Tag Archives: writing reference

Q&A: Writing Training

What kind of things do you need to emphasize in a training scene? One of my characters, a fairly prodigious fighter, is trying to teach a craftsman’s apprentice the basics of fighting, and I want to show the learning. Your post earlier talked about the buildup & payoff to a fight scene, but how does it work with scenes that happen fairly early and don’t carry the same kind of weight/stakes?

There should always weight and stakes to any fight scene, any scene in your novel from big to small. You should always be on the lookout to figure out how to build into your small scenes because that will lead you into a bigger whole.

Let me ask you a question: What will happen if the craftsman’s apprentice never learns to fight? What happens if he or she fails? How does this potential failure impact their future? How does the prospect impact them personally?

Learning to fight is difficult. No matter how good your teacher, the onus for success is on the student. The student who doesn’t want to be there won’t be for very long, and the student who does may give up rather than persevere. The building of endurance, the slow pace, the physical requirements, the necessity of patience, focus on simple techniques broken down and studied piece by piece. Going to bed tired and aching every day if the training lasts for prolonged periods of time. The student learns quickly that all the glory they imagined is replaced by hard work. Most of them give up.

If you haven’t contemplated the possibility of this apprentice failing, you should. You should contemplate how this character behaves when they start to struggle, when they get bored, when they feel like they want to quit.

If they fail, does it matter?

Those are your stakes.

As for what you should emphasize, the sports movie training montage and training sequences are some of the best templates to choose from. Alternately, the martial arts movie training sequence and training montage or the military bootcamp training sequence and training montage. Once you’ve watched enough of these, they become pretty easy to conform into writing.

The basic template for traditional martial arts is:

  1. Student is excited to learn training.
  2. Training is not what they expected, training is repetitive singular motions which may not connect to what they thought they’d be learning (wax on, wax off, or hang up the jacket) and endurance exercises that wear them out. They go home every day tired and aching, don’t feel like they’re making progress.
  3. Student gets frustrated and complains to teacher. Teacher tells them to practice more.
  4. Student practices more, gets more frustrated. Threatens to quit. Because student is close to the hump, Teacher relents and shows them how the motions they’ve been practicing connect into a single technique. They realize they have been learning to fight.
  5. Student goes back to training, but more excitedly than they did before. Master gradually opens up to them.
  6. Several weeks/months later, student shows off their basic technical mastery. Leaves their master ready to face the world, the big tournament, or whatever it was they were training for.
  7. Encounters the real world, discovers that their training has prepared them well but will be much more difficult than previously expected.

This will be difficult for you is if the trainee is not the main character of this story, but a stop over point for the character who will be training them. Training another person to fight is a long and involved process if you want to do it well, and requires anywhere between months to years of commitment from both student and master.

If you don’t know anything about the technical details of fighting or the specific style your character practices, then you’ll find writing a training sequence to be extremely difficult. You can’t write what you don’t know. You’ve got to sit down and learn what you didn’t know before. Part of the reason I recommend watching a film over reading a novel is you’ll be able to see the physical intricacies of training which often get glossed over (outside some authors wanting to portray a romantic connection.) Training someone else to fight involves a lot of physical contact on the part of the instructor, this is usually in adjustments. They mimic what you show them, then you correct their positioning into the correct one so their body can feel the difference. They remember that sensation, and practice the motion until they can achieve that same feeling.

You’ve often got to move their feet into the proper position for their stances, remind them to bend their knees so they go lower, move their shoulders back or sideways so they’re on the proper angle, lift their elbows or shift the position of their arm while their hold position, tighten up their stomach/abdominal muscles, fix their breathing (breathe through your diaphragm and not your stomach. You want as little air in your stomach as possible.) Etc.

There’s no one size fits all training, you have to adjust your approach per student based on their strengths and weaknesses. You’ll rarely have the perfect student. They may have a strong grasp of their physicality, but a weak drive or poor endurance. Where some students grasp the basics faster than others, the slower ones with good endurance and drive can outpace the more talented students at higher levels because their grasp of the basics ended up stronger. Students who are rushed to the more advanced or difficult techniques (the way they usually want) are usually weaker than students forced to master the basics before given opportunity to advance. The reason for this is because the basic techniques form your foundation for both attack and defense, they’re also the most commonly used techniques.

The biggest component of training is endurance based. The assumption is that this is “strength” as in what you can lift, but it is not. Re-focus on long distance running and short sprints which build up lung capacity, climbing exercises which emphasize agility and dexterity, push ups, sit ups, and others which build your core muscles for better balance. You’ll see a focus on fine motor control, lengthening (endurance exercises) rather than tearing (weight lifting) the muscles. Unless you plan on having them wear armor or draw a bow, they’re going to develop the type of body similar to a long distance runner. They’ll train on a multitude of surfaces if their teacher has the option, indoors, in the flats of forest, in the mountains, on the beach, so they learn to adjust their body and their fighting style to effectively fight/conserve energy on different terrains.

If you’ve never tried to run on the beach, you’ll learn quickly you want to be running near the waves and were the sand is wet rather than on loose sand. The surface is harder and more stable where its wet, dry sand will sap your energy.

A good teacher will try to expose their student to most situations which can be done in relative safety. One of the advantages of training is the preparation and that preparation leads to quicker responses than from someone experiencing the situation for the first time. However, you cannot prepare your student for everything and some experiences can only be learned by experiencing them outside the safety of the training floor. As a writer, you’ll be making the executive decisions for your trainer about what is and isn’t too dangerous. This is where most of the suspension of disbelief breaks occur in these sequences because the trainer ends up requiring their student to do something far above and beyond what they could conceivably be asked in a real world scenario.

Two humans fight with real blades rather than training blades without any safety measures is one example. The scene may seem sexy, but contextually the decision is stupid.

Always treat your characters in your head like they’re real people. Your trainer is making decisions based on what is safe for your character to learn. Any serious injury the trainee suffers could lead to months of recovery time or them never fighting. You want to push them just hard enough that you take them beyond the limits they’ve set for themselves, but not past what they can actually accomplish.

Always ask yourself: what are they learning?

Training exercises generally have multiple lessons attached beyond the technique itself. Remember, training isn’t just training the character’s body but also their mind and their character. Their values are reshaped, their beliefs shift and mature, and they develop as a character. Training is character development. Consider who this character is at the beginning of their training and who they are by the end of it, if you don’t envision them changing you should ask yourself why.

Most writers are tempted to do what the student wants or sympathize with the student in their training sequences, this is either because the student is their main character and they empathize more with them or because they’re beginners themselves. Or, it could be both.

