Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: Bailing OUt

I’m not really sure if this is your specialty or not, but I was wondering about the plausibility of jumping from a moving train (think an older steam engine, not the almost too fast modern Asian trains). I think if it’s rounding a bend, it’ll have to slow down and make the jump easier, no?

There’s a number of factors here, but this should be survivable under, at least some, circumstances. Some of this stuff also applies for bailing out of a modern car, or any other vehicle really.

From what I know, the maximum survivable speed you can bail out at is around 25-35mph. More than that, and you’re going to be suffering some pretty serious injuries on impact, even if you do this perfectly, simply because of the relative speeds. 35mph is also the lower end of the cruising speed of a 19th century steam locomotive. So, these do barely intersect.

Leaping from a vehicle safely depends on a couple additional factors. A soft landing point is ideal, and really anything that can blunt the initial impact is important. (Padded clothing is a huge boon here.) Leaping away from the vehicle so that you’re not clipped (or crushed) is vital. Keeping your limbs close to your body, so that you don’t break them on impact is also important. This means resisting the instinct to use your arms to break your fall. Obviously if the vehicle is above 30mph, trying to find a way to slow it is also on the list.

Depending on the train and tracks, sharper bends will force a train to slow down, so, that part does work in your favor. Note that phrase: “Depending on the train and tracks.” It’s entirely possible to have a bend in the rails designed to be taken at cruising speed. The relevant factor is how much the train has to turn. The maximum speed for a given bend is dependent on a lot of factors including: The weight and length of the cars, and the train as a whole, the coupling used, the width of the track, the track’s grade, and adverse weather conditions. For example, heavy cargo cars cannot take bends as easily as lighter passenger cars. Even then, on a sharp curve, the train will have to slow down. Depending on the rails and the cars, it’s possible it could slow down to as low as 5 to 10mph. Jumping off at those speeds would be completely survivable, assuming nothing horrific happened.

You’re also correct, you can’t jump from a bullet train and live. These are, specifically, designed to keep their speed up, even while turning. Technically, they will bleed speed to turn, but it’s still several times above survivable thresholds.

In the US and Candada, diesel passenger trains run around 80-90mph outside of urban areas. (Amusingly, the Canadian train system never converted to metric, so miles is correct.) I know there’s reduced speed limits in urban areas, but don’t know what that is exactly. Additionally, different tracks may have their own posted speed limits, and those limits can be affected by severe weather, or other temporary factors. This puts the train’s velocity well above survivable bail out speeds, even on most curves.

One problem that does come to mind is the idea of bailing from a runaway train. That’s not going to be survivable in most circumstances. A character who’s being held captive on a train with an engineer who’s being mostly responsible has options, however a train careening out control will, almost certainly, be going too fast to safely bail out of.

Incidentally, trains in the New York City subway system move at an average of around 17mph. While jumping out of one is still an incredibly bad idea, because of all the risks associated with being around a moving train, that is a survivable speed. NYC’s transit system is infamous for how slow it is, however. Some other metros will be slow enough to allow someone to bail, but you’d need to look up the city in question if you’re wanting a specific answer.

So, yes, you can jump from a moving train and live, if you know what you’re doing, and it’s not going too fast.

-Starke

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Q&A: Pacifism

Are pacifist characters (or those who can fight but don’t wish to kill anyone, directly or indirectly) always fated to die in war or situations where people are trying to kill them? Or, a better question, do they always have to learn to fight/kill in the end? I’ve seen a few shows where the character who doesn’t want to kill is forced to in order to live and I wondered if there was another way to handle that kind of character arc in a way that is interesting and affirms their pacifism.

They’re not anymore doomed than anyone else in a warzone.

The thing about an individual in a war zone: you cannot solve the war through violence. You really can’t even ensure your own safety through violence. Violence becomes a tool to ensure temporary safety for yourself or others, but it’s not a permanent solution, and it’s not the only option. In most cases, it’s not even a good option, simply the most obvious. Your character can’t fight off a squad of armed soldiers by themselves. Violence, in that context, is a trap. To quote Obi-Wan, “you can’t win, but there are alternatives to fighting.”

Obviously, if your character is a soldier, things are going to be a little different. They’re expected to fight and kill their enemies, and could face real consequences for not doing their job. This doesn’t mean there’s no place for stories about a pacifistic soldier, (there are stories on this subject) but, it will require more creativity. This could be someone in a support role, like a medic or chaplain, or it could be a “conscientious objector,” which would be viewed as cowardice or dereliction of duty by many of their peers.

