Tag Archives: writing tips

Q&A: Setting the Rules in Horror

One thing that always bugs me about ghost stories is how there doesn’t seem to be any consistency In how a Ghost operates. Theyre built up as scary only to have them be really incompetent. There’s this particular case in IT. Where one of the kids gets grabbed by Pennywise then just wrestles out and runs away. It makes Pennywise seem really incompetent. Other ghost stories do this. Where the ghost can hurt you. . . except when it cant. No logic behind it. How can a writer avoid this?

The short answer is: By making sure there are logical rules underpinning your setting. With horror this is a little harder than it seems, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

Start by writing up the rules for the monsters in your setting. How are they created? What are their powers and limitations? What do they want? How do they go about getting that?

To an extent, this is something you should probably do anyway, if you’re creating an elaborate setting. But, it can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with monsters, or other fantasy creatures.

Exactly how you format this is, obviously, up to you. There’s no strict list of things you need. If you’ve got multiple kinds of monsters, the document doesn’t even need to be uniform between them.

Also, if anyone’s wondering, there is no “One True Set of Rules for Ghosts,” or any other kind of monster. There’s a lot of variety in folklore, which gets even more diverse when you start taking other cultures into account. When you’re creating a monster, either from scratch or from some basic template, like a ghost, you have a lot of latitude to decide how they work in your story.

Once you have those rules, keep them with you when you write. Depending on how large it is, and how you work, you may want to physically tape it to your wall, or you might simply keep them open in another window while you’re typing on your computer. It doesn’t matter where the document is, just make sure you keep that stuff close and accessible.

So, I said this is a little harder with horror. Most horror, as a genre, thrives on fear of the unknown. Once you’ve taken the rules for a horror setting, dragged them out in the open, and poked them with a stick, the illusion collapses, and much of the fear escapes. If you want to scare someone, you need their imagination to do the work for you.

This means, you do not want to put those rules out in the open for your audience. Even in a normal setting, you’ll probably want to hold back a bit, and spool those out over time, as your characters learn, and discover new information. But, with horror, hiding those rules, while still clearly enforcing them is a difficult, but vital, skill to master.

There’s an important detail here. Even if you clearly infer a rule in your horror, so long as you don’t go out and explicitly define it, there’s going to be a degree of unease. Horror thrives on that space, where you should be safe, but you’re not completely sure.

The other set of rules you should keep in mind, are the ones your characters create for the monster. If it’s trying to kill them, they’re going to be trying to figure out how to avoid that. Looking for what the monster’s limits are, and trying to identify its methodology. After all, if they know that it can’t kill them under certain circumstances, then they’ll want to find a way to engineer that situation.

The thing about your characters is that they can be wrong. They can look at the information available, and make an entirely rational but incorrect assumption. This can create situations where the monster is suddenly able to “break the rules,” because the rules your characters worked out aren’t the real limitations you set at the beginning. This should send your characters back to the drawing board, looking for something they got wrong.

Now, obviously, if your character is a veteran monster hunter, then they’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the rules are. Though, even with that, there’s a lot of room for a character to prepare for the wrong monster. To be fair, this kind of character doesn’t usually work well in horror. It’s not a hard, “no,” but it does make your life more difficult. This is because they’re likely to have a (mostly) accurate version of your rules internalized. Point of view characters like this can work, but it requires you to be a lot more creative. If you think you’re up to it, feel free to experiment. However, stories with characters like this will often trend more into supernatural action rather than horror.

One more vitally important thing: Don’t pull your punches. Not in horror. If there’s a monster out there in the forest trying to kill them, and it gets the opportunity to pick someone off, kill them. The only time I’d caution against this is if you’re late in the story and running out of characters to snuff. In those cases, I’d suggest stepping back a scene or two, and figuring out how to keep them alive by avoiding that situation entirely.

Even then, I’d still recommend you roll with a death, even if its your designated protagonist. As a genre, horror is an indiscriminate killer. The story will survive your favorites dying. Also, sometimes, the monster wins, and your story ends with the last survivor down. That’s okay. It’s far better than a situation where your monster loses credibility because it fumbles a kill. If you find the story really doesn’t work without them, then that’s what rewrites are for.

I should add, I’ve been approaching this from the perspective of a story where the monster is trying to kill the protagonists, but this isn’t a certainty. Sometimes in horror, the monster doesn’t want to kill your characters. If it wants something else from them, that can be even more horrifying. Another possibility worth mentioning is, sometimes you’ve got monsters that honestly do not care about your characters at all. They’re content to go about their business, oblivious to the damage they cause.


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Q&A: Bullies and Superpowers

I was hoping you could help me with a problem my story. It complicated but the base of it is a boy who is a part of a superpower race. He was separated from his family as an Infant and adopted by human parents. They don’t notice his abilities (which in short is super strength) but still they raise him and let him attend a school. His powers are dormant and he gets bullied. I’m trying to find a way for him to accidentally activate his powers and harm the bullies but not kill them.

You know the answer to this one in your heart.

He kills them. Or, at least, he kills one of them.

That’s the situation you’ve created for yourself, and, you know, it is a great one for angst. This is a classic superhero setup, there are a certain number of power-types and power levels that won’t automatically result in accidental death when put under a stress test but the kind of punch through a wall/punch a bus super strength isn’t one of them. (Much less Superman or Hulk levels of super strength.) The only get out of jail free cards are against government agents, assassins, and other soldiers-types so far beyond the level of what a normal child can deal with that it’s obviously self-defense.

Physical damage to another person is path of least resistance, which means this boy could easily end up hitting back and putting his fist through the bully’s chest.  When you’ve got enough force behind you, you don’t hit people and they fly backwards. At a certain level of force, you just go through them. If he can crush a human skull with his hands when he’s controlling himself, then whatever he does when his powers activate is going to be 100x worse. If he’s powerful enough to stop a bus in its tracks, they’re dead.

This is the Uncle Ben setup from Spiderman. “With great power come great responsibility.” If you don’t figure out how to control yourself, then bad shit happens. Death is a great lesson about the necessity for control. Most superheroes have some secret shame or someone they accidentally killed when they’re powers activated, especially bullied teenagers.

Beyond that, bullying doesn’t play with superheroes and super-powered individuals the same way it would in a situation between two humans.  The problem is power dynamics.

Bullying is not about violence. Bullying is about power and control.

A bully attacks when there’s no fear of repercussions, no fear of consequences. This is why having consequences for violence in your fiction is so important, when you’re characters are making choices and taking action without fear of the consequences for those actions (and the follow through) they are bullies. They may be bullies we sympathize with, but they’re still bullies.

A character with superpowers versus the average human not only has the ability to act, but the ability to act without repercussions. If you imagined that their superpowers opened up a whole new venue for their fight against injustice against non-powered humans then that’s exactly what I mean. Their powers give them the freedom to act without fear and control others through the threat of violence when they are at no risk themselves. That is a bully and that is the logic behind how a bully operates.

Bullies act when they are entirely safe, when they know their opponent can’t fight back. Superpowers upend the scales, even when the character doesn’t know, a superpowered individual standing up to a bully who can’t actually hurt them is just another bully. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy in the accomplishment, nothing to bond the reader to them. There is nothing impressive about a character standing up or inflicting violence on another individual when the individual in question is powerless to stop them.

Violence in fiction is built on balance. Balance creates tension, two people of similar ability balance each other out and we as the audience know there’ll be some consequences to the scuffle. Audience expectation is not necessarily based in reality, but this is why weigh ins at prize fights are so important. The weight is supposed to show that they’re at least equal in this very narrow respect, regardless of any other aspect.

When you set the scales out of balance, you want your hero to be the underdog. Not secretly empowered, just an underdog. The odds are weighted against them, they’ll have to work harder in order to win. When the scales are weighted in the protagonist’s favor, they have the responsibility to act accordingly. This is where a surprise death can be so effective. An example is when a soldier character is in a recently conquered village and killed by a subdued villager. The situation was safe and then boom: death.

There are certain traits that will ensure the scales are permanently weighted in a character’s favor against certain opponents. Combat training, for example. Superpowers are another. Both require restraint and responsible use against specific opponents for the character to be perceived as a good person.

Remember, you’re never just balancing how reality works in your fiction. You’re also balancing audience expectation, genre conventions, pacing, and narrative tension. For obvious reasons, fictional fights and entertainment work differently than they do in real life. Fiction has a hierarchy of power that dictates expected behavior based on the skills one possesses. Working off generic assumptions rather than situational specifics based on your characters will only lead to a bad fight scene.

There is no narrative tension in a situation where the character was never actually in any danger. If you have no narrative tension, you have no scene. You’re just mashing puppets together.

Whenever you set out to write a fight scene, there’s one question you need to ask first: is my character in danger? If they’re not, then the tension’s got to come from somewhere else.

It’s got to be more than just an excuse to get your character to show their powers. That’s a narrative inevitability, not tension. Is my character going to kill this guy? That’s tension when the question jives with the character’s personal state and mentality. If not, then it’s a false question. The question has to be real and relate to the character as a genuine possibility.

Stories are built on the pervading question of: what happens? Answering that question creates the scenes which move the story along. Those questions create other questions, all of which should have a myriad of possible outcomes. Or, at the very least, a tick and a tock. Both the tick and the tock should have an equal chance of happening with the narrative consequences hanging on the outcome. Yes, or no. Life, or death. Kill, or be killed. However, these questions must be genuine, honest, representative of who your characters are, and relevant to their circumstances. If they’re not, you have no tension.

Narrative tension shifts as your characters make decisions, and moves based on desired outcomes versus the negative outcomes while weighted by audience expectation. There’s no tension in a character who wants to die dying, but there is if they realize they want to live and dying is still on the table. If they still plan on dying, and roll with “I’m taking you with me” as a heroic sacrifice then the tension lies in whether they succeed or fail. If they do die, but succeed then we get a cathartic release. The tension then shifts and lands on the surviving heroes, who realize they just lost one of their most valuable warriors on whom they can now no longer rely. Or, they live, and are cut off from helping our heroes anyway. Or, they get murdered by the Big Bad and the stakes have been tripled.

See, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re looking for that little part of you that goes, No! whenever some terrible event is about to happen.

Take Jedi Knight Ganner Rhysode’s heroic last stand in Matthew Stover’s Traitor to cover Jacen Solo and Vergere’s escapes from the Yuuzhan Vong seed world. A lackluster and generic Jedi formerly interested only in personal glory and recognition, fighting an alien warrior race from outside the galaxy who’ve already killed countless better Jedi.  A joke of a Jedi now the only one standing between Jacen Solo’s freedom, the galaxy, and conquest by the Vong. He’s framed in a gate, unlikely to defeat even one Vong warrior instead of the hundreds coming. Wielding Anakin Solo’s lightsaber, he battles until he’s standing on a pile of bodies, until the pile is a mountain, until… finally… he’s cut down.  Alone, in the dark, where there’s no one to witness or remember his heroism except his sworn enemies.

