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Hey! I’m having a slight problem atm and I’d love your opinion on it. My story is set in an medieval-ish AU and I’ve got a character who acts like a knight (protecting the MC who is something equivalent to royalty) and she has to attend this party. I was thinking of her wearing a dress over her armor but after a bit of research I found that’s probably not possible. Is there something she could wear underneath that would still protect her a bit if she suddenly needed to go into battle? (1)

(2) or would it be something I should avoid? I originally planned the the scene on the fact she would be able to rip off her dress when an assassin comes to kill the MC. But I understand if it’s a) not possible or b) isn’t going to work well/be believable. Thanks!~
Honestly, if she’s actually acting as a bodyguard in a setting where it’s acceptable for noblewomen to take up arms then she has no reason to bother with a dress. She’s just going to go in her fancy dress uniform/armor. If she’s a noble who needs to maintain their own position, then she might go in a dress. Either way, if your MC is royalty she should have a palace full of guards and a full retinue in uniform to guard her at any event. The point of a knight is not to be incognito, you put them front and center so you can say: “I have this, don’t attack me”. In full regalia and armed to the teeth, knights are intimidating. If a knight is out of their armor and at a party, they’re probably not working as carrying weapons could be considered rude to their host. The point of trying to assassinate someone at a party is that the guests will be unarmed. It’s an act of trust. Your character carrying hidden weapons is a breach of that trust.
Dresses are expensive and valuable. That dress is handmade, the product of months of fittings, pricked fingers, and energy on top of the materials. This isn’t a garment you pick up off the racks at Macy’s. This is specially made and designed for this character. It’s unique. While a dressmaker may have made the dress, it’s also possible the character’s maid did. Don’t hurt the dress. I’m sure a decently proficient character can design one that your character can fight in if she really has to, complete with hidden pockets and split skirts. (Reference Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet and Protector of the Small, pay special attention to Kel’s maid Lalasa.) Ripping the dress off (if she even could, have you ever tried to tear clothing?) is an incredibly brattish thing to do and spitting on months of someone’s hard work.
Servants are people too.
If your knight isn’t a noble (and the setting is the kind of place where she can still hold rank without lineage), someone bought and paid for that dress for her. It may be the nicest non-combat oriented clothing she owns with the rest of her salary going to gear (the full variety of weaponry, armor, feeding and stabling the warhorse).
Now, let’s talk about this assassination attempt.
When it comes to assassination of important figures, you’ve got several options. We’ve talked a fair amount about assassins on this blog and why characters attempt them. However, nobles and royals are incredibly important and well-protected people. Assassinating them is actually very difficult and if one tries, they intend to succeed because they aren’t likely to get a second chance. However, the sort of Hollywood ninja-esque, break into a castle wearing a white hoodie with a giant knife strapped to their wrist with intent to take on 50 to 60 guards on the way to their target just isn’t it. Again, the point of an assassination is to succeed and, most importantly, not get caught.
The Medici Family: the assault, murder, and attempted murder of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’Medici is perhaps the most famous and infamous attempted assassination during the Renaissance. Ambushed in the Florence Cathedral by their political rivals the Pazzi, Giuliano de’Medici was murdered in front of a crowd of 10,000. Lorenzo barely escaped. The goal of the Pazzi was to attack in a place considered sacrosanct (a church) and cause a riot so their enemies could not escape. Pick a place where an attack is unexpected and an enemy cannot control all the variables.
This is why all assassinations of U.S. Presidents have happened outside the White House, in places where security could not control the area. The attempted assassination of President Bartlett in the finale of Season 1 of The West Wing is an excellent example of how difficult it is to take down someone so well protected but also how it can be done.
The Red Wedding: Yeah, yeah, spoiler alert. (Not like the above isn’t a spoiler…) The Red Wedding is actually an example of a tried and true, and bloody, assassination method which is: bring them to your turf or someone else’s under the guise of friendship and kill them all. This is the wipe them all out method, so there will be no one left to take revenge.
This is why the wrist clasp, the handshake, and even the hug are a common greeting, they’re a hidden weapon/armor check.
Subtlety, Stealth, Poison: Poison is such a common method of assassination that most royals will have an official taste tester as a simple precaution, even if they trust their nobles. However, there are places where a taste tester may not be present such as at a party where a poisoner might not be able to get their poison to it’s intended target unless they’re right next to them.
Which means, they need to be right next to them. Taking on the guise of a servant but more likely a party guest, the assassin attends the party and ingratiates themselves with their target. The assassin will choose a guise and personality that their target finds most aesthetically appealing and least threatening, it can be sexual but it can also be friendly. The assassin will approach and attack via whatever their personal blind spot is, this allows them to get close to their target, convinces their target to trust them, and then they strike.
This is why women, historically, have been the best and most successful assassins.
However, if you’re wanting a straight up fight where the character can test their mettle in combat, the Medici or the Red Wedding is the way to go. The classical antagonist assassin is all about testing loyalty, trust, and friendship in the personal sense as opposed to physical one. Assassins don’t do well in straight up fights, they can but it’s not where their strengths lie. They’ll fight with intention to escape or they’ll try to finish their mission and die in the process. Assassins are about deception, betrayal, and manipulation. These can be great things to throw at a noble knight because that’s usually their literary weak point, but if it’s not what you want, don’t go there.
However, an assassination attempt is a major thread which should be set up throughout the book. The Medici and the Red Wedding set ups are best as inciting incidents (the royals family is betrayed, murdered, MC is the only survivor pulled from the fray by a trusted guard) or as a climax (MC will finally be crowned queen, but the main villain hasn’t been defeated yet. On her way to the coronation ceremony, he launches a surprise assault in the middle of the crowded city square as a last ditch effort to cement his rule.)
The single assassin is best as an early to mid-point plot thread, where one character is convinced something is wrong while the other is blindsided by the hottie with a body. Or, they’re there the whole time as the scheming love interest. That works too.
I don’t know if that helps, but I hope so.
-Michi

I’ve been researching Tricking recently, and while undeniably cool, doesn’t look like it’s a very efficient martial art, at least compared to the ones I’ve done. Would a proficient trickster be any good a) against a practitioner of a more traditional fighting style or b) with the use of non-Tron weaponry, say a small knife? Thanks for your help!

