Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: Powered By Pain

Can you use pain to keep yourself going? I’ve experienced back pains where the waves hurt like hell but at the same time sort of feel good to endure. As a fiction example, I’m think Kylo Ren punching his own wound at the end of TFA.

Yes, you will learn to do it if you engage in any kind of exercise on a regular basis, especially if you do any sort of competitive sport. You don’t need to train in martial arts or be a martial combatant, but there are entire philosophies built off the concept of using the general discomfort you experience while working out as a  motivating factor. Mind over Matter is one example. The Determinator as a character archetype is another. Sith philosophy is built around this concept dialed to eleven and taken to its most toxic extreme.

The healthy usage of pain involves learning to distinguish real injuries from your body’s complaint. In this way your body protesting when you push yourself to a sprint over the last half lap at the end of a mile feels really good. Pain becomes a mental and physical block to overcome and push past to new heights. That discomfort feels good. This becomes a tool for self-empowerment, and its a cultural cornerstone for anything… and everything. It’s everywhere, you just never learned how to look for it.

I get knocked down, but I get up again. You ain’t never gonna keep me down. – Chumbawamba.

In the real world, this tops out with some very toxic behavior by athletes, martial artists, soldiers, etc, where they will themselves through serious injuries in an attempt to ignore them for short term gains and result in permanently injuring themselves. Not resting when you’re sick and trying to power through it is one example, being restless and frustrated by your injuries, getting back to training before you’ve fully healed, etc.

Whenever we come through a difficult or painful experience, that experience empowers us. What we’ve endured, whether that pain is emotional or physical becomes a source of strength. We’ve overcome, and we’re proud of that. On the flip side, Positive Pain is also the philosophical basis for “oh, you’re so weak” attitudes, putting people down because they’re not “strong enough”, and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” are based on the idea that the pain and hardships you experience are good for you. That if you’re having trouble then all you need to do is toughen up. See also: child abuse as a disciplinary tool.

Kylo Ren is a terrible example of the Sith utilization of pain as a tool for personal empowerment, he’s not on the radar for the crazy stuff they get up to, and barely for the real philosophy. He certainly doesn’t use the philosophy or purse it in a meaningful way. Lord Sleeps With Vibroblades is probably the best example of this Sith taken to the extreme end. (In Legends, the Sith are secondary to the true Pain Kings of Star Wars i.e. the Yuuzhan Vong. They make the Sith pain obsession look healthy by comparison.) Kylo Ren’s not really out there for a Sith or martial arts philosophies about using pain to give yourself a power up/invincible/make you immortal. Which is a thing in Star Wars with the Force. The more you beat on a Sith, the more you fight them, the more powerful they become. In the case of Darth Sion, you literally have to talk him to death.

Luke fighting against Vader is Luke playing to Vader’s strengths, which is why Vader spends the entire battle in Return of the Jedi attempting to emotionally unsettle him. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader is a philosophical conflict, which is part of what lends the scene so much weight.

The Sith use their emotional conflict, inner turmoil, and internal strife to empower themselves. That is… Sith. Their training is actively physically and emotionally abusive in order to transform them into a character Powered By Pain. They don’t whine about it, they conquer it, they take pleasure in it, they enjoy suffering. They turn that pain into power, and inflict their negative emotions, their own suffering onto others. Some of the most powerful Sith are internally being torn apart, all the time, they’re tearing themselves apart. They start out abuse victims and those who survive conquer to become abusers themselves, that is the Sith cycle at its core. They’ll inflict trauma and misery and pain and suffering and and loss and terrible injury because the emotions those experiences will bring out make you strong. Access the Dark Side with raw rage, terror,  constant/immense physical pain, weaponize all three, add a dose of killer ruthlessness, and you get Darth Vader.

Look at him.

He’s in constant pain, his pain makes him angry,  leaves him enraged, and his hate for the world makes him a terrible force to be reckoned with. He is empowered by pain, by fear, and by rage. He’s mastered his emotions, weaponized them, and now forces others to experience shades of what he has.

Through pain, find strength. Through rage, find clarity. Through injury, know thyself.

A Sith is a wounded animal lashing out at the world around them,  raw, passionate, terrified, selfish, self-obsessed, incredibly destructive to those they encounter and just as desperately self-destructive. They taught to be that way by their master, then become it themselves as they learn to their own inner struggle. A Jedi finds strength in making peace with their wounds, in healing, where a Sith takes strength from letting themselves bleed. A Sith stalls out the healing process, and breaks their drivers stick in order to remain stuck in Stage Two out of the Five Stages of Grief: Anger.

If you lack a solid understanding of the way rage presents itself within the human condition, its varied nature, and varied approaches then you’ll end up with an angsty, whiny, immature teenager like Kylo Ren. You end up thinking the pain is what’s important, the rage is important, but rage poorly directed is impotent in the narrative scheme. Without maturity in your understanding, you get a child lashing out in a temper tantrum. They’re going nowhere.

Kylo Ren destroys a console with his lightsaber (wasteful) when things don’t go his way, he actively destroys what he needs to succeed. Darth Vader murders the admiral or captain responsible for the mission’s failure and immediately replaces them with a more motivated underling, he’s getting rid of impediments to success. One is a petulant self-sabotaging child, the other is the worst day shift manager who is still getting shit done.

Pain is not the important part, the willpower and drive to endure and overcome is. You’ve got to do something with your pain. This pain becomes part of what motivates you to succeed.

This is ten percent luck
Twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure
Fifty percent pain
And a hundred percent reason to remember the name.
– “Remember the Name”, Fort Minor

“The world treated me poorly so I will respond in kind” is really the starting point for a Sith, and this attitude upgrades into high key drama with black cloaks and sworn oaths of vengeance. They are living incarnations of the Id run amok, often wallowing in the worst aspects of humanity driven to the darkest extremes, but their pain (usually) comes from a real place. What makes them so compelling, I think, is that their behavior and their experiences are a natural extension of what the audience has experienced in their own lives. Their response to that pain is cathartic, and the attitude is natural; even sympathetic. We’ve all wanted to be selfish, devoted to our own ambitions at the expense of all else without societal judgement. The Sith are easier to understand than the Jedi.

