Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: Sadism

True or false: Pointless sadism can get in the way of winning a fight? Like, if you’re focused on inflicting as much pain as possible instead of finding the most efficient way of killing someone? Could a villain’s cruelty actually be his undoing, maybe? Or would the evil overlord either have died or learned his lesson long ago? What pitfalls should you avoid if you decide to go this route? Would this be the way to go in a story with a light tone (but not outright comedy) that’s light on realism?

The problem with too much sadism (or sadism that is self-admitted to be pointless) is that your villain needs to actually get around to doing their job and moving the plot forward. It’s important to remember that a character’s proclivities in combat are signs of their personality and hints into their ability to achieve success. A villain who cannot control their own sadism and has no one higher up to control it for them or direct those habits toward useful goals, a la Rabban and the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, is going nowhere fast.

This can be a real problem to the narrative if your villain’s self-motivation leads them to hole up in some small village high in the Caucus mountains in order to fully engage in their sadism unchallenged while a hero similarly lacking in motivation is twiddling their thumbs in the United States.

When you’re setting up your plot, you need a villain whose interests match the intended narrative course. This is especially true when the villain is the one whose action and motivations are driving the narrative forward, the one putting pieces into play for the hero to respond to. If they never do that, you have no story.

Like all predators, a villain that’s into sadism and who can’t control their own impulses is going to take the path of least resistance. Which is why I said a small town somewhere with a disorganized military, poor response times, and no ability to fight back. If all they want is to inflict their will on others, to indulge their worst base impulses, enjoy causing havoc, then they’re logically going to go the way of other tinpot dictators. They are going to go somewhere they can exploit poor conditions in order to get what they want.

The problem with these sorts of characters is not that they aren’t realistic or that this can be their undoing (it certainly can be), but that they have no motivation to be where they are. This is both a blow to your narrative and to you because you ultimately wind up with a substandard villain.

An evil overlord may be evil but they’re still an overlord, there’s an internal justification for how they achieved that position on their own merits. Overthrowing another government isn’t small potatoes, this is someone with the capacity for planning, who got the vast majority of the population on their side (at least temporarily), and who is capable of strategic thinking if not planning. They’re also politically savvy. All these traits belong to someone who can control their impulses, who may be a sadist and may enjoy torture but who also knows when to indulge. They know how to orchestrate the blunt instruments around them to their advantage, even when they are the biggest monster on the table.

One gets to the top by understanding what they need to do and then doing it. However, they need motivation to get there and this motivation must be specific to their circumstances rather than generic. When you’re looking at a specific Monster of the Week setup whether it’s Power Rangers or Sailor Moon, the big villain has a specific goal that they’re putting a specific piece into play in order to achieve. In the case of Sailor Moon, the bad guys in the first season were trying to locate the silver crystal and all the hijinks start from there. They had a reason to be where they were, had a specific goal they could verbalize, and a plan to achieve it. The heroes job was to disrupt that plan. In the case of Dune, we have three sadists from House Harkonnen, one idiot and two attempting to play each other while all being manipulated by House Corrino off an ages old feud with House Atreides. Arrakis is not a reward, it’s a killing ground used by the Emperor to rid himself of potential rivals.

When you lack A and B with just a sadist, we wind up with characters like Semirhage from The Wheel of Time who spends multiple books doing a shadowy something but whom we mostly just see kidnapping individuals in order to perform experiments on them. (This is because we don’t know initially where any of them are or who they’re pretending to be, sometimes for several novels on end.) The series’ game of “Find the Forsaken” sometimes had a bad habit of undercutting the Forsaken.

Your villain needs a plan which coincides with the heroes in order for them to clash. A specific, internal justification is always better and will always prove more successful than an external justification. They need to be there for the narrative never answers why they’re there in a satisfactory way for your audience. They’re there because they’re the villain is not actually an answer.

Why here? Why now?

Those are important questions to delve into. It may take the heroes and the audience the entire narrative to work out the true reason, but its important that both the villain and the author have the answer or some inkling of it from the onset. The secondary motivational why lies in the character’s backstory, but the initial one should be easy enough to find. Just remember to look for that internal justification from the villain, why they’re doing what they’re doing and what it is they want. The needs of the villain and the needs of the hero and the needs of the narrative must coincide. If you plan for your villain to do the thing (rather than ultimately fail at the thing on their own power rather than be stopped by a hero) then they must be someone capable of doing the thing. Someone who would have succeeded if there were no meddling kids around to stop them.

The Baron Harkonnen was always destined to fail, not because of Paul, but because the Emperor would have ultimately stopped him. Arrakis was too big a prize for him to ultimately control. The Emperor, however, could have succeeded in his plan to rid himself of both Houses if Paul and Jessica had both been someone else. If they’d been normal, a normal consort and a normal child of the nobility. In Paul’s case, Arrakis and the spice was a catalyst for unexpected transformation.

In answer to the question: if the head honcho villain never learned their lesson prior to meeting the hero then it is likely they’d never have achieved their position. They’d lack the ambition, control, and cleverness needed to pull off their plots. The important thing to remember is that the villain always faces resistance, and faced resistance before your hero arrived on the scene. Others have tried to fight the villain and they failed. You’ve got to answer the question of why those others failed and in such a way that doesn’t make their sacrifices worthless or meaningless. If it was some easy solution, someone would have come up with the answer and tried it.

An easy work around for this is to come up with the plans that were tried and did fail. This will pull double duty for you of better establishing your villain’s true capabilities and know when your heroes are making stupid mistakes. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the random population in your narrative is totally helpless or incapable of standing up for themselves.

Remember, a sadist incapable of controlling themselves is a blunt instrument. One put to purpose by another and given direction. The fear they inspire is real, but their weaknesses are obvious. One can’t win on fear alone. The fear is there to keep you from fighting back, but the structure put into place is what will keep the average person from going anywhere.


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Q&A: Splitting the Party

How do I sideline my powerful fighters without sloppy excuses? My story is rooted in Asian mythology and there are powerful gods and creatures as well as weapons and shields.

The simple answer is: By making sure you have carefully thought out reasons, rather than simply trying to come up with an excuse at the last minute.

So, let’s talk about writing for a minute.