I think the problem here is: you’re thinking that all aspects martial arts are martial. Well, some parts are just art.

It’s best to think of Tricking as the Taekwondo version interpretive dance with slightly more velocity. It’s not a combat art. It’s a performance art and is purely for crowd pleasing exhibitions. It’s exciting it’s fun to watch, and it pulls in a lot of students for the school. It’s also not a martial art in and of itself. Most tricksters hold belt levels in their respective martial forms, which they earned the old fashioned way: by practicing the martial art. You need to be decently high level in the form too because the tricking variant of Taekwondo requires a fundamental knowledge of how some of the most advanced kicks in order to function. The practitioner must then be comfortable enough to adapt and incorporate them into tumbling and break dancing. The assumption with tricksters is that they’ll really start getting into it two, three, or four years down the line after they’ve gotten high enough in the ranks to be comfortable with the techniques and begin experimenting with them.

The short is: no tricking is useless in an actual combat situation. It’s something your character would do on the side for fun or to balance out their competitive tournament schedule between sparring and traditional forms. Many tricksters are part of traveling demonstration teams that perform together.

If you see tricking in movies, it’s because it’s a performance art and very fun to watch. For most movie fight scenes, the visual entertainment factor is what’s most important. On the flip side, flips and tricks are actually very difficult to write. They require a complex understanding of how the moves function along with the ability to coherently and accurately describe those moves so the reader can visualize them. If you don’t know how they work, good luck.

Tricksters are daredevils. You can’t really do it if you don’t have supreme confidence in yourself. If you can’t act without second guessing, then you increase your risk of physical injury. All the tricksters I’ve known have been nice guys, but also really confident and, sometimes, stupidly fearless. They don’t have a well-defined fear of physical injury , even though they’re regularly practicing stuff where one wrong landing can lead to a limp for life. And, unless they’re really lucky, it will happen. I had an instructor who did a lot of high flying for the Ernie Reyes World Action Team in his teens and twenties, by his late twenties he had significant difficulty walking. No matter the skill level, every trick is a gamble. The danger is part of the fun, part of the rush. You just keep pushing yourself harder and higher until you finally break. (Sometimes, you keep pushing yourself even after that. This is the personality type that at it’s most extreme ditches the crutches and tries to do flips while in a cast and on a broken leg. Why? Because I can.)

The older you get, the harder it gets. Tricking causes a lot of physical wear and tear on the body. But, hey, you’re only young once. And if your character is tricking then they’re not thinking that far ahead.

-Michi

(Before anyone asks, yes I have seen some tricksters do crazy things like that while injured. It’s worse when they’re instructors and you can’t tell them no. If you know this personality type, you’re probably just nodding and going “yup, I know those guys”.)

I have a fight scene where there is my protagonist against four other characters (two girls, two boys). My protagonist is a girl who has grown up in a world where you need to know how to fight to survive. If she was taught how to fight, what do you think she would know? Also, my four other characters are all decently strong physically but they are all a little weak from not enough food. What would be a reasonable outcome in the situation and how would an organized group of four fight?

That’s… really vague. The part about what she needs to know. Knowing nothing about your world, I can’t actually answer the question of what she does or doesn’t need to know how to do. Think about the threats she faces on a regular basis. Think about her support network. What resources does she have access to to defend herself? Who is/are the enemy? If there are multiple ones, which does she face the greatest threat from on a regular basis? Is she in a privileged position in her culture or a gutter rat? Does she have a solid connection with friends and family or does she have to go it alone most of the time? What threats are there in her environment? Gangs? Organized Crime? Corrupt Police? Invading military? Local Military?

For all I know, the major enemy she has to be on the lookout for are man-sized, bipedal rats that crawl up out of the underdark.

Someone had to teach her how to fight, if she’s any good at it. The question is: what did they teach her? The answer is: whatever is the most basic and common skill set readily available that is necessary to ensure her survival. If so, somewhere in there, this someone probably taught her the virtue of running and hiding which is a skill all children who live in dangerous societies must learn because fighting adults head on is a losing proposition. This brings us to the most inglorious and useful skill when fighting groups: the art of running away.

The problem with groups is that working together is the natural human state and, even with no actual combat skill, they can be very dangerous just working off of base instinct

Have you ever just stood back and watched a game of keep away? It’s a really cruel thing young bullies like to do, some of you out there have probably been on the receiving end. That is, at it’s most basic, the basic strategy employed by groups in combat. Distract the target up front, then keep them off balance and having to chase the object as it moves from person to person. When you add violence into the picture, one individual distracts while the others flank outside the range of peripheral vision. This may be by talking, it may be by attacking, but the goal will be to pen in the target and attack the areas where they are most vulnerable (the back, the kidneys, the spine). Once the person falls (which happens very quickly), they continue the assault by stomping them and kicking them until they pass out/die.

The real world/self-defense advice for dealing with groups is: don’t. Run.  If you’re forced into a fight, cripple your opponents so you can extract yourself and then run. If you have to fight them and know the terrain, run so they get strung out and you can take them individually. Remember the eight move limit until physical exhaustion. The individual can only throw eight moves total without, at least, a small amount of rest. Each member of the group can make eight moves and by switching between fighters (pressing in two on one), the other two (or three) can take moments to rest which allows the entire group to fight longer.

In these articles, I go into it in more depth.

FightWrite: The Individual Versus the Group

Fightwrite: Emotions, Physical Reactions, and the Flow of Combat

This ask, where we talked about gangs.

This ask, where we talked about raising kids to fight.

This ask, where we talked about militarized communities and child rearing

Hopefully, these will be enough to get you started.

-Michi

How does one get better at fighting with a sword? I have a female character who was formally trained in swordfighting (being a noble heir) though she has a lot of room for improvement. I want a timeskip in which she trains and afterwards (is 6 months reasonable?) she is challenged by a pirate captain who has years of experience and talent in combat. She is going to lose and he isn’t aiming to kill her. How would the fight play out realistically?

Realistically? She won’t kill him, her guards will. (She won’t even get close to him and his challenge is meaningless.)

This is the most important thing to remember: a female noble heir is the social and economic future of their household, if your pirate captain takes her then he gets to claim her which is the equivalent of stealing Alabama, Alaska, or California. Now do you think for a second her guards or her family will allow that to happen? (The answer is no.)

