Tag Archives: writing reference

Q&A Follow-Up: Bunguo

Up front, I’m not going to be fully answering this question, just shooting down a few pieces on the way through.

About Bungou Stray Dogs- the Port Mafia is absolutely not Yakuza just because they’re in Japan.

No, they’re the Yakuza. They’re also in Japan, but the organization they’re modeled after is the Yakuza.

The Yakuza has a very specific structure where the mafia (namely Italian/American) doesn’t have as a riding a structure if one at all, in reality.

Two things. First, yes, the Yakuza has a very specific structure. However, so do the various branches of the Italian Mafia. I mean, it’s right there in the name, “organized crime.”

To your, marginal, credit, I’m going to let slide how incredibly racist this is. I just want you to think about this in the context of the Triads, the Cartels, and of course the Mafia. “But, only in glorious Nippon does civilization flourish even in the criminal underbelly.” Nope.

However, if we were to take that statement at face value, the part where the Port Mafia is organized, kinda takes your entire theory that only the Yakuza have organizational structure, and makes it sleep with the fishies.

The Port Mafia is organized crime which is the only important part- if you control the ports, you control what goes in and out…

Yeah, that’s specifically a Yakuza thing. To be clear, all organized crime thrives at trade ports (of any variety.) There’s a lot of money (either as liquid currency or in physical goods) moving through a single point. Because the mode of transportation is changing (between land, sea, and air), there’s a lot of movement, and a lot of opportunities for things to get “misplaced.” Most organizations will seek some control so they can skim off the stuff coming in and going out. After all, why pound pavement when all the graft you could ever want will come to you?

“Controlling,” what comes in or goes out; that’s not something you usually see. A criminal organization may retaliate against a specific shipper for some action taken against them. They may use the port as part of their own smuggling network. But, the act of dictating who comes and who goes? That’s far more management than most criminal organizations are willing to engage in. Except, the Yakuza.

The Yakuza see themselves as protectors and defenders of Japan, or at the very least, of Japanese culture and civilization. If you wanted to be really flowery, and were writing a manga using excessive literary references, you could even call them, “Wardens of the Night.”

As with many lies people tell themselves, it’s tangentially related to reality at best. However, that hasn’t stopped the Yakuza from seeing themselves as heroes of Japanese identity in the post-war era. One element of that is using control of the ports to protect Japanese products from foreign competition.

To be fair, I haven’t seen much lit on this behavior continuing since the mid-90s, but it was prevalent enough in the early to mid-80s to show up in some contemporary academic lit. This would have been when the Japanese economy was in a massive bubble, and the Yakuza was expanding operations everywhere it could, so the idea of them having full control over port operations in a major city wasn’t completely out there.

So, no, this isn’t the Italian Mafia, it’s explicitly a stand in for the Japanese Yokuza. It uses phonetic approximation of the word, “mafia,” in katakana as part of it’s formal name, but that doesn’t change the context, inspiration, or the organization presented.

…which [fits] with the Port Mafia authors wanting to stick with Japanese styles of writing.

Pretty sure it’s not stylistic, or at least not that simple. Several of the members of the Armed Detective Agency were named after authors who took foreign concepts or genres and adapted them into traditional Japanese styles. This also doesn’t work for the Port Mafia references, because, Mori Ōgai was a prolific translator of foreign works into Japanese, including Goethe, Hans Christian Anderson, and many others. I’m not familiar with his original work, but one of his most influential acts was the introduction of European literary critique methodology to the Japanese literary community.

I’m not sure exactly how Kafka Asagiri decided to parse these authors up. I don’t have the background in Japanese literature, but I seriously doubt it’s that simple.

It also, somewhat, undermines your entire position to begin with. If the material is heavily referential, but the Port Mafia is supposed to be the Italian/American Mafia, then the names would reflect that, with characters named things like Mario Puzo, James Elroy, and Nicholas Pileggi. Though, given the subtly I’ve seen from Asagiri, I half expect Puzo would be walking around wearing a rubber horse mask the entire time. So, probably for the best that he stuck with the Yakuza.


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Q&A Follow Up: Domestic Abusers


Not sure if it matters, but I believe the anon was referring to the wisdom regarding domestic violence that states that when violent partners say “I couldn’t stop myself,” you can often examine their behaviour and find that they know exactly what the limits of what they think they can get away with are. That their violence was extremely controlled, stopping at the exact point they knew was before “too far.”

Looking at the question again, I think you’re correct. The, “other fights,” thing threw me. So, in answer to that: Domestic abusers are sub-human garbage. We’ll need a tier below that, someplace in the festering compost heap to account for the ones who try to pass their culpability off on their victims. They say, “I couldn’t stop myself,” in an attempt to blame their victim, because they’re such fucking cowards they can’t even accept responsibility for their own actions.

An abuser who only stops to avoid detection is possibly worse. They’re adding an extra, psychological level to their abuse. They stop to prevent consequences from spilling back on themselves and further isolate and discredit their victim. As with domestic abuse in general, this behavior is vile. Other factors like this make it worse.

While it’s not a perfect analogy, the psychology of domestic abusers hews very close to the psychology of bullies, with similar problems associated with a third party injecting themselves into the situation.

So, yeah, fuck domestic abusers, and I’m sorry I didn’t pick up on this part in Monday’s question, and thank you to InquisitorHierarch for catching that.


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Q&A: Margins of Error and Violence

What do you think of “I just couldn’t stop myself” vs “they only don’t stop when they think they get away with it”? Especially when it’s not in terms of domestic violence, but other fights. How well can people be expected to stop themselves in a fight?

Your ability to effectively moderate your use of force scales with your training. The more training you have, the less force you need to neutralize your opponent. The less force you use, the less risk of something going horrifically wrong. Also, the better your training, the more control you maintain, which further reduces risk.

Now, it’s critical to understand that even under the best circumstances, accidents can, and do, happen. Additionally, live combat is never, “the best circumstances.”