You’ll handicap your character and your narrative if you give them what they want, but most of your audience won’t notice. Only a very small contingent will respond with, “lol, no.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t try your best to do it right, I’m just saying don’t worry too much about blow back. You’ve got nothing to worry about. The vast majority of people can’t tell its not bacon.

Again, don’t trap yourself into thinking you need world altering stakes in order for your character’s story to matter. The stakes of any narrative are what you make them and they are driven by the participating characters’ desires, wants, dreams versus their situation and what they are asked to sacrifice or do in order to attain those desires. Leave yourself open to possibilities and uncertainty, contemplate failure even if you know long term the characters are going to succeed. Failure is not always malicious or malevolent, sometimes its unintentional. It can be easy as saying “I don’t want to do this anymore” and deciding a few days later that you really do, only to discover the opportunity has passed.

There is always an alternate world or worlds filled with the choices we did or didn’t make, and there are stories in all of those potential choices. Learning to make the most of those potential stories is part of what writing is all about.

-Michi

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Q&A: Psychic Pain

Is pain easier or harder to deal with if you know when & what kind, or does the answer vary depending on the person & degree of pain? Two characters’ (enemies) bodies are connected in that if one character is hurt, the other will feel it. I thought A could threaten to torment B (as coercion) by inflicting pain on herself out of B’s sight so that B can’t predict when/what the pain will be, but this only works if being unable to anticipate pain makes it worse (or at least B thinks it does).

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Technically, the question, without qualifications, is a yes. The source and kind of pain experienced will affect how severe it is, or how difficult it is to manage. Further, individuals have distinct pain thresholds, so, what you can endure may be unbearable to someone else. This is a non-answer in this case, because that’s not what you’re asking; but that’s the question.

Somewhat obviously, there’s not a lot of (reputable) studies on psychically inflicting pain on people, so the question you’re asking is significantly more speculative than it looks.

Specifically, how does psychically inflicting pain on someone relate to actually experiencing pain?

I dunno.

There’s no empirical data on this.

So, let’s split this up into three separate problems to consider.

First, psychic research is a thing. A lot of money has been thrown at researching ESP and other weird, neurological phenomena, but, there’s no smoking gun. A big problem with ESP research is, you can’t really create reproducible results. “With this person, I can have this result,” isn’t proof of anything.

To be clear, I don’t care if you believe in psychic powers or not, I’m just saying, “there’s nothing here to definitively help your question.” If parapsychology is your jam, there’s some fun stuff there, but always remember that this isn’t, really, science. It’s people taking their science toolkit and playing with ghosts.

Also, it doesn’t really matter if this is done with technobabble or magic powers, either way, there’s no real world data to work from.

The second problem is more complicated: sensory data is personal, language is communal. So, when I call something blue, you know what I’m talking about, but are we actually talking about the same experience of a color? Or, do we “see” different colors, but our understanding of language says, “it’s blue?” This gets a little trickier because we know there are some minor discrepancies in what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. Because of synesthesia, we do know, that your brain is doing a lot of work processing sensory data. Thanks to EEGs we know there’s some similarities, so it’s not like, “I see green and you see blue,” (assuming you don’t have tritanopia color blindness, in which case green is cyan for you), but pinning down exactly what’s experienced by the individual, without being able to externally audit that data, is frustratingly difficult.

In case anyone’s wondering, color blindness is a physical defect in the eye, leaving it unable to perceive specific (primary) colors (red, blue, and green, because we’re talking about light, not pigment), so everything they see is a mixture of the colors they can perceive.

The reason this is a problem is, you’re trying to psychically inflict pain on another person. Now, is the pain experienced by one person going to have the desired effect on another? I don’t know. It should be painful, but will it be more painful? Less painful? Will the pain be something they can filter out? Will it be impossible to filter? Could you outright kill them from the process?

I dunno.

Normally, this isn’t a problem, but when we’re talking about directly transplanting the experiences from one person to another, it all becomes relevant.

The third problem may be more of a boon. There’s a psychological factor to knowing someone else is being harmed. Your character isn’t being injured, a third party is. Depending on the nature of their relationship, that can carry a lot of psychological weight. Hell, if the person their linked to is someone they despise, feeling that person suffering could empower them with a sense of schadenfreude.

So, as I said, for the basic question, yes. People experience pain differently. People are different. Unfortunately that feeds into a larger issue where, people are different, and what they experience is different. The value in a scene like this isn’t the pain your character experiences, it’s the psychological factor of knowing someone else is being hurt, and having no control over that.

-Starke

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Q&A: Superheroes, Violence, and Detractors

Why do characters in fiction get mad at heroes like Superman when he is clearly not a threat? Why do ‘good serration laws’ not seem to apply? If I saw someone save a child from a burning building that firemen couldn’t get to, I don’t think I would feel upset or scared at all. You could argue superheroes often use violence, but so do the police and the military, and it wouldn’t be too hard for Superman to join either of those to become legal. Do people only argue against superheroes for conflict?

Without knowing what you’re referring to specifically, this could be kinda tricky.

So, Good Samaritan laws protect you from legal consequences if you try to help someone and some harm occurs to them in the process. So, for example, if you try to administer CPR and break their ribs, you’re not legally liable.

For a superhero, this could potentially protect them from legal repercussions for injuries suffered when they try to save someone from a burning building. I’m saying, “potentially,” because, rather obviously, case law involving superheroes is rather limited. (This isn’t a joke by the way, there is a little bit of case law because of the Phoenix Jones stuff.)

For the record: I am vastly oversimplifying how these work, so don’t take this as legal advice. Also worth remembering that Good Samaritan laws don’t always protect you.

As for why this doesn’t seem to appear in comics, probably because most comic writers don’t have a full understanding of the law. This isn’t really a criticism, the law is a pretty complex topic, and it does fall outside the range of most writers who don’t specialize in that. In fact, courtroom scenes are the frequent bane of Daredevil writers.

So, there’s one huge jump here, Good Samaritan laws do not permit you to use violence. These are designed to protect you from being sued because you broke someone’s ribs. They do not give you permission to attack someone else.

There’s also a minor irony here in that it’s impossible for Superman to join either the military or police because he can’t, really, undergo a physical. I’d stick this under trivia, rather than a serious issue though.

Police and military do have the ability to use violence in the course of their work, but that is not without significant restrictions. Just because you’re a cop doesn’t mean you have carte blanch to inflict violence as you see fit. In some ways, in spite of having more powerful weapons, their options are even more restricted. So, while you can have a cop who’s secretly a superhero, you can’t, really, have a police superhero who uses force indiscriminately.

Yes, I realize Robocop (1987) subverts that statement. It’s kinda the point of the film.

