Q&A: Don’t ask if the weapon works, consider what you did with it instead

I have a character whose weapon is a broomstick, like in Mulan’s training. I was pretty young when I came up with that, but should I change it ? Can a broomstick actually make a good weapon ? If not, what should I use instead ? All my characters have improvised weapons that they use for an extended period of time

Well, a broom is just a short or long staff with the side benefit of being able to potentially throw dust and detritus in the face of your enemy (and yourself) if wielded broom end first. (When did Mulan use a broomstick? Or a broomstick used like the staff Mulan trained with? Or when she was play fighting at home before she goes to training?) So, you’re asking if someone can do this with a broom? Then graduates into something more like this (starts 2:46,  for reference: this is high level martial arts choreography in competition from the SEA Games – Singapore (2015). This is equivalent to high level gymnastics. They’re choreographed fight scenes. Yes, there is a category dedicated to choreographed like a movie fight/dance sequence duels. Yes, this is one of the most popular and prestigious categories at some martial arts tournaments.)

The basic question to begin with is this: do you want the weapon to be a broom? Do you want the scenes to be serious or not? You can have a serious story with a silly weapon, but there is a vast difference between a Jackie Chan-esque fight sequence played for laughs when the experienced martial artist picks up the broom because it’s what they have available versus the character who has no idea what they’re doing and picks up the broom just because.

A Jackie Chan fight sequence will work like this:

 The experience martial artist finds themselves jumped by several guys, grabs the first weapon they come across. This weapon is a broom. They brandish it. (Pause.) The broom is a silly weapon, everyone (including the audience) laughs. Moment ends, and the fight begins. Experienced martial artist holds their own, kind of. Probably a few scenes where the broom head is shoved into someone’s face and used to wail about an enemy’s head. (This is Jackie Chan, so cleaning supplies may also be used.) However, this proves ineffective whenever the experienced martial artist attempts to fight with the broom end. They wield it like they would a staff, but only one end is helpful. They’re mostly free when more enemies arrive, someone brings an edged weapon.

New fight commences against more dangerous/experienced opponents. Experienced martial artist is pressed. Broom = advantage over unarmed enemies, less helpful against actual weapons. Fight sequence will have that broom head cut off by whichever enemy comes in wielding an edged weapon on the break beat. So, fight with the broom and kind of works; then broom becomes staff = accidental upgrade. Hero given new chance to make their escape.

Jackie Chan’s humor in his fight scenes, especially his early ones, is sophisticated in that it plays into your expectations and will subvert them several times in a single scene for laughs. We know the broom sucks as a weapon, so that brings in the uh-oh, but the martial artists/martial arts movie goers know the broom’s length and similarities to the staff will give the protagonist a slight chance against the enemies they’re facing.  Oh yay! Enemies underestimate the hero because their chosen weapon sucks. Hero proceeds to flail because the improvised weapon doesn’t behave the way a normal weapon would, hijinks ensue, but in the end they succeed… kind of. Hero either manages to make their escape from the bad situation or a new enemy shows up with higher stakes to raise the tension. (More skill, better weapon.)

Underdog > Winner > Underdog.

The beat goes like this:

1) We know the broom is a silly weapon. (Audience and Enemy expectation.)

2) After overcoming their own surprise/shock, hero does the first thing they can think of in line with their training: wield the broom like a staff. Proves to be successful. (Enemy and Audience surprised.)

3) Hijinks. (The hero turn tables and is winning… kind of. This is the period where the surprise is behind the hero, so they’ve a little room to mess around. Someone’s nose is getting tickled, or they’re taking a broom head to the face.)

4) The broom fails at key moments. (Enemy adjusts past their surprise.) Hero will find themselves in a position of accidentally striking with the broom head; which does nothing because, (surprise), you can’t wield a broom exactly like a staff. (Hero and weapon incompatible.) The hero becomes pressed as smarter enemies come up with new strategies.

5) Weapon conveniently breaks to create the needed staff against stronger enemies. Hero still at disadvantage.

