Tag Archives: michi answers

does a protagonist always need to have positive characteristics?

Nah. We did a post on this a while back called “Your Characters Don’t Always Need To Be Good People”, a lot of our followers assumed we were talking about antagonists but it applies to both.

This gets wrapped up in the concept of “likeable characters”. A protagonist doesn’t need to be “likeable”, but they do need to be compelling. As a reader, they and their journey need to inspire interest so that we keep reading. There are plenty of characters out there (more male than female, unfortunately) who aren’t really very likeable. I wouldn’t call either Jamie Lannister, Cersei, or even Tyrion conventionally likeable (which is a personal bias) but I would say they and their circumstances are interesting, their narrative compelling. Tony Stark, especially the Stark from the Iron Man movies is another character who isn’t particularly likeable by the conventional definition. (Assume conventional likeability is on the scale of Disney Princess, Thor, and the general perception of Captain America down to Tywin Lannister, Loki, and Maleficent for negative traits.)

I’d be careful using the world “always”.

A good rule of thumb is: When working to create a protagonist with negative traits, think about a character you love with the traits you want to include in your character. Maybe this character is a villain, that’s fine if it is. Most antagonists can be redrafted into the protagonists of a different story. Maybe this character is male and you want to write a female character, again that’s fine. Men and women aren’t really that different, media just likes to pretend they are. You can easily take character traits from male characters and apply them to female characters. Most of the examples you’ll find for a traditional Heroic Journey are going to be male, but a female character can take those steps just as easily.

So, you have a character in mind. Think about why you like that character. What is it about their narrative that you find compelling and interesting? Is it their situation? Their background? The actions they take? Is it the actor’s chemistry? (Tom Hiddleston has very nice cheekbones.) What’s working for you?

Chart it all down and be honest.

Once you know why you felt that way, you can start thinking about how to replicate it. If you found these traits and that character compelling, chances are others did too and might be looking to read stories about it.

There are certain types of stories that just don’t function well with a lead character who has an overwhelming number of positive traits and few negative ones. Crime novels, particularly Private Investigators and Hardboiled Detective novels live on characters who are complicated, ethically questionable, morally repugnant, sleazy, and more than a little screwed up. Most of the conventional “good woman” tropes don’t actually work well with women warriors, especially ones who live in the gray area of grayer worlds.

Life is hard sometimes, people aren’t perfect. It’s a rainbow spectrum, there’s room for everyone. You just have to work hard to make sure that they’re interesting and worth reading about, which means understanding  why you found them compelling in the first place.

-Michi

I have a question about the buzz words article. What if you’re using them for a specific purpose to set the scene? For example, my MC works as a lab technician and uses a few terms that aren’t exactly known to the general public. It’s not hugely important what she’s saying, but I thought it would help to illustrate that these kind of things are her “every day” to help set up a routine. Should I keep them or cut them altogether? Or maybe just restrict the usage so it’s not overwhelming?

No, don’t cut them. Well, not all of them. Just try to make sure that every time you introduce one or a new one, you include a short blurb about what it is or connect it to the actions she’s taking. The problem with jargon happens when the author doesn’t explain anything. When full sentences of Spanish or Japanese are dropped into the narrative at random because both of the characters speak Spanish and the author wants to prove they do but doesn’t bother to explain what they’re saying because why would they?

Compare to say, a character who is visiting a foreign country like France or Italy but doesn’t speak the language, the author may choose to include untranslated Italian or French into the text in order to emphasize the character’s sense of isolation and loneliness. The character doesn’t know what they’re saying, so neither do we.

Example:

“Maddy!” Patrick yelled. “Pack it up!”

Rolling her eyes, Maddy put down the papers and stomped off to the break room.

Here we have no idea what the character Patrick means when he says: “pack it up”. Or really, why the character of Maddy would be annoyed about it.

Counter Example:

“Maddy!” Patrick yelled. “Pack it up!”

Maddy rolled her eyes. The boss’ obsession with keeping the break room tidy was legendary. Shuffling the papers on her desk, She kicked her chair back and grabbed her coffee cup. I’m not a maid!

Seriously, sometimes Patrick was the worst.

Here, it’s slightly more obvious that “pack it up” is Patrick’s version of “clean up”. Maddy translates the meaning for us, but also relays her personal feelings on the subject through her actions. She’s being asked to clean up and she doesn’t like it.

This happens a lot with writers having character’s practice martial arts or dropping a martial art like Aikido into a story without ever explaining what it is. The character uses Japanese specific terminology without either showing or telling us what their using technique is. It can be jarring and confusing, and even skirts into appropriation when the martial art is being presented in a way that is incongruous with it’s real world philosophy (and no attention is ever paid to that real world philosophy).

Really, it’s not that daunting. All you need are a few unobtrusive sentences for clarity and you’re off to the races. When you’re done, get a beta reader who isn’t afraid to be honest and knows nothing about the subject matter to give it a read over. These could be people in your writing group, a kind writing instructor, a family member, or a friend. Have them tell you if there were any points where they became confused by the technical terminology, pinpoint those moments, and adjust them so they make sense.

Balancing staying true to the character and relaying the necessary information to the reader can be difficult, but it gets easier with practice. Save all the worries for your revisions.

-Michi

Is a blood choke a safe, reliable and effective way of knocking someone out temporarily?

There’s no real “safe, reliable way” to knock someone out that’s not in controlled circumstances. A blood choke like the triangle choke where the elbow wraps around the neck to cut off blood supply to the brain will knock someone out very quickly, but it will also kill them. It happens very quickly, so the margin for error ends up being a matter of seconds. In the heat of the moment, too much relies on aggressor’s discretion and their enemy’s physiology. The brain needs blood to function, if the flow of blood suddenly stops then the brain can no longer work and it shuts down. This is what causes the knock out, but knocking someone out is basically putting them in a coma and one step away from death.