There’s also plenty of superheroes who are cops in their day job, but then moonlight as superheroes to do things they can’t normally. In the real world (and most superhero comics), that is illegal.

Police are granted more authority, but that authority comes with procedures which are designed to protect the rights of innocent civilians. While it’s easy to create hypothetical situations where a cop knows they have the guilty party, and elect to break the law to stop them, in the real world, that kind of behavior can also allow a lazy cop to target someone who is innocent, simply to make themselves look better to their bosses, or protect themselves from embarrassment.

A superhero who uses violence indiscriminately is no better than a criminal. Just because you have the power to kill someone doesn’t grant you the right to do so. In the event that you’re dealing with superheroes who are so powerful they cannot be constrained by conventional law enforcement, you do have a real problem.

Another problem is that fights between significantly powerful heroes can result in a lot of collateral damage. We’re talking about billions of dollars to repair the city’s infrastructure because an alien decided it was time to throw down with someone else from his home planet.

So, two kinds of “heroes.”

You have low power (or unpowered) characters who are basically humans with some extra perks going out and killing one another. There’s no magic way of saying, “oh, yeah, that one was the good guy.” Especially when you’re rolling up on a scene where one guy decided to kill dozens of people. Turns out the victims were drug dealers, but that doesn’t tell you that the person doing the killing was a good person and not just a new rival.

You have high power, godlike, characters like Superman who have a real danger of tearing the city apart. While characters like Superman tend to be pretty careful with their power, there are plenty of examples of superheroes in a similar weight-class who don’t pay much attention to how much damage they do when they’re punching each other through buildings. At that point, it doesn’t really matter from a practical stand point who’s good, or who’s bad, when both parties pose a significant threat to people going about their daily lives.

In both cases, you also have a real risk of a hero being mislead, either by deliberate misdirection, or simply jumping to the wrong conclusion and making a mess of a situation.

There are a few things that can help. A superhero who is more careful about their use of force can be viewed by the police in a more positive light. Characters like Superman and Batman enjoy strong relationships with the local police, and even characters like Daredevil have a respected status, because of their reputation. In the extreme example, because of his meticulous approach, even The Punisher is often viewed positively by police in his world, even though what he’s doing is extremely illegal.

It’s also possible to have a superhero like Hellboy or Nick Fury who is, officially, part of a governmental organization specifically tasked with handling threats that conventional law enforcement is unable to.

As for people hating superheros? That can be from a lot of different causes. The simplest answer may simply be that the superhero in question has a reputation. This could be they’ve made mistakes in the past, and jumped to conclusions, with tragic results. Could be their powers come from some, “evil,” source. Could be someone holds a grudge against them, or playing them as the bad guy just sells papers. It’s not a short list.

A superhero’s origins could have some significance in setting. One example is Lex Luthor: who views Superman as a threat to humanity. How coherent this is varies, but there is some logic to his position. Kryptonian refugees include some incredibly dangerous supervillains, and even Superman isn’t infallible, so Luthor’s position has some merits, even if he is a textbook supervillain.

When you’re writing antagonists for your superheroes, it’s important to parse out why characters might be opposed to your heroes. Rational grievances are better for your story.

If your superhero just killed a bunch of people without much provocation; that’s going to get some push back.

-Starke

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Q&A: Frying Pans

Frying pans get a lot of use as improvised weapons in fiction, but how effective would they actually be?

The major thing to remember is: It’s not a weapon. They’re designed for cooking food, not bludgeoning people. Now, if you have a single piece of cast iron, that’s going, probably, hold up pretty well from clocking someone, but it will fare poorly against an aware opponent.

The major things the frying pan has working for it are the weight and that it’ll probably survive a hit. The downside is, it’s remarkably easy to defend against, if the victim sees it coming. It doesn’t have much reach, and the weight isn’t conducive to actual combat. Again, this isn’t a problem as a frying pan, because you’re not supposed to be hitting people with it.

So, how effective would it be? Not fantastic. It is an improvised weapon, meaning you wouldn’t use it if you had access to anything better, but if there really is no other option, it’s a solid chunk of iron that could be used to clock someone (depending on the design), but it’s a first step towards getting a real weapon, not something you’d want to use more than once.

-Starke

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Q&A: What You Bring To A Fight Scene Creates excitement

geek-bait said to howtofightwrite: I’m having trouble writing a fight scene. I feel like I’m either going too fast and it’s all a blur or that the flow is choppy and awkward and I can’t quite figure out how to make it work better. Is there any advice as to how to get the right pacing and still make the scene…exciting?

Writing violence is a lot like writing romance, what you bring to it is more exciting than the violence itself. The fight scene, like a sex scene, acts as both culmination and catharsis for all the work you did setting the up the battle. You need your audience emotionally invested in the fates of these characters. If your fight scene is not acting as a culmination, as set up for bigger problems down the line, as a jumping off point which leads us somewhere new, then the scene itself can fall flat.

On a mechanical level, you need two things to really make fight scenes work, clear visual description and strong stakes.

If you’re fight scene is going in a blur, it might be because you either don’t have the intricacies of what’s physically happening in the fight or you’re trouble is you can’t clearly convey the events happening on the page. Your brain is trying to cheat around that lack of knowledge. This is a description issue more than a pacing issue. This is solved by learning more about the subject you’re trying to write. You can’t structure a fight that makes sense without understanding the mechanics of violence, and you can’t describe those mechanics if you don’t know what they look like, feel like, or sound like.

The pacing problem is different and ultimately up to the discretion of the author. The way I structure pacing in violent sequences depends on the one who is winning, the one who controls the flow controls the fight. The one who is winning controls the pace of the fight, because violence is about taking control, and forcing your opponent to go at your pace. This way, you expend less energy, allowing yourself to fight longer. You can maneuver them into a bad position which is beneficial for yourself.

A strong character who is a good combatant will take control of the narrative pace. While this is often the villain, if your other characters don’t fight for control of the pace then the scene’s action will run according to the victor’s wishes. The pace can speed up or slow down based on emotional responses of the other characters to what’s happening around them, but the scene’s actual underscoring tension and the pace of the action end up hinging on the decisions of the character currently in control.

You can set this up by using standard narrative beats, and its a good idea to familiarize yourself with different genres so you can switch up your pacing style as needed.

Katie stalked onto the ballroom floor. Pushing through the crowd, she strode past the bodies of the fallen pieces and stepped onto the chessboard.

“Hey!” the blonde vampire controlling the white side yelled.

Katie’s eyes rose, locking onto the balcony on room’s far side. There. Five vampires significantly older than all the others. She’d been under observation in the capstone, and from the moment she’d stepped out of Giancarlo’s car. They were still watching her. When under observation by a skilled strategist, every action she took betrayed some facet of herself.

