Tag Archives: writing reference

Weapon Primer: Archery

With 2012 being jokingly called “Year of the Bow,” it was inevitable that we’d end up doing a primer on it.

The Weapon

The bow is an ancient weapon, it is in fact one of the oldest weapons in the history of mankind. Almost every civilization that has ever existed and perhaps ever will exist has invented the bow in one form or another. It is important then, to note where you choose to draw your inspiration from because there are many varieties of this weapon. Combat with a bow is not unique to any one civilization or society, just as combat tactics have mirrored each other in similarity between different civilizations throughout the centuries. It is also important to remember that unlike other weapons of war, the bow was not invented for the sole purpose of murdering the wielder’s own species. This is a utility weapon, one that is meant to fulfill basic needs such as providing food for survival.

Because of its history, this weapon should be 100% recognizable to any and all serious characters as a dangerous threat. They will know what it is and what it can be used for. This is a weapon that will be noted and noticed by any city guard or local authority, so you’re character better have a damn good excuse for carrying it around (even if it’s not true). In a society that restricts access to weapons, such as futuristic fascist cultures, the bow will not be allowed. The reason for this is that even though the weapon itself may be outdated, it is still a dangerous weapon and any intelligent culture you create will know that and act accordingly.

The bow is still used in modern combat, though it has lost its edge. That said, historically, the bow is not used as a primary weapon for single combat. It has a select set of uses but ones that have it fall short of other weapons like the spear and the sword. The bow takes a great deal of time to master, it lacks flexibility of movement, and a single archer must always be accurate and thus their sighting will be slower. No matter how good your character is, they will always end up in melee, the bow is designed for hunting not killing and there is a vast difference in both technique and tactics between these two approaches.

Historical Bows:

There are many different bows throughout history, many different versions of the longbow and the recurve, many reinventions of the same weapon over and over through time. Some versions are designed for combat on horseback and some are not. So, be specific to which one it is, research how it is cared for, any reader who is familiar with the care and maintenance of this weapon will know if you ignore it. A bow is high maintenance and finicky, you can skip over a lot with some weapons but you can’t with a bow.

An older, wooden bow requires more strength to draw than a modern one. More importantly, the care for the weapon will impact how easily it can be used. Historical bows require a lot of maintenance, even more than their modern counterparts: the wood needs to be oiled frequently, the bow needs to be kept completely dry, transport over long distances requires unstringing and wrapping the bow, finally fletching a half decent arrow involves a lot of skill, even with modern tools and resources. Any responsible archer must be able to fletch their own arrows or risk being unable to use their weapon. This requires a whole skill set, one common in history but harder to come by in more modern times. This is especially important if the character is alone and without resources such as an army or placement in a lord’s household.

The projectiles are just as important as the care and maintenance of the weapon. This is less true in a society or culture where arrows are more readily available for purchase and the bow is a common weapon, but in a world where it is rarer, then the character will have to fend for themselves.

Arrows are weight your character must carry, if they fire the arrow they must retrieve it or lose it. Arrows do not self-replicate through magic. They are a limited resource and that resource must be considered. So, always ask: how much does the character’s gear weigh? How many arrows can they carry in the quiver reasonably without a huge loss of stamina? How do they protect the arrows from the weather? Arrows are made of wood. If wood gets wet it warps. The sinew that holds the arrows will also warp. The metal heads of the arrows will rust. The quiver needs as much careful protection as the bow itself to maintain functionality and combat readiness.

Also: don’t set arrows on fire. It’ll put itself out the minute you fire it. Self-immolation is not a thing your characters signed up for. Though if you want them to for the sake of the story, go right ahead.

(Michi Note: So, when working with or reading about an archer, always stop and ask yourselves a simple question: where do they get their arrows from? If the storyteller cannot answer that or has not put the answer into the text, then they’ve made a critical error. More than that, where are they getting their bowstrings from?)

Modern Bows:

Modern bows are usually either fiberglass composites or the more mechanical, compound bows. Composite bows match the general idea of a classic longbow. Compound bows are the ones using pulley systems. Composite ones require upper body strength, to draw. Compound bows tend to have a catch, early in the draw, where the pulleys take over and the bow’s mechanics take a lot of the draw weight off the archer. Because of the mechanical systems, there’s a lot that can go wrong with a compound, and more than most weapons, mishandling will destroy one.

Most modern arrows are hollow aluminum shafts that are bought pre-fletched and have a plastic nock already mounted. The tips can be easily removed and swapped out for convenience.

Target tips are small pointed cones, about the size of the arrow itself. These are easy to pull from a target, and they’re slightly less likely to deal lethal damage if they catch you.

Hunting tips are flying razor blades. They’re usually three or four blades held at an angle working their way towards a tip. They’re designed to cut arteries as they pass through the target. Most also feature barbs that further tear the meat if something tries to remove the arrow.

Hunting

Hunting is the traditional use of the bow. The reason for its creation and evolution is pretty simple and most of you can probably guess why. This is: firing a projectile at an animal (such as a boar, a deer, or a buffalo) is much safer than trying to go into melee with it using a spear. Most humans who hunt as a profession (not as a sport) prefer some measure of safety and security in their job. When fighting an animal in close quarters there’s a risk of being gored by a tusk or horn, missing the animal with the spear, or frightening it off which is a waste of time, energy, and resources. It is important, though, to keep in mind that hunting an animal or hunting a herbivore is different from hunting a human or a predator. In nature, most of the hunters we hunt will hunt us in return. (Michi Note: This is part of the reason why we domesticated dogs.)

