Tag Archives: writing children

Q&A: The Assassin’s Children

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

I don’t see why not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Follow up to child training post- assuming a child is taught fighting by a parent much the same way a child might be taught letters, cooking, etc. i.e. not a child soldier/child abuse, just age-appropriate training for a specific goal, by 18 would that set them up to be a fairly realistic ‘ridiculously skilled teen’ trope? Parallel to Olympic gymnasts, but with combat sports leading into soldiering.

Yes but, like Olympic gymnasts, you’re going to have to give up on the concept of them having a social life. They’ll also be well outside the range of what most “normal” teens can relate to. It’s a very specific lifestyle choice that will chew up the entirety of their life until they’re done.

Olympic level training is all day, every day. You eat, sleep, and breathe it.

A realistic version of the “ridiculously skilled teen” trope basically requires sacrificing everything that is not directly related to the skills they are acquiring. A lot of kids when in training for the Olympics are home schooled or taught by a tutor in the off hours. They don’t go to public school.

Most of the time, in fiction, when you’re looking at the ‘ridiculously skilled teen’ the author doesn’t pay their dues. They don’t take into account the sacrifices made by these children, their parents, and their instructors to reach this pinnacle of excellence. They look at the intensity of the hard work involved and often assume that it was forced. That the child was actively denied life experiences by the evil adults in their lives. That they’ll turn around and change their tune if they just have a chance to experience real life, friends, or normal experiences like the ones the author had.

Their ridiculously skilled teen got where they are because they were the winner of the genetic lottery and in possession of great talent.

They don’t take into account the defining factor of the champion: personal drive.

The problem with this approach is that talent is only one part of the equation. You can have a child who is so talented as to make the angels weep in joy but if their talent is not backed up by a personal desire to excel then they are destined for the halls of mediocrity.

Even if you put a child through the training you suggested in your ask, a ridiculously skilled teen is not a guarantee. They’ll be more skilled than the average, and certainly better than one who never went through the training at all but they won’t be in the champion ranks.

To get a ridiculously skilled teen in real life, you need a mix of talent and drive. The child to choose their training. They love it so much they don’t suffer burn out. It’s what they want to do. They are the ones who push themselves and strive for it. Their authority figures are the ones aiding the child in their drive.

They. Have. To. Want. It.

You can have a kid who has been training for fourteen years who is simply mediocre. The amount of time involved is not a guarantee for excellence. It’s a gamble. Not just on proficiency, but on desire.

If the prodigy wants out, then the prodigy falls behind. To be the best is not a guarantee, it is the goal we strive for. It is a spot for which there is intense competition. They earn those skills and earn that spot. They fight for their training’s pace. And it can be very hard for people who’ve never been in the rat race to be the toughest, the smartest, the strongest, or the best to contemplate or understand.

These are kids who when given the choice between going to a birthday party or bowling with their friends and training chose training. All the sacrifices they make are sacrifices they chose to make. No one is forcing them to do anything. You can’t reach that level of excellence without that desire and drive, that willingness to make sacrifices, that choice.

Often, the “ridiculously skilled teen” trope is paired with “but they forced me to do it” trope.

Bullshit.

You don’t get to be that good without intent and the desire to be that good.

Kids that want a normal life quit and, when they’ve quit in their minds, it’s over. An authority figure can force them to show up, can use whatever outside motivation they think will work, but if the kid doesn’t want it then they won’t do it. They’ll still be “good enough” and that’s most martial artists/soldiers. They may end up “slightly better than average” but they’re not going to be at the top of their game, much less the game itself.

This is the child who when given the option between more training and an hour of television, chose training.

This is the child who when given the option to socialize with friends, chose their training.

This is the child when given the chance to go on vacation, chose training.

This is the child who made the other children nervous because they were obsessive. Still doing their thing when their differences stopped being cool and the other kids ran off to play somewhere else.

They love it. They have goals. They want to be the best.