Kylo Ren is a terrible example of this philosophy because he doesn’t take ownership of his pain, he blames others for his injuries, he doesn’t weaponize his suffering. In comparison to other Sith, his pain and internal strife are window dressing. They don’t mean much on a narrative level, his pain isn’t driving him to become stronger. He’s not using his passionate and painful emotions to fuel his strength, achieve greater enlightenment, or his strengthen connection to the Dark Side of the Force. He complains about the pain he experiences, he complains about how unfair life is, he complains about being in pain and seeks audience sympathy for the “unjust circumstances” surrounding his life. He’s like a whiny teenager,and, since he’s thirty, his development’s pretty arrested. That’s… not great, Bob. Compare him to Dooku, Ventress, and Anakin Skywalker. Their pain and rage catapulted them into actual narrative action, became the foundations of their characters, and led to ambitions they pursued for their own personal gratification.

Powered by Pain is a personality type that finds its extreme in The Determinator, they are willpower embodied. The more difficult the situation becomes the stronger they get, the more they’re energized by events, and they just keep getting up time after time. No matter what you inflict, they keep coming.

Characters who embody this philosophy even just a little are either those who find strength in what they’ve endured, or bullies lashing out at the world around them as they run from pain. You will either be a slave to pain, or you will face pain and take control of what hurts you. In this process, you’ll either become a kinder, more compassionate individual or someone who is colder, crueler, more distant, less sympathetic, and even elitist toward others’ “weakness” on the emotional spectrum.

The TLDR to your question is: yes.

Overcoming pain is absolutely one means of personal empowerment, both physically and psychologically, and an experience every single person reading this has shared to varying degrees (even if they don’t realize it.)

The problem is the conversation is so much larger than you might imagine, so fundamental to a multitude of cultures around the world, so embedded in the human psyche and popular culture that we really can’t have a quick discussion about it.

‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off.
– “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
Yes, even Taylor Swift has this philosophy going on.

So, do me a favor, and leave Kylo Ren at the door. He can’t come in. He’s a weak-willed, lilly-livered wannabe with delusions of grandeur. He’s a bully, he has a “strong” exterior but his insides are crumbling. He’s more a vague cosplay than the genuine article, playacting. The Elric brothers from FMA are much better examples when it comes to using personal tragedy and physical injury as a motivating force to achieve your goals. They’re a much more positive example too.

If you want to be empowered by pain, you’ve got to run at your problems and not away from them. Use your fear as a catapult, let it propel you toward conquest.

-Michi

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Q&A: Contact Poisons

I’ve heard of historical cases of people dying by poison being applied to fabric, accidentally or deliberately. Is contact poison a viable method of murder? Could it be used, not to kill altogether, but to weaken an opponent for someone else to fight?

It depends on the poison. There are a lot of poisonous substances that can be absorbed through the skin, including things like Anthrax, Strychnine and Cyanide. (Technically Anthrax is a biological agent.)

There are poisons that can disorient or impair the victim without killing them. Too many to even start to go into them.

Ironically, the first thing that comes to mind and fits both of these is Lidocaine. Lidocaine, and a number of other similar anesthetics such as Novocaine and Oracaine, are synthetic relatives of cocaine, producing numbness on contact, and they’re commonly used in dentistry. You can kill someone with a sufficient dose, as well. Also, the normal topical administration method is via a gel, not a liquid but the idea is there.

One major, historical, issue with accidental poisonings was arsenic. When used as a dye, Arsenic produces a vibrant green color. This was briefly popular in the 18th century, for wallpaper patterns and paints. In a dry environment, it’s mostly safe, however when you add heat and humidity, low doses can be released as an (effectively) undetectable vapor. This won’t result in an immediate death, but prolonged exposure can result in chronic poisoning.

There’s a bit of history here, if you’re interested: In 1815, after his military defeat, Napoleon Bonaparte was sent into exile on the Island of Saint Helena. He’d previously been exiled to Elba in 1814, after a separate military defeat, only to return to France, and restart his campaigns, so this time he was sent to a far more remote island.  Six years later, on May 5, 1821, he died.

Napoleon’s autopsy listed the cause of death as stomach cancer, there were ulcers found during the procedure, and a family history (though that wasn’t, apparently, known at the time). And, that was that… until the mid 1960s.

This is where things get a little strange. Records kept, both before and after Napoleon’s demise, suggest that he may have died from chronic arsenic poisoning. This includes the symptoms he displayed as his health deteriorated on Saint Helena, as well as how well his body was preserved when it was eventually moved from the island to France in 1840. Additionally, surviving hair samples displayed arsenic traces one hundred times what you would expect today. (The biology involved is that, because arsenic is an element, it doesn’t break down in the body, so it is flushed through various sources, including your hair.)

Into the early 2000s, there was a persistent theory that, because he’d managed to escape Elba, the British had decided to finally finish him off (St. Helena was a British holding). Politically, they couldn’t simply execute him, so the theory held that they dosed his private wine stocks with low doses of arsenic.

The competing argument, of course, is that his wallpaper used an arsenic derived green dye, and that the elevated arsenic content found in the surviving hair samples was the result of atmospheric exposure, probably throughout his life, but particularly during his time on St. Helena.

I am skimming over a lot of details here, there are entire books on the subject of Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena and his eventual death, and rumors that the British were poisoning him, or plotting to kill him existed at the time. So, at some levels, this is nothing new.

-Starke

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Q&A: Violence Is All About Efficiency

if i recall correctly you all have talked before about how being a little faster or stronger isn’t nearly as important as the better choice of armor or weapons and having competency with them, but from what i know of HEMA, in general the weaponry and so the armor of europe generally trended toward more of a style of finesse in fighting (which involves a large amount of training with your weapon of course), would that be accurate to say?

No, assuming strength, dexterity, finesse, or any other trait involves missing the most important one of all: efficiency.  In order to write good fight scenes, this is one you need to internalize. There are two terms to familiarize yourself with:

The Economy of Violence.

Conservation of Movement.

