Q&A: Good Writers Steal: Understanding Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity

You know when you compare the lore of Dragon Age and Pillars there a lot of similarities and it wouldn’t be that hard to put both settings in the same world.

No, they really don’t fit together.

This is kind of ironic, because that’s how we got Dragon Age‘s setting in the first place, and why I’m answering this.

Let’s start with what the two settings still have in common. Both games are based around evolving D&D into a new, non-licensed system. In both cases, the long term goal was to pave over some of the more idiosyncratic elements, and create new settings that could be used without raising the ire of Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast.

In both cases, they started with an approximation of D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting, and then started mixing in other inspirations; and that’s when the wheels come off this wagon.

To condense: Forgotten Realms is a “standard, Tolkienesque fantasy world,” where numerous immensely powerful civilizations have fallen into ruin. There’s a full chronology of empires rising and falling throughout the setting’s history. The modern cultures often live directly adjacent to civilizations so advanced that their residual magic defies comprehension. This is the setting of games like Neverwinter NightsBaldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and the MMO Neverwinter, along with, literally, hundreds of novels.

Pillars of Eternity starts from that point, and plants the clock firmly in the 17th century (though the overall technology doesn’t perfectly match any specific point in history.) It then uses the altered setting to talk politics and philosophy. Up front, I’m a fan of this kind of approach to fantasy. Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say, and can do it without getting preachy. Taking your “normal” fantasy prejudices, and then pulling that apart and using it as allegory has a lot of merit. I’m also a big fan of taking a setting (in this case, the “standard fantasy setting”) and pushing the clock forward, asking, “what happens next?” What does colonialism look like in a world where you have dragons and wizards?

On the surface, Dragon Age may look somewhat similar. There’s no colonial themes, firearms, or advanced sailing ships, but it is building off of the same, standard fantasy setting template. Where Pillars looked to real history, Dragon Age went someplace a little different: Warhammer.

I’ve talked about Warhammer Fantasy before. A lot like Pillars it’s adapting the fantasy setting to a specific historical era, in that case it’s target is the late 15th, early 16th century. It’s less interested in saying anything, but it was designed for a tabletop strategy game, where the narrative was, at best, ad hoc. Along the way, it’s embraced the mindset of the era, and pulled a lot of the conflicting tones from that time in history together into a weird amalgam. This is a setting where the church is under siege from literal daemons, instead of the protestant reformation. It’s a setting where new ideas are starting to stream in, and simultaneously are mixed with incredibly dangerous concepts that threaten to, quite literally, rip the universe apart.

I love Warhammer; it is a brilliantly stupid setting, and within that context it has a real identity. I know I said I like settings that have something to say, but you can get by on sheer charm. Warhammer is an incredibly bleak setting that turns the pitch black horizon into comedy.

Warhammer is a postlapsarian world. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, this is a concept from Christian literature holding that humanity is a fallen race; separated from divinity for our sins. Warhammer pulls this out as part of the philosophies and outlooks that define its era, and runs screaming into the night with it.

Like, Warhammer, Dragon Age is also postlapsarian. The specifics are different, and more solidly tied to human hubris. It’s setting mimics middle ages Catholic church politics, complete with the schism between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. It skips over the Protestant reformation that dominates Warhammer’s thoughts on the subject, but some of that is a function of time.

The biggest difference is tone, and part of the reason why I’ve spent 700 words leading up to a tear down.

Dragon Age wants to be a serious game, about serious people, doing serious things. If it would make up its mind, or lighten up a bit, it could have been pretty great. (Or, arguably was.) Now, let me explain why I sidetracked into talking about Warhammer up there: Dragon Age is a poorly executed riff on Warhammer, not Forgotten Realms.

In Dragon Age/Warhammer, mages are unstable and risk corruption by demons/daemons from the fade/warp. They’re constantly struggling to keep control over themselves, and the demons/daemons are always nibbling at the edges of their minds. If a mage loses control they can become possessed by a demon/daemon, and become an abomination/a daemon, physically transforming the unfortunate mage in grotesque ways. Because of this, mages are hunted down by Templars/Templars of Sigmar, sometimes/usually called Witchunters, who have enormous authority granted to them by The Chantry/The Church of Sigmar.

Travel through the fade/warp is possible, but extremely dangerous without a trained mage (or a functioning Gellar field in WH40k), this can allow an experienced mage to travel vast distances (Warp travel is technically an FTL system.) The fade/warp is a substructure of reality shaped by the subconscious psychic energy of the universe’s population, and the demons/daemons within are direct manifestations of vices/base emotions.

Civilization is threatened by incursions from the Darkspawn/Chaos, a mix of strange fade tainted/chaos warped creatures, who come from the south/north, but can pop up nearly anywhere.

Now, to be fair, there are differences between the settings, the Dwarves are being pushed to the edge of extinction in a handful of holds, having lost their once grand empire because of prolonged combat with the darkspawn/greenskins (orcs, goblins, and some other critters.) I also, don’t really want to get into a full discussion of the similarities between the Lizardmen and the Qunari, because that quickly gets esoteric. There’s also a lot of armies in Warhammer that simply don’t appear in Dragon Age. Some like the Skaven and Greenskins appear to have been rolled with the Chaos armies, others like the Vampire Counts, Tomb Kings, High Elves, Dark Elves, and Wood Elves are basically absent.

So, where’s the problem? A couple things.

It doesn’t bother me that Dragon Age was heavily inspired by Warhammer. After all, Warcraft also began life as a Warhammer game, and that splintered off into its own identity. Everything we do as writers builds on things we’ve consumed. The material you read will seep into the things you write. That’s fine. That’s the nature of being a creative. Look outside yourself, see things, take a look, and incorporate the parts that make sense.

You’ve heard the old quote, “good writers borrow, great writers steal?” That’s here. You see a neat thing in text, in a game, or on screen, you’ll remember it, you’ll try to snarf it up and consume it. It becomes a part of you, it affects how you look at the world (even in a small way), and will affect your writing. This means that, most of the time, when you see someone saying, “they just ripped off X,” and list one or two things, it’s not.

In taking inspiration, see something you like, take it, digest it. Look at the concept from all sides. Roll it around in your head. Ask yourself what it means when it gets dropped into your work. Don’t just lift entire systems, or characters, and transplant them without considering them. The goal is that, on the other end there’s no way to know, and that the previous paragraphs I wrote where I describe both settings with a simple proper noun replacement scheme can’t happen. (And, I could have gone on for a lot longer. The similarities vastly outnumber the differences.)