If you want to write children or teens who fit this mold, the best media for you to turn to are sports movies. This includes the really schlocky movies like Mighty Ducks or ones based on real life champions like Olympian Gabby Douglas. Basically, most of the cliche feel good pick me ups that are often scoffed at when we hit our teenage years. Situations change, but your ‘ridiculously skilled teen’ will have more in common with the characters of Center Stage than they will Buffy. And in a comparison of slayers, Kendra still fits this trope better.

So, with a character who is ridiculously skilled, you make sacrifices. They make sacrifices. And maybe they’ll hit the point where their body starts falling apart in their late twenties/early thirties where they start having regrets, but it won’t be in this moment.

The thing to remember when crafting these characters is that the level of skill they possess isn’t easy to reach. They aren’t actually any different from your average mortal except that they want to be this way.

This, whatever it is, is what they love to do. More than friends, more than relationships, more than love shared with other humans. This is who they are in their bones and in their soul.

To get a teen ridiculously skilled in martial combat, you need a character who is in love with the art of war.

-Michi

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Two questions 1) If a child, say about 8, is just starting to learn how to fight how ‘skilled’ would they be after 6 months? Like obviously they wouldn’t have anything mastered but would they at least be halfway decent with the very very basics? 2) How would puberty affect someone’s training? I’m imagining growth spurts might throw someone off if they shoot up four or more inches in three weeks but I’m not sure about what else might cause minor complications. Thanks you.

It’s pretty difficult to say, honestly.

For children, developing skill depends on a lot of factors. Only one of which is natural ability. You’ve got your obvious prodigies, who pick it up right away and are competing in adult competitions by the age of 12 (like Ernie Reyes Jr). Those are extremely rare. You’ve got children with natural inclinations toward physical activity, are naturally more flexible, and simply have better motor skills than the average child. You’ve got the kids who haven’t started developing any of those yet, so everything is a challenge and training is slow. And then you’ve got the ones who are just bad at it in the beginning.

Then, there’s interest. Children learn faster when they’re interested in learning. So, a child who struggles but loves their training will learn faster than a child who struggles and hates it. Children who naturally have better aptitude will be ahead in the start, but if they don’t develop an interest or love for what they’re doing, they’ll inevitably fall behind/grow disinterested. This disinterest can occur anywhere between a few months to a few years. You can keep pushing them based on parental approval, but that will die.

Then, there’s the amount of time they spend learning. A child who is trained by their parent or responsible adult figure and spends most of their day learning is going to be in a very different place in six months than a child who only trains for forty-five minutes (standard recreational martial arts class length) three to four days a week.

Then, we have the type of training.

In traditional martial arts like karate or taekwondo, a child training for 6 months will still be a beginner. They’ll have some of the basics on lockdown (a few stances, the double punch, the front kick, and maybe they’ll have put it all together into a form) and that’ll be about it. They (more than likely) won’t have done any sparring yet unless their instructor okays it. They won’t know a lot in six months, but they will by the time they’re thirteen/fourteen. It takes two to three months to get out of white belt.

In practical (police combat training/military combat training), someone who has been in training for six months can kick your ass. You don’t put children through that unless you’re a sadist who loves child abuse. Kids can’t handle it. Children also cannot fight adults, they don’t fight like adults, and they don’t have the same understanding of permanent consequences that adults do. They are developing human beings, so work is slow.

And yeah, puberty/developing bodies have a serious effect on a child’s/teenager’s ability to perform. You’re constantly having to re-calibrate and readjust your balance, re-learn distance, all the ancillary stuff. A child’s body is changing on the regular, so every few years they take a hit where they need to readjust themselves. So, you can have a child who has excellent technique between 4-9 and then hits the awkward years between 10 and 17. (Whatever point they stop growing.) They don’t lose their skills, but they have to relearn/get used to their new body and that takes time.

The thing with training children is that its a balancing act. One of the biggest issues in fiction when it comes to writing children is that they get treated like little adults. They’re not. Children are in a constant state of growth, development, and change. Their understanding of the world is constantly evolving. It can change drastically in just a few months.

They’re also not all the same. They learn at different speeds.

When you want to sit down at write a child character or just establish their background, you need to start with specifics. General knowledge about training children isn’t going to be helpful because there are many approaches.

First, establish what their life is like. What do they do in their day to day? What is their focus? Figure out where the training fits in, who is teaching them, how much they practice.

