Tag Archives: writing tips

Q&A: Computer Logic is not Human Logic

Hi! A question inspired by the androids of Detroit: Become Human. If an otherwise human android (or gynoid) had only faster reflexes (and inability to feel pain), being able to compute the best possible approach in any hand-to-hand combat situation from move to move, how much of an advantage would that be? Is there an advantage to human unpredictability or can melee combat be optimized by artificial intelligence?

Have you ever played chess against a computer?

They cheat. They don’t even cheat intelligently, they just cheat. They go right for the jugular, and the “game” is over in one to maybe two moves. An android in combat is going to do the same thing, in that it will do precisely what you programmed it to do and that logical outcome is: to go directly to instant death every. single. time.

Total neutralization of the threat before they have time to react.

Well, that’d be after the AI realized that it couldn’t just not fight or put the world on pause forever. Or it might just shut itself down after activation like that Security Robot which committed suicide in a fountain. Not fighting is winning. You can achieve victory by never fighting or simply shutting down. However, if you must, immediate total obliteration is the most optimal approach when it comes to conventional ideas about violence. You cut your enemy off at the knees, act preemptively once you register the situation, act before the enemy has time to get their pants on, and knock them off the proverbial cliff via straight up murder.

The computer does not distinguish, the computer does not regulate, the computer does not care. The computer is doing exactly what you told it to do and subtle nuance like deciding whether one crime is worse than another is beyond it. You told it to deal with a threat, the threat has been dealt with in the most efficient way possible regardless of future consequences. The computer wasn’t programmed to consider those.

Now, I know that some of you are going, “but what if it was?”

Well, let’s be honest, this is a perfectly logical, reasonable, rational solution that plenty of real people have already come up with. Plenty of self-defense professionals will tell you that this is the best, least risky, and ultimately safest solution is recognizing the threat before the threat occurs and acting. The two sets of mores which will hold us back are moral and social. This is not a societally or socially acceptable method of dealing with other human combatants.

Let us remember, you asked for the most efficient hand to hand solution and not the most socially acceptable one.

That method is sudden, violent murder. The computer will then escalate from there into preemptive action… like murdering all humans everywhere because that will definitively end the threat humans pose to each other.

This is why Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics exist.

Computers have trouble with complex moral quandaries and subtle nuance when it comes to decision making. You just don’t want them to be able to hurt people.

This, of course, is predicated on the idea that the programming works and the android can actually predict “the best possible” solution in hand to hand combat at a speed rapid enough to keep up with the human. (Which is why I say “preemptive instant death”, the computer will figure out quickly that this is the least risky approach which requires minimal overall computing power.) Hand to hand combat has a myriad of complex permutations and approaches which would be extremely difficult for a computer to keep up with, and the android could only do this with what it was programmed to know.  With a learning algorithm of some sort it’d be a kludgy person, ultimately slower and less capable. It not being able to “feel pain” would actually be a detriment for it. Working through pain is what teaches humans to ignore it, to know when they’ve reached their limit, when they truly are injured, and discover which pain actually matters.

This quality is often ignored by popular media outside of sports films, war movies, and fighting anime, but pain is extremely important to a combatant’s development. Pushing past pain is necessary for your mental barriers in martial arts training, which are key to developing conviction, determination, courage, and general grit. You don’t just train your body, you train your mind and your spirit. By going through difficult and frustrating experiences you grow, and get strong. That mental and emotional strength is what we use to push past our limits, to achieve new heights, and keep going when we’re certain we’re spent.

During training, you push past pain, past exhaustion, past your own insecurities, your self-defeat. You stand up. You keep going.

This quality? This comes from facing and defeating yourself, your own internal expectations of yourself and your own strength. You get past the first hump, and every hump you get past after that is a little easier even when the trials you face are more difficult.

The “One More Lap” mentality is the Determinator.

This is the difference between the mediocre student who showed up every day and worked their butt off to get better versus the talented student who was content to coast on their genetically gifted laurels.

This inner quality, earned by blood, sweat, and tears, is the foundation of every single champion.

It’ll screw up an algorithm.

And that’s why the computer cheats.

Against an overwhelming threat, the computer will react to protect itself the way anyone else would. Like so many other humans before it, the computer reduces risk to the smallest possible margins by turning to other options. It ultimately settle on the safest solution: preemption, and if not preemption then rapid escalation into brutality and murder.

If at any point during this post you went, “but no, that’s wrong!”

Exactly.

That’s an error checking your computer can’t do.

More than that, you can’t program a computer to work off information you don’t have and it doesn’t know. You can’t program the computer to “find the best solution in any hand to hand scenario” because you can’t program it with all that information. You won’t have access to nearly all the necessary information, and the possibilities are too numerous. Even if you program your computer with a magical learning algorithm it will only have access to the information it has experienced. The computer does not have the ability to be prescient.

I mean just look at all the actual AI experiments out there. Computers are very good at some aspects and terrible at others. Check out this video where an AI plays Tetris, and in order not to lose pauses right at the end. It can’t lose now, it’s indefinitely paused. Computer problem solving is different from human problem solving in some very fascinating and, in some cases, extremely literal ways.

Violence is very simple in some ways, but extremely complex in others. There are the moral and ethical quandries, such as when is use of force necessary but also complex kinetic motions requiring supremely good coordination in order to perform. This is the kind of force generation that’s very difficult to program because there are a lot of moving pieces. Those pieces are several steps beyond just programming the android to pick up objects, walk, or run.

The Terminators are the way to go. They don’t fight in conventional hand to hand, they just throw, flick, and crush on their way to victory. They have that option. They’re durable, most modern damage won’t slow them down, and they’re choosing motions that aren’t that mechanically complex. After all, why program the android to perform a 540 kick when they can throw someone through a wall? Easy, effective, involves fewer moving parts, and there’s ultimately less risk of damage.

The problem with Detroit: Become Human is that the androids are in the hands of a human player. They’re being controlled by a person, so, of course, they’ll behave like people. Games where you play the android are a terrible exploration of whether or not a computer can feel empathy. Think instead about NPCs in all your other video games. How do they behave? What do they do? There are plenty of learning AI in strategy games, and a lot of them cheat.

So, could a human fight this potential android and win?

Yes, fairly easily, because humans not only also cheat but because our brains prioritize the accumulation of different data that a computer will ignore. Information about the environment, for example. Developing tactics in regards to utilizing that environment during combat are another. We call this the “Let Me Hit You With A Trash Can Lid” approach. You can look at your environment and see items in it that you can use as weapons. The computer? The computer is going to ignore those. A human can also anticipate secondary and tertiary consequences to their actions, which means their decision making is ultimately different. It is very difficult to anticipate an enemy you ultimately don’t understand. Programming a computer with martial arts techniques is one thing, programming the computer to understand what people might do with those techniques is actually a different process altogether, and programming the computer to perform all those techniques (if they can even gain access to the full spectrum) is going to give some poor robotics expert a real headache.

I got a headache just thinking about it.

-Michi

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Q&A: There’s no such thing as an accidental stabbing

I have a taller, drunker, more experienced, overconfident person try to stab a shorter, sober, less experienced person (they have SOME experience, but knives/close combat isn’t their specialty so they’re better at Disengage-and-Get-the-Hell-out-of-Dodge than prolonged fighting). I’d like it to go Shorty: Yeep?! A knife? Both: Struggle over control of knife. Drunky: Loses control of the knife Shorty: Accidentally stabs Drunky in the chest/heart. I’d appreciate advice on how to have it go. Thanks!

Someone who is experienced with a knife knows precisely what it means when they draw one, even when they’re drunk.

They want to kill you.