This is almost never couched as, “I couldn’t stop,” usually, it’s more in the range of, “I didn’t mean to do that.”

It should also go without saying that if the person using that argument is the aggressor or the victim carries a huge impact on how its viewed. An aggressor who says they couldn’t stop is going to be viewed in a far more hostile light. If it’s the victim, depending on exactly what happened, this could be viewed as little more than an understandable accident. Worth mentioning that the phrasing you used leans heavily on the idea that the character was the aggressor.

I’m not 100% sure what you meant with the second argument.

“…they only don’t stop when they think they get away with it?”

Again, there’s a legitimate read, and an illegitimate one.

If you look at it as using enough force to “get away.” That’s the threshold for normal self defense. (Create an opening and escape.) As above, someone with limited training and experience can be forgiven for exceeding this by a substantial margin in the moment. The more training you have, the narrower this margin becomes.

If you’re asking about, an aggressor who only stops when they think  they’ll face consequences, that’s a sadist, or worse.

There is another element to holding back, in fiction: concern that violence will, “taint,” your character, and make them unlikable. This is an understandable, if ultimately, mostly, misplaced fear. If we’re talking about your PoV character, they’re in a unique position to defend their actions to the audience. In a real way, you have far more control over how the audience views your PoV characters than any other participants in your story.

Your characters need to act in accordance with who they are as people. So, that does put some limits on what you should do with them. There’s also room for a character to be someone other than they appear, though doing this with a PoV character can be tricky, and will carry it’s own consequences.

Stories and drama thrive on consequences. A character does something, the reactions that come from other characters are dramatic. This is a good thing. Stories thrive or die based on their access to drama. This can include situations where they’ve gone too far. Dealing with the consequences for that, are a dramatic goldmine. It’s nice when everything goes to plan, but it’s interesting when the wheels come off.


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Q&A: Chimichangas and Post-Modern Superheroes

Deadpool is a protagonist who kills people. How would you suggest pulling this off in book form? Since killing is usually a ‘villain’ thing to do.

Have you ever really thought about what a her or villain is?

I mean, honestly, the film has this line:

You’re probably thinking, “My boyfriend said this was a superhero movie but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a fucking kabab!” Well, I may be super, but I’m no hero.

Personally, the Deadpool joke has run a bit thin. It’s still a good joke, and like most astute comedy it’s getting at a few good points you might want to consider.

In spite of his arguments against being one, Deadpool is a superhero. At least now. Originally, the character was a one note villain added by Rob Liefeld. He was a standard, humorless, 90s antagonist that was later repurposed into the character we have now. But, he is a hero.

Heroes and villains aren’t synonymous with good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral,or any number of other dichotomies. The simplest implementations embrace this.

In Star Wars, Luke wears white, Vader wears black, one’s good, the other’s evil, one is a scion of the light side, the other has embraced the dark side; they’re a study in contrasts. It’s black and white storytelling, and while you can use this as a pejorative, it’s not inherently bad.

As a genre, superheroes naturally build out of this kind of sharp relief. You have heroes, who are paragons of purity, and goodness, and villains who are irredeemable monsters. Most real people aren’t like that, but it serves the story, and there is a lot you can do with this, so it’s not bad writing. At least, not on its own.

In a weird kind of way, Deadpool is probably the most 90s superhero possible. Sure, we have Rob “MOAR POUCHES” Liefeld’s design, but it doesn’t stop there. The hyper-angst backstory is almost indistinguishable from characters like Spawn, Jackie Estacado, or any number of other contemporary heroes. But, that’s not why I’m writing this; Deadpool embraces the 90s post-modern critique of superheroes as a genre. To the point that 20 years later, the jokes still work. He exists in a far more rarefied environment, along with comics like The Mask or The TickDeadpool is a natural evolution off of what Alan Moore started with Watchmen.

Stepping back for a moment, there were two major direction changes for comics in the 80s. Alan Moore, and Frank Miller. These two writes basically set the tone for where the format would go. Before Moore and Miller, yes, Deadpool would have been a villain.

Miller’s influence started with his work on Daredevil. He took over a c-list superhero, and started retooling him into the obsessive, self-destructive, character we know today. Miller set the tone for the dark and edgy heroes that would follow, even if that’s not entirely visible in his work on Daredevil. Similarly, Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns fundamentally altered Batman into his modern incarnation. Miller’s characters were darker, and more violent takes on existing characters, and it infested the market. Now, I am being a bit reductive, there were other extremely violent comics in this era; several 2000AD series come to mind, including Judge Dredd, but Miller had a massive influence on what as permissible in superhero comics.

It’s unfortunate to reduce Moore’s influence to just Watchmen. He’s a very good, if overly verbose, writer. However, Watchmen was very different from comics of the day. Where Miller was presenting darker, violent heroes, Moore was attacking the foundations of the superhero as a genre. Watchmen is a deconstruction of superhero comics. The term gets thrown around a lot, but Moore was engaging in literary critique. I could probably do an article on Watchmen alone, but, I’ll hit the high points.

Watchmen argues that you can’t save the world from any realistic threat (in that case, mutually assured nuclear destruction) by punching muggers in the face. Throughout the comic, violence doesn’t actually, achieve anything tangible.

Watchmen criticizes the image of superheroes as inhuman paragons, this is a much bigger deal than it may seem today. Presenting superheroes as flawed individuals was a radical departure from the contemporary genre.

Just because you’re a superhero, doesn’t mean you’re a good person. We see this explicitly with many of the characters. Again, this was a massive departure for comics, and along with Miller’s work it opened the door to a lot of characters that simply wouldn’t have been possible a decade earlier.

To be fair, I’m also abbreviating a lot of comic book history. Both Miller and Moore benefited from the decline of the Comics Code Authority. If that had lasted a decade longer, we could easily be having this discussion about writers like Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis or Mark Millar.

