Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: Kill Bill

Kill Bill has a group of assassins called the “Deadly Vipers” and the main character gets out of the job because she becomes pregnant with Bill’s child and doesn’t want her baby to grow up in that kind of environment. Is this at all believable or realistic for an assassin in the real world sense, or is it just sentimental garbage?

This isn’t a simple up and down, there’s three different pieces here, and there’s no single, “yes/no” answer. And, yeah, I’m going to be spoiling this film, but since the question already kinda did, it’s a little late for a warning.

The Vipers aren’t consistent with the real world. They’re not supposed to be. Kill Bill isn’t that kind of film. Films, really, because in spite of being two parts of the same narrative, they are very distinct pieces, rather than two acts in an ongoing story. Most of what I’m saying revolves around Volume 2, not the first film.

At the center of the second film, there’s a very realistic, and almost healthy, emotional core. More healthy than many people in similar situations tend to react at anyway.

The shell story for Kill Bill is: A woman wakes up from a coma and then goes on a rampage of revenge (the films actually use this phrase) against the former friends/coworkers who put her there.

That’s not particularly realistic. I mean, the general motivation, sure, but the entire thing is very formalistic. This also, classic Tarantino. He loves working with very pulpy genres (in this case, martial arts films), and then digging into them. In the case of Kill Bill, you can think of the shell story as a candy coating designed to keep you from realizing what you just bit into. Like I said, this is something Tarantino loves to do. He’ll offer you a bit of violent escapist fantasy, and then offer up some really vicious commentary once you’ve bought in. Sometimes, you don’t even realize it’s there until someone else points it out.

With that in mind, Kill Bill is not about a woman taking revenge against her attackers. That’s the story, not what it’s about. It is about a woman and her daughter getting away from an abusive, controlling, ex. The violence, and story are Tarantino’s candy coating, so you would sit down and engage with that material, even if, you’re not the kind of person who would willingly watch that.

We have ample opportunities to see Bill’s (David Carradine) behavior through the film. This is someone who sought to maintain ownership of Kiddo (Uma Thurman).

I’ll be honest, my feelings are, Kiddo isn’t bothered by the kind of life she lived, even though she says otherwise. And, I’ll defend this with a detail that may seem fairly flimsy, but the film she and her daughter sit down to watch before she goes to confront Bill is Shogun Assassin. If you’re unfamiliar, the protagonist is a falsely accused man, who goes into exile becoming an assassin with his young son. This is a little too on the nose to be an accident.

Wanting to get out of a toxic relationship, with a controlling and abusive partner is entirely reasonable, and realistic. Bill’s actions are a little extreme, but certainly within the range of the legitimate threat people like him pose.

Kiddo’s behavior is also realistic, to an extent, at least as metaphor. The desire to get her child away from Bill is reasonably grounded. Her entire campaign of revenge probably isn’t exactly a healthy response to an abusive partner, but cutting ties with someone like that is, including mutual acquaintances who will take their side. Not, you know, killing them in front of their children, but cutting them out of your life.

So, is it realistic? Yeah, kinda. Not the surface layer of people spraying blood like malfunctioning lawn sprinklers, but the emotional meat of the second film has more weight than than the hyper-violent fights would suggest.

Is it a good film? I’m not sure. It’s not my favorite Tarantino film, and I can’t blame anyone who looks at it and writes it off as violent spectacle without any redeeming qualities (especially the first film). There is more, and some of that is grounded, but more as parable than at face value.

Are any of Tarantino’s films realistic? Not using the metric you asked for, but that’s kinda missing the point. Tarantino’s talking about something, usually in parallel to the story. Habitually he wraps those themes in an incredibly violent, almost surreal, setting (his films share a setting). That said, I can’t remember if Kill Bill is explicitly part of the same world as Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs, or if it’s intended as a film in that setting. (This is the case with Dusk ‘Till Dawn, for example.)

Something worth saying, again, if these films are not your thing, I don’t hold that against you at all. Tarantino’s entire career has been characterized by violence designed to be uncomfortable. This is entirely intentional. If that’s something you honestly can’t deal with; no judgement.

-Starke

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Q&A: Bows and Crossbows

Which medieval weapon took more training time to become proficient with, a short bow or a cross bow? Which took more strength to use? Some writers portray crossbows as much harder to load but easier for untrained persons to hit targets with devestating effect on heavily armored opponents. Is this true?

So, in order.

