Tag Archives: character advice

Also, if functional two-handed longswords aren’t heavy and require skill and control, and functional war bows require a lot of strength, then (buying into gender stereotypes for a moment) why not give the swords to the women and the bows to the men?

You’re asking me to explain gender stereotypes to you and how those stereotypes influence what we’ll call “conventional wisdom” in a way that ultimately has no relationship to reality.

It’s like asking, “if women have always fought then why do people keep insisting there were no women warriors?”

Sexism, stereotypes, and even some cultural conventions have nothing to do with reality. To begin with the premise you started with, you’re already challenging stereotypes with the idea that women have any role in combat at all. Now, you’re asking “why aren’t women front line combatants while men are relegated to artillery?”

That’s hitting the ground running when everyone else is still up on the helicopter wondering if women can even make the jump. When most people are wondering whether it’s possible for women to fight at all, despite a large bevy of historic women who’ve bucked the trend. This is a subject on which PhD research papers are built, exploring social mores, conventions, gender roles, and stereotypes handed down to us century by century that insist women have no role in combat at all, that war and combat are “men’s work”, to be glorified for men by men and men alone.

So, why would the sword, which is a symbol of leadership, kingship, and heroes, be given to a woman?

We live in a culture that can barely acknowledge women have different body types, that their bodies are influenced and changed by the kind of exercise they engage in. We live in a culture that fights tooth and nail against taking female sports professionals seriously. We live in a culture where women being forced to register for the draft is up for debate, and large swaths would prefer they didn’t. We live in a culture where plenty of girls still see recreational martial arts as not for them, not because they don’t want to, but because they think they can’t do it.

Now, you’re here arguing for the fiction because that’s what’s been presented by the vast majority of media and culture as true.

Consider the number of female professionals and enthusiasts today, from the army to the police to the martial artists to the traditional fencers to the HEMA fencers. There has and always will be a strong interest by women in the combat arts. However, cultural perceptions and acceptability will also always be a factor. To ask the question you did is to both overlook the pervasive nature of sexism and disregard its normalization by buying into the idea that “if this is true then we’d see widespread evidence of it” without bothering to look. To overlook misinformation. To overlook gender bias. To ignore the fact that female contributions to history are, by and large, routinely ignored.

We live in a culture that can barely acknowledge women have different body types. We live in a culture where a vast number of women become disillusioned with working out because they were never taught muscle weighs more than fat. That weight gain is a natural first step to a work out because their bodies are building up muscle then the muscle will inevitably begin devouring the fat and they lose weight.

If one works out their upper body, consistently and constantly, whether male or female, they will develop those muscles. Drawing a bow works out the upper body as it relies on strength in the arms, shoulders, and chest muscles. This will lead to a much thicker upper body and strong shoulders, which is not necessarily an appealing mental image for someone buying into cultural stereotypes about feminine beauty.

There are very few female characters who accurately represent what a
women would look like after their training and often, in fiction, the
feminine ideal of physical beauty is what’s chased. Wish fulfillment
fantasies, generally, have little room for reality.

Assume instead that the person who is making the choice buys into the stereotypes. They’re looking for a kind of combat that is more safe, more feminine that active physical conflict. They may say they are about “female power”, but are buying into the idea that the bow is a safe, ranged weapon that requires less physical exertion/danger than a sword.

If you’re confused the stereotype is:

“Women are weak and therefore not suited to close combat. I know! I’ll give her a bow. Bows are ranged weapons, so she can kill at range, stay outside of combat without having to get her hands dirty.”

Never assume people argue from a position of knowledge, most of the time we work from a position of perception.

The sword also has the longstanding symbolic reputation as the weapon of the Chosen One in literature.

So, watch writers trip over themselves to make sure certain characters never get to lay their hands on one.

-Michi

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I see this scenario pop up a lot in YA lit, so I’m just curious how valid it is: a competent fighter pretends to be grossly incompetent in order to lure their opponent into a false sense of security, only to curb stomp them into the pavement. My question is, wouldn’t your own movements give you away? Someone who knows what they’re doing doesn’t waste as much motion or energy as bona fide newbies, right? What about muscle memory reactions?

It is a thing. The way it gets presented in YA? Not so much, no. It’s actually very difficult to do. There are two different scenarios with very different meanings that these authors might be pulling from:

1) Wuxia films, and in some Anime, where it’s a matter of principle. The protagonist doesn’t consider the fight to be worth their time or the combatants are so far beneath them that they cannot actually hurt them. Their understanding of martial arts allows them to be in a more enlightened state. You should not be beating up anyone who is weaker or less than you. (This is not a matter of reality, but more philosophical in bent. It’s also a very basic explanation of a very complicated cultural hierarchy and philosophy about violence and the appropriate use thereof.) In this case, they are choosing not to engage as a part of their ideology, because they have nothing to prove, and it is only after they’ve been put into real danger that they turn around and act.

