It’s been a long time since I posted this. I keep running into people who tell me it was, for them, a lifechanger or a lifesaver, so I thought I’d put it up again. Everything I know about a life in the arts, in about 20 minutes.
Well, she’s got her razor wit, right? If your character is a confidence artist, that is her weapon. The way she defends herself is by lying. Bringing a weapon in is going to actively make her job harder while simultaneously functioning as a security blanket for the audience. So, the real answer is to start playing without a net.
This is one of those truths for spies and con artists. If the job doesn’t require a weapon, and your cover doesn’t allow for one, you don’t bring one. If your character is bringing a sword or revolver into a meeting while pretending to be a betrayed heiress, or officer’s widow, it’s going to raise some serious questions.
If she’s pretending to be a returning war hero, a police investigator, or some kind of bounty hunter, then that’s different, and the weapons are part of her cover. At that point she needs to know enough about the weapons to look like they’re a natural part of her day to day life. But, the weapons she carries will be defined by what her cover identity would need, not what she wants to carry.
Also, for a con artist, roles like that are better suited to corroborating another character’s con, not running their own. She’s there to put pressure on the mark suggesting that the real con artist really is being framed for murder/the relative of an unjustly disgraced soldier, or something similar.
What your character really needs is the ability to talk their way out of trouble, especially when their plan starts to fall apart. It takes a lot more guts to walk unarmed into a place where the residents will kill you if they realize you’re deceiving them. And, that’s the kind of brinksmanship a good con artist narrative thrives on.
If things start to go sideways, her recourse needs to be lying, not shooting her way out. That is her area of expertise, after all. She needs a convincing explanation for everything, especially after her lies start to come to light. Things that rationalize them, make them look like they are really are the truth. To paraphrase Burn Notice, the solution to a blown cover is to play it harder, go deeper and own the illusion, because it’s the only way to make it real enough to save her life. In that moment she needs to believe her lies, without forgetting the truth.
Writing a character that lies isn’t about someone who fast talks their way out of problems. It’s about writing a character who can keep their eye on the objective reality, and twist it just enough to leave other characters a little off balance, second guessing what they know, and lashing out at the wrong people. Your characters can tell big lies, but when they do, they need to do the work to support it.
Someone who is a pathological liar will make a terrible con artist or spy. The ability to keep one eye firmly fixed on objective reality, is a vital compass for them to gauge what they can get away with. They need to keep their lies within a narrow range of reality or the characters around them will start to pick up on something being off. For someone who lies pathologically, that’s just not possible. Their lies are a defensive mechanism, that has more to do with keeping them “safe,” and people do pick up on that over time, no matter how badly they want to believe.
The problem with pathological liars ultimately boils down to a truth about con artists . What your con artist does and says isn’t about them. The role they choose to play is defined by who the mark is, not your character’s preferences. The lies they tell need to be tailored to the victim, not what your character wants. The con artist needs to understand the social rules for the society they’re infiltrating, which for a Victorian setting is a fairly impressive skill set in its own right.
Someone who lies about who they are is, paradoxically, easier to write than to actually do. This is because you’re already engaging in this behavior, as the writer. You’re putting yourself into their life. You just need to write two characters instead of one; your con artist, and the person they’re pretending to be. Again, it is just one more character in your story. If your con artist isn’t a PoV character, this becomes even easier, because you need to keep a rough idea of what their real goals are in the back of your mind, but they should just play their cover on a scene to scene basis.
So, some good con artists in fiction to look at.
The Talented Mr. Ripley. I’ve only ever seen the film, though I’ve heard very good things about the original novel by Patricia Highsmith. Either way, the story focuses on a sociopath that manipulates the people around him to get what he wants, its half serial killer in training half con man.
Burn Notice, is technically about spies. But the ultimately this is almost a how-to on manipulating people without resorting to unnecessary violence. It offers some good explanations on how to provoke people into doing what you want, and keeping them on the hook, even when things start coming apart.
Payback: The Director’s Cut. This is one of those rare cases where the difference between the theatrical and director’s cut is flat out a different film, not just one with some extra bits tacked on, that probably should have been left on the cutting room floor. The lead character is, primarily, a con artist. I wouldn’t list it, but it does a pretty decent job of presenting someone juggling a lot of other characters simultaneously.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre is another spy piece. But, the focus is on identifying and outing a mole. I’m recommending it, because you should pay close attention the the lies the mole used to keep himself from being exposed.
Finally, read up on the social structures of the Victorian era. This is one of those things that sounds intuitive, but it’s really not, and we’ve both seen a lot of writers try to mimic it without research to terrible effect.
I’d suggest starting with the original Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. None of the adaptations will give you what you need, trash them right now, don’t even think about them. Pay attention to what Holmes is looking at, and the social systems he’s examining and prodding, not what you think is normal, or his behavior, because the character is extremely eccentric for the world he’s navigating.
If this is aiming to be a professional piece, it might be worth digging up The Norton Anthology of British Literature. Specifically the second collection. This is far more useful for the footnotes and commentaries that explain the state of the world during the Victorian era, and events in it, than just sampling some lit from the period. Remember, the time frame you’re looking at was dominated by massive upheaval. The selection of lit from the period is a massive jumble of discussions on different issues. From Austen to Gaskell to Dickens and beyond, these stories revolve around a radically changing world.
You have the Industrial Revolution, Slavery, Child Labor, Women’s Rights, Colonialism (This was the height of the British Empire, including India, Australia, China, portions of Africa, and beyond), Mass Migration, the development of a true Middle Class, Education, extreme poverty, Worker’s Rights, Unions, Poor Houses, Work Houses, Displacement, and the list goes on. It was not a pastoral, “things are as they’ve always been,” fantasy, even though there were people trying to shove their fingers in their ears and pretend the outside world wasn’t happening.
It’s a fascinating period in history, but also a difficult one to get right. Police, Criminals, the Penitentiary system, it all looked very different during the Victorian period. Even if this is “fantasy”, you need to understand the systems at work and what your character will be facing if she gets caught.
Incidentally you might also want to research the etymology of “con artist,” I have the suspicion that the abbreviated form is early 20th century slang, and inappropriate for a faux Victorian setting.
Similarly, unless there’s a Queen Victoria somewhere in your setting, establishing the tone for that era, the term “Victorian” is going to be alien to your characters.