This usage of the weapon has remained popular among some hunters and is part of the reason why the bow can still be purchased today. The reasons of modern hunters, however, are completely unrelated to its value as a practical weapon. For hunting, the bow is an excellent choice. I’m told that killing game with a gunshot kills result in a different flavor to the meat, and of the two, bow killed meat tastes better. Of course, the people who’ve told me that have been bow hunters, so there’s your caveat.

A lot of bow hunters enjoy the additional challenges in taking an animal down with a bow. It’s a similar mindset to those hunters who use a revolver. That said, when you’re choosing a weapon for its “additional challenge” it’s not something you want to take into a fight.

Historical Combat

Historical bow combat was built around massing archers and using them to send a lot of arrows in the general direction of the enemy. No, seriously. The idea wasn’t to hit a specific enemy, but to put a lot of arrows in their vicinity, and hope that a few would hit something useful. In many ways, archers are more analogous to mortar teams or artillery on a modern battlefield, than snipers, or even riflemen.

A mass regiment or company of archers was incredibly dangerous, especially to cavalry, but they were almost never in amongst the footmen or on the front lines. The medieval combat disposition was to put a line of skirmishers in front of the archers to protect them from enemy infantry. This is because the bow really does suck in close combat and has no real defensive capability.

Modern Combat

There are a few places where bows excel over firearms: armor penetration and stealth. A skilled bow user can easily dispatch heavily armed and armored opposition, provided they can remain undetected.

That undetected part can be a real problem. The bow is very sensitive to movement by the shooter, meaning it’s impossible to fire on the go. Arrows are more sensitive to air movement and have a sharper ballistic trajectory than bullets, meaning it’s harder to fire quickly and accurately. This means that once a combatant is seen, their bow becomes dead weight, very fragile dead weight.

Finally bows are very short range (compared to modern firearms). You’re working with around 20 to 80 feet, or within shotgun range, meaning they need to get uncomfortably close to their enemy to use it, increasing the risk of detection.

Injuries

Even when hunting tips sever arteries, arrow wounds take a long time to kill. Tracking animals for hours, after they’ve been shot, is fairly common for modern bow hunters.

Arrows tend to seal up the injuries they create, a lot like knife wounds, so even if your archer severed something vital, it’s entirely possible that the character they’re trying to kill will survive for hours. There are confirmed cases, in the modern world, where people have taken an arrow, and survived for ten to twenty hours before receiving medical attention.

So, if your character is shot with an arrow, please do not have them rip it out. Much like the knife, the projectile must be removed carefully or stay within the body to prevent the character from bleeding out. Also, an arrowhead can do as much damage leaving the body as it did going in, so research how to remove an arrow or your character will die, if they don’t already die from infection in a medieval, fantasy, or even a modern day/futuristic setting. (Michi Note: GERMS!)

Character Options:

More than most weapons, bows represent a major commitment when constructing your character. It takes a lot of time and dedication to become proficient with a bow outside of combat, and it can easily take a character’s entire life to truly master the use of one.

In fantasy settings, you can pretty easily give the bow to any adult who spends a lot of time in the wilderness and lives off the land or hunts for a living. In a fantasy setting where firearms exist, bows become less common as guns become more accessible. These characters are more likely to use an axe or sword for actual combat, even if they have a firearm, instead of a bow.

In most historical or fantasy settings, you can have professionally trained archers, who operate as part larger military force. Just remember, these characters will have been trained to fire arrows over longer distances, without any real accuracy. As with the above option, these characters will gradually phase out as guns become more common. Historically: firearms started appearing in Europe and the Middle East in the 14th century.

In a modern setting, you’re basically left with bow hunters, and sport shooting enthusiasts. For these characters, they choose the bow deliberately, over more convenient methods of killing because they enjoy the challenge, prefer the purity, or like the idea of being self-sufficient.

In a post apocalyptic setting where bullets are hard to obtain or produce, the bow has some potential, both in the historical military applications, and for hunting.

In a distant future setting, a variation of the bow might make sense for its stealth and armor penetration aspects, particularly if characters are outfitted with equipment or implants that allows them to aim and fire more efficiently.

In a horror setting with traditional vampires, the bow might be an effective choice for vampire hunters, though, at that point, modern crossbows would probably be a better weapon choice.

I’m just going to go out and say, in a fascist/dystopic setting, unless bows are explicitly permitted or regulated, they’re a very poor weapon choice, because of the difficulty in concealing them, and the amount of training and practice required to gain proficiency with one. (Michi Note: the recognizability and difficulty in concealing them is the kicker here, it’s better to go with a weapon like the sling or the slingshot which is still quite dangerous but considered to be a children’s toy by many, so the adults will be more willing to overlook it and it’s much easier to hide.)

-Starke

Fight Write: The Only Unfair Fight Is the One You Lose (Part 1: The Nietzchean Defense)

This is going to be a rough ride for some of you, so we’re listing this with a trigger warning for violence. Fighting is very violent, any aspect of the human condition that deals with survival usually is. I believe it’s important for authors to be aware of the full brutality of combat so they can go in with their eyes open and taper back as they see fit. The only way to ever truly be in control of your story is when you have as much information about the subject matter as possible. This includes delving into some basic aspects of human psychology and how that affects combat. We’ll be breaking this article up into two to focus on two very important but different aspects of brutal combat.

“The only unfair fight is the one you lose.”

The first time I heard this phrase was in a self defense class when I was about twelve or thirteen. At the time, I’d come to fights with the idealistic belief that there was some kind of fair play involved in how to fight someone. There isn’t.

I’ve since heard the phrase from several former military men and a few cops. Here’s what it really means. You do whatever you need to, to survive a fight. In the real world, a lot of these moves have serious legal consequences, if they’re used outside of a life and death situation, and they probably should in your story as well.