You cannot decide the mistakes of others. Bait them with your actions.

Her lips curled.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

Katie’s eyes flicked up and to the left, watching a knight in poorly fitted armor brought his sword down toward her head — a boy moving in slow motion. She stepped to the side, staying within her square, and let him stumble past.

He landed with a loud clang, rattling metal. His sword’s point struck the floor.

Katie rested her hand on the back of his helmet.

The boy turned, staring up at her with wide brown eyes.

“No one ever taught you to use that weapon,” Katie said.

His jaw clenched.

“Get off the board!” the blonde vampire in white yelled.

The vampire dressed in black and red on the board’s other side stroked his jaw, watching his opponent. His right hand drummed on the arm of his chair.

Every species had their tells, Katie remembered. With humans, it was often physical. Where they looked, where they didn’t, the tenseness in their fingers, their shoulders, the skin around their eyes. The difference between a vampire and the average human was experience.

The boy lifted his sword. He spun, right foot outside his square as he lunged at her.

Katie caught his blade, forcing the scales under her skin to recede, allowing the point to pierce a human palm. Her nerves screamed as she forced the sword up and splattered her blood across the checkered floor.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

The vampires in the room lifted their heads. Their eyes changing as they scented her blood. Both the vampire in white and the vampire in red stood. The audience lingering by the tables shifted closer. The elders on the balcony moved to the balustrade.

Katie seized the blade’s hilt, knocking the boy to the ground. “Stay down.”

The vampire in white leapt first.

She raised the sword, electricity racing up the steel in jagged lines. Blue light combined at the blade’s tip. Thunder rolled in the skies above the mansion’s domed ceiling. Lightning cracked the black clouds, spearing downwards. It pierced the roof’s shingles and blasted through in a blaze of blue-white light. The marble ceiling exploded. Crystal chandeliers crashed to the floor.

The vampires in the crowd stumbled and screamed, the humans they’d used as pieces on their chessboard scattering.

Katie closed her eyes and the world snapped into focus. Not one, but many. Everywhere. There were thirty vampires and she was with them all. Everywhere at once. Katie cut down the vampire in white. She cut down the vampire in black. The vampires in the crowd fell simultaneously, as did the vampires by the stage. The vampires in ballgowns, those in fancy dress, and the four elders on the balcony. Standing with the fallen vampires above the ballroom, she lay her blade against the throat of the fifth.

“H-h-how?” The elder said, clutching the golden cross hanging around his neck.

“You annoyed me,” Katie said.

Wake the Dead – by C.E. Schmitt and Michael J. Schwarz

Your pacing is ultimately dependent on your characters, their behavior, and their choices, which should already be built up by their surrounding narrative. When faced with a violent scenario, they’re going to be who they are and utilize the tools they have access to. The excitement of the scene comes from what these characters choose to do, the circumstances surrounding them, their desires, and the fallout from or consequences of their actions. If this scene doesn’t lead somewhere, affect something, or cause change in the narrative then it will end up being superfluous.

What you’re missing in the scene above is an entire novel’s worth of setup. You see a character using their superpowers to win a fight. You don’t see a character who is carefully balancing their personal goals (catching up with their sibling before their sibling gets eaten) and the expediency of ending the current threat against immediate responsibilities they’ll have to take up once they fully realize who they are (and why they have those powers.) Who Katie is drives her to make choices which put her off her goal. She uses her powers to save time and make up the difference, but every fight, every resulting conversation, every interaction with the world brings Katie a step closer to failure.

Your scene doesn’t need to be big, things don’t need to explode, people don’t need to die in order for the sequence to be exciting. However, each individual fight scene does need to have meaning and move your story forward toward your narrative goal.

This is where your narrative’s stakes really do matter, both the overarching stakes and your character’s personal goals. What are they losing when they’re winning? What will they do in order to win? What will they sacrifice? What are the choices they make? What options are closed off as a result?

It’s easy to confuse your fight scene as being a separate component from your story, to get so wrapped up in the techniques and cool moves to forget about the people behind them. It takes a lot of practice before you get good at writing the spectacle similar to what’s seen in movies, but it’s not as difficult to bring your characters into the scene. Even if your audience believes victory is certain, even if they are up against an enemy they outclass, how the character goes about winning can be exciting all by itself.

Your fight scenes should be cumulative expressions of your character’s identity as they utilize the skills and tools at their disposal. Examples of their morals, their values, their intelligence, their cleverness, and their problem solving abilities. Violence creates more issues than it solves. Skill at combat will change the way your characters are viewed by those around them, for the better or for worse. How will other characters respond when faced with a new threat to their power and control? Is the violence brought by your characters in this scene enough to cause another character to worry and plot their demise? What results from it? Maybe they’re banned from the tavern for life. What do they give away about themselves that an enemy down the line can use against them?

Going back to the example, Katie is a character who lives in a world where information is a commodity. What you choose to do and the way you choose to do it can give away a lot about who you are, how you operate, who trained you, what your abilities are, and what your limits are. Even when you win, you can lose out by giving future opponents insight. The danger can go from non-existent and ratchet up to immediate death very quickly if you misjudge what you’re dealing with. On top of everything else in the scene, you have a character making a calculated choice to put expediency ahead of their own safety for a definitive win.

There are plenty of people who’ll tell you a one-sided fight can’t be interesting, but it can be in the context of its narrative. Your protagonist losing a fight can be more fascinating than two characters evenly matched duking it out. I always approach fight sequences from the perspectives of the characters, what they’re trying to accomplish, and the solution they’ve chosen as their means of victory. You should always treat your scenes as mattering to the character’s future, even if that future won’t go on much longer or the novel will soon be over.

So what are the circumstances surrounding your fight scene? Are you clearly describing the actions these characters take? Is their reasoning clear? Or, at least, interesting? Do you care about what happens to them? Have you left open an option for them to lose, or have you already decided on a winner? Are the characters making use of the skills and talents you’ve shown earlier in the work? Do their decisions match up with what we know about them? Do they expand or provide insight to their values, their skills, and their flaws?

At some point, it’ll happen the way it happens. If no amount of small tweaks make it better and you’re still unhappy, then look at the bigger structural issues and the characters themselves. Address if they’re acting in a way that’s natural for them or if they’re out of character.

Lastly, be honest with yourself about the kind of dangers your characters are facing in their fight scene. Their behavior is dependent on their knowledge of the present danger. A character who takes on eldritch abominations in single combat isn’t going to be fussed by fighting a few vampires, and that will lead to them making very different choices from someone who could be ripped apart in a few seconds.

For clarification, the writing example used in this post was written by me and Starke.