Ideas come first. Well, really, the first thing is: what excites you?
It doesn’t matter if it’s a character, a twist, a concept, or just a single moment. The thing you’re looking at and cannot wait to drop on your audience. It’s the one thing that will drive you to commit to the project, and will carry you through the parts that tie it all together.
Once you’ve found that, you should have an idea of where to start. Everything else is negotiable.
A formal pattern would be: concept, lit review, preliminary plotting, research, plot refinement, write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite… call it close enough to done, rewrite again.
Concept is easy: I want to write this. At this stage it’s fairly nebulous. You can probably scribble out a concept in a single paragraph. And almost any writing prompt you’ve seen falls into this general category. This is just having the idea.
Lit review is where the work starts. You need to go out, find other material in the genre, read it, and start building a comprehensive idea of what the genre you’ve just waded into really looks like. This isn’t always a necessary step. If you’re a hard core sci-fi fan, then a lit review of space operas probably isn’t going to be that useful, because you already know what you’re looking at. But, if you’re wandering into new territory, this is absolutely vital, because you will learn new things about the genre. You should keep an eye on what works and what doesn’t in the genre as you’re going. This will help you avoid easy mistakes, and will help a lot.
Preliminary plotting has probably already started. You might have actually started this when you were building the concept. So if this is already done, you can move on. This boils down to, I have characters that do these things. You might only have a vague idea of what happens along the way or where they’re going, but you should have an idea of where your story starts.
This is probably where you’ll start to get a handle on your characters. You might have had some concepts for them already, but after your lit review, you should have a vague idea of who you want in your story. You’ll probably keep refining them through the entire process, and research will tell you a lot about who they should, or would, be.
Research is a lot like the lit review, it’s work, and you probably started doing research during your lit review. This is going to be very dependent on your preliminary plotting and what you learned during your lit review.
One piece of advice about research: buy your books and keep them. You never know when a stray book on Arthurian lit or a history text on Mesoamarica will suddenly become relevant to what you’re doing right now. Also, if you’re in college, keep your textbooks. I know it’s basically free money, but good ones can be incredibly valuable resources later on. Being a writer requires being a book hoarder.
Also, I know I put this in a linear order, but, research never ends. You do the research you want before you start, but throughout the project you’ll keep hitting points where you need to go back in. Again, if you still have the books from earlier they’re still available as resources.
Plot refinement can be just nailing down the order of things in your head before you start, or it can be sketching out a formal outline. It depends on what works best for you.
Rewrite. Because, as they say, “writing is rewriting.” The hard part here isn’t actually finishing, it’s knowing when to stop. Once you get going, odds are you’ll never be completely satisfied with what makes it to the page. But, if you don’t check yourself on this, you can easily end up spending ten years revising a project to death. Don’t do that.
Obviously, you can rearrange these however works for you. Generally speaking your lit review and research will inform things about the story you’re trying to tell, closing off options and opening new ones, so they should come first. But, honestly, if you have something you need to get on the page, do it. You can always clean it up, fix it, or feed it to a grue later.
Two things to grab:
Steven King’s On Writing. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of King, but his advice here is excellent.
King recommends of reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Do that too.
For the record, I’d like to say I wouldn’t appreciate anyone doing that example
““They’re not rounding up political opponents; those are just ‘the mentally ill,’ It’s for their own good, really, they’ll be sent to reeducation centers.””
I know it’s “supposed to” sound extremely ableist, but it’s still massively ableist. Also not far off from probably what happens today, somewhere, or something like it.
Especially the “it’s for their own good” part. It’s less a far off dystopia and more right here right now.
Yeah, that’s not a fictional example. The United States, China, North Korea, Nazis, Soviet Union and even the Russian Federation have all used that specific argument at one time or another. That’s also not an exhaustive list, by any means, before you say I forgot to mention a group you wanted. (Now, I was thinking specifically of Julie Musante’s dialog from Babylon 5 when I was typing it, but Straczynski was also fully aware of the real history there, and was pulling from a lot of different historical sources to make the character.)
In particular, in the US, it has been invoked against the Women’s Liberation movement, and again against Civil Rights activists. If this makes you uncomfortable, good. Embrace that. It is at the core of what a dystopia really is. Not the nightmare of some possible future; not an unpleasantly comfortable adventure world; not some tech illiterate cyberpunk setting. Dystopias are the unmasked horror of the world that exists right outside your door, that you’ve been desperately trying to ignore.
We live in a world where the Chicago PD was just caught running an extra-judicial black site in Chicago’s West Side. Again, no space Nazis needed. Just ex-soldiers who took the Jack Bauer techniques they learned in the Military, brought them home, and are trying to maintain order as they see it.
You create a fictional world instead of using the real one, because you want to get your reader thinking about something without the inherent baggage of how the world should work. That’s everyone, from Ayn Rand to Warren Ellis. It works. You can talk about things that would massively piss off a reader if you just came straight at them preaching. You can bypass some prejudice, and get someone to think about an issue more objectively if it’s couched in a fictional world.
This is where things like the original Star Trek TV series become brilliant. (Granted, in that specific example, it’s a kind of mescaline soaked brilliance.) They bring up issues that are too touchy to address directly, and then talk about the subject, and leave you to sort out the meaning after the fact. (Also, if you’re into scholarly articles, Star Trek in all of its incarnations leads to some really interesting critical analysis. For both it’s successes and it’s failures.)
Dystopian fiction is at its best, when you can see the outline of the world you live in, and realize just how dangerously close you are to getting there.
Be disturbed, that really is the point.
By having something to say. Without exception dystopian lit is political. It’s a genre founded in the axiom, “be careful what you wish for;” using human misery to drive the point home. The payoff is always the argument you’re making in the process.
In writing a dystopia, you’re asking your readers to inhabit a fundamentally horrible world for awhile. You need to do something to justify that. It can be compelling characters, but that’s more of an end than means. If your world exists for a reason, it will go a long way towards explaining what is there, and giving it the unique identity it needs.
Also, don’t assume you need to be writing a fascist state. I see a lot of writers conflate these, don’t make the same mistake.
You do need a setting that makes sense. Ask your self how “normal” people go about their day to day lives. This is just general world building advice, but it’s incredibly important when you’re setting up a dystopia.
