Tag Archives: abusive training

If someone wants that angst factor, but also wants to be more accurate… what about a trainer who’s an abusive human being towards the character outside of training, but isn’t an abusive trainer?

The best way to go about getting the angst factor is with the trainee themselves post-training, where you have someone who genuinely did buy in and then came to a realization later. They hate what they were trained to do, more importantly they hate what they did, and they hate themselves for it. They’re still excellent at what they were trained to do as they trained hard for it, it’s in their bones, an inextricable part of who they are, but the idea of doing it again makes them sick.

This is the setup of an internal conflict that is realistic, but requires an admission of personal responsibility. The “I Once Believed But Now I Don’t” is the foundation of a few hundred, grizzled and experienced action protagonists.

The trick behind this set up though is to go all in, the Atoner needs to have something they’re atoning for. The “I was forced” bit just weakens the motivation and gives them an easy out where they can divest themselves of responsibility. Maybe they do come from a background where they were taken/stolen from their parents at a young age and maybe they did fight against what was done to them in the beginning, but at some point they did give in. At some point, they made the choice and committed. That’s where the Atoner’s drama is. It’s born from personal choice and regret over actions taken. It really was their fault, and now they’re either running away or making up for it.

Abuse in martial combat training isn’t on the floor, it’s in much more subtle and coercive elements used to convince someone to do something they don’t want to do. It’s certainly possible to be victimized by martial combat training, used and abused. That abuse is just unlikely to come in the form of a physical beating. The problem is that martial combat is also, simultaneously, empowering. Adrenaline makes you feel good, and the act of taking control over yourself makes you feel strong. Add control over another person into the mix, get a head rush.

A good example of an abusive martial arts setup are the Karate Kid movies with the evil martial arts master. The other important reference point from these movies is a somewhat universal truth: the student is a reflection of their teacher.

Debates about use of force aside, you will occasionally find abusive setups in the real world as bullies are, unfortunately, a phenomenon where fiction reflects life. Students who come from these setups are likely going to be either abusers themselves or more prone toward falling into that category.

Strength first. Weakness is to be punished. Finish your enemy.

“Do not stop when our enemy is down. No mercy in the studio. No mercy in competition. No mercy in life. Our enemy deserves pain.” – Master Li, The Karate Kid.

Sentiments which all feel right, except the contexts they’re applied in are universal. Notice too, it’s all “us versus them”. Master Li in The Karate Kid remake is a well respected martial artist with a huge school and is famous for his ability to produce winners. The issue is where his values lie, and how he pushes his students. His hardcore, aggressive training tactics are applied only to those students who merit his personal attention, who excel. We see the values he’s instilled in his students through Dre’s conflicts with them. They all look up to him. He’s their father figure.

You’re right in that the attitudes of the trainers are the place to look
for when looking for abuse rather than the training itself. You’re
looking for scenarios that are emotionally abusive rather than
physically abusive, and they run in a pattern similar to those used by
emotionally abusive parents.

If you want to use these dynamics in your stories, it’s important to recognize the affect these figures will have on your characters. The student/teacher dynamic is a tightly knit one. This person is akin to a second parent. They are part and parcel to the character’s values, who they are, and how they’ve been shaped. Combating abuse takes real work, and it’s not as simple as shuffling the blame onto someone else.

Most of the issues when the fictional “abusive training” tropes pop up involves the author’s desire to get angst and allowing the character avoid taking personal responsibility through their victimization. Their experiences aren’t character defining, but rather perfunctory and act as a means of giving them some angst. It’s also a key means of identifying that this character is special, unique, and different from all the other rubes. In true cognitive dissonance, the presentation of this character is aces with their backstory except all the traits they’re claiming should be the ones they’re rejecting.

Atoning is an exercise in service and humility. A true Atoner is someone who has been humbled. This is a character type directly at odds with wish fulfillment. After all, the western version of this trope is Catholic. However, Atorners come from all over the world. Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin is a classic example of the trope, where in his desire to help others perverted his training and became the era’s most famous warrior (and mass murderer). He becomes a wanderer traveling Japan with a katana whose blade is reversed and blunted so he’ll never kill again. (Ignore for a moment that most of Kenshin’s techniques would absolutely still kill people via blunt force trauma and go with it.)