Ironically, if you want a show about characters in a war who are unwilling to fight, MASH is not a bad reference.

Characters, much like real people, hold convictions. They have beliefs or rules that they follow as a personal code. That’s true to life, real people do the same thing. Pacifism is one of these things, and many people do embrace it to some degree.

With that in mind, there’s three different facets you need to remember. These apply for characters, as well as real people. There’s who your character is, there’s who your character tells other people they are, and there’s who your character tells themselves they are.

The first should be self-explanatory. Characters exist; their experiences (should) shape who they are, and what they’re willing to do.

The second is similar, and should familiar from your life: People will tell you who they are. People lie; intentionally or not, who someone says they are may not completely mesh with who they actually are. This can be malicious, or unintentional. People misrepresent who they are all the time. Some of this is verbal, some of it’s body language, some is aesthetic.

The third is also something that happens, and we’ve all probably experienced it to some degree: the person you think you are doesn’t quite match to the person you are. This isn’t (necessarily) a personal failing. In its most inoffensive form, there’s an idealized version of ourselves that we strive to be, and the reality doesn’t always reach those goals. Conversely, someone can be their own worst critic; no one knows your failings better than you; and some people flagellate themselves over the smallest mistakes.

Picking over the distinction between who someone sees themselves as, and who they actually are, can be a goldmine for dramatic material. There’s a lot to work with when you take a character and force them to confront themselves. This works in either direction.

I’m bringing this up because the convictions you say you hold may not be the ones you do hold. They may not be as strong as you believe. So, when you say, “I’d never harm another human being,” that’s a valid statement, but it can also be a difficult one to uphold. When you put a character in a situation that really tests that conviction, it’s possible that their pacifism was conditional. It wasn’t, really, “I’d never kill someone,” it was, “I’d never kill someone except to save another life,” or, “I’d never kill, unless they harmed me or someone I cared about.” This can provide solid fodder for forcing that character to confront themselves, and come to a realization about who they really are. However, many writers use that as an excuse to outright jettison an inconvenient character trait, or as a “one-off” event that won’t be repeated, without provoking any self-reflection from that character.

Self-confrontation can be very difficult to write. It requires that you, as the author, has a solid grasp on the discrepancies in how your character views themselves, what they’ve exposed about themselves, and how that affects their self-identification. This not stuff you can just fake through, you need to do some serious thinking before writing it. (Or, at least, before rewriting it. No one’s rough draft is perfect, and stumbling through this stuff in early drafts is entirely forgivable.)

There’s another, very specific, variant of this scenario. The “pacifist,” isn’t, they don’t (intentionally) present themselves as one, they simply avoid violence as much as possible. The reveal later is that they’re actually hyper-competent, and have been seeking to avoid, or minimize, violence up to that point. There’s, actually, some real world validity to this as well.

If you have experience with violence, you’ll learn this stuff is extremely unpleasant, and violence does have a way of spiraling out of control. Secondary, and tertiary consequences are a thing, and someone who’s lived this could be much more reticent about escalating a fight when the other people around them will pay. If you don’t have the context for who someone is, that could be mistaken for pacifism.

While I’m hesitant to recommend it, a good example of a characters misidentifying someone as a conditional pacifist (of the, “I don’t use guns,” flavor) is The Rundown (2003). Dwayne Johnson’s character is unwilling to carry or use guns. However, every time he sees one, you get an early 2000s effects shot zooming in on the thing. Turns out (and this isn’t really a spoiler, because of context), he really does know what he’s doing with them. He’s unwilling to use them when he has other options because of the harm they cause. This isn’t a good movie, or particularly well written, but is an enjoyable action flick, and it does illustrate an example where that particular take on “pacifism” is done well.

A character can be a pacifist for purely pragmatic reasons. For example: if you have a thief, where violence will draw unwanted attention to their work, and make their job harder, they’re going to do what they can to avoid that. In cases like this, they’ll break their “pacifism” the moment it become a liability, and move back to it once the need has passed. This can be a very complex example, because it’s not based in some deeper philosophy, even if it could be mistaken for one.