That’s tension.

Let’s get back to bullying.

Combat is 90% mind games and 10% actual physical harm. The bully lives in the 90% more than the 10%. They have a finely tuned understanding of risk assessment, and a need to establish control over their environment. They are frightened individuals whose lives are out of control, and they regain control by inflicting their fear on someone else. They’re taking out their insecurities on their victim. Ultimately, the bully is punishing their victim for the bully’s inability to control their own life. The bully builds their self-identity off their ability to take power from their victims, and that’s what makes them dangerous. From the bully’s perspective, a bully’s bullying is always about the bully’s self-esteem and self-identity. Their victim is a tool whose pain and powerlessness they utilize in order to make them feel good about themselves.

There’s a fantasy in conventional wisdom that lies with the idea that if you just stand up to the bully they’ll go away. They won’t. Often, the bullying will escalate and get worse. If a bully’s identity and self-esteem relies on their victim’s powerlessness then they must exert control over their victim. When their victim challenges that control, challenges their authority, they double down. You can have a character with superpowers retaliate against bullies but, unless they’ve got the perspective of Eleven from Stranger Things, all they’ll manage to do is get them to retreat for a short period. Then, they return with a new plan and new ways to bait their victim.

Say you’ve got a character with super strength who is trying to hide their powers from the public. The bullies discovered this character has powers because the character used those powers against them. However, they lived and said character wasn’t in control. Which means… they now move the bullying into a public sphere with other people present. Minor stuff in the hall, during PE, in class, all to get said other child to lash out. Bullies do this. If private doesn’t work anymore, they’ll move over to public. Slightly more risk but they’ll use social order and the victim’s own fears of discovery to enforce their control. After all, the stakes for the character with superpowers are much higher than they are for the bully.

A bully doesn’t care about what their victim can do. They only care about what they will do. A bully is making and taking calculated risks based on the knowledge of their environment and the power they wield. They almost always have some sort of safety net behind them, a powerful protector who lets them get away with their behavior.  Like most humans, the bully will revert to their first impression and work off that. You can have superpowers, but that doesn’t mean those superpowers will protect you from a bully.

Duncan versus Scott Summers in X-men: Evolution is a great example of the bullying continuing even after Duncan learns Scott is a mutant. He knows what Scott is willing to do, what Scott won’t do, and that the cost of the outcome is much higher for Scott than Duncan. By baiting Scott, Duncan potentially gets what he wants which is Scott kicked out of school. If Scott opens his eyes after Duncan steals his glasses, bye, bye Bayfield.

The kids on the bus bullying the school bus driver are usually the ones with influential parents. Or, they know that the stakes for the adult if the adult retaliates are higher. Maybe the kid gets a dressing down, but the adult loses their job.

Another great example of bullying in fiction is the first season of Stranger Things with Mike and his friends. Where when Eleven shames the bully by forcing him to pee his pants in front of the whole class, the bully just waits for an opportunity where she’s not there. He escalates, comes back with a knife and threatens to cut out Dustin’s teeth if Mike doesn’t jump into the quarry. (And kill himself.) Eleven saves Mike, but what ultimately drives the bully off for good isn’t just Eleven breaking bones. It’s the knowledge that she will kill him, mercilessly, quickly, and without remorse because this child is no different to her than the Federal agents who abused her. It isn’t the broken arm, or the superpowers, it’s the fact that Eleven is goddamn terrifying. It all happens at a speed too quickly for the bully to comprehend.

Bullying is about who can escalate further faster, bullies live in the comfortable state of knowing they can get there first, and they can go higher than you can. Whatever they’re showing in their hand, they’ve got a lot more lined up. Bullies are all about calculated risk. They wouldn’t be bullying if they didn’t have a firm grasp of social politics and an ability to manipulate the surrounding power structure to their own benefit. They’re sharp, and they pick their victims. They’re going after a personality-type, someone who is socially isolated and easy to intimidate. Someone without connections, someone whom when they’re both dragged up in front of an authority figure they can point at the victim and the authority will believe its the victim’s fault. Or, at best, equally to blame.

You can’t beat bullying with violence and you can’t stop a bully with violence, not as a long term solution. I don’t mean this as advocating for pacifism. Bullying is about power and power dynamics, it’s about control. I wish punching a bully was enough to make them go away. I wish having superpowers and punching a bully would be enough to make the bully go away. I honestly wish the catharsis of this entire setup was more than just an exercise in catharsis and Feel Good Violence. However, none of these states are true. In point of fact, violent bullying itself is Feel Good Violence. That’s why bullies engage in bullying. Controlling another human being is cathartic, it feels good and it makes them feel good. This why you authors who’ve never personally experienced violence or engaged with violence beyond the schoolyard should be careful with your characters. The first step on the path your imagination will lead you when it comes to violence is bullies, because bullying feels good. It is easier to simulate abuse and abusers as violence in fiction than it is any other form of personality, especially when you’re trying to exert some measure of control over your environment through your art.

When a bully is beat up, the bully only ever learns the same lesson that the bully already understands. For a character with superpowers, by beating up a bully they become a bully.

Superman can’t beat up bullies because the bullies can’t actually hurt him. They can hurt his feelings, but when they shove him into the locker he can’t feel it. In fact, he doesn’t have to move if he doesn’t want to. He could stop being bullied at any point in time, but he doesn’t. The reason why Superman doesn’t stop bullies from bullying him isn’t just about keeping up appearances. The truth is that when you deflect a bully off yourself, you don’t stop them from bullying. They just find a new target. This is why you can’t save someone from being bullied, you can make the bully afraid of you but that does a fat lot of good when you’re not there. With Superman, or Peter Parker, or Scott Summers, the bullies bullying them is safer than it would be if they were bullying the average human being. In some ways, these superpowered characters save those vulnerable characters around them by taking up the bully’s attention. (This is not a method you should be replicating in real life, these are rules for characters who can survive being tossed off a fifty foot cliff.)

The problem in fiction with human bullies versus superpowered characters is power dynamics. A character with superpowers inherently has more power than a human being, therefore the rules are different for them.


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Q&A: In Tragedy, Reject Despair

How can a writer avoid putting a happy face over a tragedy ? There was this show I watched that really made me angry because of the way it kind of had a forced happy ending that completely undermined a characters arc and really made me angry. The message of the show basically is people can get over ANYTHING if they’re optimistic enough. No, they cant. They can’t get over a concentration camp.

Honestly, if this show left a bad taste in your mouth, I’ll direct you to Elie Wiesel. Read the works of those people who lived through the experience, and you’ll have a better understanding of how to avoid a forced happy ending. However, remember, some of the people who survived the Holocaust did have happy endings. Or, what we would consider happy.

“I am pessimistic because I don’t trust history. But at the same time, I am optimistic. Out of despair, one creates. What else can one do? There is no good reason to go on living, but you must go on living. There is no good reason to bring a child into this world but you must have children to give the world a new innocence, a new reason to aspire towards innocence. As Camus said, in a world of unhappiness, you must create happiness.”

– Elie Wiesel, New York Times interview, April 7, 1981

You can have a tragedy be a tragedy, and still have hope.

In fact, we must have hope.

Remember, all these quotes from Elie Wiesel come from a man who survived the Nazi death camps and experienced it first hand. In fact, if you ever want to read a story about concentration camps Night is a good one to start with. The whole of Wiesel’s catalogue actually, Night deals specifically with the camps but it’s a trilogy.  Of the three, it is a memoir based on his experiences in Auschwitz. However, Dawn and Day both deal with struggling in the aftermath. In Dawn’s case, the story is about a holocaust survivor traveling to Palestine to join the resistance against the British and tasked with the assassination of a British officer.

In fact, a key piece of a lot of Holocaust literature written by survivors is hope. Not in the classic Hollywood happy ending, but hope nonetheless. They’re about who we choose to let tragedy make us into,  come to an understanding of suffering, and find a measure of peace. When faced with monstrosity, you can either embrace it or reject it.

In fiction, we build to our endings. In a well crafted piece of fiction the ending is never false, because its a natural conclusion to the characters experiences and their arcs.

You avoid putting a falsely happy face on a tragedy is in all the events that come before the end. If this is not where they’re character arcs are leading them then the ending will feel false. (Any ending forcing happy endings will be false if they defy the setup that got them there.) The end is a conclusion, it is the fulfillment of everything your story promises. If you want an honestly “happy” ending for characters, you need to acknowledge their experiences and the conclusions those experiences led them to. Tragedy is sad in abstract, but it means something different to those who experience the tragedy firsthand. Their experiences are unique, and their relationship to the tragedy is unique. This is a defining aspect of their character arc.

I’ll point out, Shakespeare’s Comedies and Tragedies follow the exact same story structure. They’re the same until we hit that final act, after the ground shaking horrible event X happens whether that’s Hero being framed for adultery or Mercutio’s death. These are the points where the dominos begin falling, the only difference is in how they do. The question is does it all go to pot? Or do the characters figure it out? Romeo and Juliet could’ve been a comedy, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing have similar story beats and Much Ado‘s John is the proto Iago. Shakespeare structured his plays so he could flip a coin and whichever way the final act played out it’d still be in character.

The difference between a tragic ending and a happy one is a knife’s edge apart, dependent on the decision making of the characters in question. When it is a natural extension of a character arc, no happy ending is false. The key piece to understanding how to handle tragedy in your fiction and, in some ways, real life is to grasp that you don’t get over the tragedy. You deal with tragedy. You find the courage to face the emotional aftermath, to not let the experience define who you are, to believe in kindness, in goodness, to reach out in compassion. Then, in time, to move on.

This act is part of your character’s arc. This is a choice.

The difference between a happy ending and a forced happy ending is the characters are creating their happy ending for themselves. They aren’t given happiness. They choose happiness. They march toward happiness. They make their continued survival a choice, an act of defiance and rebellion.  They make kindness and compassion choices, they choose kindness when the world laughs at them. This is an action, not a reaction. Active, not passive.

This is the very definition of “earn your happy ending.”

Except, they don’t earn their happiness. They take it.

They choose. They create. They live.

Tragedy can bring out the worst in a character, but it can bring out the best in them too. In tragedy, we find the strength to continue forward. Life becomes precious, happiness precious, courage precious. All these are active choices by the individual and as a result are powerful. A natural happy ending in a narrative is when the characters create the happy ending for themselves. Their determination in the face of extreme horror, their struggles against cynicism, and their ultimate rejection of despair.

The characters choose happiness. They can’t be given happiness. They’re the only ones who can find happiness for themselves, that’s the only way “happiness” has any meaning.