If they’re drunk enough to be tipsy with their judgement impaired enough to commit murder in a public place but not drunk enough to be tripping over their own feet, then they’re going to be a very dangerous opponent. Knives are very good for killing at close ranges and drunken people can be very difficult to anticipate. Think about this, Drunken Fist is an entire martial art built around learning to move like you are drunk while being sober. This is because the way you move when you are drunk will throw experienced fighters off. A drunken person is looser, faster, and has their tells muted by the strange movements of their body. (Writing drunken characters is made easier if you yourself have ever been drunk, or been around people when they’re drunk.) You end up in a place where things will either go fantastically well while you’re on autopilot i.e. performing complex gymnastics you were too afraid to do before or driving yourself home without incident, or horribly. Drunk crashing, murder, falling to your death, and all other terrible to straight up weird things that can happen when your brain is not firing on all cylinders.

Just remember, when they’re drunk they have all the skills they possess when they’re sober. Their inhibitions are gone, which makes them more dangerous and not less. An angry drunk person is more likely to run you down with a car because they’re running on impulse and the concept of consequences is a distant third. Martial arts retrains your reflexes so you can function without thinking, react without thinking, and do what you want in the moment when you want to do it. Alcohol takes away the inhibitions that will stop you from doing what you want in the moment when you want to do it.

Now, here’s the worse news. Being able to anticipate your enemy’s movements in order to intercept their strikes before they reach extension is necessary when you’re looking at any kind of disarm, but especially with knives. You have less than a second to recognize what’s happening and react, which requires you see the draw coming from starting movements in their eyes, shoulder and chest muscles rather than when they actually pull the knife.

Knives are no game, they are deadly and you are much more likely to get stabbed while attempting any disarm than you are to take the knife away. Knife disarms are less dangerous than gun disarms, but that’s like saying your 99.9% chance of failure has been bumped down to 95%. You’ve got slightly better odds of survival, but they’re not great. You’ve got a better chance if you know what you’re doing than if you don’t, but the likelihood is that you’ll still get stabbed or accidentally impale yourself trying the disarm. If you’re not used to working with knives, you’ll lose track of the knife and its length. Your body’s reflexes won’t be trained to move completely out of the way, and you’re likely to get stabbed just trying to stop the blade from hitting you. It’s important to remember that knives are very dangerous even when you’re practiced, and in a scuffle it is easy to misjudge distance. If you fuck up, you’re getting stabbed, possibly multiple times in rapid succession. If you grab the blade, you’re getting cut or stabbed. If you fail to stop the arm before the attack gains inertia and don’t get out of the way, you’re getting stabbed. If you block the knife with your arm/forearm, you’re getting stabbed.

Knives are often portrayed as the smaller, less dangerous brother of the sword. That is not at all true. They are more dangerous, more flexible, more vicious in close quarters against unarmored/unarmed opponents, and do not require much skill to wield effectively. They are fast, they’re blink and you’ll miss it fast. This is zero to sixty in a fraction of a second with a bleed out following not long after.

Knives used in the hand range and are supplemental to fists. The fight begins in the range where the knife will have access to the entire body, and it is a weapon that can puncture your gut, sever tendons, and cut open muscles. Not only that, but you’re not going to get stabbed the one time. If they get the opportunity, you’ll most likely be stabbed six or seven in rapid succession.

Remember, if someone pulls a knife on you, they are threatening your life. The same is true for your characters. If they are in a situation where someone has pulled a knife on them, their life is being threatened. If they pull a knife on another character, they are threatening that character’s life. Regardless of the character’s intention when they draw their weapon, it is important to understand what the action means and what the threat is.

So, let’s talk about knife disarms.

Some Golden Rules of Knife Disarms

Don’t. Touch. The. Knife.

In knife combat, your target is the arm that holds the blade and not the blade itself. This is especially true if you are unarmed. So, don’t grab the blade. Grab the wrist. Grab the arm. Then, once the arm stops moving, you can take the knife by grabbing the handle and rolling it against your attacker’s thumb to forcibly release the grip.

Get Off The Vector!

You have to get away from the blade when that blade comes at at you. Your choices are to go forward, back, or to the side. Forward to stop the arm before the swing begins, backward to keep from getting stabbed while you go for the knife, sideways to get out of the way. You always want the knife off an attack vector on your body so that when you try to take the blade they can’t just lean into the attack a little harder and stab you.

They will do that, by the way. If you get a bad grip or they twist out of it, they can just roll over and finish what they started. Meanwhile, depending on which angle you stopped it, you risk getting cut/cutting yourself just moving the knife into position for the disarm.

Your combat reflexes are also a problem when dealing with knives, most of the traditional ways you’d move to block an attack will get you stabbed (albeit in a slightly different place than your aggressor intended.) One of the big issues with knife disarms is if you’re not worked to working with knives is that you’ll walk right into the strike even if you successfully “stopped” it.

Catch Before Extension or After. Do Not Try The Disarm During.

The rules of blocks and deflections are necessary to grasp if you want to write knife disarms. Against fists the difference is getting hit. With a knife, failure means you will be stabbed. Blocks and deflections are not about physical strength, they rely on disrupting the body’s mechanics.

In many martial arts, a punch or kick is broken down into stages.

Chamber. Extension. Recoil.

Chamber is when the arm or leg is bent before they extend into the strike. Stopping a punch or kick must be done before the arm or leg extends. If you want to stop a knife thrust, you need to catch that thrust in the moments before the arm fully extends i.e. while the elbow is still bent.

Extension is when the arm extends into motion, when it has gained momentum, and the moment before the elbow or knee locks into place.

Recoil is when the arm or leg withdraws after the strike, pulling back into the chambered position before returning to position.

The easy one to conceptualize is the overhead strike where the arm cycles into a downward arc to strike at the throat or shoulder. You catch the arm while it’s still behind the head before it reaches the zenith of the circle and begins to come down, i.e. while the elbow still points behind the head instead of facing you. This is the stage before the strike gains momentum. If you catch it too late, the strike will go through your block and hit you. With a knife strike, the stakes are higher. If you fail, you’re taking a blade to your shoulder, chest, or neck.

The second option with a knife is to catch the arm after it has extended, which means you must get out of the way of the strike first. The strike goes past you, and you catch the arm before it recoils for another strike.

Keep Track of the Knife.

You can deflect knife strikes, and that works under similar principles as a block. You redirect the arm somewhere else. The issue with this method is you need to have pinpoint precision for exactly how far the blade extends as part of their arm. In order to cut you, a knife just needs to connect. If any body part is within reach, it risks being cut. If your body is on line or on the same vector as the knife when you stop it, you risk your opponent pushing past the catch and stabbing you anyway. You need to track the extra reach of the blade at all times or risk being stabbed even when you do everything right. You always want your body off the knife’s vector, and the knife away from you.

When you’re writing knife combat this step is crucial to conveying tension and necessary to remember when you’re positioning your characters. In a fictional world, your characters will only be stabbed when you decide they will be. They only fail when you decide they will. This can lead to sloppy writing and negation of danger, which negates your tension if you’re not abiding by the rules. To convey that sense of danger, you need your audience aware of the knife; where it is, how close it is, what it’s doing, if your character let it stay on attack vector, tried to stop it, and didn’t get out of the way.

It’s All About The Thumb

Don’t fight four fingers when you can fight one. If you’re going to take a one handed weapon held in a forward facing grip away from someone, roll that weapon back against the thumb and twist. Focus on the weak points in the grip rather than attacking the whole grip.

Gotta Go Fast.

You don’t have time to play around with a knife, if you imagine a prolonged scuffle for the weapon or if your character gets into one then they significantly increased the likelihood they were getting stabbed. The closer that knife is to your body, the greater the chance of penetration, and even surface level nicks are deadly. They don’t need a single finishing blow, they can just cut away quick enough for you to bleed to death. This is the point of first blood, by the way. You take a wound to your body where you begin bleeding, no matter where that wound is, and you are at a serious disadvantage.

The longer this fight goes on, the more the advantage gets handed to the person with the weapon.

Onto some other problems.

The chest is not a good place to stab someone, you’re not getting to the heart unless you’re damn lucky. You’ve got an entire plate of bone called the sternum protecting it. The more necessary your body parts are, the more protection they get. You need a lot of force, and it’s just not worth the effort. Not when you have the stomach there and much readily available. Though, that’s not a quick death. You’re character can try but between their inexperience and the difficulty of the target, this drunk character isn’t going to die. The other major arteries are the same way, there’s not a lot of chance you’ll get them if you’re not experienced at finding them.

