Tag Archives: writing reference

What kind of wound would cause the slowest yet surely inevitable death in the middle ages?

Bacterial infection. Any minor injury that leads to an infection and is left untreated, particularly on the torso, or head. This actually persists into the mid-modern era, and it’s only, really, modern antibiotics and an understanding of the need to protect wounds against bacteria that have finally moved this out of the fatal and into the treatable range.

European medicine in the middle ages looks more like creative torture to a modern observer. But, if you don’t outright kill someone, humans are ridiculously hearty and can survive trauma that will flat out kill nearly any other animal on the planet, even without medical attention. This means killing someone with a non-lethal wound is surprisingly hard.

The examples that still apply tend to be things like rupturing internal organs (like the kidneys or liver), which will kill you, but the blood loss will take awhile.


What sort of sword would you recommend for a female fighter? I have also heard that the sword was a secondary weapon, but the time period is pre – guns and I have no a clue how much muscle is needed to fire a crossbow vs a long/short bow? Which one?

My best recommendation is to stop thinking about this character as a girl first and fighter second. You’re trying to come up with ways to make the fighting possible for her, instead of accepting that combat is a skill that can be developed by anyone given the proper amount of training and dedication. What weapon would you give this character if they were male?

That’s your answer.

As for picking weapons, I tend to pick weapons as a part of character creation and developing backstory (that blows up a little if the character is already established). I have a habit of doing this the same way I would write a crime: Motive. Method. Opportunity.

Motive: Why did this character want to learn to fight? What reason did they have to seek out training?

Most times, even in a family of established fighters, a character has to make the decision to train and to fight. This decision is a personal one and it can be anything from a desire for self protection to dreaming of being a knight in ballad. If you are working with a setting where female warriors are uncommon, then the character’s motivation for going against societal norms becomes that much more important.

Learning to fight is hard work and depending on that character’s background may well ruin any chance at conventional beauty/traditional womanhood/marriage opportunities that will better the standing of their families. It’s more than just an unusual choice, depending on the setting and gender constraints it could very well be an incredibly selfish one.

So, it’s important to establish that as part of the character.

Method: Who taught them? The good combatants have a teacher and the sword is a weapon that requires instruction, both in the manner of caring for the weapon and how to use it against other opponents. The character is going to need a teacher who can teach them to use that specific version of the weapon.

Did they have an in house tutor like Brienne of Tarth or Arya Starke? Did they receive their training when they joined the local military or militia? Did they have a parent train them? Were they carrying a blade that was common amongst peasants of their time like the arming sword or a weapon that was more regularly associated with the nobility like the long sword?

Opportunity: And what is a method if the character has no opportunity to take it? Think about your character’s background and social constraints, then pick a path that makes the most sense for them and was common for the people of their time (or the time/culture you’re basing it off of). The method they use will inevitably lead them to the right weapon.

This is where research is your friend, by narrowing down your path to profession and time period, you can better establish what your options are.

Remember: any weapon will work. Combat is a skill that can be learned and the only real physical barrier to entry is how hard you’re willing to work to learn it and the opportunities given to learn.

I didn’t pick taekwondo because it was the best suited to my size and body type, I picked the Ernie Reyes organization because they put on a performance at my elementary school that I really enjoyed. I saw it, said “I want to be able to do that”, took home the flier, and my parents signed me up.

I knew a lot of other kids (both boys and girls) who got into martial arts because they loved Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.

The longbow versus crossbow question is actually fairly easy, both require a fair amount of strength to wield, but the truth is that care for the weapon is the most important point to maintain ease of drawing. Both require regular oiling and careful, specialized handling to ensure that they remain in a ready state of use.

The longbow is for characters like hunters, scouts, and nobles. Someone who grew up learning to or needing to hunt as a means for providing for their families. It can fire more rapidly than a crossbow, but requires more time to learn, more practice, and more training to be used effectively. In mass combat, archers were used in the same manner modern artillery is used today. The crossbow surpassed the longbow for the same reason that the gun surpassed the crossbow: it took a shorter amount of time to become as or more deadly than the other weapon, thus cheaper to replace when your troops fell. A lost archer is one to two to ten years of experience, compared to a lost crossbowman or gunman which is “point that way and fire”.