“People say occasionally that there must be light at the end of the tunnel, but I believe in those times there was light in the tunnel. The strange way there was courage in the ghetto, and there was hope, human hope, in the death camps. Simply an anonymous prisoner giving a piece of his bread to someone who was hungrier than he or she; a father shielding his child; a mother trying to hold back her tears so her children would not see her pain—that was courage.”

– Elie Wiesel, Days of Remembrance remarks, April 9, 2002

In tragedy, we find the worst of humanity. We also find the best of humanity. We find strength, real strength in hope. When the happy ending is not provided, we must create one for ourselves. We aren’t past it, we aren’t over it, but even just going on living is an act of defiance. An act of rebellion, a middle finger to all those assholes striving so hard to take away everything you are and kill you.

Honestly, admire the pure grit of the survivors to come through such horrific situations and keep moving forward. Who see the worst the world has to offer and reject it. Admire the strength it takes. To experience what they did and look optimistically to the future takes an unimaginable level of emotional strength, but coming to that place of strength isn’t easy. Emotional strength isn’t a state of morality, it isn’t guaranteed. The scars will continue, but that doesn’t mean hope is impossible or the experiences are forgotten. Or that the experiences of the parents won’t affect the next generation.

There’s an entire literary genre based on the second generation experiences of the adult children of Holocaust survivors working through the fallout of their parents’ experiences. Of them trying to understand their parents through the generational gap. Maus is one example. This is secondary to the literary genre of holocaust survivors working through their autobiographical experiences. The children’s experiences are unique, they work through the tragedy experienced by their parents; experiences they cannot wholly understand. They mourn the grandparents, aunts, and uncles they never met. Their parent’s previous partners who died in the concentration camps. The siblings they never got to know, who died, who were abducted, or otherwise lost. The scars of the parents are scars on the children who love them, who struggle to understand their experiences and forge their own identity.

“I know and I speak from experience, that even in the midst of darkness, it is possible to create light and share warmth with one another; that even on the edge of the abyss, it is possible to dream exalted dreams of compassion; that it is possible to be free and strengthen the ideals of freedom, even within prison walls; that even in exile, friendship becomes an anchor.”

– Elie Wiesel, Days of Remembrance remarks, April 23, 2009

A story and its characters can come out of horror with courage and hope for the future. The question to the author is did they earn that happy ending? Was that the path of progression their characters were on? Were they finding the best of humanity in tragedy? Did they remember kindness exists in all the cruelty and misery? That when given the option to be their worst selves, some human beings can and do rise above?

The answer to a happy ending after a tragedy is the author finds a way to allow the experiences  of their characters to become a source of personal strength. That strength and compassion is not cheesy or silly or unrealistic. These stories are powerful and moving.

If you believe these stories are cheesy, if you believe them impossible, if you look at the darkness and cannot see how someone could come through the experiences to find the light then you won’t be able to write these stories. They don’t come prepackaged. They take work, hard work, to tell. Cynicism and pessimism are easier than optimism, hope harder to hold onto than despair. It is difficult to believe in yourself, especially in the face of adversity.

The character must find that strength as part of their narrative arc, come to their own conclusion of what their experiences mean to them, to heal themselves, and to get themselves to the point where they can look at Wiesel’s quotes and not feel they’re cheap.

Many nights we prayed
With no proof anyone could hear
In our hearts a hope for a song
We barely understood.

Now we are not afraid
Although we know there’s much to fear
We were moving mountains
Long before we knew we could.

There can be miracles
When you believe
Though hope is frail
Its hard to kill.

Who knows what miracles
You can achieve
When you believe somehow you will
You will when you believe. – “There Can Be Miracles (When You Believe)”

Did the author allow the possibility for miracles? Or are they telling a story that says, “life sucks and then you die”? If its the latter, then that forced happy ending will be cheap. It’s meaningless. The characters didn’t just fail to earn it, they don’t even believe in it. They don’t put any value in happiness or the possibility of it and, as a result, the audience won’t either.

You may not “get over” the experiences in a concentration camp, but, by god, you can live a happy life. People have. They did. They saw the horrors of humanity, and beat it. They refused to stay victims. They went on to lead happy lives with their families. They won.

A character arc can involve someone who is depressed, angry, in pain,  whose emotions are ugly and they’re lashing out at everyone who gets close. They can transform, and that transition is their arc. As they find that light at the end of the tunnel, come through it into a new understanding. Find compassion, kindness, and inner strength to carry them forward. To not give up. To hope. To be happy.

What that arc isn’t is a natural state or inevitable conclusion. The story can just as easily go the opposite direction. The path of darkness and despair is just as natural, and doesn’t mean the person who loses faith and collapses under the weight of their experiences is any weaker. Those who became the worst versions of themselves in order to survive. Those people existed too, and their stories are just as powerful.

Kindness and compassion are not givens, they’re not guarantees. You aren’t guaranteed anything. Certainly not a happy ending. We find happiness in ourselves. You’ve got to fight for that goodness, fight to hold onto it. Sometimes, we fail. Sometimes, we see embracing the darkness as the only way to survive. That’s a different kind of hope. It’s ugly and it’s cruel, and it is part of us.

Some rose up, and some didn’t.

Whose story are you telling?

You give a tragic story an honest ending by being honest about what happened with your characters. Where did they end up at the end? What did they do? What life they will live now?

Stories are like life.

You’ve got to fight.

As Elie Wiesel says, you must reject despair. This is a conscious action, it is a choice. That is what makes stories of hope so powerful, because finding hope in the darkness isn’t easy.

We choose to hope, we pursue hope, we fight for hope.

“Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope. If dreams reflect the past, hope summons the future.”

– Elie Wiesel, Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1986

If your characters are not fighting for hope, if they are not choosing to reject despair, if they are giving up optimism and embracing cynicism, if they have accepted cruelty as a state of nature, and nothing they or anyone do will ever make it better then they will not have a happy ending. And any happy ending given to them will feel false until they go on a quest to find hope again.

Suffering is not what earns happy endings. We don’t get happy endings because we deserve them. We get them by fighting for them, through soul-searching. By clinging tenaciously to hope. We find that ending in perseverance and continuing to strive for a better tomorrow. Choosing hope and rejecting despair is where happy endings come from. That’s where happiness comes from.

The choice is why happiness, compassion, kindness, and hope are so very precious. Remember, no one said choosing happiness and optimism in adversity was easy.

Anyone who did lied.

“I cannot cure everybody. I cannot help everybody. But to tell the lonely person that I am not far or different from that lonely person, that I am with him or her, that’s all I think we can do and we should do.”


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Q&A: How to Fight Write

When writing about a sword fight (or sword and magic fight, in this case) is it better to give a general impression of the fighting, or go into play-by-play detail?

Have this bit from my current Nano efforts:

Dropping into a crouch, Orlya shifted. Head lowered, she prowled sideways along the gnoll. The end of her great tail rose, whipping back and forth.

We need to get out of here, Leah called to her dragon.

Orlya’s rage bubbled in Leah’s brain, a definite negative. There is no time.

Leah swallowed, hand falling to the plas-pistol holstered to her thigh. It wouldn’t do much against the spinosaurus other than make it angry. Pray the spino wants the fish more. Large predators didn’t like to fight unless pressed, and the spino wasn’t a carnosaur. With a closer food source and carcasses on the shore, Orlya’d be less appealing as potential prey. Pass us by, pass us by.

The spino’s head swung, noting the fish carcasses Orlya left. Head lowered, it took a step toward the lake. Paused. Then, the long snout swung back. Great yellow eyes narrowed.

Cor, Leah breathed.

Screaming, the spinosaurus raced forward.

Leah drew her pistol, fully merging into their telepathic link as Orlya sprang sideways. She aimed for the spino’s sensitive parts, the eyes and the nostrils halfway up the creature’s snout. Too small to register as a threat, she moved slowly. The spino’s eyes followed her dragon. Adjusting course toward the cliffs, the creature crossed the ground in massive strides. Leah waited until the spino closed, and fired. Neon-blue blasts struck the spinosaurus dead-on. The blast caught the creature’s snout, left a small hole. No larger than the width of her thumb.

The spino screamed.

Springing off her haunches, Orlya lunged. She came in low, seizing the underside of the spinosaurus’ neck. Her powerful teeth sank deep, blood spurting from the gash. Her jaws latched, unfurled claws sinking deep into the soft ground, and she dragged the creature down.

The spino screamed, scrabbling for a grip with its claws.

Orlya slammed her shoulder into its side, pinning its arms. She yanked, powerful jaws hauling the spino sideways. Stumbling, the spino threw its head up and whipped toward the cliff wall. Dragged about, Orlya lifted off ground. Swung in a circle. Her hindquarters slammed into the rock wall, hard. Pain lanced through their shared bond.

I mean, yes, that is a dragon fighting a dinosaur. However, notice the scene is neither vague nor an exact play-by-play of the situation. The characters are giving you enough of an understanding to follow, but it doesn’t feel like an “and then, and then, and then.” You may start out that way, which is fine. You won’t get it perfect on your first go, it may start out vague and grow more specific as you redraft or start out as a list of what you want that you then break down into action.

The keys to writing a good fight scene is this:

Understanding logical behavior patterns and how matter interacts. The above is a pretty good example of three different species fighting with various approaches based on their natural advantages.  (Though not necessarily scientifically accurate.)

Animals are pretty simple to write in fight scenes once you get a basic understanding of their attack patterns. They’re often extremely effective, but they don’t change much. They fight mostly on base instinct, behavior changing on learned experience. This is going to be different from humans, who are primarily tool users and problem solvers.

In this scene, we’ve got the dragon, a four-legged winged beastie whose fighting tactics are somewhere between a lion and a wolf. (I based her on my cat. Likes falling from great heights to break the back of whatever she’s hunting, it works.) She’s all springing and pouncing, but a pack predator working together with her human partner. Not unlike what you’d expect from a traditional relationship human and their hunting/working dog. This is a symbiotic relationship between two beings who need each other, not a human and their pet.

The spinosaurus is a solo actor, when under threat it uses its greater size to intimidate, close, and ultimately get away. What is its first reaction to a smaller predator latched onto it’s throat? It tries to claw it off. When it can’t uses its greater weight to gain momentum and try to throw them In this case, into a nearby hard surface.

The human would, under normal circumstances, be mostly useless in a battle between predators this big. However, she uses her brain. Of the three, she’s the most strategic fighter. She creates the openings for her dragon to attack. Her weapon can’t kill the spinosaurus on its own, not before it kills her, The creature is too large. However, by hitting it in the vulnerable places where it hurts (the eyes, places where the bones are close to the surface/hitting the nerves, other parts the dino is going to feel necessary to protect), using pain to distract the creature and split its attention. In this way, Leah shows the audience why her dragon needs her just as much as she needs it. The human provides the strategic understanding which makes the dragon a more effective predator in an environment where it isn’t the apex. Symbiosis goes two ways.