The same is true of oxygen deprivation. When you choke someone, you’re strangling them. You’re cutting off oxygen to the brain by obstructing their ability to breathe. Many chokes apply direct pressure to  windpipe by squeezing with the hands or crushing with the forearm. The techniques always risk permanent damage to the windpipe and to the brain.

In a controlled environment like a martial arts match or a UFC bout where there are referees keeping careful watch on the contestants and are ready to leap in at a moment’s notice if something goes wrong (and the contestants are given the option to tap out before they pass out), this isn’t as much of an issue. The same is true of the Army and the Marines who both teach choke holds, including a more deadly variation on the triangle choke, because they are effective techniques in situations where the survival of the enemy isn’t an issue. Police in the United States used to love choke holds because they are very effective, the reason they aren’t used anymore is because policemen who used the techniques accidentally killed a great many suspects while subduing them. (The same is becoming true of Tazers. Yes, freaking out someone’s nervous system with electricity can in fact kill them.)

Drugs, in the controlled environment of a hospital they work very well, in a combat situation where you can’t control all the variables not so much. There’s also considerations like body weight, height, and resistances to various drugs that vary from person to person. Unfortunately, there are no one size fits all drug types and in a combat situation too many things can go wrong for it to be reliable. Add to that, any time you put someone under there’s a chance they won’t wake back up or will wake up with real brain damage and it just isn’t a viable solution.

This is all before we get to the issues of moving the body. Moving an unconscious person is a lot like moving a corpse (except they could wake up and, while you can guesstimate, you don’t know for certain when that will be). While putting someone over your shoulder in a fireman’s carry works, it’s incredibly aggravating and terribly obvious. Dragging the body is slow and cumbersome, while carrying it with two is awkward. If you saw a pair of guys in black dragging an unconscious body into the back of a black van, you’d probably call the police. On the other hand,if you saw a nicely dressed man putting an obviously drunk twenty something into the back of a taxi cab, you might not question it as quickly.

Whether it’s a hold up on heroes sneaking around a government facility or a snatch and grab off the street, it’s much more viable to make your target move themselves. Kidnappers don’t have fifteen to twenty minutes to exit a scene, they have five. They’re moving fast. This means disorienting their target and using the fear, shock, and trauma of being kidnapped to force them to move. Whether it’s getting hit with the butt of the rifle, a black bag and handcuffs, or getting dosed with an animal tranquilizer (or date rape drug like rohypnol), it’s much more viable to put them in a condition where they can’t struggle or fight back and make the target carry themselves.

I do understand the dilemma here. We’ve been conditioned by countless action movies to believe that a knockout is an easy out. The enemy cracks the character over the back of the head and we change scene. Unfortunately, (and if you look at most movies that deal with realistic kidnapping like Man on Fire, you’ll notice a change in tone) this isn’t how it actually works. The goal of a kidnapping is going to be extracting them alive and scared, but relatively undamaged. You’re taking them because they are valuable to someone (whether it’s for ransom or for sale is less relevant). Anything that jeopardizes that ultimate goal is going to be off the table for a professional. If you’re writing an amateur kidnapper, they may go for a knockout because “that’s how it works in the movies”.

In Hollywood and some books, knockouts have become sort of a “free pass” for badasses. The badass gets to do all the fancy tricks and cool moves but can also get the “good person cred” of not killing anyone. It’s a “have your cake and eat it too” bit where the author handwaves the violence and doesn’t deal with the consequences. It’s in the same range of heroes shooting arrows and bullets through joints and going “Ha! See! I’m super skilled and I don’t have to kill!” but avoids the obvious part about CRIPPLING THEM FOR LIFE!

This isn’t to say you can’t go with it but just remember, no matter what your hero does, if they are using violence then they are always running the risk of killing someone. This is especially true when harming vital organs or the brain.

Seriously.

-Michi

Mass Answering:

So one of my characters is a farm boy who has always dreamed of becoming a Protector (sorta like the Elite Police and Military of the world) and he gets to go to a school for them at this point in the story. He has worked on the farm his whole life and none of his family members have any military experience. What kind of fighting style would he have and what weapon would he use?

He would use whatever it is that the Protector trainees use and trained in what the Protectors do. Modern Military and Police units in first world countries have standardized training practices. He’s probably not being asked to provide his own gear and weaponry, he’s also not going to be the only farmboy looking to escape his background.

My advice is this: sit down and figure out whether you want the Protectors to be police or military. They can’t really be both. A country’s military is about protecting it’s citizens from outside invaders, the police focus on keeping the peace. To quote William Adama (who is probably quoting someone else), “When the military becomes the police force, the citizens become the enemy.” The only place these two are really going to overlap is in oppressive Fascist regimes and Military Dictatorships.

There’s a lot of great literature, media, and how to books out there covering both police academy training and military boot camps. But your best bets are going to actual documentaries. Netflix has a pretty decent selection of documentaries covering different types of military training and youtube also has good videos (verify what you find).

-Michi

How much overlap is there between the skill set of a thief and that of an assassin? Could a character be both? You’ve mentioned the differences in outlook – could you expand a little further?

The basics are this:

A thief targets something.

An assassin targets someone.

Professional thieves (I’m assuming you mean cat burglars not muggers) don’t generally like to leave dead bodies behind them because it jumps up police interest. They might be forced to kill, but getting away clean with no one the wiser is going to be their basic priority. In a literary or media sense think any good heist movie ever. You want to get away with the object without anyone noticing it’s missing, preferably they never notice. This is where the mentality of thieves and spies overlap. The most valuable information is the information the enemy doesn’t know you have.

Comparatively, an assassin takes the thief mentality of getting away clean and adds in the bonus level of murder. When an assassin plans to get away clean, it means they get away without anyone being able to identify them. While they are tied to a good exit strategy, they’re planning only goes so far as getting themselves away.

A thief has to find a way to move their stolen goods, sell those stolen goods, and not have those stolen goods linked back to them even if they are found.