The bow. I’m talking about bows in general here. To the best of my knowledge, the term “shortbow,” only dates back to the 1890s, so, not exactly a medieval weapon. This doesn’t mean that smaller bows didn’t exist for specialized purposes, just that they weren’t called, “shortbows.”

Training, again, goes to the bow. Training an archer takes much more time, and is significantly more difficult. This leads into your question about it being easier for an untrained user to put a bolt where they want it. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it is much easier to get someone up to speed on the crossbow. Getting an arrow where you want it does require more skill, training, and practice.

Strength also goes to the bow. At least for upper body strength. You’re pulling a lot of weight with every shot, and assuming your archer is getting enough to eat, they’re going to be stacked after a few years. I think I’ve said this before, but the image of a willowy archer from fantasy just does not track with the reality of the weapon. If you’re effectively pulling 80+ pounds of force with every shot, that’s going to be a workout.

“Reloading” a bow is pretty trivial. Drawing and nocking another arrow is a very simple motion, and there’s almost no mechanical considerations. Reloading a crossbow may be more complicated, depending on the arming and firing mechanisms.

Light crossbows can be rearmed by hand. You simply take the bow string and reset the weapon to fire. Heavier weapons often require mechanical systems (called “spanning mechanisms”) to rearm the crossbow before reloading. These range from a stirrup, to allow you to hold the crossbow in place while you draw the string with both hands, to lever systems, and even cranks (both Cranquins and Windlasses were used). Once the crossbow has been rearmed, the actual reload is fairly simple, but that’s a mostly academic distinction.

Saying that it’s harder to reload a crossbow is fair. A little bit of an abstraction, but that’s entirely fair. They do have a much lower cyclic fire rate. With a bow, you simply need to draw another arrow, nock it, draw, and you’re ready to fire. With a crossbow, you need to rearm it (which may be simple, or it might not be), draw and load the bolt, and then you’re ready to fire.

So, when you have crossbows that are delivering force a human archer could not replicate, then, yes, that’s going to impact a target with more power than you could get from a bow. There’s a lot of factors here that I’m glazing over, so, this doesn’t mean that a crossbow will always, automatically, hit harder, and penetrate armor more easily, with heavier designs, especially ones with crank systems, that’s certainly possible.

So some basic physics, when you launch an un-powered missile (doesn’t matter an arrow, bolt, or bullet), it will lose velocity and be affected by gravity (called drop) as it travels. This means, at shorter ranges, these weapons will exhibit better armor penetration, than they will at a distance. So, if you have a character in fairly tight quarters, like a city street, firing a crossbow, it might have better armor penetration than you’d see from a longbow on a ridge.

In fact, crossbows saw most of their use in urban environments, while bows were more common in rural areas, and among standing military forces. The reason is not just tailoring the right weapon to the right situation, but also economic; crossbows were expensive. Even the light crossbows were more mechanically complicated than a bow, so it was easier to produce low quality bows, than low quality crossbows. Cities, with significant economic and production resources could afford to outfit their armories with crossbows, but equipping a village armory, meant you’d probably have to do without. This also meant that crossbows saw use among mercenaries, since they’d be paying for their own gear. European armies transitioned from bows to crossbows at varying points starting in the 12th century. By the 15th century, almost all of Europe had transitioned over, with the notable exception of the British.

Early firearms began appearing in European warfare, in the 14th century. There’s actually a timeframe where the choice would have been between primitive muskets, and crossbows. This persisted into the early modern era, as well. During this period, the crossbow would have been the an alternative with better armor piercing capabilities than those early guns. Also, for awhile, better accuracy and faster reloads. Once you move out of the middle ages, and into the early modern period, firearms start improving beyond the crossbow, but for awhile they both had a battlefield role.

It’s also worth remembering that in these situation, most soldiers would have carried a sword as their sidearm. So, it’s not like your character would have only carried a bow or crossbow, they also would have had something if they ended up in melee.

-Starke

Q&A: Block versus Block, Innie versus Outie

In judo I learnt to deflect a punch by pushing on the outside of the forearm (so punch from left = push to my right) and I was taught to then grab the wrist and pivot, following the attacker’s original motion and pulling them off balance. This works great because 1. you’re not opposing their motion, 2. they can’t resist, and 3. they end up with their back to you. But would it ever make sense to grab the INSIDE of their arm? >Not writing: drew a pose which feels off for this reason, and wondered.