By establishing the character’s background before you begin your research will be incredibly helpful because it narrows the field in which you need to search. If your kid was handed off to a school to focus them on martial training, which happens to countless talented children in China, then you know to begin looking at martial arts academies in China. If your character is trained by their parent, then you can start looking at historical martial artists trained by their parents. There are many of these, especially well-documented in Eastern traditions. If your child is some kind of noble, trained a few hours a day by a fencing or other kind of combat instructor then you know to look at European swordsmanship traditions to get an idea of what that kind of training looked like.

The more you can narrow down what you want, the easier your research will be and the easier the answers you need will be to locate.

Children have been practicing and training in martial combat for sport and for combat all across the globe for centuries. It is an area of study that is fairly well documented (if uncomfortable). General knowledge will help you start, but it won’t help you much.

Figure out who your child is, what their background/circumstances are, and then research similar children in similar circumstances.

Specifics are always key.

-Michi

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Though it leans on fighting, there’s some general stuff on this blog, so: how do you write babies? They don’t have much of a character, and they seem to be written as motivations most of the time. Thanks!

It was 2am, when Shelly Loggerson heard the wail. It came around like clockwork, each and every night. So regular now that a decent night’s sleep seemed a distant dream, the kind of good fortune you saw on television or read about in magazines but never expected to actually experience. Like her husband Rod turning up with champagne, a dozen red roses, and a rented yacht ready for a week’s cruise to the Cayman Islands or something. The Hollywood romantic comedy crap all women in her book club sighed over, still fluttering on about Ryan Gosling in The Notebook. None of them cared much for Nicholas Sparks, too many unhappy endings. The same would happen to them if John, their new baby never figured out how to sleep through the night. They’d get a Nicholas Sparks unhappy ending too.

Shelly waited patiently for the second wail, the final indicator that her son would need extra help getting to sleep tonight. It too arrived like clockwork, roaring through the baby monitor.

She inched across the bed as her husband groaned. “I’ll get him.”

“No,” Rod grumbled, patting her arm. “Book says we’re supposed to wait fifteen minutes, see if he can get back to sleep on his own.”

Another scream shook the monitor, filling their bedroom with the red light. Shelly winced. “What if he wet himself?”

“Do you think he did?”

“I don’t know!” She sniffed, her voice came out a little more ragged and pitched higher than she meant. “It could be just another… he could be lonely! Something might be wrong!”

Rod sighed. Turning his head toward the monitor, he was right on time for another wail. “Doesn’t sound like his ‘Made A Poopy’ scream. Sounds like ‘I want Mommy’.”

“See!” Shelly wiggled across the bed. “See! He needs me!” She was halfway to standing when Rod pounced.

“No,” he said quickly, his weight pressing down on her. “No, need is a decent night’s sleep.”

She opened her mouth to argue.

“Which we’ll get if he goes back to bed on his own. He wants Mommy, want isn’t the same as need.” He kissed her cheek. “Wait fifteen minutes, huh? You can check him after he’s gone back to sleep. He’ll never know then.”

“Fine.”

Shelly hunkered down as another wail rolled through the monitor. Her eyes flicked restlessly to the clock on her bedside table. A round furry critter with slit cat eyes and a wagging tail in the circle ticking down the seconds. She inhaled deeply. It was going to be another long night.

Babies.

The most important thing to remember is babies aren’t a happy ending. They’re messy, and they take up all your time. They’re little people who can’t communicate yet and are figuring out things like bodily functions and they need you, yes, you all the time.

The best advice I have for writing babies is (if you have no access to actual baby) to buy a parenting book, probably a couple of parenting books. Get one from the library if you must. The trick with writing anything is to learn as much on the subject as you can. If you know nothing about babies, then learn about babies. Which starts with, you know, understanding that they’re messy and that you may end the week with no shirt that isn’t covered in spit up or vomit.

The problem with writing children is that most writers either make them too dumb or too wise, and they don’t feel much like kids. A baby tends to end up a prop or a motivation like you said. However, a baby is a little person trying to figure out how to person and can’t communicate with you because they haven’t reached that stage yet.