The Psychology

The moves I’m going to talk about are both based on a simple psychological assumption. The idea is to look at people the same way you look at any other social animal. Then have your character present the illusion of being more of a monster than they actually are, in order to scare off aggressors.

This works with untrained thugs, bullies, and petty criminals. It will not work as well on characters who have extensive experience with combat and or the aftermath of violence.

The Eyes

Gouging out someone’s eyes is an excellent counter to choking. This is best achieved by gripping the skill with the thumbs next to the eye, and the index and middle finger near the ear, and pushing the character’s thumbs into their eyesockets.

Going for the eyes, before beginning the actual gouge, will usually evoke a very primal response and force a character to stop choking their victim while they try to deal with the gouger’s hands. Gouges can be done from behind, if the victim is being garroted or held, simply by having the victim reach over their head and behind them. Finally a successful gouge will make other combatants leery of closing in on the gouger for fear of joining the Blind Justice crowd.

Tooth and Claw: Biting vs. Scratching

The strongest muscles in your body are located just below your cheekbone. Regardless of if you believe if it was simple efficiency or divine inspiration, your mouth and teeth are designed to separate meat from, well, pretty much anything.

On the bright side, people are made mostly of meat, so, if it comes down to it, taking a chunk out of someone’s shoulder is just a new application of something you practice three times a day.

Forget zombies, the worst bite a human can suffer is from another human. Our mouths are loaded with bacteria that we’re used to, but other people… not so much. Even if your character doesn’t take a piece off, the injury will need actual medical attention, and explaining away a bite wound to a medical professional or a cop can be very difficult.

Additionally, depending on how you bite, your molars can apply enough force to crush some smaller bones; completely, and permanently, crippling their hand.

After biting off a chunk, your character’s going to want to spit it out, along with as much of the blood as possible. There are a lot of potential pathogens that can be spread from blood or tissue contact (off hand; some flavors of Hepatitis and of course HIV/AIDS are the two most dangerous possibilities) , so, your character is taking on a fairly serious health risk from chowing down. As with the eye gouge, this is going to make other attackers back off; with the logic of, “if she just bit off his fucking ear, what’s she going to do to me!?”

There’s also a pretty serious psychological block about going toe to toe with someone who’s covered in someone else’s blood. This is just as true of people attacking your character.

In contrast, scratching, and this is personal experience, just doesn’t seem to be that viable. You do some surface damage to the tissue, and you do get some skin samples, but it’s far more socially acceptable, and far less dangerous. It won’t have the psychological effect you want and can actually spur more aggression.

-Starke

reference for writers: Writing Reference: Sprains and Strains

reference for writers: Writing Reference: Sprains and Strains

Tip: Your character can only strike in the directions their hips point.

Hand to hand combat is all about strategy, tactics, improvisation, and making the most of basic body mechanics. Yes, basic body mechanics. I’ve talked before about how the hips lead the body and they do. It’s not the arms or the shoulders or the legs, though each of the muscles has their place in making the body work. The hips are the guiding factor to creating momentum, the strength that comes from the pivot, the turning of the hips in conjunction with the upper and lower body to create force through movement. You create better results through conditioning the body and training your reflexes, but the limitations the body faces are its limitations.

 So, what are the directions you can strike in without stepping?

Forwards: front kick, roundhouse, shin kick, straight punch, cross, backhand, hammer fist, etc. Most of the basic strikes with the hands go straight forwards, the elbow can also strike going forward by coming across in a circular motion to strike at the face or the neck.

Side to side (right or left): The primary strikes on a sideways vector are the sidekick and the elbow. (Michi Note: Erp. I forgot the backhand, sorry.)

Backwards: the back kick, the mule kick, and other variations striking backwards (or with the fighter’s back to the opponent). Again: the elbow. The elbow is most useful for striking enemies from behind in close quarters, especially an enemy who is reaching in to grab them in a bear hug. Please keep in mind that the elbow is a close-quarters strike only, check it yourself by bending your arm at the elbow and bringing it across in front of your face. That’s the distance your character will have to strike effectively with the elbow, the elbow is the strike used when you are too close to get the windup for a punch to be effective. (Michi Note: my Divergent irritations are showing again, sorry.) Because of limited movement backwards, (yes, surprise! the joints betray us), the elbow is one of the most effective strikes from this direction. Strikes backwards are usually low (to the stomach) because visibility is either bad or non-existent, so the fighter is working off instinct. The stomach is a large, easy, soft target to aim for. (It’s not uncommon in the grab, if the arms are left free for a fighter to reach back over their head for their opponent’s eyes. Eye gouging is a thing, guys.)

It seems pretty limited when you stop and think about it. Forward, back, left, or right. Much of hand to hand and even basic weapons combat is all about maneuvering your opponent onto a vector they can’t strike from, while the protagonist is still able to strike them. This is both why stepping is important (focus on the feet). Now, it’s also important to remember that their opponent won’t want to go that way and may not be easily led. This is why stepping to get on diagonals or out of the way is important.

Always keep track of which directions all your characters in a scene are facing, what they want, where they are going, and what they are doing. It can be hard to visualize this and keep track, so always go back and double check (even triple check) that you didn’t accidentally magically move your characters to a different place just because they need to get hit on that line. Make sure the reader knows how they got from point A to point B to point C in the scene, even if the fighting itself is confusing for the characters.

Happy writing!

MBC Guerrilla Video Volume 1: Concepts (by StaySafeMedia)

So, I’m posting another Michael Janich video. This one is about basic concepts that have to do with self-defense and his own personal style that bases itself in knife fighting.