Moore’s critique lead the way for a lot of writers to poke at the superhero and say, “this is idiosyncratic.” Deadpool may not have been written, intentionally thinking about Alan Moore or Watchmen, but the mindset that lead to his rebirth as a fourth wall breaking smartass is indebted to Moore’s work.

Deadpool’s habit of breaking the fourth wall is a doubled sword. It’s part of why I started to find the character grating, but it’s also used to engage in meta-commentary on comic books as a format. There’s no, “how I would do it,” retort here. I think it’s well done (most of the time.) It’s also critical to the commentary you get from Deadpool. The comics roast the rest of the industry (viciously), while the film takes that approach and hoses down the modern superhero film.

There’s an expectation in that starting quote, “…this was a superhero movie…” It is, but so are Watchmen, Blade, and Dredd; I’d be hard pressed to say any of those are have “nice” protagonists.

So, what is a hero? Deadpool is pretty sure your answer is wrong. That’s the point of the character. He is a hero. When the time comes he can put aside his selfish inclinations and do the right thing (even if he does it in protest.) Is that enough to be a hero? I don’t know. It’s certainly a credible attempt to strip the concept (at least within the context of superheroes) down to it’s core.

A hero can do the right thing for the wrong reasons and still be “a hero.” Can you do the wrong thing (killing people) for the right reasons and still be one? That’s what the character is trying to explore.

Thanks to Moore, there’s a lot of different takes on this. Dysfunctional superheroes, heroes struggling with the aftermath of prior traumas, villains trying to make amends for past wrongs, explorations of ethics and morality with superheroes who have radically deviant views of the world. Accidental heroes, who will still do the right thing, for entirely selfish reasons. None of these are entirely new concepts, but they were a sharp departure from superhero comics.

Now, if it seems like I’m being overly harsh on you, I’m not. Asking your question is very important. It’s easy to create a protagonist who has no qualms about killing, and then go overboard with it. There’s a lot of ground to explore, and asking, “is this still a hero?” is a good step. Your protagonist’s outlook (almost always) defines that of the story, so remaining critical of their views can be a good thing.


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Q&A: Short Fighters and Centers of Gravity

any specifics to be mindful of on writing a very short fighter? like under five feet tall? i don’t necessarily mean children, just like, ppl who are short

I’m going to discuss writing short combatants below, but I want to make it clear. What I’m going to be discussing is about adults, not children. You want to set a clear distinction between the two in your mind right now. Children are their own category, broken down into several separate categories of roughly 1-5, 6-8, 9-10, 11-14, 15-16, 17-19. Segment them out by age categories, break apart older and younger teens, and keep a beat for mental/intellectual/emotional maturity in line with their physical growth rates. Children are different from adults, and different ages face different challenges.

When you’re writing children, you need to take their age into consideration, the fact they’re bodies are still changing and growing, the fact their minds are maturing. They don’t have the same capacity as adults, the understanding, or the ability to utilize their experiences to the same degree. The problems for children are not just in their size, but in their brains, in the softness of their bones, in the bodies that are constantly changing, emotions only just emerging, which combined with a lack of experience and maturity often put them at a significant disadvantage.

A twelve year old who is set against a seasoned killer faces a lot more problems than just a height difference, would face those same challenges even if they were the same height.

Now, let’s talk about short fighters. They’re not much difference from anyone else, nothing more than a different set of natural advantages, that may not even mean much in the grand scheme. Spend too much time obsessing on physiological differences and you’ll end up thinking they’re the only thing that matters. There’s not that much difference between someone who is 4″10 versus someone who is 5″1 or 5″2 in terms of combat.

What you want to understand about the size of humans is that the benefits are mostly in the mind. There are a lot of culturally defined stereotypes, conventional wisdom, and cries of “realism” when it comes to martial combat that are complete bunk. The perception that short people are at an automatic disadvantage is one of them. Every body type comes with their own strengths and weaknesses, learning to compensate for the weaknesses and take advantage of the strengths is what training is all about. You’re going to need to throw out most of your internalized prejudices and start over. You’ll find you’re full of biases when you really get down to thinking about it,  ones you’ve subconsciously picked up over the years, and, I want to make this very clear, addressing them doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.

Center of Gravity – People who are short are closer to the ground. This is important because  the center of gravity is your body’s balance point. This is your body’s point of stability, and useful to know about for a large variety of exercises. This point changes based on each individual human being, with constant motion, and is somewhat subjective. So, everyone has to locate this point within themselves and find their own individual balance.-

However, what you need to know about for the purpose of this question is: Short people are very difficult to knock over if they know how to create their base and set their weight.

Now, the center of gravity in a man versus in a woman are physiologically different. A man’s is located in his chest, and a woman’s is approximately in her pelvis. Physiological differences mean men and women will show progress in different exercises more quickly because they’re more naturally inclined toward them. A woman’s balance point being lower lends itself to more stability in the lower body. From a practical perspective, what this means is that a man has to spread his legs wider and get lower in his stances in order to achieve the same physical stability as his female counterpart, and likewise a tall man has to bend his knees more than a short guy for similar results.

This is a taught advantage, not a natural advantage.

What does this mean?

Well, it doesn’t mean much of anything except that short people are naturally better at grappling than taller people. If they know how to set their feet and get down low then good luck throwing them. You won’t pick them up. They’re not going anywhere. After all, throws are not strength based (someone who is tall is not necessarily going to be stronger than someone who is short) but are instead dependent on destabilizing your opponent’s base (the position of their feet, and stance) then utilizing their own force against them.

Someone who is short is much closer to the earth than someone who is tall, and this advantage lends them more stability. Weight isn’t weight, and strength isn’t strength. The martial arts battle is primarily over an ever-shifting balance point and breaking your opponent’s stability. You’ve got to work harder to get them to fall over.