What Jackie Chan does is a pretty sophisticated in the balancing of audience expectation combined with an understanding of how to balance weapons, enemies, and genre convention to create both humor and tension. That’s the root of his success as a choreographer, and why I do recommend watching his fight sequences compared to other less successful martial artists. His storytelling through action is much better, especially when you want unconventional surprises.

He understands the boundaries of realism, and incorporates the failings of an object into his fight scenes as well as the successes. He’s thinking from multiple angles, which is what makes his characters so relatable. Jackie Chan is king of making his fight scenes feel spur of the moment, his characters go with their gut and training when put under pressure. However, the situation doesn’t always fit that training perfectly (broom =/= staff) and so this creates new problems for the hero. He shifts the hero’s advantages into disadvantages and their disadvantages into advantages, this happens on multiple levels in the scene.

Hero has superior fight training (advantage), but there are too many enemies (overwhelming disadvantage) so they must run. Hero finds a weapon similar to one they’re used to using (advantage!), but the weapon is improvised (surprise disadvantage!), their training works to fend off multiple enemies (advantage!!), but fails to be totally successful so they end up only holding their own (disadvantage!!), then new enemies arrive with better weapons (overwhelming disadvantage!!!), and the pattern repeats with higher stakes.

The problem with improvised weapons is in the name: improvised.

A broom can be wielded like a staff but, when wielded just like one would a staff, it will fail at key moments. The broom is not a staff, a broom is a broom. For the most part, you can only use one end of the broom successfully where a staff uses both ends. For a character (like Jackie Chan) who is utilizing Chinese staff work, this is a big problem they’ll end up stumbling into. Staves are either used with the tip to stab if wielded by holding the bottom like one would with a spear, or from the center where they rotate between top and bottom in their strike pattern. A staff can strike at your head, and on the next strike at your opposing thigh. As a weapon, the staff is one of the most versatile and very easy to use. However, in this case, you’re going to end up switching between hard end/soft end on every second or third strike. (You can use this for humor too because humor is in patterns and expectations broken at surprising moments.) Hard (ouch), soft (fine), hard (ouch!), soft (fine?), hard (ouch!!), soft (fine?!), CRAP! Both characters glance at the broom head. Enemy smiles. Hero starts wailing on enemy with the hard end, and breaks the pattern.

Jackie Chan knows how to fight and understands audience expectations (primarily Chinese audiences) and genre conventions (primarily wuxia action scenes), which is why his visual gags work. He’s, honestly, in a class of his own when it comes to fight choreography because of this. Like most martial artists, he knows you can take the broom end off and then you’d just have a staff. Like a great choreographer, he’ll see the potential failings and weaknesses in the improvisation. Then, he’d plan to incorporate them into his scenes for humor. Funny comes from failure and surprise success.

The version of this for the character who has no idea what they’re doing (and therefore is not using Chinese martial arts), is Rapunzel from Tangled and her frying pan. The frying pan is an unexpected weapon, but it works and serves to emphasize to the audience that Rapunzel has no idea what she’s doing when it comes to violence. This is where a frying pan is different from, say, a machete or a tire iron. So, again, there’s humor in subverted expectations. We don’t expect the frying pan to work, then it does more than she expects. We’re consistently reminded that the heroine doesn’t really know what she’s doing and she’s never given a real weapon, which keeps her safely in the non-combatant role while allowing her to be active/assert herself at key narrative moments. Her character has other skills that are more useful, and the frying pan shows the audience Rapunzel’s resourcefulness as a character.

In fiction, weapons show us something about the character and create certain expectations that are based in genre cliches. The hero who picks up a named sword is the narratively anointed Chosen One, whether that is played straight or not. Improvised weapons serve primarily as a means of showing resourcefulness, but they are either props (like in the Jackie Chan example) to be discarded when a better weapon comes along or they’re character defining like in the Rapunzel example where the weapon is a symbolic representation of personality and role.