No one is stopping you from cranking your setting too far. Making things too desperate and bleak. But, for a functioning dystopia, you need people buying into the system, because what they gain through participation is more valuable than what they’re giving up.
One very good way to handle this is by hiding the unsavory nature under a veneer of public safety or health. “They’re not rounding up political opponents; those are just ‘the mentally ill,’ It’s for their own good, really, they’ll be sent to reeducation centers.” There’s a part of your brain that knows how horribly wrong that is, but if it sounds legitimate, that dissonance will serve your setting fantastically.
Also playing in the opposite direction is also useful for selling a setting that’s gone off the rails are excessive propaganda. Playing up how wonderful the world’s system is, even while the audience is shown the real horrors lurking under the surface. Orwell’s 1984 has a wonderful (read: horrific) take on this by rewriting the language people use to deny them the ability to dissent.
It’s important to understand that an effective dystopia needs people that will actively defend the status quo and view it as desirable. Either they actually benefit from it, or because they think that, one day, they will benefit from it.
In case you really want to run with fascism anyway, here’s a few things to point out.
Almost universally, fascism starts in a desire for revenge, marching lock step with nationalistic pride. The poster children of Fascism, the Nazis, came to power by appealing to the German peoples’ resentment over World War I reparations, which had left their country in economic shambles.
Fascism frequently secures it’s power base by playing bullies. That is to say, they pick a culturally acceptable target and start going after them as a means to make everyone else feel better about themselves. This could be an ethic group, a sexual orientation, political or philosophical ideology. They vilify that group, and let everyone else feel good about going after them. It’s important to remember, those targets aren’t picked out of a hat, they play on existing social prejudices; sanctioning and playing into them.
They also thrive on giving petty people enormous power to mess with people. Police and low level bureaucrats are given extreme power and allowed to run roughshod over the “little people.” Again, playing bullies. This also often includes picking members from the oppressed group to police their own. The expressed argument is that they are best suited to “protect” their own from outside oppression, but the truth is they will often be far more brutal, and provide a mitigating factor to keep the oppressed from looking at the true abusers.
The biggest possible mistake about a fascist system is dehumanizing the oppressors. They’re still exploiting and/or bullying the people under them, but they are humans who are making decisions based on the information they have. Someone who is evil in an understandable way is far more threatening and disturbing than someone engaged in cartoon supervillainy.
Again, you can just as easily present a dystopia that’s democratic. In some ways it’s easier, because unless you’re specifically talking about governmental overreach, then a fascist state is only going to muddy whatever you’re trying to talk about.
So, here’s a few classic dystopian novels to get you started: Just, fair warning, there’s only one book on this list that I actually enjoy. Don’t expect a lot of happy endings, this isn’t that kind of a list.
Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood. This is a story about a woman caught in a Christian theocracy in the United States. Make sure you read the appendix, it provides a lot of background about the world from the perspective of in-setting academics analyzing the tapes that frame the book.
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. If you thought dystopias couldn’t happen in the real world, I’m sorry. Ivan Denisovitch is partially based on Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in the Soviet gulag system. I hesitate to call it “autobiographical,” but it’s not using a fictional world.
Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, by Hans J. Massaquoi. It’s The Third Reich, really, any discussion on fascism should probably include this. By focusing on the German people, the discussion revolves around anecdotes about the effectiveness propaganda so great that even those who do not benefit and are ostracized (such as Hans) buy into it. Nazi Germany is often treated as an anomaly in fiction, this is a good reminder that not only did it happen but it can happen again, anywhere.
Native Son by Richard Wright. Because 1930s Chicago isn’t your first thought for dystopian fiction. Except, here it is. A classic of the genre, where you didn’t expect to see it.
White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. White Tiger is almost a more comical take on Native Son. Set in modern day India, it deals with a similar narrative. It’s the only novel on the list from the last 20 years, but at this point you could probably use some comic relief. It also presents realities of a modern day dystopia that’s heavily grounded in the real world.
Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell. I don’t like either of these, but Orwell is still in print for a reason. Animal Farm does make more sense if you’re familiar with the Russian revolution. And, of course, 1984 is the book on oppressive dystopian governments. If you haven’t read it by now, you need to.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. If I’m honest, I don’t think Bradbury knows what he was saying, or what the book even means. But, he was certainly trying to say something. Probably, about the corrosive nature on popular culture on classical literature. But, I’m guessing. Regardless, it’s worth your time, especially to expand your toolbox of social manipulation from 1984.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. So… I skipped most of this when it was assigned in college. Sinclair was trying to advocate for safer work conditions, but instead lead to increased regulation of food production in America. As with Native Son, this is just America, no sinister space Nazis needed.
In a narrative, violence acts as a way to release or bleed off tension. The threat of violence is what builds tension and the resulting battle acts as the release. You do have to eventually pay off your tension, but it doesn’t have to be with violence. The beauty of the noir genre is the way it uses the threat to consistently escalate tension in a way that just builds, and builds, and builds until, by the end of the novel, it explodes.
What you’re stuck on is how to make it threatening and that’s because you’re associating unharmed with safe. Your characters are never safe when the antagonist is on the loose.
He or she wants them for something and that thing is bad, right? It could be a ritual, it could be torture, it could be eventual death. It could be anything. Even if that thing is not threatening in actuality when all the information is revealed. The audience may not know what the antagonist wants, but they do know that they’re dangerous. That sense of danger should extend through to the henchmen as well.
The threat your villain presents to the protagonists should be relevant and that threat doesn’t need to necessarily be what they are going to do to them right now, it could be later, it could be never. What you should focus on is that these people, from top to bottom, are very dangerous.
“The Master wanted them brought back alive.”
“What about their legs, they don’t need those?”
“Alive and unspoiled.”
-Paraphrased from The Two Towers as we proceed to mutilate Tolkien’s legacy.
What you need to do is establish that these henchmen are deadly. They are capable of great violence to anyone, even though they may not be exercising those skills in this particular endeavor. They could kill the protagonists if they wanted, they are choosing not to. It’s not the job that’s been assigned. However, that can easily change.
So just because these henchmen aren’t going to hurt your protagonists, it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of it. They’re still dangerous. They could be high caliber, smart, and top tier level dangerous or they could be slow and stupid but dangerous in how they choose interpret their orders.
After all, what does unharmed really mean?