It’s the sort of outlook that makes the more pragmatic martial artists crawl up inside their own skulls, but it exists in real world martial arts. It’s also vastly more complicated in terms of spirituality, cultural context, philosophy, and responsibility than a single paragraph can sum up. The same can be said for the use of the trope in cinema, and where it often fails in Western media.

There is a difference though between:

“This is not worth my time.”

Or

“If we fight, I will most likely kill you. So, let’s save ourselves a headache and not fight.”

Versus:

“I will recklessly risk my safety for some kind of small advantage that I didn’t need anyway.”

2) The sequence comes out of a lot of spy fiction, the trick there is that they’re usually pretending to be something that they’re not and they also allow themselves to actually be beaten.

I mean beaten into the gutter beaten. Beaten so hard you’re bleeding out on the sidewalk beaten. Beaten that it took your special skills to preserve yourself without them knowing while they were kicking your stomach in.

Beaten within an inch of your life, spitting out blood and maybe a few teeth. You’ll be spending the next three months dealing with fractured ribs, a broken collarbone, and you’re flat out lucky they didn’t rupture something vital.

Annihilated. Eviscerated. Done.

So done that you’re not even in their hemisphere anymore, you don’t even exist in the same galaxy. Because that’s the point, you don’t want them to think about you anymore. You’re not any more of a threat to them than the janitor they spit on while walking to work or the store owner they shake down every weekend.

You’re invisible.

You can go where you want, within reason.

When it’s part of establishing a cover, then it is a real-ish thing. It is also a very dangerous thing. It is a gamble. It is risk. You’re risking your life, you’re risking them noticing that something is up, your betting big on your ability to play your cards and throw the fight well enough that they don’t notice anything. You can’t just do it, you have to do it well. You have to try, but not too hard. You have to get your hits in, you’ve got to make them mad, you’ve got to press them to the point where they’re willing to kill you, so that when they finish beating you into the pavement they feel damn good about it.

You’ve got to make them work for it and let then let them establish their own sense of superiority, both without dying in the process and not giving away that you’re letting them win. This is like watching someone try to throw a chess match. If they just stop playing in the middle of the game, you know something is up. And in the end, when you’re life is in their hands, all you can do is hope that they don’t kill you or blow your cover and actually play it straight to save your life.

Throwing a fight in this way is a con. The YA novels that I think you’re talking about, they’re not doing that. In their case, it’s just a cheap way to establish drama/tension with a character who is already overpowered.

“I’m so good I don’t even have to try.”

9/10 when you see the scenario presented in this way, the author has usually bought into their own bullshit about their character or the character’s bullshit about themselves. They’re not facing real opposition, so they have to pretend they are for things to even approach being interesting. The author has already decided the victor, one character has already claimed victory, and there’s not much point to watching the fight play out on the page because we know who the winner is.

They’re being dragged along by the plot. The writer is trying to make it interesting. Their pet will never be ground into the dirt the way they probably deserve by someone better because there is no one who can stand against them. There is no tension.

“Gosh! They might be tough! Maybe I can lure them into a false sense of security.”

Combat training informs the way we move, it informs how we think, it’s there in everything we do. Someone who excels? You can see it. It’s in their attitude. It’s in the way they walk into a room. It’s there as they survey an area. When they’re looking at you, you can feel the confidence roll off them. Go look at someone like Ronda Rousey, watch videos with cops, or check out videos posted by soldiers in the Marine Corps. You’ll see it, even in the ones who aren’t that good. You can feel it. There’s something different about them, even if you can’t quite figure out what it is when they’re wandering about in plainclothes. You get a similar feeling off of athletes too. A sense of self-ownership, confidence, and it takes more than just ducking your head and playing the fool to throw someone off. Especially someone who knows what they’re looking for.

The better they are, the more it’s there. The ones good at hiding it are the ones who’ve trained themselves to be changeable, to hide. This is why I brought up spy fiction.

“What even is an advantage?”

A lot of YA novels shortchange their villains. They do more than handicap them, they bind them by their hands and feet, weight them, and toss them into a lake. They move when the plot says and sit when it doesn’t. They notice what the plot wants them to notice, and they let slide what’s the hero needs to pass. They rarely behave like people and when they have to be bad to prove how bad they are, it happens to someone else. This provides the protagonist with their time for self-angst and other personal issues that the plot would rather focus on.