With a knife, you need to be skilled at using it in order to deliver sudden and immediate death otherwise you’re stuck with lingering, painful death from a slow bleed out after your major internal organs have been turned into chunky salsa.

Now, this fight is happening in a public place, so there’s a greater likelihood of this character receiving medical aid quick enough for them to survive or someone being close enough to intervene. More than that, where are their friends? And the other bystanders? And the bartender? I have a hard time imagining these two characters being the only ones duking it out in an empty bar.

A character used to disengagement isn’t going to take the option to fight a dangerous opponent against whom they’re outmatched if they can run away. That’s just… smart. A bar provides you with a lot of opportunities to do just that. There are a lot of options to get objects between yourself and the person attacking you in order to create the opening needed to get away. They’re also in the kind of tight quarters where they can’t control their own movement and could get forced into the knife by someone else in the environment or the environment itself. They’ve got no margin for error, and the bar is a situation where there’s a chance all the errors will occur.

You’re basically trying to engineer a situation where this character is forced to kill this other character. The goal is to use alcohol to force the situation and then level the playing field. The problem is you’ve got a character, by your own admission, where this kind of fight isn’t their forte and a situation where knife disarms need to be for them to be successful.

Taking a knife from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing with it is difficult and you’re at high risk of getting stabbed. Taking a knife from someone who knows what they’re doing, even if they’re drunk, is almost impossible. They’ve trained their body and their reflexes to do this, even when they’re in no condition to be doing this. The drunken fencer accidentally killing another sober person is ironically more likely than the drunken fencer getting killed. Depending on how much they’ve drunk and what their tolerance is, the alcohol actually makes killing easier because it removes their inhibitions. They don’t have to second guess anything, they can just do. They call it liquid courage for a reason.

Now, that’s from a practical standpoint. From a narrative standpoint, this piece of violence will be trivial unless the death of this other character leads somewhere interesting with real, severe consequences for your protagonist. If the violence doesn’t go anywhere and just exists for cheap guilting or to prove the character can kill then it just isn’t interesting. Violence is a high risk tool with high risk consequences that you can use to create real stakes, but when violence is misused you also cheapen your entire narrative. You can destroy your stakes, wreck your tension, and end up boxed in by your own writing.

What’s the point?

Did this other character have a real reason to draw their knife on this other character and attempt to kill them? Or are they just a puppet sacrificed to establish the protagonist?

It better be a really good reason, let me tell you. Alcohol takes away inhibitions, but it doesn’t make you do anything you weren’t already prone to doing. The beef better be real, and based in the sort of emotional reaction you’d be willing to ruin your life over.

Where are the other characters?

Where is the bartender?

Who else is going to intervene?

When setting up a versus in your head, it is really easy to over focus on that and forget about everything surrounding your characters. A drawn weapon is a danger to everyone in the room, not just the character who is being threatened. Other people, whether they’re friends, allies, enemies, or strangers, will be inclined to jump in. A bar fight has stakes for the owner and employees of the establishment, they can’t stay in business if their bar isn’t safe. Drawing a weapon represents a direct threat to that safety for the social order.

These consequences and considerations are part of your world building. Ask yourself, is there someone close enough to stop this fight?

You may not see it that way, but you should be aware of the fact that the bar brawl scene is cliche. One countless other writers have already used for some cheap, consequence free violence to show how their protagonist is a badass. The violence in fictional bars rarely goes anywhere. Cheap violence damages your narrative.

So, don’t be cheap.

You don’t need a character behaving violently to show that the character is dangerous or knows what they’re doing. In fact, doing so runs counter to showing that.

Lastly, there’s no such thing as an accidental stabbing. This is especially true when you’ve killed the other person. Knives are like guns. They’re weapons used to kill the other person. Characters who have any experience with martial combat know that. They know what holding a knife means, the threat it represents, and how the combat is going to end. They or the other person will be seriously wounded or dead. Even when you’re wielding one in self-defense or fighting someone else with a knife, that is the outcome.

“Oh, but I didn’t mean to do that” is not a good justification, legally or narratively. “He was going to kill me so I killed him first” is better. “I killed him because I had to.” “I killed him to protect someone precious to me.” “I killed him because I wanted to.” “I killed him because he threatened my life.” “I killed him.” “I… yeah, I did.”

If you’re going to have your character kill another character, you need to put on your grown up pants and have them mean it. This is especially true when they’re trained. Accidents are not a get out of jail free card, or a great way to show your character knows what they’re doing but just couldn’t control it, or particularly meaningful way of raising the stakes.

Killing another person requires commitment. You don’t get there through half-measures. Humans are actually rather difficult to do in. We’re impressively good at killing each other, but it takes a fair amount of work. Besides, I mean, this character is drunk. He’s got a better than average chance of stabbing himself with the knife or falling on it and killing himself, or falling into a table and stabbing some innocent bystander long before this other character has time to take the knife from him.

You gotta commit. Whether in martial arts, or in your writing, or in life, you won’t get anywhere with half-measures. We cross the threshold by acting, by believing we’ll get there, and by committing to what we’re about to do. The same goes for your Shorty.

There aren’t clean endings to knife fights. Violence requires you be willing to hurt and even kill another person. The same is true whether or you’re on the giving or the receiving end. If they can’t commit, they’ll never stop that knife to begin with.

-Michi

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Q&A: When it comes to women, “Realism” is often wrong

I’m writing a story set in the Victorian era, something I have done a lot of research on, and my female character (a teenager) is a skilled fencer. I have been told that this is ‘unrealistic’ despite research telling me noble women would have actually been ENCOURAGED to fence, as fencing was seen as graceful. I was going to have her get into a duel but I’m worried readers aren’t going to believe woman could fence back then and impose even more restrictions than were in place at the time.

So, with fiction, you can essentially normalize whatever you want. You’re not limited a very narrow view of someone else’s reality. You create the reality your readers experience. You shape the world to your liking. You have that control, you have that power, and, when you get good at crafting new realities, your readership won’t question it because you never gave them the opportunity. However, the trick with normalization is understanding there needs to be more than one. You need many characters from in a multitude of age groups in order to normalize a behavior pattern in a setting.

Never forget, you are the creator and they are the consumer. The consumer doesn’t dictate what the creator creates. A well-written story will always find a home, even one filled with uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Be confident that you’ll find yours.

Remember, perception of history doesn’t outweigh real history except when we ignore the real history’s existence. The fact women were encouraged to fence as they were encouraged to participate in other sports like tennis for the benefit of their health doesn’t outweigh the sexism which existed in Victorian England. It also doesn’t reject women’s participation in sports as being seen as secondary to men’s. Their participation treated as less “legitimate”, less serious, and entirely hobbyist. Which is not so different from how women’s professional sports are treated today.

The trouble with the presentation of many female characters who fight (and this has been normalized) is that they’re the only one. They’re the trailblazer, the only one who fights, who earns her stripes by playing with the big male dogs, who is different from other women. This gives them the position of being special and unique. However, by being different from other woman in such a big way, we cut the setting off from normalizing female participation and the concept of a woman fighting is treated as abnormal. A single outlier is not normalization, and isn’t really proving anything.  In fact, the treatment of a female fighter as being different, unique, and special due to her gender throws the violence and combat ball squarely into the male court. By normalizing violence as the domain of men, these female characters are framed as infringing on spaces inherently male rather than just culturally male. This treatment of sex and gender ends up normalizing the very sexist stereotypes and cultural mores that the narrative is trying to combat.  The treatment posits that men are inherently and naturally better at combat than women because violence is male, and the truth that combat is a skill you practice and work at in order to be good gets lost.