Yes… there are even ways to perform blocks that don’t involve your opponent going past you. Judo uses this particular block as a primary foundation because it’s a great for setting up a variety of different throws. The eventual goal is not for this to end with their back to you, but for them to be on the ground. However, that particular block is Judo and there are other blocks with a similar motion that create very different options.

So, does it ever make sense to grab the inside of the arm?

Yes, when you want direct access to their entire body. Yes, when you want to knock them over onto their back. Yes, when you want to grab them by the head and put them into a throw using your front leg. Yes, when you want access to their stomach, chest, and neck.  Yes, when you want to go directly from your block into a headbutt. Yes, when you want a straight vector.

You can go up, down, in, out, get onto a variety angles for blocks and deflections depending on the following techniques you’re intending to perform. You can block kicks with your knee/shin/thigh, deflect punches with your hand or your forearm. It all depends on what you’re going to do and what tactics/strategies you’re martial art relies on.

With a inside deflection, knocking your opponent’s arm away, you catch the forearm before the arm reaches full extension and apply opposing force using your wrist rather than your hand to redirect the punch away from you on the same side rather than a cross-block/cross-deflection of lefty/lefty or righty/righty. Doing that inside block opens the body up for direct strikes. You can also gain control of the arm, and the body. Use the opportunity to go right into grappling range, past the point where they can punch you.

There are so many available options that you can do from this position that I really can’t overstate how basic it is. Everything from joint locks, to throws, to pressure points can be done by grabbing the inside of the arm. If you continue with Judo, you will eventually learn what some of these are yourself.

However, what you really want to get rid of from the very beginning are ideas about “the best” or “makes the most sense”.  All blocks and all martial arts are situational. There is no best way to do anything, ever.  There’s a multitude of ways, and most of them work.  You’ll hamstring yourself creatively if you let the fanboy attitude which creeps into martial arts debates take control. Weapons are situational, techniques are situational, blocks are situational. They all have situations where they work and where they don’t. The goal of your training is to expand your horizons so you have a multitude of options available for a variety of situations.

Whenever you ask, “is this the best way?” Know that the answer is, “well, that’s one way.” It may be a good way, but it isn’t the only way.  However, it might be the way you chose and if it is then that’s good enough. Just don’t cut yourself off from learning more, and giving yourself more options when your first instinct is “this doesn’t feel natural.” Of course it’s not, you haven’t learned how to do it yet. That’s no reason not to keep looking.

-Michi

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Q&A: When it comes to women, “Realism” is often wrong

I’m writing a story set in the Victorian era, something I have done a lot of research on, and my female character (a teenager) is a skilled fencer. I have been told that this is ‘unrealistic’ despite research telling me noble women would have actually been ENCOURAGED to fence, as fencing was seen as graceful. I was going to have her get into a duel but I’m worried readers aren’t going to believe woman could fence back then and impose even more restrictions than were in place at the time.

So, with fiction, you can essentially normalize whatever you want. You’re not limited a very narrow view of someone else’s reality. You create the reality your readers experience. You shape the world to your liking. You have that control, you have that power, and, when you get good at crafting new realities, your readership won’t question it because you never gave them the opportunity. However, the trick with normalization is understanding there needs to be more than one. You need many characters from in a multitude of age groups in order to normalize a behavior pattern in a setting.

Never forget, you are the creator and they are the consumer. The consumer doesn’t dictate what the creator creates. A well-written story will always find a home, even one filled with uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Be confident that you’ll find yours.

Remember, perception of history doesn’t outweigh real history except when we ignore the real history’s existence. The fact women were encouraged to fence as they were encouraged to participate in other sports like tennis for the benefit of their health doesn’t outweigh the sexism which existed in Victorian England. It also doesn’t reject women’s participation in sports as being seen as secondary to men’s. Their participation treated as less “legitimate”, less serious, and entirely hobbyist. Which is not so different from how women’s professional sports are treated today.

The trouble with the presentation of many female characters who fight (and this has been normalized) is that they’re the only one. They’re the trailblazer, the only one who fights, who earns her stripes by playing with the big male dogs, who is different from other women. This gives them the position of being special and unique. However, by being different from other woman in such a big way, we cut the setting off from normalizing female participation and the concept of a woman fighting is treated as abnormal. A single outlier is not normalization, and isn’t really proving anything.  In fact, the treatment of a female fighter as being different, unique, and special due to her gender throws the violence and combat ball squarely into the male court. By normalizing violence as the domain of men, these female characters are framed as infringing on spaces inherently male rather than just culturally male. This treatment of sex and gender ends up normalizing the very sexist stereotypes and cultural mores that the narrative is trying to combat.  The treatment posits that men are inherently and naturally better at combat than women because violence is male, and the truth that combat is a skill you practice and work at in order to be good gets lost.