I’m a big fan of self-defense training for everyone, but on a craft level for writers especially. The difference is that many martial artists will focus their training on how to do a technique and not the focus of what it’s for until after the student has developed a decent base. This is fine, even good, for martial artists because it’s a necessary step. But it can make researching MAs rather obtuse when trying to divine how it works without the necessary years of training. Practice for real world situations often won’t happen until the upper belt ranks and sometimes, not until black belt. For example, I didn’t start working knife disarms until I started training for my second degree black belt test at 15.

Compare to self-defense, where training focuses on techniques that can be picked up easily and puts a primer on user understanding. The focus is not just on how to do a technique, but what it is and what it does, how it can be used practically and with different variations. This is the sort of information a writer needs to be able to write about fight scenes well.

Also, studying up on body mechanics and basic physiology never hurts.

I’ll be posting an article of my own later today. If you have any questions either regarding writing or self-defense, our askbox is always open.

Fuck Yeah Character Development!: Profession v. Personality

Fuck Yeah Character Development!: Profession v. Personality

On Writing: Child Soldiers in Sci-Fi

This is the last anon, and thanks so much for your answer! I left a couple things out that I shouldn’t have – for one, the world is a dystopia, and the soldiers actually enlist around 12, and start their training after pushing a lot of different things to accelerate growth. So even though he’s only 24, he’s actually been involved in the military for half of his life, which I’m assuming is enough time for a specialty? I don’t know what that specialty is yet, but thanks so much for your help!

-Anonymous

This is going to be a sensitive topic for a lot of people and as such, we requested for the sake of our followers and all of you out there who’d like to avoid this very traumatic topic that we could put it in a regular post so we could have the “read more” option, beyond just the ability to list it with trigger warnings for child abuse, abuse, and child soldiers. This will be a disturbing topic to go through and we are by no means experts on the subject, we’ll answer this question as best we can and give some help to those of you out there looking to write dystopias dealing with kids. In this post, we’ll be some basic developmental psychology, the technical limitations of messing with human biology in regards to creating human weapons, child soldiers, and with some helpful suggestions for what a writer can do instead, if this topic proves to be a bit too much to handle.

Child soldiers, while very dramatic, are one theme that can go off the rails very quickly. It’s important to remember when dealing with dystopia that the limitations of human nature, psychology, and the world today are very important to the novel’s dramatic elements. A dystopia isn’t a potentially bad future with a totalitarian government. It’s a society characterized by human misery, disease, and overcrowding and living within that society with no hope of escape. Dystopias are not, despite what the current climate may lead us to believe, happy stories.

Some good Dystopias to turn to for reference are: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 1984 by George Orwell, Native Son by Richard Wright (A rare non sci-fi version), and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (slightly lighter than the rest on the list).

Warning: These are all ridiculously depressing books, so prepare accordingly.

The rest is under the cut. It’s pretty long.

Take it away, Starke!

-Michi

Starke:

Well… this was not what I wanted to write when yesterday started.

So, I’m going to start with a few caveats: I’m not doing a lot of research on this one, it’s going to be mostly off the top of my head, from memory. The reason is; the phenomena of child soldiers can be really fucking depressing to look at in any depth. Again, it’s important to remind everyone that I’m not an expert on the subject. So, research on your own will still be required (like it usually is). I took a few classes in college that required I learn more than I’d like on the subject, most of which dealt with politics in third world countries, and I’ve tried not to think about it too much since.

Finally, once again, I’m not a psychologist, developmental or otherwise, I’ve had some psych classes, but I’m a political analyst by education, which means I’ve had to learn more about this than I’d like, but I’m by no means an expert.

Let’s start with the easy stuff, the sci-fi setting and working with growth acceleration. We’ll start with talking about some basic economics surrounding growth acceleration, how this technology gets funded and some reasons why real scientists today are studying it. Then, we’ll get into some basic world building questions and discuss some of the weaknesses of this particular technology, before moving on.

Growth acceleration as it exists today is based around the idea of creating meat more rapidly by introducing hormones into livestock at earlier ages, so that they grow faster and thus be slaughtered more quickly. Growth acceleration is studied and tested for two very basic but different reasons:

1)    The Capitalist Reason: by reducing the amount of time it takes for an animal to mature into adulthood, means that there will be more meat available to sell and more money ranchers and slaughterhouses can make. Before it sounds like I’m being unfair, let me remind you that both farming and ranching are both incredibly difficult jobs. Much of what they make relies on the climate of the markets they sell to (whether or not people want to eat meat and the amount of meat they are eating), weather (to provide grass and grain for the cows), and disease. Growth acceleration is a way for them to make up the difference and feed their families when they’ve been left to the vagaries of fate. It’s an idea that sounds appealing to most of them. So, this is one way this sort of research gets funded.

2) The Altruist Reason: Meat is expensive to produce, it’s expensive to ship (it’s expensive to flash freeze and by the time it ships overseas it’s usually rotting), and most of the major buyers and sellers are limited to first world countries such as those in Europe and America. This cuts the vast majority of meat being bought and sold out from those starving in Third World countries. Growth acceleration through hormone treatments would be a way, once spread widely, to substantially cheapen meat on the global market and to allow smaller farmers who only have a capacity to maintain a limited stock to produce more meat to make more money, and feed more people in the places where meat is too expensive and the locals too poor for meat to be a regular part of their diet. Feeding people is generally a pretty good, understandable goal.