Women have always fought. You’ll find at least two women in just about every martial arts class, and probably more. There will be older women and younger women, the women who threw off society’s rules to completely embrace their martial calling, the women who didn’t, the women who are there just for that bit of added grace, the ones who are there because their mother or father made them, the ones who love it, the ones who aren’t really interested in fencing. They’re just crushing on the salle’s fencing instructor or taking the opportunity to go husband hunting among the available gentry. You need lots of female characters with varying opinions on the subject and with their own reasons for engaging in the sport. The primary opponents for a female fencer are going to be other female fencers, and that’s also who she’ll be training with; even if the master is a man. Where women dueling women is acceptable, women dueling men will be socially frowned upon. This doesn’t mean a woman can’t duel a man on equal terms, they can. However, the social and societal consequences for breaking with tradition are much more severe.

This is where the sexism the audience has been trained to expect leaks back in. The mental jump is in the statement: “it is socially frowned upon for women to do X” and the logic then  becomes “women can’t do X!” because we don’t talk about the ones who challenged social mores. There’s the assumption, and then there’s the reality. Audiences demanding realism often overfocus on their assumptions, rather than what is real. Fiction is a poor substitute for the real world, which is often much more complicated. The reality is women’s fencing as a codified sport has been thriving for over a century. Women have been fencing and fighting for much longer than that. Women learned and practiced self-defense in Victorian England, there were women who did fight in live duels against other women, and there were those who participated in the sport purely as a means of exercise.

Women didn’t duel in Victorian England, they say? We have actual historical events of women dueling topless, and not for the entertainment of male or female spectators. No, they dueled topless to avoid infection and to keep cloth from going into the wound. In this particular instance, the countess and the princess were dueling over floral arrangements for an upcoming musical exhibition.

The reasons your characters have for dueling could be really, really out there. Violence over floral arrangements may not make sense to us, but it did to them. Humans can be really out there, and history isn’t a sham collection of men doing everything while women stayed home. History is littered with badass women from all over the world doing crazy things. I wouldn’t even say that a woman dueling a man in Victorian England would actually be all that out there because women did, what would be unrealistic is there being no consequences (societal or otherwise) for the act. There were certainly women who openly flouted convention. Novelist George Eliot is one example. Female prize fighter and all around bare knuckle boxing champion, Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes is another.

However, culture involves more than one.

If you want to portray an attitude as normal, you need to have your characters treat the attitude like it’s normal and back that up with a robust mixed gender cast. Women are drawn to violence in the same way men are, and female members of the aristocracy certainly did duel each other. There were articles written on the subject of how fencing is good for women’s health.

So, should you fear detractors? No, you shouldn’t.

Don’t give them power over your work. Women have been carving out their place in the world of professional sports and on the battlefield for a long, long time. The tragedy is that our culture at large pretends they don’t exist in order to uphold the sexist mores underpinning our society. Remember, women make up half of the human race and half of every society. Honestly, read this article. The Boy’s Club may be societally acceptable, but it’s actually unrealistic.

So, if you want normal, jam your work full of female fencers of every age. Main characters, secondary characters, side characters, and cameos. Female friends, female rivals, female mentors, female teachers, female assistants, female family members, female characters who just don’t understand, female characters of every stripe imaginable. Women who fence, women who don’t, women who look down their nose at it, women who think its unseemly, women who long to be taken more seriously, and the women who just don’t care what society thinks. Those do it anyway. All these types of women have existed.

You’ll always find detractors, but the answer is easy.

Do it anyway.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reject Cynicism. Inner Strength is about Courage

Thoughts on the gentle and compassionate character that is perceived as weak but has “inner strength”? What is your personal definition of inner strength in the context of this archetype, and would it actually be beneficial in a semi-realistic setting? And how would you go about deconstructing, and subsequently reconstructing it? I hate cynical endings that show kindness is meaningless or a hindrance, I was wondering if I could subvert such a message without eyeroll-ness using such a character.

Coming out with the hard questions, huh?

The truth is there is no right way to write this type of character because “inner strength” isn’t a generic term but a personal one. In terms of meaning, strength changes from individual to individual. So, for a writer, that means defining what “inner strength” means to you.

Strong is a State of Mind.

Let’s redefine “inner strength” as courage. Courage is not being without weakness, it’s about overcoming fears and insecurities. It’s about facing uncomfortable truths even when the lies those truths hide make up the fabric of your memory.

There’s no single right answer or way to go about portraying a character who is courageous in their daily life, who stands up, who faces down what makes them afraid, and who tries even knowing they might fail. Kindness is a gift given to someone else, and while you might hope for reciprocation you’re not guaranteed a response.

“This is about what I can do,” this type of character says. “This is not about what you or what you deserve. I’m kind because I believe in kindness. You can be cruel to me, that’s you’re choice. I’ll continue to be kind to you because that’s the approach I’ve chosen.”

You don’t need to subvert, or deconstruct, or reconstruct. What you’ve got to do is play the archetype straight. Write the character who genuinely believes kindness can change the world. You don’t need a character who starts out “strong” and inner strength isn’t easily quantified in the general sense. You need a character who is wiling to stand up for their beliefs, even when their insecure, frightened, unsure, and hopeless. Creating a character who genuinely is mentally and emotionally strong is creating a character who is learning how to be strong as they go through their experiences, in figuring out what that means for them and for you, discovering how they got there, throwing aside cynicism, and in the end believing that  kindness really can make a difference.

You’ve got to decide what “inner strength” is in the context of your story. For me, inner strength is the most important quality for any character. I define “strength” by their emotional experiences, how they deal with them, if they face them, their decisions, their beliefs, and how those shape their story within the narrative. Each one has their own qualities, their own strengths.

“Yes, the world can be a dark and dangerous place. Yes, people can by cynical and self-interested. Yes, cruelty, indifference, and ambivalence are all easier to accept. Yes, sometimes, changing even one small aspect of this world seems impossible. Hope can be frightening, it’s painful to see your dreams crushed. I know this task is Sisyphean, every time we get that boulder to the top of the hill it just rolls back down. Sometimes, for me, even just getting out of the bed in the morning can be herculean. But you? You’re just using cynicism to excuse action. In your world, we’re already doomed. That attitude just protects the status quo. I won’t stand aside. I won’t do nothing. I won’t let fear stop me and I won’t let you stop me either. I’m going whether you come with me or not.”

The irony for all the cynics will tell you their way is more “realistic” is that it’s much more difficult to maintain hope, to stay hopeful, positive, and to keep chasing after your dreams. It’s more difficult to be kind than it is to be cruel. You risk more in being open to others than you do in being closed, and its much harder to keep sticking your hand back into the fire after you’ve been burned. The mistake comes with assuming that being kind is easy. It is under most circumstances, but there are those where you need to dig deep to maintain that smile. It’s easy to see the flaws and failings in other people, and much harder to reach out. The mistake is in assuming these characters have never seen the world’s darkness, that they’re sheltered, and that once they’re exposed to that darkness they’ll change their tune. That’s not necessarily true.

Now, there are those kinds of characters whose kindness is based in both innocence and ignorance. Who are open because they have the privilege of living in an environment where they don’t regularly encounter cruelty, where no one has specifically been directly cruel to them, where they’ve never had the values they espouse challenged. Then, there are the characters who have had their values challenged. The ones who locked hands with misery and despair, who went through their crucibles, and came out the other side fire forged. These characters genuinely believe in the values they espouse, all the way down to the extreme end of pacifism where even when their life is threatened they never raise a hand to defend themselves with violence. They choose words instead.

There isn’t anything unrealistic about characters choosing a path of peace over one of war. Diplomacy is a real skill set with real value in the real world. There are plenty of people out there every day making a difference, by giving time to good causes, who chase after their own dreams of a better world. There are plenty of examples out there to show you can’t make a better world through violence. Plenty of different philosophies on the subject too.

Strength comes from growth, from picking ourselves back up when we fall down, and standing up again. Like Sisyphus with his boulder, there’s no shortage of pitfalls to knock us back down to square one. That “inner strength” comes from fortitude, from the willingness to keep going, from acknowledging our own failings, and being patient with others for theirs.