You wonder what this has to do with sword fights and magic?

On a simple, conceptual, and very basic overview, all combat works the same. This doesn’t mean you write it the same way because that’s silly. The approach and thinking stays.

What is the situation? The needs? The goals?

What is the environment?

What are the available tools? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages?

A character who is a mage and primarily defends themselves with magic is going to be limited by the rules their magic functions under. Specifically: the length of time it takes to cast a spell. Unless they can cast very quickly, they’ll be ranged bombardment or will attempt to stay at range. (Like how you should be behaving with a gun, keep your distance.)

You’ve got a character who can do magic and you can’t? You need to take them down before they get their spells off. If they get their spells off, you dead.

So, you’ve got the one guy who wants to get the mage and the mage who needs to get away. This is how you get a basic setup. Now you know how both are going to behave as actors on the battlefield. Now, you can start strategizing on how one gets to the other.

In order to hit the magic user, the guy with the sword needs to get close enough to hit them. The magic user doesn’t want the guy with the sword to get close because then they focus enough to cast or it becomes more difficult. Their battle is going to function around these basic needs as they try to take advantage over the other, and the increasing difficulty of survival.

Next is the environment. They’re going to use their environment because terrain is a primary means of gaining advantage, often whoever uses it better wins. Whether that’s the spinosaurus throwing the dragon into the cliff face in order to dislodge them, or your sword user running from cover to cover hiding from a mage’s fireballs. They can’t stay in cover because fire. Even if their cover isn’t burning, the area around them is. Fire means smoke and fire is eating up the oxygen they need to keep their muscles moving and stay fighting.

These essential needs and limits are going to change how your characters behave and the strategies they employ in order to win. What’s important is grasping the movement of the battle, the physical ramifications of the actions, and how those affect the characters participating. There are set limitations on the battle i.e. how long your character can fight before reaching exhaustion, and the amount of damage they can do in that time frame. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes someone else gets there first.

The spino screamed in defiance, sides heaving. Blood raced down its neck, pooling on the dirt. Air sick with the stench of raw flesh.

Oh, c’mon! Leah leveled her plas-pistol, sighting down the barrel.

Orlya fanned her wings and frills, hissing.

The spino took another few lumbering steps, preparing to charge.

A flash of silver and ruby dropped from the sky, slamming onto the spino with the full force of its weight. Wings unfurled, body arched over the sail, a red dragon sank his claws into the creature’s sides; seizing the spino’s neck with his teeth. Leah saw his rider perched on his back, pike in hand, wearing red plasteel armor. The dragon too heavily armored.

The spino shrieked in agony, legs giving way. Unable to stay upright, fell forward and landed in a cloud of dust. Jaw smacking the dirt with a sickening crack.

The red dragon’s armored head gave a great shake before ripping upwards. White bone clenched in his teeth, he leapt free and landed on the gnoll. His wings tucking as he fixed Leah and Orlya with his yellow gaze. Blood dripping from his jaws, he grinned.

In Orlya’s case, she doesn’t win. Or, doesn’t have the chance to win.

All the little surface things most writers get caught on that they think are all important are ultimately ancillary. Your characters personalities and how that affects their decision making is ultimately secondary to their available tools and the needs of the situation. What comes after is their unique approach, which is the solution they come up with to win.

Then you add in Newton’s Laws. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” When you throw a bowling ball at a bunch of pins, what happens? You want a fight scene to feel real, you need to have your characters reacting to the imaginary harm in ways that jive with your audience’s expectations. Dem’s the rules.

If you shove someone, what happens? They move or they don’t, but either way their body has to take the force. You got a two legged creature suddenly hit with the great force of another monster pouncing on it from a great height, what happens? It’s going to be destabilized. It’ll fall. What happens when it hits the ground? Hard surface, the force is going to rebound back into it and the environment will respond accordingly. Fall in a dusty area, you get dust in the air.

You stab someone in the leg with your sword, what happens? They bleed sure, but blade’s gone into their muscles. Depending on which muscle that was and where it was, that could be very bad. You ever tried moving with a sprain? Or a cut? Now imagine doing it with a hole right through those muscles you need to move. How do people respond to pain?

Writing a character using a technique and naming said technique is only useful if you understand what the technique does and the effect it has. The effect is what’s important here. That is the show versus the tell.

You’ve got five senses. Use them.

Sight. Sound. Touch. Smell. Taste.

The sound of a scream. The scent of blood in the air, charred skin. Copper on the tongue when a character’s bitten through their lip or gotten blood in their mouth.

Action. Reaction. Action. Reaction.

You did X. I will negate and follow up with Y. However, both actions will do something. Both lead to their own results depending on success. So, what was it?

Orlya grabs the spinosaurus by its neck, a vital organ. The spinosaurus tries to grab her with its claws to drag her off.  In order to stop the spino from hurting her, she turns sideways and yanks the creature around and negates its arms by ensuring it can’t get an angle.

Your body is limited by its options for motion, arms can only bend so far. This is a universal truth, whether you’re a human, a dog, or a dinosaur. A key part of strategy in combat is getting on angles that cannot be countered. Animals will do this out of learned experience, just like humans do.

The spino’s first choice fails, but it doesn’t give up. Next, the spinosaurus lifts its neck to get her off the ground. Using it’s great weight it whips into a turn, gains momentum to throw her into the wall. Like a horse, bull, or other animal, it drags the unfortunate predator on a nearby tree or wall or rolls in hopes the stun will dislodge them, crush them, or break some vital bones. Like the Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that directs the tank into a mountainside while a hapless Indy hangs helplessly.

This is how you theorize a fight scene, and after that its just putting words on a page, drafting and redrafting until it works.


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Q&A: Detachment

A different sort of writing question. How to detach yourself from a character so you don’t feel awful you put them through the worst things a human being can go through? In one of my fics, I’m writing a person going through a lot of psychological torment. And it makes me feel bad, but I know I have to keep pushing it in order for the story to have the meat it needs. But it also means I can only write for so long before I break down. Help?

There’s a couple things to remember.

First: Your characters aren’t real people. Depending on where you are as a writer, this may sound glibly obvious, or disrespectful to your work, so let’s unpack this a little bit.

Your characters are simulacra. They experience their existence from their perspective. They do not exist with full knowledge of their nature as fictional constructs.

Somewhat obviously, you can’t always say how a real person would react to a scenario, so you’re left to make your best guess. Usually, the best advice here is to study up on who your character would be, and work to understand how someone with their background would approach their situation.

At this point it’s very important to remember that characters are (usually) not omnipotent. They only have access to the information they can get legitimately. Either from talking to each other, or from examining and studying their environment. Characters should never have a full picture of the world they live in, only the pieces they’ve worked out for themselves. You don’t, always, need to show characters passing information back and forth, but this can be a very important tool to keep track of what they know.

Within all of this there should be a spark of a person floating around. An individual with needs, goals, dreams, convictions, experiences, fears, and flaws. (Or, really, any other itemized list of how you want to define a person.) That person lives in the world you created. They don’t have access to you, nor what you know.

How much autonomy you give them is up to you. Same with how strict you are about regulating their world. These are stylistic choices that will affect the tone of your work. But, ultimately, it’s very important to remember your characters are artificial constructs designed to present a convincing illusion of a person, rather than the genuine article.

How do you keep enough detachment? By remembering this is an illusion you’ve created. As with all illusions, it’s far more important that this plays properly for the audience, even if it’s held together with duct tape and rage on your side from your position.

Let your characters take care of themselves, with the information they have, and the situations they’re in. They don’t need you to pull your punches. To an extent, they depend on that to sell the illusion you’re creating. Put another way, it’s okay to be cruel if the situation warrants it; you can trust your character to pull through. They’re probably a hell of a lot tougher than you’re giving them credit for.

Second: Your job is not to advocate for your character. I’ll go out on a limb and say this one’s not quite as obvious; you’re here to tell a story. Your character’s dreams are relevant to them. They can work towards their goals, and a general desire not to die horrifically. But, that is their problem, not yours.

Stories about conflict work off a simple concept: two or more sides come together, they challenge each other in some way, and whoever manages to achieve their goals, comes out on top.

I’m being very abstract here. This description could cover anything from a story about a parent dealing with their child coming out, to a thriller with a rogue nuclear device in a major metropolitan area. But, managing the conflicts is your job. You may be hoping a specific character wins, but you want everyone participating as appropriate.

Within this context, it’s important that your antagonists have a reasonable, plausible, path to victory. They need to have objectives, and a way to actually achieve them. They are just as much your responsibility as your protagonist(s).

Either group may lack information about what their path to victory is, and/or how to achieve it. In situations like this, their first goal needs to be obtaining that information, which can be a major portion of the story.

Remember what I said about your characters on the last point? Yeah, this applies to everyone in your story. How do you avoid playing a favorite? One way is to have lots of favorites working against one another. This is your job as a writer: playing all of your creations against each other in order to tell a compelling story.

This isn’t always true, but if your antagonist is uninteresting to you, chances are your audience will feel the same. You want a foe that excites and entertains you. Tinker with them or rework them until they really engage you. Then you will have two favorites, and it will help you avoid simply rooting for the hero.

Third: You don’t measure a hero by their merits; you measure them by the adversity they overcome. The more you beat them down, the stronger they come out the other side.

Remember that line from Nietzsche that I slapped around last week? “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” It’s not entirely true. Severe injuries can result in permanent impairment. Blows which shatter your psyche or your will to go on are not empowering. But, a character who has been abused and battered can come back more forcefully, with stronger convictions, and sometimes, a little smarter for what they’ve been through.

Slapping your characters around can be a sign to them that, maybe, it’s time for them to take a different approach. Every defeat and mistake can serve as a learning experience, if you’ll let it. Ironically, once you’re in the right mindset, it can be far more difficult to avoid being too destructive. Hurt them, let them learn, don’t kill them (even if that death is in their psyche.)

At this point, we’re back to the previous point; your job, is to orchestrate the story as a whole, not simply cheer for one character.

Never be afraid of being a bit too rough. If they break, curl up in a corner, and die, then you know you’ve gone too far, and it might be time to go back and tone it down a bit. This is one of the virtues of drafting, you can go back and fix your mistakes later. If you’re willing, you can let it ride. What happens when you kill the hero? The story isn’t over, and the supporting cast is still there, doing their part. What kind of a course to you chart through that aftermath?

Finally: Remember it’s okay for a character to leave empty handed. Just because they have dreams doesn’t mean they need to realize them. Granted, this will depend heavily on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, but there is nothing inherently wrong with a character who’s holding on to a false or dying hope, because it’s the only thing keeping them together. Victories can be Pyrrhic. Endings can be bittersweet. Just because your character wants something, doesn’t mean you need to give it to them.