If you’re using pirates, then you’re probably pulling from the Golden Age of Piracy for inspiration, so between 1650 and 1726. It’s important to remember than aristocrats in any period before the 19th century were not decorative. Today, we (Americans especially) have a habit of confusing the echoes for the gunfire. We view the nobility and royalty like CEOs and other really rich people instead of what they really were: warlords, an important part of their nation’s command and control structure. Nobles were taught to fight because they needed to be capable of defending themselves from the peasantry, from other nobles, and from attempts at political assassination. Your heir is probably living in a period where she is expected to know how to fight because someone else is going to try to kill or kidnap her. While we’re talking about a period in history where the importance of the nobility was ending, it wasn’t there yet. Fencing as recreation hadn’t quite taken hold yet and your heir’s education is going to be for realities of the world she’ll be facing. This is also a period in history when training with live blades was not uncommon.

Nobles engaged professional swordmasters as members of their households to teach them and their children. Your girl is likely to have had a fencing blade in her hand by the time she was six years old, the standard training age for an aristocrat. It’s likely she was trained on a variety of weapons, but depending on your time period her main sword is likely to be either a rapier, an epee or another variant of smallsword, all of which will turn your pirate captain into Swiss cheese before he can say “what’s that?”. She’ll possibly also know how to use a longsword (still saw battlefield use) or a heavy saber (as opposed to the later lighter version of the fencing blade) as a cavalry blade, she’ll have been trained to use it from horseback in case she was ever called to military service by her monarch. If her family employs a professional duelist to fight for her father or mother in case of another noble challenging the family, she might have also trained with them. If her family doesn’t have the money or the family patriarch prefers to handle to duels themselves, it’s likely she was grilled by them regularly. As the heir, she’ll be under direct scrutiny from whichever figure is managing her education and training to ensure she can do her job when she eventually inherits management of the household/estate.

The problem here is that you’re thinking about this in terms of her not having any practical combat experience and conflating the 18th and 19th century nobility with the 16th and 17th century is a terrible, if common, mistake. Unless your pirate captain is a former member of the gentlemen class or noble class then the weapon he’ll be using is likely to be the cutlass, which while a fantastic weapon for boarding actions, is horribly outmatched by both the epee and the rapier when it comes to dueling. They’re both longer (reach and speed advantage) and faster (substantial speed advantage) and in the hands of someone who knows how to kill with them. Weapons are a great equalizer, your heir doesn’t need to be exceptional to kill him, she’ll be armed with the better weapon for the situation and has the knowledge to know how to use it in practical combat. Even if she’s armed with a longsword, she’ll win.

Here’s your first real issue: you’re conflating all types of combat experience together while ignoring the separate skill sets and types of experience. A pirate captain is going to be experienced in ship to ship combat and boarding actions, his exceptional talent is the handling of his crew and his ability to command. This is what he needs to be good at in order to maintain his position. Dueling is not going to be his focus, he may excel at dueling other pirates both with pistols and with swords but the question is who is he dueling? The caliber of your opponent does a lot to enhance skill, so does having the luxury to devote the necessary time to developing that skill. A boarding action is a mass melee, it’s not a duel. Even if he’s used to fighting multiple enemies, it’s going to be in fighting back to back with the support of his crew. His most common opponents are going to be other pirates, most likely drunk pirates, while on shore leave.  This doesn’t leave him a lot of time to come up with the skill necessary to hand a noble their ass in a one on one. A duel with your heir is going to end up looking a lot like Edmond Dantes’ first duel with Ferdinand in The Count of Monte Cristo (2002). Your pirate is Dantes, she’s Ferdinand and she’s got less reason to play nice. (It’s worth noting Ferdinand isn’t even considered an exceptional duelist and, at this point in the movie, he’s just got the advantage of his training.)

Now, he could be a former naval officer or son of a merchant with a business in overseas trade. However, this would mean he comes from either a wealthy merchant family or the middle/upper class. At this point in history officers were still expected to buy their commissions which meant ships were largely commanded by the rich/gentlemen and the sailors/grunts were pulled from the poor/uneducated.

The second issue: Heirs are incredibly valuable, incredibly valuable. Female ones especially because they are the means of carrying on your bloodline. A lot of effort and work by the head of the household goes into the heir because they are the economic and socio-political future of the family. Heirs are not allowed to engage in the same sort of risky business that a second or third child can get away with. A fairly decent modern comparison is Prince William versus Prince Harry, both are in the military but only one gets to fight on the front lines. Now, you can disinherit the heir to ensure that their progeny/new husband cannot claim their titles and lands but you lose all the effort that went into them in favor of (what is likely to be viewed as) a substandard second aka the spare. So, again, it would be like stealing Alabama and she doesn’t have the free time to run off for a weekend cruise with a strange man unless she’s intending to throw away everything anyway (and no one is going to let her).

Second to the Family Head, the Heir is the most well-defended member of the family. They’re not getting out of the house without an escort, these men (and women) will be among the most loyal and skilled men (and women) the house has at their disposal. She’s not going to go anywhere without them and has probably known them (somewhere between four to six) all her life. They may know her better than her parents do, they’re always there, and they will defend her with their lives. Not being a noble, your captain has no ability to challenge her directly even if she challenges him. He is going to have to go through them to fight her and they aren’t going to bother with a duel. They’re not going to fight him one on one, they’ll fight him together. He’s outnumbered and fighting better trained opponents (it’s going to be either three on one with one guarding the girl or four on one with two guarding the girl), so he’s dead.

It’s important to remember that a bodyguard’s job is not to do what their protectee wants, it’s to do what is best for them and ensures their safety. It’s their job to keep them alive, not to keep them happy. She’s not the one paying their salary, her parents are, and even if she was it wouldn’t make a difference. While her guards are fighting him, the other one (or two) will hustle her somewhere else to keep her safe.