Your rough draft is when you first sit down and start typing up your story. Nobody’s rough drafts are perfect. Rough drafts are, by necessity, kinda sloppy. Stuff won’t always fit together. Ideas will get kicked around, and abandoned, sometimes mid-draft. There will be plot holes. That’s fine.

Then you start writing. When you go back and rewrite your draft, you know what your story is doing, where it’s going, what’s happening, and, most importantly, exactly what will happen. If you know you want a character split off, you know you need to start setting that up.

In some ways, this is the definitive answer: How do you avoid sloppy writing? By going back and rewriting once you’ve written the piece. Writing really is rewriting. First drafts suck. That’s not on you, it’s a truth every author needs to acknowledge, and remember, “you’re not stuck there.” Once you know what you’re doing, go back, and improve it.

So, how do you sideline your characters? There’s a lot of options, but a simple one that will almost always give you more material to play with is, give them something else to do.

In very broad strokes there’s two sub-categories here. They can act in their own interests and pursue personal agendas, or they can work towards the benefit of the group, they just need to do it somewhere else. These can lead to very different characters, and vastly different stories, so let’s look at both of those.

Remember, your characters are distinct simulacra of people. They have their own wants, dreams, and goals. Depending on who they are as a person, those may take priority over helping your hero. (Or, if we’re talking about your hero, this may take priority over loyalty to their allies.)

If your character has spent centuries questing to find their lost love, they may abandon the party of wandering heroes they met in an inn a month ago when they find a lead. If they’ve been exiled from their home, they may even turn on their allies if it means they could go back. They may betray their allies because they’ve become convinced that your heroes are more destructive harmful than the forces they oppose.

There’s an unlimited number of potential permutations here, ranging from the selfish to altruistic. These are also incredibly contextual. Choosing how to fit these pieces together will come down to assessing your characters, their world, the forces they’re opposing, and figuring out who your characters are.

These kinds of events tend to be irrevocable. If your characters are betrayed by someone they called a friend, you really can’t walk that back, even if they come to regret their actions.

The alternative is that, sometimes, you just need to be in two places at once. One or two characters may need to split off from the rest to accomplish separate goals. A cadre of heroes may stage a doomed assault, to create enough of a distraction for one of their members to sneak in and assassinate a leader, or deliver some critical plot coupon.

Events like this can be thrilling. You’re putting a lot more weight on your characters’ shoulders. If anyone fails to carry out their plan, then everything will go horribly wrong.

Again, there’s an infinite number of possible permutations on this concept. They may not be killing someone, they may not even be in the same area. They may have split off awhile back to deal with something privately, but now, when needed, they’re leagues away.

There’s also a lot of options to blend across between these categories, and there are a lot of other possibilities. For example: A character who’s been poisoned by some mythical substance and put into a coma isn’t going to be much use in a fight.

This is your story. You’re only limited by your imagination. Look for conflicts of interest that will test your heroes. Look for the consequences of their past actions. Don’t worry if your rough draft seems off. That’s why, “writing is rewriting.”


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Q&A: Gallows Humor

Do you have any advice on injecting black humor into my assassin’s narrative without being tasteless?

You can’t. Gallows humor revolves specifically around being tasteless, around saying very inappropriate things, and making a mockery of the situation. You are, after all, laughing at the pain of others.

The question is: were you funny?

That is the make or break rule of comedy, and understanding how to be funny with gallows humor requires understanding gallows humor. When you fail at gallows humor, you are just that asshole who said an inappropriate thing at the wrong time and then laughed at their own terrible joke.

Humor is the connections your mind makes before other people get there. As such, it tells us a lot about a person, who they are, how they think, what kind of experiences they’ve had, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, and who they are. This is part of why funny people break first, your sense of humor will tell your interrogator how you think and they’ll use that against you. (There’s some black humor in turning the knife on yourself, especially unwittingly.)

In real life, gallows humor is a sign of what experiences you’ve had, how you respond to them, and what you’ve become inured to. Gallows humor by its very nature is a societal taboo, you’re saying something shocking but the shock or the inappropriateness is not what makes the joke funny. For gallows humor to be successful, it must also be insightful. The outrageous comment served a purpose, had a point, drew a connection that their audience couldn’t see.

Humor is taking the situation you’re in, drawing insight from it, and making an observation. If you don’t do that, then your joke will fail. Gallows humor represents a high bar because it is offensive by its very nature, but the observation and the unexpected connection of two pieces are why we laugh. Gallows humor has to be relevant to the situation at hand, it is directly related to what is happening in front of you. You have a better understanding of what is going on around you than others who have not been inducted into this view of the world. Gallows humor directly relies on your ability to look at a situation before you, gather up the pieces, and make an observation for a joke that will not work anywhere other than in this exact moment. You can’t, really, save this shit for later, except when telling the joke to someone else who was there at the time.

Soldiers, cops, doctors, customer service reps, people who work in retail, they all have very specific forms of humor that can be shared because of their shared experience. If you lack that experience, then you will be outside of it.

The moment gallows humor crystallizes is when the character really does stop giving a shit. Other humans become ambulatory bags of meat and then it’s okay to laugh at their suffering, or make jokes at their expense. This doesn’t mean it’s societally okay, if your character utilizes black humor they can and should expect to be called out for it. However, the character no longer cares how their listener is going to receive the joke because the joke was funny to them. What they’ve been through has been normalized, they’re no longer horrified by it and now it is just funny.

Humor in fiction functions much the same way, except with the added dynamic of the purpose it serves to clue the audience in through those observations made by the characters. M.A.S.H. and Law & Order are both a masters of utilizing humor as a form of exposition without the audience ever realizing it. The jokes serve a specific purpose, while also underscoring the natures of the characters’ themselves.

If your characters humor does not serve a purpose then it won’t be funny, they’ll be tasteless and an asshole instead of a tasteless funny asshole. For an assassin, this kind of humor could be a weapon they use against others. It could be a dead give away to their nature, and expose them to normal people around them. Or, they just spend so much time alone they tell jokes that are only amusing to them and that the people around them don’t find funny. (Though, the audience might.)

George Carlin is right, any joke can be funny no matter how inappropriate, that you will laugh at despite yourself, and you can find humor in any situation. He’s also right in that it has to be funny. The shock is not what’s funny, the taboo is not what makes it funny, the observation and the unexpected connection between two different pieces somehow applicable to the situation are where the joke is.