No one is setting fire to trees or fouling the water supply with a few good corpses. No one is breaking arms. No one is getting shot by their teachers. No one is just getting shoved off a cliff and down a raging waterfall because, well, they failed.

Do you wonder if the villains of this story could beat these protagonists? Do you wonder if the hero can pull it off when you’re reading these scenarios? Or is it just “of course”. That’s the plot device.

It doesn’t take into account anyone’s thought process but the protagonist’s. It will work because they decided it would and no effort is made, really, on the part of the author because they don’t really know what failing looks like.

Except failing in fighting means you get hurt. It means you take hits. It means you die. They must overcome more pain, misery, and injury from wounds they could’ve avoided if they just took this shit seriously.

Why was this a good idea again?

3) The last one is that they might have taken a joke too seriously.

“What do you mean? I’m just luring him into a false sense of security.”

The witty comeback a protagonist makes to save their pride when the other guy actually has them on the ropes and they win by sheer luck or because someone else cheated. It’s very common in Han Solo types.

It… doesn’t really work when you play it straight. Then, someone is just being a dick and it starts to transcend into cruelty. Basically, when you play it straight then the villain can’t hurt the hero and the hero is just playing with their still living food. It’s a fucked up thing to do.

-Michi

Is there a specific body type that’s best suited for kickboxing? Like, do tall people with longer limbs do better with it as a fighting style? Is there even such a thing as an ideal kickboxing physique?

Some might say yes, but the honest answer from me is no. Questions like this always feel a little like “min/maxing” to me because it always comes with the off-hand implication that if they’re somehow not in that “ideal category”, they will never ever be “as good” as the person who is.

This is a terrible assumption to make because skill in physical combat is defined primarily by effort, not by body type. The body is molded by the training and the student in question learns to make do with what they have. Every type of body comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, every person has a genetic history and what that is isn’t necessarily obvious just on the basis of what they look like. Sometimes, genetics help. Sometimes, they hurt.

Any person can be good either way. The point of training is to reshape. As you train, you will learn how to deal with your own deficiencies. You’ll learn tactics for how to overcome an opponent with greater reach, develop solutions to even the playing field. The importance of training is to help a student develop their strengths and help them discover how to mitigate or fix their weaknesses.

It’s important to understand that there is no such thing as “static”. There are no hard limits here. What matters most is consistency, a willingness to learn, and the determination to keep showing up even when training or life gets tough. When we talk about the “ideal student”, this is what we mean. The one who is there, who shows up, who is willing to put the work in even when they don’t have to, and who keeps coming back. There are people in this world who are naturally very talented, they have more talent in their pinky than you or I will ever see in ourselves than the length of our entire lives. Yet, in the end, if they don’t try or they don’t want to make use of their talent, if they coast on it, then they’ll end up weaker in the end.

Talent + Hard Work = Success

Hard Work = Success

Talent alone is not enough and, in the end, the hardest road often produces the best results. Combat is just a skill set, one that is developed over time like any other specialty. You’ve got to put in some to get something out and the more you do, the better you get. The one who takes their commitment to learning seriously is the one who is ideal like in anything else.

You can start them with any body type you like, any size you like, any fitness level so long as you’re willing to take into account what that means. Either way, they’ll never start perfectly ready. Everything they need can be developed, what they don’t have they’ll learn.

“They’re not good at physical exercise.”

They can get better. They will get better. Wind and endurance are gained over time.

“They’re not a natural.”

Hard work can compensate for that and they’ll need to work hard anyway.

All you need to remember is that this will be true regardless of sex or gender. Both girls and boys have to work hard to be good. They both have to work hard to overcome their weaknesses and develop their strengths. They both have to practice. They both have to fight. They both have to train hard.

People do.

It’s easiest if it’s something they enjoy doing, but they can also learn to enjoy doing it even if they didn’t initially. Sometimes, we start slow and get better. It’s hard to keep working at something and devote yourself to it, to improving, to striving toward some kind of goal. Try not to think of the world or people as static.

I know that’s probably not the answer you wanted.

-Michi

Say an antagonist sends people out to bring my my main characters unharmed. How can I do this while still making them seem threatening?

“Define unharmed?”

In a narrative, violence acts as a way to release or bleed off tension. The threat of violence is what builds tension and the resulting battle acts as the release. You do have to eventually pay off your tension, but it doesn’t have to be with violence. The beauty of the noir genre is the way it uses the threat to consistently escalate tension in a way that just builds, and builds, and builds until, by the end of the novel, it explodes.

What you’re stuck on is how to make it threatening and that’s because you’re associating unharmed with safe. Your characters are never safe when the antagonist is on the loose.