The Intimidation Station – Tall people can be naturally intimidating, because conventional wisdom says they are. Intimidation happens in the mind. However, short people can be intimidating, because intimidation comes from presence, not physicality.

Here’s something to keep in mind when writing short characters: When you’re short, you live in a world of tall. You’re used to being (physically) looked down on. These characters will have been learning to compensate (if they need to) from day one, so the idea they’ll fall apart while facing off against someone significantly taller than they are is silly… really silly. They’ll be more used to fighting tall people than someone who generally fights people of equal height or mild differences. If you’re used to constantly being at a “disadvantage” then that state becomes normal and you learn to just roll with it.

Aggression – Short fighters can be, but are not uniformly, or always more aggressive combatants, and women are often more actively aggressive in combat than men. This doesn’t mean they have more aggressive personalities, but they can be much more pro-active when it comes to rolling over into an offensive mode.

Reach – You’ll hear this one brought up a lot, mostly by people who don’t really understand the concept. Reach matters more with weapons than with bodies.

I hear a lot of writers searching for “natural” advantages, or see an over reliance on those perceived advantages in fiction. The reality of success lies with technique and hard work, not the body you were born with or the talents you were gifted with. You’ve got to polish what you have. In hand to hand, there are plenty of ways to compensate for a difference in height. The primary means of overcoming distance is footwork, not the length of your arms or legs.

Mind Over Matter – In terms of physiology, the rules aren’t hard and fast. They’re not black and white. There’s no can and can’t. There’s mind over matter, mind over internalized biases, and mind over perceived impossibilities. What there isn’t is magic. No matter who they are, your character will never be suddenly amazing or skip all the perilous trials of learning. There’s pain, yes, embarrassment, frustration, and failures, which are all part of building character. Skill requires training and practice. It’s difficult, it takes time, and you’ll need to do a lot of pushing past what you believe to be physically possible (rather than what is) before you’re done.

What your character perceives about their own abilities and their actual abilities are not one and the same, the same is true of their potential. The hill may seem impossible from the bottom, but we progress up it one step at a time.

Here’s one last thing to keep in mind:

They’re short. So, what?


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Q&A: False Flags

Hi. I would like to ask, is it honestly a good idea to take an enemy vehicle or wear the enemy’s armor and then return to your own people, at the risk of them attacking you before you are able to identify yourself?

Probably not, for exactly the reason you identified. Though, with the vehicle, sometimes the only available transport is still the only surviving option. So commandeering an enemy vehicle after combat may be necessary, though your characters would probably want to indicate that it had been captured, if at all possible, such as by defacing the iconography. They’d still probably want to be cautious approaching friendly checkpoints regardless, and “surrender” to their allies rather than risk taking a bullet.

As for taking enemy armor, things get more complicated and context matters.

You may come across conflicting information on if wearing an enemy uniform is a war crime (and, yes, if their armor is distinct to their faction, that’s a uniform.) This is both true, and untrue. Simply wearing an enemy uniform is not a war crime, what you do while wearing it can be, however. The same goes for their vehicles.

“Misusing” an enemy flag, insignia, or a flag of truce is the war crime. The hard part here is, “misusing,” (or “improper use”) is the legal threshold, and that is undefined.

A ruse de guerre, (literally: “ruse of war”) is legally accepted behavior. This can include wearing enemy uniforms for specific purposes, such espionage and sabotage. However, legally, while in disguise, a soldier cannot engage in combat operations. So, disguising yourself in enemy armor, and sneaking into a facility to assassinate someone, or to ambush unsuspecting troops is a war crime. While wearing their uniform to obtain intelligence, or to sabotage equipment is not. To be clear, ambushing enemy troops is an accepted ruse de guerre, you just can’t do it while wearing their uniform.

To be fair, I’m condensing a fairly complex legal concept. In general, international law tends to get very complicated, and when it comes to armed conflict, it gets extremely involved.

The good news is, wearing an enemy uniform because you’d otherwise be naked is entirely legal. At least internationally. Also, if the goal was to steal the transport and extract it, wearing their armor to get through checkpoints on the way out is legitimate. That’s fine. Sneaking in is fine too, so long as your unit switches back to their own uniforms before they start picking off potential enemies.

The title for the article, a false flag, was originally a nautical example of this behavior. A sailing vessel would fly a flag allied with their enemy to close to cannon range and open up with a broadside attack. Again, under modern law, if the ship swaps out it’s flag before opening fire, that’s legal, if it engages while baring the enemy’s flag, that’s a war crime.

There’s similar logic for crossing back over into friendly territory, with the added caveat that this is very dangerous. You soldiers would need to approach a friendly patrol or checkpoint while clearly surrendering. There’s some details here: It’s a war crime to execute a surrendering combatant, and that should buy your characters enough time to explain who they are. Now, keep in mind, they’ll be taken into custody, until their identities are confirmed. But, that doesn’t reflect on them in any real way.

Also, even though it’s a war crime, this is still a very dangerous situation. A jumpy recruit might accidentally shoot them. A soldier who doesn’t care may simply open fire before they can identify themselves. This is not a good situation to be in, but it’s automatically fatal, if everyone involved keeps their head and follows the law.

If their mission was to secure the vehicle, it’s probable they’d have some extraction protocol to ensure they weren’t staring down the barrel of a friendly fire incident. Probably a set location that was briefed that they’re arriving, and bringing the vehicle (or whatever the actual payload is) back. Of course, if things go wrong, they could end up stumbling into a friendly checkpoint as a last resort.

A detail here is, if they were trying to steal something, or extract a VIP, that vehicle, and the disguises are probably the best way to achieve their goals. Also, yeah, that is a legitimate ruse de guerre use of enemy gear.

Again, I am condensing a fairly complicated legal situation into a very clean line, while reality is far muddier. Also, in some situations, this may not matter. Guerrilla forces may not care about pesky things like war crimes, for example.

