Tag Archives: writing advice

Your Characters Don’t Have To Be Good People

No, really, they don’t. In fact, it’s better if they’re not. When you’re writing, especially if you’re writing violence, you can fall into an easy trap: you the writer know that violence is bad, but you also know that your character is good so they cannot perform bad acts and any act they perform is good so long as it was well-intentioned. You can get into the problem of your protagonist taking actions that are as bad as the villains they’re fighting and the only justification is: they’re not a bad person or they didn’t mean it.

Well, I’m sorry. Kant is made of fairy dust and bullshit.

Violence is a nasty business and characters must shoulder the burden of the consequences. Good people do bad things for good reasons and bad people do good things for bad ones, neither is any more or less culpable than the other. They exist in the same space because, you see, it’s the action itself that matters and not the meaning behind it. A reason is not the same thing as an intention.

Intention: “I shot that guy over there but I really didn’t mean it, so I’m not culpable.”

Reason: “I shot that guy over there so that the orphans over here wouldn’t starve, I’m definitely culpable but this is why.”

One character is trying to say that because they feel a certain way that the rules don’t apply to them. The other is making a choice to do something to achieve a goal, what that goal happens to be is up to the character. It could be something noble like saving starving orphans or it could be something cold like killing a man for money. Both acts can actually have good outcomes and they can also have bad ones, but what is important to remember is that the way a character feels about it changes nothing in how others may perceive them. However, their reasons may. This doesn’t require you the author to say that what they did was okay, even if their actions were for a good cause.

I’ve seen too many novels bend over backwards to attempt to morally justify the unjustifiable for one character and then condemn the same actions by another. Characters do bad things sometimes, but even then, they’ll still be worthy of love and respect from the reader.

-Michi

I was wondering what sort of difficulties someone would face in fighting (hand to hand/wrestling or with, say, a sword) if they lost one of their arms as well as an eye. I have a character who relied on his brute strength but ends up losing an arm and most of the sight in his dominant eye. Would he be able to correct for this eventually? What sort of things could he keep in mind, etc? Thanks!

Well… they’d go into shock and die. So, there is that.

I’ll say this again. Fighting is not about brute strength; It’s about finesse. This is especially true of sword combat. Loosing an arm is just going to seriously mess with that. If he was using an epee or rapier, and was trained as in some variation of Italian school fencing, he might be able to adjust.

If he lost his dominant arm, I’m inclined to say no. You can learn to compensate for the loss of a limb in day to day life (even if you don’t have access to prosthetic replacements). But, you’ll probably be unable to ever get to a point where you’d actually be effective in combat again. (And I say this while fully aware of Götz von Berlichingen.)

The eye isn’t as serious an issue, especially if it still works. His peripheral vision would be impaired. If he’s effectively blind in one eye, you’re not going to want him trying to shoot things, but it’s not a career ending injury.

-Starke

I’ve recently started re-watching Burn Notice to help with a story idea I have. What other recommendations do you have on how spies fight?

For spies, combat is an absolute last resort. They’ll use it because they have to. When they do get into combat, what they’ll do will be heavily dictated by who they’re masquerading as.

If they need to eliminate someone to avoid blowing their cover, they’re going to need to take them down as hard and fast as possible. Preferably in a way that doesn’t point back at them. Sometimes this means killing their opponent, but as Westen points out throughout the series, leaving a dead body behind can actually draw more attention in the long run.

Like most genres, spy fiction ends up on a spectrum between formalism and realism. The issue is, at the extremes, they’re almost different genres, so I’m basically going to have to write two separate recommendation lists.

The formalistic genre is your superspies. This ranges from espionage themed action to comic book level insanity. Your spies are a different flavor of superhero. As a tonal element, formalistic spies actually work better when placed against supervillains, because you get a nice parity between them.

The realistic genre is the brutally bleak tradecraft. These are settings where spies will die if they get into actual fights with trained opponents, and saving the day often means outmaneuvering your opponents without resorting to overt action. At its extreme, the realistic genre can actually get bleaker than espionage in the real world, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The best material in the genre finds a mix between these two points, and stays there. So, you’re going to get two separate recommendation lists, just remember to take elements from both.