Women have always fought. You’ll find at least two women in just about every martial arts class, and probably more. There will be older women and younger women, the women who threw off society’s rules to completely embrace their martial calling, the women who didn’t, the women who are there just for that bit of added grace, the ones who are there because their mother or father made them, the ones who love it, the ones who aren’t really interested in fencing. They’re just crushing on the salle’s fencing instructor or taking the opportunity to go husband hunting among the available gentry. You need lots of female characters with varying opinions on the subject and with their own reasons for engaging in the sport. The primary opponents for a female fencer are going to be other female fencers, and that’s also who she’ll be training with; even if the master is a man. Where women dueling women is acceptable, women dueling men will be socially frowned upon. This doesn’t mean a woman can’t duel a man on equal terms, they can. However, the social and societal consequences for breaking with tradition are much more severe.

This is where the sexism the audience has been trained to expect leaks back in. The mental jump is in the statement: “it is socially frowned upon for women to do X” and the logic then  becomes “women can’t do X!” because we don’t talk about the ones who challenged social mores. There’s the assumption, and then there’s the reality. Audiences demanding realism often overfocus on their assumptions, rather than what is real. Fiction is a poor substitute for the real world, which is often much more complicated. The reality is women’s fencing as a codified sport has been thriving for over a century. Women have been fencing and fighting for much longer than that. Women learned and practiced self-defense in Victorian England, there were women who did fight in live duels against other women, and there were those who participated in the sport purely as a means of exercise.

Women didn’t duel in Victorian England, they say? We have actual historical events of women dueling topless, and not for the entertainment of male or female spectators. No, they dueled topless to avoid infection and to keep cloth from going into the wound. In this particular instance, the countess and the princess were dueling over floral arrangements for an upcoming musical exhibition.

The reasons your characters have for dueling could be really, really out there. Violence over floral arrangements may not make sense to us, but it did to them. Humans can be really out there, and history isn’t a sham collection of men doing everything while women stayed home. History is littered with badass women from all over the world doing crazy things. I wouldn’t even say that a woman dueling a man in Victorian England would actually be all that out there because women did, what would be unrealistic is there being no consequences (societal or otherwise) for the act. There were certainly women who openly flouted convention. Novelist George Eliot is one example. Female prize fighter and all around bare knuckle boxing champion, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes is another.

However, culture involves more than one.

If you want to portray an attitude as normal, you need to have your characters treat the attitude like it’s normal and back that up with a robust mixed gender cast. Women are drawn to violence in the same way men are, and female members of the aristocracy certainly did duel each other. There were articles written on the subject of how fencing is good for women’s health.

So, should you fear detractors? No, you shouldn’t.

Don’t give them power over your work. Women have been carving out their place in the world of professional sports and on the battlefield for a long, long time. The tragedy is that our culture at large pretends they don’t exist in order to uphold the sexist mores underpinning our society. Remember, women make up half of the human race and half of every society. Honestly, read this article. The Boy’s Club may be societally acceptable, but it’s actually unrealistic.

So, if you want normal, jam your work full of female fencers of every age. Main characters, secondary characters, side characters, and cameos. Female friends, female rivals, female mentors, female teachers, female assistants, female family members, female characters who just don’t understand, female characters of every stripe imaginable. Women who fence, women who don’t, women who look down their nose at it, women who think its unseemly, women who long to be taken more seriously, and the women who just don’t care what society thinks. Those do it anyway. All these types of women have existed.

You’ll always find detractors, but the answer is easy.

Do it anyway.

-Michi

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Q&A: Sword & Gun

So my story exists in a modern-day setting where magic and supernatural entities are extremely common and well known. The main character is what is known as a “Bladesman”, a sort of modern-day knight who specializes in magical combat, as well as dual-wilding a sword and a revolver (no semi-automatic weapons- never got that far because magic was cooler). How do you think this fighting style would work out? What’s kind of strategies would be employed?

These actually came as two separate questions, hence the broken format.

So, I know I’ve said this before, but the problem with swords in a modern combat environment is range. If you have any kind of repeating firearm, the chances of getting into range where you can use a melee weapon drops dramatically. Even if your setting is only using revolvers, the chances of your character actually using their sword is fairly slim.