So, can you write a character who really is a pacifist because they genuinely believe it and sticks to those beliefs? Yes, you can. It may require a lot of creativity at times, but it’s absolutely doable. There’s a lot of attention to characters where they present a belief, but don’t really hold to it. This is a cynical view of humanity. In realizing that not everyone is exactly who they say they are, the author has stepped back and said, “people suck.” Truth is, some people really can stick to their convictions. Being unwilling willing to engage in violence simply means finding solutions that don’t end in a bloodbath. This can be someone who’s trying to rebuild in an occupied city. It can be a religious leader who is willing to die for their beliefs before they’ll take another life. It could be a doctor who takes their Hippocratic oath very seriously.

There is nothing wrong with a person who looks at the world and says, “there’s too much violence and misery, I’m not going to add to it,” and try to make things better. That requires a lot of personal strength. It can be exhausting, particularly if the people around them are committed to inflicting further harm on one another. All of this tests their convictions. Some will fail, others will not. There’s a lot of potential material in picking your characters apart and, sometimes, realizing they were stronger than they knew.

-Starke

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Q&A: And Q and A

1) What type of martial arts would you recommend authors learn to write hand to hand combat? 2) Which type(s) apply best to understanding large battles? 3) Are there any styles that teach sword fighting?

One

Whatever you want. If you want to learn a martial art, pick one that interests you. Get your base of knowledge there. The things you learn will help you understand what you’re seeing when you look at other martial arts for your characters.

I frequently say that you need to tailor your character’s martial arts training to who they are. That’s still true, and if you’re writing a character with a specific background, you’ll need to know about their martial art, but that’s not the same as being proficient in it. Learn a martial art that interests you, and stick with it. It’ll take time, and it won’t be easy, but you’ll have a broader base of experiences to draw on when the time comes to write.

If you understand your martial art, and you can remember that different martial arts solve problems in different ways, you’ll be in a much better position to look at videos of someone and understand how to write that.

Two

None of the above. Martial arts are, “how you fight,” not how you command.

The best sources for learning about battlefield combat are history and, probably, tabletop war games. In a rare moment, I do not mean Warhammer here, I’m talking about things like Avalon Hill’s catalog of historical scenario games.

This may sound a little weird, but that kind of “simulation” war game does have value as a training tool, so (with a competent opponent) it will let you experiment with what does, and does not, work. Somewhat obviously, it does need to be tailored to the era you’re talking about. Games focused on Roman Legions will have limited applications when your setting is early modern, for example. That said, while niche, the strategy wargaming market is insatiable, so there is absolutely stuff out there that will fit your specific needs.

While wargaming will let you experiment, history will teach you what people tried, what worked, and what didn’t. It’s a vital component of this. There is a massive body of literature devoted to analyzing historical battles and the lessons learned.

If you’re asking about the experience of being on the ground in mass melee, then HEMA is probably the only martial art that will give you that experience in a safe environment.

Three

Yes.

Most Chinese martial arts, and some from other parts of south east Asian have sword forms. The overall structure is that you’ll learn the hand to hand components, and then move up to various weapon forms. It’s a holistic approach to combat training.

In Japanese martial arts, the sword is segregated off into separate martial arts: Kendo and Iaido. Just, for the record, this isn’t, “sword fighting,” it’s how you use a katana. That might sound like a minor distinction, but the katana has some serious design limitations that require special handling.

European martial arts did cover the use of swords, but most of those martial arts have been lost. What survives are training manuals. HEMA seeks to reconstruct those martial arts, but it’s not a perfect recreation. That said, HEMA will give you some historical context for sword combat, how that looked and felt.

Beyond that, fencing is an evolution from European sword martial arts, and there are a few examples like Polish Cross Cutting, which do survive to one degree or another, while mainstream fencing is an evolution from the lighter blades that came into fashion in the early modern era.

So, there are options, and this stuff is not interchangeable. If you’re looking at a pseudo-European fantasy setting, then Kendo isn’t going to work for what you want, you’ll want HEMA, Polish Cross Cutting, or to consult the surviving training manuscripts. Once you know the basics, understanding what you see elsewhere does become much easier.

So, learn what you want to start with, study actual battlefield warfare to understand how battles work, and then research the martial arts that would be appropriate for your characters. You don’t need to practice the same martial arts your characters would, but you do want a base to be able to understand their training.

-Starke

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Q&A: Self-Defense

Hi I was wondering what martial art or system would you recommend for someone interested in self-defence?

Self-defense. Okay, let me step back and explain that: Hand to hand combat training is, probably, the least important component to self-defense training. Nearly any practical martial art can provide that component. In the US, the most common self-defense style, is a strain of Judo adapted by American law enforcement in the mid-20th century.