Sometimes, by their natures, characters cannot get what they want. It’s baked into their very nature. Sometimes people look for goals they think will make them happy but it’s not what they’re actually missing, so even if they do get that think, the result will be hollow. Yes, people, not just characters. Depending on who your characters are, there may not be any possible happy ending. Knowing this in advance can go a long way towards having an idea of where your they will end up.

No matter how you twist it, at least one of your characters will come out on top. It might not be who you expected, but so long as someone wins, it’ll be one of yours. Remember, your characters only exist for the story. You might revive and use them in the future, but their only life is within the confines you create. Within that context, it’s okay to run them over the coals with a clear conscience. Handling that is, quite literally, their problem, not yours.

You’re the writer, not a participant in the narrative. Your job is to make sure all the pieces interact, adjudicate your characters bouncing off one another, and to keep track of the wreckage they leave behind. Your job is to tell their stories, not to make friends with them.


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Q&A: Critique Partners and the Dangers of Posting Online

Do you know anyone who could read my story and tell me what should change? Like a website or an app or something?

If you’re just asking for a grammar checker, those are fairly common features on word processors. Off hand, Word and Scrivener have built in grammar checkers. They won’t tell you how to fix an error, but it will tell you when the algorithm thinks something’s messed up. There’s also a couple with aggressive advertising campaigns on YouTube.

Basic grammar errors are something you can farm out to an algorithm fairly safely. It’s one step above running a spellchecker (which you should be doing as well.)

You’ll also, occasionally, see style checkers, which attempt to assess the overall tone of a piece, and tell you if it fits the format you’re writing to. (Creative, Academic, Technical, ect.) I’ve never looked at these closely, so, I have no idea how well they work, or if it’s just secondary functionality for a grammar checker.

The problem with all of these systems is that they’re band-aids. If you’ve mangled the English language, they’ll stick a judgemental green line under it, and wait for you to fix your error. (Strictly speaking, the green line is Word. Most software will run the grammar check in a separate dialog box, when you request it.)

I realize, I may sound a little dismissive here, but these are useful tools. Checking the available menu options in your document, or a quick Google search should tell you if your software has a native grammar checker, or suggest some free options, if that’s all you need.

If you’re looking for advice on the substance of your work, that’s not something you can safely farm out to an algorithm. You’re looking for an editor (or at the very least, peer critique.)

There are a lot of forums and sites where you can get access to other aspiring writers, and get some feedback. Off-hand, DeviantArt comes to mind.

Now, before you scamper off to DA, and sign up, there are a couple things you’ll want to keep in mind.

First, think about what you’re posting. If you’re simply posting a short story or novella that you have no intention of ever professionally publishing, and you’re simply interested in getting better as a writer, then these kinds of communities can be very helpful.

If you want to take what you’ve written, and market it professionally, then you don’t want to post it on DA (or a similar site).

This gets into a concept called, “first publishing rights.” These revolve around being the first venue to publish that specific work. While it’s not a death knell for a piece, it does make it a lot less appealing to a prospective agent or publisher. (And it will be for some agents and editors, the same as if you publish it as an e-book.)

There are some counterexamples, but if you want to sell a story, don’t post it online. You can decide to do that later, if you want.

It’s important to understand, often in publishing, you’re not selling your work, you’re selling the rights to be the first publisher to distribute your work. If you’ve posted it publicly, that right has already been exercised. You may still sell the rights to distribute your work to another publisher down the line (depending on the contracts involved), but that first publishing right is something you want to hold onto.

The second thing to remember is, the people you’re interacting with on DA aren’t, necessarily, any better versed in writing than you are. That said, it can be a good site to start networking on, and it can eventually help you, down the line. (It can also function as a portfolio, so that may also be very useful to you.)

Put these two pieces together, and you should see where this can help you. You can meet other writers, and ask them to critique work you haven’t published. This can be a valuable resource, when you’re trying to improve material you do want to publish, before putting it in front of an editor.

Now, in general, your best option would be to find a local writer’s group. Your library or a local bookstore may host one, or events that will introduce you to other writers in your community. Interacting with other writers. I realize this is less convenient, and may feel more threatening, but being able to directly interact, and evaluate feedback does make this a lot more immediately valuable.

There’s also an element of risk with any online collaboration that doesn’t exist if someone else is reading a physical copy of your story while sitting across from you, or responding to you reading your work aloud.

So, here’s a fun little story: Back when I was a teenager, living at home, and writing on a laptop, my father would occasionally snoop through it. I’d been working on a novel. He found it at some point, and thought so much of it (and so little of me), that he chose to email the original document to a few family friends. One of those friends, CCed the thing to everyone in her contact list, because she was the, “oh, something bright and shiny is in my inbox, I need to inflict it on the entire human race,” kind of vapid.

I found out about this a couple months later, when I found the draft, published in its entirety on a website that will remain nameless by some random little shit, who was passing it off as their own.

Moral of the story: be careful who you show your work to online, if you intend to publish it. If your goal is to simply get it out there as an act of artistic expression, then posting on something like DA is a safe way to do so, and can be a good source for critique. It exercises your first publishing rights, but that only matters if you’re planning to sell it, and if someone steals it, you can point back and say, “hey, here, look at this,” then rake them over the coals.

One very reasonable approach would be to start with a community, post the stuff you’re not trying to get published, solicit feedback, learn from your mistakes, make friends, then when you start getting to the point where you feel like making the jump to professional publishing, you should already have a few people you can bounce ideas and material off of.

The safest approach is probably through a local writing group, though that is dependent on finding a group that meshes with your genre and overall tone. When working with other creatives its important to find those whose opinions you value, whom you trust, and who provide critiques you can use rather than deflating your spirit.

With that in mind, here’s a quote from Neil Gaiman to remember when taking criticism:

When people tell you there’s something wrong with a story, they’re almost always right. When they tell you what’s wrong, and how it can be fixed, they’re almost always wrong.

You will learn through experience how to tell the difference between good critique, helpful critique, and bad critique. Some of which you may not be ready to hear until several years down the line, when your confidence has grown to a level where you can look at it. Remember, critique is not someone saying something’s wrong with you. Even with an editor, you don’t want someone who will tell you how to fix a problem, just someone that will point out that an issue exists. You are still the author of your stories, and ultimately, you’re the only one who can fix them. All you need is someone who can point them out to you.

Remember, there are different levels in regards to critique partners and it is important to find those who are at your level, or at a similar place in their writing journey. This will change as you grow and improve, but jumping into the deep end with a professional writer when you’re just beginning without any warning to them is a terrible idea. They will eviscerate your confidence, completely by accident because what they’re looking for and what you’re looking for are entirely different. The same is true for a high school student sitting in on a Master’s program or even just a Creative Writing seminar at college. The priorities, understanding, and expectations during workshop will be wildly different. They might be valuable, but only if you’re ready to hear them. Critiquing requires people you sync with, whom you trust, and  whose opinions you value. However, they are also those you’ve confidence enough to listen to and disregard when their advice doesn’t help. No one but you can figure out what’s best for your work. Everyone else just aids in the journey.

These are the people who will sit down, evaluate the work on the basis of its merits rather than what they’d do with the story in your place. Someone who points out the feelings they had when reading, what worked for them and what didn’t.

Identify, for yourself, your ego boosting readers from your critique partners and keep them separate. The friend or family member who reads your work with enthusiasm and those other writers who are looking for weaknesses to help you improve are in separate categories. Both are helpful, but they are rarely a single individual. More than that, you want a group of other writers to work with so you can help them the way they help you.

Finally: if you’ve got a beta, especially one who is not a professional, it can help to give them specific guidelines to look for.


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Q&A: Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Hi there, I’m trying to write a comic set in a dystopia, and your “feel good violence” post has really helped. BUT!! is there a way around the “killing your way to the top” trope? I can’t think of any other way for my heroes to complete the main story arc. the thing about dystopias is that they don’t change for anything less than a total kill-out, right? Thank you!

This somewhat depends on what you want to achieve.

There’s a real attraction to, “killing the bad guy,” to make the world a better place, it doesn’t really work. That doesn’t mean no one tries. It’s still perceived as a legitimate approach to getting rid of problematic organizations. The issue is, it doesn’t usually get rid of them.

So, let’s work with this in a few less abstract scenarios.

You’re a special forces operator from a first world nation with (nearly) unlimited resources and have been tasked with eliminating the a criminal organization that has overrun a nearby country.

Anyone you kill will be quickly replaced. If you wax someone, everyone below them gets an instant promotion. So simply assassinating the head of the organization would just mean his (or her) lieutenant takes their place. This may result in subtle policy shifts with the organization, but it’s still going to be there, doing whatever it was doing before. You haven’t removed the criminal syndicate. They’ll still be operating unaffected.

Ironically, the best you can hope for in this scenario is to weaken the syndicate. If you were able to sufficiently reduce their capacity (their ability to actually affect change) to the point where they’re no longer functional, you would actually kick off a power struggle with nearby syndicates moving in and trying to pick up their territory. If the leader you picked off was sufficiently prominent, you might be able to provoke this with one bullet. Unfortunately, you’d end up with a gang war in the streets and countryside of this hypothetical nation.

If you wanted to destroy this syndicate, the best route would be to cut off their financial support. That may mean destroying their supply lines, or production supplies. It may mean picking off their logistical experts, to reduce their efficiency. That said, even this approach isn’t 100%, and some of the most crippling blows you could inflict would be at a policy level, legalizing and regulating the behavior they’re exploiting to make money.

If the goal is to “send a message,” and your nation is seeking retribution for some previous harm, then the goal of assassinating the person who issued the order is… I don’t want to say, “legitimate,” but, killing them will achieve your goals. Unfortunately, it won’t discourage future violence. The people you’re killing are already under threat from their competitors, by joining the fray, you’re not doing something they weren’t prepared to deal with.

So, new scenario: same background, but you’re dealing with a warlord in a failed state or feral city. Ironically, a lot of the same issues apply. If you assassinate them, you’re not going to bring order back to the place. That would involve a full occupation, and a prolonged campaign to rebuild the local government.

Again, simply killing a warlord would mean their lieutenant would take control, or if they had multiple lieutenants and no clear line of succession, it may result in further violence as they fight with one another in an attempt to assume control. Again, if there are competing warlords, they’d be inclined to move in and try to expand their territory.

Now, it’s worth noting that not every nearby warlord would look at this situation and say, “yeah, don’t I want a piece of that,” however anyone who did would simply ramp up the bloodbath.

Again, this is a situation that can be handled with force, but it’s going to involve years of concentrated work, and a lot of troops operating as domestic police, while you rebuild the civil government. There’s some debate if this is even a possible solution.

Okay, new scenario: You’re tasked with suppressing a political movement. It has a clear, prominent, figurehead. Killing them is probably the worst possible solution to the problem. For one thing, it won’t remove the organization. The actual followers will still be out there, believing what they did (more or less), before the bullets started flying. So the organization will go on. At best nothing has changed, except the person rallying the people. You created a martyr who is now immune to character assassination. Good job.