Gun and sword combinations are most prevalent when the firearm will not adequately dispatch your foes, but can function as way to open combat. If your setting is age of sail, with single shot, inaccurate smooth bore pistols which need to be reloaded after each shot, then carrying a saber for melee makes a lot of sense. Especially if you’re going to be fighting in close quarters.

Revolvers start to skew these situations against the gun and sword combo. It doesn’t mean you can’t use them. Just that your character is far more likely to carry a sword, and switch to that when their revolver isn’t working.

This is especially plausible when you’re dealing with creatures that are impervious to bullets, or require some kind of specialized equipment to dispatch.

I’d also caution against the, “magic was cooler,” bit. When it comes to weapons technology, people tend to look for what’s more efficient, or effective, before they worry about how cool something is. When it comes to aesthetics, sure, but that no one developed an autoloader because it wasn’t cool enough isn’t consistent with how people actually behave.

You don’t use a gun that can fire eight times, which is also easier and faster to reload over a six-shot revolver because it looks cool. You use it because you’re getting two extra shots, and a faster reload, because that’s a decisive advantage over someone who’s fumbling with their wheel gun.

There are legitimate reasons why your character might use a revolver, there are even legitimate reasons why semi-automatic firearms may not exist in your setting, but coolness shouldn’t be a consideration.

Some possibilities include the idea that the revolver itself is enchanted in some way. Your character may be loading unconventional rounds into it that wouldn’t function in an automatic. Your character may prefer the accuracy or even the feel of the revolver. If your character spends a lot of time unable to care for their weapon, a revolver might be a better option simply for the ease of maintenance, and overall durability.

You might also have a setting where advanced machinery malfunctions in the face of magic. This could render firearms more advanced than a revolver non-functional when dealing with magic users. Of course, this would also cause serious issues for other mechanical systems, like almost all modern vehicles. So, that’s a major world-building issue you may want to think through.

It’s possible the overall mechanical simplicity of a revolver makes it easier to enchant in your setting.

There’s also a legitimate argument for sufficiently advanced magic impairing the development of technology in a setting. After all, why would you need phones if you could communicate with someone else using enchanted objects. This can lead to a complex web of anachrotech as things like cellphones or even computers don’t exist in favor of magical alternatives. This may result in a situation where characters are using some kind of multi-shot cartridges for their firearms. As in you load a single shell, but can fire ten or more magical blasts from it. At that point, the idea of a conventional semi-automatic firearm wouldn’t have much of a place. Though, I suspect you’d see something more like a bolt action pistol, designed to be fired multiple times on the same chamber before cycling (which doesn’t exist in the real world, for obvious reasons.)

It’s also distinctly possible your character (or other characters) may carry talismans designed to ward off bullets. This would cause the swords to make somewhat more sense. Though, again, we’re back to the situation where your character would be using one weapon or the other, though probably not both at the same time. Though, they may draw both together, and begin by firing before switching to their sword.

Also, before I forget, what are some swords that you can wield effectively with one hand? Thanks!

Nearly any sword can be used effectively with one hand, even greatswords like the claymore or zweihander. It’s worth remembering, even the largest didn’t exceed 8lbs, (most greatswords were 5-6lbs.) Most European swords were designed for use in one hand, so, while they benefit from an off hand, they don’t need it. To be fair, wielding a great sword with one hand is not ideal.

There’s also a number of swords, mostly early modern ones, such as the saber and rapier, which were designed to be used in one hand exclusively.

So, nearly any sword. I suppose when you start mixing in magical enchantments, even those limitations start to become a bit more flexible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Conscription

How would military conscription work? Specifically wondering how the military would prevent/handle evasion of service, and the mental effects of getting signed on for a war you don’t want to fight.

How would it work, or how does it work?

Historically there have been many different forms of military conscription, ranging from press gangs, drafts and compulsory service.

Impressment was the practice of forcibly “recruiting” people into the military, usually via the use of a press gang. In most situations, they would simply go out, grab some civilians and drag them back. This was at it’s height in the 18th century, and is basically unheard of today in developed nations. In most cases, impressment was naval, so press gangs were looking for sailors.

Worth noting, impressment didn’t, necessarily, restrict itself to members of one’s own nation. For somewhat obvious reasons you wouldn’t want to forcibly conscript civilians from a hostile power, and then place them on your warship, but at the same time, there were a number of incidents where British press gangs picked up American sailors in British ports in the late 19th century, and even an incident where a British sailor was pressed into service on the U.S.S. Constitution.