Third Problem: In attempting to take her anywhere, he has shown he means her harm. Whether it’s to kill her, ransom her, or claim her as his wife is irrelevant, whether he actually intends any of those things is irrelevant. From her perspective, that of her family, and her guards, he intends her harm and if she’s forced to fight him then it will be to the death. Remember, these are threats she faces from the other members of her country’s nobility. She’s primed to respond to any threats to her person with deadly force and so are her guards, all of whom are likely to face much more talented combatants from their own class than the pirate captain. She has a vested interest in being better at combat than him and she will be because nobles are not sheltered fragile flowers who have the luxury of using money instead of force to protect themselves. The French Revolution was successful because of the number of peasants and the willingness to bury the aristocrats in bodies (which was what it took). It wasn’t because they were better warriors.

Let’s Recap:

Do Not Steal California: Heirs are valuable and important people, stealing them is a lot like stealing the ownership of a state. Lots of people are bound to try it and there are reasons their families take steps to ensure they won’t succeed.

A Rapier or Epee versus a Cutlass: both weapons have a reach advantage over a cutlass and are much, much faster. The pirate captain’s brain will not be used to fighting at it’s speeds and in a single unarmored bout, it will be over in one or two hits. In fact, historically the epee is so fast that it resulted in multiple double suicides during duels which is part of the reason we switched to fencing with blunted blades.

Nobles Are Not Decorative: Unless we’re discussing nobles in the 19th (excluding Russia), 20th, and 21st centuries then an aristocrat’s position was fraught with danger. Even in the 18th century when they were heading toward being obsolete, nobles were very dangerous individuals who faced a great deal of danger in their everyday lives both from the peasantry and members of their own class.

Depending on Context All Combat Experience Is Not Created Equal: while there were pirates who were very skilled duelists this was usually a skill they cultivated during the time before they became pirates (as members of the gentry). Pirate Captains needed to be skilled in naval combat, interpersonal skills, leadership, and other skills relating to raiding, theft, and seafaring leaving little time to focus on skills unnecessary to their general lifestyle.

Where the Heir Goes, The Guards Follow or Lead: A noble’s guards are never far away, they travel in packs and it’s their job to defend their master from harm. Getting through them to the protectee isn’t easy and the protectee is unlikely to thank you if you do.

Swords are made for killing: intentions are great, but swords are made for killing. The better the opponent, the less likely the option of not killing. With faster weapons, it becomes very easy to kill accidentally or a wound may become infected leading to death.

Think Leia, Not Gossip Girl: I didn’t actually throw this one out there in the above, but personality wise, you’re better off looking at Princess Leia (especially Leia from A New Hope) as opposed to modern day rich girls like Blaire Waldorf and Serena Vanderwoodsen. Think about Leia’s response to Han and Luke’s rescue attempt on the Death Star, particularly the part where she takes charge and shoots the Stormtroopers. Feisty yes, but also intelligent and capable of taking care of herself. They provide her with the opportunity to escape, but she’s more than able to act for herself when the moment comes and patient enough withstand the indignities and torture inflicted on her by Vader and Tarkin to wait it for it. She’s also all business once she gets out and is much better at providing direction than the boys are at finding it.

In short, he’s dead.

A solution: as fun as the concept of the Princess and the Pirate is most of your problems could be solved by removing the heir part from the equation. If writing a lazy layabout who isn’t interested in real work is your angle with this character then it’s best to go with a member of the family who has the unfortunate luxury of being a strain on finances simply by virtue of their birth. The third child or a bastard the Father/Mother/Family Head refuses to get rid of who gets all the privileges, none of the responsibility, and who the family doesn’t care enough about to take an active interest in their protection or their training will have a much better shot of doing what you want without all the messy complications. They also have a much, much better shot of being in a place where they and the pirate will actually cross paths. Younger children have a much higher likelihood of leaving the country to seek their fortunes or being in less savory places. (Do not have the pirate break into their house, homefield advantage is huge and estates/castles are designed to be deathtraps for invaders. Don’t do it, you can’t have a fight there without drawing twenty or more guards.)

A solution to the sword problem: they’re drunk. Your character is at a low point in their life, they’re in a bar feeling their failure, and they’re drunk when they challenge the pirate. This gives the pirate the luxury to feel sorry for them, you can subtly handicap their actual skill level, and give them the opportunity to grow as a person and a combatant without jeopardizing all the advantages a noble has access to.

Some Reading Suggestions/Historical Figures:

Julie La Maupin: The life of Julie La Maupin could quite literally fill any swashbuckling novel to rival the tales of Alexandre Dumas, her stories however have the advantage of being real. This brash, deadly, bisexual cross-dressing swashbuckler bucked the times and society to carve her own way in 1600s France.

Gurps: Swashbucklers, Roleplaying In The World of Pirates and Musketeers: The Gurps books tend be great reference material and this one is a great overview of everything you need to write about pirates and swashbucklers. It covers the history surrounding pirates and musketeers, the notable historical figures, the socio-political climates of the times, and pretty much everything else you’re going to need to build your setting.

The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas. While not a book about pirates, this novel (and the others by Dumas) will be helpful for getting into the frame of mind to write about swashbucklers and nobles. It gets closer to a period when the nobility was still considered relevant and treats them that way.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy (1903), the foundation for superhero literature and secret identities, this is the novel that inspired Zorro and subsequently Batman. It follows the adventures of wealthy Sir Percy Blakeney in his adventures rescuing individuals sentenced to death by the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. In England, Percy presents himself as a dim fop to throw off suspicion that he (along with a band of merry friends) is the Scarlet Pimpernel, daring escape artist, master swordsman, and outside the box thinker. If nothing else, it’s a fun adventure novel read.

The Errol Flynn Collection: The Seahawk and Captain Blood especially, but I suggest a general review of the Golden Age Swashbuckling films.

The Mask of Zorro, The Count of Monte Cristo, anything with fight scenes choreographed by Bob Anderson for the spectacular sword work which may give you ideas.

Wikitenaur: pretty much the best resource for historical fighting manuals if you want to go outside modern fencing to get ideas for your fight scenes. You will have to slog through some older language, some of the manuals come with plates and translations. Others don’t.

Get a manual on fencing. Even if you don’t plan to take up fencing yourself, a manual for beginners will be helpful for getting the basic ideas and terminology down.

