Tag Archives: writing resource

Tag Clouds and A New Plan

Like a lot of blogs on Tumblr we used Post-Theory for our tag cloud. At the time, it was a pretty nice option, and allowed you to embed a tag cloud onto your blog.

Post-Theory relied on an external server. So, while they had a .tumblr blog, the actual heavy lifting was being done off site on their server.

Unfortunately, back in late June, Post-Theory’s external server went down, and started returning a 503 error. A 503 can indicate that the server is simply down for maintenance, or that it’s been temporarily knocked offline due to extreme load. The issue may be as simple as their server exceeded its bandwidth.

Regardless, their tag cloud is down, and has been for over two months. At the time, I said I’d give them a week to sort it out, and then start looking for alternate solutions. That took a little longer than I intended.

There are a couple other setups that allowed you to host a tag cloud locally, but unfortunately, all of those either ran up against inherent limitations in the Tumblr API (which I’m still not sure how Post-Theory got around), or simply didn’t work.

Eventually, the solution I managed to come to was to backport everything over to a wordpress blog, and use their tools to generate a tag cloud.

This is why last night’s posts had that, “originally posted,” stinger. It actually links back to a unique .com address with a functional (if somewhat limited tag cloud), and not the tumblr blog.

We also have an automated system set up so that when a post goes live on HowtoFightWrite.com, it also posts to HowtoFightWrite.tumblr.com. (It was also automatically posting older posts that I was editing on the site.)

So, what does this mean? We’re still going to be operating on Tumblr. That’s not changing. I’m also going to be going through old posts and cleaning up the tags we used, so that the tag cloud is more useful than it has been. This is something I’ve had on my to-do list for a long time, but the tumblr interface makes messing with old posts, even to clean up their tags, a very daunting task.

Any answers or articles we post will still go up on Tumblr. Though, the reblogs will probably stay there.

Worst case, the site is paid for through the spring of 2019, so even if we’re killed by the beer truck, that resource will still be there.

Right now, there’s a little over 1,700 posts I need to pick through, clean up, and tweak the tags around. There’s also roughly 2,600 tags, of those only about 300 are actually used. So, that list is going to be trimmed down a bit as well.

Our goal is to have a coherent, useful, resource available to people when we’re done.

-Starke

More than usual, we’re in a situation where we really do depend on Patreon to keep afloat. If you like what you’re seeing here, and are able to, please consider becoming a patron. If you are already one, sincerely, thank you.

Fight Write: We’re Only Human

Today, we’re going to take a break from our regularly scheduled blogging programming to discuss some important character traits. There’s a somewhat disturbing trend roaming through YA right now and while this deals mostly with female “action hero” protagonists, it’s affecting the male characters too. We can call it exceptionalism, prodigy, or perfection but there is a pervading trend right now in popular literature that says a hero must be perfect to succeed. We have a steady stream of heroes who make no mistakes, who travel on a simple, single line towards an inevitable destination. Their flaw is that they are without flaw, the mistakes they make are the fault of someone else, and all the choices are easy. I sort of wish that in real life, we fit into such easily identifiable boxes but alas, the world is a bit more confusing than that. Worse, a perfect character is a boring one. A character whose fall is softened, whose antagonists are left on a choke chain, who is perfect, ends up negating tension in their story.

Below are some basic suggestions to keep in mind when crafting your characters. This applies to female action protagonists as well as male ones, but keep in mind that female characters (unfortunately) walk a much tighter line than their male counterparts. For them, you’re fighting an uphill battle against audience expectation.

We’re Only Human:

This one is going to be a bit more general, rather than specifically about fight scenes, but it’s worth talking about: Your character does not need to be perfect. They can be wrong, they can make mistakes, and they can fail. And all of this can make your story stronger. A character with flaws will always be more interesting, to the reader, than one without. So, let’s talk about a few writing flaws, that can massively improve your characters.

The Master or the Apprentice:

Your character doesn’t need to be skilled at everything they want to be, and they certainly don’t need to be the best. Ask yourself, which is more interesting? A character who is trying to earn their place and learn the ropes of a skill, or a master of all they survey. A character who is a master of a skill can be useful if you’re trying to teach the audience about that skill, but in nearly every other situation, you’re going to get a more interesting story if other characters exist who outclass your character.