They can kill people around your protagonists. They can torture them. If only one or several of them are needed, then the others are fair game. Anyone they’ve brought on to protect them is fair game. Their friends. Their family. Everyone around them.
The Uruk-hai that Saruman sends after the Hobbits in The Fellowship and the Two Towers are instructed to capture the hobbits alive and unharmed because Saruman is not sure which hobbit is carrying the one ring. However, all the other members of the Fellowship are fair game. Even then, Merry and Pippin are almost eaten by those for whom orders are less important than snack-time. I mean, two hobbits is a lot. Do they really need both?
Blurring amber came down, glinting in the torchlight. It slammed into the back of Joseph Malone’s skull. The mercenary groaned. Slumped. A shadowy face came into view behind him. Seizing Joseph by the collar, the woman tossed him to the floor. He hit musty, beer soaked straw with a thud.
"Well,” she said. Slim fingers tucked brunette strands back behind one ear. She glanced at Alex with a smile. “It’s certainly not my favorite kind of introduction.”
Dusting of the chair with a flip of her wrist, she slid into his seat. One leg crossed over the other as she leaned back. Resting her right hand on a knee, she twirled a dagger in her left. Blue eyes narrowed.
“Howdy, kiddo,” the woman continued. “I’m Dee. I hear you’ve found your way into some trouble.” Black brows lifted. “The Chancellor’s been looking for you.”
Alex straightened. There was a golden pin on Dee’s collar. Royal navy. One of those weird ranks, if she remembered right. A specialty agent. She could be a loyalist. Telcom broadcasts said the Grand Chancellor hadn’t gotten full control of all branches of the Imperial Military, some were still fighting. That’s why I’ve got to get to Admiral Jennicks. Maybe, maybe this Dee worked for him. Maybe he’d gotten her message. Maybe she had come to find her.
Dee’s head tilted. “I’m here to take you back.”
Swallowing, Alex felt her heart plummet.
On the floor, Joseph let out a moan.
Dee’s eyes rolled. She held up a finger. “One thing.”
Dee spun. Her heel came up, slamming down into the mercenary’s throat. She leaned forward, twisting her sole into his neck with a sickening crunch.
In her chair, Alex sat very still. Knuckles white, nails dug into the bag of coin. Biting her cheek, she swallowed. The door… Yes! The door! Twenty seconds, she’d counted. I can make that.
“Come on, Princess,” Dee said. “We’re traveling light.”
The point is not to let yourself get boxed into a corner. There are thousands of ways to go about this. Plenty of examples of great henchman in a wide variety of different media types and genres. You just have to start looking for them and then ask yourself: how did they do that?
We don’t know much about Dee as a character but, even on what would be her first introduction, we do know that she’s willing to kill and that she has the power to kill in the open, in a dingy bar, with what might possibly be zero consequences. She’s not afraid of using violence as a method to solve her problems and she intimates that under different circumstances she’d be perfectly willing to kill the Alex character.
It’s a big dark world, kid, and you’re in it alone.
Henchmen can show up at the worst times in a story. Pursuers can be a source of endless trouble. Even if they aren’t particularly threatening, they can mess up important moments, send deals the wrong way, kill potential allies, the list goes on.
The real trick, which I said in the beginning, is to never forget that unharmed doesn’t mean safe. Your characters aren’t protected just because the boss wants it one way.
And if you get stuck, you can always look to the classics.
This is more questions about what you want to do with your setting and
story. Magic is a lot like the politics of your world; it needs to exist in
service of what you’re trying to say.
So, the first question would be, why is there even magic in your setting?
You can write an entirely functional fantasy setting without magic. And, if
it serves no purpose, adding a magical system in, “because it’s supposed
to be there,” can potentially cause havoc for your story and worry open
new plot holes. After all, a heroic sacrifice looses a lot of its poignancy
when you can just reverse it with five thousand gold worth of diamonds, and a
mid level cleric.
If the magic exists for a reason, then that will start to answer some of
your questions. For example, if you’re wanting to do an ecological commentary,
then applying a physical cost for your spells makes sense. Or if you want characters
digging through ancient ruins that are still loaded with mystical traps from
another era. But, if you want ascetic nomads to be practicing magic as part of
their journey towards enlightenment, then physical components make less sense.
Also, that’s not ironclad. D&D’s Dark Sun setting had a heavy ecological
theme, with mostly mental spellcraft. It also had a distinction between arcane
magic, which depleted the world, and psionic abilities which didn’t.
Generally speaking, I’d discourage having separate magical rules for
individual characters. Just balancing multiple magical systems against each
other to keep some kind of sanity in your setting can be a nightmare. Of
course; I say this right after citing D&D, which, depending on how you
count, uses four or five different magical systems.
That said, if there’s a compelling reason one of your characters operates
under distinct rules from the rest, that will dictate their limits. The obvious
example is, if your magic is legalistic and has sharp boundaries. It’s possible
your characters can step outside those, under the right circumstances. The
example from Tolkein that comes to mind is that “no man” could kill the Witch
King of Angmar (the leader of the Ringwraiths). But, that protection didn’t
help when Eowyn shanked him. (Technically, in the novel, the term is “No living
man may hinder me,” which sounds more like a boast, but the idea is still
You could easily end up with prohibitions that prevent some group like
“mortals”, “humans”, or any other group from accessing kinds of spells, that
could still be sidestepped simply by having a character who isn’t human,
mortal, or whatever. The danger is you’re creating a character who is “special”
simply for the purpose of being awesome. But, if there’s a legitimate reason
for one of your characters to have access to some restricted field of magic,
it’s certainly an option.
And, yes, having something to say about “special” wish fulfillment
characters can be a legitimate reason, just tread carefully, if that’s the case.
There’s no right answer to how magic should impact day to day life. Again,
this is one of these setting building questions. There’s nothing inherently
wrong with Warhammer’s approach to
magic as a rare and fundamentally dangerous thing that has the potential to go
horribly wrong without warning, or with Exalted’s
First Age, where magic is basically a substitute for highly advanced
The more widespread magic is in your setting, the more people will view it
like technology. If it’s familiar and predictable, then they’ll understand it
(at least as part of their world, not at a technical level.) The more
restricted and rare magic is, the more they’ll fear and misunderstand it.
If you have a setting where magic is rare and misunderstood, you can easily
end up with a situation where you have characters who do “break the rules” with
magic. They aren’t, really, but your characters have an imperfect or limited
understanding of what is actually possible.