While I wouldn’t recommend Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag for it’s historical accuracy (cringeworthy, especially the way it messes with and reduces the awesomeness of some very incredible historical figures) or it’s combat accuracy (also cringeworthy), it’s ship combat is a lot of fun and may help you get into the right mood for when it comes to the fun side of pirates. This depends if you want to shell out for the price tag. The same is true of Pirates of the Caribbean. Decide what pirate theme you’re going with, compare Jack Sparrow with Peter Blood for reference and do some research into historical figures to help you with your captain. If you’re doing a gender equal setting, feel free to research and export the considerations for male nobility onto your female noble.

Have fun!

-Michi

This might speak to my ability to focus while reading, but I have always found fight sequences in writing to be very difficult to follow. Do you have any tips on writing fights in a way that doesn’t leave a reader wondering how the result actually happened? Whenever I write something blow by blow, my reader is unable to follow the fight in a way that makes sense to them.

Writing fight sequences is very difficult and a great many of them can be incredibly difficult to follow. Below, I’ve posted some of our older articles that may be helpful to you. But here are the important points:

1) Be Clear and Concise.

This is a standard writing skill that we must all master sooner or later, but it’s incredibly important for fight sequences because you don’t actually have a lot of time. For the reader, the fight happens as they read it so it’s important to stay on point and not get caught up in too much irrelevant description or dialogue. Pithy one liners can be great, but not if they come at the expense of the scene or reader understanding. For the reader to know what’s happening, you have to know what’s happening and be able to explain it in such a way that it can be easily understood.

2) If an action starts, it must also end

Try to break the body down into parts. The foot bone is connected to the ankle bone and all that. The fingers must curl to create a fist, the foot must lift off the ground for a kick. Motion begins somewhere and it must stop somewhere else (whether or not the technique connects), you have a starting point and an ending point. The more complicated the technique the more necessary clarity becomes because you have to talk in three dimensions within a two dimensional space. This is part of why I recommend studying movie and television fight scenes, going and watching martial arts practices, etc beyond just reading books. Reading fight scenes will help you a lot on the technical side, but not as much if you haven’t already started to put together an image of how different parts of the body work together to create the image you’re absorbing. This will involve breaking the scene apart and down into pieces, once you understand how the pieces work together then you can build a better scene.

3) Limit yourself before you start

It’s easy to get distracted or just have the scene keep going into infinity. If your fight scene runs for pages and pages (as opposed to being different fights strung together across pages), you might be going on for too long. Limit yourself to a paragraph or even just a few sentences, challenge yourself to portray the image in a very small amount of time. You’ll find you’re divesting yourself of a lot of extras you liked but didn’t actually need.

4) Figure Out the Point of the Scene

The point of the scene is never the fight itself, even if the fight is the culmination of the themes of the entire book. Fighting is never without risk. Your characters are risking their bodies, their health, their lives, possibly their own personal goals for something. What is that something? Why are they doing it? What are they risking? What will this cost them? If your character is on a quest to rid the world of a great evil and they are the only one who knows, the only one who can stop it, then do they really have any business inserting themselves between two characters about to start a bar brawl? This happened in Weis & Hickman’s Amber and Ashes with their main character Rhys. Rhys is a monk and according to his vows he has an obligation to stop the brawl, but he’s also the only person who knows about the Death God Chemoth’s vampire cult. The sequence of him stopping the brawl puts the tension on Rhys a as a character, asking questions about his willingness to stay true to his obligations even when he’s broken with his order and abandoned his god. What he’d risking in engaging is his ability to continue the course he’s set himself on and his investigation into Chemoth’s vampire cult. It triples up to act as a statement for who Rhys is and what he believes. Even though he disagreed and broke faith with his god he still holds true to the tenants of his beliefs, still acts as a monk even if he isn’t one.

Clarity is important, but it’s not what gives the actions your characters take meaning. Tension is created through risk, through challenging your characters, and through clearly establishing the results if they fail. If the reader doesn’t understand the risk, the enemy, the consequences, why it’s important, and why they’re doing this, then it’s difficult for them to follow the scene.

Below are some of our older articles that may help you.

The Importance of Word Choice

Seven Deadly Fight Scene Sins

Cause and Effect: Fight Scene Examples

Writing Violence: Developing Characters

Writing Violence: Cause and Effect

Writing Violence: Pacing

Writing Examples: Sizing Up Opponents (Assassins)

Five Simple Ways to Write Convincing Fight Scenes

Happy Writing!

-Michi

My MC is learning Judo from her aunt and a knife/street fighting style from a friend. When she becomes proficient in both, would the styles mix at all? Would she be more likely to keep the separate, or mix them when appropriate or whatever is best for her stature/strength?

You’ve got a real problem here and it’s that traditional martial arts like Judo and the “street fighting” styles don’t mix at all. Martial arts each come with their own personal philosophies and ideologies, there’s an inherent outlook that changes how a student perceives the world around them as they train. This is why the advice is always to learn one martial art at a time, build a strong base and then expand your knowledge. If the student is presented with two conflicting world views, they will struggle and inevitably become subpar compared to their fellows. This is especially true of Judo, which is a Japanese martial form like Jiu-jutsu and Aikido, which draws its philosophy from Bushido. It’s a disciplined, even rigid, style of training and it requires an unquestioning obedience from its students in the beginning. We simply do, we do not question why. Understanding comes through the process of doing and the answers you seek will be discovered in time, be patient. Patience, acceptance of the natural order, unquestioning obedience to authority, and rigid discipline are going to be an important part of your MCs training in Judo. Traditional martial arts is big on learning the technique first and figuring out/discussing the application later. Thus, the process of learning is much slower though the student arguably turns out the better for it in the end. This doesn’t mean the experience is joyless or all serious, in the hands of a good instructor it’s actually a lot of fun, but it is a completely different and incompatible outlook from conventional street fighting.

Comparatively, training in “street fighting” generally revolves around beating the ever living crap out of each other until there’s only one left standing. The one left standing is a badass. “I’m so tough, I don’t need to train” is the usual refrain. The only time your conventional backyard brawler is going to go out looking for training (or think they need it) is after they’ve been beaten to a bloody pulp. This is where we get characters like Buffy, by the way, where training becomes a means of working out aggression or something they do when they feel they need it instead of a consistent form of self-improvement. A good example of street fighter training is, ironically, Fight Club. The novel actually does an exceptional job of illustrating the sort of mindset that creates. “Street fighting” knife combat training would be to shove a live knife in your MCs hand, kick them into the arena, and have them fight for their life. First lesson: don’t die. End lesson. If they survive: rinse, lather, repeat. No other lessons needed. It’s a high to be sure, but ultimately the actively aggressive mindset will get them into a lot of trouble.