So, what is important? Everything else. Self-defense is about managing your risks, learning how to look like an unappealing target, learning how to avoid exposing yourself to danger, and how to extract from a situation before things go wrong. The combat training is a last resort. Your goal is to get to safely unharmed, if that requires violence, then your hand-to-hand training matters.

I wish I could say that dojos that advertise, “self-defense” training are all on the level. Unfortunately, they’re not. A lot of schools will market themselves as teaching self-defense as part of their normal curriculum. When you’re dealing with sport/recreational martial artists, that’s going to have limited application in a live situation. In situations like this, your primary consideration is the pedigree of the instructors. People with a background where they’ve had to employ their training are going to be far better suited to train you.

When you do find specialists who teach self-defense, that’s (usually) going to be expensive. The irony is, the self-defense skill set is pretty easy to teach in a couple seminars, so these guys usually outright bypass the hand to hand elements and focus on the stuff that you can’t get from someone else.

The exception is police. Police use this stuff. As I mentioned at the beginning, their hand-to-hand training makes an excellent base for self-defense, because it offers a lot of options to neutralize your opponents without inflicting much harm. It’s tailor made for your needs. Most officers can offer hands on experience with how the hand to hand components work, and can offer vital insight in how to manage dangerous situations. When you have someone with a law enforcement background teaching you self-defense, you can be assured they’ve used this.

Now, I understand if you don’t like cops. I’ve had one bad experience with a member of the Washington State Patrol. This is the extreme minority for me, but if someone like that jackass was your introduction to police, I can understand looking at the entire profession with suspicion. However, getting past that for the moment, these are the experts, and in many cases they do offer classes which are either free to the public, or much cheaper than what you’d pay a self-defense specialist. They may offer training directly through the department, or it could be off site at a Y, youth center, or someplace similar.

So, with all of this in mind, the martial arts style doesn’t matter much. It’s a last resort anyway, but anything that will get you out of danger will do the job. The biggest component is never getting into the situation where you’d need it to begin with. Getting out safely is the real goal, this easiest if you get out before things turn violent. That’s self-defense.

-Starke

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Q&A: Be Careful of “Everyone”

Do soldiers or people who want to join the military usually look down on civilians in general as weak, or look down on disabled civilians who couldn’t join? I have encountered this from a few family members, unfortunately, and wanted to incorporate that experience into my novel, but I don’t know if this is common for former soldiers or if it’s more about age or some of my family members just being mean. What are your thoughts on this?

I think the best way to view the different branches of the Armed Services regarding their attitudes is that they all have their own cultures. The culture of each branch is based on their shared experiences, and those shared experiences do differentiate them from civilians who lack their background. Sometimes, this can result in an “us versus them mentality” among specific individuals but looking down on civilians as weak isn’t part of that culture. Regarding civilians as being unable to relate or understand their experiences is more on point. This is true to an extent, but it’s also true for every subculture from EMTs to police, to surgeons, and even Hollywood insiders.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly have difficulty relating to the story one of Starke’s friends told him about two Marines taking turns drinking from a bottle of liquor, zapping themselves with a light socket, and running headlong into a wall before switching places and repeating. I’m also just as sure after hearing that story a Marine would find nothing strange about it, and also cackle.

There are generational differences between the cultures. There’s a different culture among those who served in the past and are now civilians themselves versus those still serving. There’s a different sub-cultures among the officers and special forces than the general enlisted. Everyone agrees the Marines are weird, especially the Marines.

Now, the above doesn’t apply to the people who want to join the military. People who want to join the military and look down on people who don’t share their passion are fans. They’re not any different from any other fan out there. They aren’t part of the military culture or its rivalries yet. They want to be. They behave the way they imagine they should. They co-opt their beliefs about the military into their identity or use the identity to justify their own biases. Remember, though, it’s not just them. They’re not really any different or more special than the katana fans, the Krav Maga fans, Star Wars fans, or Naruto fans.

Personally, if you plan to write about anything to do with the military, I always recommend the more information on hand the better. Read web comics like Terminal Lance about daily life in the US Marine Corps, most of the US training manuals are actually available online which will give you insight into the thought processes of the people who wrote them. You may not enjoy or agree with the humor, but experiencing it can be instructive.