If Dragon Age‘s setting is Warhammer, it’s rules are Forgotten Realms. This is something of a problem. You’re presented with one system for how the setting works in text, prose, and fluff, and you’re presented with a completely different setting when you actually engage with the material directly. I wish I could say this is a problem unique to games with narratives, but that’s not entirely true. This can become a problem any time a writer establishes one set of rules for the, “little people,” of their world, and a different set of rules for their protagonists.

Magic in Warhammer is dangerous. A wizard is channeling the power of the warp, and hoping they can keep control over it. In Dragon Age, magic is described as dangerous, and in both cases the characters risk drawing the attention of a demon/daemon. But, in actual game play, the only threat Dragon Age mage faces from casting is running out of mana. Magic can never slip from their control reeking havoc outside of a cutscene. Untold horrors can’t spill forth from a tear in the fabric of reality. They’ll never be possessed against their will (again, outside of a scripted sequence, when the power of plot compels them.) Dragon Age‘s magic is built off of Forgotten Realms (even though it ditches D&D’s Vancian system), because the gameplay was designed without regard for the setting. Or, put another way, the protagonists follow different rules from the rest of their setting.

As a writer, if you look at Dragon Age you need to assess that fundamental cognitive dissonance first.

There is another piece of dissonance between Dragon Age and Pillars, their approach to humanity. (I’m abbreviating here, as both settings have many non-human individuals that fit inside this context of this argument, while still being explicitly something other than human.)

Postlapsarian views humans as fundamentally fallen. Pillars solidly rejects that entire thought process. There’s a full state of nature debate in there, and if you really believe people can’t be trusted to managed their own bowels, you have the option to say so, but the story doesn’t endorse this. Dragon Age enshrines the idea that people broke the world, and all of the horrific monsters wandering the world are their fault. In Dragon Age magic is an emblem of (and conduit to) that original sin. In Pillars magic is another tool for advancing civilization’s understanding of the world (in addition to being a highly destructive weapon that’s significantly affected the setting’s history.) In fact, the metaphysics of Pillars are under the control of characters. This is reminiscent of how D&D’s gods tend to be ascended adventurers, but it creates a setting where the sentient races are in control of their destiny, and aren’t being told they need to atone for anything.

If you want to take two settings and blend them together, the first step is to pull them apart and start sifting through the individual pieces. See how they connect to the rest of the setting/story, and ask yourself what it affects and if it makes sense. Also, remember you’re free to disagree with the authors on their conclusions. Don’t simply take something, make it your own first.


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Q&A: Metafiction; the story inside the story inside the story inside the… uh… yeah.

Bungou Stray Dogs has a mafia that uses a few teenage characters with useful/deadly powers. Any tips on making them realistic in fanfiction without being weak or useless? There IS trauma involved but trauma doesn’t always show up immediately/in readily recognizable ways especially in teenagers. The characters also have varying levels of maturity and ambition. Even if it’s wrong, it wouldn’t make sense for the CRIMINAL boss to NOT use teens if they could be useful even on the short term.

Okay, so, this is a very defensive question. You’re asking for tips, but arguing on the tips you expect us to give you. There’s a mistaken assumption that criminals don’t use teens because it’s morally wrong, and not because it’s, well, bad for staying in business because teenagers are less reliable than seasoned professionals for mob hits, or that’s just a lot of responsibility to trust to someone so young. Criminal organizations do use children, they just don’t usually use them to do anything important (like kill people.)

There’s even all caps.

None of that is important though. We’re talking about an anime where Herman Melville transforms into the ghost of Orson Welles and takes off into the night sky. The entire argument you’re trying to make just isn’t applicable. So, let’s talk about a very special genre called metafiction instead.

Bungou Stray Dogs is both an anime, and a piece of metafiction. When discussing how this piece of media handles its characters or structures its plots, realism is not even a tertiary concern.  The anime doesn’t care. If you’re writing fanfiction in the world created by this medium neither should you. Now, let’s talk about about this small piece of the literary genre called metafiction; where there is a contextual narrative within the narrative based entirely on your familiarity with the other narratives being referenced.

Let me drop this in front of you,

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
If you are a someone who came out of an education system from a former British colony you should have some passing recognition of this stanza, even if you don’t know who the author is.  (Or, you slept through you’re high school English classes.) This is from William Blake’s “The Tyger“, and, no, this isn’t just a literary joke based on the fact the protagonist of Bungou Stray Dogs transforms into a tiger under the moonlight. No, this is a reference to the fact the protagonist of Bungou Stray Dogs is named after Japanese author Atsushi Nakajima, who was a fan of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphisis” and whose story “Sangetsuki” features a man who transforms into a tiger. “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright…”

This is an on the nose reference which would be immediately obvious to a Japanese audience, just like so many other characters featured in Bungou Stray Dogs, but would require a fair amount of digging from someone not well versed in classic Japanese literature. Which, I’m not, I had to look it up.

When you’re talking about a narrative this deep into Japanese literary history and culture, whose characters and their powers are based on other characters from other more famous stories you never read because you didn’t go to a Japanese high school, you have to realize that they’re not discussing the “mafia” in any realistic fashion. No, they’re talking about the Yakuza and not the Yakuza as they exist in the real world. We’re talking about the Yakuza as they exist in classic Japanese literature and as a cultural touchstone within their media.

An example is the Italian mafia as seen in The Godfather and not the Italian mafia from Goodfellas. One embraces the cultural idealization of the mafia, while the other… well, is trying for a biographical portrayal of an ex-mafioso’s life and experiences in the mob. Watch both, you’ll find very different movies working underneath the surface.

Metafiction, at heart, is a story within a story using characters/individuals or basing itself on characters who are either public domain or simply easily recognizable via simple motif. Metafiction relies heavily on a cultural contextual awareness of these characters (or historical individuals). These characters need no introduction because you’re expected to already know who they are. You know. The story lies in how they interact with each other, but their underlying narrative is one of exploration about these pieces of art in comparison and contrast, their values, their political views, their social mores, and how they interact with each other.

The surface story is John Locke and Thomas Hobbes hook up to fight crime in Victorian London. The underlying narrative explores the philosophical views of Locke and Hobbes as they deal with the human and societal circumstances forged by this variation of a rapidly changing British society neither experienced in their own lifetimes.

We already got a version this idea with the comic Calvin and Hobbes. We get the hijinks of a boy and his imaginary tiger friend, but the underlying comedy is exploring an interaction between the philosophies of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes. The content is there if you know what to look for, and, if you’re from a cultural background where learning something about these two is required, you’ll pick up on the humor within the humor without needing it explained; even when you can’t articulate why.

Bungou Stray Dogs is like Calvin and Hobbes.

There are other Western versions of metafiction. An easy example to point to is Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Another is the show Penny Dreadful, which works off a similar concept with contemporary characters from the same time period as League. The Assassin’s Creed games are another example, they’re mashing a lot of contemporary historical figures together as touchstones for their narrative even if these individuals never actually interacted.