For the sake of comparison, sit down and watch Ocean’s Eleven and Collateral back to back. Both are very enjoyable movies, but as you watch (this possibly may be the third or fourth viewing) think about the different priorities the characters have. You could also technically fill the heist movie slot with Heat or Thief but that’s two more Michael Mann films and they can run together after a while.

-Michi

I have a character who has studied capoeira for 10 years, and I was wondering if they’d be good at fighting in a forest, since there is not a lot of open space to do the movements and all. How would they approach a fight scene in such an area? :/

The biggest problems I think this character will face are:

1) The ground in an urban area is actually pretty uneven, the ground of a forest floor is incredibly uneven and dangerous to fight on. Capoeira includes many kicks even when it ditches the acrobatic movements which will make keeping the balance difficult.

2) Unlike a street, the forest floor is not only uneven but it’s full of debris. Whether it’s leaves, pine needles, exposed roots, grass, or unfortunately placed bushes, the character may have difficulty performing their techniques. Remember, kicks rely on friction to function and in a combat scenario falling down is pretty much a guaranteed game over, thanks for playing, go ahead and die now. So, your character is going to be wrong footed and fighting at a disadvantage. Depending on how bad the ground is, they may only be limited to hand strikes.

They’re not going to want to fight at all unless they have to and even then, their focus will probably be on disengaging and finding a more advantageous spot.

This, of course, is entirely dependent on your character practicing modern capoeira as opposed to this being a piece of historical fiction set in Brazil between the 16th and 19th centuries. In which case, the answer quickly becomes: I don’t know.

-Michi

Holy crap. First of all, I just discovered your blog and it is awesome. Second, can you please tell me how to properly write fight scenes using a war scythe?

Aww, thanks! The war scythe is an awesome weapon. I’m just going to leave the wiki article here: War Scythe because a good place to start thinking about fight scenes is to learn what kind of combat the weapon was used for and who used it. The war scythe is a polearm, one that because of it’s long, curved blade has a particular focus on slashing. The heavier blade on the end allows the wielder to make better use of inertia for stronger attacks. It’s easy to start and difficult to stop, with a focus on slashing and stabbing. (I’m also going to drop this fencing manual dealing with polearms from Wikitenaur on you. Read it, it has pictures (though not war scythe), they may help you with the basics of staff combat. The war scythe is primarily a European weapon, so focus your attention on European martial traditions. You may have to scroll to get to the staff and halberd sections.)

What does this mean for writing them?

Your character is going to focus on forward facing assaults, sweeping, cutting, slashing, and stabbing as they advance. The goal is going to be to press their advantage and that’s what you should focus on in the scene: cleaving through one opponent to move onto the next in a mass combat situation as opposed to specific dueling. Because of the weight of the war scythe’s head, they probably won’t do much with the butt or bottom part of the weapon as it inhibits speed and unbalances their control. They may use it to block, depending. On that I don’t know.

-Michi

Hey, I sent in an ask awhile ago and I’m not sure if you actually got it, I don’t think anyone has ever responded to one of my asks, so I’m worried it might be a glitch on my end. Totally fine if you haven’t gotten to it yet, just in case… I have a character who is 4′ 9″, female. But despite her size she’s supposed to be one of if not the best fighter in her world. Right now I kind of base her style as rather gymnastic, off Black Widow from MCU. Any suggestions for portraying this?

I think you may have missed the point with Black Widow (and to be fair, the movies do this too). She’s not a fighter, she’s a stone cold killer. It’s a small, but significant difference. Basically, she’s the member of the Avengers Fury keeps around in case he has to order the execution of the other Avengers. As a Marvel hero, she fits into the same family as the Punisher. The difference is: she’s more efficient. At this point, she’s one of the Marvel universe’s equivalent to James Bond.

The acrobatics style with Black Widow only works well in the movies and the comics (though they’ve moved away from her bouncing around in the last ten years or so) because it’s visually interesting. In a written format, you don’t have that advantage. Gymnastic based martial arts involve a lot of complex physical movement which makes them hard to convey clearly on the page. They’re also very physically taxing, inefficient, and difficult to sustain even for well-conditioned warriors.

Instead, a form like Systema (also Russian) that focuses on brutal efficiency and finishing the enemy quickly is best for someone like Natasha. It also emphasizes her personality traits. Stark, uncompromising, ruthless, but starts with an unassuming posture that lulls the target into a false sense of not about to die horrifically. This is the other thing to remember about Natasha, she’s an ambush predator and she lives up to her codename. Sex is just another weapon in her arsenal and one she’s not ashamed to wield (and if you want to write a character like this, you can’t be ashamed to let her). That said, she doesn’t make for a good faceman. I know I said James Bond, but she’s an assassin not a spy. If you want a spy, get Fury or Maria Hill. It’s all there in her codename: Black Widow.

To really do this well, you’re going to need to do two things.

First pick up a guide to Military Hand to Hand, I just found the SAS and Elite Forces Guide Self-Defense: Self-Defense Skills From The Word’s Most Elite Military Units by Martin J. Dougherty. It’s geared towards Self-Defense, but it has a lot of tips and strategies that will help you write a character geared toward practical and efficient combat. It also comes with helpful diagrams that will better help you visualize as you write. Simple, straightforward techniques are best. You don’t need flashy movements to convince me your character knows what they’re doing, you need to communicate the right outlook. Your character has to sound like they know what they’re talking about as opposed to looking like it. (If you’re really serious about Black Widow, then the character is also going to need to be skilled in other variants of weaponry like handguns, rifles, knives, seduction, and a wide variety of practical job related skills).