Burn Notice’s is a bit schizophrenic. The narrator isn’t just a completely different character from Michael Westen, he’s actually at a different point on the spectrum. The show itself is fairly formalistic, while the narrator is talking about concerns and behavior from a realistic perspective. It’s part of why the show worked so well, but when you’re drawing from it, remember to keep those elements separate.

If you’re wanting to go more in the superspy direction, James Bond is the gold standard. License to Kill and Casino Royale are probably the most realistic (which isn’t saying much). If this is a good thing or not is a matter of taste.

The Bourne Identity (the first film only) is another solid formalistic example. (The second and third film have better fight choreography, but they suffer from a terminal case of shaky cam; which requires you already have a solid grasp of hand to hand to really follow.) The only part of Legacy I’ve seen was Jeremy Renner’s fantastic hand to hand work. It’s more cop than spy, but if you have the time, it could be worth looking at.

The novel is actually much closer to an American James Bond, with the serial numbers filed off. You can pick up some basic tradecraft from it, particularly Bourne’s thought process about blending into his environment can be very useful, and it’s something the film does skim completely over.

Salt is solidly in the superspy genre, the sleeper agents demonstrate supernatural resilience to damage, and the entire premise is a little crazy. But, if your spies aren’t really human, you could probably get some ideas from this.

Red is basically in the same vein, fun, but equally ludicrous. Again, if your spies have actual superpowers, go ahead and watch it. Karl Urban’s character might be worth looking at even if you are pushing for a more realistic bent.

Chuck wore thin for me. There’s stuff to like, so, it might be worth your time if you want to mess around with superspies interacting with the normal world.

The original Get Smart TV series is freakin’ brilliant. It’s a parody of the superspy genre that was partially helmed by Mel Brooks. Obviously, it’s not even remotely serious, but if you’re wanting to mock that genre it’s a must see.

If you’re wanting to run harder into the realistic genre, then you’re going to be looking at a much bleaker recommendation list. I’d start with The Human Factor by “Ishmael Jones”. This an ex-CIA case officer’s memoires, it’s easily available and deals with the current state of the American Intelligence community.

Blowback by Chalmers Johnson isn’t actually about spies per say, but it is about the political consequences of espionage (and foreign policy in general). This might not be something you want to delve into, but I’ll leave it on the list.

With the non-fiction reading out of the way, John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a classic in the genre with good reason. The novel’s been adapted twice, with Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman playing George Smiley. I haven’t seen either, but the novel is a good primer for writing spies.

The Fourth Protocol follows a retiring spy who’s investigating a Soviet plan to detonate a nuclear weapon on an American air base. Bonus points, in that the Russian agent is played by Pierce Brosnan. If you want to see how a realistic spy fights, then he’s probably the single best example. That said, it’s been about ten years since I saw this, so I could have accidentally slipped on rose colored glasses. I haven’t read the novel it’s based on.

Although somewhat dated, The Sandbaggers was a British TV series in the late 70s. Though the answer it gives on how their spies fight is “as little as possible.” Historically the show is actually based on how the CIA would task agents, rather than MI6.

Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country is a modern update of The Sandbaggers in comic form. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already seen Sandbaggers, but if you don’t have access to the show, then this is much easier, and cheaper to find.

Ronin is a mix of formalism and realism. It’s still an action film, but the tradecraft the ex-spies use is remarkably solid. Given that you’ve started with Burn Notice, you should have a pretty good frame of reference to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Also, I’ll say it again, this is also one of the best films you can watch for car chases, almost every shot in the film was done with stunt drivers on actual streets, and it shows. If you want to get an idea of what a trained operative could actually do with a car, this isn’t completely off base.

Spy Game by the late Tony Scott is a rather hectic mix of realistic elements. I’m more comfortable dropping it here because of how heavily cut together it is, and elements of the film’s plot. This is a very dense primer on tradecraft.

The other mix of realism and formalism is the Mission: Impossible TV series. Not to be confused with the film franchise, the TV series focused on characters actually being spies, infiltrating and manipulating organizations or individuals to achieve their goals. There’s a heavy focus on supplementing their operations with gadgets, but it’s one of the forerunners of the modern genre divide.