The trick to grasping gallows humor is that you first need to own it. No wishy-washy, “but I don’t want to offend someone”, this form of humor is offensive by its very nature. However, the next step is in understanding the offensive part wasn’t what was funny. Humor comes from disrupting audience expectations at key points. You can’t get there just by being shocking, you’ve also got to get them to laugh. In this case, it’s funny because it’s accurate.

Gallows humor is often utilizing people’s pain to mock something else occurring in the scene. In the case of M.A.S.H. for example, the point is the realities of war and death versus the jingoistic illusions sold to the populace at large. The humor works to firmly root our understanding in the horrors happening, and make us aware of them. Humor also transforms the horrors into something less incomprehensible. It connects the incomprehensible to the absurd in ways that can make performing “meatball surgery” on hundreds of teenagers who were torn apart into an almost manageable experience.

Gallows humor is often specifically targeting cultural illusions about death, about the way people die, about the arbitrary nature of it.

“He was such a brave and noble soldier. Too bad he shat himself right there at the end, and then again after his corpse went cold. You’d think the human body could only stack up so much shit, but no. There’s always more.”

The joke is you shit yourself when you’re scared and after you die, and the fact the whole situation was shit to begin with.

Gallows humor is often biting, bitter, and disillusioned. It has a target, though that target may not be what you initially think. After all, a gallows humor joke at a funeral is usually targeting the mourners themselves. The disconnect between the person who died, who they were, and what is said about them. Gallows humor at a crime scene or over a dead body could very well be about the situational irony or an observation of the person’s unexpected nature or the nature of their death. It can be crass and cruel, and very difficult to hear.

The ending point is that humor is about who your character is as a person and how they express themselves. However, to successfully carry the humor off, you’ll need to be realistic about how other people would respond. (Specific people, not a generic response.) You’ll also need to get used to not giving a shit. This is not the kind of humor one uses in order to make people like them. It’s more the kind that gets people to like you in spite of themselves. This is a very specific type of humor which appeals to a very specific type of character, and is an example of the way they look at other human beings. The kind that gets people to call you an asshole, but, you know, a funny asshole.

Try to remember, assassins are not nice people. Assholes can indeed be very funny. You’re character doesn’t have to be likeable to be a good protagonist. Humor is an expression of character, experience, and the way the mind puts information together.

Again, there’s only one real metric: was it funny?

Your character has three audiences, themselves, the people around them, and the audience at large. If you tell the joke right, then the audience will sympathize with your character. Tell it wrong, and they’ll sympathize with the people who got offended. If you don’t provide them with that outlet within the narrative because you’re desperate for your character to appear funny, you risk taking them out of the narrative entirely. You need a good foil, and a way to catch yourself when the joke fails. Don’t get so caught up in trying to be funny that you lose the perspective on when your character goes over the line. This is a high bar, your character is going to fall down a few times. Jokes just don’t land.

You’re never funny 100% of the time, even when you do it for a living. Add the dynamic for your character of when the joke doesn’t land, and those who don’t find them funny.

It makes them human.


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Q&A: Secret Identities

Would pointing out that they bear an uncanny resemblance to their alter ego and following it up with a comment that a specific feature is slightly different help my character prevent the people they consort with from realizing that they are the secret identity?

The short answer is, no. Saying, “yeah, but this one thing is different,” underlines how everything else is the same. To be clear this is a bad situation for your character to be in. It jeopardizes their secret, and may put them in extreme danger, if it doesn’t get them killed outright. Now, a character who panics may blurt out, “but he doesn’t have this fake scar on his knuckle!” But, no, it’s not a great way out. At that point, even a simple, “you must have me confused with someone else,” might carry more weight. Not, much more weight, but still.

That said, there’s basically two routes for this question, so, I’ll take a stab at both.

If you’re talking about a character who’s working undercover (either with a group backing them, or on their own), then all of the normal issues come up. If they’re working without some organization backing them, then their best option will be to go in as themselves. Not necessarily to be upfront about why they’re there, but ultimately trying to hide who they are is a recipe for disaster.

For example: if your character is trying to investigate a corporation, then their best option for infiltrating is to get hired, that means they’d need to pass a background check, and get through the hiring process. In all of that, pretending to be someone they’re not won’t really work. The entire system is designed to weed out someone who isn’t on the level. Obviously, there are relevant considerations, but the way in is through the front door and into the HR office.

To be fair, if your character is investigating some kind of criminal conspiracy without any backing, they’re going to need to be very creative in order to avoid getting caught up in any police investigations, while still maintaining their cover identity. As it turns out, saying, “but I was only infiltrating them to find out what they were doing,” is not a particularly solid affirmative defense for waxing a witness. (Writing stories like this require a solid grasp of operational planning. Your character needs to be able to identify their goals, and then set about dismantling the organization in critical ways without blowing their cover. That last part is much easier said than done.)

If your character is operating with backing from an organization that can create a convincing cover identity, that’s different. This could be an intelligence agency, law enforcement, or even some well connected, shadowy conspiracy. If this is the case, the organization has a lot more flexibility to put someone unknown on the ground. Cover identities are a thing, but the critical part is that the people your character is infiltrating never meet the people who actually know them in their day to day life. So, the situation where someone recognizes your character for who they are, is something they need to avoid at all costs.

Also worth noting that, under some circumstances, you could have a character with multiple cover identities, which are drawn into conflict with one another. For example, a character who went undercover in one group years ago, and has since gone undercover with a new group could be in a very awkward place if they discovered an old associate from the previous cover while they were operating under the new one. These situations can quickly get very tangled, and make for fantastic plot complications in espionage fiction.

The other possibility that comes to mind is superheroes. For the flying tights crowd, secret identities are kind of a genre convention. You want your superhero to have a normal life you can switch out to and ground the character for the audience. Which is much harder when your character is also a major mythological figure, the last survivor of an alien race, or a rich boy with daddy issues.

If we’re talking about superheroes, then that’s almost a viable answer. I mean there’s a slightly absurd element to the entire idea of superheroes and their alter egos. People would notice that your character was staggering into work looking like they’d been in a fight with fifteen guys. Alternately, sooner or later someone would notice that your superhero never got injured, never got sick, and didn’t react that time someone spilled boiling coffee on their hand.