There are a myriad of places to take someone who has turned the people who trained them, on the system, or on their past beliefs. The Punisher is an example of a character who has decided to strike out on their own, he’s not truly atoning but rather is vengeance driven.

The problem with angst is that the good kind can’t be cheated into existence. Quality fictional angst comes from a personal place, usually resulting from a sense of personal responsibility for a situation (whether or not its their fault). A character can still be a victim of a system while also regretting the actions they took. The trick is understanding that being a victim is not automatically absolving, especially not from a personal point of view. A person can be both victim and victimizer at the same time. A bully with abusive parents isn’t automatically absolved for the bullying they’ve done, even if we feel sympathy for their situation and understand them better.

If you want to write an abusive trainer, this is going to be someone who is first and foremost emotionally abusive. If there’s physical abuse (and there may be), it will come long after the victim’s emotions have been secured. The victim will model themselves after their teacher, much like they would a parent, and become a “mini-me” because that is the best way to avoid punishment. They will become good at shuffling blame onto someone else, or trying to escape it because punishment is painful. That pain is likely to come from an emotional source rather than a physical one.

It will be difficult for the student to recognize their trainer is abusive. Their teacher will be someone they want to please, and the training will reinforce what the trainer says justifying the victim’s treatment in their own minds. All the good emotions you feel from doing exercise and the power felt by taking control over your body/over your mind becomes a parcel used to justify the emotional abuse. The student links their good feelings to what their teacher does to them and pursues it harder.

The key aspect to understand about an abusive training environment is that it is not automatically different from a normal training environment on a basic level. Which is to say, it’s not any better or any tougher or makes one a better fighter. Those in the abusive environment will believe their abusive training is the foundation of their skill and they wouldn’t be the same in a different program, but that is not necessarily true. What makes the training abusive is the way their teacher treats them and the values that are instilled. An abusive environment is often dominating, top down, and everything reflects back to the teacher.

Abuse is about control.

You can have two different teachers who do exactly the same things, but is abusive and one is not. This is why it’s so hard to tell whether or not a situation is abusive, because it’s based in attitude and outlook not in teaching techniques. The difference between an abusive teacher and one who is not is the psychological damage they leave behind.

A character with an abusive instructor may become a great fighter, but they will also be emotionally crippled. Like a bully, they will feel the need to exert control over their environment, create their own little kingdoms, and lash out at those who threaten their authority.

A character who cannot embrace their teacher’s outlook will be shattered, chased by self-doubt, and end up too mentally insecure to succeed at warfare. Their confidence is crushed, and whatever they learn from their teacher they don’t have the fortitude to use.

That’s the consequence of an abusive instructor.

You embrace them and become like them.

Or…

You reject them, and they break you.

This is not physical, they break their student emotionally through neglect, through failure, by critically hampering their ability to succeed, by undercutting them, or changing the goalposts on them.

This is where the fantasy of “the hardcore abusive training creating the best warrior ever who was never into it from the beginning” falls apart. A student is a reflection of their master.

A student in an abusive system survives and succeeds only by buying in. They can come to a different conclusion later and abandon it, but at some point they’ll be a True Believer. With the abuse serving as a means of motivation, a desire to please their teacher because of what that will earn them. Whether that’s glory, success, or just not being hit is all up to the teacher.

I hope that clears this concept up some.

-Michi

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would you say the sith academy from the star wars universe fits for an abusive training situation?

Yes.

However, I want to point out that when you’re talking about scenarios where the teachers are sadists that’s:

1) Not what makes their training good, but is rather the method that secures the students’ loyalty.

2) Useless if the students don’t receive an education.

The problem is that in order for the setup to succeed the students still need to be taught. Which… means you still do all the “boring” and “mundane” stuff. Contrary to popular fictional conception, cruelty doesn’t make you learn faster. More than that, in poor hands, cruelty will trap you in a shock and awe setup where you’re continually having to escalate your measures in order to keep the students on their toes and the audience engaged. This is what we’ll call “not good, Bob” when dealing with a training setup because the author inevitably focuses on playing up the instructor’s sadism and not on the students education. When this happens, we get nothing but a dysfunctional methodology that creates broken dolls who aren’t particularly good at fighting.

What cruelty will provide (when not overplayed) is motivation. Cruelty can be an excellent motivational tool, but only if you give your student the tools to succeed.

