holding the firearm horizontally, the shell will fail to eject properly, obstructing the ejection port, and causing a failure to feed. The idea behind this is that, somehow, gravity works differently if the gun is held at a 90 degree angle, instead of vertically. The problem with this is, shell casings go pretty much wherever they want. I’ve had off-brand M9 pattern pistols throw shell casings into my face. (I also, hate M9s as a result.) Because of how the case ejection system works in most handguns, you can fire them from pretty much any position without issues.

The problem is, most people side shooting will sight across the side of the slide. This, doesn’t work. Unless you’re standing next to the target, you need to use the sights to put a round where you want it.

There’s another accuracy factor, most competent shooters will brace their handgun with both hands. This stabilizes the pistol, and allows for far more accurate shooting. Side shooting will almost always result in the weapon, unsupported, at arm’s length. This results in greater barrel shake, and less recoil control. Even if you’re using the sights, it will be less accurate on the first shot, and recoil will be more severe.

So, I said there were some uses for this shooting position. I have a few specific examples, though there may be others.

Center Axis Relock is a modern Close Quarters Combat shooting stance popularized in films like John Wick, and video games like the Splinter Cell series.

CAR pulls the firearm closer to the body in comparison to a normal Weaver stance. This causes the user to raise their shooting arm’s elbow to partially protect their face, and rotates the firearm to a 45 degree angle. In some circumstances the user may raise their arm further, fully shielding their face on that side and rotating the firearm horizontal. Throughout all of this they will still be sighting using the handgun’s iron sights, additionally, they will keep their off hand on the firearm stabilizing it.

Worth noting, from a 45 degree angle, your shooting arm will not obstruct your vision on that side, raising it to horizontal will, making this less appealing unless necessary. For example: if there is a bright light shining in the user’s eyes from that direction, raising the arm will allow them to block that distraction.

The major advantage of CAR is that it’s incredibly difficult to safely disarm the user.

One of the few situations where someone will adopt a side shooting stance, basically without modification, is if they’re firing from behind a riot shield. These fully occupy one of the shooter’s hands, and partially obstruct their other hand. In most cases, the shield will include a transparent section to allow the user to see what’s on the other side without exposing themselves to incoming fire. In situations like this it is possible the operator will simply reach around the shield, line their sidearm up with the window, and fire. To be fair, a competent shooter in this situation will still attempt to use the firearm’s iron sights, however, because of the shield, and having to reach around it, the gun will be at a horizontal, or nearly horizontal, angle.

The third situation is far more contextual. In an emergency, a trained operator may aim and fire without adjusting their stance. Because of how your arm is put together, quickly firing to the left or right (depending on your firing arm) without adjusting your chest’s position, will result in the gun being at near horizontal. Also worth noting in situations like this, firing behind you will often result in the handgun being held upside down. This is less, precision shooting, and more, desperate reflexes, though. SWAT and similar groups will practice firing from these positions, however.

Note: You can correct the angle of your arm to keep the pistol vertical while adjusting, it is simply faster to pivot the entire arm, rotating the pistol.

There is a fourth situation which is particular to rifles. While firing from a prone position with a protruding box magazine (so, most assault rifles), some shooters will opt to rotate the firearm, rather than lift themselves up, exposing themselves to enemy fire. Depending on range there are a lot of factors to consider here, but in some situations, this is the best option available.

Another possible variant is operating a firearm in very tight spaces, such as cramped service passages, or those mythical air ducts that are large enough to allow a grown human to crawl around.

Usually, it’s either to look cool, and anyone who habitually draws their handgun in a side shooting stance is a pretty good indicator that they don’t know what they’re doing. For some writers, this stance is synonymous with criminals. An undercover cop may use a stance like this while protecting their cover, even though it runs contrary to their training.

Also, worth noting that it’s entirely possible to meet gang members who’ve had military firearms training, and as a result know exactly how to handle their firearms. At which point you wouldn’t see something like this.