-Michi

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Q&A: Arms and Armor

I was wondering if you would have any tips on good armor for my characters. I’m having a little trouble figuring out what would be the best option for combat. I’m also having trouble figuring out what weapons would work out the best too. Any help is much appreciated!!

There’s a similar answer to both of these, it’s contextual. “Good weapons” are ones that can kill your foes without killing you in the process. “Good armor” is gear that can protect you from your foes weapons without getting you killed in the process. Both are going to change significantly depending on the world your characters live in, and what they’re doing.

Here’s a quick example: If your character is a 17th century sailor, heavy armor is far more dangerous to your character than going unarmored. If they fall off the deck, they won’t be able to swim, and they will drown. (There’s a decent chance that they couldn’t swim anyway. Ironically, swimming was not a common skill among sailors in the 17th century.)

Their best options for weapons are short barrel firearms and swords. This is because they’re going to be engaging in very close quarters during boarding actions, where long muskets and polearms will get caught on the environment and can’t be used. When going ashore, they’d probably draw long muskets and breastplates from the ship’s armory (if it had one.)

In modern infantry warfare, those weapons would be suicide. Most modern combat happens at ranges where a smooth bore, black powder pistol simply can’t connect.

If your character is infantry in 11th century Europe, it’s probably going to be a cloth gambeson, and polearms, which won’t work for any of the examples above.

Picking the right weapon for the situation is all about understanding the kind of conflict your characters will be seeing, and the technology of the world they live in.

It’s easy to look back at history and the get the impression that nothing changed over long stretches. This is not true. Military technology has been a constant progression. This can be seen in the advancement of armor and weapons throughout history. The swords the Roman Legions used were fundamentally different from the swords wielded in the 18th century, and a smith from two thousand years earlier could not have replicated them.

This is before you consider specialized weapons like the estoc. Which was specifically designed as an anti-armor weapon against plate. Obviously, if your characters exist in a world where plate armor isn’t a thing, the estoc’s not going to be a real weapon. (Not just, “not a good one,” it probably won’t exist.) A shocking number of weapons originate in these kinds of “problem/solution” dynamics, and armor follows suit. The original term, “bullet proof,” referred to early modern armorers “proofing” their armor’s effectiveness by shooting it with a pistol. To demonstrate that the armor would hold up on the battlefield, where firearms had started coming into prominence.

So, weapons evolve to deal with armor, and the situations they’re used in. Armor evolves to deal with the weapons used against them. Sometimes, weapons have a technological surge, leading to new innovations that seriously change the nature of combat. Such as the development of bronze, iron, steel, and firearms. Each of these stages dramatically changed weapons and armor. Even within those fields, refinement of existing technologies kept things moving forward.

One excellent, and recent, example is World War I. The introduction of fully automatic weapons completely changed the face of warfare, and, in less than a year, brought an end to millennia of human combat doctrine. Fundamentally, the answer to your question changes completely when you move from 1900 to 1920.

The best I can offer is, consider the situations where they’ll need to use the weapons. Research any historical allegory for your world, and try to build it from there. It’s not perfect, but it might give you some ideas. For example, if you’re making your characters in the model of Scandinavian heroes, you might want to read up on Viking warfare. If it’s the Romans, then read up on the Roman Legions. There’s no harm in reading up on history and trying to learn from it. Even if things don’t match up 100%, you’ll learn things about how people looked at conflict, and how they responded to it.

-Starke

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Q&A: Just Make It Their Phys Ed Class

Kids in my story are taught flashy stage staff fighting to build endurance, confidence and coordination. They complain about it and are told if they can successfully master a complex method of not hurting each other, then the simple methods of real staff fighting should be fairly easy later on. Would this be realistic? Not talking child soldiers, just kids who think they’re getting dumbed-down lessons.

No, it’s not realistic and, in this context, the kids would be right. They are being lied to by their teachers.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is a much more complicated discussion about stage fighting versus real fighting, how you get children to learn, and the very real question of how you intend to sell flashy stage fighting that looks really cool as something that’s boring. I can already tell from the way you’ve structured your question that you’re looking for a “safe” way to get what you want i.e “cool” staff fighting without having to answer questions about how one responsibly trains kids to use weapons. Kids training on staves is realistic because it does happen in modern American suburbia without the drugs, the abuse, or the mental scarring, or the shitty Hollywood Orientalism.

Now, let’s start with stage fighting. There’s two kinds of stage fighting. One is actual stage fighting and the other is martial arts choreography which is in the category of stunt work. They’re in the same field but you don’t get to both from the same place. You can learn the first kind of stage fighting without learning anything about martial arts, this usually gets rolled into a side note course in theater classes. The second kind works best if you have a solid base in martial arts to start off with because it draws off real techniques. In both cases, stage fighting relies on making big eye-catching motions that are visibly distinct and easy to see which is the exact opposite of what you want from practical combat.

The first kind of stage fighting is what we’ll call, “The Art of Whiffing While Looking Good”. The looking good part relies on you only looking at the motions from a specific line of sight otherwise you’ll be able to see them miss by a mile. It’s all about big, eye-catching motions that work as slight of hand to convince the audience that something is happening which isn’t. It is a real art form, one which takes a lot of skill and control to be good at in the upper echelons of professional stunt actors, but it’s not real. Lots of people mistake this for being “safe” fighting. It is the same as a magician’s stage trick. There are plenty of theater kids who do think that learning stage sword fighting means they can fence. (We’ve gotten questions from a young fencer before about their theater friend who always wanted to fight them with a sword, and how they didn’t want to. The reasons should be obvious.)

If you teach stage fighting to kids first then it will actually be much harder for them to learn the real thing later. You’d have to completely retrain them from the ground up, retrain their foundation, their reflexes, their stances, their ability to apply power. On top of that, you’d have to give them real endurance training too, which is the actual boring part of martial arts training all the kids complain about.

Now, if you’re thinking about the fight sequences choreographed and performed by actual martial artists, then that’s just martial arts. The kids won’t be good at this “stage fighting” unless they master the techniques underlying it… which is again martial arts. This would undercut them if your end goal is for them to actually be able to effectively use a staff in combat because skill in the substance is what makes you good at the flash.

The basic rule is you can’t train people to whiff and then expect them to be able to hit things. You have to train them to hit things first, then you can teach them how to whiff. (You already taught them to whiff while you were training them to hit things, because they spent a lot of time practicing not hitting things or hitting things gently at different stages while learning to hit things full force. This is where the real control comes from.)