For instance, Star Wars isn’t interesting because Luke and Vader are on an equal footing. Throughout the original trilogy, Luke is playing catch up to Vader’s skill as a combatant.

Having characters who are flat out more powerful than your protagonist, creates a real threat that the they can be defeated, and for your audience, a real threat to your hero. Who will win? It’s hard to say. And that’s what’s going to keep your audience turning pages.

Beyond Right and Wrong:

Your character can be wrong, make mistakes, and screw up, just like any other person. And, to an extent, this won’t hurt your story. This is a bit trickier, because you can swing too far, have your hero be wrong about everything, and end up with a mess. But, don’t be afraid to let your character make mistakes. Trust people they want to, but shouldn’t. Misunderstand situations they’re not familiar with. Even get manipulated into doing thing things they really shouldn’t.

Bad calls are something everyone has to deal with sooner or later. How your hero deals with them can be far more interesting than a character who never makes mistakes.

What is important is the decisions the character makes have to based on a rational thought process, just one that doesn’t have all the information.

Omniscience:

On that subject, your character doesn’t need to know everything. Really, they can’t. When they’re making decisions, ask yourself: what do they know? What do they understand? What do they believe?

When you put this together, you’re character will be constructing their plans, and making their decisions, based on the information they have. This will inevitably lead to mistakes. And, again, that’s a good thing. A character scrambling to adapt to a situation they didn’t anticipate or dealing with information they didn’t even consider is far more interesting than a character who makes a perfect plan and executes it.

The original Star Wars trilogy pulls this over and over, the final acts of both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi swing on these kinds of situations. (For both the heroes and the villains.)

I’m not saying the villain needs to be your character’s father, but any time you can pull the rug out from under your character like that, especially against expectations, is a wonderful moment.

Another example comes from a game called Arcanum: Through most of the game, the player is told they’re the reincarnation of an Elven Jesus figure, “Nasrudin”. You encounter the religion that sprung up around him, you learn about the religion’s history, all while preparing to deal with the religion’s sealed evil in a can. And then, about 80% of the way through the game, you actually meet Nasrudin, he’s been alive the entire time, in seclusion. The player cannot be his reincarnation, and the entire chosen one construct in the story is a sham. I wouldn’t even remember the story of a game from 12 years ago if it wasn’t an interesting and memorable twist.

As a writer, you can create the truth of your setting and your story, but your characters don’t need to know what that truth is, and they can build their understanding of the world off faulty information.

Loved by Children and Small Animals:

Liking or disliking someone on contact can be a good indicator of potential personality conflicts, but it’s a poor excuse for knowing if someone’s good or evil. The biggest problem is, now you’re telegraphing who will betray your heroes later, or who will betray your villain.

People (and characters) like and dislike one another for any number of reasons, unrelated to plot and faction. You can get much more interesting material by forcing two characters who actively dislike and distrust one another to work together towards a common goal, or by pitting two good friends against one another (without the whole, “you turned to the dark side, the friend I knew is dead,” shtick).

Above all else, it makes your story harder to predict and more interesting. While I’m loathe to recommend most TV writing, FarScape did an excellent job shuffling heroes and villains around and forcing everyone to work together at least once.

Because Losing is Fun:

Finally, it’s okay for your character to lose. Lose a fight, lose an argument. Sometimes this goes back to making mistakes, sometimes it goes back to your character being outclassed. How your character deals with defeat can be far more interesting than having them cruise through every challenge they encounter. Do they sulk? Do they break down? Do they rage? Do they get back up, and throw themselves at it again? Do they go back to the drawing board; look for more allies; look for ways to undermine their foe? Do they even accept it happened? Also, what are the consequences of their defeat? Are they injured? Does it cause their allies to doubt them?

If you’re writing in a serialized format, be that chapters, episodes, or a series, don’t be afraid to end a sequence in utter defeat. Your heroes can rally for the final act, but the idea that your characters can lose will do wonders for showing that your villains are a legitimate threat.