So, the question becomes do you believe in the values this character espouses? Can you be genuine when you write them? Can you be honest with their struggles? Can you be honest? Can you write from the perspective where you believe in what they stand for, but are willing to challenge them and put those beliefs to the test? Are you willing to let them fall short? Willing to see them fail?

Maybe I don’t want to be gentle all the time? I always try to be kind! I try and I try, and I try, and I’m sick of it! I’m not getting anywhere, and when I do you’re there with some witty crack about how it couldn’t get better than this! Why are you doing this to me? How can you go through life like this doesn’t affect you? People are suffering! They’re suffering and I can’t do anything about it!

Ultimately, the difference between a character who affects the audience and a character who is eye-roll worthy is whether you admit that they’re human. Even then, so what if they are eye-roll worthy? Sometimes, you need to start with a cliche and then when given context the character emerges. There’s nothing generic about this sort of character’s strength, they are an individual whose beliefs are challenged and shaped by their experiences.

Bravery requires we take risks. Risks mean that sometimes we fail, but we can’t allow fear of failing to stop us. Learning about “inner strength” requires taking a long hard look at yourself. There aren’t any special tricks to getting past the boulder, no special means of ensuring success. Sometimes, you just need to be willing to stand there and risk letting the boulder hit you. The cynic will tell you that its better not to try anyway because you were always going to fail. However, the honest truth is that you don’t know until you try.

The act of facing your fears is growth all by itself. Putting yourself out there, even if you fail, is an act of courage.

That’s really how we do it.

One step at a time.

-Michi

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Q&A: Feel Good Violence is Universal

So I’ve seen a lot of your posts on violence but how does that stuff pertain to a fantasy novel where fighting is a character’s way of life? Like his job is to fight off monsters and stuff so does fight scenes still fall under feel good violence or any other pitfalls you’ve discussed?

Feel Good Violence is the trope which makes a lot of our readers go, “I came out to have a good time and I’m feeling so attacked right now.” Mostly because they’re misunderstanding what it means, and assume that this relates to over the top violence, or exciting superhero movie fight scenes, or scenes that are written purely to be exciting and fun. That’s not what Feel Good Violence refers to.

Feel Good Violence is about violence written without consequences and scenes that have no narrative impact, which ultimately serve no purpose in the story except to show us how awesome the hero is, by itself, alone, and are scenes ultimately not worth anyone’s time. Feel Good Violence is your hero initiating a beat down on some poor schmuck in a bar at a level they certainly didn’t deserve, where they destroy the bar in the process, and everyone cheers. If you ignore the pitfalls of Feel Good Violence, you will cast your hero as a bully and most of your readership may not notice because violence as wish fulfillment translates directly into bullying and bullying really does feel good.

Feel Good Violence is your character contextually behaving the same way as a nasty anon sending nasty messages into someone random person’s inbox in the name of their fave and then being celebrated for it. Without context, without perspective, this is violence designed to feel good and violence where the action leads the narrative nowhere.

Violence has a high price tag, whether that price is paid physically through exhaustion or injury, socially through its impact on those individuals around you and the way they treat you, and culturally through the rules and laws put down by whatever governing body rules your setting. Fight scenes are great for your fiction because that high price tag (which will impact every aspect of their life) is an easy road to high key drama with high stakes.

Feel Good Violence ignores the stakes, negates tension, and destroys drama, these scenes exist purely as an abstract and float outside the narrative’s actual plot. They do nothing, they influence nothing, they incite nothing, and ultimately mean nothing. They are the character acting without fear of consequences in a narrative sanctioned environment where those consequences can never occur because the author won’t let them threaten the protagonist. Consequences to their behavior simply don’t apply, no concept of long term pay off exists, justification is broken down on the lines of “good” and “bad”. The police officer will threaten the snitch who provides them with information, beat them up, throw them into walls, in order to remind the audience that the officer is tough. Forgetting that the snitch provides the police officer with important information, information where in the same situation and in a better narrative would no longer be available down the line when the police officer needs it.

The problem with Feel Good Violence is that consequences and fallout from your character’s actions are what create tension. In fact, most characters that general audience adore adore them in part because they’re walking drama bombs. Like the bad boy loner with a temper who punches out the school bully and lands both himself and the protagonist in detention.

Inciting Incident > Negative Action > Consequences

Feel Good Violence would just have the bad boy punch the school bully, and wander away while the bully lies on the floor crying while the in-scene audience cheers.

Inciting Incident > Negative Action > Poot

In characters that are supposed to be combat professionals, the mentality this trope creates will lead to abdication of responsibility and them behaving in ways that are unprofessional in the extreme. You won’t have any respect for the damage the character is capable of doing because you discarded the price tag. A real professional, or even just a recreational martial artist, knows they must moderate their behavior to react in ways which are situationally appropriate. They carefully weight their response because just hauling off on some stupid motherfucker can have some terrible consequences.

Now, while those consequences can be bad for the character in-setting they could be great for the narrative and the plot as a whole; but only if you let the consequences of those choices play out.

A cop beating up a snitch and then the snitch turning on them down the line is great drama. The monster hunter who accidentally destroys a town, whose actions have unintended consequences, or pulling a Geralt and hacking off some idiot’s hand in order to get hired for a job is great drama.

So, yes, this one applies to everything you write regardless of genre because it directly relates to the consequences revolving around your characters actions. Violence is very expensive, regardless of how fantastical the setting is. Feel Good Violence is consequence free, these scenes exists purely to make you feel good without having to worry about anyone’s feelings or anyone (you care about) getting hurt. You see the best examples of this trope in wish-fulfillment characters where the end result of the mentality is a main character becoming a psychopathic bully. At least, they will when you look at the external context of the actions they’re taking. However, if you choose to never critically think as a reader, you’ll simply absorb these scenes and cheer.

You avoid feel good violence by bringing consequences home into your fiction, and having the character’s behavior impact their daily life and how others see them. For example, if your character is a monster hunter and the monster he’s hunting gets into the town that hired him and destroys it, they’re not going to be very happy with him. They will continue to not be happy with him even if he does kill it and ultimately saves their lives. There are other consequences to be had like their homes, equipment, and livelihoods have all been destroyed.  It’s like Spider-Man destroying your car by throwing it at Rhino to stop him.

Thanks for saving my life, buddy, but I still need to get to work tomorrow.

A good way to double check yourself on Feel Good Violence is to stop and think about what’s happening context wise in your story. Most of the issues with Feel Good Violence stem from being too connected to your protagonists and trying to smooth the way for them, or engineering events to try to control how others will react. Those reactions and consequences are part of what create realism and tension within your fiction. Step outside your protagonist and start thinking from the perspective of other characters in your story, about how you’d react if these events happened to you. If you saw X occurring, how would you react? What reaction would help the story to progress?

Essentially, treat violence and your fight scenes like events actually occurring in the setting with real effects on the narrative and you’ll avoid Feel Good Violence.

-Michi

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Q&A: A Setting’s Philosophy is Realism

Wow, okay, didn’t expect a whole discussion on Sith philosophy… My question was more like, does Kylo Ren punching his own physical wound help him in that specific fight? Does it keep him from passing out, does it help his body perform any better, that sort of thing.

That’s because the most realistic aspect of Star Wars is the combat philosophy running behind the Jedi and the Sith, and they’re not totally terrible as a way to start learning about how philosophy influences martial combat. They are ultimately an extension of the trope: Martial Arts Give You Superpowers. This is not unique to Star Wars, and comes primarily from Eastern philosophies like the Tao and how they were applied to the martial styles developed there. Martial arts often do look like magic to the casual observer. Besides that, the enlightenment/understanding of yourself, your body, and the universe directly correlates with your ability to throw an opponent across the room. The best thing you can do for yourself is understand that Star Wars, specifically the Original Trilogy, are useful as an introduction to this side of martial arts.