Kids can’t initially tell the difference between flash and substance. You can use that flash as the carrot to get them excited about learning and to push them into applying themselves through the boring, repetitive parts. You can hold out the cool technique as the reward for wind sprints until they reach a point where what’s hard becomes enjoyable. You’ve got to be careful with this method though, because what kids can do is smell bullshit. As an authority figure you need to maintain their trust.

You can’t continue to sell stage fighting as a pathway to real martial arts if your students get exposed to the real thing. As a writer, you shouldn’t be so terrified of the child soldier specter that you think learning violence has to be all or nothing. Also, that’s not what a child soldier is. Child soldiers are kids who’ve been stolen from their families, given very little training, hopped up on drugs, and sent out to die. Conflating a child soldier with an Olympian judoka or just a regular six year old practicing martial arts for forty-five minutes three days a week disrespects everyone. Martial arts training is not by its nature abusive or dangerous for children.

This scenario reads like you’re looking for a roundabout way to get what you want while avoiding both the idea of kids learning about violence and the necessary repetitive, boring parts which make up the bulk of martial arts training.

Violence is very boring, and learning to do violence is even more so. You learn your new technique in pieces. You practice the pieces separately. You put the pieces together into a single bodily motion. You practice this for a while, then with a partner where you never touch each other but get used to the idea of spacing. Then, then, then you get to use slowly, carefully, and with great patience on the other person. Depending on the associated danger, the other person might be wearing a lot of padding. You get your cool technique moments interspersed between hours, and hours, and hours, and even more hours of repetition. You will practice the same techniques over and over and over again until you can do them in your sleep. When you’re not doing that, you’re doing your conditioning which is your pushups, your sit ups, your wind sprints, your mile-runs, etc. When you’re not doing either of those things, you’re stretching.

The average, recreational martial arts school is like PE class, except more fun. In fact, martial arts does get offered as Physical Education in some schools. I took Shotokan in college.

The mistake a lot of people who never practice martial arts make is the assumption that learning about violence inevitably makes people more violent. This is actually not true. Kids who learn martial arts are much less likely to mess around and use those skills outside of class than, say, the theater kids who learned stage fighting. Stage fighting is safe, so this leads to them more likely getting overconfident with it and practicing outside adult supervision. Kids who practice martial arts learn very quickly that martial arts can result in them or someone else getting hurt if they make a mistake, and the result is they become more responsible about using the skills that they acquire.

Real violence needs to be respected for the harm it can cause. Teaching someone “safe” violence sends the wrong message, and this scenario you’ve concocted is actually more likely to result in these kids hurting each other outside of where the adults can see. They were taught they couldn’t be hurt by the techniques they learned, so why not use them?

The irony here is that the real thing is actually safer for them and better for achieving all the things they’re supposed to be learning from it than the fake thing. It’s also more honest.

They also still won’t be able to whip around and take on a Navy SEAL because all martial arts training is not the same.

You’d be better suited to having these kids learn recreational martial arts which is martial arts training dedicated to health and exercise than stage fighting if what you want them to develop is endurance, confidence, and coordination. At the end of the day, martial arts is just sports and it fits as easily into your average PE class as baseball, soccer, dodgeball, and football. Most martial arts classes don’t run longer than a conventional PE period anyway. Wealthier schools often offer various extra class types for the kids who don’t want to do general Physical Education. It wouldn’t be a difficult sell that these kids’ school has that option, where you could sign up for fencing, karate, or taekwondo rather than taking the general. You also don’t run into the problem of asking, “do their parents know about this?” because their parents already signed the waiver.

I took Shotokan in college. I grew up next door to Stanford University, where they offered a whole slew of special programs and afternoon activities in the summer for kids that included fencing. These kinds of activities are a lot more common than you might imagine in the places where they can afford it.

If you’re serious about writing this story, I suggest hitting up your local YMCA or youth center and seeing what they offer as programs for kids during the summer. You might be surprised what you find.

-Michi

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Q&A: Of Equal Skill

Do you have any suggestions or examples of how to write a fight that shows two fighters are equally skilled?

This (basically) never happens in the real world. There isn’t one skill you use in combat, instead, it’s the culmination of a lot of different skills. So, you can have two characters who are equally matched, but two people of “equal skill,” are rare.

How you approach combat will be a result of a number of factors, including your skills, background, and the situation you find yourself in. This will almost never be identical between two combatants. Even if they share a background, and have the same goal in a fight, they’re likely to have slightly different skills, even if that’s been the result of focusing on different things in training.

Usually, what you’re looking for are fighters who are evenly matched. This isn’t a semantic distinction; one suggests that the characters have similar (or identical) skill sets, the other indicates that, after you factor things like their weapons, or situational advantages, it’s a toss up who will win.

So why am I saying this basically never happens? Because violence doesn’t work that way. If you know what you’re doing, you’re not going to be looking for an even match-up to fight, you’re going to be looking for an advantage that you can use to keep your opponent from seriously injuring or outright killing you. So, for two skilled fighters, it’s more likely to be about finding the right time to engage, so that their foe can’t respond, rather than, “a fight.”

It’s easy to confuse the concept of a ritualized duel and a fight. In the former, there are rules which must be adhered to, and the entire system is designed around the idea of fair and equitable combat. In an actual fight, you’re not being graded on your fairness, only your ability to survive the experience.

It is possible you have a character who has a singular skill set. This is a little too broad to inventory all the potential examples, but they’ll bring certain tricks and advantages with them into any fight. It’s possible that eventually they’ll go up against someone with the same background and skills. This isn’t really about being “of equal skill,” as dealing with a foe who knows how to respond to their normal advantages. Also, the more unusual their skillset is, the rarer this will be.

For example: A spy in conflict with another spy will be familiar territory. The intelligence community is small, but facing off against rogue agents, or hostile intelligence officers is part of the job. In contrast, a superhero dealing with someone who has access to the same power set, especially if they’re not used to dealing with powered opponents, could be extremely disorienting, given they may be the only two people to share that power set.

In these kinds of cases, the lead in is probably going to focus on realizing they’re dealing with someone who’s working from the same, or a similar approach to the one they’d take. In some unique circumstances, they may even be implicated simply because their normal approach would be instantly recognizable. (This is especially true in the superhero example above. Though, it’s possible one spy would try to frame the other. There are a lot of options here.)

Even in less spectacular situations, two duelists who trained under the same swordsmaster may have picked up a lot of similar quirks. At that point it’s not about having equal skill, so much as having a shared pool of skills. This can strip a lot of (relative) advantages that a character normally enjoys, because their foe can use them as well.

So, stepping back, you show this by how their opponents are different from their normal enemies. You show it by presenting an opponent who can keep up with them. Sometimes, who knows what they’re going to do next. You present a foe that your character needs a new approach to deal with. A foe who can use their own tricks and techniques against them.