Depending on context, there’s a fairly smart critique of superheroes how regularly interact with reporters, cops and other investigators. Their plainclothes allies probably figured out who they were years ago, and keep those secrets as well. Personally, I still really like the Ben Urich line about knowing who Peter Parker is, because, “sometimes you smell like burnt buildings. You know who else sometimes smells like burnt buildings?”

In a context like this, even if your character isn’t a superhero, it’s possible that friends and allies may let their cover slide, if they understand what’s going on. Of course, if they don’t, or are about to make a scene, then they are a threat to whatever your character is trying to achieve.

There are also possible situations where an antagonist may seek to keep information about your character secret. Realizing who they are, but holding onto that for whatever reason. This could be due to conflicting loyalties. It could be they’re planning to use that information to their own advantage. They may even intend to blackmail your character with this information at a later date. It really depends on what their goals are, and their relationship with your character.

There are much better lies your character can use to protect their identity. So, here’s something to watch, it’s about a minute long, and light on the details, but keep it in mind. Someone who is aware of their mannerisms, and can adapt to their current “role,” can become effectively unidentifiable and blend into their surroundings. Specifically, things like posture, body language, preferred clothing and speech patterns (such as verbal crutches), can be far more identifiable than just physical appearance. The original Jason Bourne novel by Robert Ludlum actually talks about this kind of a technique in detail.

None of this will help if you’re talking to someone who’s known you for years, but when you’re walking past a casual acquaintance, they may not recognize you. Also, to be clear, this is a learned skill. It’s not quite as simple as just changing into a clean set of clothes and staggering off.

If you’re going the superhero route, sometimes secret identities get exposed. It can be a major transition in your character’s life, as they go from masked crimefighter to public figure. There’s no hard and fast rules there, on what happens as a result. Partially because there isn’t a real world example, but also because superheroes are such a diverse group to begin with. As with everything else, think through all the possible outcomes. Pick the ones that feel the most natural or appropriate.


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Q&A: A Knight’s Arms

I’m writing a book in a fantasy setting and my main character is a knight. His main weapon is a longsword, with a shortsword as a sidearm. Do you think he should carry a bow as well, or would that not make sense as that is what archers are for?

Normally, a longsword would be the sidearm. The shortsword, or long knife (the terms are analogous) would be a backup weapon. This is more or less how knives are used today. Their primary weapon would probably be a spear, or another polearm of some variety. That said, this is all very dependent on the culture you’re working from, so I’ll loop back to that in a minute.

Mounted archers certainly existed. They would act as skirmishers, harassing enemy infantry at close range, while staying out of melee. It’s a distinct combat role, and not something you’d normally associate with knights. (For reference, mounted archers aren’t the only form of skirmishers. Small squads of archers or even specialized infantry units performed the same role.)

Normally (at least in Europe) the role of the Knight was cavalry. These would be mounted units that charged into enemy infantry to disrupt their formations, then they would either break contact and repeat or they would remain in direct combat against the disrupted infantry.

While charging, cavalry benefits significantly from polearms, (particularly spears and lances.) After the charge, because of the ranges that combat will occur at, a soldier will be better served with a sword. They’ll be stuck in close quarters surrounded by enemy infantry. The horse is a critical part of their armaments, providing a serious advantage, but they’re still attacking people next to their boots. At that point, a sword is a much better tool than a spear.

It’s fairly plausible that your Knight would know how to use a bow, and had received rudimentary training on one, even if they weren’t a master marksman, and didn’t carry one normally. This isn’t so much an endorsement of the idea that they’d need to carry a bow, so much as the basic suggestion that, yeah, these options would be open to your character.

So, that’s reality (specifically historical Europe, where we usually draw the model of a knight from), but, you’re writing a fantasy setting and that may differ significantly from the real world.

When you strip out the specifics of the training, a Knight was an elite, specialized, combatant. Real Knights were trained to do some of the most difficult jobs in Medieval combat, and as a result required substantially more time to prepare. Knights were, in some ways, analogous to modern special forces. This means it’s better for you to tailor your knight’s weapons to the threats they face, rather than suggesting a basic set of gear and asking if that makes sense. It could.

So, if your fantasy setting is “basically Europe,” with the serial numbers filed off, then, yeah, a longsword, shield, spear, dagger, and possibly some kind of ranged weapon like a shortbow, would make sense for your character. Especially if they’re operating on their own or with a small group of other knights errant.

If your setting is swarming with monsters, then a heavier, or more versatile polearm, like a halbard, poleaxe, or voulge may be more useful. Additionally, a heavier bow, and more time spent honing their marksmanship, would be appropriate.

If your setting is densely mountainous, with no real opportunity to use a horse, where most encounters occur in very tight spaces, then you’d probably get more value from the sword than the spear.

A knight’s role in society, their armor, their weapons, even their training, are all part of the larger world that they inhabit. If your fantasy world starts to depart seriously from the real one, you might want to go back and consider what else would change.

For example: if your setting is a volcanic archipelago, with tiny coastal enclaves on the islands, then that world’s knights would need to be equipped for travel by sea, and combat aboard ships. So, lighter armors would be far more useful. Swords (assuming there were sources of iron), would still make sense as a weapon choice, but aboard ship, you wouldn’t have room for polearms. Those might be used during amphibious assaults, however. Your knights would probably still benefit from some kind of ranged weapons, though at that point, thrown options would be better (salt water is not kind to bows, and you never want to get your bow wet.)

So, do your choices sound reasonable? Yeah, they might, if they fit with the world you’re creating.


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Q&A: Longswords

Sorry for the stupid question, but what actually is a longsword? Is it a sword intended for 2 handed use but can be used with 1? Most rpg games have longswords classified as 1 handed weapons, but from what i’ve read on the internet a longsword is supposed to be mainly 2 handed.

That’s not a stupid question, it’s reasonable confusion based on some idiosyncratic classifications created centuries after the weapons saw use. The very simple answer is, the longsword was “a sword.” Most of the specialized names for swords, particularly anything ending in “sword,” is probably a modern classification which doesn’t fully reflect the weapon in question.

Historically you wouldn’t have described your weapon as a longsword, it would have simply been your sword. A lot of the modern terms like longsword, shortsword, bastardsword, greatsword, broadsword, arming sword, and so on are exactly that: modern. Many of these terms only date back to the 19th century, when antiquarians were attempting to classify swords into very specific categories.