Conversely, if you have a setting where everyone has a magical analog to a
cell phone in their pocket, having a character who can do something that’s
“impossible” with magic is a lot less likely.
Your choice on where you land with this will be determined by what you want
to say. If you’re talking about magic as a surrogate for something else then
that will inform what you need to think about. A setting where you’re using
magic as a venue to talk about transhumanism it will look completely different
from one where you’re focused on state surveillance, and using scrying and augury
to talk about that.
The thing I’m going to stress is, magic needs to exist in service of your
story and the setting you’re trying to create. Normally, I’d say your setting
also needs to exist in service to your story, but there are a few exceptions to
For recommendations, I’d start with looking at games that focus on how magic
interacts with the world, rather than just fining ones with iron clad rules.
Mage: The Ascension from White
Wolf is probably one of the best basic toyboxes for unlimited mages. Characters
who simply reshape the world as they see fit, with the cost that if they push
too far, they’ll be slapped down by the world. You can ignore the part where
the setting is technically urban fantasy, if you want. It’s also a good example
of characters with multiple conflicting magical systems trying to understand
one another’s powers. Though, this is more apparent if you’re familiar with the
other games in the setting.
Exalted, also from White Wolf, is
a high fantasy setting that leans into pseudo-anime territory. There’s some
interesting world building, and delineation between different kinds of magic.
If you really want to write a story about a super-special-snowflake of doom,
take a look at this. There’s some good recommendations for how people would
actually respond to people randomly getting superpowers.
Shadowrun probably sounds like a
weird choice, but almost any iteration of this (except the Xbox 360 title) should
offer some things to think about. The basic premise is that magic returned to a
cyberpunk setting and upset everything. If you’re setting your story around a
magical renaissance, this will give you some interesting things to pick
through. (Quick Note: I’m linking Second Edition because of its price, not because it’s better than the later editions.)
Dungeons and Dragons has a few
settings that do some interesting things with magic. I’m a little hesitant to
flat out recommend it, because of the amount of reading required to get
conversant in the systems. But, dig up a wiki entry on Dark Sun and Eberron if
you want to see some settings to poke for ideas.
Similarly, reading up on Warhammer
and Warhammer 40k’s mages and psykers
(respectively) might not be a bad idea. Also, read up on Chaos and The Warp
while you’re there, since that’s fundamental information for how magic
functions in those settings.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan original
short stories are one of those things you really should read. As with H.P.
Lovecraft, there’s some stuff that’s going to be a bit off key to a modern
reader, but Howard’s efficiency of language is something you need to see. He
presents magic as an unknowable horror that corrupts anyone who tries to wield
it. So, if you’re working with a setting where magic is poorly understood, his
work is worth your time.
If you want to blend some urban fantasy elements into a classic historical
setting, I’d strongly recommend you take a look at Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser novels. If
you want, Dark Horse reprinted a comic adaptation of a few of the short
stories with amazing art from Mike Mignola a few years ago. The comic is also,
probably, the most painless entry point to the characters.
Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels
are fairly subtle about the consequences of magic… well, sometimes. Sapkowski
is an author who has a lot to say, and it shows in his world building, and his
world’s magical systems.
Here’s the problem with this setup (and it is a very, very, very common setup for the vast majority of fantasy protagonists): your character is essentially saying “I was gifted with these phenomenal powers but I don’t want to be awesome”.
Now, if we get rid of all the superpower/fantasy magic and look at this from the outside: your character was an eighteen year old on track for medical school (wanted to become a doctor) but was drafted/conscripted into the army instead, then it’s actually not cliche. The eighteen year old has the thing he wanted to do, but life got in the way and he had to do the other thing instead. There’s no magic or destiny involved, he’s just a guy for whom circumstances denied him what he wanted. (Or, really, had to give it up for the moment, if he had to give it up at all. Armies have medics and doctors.)
Unfortunately, the same message doesn’t apply when you start incorporating powers into the equation. This is because you’re introducing a whole separate level of concerns. Power comes with responsibility. The more power a character has, the more they are defined and confined by it. The fewer choices they will have. The easier it is for their actions to have massive, widespread unintended consequences continuously rippling outward. When they make a mistake, they will hurt more people than just themselves. More you have, the more cautious you have to be. The more you have to give up, the more you have to sacrifice, because circumstances outside of your control have decided you will not be like other men/women. That’s just a fact of life. You can say “But I don’t want it”. Well, tough. Suck it up. Deal with it or deal with the consequences.
“You shall have joy or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
This is your trade off. Yes, it sucks but it’s a good mantra to keep in mind when you start writing characters who are supposed to be uberpowerful. They rolled the dice and they got power. There’s no promise that having power makes life any better or any easier.
He’s being asked to engage in a very terrifying lifestyle, it’s natural that he’d want to escape it but it’s also irresponsible for a character with powers to not learn how to control them. More than that, your character is actively sabotaging himself from learning in hopes he’ll flunk out because he wants to do something else that appeals to him more. That is the equivalent of a child throwing a goddamn temper tantrum.
Right now, the character you’ve constructed is running away. Don’t let him. He’s going to end up hurting more people than just himself.
1) Your character is essentially saying: what I want is more important than anything else, including the safety of other people.
2) Your character has tunnel vision. He’s so fixed on what he wants, that he’s ignoring everything else. They are sabotaging themselves for no reason whatsoever. Medical knowledge and the combat arts synergize very well. In fact, it is very common in martial arts from India and China for the student to actively study medicine and herbalism as a part of their martial training. The better you understand the body, the better you can both take it apart and put it back together. He can make a very solid case for himself to his teachers for why he should learn both without resorting to stupid juvenile tactics that actively endanger himself and his training partners.
He can, in fact, do both.
However, this requires he have the ability to think about people other than himself and consider the consequences for them. From the sound of it, your character currently has a case of “It’s All About Me”.
Don’t feel bad.
Protagonists can often develop this condition naturally all on their own. It doesn’t mean that you are a bad writer or even shortsighted. Plenty of people also have this problem, especially those people who have been told their entire life that they are special and meant for greatness. It’s easy for those people to become self-centered, to only think about their wants at the expense of all other people. They’ve never had to look outside of themselves, never had to think about other people. They were never taught that other people are important. They are special. They are powerful. They are meant for greatness.