There’s not much point in discussing the mechanics of the final fight between Kylo Ren versus Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens. It isn’t a great fight scene, and one that only serves to undercut Kylo Ren’s competency both as a combatant and as a villain. It’s bad on a multitude of levels from character, narrative consistency to choreography, though the cinematography itself is nice enough when we’re not comparing it to the Original Trilogy. Even injured, that was a fight which should’ve been no contest for Kylo Ren. Or allowed Rey to use the weapons she was actually good at using, rather than a weapon which is very good at cutting off your own limbs when you make a mistake. The lightsaber is the three-section staff of Star Wars, if you don’t know what you’re doing then you’re guaranteed a concussion first time out. (No, that is not a joke. The three-section staff does that to real martial artists all the time.)

On a setting or narrative level,  you can’t divest Kylo Ren from the Sith philosophy and the behavior patterns which make a Dark Side user strong. In this case, both the Jedi and the Sith are more bombastic echoes of what real people can achieve in real life. We can’t talk about the physical applications of what Kylo Ren does without talking about his mental state and mind set. The useful effects of beating your wounded shoulder depend entirely on your approach to pain. As for Ren himself, he’s a fantasy character in a fantasy environment powered by the Force, which is essentially a concept straight out of the Tao. Him beating his wound has about as much relevance as him destroying a console with his lightsaber, and its also self-destructive. The script calls for it so he’ll look tough or more badass, and to remind the audience that he’s wounded.

A discussion on the Sith philosophy is crucial to Kylo Ren’s behavior as a character and how he uses pain to motivate himself, because the Sith use pain to motivate themselves and that philosophy is an offshoot of a real martial arts philosophy which exists in the real world. Powered by pain is a philosophy which directly relates to your mental state, and Kylo Ren beats his wound because he’s… trying to look tough. There’s no realism worth discussing with his fight decisions. In that way, he’s a moron.

You don’t want to get the blood leaving any faster or at all because you will start passing out from blood loss. When you fight, your heart starts beating more quickly, the quicker beat means the blood moves through your body more quickly, if your body has holes the blood will exit those holes quicker too. You do any physical exercise with an open wound you will bleed out faster. If you have a wound like that, you want to seal it off as quickly as possible.

The short answer is that Kylo Ren beats his wound to be dramatic because he’s a drama queen, and he likes to remind the audience that he is in pain. If he actually wanted to do do something about his wound quickly, stop the bleed out, and motivate himself with pain he’d cauterize the wound with his lightsaber. If he wanted to double that up as an intimidation tactic, he’d cauterize while Rey and Finn are watching in order to terrify them before the battle begins. This is a Sith tactic, and a method you can use to intimidate your enemies in real life. Sith have even been known to intentionally inflict injury before a fight begins because it gets them fired up. Kylo’s really not that clever though, which is why I call him a cosplayer rather than a Sith Lord. He showboats without any real substance. A better example of what Kylo Ren tries to do is found in your average Wuxia film. The original Die Hard with Bruce Willis is also better, and probably more useful for discussing realism and realistic injuries someone would sustain in an action film.

For what Ren does to work, you need a character who’s determination goes up in conjunction to the number of injuries they sustain. As I said, this is a Sith. The more you beat on a Sith, the stronger they get. This is an outgrowth of a real world philosophy regarding pain taken to extremes, which is: the more you beat on someone, the more painful their situation gets, then the more determined they get and the more motivated they are to succeed. There are people in the real world who do this, and this is a natural outgrowth of someone who has had a very difficult life and experienced a great deal of emotional/physical pain. The more pain you experience, then the more you adjust to it, grow comfortable with it, and start shaking off injuries other people would find incredibly debilitating. Often, this happens without the individual even realizing it because their base state for “normal” is skewed beyond recognizable and they adjusted to meet that state of pain in order to survive. This is The Determinator. You can rip them to pieces and like a human terminator, they. just. keep. coming. This occurs on sheer force of will alone, because your mind is more powerful than your body.

Get up!

You beat your wound because it feels good, or you’re frustrated with your arm not functioning the way you want it to and insist on it working again. Pain feels good, and if you can’t imagine a character to whom pain feels good, who enjoys experiencing injury, or simply finds their body’s failings annoying then this character archetype is not for you. Running into real people who are shades of this in your real life might also terrify you. They’re out there, and they’re not just combat professionals, soldiers, or martial artists.

Kylo genuinely tries for this but his personality doesn’t match. Compared to other Sith in previous Star Wars movies (like Darth Vader or Count Dooku), he’s actually very wasteful in his combat style when it comes to physical action. He makes big sweeping moves, he’s ultimately very slow, leaves himself wide open, and he lacks Maul’s dramatic flair. He has a very heavy fighting style which is supposed to represent power, or link him back to Vader, but Vader had the benefit of a sword style performed by Bob Anderson. The first fight between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope is actually fairly accurate to Kendo as duels go.

Kylo is the sort of character where any injury he sustains is supposed to make him more dangerous. In old school Star Wars canon, the injury he sustains in TFA shouldn’t benefit Rey at all. His injury should ramp up his connection to the Force instead, resulting in him becoming more dangerous and more deadly. That’s what the injury beating is supposed to show. However, this sense of danger is undercut by the narrative because neither Rey or Finn have any sort of training with the weapon they’re trying to use. Kylo being forced to fight on an equal playing field with Rey, even after defeating Finn, actually undercuts him as a villain and as a combatant. It frames him as incompetent when compared to his other Dark Side brethren, who all had the benefit of fighting someone who knew what they were doing or were taking it easy on someone who didn’t. (Darth Maul versus Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Vader versus Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke versus Vader in Cloud City.) Kylo Ren is allowed none of those opportunities, and he is the least threatening as a result.

He’s not a character who’s personality matches one you can kick out of a plane in a desperate attempt to get rid of them only to have them show up three weeks later, royally pissed off and ready to kill you all over again. This character is the outgrowth of and natural extension of the injury beating we see Kylo Ren do. This really is who he’s supposed to be and who he’s trying to be because that’s who Vader was. Vader got all four limbs cut off by his master, half-burned to death by lava, lost/attempted to murder his wife, lost his children, and went on to terrify billions across the galaxy.

-Michi

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Q&A: Violence Is All About Efficiency

if i recall correctly you all have talked before about how being a little faster or stronger isn’t nearly as important as the better choice of armor or weapons and having competency with them, but from what i know of HEMA, in general the weaponry and so the armor of europe generally trended toward more of a style of finesse in fighting (which involves a large amount of training with your weapon of course), would that be accurate to say?

No, assuming strength, dexterity, finesse, or any other trait involves missing the most important one of all: efficiency.  In order to write good fight scenes, this is one you need to internalize. There are two terms to familiarize yourself with:

The Economy of Violence.

Conservation of Movement.

If you are not efficient with the energy you have, you will die.  No matter how much endurance you have and how much you train, your energy pool will always be limited. The entire goal of martial combat is to expend as little energy as possible while protecting yourself as much as you possibly can. Finesse, strength, dexterity, any other attribute comes in second to this goal, and you do not need a long period of training to learn to be efficient. Small, minute movements rather than large ones conserve energy; weapons make it easier to kill your enemies, and the more efficient the weapon, the easier it is to learn in a short period of time. The weapons Europe gravited toward were weapons that required little time to learn and were effective with marginal training, because you didn’t need to waste time getting someone up to snuff. The easier a weapon is, the more individuals gravitate towards learning how to use the weapon, the more widespread it becomes, and the quicker it is adapted as a cultural mainstay.  See: the handgun.

In the modern era, we can train a combat ready soldier in three months. They won’t be the best, they won’t be perfect, but they’ll be effective and, more importantly, efficient in their fighting style.

The Economy of Violence is the cost of violence, the toil it takes on the body, the time it takes to kill your enemy, and what you must pay physically, mentally, and emotionally in order to win. Violence has both costs and consequences, internalizing this concept is necessary as a writer to bring realism to your fiction. This is an economy you must create within your own writing, and keep at the forefront of your mind. Unlike the real world, you’re creating the rules and, while that sounds great, the rules are what sustain Suspension of Disbelief. Violating those rules will break the disbelief, and dispel the illusion. Not so terrible compared to the real world where misunderstanding the cost and consequence of violence will get you injured, killed, shamed, and shunned.