In my experience, I have several family members who served in the US Army. Neither my brother nor I were ever pressured by them about serving, or regarded as weak because we didn’t. My grandfather, who guarded General MacArthur’s family during WWII, celebrated when my father got out of the Vietnam draft due to a medical condition. Neither he nor my grandmother wanted my father to go to ‘Nam. My co-worker appreciates his time in the Navy, and he’d have liked to recommend his son join up. However, the Armed Services of today are very different from when he served. His son didn’t want the risk and he respects that.

The short answer is there are veterans who are assholes and veterans who aren’t. There are people who make their service too much a part of their identity, and feel they’re owed more than what they got. There are people who understand their service was their choice, who don’t resent others for choosing differently.

There’s never anything wrong with using your own life experiences for your novel. They’re yours, you should use them. All I’d caution you about is making the jump from “these people” otherwise known as your family members to a general perspective shared by everyone who ever served. Your family members aren’t alone in their attitudes, but theirs isn’t the only attitude that exists.

When following the everyone route, you run the risk of alienating readers who don’t share your experiences, even those who are willing to accept the perspective from a single character or in a story about a specific group of people. They stop short when you switch over into that perspective as ideological fact uniformly followed by everyone everywhere. Everyone everywhere is being intellectually lazy and that can impact the reader’s suspension of disbelief. While you don’t have to show those other perspectives, you want to practice leaving room in your narrative for a variety to exist.

-Michi

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Q&A: What The Value of a Good Education?

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: Since there’s a definite advantage, what DOES mean the difference between the training a Marine gets versus what a criminal gets? Experience and refinement, since the military has had so many years to figure out what’s effective versus the criminal who’s more or less starting from scratch? Focus, since the Marines are getting Actual Lessons versus the criminal’s just sort of learning on the job, as it were? Something else?

There’s a few basic problems in the way most media approaches violence which is what throws people who’ve never received any training off.

  1. There’s an assumption being good at violence comes from talent and not hard work.
  2. There’s an assumption that violence is not a skillset.
  3. There’s an assumption that if you’re good at one kind of violence, you’re good at all of them.

None of these are true.

Violence is like any other skillset. Education is king, and the quality of education you receive, as well as who you receive that education from, matters. Education opens up your possibilities, exposes you to new ideas, individuals, and experiences you might never have considered. It allows you to learn from others whose experiences are great than yours, and lets you learn from their success and their mistakes. In an organized system, you have a system backed by a few hundred years or more. This system is co-operative with multiple people working toward a singular goal. The value of this cannot be overstated, especially in the world of violence where everything changes with every new discovery.

In the US Armed Forces, training is updated every six months in response to newly developed counters, tactics, and strategies that upset the current status quo. We often view the military as stuck in its ways and, socially, that may be true. However, when it comes to developing new technologies, new fighting tactics, new strategies for a changing combat environment, they are on the cutting edge. They have access to the militaries of other countries, and are constantly adopting new techniques into their curriculum either from allies, guerrilla fighters, or from individuals while being stationed in foreign countries. A Marine’s hand to hand training pre-WWII and post-WWII are very different beasts. Every Marine today benefits from experiences gained by servicemen in previous eras. They learn from their successes and their failures.

Criminals don’t get training. Usually, they have to learn on the job and most of their additional education comes from other criminals while networking in prison. They can be very good at what they do, but the scope of that technique is limited. The chances they’ll have a general or even hand to hand skillset to back up their chosen specialization is low. If they have learned hand to hand, most of it comes from television, boxing lessons they had in high school, or what they’ve experienced from police or witnessed police use. They have fewer options, every weapon they learn how to use is on their own dime and based on what they can scrounge or barter from their local arms dealer. There is no coherent system, a low chance of mentoring, no real opportunities outside a limited pool, and even if you do get mentored, you’re at risk to be the fall guy.

The value and benefit of training cannot be overstated. If you ask someone who has had martial training what the value of training is, the first thought after staring at you in confusion is everything. You get everything from training. Training provides you with the building blocks, it provides you with your connections, it provides you with the scenarios where you can practice. Someone who is self-taught has no stances, they have no base and therefore no defense, they don’t know how to maximize the effectiveness of their punches, they probably can’t kick at all, they’re not particularly flexible, they may or may not have learned the value of cardio.

Self-taught criminals are very good at ambush tactics, but lose out in a protracted conflict. Why? They have nothing else and need nothing else. Ambush tactics are sufficient to deal with most people, including professionals (if you can catch them unawares). Criminals are better served by developing their social engineering, their ability to appear different than how they are, to blend in with society until the time comes to make their move.