Again with the Star Wars examples, the entire reason that Empire Strikes Back works (and a large part of Return of the Jedi’s ability to work as a story), is because of the defeat that kicks in at the end of ESB. I’m not saying rip off Star Wars, but you can learn a lot about making a compelling story from the original trilogy.

-Starke (just wants you to know; fifteen Bothans died bringing you this article)

Fight Write: Your Character’s Weapon is also a Character

No, we’re not saying anthropomorphize your weapon. But here’s the thing, the best way to prove to your reader that your character knows what they’re doing isn’t what they do in the middle of a fight. It’s the behavior they exhibit outside of it, especially during their downtime.

Every weapon is unique and I don’t simply mean that in the way that a bastard sword and a broadsword are two completely different weapons. They may look almost the same, but when you look at them closely, you’ll notice many differences between them that are key to how they were used in combat. So make sure you know which weapon your character is using, calling it a sword or a gun is not good enough, know which one it is, what it was and is still used for, and how it works.

 Now, it’s even more important to mention that even weapons that are direct off the factory line like handguns and rifles are all individually unique. No gun, even of the same make and model, is exactly the same as another. Each has their own individual tics and flaws in their construction for how well they work and what needs to be done to care for them.

Handguns specifically are more subject to wear and tear because of their internal mechanisms and more personal customization. For example, the Walther P99 comes with three different grips designed for the shooter’s hand to be configured out of the box. If you add a tactical flashlight to the weapon, then you change its balance and recoil. This means the weapon will look and feel different from weapons of a similar make.

Any character who has had their weapon for a long period of time will know the ins and outs of it. They’ll have to. For a character that fights their weapon is their lifeblood, it’s their most precious possession, in some cases it’s essentially their best friend. Now, a character that doesn’t properly care for their weapon and ignores basic safety is a danger to themselves and those around them. But in fiction, that can definitely be a distinctive character trait to that character. This is why it’s so important for authors to get to know the weapons they plan on using, simply because then they’ll know what makes a good practitioner and what doesn’t so they can adjust the character’s behavior according to what they need for their story.

No matter what the weapon is, a character who is a warrior or who fights will be defined by how well they care for that weapon and their gear.   

Here are some ways a weapon can indicate a character’s state to the reader without any dialogue being necessary:

In the beginning of the story, Joe’s sword is pristine and in perfect condition, we constantly see him cleaning it and sharpening it after each battle as the novel progresses, Joe’s traveling companion Jason begins to notice small signs of wear in Joe based on the blood left on the hilt and that the annoying amount of time Joe spends cleaning his weapon is getting shorter and the blade is getting duller. The more battles there are and the worse it gets until Jason finally steps in to confront Joe about his behavior. This can lead to a moment of crisis for Joe that allows us to see into a character who wouldn’t normally converse about these emotions. The state of the weapon can also be used to show the reader, who may like Joe, that he’s not doing well and encourage emotional investment in his character because it’s obvious he’s having a difficult time.

In the hands of an aware author, this can be a way to humanize characters that are usually unlikeable without ever having to go inside their heads. You also can’t just take a character’s personal weapon from them and give them another with the expectation they’ll be interchangeable. Even a practitioner who is skilled with multiple different arts will have difficulty period adjusting a weapon they aren’t used to using. This is because every weapon is an individual and just like their wielder, should be a considered a character in their own right.

Ask yourself some important questions dealing with your weapon and your setting:

Is the weapon your character uses common in the setting they are living in?

If not and even if it is, where and who did they get it from?

How much effort will they have to put in to care for their weapon? If it’s a rare weapon or one that has fallen out of use, they may have to have some skills in basic chemistry to construct the gunpowder or the oils they’ll need.

Why do they use this weapon instead of another? Were they trained in its use or are they self-taught? If they did learn from someone, then who was it and who taught their teacher?

If it’s a projectile weapon is the ammunition for it readily available or will they have to manufacture it themselves? If you’re using a more exotic weapon like a matchlock or a flintlock pistol, this will be extremely difficult even if your character has the chemical understanding to manufacture the gunpowder because getting flint in the proper configuration will be a pain if it’s not readily available in the setting. Flint will wear down over time.