There’s a story, but that story is also built on the reader’s knowledge of these characters outside the fictional work itself. In a way, all fanfiction is metafiction. The major difference between one and the other is ultimately legality. The characters of metafiction are public domain, copyright does not apply, and so you can do what you like with them. You want to write a massive fanfic crossing over the works of Austen, Gaskell, and Bronte? In a coffee shop or high school setting? Go right ahead. You can do that legally. Be interesting enough and you could even get it published by a traditional publisher. After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did get published.

So, you writing fanfiction about Bungou Stray Dogs which is itself a massive crossover alternate AU fanfic about classic Japanese literature is extremely meta in its own right. Congrats!

Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the characters of Bungou Stray Dogs have personalities and powers based on the literary figures they’re associated with. If you want to make these characters useful to the criminal organization then you need to do your reading. They’re not just random characters in an anime, they’re based on a real author, probably an author who died young, and their famous protagonist. You should look at this crime boss and figure out which literary figure he’s based off of, the focus of the author’s narrative fiction, and accept that Japan has a tendency to throw around synonymous non-Japanese words willy-nilly. When calling an organization the mafia, they’re not really talking about the mafia within conventional Western understanding. This character is a very specific reference to a very specific individual and their works.

The trouble with metafiction is that it requires you do the reading, and in this case do the reading on other authors and their works you may not have ever heard of or realized were a primary influence and major reference on the material you’ve been watching/reading. However, to find the actual answer to your question, you’ve got to take a look at their works. Realize, these works may not be readily available or easily understood if you don’t read Japanese. Though the works of the authors referenced by the American association “The Guild” will be easy enough to get hold of, though thoroughly more confusing if you know anything about the authors Kafka Asagiri is referencing.  (From an American perspective, just looking at the versions appearing in this anime, I can say that I don’t know what the heck they read but that’s the key difference between looking at someone else’s literary culture versus your own.)

I mean, let’s be honest, Mark Twain’s power should be his ability to completely destroy your self-esteem. This requires a contextual understanding of Twain’s humor which may not be easily accessible via translation; especially if you only read a poor translation of Huckleberry Finn in high school. This is, after all, the man who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And, if you’re writing metafiction, or just fiction, or even fanfiction in general, he’s got some great advice, “get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

But, I digress. When writing metafiction, or any fiction, or just in general, it helps when you know what you’re talking about. Or, have the confidence and showmanship to convince people you do.

One of the great aspects writing fanfiction has to teach you is how to do your research. As a writer, you’re stepping into someone else’s shoes and learning to think from their perspective. You create a facsimile even though your creations will never truly match. You can’t be someone else, but you can try out their style and see if their work works for you. You have the opportunity to step back from a work and ask what this means to you as you put your own personal spin on it. You might even find yourself depending on how easily you wind up coloring outside the lines.

You should ask yourself, does canon matter to you? 

Canon doesn’t have to, sometimes fanfiction is simply a launchpad to doing your own work when you’re still trying to build up strength in your wings and aren’t ready to leave the nest.

Does realism matter to you?

Again, “realism” doesn’t have to matter. Realism is defined entirely by the narrative your working with. You make reality. Your research into criminal organizations is to discover how they work and how they think. Learn the rules so you can break them.  Learn the facts so you can distort them. You want to know how the world works and how people think the world works so you can change those rules, or realize the rules you thought were important don’t matter at all.

Reality is stranger than fiction.

Learn to act without waiting for permission.

For that reason, we work on giving you options and helping you understand how the world works. This may not have any bearing on the story you wanted to tell, but we can’t tell your story for you. A big step on the road to writing is learning to write for all the characters in your narrative and not just your protagonists. Learn to think like a crime boss or a villain, give them motivations and logical reasoning behind their actions as they weigh their decisions.

Crime is entirely based on risk versus reward. Does the opportunity for reward outweigh the risks involved? Is your desire to use these characters and create exciting plots for them overshadowing the decision of this other character? Can you internally justify the choice beyond just the fact these characters have supernatural powers?

Your characters making choices is what takes them from the realm of dolls and transforms them into people.


(PS. I give a gold star to whomever reading this got that joke about Orson Welles.)

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Q&A: Invisible Enemies

My antagonist can turn invisible. Is it possible to fight/kill him?

Yes. Invisibility is not the same as invulnerability. It’s a significant combat advantage, but like all advantages, it’s something your characters need to plan around.

Off hand, two approaches come to mind. You can either come up with a plan that negates the invisibility, as much as possible, or find ways to deal with your antagonist that completely sidestep direct combat.

Negating invisibility depends, in part on how the power functions. If it’s technological, there may be systemic limitations.

Someone cloaking themselves from the visual wavelength may still be visible in the infrared spectrum, or ultraviolet. Meaning you might be able to find them using thermal goggles, or with blacklights. You may be able to disrupt their cloak using a rapidly changing environment, for example with dance club lighting and strobes. If you’ve watched the Predator films, there’s also the possibility that their adaptive camouflage can’t handle exposure to water. Even failing that, it might not be able to conceal foreign objects striking them. Meaning dust, sand, snow, or of course, blood may cling to their body, partially exposing their location.

If they’re only invisible, they will interact with their environment. This means things like leaving footprints, brushing aside cobwebs or foliage. If they’re moving through smoke, dust clouds, or any other airborne particulate matter, they probably can’t conceal that either, so you’d likely see some hints at their movement if you paid enough attention. That same particulate matter may cling to them, meaning they wouldn’t be fully invisible for long. You may not be able to see them, but if you’re looking for something moving around, you should see some traces. Of course, all of this requires that your characters know what they’re dealing with.

Another fun possibility with technology is that they may still cast a shadow. Their cloak may be able to replicate the image behind them, but it probably can’t emit light at the same intensity of the sun, or even a streetlamp without resulting in some seriously strange lighting behavior.

Another possible approach is that light actually lenses around the character. This is, in theory, the technology behind the cloaking devices in Star Trek. So, they wouldn’t be emitting light, directly, just passing it around them without leaving a shadow. There is one problem with this, your eyes function by being struck by incoming light. If you lens the light around an object, it is invisible, because the light you’re seeing will never actually contact the object and bounce off, but it will also render the user blind (while the field is active.) There are ways around this, but the short version is, their eyes (or goggle lenses) need to be visible, or they can’t see. I’m not saying that a pair of disembodied, glowing, red eyes is better, but it is a functional limitation based on physics, depending on how the technology they’re using works. Somewhat obviously, this isn’t a problem if they’re using some kind of chameleon style equipment.