Rapuzel, as a character, doesn’t know enough about martial combat to reach beyond what works in the moment whereas a Jackie Chan protagonist isn’t going to stick with the broom because they know the broom won’t work long term. The threats a Jackie Chan protagonist is going to face will be primarily physical, and the resourcefulness he exhibits is the “whatever works” mentality. Meanwhile, Rapunzel’s on an emotional journey of self-discovery and her primary antagonist is Mother Gothel.

Mother Gothel’s violence is entirely emotional. Flynn using the frying pan is a callback to Rapunzel using the frying pan which serves late story as a means to firmly unite the two characters together on a thematic level, so we the audience no longer question his loyalty. It also serves the character on a “well, it worked on me” level. We understand why Flynn might think using the frying pan is a good idea, which is the dual overlay you need. Internal justification to serve the narrative’s external thematic needs.

So, the question about using a broomstick as a weapon is entirely on you. It will certainly work in general as either a scene prop or an expression of identity. The question is whether or not it will work for the story you’re telling and the challenges your characters are facing.

An improvised weapon is spur of the moment. You can wrap the toaster to your hand and use it as an impromptu set of brass knuckles, but that doesn’t make it the same as brass knuckles. If you had a choice between the toaster and brass knuckles, you’d probably pick the brass knuckles. There’s the recognizably violent improvised weapons associated with mobsters and gangs like tire irons, baseball bats, crowbars, wrenches, etc; and those will put your character into the (middling) combatant category. There’s the machete which is practically a sword, and the sledgehammer which is practically a two handed warhammer, and the shovel which is potentially a spear. The last form of improvised weaponry is chemical warfare with household items and bomb building. The closer we get to the weapon category, the closer we get to live combatant territory. The narrative expectations are different for non-combatants and combatants, the behavior is also different.

The warrior is going to be looking for the better weapon. You’ve got a character with Mulan-style Chinese military training then the first thing they’ll do once they’re in a safe space is break off or cut off the broom end to make either a staff or a sharpened end for a spear. They’ll modify whatever they have to make it more dangerous. They’ll find the kitchen knives or the box cutters or whatever else is lying around that’s sharp. They’ll grab the tire irons and the wrenches; they’ll grab multiple objects because that’s how their mind works. They’re looking for what’s going to give them an advantage in the situation, especially when they don’t know what that situation is.

The staff is a helpful weapon because of it’s reach advantage. As I pointed out in the Jackie Chan example, you can use a staff to fend off multiple attackers and gain an advantage when you’re overwhelmed. Numbers are overwhelming, in that situation you’re better off armed than unarmed, and the distance the staff provides means keeping multiple enemies at distance is easier. In the Jackie Chan scenario, the broom is actually a great choice. The surprise is the broom doesn’t seem like it would be on the surface because we don’t think of brooms as staves. However, the underlying theme in the Jackie Chan scenario is you use the weapon until it ceases to be useful. While the drawbacks are funny, they’re also realistic.

The non-combatant like Rapunzel will grab what works and, for the most part, they’ll stay there. They have no experience, so if it worked once then it’ll likely work again and they’re going to approach every scenario the same way until personal experience or the wisdom of another more experienced character teaches them not to do that anymore. For example, Rapunzel wants to escape from the guards. She doesn’t want to fight them. They’re outside of what she’s capable of handling as a character, and violence is not her purpose. Her advantage is surprise, and the fact her enemy underestimates her because she is seemingly helpless, she’s a genuine, kind, mildly confused young woman without a combat background, and gives no sign of being dangerous to someone else who is vastly more qualified. Her character arc is her learning to stand up for herself. (Never make the mistake of believing “female” is universal for being underestimated. The character’s background is more important and more influential than their gender/sex.)

One of these setups has the violence at the forefront, and in the other the violence is on the back burner. There’s action and conflict, but the physical violence is not what you’d get in a wuxia film or Hollywood big budget summer action flick. You’ve got to answer which story you’re telling. That has nothing to do with whether or not the broom will work as a weapon and is entirely dependent on who your characters are. (For example, they can’t use a broom like a Chinese staff without training but they certainly could use it successfully as a self-defense weapon.)