Your MC’s focus is going to be on all the wrong things and they are going to end up seriously confused. Also, subpar and ineffective. A decent, though not entirely accurate, comparison would be Jedi versus Sith. They’re going to have to choose one or the other and they can’t do both at the same time. Finally, much like in Star Wars, the learning curve with the Jedi begins very slow but will rapidly outpace Sith training by the end. Street fighting is ultimately a “feel good” flat progression where Judo is consistent and continual improvement. Modern Judo is a sport form and it doesn’t translate well (straight up) into street combat, but it has been adapted into several different self-defense forms and has a focus in Police (U.S.) hand to hand. Martial arts communities often have close ties to both the Police and the Military, sharing students and knowledge between them. Your MC’s aunt is actually in a good position to hand her niece off to learn real world application and strategy for the techniques she already knows from a professional combatant in the community. (It’s probably a retired or active police officer.) She’d be better served (and safer) learning “knife fighting” from them.

There’s another way to do this and have it all work together without the general confusion. Let me start by talking about martial arts families.

You’ve got two choices with your MC’s aunt for how she started training your MC.

1) When your MC became a teenager, she fell in with a bad crowd. She never really had an interest in the martial arts or her aunt, who is either a distant figure or an inactive one in her life. She knows her in passing, but not much more than that. However, she’s become a problem and her parents want to see her straightened out (especially if she nearly died in an underground knife fighting tourney). They hand her off to this aunt for training, to get her the discipline she needs to figure out her life. In this set up, the aunt is best off as both a Judo master and a burned out cop. She can combine brutal real world practicality with strict discipline and becomes an important mentor figure to our troubled youth, one whose secondary plot is to overcome her own crisis of faith and come out of her shell. It’s a standard movie plot, troubled youth finds sense of purpose while their mentor becomes reinvigorated. From The Karate Kid to Finding Forrester, it’s an oldie but it works really well. Your character starts with street fighting and finds meaning, structure, and purpose in Judo.

2) The MC’s aunt has been an important part of their life for as long as they can remember. Like so many real world martial arts instructors, they served as an active babysitter and began training their niece in the martial arts before they could toddle. By the time she was three, your MC had learned the proper hold position on the gi and could “throw” her aunt across the room. (The aunt did most of the work, but the sentiment is real.) In fact, the MC has many family videos detailing herself as a small, giggling child performing techniques for a live audience. Always the favorite, she’s been held up as a gold standard for other students at her Judo school for most of her life. Martial arts and the martial arts community were part of her life from the beginning, she can’t remember a time before. (Search kids and martial arts, you’ll find plenty of videos documenting this behavior. I will attest to it, I’ve known too many professional martial artist uncles and aunts who do this. It’s free babysitting and daycare for the parents, so they don’t usually say no.) But, martial arts has always been something of a game and a hobby, so much a part of our young MCs life that she never thought to question it. That is, until in an attempt to test her limits, she ran across a street fighting crowd and got her ass handed to her. (A charismatic handsome boy or pretty girl, depending on your MCs sexual preferences should fit in here because this group represents a sexual awakening as well as a philosophical questioning. It’s part of growing up.)

Enter the Crisis of Faith, everything your MC thought was true about herself (her combat proficiency, her sense of superiority, her personal philosophy, etc) has been challenged and she must ask herself if her aunt was wrong this whole time. If her whole life and what she knows to be true about the world has been a lie. (It’s not, but this is the key question we all must ask ourselves as we transition from childhood to adulthood.) Wanting to test your own limits, to navigate the confusing politics and philosophy of application of force, to know if what you’ve learned as absolute truth has meaning and value, to ask “can I really defend myself in a real fight?” is a natural part of learning martial arts especially from a young age. The answer, with traditional martial arts, is actually no. Not because Judo doesn’t has application as a self-defense form but because that isn’t the focus of traditional Judo or even a part the training may cover. This is why she gets beaten, this is why she fails, not because the training itself is worthless but because that’s not what the training was training her to do (it does however lend her the keys to sort her way out of the mess). To get the answers she needs, she’ll have to seek answers somewhere else. This is where the street fighting comes in to present a seductive conflicting philosophy to the one she’s known all her life. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be this hard, maybe I don’t have to be so rigidly disciplined, this feels good. I feel powerful.”  (If you’re going to go this route I recommend reading both Fight Club and Divergent with an eye on the idea that beating someone else up feels really good, even getting beaten on and standing back up can feel good, but is it actually good? Is this an appropriate use of force? Divergent won’t ask that question, so you’ll have to ask it.)

Our heroine is drawn deeper and deeper into this dark mess, drawn away from her family and their stabilizing influence. Something bad happens, the fun and games go too far, she goes too far, and she’s left having to reconcile the two together. Maybe she goes back to her aunt, maybe her aunt hands her off to a burned out cop to sort her out and learn real world application. I don’t know, it could go a lot of different ways.

Some Real Talk:

Some of you may be going: did you just use street fighting as a drug metaphor? I did because that’s exactly what it is. “Street fighters” (the “safe” ones anyway) are getting high on adrenaline. It’s not a high the same way cocaine is, but it is addicting though the addiction is more psychological and emotional than physical. When we look at “conventional” street fighting (as opposed to the upper echelons of criminal street fighting) that’s essentially what it is. The training sequences in Divergent aren’t really Tris becoming a crazy badass, but they are actually a pretty good reference to what actual street fighter “training” looks like and even feels like. Stupid kids bouncing off the walls and playing with dangerous toys. It’s dangerous, stupid, wasteful, and they’re not actually learning anything. They’re just daredevils looking for their next adrenaline rush. Druggies getting high. Feeling good versus being good. Feeling powerful versus being powerful. And that’s the thing. Tris feels good, she feels powerful but as much as the novel would like me to believe she is, she’s really not (in hand to hand) because she never spent any time actually learning. Surprisingly, you don’t actually learn much from getting beat up or beating up other people.