When writing “sadistic training” it is important to keep your eye on the prize and the goals of the trainer in mind. Unless we’re talking an elite force (like a Sith or the Imperial Guard) where you don’t actually need many of them and they aren’t your main force, then a meat grinder scenario is not a good one. You can still have a sadistic training scenario but there’ll be a lot less death. (One can be sadistic and successful without killing a single trainee or letting them die.) 

They want to create a student who is either an exceptional warrior or just a good one and a student who is loyal to them or their organization. They may be a creation of this system, and genuinely believe in it. You can have a trainer who engages in sadistic training methods because that’s how they were trained, not because they enjoy being sadists. These guys are even more dangerous than the other types, as none of the flaws usually found in sadistic teachers apply to True Believers. They’re not in it for the power trip, or because they like being a bully but because they believe in the system. If you’ve got a sadistic training methodology, disseminated and practiced by multiple individuals in an organization then you’ll be dealing with True Believers. If so, then may God have mercy on your poor characters’ souls.

A trainer who was raised on the system they’re teaching knows all the tricks a student can pull. They’ve seen it before and seen it from within the student’s barracks. So, good luck putting anything past them, especially in any modern or futuristic world where they’ve no problem hiding cameras everywhere.

The Sith Academies of the EU run the gamut between sophisticated mind fuckery and hatchet level meat grinders. When they’re meat grinders, all they do is pointlessly waste resources. And, yes, there’s been more than one Sith Academy and the concept probably predates whichever one you’re thinking of. Korriban, for example, originates in Tales of the Jedi. Anything that predates Lucas’ “Rule of Two” will have the suggestion of an academy, and the Rule of Two came into established canon with the prequels. (Whether anyone remembers Brakiss, Zekk, and the one from Young Jedi Knights is another question entirely.)

So, here’s some training don’ts:

1) When your trainer kills, have them kill with purpose.

The way a teacher kills one of their trainees may seem random to their students, but if this is a methodology then there is a firm reason behind the why and the who. Trust they’ve picked their target before they ever walked into the room. They may change their mind in a snap decision once they’re dealing with the students, but a plan is always at play. Remember, a successful sadistic instructor plans and executes training their students like any other operation.

2) The first brutal murder will never achieve the same affect on its subjects again, so use it wisely.

Shock and awe works… once. If you want shock to keep working, then you’ve got to change tactics and attack where the subject feels safe rather than trying the same technique over and over again.

The problem with most sadistic training setups is they’ll take the ideas, but keep attempting to use the same tactics in repetition. No. To keep your skin in this game, you better be switching up.

3) Sadistic training is the torture methodology, if you don’t understand how A leads to C then you won’t grasp its lasting effects or why it works.

I’m going to keep pointing out that sadistic training is a mind game and not a physical game. Competent torture is about controlling the subject’s state of mind and reconditioning them to give you what you want. This is why it’s a far more effective as a form of control than information gathering.

Sadistic training is the same way. The goal is not to kill off what matters to the subject. The goal is to get the subject to kill off what matters to them for you. Whether this is their parents, their old life, their pet Skippy, a girlfriend/boyfriend, a friendship they’ve formed during their training, it doesn’t matter. They’ll kill whatever symbolic part of themselves they were holding onto, the piece which makes them who they are. A trainer creates a pressure gate to lead the student where they want them to go, so the student and their peers will kill in themselves what the trainer can’t.

“The Corps is mother, the Corps is father,” as PsiCorps says on Babylon 5.

When dealing with someone competent, this is insidious. Remember, the trainer controls the student’s whole world, who they interact with, whether they’re allowed contact with the outside world, and what happens to them.

It’s like dealing with your parents, if your parents were perfectly willing to blow your brains out. With no outlets, no friends except the ones you’re allowed and can’t trust, no other authority figures to turn to, no internet, no connection to the outside world, and armed guards to catch you when you run.

4) There is always a carrot to go with the stick.

Abusive tactics aren’t successful if there’s no carrot. This is an enhancement of regular training, not the sole form of training. Abuse by itself doesn’t make someone a better martial combatant (or good at fighting at all).