Criminals and Marines have different approaches to violence because their goals are not the same. Criminals, especially assassins, have more in common with spies than they do soldiers. They don’t want to stand out from the crowd because when you appear suspicious, you’re a second away from getting caught.

I think there’s a perception among some writers that if you write a self-taught fighter, you get to skip having to learn about violence. You don’t have to dirty yourself by learning about government organizations or other groups whose perspectives and attitudes you may not like. You get some additional cache for beating the system. If you know nothing about violence, getting to skip the hassle of learning is definitely an attractive idea. Most of the authors whose novels I’ve read that had fighters who were “self-taught” took this route. The characters and the narrative suffered for it. All they really wanted was an excuse where they wouldn’t need to explain how their character knew or could do what they did.

Violence isn’t any different from acquiring any other type of skillset. Studying martial combat is just like studying basic mathematics, learning to speak a second language (or even your first language), or learning to read.

This question is a lot like asking, “what’s the value of high school?” or even just school in general. What do you learn in school that provides you with an advantage over people who’ve never been to school? What is the value of a good education?

-Michi

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Q&A: An Amateur Professional

Hi guys! I have a character who’s a dangerous criminal, highly proficient in hand-to-hand combat and using weapons (from knives to sniper rifles) just how realistic is it for him to win in a fight against a marine (who served for well over 5 years) and what points should I cover in their physical conflicts? Since one was professionally trained and the other (criminal) self-taught? With the criminal using underhanded tactics opposed to the marine who prefers “clean” fights?

It’s been awhile since I’ve come down on someone, but there’s a lot here:

Marines aren’t paladins. For all the jokes about Marines being idiots, they’re smart enough to treat combat seriously. This is their job, and they’ll (almost) always maintain a degree of professionalism about killing some John Wick wannabe.

Self-taught fighters suck. Combat is a skillset, like any other. You can learn on your own, but you’ll never be good enough to compete against someone with formal training. Combat’s a little different from most skills because, if you screw up and fail, you die. In case there’s some confusion here, death is not a particularly useful learning experience.

Someone without formal hand-to-hand training isn’t going to win in a fight with a Marine. No matter how “dangerous” they see themselves. It’s not about fighting dirty, it’s simply that your character doesn’t know what they’re doing.

As for what would happen? Your character would attack, the Marine would interrupt the strike and end them. That fast.

Remember, Marines are trained to kill people. That’s their job. Their hand-to-hand training is focused on this. In fact, instructors overseeing sparring are specifically cautioned to look for recruits that are devolving into, “sport fighting.” Every action the Marine takes needs to either be creating an opening or finishing their opponent.

You can learn to shoot with enough ammunition. In fact, once you do know how to shoot, you need to spend some time with your gun and ammunition to get a feel for exactly how it will handle. No, “I’ve got this cheap ammo, but I use special stuff in the field,” won’t cut it. You need to practice with you’re carrying.

You cannot learn to win a gunfight on a shooting range, no matter how much ammunition you bring. Putting a bullet where you want it when you’re on a range is no problem. However, it won’t teach you what you need to know in order to deal with a live fire situation.

I’m reminded of a story from a soldier who wrote an article for Cracked, back when that site was still good. The guys they were fighting had learned to shoot from video games and TV. He described the rookie mistakes he saw, such as the enemy fighters dropping behind couches to take cover. Thing is even a handgun round will go through that. So, someone ducks behind the furniture, you just shoot through it.

When it comes to vehicles, the engine block will stop a bullet, and that’s pretty much it. The rest of the car can conceal where you are, but it doesn’t protect you from incoming fire. If your hitman watched Taken and tries to take cover behind a car door, the Marine will simply shoot through that.

There’s a phrase I’ve used before, which will be immediately familiar to your Marine, “the only unfair fight is the one you lose.” Combat isn’t about having a “good, clean, brawl.” Dirty fighting isn’t some forbidden collection of highly effective fighting techniques, it’s just stuff you were told not to as a kid, because the risk of injury was too high. As an adult who is trying to kill their foe, the concept is not relevant. So-called dirty fighting is throwing sand in someone’s eyes. It’s a sucker punch before the bell rings or someone yells, “go!” It’s shooting the medic first. You want to hammer into your head that dirty fighting is just about going outside a formalized socially constructed structure which tells you what fighting should be i.e. duels and everyone does it. Everyone wants to go home alive and therefore no one fights fair. Remember, marines are trained to shoot through the hostage.