So, is it a good idea? Normally, no. However, sometimes it’s the most expedient option available.


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Q&A: General Terminology

What would be the difference between using a knife and using a dagger in combat?

I know you included your name, but I’ve anonymize it, because I don’t want this to sound like a teardown of you.

“Knife” is a catch all term. It includes an incredibly diverse range of bladed implements, ranging from kitchen utensils to combat tools and technical equipment. So, it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to say that there’s no such thing as, “a knife,” in any definitive sense; there are many knives, not just one.

Daggers are, slightly more uniform than that. They usually refer to double edged knives intended for use in combat; and yes, daggers are knives. These might be offensive weapons or parrying tools, and each of those are different weapons. These would later evolve into more specialized variants, like the stiletto; which is a dagger, and not a dagger.

That’s the problem. These aren’t two separate weapons. Not like asking, “what’s the difference between a sword and an axe,” for example.

There is a legitimate question here: “How do you use different kinds of knives in combat?” Unfortunately, the answer is almost as diverse. There are knives designed to parry your opponent’s mainhand weapon. There are narrow blades designed to be inserted through gaps in their armor. There are broad blades, designed to carry themselves via their weight. There are serrated blades designed to do as much tissue damage on the way in and out. This is before you consider curved blades designed to slice more effectively, straight blades for piercing stabs, and a dizzying array of different combinations of designs.


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Q&A: Good Writers Steal: Understanding Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity

You know when you compare the lore of Dragon Age and Pillars there a lot of similarities and it wouldn’t be that hard to put both settings in the same world.

No, they really don’t fit together.

This is kind of ironic, because that’s how we got Dragon Age‘s setting in the first place, and why I’m answering this.

Let’s start with what the two settings still have in common. Both games are based around evolving D&D into a new, non-licensed system. In both cases, the long term goal was to pave over some of the more idiosyncratic elements, and create new settings that could be used without raising the ire of Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast.

In both cases, they started with an approximation of D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting, and then started mixing in other inspirations; and that’s when the wheels come off this wagon.

To condense: Forgotten Realms is a “standard, Tolkienesque fantasy world,” where numerous immensely powerful civilizations have fallen into ruin. There’s a full chronology of empires rising and falling throughout the setting’s history. The modern cultures often live directly adjacent to civilizations so advanced that their residual magic defies comprehension. This is the setting of games like Neverwinter NightsBaldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and the MMO Neverwinter, along with, literally, hundreds of novels.

Pillars of Eternity starts from that point, and plants the clock firmly in the 17th century (though the overall technology doesn’t perfectly match any specific point in history.) It then uses the altered setting to talk politics and philosophy. Up front, I’m a fan of this kind of approach to fantasy. Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say, and can do it without getting preachy. Taking your “normal” fantasy prejudices, and then pulling that apart and using it as allegory has a lot of merit. I’m also a big fan of taking a setting (in this case, the “standard fantasy setting”) and pushing the clock forward, asking, “what happens next?” What does colonialism look like in a world where you have dragons and wizards?

On the surface, Dragon Age may look somewhat similar. There’s no colonial themes, firearms, or advanced sailing ships, but it is building off of the same, standard fantasy setting template. Where Pillars looked to real history, Dragon Age went someplace a little different: Warhammer.

I’ve talked about Warhammer Fantasy before. A lot like Pillars it’s adapting the fantasy setting to a specific historical era, in that case it’s target is the late 15th, early 16th century. It’s less interested in saying anything, but it was designed for a tabletop strategy game, where the narrative was, at best, ad hoc. Along the way, it’s embraced the mindset of the era, and pulled a lot of the conflicting tones from that time in history together into a weird amalgam. This is a setting where the church is under siege from literal daemons, instead of the protestant reformation. It’s a setting where new ideas are starting to stream in, and simultaneously are mixed with incredibly dangerous concepts that threaten to, quite literally, rip the universe apart.

I love Warhammer; it is a brilliantly stupid setting, and within that context it has a real identity. I know I said I like settings that have something to say, but you can get by on sheer charm. Warhammer is an incredibly bleak setting that turns the pitch black horizon into comedy.

Warhammer is a postlapsarian world. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, this is a concept from Christian literature holding that humanity is a fallen race; separated from divinity for our sins. Warhammer pulls this out as part of the philosophies and outlooks that define its era, and runs screaming into the night with it.

Like, Warhammer, Dragon Age is also postlapsarian. The specifics are different, and more solidly tied to human hubris. It’s setting mimics middle ages Catholic church politics, complete with the schism between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. It skips over the Protestant reformation that dominates Warhammer’s thoughts on the subject, but some of that is a function of time.

The biggest difference is tone, and part of the reason why I’ve spent 700 words leading up to a tear down.

Dragon Age wants to be a serious game, about serious people, doing serious things. If it would make up its mind, or lighten up a bit, it could have been pretty great. (Or, arguably was.) Now, let me explain why I sidetracked into talking about Warhammer up there: Dragon Age is a poorly executed riff on Warhammer, not Forgotten Realms.

In Dragon Age/Warhammer, mages are unstable and risk corruption by demons/daemons from the fade/warp. They’re constantly struggling to keep control over themselves, and the demons/daemons are always nibbling at the edges of their minds. If a mage loses control they can become possessed by a demon/daemon, and become an abomination/a daemon, physically transforming the unfortunate mage in grotesque ways. Because of this, mages are hunted down by Templars/Templars of Sigmar, sometimes/usually called Witchunters, who have enormous authority granted to them by The Chantry/The Church of Sigmar.

Travel through the fade/warp is possible, but extremely dangerous without a trained mage (or a functioning Gellar field in WH40k), this can allow an experienced mage to travel vast distances (Warp travel is technically an FTL system.) The fade/warp is a substructure of reality shaped by the subconscious psychic energy of the universe’s population, and the demons/daemons within are direct manifestations of vices/base emotions.