So, this is all technological, but there are harder to pin down options. Magic is open ended and sets its own rules. It may follow physics, or it may not give a damn. So, let’s look at another easy to manage example, your antagonist isn’t actually invisible, instead, like The Shadow, they have the ability to prevent others from seeing them. In this case, most of the things I just described wouldn’t work. They could pass through fog without betraying their presence because your characters are psychically prevented from realizing they’re there.

This comes with a host of different considerations. For one, your antagonist’s ability to remain invisible is directly tied to their mental state and control. If they’re taunting from the shadows, it may be possible (though difficult) to work their nerves in return. There may be other factors they can’t control. This is also far more strictly dependent on your antagonist having full control over their environment. For example: They can’t mask themselves from someone they don’t know exists or a security camera.

That’s the hard way. The easy way is if you have a vague idea of where they are, simply lock them in, or set the building on fire. Sure, they might be able to escape. But, that’s why you lock the doors first.

Invisibility is a strong advantage, but you can work around it. It’ll just take some advanced planning, and some idea of what their limitations are. So, that’s your characters’ first goal, find those limitations, and then operationalizing a way to use those against them.

I cited Predator earlier. It’s not a great film (though, you’re welcome to disagree with me on that point), but it is about an invisible alien hunting film’s most improbably armed search and rescue team. In your case, I’d also recommend the sequel, Predator 2. Set a decade after the first, it includes characters who are specifically looking for ways to circumvent the Predator’s cloaking system. It’s also got a lot of visual fodder to play with for how a personal cloaking device might look in an urban environment.

If you can look past the uncomfortable Orientalism, 1994’s The Shadow is probably one of the most easily accessible versions of a character who masks their presence psychically. It’s also a better film than it has any right to be, even if the CGI is very dated now. If you’re going the psychic or magical route, this one may be worth looking at. To be fair, this is a character that’s been in print for almost 90 years, so it’s not like there’s a shortage of material to choose from. However, the ’94 incarnation just happens to be a very good, period, superhero film.

Invisibility is one of those superpowers that demand a little more creativity. That’s all. You can kill ’em.


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Q&A: Delta and HRT

Hi, I’m writing an urban fantasy where the deuteragonist is a former member of Delta Force and FBI Special Agent who works with the FBI Hostage Rescue Teams as an instructor. Any tips for the do’s and don’t for hostage rescue situations?

Okay, I’m going to chew on the background for a second. Your character sounds like a unicorn. It’s not. The combo is a lot more plausible than it first seems, but it sounds a bit out there.

Delta Operators are vanishingly rare. The exact size of the organization is classified, but best guess is that there’s only around 250 – 300 Delta Force Operators cleared for field work or hostage recovery at any given time.

I’m not clear on exactly how many Hostage Rescue Teams the Bureau maintains, but it’s also a short list. If your character trains the HRTs, that’s a full time job.

The reason the Delta to FBI thing strikes me as weird, beyond simply collecting alphabet soup, is that Delta trains FBI HRTs, and, the FBI’s HRT instructors train Delta. It’s a symbiotic ouroboros. Both groups practice some of the same tactics, though the exact methodology varies. This leaves me with a simple question of, “why?”

Why leave the military, to go to the Bureau to do the same job with the same people, and a fraction of the benefits? This doesn’t mean you can’t, or that someone wouldn’t, just remember it’s probably unnecessary. Your Delta instructor could very well know and have trained your HRT member protagonists with no extra layers mixed in.

Given this is urban fantasy, that might be your reasoning. Characters like Ultraviolet‘s Vaughn Rice (Idris Elba) come to mind. They’ve seen horrific things in mundane organizations, and were inducted into clandestine monster hunting agencies because of their experiences.

Though, I’m not 100% certain the HRTs a good fit. Especially if your setting has Delta, or more specialized groups tasked with countering supernatural threats and monsters. If that’s the case, you might want to trim one of those off. Your character went from Delta or HRT into their monster hunting organization, rather than stacking up multiple “elite” backgrounds, even if they are justifiable together. I guess, one entirely plausible explanation is if your character is setting up their own agency, and tap your Delta/HRT to bring the new program up to speed. That would track. Still strange that they’d follow that career path, but it would certainly bump their resume up the pile, when searching for recruits.

To be fair, there’s also a lingering question of, “why isn’t this guy your protagonist?” They may, very well, be a more interesting character than whomever you planned to run with. This isn’t a strike against them if you’re careful. Just, be aware that you may need to up your protagonist’s game to keep them engaging.

As for actual hostage rescue tactics, I’m not the best person to ask. My original primer was via The Negotiator. It’s a good film (if you can still stomach Kevin Spacey), but not something I’d call educational. A quick search did turn up this article on PoliceOne.com. I’m not particularly familiar with the site, but the information tracks with what I do know, and the psychological methods presented are solid, so, it seems legit. There’s also a much more in-depth primer on HowStuffWorks.com. It’s not comprehensive, but should fill in some minutiae that the PoliceOne article skimmed over. You may also want to ask @Skypig357 for his opinion.

I’m also left with questions for how viable hostage rescue would be when dealing with supernatural threats. Though, I suppose, in a context like the Nightwatch novels, or Men in Black, where you’re dealing with the supernatural as just another law enforcement headache, it’s certainly possible.


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Q&A: Science Fiction Melee

Are there still advantages to bladed weapons in a futuristic setting? (Assuming sci-fi weapons like laser guns are commonly used in the setting) There are obviously uses of small blades like knives, but are swords still plausable? I’ve seen a few shows and books set in the future where energy swords or similar weapons are used

Without accounting for specific situational factors, no. Once you have ranged weapons that can be used to quickly neutralize multiple opponents in short succession, and remain viable at melee ranges, there’s no real place for a pure melee weapon.

Knives, axes, and hammers are something of an exception because they have value as utility tools, that can double as an emergency weapon. Though, I am reminded of the email in Doom 3 questioning a shipment of chainsaws to Mars. It’s probably worth remembering what those tools are used for before you simply drop them into your ship’s storage locker.

While we’re on the subject of using tools as emergency weapons and video games, I’m also reminded that most of the arsenal from the Dead Space were re-purposed mining and engineering tools. (At least in the first two games, anyway.)

So, that’s without specific settings that would justify the existence of a sword in your space opera. There’s, obviously, quite a few science fiction settings that do gleefully chuck a box of swords at the combatants and force them to sift through for various reasons.

The primary reason you’d be seeing swords in sci-fi is cultural. Lots of settings envision a distant future where culture has degraded to some prior point for whatever reason. Dune is probably the ur-example here, where human civilization has been reduced down to a feudal state, governed by noble houses. In a setting like that, you could easily see the sword used as a ceremonial weapon, in duels, or other specific circumstances. To be fair, Dune also replaces the sword with daggers for mostly aesthetic reasons, but the effect is still similar. Dune also challenges the use of ranged weapons with body shields. These, expensive, items block kinetic ranged weapons, and detonate in a nuclear blast when struck with lasgun fire. So, there’s an exemption to the ranged only rule above.