AEG’s Spycraft RPG was written so it could be played as either a realistic or cinematic (formalistic) game. It has a lot of resources for both superspies and real operatives. In a rare moment, the character creation system is also useful, as it illustrates the different specialties that are intrinsic to espionage.

Spycraft’s World on Fire supplement is insanely useful, it’s also incredibly hard to find. It was about blending one of the Spycraft settings with the real world, and it has an absolutely staggering amount of information on actual espionage in the 20th century. Unfortunately, a lot of it is mixed in with World on Fire’s six fictional factions. So, it’s useful, but tread carefully.

If you’re wanting to do a spy story set in a science fiction setting, I’d take a look at The First Line from Last Unicorn Game’s now defunct Star Trek RPG. Be ready to parse the Trek out of it, if your setting isn’t similar, but it does offer some fantastic thoughts on espionage and counterintelligence in a spacefaring civilization.

Finally, the line from Burn Notice, that “Spies are just criminals with a government paycheck” is entirely on point. You’re probably tired of me recommending Heat every other post… So I’ll recommend Payback instead. The lead character is a con artist, not a spy, but the general “messing with people” approach is very spy like. (If you’re digging this up, make sure you grab the director’s cut, it’s actually a different, more consistent, film.)

-Starke

I have heard that women who believe themselves to be “naturally” weaker can end up going 110% in a fight (especially joke-roughhousing or just being new to sparring) and accidentally hurt someone because they didn’t realize they’re not limp noodles. Is that a common thing or “anecdata” that my friend told me? I want to use it for my character but I don’t know if her (experienced) partner should be surprised or just disgruntled.

I’d go with disgruntled, but not for the reasons you’re thinking of.

First, not knowing your own strength is an issue, for both men and women. But, without training or experience, most combatants have a hard time generating force. Which outright cripples their damage, regardless of gender.

Second, your character isn’t going to be able to surprise their partner, at least not by hitting harder than they’d expect. If they’ve been training in contact sparring (of any kind), they’ll be used to taking hits. And your character isn’t going to be able to best them. They have training and experience on their side, and that will win them the fight.

Third, and this isn’t what you were directly asking about, you don’t train someone in martial arts by having them spar with anyone.

Sparring is something reserved for advanced martial artists because, if you let beginners spar, they’ll just end up seriously hurting each other. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but getting caught “sparring” will get you kicked out of most martial arts classes. Usually, you won’t see anyone below black belt, involved in unsupervised sparring.

There are a couple, very specific exceptions, that aren’t technically sparring, but could be mistaken for it:

Some katas require a training partner. It’s not actually sparring, they both have a script they’re following. Usually this is either because the kata contains material that requires another human sized object to throw or because the practitioner is having their skills evaluated. If it’s the latter, then this is probably, strictly, no contact. Meaning, the martial artists never touch one another.

When practicing a specific technique that requires a partner, including throws, blocks, holds, hold counters and joint locks. The issue here is, these techniques really can’t be drilled without a living partner.

When a technique can be drilled by shadowboxing, most of the time, that’s what the instructor will have their class practice. Remember, they’re there to teach their students, not kill them.

As a martial artist advances through the ranks, they will be allowed to participate in supervised sparring. This will be with a master observing their techniques and responses, but it won’t happen before they’ve been trained to have a solid grasp of the basics.

This is a little different with the Military’s eight week training programs. But, again sparring is something that’s only introduced after the basics of hand to hand are established.

There is nothing you can learn from having your ass handed to you by a more experienced fighter, before you know what you’re doing. The same is true for your character.

If your character is a master of one form, and is seeking admission to another school, then you might have the classic evaluation duel. Where the point is to prove that your character has the requisite skill. It’s a little cliche, but at least it makes some sense there.

Extracting that cliche and applying it to a new recruit isn’t something a credible martial arts school would do, unless they’re card carrying Saturday morning cartoon supervillians.

-Starke

“Practical” Combat

Let’s talk about “practical” for a second. In the world of martial arts, and really everything associated with combat, “practical” is a loaded term; it refers to any style or weapon that’s intended for actual combat. It’s distinct from sport or non-combat martial arts, like Tai Bo. In the case of weapons it distinguishes between actual combat weapons and display weapons, like the rainbow knife on my desk.