Babies are messy.

Bodily functions. So many bodily functions, so many smells, so much cuteness wrapped up in shrill shrieks and the ability to ruin your favorite shirt utterly by accident because you can’t tell if it was intentional or not. Did you know that babies have personalities and that babies tell jokes? They do. Their version of a joke may be a gas passing, a poopy diaper, or an imitating wink or face of the person closest to them but they do. Baby should be interacting with their environment and the people around them.

Heck, you may not have lived until you’ve gotten sprayed down with pee.

Baby is not just an ambulatory prop. Baby is the ambulatory prop following the butterfly and careening off toward the cliff’s edge when you, their responsible caretaker, are not looking.

Babies are trouble.

You don’t know what’s wrong, you just know something is. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe they just have gas. How can you know?

Babies are inconvenient.

You can go adventuring with Baby, but it will be a harrowing experience. You want to go digging through a three thousand year old tomb with an infant who touches everything, drools, and will probably pick up some disease because they stuck their dirty, dust covered fist into their mouth.

Comedies love the single parent with baby stories where the hot guy finally comes over and they’re ready to finally have sexy time after their wardrobe has been totally ruined. They lean in for a kiss and BABY SCREAMS!!!!!! Monitor goes off. Kiss ruined.

Be careful of the kinds of stories you want to tell with Baby, because Baby can take up a fairly large portion of it despite their inability to talk except in garbles, screams, smiles, and blinks. They are a constant responsibility, a thankless task, except for those smiles, blinks, cuddles, first steps, and saying ‘mama’ or ‘papa’. Those emotional rewards balance out the misery.

Babies aren’t easy.

It’s okay if your characters sometimes want to kill Baby. That’s a pretty honest reaction, actually. There are a great many joys to parenthood for some, but everyone has their 5AM moment where they’ve gone a week without sleep and just want to scream into the water closet or sob it out in the shower.

How to write babies:

1) Decide the purpose the baby serves in the story.

Most people use babies as props, they use kids as props too. Children are there as a means to express something about a character, not because they are characters in their own right. Baby is going to be less of a character than other characters BUT Baby is figuring out their personality. What is Baby’s personality? Baby doesn’t know how to be good or bad. What makes Baby cry?

2) Start thinking from the perspective of a parent, but also of Baby. Treat Baby like an individual.

I just said above that Baby is a character, but let me reiterate: Baby is a character. They are not a Goodness Test. A character’s worth is not defined by Baby. Baby is not an evil detection meter. Baby isn’t going to figure out who the villain is by crying. That isn’t how babies work.

3) Characters, even the parents, may struggle with Baby’s importance in their lives.

That’s normal, natural, and trying to figure out boundaries is the actions of a good parent. Caring for yourself also helps care for Baby, everything doesn’t go on hold because Baby is here. Characters need to work out their relationships, responsibilities, and that includes the nastier sides like jealousy. Trying to pretend that everything is perfect is what will sink your story and make Baby seem false. Your character being a perfect parent who never makes stupid decisions, who is 100% always ready and on call, never feels anything negative, is the one who seems inhuman. These people exist, I’m sure, but they’re not the norm.

Don’t be afraid to let the humanity in.

4) Think seriously about whether you actually want a baby in your story.

Why do you want Baby?

Really.

Do you honestly want to tell a story about a baby?

The question shouldn’t scare you or act as a reason not to write your baby. It’s just an honest question, Baby is a character, they need an arc. They aren’t just a prop. Maybe they provide other characters with motivations, but they’re characters themselves.

5) Spend some time with babies.

Whether it’s watching videos with parents and their kids on YouTube if you have no babies in your life, reading books on parenting or babies for dummies or something, read up not just on raising children but the different life stages. Babies grow up quick, figuring out the different ways they change as they develop is important to characterizing them.

Babies are important and real, and little people. They’re people that’ll be with your characters for the rest of their lives. Figuring out that balance, stripping out the whole morality play before adding it back in will help a lot toward getting to the meat of the character dynamics.

Are your characters happy about Baby? 

Do they want Baby? Why did they want Baby?