This doesn’t mean street fighters aren’t dangerous, they are because of the confidence, the aggression, and the willingness to use what they know. This is especially true when a street fighter is paired with a gun or a knife because the necessary skill level to use the weapon effectively decreases and their ability to do mortal harm (even accidentally) significantly increases. If there’s one thing a street fighter knows how to do, it’s how to take the initiative, and if they can get in first and fast, the fight will go in their favor. This will put them ahead of most conventional martial artists, especially if those martial artists have never prepared themselves or gotten training for dealing with the street.

Conventional martial artists require a few changes in perspective before they can really start using what they know as a form of self-defense. However, if they survive to get that change in perspective then they have the potential to become much, much more dangerous than the average street fighter.

Of course, I’m working off the assumption that your street fighters are stupid teenagers. If they’re criminally savvy gang members, cartel, or other criminal elements (even retired) who can go toe to toe with cops then it’s a whole different ballgame. I advise against it (not just because the price for joining criminal organizations can be exceptionally high for women and they tend to skew pretty misogynist anyway) mostly because that sort of training isn’t free. If a criminal is teaching your character something, it’s because they’re making an investment and that investment is going to pay off… one way or another. However, what they’re teaching your character to do will align better with their own history of martial training. At this point, we’ve moved beyond conventional “street fighting” and into quasi-military type training.

Teenagers and Fight Clubs, on the other hand, will give what they know away for free (provided you can survive the initiation) and while walking away isn’t easy, it’s ultimately less messy. (Your friends and family are all dead kind of messy.)

The Chauvinism and Misogyny Tango:

The other side of the street fighting/martial arts dichotomy is this: the chauvinism and misogyny tango. Because of the way it draws on more, erm, primal urges, street fighting tends to have a clear break down in the perceptions between boys and girls. Boys fight boys and girls fight girls. All things are not equal and, like with some gangs, girls may end up being “property” or “trophies”. “Girls can kick butt too!” will end with other girls because the general cultural assumption that girls can’t take on boys will be in play. Even if your MC can take on the boys, she’ll still be relegated to her status as “girl”.

This is why I recommend looking at Fight Club because the misogyny you get out of the book is a pretty typical.

For a character who grew up in a situation where women fighting isn’t even a question and are obviously equal to men, this is going to come as a bit of a shock. If not as a hard, sharp slap across the face.

Knife Fighting and Judo aren’t about stature or strength, it’s all about control:

Trained knife combat is all about surgical precision, speed, and careful control. Untrained knife fighting is all about flailing wildly at your opponent and stabbing first. It’s a knife, your chances are usually good you’ll hit something vital, especially if you aim for the torso. I really recommend going through Michael Janich’s Martial Blade Concept videos on Youtube. Really. They’re snippets of his larger program but it’s all about basic knife fighting and practical advice about what you’re likely to encounter on the street. This is self-defense with a knife and it’s meant more for police than for the average untrained person, but his videos are a good resource. “Street fighting” knife combat isn’t going to look like this though. Knife fighting isn’t really fancy. Unless, I guess, your character uses a balisong.

Judo isn’t about physical strength and neither is jiu-jutsu nor aikido. If you try to base your throws around upper body strength alone, you will hurt yourself. Thousands of students make this mistake every year, the long line of strained backs and spinal injuries are all the evidence we really need. Judo is all about balance, mobility and stability, proper application of force, evasion, etc. It relies on body mechanics, an understanding of rotational forces, and destabilizing an opponent’s base. It’s not about size. Smaller individuals actually have an advantage in judo because they are closer to the ground and, regardless of size, women with their lower center of gravity (bequeathed by skeletal structure and fat distribution) are actually well-suited to this martial style. On the other hand, large opponents tend to be overly reliant on their size and strength.

Pick up Wally Jay’s Small-Circle Jujitsu as his work has had a lasting effect on the modern American self-defense.

If your character is interested in not killing people, they are more likely to keep the knife sheathed and transition to it if they have to. Most of the basic hand to hand techniques they know may require two hands anyway and if they get jumped they’re not going to have time to pull their knife anyway.

Have fun!

-Michi

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has actually written a few interesting essays on how to design magic systems. Sanderson’s laws are generally summarized as: 1) An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. 2) The limitations of a magic system should be greater than the powers of said magic system, and 3) Expand what you already have before you add something new. Thought you’d find this interesting!

Thank you! I find different magical systems fascinating.

-Michi

I’m playing around with the idea of a world were music is magic and can manipulate the world based on genre, meter, major/minor tonality, etc. I’m having troubles describing music in action, as a physical tangible thing rather than just sound, especially in duel sequences where two musicians are facing off. I have a basic idea of what I want done with it so I’m not asking for it to be done for me (I know that’s a no-no) but any and all input is awesome and much appreciated. Thanks for your time!

Well, music isn’t really our forte so I don’t know how much help we’ll be there.

All jokes aside, one of the best series I’ve seen using music as a form of magic is L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Spellsong Cycle, starting with The Soprano Sorceress. It’s a fantasy setting that takes place in the land of Erde and follows the adventures of Anna Marshall, a fifty year old singer taken from our world on the day of her daughter’s funeral by means of an unlucky wish. Once in Erde, she becomes a sorceress of great power. Modesitt’s work can be a bit of a slog and these aren’t his best. You might not enjoy them as a reader, but his strength is his world building and as a writer of fantasy you shouldn’t skip him.

There’s a lot of good thinking in the novel. One of them is that it is difficult, if not impossible, for sorcerers to perform together as a duet because the chance of something going wrong is too high. Multiple voices together create more power but it relies on perfect synchronization that is nearly impossible to achieve with complex melodies. However, one warlord does manage to achieve this through hundreds of voices chanting together in an army.

The magic works through a combination of lyrics, visualization, and musical accompaniment usually through a single instrument. A truely skilled Sorcerer cannot just be a singer, they must also be a songwriter and composer. However, some get by memorizing songs and melodies from hearing them. Sorcerers and Sorceress are always singers, but to achieve greater power they need the support of other musicians often in the form of an orchestra. This forces the Sorceress to put a great deal of trust in the skill of her followers because a single mistake could be catastrophic for herself and the other musicians. The result is in setting is that most Sorcerers prefer to work alone without accompaniment. Because their magic takes a great deal of concentration, they also need to be protected in combat from attacking forces.