It’s a very natural beginning place for that kind of character.
In fact, the setup you’re suggesting won’t become a problem for your overarching story unless you sanction his actions as correct and follow your character’s example by forgetting about the wants and needs of everyone else in your story. If you forget that there may be a very legitimate reason for why this character can’t simply go off and do whatever he wants, and also forget that we can’t always get what we want or that it’s not always going to be as great as we think it’s going to be, then you’re in trouble.
What he’s going to need is a harsh, sharp shove back into reality. How you do that is up to you.
He’ll need it if he wants to be a good doctor and he’ll need it if he wants to be a good warrior. Medicine and combat both require the ability to look outside yourself and accurately assess situations, accurately assess people. These jobs actually require the character to have an interest in people, their needs, their wants, their desires, and the development of observational skills. They need to be able to notice their environment, predict consequences, pay attention to other people’s mental and bodily needs. Whether it’s taking people apart or putting them back together, you need the ability to look at someone else and accurately get a sense for what they’re thinking. Behavioral studies, reading body language, etc in order to determine the cause of the problem or how to defeat your opponent.
The real question is do you know what it takes to be a good doctor? Do you know what it takes to be a good warrior? Just because your character is talented and powerful doesn’t mean he’ll be good at either of those things even if he tries. If he’s intentionally sabotaging himself from learning what he needs then he’ll never notice where the two overlap and he’ll take the sabotaging as a method for dealing with the other problems in his life.
If he never faces the problem, then running away will become a consistent pattern.
The biggest problem which arises from these setups is usually when an author states that they want X for their character but puts in no effort to actually understand the necessary skills and adjustments a character needs to make to become what they want to be.
If you’re just stuck in the dichotomy that hurting people = bad and healing people = good, then you’ll end up missing both the similarities and the philosophical nuances both professions engage in. I understand the desire to say it has to be X or Y, it’s more sensational that way and, initially, those two professions don’t feel like they have anything in common. However, if you make it black and white then you don’t start thinking about how to hybridize the two. How to do what they need while also looking for a way, within the structural setup the character has to deal with, to also do what they want.
And you know, maybe it will fall through for him. He might fail. There are no guarantees. However, regardless of cliches, regardless of what I think, regardless of everything else, what you need here is an active character who is pursuing their goal while taking into account the constraints they are under by virtue of their status. You can build a very well-thought out, nuanced story around that character. You can even include the self-sabotage angle (in fact, include it), so long as you remember that self-sabotage is not a solution when it comes to dealing with problems. He’ll have to face it at some point. Either way, he wants to be responsible for people’s lives. He can’t develop the necessary sense of responsibility by running away from responsibility.
The Song of The Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce, the main character Alanna wants to be a knight in a society where only men can be knights so she disguises herself as a boy and takes the place of her twin brother. She also possesses a strong magical Gift for healing. Over the course of the novels, she’s forced to face her fear of magic, accept her Gift, and learn to heal (which she initially views as “soft” or “women’s work” despite there being other male characters who perform the function). It’s a key part of her wholly accepting her identity. It might be worth a look to apply to your own story with a male character doing the reverse.
Babylon 5, Babylon 5 is an interesting show that I recommend anyone watch, however for you I’m going to suggest a very specific character: Doctor Franklin Biggs. Biggs is a military doctor serving on the Babylon 5 station who struggles with the requirements of his military career versus his ethics as a doctor, since his problems often come with a sci-fi bent he may be more helpful to you than a military doctor in a traditional wartime drama. Biggs also comes from a military family and he struggles with his desire to follow his own path while faced with an overbearing parent’s expectations.
M.A.S.H. Keeping in mind I’ve never seen the movie, the television show is very good for reminding viewers that medicine and combat aren’t as far removed as they might seem at first glance. Also, war is horrific for everyone involved.
Full Metal Jacket, I’m just going to throw the Vietnam films in. This one follows the stories of several young men from different backgrounds who are drafted into service and how they deal with (or don’t) the rigors of combat. On the whole this era of films will be better for dealing with characters who are forced to fight and don’t want to than ones based around WWII. (TW: Mental Abuse, Suicide.)
Kinetic force is a must in every fight scene. You need to get a sense of motion going, so the audience feels it. There’s weight to hand to hand strikes, the generation of cause and effect between the force of motion and the reaction to being hit. Whether your character is using soft or light techniques, movement is going to be involved and as an author you need to get a sense for it.
Once you have that, you need to be able to both incorporate it into your story and communicate it clearly to your audience.
this post, we’ll offer up an example (written by me) and discuss some
ways in which you can start incorporating this into your writing.
fist whipped up, plunging into Andras’ stomach. Stepping forward, her
hands rose and slammed into both his ears. The older elf stumbled.
Cranking her knee to her chest, she rammed the ball of her foot into his
“Yeah! Go Woodsy!”
Andras flew backwards. Hitting
the wooden fence surrounding the practice yard, his back to the cheering
soldiers. His bald head gleamed in the noon day sun, dappling across
the new fuzz of fine, white hair springing from his scalp.
Someone in the crowd slapped his bare shoulder.
“Get her, Andras!”
lifted his head, yellow eyes gleaming. A smile yanked hard at the side
of his mouth. Wiping his lips with muddy knuckles, he stepped forward.
“You have been practicing,” Andras said.
Lifting her hands,
Eirwen reset her position. Fingernails brushed her cheek, the other hand
low and guarding her waist, she kept both loose and open. Settling back
on her left leg and dropped into her stance. “Oh, yes,” she laughed. “I
wouldn’t want to shame my teacher!”
“Kick his ass, Wood Girl!”
The hand by her cheek tightened into a fist and she raised it, gave it a shake. “Without a doubt!”
Laughter rippled through the surrounding crowd.
“Ah,” Andras chuckled. “I see you again overestimate yourself, little one.”
“Today is my day, old man.” A smirk twisted, lopsided, on her mouth. She held up a hand, fingers twitching. “Bring it.”
the first kick with her shin, she whipped it out and knocked his leg
away. Foot planted in the mud, her body twisted, right foot lifting as
she wheeled. Her knee swung up, tight in a chamber, and then her hips
rolled over, kick sweeping through the air toward his temple.
His elbow tucked tight against his ear, violet-blue barrier flickering.