However, it’s far more likely that the actual organization will radicalize. You’ll have members from that organization operating covertly against your interests. This could range from their own assassinations to bombings targeting civilians.

Using violence to suppress politics only leads to stronger, more aggressive, and often violent opposition.

If you’re wondering how that makes sense, when I just said engaging in violence will empower your foes, but lead your own faction to violence, it’s worth remembering that this is behavior that can easily consume both participants in a conflict. Once either one abandons discourse and turns to force in order to push their ideals, they encourage reciprocation.

To quote Babylon 5:

“You don’t have to respond in kind.”

“Of course we do. There’s a natural law. Physics tells us that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. They hate us, we hate them, they hate us back. And so, here we are: victims of mathematics.”

This is a pattern you’ll see frequently in sectarian violence and civil wars. There may have been political disagreements or grievances, but once the knives come out, the violence become cyclical. There is also a constant, direct, risk of escalation, and it’s often the civilian population that bears the greatest costs in these conflicts.

New scenario: You’re dealing with the CEO of a megacorporation that has marked your characters for death because of an off hand comment in a chatroom six years ago.

Yeah, killing him will remove him from the planet. You’re also now going to be going up on murder charges in a highly corrupt system, assuming corporate security doesn’t simply execute you on the spot. So, good job hero.

Killing him won’t take down the company. It probably won’t even change the company’s policies. You may have even done the board of directors a favor, allowing them to use the corpse as a scapegoat for any politically questionable choices they may have engaged in, while still keeping their hand firmly in the cookie jar. Not that said favor will buy your characters any clemency. They’re still looking at 25-life for murder.

Does any of this matter?

Yeah, kinda. If you’re going to use those characters or that setting again. Even if you’re just wrapping up the story, it’s probably worth remembering that surgically removing people from an organization doesn’t mystically cleanse it of all evil.

That said, people do look at this as a solution, and it makes perfect sense for someone to think, “yeah, that’s all we need to do.” It also creates a rich tapestry of interconnected consequences, which can really help if you’re setting stories further down the line in that setting, (regardless of if you intend to use your original characters or not.)

I mean, did they turn around and try to take the place of the crime lord, or warlord they waxed? It’s certainly possible, and they may well have become as bad or worse in their goal of doing something noble.  Did they turn a politically unstable metropolis into a feral city? Is that someplace you want to go back to, with new characters, because they need to get something, or rescue and extract someone?

There are a lot of potential ways to play it, and many of those could prove very interesting.

It’s also worth remembering your characters may not care what comes afterwards. If this is a personal vendetta, then the goal is to kill the guy. God, bad, doesn’t matter, they need to die. Everything that comes afterwards is unimportant to that motivation.

Also worth remembering: A lot of people genuinely believe this approach works. “Just go in and kill the dude, how hard can it be?” Only to be confused when the resulting consequences start kicking in. This applies to people who are relatively well educated, and know what they’re doing, so it’s not just some trap for the uneducated getting out of their depth.

If that’s the end of your story, so be it, but, I’d honestly recommend you keep pushing past that, and play with the aftermath. Probably with a new cast of characters, and after a few months or years, to let the new mess fully ferment.


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Q&A: Amnesia is Autopilot

Hey! Are individual fighting styles recognizable? I’ve got a character who is a master with the glaive and before the story she has an encounter with another character who sees her fight. Neither recognize each other when they meet up again because he couldn’t see her face due to her armor and she lost her memory. However I don’t know how common the glaive was during its use or how recognizable an individual’s fighting style is so is it possible that he might recognize her by watching her fight?

Style requires there be more than one version of the weapon discipline. This is likely. Mastery requires an individual style that has been practiced long enough that it has been formally recognized by whichever group is the decider, and has taken on students or linked to a martial school or the single individual who created it. So, you wouldn’t have a “master of the glaive” but instead a “master of the Black Rose style, specializing in the glaive, recognized by the Seven Sisters.”  Unless the whole style itself revolved singularly around the glaive and even then it’s, “trained in Master Ferro’s glaive style.” or “the western reaches glaive style” or “farmhand glaive” or whatever. Beyond that “glaive” is just one term for the weapon and weapon family, there are others. It could be called something completely different in a different country. The naginata, for example, is a glaive. The Russians called it a sovnya. Usage of the weapon varied based on country and culture with a variety of styles surrounding its use. The most unrealistic thing in Protector of the Small series regarding Kel’s glaive/naginata is that the contemporary European Tortall didn’t have an easily recognizable version of its own.

It’s possible to identify what style a person has been trained in, but less likely to identify the individual unless they’re famous or practice a unique style. If the onlooker is familiar with the style or the style is incredibly unique as in its passed on specifically from master to apprentice and only two people in the world know it. That would require your female character killed her master as a graduation test, like Kenshin was supposed to when he finally completed the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu. That or the weapon just doesn’t exist in the part of the world where she’s traveling or uses a style wholly alien. Even then, the other character would have to know the singular individual who practices it and, like with Himura Kenshin, that opens her up to being recognized by everyone. Even if she is the progenitor of her own style like Bruce Lee and has taught it to others, she won’t be recognized on style alone due to being an amnesiac. That’s a severe hit to skill level, and she won’t be anywhere near at the level she’d need to be in order to be recognized as a famous warrior or master. (That is the point of an amnesia plot.)

The people who can identify a personal style are:

Your Master. (This is the person who raised you, they are your martial art parent. They know you, possibly better than your own parents do and they’ll recognize you anywhere.)

Your Training Partners. (This is not trained with them once, this is trained with them for years, as good as family, and are sworn brothers. People the character has spent a lot of time fighting with.)

Your Students. (Like with a master, students can recognize their teacher. Like a child recognizes their parent. They spend a lot of time watching them.)

Your Sworn Enemies. (These are the people you’ve spent a lot of time fighting. If someone spends a lot of time trying to kill you and you trying to kill them, they can usually recognize the threat at a distance without help.)

So, unless this other character is one of the above, him recognizing her by watching her fight is unlikely. He’d need to be someone who saw her when she wasn’t at her best, when she struggled in the beginning, or what she looks like when she’s either at her worst or on a bad day. If his only experience is he saw her once at a tournament or on the battlefield in passing then he’s not going to associate the current article with the distant memory. He’d be more likely to recognize her by fighting her, if he’s fought her in the past. The likeliest outcome is he’d recognize her as a talented beginner or at an intermediate level who is worth training further, which leads him to seek her out. That, or, they share the same style and had the same trainer so he feels comfortable going to talk to her. This outcome requires their civilization have some sort of training and patronage system.

I’d abandon the idea she still fights as well as she used to, and roll reacquiring of her skills into her character arc. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the same problem lots of writers run into when they make a character too good. If the character doesn’t struggle, the fight sequences suffer and lose their tension. If you apply the term “master” to a character they will be expected to win. Tension is challenge based.

A character who is at pinnacle skill level must fight characters at a similar or greater skill level while taking into account all that skill and experience implies. With hyper competent characters, we get more out of challenging them where their skills are lacking like Geralt from The Witcher dealing with politicians or solving puzzles where violence is the worst possible choice. This is why you should always be careful when metering out between beginner, intermediate, skilled, very skilled, and exceptional. The trade off for characters at the top of their game is they’re limited. There’s less about them to make them interesting, and new growth is required outside their attained skill set. Unless amnesia sends them back to start and they’re regaining skills faster than they can handle, it won’t be enough to change that.

Most of what makes a style unique to an individual happens cognitively in the choices they make and the skills they choose to utilize rather than what’s based in their muscle memory. A character fighting on autopilot (which is what’s happening here) is going to be very different from a character who is actively making choices based on past experiences and prior knowledge. Unless she’s working with Jason Bourne type amnesia (and even if she is), the amnesiac character is going to be missing key pieces that bring her style up to a master’s level. (I’d also rethink mastery if she’s anywhere under thirty-five, especially if you’ve never spent time around martial arts masters.)

A martial arts master is not a character who is very good, exceptional, or at the top of their martial art.  You can be all those things and not be a master of a particular style. Mastery is, ironically, not skill level. Technical skill is one part of it, the other half is esoteric and very difficult to explain. Mastery is more than just the all-encompassing technical understanding. It is all-encompassing understanding. You’re unlikely to find one under the age of forty, even if they’ve attained the belt rank because it is a state of being that requires enlightenment born from personal experiences. That enlightenment is developed through rigorous training and difficult tests of character.

More than that, one cannot be a master if they have not taken on students even if it is just a single disciple. A master is not just someone who is at the top, they are the head of and entrusted with carrying on the traditions of their particular style. Their time on the battlefield is, for the most part, done, and they have retired to instruct the next generation. Only the most extreme threats will force a master out of hiding because they don’t have the patience for that crap. Teaching others is required. Sifu, Sensei, Sabumnim all are just terms for teacher. It’s like calling your professor a professor. They teach. That’s their job.

In literary terms, a master is a mentor. They serve the same purpose in fiction that they do in real life. They’re there to facilitate the growth of the next generation and guide them on their path to becoming masters themselves. They are parent, teacher, and spiritual advisor. Unless you know how to work with them and the tropes surrounding them, they will kill your narrative even as an amnesiac. There is nowhere for them to go as characters within conventional arcs. A master’s character development and narrative arcs are entirely spiritual. Their best use comes from the teacher/student dynamic like the kind seen in The Karate Kid. Or as a character struggling to reach that state. They are one of the most difficult character types to write, especially if you have no prior experience. They are impossible to write if you lack an understanding of the martial style they practice. If they’re not your protagonist, you can fudge it like with Yoda or Master Li or any number of other quasi-masters seen in fiction. If the master is your protagonist then you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, all the time and in every scene. Even then, their job will still be facilitating the growth of the characters who surround them rather than growing themselves.

Without their memory, this character is no longer a master and if they never took on the responsibility of training others then they aren’t one anyway. Renown for their skill at arms and a master are two very separate characters, and it is best not to get them confused. For example, Inigo Montoya is not a master swordsman. Goku, Kenshin Himura, Yuusuke Urameshi, and other shounen characters of similar power are also not masters. Meanwhile, Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi are both Jedi Masters.  They’ve reached a point where they’ve taken on students, and while they may still have adventures those adventures still revolve around their position as teacher. We have the some of surviving training manuals of some the master swordsmen who came out of Europe, and they had students. You can find them on Wikitenauer.

“Master” sounds good, but you’re going to want a full understanding of what the term means before you apply it.  The terminology has a long history of use in fiction, especially now as we’re getting more media from China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Your readers are going to know what it means in concept, even if that wasn’t what you intended. So, you want to be sure of what you want from your character before you start applying it.