A Marine is not a policeman. Police are required to uphold specific standards, are governed by rules and laws regarding “use of force” that are more limited because they’re supposed to be dealing with civilians who break the law. Marines are soldiers first.

What you’re presenting, right now, is an amateur going up against professionals. That’s not going to end well.

Flip this around for a second, though, and there’s nothing wrong with writing some ex-special forces operator who’s transitioned over into criminal activity. I’d like to say there’s not precedence, but that would be a lie. Unsurprisingly, being trained to kill people for a living meshes remarkably well with killing people for a living as an independent contractor. Government pay is not that great, and someone with that skill set could, potentially, make a lot of money killing people for unscrupulous individuals.

The doesn’t mean your assassin would go around explaining their full backstory, that would be a liability, but they wouldn’t be self-taught. It also doesn’t mean they’re American, they could just as easily be ex-SAS, ex-Spetsnaz, or from any number of other special forces or militarized intelligence agencies.

When writing an assassin, or anyone else who kills professionally, you want to avoid, “fights.” If they’re going to kill someone, they want to engineer the situation so that their foes cannot react in time. In the case of that Marine, it probably means shooting them in the back of the head, rather than letting it turn into a melee.

If there’s no upside to fighting someone, your character shouldn’t do it. They’re not here to prove how much of a badass they are; they know they can kill everyone in the room. They’re here to get the job done, get paid, and get out safely. Starting an unnecessary fight works against those goals.

-Starke

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Q&A: Angels, Physics, and Wings

Disregarding the physics of it, how do you think the ability of an ‘angel’ ( basically a human with wings in this case ) to fly would influence their fighting style? Would it be an advantage, or a hindrance, you think?

This is a bit like asking, “disregarding their ability to move, what’s the fastest car?”

Physics is a critical component of hand to hand combat. Things like momentum and leverage are what you use in a fight to harm your opponent. Techniques are just the way you apply the laws of physics to your opponent.

So, it’s not entirely inaccurate to say, “if you disregard physics, nothing stops you from turning your foes into chunky salsa.”

A more reasonable example of this is if you’ve got an angry, 200lb, bird man who can take flight at will. They can land on the exact spot they want, because they’ve been doing this for their entire life. They drop on someone, and it’s over. This is part of why the physics are so important. The amount of force they apply on landing is a direct result their mass and velocity. Without physics, there’s no grounding element, no limits, and no way to reasonably predict the limits.

That said, there are huge problems. On the ground, a winged human would be at a combat disadvantage. There’s a lot of very fragile tissue on their back which is vulnerable in melee, and can’t be fully shielded by the fighter’s body. You can’t really armor it without making the wings non-functional, and if you’re emulating birds (which seems likely), you’re looking at hollow bones, which will never heal properly from being crushed. At range, they’d make the character a larger target. You don’t need to hit a normal human sized target, just clip their wing.

The only way to get around these disadvantages is to veer into the overtly supernatural. If the wings are conjured when need and otherwise don’t exist, then getting in the way wouldn’t be an issue. If they were somehow immune to harm that would still have the mobility issues on the ground, but at least they’d be less of a liability.

You started with, “angels,” and then backed off of it onto normal humans. It’s worth pointing out that if you’re wanting to work with the idea of angels as supernatural creatures, then being able to disregard the laws of physics at a whim isn’t that far out there. As they exist in religious texts angels (or whatever your preferred term for them is; the general concept of divine messengers is nearly universal in religion) are more akin to cosmic horrors than Roma Downy standing under a key light. So that’s a situation where I would say, “ignoring physics,” is entirely legitimate, and the results can be suitably gory.

-Starke

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Q&A: Choke Holds

How long does it take someone to lose consciousness from a choke hold? Google gives you answers that are anywhere from a few seconds to seven minutes.

That’s because there are many different types of choke holds with different positions, focuses, and purposes. They all require different amounts of time to take effect.

The one that takes seven seconds is: the blood choke.

The blood choke is strangulation, where you cut off the blood flow to your opponent’s brain by choking the carotid artery with pressure. The terminology I learned for this one was the triangle choke (confusing, because there’s a separate variant you can perform with your legs) which is decent because it describes the positioning of the arm, but its also called the rear naked choke and others depending on discipline. You form a triangle around your victim’s neck, with your elbow under their chin, and then squeeze. This choke is designed to cut off the blood circulation to their brain. Starving the brain of blood will put your opponent under much faster than starving it of oxygen. You also have a much smaller window on this choke between putting someone under and death.