If you are not efficient with the energy you have, you will die.  No matter how much endurance you have and how much you train, your energy pool will always be limited. The entire goal of martial combat is to expend as little energy as possible while protecting yourself as much as you possibly can. Finesse, strength, dexterity, any other attribute comes in second to this goal, and you do not need a long period of training to learn to be efficient. Small, minute movements rather than large ones conserve energy; weapons make it easier to kill your enemies, and the more efficient the weapon, the easier it is to learn in a short period of time. The weapons Europe gravited toward were weapons that required little time to learn and were effective with marginal training, because you didn’t need to waste time getting someone up to snuff. The easier a weapon is, the more individuals gravitate towards learning how to use the weapon, the more widespread it becomes, and the quicker it is adapted as a cultural mainstay.  See: the handgun.

In the modern era, we can train a combat ready soldier in three months. They won’t be the best, they won’t be perfect, but they’ll be effective and, more importantly, efficient in their fighting style.

The Economy of Violence is the cost of violence, the toil it takes on the body, the time it takes to kill your enemy, and what you must pay physically, mentally, and emotionally in order to win. Violence has both costs and consequences, internalizing this concept is necessary as a writer to bring realism to your fiction. This is an economy you must create within your own writing, and keep at the forefront of your mind. Unlike the real world, you’re creating the rules and, while that sounds great, the rules are what sustain Suspension of Disbelief. Violating those rules will break the disbelief, and dispel the illusion. Not so terrible compared to the real world where misunderstanding the cost and consequence of violence will get you injured, killed, shamed, and shunned.

Fictional characters are often wasteful to the point of becoming unrealistic because they don’t need to face physical, mental, emotional, and societal consequences of their actions if the writer chooses to exclude them. They can fight forever if the writer wants.  They can do whatever you want them to. Of course, these stories lack tension, audiences cry about their believability, and there’s not much point to reading them. Still, you can if you want.

Efficiency is a lesson which carries beyond violence. Embracing the Economy of Violence and learning to be efficient in your own writing will help you grow into a better writer. Your scenes will flow better, your narrative will stay on point, your characters will feel more like real people, your sentences will be uncluttered, and your writing will have purpose. You’ll understand what you’re doing, where you’re going, and what toll you’ll need to pay in order to get where you want to be. Your characters will start making choices dependent less on what the narrative needs and more on their own survival. They’ll start choosing violent actions that are more than set pieces, but based in their emotions and their smarts. Their narrative structure will support them with natural fallout.

Understand this, the make or break is in how well you control your resources. The tension is in the cost and consequence, in the time it takes to achieve objectives. Waste not, want not, after all.

If you study the evolution of violence and martial combat styles worldwide, even without the ancillary details, the focus is always not just on what works but what takes the least time. Effectiveness is the order of the day. After all, why use three strokes to achieve the same goal when you can just use one. When looking to improve, the focus rests on streamlining and raising the effectiveness of the tool at hand. The tools are discarded when better or more effective/efficient tools come along.

This is why your fight scenes need internal justification from your characters. They shouldn’t be taking out the inhabitants of whole castles on extraction missions just because they can. This path isn’t better because it wastes time, because it involves putting in more work than you need and involves taking more risks than necessary. Outside of a character justification like hubris, there’s just no point. The more capable a character is, the more efficient they’re going to be and more focused on economizing their violence. They’ll maximize their input if it achieves maximum output in the trade off. They’ll waste less time than other characters, be more capable of assessing a situation, and they’ll be ending fights in fewer blows. Everything will be contracted and concise, because it’s ultimately less wasteful and saves energy in the long run. That energy saved can be applied to the next opponent, or escape, or a half a dozen other scenarios. The goal is to be as quick as possible, and how you get there is ultimately up to you.

This is why applying physical attributes like strength, dexterity, and finesse ultimately shortchange the conversation. You can make any of those work, and can gain them with any body type, but what you can’t work with is someone who isn’t efficient, who wastes time, who makes big visible motions that don’t amount to anything. Someone who can’t conserve their energy, and who wastes it. Even when they don’t seem to be efficient, all the surviving martial arts are, in their own unique ways. Fortifications, as an example, are designed to get your enemy to spend more energy reaching you and setting up natural traps where invaders can be safely mopped up by the defenders. It’s all about making your job easier, and, keep in mind, your enemy wants the exact same thing.

I’ll grant you, finesse sounds cooler than conservation, economy, or efficiency. However, to cleave to that will miss the ultimate point which helps you write better fight scenes. More than any other aspect, you need the Economy of Violence to set up rules for your violence within the narrative. Those rules fuel suspension of disbelief, and help keep your audience invested in the narrative. They are the part of violence that is “real”.

-Michi

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Q&A: Faked Deaths and Cheap Writing

Would an arc involving a character coming to terms with a friend’s death feel cheapened to readers if it is later revealed that the friend’s death was faked?

Not, unless your character knew their friend’s death was faked from the start, but you neglected to share that information with the audience. This is a little more complicated, depending on who the characters are, so let’s pull out some potential permutations.

Probably worth saying, but faking your own death isn’t something you come back from. You’ve just lied to everyone about something very serious, and that’s not the kind of thing most people are willing to simply laugh off. For someone who intentionally fakes their own death, there is no coming back from that.

Someone who’s been missing for years and was presumed dead will face some of this, but at least in that case, they may be able to present a legitimate narrative for why they disappeared. There’s some gradation here. Someone who intentionally vanished, and set up shop in another state is not going to be received the same way as someone who was presumed dead in a plane crash on the far side of the world, and was cut off from outside civilization.

If your character is dealing with the death of a close personal friend. As far as they know, everything’s above board, and they’re coming to terms with that. Then, no, having that friend pop up later would be a serious betrayal for your character, but, the audience is right there with them. Everyone was betrayed by that former friend, and there’s certainly a lot of ways you can proceed from there. (Again, there are some potential permutations, for example, if the friend was abducted, and their captors faked their death, or other singular circumstances like that. This is something I’d be cautious about recommending, because it could become melodramatic, but the option exists. Or, if said character didn’t fake their death, and has been resurrected somehow.)

You can flip this, if your point of view character is the one who faked their death and hid it from their friends and family. Again, nothing wrong with this from a writing standpoint, but expect their former acquaintances to be less than enthusiastic when they learn the truth.

If your character knows the truth, that their friend is alive, and they’re going through the motions, pretending to grieve, while the audience is kept in the dark, that’s cheap.

Cheap writing is when you decide to screw with your audience. Screwing with your characters is fair game. Whenever you decide to hide critical information from your audience, particularly information your point of view character have, you’re being cheap.