Civilization is threatened by incursions from the Darkspawn/Chaos, a mix of strange fade tainted/chaos warped creatures, who come from the south/north, but can pop up nearly anywhere.

Now, to be fair, there are differences between the settings, the Dwarves are being pushed to the edge of extinction in a handful of holds, having lost their once grand empire because of prolonged combat with the darkspawn/greenskins (orcs, goblins, and some other critters.) I also, don’t really want to get into a full discussion of the similarities between the Lizardmen and the Qunari, because that quickly gets esoteric. There’s also a lot of armies in Warhammer that simply don’t appear in Dragon Age. Some like the Skaven and Greenskins appear to have been rolled with the Chaos armies, others like the Vampire Counts, Tomb Kings, High Elves, Dark Elves, and Wood Elves are basically absent.

So, where’s the problem? A couple things.

It doesn’t bother me that Dragon Age was heavily inspired by Warhammer. After all, Warcraft also began life as a Warhammer game, and that splintered off into its own identity. Everything we do as writers builds on things we’ve consumed. The material you read will seep into the things you write. That’s fine. That’s the nature of being a creative. Look outside yourself, see things, take a look, and incorporate the parts that make sense.

You’ve heard the old quote, “good writers borrow, great writers steal?” That’s here. You see a neat thing in text, in a game, or on screen, you’ll remember it, you’ll try to snarf it up and consume it. It becomes a part of you, it affects how you look at the world (even in a small way), and will affect your writing. This means that, most of the time, when you see someone saying, “they just ripped off X,” and list one or two things, it’s not.

In taking inspiration, see something you like, take it, digest it. Look at the concept from all sides. Roll it around in your head. Ask yourself what it means when it gets dropped into your work. Don’t just lift entire systems, or characters, and transplant them without considering them. The goal is that, on the other end there’s no way to know, and that the previous paragraphs I wrote where I describe both settings with a simple proper noun replacement scheme can’t happen. (And, I could have gone on for a lot longer. The similarities vastly outnumber the differences.)

If Dragon Age‘s setting is Warhammer, it’s rules are Forgotten Realms. This is something of a problem. You’re presented with one system for how the setting works in text, prose, and fluff, and you’re presented with a completely different setting when you actually engage with the material directly. I wish I could say this is a problem unique to games with narratives, but that’s not entirely true. This can become a problem any time a writer establishes one set of rules for the, “little people,” of their world, and a different set of rules for their protagonists.

Magic in Warhammer is dangerous. A wizard is channeling the power of the warp, and hoping they can keep control over it. In Dragon Age, magic is described as dangerous, and in both cases the characters risk drawing the attention of a demon/daemon. But, in actual game play, the only threat Dragon Age mage faces from casting is running out of mana. Magic can never slip from their control reeking havoc outside of a cutscene. Untold horrors can’t spill forth from a tear in the fabric of reality. They’ll never be possessed against their will (again, outside of a scripted sequence, when the power of plot compels them.) Dragon Age‘s magic is built off of Forgotten Realms (even though it ditches D&D’s Vancian system), because the gameplay was designed without regard for the setting. Or, put another way, the protagonists follow different rules from the rest of their setting.

As a writer, if you look at Dragon Age you need to assess that fundamental cognitive dissonance first.

There is another piece of dissonance between Dragon Age and Pillars, their approach to humanity. (I’m abbreviating here, as both settings have many non-human individuals that fit inside this context of this argument, while still being explicitly something other than human.)

Postlapsarian views humans as fundamentally fallen. Pillars solidly rejects that entire thought process. There’s a full state of nature debate in there, and if you really believe people can’t be trusted to managed their own bowels, you have the option to say so, but the story doesn’t endorse this. Dragon Age enshrines the idea that people broke the world, and all of the horrific monsters wandering the world are their fault. In Dragon Age magic is an emblem of (and conduit to) that original sin. In Pillars magic is another tool for advancing civilization’s understanding of the world (in addition to being a highly destructive weapon that’s significantly affected the setting’s history.) In fact, the metaphysics of Pillars are under the control of characters. This is reminiscent of how D&D’s gods tend to be ascended adventurers, but it creates a setting where the sentient races are in control of their destiny, and aren’t being told they need to atone for anything.

If you want to take two settings and blend them together, the first step is to pull them apart and start sifting through the individual pieces. See how they connect to the rest of the setting/story, and ask yourself what it affects and if it makes sense. Also, remember you’re free to disagree with the authors on their conclusions. Don’t simply take something, make it your own first.


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Q&A: Metafiction; the story inside the story inside the story inside the… uh… yeah.

Bungou Stray Dogs has a mafia that uses a few teenage characters with useful/deadly powers. Any tips on making them realistic in fanfiction without being weak or useless? There IS trauma involved but trauma doesn’t always show up immediately/in readily recognizable ways especially in teenagers. The characters also have varying levels of maturity and ambition. Even if it’s wrong, it wouldn’t make sense for the CRIMINAL boss to NOT use teens if they could be useful even on the short term.

Okay, so, this is a very defensive question. You’re asking for tips, but arguing on the tips you expect us to give you. There’s a mistaken assumption that criminals don’t use teens because it’s morally wrong, and not because it’s, well, bad for staying in business because teenagers are less reliable than seasoned professionals for mob hits, or that’s just a lot of responsibility to trust to someone so young. Criminal organizations do use children, they just don’t usually use them to do anything important (like kill people.)

There’s even all caps.

None of that is important though. We’re talking about an anime where Herman Melville transforms into the ghost of Orson Welles and takes off into the night sky. The entire argument you’re trying to make just isn’t applicable. So, let’s talk about a very special genre called metafiction instead.

Bungou Stray Dogs is both an anime, and a piece of metafiction. When discussing how this piece of media handles its characters or structures its plots, realism is not even a tertiary concern.  The anime doesn’t care. If you’re writing fanfiction in the world created by this medium neither should you. Now, let’s talk about about this small piece of the literary genre called metafiction; where there is a contextual narrative within the narrative based entirely on your familiarity with the other narratives being referenced.