Sounds pretty reasonable (Michi Note: if you’re not a vegan), for the most part right? Remember, when setting up a sci-fi society, it’s important to look at things like economics, politics, and sociology, so that it is clear for the reader where the tech came from. Sci-fi is often (though it doesn’t need to be) Earth future. So, there has to be a clear line for how we got from here (using growth acceleration on livestock and crops) to there (using it to artificially accelerate the growth of children into adult-sized soldiers). You’re also going to have to be able to answer some basic questions for your reader, such as why are they using children when they could be using adults? If they have the tech to artificially age soldiers, then why aren’t they just using clones? We’ll deal with this below. Whose children are they using in this endeavor? People generally take issue with their children being taken from them, though there are some easy ways to get around this such as using slaves, the socially disenfranchised, the fiscally indebted, and orphans. There are other more basic questions also like how did this happen and who is in charge? Remember, you can’t just say how it happened. You have to present it in a manner that is easy for the reader to grasp and see when looking at the world around them.

Secondly, there are some serious problems with growth acceleration and the indications of what that could mean for using it on people. First: the skeletal system has a tendency to rapidly harden instead of growing to adult size. This wouldn’t be as large a problem for an adult force, but since you’re talking about 12 year olds, this has some very serious implications for how useful your society’s combat forces will be overall.

Now, this flaw can be overcome with extensive surgery, but this is expensive. More than that, soldiers need to be relatively cheap and easy to mass produce. An expensive solution is just that and every government, (Michi Note: even corrupt ones!) must weigh their decisions based on overall effectiveness at producing the desired result versus whether or not it’s economically viable. No government is going to get very far by running out of money in the middle of a war and even if they put the majority of the budget towards military expenditures there’s a lot more important things than soldiers to spend money on. Ordinance, new technologies, etc, are all considerations. If you take a look at modern American military spending, you’ll notice that the vast amount of their resources are put towards R&D projects, developing new and better ordinance, and even some of the weird stuff that comes out of D.A.R.P.A. pulls down more money than what goes towards taking care of America’s current standing forces and retired soldiers. So, here’s the question: why spend money on creating better soldiers when you can take normal humans and just give them better weapons?

Find a realistic answer to that question and you may have the basis for your book.

The second consideration on growth acceleration is that it’s designed around causing musculature to overdevelop, (Michi Note: More meat from fewer cows) meaning you’d end up with people who look like bodybuilders and they’d end up with some fairly substantial heart issues. For a modern combat force, this isn’t really desirable. You want your soldiers strong enough to carry their gear, and be able to operate it, but you don’t want musclemen, because muscles are freaking heavy.

Extra muscle means extra weight your vehicles have to account for and designed around supporting, you’ll need more downtime for your troops to keep their muscles from atrophying during the extended periods of required travel, they’ll need more food, and (to an extent) too much muscle means less mobility in the field.

The growth hormones we use have the side effect of increasing aggressiveness, at least in males. This is good if the society in question is looking to create suicide bombers, but over-aggressive responses are undesirable in a disciplined military force. You don’t want your soldiers beating up each other in the barracks before they get on the battlefield, too much testosterone and you end up dealing with too many soldiers in the Medical Tent who could be serving on the battlefield. Remember, the reason soldiers are created in the most basic and cruel sense is to spend them against the enemy. If they’re ignoring orders and attacking each other then why bother using them in the first place? Their usefulness to the society must outweigh their detriment, even if the intention is just for them to die on the battlefield.

The third consideration involves cell replication: because the process is massively accelerating cell replication, you’re going to end up looking at a much higher risk of mutations, including cancer. Basically, we’re talking about “replication errors”, whenever a strand of DNA copies itself, it will create a strand to verify that the copy is accurate. Obviously, even in nature this isn’t 100%, if you speed up the process, more errors will occur.

The only reason this isn’t an issue with modern growth hormone technology, is because we’re not really accelerating the replication process. It’s the difference between saying “don’t stop”, and “go faster”.

Finally, and I could be wrong here, but you can’t really artificially stimulate the brain to develop into adulthood. Even if you can get the brain and body to adult size, some fairly simple concepts like risk vs. reward, critical thinking, and threat assessment are simply not going to be there. And because of the accelerated growth, those traits probably never will be. (Michi Note: Those are essential traits to have in any soldier other than a shock trooper.)

Now, here’s some of the good news. Depending on your setting, you can pretty easily wave off the skeletal/muscular issues, and, with the way the technology has evolved for use on the farmyard, we’ll probably actually have those dealt with before your story’s set.

The bad news is that the neurological issues are harder to overlook. First off, because the primary application for the technology right now isn’t humans. Since, the development revolves around spurring growth to create more meat on the bones of cows with the intention of them not surviving long after, there’s little attention being paid to the neural problems that come with acceleration and there’s little interest in dealing with it because, frankly, it’s not a concern.

Secondly, the brain is unlike every other organ in your body.

Still with me?

Okay.

This is where we get into the idea of genetics. One of the basics of genetics is that your DNA produces the basic template for your body. The same is not completely true for your brain. You can blame your DNA for it’s warm butter consistency, it’s color, and the basic structure, but the content, and even the way it works are apparently very customizable.

This is where we get into the importance of developmental psychology.

Here’s what some research on nature vs. nurture has left us with: the brain is incredibly good at picking up new skills, new information, and new ways of processing data. These traits are especially strong in childhood. In this field, we’ve begun to find that a lot of those old boys vs. girls debates have more grounding in how these children were socialized in early childhood. Many behaviors we express are not inborn and natural, but gained as we develop, there are even some studies that state that there’s very significant neural architecture acquired by the child as they age. Some stuff about us is hardcoded into our DNA, but a lot of what’s been chalked up as predetermined by nature, actually isn’t.