So, if you’re asking, what’s the most effective combat style, then, whatever fits. There are plenty of active combat forms available to civilians, and military or police characters will know their organization’s hand to hand form. It’s not uncommon for police to actively start looking into other martial arts as a result of their training. Similarly, as I recall (and I could be wrong about this), it’s fairly common for military personnel in overseas postings, to pick up local martial arts and bring them back.

Generally speaking, practical styles split into two families, with a lot of crossover; subdual and lethal. Subdual styles involve restraining the opponent, and holding them in place, usually via joint locks, throws and holds. Most police hand to hand forms, and almost all self defense training are focused on subdual.

Lethal styles are ones that involve quickly breaking someone so they stop screaming and thrashing. Almost all military styles fall into this header. Some exceptions are Chin Na and modern Systema, which borrow heavily from subdual techniques. Where most subdual forms are content to lock a joint, lethal styles will frequently follow with a break.

If your character is a civilian, then you’re probably looking at any of the modern self defense schools. It is probably the most prolific, practical martial style today, and easy to explain in a character’s back story.

If you’re looking for something slightly more obscure, then Krav Maga or Muay Thai are both options. But, Krav Maga is about a decade out of date from the actual military form, and Muay Thai is technically a sport form. Granted, that sport involves tagging someone in the kidneys until they piss blood and die, but still.

If your character is in one of the few places in the world where they can get training in it, Systema’s also an option. In its modern form, it looks more like a subdual form, but it is quite lethal. Unfortunately, it also means your character needs to have come from someplace with a large Russian population. If the character is American, that means : Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Seattle, or Miami.

Finally, if you’re willing to do some research on your own, there are a number of Ninjitsu schools in the US. Functionally, it’s not really that different from any other Japanese form, except that it hasn’t been defanged into a sport form yet. Just make sure, if you go this route, to make that completely clear to the reader.

-Starke

The might be a stupid question, but other than out of aggression why do people fight? Other than the need for self-defense too? I realize it’s a sport and competitive too but can you enjoy getting hurt and beating other people up? As someone who know’s little self defense I’m unsure who to give someone a reason for wanting to fight.

Yeah, this is not, at all, a stupid question. It’s not an easy one, though.

Yes, some people do enjoy hurting others, but there are a lot of other possible reasons.

People will resort to violence if they feel that’s the best way to achieve their goals. Sometimes their goals require violence, sometimes they don’t see any alternative, and sometimes they have genuinely exhausted their other options. Also, some will abandon their goals rather than use violence to achieve them.

When you’re writing a character, you need to know what they want, and how far they’ll go to achieve it. Once you have that, you can then decide if it’s appropriate for them to use violence.

Actually, let’s step back and look at this as a character clinic. You need to know who each of your characters are before you write a scene with them. There’s a lot of ways you can go about this, but ask yourself, “what does your character believe?” or “how do they view the world?” and “what do they want?” Once you have a vague idea of those answers, you should have a much easier time deciding what they should do in a given scene.

Also, when you’re asking questions like that, don’t be afraid to add more questions. Each answer will give you a better grasp of who your characters are, and open up more options in your writing.

Okay, so, when will a character resort to violence? When they feel it’s necessary, or when they want to. Someone who views themselves as the most important thing might not see anything wrong with harming others. Someone who enjoys control might enjoy inflicting pain. Someone who sees an imminent threat to something or someone they’re protecting. Someone who feels they’ve been marginalized and disregarded might resort to violence to “prove themselves”. Someone who’s afraid, and wants to hide it might resort to violence or aggression to mask their own fear. An adrenaline junkie who gets off on the rush might use violence to get their fix.

And, this isn’t an even remotely exhaustive list. There are a lot more possible reasons. Also, most of these aren’t mutually exclusive. A character could be both an adrenaline junkie and have sworn to protect someone else, for example. A character could see their cause as the most important thing, and anyone who dies along the way is just a necessary sacrifice.