A master is literally one of the worst characters to have as a protagonist, unless you know the story you want and their purpose fits with those needs. They’re like an admiral. If you want to write a story around an admiral being an admiral, then that’s great. However, the admiral cannot just take off for parts unknown or lead a battlefield charge. Well, they can but there’s going to be fallout for that failure of leadership. They’ve reached a point where they can delegate and they’re far better at facilitating growth in others than they are at being the main event. Masters are perfect for telling stories about teachers, a teacher struggling with their inner demons as they grow in a new skill set.

In martial arts, teacher is the next step on the road to mastery. Teaching is a method of self-discovery and gaining greater understanding of your martial art. In teaching others, we attain a greater technical understanding of our skills than we did before. We approach our old skills in a new way and with new eyes, learning from our students as they learn from us.

“Those who can’t do, teach” is a faulty statement. A good teacher may be less renown than singularly focused professionals but is often the most skilled person in the room. They’re the ones who can translate what they know into new contexts so they can be understood by beginners. When one focuses on themselves alone, they reach a skill ceiling they can’t break through and at which point they no longer grow. It is through reevaluation of those skills through new eyes that they discover new ways they can be applied. Martial artists often develop their best techniques through teaching. In the process, they build communities.

Think for a moment about all your favorite teachers and those you’ve loved in your life. What would happen if they suddenly vanished without explanation? How would you feel?

This character is a master of the glaive, so where are all the people who went looking for her after she disappeared? A master martial artist isn’t like a spy, they don’t usually travel alone and even when they do someone is going to go looking for them when they disappear. The amnesiac martial arts master is a trope in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, but by the time we reach the third act (or even the second) their students have come barreling in and found them. If it wasn’t one of their disciples who located them to begin. “Master went missing (again), we need to find them” is an actual narrative arc. This is also, usually, kickstarts a traditional master/student narrative with whomever takes the roving amnesiac in hand and helps them recover their memory.

A character who is an amnesiac takes an extreme hit to their skills, so this character is not going to be fighting on the level she was before if she can at all. Autopilot is still autopilot, and autopilot will screw you over against anyone who knows what they’re doing. It is entirely likely she will have an entirely different style, if she can fight at all. Muscle memory is one part of the equation, experience and the knowledge necessary to use learned skills is another. She won’t be able to strategize, for instance, or have any tactical awareness. Her pattern recognition will probably be shot, which means that while she can block and counter she’ll be reacting instead of acting. Reaction may be good, but she’ll be at the whim of a more experienced actor. In a tournament setup, she’s going to end up middling at best and low tier at worst. She’ll make most of the same mistakes beginners will, but she’ll have the skills to get herself into deeper trouble and lack the necessary experience to get herself out.

High level martial skill is experience, not technique. Being good at dueling is based in experience, understanding how to react and counter is experience. Decision making is experience, as is understanding the full range of techniques available. Your female character’s technique may look fantastic due to her muscle memory and her reaction time may be flawless, but understanding feints and tactics requires a level of experience she either no longer possesses or what she’s gained in new experience up to this point. Those new experiences will have changed the look and feel of her martial style, as she is ultimately a new person. This character is in the process of uncovering and rediscovering her skill set, but she cannot and may never use them the same way she used to. It’s pretty common that when some of that experience goes, it is gone forever.

Outside of that, she’ll still need to practice those skills she can remember on the regular to keep them up to snuff. Failing at either, she’ll fall behind. This means she’s likely working off a limited number of techniques rather than the full scope  she previously possessed. If she has been trained by someone else, it will likely be in another style using the glaive and that will change her style as a result. If all she’s done up to this point is rely on her own muscle memory to provide her techniques, then she’ll only have control over those she’s remembered and practiced. The new ones she remembers in battle will occur on autopilot. Autopilot is outside her control, and that is exceedingly dangerous both to herself and whomever she’s fighting. This means she could kill someone in a friendly bout or end up using a controlling technique when she needs to kill. Blind technique is blind technique, the body moves according to its own will. Trained reflex is the same as instinct, it cares nothing for situation or circumstance. Her body will act in accordance with what its been trained to do with no guiding input from the head. The head is where the morals and contextual understanding are, the head understands the importance of limitation and behavioral changes depending on circumstance. The body doesn’t. Use of force is cognitive. The body just responds, and what it responds with will be what it is most used to using. These are usually the basics, and while basics are foundational, most people from beginner to intermediary levels understand how to counter them. Advanced fighters know how to take advantage of them. Advanced combat happens entirely with the head, utilizing controlling and changing circumstances.

(This is a common thread in the martial artist amnesia plot, the amnesiac formerly skilled martial artist can fight off the untrained and beginners by rote muscle memory.  They struggle against the intermediary usually to the point where they either lose or almost lose, and are demolished by advanced combatants. This is often before they hit their final antagonist, which prompts them to realize they need to train and meditate to recover themselves. Then, their past catches up with them.)

Limited experience with specific weapon types will probably mean her body doesn’t know how to react to them at all, because it didn’t have enough time to get them down by rote. That is what her muscle memory is. Rote. The techniques she didn’t regularly practice will be gone, the techniques she used but rarely will return later to last, and her ability to change her fighting style depending on situation is entirely beyond her control and entirely reliant on what her body remembers how to do. This isn’t a magic switch.

If she recalls some of the experience with the technique in fragments of memory, then she’ll inevitably create openings. An experienced fighter will take advantage of those. It may happen in a fraction of a second, but that fraction is the difference between a block and a killing blow.

This other character may look at her and see something in her style reminiscent to someone he once knew, but the level is so below what it once was that he dismisses it. Maybe he seeks her out wondering if she’s a student of a friend or copying a style she saw in passing, only to discover she’s the master and an amnesiac but that would require her having a school with students. The same would apply if he was impressed by her talent, but working under the assumption she needed more training.

Skill without knowledge or experience necessary to use it is a recipe for disaster.  An amnesiac has to learn all over again, and what they re-learn will never be exactly what it was before. The shades of the other self are there, the muscle memory is there, the skills are there in part, but they aren’t the same person in total and they can’t be used to the same degree of finesse. The technical aptitude is missing. There is a vast difference between being able to recall or copy a sonnet you wrote versus being able to compose one that is entirely new.

Basically, if you’ve got one character going through the motions and the other character looking at them but to recognize them they’d need to be going full throttle.

The solution is probably going to be he seeks her out on the basis of her talent, only to be surprised to discover she’s the master he planned to send her to and now in need of his help. (Not that she wins, she may lose and probably should but that this mystery warrior is talented enough to warrant the offer of training.) He’s more likely to overlook her if she’s exceptional. The middling to intermediate are the ones who get sought out at tournaments by more skilled instructors. There’s not much reason for a skilled warrior to seek out a skilled warrior if they weren’t planning to in the beginning, they’re more likely to ask around about the mystery person.

Tournament social groups break down by skill level, previous experience, and likelihood of consistent attendance. New people usually keep to themselves or are introduced to a group by more experienced attendees, while those who frequent the circuit gather together. There are the social butterflies who hang with each other until they’re called and watch the matches. The ones who linger alone on the sidelines, watching. The serious ones won’t spend time with anyone else, who limber up and practice alone. To immediately get attention from a stranger at your skill level, you need to be exceptional. One punch or single hit exceptional, and over in less than five seconds. Otherwise its slowburn.

She’s probably been killing a lot of people just off rote muscle memory. It’s going to be worse in a tournament where similarly skilled martial combatants will be in attendance and quite likely more familiar with dueling than she is or was in her previous life. (Master doesn’t mean master of everything or can handle everything.) If she’s not knocked out early, the end likelihood is her killing another participant entirely by accident after they’ve pushed her body past the limit of what its comfortable with and it begins responding outside her control. Again, muscle memory does not mean your body will do your fighting for you. It isn’t an out to give your characters high skill levels when you the author doesn’t know what those skills mean or how they appear. Reflexes and muscle memory mean the body will do what they’ve been trained to do regardless of circumstance and if the head doesn’t know what that is then the head can’t control it.

Basically, an amnesiac participating in a tournament in order to quickly regain their skills sounds like a great idea but the problem is the character is not in control of what’s going to happen. This happened in The Bourne Identity, Bourne wakes up with no memory, is attacked, and then kills his attackers. This may have been for the best, but he had no control over what he did or how he did it and it took him awhile to recall how to do the same thing intentionally. The Long Kiss Goodnight is another good one, but she’s still fighting mostly on memory and her memory is getting mixed up with her cover identity.

Amnesia with combat skills is rolling the dice. You don’t know what will set them off or what’s going to happen when they do. They could disarm the guy, they could crush his throat. Amnesia with weapon is the fast track to accidental death and dismemberment. There’s a lot more at stake and many more opportunities for the situation to go wrong. The basic attack patterns and combinations are going to revolve around killing. That’s the purpose a weapon like the glaive. Meanwhile, they have no ability to defend themselves while fighting on autopilot and completely cede control of the field to someone else because again, how their body behaves is outside their control. The most skilled character fighting on autopilot will end up at the mercy of any character marginally able to hold their own and function on all cylinders. Advanced skills and their application are beyond what muscle memory can provide. They can retrain but they will never fight the exact same way they did before they lost their memory, and, unless they are very lucky, will never be the same person.

New people make new choices and therefore fight in new ways, and the person is the one who creates stylistic identifiers. The act of recovering her fighting ability will change her fighting style in minute ways, enough to ensure its no longer personally identifiable.


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Q&A: Torture Is Anticipation

With torture, is it the pain or the expectation of the pain that makes people crack and give an answer (regardless of the answer’s truthfulness)?

It’s the anticipation of pain, which is like expectation but there’s suspense and uncertainty. The victim doesn’t know what’s coming. If they did, they could mentally prepare for it. That’s why unpredictability is important in a torturer’s repertoire. They are predictable and unpredictable, both at the same time. What they’re actually doing is using pain and other methods like starvation, deprivation, drugs, bright lights, and noises to break the brain’s internal rhythm. Your ability to recognize where you are and what’s happening to you. A torturer can actually torture a victim into submission entirely through the use of deprivation, without laying a finger on them (though they often do.)

What happens is the victim loses their sense of time, they’re disassociated from the world around them. They don’t know night or day, they don’t know how much time has passed. What torture is, rather literally, is the process of breaking a person down and retraining them into someone else so they’ll give the answers you want.

If you use torture in your fiction, it’s important to understand that it will effect your characters and it will change them. They will be different, and possibly never quite whole again. Withstanding torture is predominately a matter of mental strength and a willingness to continually say no, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune. The events the experience will take their toll on the character’s psyche, and may become a character defining moment or redefining moment for who they are. There’s also no shame if they do break under the strain. Torture is not (and should not be) a metric by which we measure a person’s courage or mental fortitude.