It’s a huge commitment in time, love, and care. Cuddling the baby to sleep can be a great character moment, especially if it leads to character growth.

Those are my two cents anyway.

Chime in down in the comments if you’ve got any other ideas!

-Michi

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I have a character who’s a pacifist yet trained from birth as an assasin. The guilt built up so he stops fighting altogether. But a situation crops up where he has to fight to defend. But he doesn’t want to kill anyone. How to deal? Can he untrain?

He can be a true pacifist and choose not to fight.

Let me be very clear, fighting is a choice. No matter what those reasons are, even when they’re good ones, it is still a choice. There is no such thing as “have to”. It’s “choose to”.

One of my favorite quotes from Babylon 5 episode Point of No Return,

“There is always choice. We say there is no choice only to comfort ourselves
with the decision we have already made. If you understand that, there’s
hope. If not…” – Lady Morella

When you say, “my character is a pacifist but he has decided to fight” then what you’re essentially saying is that, “My character is a pacifist, he believes in peace and non-violent solutions, but only when it’s easy to be one”.

Being a pacifist isn’t easy, it is actually very difficult because it requires using your words, to attempt to deescalate situations, and not fight even when it looks like you’ll probably die. It’s hard to believe in the best of other people, especially when those people want to kill you.

There’s a difference between a character who says, “I won’t fight under any circumstances because I believe violence only begets more violence.” And the character who says, “I don’t fight anymore, but I will if you press me.”

One of these is a pacifist and it’s the former.

See, the thing about pacifism is that it’s a belief system. One that says all violence is unjustifiable, this includes war and, in some cases, even self-defense. You don’t fight because fighting only creates more violence. Disputes must be settled by peaceful means with non-violent solutions. It means refusing to fight, even when you’re being forced to. In some cases dying to defend that ideal.

I’d think long and hard about whether or not you want this character to be a pacifist because writing one is exceedingly difficult. Look at the situation you just posited, a situation crops up where this ex-assassin has to fight in order to defend. You’re attempting to justify him taking a violent action in defense of someone else, like that makes it okay. However, because pacifism is a belief system or an ethical/moral stance, this is him breaking with his belief system and compromising his ideals.

Pacifism isn’t about not killing. It’s about no violence.

None.

Nada.

Zero.

Zilch.

Whether someone dies or not, the violent action itself is the root cause of more violence. Cliche as it is on the surface, your assassin has been in the perfect position to see the effects of violence up close and personal. Violent individuals isn’t something we are, but it predicates on the idea that it’s what we become. Someone who has been bullied is more likely to be bully in turn. A victim of abuse, whether emotional or physical, will often become an abuser and are more likely to than someone who never experienced that violence. The longer and more persistent the experience, the more likely it becomes. This expands to large scale conflicts too. Where a country or civilization that is victimized by violence will turn around and revenge themselves in yet another war.

We can dance back and forth like angels on a pinhead about what violence really means and you’ll find martial arts like Aikido that do split the hair about when is it okay to fight. The entire point behind codes of honor like Chivalry, Bushido, and others is about deciding when violence is socially acceptable and when it is not, about who should be hurt, and who is fair game. It’s a code of behavior that defines how one should interact with the world.

This is why Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin is not a pacifist, he’s someone who refuses to kill. He’s trying to be, but he will fight to defend himself and fight to defend his friends. He believes that situations should be solved primarily without violence, but will still fight if pressed or to uphold the law. What he’s refusing to be, technically, is a vigilante. He’s refusing to take the law into his own hands or determine who has the right to live and who should die. He’s not a pacifist.

When faced with a situation where they need to defend someone else, the pacifist may interject themselves and use their own body as a shield. They may allow themselves to be beaten up, even though they could fight back. It is the Jesus “turn the other cheek” line.

Pacifism is a concept mocked by the culture at large because not fighting is vastly more difficult than fighting. Because to someone who sees violence as the way of strength, the one who follows the path of peace just looks weak to them.