The crossbow is probably for a character who was trained via the military. A military trained character, depending on the time frame, will also be proficient in the use of anti cavalry tactics and pole arms. A female military conscript could easily just be a peasant girl whose mother dressed her up as a boy to either hide her from the men or hide a more valuable male sibling from the soldiers looking for recruits. It was not uncommon for peasants in the medieval period to be called up as levies to support their lord on the battlefield. They were usually just handed a spear and sent off to die, but there might be some workable ideas in there.

Training molds the body into a more suitable shape for the physical activity. So, if your fighter is a noblewoman, don’t expect her to keep the secret  for long. Also, servants talk. People are observant. They will know.

Some things to think about.


On Spies (Personality)

“Intelligence work has one moral law—it is justified by results.”

-John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. (10)

Spying is a difficult business. Writing about spies with any accuracy is also an incredibly difficult business; this is why the foundational giants of the genre from Ian Fleming to John Le Carre have been ex-intelligence. Without that background, it can be easy to misunderstand that the ability to be a spy comes from the tradecraft and the training. It’s common among writers to build the character first, then give them their skill set. While this will work for a vast number of different character archetypes, functional spies require a fairly specific outlook and it is developed by a specific type of background though that comes from a generic set of circumstances.

Spies can’t be good people and that’s okay, because good people can’t be spies.


As much as James Bond has become a joke and a power fantasy over the years, when you strip it all away what you find is a dysfunctional human being who uses sex as a cover for avoiding an emotional connection. The seduction is part of the tradecraft, but the inability to truly connect with someone (man or woman) on the level of one human being feeling something for another, that is what makes him good at being a spy.

“People with happy families don’t become spies. A bad childhood is the perfect background for covert ops. You don’t trust anyone, you’re used to getting smacked around, and you never get homesick.”

-Michael Westen, Burn Notice 1×01

 A good spy is one who has an innate distrust of other human beings. They are not pathological liars. Pathological liars don’t make good spies because their lies inevitably become easy to spot. A spy doesn’t have the luxury of getting lonely, of wanting to be with others of their kind. They can’t afford to miss home because it becomes one more passage into their psyche that an enemy operative can use to exploit them. Their personal connections, the people they care about, will inevitably be drawn in as pawns in the international espionage game of cat and mouse.

A spy knows this well, because it’s a spy’s job to do this to others.

A spy has to be comfortable with betrayal. They have to be comfortable with betraying the people who trust them. They have to be comfortable with convincing people to trust them with the knowledge that they will betray them and their confidences constantly and consistently, sometimes over years, even lifetimes. It won’t matter, really, what they feel about the people that they are betraying because a spy doesn’t have the luxury to feel guilty or the luxury of the morally “right” choice. The divorce rate among CIA agents is somewhere around 80%.

The job of a spy is to destroy lives. I don’t mean that from the intelligence gathering perspective, but from the way a spy interacts with their assets. A spy goes into flipping someone with the knowledge that they are going to destroy their life whether that takes the shape of a bullet in the back of the head or a suicide later in life. A spy must coax an enemy agent through the full mental breakdown as they tear themselves apart running up against their own ideology and betrayal of what they may stand for.

Spies are not nice people, they are not good people, and nothing you do will make them a good person. They aren’t fixable. They need to be the way they are to survive in their job, to stay sane. You can justify what they are doing, you can give them a background that explains why they have evolved to be they way they are, but in the end, deep down, they are nasty, cold hearted, deceitful people. They have to be, it’s the only way a spy can survive.

Unlike other forms of combat, you can’t train a spy from birth in the traditional sense. A spy, in fact, requires a very generic and very specific childhood to be able to make it the espionage business. However, that does not require any combat training. Tradecraft is easy to pick up and easy to master at any age, the ability to use it successfully starts early with abusive and neglectful families. A spy who is raised to be a spy in a happy family will come to associate their sense of home with the behavior of other spies. This includes enemy agents. Stop and think about all the ways a spy getting homesick for the company of other spies is a horribly bad idea. (Ninjas only work within the context of feudal Japan.)