In some cases, these categories accurately reflect weapons that existed, and can give you a quick shorthand to understand what the weapon was, and how you used it. For example, “shortsword” and “greatsword” are useful terms. They describe distinct classes of swords that existed historically. That said, the edges are a bit, “fuzzy.” For example, determining when a knife becomes a shortsword isn’t an exact science. There’s no specific length where you can say, “nope, no longer a knife, now it’s a shortsword.” How the weapon was used can help to inform what you want to call it, but these are not hard and fast rules. Your shortsword may be a long knife to someone else.

To expand on this, something like an executioner’s sword is a useful name, because it refers to the function of the weapon, and it has a distinct stylistic element that makes it easy to identify and distinguish (in this case, a flat end instead of a sharpened tip.) There are also plenty of weapons that incorporate distinct elements which make them unique. Another example would be the estoc, which has a mostly unsharpened blade, but boasts a very sharp tip, primarily for piercing the joints of plate armor.

So, there’s three specific examples I should probably expand a bit, because you’ll run across them all the time in RPGs and other media, the Longsword (which you asked about), the bastard sword (which you asked about incidentally) and the greatsword.

A longsword can be anything from a Viking era iron blade, up through to some small two-handers. Usually defined as having a straight blade, these cover dozens of distinct sword designs, which popped up in Europe over nearly a millennia. Because the term is so diverse, there’s really no one “true” longsword, even in popular media. Even within a single game you may see weapons ranging from 8th century one-handed swords next to 15th century two-handed longswords. Usually games will present these as weapons you can wield one-handed, though even this is a bit misleading as most greatswords can be wielded with one hand, at the cost of some finesse and efficiency.

Bastard Swords are… something. There’s no certainty on what the term meant historically, and unlike some other names kicking around, bastard sword was a historical term. The modern meaning of a bastard sword is (usually) a longsword blade with a greatsword grip. That’s, basically, fantasy. Swords like that did exist, but they weren’t considered a unique class of blades until the 19th century.

Greatswords are a modern weapon (though, in this case I do mean early modern, so 15th to 16th century.) The actual names vary by culture of origin. There’s something of a theme here, with most cultures naming their greatswords some variation of “big” or “large” and “sword.” The German Zweihander is a minor departure, as that simply means, “two hands.” While I’m not completely certain, I think the term “greatsword” comes from the translation of Claymore. (Specifically from the Gaelic claidheamh mor.) Historically, the greatsword fell out of use as European armies transitioned to longer polearms, and by the 17th century, firearms were becoming an increasingly important part of warfare, so these enjoyed a brief moment before disappearing.

It’s probably also worth remembering that swords are very light weight. A 4lb longsword would be heavy, most ran 2 to 3lbs. With two-handers the norm was slightly under 8lbs. Substantial for a weapon, but not heavy to the point that you’d be unable to lift it with ease. Real world swords have (basically) never been about overall weight, so much as finesse. This is part of why I said earlier that you can wield a greatsword with one hand. It wouldn’t be as effective, but you could still maneuver the blade. The entire point was to open your opponent up, usually by finding vulnerable points and then exploiting those. This is part of why Europe transitioned to lighter, faster, blades, which could get in and out quickly. It’s also why weapons like the Estoc existed at all. Allowing the user far more control when they drove the tip through a joint in their foe’s armor.

Most swords can be used two handed. Even if your off hand won’t fit on the hilt, you can use your fingers to help control and direct your strikes. Even with larger swords like the zweihander, your off hand isn’t there to provide more strength, you use it to stabilize and guide your attacks.

A lot of games use longswords as one handed weapons because it’s easier and simpler. It provides the player with a clear delineation between that weapon and a two handed weapon class. You know, when you find one, what it will do and how you can use it. This is further reinforced in many video games, where you would need separate animation sets for wielding the weapon one handed vs two. In cases like this, there’s a real incentive to lock it into one mode and leave it there, especially if a two handed weapon class already exists.

So, the short answer would be: It’s a sword.


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Q&A: Bloodborne’s Rakuyo

Quick question- was the Rakuyo from Bloodborne modeled after a real life weapon? I’ve seen similar designs in other things. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s pretty much a sword, with a partially hollow hilt that you can attach/detach another knife in.

The blade itself is based off of a Japanese military sabre. To be clear, I’m talking about the primary blade, not the detachable dagger. The second detachable blade is something of From’s own creation (or it’s a Berserk reference.) The second blade may be based off a 19th century Japanese bayonet, but that’s mostly an educated guess.

Spiked pommels are quite real. When fighting in quarters too close to strike with a sword, bringing your pommel down on your foe’s face is a valid tactic, and spiked pommels build off this idea. I can’t remember seeing a full dagger attached to a pommel before, but the idea isn’t particularly strange.

As a detachable weapon? Not that I’ve ever seen. In general, Bloodborne‘s weapons are implausibly complex, to the point that most simply wouldn’t function in the real world. There are a few exceptions: While real Pallasches didn’t incorporate firearms, combining a single shot firearm onto a sword wasn’t, completely, unheard of in the 17th and 18th centuries (which is when the Pallasch dates to.)

The “least” realistic trick weapons in Bloodborne tend to be the ones that are articulated or include detachable components. Things like the Threaded Cane, the Kirkhammer, Ludwig’s Holy Blade, or the Blade of Mercy, would all be grossly impractical or impossible to produce. The guys at Baltimore Knife and Sword made a replica of the Saw Cleaver, which illustrates a lot of the engineering challenges inherent in trying to replicate Bloodborne‘s weapons. You can find the youtube video here.

The game is a, literally, a nightmare, as the various characters attempt to deal with elder cosmic gods, of the Lovecraft variety, so the fantastical elements blended into the gothic art style do serve a legitimate purpose. The melee weapons are, without exception, an extension of this concept. They’re twisted, vicious, creations, designed to tear people (and monsters) apart in singularly unpleasant ways. That many of these same weapons are wielded against you by bosses and other hunters just cements the horror.

That said, the idea that someone would have taken a Japanese Guntō and attached a bayonet in a reverse grip isn’t completely insane, while the bayonet’s locking lugs could still allow a quick release option, converting the weapon back into two distinct pieces. I mean, it’s possible, and in comparison to some of the other weapons in Bloodborne, it’s almost plausible. Would it work? Probably not. I doubt it would hold up in combat. But, this would be relatively easy to rig up as a display piece.