-Starke

Regarding the ‘pinned plus knife’ query, one possible variation that preserves the initial setup would be if he was holding the knife in one of the hands pinning the target. Then the goal becomes ‘stun or maneuver them into a position where I can move my arm and stab them before they can move their arm and stop me’. Would that be a feasible thing? I have suspicions that the larger movement needed for a solid stab would cause the attacker to lose every time, but I’m not the expert.

You’re actually missing the point a little. You can write a fight scene where someone has a knife and is sitting over their victim. You can write a scene where someone is pinning a person down with both hands. But, if you want to go from one to the other, you’re going to need to reconsider the fight scene as a whole.

You can’t hold both wrists AND a knife, it’s just not physically possible. If the victim is handcuffed or otherwise tied up, that works. If the attacker isn’t bothering with their hands at all, and just covers the victim’s mouth, or grabs their throat, while stabbing them, that works. But, these are all different scenes.

The point I was making earlier was; if you change something in a scene, or even in your story as a whole, you’re going to need to sit back and ask yourself, “does this change anything else?” “What are the consequences of this change?”

Strictly speaking, you can simply change a detail on a whim. No one else will force you to think it through. But, your work will suffer. You will end up with things like a character pulling a knife with their third arm. In more critical details, it will lead to plot holes and erratic behavior that happens because “the power of plot compels you.”

Personally, I find changing things to be the most enjoyable part of writing. Sitting here, asking myself, “if I change this, what will that affect?” And, I’d really invite you to do the same in your work. Think about the consequences each scene, hell, the consequences each action. If you don’t like what you’re getting, take a step or two back, and ask, “if I changed this, what would happen.” It’s not going to create the fastest workflow, but it creates a real opportunity to be surprised by your own story.

-Starke

In the ask about the best way for the pinned person to escape, what if the other person is wielding a knife, trying to stab the MC? Is kicking them in the groin still an option? And how would the MC escape from that and get the knife out of the other person’s hand?

Wait, which hand are they wielding the knife with? No, this is actually a lot more important than it sounds. So, they have the victim on the ground. They hold the victim’s left hand down with their right, and the victim’s right hand down with their left. So, which hand has the knife?

Here’s the thing, and first off, I’m sorry you’re on the receiving end of this, but, when you’re writing anything, and I do mean anything, you need to keep your eye on the overall picture you’re working with. When you add or remove a detail, you always need to ask yourself if it fundamentally alters what you’re working on.

The fact is, there’s no way to add a knife into the previous scene without altering the setup. They’re holding the victim down with both hands, and then they have a knife? This can apply to characters, it can apply to plots, and it can apply to fight scenes.

The best advice I can give on avoiding this is just; be careful. Resist the impulse to add something just because you think it needs to be there, and just think through what that change affects. When you’re adding a detail like the knife, reconsider the entire scene with the knife there. When you’re deciding someone needs to be a traitor, look very carefully at your characters and their behavior through the story up to that point. When you’re writing, know what you’re going to do before you get to the point of reveal.

And, if he pulls a knife with his third arm? Then your character gets to bleed and die, because, seriously, three arms.

-Starke

Writing Violence Part 1: Developing Characters and Comfort Levels (And You)

We’re going to do a small series about writing violence, mostly because we haven’t covered some the basics yet and these are important. There are a lot of important steps that go into writing about violence, these include language choice, the intensity of the violence, the characters in question.

Today, we’re going to talk about developing your characters and more importantly than that, how to asses your own comfort zone.

There are many pieces that go into building a successful fight scene and many of those pieces begin to build together before your character ever pulls the trigger or throws their first punch. The way a character looks at the world around them is infinitely important to showing the reader the kind of fighter they are (or the kind of fighter they will be) before combat happens. Characters with different skill levels and different outlooks will all approach combat differently; the same is reflected in a character’s strategic preferences (if they have even thought that far ahead), their honor code, their choice of weapons, and the techniques they choose to use.

Not every character enjoys visceral combat. Some characters like squelching their opponent’s eyeballs with their thumbs, others will wince at the thought, others will be indifferent, and some upon witnessing the act will come to their enemy’s defense because that’s just too cruel. Every character is different and that’s part of what makes writing these sorts of scenes so hard, because a fight scene involves much more than just knowing how to throw a punch right. In fact, as funny as it sounds, for writing that is one of the most inconsequential parts. You can write your combat perfectly, but if it doesn’t reflect your characters and the themes of you’ve been setting up in the plot then it will still fail. A scene with flat out wrong combat can be the best part of a book if the sequence remains in harmony with the rest of the story and furthers the development of both the characters and the plot.