You should also be careful with pacifism. While the assassin/soldier/blood soaked veteran redemption arc is a powerful one, it’s also one of those great cliches seen everywhere in literature. True redemption arcs don’t work when you woobify a character and attempt to depreciate what they’ve done by saying it wasn’t their fault. It deprives them of their agency, their ability to see their path was wrong and choose to change even though it goes against everything they were taught to believe.

Changing your path only has meaning when you were a believer, when you chose to do what you were doing in the first place.

And a child who has been raised as an assassin, left their compound, and worked as one out in the world for any period of time? They’re a believer.

If they weren’t, then the people who raised and trained them would never let them go.

The Assassin

An assassin is not like a soldier, where they thrust you out into a hectic environment with twenty other guys and say: “go! Kill!”, where it’s hectic and terrifying with guns going off every which way. Where you’re so scared that you’re working on the instincts they trained into you so that you’re not even thinking when you see an enemy moving in the bushes, point your gun, pull the trigger, and end up shooting a small child.

It’s best to think of an assassin as a stalker because, in a lot of ways, they are. The assassin knows their target, does their prep, follows the guy or girl or child to get a beat on their personal habits and where they go to find the exact precise moment where there’s a weakness or hole in their security. Sometimes, there’s a specific way in which the target needs to die or a specific place where their death can make the most impact. The assassin has ample time to think about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what it’s going to affect.

You’re writing a character who has potentially, quite literally, stood in someone’s kitchen in the middle of the night while their target, their husband/wife, and their children are all upstairs slumbering away. All the while he’s going through their possessions and their trash in order to get a better sense for who this person is with no intention to kill them that night. He’s just there for prep and to get a working layout of their house.

This is someone who has been trained to work alone, be self-sufficient, and who has the skill set to simply ghost off into the long good night. They’d be running for the rest of their life, but they were also never on the grid to begin with.

They can go if they want and it’ll be difficult as hell to track them down.

The assassin can’t work in the world if they don’t understand it, much like the spy, their job is heavily reliant on being able to both blend in and manipulate people into giving them information. It’s more complicated than just show up, point, and click. They need come in with a plan and with a way to extricate themselves from the situation.

We’re talking about someone who is very organized and highly disciplined. The successful ones are anyway.

This isn’t a job that can be done because you “have to” or someone “made me do it” or “it’s all I know”. Those are ultimately just convenient excuses that serve to shift the blame away from the character. There was a level for this character where they did enjoy it, where they believed in it or in the people they worked for,

What makes an Atoner work and the subsequent redemption arc that follows is them owning their guilt. They don’t pass it off onto anyone else. They stand by their beliefs. They have conviction, and they acknowledge that they weren’t a good person. They’re still not.

They’re trying to be.

That’s where the tension is.

It’s what makes an Atoner compelling as a character. The belief that we can ultimately become better is what makes redemption arcs compelling. We can be forgiven. We can become worthy of forgiveness.

The Assassin can lie all they like, about themselves, about who they were, about what they did, they can try to mitigate their own responsibility, and run away from it, but ultimately for a redemption arc to work then they have to stand.

Talking it out is more dangerous and more difficult for someone who has been trained for violence to be their first response. It’s where they want to go first. It’s their primary means of problem solving when they or anyone they are about is really in danger. They’ve got to choke it down. Go against everything they’ve been raised to believe, raised to do, trained to react.

For an actual pacifist, violence represents a complete and utter failure to resolve the situation. For him, fighting is a failure.

It’s him returning to what he knows and there is no nice way to do that. No convenient way, other for him to fight against what he’s been trained to be.

He’s trapped between two starkly opposing opposites, possibly without the communication skills or emotional understanding to really get across what he wants.

The Child

One of the main problem with the whole “raised to be an assassin and kill” trope in literature is that many writers often use it as an easy out for their characters. “They don’t know any better”. “They were taught to be this”. “It’s not their fault”. This ultimately robs a character of their agency and when you rob them of that, then the entire plotline ends up a cliche. More than that, their choice to change has no meaning because a character without agency has no choice. They turn to pacifism because it’s “the right thing to do” and utilizes the writer’s morals/way of seeing the world as the default. All they had to do was be exposed to it and they flipped.