Some writers may not realize that this stance doesn’t work, or is sub-optimal, and may imbue it with special characteristics. That’s, simply, not the case. There are good reasons that almost no one who knows what they’re doing would ever use this stance.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Assassin’s Journal

The chapters of my story are prefaced by short excerpts from the journal of the future assassin of the benevolent king my main character was welcomed into the court of. Since they are not dated, would it be confusing to readers if they were placed in reverse chronological order?

I realize this may sound like a non-answer, but, it depends.

Let’s break into two separate pieces. The use of journal and other epistolary elements, and non-linear storytelling.

Epistolary novels are constructed out of in-universe documents. Most often you’re reading correspondence between characters, their journal entries, and other various relevant documents. To a certain extent the genre assumes that the entire work will be constructed from documents. Though, nothing stops you from borrowing the format when it’s useful to you.

One of the major strengths of epistolary elements is that you can introduce information that would otherwise be unavailable to the reader without resorting to an omniscient narrator. If you’re working in first or third person limited, these can be very useful for breaking that format’s limitations without actually breaking the format.

If the journal is providing the reader with vital information, then that makes it useful. If it’s being used to tease them, I’d probably recommend restraint. That said, a lot of deciding whether or not to use epistolary elements comes down to execution and exactly what you have in mind.

For example: If the journal is a confession of sorts, or an attempt at justification, which runs parallel to the main narrative, with the assassin working through his reasoning, and reflecting on his actions, there’s certainly potential.

The journal could also be used to create a sense of unease and dread, as it gradually transitions from something innocuous into a more menacing document, as your assassin collects information for their plan.

Epistolary documents can also allow you to including background exposition that simply wouldn’t fit in the main narrative, particularly if it’s something your characters wouldn’t think about or aren’t aware of.

Your assassin may spend time writing about the politics, or economic situation that drove them to act, while the main characters remain completely oblivious to the events taking place outside of court.

If you have a use for the entries, they have a place in your writing. If you don’t, you may want to reconsider using them.

Non-linear storytelling can work, but it’s much harder. Even with date stamps, it’s entirely possible your readers would miss that the journal entries were out of order. This doesn’t mean you can’t do it, just that it is much more difficult to juggle these, and it will probably lead to some confusion among readers. Notice all the conditionals there. I am not saying you cannot do it; just that this is more difficult.

Also, a warning: when telling stories out of chronological order, you run a real risk of not having an interesting story when the audience finally parses out the chronology.

Some time-shifting is, almost, inevitable. If you have multiple characters, in different places, at the same time, and you intend to follow both, then you can put them in whichever order, and see the results play out. That’s fine, and most of the time the audience can be cued in to what you’re doing fairly elegantly.

When you’re writing a story in reverse, things get much trickier. (To be clear, if you’re telling the story of the assassin in his journals, parallel to the main novel, you are telling a story in reverse.) So, for the moment, let’s ignore that these are part of a conjoined book, and just focus on that story.

If you are getting something valuable from disrupting the chronology, then it becomes a question of execution.

Breaking the chronology means you need to reevaluate pacing, and how information is distributed. You’re constantly in a position where your characters are responding to prior events that the audience isn’t aware of yet. Then they make their discoveries, events happen, and that information drops from the story, leaving them with mysteries that the audience already knows the answer to.

Now, having said that, this is something the epistolary format lets you cheat your way around. You can have a conventional, linear, structure, where your character is recounting events, out of order as they pertain to their current topic. They may start by explaining their reasons for acting, then discuss how they actually carried out the act, before moving on to the way they gained access, or the actual motivation behind their actions later. If the purpose is to hold back a revelation for why your assassin chose to act, that can be shifted to later in their journal. They know why, they just haven’t bothered to record the event.

Also, worth remembering, you’re not going to start your journal saying, “so I’m here to kill the king.” That makes it a very dangerous document for the (in setting) author. They may even hold off on mentioning their motive for acting until it’s almost too late. This could be foreshadowed. For example: If their loved one was killed because they were part of a cult, or a traitor, they may mention the loved one, even that they’re dead, but not why they were killed, until much later.