Please, don’t apply morals to abuse victims.

When torture is treated this way by an author as some sort of badge of honor, most of the characters they imagine surviving without any problems are the ones who’d break. Remember, snarky characters are characters with a fragile sense of self. They’ll break first. The damaged, the broken, the insecure, and the uncertain will go down. A torturer’s job is to assess a person for their weaknesses and attack those weaknesses. Everything your character is frightened of, nervous about, cares for will come roaring to the surface. This is the battering of the self. The resilient are those who know who they are. They’re certain in certainty, resolute. This isn’t everyone, this isn’t even most people. It is a tiny sliver of the population.

Fictional torture is the equivalent of throwing your character into the oven, dialing the heat up past eleven, and opening it up later to see how charred they got or if they crumbled into ash. You’ve got to know them and be willing to attack who they are down to the very core of their being or it’s pointless. The sequence becomes gratuitous angst that serves no real purpose and becomes grossly disingenuous in regards to the real thing.

Like when writing any other sort of fight scene, the author plays both sides against the middle. They are both torture victim and torturer. Don’t treat torture as a test to be beaten. Be honest with yourself and your characters. When we create these scenarios, our role is to play the scene out. The story is in the character’s experiences and how they deal with what they’re presented with, not in what comes after. To be honest with those experiences and introspective in regards to their effects. Strength is found in figuring out how to come to terms with what happened and what they do after, not whether it affected them. They were tortured, the torture did affect them. This is the reality. The question is where they and their story go from here.

Babylon 5, Season 4 episode, Intersections in Real Time (also this clip) is probably one of the best torture episodes I’ve ever seen. The full episode is brilliant, and if you truly want to understand the methodology you should watch it in its entirety. Almost nothing the torturer says in the room is true. Take this piece from the scene.

“Your father is being held in another facility. His case is being handled by an associate of mine. I passed him in the hall.”

If Sheridan’s father is being held and interrogated in another facility then it’s unlikely the torturer passed his associate or Sheridan’s father in the hall. However, that’s not what we hear first.

“Your father is being held in another facility.”

Personal information meant to instill fear. Someone Sheridan cares for deeply is being held and tortured in similar circumstances. There’s the threat.

“His case is being handled by an associate of mine.”

This translates to: “I have a personal connection with the person who is interrogating your father, if you cooperate with me I can help him.” This instills trust in the victim.

“I passed him in the hall.”

Sense of immediacy. “If you give me what I want, I could go out right now and stop all this.” Here’s the hope. The desire to save someone we care about from experiencing pain by making the sacrifice.

This is how the torturer gets you. It is not the pain, the pain is the layup.  It’s there to confuse you, distract you, get you desperate so you don’t hear their lies. You don’t hear what they’re saying, you start hearing what you want to hear. They overload you with information. They use you against you.

The people you care about, your past history, what you take pride in, your morals, your failures, and your insecurities. A torturer is similar in some ways to a psychologist or a con artist, they can read people. Their special skill is in making assessments of an individual’s psyche based on the information available to them and the victim’s own behavior.  They profile, much like a police officer or an FBI agent. The torturers ability to see through their victim, to know when they’re lying, to know what they can’t know, and to make educated guesses that are spot on is part of why they’re so frightening.

“I don’t care about you. I don’t have a personal stake in this. It’s only a job. If you give me what I want this could all stop.”

It’s all on the victim, no pleas will reach the torturers ears. They are sympathetic to the victim’s circumstances, but implacable. They want to help the victim escape their current predicament, but the only way to do that is for the victim to give them what they want.

The art of torture is the art of slow burn escalation. It starts with a conversation in a room between two people, sometimes after a sleepless night in an uncomfortable chair. The victim must wait for the torturer to come to them. They have no control over their circumstances, all information comes through the torturer and they have no interaction with anyone else. We have an image in our minds of the cackling madman in the black mask who takes psychotic glee in pulling off nails. That is one version, but it is not the successful one. The scary torturers are mild, well-mannered bureaucrats. Everything they do disrupts the victim’s expectations so they cannot anticipate what will come next.

They may feed you, but the food will be poisoned. A poison designed to remove whatever remaining liquids were in your system via a night of uncontrollable vomiting. Then, they come back the next day and ask the same questions. Repetition. Do you trust them this next time, when they offer you water? You’re so thirsty. You see a light in the hall when the door opens, you think its sunlight. Its not. Is it night or day? How many days have passed? You don’t know.

This is a game of trust and betrayal on the part of the torturer. They control everything about your life, everything about you. They tell you what to think, how to behave, and what to do. You must trust their version of events because there is no way to know otherwise. You are tired and hungry and thirsty. You haven’t slept, and what sleep you did get what interrupted. They return at odd intervals, and you have no idea when they’ll come. You’re too frightened to fall asleep. What will happen if you do? Always, they ask the same questions. Again, and again, and again. Did they come on the same day? Or on different ones? Was it fifteen minutes or thirty? How long did they stay? You don’t know. Panic sets in. Its driving you mad, you want it to stop.

One day, if you hold out long enough, they introduce another prisoner to your cell. Someone from your side, someone held here just like you. You’re starved for companionship, you don’t question it. The prisoner befriends you, they give you hope and together you plan to escape. You try and are caught, you see the other prisoner killed. You grieve and blame yourself. After all, it was your idea wasn’t it? Again, you’re left alone in the dark. Later, the torturer returns with the same prisoner you saw die. Perhaps the torturer apologizes for tricking you, or maybe they just act like the event you lived through didn’t happen. They take the prisoner away again. Time passes and you’re alone. Did it happen? You wonder. You’ve begun to distrust your own memory.

Then, the torturer returns and the cycle begins all over again. The previous events never occurred and nothing has changed. There’s only one way for this to stop. You know that now.

Give them what they want.

It is far more useful as a tool used against say political opponents and dissidents than it is as a means of intelligence gathering. You get your opponents to say what you want in order to break opposition to your rule. This includes journalists, professors, philosophers, rebel leaders, entertainers, business owners, community leaders, and politicians. Break them so those who follow and believe in them will also be broken. Torture has been best used in the past to force confessions of guilt (regardless of truth), so the victims say what their captors want.

Capture Shock is one method that’s been employed by the CIA in the past. (I would not look if you are squeamish.) Fear Up Harsh is an enlightening book on the torture methods used in Iraq.

The use of drugs is very common in association with the pain because, again, the goal is to break the captive from their ability to recognize what’s happening to them.

There’s no one size fits all method for torture, and if you over focus on the pain then you’ll have missed the point. You’ll miss the person in the chair. There is purpose to the pain. It is relentless, controlled, and decisive. The pain is used to make you afraid, so you feel powerless. Confuse you, so you lose track of yourself. Break you apart, so you can be rebuilt.

This is why torture is frightening and so difficult to overcome. Survival is by itself success. Without these components in your fiction then it is just gratuitous violence and, essentially, torture porn.


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Q&A: Movement Hides Movement

I believe you’ve mentioned in the past about the ‘bouncing’ or ‘hopping’ that boxers/martial artists do to stay light on their feet, etc. but I don’t see HEMA/other weapon based martial arts doing this. Is there a reason why?

You see this in HEMA all the time, they’re just not bouncing with their feet. (Though you’ll see them do the shifting.) They’re moving their sword. Modern fencers bounce, they have to, they’ve got a lot of movement to cover. However, the sword tip flicking back and forth or circling off the wrist’s subtle shifting in the air working off the same principle as Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” It may not be as visually pronounced, but it’s there.

See, you’re thinking that its about feet. It’s not just that, beginners make this mistake a lot. They see an action and assume that’s the answer instead of looking at the underlying principle then seeking to apply that principle to a different context. A warrior wielding a sword has different needs in order to be successful than a boxer fighting under very specific rules. Staying light on your feet is a matter of adjusting your stance so you lean forward onto the balls of your feet rather than sitting on your heel. This position allows for a shift into immediate action like a sprinter on the starting line.

Bouncing is footwork. It is footwork to cover your footwork that covers your footwork. The point of bouncing is to cloak the tells signaling when you’re about to strike by constantly staying in motion.

Your body has lots of tells for when it’s about to attack, it will betray you. Your eyes will betray you. (I mean it, if you don’t train your eyes to take in the whole body then they’ll move to their desired target point. Even moderately skilled fighters watch their opponent’s eyes and their chest.) Your feet will betray you. Your chest will betray you. Your hips will betray you. Your arms will betray you. Your legs will betray you. With a sword, it’s… in all those things and the weapon itself. Action is predicated by action. Some of those tells are more visible than others.  A single technique may look fluid to the outside observer, but it is actually a multitude of little actions chained together. Those actions have a beginning and they have an end. The beginning of the action is where the tell is. The beginnings of a technique predicate the strike and where it will go.

Martial arts trains the eye, especially your peripheral vision, to watch for movement rather than specific techniques. Your brain is trained to recognize patterns and respond to those patterns, predicting and preempting the act before it comes. This is how we block and how we dodge. You move when they move, move as they move. You don’t wait to see what they’ll do, then move. From the beginning motion of the eyes to the pectoral muscles to the shift in the shoulder, you can see the punch beginning. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Blocking and dodging are about timing. You want to block an incoming attack, you have to preempt. Catch it mid motion. In the middle, before the action completes. When the action passes past the chamber and into extension then its too late. Their momentum is behind them. You either need to redirect or get out of the way.

Bouncing, or shifting your weight back and forth from your front leg to your back, acts as a means to cover those crucial early seconds before an attack. You’re basically overloading the eye with motion so the brain has difficulty tracking which limb is moving when. It’s the basic act of giving yourself cover.

You’ve got to fake out the eye in order to get them to block, then strike somewhere unexpected. The high/low combination techniques you’ll see in many martial arts are devoted to this fake out. As are the bursting techniques of Krav Maga. (Krav Maga is extremely effective.) If you don’t do martial arts, I get why this might be a little more difficult to understand. This is maybe green belt level for strategic and technical understanding. Feints are easy to grasp in concept but difficult if you’ve never seen them in practice with other techniques. Also, there is a necessary component in understanding the interplay between a techniques success and its footwork. Or, even, just what footwork is. (Universally the most basic and fundamental part of a martial art, necessary to success, and also most overlooked.)

Muhammad Ali level bouncing is exhausting. Remaining constantly in motion is exhausting. 90% of the time when watching sparring practice, you’ll see the kids go from bounce, bounce, bounce to flat footed in less than a minute. It requires dedicated conditioning in order to sustain the pace. You will get tired much faster than if you remain still, you need to train for it and a lot of people don’t. This includes professional fighters.

Martial arts is not one size fits all, different schools are going to have their own means of cloaking their motion in order to hide their attacks. Different individuals are going to figure out their own ways of doing it. Though many in boxing mimic it now, Ali’s fighting style was revolutionary for his time.


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