The top of her foot slammed into him. Her energy rolled against his, shimmering, quivering, shaking.
shoved her away, sweeping her left leg. His ankle hooked hers, his palm
flat against her chest. He yanked his foot back in time with a hard
shove, and she went down. Back crashing into the mud, Eirwen slid back.
Cold water clung to her neck, tickling her scalp, splashing over her
chest in a spray of black-brown sludge.
Andras’ heel struck downwards.
She rolled, springing to her feet.
Another splash of water hit the air, his foot connecting with a vacated puddle.
swung away, circling. Eyes flicking over the curvature of his bare
chest, his pale skin, the rippling abdominal muscles, his muscular arms
toned by over a thousand years of dedicated training. Swallowing, Eirwen
let her fists tighten up. His legs aren’t so bad either. Nice to see the tight armor wasn’t just for show. She nearly shook her head. Focus.
“You continue to surprise me,” Andras said. Yellow eyes followed her, his smile pulling wider.
“I know,” Eirwen replied.
“You adjust well to our training.”
“As you have said.” Eirwen leaped forward, launching a flurry of blows at his chest and head.
calluses of his palms and fingertips slid over her skin, her knuckles,
her wrists, tingling. “Still.” He knocked each punch away. “This path is
not for those faint of heart.”
She slid beneath a return strike,
fist hammering his ribcage. “And?” She gripped the back of his head and
drove her knee into his stomach.
His barrier sparked. Crackled. His head flew forward.
Their gaze locked.
Eirwen grinned. “Is my heart faint?”
caught her, whipped her around, arms wrapping across her body.
Squeezing. Her bare back pressed to his equally bare chest. The cut of
his muscles rubbed against her, left a warm, tingling sensation running
up her spine. He lifted her high. His voice murmured in her ear, “We
“Andras!” Elves in the crowd chanted. “Andras! Andras! Andras!”
Rocking, she tucked her legs to her chest. They sprung out. Head knocked back. It clashed with his nose.
His barrier cracked. Failed.
Grin widening, Eirwen hit him again.
Her feet hit mud. Her leg lifted and struck out, heel driving deep into his abdomen.
Andras grunted. Blood dribbled down his lip, slipping off his chin. Fingers sparking, blue energy rippled over his shoulders.
turning, Eirwen spun, wheeling, her right leg whipped toward his skull
and… went through him. Off balance, she slid on the ground’s slimy
surface. Andras’ fist struck out, slamming into her diaphragm. Air
hurled from her lungs, she staggered back. Gasping, gulping, she tried
to straighten. Saw the second hit come. His fist caught her under the
jaw, the third slammed into her chest, and she flew back.
Her barrier shattered.
Hitting a fence post, Eirwen slid into the mud with a groan.
strode through the mud. He came to a stop, his broad back blocking out
the sun. She half-expected him to grab her by the hair but, instead, he
extended a hand.
With a smile, she took it and let him haul her to her
So, I wrote this for *gasp* a fanfic. I
changed the names, but the full thing is posted somewhere else on the
internet (also on my personal Tumblr page and AO3 account, along with
some of my other writing
assuming you want to go there…).
people would tell you action words and you should learn as many of them
as you can. You’ll hear a lot that you can cheat on fight scenes by
using shorter sentences to make the action flow faster. You’ll also hear advice suggesting
you use more active words, more verbs while cutting out adjectives. Cut out metaphors. Create images without relating them to another object.
This is good advice and you should learn it. However, both avoid the heart of the issue. The true
key to when it comes to actually writing a good fight is learning to be
efficient with your language. Focusing on details to convey a sense of weight, where objects
and characters within the text actually begin to feel like they are
What you want is the movie playing behind your eyes, where the audience can see everything that happens.
How do you do it?
are key. To be able to write about objects in motion, you must first
understand how objects move. What happens when they do? Even if your
story involves magic or superpowers, all your characters will be subject
to physical laws.
In discussion of this, we will be using
Newton’s Three Laws of Motion because to talk about physics in fiction,
we must remember that physics exist and your characters are affected by
1.) Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.
combat is give and take. There’s what one character does and how the
other character responds. If a character gets hit, they’ve got to fight
against it or be stopped by some other object. They can’t just fly
forever, they’ve got to fall into something.
Keep in mind
that an uncontrolled fall can be as dangerous as the hit itself, more
because you never know what someone will fall into. A hit might break a
bone, but cracking the skull on concrete can cause a concussion just as
easily. Falling down can scrape the skin, it can break bones, getting
knocked into a wall can cause injury. If your characters are bouncing
off objects, they are going to get hurt.
This is part of why
fighting to keep control of a person is significantly more difficult and
significantly more taxing than simply killing them.
2.) The relationship between an object’s mass m, it’s acceleration a, and the applied force is F is F= ma.
Acceleration and force are the vectors (as indicated in their their
symbols being displayed in slant bold font; in this law the direction of
the force vector is the same as the direction of the accelerated
Do you actually need to do the math to
know how hard your character is hitting? No, of course not. The trick to
remember is that your character can’t simply hit with the power of a
mac truck on a whim. More importantly, as you write hand to hand, you
need to remember that different parts of the body generate more force
A kick is more powerful than a punch. A spin kick or a
jump kick are more powerful than a regular kick. Why? They use motion
to accelerate faster and generate more force to hit the object with. The
trick being that the faster you go, the less control over your body you
have. If you miss, then the body will keep going and that creates an
opening in which the other person can strike.
This happens in the sequence above when Eirwen throws a spinning kick at Andras.
turning, Eirwen spun, wheeling, her right leg whipped toward his skull
and… went through him. Off balance, she slid on the ground’s slimy
Because she expects the kick to land (the
muscles tighten up in the seconds before, because of the equal and
opposite reaction), she’s thrown off balance by the fact she didn’t
touch him at all. This leads her to slip, she can’t entirely control her
motion and thus it creates an opening for Andras to exploit.
fist struck out, slamming into her diaphragm. Air hurled from her
lungs, she staggered back. Gasping, gulping, she tried to straighten.