Spies are broken people and begin as broken children. Abuse can take many forms and come from many different angles, but the end result is fairly similar: a person who has difficulty connecting with others on an emotional level and who has learned that trust and friendship only lead to betrayal, so betray early and viciously before they have the chance. Better yet, never care at all.

However, an abusive family can come from anywhere. A good spy can be the daughter of a wealthy business man just easily as they could be a hungry pickpocket on the streets. It’s best not to assume that because someone comes from a certain social position in society that their growing up experience was not its own kind of hell.

If it’s a question of whether or not the spy will be likeable, don’t worry about it. There’s a difference between a character that you would sit down to have a beer with and one that you enjoy reading about. Dysfunctional people, broken people are incredibly interesting to read about. Spy fiction is a form of voyeurism and tourism much in the same way fantasy is.

The question for you, if you are looking to write authentic spy fiction, is do you have the stomach for it? Can you write a character that will knowingly create orphans by subverting a single parent?

(One brief caveat: this is a breakdown for professional spies, if you’re writing an amateur spy such as Harriet the Spy or another kind of story where the main character doesn’t need to worry about being murdered, betrayed, disappeared, or executed by a foreign power then don’t worry about it.)

Suggested Reading and Viewing:

John Le Carre. Anything by him, really. Actually read all of it. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, A Perfect Spy, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, etc. (tradecraft and personality)

The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum (not a spy, but good tradecraft)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) BBC miniseries with Alec Guinness.

The Sandbaggers (1978-1980)

Queen and Country by Greg Rucka

Spy Game (2001)

The 4th Protocol (1987)


Overconfidence: Cocky Versus Lazy

When it comes to cockiness and laziness are both valid and good flaws for a character to have, especially for a character who is supposed to be exceptionally talented. However, it’s important to distinguish between the two. When working with an exceptional character in your work, it is very easy to end up with one that is lazy if they aren’t self-motivated or given enough challenges to keep them engaged with the other characters and the story. It’s also important to note that these are just some common shades of overconfidence and this is hardly a full list of the different ways these traits can rear their ugly head.

Remember, a good character flaw is one that you make use of in your story. A character can be both lazy and cocky depending on the situation. It’s not a one or the other.

Cockiness: “Anything you can do I can do better.”

The snarky overconfident hero is not automatically cocky because cockiness itself requires the character taking an active role against the other characters that they feel are less worthy. The best and worst part about an exceptional character that is cocky is that they’re usually good enough to back up the statement. 9/10 their character assessments about another character will be accurate. It’s just that 1/10 when it can get them killed. They have a general blind spot when it comes to repeat offenders, but the repeat offender usually has to “lose” in some way against them in order to surprise them later.

“I can say what I want, do what I want, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You will never beat me.”

The two Ur-Examples of the cocky hero for me is Errol Flynn’s version of Robin Hood from The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mel Gibson’s character in Payback. In the beginning of Robin Hood, Robin walks into Nottingham castle during Prince John’s banquet with an illegally killed deer on his shoulders (of which the penalty for killing is death, he is also already an outlaw) and proceeds to dump it on the table in front of them. He is then invited to sit down to dinner and tells them his grievances, which results in this gem:

The Sherriff of Nottingham: “So you think you’re overtaxed, eh?”

Robin Hood: “Overtaxed, overworked, and paid off with a knife, a club, or a rope.”

Maid Marian: “Why you speak treason!”

Robin Hood: “Fluently.”

It’s worth noting that the character is alone, in a castle full of people who agreed that he should die before he ever entered it, and he’s still going to tell it like it is regardless of the personal danger he’s facing because he believes that they are incompetent and knows they can’t do anything to him. He’s right, he fights his way out of the castle and escapes by convincing the guards that there is a traitor inside trying to escape and they should shut the door quickly.