Drafts are a form of conscription where military recruits are drawn from the general population. The exact method of selection varies, but again, if selected, off you go.

Mandatory service still exists and several countries including Switzerland and Israel require that every citizen serves at some point. Though, there are additional nuances to this. Such as, any civil service being eligible, or potential exemptions, such as medical conditions. (These also tend to exist with drafts.)

How does the military handle evasion of service? Well, they can lock you up, or kill you. That’s not an idle possibility. Under British rule the penalty for resisting impressment was execution by hanging. In the case of drafts and mandatory service, criminal penalties, either by the civilian courts, or military ones, exist. Attempting to avoid a draft could result in a warrant, arrest by police, and imprisonment.

Once you’re in the military’s hands, they have all sorts of creative forms of punishment available to them, not including actual Courts Martial for serious crimes such as desertion, or dereliction of duty. Also, remember, that desertion in wartime is frequently a capital offense. So, what can they do to make you comply? Well, they can lock you up, and or kill you.

As for the mental effects, historically it’s a grim picture. Until the last thirty to forty years, combat induced PTSD was viewed as cowardice. Not a psychological condition. Not something that needed to be addressed. Just cowardice. Called things like, “combat fatigue,” or “shell shock,” these weren’t regarded as psychological conditions that needed treatment. It was, simply, viewed as a soldier trying to shirk their duties, and would result in punishment.

But, I mean, we’re talking about a military that has no qualms about dragging someone off to die alone, on foreign soil, thousands of miles from anyone they ever knew or loved. Why do you think they’d give a moment’s consideration to anyone’s feelings?

Concern for a soldier’s psychological well being (regardless if they’re conscripts or volunteers), is shockingly recent, and there’s still a long way to go on that front. Some are doing better than others, but still.

-Starke

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Q&A: Large Swordbreakers

Would a swordbreaker that is scaled up to the size of a one or two handed sword be useful, or too situational?

I’m unsure if it would even be possible, or at the very least, useful.

The entire idea behind a swordbreaker is to have a parrying tool you can use to catch and lock up your opponent’s blade. So, you’d carry a sidearm in your main hand, this could be a sword, an axe, whatever, and you’d use the swordbreaker in your off hand, to parry with. These wouldn’t necessarily break the blade, but they would allow the user to torque it and keep hold of the blade, while retaliating with their own primary weapon.

A longer, sword sized, swordbreaker would much harder to produce, and much more fragile, which starts to undermine its intended use. The two designs that come to mind off hand were comb style blades, which could hook and catch a blade between the teeth, and two pronged, “forks.” (I’m including trident daggers under this, if anyone is wondering.) I suspect making a sword length comb would result in an unreasonably fragile item. Too fragile for use as a swordbreaker.

Extending a fork to sword lengths would be similarly pointless, because you’d still only be using the six inches near the grip, and the extended tines would just get in the way and slow you down. Someone could make one, but I doubt it could be used, at least not as a swordbreaker. I’m also not even considering the structural stability on a long fork, because, really, it wouldn’t be able to work as a swordbreaker.

There are examples of existing swords that include sword breaker features, such as tines designed to trap the opponent’s blade near the guard, though these features are more common on parrying daggers. You will also, sometimes, see heavier piercing blades, like the estoc described as swordbreakers. This is technically incorrect, as those weapons were designed to deal with armor, but the term is used that way sometimes.

So, no. It’s not even a situational consideration, just a practical use problem.

-Starke

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Q&A: Diamond Swords

Hello! I was wondering if a sword with a diamond blade be of any use. I know that diamonds are often used for cutting things and are (to my knowledge) one of the hardest materials on Earth. Note: This is a fantasy story and a few people have the ability to manipulate diamonds like other metals so getting it the shape wouldn’t be a problem and there aren’t enough people with this ability to make it a weakness on the battlefield. Thank you!

I honestly thought I answered this ages ago, but apparently I never wrote the post.

Diamonds are usually presented as the hardest substance, but this is a little misleading.  In mineralogy, “hardness,” is not the same thing as “toughness.” Hardness is used to evaluate how well a substance resists scratching. In this regard, Diamonds are amazingly hard, and it’s almost impossible to scratch the surface. This also makes it difficult to selectively cut a diamond. They are not particularly tough, however. Toughness is the evaluation of how resistant a material is to fracturing.