The second thing you need to do is sit down and ask: who do I want this character to be? Are they a fighter or a killer? Black Widow is a killer, she kills some people to save others. She kills for the greater good. Sometimes, she kills because of personal reasons or because Fury convinced her to. You need to firmly establish this in your mind because it’s a key part to the MU Widow’s outlook and personality. She’s business first and goal oriented. She makes Matt Murdock the girl in their on and off again relationship. When she’s written right, she’s exceedingly Russian. She also tends to kill first and ask questions later, unless she’s given a reason not to. She’s intelligent, a tactician, and she’s great at advance planning. She’s also cunning, underhanded, great at lying, and not afraid to strike first. She has a code of honor, but it’s not the same one as the rest of the heroes she runs with. She’s not noble in the traditional martial artist sense. She’s a realist. Dirty jobs have to get done, often in the dark where no one can see. This is her role in S.H.I.E.L.D. and, most of the time, when she save the world no one will hear about it. She can take out the heaviest hitters in the Marvel Universe by planning ahead and I will never ever forgive Joss Whedon for not having her be the one to take out the Hulk when he went crazy on the Helicarrier.

Compare her to DCU’s Lady Shiva. Shiva is a fighter. She kills, but it’s a side effect of her fighting and it’s always in hand to hand because that’s who she is. She’s proud of her skills and constantly looking to better herself, to find more challenging fights, to risk it all. She ascribes to a more traditional martial arts mindset and she has a strong (if twisted) concept of honor. She became the best in the world by fighting her way to the top in one on one bouts. If you asked me who the best fighter in Comics is, I’d say Shiva. Her personality gears her towards that. Black Widow would kill Shiva, but not in hand to hand. She’d do it with a sniper rife from a rooftop and leave nothing to chance. She’s not a knock down, drag out brawler. She’ll do it if she has to, but it’s not going to be her first choice.

They both terrify the ever living shit out of the people they go after, but the approach is very different. You’ll see Shiva saunter towards you and issue the challenge, you won’t see Black Widow for what she is until it’s too late.

The final thing to consider is the question of fame and the impact of reputation. A fighter whose ability to fight is based on ambushes and stealth will be hurt by someone recognizing them on the street or even just among the select groups they work with. You’re going to have to consider what “the best in the world” really means, how it affects their lives, and their ability to do their job. If fighting one on one duels like Shiva is their job then it’s not a problem, if it’s international espionage then it gets a little tougher. (Black Widow is more notorious than famous and she usually makes it work for her, but it still hinders her ability to go unnoticed when it matters most.)

Who you base your character on will affect how you write them, their motivations, and the plots surrounding them. For example, if you were writing a novel that was the equivalent of a Kung Fu action movie then Shiva would be your girl. If you were doing a spy novel or thriller, then you’ll find Black Widow waiting for you in a red Ferrari. You can mix these characters into different genres and break up their parts to make new characters, but each will always contain some facet of the original inspiration and it’s important not to forget.

-Michi

I have a scene where my main char (18/yo, been training the past 6 years) is attacked by a group of 17-18/yo boys (footballers, strong brawlers but no martial art training). It’s your typical bullying thing gone violent, and my char steps in to protect the two victims. What size of group do you think a single person could reasonably fight off while protecting others, and what sorts of styles would be suited to this? Also, what kind of damage might he end up taking in the course of this?

The answer to the damage question is splatter into the pavement and die. This doesn’t mean your idea isn’t a realistic one. There are plenty of martial artists out there who would attempt to jump in and fight. However, by doing so they would only make a bad situation worse.

So, let me do a walkthrough of the factors, the fallout, the kind of training you get from martial arts programs versus the training a teen would need but can’t get, and the kind of character who could legitimately pull it off. This sort of character is probably not the droid you’re looking for. I’ll also talk about alternate, non-violent solutions to this problem that would have a better chance of working.

The rest of this is an in depth exploration under the cut. Fair warning, it’s long.

Four Limbs Versus Twenty-Six Aren’t Good Odds

When it’s a numbers game (and it always is with groups), who does and doesn’t have martial training quickly goes out the window. The only time this really changes is when the character in question is trained in threat management like you get with special forces and other highly trained operatives, the ones who are good at setting up situations where any move their enemy makes is the wrong one. Your teen can’t do that, they don’t really have the background or the general willingness to jump to the level or brutality necessary to succeed.

Group combat is difficult. A master of thirty or forty years would have difficulty dealing with six (losing would be a real option), there’s a story on the Man on Fire commentary tracks about a special forces guy hired to defend the set getting splattered by six untrained men at a local bar. I can say at 18 with thirteen years of martial arts experience under my belt, I wouldn’t have tried it. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have tried to stop it, I had a long history of sticking my nose into situations where it didn’t belong. I’d have known that trying to use violence to stop them was a losing proposition.

Violence happens fast, we’re talking fights ending in seconds. The average one on one street fight ends in 25, you can kill someone in seven seconds if you know what you’re doing. Taking on six guys requires real combat experience and a willingness to go to extremes, the sort that’s above and beyond the kind you can get from practicing in a dojo.

Here’s the thing:

Martial Arts Don’t Make You Batman

In the United States, the kind of training your character would have access to is recreational or sport martial arts. These are classes on the same level as after-school sports, horseback riding, art lessons, summer camps, and other extra-curricular activities parents feel comfortable sticking their kids into until they can collect them after they get off work.

They don’t teach you how to street fight or what will happen in a real fight, one where there are no mats, no friends, and no instructors to step in when things get to bad. Martial arts schools don’t train kids with the expectation that they’ll ever have to use their training outside of select safe spaces like tournaments or the sparring ring. The kind of training offered where a character could be trained to deal with the real world (such as with Michael Janich or other more brutal styles, a ninjutsu school in Kentucky only took students who studied another martial art and only via reference) are always limited to 18 and over. Adults are generally considered to be more trustworthy and more capable of using the knowledge responsibly. They also are less likely to take students who have a history of knocking someone to the ground and slamming their head into the concrete until their skull caves in.

Martial arts train you to deal with one opponent, if you’re lucky, they may instruct you on how to deal with to. But what you learn in those lessons is that you can only fight one person at a time and unlike in the movies, the group is unlikely to wait their turn. They aren’t going to come at you one at a time, they’ll come in together and if they have a history of doing this then they’ll use teamwork.