This is why studying developmental psychology, even without the child soldier context, is extremely important to look at. I strongly advise you study up on at least some of the research that’s come out of developmental psychology in the last 10 years. Honestly, there’s some really fascinating stuff to be had there for any writer, with a lot of implications for writing any type of character you want. It’ll also help you sidestep some common stereotypes.

Okay, now that we’ve dealt with growth acceleration, let’s look at some alternate options for sci-fi before we get to the child soldier aspects.

Let’s start with neural control chips. I’m not sure on a timescale of how soon something like this will be possible, but it has some really scary implications for your characters, if it can simply override the soldier’s brain. (If you want to keep some of the child soldier themes, while getting rid of the actual child soldiers, this could still be a good option for you to work with.)

Second is direct neural encoding. That is to say, using drugs, technology, whatever, you actually imprint a lot of information into your soldier. Depending on the technology, this could give you a way around the development issue, and it doesn’t have quite as much the control chips. I would strongly caution you against pushing it into actual mind control serum, as that wouldn’t really fix the basic problems, and it would leave your soldiers much more vulnerable to manipulation by enemies. Even basic intelligence could yield methods of disrupting any force using mind controlled troops. An intelligent and aware soldier can distinguish falsified orders a lot more effectively than a brainwashed one.

Okay, take a step back and let your brain think about the last stuff.  Good, now, let’s get into the child soldier discussion.

The honest truth is that child soldiers don’t make for good combatants and they’re not supposed to. They make for convenient shock troops. But the point of a shock trooper is that they are expected to die in combat, not that they are expected to fight. A shock trooper is not given any real training and they are considered to be completely expendable by the force that’s using them. So, why would someone want to use child soldiers? Well, unfortunately, the assholes that use them have recognized that giving children guns comes with some convenient perks. The major advantages to child soldiers are these: adult combatants have a harder time killing them, thus giving them more opportunity to kill the enemy before dying themselves; they’re cheap to obtain in most warzones with a convenient unprotected supply already in place, and securing their loyalty is much easier than with adult combatants, who are better able to critically think and process information in the world around them.

The indoctrination process with child soldiers is one that’s designed to shift their loyalties from their parents to the warlord who is using them. Unlike adults, they’re not going to have conflicting loyalties based in ideology or nationalism, so if a warlord can remove their parents, the child has nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to for guidance but the warlord and other, already indoctrinated children.

In Africa, the warlord’s lieutenants will force the child, at gunpoint, to kill their parents. If the child refuses, they’ll be executed with their parents and another child will be selected. The child will be renamed something suitably aggressive sounding (most of these names are drawn from comic books or other media, so things like Psychokilla and Superboy are common). They’ll be placed in a community with other child soldiers and before battle they’ll be dosed with something called BamBam, (a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder) which they’re told makes them immune to bullets, immune to harm, and or immortal.

Then, they’re sent out to die. When they do, they’re replaced with new conscripts, and the cycle begins again.

A few do survive into adulthood. But those who make it are left, understandably, with serious psychological issues. Severe PTSD is practically automatic, they commonly have issues with human empathy that’s probably best described as psychopathic and have a general inability to interact with other human beings as, well, human beings, rather than something to be shot and killed. This isn’t beyond the range of psychological therapy, but without it, survivors are a real mess.

Survivors wouldn’t be able to train other characters, really, at all. Their own training would have covered using their weapon, and nothing else. They don’t receive training in leadership, or command, those are handled by less expendable adults. They couldn’t receive training on a lot of more advanced hardware (artillery, aircraft (helicopters or other VETOLs especially, but fixed wings are also out), any naval craft larger than a launch or (maybe) a soft bottom PT boat).

We’ve seen a rise in recent years of the use of child soldiers in South America, they’ve been used in southeast Asia, and (arguably) in some places, young gang members in the United States may actually qualify. The methods aren’t always as extreme as in some African nations, but the long term damage is.

It’s important to remember that current international law regards child soldiers as a form of slavery, because of the coercive control over the children. There have been many, mostly unsuccessful efforts to curb the practice by various international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in the last 30 to 40 years.

Child Soldiers, as adult characters, aren’t really suited to war stories. I’m sorry. If you want to handle the material in a serious way, this is probably an element that should be jettisoned. If you want to write about a child soldier dealing with their experiences, you can certainly do that, and you could develop something very interesting and compelling, even within the scenario you presented. But the focus would need to be on the internal emotional state of the character.

If you’re setting needs to use child soldiers, there needs to be a pretty solid reason.

As I’ve said earlier, children do not make good soldiers, and they aren’t really more readily available than adults. They do make more fanatical soldiers, but if that’s all you want, then I’d actually suggest looking at the concept of youth programs such as the Hitler Youth (Michi Note: Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi is an intense and interesting biography to read for anyone interested in fascism and how it takes root in a culture’s psyche) that seek to indoctrinate their members with an ideology. There needs to be a credible and tangible reason why parents would accept their children being taken away from them and sent to war. Remember, in the real world, this is done by killing them, but African warlords aren’t looking to maintain a stable government. Any credible government, totalitarian or otherwise, would need to do something, to keep resentment from boiling over into outright rebellion. (Michi Note: This would also happen very quickly, that sort of government would probably be overthrown within the first few years.)

I’ll go into the politics of revolutions in more detail at some point, if I remember, but for now: the government you’re presenting has to have a real concrete reason it’s taking the children and this reason must be convincing to the parents. The government cannot credibly intimidate the parents into this, because that would lead to insurrections and all smart politicians know that they need belief just as much as they need fear. These reasons don’t need to actually be true, but they must be believable enough for the civilian population to turn over their most precious asset: the continuation of their society. (Michi Note: You’ve also got a problem with how this society self-replicates, if most of the kids are going to war.)