So, the short version is, you could make one you’d use for cosplay, but making one that would actually work as a combat weapon is a lot more questionable.


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Q&A: Distinctive Martial Arts

Hi, i’m giving my MC a dinstictive combat style. Is there any inherent advantage/drawback in a fighting style focusing on elbow/knee strikes over just punching and kicking?

I’m going to say something, and it’s going to sound very mean, but the problem with authors trying to make their own distinctive martial arts is often they don’t know anything about martial arts or the process in how martial arts are developed.

As an example, this is basically like saying Kenshin’s Hiten Mitsurugi style is special because he uses a katana, not the way he uses a katana and the specific approach he chooses to take to combat. In the course of the manga, he would also never fight another character using a katana during the Revolution even though they were common. That’s basically what the elbows and knees suggestion sounds like.

If that seems a bit silly to you, it should, because it is. This is a beginner problem. If you don’t understand the basics, you’re not going to be able to advocate for anything unique or different.

(For reference: Kenshin using a reverse blade wasn’t just because he wanted to avoid killing. The Hiten-Mitsurugi style was based on the fundamentals used in Iaido, and specialized in the fast draw for the katana which is a very fragile weapon. The blunt blade hindered the speed at which he could draw his blade, reducing both its power on the attack and the speed at which it struck. He essentially gave himself a personal handicap. The reverse blade is an iaito or a practice blade.)

When you’re setting out to create a martial art for your character, it’s a very good idea to go read up on a lot of different martial arts and specifically the autobiographies written by martial arts masters. Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings is  one of the quintessential recommendations for martial artists, but Sun Tzu’s Art of War, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee, Small Circle Jujitsu by Wally Jay, Kadokan Judo: The Essential Guide to Judo by Its Founder Jigoro Kano by Jigoro Kano, and many others are an excellent place to start.

Reading these books will give you insight into the minds of martial arts masters and their explanations of what they noticed was missing in the martial arts world around them, and how they developed their martial art. They’ll also help you better grasp the concept of techniques and what makes those techniques distinctive or unique. The major flaw most authors in the written medium have in giving their character a “distinctive” martial art comes straight out of an important trope in Shounen anime. When one character has a special/unique martial art… so does everyone else of any importance. This is true to life, everyone is developing their own unique takes on their martial art, modifying those skills to what works best for them, and moving forward. Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, Bleach, and most major martial arts based manga will showcase this with both the heroes and the villains, ultimately making their setting stronger as a result. The idea never occurs to just one person, the difference is in what they do with it.

Everyone uses elbows and knees, and no one does “just punching and kicking” unless those elbows and knees are banned like in some competitive sports. You need your elbows and knees, they’re primarily functional at distances where you can’t generate force for a punch like when you’ve been grabbed or you’re standing nose to nose with someone else. However, if your character over focuses on elbows and knees they’ll be at a distinct disadvantage always against the punchers and (especially) the ones who kick. They’ll have difficulty creating the openings they need to bring the knees and elbows into play. Which is done through… yes, punches and kicks.

Knees and elbows are one of the most obvious, easiest, and effective defensive tactics for someone who knows nothing. They are also among the easiest to block. For reference, the idea that other characters in your setting wouldn’t come up with the idea of using their elbows and knees puts the concept in the range of “my character invented menstruation.” (Which yes, did happen in a rather infamous book series.)

Like everything else, elbows and knees are distance based strikes and actually less powerful than their fist and foot counterparts. You’re only using half the leg or arm to generate force. What makes them strong is the soft parts of the body they aim for, rather than them as techniques themselves.

You can figure out how close you need to be in order to use an elbow by making an elbow. Hold your hand out before your face with your arm completely stretched out and then bend it into an elbow. That’s how close your opponent will be to you.

Here’s the easy breakdown on martial styles.

1) Every martial arts style is actually distinctive. They’re all unique.

I know it sounds like “everyone’s unique in their own special ways” but this is true. The only way you’re going to develop really distinctive martial arts for your setting is to start fanboying or girling over every single prominent practitioner like you get out of a Japanese shounen anime like Rurouni Kenshin. There’s a reason for this, and that reason is: every martial art style is unique, and every person who practices a martial art has a unique and individual style. Everyone’s body is just a little bit different. Everyone will have techniques that appeal to them more than others. Those differences can lead to some massive changes, including the evolution of new martial arts.

The Japanese are a little weird, but the full celebrating of characters with these highly specialized techniques is somewhat close to real life. They just hyper-focus on single action, which is cultural. (It also cuts down work for the artist and animators.) However, to understand the importance of Kenshin’s draw or Saito’s, you’d need to understand iajutsu/iado, kenjutsu/kendo. The answer for the katana is that it’s an exceedingly fragile weapon, so you need to win on one strike.

2) What makes a martial art distinct is combat philosophy and the way techniques are used/modified.

Often, you’re looking at minute differences in chambers or footwork or turnover to divide one martial art’s technique from another. The difference in how these techniques get used, how they’re combined into combinations, or the parts of the body they target.

The trick to understanding what makes Muay Thai special isn’t the fact it’s hyper aggressive. It is, but only for sport martial arts. The unique aspect of Muay Thai is in its ability to utilize it’s powerful kicks within hand striking distance without losing speed or power. This is what primarily makes the martial art distinct from other kickboxing martial arts. However, that doesn’t mean these other martial arts like savate don’t come with their own advantages.

Krav Maga’s distinct technique is called “bursting” which is when you strike with two hands instead of one. The drawback being, of course, that you give up all defense. This fits Krav Maga and Israel’s hyper-aggressive military combat doctrine. However, Krav Maga isn’t the only martial art to strike with two hands simultaneously.

3) The environment and enemy are what make us special.

Martial arts aren’t developed in isolation, they’re developed via consistent challenge and like any weapon are meant to deal with very specific threats within an environment.

Karate being the martial art of preemptive interruption doesn’t sound all that impressive in a modern sense, until you remember it was developed in large part to deal with the Samurai. The defensive blocks of karate can preemptively halt a samurai from drawing his katana via wrist to wrist. If you can’t get to your weapon then you can’t fight, then you followup with a strike. Not unlike grabbing the wrist of someone about to draw their pistol and shoving down.

