Q&A: Remember, Fiction is a Lie

I read on here before that years of practice is very important and it is no surprise when an 80 year old master beats a 30 year old simply because of that. But how about if a character is able to live for hundreds or thousands of years. Wouldn’t it make such a character an absolute true master that no normal person can beat unaided by magic or tech? I’ve tried to look at fiction with such characters but it never really mentions this and these characters actually do get subdued unaided.

Well, consider this, when you’re reading about immortal characters, you’re reading fiction. Fiction is a lie. It may be a lie you want to believe, it may contain some semblance of veracity, but it is still a carefully crafted lie. It isn’t real and, because it is all in the author’s imagination, you can do whatever the hell you want.

In fiction, the author is not beholden to or have to consider any sort of realism outside of convincing their readership to believe the story they’re telling. More than that, fiction is notoriously inaccurate regarding violence in general. Often, these authors have never been in the room with actual individuals who are considered masters of their craft, experienced that remarkable chasm of awe, or felt the weight of being completely outclassed by presence alone. The end of the story is fiction lies to you. Again, the author crafts their own realism for their narrative and all that matters is whether or not their reader believes.

An immortal who was dueling with small-swords in France during the period when lost eyes and dual suicides were common isn’t going to be threatened by a seventeen year old with three weeks of modern sport fencing experience; especially if that immortal has kept up the practice.

This is a reasonable assumption if you extrapolate from the experiences of real world individuals. Fighting a master in the arena, utilizing their specialty, on an even playing field is asking to have your ass handed to you. In the real world, I’ve met men and women in their late sixties and seventies who are more limber than most teenagers. I once watched my martial arts master bend a solid steel rebar with the hollow of his throat. Crazy as that might sound, I kid you not. It’s a popular exercise shown at martial arts demos.

The irony is the upper limit of what human beings are capable of is, in fact, incredibly high, and most people are completely unaware because they have no exposure to it. Without experience, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the vast differences between individuals at various training stages and is, in part, where the trope “All Violence is Created Equal” comes from.

When an author has no experience with violence in any of its forms, they’re liable to treat all their combat characters as the same. We are all limited by our imaginations, just as our imaginations are limited by our knowledge and understanding of the world. A tiered system of power differences is easier to establish when you have experience. When you lack that experience, it can be more difficult to imagine the concrete ways your protagonist is disadvantaged by their immortal adversary. The author might not even realize how great an advantage experience is all by itself. Especially if they don’t understand predictive strategizing based on prior experience is more valuable than most of the techniques in a warrior’s arsenal. Fiction often treats strategy as separate or distinct character trait, rather than part of the package. This is part of why immortal characters inexplicably fall for obvious traps or ploys they should see coming a mile away, or acting in ways their narrative establishes is out of character for them. It’s all well and good to call your character a master fighter, but describing a master warrior and crafting a convincing character is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Violence is a vast, messy, constantly evolving business with a community that’s difficult to penetrate if you aren’t already a member. Martial combat skills and techniques are generally shrouded in mystery and hidden as a strategy to keep counters from being developed. The more information your opponent has about you, the easier it is for them to craft a solution to stop you. Combine this with media misinformation, urban legends, myths, and power fantasies, the novice faces a lot of difficulty figuring out what is and isn’t bacon. While the internet has given a lot of people more access than they had ten to twenty years ago, it can still be a difficult slog to sift through fact and fiction if you don’t already know what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, on the subject of martial combat, it’s a lot.

Fictional tropes often won’t help you much in unraveling the mystery, they’re far more liable to be even more confusing when sorting out how they relate to reality. The presentation of fictional violence in film or in literature is an art form all by itself. Understanding this art requires admitting that violence crafted for entertainment is its own animal, one which draws from the same source but is only tangentially related to the practical side. Add in the framing of youth versus the experienced elder, which is a central theme in many martial arts narratives and many narratives in general, and you have authors taking cues from stories which have no real relation to the one they’re telling.

An immortal whose body is frozen in their early twenties to early thirties is at their peak, they don’t suffer from the same issues as an the eighty year old human. The danger of the evil martial arts master isn’t their physical prowess, but their experience. Their aging bodies put them at a disadvantage against younger opponents, while their wisdom and skill make them deadly. An immortal doesn’t suffer from this weakness, they have the battlefield experience, the cunning, the skill, the wisdom of all their years, and the physical prowess of someone in peak condition. The scale is weighted even more heavily in favor of the immortal rather than the young protagonist, which is why mythological themes surrounding immortal beings favor ingenuity and cleverness over combat and brute force.

In the cases of the novels you’re reading, the author settled on artistic license to get the scenes and sequences they wanted for their narrative. The fight scenes might be there just to prove the protagonist knows how to fight or to showcase their skills. Usually, in the cases of immortals, that means they take a bath. They have to, if they’re a skilled warrior, in order to bring the protagonist up to par.

As a writer, you’re balancing audience enjoyment and your own desires against, in some cases, cohesive world building and realistic portrayals of violence. For all the smokescreen complaints about realism, people don’t want realistic portrayals. They just don’t want the character’s actions to break their suspension of disbelief. Learning this answer, many people might say, “then, if it doesn’t really matter, then what’s the point of learning about real violence and how it works?” The answer is so you can fake it. The general audience will accept it and claim realism achieved while only a slim segment realizes the truth.

In the end, reality gets in the way of the fantasy. If you look objectively at an immortal being who has survived through the centuries, crossed numerous battlefields, and survived as a soldier in warfare’s constant evolving environments, honing their skills against warriors who were also masters of their craft, you might think that a sixteen year old fighting them with a rapier and six months of sport fencing (consider the problem here, sport fencing doesn’t include the rapier and it won’t actually train you to duel in the old fashioned way either) sounds a little ridiculous. However, fiction is the great con and, like all cons, all about the slight of hand. If you can get your audience invested in the sixteen year old and their defeat of the immortal, you won’t get called out for being unrealistic.

As a writer, you control the perceptions of your audience. You give them the information you want them to retain. You direct the narrative. You can’t control what people take away from the experience of reading your story, but you can control what they read. As a result, you decide what matters.

The vast majority of folklore and myth across many cultures will tell you that fighting an immortal warrior in active conflict without any advantages of your own or just seeking to understand your enemy is a losing proposition. Modern fantasy often doesn’t agree — unless its specifically chasing or introducing folklore elements. The result is two very different narratives where the immortal is either just like everyone else or an immovable wall you need to strategize around. Go try smacking Koschei the Deathless around and see how far brute force gets you.

The answer you’re ultimately looking for is that the media you’re consuming was written by authors who picked a side. They weren’t interested in applying the experience factor, it didn’t fit with the story they were trying to tell, and that’s fine. There are plenty of other authors out there who have explored this experience side of immortals in depth. Highlander, Highlander: The Raven, Hellboy, Hunter: The Reckoning (most of White Wolf’s archives really), Dracula, and Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist immediately come to mind. Hell, even Lord of the Rings is filled with main characters who are technically geriatrics. (I’m looking at you Aragorn and your 87 years. And Legolas? 2900. Gimli is around 102.) There are many more out there, including a number of mythological monsters which require a specific set of circumstances to induce death. Most of the horror genre will drag you kicking and screaming into the dark where understanding the unknown is necessary for even a slim chance at victory.

You just need to expand your horizons.

-Michi

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