How durable is the weapon? Will it require a lot of special care? If your character is using a katana, it’s best to keep in mind that there is a significant difference between blades forged in Japan today and older blades made using the natural iron deposits found in Japan.  The older katanas are very rare because though they didn’t see a lot of use, they weren’t very durable. If it’s a different sort of bladed weapon, they’ll need something like a whetstone to be able to keep the weapon sharp and hammer out the inevitable dents the weapon will receive if there’s no blacksmith readily available. (You won’t be able to do this with any katana that pre-dates WWII. You may be able to hone one though, research as needed).

Is this a weapon that another trained practitioner or even local law enforcement will recognize? If yes, will carrying it get them into trouble with the local authorities? If not, why not? It’s important to remember that even today in states like California, the bow and crossbow are regulated weapons that require a permit to be purchased and owned legally. If your character is living under a restrictive regime, the number of weapons they will have access to and be able to effectively hide will be limited. So pick one that makes sense for the world they live in, not just their profession and their skill set.

Here are some ideas for how to include weapon cleaning scenes in a narrative:

You don’t need to take time out to specially point out that your character is doing this or make a big deal out of it. Besides, that would be strange for them since for most warriors these tics in behavior come naturally and are a package part of their training.

You can have them cleaning and caring for their weapon while they are in the middle of a conversation with another character if they are a center of that scene.

You can show them cleaning their weapon in the background of a tense conversation that they may be watching but doesn’t involve them.  It will only take a few lines to show what they are doing through other characters basic observation skills.

Sometimes, it’s important to show non-combat characters feeling threatened by the fact that they have the weapon out and annoyed by the fact that this character isn’t paying attention to them even though they are.

Depending on a character’s martial style, they may have an annoying habit of being up and mobile. They’ll pace, they’ll stretch, even just during normal conversation. Character A stretching can be very distracting for Character B if they are sexually attracted to them. It’s important to remember that stretching can be done in complete innocence or with the intention of arousal, depending on who the characters are and what their personality is.

Weapons are an easy source of tension because for many people who don’t fight (and even some who do) they are threatening. One of your characters may not even realize that the fact they have their rifle out and in pieces on the table with a loaded handgun right next to it might be perceived as a threat by another character. Or, the fact that they are cleaning their weapon could be a threat, such as sharpening their sword with a whetstone. It could be a way to indicate annoyance. So, think about where they lay out their weapon, what direction it’s facing, where they choose to look, and how fast they are going. A character’s body posture can communicate a lot without them ever having to say anything or it could suggest to the reader (and the other character if they’re good at reading body language) that they mean the opposite of what they are saying.

The time it takes for a character to get their weapon ready or put away can be a hindrance, especially if it’s a weapon like the bow where such action is necessary to maintain the battle-readiness of the weapon. This action can be used to cause narrative tension between those who just want to get on with it while the first character needs to make sure their weapon is prepared right.

Here’s an example of a good use of an exotic weapon in fiction and how it affects the character:

Marcus in Babylon 5 is an excellent example of how to make use of an exotic weapon in a narrative without it being either ostentatious or aggravating. In the show, Marcus carries an Mimbari fighting pike, which is an alien weapon carried by the race Humanity was at war with ten years before the series starts. It’s a rare weapon even among the Mimbari, used only by high ranking members of their warrior caste. In the weapon’s natural state it has the advantage of not looking like one. But even in combat, it’s a weapon that most people won’t recognize. The problem for him, though, is that veterans of the war will (and do in the show) recognize it as a Mimbari weapon and they react, often according to old prejudices. The weapon also puts him at odds with members of the Mimbari warrior caste when he encounters them because it’s offensive for him to be using one of their traditional weapons. It also means he was extensively trained in what his own people consider to be an alien fighting style and a fighting style used by the enemy. The people who see the weapon for what it is are left uncertain of where his loyalties lie and whether or not he can be trusted.

The pike serves as a method of showing to the audience how Marcus is a balance between the two races while also being isolated by it and pushed to the outside edge of both communities. It’s an excellent demonstration of what a weapon can mean for a character beyond them just carrying around a unique shiny that makes them special.

Every aspect included in your story must be there for a reason. This includes a character’s weapon.

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!