Krav Maga’s bursting is usually what comes to mind first about Krav Maga being distinct, but another major part of what makes Krav Maga unique is the way its techniques have been adapted from other martial arts to suit fighting in tight urban environments like a marketplace in Jerusalem. The chambers on all Krav Maga techniques are compressed, allowing a practitioner to use techniques like the sidekick in very tight urban quarters which you’d normally need more space for.

Or Sambo’s combination where they grab an incoming fist and then perform the sidekick. Ensuring the enemy has nowhere to go, and takes the full force of the blow. (This isn’t unique to the Russians either.)

This is about adaptation. Techniques are developed to deal with something, to create some advantage over their enemy, and to exploit an opening in general combat. How a martial art uses their elbows or develops those techniques in conjunction with others in the repertoire might make it distinctive whereas just using elbows will make it like everyone else. I do mean everyone too.

Intent, need, and environment are what creates distinct individual approaches. A martial art developed on the docks of France is going to be different than one created in the jungles of the Philippines. A martial art developed for military use is going to be different than one created for law enforcement, self-defense, or spiritual enlightenment.

However, if you don’t understand any of the above, you’ll find yourself running face first into a wall. As a beginner, you will invariably come up with ideas that sound unique to you but silly to anyone who understands the subject.  This is part of being a beginner, and its a drawback you won’t be able to escape without putting your nose to the grindstone.

4) Approach mingles with character and this is Important.

Another martial art that makes heavy use of elbows and knees is Judo. This is because elbows and knees work best in tight quarters and at close range, but what Judo uses their elbows for differs from Muay Thai. Again, how one uses a body part is the distinctive aspect rather than using them at all. However, what these martial arts share is their close quarters approach to violence or, in the case of Judo, the ground fighting which is what lends them to making heavy use of their elbows both as attacks and as joint breaks.

How your character fights is an important representation of their personality because this is how they’ve decided to solve their problem with violence. There are an array of options, but this is their preference. In this case, you’ve got a character who likes to fight up close and personal. They’re going to be specializing in either boxing, throws, ground-fighting, or a combination of the above. They’re visceral, and are probably pretty free with the headbutts.

There’s no separation between the martial art and the character except in how they use it, and with a distinctive martial art you’re beholden to the combat approach because this is the direction the character has purposefully developed for themselves.

5) Every style comes with its drawbacks.

No martial style is invincible, every approach has its drawbacks. Like I said earlier, the draw back of the elbow is you must be very close to use it and for all its power it is exceedingly limited in use. The same goes for the knee, even the flying knee. Both can be blocked, and blocked fairly easily if the opponent sees them coming. Outside a surprise attack (like being grabbed from behind and driving the elbow into the stomach), both rely on strong setups from the martial artist utilizing other techniques.

A character who specializes at fighting in close quarters means they must get into close quarters, which is easier said than done and much harder against another martial artist who specializes in keeping their opponents at specific ranges.

6) You need to be more than a one hit wonder.

Martial arts are collections of techniques which work together in order to achieve specific goals.

7) Learn How Things Work before you start breaking them.

The biggest mistake a writer can make is trying to skip the end before they’ve got their feet on the ground for the beginning. If you don’t know how something works then do research to learn, there are a lot of materials easily available including fictional where they got it right.

A great example of magical martial arts setting building is still, in my opinion, Naruto. (Yu Yu Hakusho is a great example of how to tie your character’s emotional development to their combat progression.) Naruto goes out of its way early to explain how the setting rules function in terms of the Jutsu by breaking them into three categories so the audience better understands specialties, by locking down the hand signs used for casting to differentiate those techniques from the special kekkai genkai, and explaining the use of energy. Sometimes, Naruto can be exposition heavy but it is very clear on its rules even when it proceeds to break them.

You’ll notice like with all great shounen anime the breakdown covers where the inspiration for the technique came from, its background, history, why it got made, and what it is used for. Heroes often use a set collection of techniques that they build off of their special one in new ways for new situations. Spirit gun, spirit palm, and spirit bomb are all slightly different versions of the same technique. Your character being able to summon one skeleton and working their way up to three skeletons is both a progression and possibly the creation of a new technique.

Another good example is the lightsaber forms from Star Wars, they’re silly in some cases, but they’ll point out the specific uses for the form and what it is known for. The lightsaber form focused on the deflection of foreign projectiles is different from the one that’s highly acrobatic and aggressive.

This will help you in understanding what “distinct” means in terms of martial arts when you’re ready to go back to your character’s own style, and ultimately aid you in creating one that truly is distinct without seeming silly.

8) Focus on World Building first.

It can be tempting to figure out how your character is special and different when you first start out, but unless you know how combat works within your setting it will end poorly. You’ve got to figure out the general rules first, then accept other major characters will have specialties too, and if your character’s fighting style is well known enough to be recognized then it must be for a reason. By hammering out your setting, the environment, and the dangers, you’ll have an easier to time figuring out how combat works within it.

While violence is often active, it is primarily reactive and reliant on the world it exists in. Your character is using violence to solve their problems, this means figuring out what the problem is, how they got there, and the systems others before them used.

Going over the works of martial arts masters will help you in understanding what the general expectations are for martial artists, which will also help you write the general combat in your setting better.

Start at the beginning and work your way up.


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Q&A: Mercenaries

What exactly is a mercenary? My belief was that it was a soldier/fighter/warrior fighting in a political conflict with a personal interest (such as money to be gained). But many video games and random stories portrait them as random soldiers who fight in any conflict as long as the pay is good; political affiliation or not. Basically a jack of all trades sort of person. If I’m not making a lot of sense it’s because I’m confused myself. Sorry and thanks in advance!

A mercenary is just a soldier for hire. Usually this was entire companies of soldiers who were hired as a unit, but the basic idea is there. The term itself is pejorative, and gets applied in a wider range of circumstances as an insult. Someone who acts for money without regard to their own loyalty or ethics may be described as being mercenary. (The word itself can be used as either a noun or adjective depending on context, though the general meaning remains the same.)

Historically, mercenaries tended to be better trained than conventional standing forces. The thought process here is that maintaining a standing army in medieval Europe was fairly expensive, so you’d maintain a small force (if any), and then press or draft peasant infantry into service when the time came. Within this context, a mercenary company, who’d accumulated years of combat experience would be a significantly more effective force.