So, your diamond sword will never be scratched; that’s kinda cool. However, your diamond sword will crack and shatter if you parry an incoming strike with a steel blade. Now, those shards won’t pick up a scratch but you’d be hard pressed to use the remains as a sword.

To be fair, I’m not certain if this will happen on the first blow, or if it’ll take a few hits before it breaks. I’m also fairly certain it could break after stabbing someone if the blade was torqued incorrectly on the way in or out. Dropping your diamond sword is also a bad idea, for the same reasons.

There’s probably some larger metaphor here for the entire idea of creating invincible forces, but not being able to shore up the actual system that supports them, or just the idea of having one unassailable defense, but nothing shoring it up, allowing your enemy to simply skirt around.

Okay, that’s the part where this doesn’t work. So, what does?

You could, potentially, use some kind of synthetic diamond coating over a blade. I may have a synthetic diamond knife sharpener around here somewhere, come to think of it.

You could have a blade where the primary core is steel (or some other material), but the blade itself is a thin diamond inset. For what it’s worth, there is some merit to this design, as the concept is somewhat similar to the real macuahuitl, from Mesoamerican civilizations. At that point it might not even matter if individual stones shatter in combat as they might be replaceable. It might also be possible to “coat” a steel core in diamond and use that. It would still crack, and eventually shatter, but it would probably see some use before that happened.

Steel weapons with carbon nanotube structures do exhibit extraordinary durability. Though those aren’t how we usually think about diamonds. This probably includes Damascus steel, and does include some other superalloys.

If your setting had the capacity to make diamond weapons, then you could reasonably see those as ceremonial pieces, or given as gifts. You might be able to come up with some other uses, such as medical tools. But, ultimately, the applications are severely limited.

However, if there’s magic in your fantasy setting with the ability to overcome the detriments of brought on by real diamonds then feel free to go hog wild.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Mafia and Children

On the topic of child killers, would a child who was raised by people in the Italian Mafia (and joined at 16) be more like a Child Soldier or a Gladiator as you described in your last post? This person is young but would be expected to kill. He wants to be in the Mafia. He isn’t forced. I’m having trouble because some of your post say children/teens will immediately be negatively affected later in life but what if the MC didn’t see it as wrong? What would be realistic here?

At the same time, witnessing violence IS traumatic and anyone involved might have psychological problems or know someone who does, especially if they aren’t shown how to take care of themselves. Believing what you do is right and having other criminals to look up to wouldn’t completely erase psychological trauma for everyone. So I’m not sure how much trauma (or what kind of attitude toward violence) would be realistic.

Most criminal organizations aren’t going to use kids for killing people. They’re too useful in other roles. (The exception here are street gangs, which use violence or killing as a right of initiation. There’s more here, but it’s mostly unrelated to the question at hand.)

From what I understand, historically the Mafia, at least in the US, used kids as couriers, lookouts, and in other support positions where a child would draw less attention than an adult rather than directly exposing them to the violence early on.

In particular, they’d pull kids in by offering the kid respect and a place in the family. To be fair, I’m calling them children, but realistically we’re talking about teenagers.

As they got older, they’d gradually transition into more important responsibility in their crew.

Now, I’m not clear on exactly how much of this was pragmatic (such as keeping them away from information that could truly damage family operations), or how much was a result of cultural norms that the Mafia was paying lip service to. I’m also pretty sure the line between lookout, and helping shake down a business was fairly slim at times.

Generally speaking, kids that get into organized crime (including gangs), aren’t really forced into the life. They often come from broken or otherwise dysfunctional families, where the organization takes the place of their parents and normal support structures. This results in members that are exceedingly loyal to their organization, because The Family is their family.

The mistake you seem to be making is thinking that a teenager would be tasked out as a hitman. To the best of my knowledge, that didn’t really happen. If you’re running a massive criminal enterprise, you don’t want to trust a high school dropout with something as potentially explosive as a contract killing. Most Mafia hitmen I’m aware of started working as killers in their late 20s at the earliest. A few did start out running errands for the mob as teenagers, and gradually moved up the ranks, but giving a contract to a teen is a huge liability that no credible Family would want.

The only thing a teenager in the mob would be expected to do is keep their mouth shut. Now, a teenager who spent a few years in prison because they took the fall for a member of the family would probably be well regarded once they got out, and might even be on the path to becoming a hitman later in life, but it wouldn’t be where their career started.