Saw the second hit come. His fist caught her under the jaw, the third
slammed into her chest, and she flew back.
you notice about this? Andras uses his fists. Earlier in the piece,
you’ll see that the kicks cause more damage than punches. Where Eirwen
could send Andras flying with a kick to the gut, he needs three separate
hits in order to return the favor. One to destabilize her (the gut),
the second take advantage (uppercut), with the third as the finisher
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Eirwen also reacts to where he
hits her. Stomach/diaphragm controls breathing, hitting someone there
will stun/destabilize them by forcing an exhalation of air from the
lungs and cause the entire body to roll forward as it tucks inward to
protect the damaged core. She staggers in response to his first hit and
starts sucking down air.
We’ve established how hard each character
can hit utilizing the different limbs as striking mechanisms. Which
part of the body the character chooses to use will dictate how hard they
can hit, where on the body they hit their opponent will govern the
This is why combination hits are important.
Most of the time, you can’t simply power through another fighter’s
defenses. Combatants use rolling hits to generate more momentum and thus
more force. Strikes build into each other.
Instead of thinking about your hand to hand fight scenes as a wrecking ball, start imagining it like dominos.
3) For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction
you hit somebody, something happens, some result will occur. It may not
be the result the character wants, but something has to and should be
Hitting a fence post, Eirwen slid into the mud with a groan.
hits the fence post, she makes a sound. It tells the reader, “Ouch.
That hurt.” She also slides down into the mud, the language denoting she
is not entirely in control of her movement.
Rocking, she tucked her legs to her chest. They sprung out. Head knocked back. It clashed with his nose.
His barrier cracked. Failed.
Grin widening, Eirwen hit him again.
time his barrier fails, the second time he stumbles. It takes two hits
to get the result she wants. Later, he wipes away blood because his nose
is bleeding. This bring us back, to lesson 2: creating force. You’ll
also notice, he lifts her in the bear hug, she begins to rock in order
to create greater force. It is not enough just to slam her head back,
she uses her entire body to reach him.
The human body acts like a spring, start loose, tighten up, and then explode out. Loosen up again, tighten up, and boom.
Reaction is what creates a good fight scene.
However, writing reaction requires keeping an eye on detail and that means you need to start learning to look for them. Which means, either A) people watching or B) movie watching. Preferably both.
This also means, if you’re new and aren’t in the habit of watching martial arts, you need to start with slow combat over fast combat. Remember, the point of watching isn’t to learn to fight, it’s starting to figure out how people react to when in action.
Movies like the first Matrix, for example, where the stunts are predominately performed by the actors are going to be better as a starter than Jet Li films, Jackie Chan films, or the whole Wuxia genre. Keanu Reaves is slow enough for the average viewer to follow, whereas Jet Li moves fast enough the camera loses frames.
Youtube videos, particularly of sprinting, gymnastics, dance, field hockey, discus, and other sports will also help you. Whether it’s football or horse racing, your study is the human body. Kinesiology. What does it look like when someone speeds up? Slows down? What do they do? When do they start to breathe more deeply? Take that second wind? Understanding the body in motion will help you understanding the body in combat.
If you throw a ball at the wall, what happens? It bounces back. When a roundhouse successfully connects (or even when it’s blocked), it also starts to bounce back which is a major reason why a martial artist learns to “stick it”, to tighten up in the few seconds before impact so they connect more strongly and keep their force instead of losing a good percentage when the leg bounces back off their opponent’s body.
This is true of all hits and a major reason why beginners can sometimes wail on someone for several hours without doing that much damage.
Science is great, isn’t?
Imitating reality requires understanding reality. Writing fiction that feels like a movie means recognizing those basic details of everyday life we normally don’t look for. Your mind knows physics even if you don’t totally understand them, it looks for them within a work.
If you can’t see your fight scene in your head after you practice writing, don’t say, “I didn’t do it right.” Say instead: “What’s missing?” Sometimes, all you need is a few more passes. If you still can’t imagine it, look up similar examples of what you’re going for.
Learning to notice new details in the world around you takes time.
Don’t give up.
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In a fight, she’s going to die. The only way to get past his sword is to kill him preemptively. Once the sword is out, she’s dead. More than that, she has no way to close the distance to even injure him. Quite literally, she will not even slow him down. This isn’t a background question, or a gender question, it’s just a weapons issue.
He’s swinging a 5 – 6 foot long blade that weighs about as much as your laptop (4 – 7 lbs). We can talk about it being slow (for a sword) or heavy (for a sword) but it’s very important to understand, she cannot get within six feet of him and live. It’s still a very agile, lethal, and fast weapon.
It’s also important to remember he’s not a video game character. He’s not going to make some big overly telegraphed attack and then end up with the sword buried in the masonry long enough for her to run up and shank him a couple times. Doesn’t happen.
If she never fights him. She just comes up behind him in a crowd, buries her dagger in his kidneys, and leaves him to bleed to death, she can come out on top. But a quick assassination strike is her only option. Really, that’s the combat role of a dagger, outside of some very situational stuff.
So you have a character that’s geared for heavy infantry combat vs. a character who is effectively unarmed. That’s never a good situation.
Also? She should know that. When you’re talking about someone who’s effectively an opportunist, she would know she has no chance in a stand up fight with a soldier/ex-soldier/merc. If presented with this guy, her options are to either shank him, or run. If he’s ready for a fight, then she needs to be someplace else, now. Someplace he can’t follow her. If that’s through a black market he can’t enter, through a church, into somewhere neither of them want to be (like the tavern they’ve both been thrown out of for completely different reasons) but that will raise less of a fuss over an “unarmed” woman racing in, than a main armed with a greatsword. Because, honestly, a big guy with a greatsword barreling into anywhere is rarely a welcome sight.
It’s important to understand, running isn’t cowardice. A character choosing not to commit suicide against an armed opponent in a back alley brawl is just being smart.
On a writing level, I’m going to leave you with a question: If it doesn’t matter for the plot, then why is it there at all?
Whenever you’re working on a scene, it needs to be in the story for a reason. It needs to move the plot forward, or provide more character development. Something. It needs to do something.
Killing off a character because, “eh, might as well,” is usually a bad idea. There are legitimate reasons to do so, but they get into some really tricky territory. Killing characters to promote the idea that, “no one is safe,” can easily backfire, leaving you with readers that no longer care. Even in the best circumstances, the more characters you kill, the less their deaths matter.
Simply snuffing peripheral characters because you can, doesn’t really get you anything. If neither of these characters are important enough to affect the course of the plot, why are you spending time looking at them fighting? It becomes a weird kind of filler that can just as easily be cut.