The idea of pulling one over on your audience can be very appealing, and there are ways you can deliver a good plot twist, but the cheap way to approach this is to simply deny the audience the information they need to know what’s happening.

There’s a wonderful phrase you can apply to this: being “economical with the truth.”  You are lying, but you’re doing it by carefully giving enough truthful information to mislead.

Writing can become cheap when you withhold too much information. There’s nothing wrong with putting enough out there so that some members of your audience can guess where you’re going. No twist “amazing” enough to stand on bad writing.

There’s also nothing wrong with putting out truthful information that is designed to mislead. An excellent primer on this would be the entire library of Agatha Christie’s work. She built her career on logic puzzles where the available information is designed to make you jump to the wrong conclusions.

If you have to choose between withholding information from your audience, and withholding it from your characters, you should err on the side of screwing over your characters long before you consider keeping your readers in the dark.

Lying to your audience is a very tricky thing. In most stories, I wouldn’t recommend it at all. The exceptions are genres where the entire structure is intended to mislead the reader. Mysteries and some varieties of thrillers are the normal examples here. Even then, you need to work very carefully to avoid betraying the audience’s trust, even while you’re engaging in slight of hand with them.

Lying to your character, and bringing the audience along is different. The audience will be predisposed to empathize with the protagonist in most cases, and if both have been deceived, then expect hostility directed at the former friend. At that point, it’s only cheap if your protagonist drops the ball, and doesn’t behave in a plausible way.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fantasy Weapon Selection

Bit of an unusual question, why are halberds and other pole arms curiously absent from most fantasy?

I’m just going to start out by saying, there’s no single answer to this. When many writers are making similar decisions, you can sometimes track back to a singular source, but when you’re dealing with an entire motif like this, writers (and world builders) are making their decisions independently of one another.

The first possible reason is inspiration. When you’re creating your fantasy setting it’s very likely you’re drawing inspiration from somewhere. Many fantasy authors (intentionally or otherwise) draw inspiration from Lord of the Rings. This is so ubiquitous that you don’t even need to explain concepts like Elves, Orcs, and Dwarves to an uninitiated reader. It’s so ingrained in the cultural lexicon of fantasy that defining these things doesn’t even seem necessary.

Actually, a bit of fun trivia to think about with this: the correct terms in English are “dwarfish” and “dwarfs.” The terms “dwarven” and “dwarves” aren’t completely original to Tolkien, but in modern literature they trace directly back to him.

If we’re going to lay blame at the feet of Tolkien, then it’s worth remembering that his work does include polearms, however, those weren’t the weapons used by the heroes. Tolkien’s heroes were designed to be legendary leaders, and their weapon choices reflected that to an extent.

If you’re creating an adventuring hero who is secretly the lost heir to the throne, you’ll give them a sword as their weapon (unless you’re deliberately being subversive.) There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a legitimate aspect of how western society looks at the sword as weapon, but it is worth remembering.

Now, if you’re drawing inspiration from a story about a character who’s a lost scion, or has a sword as their primary weapon for some reason, then it’s distinctly possible you’ll lift the weapon choice without thinking through why.

I’m less confidant that a similar logic applies with axes. I’m not completely certain what Tolkien was referencing when he picked the axe as the weapon of Dwarven kings, but here we are. If your setting is heavily influenced by cultural elements from Northern Europe, or he could have simply picked the weapon for more novel reasons.

In all of this, the spear, to say nothing of more advanced polearms, gets lost in the shuffle. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t fantasy settings that use polearms, but, like you said, they’re less common. In the long term, this creates a kind of “authorial confirmation bias,” where you’re more likely to be influenced by fantasy settings that eject or discount polearms, than you are to immediately think of these.

Another factor is, very often, a polearm isn’t a good weapon choice for the kind of character you’re writing. This is a little more subjective, because your world building could easily go either way. However, in general, the wandering adventurer is more likely to be in situations where they need a sword, axe, or dagger, far more often than ones where they’d need a spear.

There’s a slightly speculative quality to this logic, which then becomes self-confirming when you combine it with the previous element. If your character is a specific kind of roving adventurer or mercenary, and you expect that kind of a person to carry a sword or axe, then you’re more likely to give them a sword or axe. Again, historically, in Europe (and elsewhere) they’d probably carry a sword or axe as their sidearm, with a spear or other polearm as their primary weapon.

To be fair, there is some basis for this. If you have a character who’s a member of the city guard, or isn’t in active combat, they may not carry their primary weapon around with them everywhere, and might restrict themselves to their sidearm. This is somewhat analogous to a modern era character who carries a handgun, but they’re not going to wander around with a shotgun or assault rifle as part of their day to day gear. It’s likely something they’d have on hand, but wouldn’t carry regularly.

Also worth noting that in early modern Europe, it was fairly common for nobility, and other members of society to carry a sword as a normal accessory. Over time this fell out of fashion, but there is some basis for the idea of a character who carries a blade, instead of a polearm.

Ironically, greatswords and greataxes would fall into a similar situation. Those are primary weapons, not sidearms, but many fantasy settings will gleefully include them while ignoring polearms.

Another factor which may be relevant, though I’m not sure exactly how relevant is swashbuckler films and literature, and the resulting pulp genre. This included scenarios with combatants who would have eschewed polearms for various reasons. For example: Anyone who engaged in ship to ship combat, such as pirates, or naval officers hunting pirates. To be clear, I’m not blaming The Three Musketeers for squelching polearms in fantasy literature, but there is a progression from this material, through early fantasy pulps like Robert E. Howard’s Conan or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser into modern fantasy.

Modern fantasy takes, pretty much, equal measure from the early sword and sorcery pulps, and blends that with Tolkein’s intricate worldbuilding. The result is, slightly idiosyncratic, but it does start to explain why a lot of authors might eschew spears or halbards when they can just give their characters a huge axe. It’s also part of where fantasy settings become anachronistic.

If you’ve never read it, Conan is deliberately anachronistic. Robert E. Howard loved history, and gleefully grabbed the bits that appealed to him, mashing them together with reckless abandon. The result is fantastic writing, but there is no way to reconcile the Hyborian Age with real world history. The names are the familiar, but everything else went into a blender.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is a similar situation, though the names are alien in ways that should be immediately familiar to anyone who has read modern fantasy. In some ways, it’s even more significant, because the fictional city of Lankhmar was designed to be a fantasy allegory for 1930s New York, with completely inconsistent technological advancement scattered across its setting.