Let me drop this in front of you,

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
If you are a someone who came out of an education system from a former British colony you should have some passing recognition of this stanza, even if you don’t know who the author is.  (Or, you slept through you’re high school English classes.) This is from William Blake’s “The Tyger“, and, no, this isn’t just a literary joke based on the fact the protagonist of Bungou Stray Dogs transforms into a tiger under the moonlight. No, this is a reference to the fact the protagonist of Bungou Stray Dogs is named after Japanese author Atsushi Nakajima, who was a fan of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphisis” and whose story “Sangetsuki” features a man who transforms into a tiger. “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright…”

This is an on the nose reference which would be immediately obvious to a Japanese audience, just like so many other characters featured in Bungou Stray Dogs, but would require a fair amount of digging from someone not well versed in classic Japanese literature. Which, I’m not, I had to look it up.

When you’re talking about a narrative this deep into Japanese literary history and culture, whose characters and their powers are based on other characters from other more famous stories you never read because you didn’t go to a Japanese high school, you have to realize that they’re not discussing the “mafia” in any realistic fashion. No, they’re talking about the Yakuza and not the Yakuza as they exist in the real world. We’re talking about the Yakuza as they exist in classic Japanese literature and as a cultural touchstone within their media.

An example is the Italian mafia as seen in The Godfather and not the Italian mafia from Goodfellas. One embraces the cultural idealization of the mafia, while the other… well, is trying for a biographical portrayal of an ex-mafioso’s life and experiences in the mob. Watch both, you’ll find very different movies working underneath the surface.

Metafiction, at heart, is a story within a story using characters/individuals or basing itself on characters who are either public domain or simply easily recognizable via simple motif. Metafiction relies heavily on a cultural contextual awareness of these characters (or historical individuals). These characters need no introduction because you’re expected to already know who they are. You know. The story lies in how they interact with each other, but their underlying narrative is one of exploration about these pieces of art in comparison and contrast, their values, their political views, their social mores, and how they interact with each other.

The surface story is John Locke and Thomas Hobbes hook up to fight crime in Victorian London. The underlying narrative explores the philosophical views of Locke and Hobbes as they deal with the human and societal circumstances forged by this variation of a rapidly changing British society neither experienced in their own lifetimes.

We already got a version this idea with the comic Calvin and Hobbes. We get the hijinks of a boy and his imaginary tiger friend, but the underlying comedy is exploring an interaction between the philosophies of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes. The content is there if you know what to look for, and, if you’re from a cultural background where learning something about these two is required, you’ll pick up on the humor within the humor without needing it explained; even when you can’t articulate why.

Bungou Stray Dogs is like Calvin and Hobbes.

There are other Western versions of metafiction. An easy example to point to is Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Another is the show Penny Dreadful, which works off a similar concept with contemporary characters from the same time period as League. The Assassin’s Creed games are another example, they’re mashing a lot of contemporary historical figures together as touchstones for their narrative even if these individuals never actually interacted.

There’s a story, but that story is also built on the reader’s knowledge of these characters outside the fictional work itself. In a way, all fanfiction is metafiction. The major difference between one and the other is ultimately legality. The characters of metafiction are public domain, copyright does not apply, and so you can do what you like with them. You want to write a massive fanfic crossing over the works of Austen, Gaskell, and Bronte? In a coffee shop or high school setting? Go right ahead. You can do that legally. Be interesting enough and you could even get it published by a traditional publisher. After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did get published.

So, you writing fanfiction about Bungou Stray Dogs which is itself a massive crossover alternate AU fanfic about classic Japanese literature is extremely meta in its own right. Congrats!

Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the characters of Bungou Stray Dogs have personalities and powers based on the literary figures they’re associated with. If you want to make these characters useful to the criminal organization then you need to do your reading. They’re not just random characters in an anime, they’re based on a real author, probably an author who died young, and their famous protagonist. You should look at this crime boss and figure out which literary figure he’s based off of, the focus of the author’s narrative fiction, and accept that Japan has a tendency to throw around synonymous non-Japanese words willy-nilly. When calling an organization the mafia, they’re not really talking about the mafia within conventional Western understanding. This character is a very specific reference to a very specific individual and their works.

The trouble with metafiction is that it requires you do the reading, and in this case do the reading on other authors and their works you may not have ever heard of or realized were a primary influence and major reference on the material you’ve been watching/reading. However, to find the actual answer to your question, you’ve got to take a look at their works. Realize, these works may not be readily available or easily understood if you don’t read Japanese. Though the works of the authors referenced by the American association “The Guild” will be easy enough to get hold of, though thoroughly more confusing if you know anything about the authors Kafka Asagiri is referencing.  (From an American perspective, just looking at the versions appearing in this anime, I can say that I don’t know what the heck they read but that’s the key difference between looking at someone else’s literary culture versus your own.)

I mean, let’s be honest, Mark Twain’s power should be his ability to completely destroy your self-esteem. This requires a contextual understanding of Twain’s humor which may not be easily accessible via translation; especially if you only read a poor translation of Huckleberry Finn in high school. This is, after all, the man who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And, if you’re writing metafiction, or just fiction, or even fanfiction in general, he’s got some great advice, “get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

But, I digress. When writing metafiction, or any fiction, or just in general, it helps when you know what you’re talking about. Or, have the confidence and showmanship to convince people you do.

One of the great aspects writing fanfiction has to teach you is how to do your research. As a writer, you’re stepping into someone else’s shoes and learning to think from their perspective. You create a facsimile even though your creations will never truly match. You can’t be someone else, but you can try out their style and see if their work works for you. You have the opportunity to step back from a work and ask what this means to you as you put your own personal spin on it. You might even find yourself depending on how easily you wind up coloring outside the lines.