Your character is already strapped down by having to protect two other people, six guys can easily split up to go three to three, three for your character, three for the two who won’t fight back. Or four to two, four for your character and two for the two who won’t fight back. Martial arts aren’t going to teach your character about exit strategies beyond the basic “end it quickly and run away”, they won’t teach your character on how to defend two people while fighting off the six guys who want to hurt them. They’ll be outflanked with no room to run and limited room to maneuver, which will get them hurt or killed.

Fighting on concrete means concussions, broken bones, fractured skulls, knocked out teeth, even if they manage to put one guy down, they’ll be blind to the other one coming in behind them.

Which brings us to:

Football Players: They’re More Dangerous Than You Think

Football emphasizes teamwork and taking hits, these guys are very used to using their body to physically knock an opponent to the ground. They’re actually more dangerous than wrestlers or baseball players in that respect because they can and will work together instead of fighting alone.

While they might just use their fists with two victims who are unlikely to fight back, the minute their safety is legitimately threatened by our hero, they’ll fall back on the tried and true methods of what they know works on the field. This is: charging, shoulder checking, and knocking someone to the ground via their waist. This is bad enough when in pads on grass (football still hosts an absurd amount of injuries and deaths), now imagine a three hundred pound linebacker slamming into your protagonist, lifting him off the ground, and slamming him straight down into the cold, hard concrete.

When I say splattered. I’m not joking.

The best way to avoid these sorts of attacks is to get out of the way (it’s not to attempt to punch or kick), however if they do then the three hundred pound linebacker charges straight into the two people our hero was trying to protect. Toro, toro. The second way to effectively deal with a charge is to sprawl, the subject essentially falls forward while kicking their legs back to land on top of the charger by wrapping their forearm around their attacker’s throat. They then use their body weight to take them to the ground, but now our hero is on the ground with five other players standing around them. They’re now at their mercy.

The most important problem is not the physical one, it’s the part where the players are part of a larger team. This team has a vested interest in keeping their members in one piece and avenging them if they can’t play in the game next Saturday. Remember, your character isn’t just making an enemy out of the six guys they’re about to face down. They’re going to make enemies out of their team, their coach, and anyone in the school or town who has an interest in the team’s success. This isn’t going to be an isolated incident, this is an action that will change their life and become a central point of conflict that will follow them through the story.

Basically, they’re looking at a no-win scenario if they try to take the football players head on. In many places across the United States, Football is an important part of the High School curriculum and football players are neatly protected. A good football team/sports program brings in revenue and prestige to the school, which helps the administration and looks good on a Principle’s resume. Football players are protected, any damage they take in a fight could mean that they can’t play at the next game, which hurts the team and that makes enemies. The sort you can’t really punch your way past.

Legal Ramifications:

Violence has consequences, those consequences are physical, social, and legal. At 18 years of age with six years of martial arts training, this character would likely be looking at charges of aggravated assault and possibly attempted homicide if they tried to fight these football players, especially if they inflicted any lasting damage. At 18, they’d be tried as an adult and looking at real jail time along with a ruined future.

18 is usually a senior, they’re looking at college applications, SATs, and getting out of the hellhole that is high school. If they fight, regardless of what happens, those plans are over for them. The kind of violence they’d need to escape their scrap in one piece is actually pretty far over the line of what’s generally considered acceptable.

All you need for this to go really screwy is for the coach to have a brother who is a cop or the local police chief to have a son on the team. Worse, if the son of the police chief is one of the kids who get beat up. This isn’t your character going after individuals no one is going to care about or people they’ll never see again. They’re going up against people they have to live with, go to school with, and suffer the consequences from.

So, the question is can your character’s family afford a good lawyer?

Social Ramifications:

Hollywood and media lie about the way people react to violence and the consequences violent action can have on someone’s social life. No matter how many pretty an action sequence may look on television, the fact of the matter is that violence is monstrous. When humans are faced with an enemy they perceive as truly dangerous, a lizard part of their brain flips and they start seeing the other person not as a person but as a feral animal to be avoided.

If the students of the school didn’t see your character as a dangerous person before he fended off six bullies, they will afterwards if he succeeds. The kinds of brutal techniques he’d need to use to finish the fight quickly would ensure that. In the end, he’d set himself up as more dangerous than the football players. They’re a known quantity, they’re violence is at a level other teenagers can understand. A martial artist has the training, if they can carry it off, to bring the realities of violence home. It’s fine when it’s on television or in a video game, but no one wants to wake up and realize they’re a peasant in A Game of Thrones.

The willingness of the character in question to act has nothing to do with it, what they want has nothing to do with it, all that matters is that they crushed a linebacker’s trachea. If they could do it to him, then what could he do to them?

Friends will abandon him. People he cares about will turn their backs. People will whisper or fall quiet when he passes. It’s a lonely existence being a social pariah and for the remainder of his time at his high school this is how people will respond to him.

It really sucks.

Bully Groups Take Time to Flourish:

Six guys didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to beat the shit out of some kids on the way home. A bully group the size of six is one years in the making and suggests a protected position within the school. Bullies get to groups when they are allowed to flourish, when they are successful. They usually start out as a bully or a bully with a lackey.

You should keep in mind that your character is engaging with a known quantity here, one that is protected by someone in the authority ranks. They do this because they can get away with it, but it’s always bad to assume that if they can your character can.

We have a mistaken view of what “the right thing” looks like. If you really want your character to be engaging for the right reasons, then this is an important truth to keep in mind:

Escalation Makes a Situation More Violent:

Bullies maintain their power through inflicting their fears and authority onto others. If the situation your character is about to engage in is already becoming violent then interceding with physical violence will only make it more so. They are upping the chances of someone getting hurt, not decreasing it.

For anyone who isn’t the target, beating up a bully is a short term solution at best and disastrous at worst. Confronting a bully or an abuser while they are in process of abusing a victim will only make it worse for the victim in the long term. The bully will come back when your character isn’t there and the pain they inflict on their target may be worse as they take their frustrations out on them.