Except, a child who has been raised to be an assassin is one that has been prepared by their society for the world that they’ll encounter outside their compound. What they were taught to believe inside their compound is their definition of normal, their values, their ethics, and their morals.

The world outside isn’t some strange or alien environment that they don’t know how to deal with. They aren’t emotionally stunted. They can interact with other “normal” people because they have to and they’ve been trained to.

Someone who gets taken by their parents to a stranger’s house in the middle of the day while their at work, taught how to break in, go through their things, search their particulars, and leave without a trace isn’t someone who has the same morals and ethics as someone who grew up in a “normal” nuclear family in the suburbs with two cars, a white picket fence, and a dog.

He may actually look at that idea and want that, because the greater surrounding society when he chooses to embrace it says you should want that. He might embrace that in the same way he embraces pacifism because he doesn’t know how to not live in extremes or choose what he wants for himself.

If this character really is turning to pacifism, then that will actually be a constant struggle that may last most of his life. He’ll be fighting his own instincts, and everything he’s been trained to do. Pretending to be a pacifist will be easy, lying to others and even himself because that comes naturally. He’s been trained for that. He’s been pretending for most of his life.

Actually being one will be difficult.

Again, it’s a stark contrast. Not only is it against everything he’s been trained to believe but it’s the polar opposite. Pacifism is weakness, not strength. It is a hard switch to the other end of the spectrum.

Try not to remember that there’s no such thing as “have to”. It’s always “choose to”. Even when your life is in danger, it’s a deciding action. It’s a choice.

What makes redemption stories powerful is that they’re also about choice. Choosing to change is difficult, realizing we were wrong is difficult, stepping back and looking at the situation in a new way is difficult.

-Michi

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You guys often say that children’s games are a way to teach kids how to fight or think like a fighter before they’re fully capable of actually fighting. Do you have any examples of games and how they work? I’d guess manhunt/hide and seek would be one … Is the aim to generate competition, encourage strategic thinking, or what?

You put these together the same way you would when structuring any other kind of lesson. You have a skill set that you want a child to learn, but you need to give them a reason to want to learn it. This is why the idea of “my character is forced to learn X” is rather ridiculous, you can’t actually force someone to learn anything and even if you try to, you’ll turn out a substandard product. You need to get them interested and you do that by making it interesting.

The games are both a system of rewards and a teaching method. The games are there to hone the skills that you’ve taught them, while simultaneously being fun enough that the child will want to practice it on their own with their friends. For example, the kids who play catch all day during recess are going to be better at baseball than the ones who don’t. Replace the ball with a stick and suddenly you have the Vikings.

So, what does playing catch teach you?

Hand to eye coordination. Accuracy. It combines the different motions in your body such as arms and hips so that you can throw harder and faster. As you throw, you build up strength in your arms and exercise your body. The more you learn how your body behaves. You then are better able to take control of your body under those specific circumstances (which are the technique you’ve practiced, instead of a universal rule) and modify it to better serve you. Also, trust and teamwork.

More importantly, you learn it all without having to think about it and you’ll practice without me having to make you.

The mistake is assuming the game or even the repetitious exercise is there just to teach one aspect. They act as a means for getting the student to put all their training together, on their own, while focusing on some other task. It’s about using the skills they’ve learned in the context of some real world exercise similar to what they’ll be doing later in life. This puts them in the habit of using their skills and using them creatively outside the limited range of what they were taught.

The games are there to get you excited and to build confidence. What you need to start doing is not thinking of “games” first. Take the exercise, make it a game. Anything can become one. Set up a system of rewards, the game itself can be reward, and hop to.

Start by picking a skill you want your characters to practice as adults. It could be hunting, it could be tracking, all as a means to train them to become an assassin.

How would you encourage someone to do it? How would you frame it so that it feels safe and okay? How do you make it fun? How do you ensure they’ll want to do it again?

Here’s one way. You pick one of the more skilled children from the pack, or the best in the class, tap them to be the “rabbit”. The other children are the “hounds”. The hounds must track and attempt to “kill” them. It will be the rabbit’s job to evade and outrun them. They will be given a head start and pointed toward a specific destination. Depending on their age, this could be a game which takes place over the course of several hours or days and obviously there are adults on hand to keep things civil.