Fictional characters are often wasteful to the point of becoming unrealistic because they don’t need to face physical, mental, emotional, and societal consequences of their actions if the writer chooses to exclude them. They can fight forever if the writer wants.  They can do whatever you want them to. Of course, these stories lack tension, audiences cry about their believability, and there’s not much point to reading them. Still, you can if you want.

Efficiency is a lesson which carries beyond violence. Embracing the Economy of Violence and learning to be efficient in your own writing will help you grow into a better writer. Your scenes will flow better, your narrative will stay on point, your characters will feel more like real people, your sentences will be uncluttered, and your writing will have purpose. You’ll understand what you’re doing, where you’re going, and what toll you’ll need to pay in order to get where you want to be. Your characters will start making choices dependent less on what the narrative needs and more on their own survival. They’ll start choosing violent actions that are more than set pieces, but based in their emotions and their smarts. Their narrative structure will support them with natural fallout.

Understand this, the make or break is in how well you control your resources. The tension is in the cost and consequence, in the time it takes to achieve objectives. Waste not, want not, after all.

If you study the evolution of violence and martial combat styles worldwide, even without the ancillary details, the focus is always not just on what works but what takes the least time. Effectiveness is the order of the day. After all, why use three strokes to achieve the same goal when you can just use one. When looking to improve, the focus rests on streamlining and raising the effectiveness of the tool at hand. The tools are discarded when better or more effective/efficient tools come along.

This is why your fight scenes need internal justification from your characters. They shouldn’t be taking out the inhabitants of whole castles on extraction missions just because they can. This path isn’t better because it wastes time, because it involves putting in more work than you need and involves taking more risks than necessary. Outside of a character justification like hubris, there’s just no point. The more capable a character is, the more efficient they’re going to be and more focused on economizing their violence. They’ll maximize their input if it achieves maximum output in the trade off. They’ll waste less time than other characters, be more capable of assessing a situation, and they’ll be ending fights in fewer blows. Everything will be contracted and concise, because it’s ultimately less wasteful and saves energy in the long run. That energy saved can be applied to the next opponent, or escape, or a half a dozen other scenarios. The goal is to be as quick as possible, and how you get there is ultimately up to you.

This is why applying physical attributes like strength, dexterity, and finesse ultimately shortchange the conversation. You can make any of those work, and can gain them with any body type, but what you can’t work with is someone who isn’t efficient, who wastes time, who makes big visible motions that don’t amount to anything. Someone who can’t conserve their energy, and who wastes it. Even when they don’t seem to be efficient, all the surviving martial arts are, in their own unique ways. Fortifications, as an example, are designed to get your enemy to spend more energy reaching you and setting up natural traps where invaders can be safely mopped up by the defenders. It’s all about making your job easier, and, keep in mind, your enemy wants the exact same thing.

I’ll grant you, finesse sounds cooler than conservation, economy, or efficiency. However, to cleave to that will miss the ultimate point which helps you write better fight scenes. More than any other aspect, you need the Economy of Violence to set up rules for your violence within the narrative. Those rules fuel suspension of disbelief, and help keep your audience invested in the narrative. They are the part of violence that is “real”.

-Michi

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Q&A: Sadism

True or false: Pointless sadism can get in the way of winning a fight? Like, if you’re focused on inflicting as much pain as possible instead of finding the most efficient way of killing someone? Could a villain’s cruelty actually be his undoing, maybe? Or would the evil overlord either have died or learned his lesson long ago? What pitfalls should you avoid if you decide to go this route? Would this be the way to go in a story with a light tone (but not outright comedy) that’s light on realism?

The problem with too much sadism (or sadism that is self-admitted to be pointless) is that your villain needs to actually get around to doing their job and moving the plot forward. It’s important to remember that a character’s proclivities in combat are signs of their personality and hints into their ability to achieve success. A villain who cannot control their own sadism and has no one higher up to control it for them or direct those habits toward useful goals, a la Rabban and the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, is going nowhere fast.

This can be a real problem to the narrative if your villain’s self-motivation leads them to hole up in some small village high in the Caucus mountains in order to fully engage in their sadism unchallenged while a hero similarly lacking in motivation is twiddling their thumbs in the United States.

When you’re setting up your plot, you need a villain whose interests match the intended narrative course. This is especially true when the villain is the one whose action and motivations are driving the narrative forward, the one putting pieces into play for the hero to respond to. If they never do that, you have no story.

Like all predators, a villain that’s into sadism and who can’t control their own impulses is going to take the path of least resistance. Which is why I said a small town somewhere with a disorganized military, poor response times, and no ability to fight back. If all they want is to inflict their will on others, to indulge their worst base impulses, enjoy causing havoc, then they’re logically going to go the way of other tinpot dictators. They are going to go somewhere they can exploit poor conditions in order to get what they want.

The problem with these sorts of characters is not that they aren’t realistic or that this can be their undoing (it certainly can be), but that they have no motivation to be where they are. This is both a blow to your narrative and to you because you ultimately wind up with a substandard villain.

An evil overlord may be evil but they’re still an overlord, there’s an internal justification for how they achieved that position on their own merits. Overthrowing another government isn’t small potatoes, this is someone with the capacity for planning, who got the vast majority of the population on their side (at least temporarily), and who is capable of strategic thinking if not planning. They’re also politically savvy. All these traits belong to someone who can control their impulses, who may be a sadist and may enjoy torture but who also knows when to indulge. They know how to orchestrate the blunt instruments around them to their advantage, even when they are the biggest monster on the table.

One gets to the top by understanding what they need to do and then doing it. However, they need motivation to get there and this motivation must be specific to their circumstances rather than generic. When you’re looking at a specific Monster of the Week setup whether it’s Power Rangers or Sailor Moon, the big villain has a specific goal that they’re putting a specific piece into play in order to achieve. In the case of Sailor Moon, the bad guys in the first season were trying to locate the silver crystal and all the hijinks start from there. They had a reason to be where they were, had a specific goal they could verbalize, and a plan to achieve it. The heroes job was to disrupt that plan. In the case of Dune, we have three sadists from House Harkonnen, one idiot and two attempting to play each other while all being manipulated by House Corrino off an ages old feud with House Atreides. Arrakis is not a reward, it’s a killing ground used by the Emperor to rid himself of potential rivals.

When you lack A and B with just a sadist, we wind up with characters like Semirhage from The Wheel of Time who spends multiple books doing a shadowy something but whom we mostly just see kidnapping individuals in order to perform experiments on them. (This is because we don’t know initially where any of them are or who they’re pretending to be, sometimes for several novels on end.) The series’ game of “Find the Forsaken” sometimes had a bad habit of undercutting the Forsaken.

Your villain needs a plan which coincides with the heroes in order for them to clash. A specific, internal justification is always better and will always prove more successful than an external justification. They need to be there for the narrative never answers why they’re there in a satisfactory way for your audience. They’re there because they’re the villain is not actually an answer.

Why here? Why now?

Those are important questions to delve into. It may take the heroes and the audience the entire narrative to work out the true reason, but its important that both the villain and the author have the answer or some inkling of it from the onset. The secondary motivational why lies in the character’s backstory, but the initial one should be easy enough to find. Just remember to look for that internal justification from the villain, why they’re doing what they’re doing and what it is they want. The needs of the villain and the needs of the hero and the needs of the narrative must coincide. If you plan for your villain to do the thing (rather than ultimately fail at the thing on their own power rather than be stopped by a hero) then they must be someone capable of doing the thing. Someone who would have succeeded if there were no meddling kids around to stop them.

The Baron Harkonnen was always destined to fail, not because of Paul, but because the Emperor would have ultimately stopped him. Arrakis was too big a prize for him to ultimately control. The Emperor, however, could have succeeded in his plan to rid himself of both Houses if Paul and Jessica had both been someone else. If they’d been normal, a normal consort and a normal child of the nobility. In Paul’s case, Arrakis and the spice was a catalyst for unexpected transformation.