This is why these feel good tactics don’t work. Your character interceding here and playing hero will only soothe his own ego. He saw a bad situation happening and responded, but he’s not there for what happens in the bathroom the next day or behind the bleachers. He’s not there to deal with the bully in the numerous other targets still available. In order for the bully to maintain their position, they have to re-establish their authority over their group and their targets. If they can’t do it with your main character, then they will turn to more convenient targets.

Answering violence with more violence doesn’t lead to peace, you can’t cow someone into submission. Your character’s goal is to help the people the bullies are beating on, to stop the situation before it can progress further. An ego stroking isn’t the answer and, unless your character is intent on monstrous action, violence isn’t either.

Heroism is Inherently Self-Sacrifical and Self-Destructive:

For the most part, we’ve come to directly associate heroism with violence because it’s easier and simpler to comprehend. Self-sacrifice and swallowing your own pride is messy and often inglorious. Still, if you want your character to play hero here then they’re going to have to avoid making a bad situation worse. If they jump in they could get the people they’re trying to help hurt, themselves hurt, just as quickly as the football players get hurt.

Figuring out how to help someone else without compromising your own safety is a difficult thing, but there are plenty of other methods your character could use. In a real world situation, I would say run for an authority figure and if your character has a friend present that’s what they should do.

After all, the goal here is to stop the bullies from hurting these characters not your character proving how badass they are. If the scene is about showing how your character is a badass then stop. Take a step back and remember that heroism is sacrificing yourself for other people, the act is all about other characters and not your protagonist. If they’re only going to make the situation worse then they shouldn’t intervene at all.

There’s a Difference Between Intelligent Bravery and Stupidity:

When my brother was in high school, he had a friend who was planning to commit suicide. During lunch in their junior year, he left to go to the bathroom but they noticed something was off and checked his backpack. In it, they found a suicide note. His friend planned to commit suicide on the train tracks that ran past our high school, this had become a trend back during my freshman year and it was an awful one. They went to the tracks and found him standing on them as the train was coming, my brother and his other friend leapt onto the tracks and wrestled their friend off safely.

Then, instead of letting him go, they promptly hustled him straight off to the councilor’s office so that he could get the help he needed. What they did was very brave, they could have all gotten hit by the train. My brother’s friend is still alive today.

The reason why I’m telling this story isn’t because it took two guys (one of whom was a fourth degree black belt) to get their friend off a track. I’m telling the story because it’s always important to recognize the limits of what you can do. My brother could have let his friend go back to class and assumed just because he’d pulled him off once that it was over. It wouldn’t have been over, because nothing would have been there to stop his friend from going right back to the tracks, waiting for another train, and ruining not only his own life but the life of the driver and the lives of the passengers on board. Instead, they got him to someone who could help him, who could alert his family, work through the problem and save his life.

No matter how tough or powerful your character is inside your story, they lack the authority and the ability to actually stop these bullies for any length of time. If they are intent on stopping them from hurting these other characters, then they are going to need to find another way to disrupt them and put them into the path of an authority figure who can deal with them.

A martial arts character will be trained to seek out authority instead of fighting or, at the very least, luring authority to them. The knee-jerk black eye of shame reaction for “telling” or “snitching” doesn’t apply here. For six years, this character will have had it beaten into their skull (like I did with mine), if you see a problem on the floor get an instructor.

There are only two good ways to stop a group.

1) Make it impossible for the fight to happen (good if you wish to avoid jail time)

2) Respond with such overwhelming force that they are unwilling to take it further (is your character prepared to cripple individuals with no real provocation? From behind? With a fire extinguisher? No? Good. This approach is more suitable to drug dealers and mob enforcers, not eighteen year old martial artists.)

Here are some simpler solutions than beating them up:

Stand on the outside of the group and attempt to talk them down while a friend runs for a teacher. The longer they can keep them talking, the less time they have for fighting and a greater chance more people will stumble on them and make fighting difficult. A fight not started is a victory.

Stand by the teacher’s lounge and yell “FIGHT” really loudly. Same with any nearby classroom that’s bound to have a teacher inside.

Get out their cell phone and record, then upload it to YouTube. They can tell the Football Players that they did, but they should prepare to be jumped and have their phone destroyed.

Pull a fire alarm. They’ll get in trouble for this, but no one will see them as a monster and their side of the story won’t be automatically dismissed on virtue of their actions. Also, it works. Loud sounds freak people out.

Final Thoughts:

Knowing when to fight and when to walk away is the most important lesson any martial artist ever learns. Sometimes, you have to take actions that don’t benefit yourself and sometimes, you have to walk away from a bad situation when every fiber of your being is screaming at you to do something. It’s important to recognize when you do that you’re not walking away because you’re a coward but because there’s no way for you to make the situation better by engaging. This isn’t going to change. Whether you have six or sixteen years of martial arts training, there will always be battles you can’t win.

This doesn’t mean turn your back entirely, offering support and encouragement to the victim is the way to go if you really want to help them. We can’t fight someone’s battles for them, but they don’t have to face them alone. If your character really wants to help these bullied victims, he’ll offer to take them around to his martial arts school and introduce them to his master. He’ll provide them with the opportunity to change their own life and give them the means to fight their own battles.

Can’t do that if he’s packed off to prison or makes them afraid of him though, so, some things to think about.

-Michi

I have a character, not the main character but he’s still fairly important to the story, who is the top fighter at a training facility and knows he’s the top fighter. Long story short, he winds up in a fight with a younger student who is the best of his year but compared to the entire school mediocre. The better student gets cocky during the fight and allows a couple hits to get in by unintentionally dropping his guard, cliched I know. Any recommendations for what happens during the fight?

I’m going to reiterate here that we don’t solve fight scenes. We post information so that you can solve fight scenes.

The key problem with this sequence is the attempt to manufacture cheap drama. The danger to the character doesn’t feel real because you’re having him make convenient mistakes. The mistake the audience will expect. This is why it feels cliche and why you’re having trouble.