These opening sequences all act as a setup for Robin Hood’s key flaw: his cocky overconfidence. This one comes home to roost when he is captured at the archery tournament and sentenced to death. He requires the assistance of his Merry Men to free him and they would be lost without a clever strategy offered up by Maid Marian. It’s an awesome reminder midway through the movie that Robin isn’t nearly as invincible as he thinks he is.

To have a cocky hero, they have to be engaged in the story and the action. A cocky character is an active participant and that’s what makes this flaw so compelling in both heroes and villains.

The one thing they don’t do, however, is sit back and say: “They’re not worthy of my time.” A cocky hero is too engaged in showing or proving to their audience how awesome they are by doing stuff and then cheerfully rubbing it in someone else’s face. They want us to know that they’re better at everything the do. This doesn’t have to be compulsive, but it does need to be there against characters who challenge their position, perspective, and beliefs.

This brings us to:

Laziness: “Him? He’s not worthy of my time.”


There’s a certain kind of overconfident combatant and that is one who doesn’t want to put in the work. They’re content to coast on their own skills, don’t focus on self-improvement, and aren’t engaged in the world around them. A lazy character can also be one that’s clever enough to have already cracked their way out of that box in your head and already know what it is you are willing to do to them. This is part of why I don’t really plan out my fights because, at least for me, characters who don’t know the ending tend to work harder.

You usually see laziness crop up in villains, but it’s actually a very common failing in many action heroes, especially the ones that spend the story not doing much of anything or ignoring problems that they don’t view as a challenge. They’re slackers, they’re lazy, and they like to rest on their laurels. It’s a very common trait that appears in characters labeled as “Bests” in their chosen field but do nothing to actually earn the title.

“I’m so good. I don’t even have to try.”

We expect a lazy hero to be overtaken when they underestimate another character. After all, they weren’t engaged to begin with. This is part of where “the cocky character underestimates opponent” becomes cliché because they weren’t paying attention in the first place. The truly terrifying lazy characters are the ones that 9/10 are 100% accurate in their assessments, even when they were barely paying attention. As Count Adhemar says in A Knight’s Tale: “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.”

This is an easy place to slip to because it’s such an easy approach to take, but it can be very frustrating for readers if the character isn’t doing stuff and just sits around telling the reader how awesome they are. Moffat’s Sherlock especially would be generally insufferable if he wasn’t spending the rest of his time experimenting and solving crimes. Even if they look down their nose at everyone else around them, the character has to consistently prove that they are good at their job.

A lazy character can be a snarky one, but they’re the guy who puts in the least amount of effort and sits at the back of the class throwing popcorn at other people’s heads.


Overconfidence is a common character trait and depending on how it asserts itself, it can indeed feel very cliché. But, many pieces of storytelling have become cliché because they are legitimate storytelling choices. An action that becomes overused is cliché, but it is cliché because it’s effective. The trouble is getting a cliché to feel fresh and that takes effort. It’s important that you don’t throw away ideas just because they don’t feel original enough. Originality is overrated.

Take some time and think about what it is about this particular cliché that attracts you. Why do you like it? Why do you want to use it?

The real gems are often the ones that we have to sit down and ponder. The most important truth to incorporate into yourself is that it’s not easy to excel, even the most talented people have to work hard and be disciplined if they are to succeed. Not every idea is going to be valuable, but there are many diamonds hidden among the rocks.



A Brief Introduction to Armoured Longsword Combat

  • By Matt Anderson and Shane Smith (ARMA Virginia Beach)

Most practitioners of historical fencing have not extensively explored armoured fighting techniques. This is due to several factors, including the expense and difficulty inherent in obtaining a decent reproduction harness.

The fact that most harness fighting techniques involve thrusting and violent grappling actions is also daunting. Still, several members of the ARMA, Virginia Beach study group have for several years had a keen interest in trying to recreate the type of harness fighting we see in the “fechtbuchs”.