If the rabbit can reach safety before the hounds can catch them then they will be rewarded, (the rabbit’s reward will always be the best as their task is the most difficult, thus ensuring that other kids will work harder to unseat the top of the class so they can next become the rabbit while simultaneously giving those slackers who loathe the best a free for all target worth chasing), if the hounds can catch the rabbit then they will be rewarded. As they get older, the rewards will be diminished from the full group of hounds to only those hounds who actually manage to catch the rabbit to continue to give those slackers more reason to compete.

Why a human and not an animal? You choose a human because you want them to get used to hunting humans, a child because they may one day have to kill other children, and one of their own for the exact same reason.

The games are all about instilling and incentivizing behavior. It doesn’t really matter what tools you use to incentive that behavior so long as you do. You want them to want it, so that they’ll do it, try hard and become good. These games will still work on adults too, they’re not just for children.

Children are much harder to work with, they ask more questions. They want to know more and they’ll challenge authority. It’s about figuring out how to keep them on task and focused without curbing those aspects they’ll need later. Obedience is all well and good, but in many cases you want to train someone who is resourceful, who is clever, who uses their intelligence, who does want to understand their surroundings, to understand why, and asks questions. These are aspects that they will need in the larger world. Satisfying those questions is more difficult on the trainer’s level, but a teacher’s role is to build and not break.

Teaching in general is incredibly difficult and training children is even harder. It’s also important to remember that you can do all of this without caring about the student. The historical precedent is that it’s worth it though. A person who begins training as a child will develop a technical level of skill and a hardwired nervous system that is unreachable by adults. It’s not that they’re unbeatable, it’s just that they’re better and always will be. Their brains will also process information differently. If the training is their whole life, then they’re even better than that. There’s a reason why Eagle Scouts start as PFCs (Private First Class) instead of general enlisted when they join the military.

Most of the field games you may have played as a kid like the capture the flag have an actual application. To use it in your story, though, you as the writer need to know what that application is so you can translate it into your character’s skills. The goal is to get in an obtain a resource and extract yourself with that resource intact. What does that mean in regards to your characters and their skill sets?

Orienteering. Scavenger hunts. Camping. Frisbee. Celestial navigation. Dodgeball. Jump rope. All this stuff teaches you things and has actual combat applications. The question is did you realize what you were learning in the process? In a slightly more messed up world, you might have been studying in order to eventually kill someone or many someones. Let that sink in.

What’s missing is that you were never taught how to apply those skills or the reflexes you developed in a combat environment. You use the games to teach the skills, then when they’re older you teach them to apply those skills in a proper environment.

Star Wars does an excellent job of operationalizing this concept and not in the way you think. “It’s not impossible. I used to bulls-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home and they’re not much bigger than two meters.” Take skills developed as child, blow up the Empire’s superweapon. In the first movie, Luke is a great example of a character who is applying the skills they’ve learned to new ways. Obi-wan using the remote to teach him how to use a lightsaber and the necessary concentration to “let go your conscious self and act on instinct” comes back in that same scene.

What your missing is that the stuff you perceive as normal behavior is actually not normal at all. It’s just the state or culture you were raised in. Change that, you change everything about yourself as a person. You want to raise a child to fight, then you raise them in a culture where killing is normal and accepted behavior. You orient everything around that. In most cases, the people who are doing this may not even know what they’re doing because they were raised the exact same way and it’s normal for them too. For them, it’s the way the world is and it’s how it should be.

Consider all the kids who go hunting with their parents, consider all the kids who were raised with guns, consider all the kids whose parents put them in martial arts, consider all the kids whose parents put them in Scouts, and that’s just the United States. There’s also nothing wrong with any of these children or them as people. It’s just that, like you, they were raised in a different environment and were exposed to different things and may have come to see the world differently.

How does the game of tag change when you have to fight the one you catch in order for your opponent to become “It”? For you, it may change a whole lot and it may even be horrifying. For a character who comes from a society where this is how the game works? That’s normal.

You incentivize behavior, you normalize the behavior, and you pass it on.

-Michi