-Starke

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Q&A: Antagonists and Villains

How do you write a good antagonist? on that point, how do you write a story from the villains POV, but still make them a likeable character without glossing over how evil they really are? P.S I just found this blog and it’s rlly great! sorry if my question is confusing, I’m not very good at English

There’s a writing truism to keep in mind here, “everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story.” That’s very important to remember when creating a quality villain.

There’s not a lot of reason to be evil just for fun. If your character is doing horrific things, they probably have a reason. Digging into their thought process can be unpleasant, but it is valuable for making them into a relatable character.

Done well, there’s nothing wrong with a villain as the protagonist of a story, even when that character is supporting a horrible system, or committing evil acts the way. For example: there’s plenty of Star Wars stories focusing on bounty hunters or Imperial officers as the core characters.

In less, black and white settings, bouncing between both sides of a conflict with your PoVs can help to understand the nuances of the situation in a way you generally don’t get if you stick to one side alone. It can also be useful to understand the mindset and philosophies of each side.

So, what do you do?

First, let’s split this a little bit. A villain is one of “the bad guys.” They represent part of an opposing force, which probably works against the protagonist. I’m sticking a bunch of conditionals in here because it’s possible to have villains who aren’t, actually, hostile to the protagonist.

For example: You could have a corrupt cop who is a villain, but doesn’t care about the protagonist at all, as their investigation doesn’t threaten him. More disturbingly, you could a corrupt cop who benefits from the protagonist’s investigations, leading to an awkward situation where they’re a villain, but not an antagonist.

An antagonist is a character (or force), who works against the protagonist, and opposes the progression of the story. Again, this is a bit conditional because it can lead to some weird edge cases. A character’s psychological issues could be their own antagonist. There’s also no moral judgement associated with an antagonist. A character who oversees your protagonist could be an antagonist by trying to keep your character from breaking the rules.

Having covered that, a good antagonist simply needs to be someone who has a reason to oppose your protagonist. They don’t need to be evil. In some cases, the antagonist may even have the best interests of your protagonist in mind, but, they’re working against them, and that’s why they’re the antagonist.

In many cases, thinking an antagonist needs to be evil can actually harm the story as a whole. How many novels have you read, or shows have you seen, where anyone who opposes the hero must be secretly evil? Especially when the hero is already prone to making some pretty questionable choices? In cases like that, it actually cheapens the story. There’s nothing wrong with an antagonist who tries to stop your hero, with good reason, and is even sympathetic to them, but still can’t let them off.

A villain is a little different. Like I said, these are the bad guys. They do bad things. They harm others. They need a goal. They need a plan. They need to have reasons for the things they’re willing to do.

A good villain makes all of these pieces fit together. They have a plan to achieve their goals which will (probably) harm others. They may be callous about it, or they may have attempted to find a solution that minimized collateral damage. They’re not simply killing puppies for fun, they have reasons for what they’re doing.

There’s no easy way to plot this out in abstract. You need to know what your villains want, and from there plot what they’re willing to do. They should expect some opposition, and have a few reasonable backup plans for things not going their way. At this point, the more reasonable their plan looks, the more disturbing it will be. Also, the easier it will be to sell to the audience.

Don’t gloss over what they’re doing, give your villain the opportunity to honestly present their position, and trust your reader to understand that this is evil.

-Starke

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Q&A: Looking for A Man to Die for All the Wrong Reasons

kradeiz said to howtofightwrite: I just read your ‘Emotions are not a Weakness’ post and found it very illuminating, especially its analysis of ATLA’s themes of enlightenment and martial arts. I was curious, at one point you say, “Aang defeating the Firelord through violence at the end of ATLA is actually a failure by the narrative to understand its own genre inherited themes.” Going off the themes the series was trying to convey, what might’ve been a more appropriate way for Aang to stop the Firelord?

By living up to the Airbender’s ideals and philosophies of pacifism, using that genuine optimism and hope for change to break the cycle of destruction. Remember, Aang is supposed to be the setting’s version of the Dalai Lama and Baguazhang is a martial art dedicated to introspection, peace, and seeking enlightenment through harmony between body and spirit.

Think of Luke Skywalker throwing aside his lightsaber at the end of Return of the Jedi, facing the Emperor and saying, “I’m not going to fight you.”

As the Dalai Lama says, “The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred.”

Mastery in the martial arts is not the mastery of techniques, but mastery of the self. You reach a point where you can no longer just focus on the techniques themselves, but their use and their purpose in the world. You must consider yourself, who you become when you use them, and the affect they have on others. In the real world, you will eventually be forced to face the consequences of your own actions. Not just your suffering, but the pain you inflict on others both intended and unintended. Martial training gives you real power and control over your environment, and, in the face of grief and suffering, will ultimately teach you how powerless you really are.

Upfront, violence often seems like a great solution to your problems. However, you quickly learn its only good for short term solutions and causes more problems than it solves through unintended consequences. You can go to war for the right reasons, but war creates an endless cycle of more war. Pain and suffering, anger, fear, and hatred breed more in others, including the desire to inflict their own suffering back on you. In the small globe, this is how children who are abused grow up to become abusers. We put this thirst for vengeance, control, and power on the large scale by many people who have experienced the same thing, who want the same thing, and who go out to get it. “I need to make them hurt like I’ve been hurt.”

You can win battles, but not forever. You can win the war, but not forever. You have until the next generation grows up or your enemy rebuilds their forces, and then the cycle begins again.

The discussion of how you should behave when you have this power has birthed thousands of philosophies in both the East and the West dedicated to responsible use of force. This discussion is the central focus of many martial arts adventure narratives because our response to the journey, what we learn through our successes and failures is the crux of truly attaining wisdom.

One of the most common themes of the martial arts adventure is the great warrior becoming the great sage. Through the adversity he faces and the suffering he witnesses (and causes), the warrior comes to the realization that violence no matter one’s intention merely contributes to more violence and that the means of achieving lasting change comes from changing hearts.

“I cannot control who others choose to be, only myself.”

Aang as the Avatar with his mystical spiritual powers should have a means of reaching Ozai and give him the opportunity to change where no one else can. He could find the Fire Lord, together with Zuko and Iroh, and bring him to face with the harm he’s caused. The harm he’s spent his life insulated from. Aang never seeks to understand the human in the evil, what drove Ozai to murder his father, steal his brother’s birthright, drive away his wife, to abuse his children. Aang never sees himself in Ozai, sees in him the dark mirror of what he could become and what he has personally done which echoes the Fire Lord’s own behavior.

There are shades of Ozai in Aang because there are shades of Ozai in all of us. Who we are is not determined by what we are, nor by the place in society to which we are born, but in who we’ve chosen to be.