To be fair, I may be overthinking this. As I mentioned earlier, authors read one setting, it becomes a part of their understanding of the genre, or at least a familiar touchstone. When they go to create their own works, the things they’ve read (or viewed, played, consumed in whatever form) influence their work. So, while the specific examples I’m giving influenced a lot of writers, it’s not like those are the only possible paths. It’s also worth remembering that many authors will get their point of contact further down the line. So, they’re picking up on the influences of someone else’s influences.

This may sound like a nonsequitur, however, no one’s work is ever, truly, original in some cosmic sense. You’re influenced by everything you’ve read, watched, played, or otherwise engaged with. It becomes a part of you, and a part of how you look at the world. When the time comes to write, those influences will affect what you create. Being aware of this means you can step back and have the self awareness to start to deliberately change things.

If you want to see fantasy that uses polearms more heavily than what you see now, you’re certainly welcome to. There are plenty of reasons for your characters to use them. Especially in character archetypes that normally eschew polearms in conventional roles. For example, spears have been used in hunting for thousands of years, so it would make perfect sense for your ranger or druid to carry one as their primary weapon. Of course, most polearms saw use on the battlefield, and that’s certainly one use. You may have characters who are members of the city watch, or a similar group, who break out the polearms when things get dicey. This is before you consider the idea of arming characters like your clergy or mages with weapons you usually don’t associate with them. Again, there could be any number of reasons, you’re only limited by your creativity, and the ideas you found abandoned along the way.

-Starke

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Q&A: Collapsed Lungs

Hi there! I have a character who gets stabbed in the side and into one of her lungs. The wound is deep enough for air to start seeping out and collapse it. I have a fairly decent idea of how it’s going to be treated, but I’m also wondering about blood entering the lung and how to treat that. Google didn’t help much there, I’m afraid. For the record, this takes place during medieval times and I’m aware I’m going to have to use some plot armor for the character to survive.

That’s not plot armor, your character needs magic, superpowers, or modern medical treatment to avoid a rather unpleasant death. If your character is lucky, they die from an infection, if they’re not, then it’s going to be pneumonia.

Okay, if you’re wandering around today, get run through by an especially strange individual wielding a large knife, and your lung is punctured and collapses, that’s bad. However, it is survivable, if you get medical treatment. The lung can be surgically repaired, you can be put on antibiotics, as needed, and your lung can be re-inflated. I’m not sure on all the options for this, but I know one common example is to simply force air into the lung via a plastic tube inserted down the throat.

I’m not 100% certain what getting blood in your lungs will do, but I am sure having blood in your lungs is a potentially lethal situation (even today). In particular, blood quickly coagulates into a solid clot when exposed to oxygen. In your lungs, this means you cannot extract oxygen from the atmosphere, and it’s not going anywhere. Over time clots break down, but the results are not something you really want to deal with internally.

If you’re getting foreign matter of any kind into your lungs, that’s a vector for infection. Lung infections are extremely dangerous and can easily kill you. Symptoms include a fever, increased respiration rate (with an increased heart rate), chest pains, and increased mucus production (which, incidentally is what’s actually causing the problems in the first place, because that stuff is interfering with your ability to breathe in the first place.) If I understand correctly, getting blood in your lungs basically guarantees an infection, or infection like symptoms.

So, in short, without modern medicine, there’s no way to properly treat the collapsed lung. And, assuming the blade wasn’t clean (which, it wasn’t), any medical treatment your character did receive wouldn’t account for concepts like bacterial infection (because that wouldn’t be discovered for centuries), so your character would get sick, and die.

I realize I haven’t written a hard shutdown like this in awhile, but, yeah, this injury, with that level of medical technology is a textbook example of how to kill a character in an extremely painful, and agonizing way.

-Starke

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Q&A: Drowning in Armor

Hello, I was wondering if it would be possible for a man’s armor to weigh him down enough to cause him to drown? Like of he were on a ship and was wearing really heavy armor, and he fell off the ship would be be unable to float

The short answer seems to be: yes, though that’s not really a full answer.

Generally speaking, the position is you can’t swim in full plate, and this appears to be mostly true. The extra weight and lack of articulation mean it will be much harder for you to break surface. In deep water, for example during a naval engagement, this is likely a death sentence.

Worth noting that full plate, usually, only weighed around 70 pounds at the most. (Your average full plate combatant would be wearing around 50lbs of armor.) It was entirely possible for someone wearing this to recover after being knocked down, and while there is some impaired mobility, the wearer still has plenty of freedom to actually fight, and move around their environment. Heavy armor doesn’t mean you’re trapped like a bug, if you fall over.

The weight is a factor. Any extra weight will reduce buoyancy, and making swimming much more difficult. Plate armor is quite capable of weighing you down, to the point that it really is possible (if dangerous) to walk along the bottom, while wearing heavy armor.

I’m aware of testing in the last decade, where someone attempted to swim in armor, and the results were mixed. He could, barely, and was unable to break the surface from a depth of 12ft (roughly 4m). Now, it’s possible that someone who was fully accustomed to fighting in plate may do better, but you’re still looking at a situation where your combatant would lose energy much faster, may not be able to tread water, and if they sank, would probably die.

Plate armor also limits articulation. This isn’t to the extent that it will prevent someone to get back up if they fall, but, it does cause problems with swimming. It limits your range of motion, and slows everything down a little, which has a severely detrimental effect if you’re trying to keep your head above water. So, it’s possible to swim for short distances (though, I think all of the credible reports involve knights simply walking along the bottom, and climbing out.)

Though it’s not surprising, water is not good for armor, and salt water is particularly corrosive. Just sea spray alone would seriously rust up your character’s armor long before they saw combat. This is still an issue today, and part of why most navies used gold for their rank insignia. Gold does not corrode, meaning their insignia would survive sea conditions, where most metals would not.

The other thing is, until relatively recently, armor, beyond a breastplate, was pretty uncommon shipboard. They may have some armor, sealed away below decks, being maintained for when they made landfall, but they wouldn’t wear it, even in combat. Again, the exception may be a light breast plate, and helmet, but someone trudging around in full armor would be far less safe than someone in a shirt and coat.