Not the hack and bash type of display commonly seen at Renn faires, or the armoured stick fighting practiced by some medieval reenacting groups, but something more like what might have really been seen in 15th century Europe. We knew from our examination of the “fechtbuchs” that real armoured fighting of the period was efficient, effective and brutal.

Certain tactical basics became apparent early on. The edge of the sword, for example, is relatively useless against plate armour. Most source texts show no edge blows at all. Rather, armoured sword fighting is all about putting the point into a relatively unprotected area.

In order to thrust effectively and accurately to these relatively small targets such as the face, armpit, inside of the elbow, and other areas which are not covered by plate armour, and defend them, half-swording is the predominant technique. 

Half-swording, with a firm grip closer to the point, gives one the thrusting accuracy to hit these relatively small areas. It also enables one to thrust with power and body weight behind the attack, often necessary in order to penetrate the maille and padded garments between the plate defenses.

Grappling moves such as trips and throws are an essential element as well. Levering with the sword, arm and wrist locks, even kicks and hand strikes are all useful techniques against an armoured man. It is often necessary to throw your opponent to the ground and perhaps hold him there in order to make an opening for your finishing move.

The more we studied the source texts, the more we realized that the only way to really learn how to fight in armour was to armour up and try to duplicate what we saw in the source texts. We have studied and experimented with several sources and many techniques but in this article, we will focus on what we have learned in our exploration of the armoured longsword techniques from Fiore Dei Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum.


Source: Copyright © 2014 The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts

How To Write a Sue-ish Character Without Sueism

How To Write a Sue-ish Character Without Sueism

PSA: What Do You Call A Chinese Martial Arts Master?

I’m not going to name names, but I read a novel recently that left me very upset. So, I’m going to talk about an aspect of martial arts that I’ve discussed before but this time I’m going to go in depth. Again, I’m not naming names, but if the fans recognize who I’m talking about…well, I’m sorry.


When you choose a martial art, or a distinctive weapon from a martial art, please, please, please get at least some of the terminology right. In the novel I read, the heroine refers to the Chinese martial arts master who trained her on her weapon as “sensei”. Did you just cringe? I did. FightWriters, this is a five minute Google search. Really. If the character is trained in the martial art’s country of origin, they should know at least some of the basic terminology. “Sensei” is correct for the heroines other two martial arts, which are karate and aikido. However, “Sifu” is appropriate to China.

It might seem like a common mistake, especially if you’re practicing multiple martial arts at the same time. It’s not. The terms become an easy way to distinguish between instructors. I have never confused my Sifu with my Kwanjangnim or my Sabumnim with my Sensei.

So, please, don’t get caught out like that. It sends the message to the readership who knows that the author didn’t care at all about the culture, the country, or the martial art in question, that they were just looking for something cool or an easy out to make their character sound legitimate. I’m not even going to point out that most of the Chinese martial art traditions have a fairly strict hierarchy about when a trainee begins to practice the weapon and that learning the weapon in absence of any other martial art instruction is weird. A simple wiki search will tell you that this one goes with Baguazhang, the same martial art that was used as the basis for Airbenders in Avatar.

Movement Style and Philosophy

When you choose a martial style, it’s a good idea to work out through study (even just through instructional videos on YouTube) what the style looks like and how it behaves in a combat situation. In the novel, the main character is aggressive. We have her leaping over couches to slam another character into a wall, pressing guns into eyeballs, and other similar actions that represent a very swift, mobile style that requires an actively aggressive mentality.

Aikido and Karate on the other hand…

Aikido is a style that entirely about non-aggression. In fact, its philosophy involves hurting the aggressor as little as possible. A perfectly executed technique is meant to send an enemy away with such perfect control that they bounce on the ground and roll away entirely unharmed. It functions off of a concept called “The Dynamic Sphere”, in which the practitioner acts as the center of their axis and uses their body as the centralized point to redirect their opponents away from them. An aikido practitioner does not chase their opponents; they wait for their opponent to come to them. This is part of why aikido is such a popular self-defense style. It’s perfect for a character that genuinely does not want to hurt someone else and actively discourages aggression.