 Establish Your Violence Comfort Zone

You can write a level of violence in your story that you’re not comfortable with, but you will have a great deal of difficulty writing a character who is exhibiting a level of violence that they are supposed to be comfortable with but is uncomfortable for you. Given the attitudes towards sex and violence in American culture, it may sound funny or cliché when I tell you that writing about violence is a lot like writing about sex. How graphic you get is going to depend on your audience and your own comfort level before it reaches your character. A sex scene where you were wincing every few seconds as you were writing it is going to feel uncomfortable to the reader; the same is going to be true with violence.

Some of you may be wondering, but aren’t violent sequences supposed to be uncomfortable? Some of them are, but if you are writing a character who relishes violence or an epic sword duel and you are wincing on each sentence then you have a problem. Or alternately, if you honestly, truly believe that torture is completely unacceptable, that it is always bad, always evil then don’t try to write a character like 24’s Jack Bauer. Whatever you write, you need to be able to completely submerge yourself in your character. You’re going to write characters who don’t believe the same things you do, you are going to write characters who are not you, who will do and say things that you would never in a thousand years imagine doing. But violence is difficult, it hits on a core of human experience, of misery and suffering that is hard to capture. If you can’t convince yourself in the moment to believe in what your character is doing then it’s time to step back. You must ride the ride after all and if you’re getting sick on the loopty-loops, then maybe this rollercoaster isn’t right for you.

It’s fine if it isn’t, just because this didn’t work doesn’t mean the entire amusement park is off limits. You just have to figure out what you like and learn when something goes far enough outside your comfort zone that it affects the integrity of your work. Stepping out of it can be a good thing, sometimes it’s going to be a necessary thing depending on the genre you are working with and the line in the sand will shift as you adjust to new concepts.

The only way you’ll figure it out is by experimenting, so don’t worry about it so much. The only way you can really fail is by not trying at all.

Some Helpful Tips:

-Find authors whose fight scenes you admire and who you want to write like and study their techniques

-Watch movies that represent the kind of combat you’re writing about

-Play videogames, simulation often helps up experience new things and gets us thinking

For example: the combat between Assassin’s Creed, Warhammer 40k: Space Marine, and SpecOps: The Line can all evoke different feelings and emotions through the kinds of combat they present. When you want to get in the right mindset for what you’re writing, this can help.

-Listen to music that reflects the characters and scene you’re working on

Establish a violence threshold for each of your characters

Just like you, every person has a threshold of violence that they are comfortable with and it’s similar to how some people like action movies and some people prefer slasher flicks. Just keep in mind that the media entertainment someone consumes doesn’t necessarily relate to the level of violence they’re willing to inflict on someone else. A character who loves Disney movies can still cheerfully pick up the lead pipe and bash your skull in on the cold hard concrete.  So, try not to think in stereotyping details.

When working to establish a threshold, to figure out what your character is willing to do and what they’re not present them with different situations that are outside the context of your story. It’s best to do this when you’re not sure of who they are and, ultimately, is exactly the same as filling out any of the numerous character questionnaires floating around the internet.

Don’t try to forcibly decide for them. Don’t focus on the right way, the techniques that are supposed to be used, what they are supposed to know. Don’t worry about any of that, you can correct it later. Instead, present them with situations and let those situations play out in your head or as you write them down.

Do you have to do this for each of the major players in your story and not just your protagonist? Yes. Yes, you do. When writing a story about violence, the level of violence a character is willing to inflict and what they are comfortable with can clash with another’s, by figuring out each character’s threshold whether it’s part of the supporting cast, your antagonist, or the henchmen, you’ll have a better sense of how they’ll relate to each other and what kind of interpersonal conflicts can arise.

Below are some helpful questions with corresponding examples to get you thinking. The more situations you come up with on your own, however, will be more helpful to you in the long run.