My question is: why is this sequence important to the story? What function does it serve?

It doesn’t help the character in question, all this is going to teach them is that they can screw around and fuck up with a less experienced student and still pull out a victory. If you were looking to teach them a lesson about being careful, then it’s not going to happen here.

“If we were using real swords you’d be dead!” “But we weren’t and I’m not. You lost. Go throw your empty threats at someone who cares.”

This tells the reader nothing about the character that that wasn’t already previously established by the fact that the character is the best in the school. If you want them to worry about him then give him a challenge that legitimately hits him in an uncomfortable place, otherwise it’s going to feel like ego padding.

The scene description reads: “This is what might have happened to the character! They could have gotten really hurt!” “Did they?” “No…” “Well, meh.”

The cockiness is a weakness that could be legitimately established in a fight sequence that will ultimately matter to the story and to the reader. It’s either justifiably deserved as a character trait or it’s not. However, let’s talk about “the best” for a moment.

Here’s the second problem: this character is supposed to be “The Best” in their school.

There are two kinds of “Bests”. The Big Fish in a Small Pond (these are characters who run on talent, rest on their laurels, are in it for the perks, and don’t work very hard) and the real “Bests” (these are the workaholics, they are devoted, spend every spare minute of every day dedicated to developing their talent, they’re the first up in the morning and the last to leave, when they’re not training, they’re cleaning their gear to a polish, studying theory, or any amount of other minutia important to the practice of their art, they do fuck around and goof off but usually only with people they know well, they live in a lonely state of being admired by their fellow students and despised for the amount of time the teacher spends on them. They spend a great deal of time observing and studying the world around them and are constantly working to improve themselves. They know that every up and comer is gunning for their position, they don’t have the luxury of not working hard or not loving what they do.)

One of these is legitimate and one of these generally falls apart the minute they get out of their native environment. Both will ultimately struggle in a greater world where talent and hard work are not necessarily enough to earn you anything in your chosen field, but the disciplined, hardworking “best” who long ago learned that talent only gets you so far is more poised to make it. This is especially true of characters who will be facing life or death situations when they leave school.

The problem is that your character isn’t actually being cocky, he’s being lazy. It’s a common mistake by a lot of writers when it comes to training. This guy looked at this other character and said “Eh, I don’t need to try that hard today”. He was, according to the question, right. He knows this other character isn’t good enough to beat him. But instead of facing him earnestly anyway, he slacks off and turns his mind to other things. The other character surprises him just enough to bring his mind back to the fight and he goes “oh”, then dispatches him. Like he could have all along if he’d just been paying attention or given a damn.

Lazy.

A lazy Big Fish in a Small Pond is one that is not long for this world when they swim out into the bigger ocean. They certainly can be interesting characters once their dreams have been crushed by the hard weight of reality, but this one is a fighter who will presumably be fighting other warriors intending to kill him. Fighters who already know that not keeping their mind on the task at hand means a quick death (and one they may get anyway).

Think about your character some more and decide what it is that you are trying to convey. Weigh the necessity of the scene and think about why you’re having trouble with it. Is it because you don’t know enough about the fighting style and combat? Or is it because your characters aren’t working with you?

Try the John Cleese approach to creativity. The first answer we come up with is rarely the right or most creative one. Think about the problem some more and see what else you can come up with. If the answer feels cliche to you already then it will to the reader. If you can’t come up with a way to get yourself interested in or excited about the events that feel cliche, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Trust in yourself and in your creations, you’ll figure it out.

-Michi

In my story I have two students sparring with wooden practice swords, student A is more experienced and a bit older than student B, thus naturally bigger and stronger. If student B suddenly throws their blade aside and attacks the other with their fists could they have a chance of beating student A if they get past their practice blade? Or would they only be able to get in a few blows before student A gets the upper hand once more?

No, they can’t win. In that scenario they will be systematically beaten by Character A and probably thoroughly thrashed under the sufferance of their instructor. This is a good thing for your story and in the long run, a good thing for Character B’s development.

Let’s talk about why:

There are a few flaws going on in your language choices about Student A that come across as cliche, even though you don’t mean for them to be. The general assumption about training is that it bulks someone up, this is commonly presented in Hollywood action movies where the “average” sized  protagonist suddenly finds themselves facing an enemy that is very, very tall and usually very bulky. The difference is obvious, however, this is a visual gag and has little bearing on reality (also because it’s a visual gag, it’s not really helpful for writing unless you want to play into cliche).

For sword combat, replace stronger with faster (this will be true regardless of whether it’s a long sword, a claymore, or a rapier) and bigger with more agile. You can also add more cunning and more controlled, especially if Student A is at the stage of using fast talking and insults to distract their opponent between strikes. A character who can fast talk while fighting is one where the strikes and blows they are using have become enough of a second nature that they can turn their mind to strategy and character assessment. Yes, smack talk is actually a legitimate strategy during a fight, assuming the character has the conditioning and breath get away with it.

If this is what Student A is like (and this is what most training sequence enemies are like) then the comparison is this: Student B is the average new recruit for the track team and they’re sprinting against it’s best member. As Student B sprints, the track team member keeps pace beside them spitting out insults, you want to say something, but Student B can’t because they’re too busy sucking down oxygen. However, this spurs them to try harder and run faster, faster and faster, in silence, harder than they’ve ever run before. They think hey, I’m doing pretty good. Until they get to the final turn and Student A opens up their stride and sprints off like it’s nothing leaving Student B huffing and puffing. But Student B is still angry, so they chase them as hard and as fast as they can (or they give up). They don’t catch them, they are soundly defeated.

However, it’s not a defeat because not only now do they have an understanding of how far down the totem pole they are, they’ve been given a rival to chase, and best of all, they’ve pushed themselves (with Student A’s help) to find a source of inner strength they might not have known they had. They’ve learned more through defeat than they did through victory.