The sorcerer is also limited by what they know or what they can remember/make up on the spot. The use of magic takes a lot of energy, a Sorceress must eat constantly or they risk burning through their own body.

The setting also used two different kinds of magic: Darksong and Clearsong. The definitions are simplistic, but become complex in application. Darksong affects things that are alive or were once alive, growing plants in a garden for example would be Darksong. However, so would raising the dead and compulsion spells that enforce loyalty. Clearsong affects the non-living or what was never alive, this includes command of the elements, but also building infrastructure like roads or castles.

Both come with their flaws because of it’s easier, Darksong’s are greater. Darksong is easy to cast in the beginning, but over time it becomes more difficult causing double vision and violent headaches. It acts a little like an allergy, the more you do it, the more violent the reaction. Eventually, it will kill the sorcerer.

The Clearsong flaw is: matter cannot be created from thin air, it has to come from somewhere. If you’re going to create roads, you need stone and if that stone is not provided then the magic will find it for you. This means it could come from somewhere safe like a quarry or take it from the ground, shifting the landscape and causing a natural disaster or from a nearby village. It’s also pure destruction, if the sorcerer wants to resolve the situation without bloodshed, they need Darksong or they have to rely on others to do the fighting.

The series covers the effects of how this can affect the socio-political factors of the world. His work also does a good job of combining feminist themes with feudal worlds and handling different ways sexism can assert itself when dealing with a powerful woman.

It’s worth taking a look at for ideas, not just for magic but in how that magic affects the politics, the environment, and the balance of power.

-Michi

I’ve been seeing a lot lately people reiterating the detriments of having a story with no “conflict.” And now, it’s extremely hard to write, like walking through sludge, because always at the back of my mind is it can’t just be a love story, there has to be more, which makes me want to add trauma just to have the necessitated conflict. Any suggestions to help or alleviate the problem? Thank you!

Conflict comes in many different forms and it doesn’t have to be tragic to be effective. When discussing conflict, we tend to over emphasize the dramatic like a death in the family or the end of the world. But the truth is your story doesn’t need car chases or gun fights to be interesting and exciting. Nobody needs to discover they have cancer or only twelve months to live. No family members need to die. Your hero doesn’t have to punch out a wannabe rapist at the bar to save his girlfriend.

Conflict is integral to a story, but we sometimes assume conflict always means drama. Conflict can just as easily be two best friends growing apart when they go to college, how this separation affects them and how they deal with this new tension as they explore their adult selves is a perfectly valid form of conflict. The conflict at the heart of Sophie Kinsella’s fantastically hilarious Can You Keep A Secret? is a character struggling with their fear of rejection if they tell the truth, if they can’t pretend everything is just fine. When Emma tells all her secrets in a fit of tipsy panic to a stranger on the plane, only to later discover he’s the CEO of her company, she starts a journey that makes her question whether or not she really is happy and a lesson in the importance of honesty with the people she cares about most. The brilliant part of Emma’s journey is that it extends well beyond her new love interest or her falling in love, it affects her entire life from her best friend Lissy, to her work friends, to the secrets of her own unhappiness that she’s been keeping from her family.

The truth is while falling in love can be very exciting and there is more than enough potential conflict there to satisfy a novel, it has also been very well documented. If your having trouble, it might be time to set aside conflict with the main characters and start thinking about subplots with natural conflict between the main characters and their friends. This may or may not have anything to do with the main characters’ potential relationship, they may involve personal issues that they can help each other through or become a source of comfort for.

Trauma just for drama is never the way to go. Trauma needs to be meaningful to the narrative, in how it affects the characters and the plot. Trauma that comes from nowhere is bad, trauma that is build up slowly throughout the story has a chance at being effective.

Sorry it took so long to get back to you on this, life has us a little swamped.

-Michi

To the teenager question – I have multiple characters that undergo the same environment where they are trained to fight and defend. They are all treated with the same harsh conditions since childhood, however, I want each character to have their own defined personality. Is that possible?

Of course it is. Even when raised in similar circumstances, people relate and respond to events differently. Not everyone is the same, not everyone has the same level of natural talent, not everyone will develop the same set of social skills, and some children will be more likely to develop natural leadership skills.

Some kids will buy into and believe in what they are being taught, others may become more skeptical over time. Some will rebel, though the strength of their rebellions will depend on the limits they are placed under, and others will toe the line. You’ll get the ones who are intelligent enough to ask questions and the ones who are so intelligent that they know asking questions is a bad idea.

There’s a myriad of possible personalities and the way to discover them is to sit down and work with your characters. Think about how each would respond to a specific situation, how does what X might say differ than Y? The differences may be subtle, but even slightly different phrasing or tone can indicate a different response. Think about the adults and minor characters, what do they think about your individual characters? Someone’s probably fallen behind in their training, maybe someone got caught daydreaming. Who do they like? Who causes trouble? Do different adults have different opinions on who their favorites are? Do the troublemakers cause violent or non-violent trouble? Do they aim for high risk targets like the teachers and older, more dangerous students or ones who can’t fight back like the serving staff and younger kids?

One may be talented and hard working, everyone probably hates them because they make them look bad. One will probably be talented but lazy, they may have at least a few toadies. There’s going to be at least one who is on the outside looking in.

These are just a few suggestions. Just sit down with your setting, with the characters in them, and start thinking through what happens there. Not in the context of the greater plot, but in small moments, the day to day minutia. What do they do? What hobbies do they have? Who looks after them and takes care of them? Are they raised in a barracks, did they ever have or will ever have some sort of fostering system? Mentor program when they finally come of age and have to choose a profession? Who took care of them when they were babies?

Soldiers in the military have different specializations and roles, maybe one of your kids is being groomed for command while their friend is about to get shuffled off to logistics. Even within a very specific range, these kids will eventually have to develop specialties. Things will change for them and how they respond to those changes and challenges both during their training and when they encounter what they’ve been trained to do will be what defines them.

Always give your characters a chance to tell or show you who they are. Once you’ve settled the sameness of their circumstances, then you can define their differences.

-Michi