The problem with a lot of “sadistic training setups” is the author goes overboard. They want to make it obvious that the teacher is bad, and give the story no room to breathe. Give the characters no time to sort themselves out. The teacher’s abuse is there to make a point and specific intervals, and it won’t happen on the regular. If it’s regular, you adapt to it. The uncertainty and the lack of comfort is what keeps it scary.

A trainer won’t just abuse, they’ll also offer a sympathetic ear, be encouraging, and act as a mentor to their students. When their students have earned their wisdom then they share. This gives students a feeling superiority over others, reminds them that they’re special, and they want to work harder for their teacher or toward their goal.

As a reward, their trainer may give their students the opportunity to watch the more advanced students or the warriors they admire in practice or sparring so they have a goal to work towards.

5) The goals are always clear, and can be accomplished. It’s the goalposts that shift.

The trainer is very good at telling their students what they want, on giving them a venue to develop skill before upending them again. Like I said, abusive training is an utterly pointless practice if the process of learning is skipped.

If you want to write an abusive setup then you need to learn how normal training is supposed to work first because the abuse is just another added layer. This is why there’s a tendency to assume this training is just “more hardcore”. 

6) Punishment is not the point, what punishment gets you is the point.

Reward them when they’re good, punish them when they’re bad. Write punishment with purpose. The trainer wants their student to think, consider, and come to an understanding. Punishment is supposed to make one side too uncomfortable so one starts looking at good behavior as acceptable. Unless there’s a reason to be ambiguous, the student must know why they’re being punished.

7) When you’re looking at a situation with plans to axe a few of your trainees, the troublemakers and the problem children will be first on the slate to die.

This is one of those favored misconceptions with some authors, where the belief that a student’s “special talents” and “status” override everything else. Here’s the honest truth: a trainer working under a sadistic methodology wants loyalty over skill. No amount of ‘natural talent’ or ‘skill’ will save these troublemakers because they’re challenging the trainer’s control over the rest of the class.

Now, there are ways to manipulate any problem child into good behavior without obvious punishment whether its by convincing them they’re special, flattering them, separating them out from the others, and making them feel important or like they’re “winning” the power struggle.

If they can’t be convinced to play along, though, then it’s ‘too bad, so sad’ and will be offed. At this point, it’s attrition. Better to risk losing one, even a promising one, than it is losing the whole group. A student with less potential but loyal is better than one with high potential but unwilling to cooperate. After all, natural skill is just potential. A metric for the greatness one might achieve. If the talented student isn’t going to put effort into honing that potential, then it’s just a waste. Better to have the student who works hard, strives for success, is clever, and wants to please their teacher.

Now, back to Star Wars.

On the whole, when looking at the Sith, you’re going to find a lot of the good, the bad, the mediocre, and everything in between. With the current EU, we’re usually dealing with the meat grinder. In this case, the meat grinder rears its head anytime there’s a lack of respect for the rarity of Force Sensitives. Even in a galaxy full of trillions, the pool of candidates who are Force Sensitive is extraordinarily small. The number with the ability to actually become Jedi or Sith is a tiny fraction of that pool. They’re so rare, in fact, that it’s easier for a Sith Lord to risk themselves targeting adult Jedi or Jedi trainees for conversion than it is to go through the trouble of finding new candidates.

Think about that.

It’s not a Sith Academy if they don’t raid the Jedi Temple for recruits at least once. Given the Sith’s training methods, there should always be fewer Sith than Jedi by order of attrition. The Jedi may send their students away if they don’t make the cut, but they don’t kill them during training. The Sith blow through their candidates faster, thus needing more raw bodies while churning out fewer Sith as a result.

A good Sith Academy is one where the students are terrorizing the local population of whatever planet they’re inhabiting rather than each other. Where their methods are harsh, but the vast majority of their students don’t die in training. If you want more Sith out there than Jedi, then their period of training is ultimately shorter and they’re released to terrorize the universe more quickly. If a Sith can be trained in, say, four years compared to a Jedi’s fourteen to twenty then there will obviously be more of them.

However, the Sith will ultimately need more recruits and bodies than the Jedi because the Sith die faster. Which creates a shortage when your talent pool is already limited.

In The Old Republic, when a Sith player leads the Attack on Tython they’re given a lightside/darkside option at the end. The lightside option is to release the prisoners. The darkside option is to kill the prisoners. Here’s the problem: these prisoners are Jedi padawans.