The lightsabers from Star Wars are another special case. In the hands of a trained force user they can (effectively) negate incoming blaster fire, meaning they do offer an exemption to the ranged rule.

Warhammer 40k finds a similar exemption by simply increasing the resilience of its inhabitants until you have a setting where fans sarcastically refer to energy rifles capable of reducing humans to red mist as “flashlights” because they do nothing to many of the setting’s inhabitants. To be fair, if something can survive direct lasgun fire (40k “borrows” the term directly from Dune), you’re probably not going to get very far swinging a mundane sword at it.

Because, sci-fi settings encompass such a massive range of potential environments, it’s probably important to point out that there are a lot of reasons you might see melee weapons on the loose. The above just a couple possible reasons, but let’s codify these without tying them to explicit examples.

Ceremonial usage is a big one. This means you probably wouldn’t see swords being used during boarding actions, but you would see them around, and people from the social classes who needed them could be reasonably expected to know how to use them should it be the most expedient option. This could be because civilization has degenerated into a kind of clan or great house structure. Generally speaking, ritualized dueling works in a system where you have disputes between individuals, but can’t politically afford to adjudicate punishment. This makes the most sense in feudal systems, or intra-faction conflicts in an unstable coalition. Again, Dune‘s Great Houses are an excellent example of this kind of situation.

Another big, potential, reason is if ranged weapons are rendered ineffective or risky in certain situations.

One of the classic examples is using high power kinetic weapons on a starship where you’re risking a hull breach with every gunshot. Depending on the nature of your energy weapons, (and the overall technologies used for maintaining structural integrity) this may be more or less of a consideration. If your setting’s ships can use force fields to maintain atmosphere punching a hole in the hull with a stray gunshot will be far less dangerous than if that means the ship is losing air, with no way to replace it. As your weapons become more powerful, this risk becomes more significant. That said, the hull breach situation comes with a mix of other considerations. If your setting has body armor that can resist small arms fire, it’s likely that your ships would share that construction. It’s also entirely possible that boarding teams would operate in sealed environmental suits, capable of exposure to hard vacuum, and more ruthless groups might intentionally trigger hull breaches during their boarding actions. The risks involved may also heavily depend on kind of ranged weapons your characters are using. Kinetic weapons with very high penetration may pose a much greater threat here than handheld particle beam weapons.

Another potential situation where you have technologies specifically designed to suppress the effect of specific weapon types. Personal shielding technology, or exosuit armor are potential examples. Of course, if it is armor, simply pulling out a sword probably isn’t going to do much, unless the sword circumvents the armor somehow. But, if you have a setting where body shields that can survive multiple plasma hits are semi-common, you might very well see people using swords, or similar weapons, to bypass them. To, be fair, you may also see the development of new weapons designed to bypass or overload those shields, so it’s not like this automatically means you’d see melee weapons.

Another possibility is when dealing with primitive cultures. If you’re dealing with a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting, where some prior galactic civilization fell, leaving colonies cut off, you might come across planets where advanced technology fell completely out of use. I’ve argued against this in a strict context of post-apocalyptic settings before, but colonies introduce a new wrinkle, where you could potentially have a population base who knew how to use advanced energy weapons, did not have practical knowledge of  kinetic firearms, and lost access to the latter. This could result in a full on regression, over a long enough time frame (figure several thousand years, at a guess.) So it is, theoretically possible you might have lost colonies that have regressed back to spear and bow warfare. What happens if human ships visit one of these lost colonies is, of course, up to you.

There is one hard part when it comes to defining a state of existence for science fiction, and it does show in this question. I used a few examples. Star Wars is generally accepted as existing in its own timeline. It’s science fantasy, and that’s fine. Both of the video game examples, along with a lot of sci-fi settings like Star Trek are near future. They’re set within one thousand years of present day. Stuff like Dune or Warhammer 40k are a lot harder to pin down. Dune is set sometime in the 24th millennium, and 40k draws it’s name from being set in the 41st millennium. Both of those settings juggle their overall technology by technological dark ages, but it does start to peal the lid off questions of, “what will the technology look like?” Meaning you need to address those concepts in much more general terms.

So, in short, “probably not,” but you might be able to assemble a setting where swinging swords around like it’s the golden age of piracy does, in fact, make sense.


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Q&A: Computer Logic is not Human Logic

Hi! A question inspired by the androids of Detroit: Become Human. If an otherwise human android (or gynoid) had only faster reflexes (and inability to feel pain), being able to compute the best possible approach in any hand-to-hand combat situation from move to move, how much of an advantage would that be? Is there an advantage to human unpredictability or can melee combat be optimized by artificial intelligence?

Have you ever played chess against a computer?

They cheat. They don’t even cheat intelligently, they just cheat. They go right for the jugular, and the “game” is over in one to maybe two moves. An android in combat is going to do the same thing, in that it will do precisely what you programmed it to do and that logical outcome is: to go directly to instant death every. single. time.

Total neutralization of the threat before they have time to react.

Well, that’d be after the AI realized that it couldn’t just not fight or put the world on pause forever. Or it might just shut itself down after activation like that Security Robot which committed suicide in a fountain. Not fighting is winning. You can achieve victory by never fighting or simply shutting down. However, if you must, immediate total obliteration is the most optimal approach when it comes to conventional ideas about violence. You cut your enemy off at the knees, act preemptively once you register the situation, act before the enemy has time to get their pants on, and knock them off the proverbial cliff via straight up murder.

The computer does not distinguish, the computer does not regulate, the computer does not care. The computer is doing exactly what you told it to do and subtle nuance like deciding whether one crime is worse than another is beyond it. You told it to deal with a threat, the threat has been dealt with in the most efficient way possible regardless of future consequences. The computer wasn’t programmed to consider those.

Now, I know that some of you are going, “but what if it was?”

Well, let’s be honest, this is a perfectly logical, reasonable, rational solution that plenty of real people have already come up with. Plenty of self-defense professionals will tell you that this is the best, least risky, and ultimately safest solution is recognizing the threat before the threat occurs and acting. The two sets of mores which will hold us back are moral and social. This is not a societally or socially acceptable method of dealing with other human combatants.

Let us remember, you asked for the most efficient hand to hand solution and not the most socially acceptable one.

That method is sudden, violent murder. The computer will then escalate from there into preemptive action… like murdering all humans everywhere because that will definitively end the threat humans pose to each other.

This is why Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics exist.

Computers have trouble with complex moral quandaries and subtle nuance when it comes to decision making. You just don’t want them to be able to hurt people.