Mercenaries could have a unified national identity, and in some cases may even be hired out by their government directly, or they could be an ad hoc band of soldiers, gathered indiscriminately in their travels.

Under international law, there are a few wrinkles to defining when someone is, legally, a mercenary. They need to be hired by a nation to fight for it, and they cannot be from that nation. This only becomes relevant when dealing with situations like war crimes, or treatment of prisoners. This means that private soldiers hired by a corporation aren’t technically mercenaries under the legal definition, even though they’re still called that. This also means when a nation hires private soldiers from their own population, those soldiers aren’t, legally, mercenaries. There’s a pretty solid argument that domestic PMCs (Private Military Companies) should be legally classified as mercenaries, but the practice’s rise is very recent.

I mentioned the term is pejorative, this is in large part because mercenaries fought for coin, rather than out of patriotic duty or loyalty. As a result they’re viewed as dishonorable and untrustworthy. There may be some basis to this, but it’s also why the term has a more generalized meaning. Someone who puts their pay above their principles may be described as mercenary. For example, a political operative with no loyalty to their ideological beliefs could be described as “mercenary,” even though that’s clearly not the traditional meaning of the term. Another possible example would be a character who would willingly sell out their friends for a bounty. Again, not a soldier for hire, but simply amoral behavior in pursuit of cash.


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Q&A: Swords

Can a sword cut through steel bars, or is that fantasy? Also, how much space is needed to use a sword correctly and is there a lot of difference between say, the space needed to use a long sword as opposed to a short sword? I’m guessing an enclosed space the size of a closet would suck. I’ve tried searching through your tags for an answer to this but didn’t find it.

For the first question, the short answer is no. There’s a full discussion to be had on metal hardness

As I said, there are a lot of relevant factors here as well, such as how easily the object will bend out of the way, but when you’re talking about trying to cut your way through a bar of metal, you’re going to need a lot more than just, “a sword.”

I should probably add, you also don’t simply hack through metal armor with a sword. It doesn’t matter how sharp the blade was when you started out, that kind of brute force will wreck the weapon. Instead, you’re looking for openings, which are necessary to allow the user to move.

This still applies for cutting through bars. While the bars and sword may have similar hardness as materials, the blade’s edge will be more fragile, and any attempt to simply hack your way through won’t end well for the sword.

When it comes to simply hacking through objects, you’re better off with an axe. Those are designed to deliver a lot of blunt force along the edge. You still shouldn’t expect much from taking a steel axe to steel bars, but it is better suited for that kind of abuse.

Now, if you’re using some kind of fantasy weapon, like an impossible blade that breaks down anything it connects with on a molecular level, like Warhammer 40k’s power weapons, or a lightsaber, then steel bars aren’t going to pose much of an obstacle. However, in cases like that, you’re not really concerned with how sharp it is.

Okay, back to the second question. There isn’t a concrete answer, because it will be determined by the sword and the techniques your character’s been trained in. It is entirely possible to use swords, even fairly large ones like the zweihander, in fairly tight quarters.

For a lot of European sword combat, the tip of the blade is the most important point of contact, so you’re more interested in linear thrusting strikes, rather than large slashing patterns.

Even when you are whipping the blade around, there’s still a major focus on being efficient with your motion (at least in most of the surviving schools of thought). There are still a few surviving manuscripts and approaches which focus on wider arcing strikes, which would require more space.

Remember, one major use for swords in Europe was in tight quarters while assaulting castles and fortresses. If the sword couldn’t be used in close, it wouldn’t have remained in use for long. This does mean that, sometimes, you need to get creative. There are a number of grips where you’ll control a sword with one hand on the blade (called half-handing, or half-swording), and others where you’ll strike someone with the pommel, which can be executed at much closer ranges.

With very few exceptions, you don’t wave your sword around in large telegraphed strikes unless you need to. It may look cool, but it’s far easier to defend against. Just like in hand-to-hand, exposing your movements to your opponent is something you want to avoid whenever possible. Keeping movement inside your silhouette makes it harder to track. With that said, the circular sword styles you’ll see in something like The Witcher 3 do have a basis in history, and those can work, for a trained practitioner on open ground.

Historically speaking, shortswords weren’t really a thing, sort of. Bladed weapons in the range of 12 to 24 inches existed, were, and are, real, but, like the greatsword or bastard sword the term is almost certainly modern.

Depending on the era, a shortsword would either be a sword, or a variant of knife. This has to do with the overall technological development. The Roman Gladius was a sword, but, turn the clock forward 1500 years, and a similar weapon would have been a knife or bayonet.

If it’s a sword, it’s probably a sidearm. An early iron era soldier would probably carry a spear or some other polearm as their primary weapon, with a backup sword if their primary weapon was lost or destroyed.

If it’s a knife, it’s probably a backup sidearm. An early modern solder, or even a soldier today, will likely carry a knife as an emergency backup should their primary weapon and sidearm fail, or if they need to use it in very tight quarters. For example, if a soldier was tackled to the ground, stabbing their opponent with a knife would be a legitimate option.

It’s probably worth mentioning, a smallsword is actually a rapier, epee, or another sword with a similar long, slender, blade. The name referred the weight of the blade, rather than it’s length.

Sideswords are another descriptive variation. These were longswords specifically intended for use as sidearms. Depending on the individual blade’s country of origin, these could also be a smallswords. They’re not so much a distinct kind of weapon, as a distinct use for one.

There’s an entire discussion to be had on how modern sword names actually make things more complicated than they need to be. The abbreviated version is: A lot of descriptive sword names come from the 18th or 19th century. They classify a lot of  blades idiosyncratically. It’s where we get the modern meaning for terms like long sword, bastard sword, or short sword. Historically you would not have had “a short sword,” it would have simply been, “a sword,” or, “a knife.” There are a few more egregious examples, like the broadsword, which was never used historically. And, as I’ve mentioned, the term “bastard sword,” isn’t new, but on one knows what these referred to historically. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use those terms, just understand, most never really meant anything, historically.

So, in spite of not being a thing, short swords, or long knives, or bayonets, had a role as an emergency backup weapon. That, really hasn’t changed. The way you’d use a combat knife today is fairly similar to what they would have been used for eight-hundred years ago.


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