The Dalai Lama says, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”

Pacifism takes real strength because kindness and compassion are easy to pay lip service to, but difficult in practice. Not harming those who’ve hurt you, seeking to understand them even as you hold them accountable is difficult. To not say, “it’s okay for me, but not you” and instead say, “it’s not okay, period” is hard. Approaching the world openly and honestly, seeking to see clearly even in the face of disappointment, pain, and prejudice is difficult.

We see Aang pay lip service to the ideals, but when push comes to shove he abandons them in favor of lashing out at the world around him. An example is the Sand Benders after stealing his flying bison Appa, Aang loses his head and attacks them. He drives away the people who hurt him, first destroying their sand barges (their means of surviving in the desert) and then enters the Avatar State to punish them some more all at the cost of finding Appa more quickly. Lashing out in violence to punish someone for hurting you feels good, but ultimately the one who truly suffers for Aang’s choice is Appa himself.

(The realization of the consequences of his actions in this case is not a plot point in Avatar leading to self-reflection and eventual change, but an excuse to force the Gaang to travel on foot.)

One of the core problems of Avatar: The Last Airbender is that neither the narrative nor Aang ask what it means to be the Avatar, it never asks what being the Avatar means to Aang, never seeks to ask if Aang or the Avatar are truly necessary for the health of the world, and really doesn’t want to ask if Aang as the Avatar is necessary at all. It states that he is, but never wrestles with why.

Why is killing the Fire Lord wrong? If you’re answer is because killing is wrong, again, ask yourself why. Why is killing wrong? If you’re answer is… it just is, you need to think on it some more.

There’s a bigger question though at the heart of this question, which is, “what are you willing to die for?”

Delenn: If I fall, another will take my place, and another, and another.

Sebastian: But your great cause!

Delenn: This is my cause–Life! One life or a billion, it’s all the same!

Sebastian: Then you make the sacrifice willingly? No fame. No armies or banners or cities to celebrate your name. You will die alone and unremarked and forgotten.

Delenn: This body is only a shell. You cannot touch me, you cannot harm me. I’m not afraid.

[after Delenn offers to sacrifice herself for Sheridan, who’s being tortured by Sebastian]

Sebastian: You can go. You’ve passed, both of you.

Delenn: Passed what?

Sebastian: How do you know the Chosen Ones? “No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother.” Not for millions… not for glory… not for fame. For one person, in the dark, where no one will ever know or see. I have been in the service of the Vorlons for centuries, looking for you. Diogenes with his lamp, looking for an honest man willing to die for all the wrong reasons. At last, my job is finished. Yours is just beginning. When the darkness comes, know this: You are the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

-Babylon 5, “Comes the Inquisitor”

The great leader is not one who wins by strength of arms, but from their ability to inspire change in others. When the hero falls, a hundred will stand up where he or she fell to face the darkness in their place. To carry on their values into a new generation. The hero’s legacy will outlast them.

The Avatar shouldn’t be necessary for policing peace in the world because the world should be able to police itself by following their example. If the Avatar is necessary as a club to enforce good behavior from the surrounding countries and the countries aren’t really able to band together in order to defend their people after he disappears, then the system wasn’t sustainable to begin with.

If Aang cannot defeat, make peace with, face, or even acknowledge his own darkness, how can he help someone else defeat the darkness within themselves? How can he inspire someone to face theirs?

Telling someone what is right and expecting them to change because you said so doesn’t work, the only people who will listen are the ones who already agree with your perspective. Being sympathetic to their plight, showing them compassion when they don’t expect it, understanding the source of their struggle, and recognizing the pain lying behind bad behavior does work when it comes to changing hearts. Empathy works.

Naruto is a hilarious counterpoint to Aang. Naruto is a character who was rejected by his society not for who he was, but for what he carried inside him. He was written off as dangerous, neglected by the village, and he knew they hated him even if he didn’t know why (because everyone was forbidden to tell him.) He grew up alone, and lonely. His vandalism, class clowning, destructive acting out is brought up by the Third Hokage in the first episode as coming from his desire to have his existence acknowledged by someone… by anyone. Even if the attention is negative, it’s positive for him. Something is better than nothing. Naruto’s dream, which everyone derides, is to become Hokage himself so the whole village will have to acknowledge him. This is standard behavior for neglected children, including smiling to pretend you don’t care, things don’t hurt you, even when they do.

What makes Naruto different from so many other characters like him is that his ability to connect with others and change them with the power of friendship is rooted in his own suffering, his experience of being rejected by those around him. His sympathy and empathy for those who share his plight, his attempt to communicate his feelings to them even in battle, all tie in with his growing understanding of the Hokage’s responsibilities. He doesn’t lose his optimism, doesn’t lose himself to hatred even though he’s hated. It would be easy for him to hate, but he chooses not to. He tries to understand his enemies instead, winning them over with genuine kindness, how hard he tries, and how he tells them not to give them up. “Look at what you still have,” Naruto says, “not at what you’ve lost.”

I’d rather have Naruto around than Aang, because Naruto is the obnoxious loudmouthed friend who headbutts you when you’re getting down on yourself. The one who sticks with you through thick and thin, and stays without judgement even when you’re the ugliest version of yourself. The one who hops down into the dark hole with you, the one who says, “I’ve been down here before. Come on, I’ll show you the way out.”

Aang is not this character, he tries to be but he’s too selfish and thin skinned. Aang is the character who gives you a sanctimonious speech after pretending to commiserate. He’s not willing to face the idea of being a bad person, or being perceived as a bad person. He’s hurt by rejection if the other person doesn’t immediately change after he tries. He’s not willing to empathize, even though he shares parts of Naruto’s backstory. He’s lost everything, but he wields his loss as an emotional crutch. We should feel bad for him, for the weight of his responsibilities, and how he doesn’t get to have what he wants. Aang is afraid of losing more, and that fear brings out the worst version of himself more often than not. He wouldn’t be the Avatar if someone wasn’t dragging him into being the Avatar. He ran away from being the Avatar, after all. He can’t reach people lost in their own darkness, and when he tries its usually because he has a genuine interest in them for a specific reason.

Avatar’s narrative says some people can be helped but they’re exceptions, some people can change but they’re exceptions and they would have anyway because they were actually good to begin with. Monsters, though, can’t be helped, can’t be reached, can’t change. Avatar’s narrative will tell you to abandon the people who bought into their society’s values, that they have to save themselves in isolation. Avatar will tell you there are good people and bad people, and bad people deserve what happens to them.

And… that’s not quite living up to the philosophy the narrative insists it espouses.

-Michi

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