They may make mundane notes that appear to be benign, but actually serve an operational purpose. For example, talking about meeting a member of the palace guard could appear innocuous, but that could also function as reconnaissance data for where the guards are deployed, and potentially even weaknesses which would allow your assassin to neutralize them effectively, without immediately tipping their hand to what they’re doing.

In particular, the journal could be useful to demonstrate the character’s social engineering skills, without ever needing to step back and say, “but, they’re very good at manipulating people to get information.”

If you think the journal will be useful, then you should include it. You don’t need to include the entries out of order if you don’t want to. You can probably shuffle the chronology far more elegantly by allowing the assassin to record their thoughts somewhat out of order, and handle the transitions there, rather than actually breaking sequence. Just, remember, your assassin is a unique point of view character, like your protagonist, so ration their information accordingly.

-Starke

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Q&A: Dual Wielding Whips

Is it possible to dual wield whips? How big/small would they have to be for it to be possible or effective?

To the first question, yes. You’ll occasionally find people dual wielding whips as performance art.

As to making them effective, they’re not. Whips don’t make particularly good combat weapons. They can be very visually engaging, which means they can be quite appealing on screen or in art, but they’re not efficient.

Let me get this out of the way up front: There are a few people who advocate use of the whip as a self defense tool. They’re not completely wrong. There are ways to use a whip as a defensive tool. It’s also worth recognizing that these are some of the best whip users in the world and they can kinda make it work as a weapon.

There are also people who hunt big game with bullwhips. The whip can be a very useful tool in controlling (and apparently killing) animals.

None of this will make it more useful against a trained, armed, opponent, however.

So, this gets into a decision for you:

If you don’t care about being strictly realistic, and you’re more committed to a flashy story, the whip is an excellent choice, particularly in a visual medium (like animation, film, or comics.) A skilled whip user can create some truly stunning visuals, and as I’ve said, whips are very engaging visually. A skilled user can make them dance, and that’s certainly one way to keep an audience’s attention.

If you’re more interested in keeping your setting grounded and gritty, a whip is probably the wrong choice unless your character is in a truly desperate situation and has no other options.

While not technically a whip, a character using a length of chain as an improvised weapon is entirely plausible, and dangerous. Not something I would recommend starting out with, but, certainly a reasonable choice if nothing better is available.

On a similar note, whips are one of the few times you can legitimately set a weapon on fire and swing it around. It’s not really going to make it more viable, but it will look more impressive.

The one strength of the whip is the intimidation factor. They’re difficult to track and appear to present a far more comprehensive defense than they really offer. This isn’t insignificant, especially when dealing with an untrained opponent, and is the one viable element about the whip as a self defense tool; you can use one to make yourself appear more threatening. This isn’t something I’d be willing to stake my life on, but, anything’s a self defense tool, if you’re desperate enough.

So, short answer, yes, but it’s not effective.

-Starke

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Q&A: Firearms Training

While practicing shooting, what are the most common mistakes that could happen? I mean, like hurting your shoulder with a shotgun when you fire and that kind of thing.

It’s not going to be that, probably. Shotguns are fairly low power, so the recoil is surprisingly light.

I’m actually going to step back and make a blanket statement: while you’re practicing shooting, injuries of any kind are fairly rare. Firearms are quite dangerous if handled poorly, but mishandling is more likely to get you thrown off a well managed range before you have the chance to injure someone.

With that said, if you’re renting your firearm, the most common issue (although it’s not really a mistake) will be non-critical mechanical failures.

Rentals see a lot of use, and in some cases they will start to suffer failures. This will usually manifest as issues like failure to feed, though the exact malfunctions will vary with the individual gun. “Limp wristing”a firearm can also cause failure to feed situations. This occurs when the user fails to properly brace the firearm against recoil, and allows it to recoil too far.