This, of course, is predicated on the idea that the programming works and the android can actually predict “the best possible” solution in hand to hand combat at a speed rapid enough to keep up with the human. (Which is why I say “preemptive instant death”, the computer will figure out quickly that this is the least risky approach which requires minimal overall computing power.) Hand to hand combat has a myriad of complex permutations and approaches which would be extremely difficult for a computer to keep up with, and the android could only do this with what it was programmed to know.  With a learning algorithm of some sort it’d be a kludgy person, ultimately slower and less capable. It not being able to “feel pain” would actually be a detriment for it. Working through pain is what teaches humans to ignore it, to know when they’ve reached their limit, when they truly are injured, and discover which pain actually matters.

This quality is often ignored by popular media outside of sports films, war movies, and fighting anime, but pain is extremely important to a combatant’s development. Pushing past pain is necessary for your mental barriers in martial arts training, which are key to developing conviction, determination, courage, and general grit. You don’t just train your body, you train your mind and your spirit. By going through difficult and frustrating experiences you grow, and get strong. That mental and emotional strength is what we use to push past our limits, to achieve new heights, and keep going when we’re certain we’re spent.

During training, you push past pain, past exhaustion, past your own insecurities, your self-defeat. You stand up. You keep going.

This quality? This comes from facing and defeating yourself, your own internal expectations of yourself and your own strength. You get past the first hump, and every hump you get past after that is a little easier even when the trials you face are more difficult.

The “One More Lap” mentality is the Determinator.

This is the difference between the mediocre student who showed up every day and worked their butt off to get better versus the talented student who was content to coast on their genetically gifted laurels.

This inner quality, earned by blood, sweat, and tears, is the foundation of every single champion.

It’ll screw up an algorithm.

And that’s why the computer cheats.

Against an overwhelming threat, the computer will react to protect itself the way anyone else would. Like so many other humans before it, the computer reduces risk to the smallest possible margins by turning to other options. It ultimately settle on the safest solution: preemption, and if not preemption then rapid escalation into brutality and murder.

If at any point during this post you went, “but no, that’s wrong!”


That’s an error checking your computer can’t do.

More than that, you can’t program a computer to work off information you don’t have and it doesn’t know. You can’t program the computer to “find the best solution in any hand to hand scenario” because you can’t program it with all that information. You won’t have access to nearly all the necessary information, and the possibilities are too numerous. Even if you program your computer with a magical learning algorithm it will only have access to the information it has experienced. The computer does not have the ability to be prescient.

I mean just look at all the actual AI experiments out there. Computers are very good at some aspects and terrible at others. Check out this video where an AI plays Tetris, and in order not to lose pauses right at the end. It can’t lose now, it’s indefinitely paused. Computer problem solving is different from human problem solving in some very fascinating and, in some cases, extremely literal ways.

Violence is very simple in some ways, but extremely complex in others. There are the moral and ethical quandries, such as when is use of force necessary but also complex kinetic motions requiring supremely good coordination in order to perform. This is the kind of force generation that’s very difficult to program because there are a lot of moving pieces. Those pieces are several steps beyond just programming the android to pick up objects, walk, or run.

The Terminators are the way to go. They don’t fight in conventional hand to hand, they just throw, flick, and crush on their way to victory. They have that option. They’re durable, most modern damage won’t slow them down, and they’re choosing motions that aren’t that mechanically complex. After all, why program the android to perform a 540 kick when they can throw someone through a wall? Easy, effective, involves fewer moving parts, and there’s ultimately less risk of damage.

The problem with Detroit: Become Human is that the androids are in the hands of a human player. They’re being controlled by a person, so, of course, they’ll behave like people. Games where you play the android are a terrible exploration of whether or not a computer can feel empathy. Think instead about NPCs in all your other video games. How do they behave? What do they do? There are plenty of learning AI in strategy games, and a lot of them cheat.

So, could a human fight this potential android and win?

Yes, fairly easily, because humans not only also cheat but because our brains prioritize the accumulation of different data that a computer will ignore. Information about the environment, for example. Developing tactics in regards to utilizing that environment during combat are another. We call this the “Let Me Hit You With A Trash Can Lid” approach. You can look at your environment and see items in it that you can use as weapons. The computer? The computer is going to ignore those. A human can also anticipate secondary and tertiary consequences to their actions, which means their decision making is ultimately different. It is very difficult to anticipate an enemy you ultimately don’t understand. Programming a computer with martial arts techniques is one thing, programming the computer to understand what people might do with those techniques is actually a different process altogether, and programming the computer to perform all those techniques (if they can even gain access to the full spectrum) is going to give some poor robotics expert a real headache.

I got a headache just thinking about it.


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Q&A: A Hunter’s Tools

In fantasy stories, the bow and arrow is an overused choice of weapon. What other weapons are there that I can give my huntress heroine for effective use in the woods? She’s skilled in a variety of weapon use, such as swords and daggers and other things, but I want to give her one weapon that she excels at.

I’m not sure if it’s really overused. The bow is a very versatile hunting tool. Slings were used to deal with predators, and could be lethal, but aren’t usually associated with hunting in the same way, at least in fiction. Slingshots can be used to deal with small game, though those date to the 19th century.

Slings date to the neolithic period, and are formed with multiple lengths of cord connected to a pouch which holds a (usually stone) projectile, called a “bullet.” The user spins the weapon, releasing one of the straps to release the projectile into flight. With practice, these can be surprisingly accurate. Historically they were used as military weapons during the bronze and iron age. Though, as I said, I’m not sure on their use in hunting.

The bolo is somewhat similar to the sling. This is a thrown weapon with multiple weights, joined together by a flexible line. The weapon is thrown by spinning one of the weights and releasing, so that it will tangle the target’s legs dropping it.

The atlatl is a paleolithic weapon, dating back approximately 30k years. These consist of a simple shaft with a cup designed to hold a spear (or dart.) The butt of the spear is loaded into the cup, with the atlatl’s shaft under the spear. The user then launches the spear by “swinging” the atlatl. Because of the length of the shaft, this effectively magnifies the initial launching force from the projectile. I’m unsure of the exact timeline for use in Europe. There are surviving examples dating back 17k years, but I don’t know exactly when they fell out of use. In the Americas, they were still used, sometimes in preference over, bows up to the time of European colonization. (In fact the name, atlatl is of Aztec origin.)

Failing that, it’s worth remembering that the spear. These things have been around longer than homo sapiens, and we’ve been using them to catch dinner and poke holes in people we don’t like for almost all of our existence. They’ve been used for hunting, in warfare. They’ve been thrown, used as melee weapons. If your character hunts, especially in a low-tech setting, it’s a virtual certainty that they’d use a spear, at least some of the time.