There are many different variations of karate and since the novel never specified, I’m going to assume that the author was referring to shotokan which is one of the most common and easily found outside of Japan. Karate is also not really movement based, compared to most modern forms it’s actually fairly stationary. If I was going to describe it in a fight scene, what comes to mind are the powerful fluid movements and solid connections when it hits. Shotokan, in particular, is very mechanical when compared to other martial forms like Muay Thai or Krav Maga. In the right circumstances, karate can be devastating, but those circumstances don’t really involve leaping forward to slam someone’s head into the wall as the opening move.

I can guess why the author chose aikido and karate. In America, they are both well-known and popular martial art styles. Karate specifically is one of the most recognizable “buzzword” martial arts. It’s like “black belt”. Say it and the average person on the street will know what it means, or at least, they’ll know the culturally accepted meaning that exists within the mass social consciousness.

Throwing the words out there just doesn’t convince me unless they get backed up and to back them up, you have to start by developing a basic respect for the style you’re inputting into your novel. You don’t have to get it 100% right. In fact, even just the basics that can be gleaned from Wikipedia articles and YouTube videos will be sufficient.

“What do you call a Chinese martial arts master?”

This has been a Michi rant.


ofsevenseas said: Depending on which dialect region of China they’re in, it might also be inappropriate to use ‘sifu’, which is the Cantonese word for ‘master’

That’s true, I was trying to keep the rant uncomplicated. But the truth is that in depth research is always important and China is a diverse country with many different dialects.

Seven Deadly Fight Scene Sins

Below, we’ve listed some common sins that can detract from enjoyment of a fight scene. As always, rules are made to be broken. It’s also worth understanding something, before you try though.

Why Are You Thinking? We Should Be Fighting!

When working on a fight scene, it’s best to write the sequence as it happens on the page. This way, the action is immediate and in the moment. A common mistake, though, is for the character to become distracted even when it’s just within their head. The author may insert thoughts, description, and even dialogue that slow or pad out the action. This can be very frustrating as it often can lead to the feeling that both the author and the character in question are not taking the fight seriously. After all, if the character does not believe they are in serious jeopardy then how can the reader?  

Commonly, this may happen during rewrites or if the author gets distracted with making sure everything is clear. However, it’s also an easy mistake to correct. So, just be sure to stay on point and when you read over your fight ask yourself: does this feel like it’s happening right now? If not, cut the fat.

Talking as a Free Action

Fights are like sprints, they are moments of extreme physical exertion that leave us breathless with little room for chit chat. Lengthy, chunky dialogue inserted as two characters pound away at each other is unfortunately as common as it is unrealistic. Whether it’s Chris Claremont’s Wolverine flying through the air as he delivers a paragraph of text or two characters mouthing off witty banter in the middle of a sword fight, talking while entertaining can quickly become the means by which a fight sequence devolves into the ridiculous. As we, the authors, are not experiencing the fight sequence as it happens, what the characters are physically experiencing can be easy to forget.

Here’s a solution that both Starke and I recommend: talk before and talk after. If your characters must talk during limit yourself to ten syllables. That is not ten syllables per character, that would be too much. Instead, limit yourself to ten syllables maximum for all your characters who are fighting. This way, you can easily count it out and you’ll know that the dialogue itself is serving it’s place in the scene without detracting from the sequence.

Five Minutes is a Long Time

As authors we have a tendency to exaggerate for effect and those of us who are inexperienced at a specific kind of physical exertion have a serious tendency to overestimate. For reference, five minutes is a long time. It is a devastatingly long time. The average street fight, by comparison, only lasts twenty five seconds. A fight can end in seven seconds. The maximum of movements that even an experienced combatant can make before simply failing due to overwhelming exertion is eight. The more unequal the fight between two individuals, the faster it ends.

Characters who overestimate like this, especially those who are supposed to be experienced, tend to look very foolish and it undercuts the sequence. There’s a limit to how long a fight can go before the reader starts to lose interest and to sell your characters, it’s important to make the attempt to be accurate.