In rare cases, these issues can extend to catastrophic mechanical failures, but most reputable ranges would remove guns from use long before that becomes an issue. However, the occasional idiot will try to load their own ammo into a rental, with similar results. This is why most ranges that rent will require you to also buy the ammunition you intend to use, or will roll the ammunition costs in with the rental fees.

Many common mistakes arise from people who fail to follow the basic gun safety rules. Most of the time, these don’t result in actual accidents.

Another common mistake for shooters is proper finger placement on the trigger. This can result in the gun pulling to one side or the other. This affects accuracy, but won’t result in any injuries in a controlled environment.

I’m not going to harp on people with poor stance. I know this is a somewhat popular choice, but there is a truth to stance with firearms: If it works for you, and you can get solid placement, that is far more important than making sure your stance is textbook. In a live situation, shot placement is king, no one cares if you’re in a perfect Weaver, just if you lived through the night.

In fact, the only, “injury,” I’d associate with practicing on the range is sore thumbs from packing magazines. This is mostly a consideration when you’re dealing with high capacity automatics, particularly Glocks, where the spec mag capacity is extremely tight. Obviously, if you’re practicing with anything that doesn’t use detachable box magazines, or you pre-packed your ammo, this isn’t a consideration.

It is possible to bruise your shoulder firing high power rifles. It’s often advisable to start someone out with lighter recoil weapons like 9mm or .223s, but once in awhile you will find some idiot who really wants to start out on a .44 magnum, or an even more massive hand cannon. Not so much a common mistake, but it is a piece of good advice: start on lighter guns, and then work your way up to the beefier stuff once you’re used to recoil. Learning on a 9mm handgun or a shotgun is vastly preferable to getting your introduction to shooting on a .50BMG bolt action Anti-Material rifle. That said, there are plenty of ranges that will gleefully advertise their biggest and loudest, and there is an allure to being able to say you’ve fired an S&W .500. Just, maybe, don’t make that your first firearms experience. I’d also recommend avoiding fully automatic weapons until you’ve had some experience with semi-auto, and learned to control recoil for yourself. I’ve heard way too many stories of people accidentally killing themselves or someone else from uncontrolled barrel climb.

None of this is the most common mistake about practicing with firearms, though. That one’s very simple: Not doing it.

I’ll say this again for emphasis: The most common mistake most people make is not practicing with their firearm.

This, honestly, happens a lot. Someone will buy a gun for self-defense. They may go to a training course. That training course may even be good, and teach them how to properly operate and maintain their gun. And then they never practice.

We say this all the time, but it’s worth remembering. When you’re in a life threatening situation you do not have time to think. We also tell you, natural instinct will get you killed. You need to train and practice to create new instantaneous responses. Firearms are no different.

If you’re in a situation where you honestly need to use a weapon, taking time while trying to remember what someone told you seven years ago will get you killed. You need to drill those movements down until they’re your new instinctive response. At that point, it doesn’t matter if it’s a knife, a gun, or your own body. You need to practice until you can perform the necessary actions while your heart is pounding and your hands are shaking from an adrenaline rush.

Adrenaline is very important for keeping you alive, but in the moment it sucks. It makes precise actions (including driving and marksmanship) far more difficult than they need to be. Also, the aftertaste is horrible, though, maybe, that’s just me.

Immediately following this, the second mistake is probably not practicing enough. This one’s more understandable, ammo and rental fees are expensive, so that’s a factor. This is also less critical. In the case of getting practice, too much is preferable to enough, but getting some in will help.

If you’re unfamiliar with basic gun safety rules (and there are some variations) here’s an amalgamated list to start from:

  • Always treat a firearm as if it’s loaded.
  • Never point a firearm at anything you do not intend to shoot.
  • Never place your finger on the trigger until you are ready to fire.
  • Always remain aware of your target’s surroundings, particularly what is behind it.
  • Keep your weapon on Safe until you are ready to fire.
  • Always unload your firearm before storage. Never store a loaded firearm.

That’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a good starting point. Also, always respect a firearm. These are incredibly dangerous tools, and misuse can have horrific results.

-Starke

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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.