Keep in mind, this isn’t like putting someone to sleep. When you knock someone out, they usually wake up a few seconds later.

The one that takes seven minutes is: the two hand throat grab.

The two hand throat grab is ironically the least effective choke and one of the easiest to escape from. This is because while the position is more stable than the single hand grab (which is very easy to break), the dual hands get in each other’s way. This choke hold goes directly after the windpipe, squeezing to cut off oxygen to the brain. Seven minutes is a very long time for professional martial combat. Consider that the standard street fight lasts less than thirty seconds. Martial Combat is all about economizing your time efficiently and this choke is not efficient. However, unlike more effective choke holds, it is easy to do. You’re also unlikely to kill your victim with it, unless you sit there squeezing their throat for about twenty minutes. The reason why I say this is because the hands get in the way of each other and don’t completely cut off the oxygen flow. It’s really hard to squeeze the windpipe shut with your fingers. Ironically, it’d be faster to smother them with a pillow.

These are the two (three) big ones most people think of when discussing choke holds. However, chokes aren’t the only way to strangle someone. There are quite a few techniques from the palm strike to the knife hand designed to perform similar functions like closing the carotid artery or collapsing the windpipe.

When considering knockouts, it’s very important to remember that a knockout isn’t the same as putting someone to sleep. Therefore, it isn’t “safe” and consequence free the way a lot of media portrays.

-Michi

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Q&A: Combat Magic

Hey! Sorry if this isn’t your area, but I’m writing a fantasy story set in a world where people have various individual abilities (i.e. one kind of magic each). There’s a villain character with a military background who has magic, who’s fighting a character without any magic. What kind of powers could someone have that would make them really effective on a battlefield/commanding troops, but put them at no great advantage in one-to-one combat of this kind? No worries if you don’t know. Thanks!

This reminds me of a post from a couple months ago. Obviously, it’s not the same question, but might be useful reference.

Support related magic could make someone far more effective in a command position, but have little effect on personal combat.

One irony is that the D&D bard fits your question, almost perfectly. The class is a real master-of-none situation. If you want to fight people you’d be better off with a fighter, paladin, or other front light combat type. If you want to heal them, clerics and druids specialize in that. If you want a mage, there are wizards, sorcerers, and a number of other, better, magic users. What Bards do is buff party members, improving their attacks, helping them resist hostile effects, and improving their skills, while filling in on all the other roles as a backup. Being able to magically inspire your troops may sound like a pretty minor thing, but it’d be a major strategic asset. The class gets treated like a joke by the community, but in the right hands it can be very potent.

Beyond examples like the Bard, even just having an unusual attunement to sensing magic at range could be useful for tracking enemy forces that have their own battlemages.

Remember not to discount your villains who don’t fight. Someone with a military background would know how dangerous powered opponents are in their world, and would take steps to prevent being ambushed by them. Because they’re not able to leverage their abilities in one-on-one combat, they’re probably going to ensure that they’re not alone when your hero comes for them.

Without knowing what kinds of magic exist in your world, it’s a little difficult to know exactly what kind of spell list your villain may have access to. So let’s split this up a bit.

Healing magic, particularly of a sort, on the spot, healing can be incredibly potent.

Being able to augment other characters, such as boosting their attacks or defenses.

Being able “debuff” enemies, reducing the same.

Necromancy, being able to call up the souls of the dead. This one depends a bit on how necromancy works in your setting, but if it involves prolonged rituals, that won’t help in a fight, but it will let you make some friends for when a fight does come.

Wards or bindings that prevent enemies (or certain kinds of individuals) from crossing borders or leaving specific places. Which would lead to your villain being able to bind your hero to a location while they ran for help. Illusion magic could help them make their own forces appear more fearsome, or powerful, significantly impacting enemy morale, while offering limited value in direct combat.

Counter-magic is a bit of a weird one, but could significantly help your villain. It wouldn’t make them more effective in combat, but it could help to negate enemy powers. On a larger command scale, it would give them the ability to specifically negate enemy powers that would be devastating if left unchecked.

As world building goes, magic is opportunity to get creative. You decide how the metaphysics of your world work, and then create powers that fit within that. At that point, your not limited to things like lightning bolts or fireballs, and you can start creating some really unique powers, if you’re so inclined. So, there isn’t really a wrong answer here, let your imagination run wild.

-Starke

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