However, translating time into text can be very difficult and while we can count a single page as a minute in a movie script, the same cannot be said for a novel. A simple solution is to limit yourself by counting it out through the number of moves instead of guessing how long. The longer the fight extends, the more exhausted a character is going to become. If you limit yourself to eight moves per character, then you will get into the acceptable range for keeping your sequence punchy and quick.

Remember, the wider the experience gap, the faster it will end unless the experienced character has a reason to keep it going.

That’s Not Anatomically Possible

We could also label this as “spontaneously develops third arm”. This can happen during rewrites or through the introduction of a new weapon or when the author doesn’t stage it out or think the physics of the scene through entirely. Sometimes, it’s an attack that would do no physical damage were it to connect such as spinning and kneeing (a knee takes it’s power from the body driving forward to the low-line of the body or upwards into the body, it can be lifted to generate a better, quicker spin for another attack such as a spinning backfist, but is useless on it’s own, it is also a single action movement) or multiple actions happening simultaneously like two characters in a death grip punching each other without releasing their hold and you have a sequence that sounds good but makes no sense when your readers step back to put it together.

The best way to solve this is by finding a partner to walk you through it physically even if it’s just bashing at each other with nerf swords. Yes, you may feel a little silly and foolish but the more work you put into it, the better the result will be. It’s important to get a good grasp the physicality and body positions in the scene as you’re describing it and this can be difficult to figure out in just your imagination.

Intuition Does Not Equal Skill

Intuition is nice, and so is “natural talent”, but unless your character is a several thousand year old immortal or a character who is continually reborn and acting on lifetimes of combat experience, then neither of these are a substitute for actual skill. Skill is empirical. It is earned through time and practice, we don’t come out of the box knowing exactly what is needed. When this happens in a novel, it is a plot contrivance and a cheat by the author to push the character along without having to say “how” they know. In short, it’s lazy. Worse, it promotes that unfortunate idea that skill is just something some has as opposed to the reality that it can be gained by anyone who puts in the required time and effort. This promotes the idea, especially for young readers, that if they do not grasp a concept quickly then they should just give up because the only skills worth having are those that come easily. Natural is not always better and no matter how much talent someone has, it will be nothing if they don’t develop that talent into a skill that they can use.

Don’t use intuition to cheat your way past a concept that you cannot adequately explain, instead dedicate time to understanding the profession or skills you are trying to include into your character. Yes, it will take longer and may be confusing in the beginning but the end result will be much better.

Detail? What’s that?

When you write your sequences, it’s important to be clear. If the reader is not grounded in the sequence, is not experiencing the sequence, and following the sequence as it happens then the grand fight or moment in the book will become meaningless. Detail can lend clarity to the image the reader imagines and make the sequence carry through. If your characters strike at the body consider where they are striking to as opposed to just having them throw attacks blindly. Have them focus on their opponent and visualize the body, break the body down into pieces: head, throat, shoulder, arm, wrist, hand, stomach, etc. When a character is knocked back, consider what they do. Do their feet slide? Do they stumble? Think about the body and how it reacts. Think about the environment and how they are affecting it. Be specific and be clear with the sensations you are eliciting.

Make it easy to follow. Read over the sequence with your “new reader eyes”, if you have to reread it a few times to get an understanding of what is happening then a rewrite may be necessary.

Don’t Call Your Shots

Whether your character is announcing to the villains the exact way that they plan on defeating them or calling out the name of their super special technique before they unleash it, don’t do it. It may feel badass to have the character tell someone exactly how they are going to be defeated and then follow through, it tends to ring hollow. One: it discounts the ability of the enemies to adjust to the hero’s plan and react accordingly (which hurts their believability, why should I care if they can be dispatched so easily after being told what is about to happen?) and two: unless the hero is lying or bluffing, they look stupid, overconfident, or both. After all, they just told me what’s about to happen. Unless you’re working within the long anime tradition of announcing a special attack, it just feels like a waste of breath.