Now, what you want isn’t actually impossible, even if it feels like that right now, especially since you seemed more focused on the war story itself, with your protagonist as a functional leader. So, I’m going to make a couple suggestions on how you can do that and tie those themes back into the ones that come with child soldiers, while at the same time avoiding the problems and baggage that need come with them if you’re playing it straight.

The first is clones.

Star Wars: Episode II, of all things, can give you some pretty good ideas on this front. Clones that have been grown to adulthood in 8 years, with intensive training can get around the neural issues, and because their growth rate is accelerated by around 2 to 2.5 times rather than forcing them to go from 12 years to adult in the course of 8 weeks to 6 months, the risks associated with growth acceleration are a lot lower.

You still get to keep a couple things you probably want, clones could be trained in command. You still get the idea of characters with very limited life experience outside of warfare. You can keep the idea of someone’s life, and or childhood, being stolen. The idea that your character was raised as a disposable shock trooper, to live and die at the whim of a system they were excluded from. You can keep a lot of the slavery elements without actually getting into a direct discussion on slavery.

You also have the society creating a stable base to convince their population on the merits of going to war, without their people having to make sacrifices on their own. Clones aren’t just a convenient source of labor, for most people, they’d be a convenient moral hand wave. Sure, you’d have some members of your society who are (minimally) outspoken against it. It would even be to the government’s credit to allow some small dissension that allowed them to claim they were keeping free speech while simultaneously making a mockery out of those people to sway the general population to their side. Look at modern American society and some of the general attitudes against minorities, a vast majority of people will not care so long as their lives go on unaffected. This is the true terror of a dystopian novel. It is not that people were forced. It’s that they were willing. There really is some merit to “the trains running on time” philosophy. Remember, anon, people will accept a lot, so long as they are not inconvenienced by surrounding events. Sometimes, the cultural acceptability of atrocities is all about framing. (Michi Note: We leave it up to each author to decide whether or not indifference is the same as evil.)

The best part about clones is that you can still push the idea of your character as towering over the local population. This kind of cloning leaves the door open to various levels of genetic modification. I’d say, look at Warhammer 40k’s Space Marines, and Star Trek: Deep Space 9’s Jem’hadar for ideas you can incorporate into how to handle your troops. The Jem’hadar have the element of using drugs to keep characters in line, through simple addiction. 40k’s Marines play with the idea of massive cybernetic and biotech enhancement to the point where characters cease to be human at all.

If you can find it, White Wolf’s Exalted setting, particularly the two Dreams of the First Age books have a fair amount on the idea of genetically engineered slave races that could also provide some good fodder to play with.

If you want to scale back the sci-fi elements and keep the overall realism, then I’d suggest looking at the idea of indoctrinating kids with an ideology over actually putting them on the front line. Toss the growth acceleration technology and have children, who are conscripted from school at 12, spend the next four years being trained in warfare, before being sent out at 16 as actual combatants. There are plenty of societal incentives a government can provide (and even provides today) that will encourage parents to give up their children into the system. You’ll keep a lot of what you want and ditch some of the most egregious problems that come with using child soldiers in your story because you gave them the time they needed to grow up.

Finally, and I know this isn’t what you were looking for initially, but, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon deals with the idea of bodies being little more than clothes for people (the actual personality is simply uploaded into an implant in the body’s brain). The material has a couple ideas worth thinking about.

First, because soldiers are jumping between bodies fairly frequently, the bodies themselves are equipped with “reflex packages”, which take a lot of elements out of physical control, but also limit the amount of control someone has over their body in a fight.

Second, the concept of moving minds around between bodies is actually very interesting. This could be useful for you, if you’re setting has similar technology, but is engineering and altering the minds they’re uploading. Morgan already addresses the idea of duplicating minds, and bodies, using the technology, so you can poke around at that in more depth.

If you got this far, I’m impressed. I hope this information will be of some use to you and maybe even help get you started. There’s also the ask we posted earlier from KickassFanfic, who also provided some helpful reading material.

Again, if you need anything, our askbox is always open.

Illusion versus Reality: Some Thoughts on Media Fight Sequences

It’s important to remember that most of the conventional wisdom about force application we have in popular culture comes from observations made about various sport styles and exhibition fighting, such as in movies and staged fights at martial arts tournaments. The assumption becomes that those moves were chosen to be allowed because they are more effective, not less. The problem though with that assumption is that while goal of fighting is to win, it’s also to do so with relative safety and not kill the opponent. Injure, wound, and maim perhaps, but again not kill.

The same is true for both tournament demonstration and media in general. When it comes to evaluating whether a television show, a video on the internet, or what they see at a tournament demonstration will be useful for imagining and creating fight scenes, a creator is required to keep three things in mind:

1) The decision on what techniques to use is primarily governed by what will look good on screen or on the floor and not practicality.

2) The action is safe for the performer to demonstrate without injury to themselves under extremely controlled circumstances. In media, this works double for the actor, the stunt double, and their work with the stunt coordinator.

3) The goal is to create something convincing for the audience, not something that is actually reflective of reality.

It’s important to remember that in demonstration performances and movies that there’s a lot of work, sometimes days, weeks, and even months that goes into crafting those scenes, preparing the actors, and putting together the performance. The other important thing to remember is that because movies and demonstrations are primarily an illusion, they can get away with a great deal more than the human body actually can in their action sequences. These fights are designed around the audience being able to follow the action, but even the best of them are often horribly impractical by design. Many authors when they try to write fight scenes look to movies, comics, and video games for easily accessible action that they can translate into their stories and that’s fine. The only problem is that often, because they are unfamiliar with physical action they end up including the same flaws from the movies into their books.