Like with Rapunzel, an improvised weapon can be a great limiter that allows you to set a character’s ability at a certain level and say, no further. It is a hard limit, reflecting their personality; emphasizing what the character is capable of both in terms of their combat ability and their resourcefulness. It limits the kind of violence you’re going to allow in your story, because it limits the potential violence your characters can successfully participate in, and potentially the level of graphic detail.

In fiction, a character tackling a Navy Seal head on with a broom is going to be a joke and an act of desperation whether it’s played straight or not. You could certainly tackle a Navy Seal with a broom, you might even win, but it wouldn’t be a good idea. That’s the point of the improvised weapon, they’re weapons of desperation. You use it until you can figure out something better.

Or, they’re magical. Everyday household item imbued with magic to transform it into Weapon X is a weapon the protagonist is just stuck with. See: The Spoon of Perpetual Torment. (“It’s perpetually tormenting me, okay!”)

If you plan to play this for laughs, the broom and other improvised weapons aren’t a joke that will last you 60,000 words. The spoon of perpetual torment won’t last that long either. You’ll get a scene out of the gag, maybe two if you’re clever. They require you understand how to use the broom, creativity, and an understanding of how staves work in combat in order to pass the gist on.

Humor requires you keep moving because you’re subverting patterns and expectations. The surprise broom weapon is a surprise once, the nervousness and tension accompanying its use will last you one scene. This is why, in a wuxia setup, the broom gets broken at an opportune moment to become a staff. We continue with the surprises by turning the tables one way or the other in order to keep the audience invested.

The weapons your characters choose are reflections of their decision making, they will say something thematically about them whether you wanted that connotation or not. Fight scenes are built on stacking advantages against disadvantages. Instead of just building a single chessboard, you put the chessboard on a spit, play for a bit, and then spin it to rearrange all the pieces when a new challenger enters. That shifting tension is where the interesting parts of the fight scene happen. How you get that tension doesn’t matter, really. The first step is recognizing that it’s there. The underdog serves an important conceptual purpose when balancing out what the character can and can’t handle.

That’s the external logic.

There’s also the character’s internal logic of why they chose this particular weapon. It can be as simple as they ran through the hall closet or past a bunch of cleaning supplies left out by the janitor.

They started by grabbing the bucket, threw gross soapy water at their enemy, then ran out of things to do with the bucket. So, they threw it at their enemies and grabbed the mop. The enemies slip on the soapy water spread over the floor, buying the protagonist time. The mop worked okay at keeping the enemies away, but the head was heavy because of the water and didn’t swing well. So, they threw it and ran. The time their enemies spend getting past the mop buys the protagonist time to find a new weapon, but less than last time. The bad guys are almost on them when, finally, they locate the broom. Trapped in an empty hall without a good exit, against three (now soapy) enemies. They went, “well, why not?”, whip around, and brandish it broom head first.

They look at the bad guys, the bad guys look at them. Then, the three bad guys look at each other and laugh. While they’re distracted, the protagonist lunges in. Attacks with the broom.

In this example, you see the internal logic based on character’s choice of action combines with the Goldilocks pattern of threes.  We know the third option is just right. The second is we get closer and closer to the right/best available choice.

The bucket didn’t work, and has no reach. The worst that happened was the bad guys got wet. However, the water on the floor provides the character time to get to their next weapon. The mop sort of worked, but the head was too heavy. When they throw it, their enemies trip over it, buying them time but less than before. The broom isn’t perfect, but we’ve seen how its a better version of the mop. However, the situation has changed and the protagonist is now in a worse situation than before.

The audience receives catharsis, has confidence in the character’s choice, but new problems have arisen to create new tensions. On top of that, the scene has served the secondary purpose of showing the character’s problem solving skills.

The changing environment gives the protagonist a chance to shine without hampering the tension provided by the three unnamed mooks, whom we know are dangerous because the protagonist wants to escape from them. The protagonist isn’t trying to beat the mooks, they’re trying to escape (because they’re smart, they know three on one is terrible odds. Take note from The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. Six bullets, seven enemies. Numbers kill.) They try to run, but the situation forces them to fight their way out.