Also, the spear would be the preferred tool for killing a wounded animal, as it allows the hunter to remain at a safe distance; closing in with the knife would be borderline suicidal, especially against wounded herbivores.

Following closely behind the spear are traps. We’ve been getting creative and killing things by turning the environment to our advantage throughout history. These include pit traps, where you dig a small trench, and line it with sharpened sticks, cover it with leaves, and then startle an animal through it. Deadfall traps, where a rock or other heavy object is suspended over bait, when the targeted animal approaches it, the suspension is removed or cut. Finally, snares are another common trap, where a cable or rope latches onto and holds the animal that trips it. In some cases, these are combined with bending tree branches to tension, in order to suspend the target. We don’t usually think of traps as weapons, but they’ve been an important part of human hunting throughout our history.

I’m going to say this again for emphasis. If your character is a hunter in anything other than a modern setting, they should be using traps. Full stop. These were a vital tool for hunters historically, so it’s worth your time to look into those in a little more depth.

Another incredibly important hunting tool is a dog. They’re not as durable as a human, but they are far more mobile, especially in dense areas, and can be incredibly useful for driving prey into traps, or tracking wounded prey across difficult terrain. It’s easy to think of dogs as companions, but many breeds did have specific working roles, including hunting.

Also, worth remembering, the sword is for use on people. If your character is also hunting people, then that’s a natural fit. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t own, or even know how to use a sword, unless there were other cultural factors at play. (For example, if your character is a game warden for some feudal lord, or a retired soldier they may have and use one.) The sword isn’t useful for hunting. So, unless your character is also a combatant, you can safely ditch this.

Depending on setting, it’s entirely possible your character would go hunting with a spear (or spears, if they intend to throw them), a sling, some snares, and a knife (for setting the traps.) They may also carry an axe, which might also double as a shovel for digging pits. Though that’s somewhat less likely. If they found themselves threatened by another person, the spear would function as an entirely effective weapon, so at that point the sword is somewhat unnecessary. Depending on context, it’s entirely likely they’d have a dog (or some other animal that acts as a hunting assistant.)

I’d also recommend you take some time to research hunting tactics, with things such as lures and blinds. If you’re wanting your character to be a hunter, it’s probably a good idea to have a fundamental grasp of their job skills, even if you can’t replicate them in the wild.


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Q&A: No Obligations

Are readers supposed to root for morally ambiguous/decidedly immoral protagonists?

If you want to. Same thing applies to moral protagonists, antagonists, vehicles, inanimate objects, or creative wall ornaments. As a reader, you’re under no obligation to do anything. You don’t even have to keep reading if you don’t want to.

You root for the characters you choose because you want to. Not because of some arbitrary criteria was met. No one else can tell you who you should or shouldn’t root for. It doesn’t need to be the protagonist. Sometimes you’ll root for the villain. That’s cool.

Getting you to root for a character is entirely on the author. If you’re the writer, keeping your audience invested in your work is your job. Getting your audience to root for your characters is your job. You do that by making your characters compelling and interesting. You can’t make them like your, “cool” character just because you want them to, and audiences tend to be fairly resistant to overselling characters as, “so damn awesome,” in an attempt to sell them. Just look at the 80s and 90s comics industry if you want to see how badly this fails.

As the reader, you have no obligations. If someone tells you that liking a specific character or relationship is compulsory, they’re wrong. If someone tells you that endorsing some unsupported relationship is mandatory, they’ve disconnected from reality.

Root for the hero if you want. Root for the villain if you want. Hell, root for both. I’m not the boss of what you find compelling, and neither is anyone else.

If you think something’s trash, or unappealing, you can put that down and walk away. It doesn’t matter what some unhinged fan tells you. In the end, it’s your time, you don’t need to commit it to something that doesn’t interest you.

There are certainly reasons to read something you don’t like, or don’t enjoy. There are excellent works of art that don’t appeal, or are downright uncomfortable. Sometimes there is a purpose to perseverance. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s without merit. With that in mind, sometimes it is worth sticking it out and finishing book. As writers, we’re strengthened by the things we dislike or disagree with as much as the things we love. In fact, reading things that challenge your views and perspectives can help you grow as a writer. However, aside from, “read something,” you have freedom to pick what you want. Just, for a balanced literary diet, pick and finish some things you might not like, read them, and try to form a comprehensive critique of them that extends beyond, “this sucks.”

When it comes to reading, do not let another dictate how you engage the material. Especially not someone who’s, “a fan.” They may have a better order to experience the material in, but ultimately how you engage with it, what you take away when you’re done, how you view it, is all up to you. Others may offer insights or opinions you appreciate or disagree with, but if you adopt them, again, that is your choice; no one else can tell you what to think about the story you read.

If the writer did their job, they’ll get you rooting for who they want you to. If you don’t like a character, you’re free to choose that, and no one else has any authority to tell you otherwise.


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Q&A: Treachery

Since you guys deal a lot with fighting, you might not be as able to help here but I wondered if you had tips for handling betrayals in a mafia type setting (and the subsequent fighting)? General tips? Are betrayals in the beginning of the story cliche? How do I make it more interesting if the betrayer does so as a move for more power? How do you foreshadow without making it so the audience sees it coming? Is Loki a good example of this trickster character?

Aside from, maybe, Tim Bentinck’s portrayal, I can’t think of a single version of Loki that would fit within a Mafia setting. I mean we’re talking about a mythological figure that gave birth to Sleipnir. So, all I can say to that is, “what?”

“Someone needs to ice Jimmy. Send Frankie and spider-horse’s mom.”

Okay, so two things, and I’ll take them in order. You’re not looking for a trickster. These are antagonistic, mythological figures tasked with tormenting or bedeviling believers and heroes. They’re a specific kind of mythological test, and sometimes Loki is one. Like many mythic elements, their function is proscribed.

To a certain extent, mythic storytelling fits comics fine. The superhero genre lends itself to that style of narrative. However there are no mythic stories about mobsters. There might be some way to do this, it’s not automatically impossible, but they’re part of an entirely different, far more grounded, narrative style. I’d call it “a different genre,” but that really doesn’t encompass how different these kinds of stories are.

Loki will stab you in the back because it’s in his nature. He doesn’t need a grandiose plan, he’s not motivated by his bank account, or some abstract power of controlling the rackets in Flatiron, or worrying about rubbing out competition in Hudson Yards. If he steps down to that level it’s because he’s doing it to catch someone who’s worthy of his attention off guard, and he wouldn’t do it while wearing a name tag.

A mobster will stab you in the back because you’re a stepping stone on their way to a larger goal, because you annoyed them, or because they’re a psychopath.