Even if your character wears full armor when they’re on land, they’d probably store it below, while at sea, and carefully clean it at every opportunity.

Somewhat unrelated, but also worth knowing that, historically, it was a pain to transport horses by water. Historically, this was accomplished by placing the animal in a canvas sling, to support its weight, and prevent them from being injured by the movement of the boat (or ship), while at sea. Apparently, even under the best of circumstances, sea travel was extremely stressful for the horses, and the resulting mortality rate was high. While I don’t have any hard information, I can’t imagine that many of the animals would survive if the ship came under enemy fire.

Looping back, it’s not impossible for someone to swim with 50lbs of extra weight distributed across their body, but that will require they’re a strong swimmer. It’s not impossible for someone to swim with impaired range of motion, but that will require more energy. When you put these two things together, it’s probably not impossible for someone to swim in armor, but realistically, it’s not happening.

It’s also distinctly possible that your character wouldn’t know how to swim. Historically, particularly in the early modern period (so, during the golden age of piracy), it was surprisingly uncommon for sailors to actually learn how to swim. I’ve seen speculation for why this was the case. Some reasonable factors were that many sailors, particularly in the navies, were pressed into service, without much training beyond being able to do their assigned job. Other relevant factors include the lack of agility with helming a large sailing vessel, and as a result, if you went overboard you were doomed.

So, yes, going overboard in heavy armor would kill your character, but it’s highly unlikely they’d be in heavy armor to begin with, if they were operating aboard a ship.

Since someone will probably bring this up, if I skip over it: There’s also The Battle of Agincourt in 1415, where numerous French knights became mired in knee high mud and drowned in their armor. When you read full descriptions of the battle, it sounds like they were pressed under infantry who died on top of them, and then drowned, rather than it simply being their armor killed them. The major factor here was that combat was funneled into very tight choke points, and the mass of combatants simply piled on top of each other, like a heavily armed mosh pit from hell. As a result, any of the French fighters who fell (literally fell over, not killed), were trapped as bodies pressed in behind them, and couldn’t escape the mud.

-Starke

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Q&A: Asymmetric Armor

Hi! What is the real meaning for a character like Cloud Strife to have a single shoulder armor? Is it to rest their sword on their shoulder only, in a safe manner? I have a OC child who wears a shoulder pad just for fun but I want to know if it serves a purpose for real. Thank you, love your blog!

The short answer is that it’s to make the character look cool. It’s primarily there to help differentiate his design. I’m not clear on exactly how much was intentional, but I suspect the art design for most of the FF7 characters was heavily influenced by hardware limitations. (I know this was a consideration in the earlier sprite based games.) Because the polygon budgets and texture resolutions were low, the hardware heavily favored bold aesthetic designs. Cloud wears one massive oversized pauldron, and has hair you can roast marshmallows on because it helps keep the character visually distinct.

So, with all that said, asymmetrical armor was a thing, sometimes. There’s two important considerations, cost, and what you need the armor for.

Cost is always relevant. Armor is expensive; regardless who is paying for it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a lone mercenary or adventurer, then they’re going to have to make some difficult choices on where they spend their money.  Depending on the era, it’s entirely possible that even a professional soldier would have been responsible for purchasing and maintaining their own arms and armor. This could (and did) result in situations where someone had incomplete armor, because it’s all they could afford.

So, could you end up with a mercenary who had a single pauldron, and basically nothing else? Theoretically, yes. However, they’d be better off selling that, and getting some body armor instead. Though, if you had to pick one arm to over-armor, the left would be the better choice.

Depending on the statistics you look at, somewhere between 70% and 95% of the population is right handed. That means the vast majority of the foes you’d be facing on the battlefield would be far more likely to strike at your left arm and side. You’re more likely to take hits on that side (again, in a conventional combat environment), and as a result, it does make sense to add some extra armor on that side. That may simply mean a heavier pauldron, or just some extra weight in your gear. This wasn’t universal, and was rarely to the extent that you’d ignore one side entirely, but there is a little bit of logic behind these aesthetics. It’s also worth remembering, this is mostly a consideration after you’ve already got effective armor, and you’re thinking about adding some more. While there are reasons to put heavier armor on your left arm, that won’t do you any good if you’re run through, hence, the body armor suggestion earlier.

The most extreme example of asymmetrical armor is jousting gear. It’s probably better to think of jousting as a sport, rather than as combat. It was a competition, with strict rules, and supervision. The skills it used were based in combat, (specifically running down enemies with a couched lance) but, the two competitors in heavy plate with crowds cheering them on, was pure spectacle.

Jousting armor had enormously exaggerated protection on the left side. If you know what you’re looking for, jousting armor is instantly recognizable. In particular, the cuirass is often visibly asymmetric, sometimes with the left arm partially shielded, or fused directly into the cuirass above the elbow (technically, the term cuirass may be inaccurate in this specific example.) The helmet is sometimes asymmetric, again, favoring the left side, though this is less universal. In short, you’re looking at armor that expected the user to take a hard blow to the left side of their body, and wanted them to survive the experience.

I know we’ve said this before, but getting the right armor involves knowing exactly what you’ll be dealing with, and choosing accordingly. With that in mind, there was at least one situation where combatants intentionally went into combat with partial armor.

Roman gladiators had predesigned “uniforms,” that filled numerous distinct roles. As with Jousting, this was more of a sport, rather than true armor, but the goals were different. In particular, gladiatorial combat was interested in drawing blood, while simultaneously prolonging the spectacle. In these cases, armor that protected one (or both) arms, while leaving the torso unprotected was a pattern for many of the roles.

Worth remembering in this case, that both a gladiator’s weapons, and armor, were selected based on their roles, and they would be paired against opponents with roles that couldn’t easily counter them. In some ways it’s the opposite of what you’d normally look for in combat, but, the point was to create matchups that would be bloody without also being decisive.

There was a theme with the various roles. Gladiators were “playing the part” of various foreign civilizations that the Romans had already defeated. These caricatures would have been instantaneously recognizable to the crowds, much like how stereotypes in professional wrestling are instantly familiar (and, potentially offensive) to modern audiences. Although, significantly bloodier, professional wrestling is a good analogy to the Roman arena, so it might not be the best example of asymmetrical armor in combat, but it is another situation where this concept appears.