Examples:

Example 1: Character X is walking down the street and sees a man being beating, what do they do?

On the far side of the street, Amelia could see two shapes. They were vague and hazy in the drifting fog, just outside the splash of yellow light from the lamp that stood on the corner. A big man with broad shoulders stood over a much smaller individual; she couldn’t see it well from this distance. It could have been a smaller man, or a woman, or even a child. The big man’s frame blocked her as he drove a giant booted foot into his victim’s side. All she knew was what she heard, pathetic whimpering and shrieks pitched higher with each hit. Whoever they were, they’ be dead soon.

Well, she shrugged, it wasn’t her business. Things were hard in Darkside, people died daily, why risk bringing more heat down on herself by intervening? Better to let it play out and disappear before the big man noticed her.

Example 2: Character X is breaking into a building and has made it inside, at the end of the hallway there are two guards, all that stands between them and what they’ve come for. The hall is long and narrow. The guards haven’t seen them yet. What do they do?

Amana flickered, her shape re-entering the Living Space. The bare skin of her breasts pressed against Guard 1’s back, right arm sliding up under his jaw, tilt head back, stand ear to cheek. Forearm into windpipe. Bone in and increase pressure. Cut off oxygen. Left hand down, take holstered sidearm. Glock 17. Flick safety off.

 It leveled at Number 2’s skull.

“Holy shi—”

Bang.

Example 3: Character B has been hit by Character X, someone they trusted, how do they respond?

Leah stumbled. Hand rising, she pressed cool flesh against the warm, stinging buzz that was now blooming across her cheek. A sharp, shuddering pain was striking out from behind her eye and the world swam in dots of black and white. Her vision dropped to the floor, the crevices between the floorboards were suddenly so sharp and clear. She could see the tips of black boots lingering inches from her own.

John’s boots.

“Leah,” that was John’s voice.

John. He had hit her.

Why? She was surprised to hear her own voice echoing her thoughts cramming into the space between them. “Why?”

These are, like I said, just some examples. You can come up with whatever scenarios you want. But when establishing a violence threshold, they should involve violence of some kind. By developing the different violence thresholds for different characters, you better understand the actions that will bring them into natural alliances or conflict with one another. One of the key ways to keep readers invested in your stories is the interpersonal relations between the major players. Once you know the boundaries the characters ascribe to, what they are willing to do, what they aren’t willing to do, the lengths that they will go to and know when they will stop, you can push them outside of that comfort zone and craft development that is naturally in line with where their story is going.

From the first example, I know that Amelia is the kind of character who puts herself first. She doesn’t believe she can make a difference and doesn’t want to deal with the trouble that intervening to aid someone else could bring down on her head. She could engage, but doesn’t want to. We know that those reasons have nothing to do with being incapable of those actions, she just won’t try because she’s not going to get anything out of it. If I were to write this character, I’d give her a plot development that forced her to engage, someone she doesn’t know, someone desperate, probably a break in at her apartment while they are running from people who are hounding them. Someone she can’t say no to, even though she wants to. She is forced to take action and then eventually she will continue to do so of her own volition.

Voila, a character arc.

So, find your character’s comfort zone and then pop them out of it. The same is true for violence, there is a level of violence that your characters will be comfortable participating in and then there is a point where they are pushed past that into uncomfortable territory. You can only get X by starting with Y. Cause and effect. Conflict that is both external and internal.

Conflict is good. Conflict is crucial. Write conflict.

-Michi

I have a character who has been training with a sword for most of his life and has gotten pretty familiar with German-School-ish fencing, but loses his dominant arm in an accident during the course of the story. Would a person under these circumstances need to start totally from scratch in terms of fencing, or would some things, like footwork, transfer, with only parts needing to be re-learned using the other arm?

Most of the blade work I have experience with requires both hands. (One on the hilt, and the other resting against the pommel for additional control and agility.) So, losing either arm will have a very serious effect on one’s ability to fight effectively.

That said, feel free to look up Götz von Berlichingen. He was a German mercenary who lost his dominant hand in 1504, and continued fighting for decades using an iron prosthetic. (Just don’t ask me to type another umlaut for awhile, Firefox goes nuts whenever I try the alt+ code.)

-Starke