Here’s what we learned from the scene: they picked the best weapon available to them, they’re capable of using their environment to help them, the change in terrain can provide an advantage (enemies trying to get across a slick floor), long weapons are good against multiple enemies (they create barriers), and light weapons with smaller heads are better than heavy ones.

Our protagonist is clever enough to turn a situation where they face overwhelmingly poor odds that should get them killed or captured to their advantage. The audience gets a tense fight and a chance to become invested in the main character’s survival. We answer all our narrative questions.

This is how you show a character is good at fighting. It’s not beating an enemy that matters, it’s how they did it, what the odds were, and how well you paced the fight itself.

The answer with everything is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea or not. Stories don’t exist in “good ideas”, they exist in “what happened when these two things combined?” What happens when a Chinese martial artist skilled at staff combat picks up a broom to defend themselves? What happens when a teenager picks up a broom? Both situations equally have the potential to be interesting. The question is, what happens? Munchkining your character to victory won’t help them, giving them better odds just means you do more work to stack the odds higher against them.

The odds and outcome will decide for the character whether their choice was right or not. Every weapon will have strengths and drawbacks. There is no one size fits all. A gun is great, provided you stay at distance but, eventually, you’re going to run out of bullets. Swords are great, if you know how to use them, but there’ll be situations where they won’t work. Both sword and staff could get stuck on a doorframe. Too many enemies is absolutely certain death, even for the most skilled combatant. A fight scene is heavily dependent on where it’s occurring, what’s happening around it, and where the priorities of the combatants are.

This is where the narrative’s internal logic is important. As the author, you can decide lots of things externally and be focused on Point A and Point B. You can get caught up on external themes. You can get caught on the plot you’ve envisioned, or the decisions you made prior to starting the story. However, if your characters aren’t justifying those choices through their actions in the narrative then all you have are dolls getting smashed together.

Essentially, like lots of authors, you skipped the question of: why the broom?

I don’t care why you decided on the broom. At some point in your life, author you thought it would be cool. No, I care about why your character decided they were going to carry this broom around with them. Why did they pick it up? Why did they decide to keep it? Spend some time thinking about the broom, and not as a combat weapon. Think about the logistics of carrying this thing around, what your protagonist is going to do with it, how other people react when they see it, how they feel about the broom. If this is challenging, just take a day and carry a broom around with you in a public place. If that’s too intimidating, then do it inside your house. Every time you move, everywhere you go, pick it up and carry it with you.

I can tell you, having had to carry staves around before, it’s gonna get annoying pretty quickly. However, you will figure out how to set it so it doesn’t fall over, rest it on your shoulder, and all the other day to day bits your character will need to do when they’re not fighting with it. Your ability to convey the broom and its importance to your audience is what matters, and the most important bonding factors have nothing to do with its usefulness to fighting.

She uses a broom because she either knows how to use it, is comfortable using it, or is confident in her ability to use it rather than another, better weapon. Or, ditch the broom and go with the staff. It is one of the most innocuous weapons.

Lastly, unless you’re really stuck on Mulan, I advise you to focus on figuring out basic staff movements in the cross-pattern before getting stuck trying to figure out (much less write) Chinese martial arts. Wushu is very pretty, but you may break your brain trying to figure out the mechanics of the neck spin trick as seen in the broom fight scene from Cowboy Bepop. If you haven’t figured out or conceptualized the concept of attacking with two ends interchangeably, grasping the reasoning behind the circular sweeps might be difficult.  (For reference, this is what the Mulan staff work translates to in real life martial arts competitions.) The question you need to answer is not just why your character fights with a broom, but why would they choose to if they were trained to fight with a staff? It is really easy to take one and get the other. So, why keep the broom intact?

-Michi

(Starke and I are still sick, so I apologize for any grammatical errors, slips in this post, and nonsensical sentences in this post.)

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