When you have a limited talent pool, are at war, and are constantly losing your highly skilled warriors to the enemy, what do you do?

The answer is abide by the classic Sith tactic of stealing the apprentices for yourself. Killing them is a waste. Releasing them is stupid. Taking them to replace your losses is the smart choice. After all, the Jedi would do the same to you. (They do. They do it all the time. In Star Wars, the Sith and Jedi are playing ping pong with the individual members of both orders as the balls. There are numerous Sith rehabilitated into Jedi and Jedi who’ve become Sith. Light to Dark, Dark to Light, then back again.)

I bring this up because this is how you know when characters with this attitude are written in accordance to their setting. They can’t be written in generalities, the author needs to take into account the context and setting specifics which will be at play when it comes to making a decision.

When evil overrules necessity or common sense, you’ve got a problem. Well, you do if it’s not your intention for the character to be engaging in “stupid evil”. All approaches are legit, so long as you meant to do it and serves the story.

The question when either playing with or reading about a Sith Academy is, “do you understand the purpose and philosophy behind what’s happening?”

The lightside and the darkside are a clumsy attempt at Taoist philosophy. The Jedi and Sith are meant to present incompatible ways of life, and more than just an easily digestible code. There’s a lot of play in the “Survival of the Fittest” and “I’ve got Mine” mentalities, but a true Sith believes the struggle itself is what makes us strong.

Let’s look at the sequence between Luke and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi:

-The Emperor has Vader bring Luke aboard the Death Star, everything from that point on including the trap he lays for the Rebellion is part of getting under Luke’s skin.

-While Vader is in active conflict with Luke, he’s also the centerpiece of the power struggle between Luke and the Emperor.

-Both Vader and the Emperor are pressuring Luke in multiple ways to find what makes him angry. They show him how powerless he is by attacking the Rebels in front of him, forcing him to fight, threatening Leia, etc.

-They want him angry. Why? It’s because the Emperor’s goal is ultimately for Luke to destroy what he came to save whether that’s the Rebels or his father. The underlying belief is this crushing failure will expose the futility of Luke’s beliefs, lead him to abandon them, and join the darkside.

-This fight is also a test for Vader, though the Emperor is certain of his control over him.

-The Emperor wants a younger model and new apprentice to replace the old one, but if Luke can’t be swayed then he has no issue having Vader murder what he wanted i.e. his last link to his previous life.

-The Emperor fails because he underestimates Vader, rather than Luke. This happens when Vader’s desire to save his son trumps his loyalty to the Emperor, and leads him to make the ultimate sacrifice.

If you want to understand the difference between Jedi versus Sith, and the power of sadistic training then the final struggle of Return of the Jedi is important to understand. The Emperor had so much control over Vader that Vader valued his personal power over what used to be the most important aspect of his life: protecting his family.

For Vader, we see the struggle is real. When we see him in Empire Strikes Back, he has no problem hacking Luke’s hand off. We find out he’s known Luke is his son for some time, but the boy’s still just a pawn necessary to help him replace the Emperor. The offer Vader makes to Luke at the end of Empire is not one of love, but power. “Together, we’ll rule the galaxy as father and son.” It’s manipulative, designed to appeal to Luke’s desires for family, for his father, and disrupt Luke’s beliefs. Vader means to wrong foot him, make him desperate, and utilize these emotions to take power over Luke. When Luke falls, Vader doesn’t jump after him. Vader doesn’t consider Luke’s life important enough to jeopardize himself over.

The choice Vader makes at the end of Jedi is one of love. He’s hurt when he grabs the Emperor, having lost a hand. The Emperor is shooting electricity everywhere, and Vader’s systems are especially susceptible. Vader understands the sacrifice he’s making when he grabs the Emperor. This is his transition, in his final moments. This is what makes him a Jedi again.

As a haphazard circle, selfish love transformed Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader while sacrificial love brought him back. Selfish love led to fear of loss, fear of loss led him to the hating those who “stole” his loved ones, and then he needed to control everything in order to make sure he never lost or felt these emotions again. Control led him to needing more and more power, until power itself was all that mattered.

When you’re looking for abusive environments or training methods, take an honest look at the Vader from the Original Trilogy. In a simple sense, that’s what the results look like.

-Michi

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