In a movie, the fight scenes are actually long exhibition fights that have been cut together into a single sequence. This means that on film, even after the editing of the fight, you get unnatural pauses where the stuntmen/women are resetting their positions and essentially taking a breather before they move on to the next action sequence. The reason for this, of course, is that if you just forced the stuntmen to continuously run, they’d keel over from exhaustion about half-way through. If an author does not step back and examine the action from an external perspective, they run a real risk of including these same flaws into their novel. There are plenty of examples in already published works where this happens and they are easy to find, once you know what to look for.

Divergent for example, is a major offender. So is City of Bones, for obvious reasons. The combat in Marie Brennan’s Warrior is essentially a Turn Based RPG. YA in general has a great many authors chasing after Joss Whedon and thus invoking the Whedon/Comic Book problem where they stand around talking and then they fight, then they stop and talk, and then they fight, and then they circle, and then again, they fight. Tamora Pierce is one of the few authors in the YA genre I can point to that escapes this trap, but then she knows what she’s talking about and it shows.

I (Michi) will also cop to having the Whedon problem, I watched (and loved) a great many Whedon shows when I was younger and the internalization of a lot of his flaws as well as his successes is something I struggle regularly against even when I should know better.

Remember, all media feeds into each other and into the culture at large. When looking at media for reference, it’s important to not only look at the internal consistencies, plot, and characters but also the outside motivations of what, why, and reality’s constrictions. Written work reflects, not just into other novels, but also into movies, television, video games, and comic books. So, it’s important to evaluate the constraints of the media you’re working with and its flaws while transferring some of the actions and ideas into your work.

What will work well in a visually medium for action doesn’t weather well on the page, nor will it pass the scratch and sniff test when it passes before someone who knows what to look for when dealing with fighters and fighting. So, the goal is to work toward generating the emotions in your audience that we experience when watching a well put together action sequence through a different avenue than what the director and stunt choreographer created for the movie itself.

As always, there are exceptions to every rule and there are a great many movies and television shows that work excellently as reference material. These are just some basic things to think about when looking at media for reference and some of the dangers that are associated with taking stuff wholesale without examining it from all aspects.

On the subject of RPGs and writing, Starke and I are putting together a reference article dealing with the merits and flaws of Pencil and Paper RPGs when working with characters and fight sequences. So heads up Brennan fans, we’ll be talking more about Warrior in that article.

This was supposed to be the Open Hand Primer but I ended up getting sidetracked with a tangent, it’s coming soon, I promise.

As always, happy writing!

Tip: A Good Martial Artist Can Come From Anywhere

All around the world, martial arts from many different countries are a major cultural export. I say this because it’s important to remember that your characters race, ethnicity, and gender don’t necessarily need to reflect their style’s culture or country of origin. One of the greatest beauties of the MAs is that anyone can start at any age and find both meaning and value. I’ve seen twelve year olds earn their black belts side by side with eighty year old cancer survivors. While I trained in Taekwondo and the master instructor of my dojo was Asian, he was not Korean, instead he was Japanese-American. His master and the master co-founders of the entire organization were a Filipino-American man and an African-American man. The instructor who had the greatest effect on me was (or his family was) an immigrant from Ecuador.

A good martial artist can come from anywhere and while they can’t necessarily be just anyone (just those who put in the time and effort), there’s no need for an author to limit their imagination with a student of any traditional art because their race, gender, or ethnicity doesn’t fit with what media has prepared us for.

When it comes to martial arts specifically, it’s important to remember that the make-up of a school you might expect is not there in actuality. Many people are drawn to the martial arts from many different walks of life, and while there is certainly some very interesting mysticism and philosophical tenants grounded in some of the Eastern MAs, in a modern context the techniques and philosophies are more than able to transfer into backstories the author needs. All the author needs to do is be aware and sensitive of the culture and philosophy ingrained in the martial art they choose.

If you are working with a historical context, research as needed. Either way, you might be surprised.

Fight Write: On Hair Pulling

Where the head goes, the body follows.

This is one of the most important tenants of self-defense and it’s why every combatant, male or female, should keep their hair either short or bound to their heads in a braid that is so skin tight the fingers cannot seize it. The fighter who does not risks having the back of their head grabbed in the middle of combat by providing a decent, easily accessible grip for their opponent. Regardless of what television will tell you, the ponytail is not good enough.

The hair is a much easier target than attempting a headlock or grabbing behind the neck. Once an opponent has their target in their grasp and control of their head, they can take them almost anywhere they wish.

Your hair may be dead, but beneath the skin it is very much alive. Wrap your fingers in your own hair and pull, you’ll find it to be fairly painful, then, imagine the pull from the hands of someone who doesn’t care about your feelings or maybe your hair was pulled by someone when you were younger. It can hurt a great deal and pain has a way of locking us up when we are unprepared or it or when we haven’t been properly trained to deal with it.

It’s important to remember, no matter what folks say about hair pulling, that it is a real, acceptable, and commonly used tactic, especially against women. It will also work against men with hair long enough for a good grip. Honor has very little place in real world combat, remember that an advantage taken is an advantage gained and the only true imperative is survival.

Hair pulling is very common in fights among groups, such as in clubs, mobs, etc as a means of taking someone down. The best advice for when someone takes you or your character by the hair or by the head is to go with them, not politely, but in the same general direction by ramming sideways, forwards, or backwards in the direction of their grip and to keep going until they fall or are driven into a wall or another individual. This will keep you from being injured or having your hair yanked out, it will also save on the pain because it releases tension.