If you’re looking to have your characters engage in a well crafted betrayal, those characters need achievable goals, and plans to make them happen. Then they just need to be circumspect when they go make it happen.

View your betrayer as someone with a limited amount of resources to work with, so they need to be as efficient as possible. (This extends to writing as well; be efficient with your words.) The more they do, the more of a footprint their actions will leave, the more likely they’ll be discovered before they’re ready. The easiest way to avoid that is to be careful and deliberate.

When your characters need to act to further their goals, that’s when you foreshadow what they’re doing. ideally you want to provide enough information that your readers can understand what they’re doing after the fact, but don’t realize anything’s amiss in the moment.

Innocuous actions can have sinister implications upon return. You don’t need to point out those implications, your readers will fill that in on their return trip. You also don’t need to fully detail every action you foreshadow. A character may do something innocuous with little justification, because they needed to. An event may occur in the background with no direct ties to your characters, even when your betrayer is responsible, but slipped away undetected, or orchestrated it remotely. One cautionary note: try to make sure when your characters are foreshadowing something that they’re acting to advance their agenda and not because The Power of Plot Compels Thee.

Think of foreshadowing as setting the stage, rather than hiding something from your audience. Additionally, don’t worry too much about foreshadowing in your rough draft. This is something you should be working on when you’re redrafting, once you already know where the story’s going, and what you need to make that happen.

At a quick glance, the real danger of cliches is when you insert something into your story because, “that’s how it works in stories,” without critique or a critical thought. If your character is betrayed because they need to be betrayed to start the story, that’s probably a cliche. If they’re betrayed by their friend, because said friend has a specific goal in mind, and it furthers the story as a natural event, it will resist being a cliche. Fleshing out your characters so they have distinct personalities, and their actions make sense can help avoid this.

If we’re talking about someone who’s aggressively trying to advance through the Mafia, I would strongly recommend reading The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. This is far more specific than it may sound; multiple members of the American Mafia, including John Gotti read, absorbed, and even committed it to memory. The Prince is a blueprint for taking power through ruthless means, and it was a natural fit for organized crime.

Want to avoid a cliche? Carefully plot out your villain’s powerplay, and each step in it, so that when it happens, the last thing your reader will think is, “wait, didn’t I read this before?”


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Q&A: Firearms and Advertising

A woman asks her lover to show ask her how to shoot because „good w a gun can stop bad guy w a gun“. He is a soldier & will say no, he thinks someone unexperienced with a gun is someone potentially dangerous. Iho it‘s much more likely she will hurt someone unintentionally than anything else, because she can never get enough training to become comfortable a& accustomed to a gun. Is that a realistic opinion for someone with an army background, or should I think of something else to deny her?

Yeah, that, “good guy with a gun,” statement is bullshit. It’s an advertising slogan masquerading as policy.

So, let’s talk about the most basic element of advertising for a second. When you’re selling someone to someone, your first goal is to create a need, then you provide a product to fill that need. Most people aren’t going to spend 20 bucks on something they don’t have a use for. Some products generate their own need, food for instance, while others, not so much.

Selling someone a gun requires you create a need first. Most people don’t work in occupations where a firearm is useful, to say nothing of necessary. If you’re working middle management, or as a retail cashier, you’re never going to be in a situation where your job will be improved by going strapped.

If you’re in law enforcement, a soldier, a handful of other occupations, then yes. Having a firearm is an important tool for being able to do your job. It’s necessary, and your job will either provide one, or point you in the direction of where to obtain a weapon.

Unless you need a gun for your job, you don’t need a gun. Full stop. So, for someone in marketing, their job is to create that need.

Then, in an era of mass shootings, we get this, “good guy with a gun,” line. It’s creating a need. It’s telling you, “hey, you see all those bad things happening out there? You could be a hero and stop them, if you were there, and armed.” It’s a lie. Like a lot of good marketing, it plays off of desires to present an illusion. It’s saying, “you need this if you want to be able to play the hero when the time comes.”

This need is there to get you to spend $400 you don’t have, on a product you’ll never use, because of a hypothetical situation, where you could live out your fantasy… and then shot by SWAT.

So two things: mass shootings in the United States are frighteningly frequent, and you’re more likely to win the lottery. Last year there were 345 mass shootings (which was a record), in a nation with a population of 325 million people. Now, that’s not quite a one in a million chance, because mass shootings do involve multiple people, but at the same time, your odds of ever actually being in an active shooter situation are vanishingly rare.

So, you’re being sold a fairly expensive piece of hardware, and spending more to train on, and become proficient with, that piece of hardware. Ammo and maintenance is not cheap. A responsible shooter could easily rack up a $1200 a year bill on ammo, to say nothing of range fees and other expenses.

You’re being sold this on the idea that, “but, what if,” where the odds of it happening are already incredibly low. Even then, if you carry that, “what if,” to it’s natural conclusion, things don’t get better.

Like a lot of power fantasies, the “good guy with a gun” is dependent on things playing out perfectly, and in direct contrast to how things are far more likely to go.

I mentioned your character getting shot by SWAT earlier, but this is a real risk. If you do find yourself in an active shooter situation, the police will come in looking for a civilian, armed with a weapon, firing at people. If you pull a gun and start firing on the shooter, you will be a civilian, armed with a weapon, firing at people. There is no way for police to distinguish “good guys” from “bad guys” when the bullets are flying, just police and suspects. This, ironically, puts you in more danger because you will be targeted by a better armed, more numerous group than you would if you were dealing with a single lone shooter, and you will be dealt with as if you were one of the perpetrators.

The “good guy with a gun,” phrase survives because it’s effective marketing. It creates a need, and then offers a product to fill that need. “Don’t want to die? Buy this thing.”

The idea that she can never become proficient enough to use it in an emergency isn’t true. It is something that depends on spending a lot of time with the weapon, practicing. So, it’s possible she could learn how to handle it, to the point that she’s able to operate it during an adrenaline rush. Not likely, but it is possible, it just takes a lot of work.

However, the simplistic, “good guy with a gun,” sort of skirts around training and practicing to become proficient. It’s just, “here, if you have this thing,” which would be forgivable if we were talking about selling microwaves or vacuum cleaners, but instead we’re talking about selling firearms to untrained civilians, then actively encouraging them to use said firearms in crisis situations.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with recreational shooting. Something that may get missed is guns are fun to shoot, they’re mechanically fascinating, and there’s a ton of history there. There’s a lot of benign reasons for someone to collect, or even use them. However, when someone takes that recreational or utility element, and says, “okay, but you use those to be ‘a hero,'” everything goes off the rails.

If you’re in an active shooter situation, you can do far more good by keeping your head, finding ways to secure yourself and other survivors away from the shooter, and finding ways to contact the police. Going in playing cowboy is a recipe for tragedy.


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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.