This is why many instructors do in fact put students, especially new ones, into “no win scenarios” against more powerful opponents. Kirk’s Kobayashi Maru feel good/ego stroking antics aside: facing and being beaten by an opponent that is better than you in a controlled environment, learning what that feels like, and how easily you can be manipulated is an important step towards becoming a better warrior.

The best fighters are cautious and disciplined strategists. They may be congenial and friendly, but they are very much in control of themselves, their emotions, and their environment. Student A is already in control of the fight and that in a nutshell is why Student B can’t win, even when they attempt to change the rules.

Okay, let’s talk about Student B:

Getting frustrated and throwing down or throwing away a weapon is actually a common beginner mistake, so brava! This is a good learning experience. The thought process is: this isn’t working, so I better try something else. However, it’s a bad idea because the wooden blade was what kept the fight anywhere near even and without it, they’re screwed.

Student B either throws aside their blade because they think it’s a good idea or they’ve been driven to do it out of anger. If it’s anger, it’s a better idea for them to throw the sword at Student A and then lunges. This is the only semi-saving grace for them because (stupid as it is) it suggests that they have some grasp of strategy. Otherwise, they’re just ditching the sword in favor of lunging at an opponent who still has their weapon and now has greater reach.

If Student B throws away the sword and lunges, then all Student A has to do is hold their sword out and let B “impale” themselves on it. Short, quick, and boom it’s over. If they throw it at A, then A has to knock it away or risk getting hit. However, if they do throw it at A, A is going to be a little upset about it especially since B just broke the rules and risked both their safety on a stupid stunt. If B throws the sword at A, then B is in the wrong (even though they’ll feel like they were in the right).

Their master/instructor will then probably allow A to thrash B (within reason, no long term damage) so that they can fully feel their mistake and then will assign them some sort of punishment work afterwards. They’ll punish A too because A did give in to anger after B threw the sword at their head.

This brings us to:

There will be an instructor watching this fight and they will intervene when necessary. Sparring bouts tend to happen one on one in front of the whole or half of the class (if there are enough instructors to handle more than one bout at a time). The observing students wait their turn and they learn by watching their fellows fight. Sometimes, if there’s a second rival group or section, instructors will bring the two together and have them spar each other one on one in order to build a greater sense of competitiveness and camaraderie within the respective groups.

Both Student A and Student B will be punished by their respective teachers depending on what happens after B throws down the sword. B will also have to face the criticism and humiliation in front of their fellow students, which will make the sting hurt that much more and may be the inciting action that drives them to throw the sword.

Try to remember that sparring is about learning, it’s not about beating the odds or winning and losing. The point of a character in training is not to show how talented and skilled they are, it’s to show them growing up and learning. Life isn’t always fair, but even the ruthless and most sadistic teachers often have the students’ best interests at heart. Other characters may be responding to a stimuli or understanding of the situation that Character B doesn’t have access to yet.

Let your characters fall down and make mistakes during training, that’s what training is for and why it’s there. It’s important to the development of the characters in the story.

Try to not vilify A or the instructor.

Either way:

It’s a good learning experience that will help you flesh out your characters. All of them. So, I suggest you keep it. Besides, B isn’t just soundly beaten, they lose the fight on the basis of what they thought was a good idea. That’s actually pretty great.

-Michi

How much force do you need for chooping a head off? First time it’s an axe that’s being used, the second is a sword. The first time is with a character who doesn’t have much strenght, and the other with the sword is very strong. Do you need to chop more than one time, to get through the bones?

We can’t really answer the specifics of how much force is required. However, if you look up decapitations as capital punishment in Europe, you will find a host of information regarding how well a headsman could decapitate their victim. There’s a great deal of scientific data from the time on it and that’s worth a look. It’s also worth reminding everyone that the guillotine was invented as a method of execution not because it was more expedient (that was an unfortunate byproduct) but because it was considered to be quicker and more humane.

For reference, the average commoner (and occasionally noble) got the axe. Royalty (and occasionally nobles depending on country) could opt for the more “humane” sword. As a method of execution, swords were sharper and less likely to miss, so the death was quicker and cleaner. The headsman would often miss the first or even second swing with an axe. The axe was commonly blunt or carried a dull blade and would get stuck in the spine. The headsman might have to swing his axe a few times in order to completely remove the head from the body. It was both a terrifying and agonizing way to die.

In combat:

The second part of your question relates to strength. We’ve talked a lot about upper body strength being less important compared to body mechanics. You don’t need to be a weightlifter to be an effective fighter (it is in fact less effective) and that is very true when it comes to weapons like the sword and the axe which rely heavily on momentum and a sharp edge over upper body strength.

Part of the reason this is a difficult question to answer is that there are multiple different kinds of swords and axes and they all go about decapitation in their own way. With an axe, is your character using a one handed axe or a two handed axe? A long hafted axe like the bearded axe that exists in a class similar to the claymore/zweihander (german, means two hands) will have no issues decapitating someone (assuming it’s wielder can wield it correctly) but will do so in an arcing pattern and come in on a diagonal instead of horizontally. A thrusting weapon like the rapier will drive forward on a direct line through the throat (and probably won’t bother with a decapitation because dead is dead). The longsword is better as a cutting weapon and could certainly go cleanly through the neck, provided it didn’t get caught on or deflected by the spine. It’s easier to aim between the vertebra than at them for a clean strike.

Many warriors may not choose to go fully through the neck at all and instead opt for a partial decapitation by going across the front of the neck through the wind pipe, esophagus, and carotid artery that are unprotected by bone.

Instead of focusing on physical strength, focus on how the weapon behaves by looking up the specific one your characters are using. It’s also worth noting that, for medieval warriors, it’s the armor that builds the body type. A heavy, bulky upper body will be common among warriors who wear plate mail because they must be able to fight while wearing it without become exhausted. This required a strong upper body and rigorous development of the shoulder muscles. This will also be true for both male and female warriors.

A warrior in lighter armor will develop a leaner body, but will be as effective at wielding their weapon because, again, greater physical strength is not what makes it effective.

-Michi

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