The irony is, that someone who joined the Mafia as a teen probably wouldn’t view violence as wrong. In theory the Mafia maintained a code of honor, though in practice the actual members were extremely violent individuals, and any sense of honor was, at best, a pretext they followed, lest they end up on the wrong side of it. Meaning you’re very likely looking at someone with an extremely cavalier attitude about violence and death, with little to no empathy for anyone outside The Family.

Any trauma would probably derive from violence directed at their friends or (biological) family. Watching their buddy being killed by another outfit would leave a mark. Violence against random civilians, not so much.

However, there was an entirely different “career path” for kids in the mob, or, more accurately, outside of the mob. Some mob bosses, would perform “outreach,” exercises to troubled youths. (The most famous case I’m aware of is “Whitey” Bulger, though his example doesn’t exactly fit the behavior I’m describing.) The boss would continue to provide support and cultivate a patron/client relationship with some of the children as they aged. The entire idea was to create family members with no criminal background, allowing them to infiltrate organizations that would normally be impervious to the Mafia. Particularly law enforcement and Family lawyers were particularly desirable, though political office was another potential goal. It’s also not entirely clear how well these efforts actually worked out. (In the case of Bulger, it started a friendship with John Connolly, who would eventually become a member of the FBI, and provided protection for Bulger from the Boston PD, and federal scrutiny.)

So, no, your Mafia hitman probably didn’t start pulling the trigger until they were in their late 20s at the earliest. Using kids as soldiers and assassins is for street gangs and despotic warlords, not for criminal enterprise.

-Starke

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Q&A: Psychology and Exposition

So. I don’t know if you can help me, but I feel like a lot of the general public’s ideas about psychology are wrong. Should I spend time trying to explain in the book or just portray something more realistic knowing I’ll probably have someone saying it was wrong in a review? I have a psych degree and am working on a master’s.

The simple truth about criticism is, it’s only useful when it’s giving you information that can help you improve your work.

Someone saying, “you suck,” is not useful criticism. It’s something you can ignore. Someone saying, “you’re wrong,” is not useful, especially when you’re working in your chosen field. You have a BS in psychology, and managed to get into grad school. That is your field; you cannot expect to win an applause from someone on the toad licking end of a Dunning-Kruger continuum.

You know what you’re talking about; they don’t. At that point, their criticism will offer extremely limited value. It can tell you, that you may not have clarified enough, but ultimately, when someone goes off about how it doesn’t match what they learned from their favorite TV show, you can stop there. You don’t need to account for them, and you shouldn’t engage in self-censorship to appease idiots.

There’s a disturbing tendency to fetishize a wide range psychological conditions. It’s not okay. It’s extremely unhealthy to the people who deal with these on a regular basis. People consume that media and then expect reality to conform.

In the current climate, I’d actually say, “going with the flow,” is incompatible with your education, or at least the ethical responsibilities of someone who chooses to become a practicing psychologist. You can make the world a better place by taking your education and digging into the details. It won’t change overnight, but there is a real benefit to saying, “no, this is how this stuff actually works.” Especially when you’re talking about the human brain, and how people behave. Something that all of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

There is also real harm in simply accepting the image of a disorder as a fetishistic auteur, who’s “genius” is unimpeachable, and therefore all behavior is acceptable.

The other part of your question, is about exposition balance. You know you have enough exposition when your readers can follow the story, and the background information. You have too much if the story starts to drag. You don’t have enough if your readers are getting confused by what you’re doing. I’ve never discovered a shortcut to finding this balance; it simply takes practice.

There’s no universal truth to how much exposition you can use. Some writers handle it better than others, and can get away with chunky exposition dumps that would choke most.

The old writing advice, “be efficient with your language,” is in full effect. If you don’t need an explanation to keep your readers up to speed, don’t include it. If your audience reports confusion, then you may want to expand some explanations.

However, if your goal is to educate, then you’re also going to want to work as much information into your story as you can. You may want to consider burying exposition into events taking place, the insights of other characters, or even the environment  (when appropriate.)

To be fair, you should be doing most of those things anyway. You don’t need a character to tell you something if you can simply show it. You may need a throwaway line saying, “this is why,” but you can farm a lot of exposition onto the world, and move it out of dialog. This doesn’t specifically help you, but it’s good advice for dealing with exposition in general.

No, don’t worry about writing something that conflicts with, “common knowledge,” when it’s really just a harmful stereotype, or even a flat out myth. Having your preconceptions echoed back to you may be momentarily gratifying, but it’s intellectual junk food. This is your field, show people what you know.

-Starke

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