He or she wants them for something and that thing is bad, right? It could be a ritual, it could be torture, it could be eventual death. It could be anything. Even if that thing is not threatening in actuality when all the information is revealed. The audience may not know what the antagonist wants, but they do know that they’re dangerous. That sense of danger should extend through to the henchmen as well.

The threat your villain presents to the protagonists should be relevant and that threat doesn’t need to necessarily be what they are going to do to them right now, it could be later, it could be never. What you should focus on is that these people, from top to bottom, are very dangerous.

“The Master wanted them brought back alive.”

“What about their legs, they don’t need those?”

“Alive and unspoiled.”

-Paraphrased from The Two Towers as we proceed to mutilate Tolkien’s legacy.

What you need to do is establish that these henchmen are deadly. They are capable of great violence to anyone, even though they may not be exercising those skills in this particular endeavor. They could kill the protagonists if they wanted, they are choosing not to. It’s not the job that’s been assigned. However, that can easily change.

So just because these henchmen aren’t going to hurt your protagonists, it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of it. They’re still dangerous. They could be high caliber, smart, and top tier level dangerous or they could be slow and stupid but dangerous in how they choose interpret their orders.

After all, what does unharmed really mean?

They can kill people around your protagonists. They can torture them. If only one or several of them are needed, then the others are fair game. Anyone they’ve brought on to protect them is fair game. Their friends. Their family. Everyone around them.

The Uruk-hai that Saruman sends after the Hobbits in The Fellowship and the Two Towers are instructed to capture the hobbits alive and unharmed because Saruman is not sure which hobbit is carrying the one ring. However, all the other members of the Fellowship are fair game. Even then, Merry and Pippin are almost eaten by those for whom orders are less important than snack-time. I mean, two hobbits is a lot. Do they really need both?

Blurring amber came down, glinting in the torchlight. It slammed into the back of Joseph Malone’s skull. The mercenary groaned. Slumped. A shadowy face came into view behind him. Seizing Joseph by the collar, the woman tossed him to the floor. He hit musty, beer soaked straw with a thud.

"Well,” she said. Slim fingers tucked brunette strands back behind one ear. She glanced at Alex with a smile. “It’s certainly not my favorite kind of introduction.”

Dusting of the chair with a flip of her wrist, she slid into his seat. One leg crossed over the other as she leaned back. Resting her right hand on a knee, she twirled a dagger in her left. Blue eyes narrowed.

“Howdy, kiddo,” the woman continued. “I’m Dee. I hear you’ve found your way into some trouble.” Black brows lifted. “The Chancellor’s been looking for you.”

Alex straightened. There was a golden pin on Dee’s collar. Royal navy. One of those weird ranks, if she remembered right. A specialty agent. She could be a loyalist. Telcom broadcasts said the Grand Chancellor hadn’t gotten full control of all branches of the Imperial Military, some were still fighting. That’s why I’ve got to get to Admiral Jennicks. Maybe, maybe this Dee worked for him. Maybe he’d gotten her message. Maybe she had come to find her.

Dee’s head tilted. “I’m here to take you back.”

Swallowing, Alex felt her heart plummet.

On the floor, Joseph let out a moan.

Dee’s eyes rolled. She held up a finger. “One thing.”

Dee spun. Her heel came up, slamming down into the mercenary’s throat. She leaned forward, twisting her sole into his neck with a sickening crunch.

In her chair, Alex sat very still. Knuckles white, nails dug into the bag of coin. Biting her cheek, she swallowed. The door… Yes! The door! Twenty seconds, she’d counted. I can make that.

“Come on, Princess,” Dee said. “We’re traveling light.”

The point is not to let yourself get boxed into a corner. There are thousands of ways to go about this. Plenty of examples of great henchman in a wide variety of different media types and genres. You just have to start looking for them and then ask yourself: how did they do that?

We don’t know much about Dee as a character but, even on what would be her first introduction, we do know that she’s willing to kill and that she has the power to kill in the open, in a dingy bar, with what might possibly be zero consequences. She’s not afraid of using violence as a method to solve her problems and she intimates that under different circumstances she’d be perfectly willing to kill the Alex character.

It’s a big dark world, kid, and you’re in it alone.

Henchmen can show up at the worst times in a story. Pursuers can be a source of endless trouble. Even if they aren’t particularly threatening, they can mess up important moments, send deals the wrong way, kill potential allies, the list goes on.

The real trick, which I said in the beginning, is to never forget that unharmed doesn’t mean safe. Your characters aren’t protected just because the boss wants it one way.

And if you get stuck, you can always look to the classics.

“No disintegrations!”

-Michi