Respect your villains and antagonists enough to not short change their intelligence for the sake of trying to make your protagonist more often. Study up on badass boasts and figure out what makes them work. Hint: it’s usually the humor beat afterwards such as Marcus in Babylon 5 when he says “In five minutes no one at this table will be left standing, five minutes after that, no one in this room will be left standing” and after he does so, collapses and says “Great, now I have to wait for someone to wake up” or playing off Superman’s reveal that he constantly holds back his powers for fear of hurting someone in the finale of Justice League Unlimited in the final battle with Darkseid when he says “But you can take it, can’t you, big guy? So, let me show you just how powerful I really am.” (He also doesn’t succeed, but it’s a great moment). However, neither of these outline exactly what they’re going to do but both come with the threat that it’s gonna be awesome.

Say it without saying it, leave room for excitement and the thrill of seeing just what a character will do instead of them telling us what they’re going to do.


Fantasy Book Critic: GUESTPOST: Cost And Consequence In The Creation Of A Magic System by Karina Sumner-Smith

Fantasy Book Critic: GUESTPOST: Cost And Consequence In The Creation Of A Magic System by Karina Sumner-Smith

Why We Fight

For a character that fights, this is the most important question that they will ever answer and one each has to answer for themselves. It comes in before “what we’re fighting for”, it comes in before “who we’re fighting”, it comes in before all other questions pertaining to the individual. It’s true that it’s a philosophical question, but at some point every person must face their own existential dilemma and come to grips with what they can do versus what they are willing to do. They must realize in themselves their own capacity for violence and ultimately, for many fighters, decide what they’re willing to kill for and what or who they’re willing to die for.

How far are you willing to go?

When do you stop?
Why are you still here?

What are you living for?

It is a question that seems simple on it’s surface but is complex in the depths it pierces into a character’s soul and psyche. Before you do anything else and muddle about in the details of your character, you’re going to have to figure out for yourself why they fight. It is also, always, worth remembering that the reasons a character gives upfront may not be the real reason, it may be the reason that they give to themselves much in the same way a real human being does when avoiding an uncomfortable truth. As the author, it’s up to you to find that truth and press the character in your story until we get to the heart of it. Violence does not work without the human component, violence without meaning is just violence and meaningless violence that fails to affect the narrative is ultimately a disservice to the story.

Violence is about ugly truths, it involves both the greatness and travesties we can rise to in the face of extreme adversity.  Why we choose to stand is as important to a narrative as the act of standing itself. A character who continues to stand even when they have every reason not to, to keep fighting even if they have no tangible gain, even when they know there will be no reward waiting for them at the end, these are characters we all want to cheer for. But, you can only get there by figuring out what your character is willing to die for, what their motivation is, and why they have chosen to fight.

Yes, fighting back is a choice. Yes, the act of making a choice is an act by your character (or you) of taking control and power over their life. There is a certain kind of power in decision making, just as there is for choosing to carry the blame even when those acts are mistakes. It may not be a choice they want to make and it may not be a morally good choice, it may simply be choosing to act to save their life or of not acting when they are in the heat of the moment. “I did what I had to.” “I couldn’t move.” I often don’t know how a new character will jump until I put the screws to them and back them into a corner.

It’s okay if the reason is ugly. A character that fights because they enjoy it is authentic. A person who enjoys that act of hurting other people is authentic. Sometimes, those people are hidden behind kind and helpful faces. It’s okay to be wrong.

It’s okay if your protagonist is not noble. It is okay if they are not as noble as they’d like to be. It’s okay if you find ugly and uncomfortable truths within yourself. It does not make you a bad person, it just makes you human.

The most useful advice I will ever give on this blog is to tell you to find and not shy away from the human component of violence. Look at people as they are and bring that authenticity to your work, to your characters, and let them be real people telling real stories.  When we substitute a more pleasant reality for the complex, dark, and difficult world we live in, we cut out the heart of what makes a story genuine. Look at the world, look at people, ask why they fight, and accept that the answer may not be pleasant or comfortable. Explore the parts of yourself that make you uncomfortable, try to understand them, and try to make peace with them.

Why do we fight? Everyone’s answer is different.