In general, when it comes to designing a character, overtly asymmetrical armor is often simply a method to make the character stand out. That’s what you see with Cloud. It’s not that there’s a specific tactical advantage, it’s there to mark him as your protagonist, and make his character model easier to identify at a glance.

-Starke

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Q&A: Breath of the Wild, Game Design, and Combat Animations

How realistically/accurately does Link use swords/spears/greatswords/axes/bows in Breath of the Wild. I want to use his fighting animations as a visual reference for my fight scenes, but that only works if he’s a viable reference. Thank you!

The short answer: It’s not.

There’s some quick caveats, the spear usage isn’t, “inaccurate,” so much as incredibly basic. The bow draw is, “awkward;” it may be fine, but something looks off about it, to me, and, at a glance, I’m not sure what.

This is one of those times where I’ve got a vague sense of deja vu. I know I’ve addressed this with other games in the past, but I don’t remember if I’ve talked about it explicitly in the context of Breath of the Wild.

Games are, by their nature, not reflective of the real world. In some cases, you may seek to simulate elements of reality either because that’s the point of the exercise (most tabletop wargaming, and flight simulators are examples), or because you’re attempting to provide a sense of verisimilitude (weather effects that don’t affect gameplay, would be an example of this).

Game designers need to achieve many goals as part of their process. This includes reliably informing the player on the overall state of play. This includes considerations like what the other players are doing, or what options the player has to work with.

In a traditional poker game, the information the player has is restricted to the cards in their hand. They’re then asked to make assessments of the other players, and to evaluate their behavior. The state of play is the card combinations they can make, as well as the card combinations their opponents may posses.

In contrast, a game like chess provides the player with a clear, open, state of play. Both players have a clear, unobstructed, view of the board, and full knowledge over every possible move that can occur. The player is then asked to make assessments on their opponent’s potential strategies, and act accordingly.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with combat, the answer is simple, depending on your goals as a game designer, either approach is entirely valid for your game. Combat that is difficult to read, and hard to predict can create a sense of unfairness, but it can also result in far more tension during combat. In contrast, if you create a combat system that is easy to read, you can produce a more generally entertaining experience, which the player feels they have more control over.

Breath of the Wild is going for accessible combat. At any given moment you have a clear idea of exactly what the enemies are doing (assuming they’re not out of frame), and what your character is doing. This is actually accentuated by the art style, which keeps the visual noise down, and makes it significantly easier to track movement on screen. (To be clear, the art design serves other purposes as well, but we’re talking about the combat systems.)

In order to make the combat easier to read, Breath of the Wild uses very exaggerated strike patterns. This is true of pretty much all the weapons in the game. Link swings them around in massive arcs, which makes it much easier to know what’s happening at any given moment. Even with the spears, it’s taking a basic concept of that weapon, and playing it up to a borderline comical threshold.

This may sound like I’m being dismissive, but Breath of the Wild has a kind of cartoon aesthetic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and if you’re going for an anime or classic cartoon infused style of violence, then the game is absolutely fine as reference material. However, an important part of taking inspiration is understanding why your subject made the aesthetic decisions it did, and what those choices mean for the material as a whole.

In the real world, combat abhors the idea of large movements, like you’ll see in Breath of the WildSkyrimDark SoulsDragon’s DogmaKingdoms of Amalur, Darksiders, NieR: Automata, or any number of other action games. There’s two (major) reasons. First is inertia, and the second is because of how the human brain processes objects.

When you look around, your brain parses objects by finding the outline, and then extrapolating the object from its edges. If you remember back to Jurassic Park and the whole, “hunts by movement,” thing, that’s how some animals track objects, with humans, we’re looking for the edges and then our brain fills in the rest. This means, when you can’t clearly find an object’s outline, it becomes much more difficult to accurately determine if it’s there or not. This is also the basic issue with camouflage, the idea is to break up the silhouette, and as a result the brain has a much harder time saying, “yeah, there’s a person there.” Your brain does track movement, but finding the outline is absolutely vital to making fast assessments of, “oh, they have a sword.”

When you’re fighting someone, you want to keep your arms, and weapons, inside your silhouette whenever possible. Yes, you can see someone’s holding a sword or a gun, but it’s easier to see it, if it’s held away from the body at a clear angle.

For example: when someone raises their arm, and they’re holding a sword over their head, preparing to strike. All of the information is clearly presented in a nice, clean, profile, for your brain to parse, and it will, fast enough to respond.

When someone holds their sword, pointed at you, inside their silhouette, and prepared to thrust, you’re not unable to see they have a weapon. This isn’t some lizard brain malfunction, where, “oops, I thought they had a thing, but I guess not.” However, it’s much harder for your brain to process what they’re doing with the weapon. Again, not, “you can’t see something’s happening,” but your brain is going to need a few more moments to keep track of what’s going on, and in that time you’ve just earned a few new holes from their blade.

The other part is inertia. It’s easier, and faster, to make small, precise, movements with a weapon, than it is to make large arcing sweeps. There are times when a large swing is appropriate, particularly with axes, but even then, the way Breath of the Wild uses them is more for visual feedback than combat practicality.

I’ll say this again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using something like this as an artistic base, so long as you’re not worried about realism. However, if you’re looking for brutally authentic fight scenes, then you’re better off looking at HEMA or classic training manuscripts.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Assassin’s Children

Would it be reasonable for an assassin to be able to raise a family? I’m currently writing an assassin in a world of superheroes who tends to specialize in taking down superhumans. Do you think he’d be able to balance a home life and his “night life” or is that nota possibility ?

I don’t see why not.

Okay, that’s not true, but I don’t see anything that makes this intrinsically impossible. Being an assassin doesn’t preclude the possibility of being a good parent. It’s just extremely unlikely.

Strip everything else down, and being a good parent means being there for your kids, and putting their well-being first. It’s not impossible for an assassin to do that, but that is one of those inflexible jobs, where sometimes, they really can’t be there, because of work. Not being there stacks the deck against being a good parent. It’s still possible, but the odds are vanishingly small.