You should ask yourself, does canon matter to you? 

Canon doesn’t have to, sometimes fanfiction is simply a launchpad to doing your own work when you’re still trying to build up strength in your wings and aren’t ready to leave the nest.

Does realism matter to you?

Again, “realism” doesn’t have to matter. Realism is defined entirely by the narrative your working with. You make reality. Your research into criminal organizations is to discover how they work and how they think. Learn the rules so you can break them.  Learn the facts so you can distort them. You want to know how the world works and how people think the world works so you can change those rules, or realize the rules you thought were important don’t matter at all.

Reality is stranger than fiction.

Learn to act without waiting for permission.

For that reason, we work on giving you options and helping you understand how the world works. This may not have any bearing on the story you wanted to tell, but we can’t tell your story for you. A big step on the road to writing is learning to write for all the characters in your narrative and not just your protagonists. Learn to think like a crime boss or a villain, give them motivations and logical reasoning behind their actions as they weigh their decisions.

Crime is entirely based on risk versus reward. Does the opportunity for reward outweigh the risks involved? Is your desire to use these characters and create exciting plots for them overshadowing the decision of this other character? Can you internally justify the choice beyond just the fact these characters have supernatural powers?

Your characters making choices is what takes them from the realm of dolls and transforms them into people.


(PS. I give a gold star to whomever reading this got that joke about Orson Welles.)

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Q&A: Invisible Enemies

My antagonist can turn invisible. Is it possible to fight/kill him?

Yes. Invisibility is not the same as invulnerability. It’s a significant combat advantage, but like all advantages, it’s something your characters need to plan around.

Off hand, two approaches come to mind. You can either come up with a plan that negates the invisibility, as much as possible, or find ways to deal with your antagonist that completely sidestep direct combat.

Negating invisibility depends, in part on how the power functions. If it’s technological, there may be systemic limitations.

Someone cloaking themselves from the visual wavelength may still be visible in the infrared spectrum, or ultraviolet. Meaning you might be able to find them using thermal goggles, or with blacklights. You may be able to disrupt their cloak using a rapidly changing environment, for example with dance club lighting and strobes. If you’ve watched the Predator films, there’s also the possibility that their adaptive camouflage can’t handle exposure to water. Even failing that, it might not be able to conceal foreign objects striking them. Meaning dust, sand, snow, or of course, blood may cling to their body, partially exposing their location.

If they’re only invisible, they will interact with their environment. This means things like leaving footprints, brushing aside cobwebs or foliage. If they’re moving through smoke, dust clouds, or any other airborne particulate matter, they probably can’t conceal that either, so you’d likely see some hints at their movement if you paid enough attention. That same particulate matter may cling to them, meaning they wouldn’t be fully invisible for long. You may not be able to see them, but if you’re looking for something moving around, you should see some traces. Of course, all of this requires that your characters know what they’re dealing with.

Another fun possibility with technology is that they may still cast a shadow. Their cloak may be able to replicate the image behind them, but it probably can’t emit light at the same intensity of the sun, or even a streetlamp without resulting in some seriously strange lighting behavior.

Another possible approach is that light actually lenses around the character. This is, in theory, the technology behind the cloaking devices in Star Trek. So, they wouldn’t be emitting light, directly, just passing it around them without leaving a shadow. There is one problem with this, your eyes function by being struck by incoming light. If you lens the light around an object, it is invisible, because the light you’re seeing will never actually contact the object and bounce off, but it will also render the user blind (while the field is active.) There are ways around this, but the short version is, their eyes (or goggle lenses) need to be visible, or they can’t see. I’m not saying that a pair of disembodied, glowing, red eyes is better, but it is a functional limitation based on physics, depending on how the technology they’re using works. Somewhat obviously, this isn’t a problem if they’re using some kind of chameleon style equipment.

So, this is all technological, but there are harder to pin down options. Magic is open ended and sets its own rules. It may follow physics, or it may not give a damn. So, let’s look at another easy to manage example, your antagonist isn’t actually invisible, instead, like The Shadow, they have the ability to prevent others from seeing them. In this case, most of the things I just described wouldn’t work. They could pass through fog without betraying their presence because your characters are psychically prevented from realizing they’re there.

This comes with a host of different considerations. For one, your antagonist’s ability to remain invisible is directly tied to their mental state and control. If they’re taunting from the shadows, it may be possible (though difficult) to work their nerves in return. There may be other factors they can’t control. This is also far more strictly dependent on your antagonist having full control over their environment. For example: They can’t mask themselves from someone they don’t know exists or a security camera.

That’s the hard way. The easy way is if you have a vague idea of where they are, simply lock them in, or set the building on fire. Sure, they might be able to escape. But, that’s why you lock the doors first.

Invisibility is a strong advantage, but you can work around it. It’ll just take some advanced planning, and some idea of what their limitations are. So, that’s your characters’ first goal, find those limitations, and then operationalizing a way to use those against them.

I cited Predator earlier. It’s not a great film (though, you’re welcome to disagree with me on that point), but it is about an invisible alien hunting film’s most improbably armed search and rescue team. In your case, I’d also recommend the sequel, Predator 2. Set a decade after the first, it includes characters who are specifically looking for ways to circumvent the Predator’s cloaking system. It’s also got a lot of visual fodder to play with for how a personal cloaking device might look in an urban environment.

If you can look past the uncomfortable Orientalism, 1994’s The Shadow is probably one of the most easily accessible versions of a character who masks their presence psychically. It’s also a better film than it has any right to be, even if the CGI is very dated now. If you’re going the psychic or magical route, this one may be worth looking at. To be fair, this is a character that’s been in print for almost 90 years, so it’s not like there’s a shortage of material to choose from. However, the ’94 incarnation just happens to be a very good, period, superhero film.

Invisibility is one of those superpowers that demand a little more creativity. That’s all. You can kill ’em.


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