There’s a lot of degrees here, and intent can outweigh the results sometimes. A parent who’s there but resentful, and passive aggressive isn’t better than one who would be there if they could, but really doesn’t have the option. For a good parent, even under the best of circumstances, there’s a balancing act between what you can do, and what you want to be able to do. Unfortunately, if you’ve got a high pressure job, that requires you keep a strict schedule, especially with lots of travel, that weighs heavily against your character’s kids.

There’s no, simple, yes or no, here. Plenty of parents in the real world fall short of the mark with less on their plate than your character, and some manage to excel in spite of far more trying circumstances. So, this comes down to a couple questions.

Do you think your character is a good parent? This can go either way, and this isn’t a simple pass/fail. If your character is a good parent, then there’s no shame in admitting that they’re not going to get the balance right every time.

Your character can tick the technical boxes of keeping their child breathing and still be walking human wreckage. They’re not a good parent, but again, intent can carry a lot of weight here. We are talking about a deeply personal relationship between (at least) two characters, and those rarely break down into simple black and white.

Remember, your character doesn’t evaluate how well they do as a parent, their children do. If he’s simply not there, because he’s hollowing out some arms dealer’s skull in La Paz, that’s not going to justify missing birthdays or other milestones. Also, it’s extremely unlikely your character would tell his kids that he was out there killing people. That’s the kind of information you really can’t trust to children, at least not when they’re young, so he didn’t miss a birthday because of that; as far as they know he was selling database software in Cochabamba.

Also worth noting, this applies to cops, soldiers, and spies. There’s some social structures to help with the former two, but, you’re still talking about parents who have a job that requires their primary attention. It may make for dramatic characters, but it creates shitty parents, and messy divorces.

Over time, it’s worth remembering that mistakes and poor choices do have consequences.

Do you know what a good parent looks like? This one is a much harder question than it looks like. A lot of people think they had a pretty clear understanding of what a good parent looks like. This isn’t always, 100% accurate. Also, when the answer is no, it’s not always consistent what will tip you off. Personally, it was this article on Cracked, six years ago.

So, do you know what a good parent looks like?

I have seen writers, who never stopped to ask that question, put forward some pretty messed up images of their parents. This isn’t intended as a critique of yours, but, at some point you do need to step back and really think about this going forward.

For example: having a parent who will immediately employ violence against unknown children their house is not normal. Yes, I’ve seen a writer hold that up as normal parental behavior. No, I don’t want to know what gave them that impression.

As with any high stress job, being an assassin is going to make being a parent harder. It makes it more difficult to be there physically, it makes being emotionally available more difficult, it means you’re always going to be under some threat, meaning you can’t ever really relax. Kids pick up on that. Not consciously, but in more of a, “that’s normal,” kind of way. Over time, this can lead to some serious psychological issues. It’s not completely inescapable, but no matter how hard your assassin tries, he’s never going to be able to give his kids a “normal” upbringing. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a good father, but he’ll have to work a lot harder to get there, and it may be impossible for him to do his job and take care of his kids.

Remember his kids are people, not pets. They cannot simply exist to indicate, “no, really, my character’s a good person.” That kind of behavior actually makes your assassin less redeemable. There are people, real people, who do use their kids as pets. They parade them around, and (figuratively) use them to say, “look how normal, and successful I am.” Those people are human garbage. Trust me, I know. Remember, the kids know. They may not realize how messed up the situation is until later in life, but they’re there. They know.

And, the other part is superheroes; that changes a lot of things.

The entire idea of hunting down some world class assassin and kicking down the door of his apartment, before handing him over to the local police is mostly a dream in the real world. In a world where you have superheroes, the risk of identifying and tracking him down becomes a much more serious risk.

Once someone knows who he is, his kids are in permanent danger. If your character is out there hunting down superheroes or supervillains, it’s very likely that someone will seek bloody retribution for his kills, or use the kids as leverage. That’s another horrific option.

At this point, you’re going to want to answer some world building questions, and decide what you want to look at afterwards.

Who your character works for is very important. An assassin for hire, that works with the League of Evil as a contractor is going to have a very different life from someone who works for a Federal Agency hunting down rogue superheroes. Either one can be as stable or unhinged as your story calls for (though, the latter would need to hide their derangement).

So far as it goes, there are plenty of examples of superheroes and villains with their children. Hell, two of the three Batgirls are the daughters of super villains. Cassandra Cain is the daughter of a professional assassin who seriously abused her, and is a mute killing machine, while Stephanie Brown is the daughter of a D-Grade super villain, who’s spurred to heroism in spite of (or to spite) her father’s legacy (and idiocy).

There’s a lot of room for the children of villains growing up to be their own people either in spite of, or in the model of their parents.

This may sound harsh, but if you don’t plan for your character’s children to grow up into their own characters, I’d strongly recommend using them. If you don’t have a plan, you’re running a serious risk of using them as pets, which, as I said, is something you do not want to do. (Even if your character does exactly that.) These need to be characters in their own right.

When it comes to injecting some serious weight into the modern superhero genre, my first stop would be Powers. It’s about cops, not assassins, but it does a fantastic job of taking superheroes out of context, and putting it against the mundane texture of a criminal investigation.

If you’re willing to spend 100 hours working through the narrative, The Witcher 3, does an excellent job of putting you in the shoes of a man searching for his adopted daughter. On the whole, I usually recommend Sapkowski’s novels over the games, but this is the rare case where I can say a game is doing exactly what you’re asking for (even if it is a fantasy setting), but I’m not really going into full detail here.

Another slightly odd suggestion is Millennium. Set in the late 90s, this series was a rare example of Magical Realism as a genre. The main character is a retired member of the FBI’s Behavior Science Unit, trying to protect his family from the apocalypse. As with The Witcher 3, this is probably more apropos than it sounds initially.

If you want to look at a shitty parent having their child leveraged against them, the first season of 24 is pretty good. If you’re left wondering, Jack Bauer is not a good parent. The first season has some rough patches, but it does kinda illustrate the problem with this setup.

I’d still recommend taking a look at Collateral. Tom Cruise’s Vincent isn’t hunting down superheroes, but it’s not hard to see where his methodology could have real application. Also, if you have seen it before, listen to the what he says about his father. It’s not much of a stretch to say this may be the future your character’s kids would find themselves in. Especially if he tried to bring them into “the family business,” or even if he just tried to teach them how to protect themselves.

-Starke

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