In answer to the question: if the head honcho villain never learned their lesson prior to meeting the hero then it is likely they’d never have achieved their position. They’d lack the ambition, control, and cleverness needed to pull off their plots. The important thing to remember is that the villain always faces resistance, and faced resistance before your hero arrived on the scene. Others have tried to fight the villain and they failed. You’ve got to answer the question of why those others failed and in such a way that doesn’t make their sacrifices worthless or meaningless. If it was some easy solution, someone would have come up with the answer and tried it.

An easy work around for this is to come up with the plans that were tried and did fail. This will pull double duty for you of better establishing your villain’s true capabilities and know when your heroes are making stupid mistakes. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the random population in your narrative is totally helpless or incapable of standing up for themselves.

Remember, a sadist incapable of controlling themselves is a blunt instrument. One put to purpose by another and given direction. The fear they inspire is real, but their weaknesses are obvious. One can’t win on fear alone. The fear is there to keep you from fighting back, but the structure put into place is what will keep the average person from going anywhere.

-Michi

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Q&A: Splitting the Party

How do I sideline my powerful fighters without sloppy excuses? My story is rooted in Asian mythology and there are powerful gods and creatures as well as weapons and shields.

The simple answer is: By making sure you have carefully thought out reasons, rather than simply trying to come up with an excuse at the last minute.

So, let’s talk about writing for a minute.

Your rough draft is when you first sit down and start typing up your story. Nobody’s rough drafts are perfect. Rough drafts are, by necessity, kinda sloppy. Stuff won’t always fit together. Ideas will get kicked around, and abandoned, sometimes mid-draft. There will be plot holes. That’s fine.

Then you start writing. When you go back and rewrite your draft, you know what your story is doing, where it’s going, what’s happening, and, most importantly, exactly what will happen. If you know you want a character split off, you know you need to start setting that up.

In some ways, this is the definitive answer: How do you avoid sloppy writing? By going back and rewriting once you’ve written the piece. Writing really is rewriting. First drafts suck. That’s not on you, it’s a truth every author needs to acknowledge, and remember, “you’re not stuck there.” Once you know what you’re doing, go back, and improve it.

So, how do you sideline your characters? There’s a lot of options, but a simple one that will almost always give you more material to play with is, give them something else to do.

In very broad strokes there’s two sub-categories here. They can act in their own interests and pursue personal agendas, or they can work towards the benefit of the group, they just need to do it somewhere else. These can lead to very different characters, and vastly different stories, so let’s look at both of those.

Remember, your characters are distinct simulacra of people. They have their own wants, dreams, and goals. Depending on who they are as a person, those may take priority over helping your hero. (Or, if we’re talking about your hero, this may take priority over loyalty to their allies.)

If your character has spent centuries questing to find their lost love, they may abandon the party of wandering heroes they met in an inn a month ago when they find a lead. If they’ve been exiled from their home, they may even turn on their allies if it means they could go back. They may betray their allies because they’ve become convinced that your heroes are more destructive harmful than the forces they oppose.

There’s an unlimited number of potential permutations here, ranging from the selfish to altruistic. These are also incredibly contextual. Choosing how to fit these pieces together will come down to assessing your characters, their world, the forces they’re opposing, and figuring out who your characters are.

These kinds of events tend to be irrevocable. If your characters are betrayed by someone they called a friend, you really can’t walk that back, even if they come to regret their actions.

The alternative is that, sometimes, you just need to be in two places at once. One or two characters may need to split off from the rest to accomplish separate goals. A cadre of heroes may stage a doomed assault, to create enough of a distraction for one of their members to sneak in and assassinate a leader, or deliver some critical plot coupon.

Events like this can be thrilling. You’re putting a lot more weight on your characters’ shoulders. If anyone fails to carry out their plan, then everything will go horribly wrong.

Again, there’s an infinite number of possible permutations on this concept. They may not be killing someone, they may not even be in the same area. They may have split off awhile back to deal with something privately, but now, when needed, they’re leagues away.

There’s also a lot of options to blend across between these categories, and there are a lot of other possibilities. For example: A character who’s been poisoned by some mythical substance and put into a coma isn’t going to be much use in a fight.

This is your story. You’re only limited by your imagination. Look for conflicts of interest that will test your heroes. Look for the consequences of their past actions. Don’t worry if your rough draft seems off. That’s why, “writing is rewriting.”

-Starke

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Q&A: Gallows Humor

Do you have any advice on injecting black humor into my assassin’s narrative without being tasteless?

You can’t. Gallows humor revolves specifically around being tasteless, around saying very inappropriate things, and making a mockery of the situation. You are, after all, laughing at the pain of others.

The question is: were you funny?

That is the make or break rule of comedy, and understanding how to be funny with gallows humor requires understanding gallows humor. When you fail at gallows humor, you are just that asshole who said an inappropriate thing at the wrong time and then laughed at their own terrible joke.

Humor is the connections your mind makes before other people get there. As such, it tells us a lot about a person, who they are, how they think, what kind of experiences they’ve had, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, and who they are. This is part of why funny people break first, your sense of humor will tell your interrogator how you think and they’ll use that against you. (There’s some black humor in turning the knife on yourself, especially unwittingly.)

In real life, gallows humor is a sign of what experiences you’ve had, how you respond to them, and what you’ve become inured to. Gallows humor by its very nature is a societal taboo, you’re saying something shocking but the shock or the inappropriateness is not what makes the joke funny. For gallows humor to be successful, it must also be insightful. The outrageous comment served a purpose, had a point, drew a connection that their audience couldn’t see.

Humor is taking the situation you’re in, drawing insight from it, and making an observation. If you don’t do that, then your joke will fail. Gallows humor represents a high bar because it is offensive by its very nature, but the observation and the unexpected connection of two pieces are why we laugh. Gallows humor has to be relevant to the situation at hand, it is directly related to what is happening in front of you. You have a better understanding of what is going on around you than others who have not been inducted into this view of the world. Gallows humor directly relies on your ability to look at a situation before you, gather up the pieces, and make an observation for a joke that will not work anywhere other than in this exact moment. You can’t, really, save this shit for later, except when telling the joke to someone else who was there at the time.

Soldiers, cops, doctors, customer service reps, people who work in retail, they all have very specific forms of humor that can be shared because of their shared experience. If you lack that experience, then you will be outside of it.

The moment gallows humor crystallizes is when the character really does stop giving a shit. Other humans become ambulatory bags of meat and then it’s okay to laugh at their suffering, or make jokes at their expense. This doesn’t mean it’s societally okay, if your character utilizes black humor they can and should expect to be called out for it. However, the character no longer cares how their listener is going to receive the joke because the joke was funny to them. What they’ve been through has been normalized, they’re no longer horrified by it and now it is just funny.

Humor in fiction functions much the same way, except with the added dynamic of the purpose it serves to clue the audience in through those observations made by the characters. M.A.S.H. and Law & Order are both a masters of utilizing humor as a form of exposition without the audience ever realizing it. The jokes serve a specific purpose, while also underscoring the natures of the characters’ themselves.

If your characters humor does not serve a purpose then it won’t be funny, they’ll be tasteless and an asshole instead of a tasteless funny asshole. For an assassin, this kind of humor could be a weapon they use against others. It could be a dead give away to their nature, and expose them to normal people around them. Or, they just spend so much time alone they tell jokes that are only amusing to them and that the people around them don’t find funny. (Though, the audience might.)

George Carlin is right, any joke can be funny no matter how inappropriate, that you will laugh at despite yourself, and you can find humor in any situation. He’s also right in that it has to be funny. The shock is not what’s funny, the taboo is not what makes it funny, the observation and the unexpected connection between two different pieces somehow applicable to the situation are where the joke is.

The trick to grasping gallows humor is that you first need to own it. No wishy-washy, “but I don’t want to offend someone”, this form of humor is offensive by its very nature. However, the next step is in understanding the offensive part wasn’t what was funny. Humor comes from disrupting audience expectations at key points. You can’t get there just by being shocking, you’ve also got to get them to laugh. In this case, it’s funny because it’s accurate.

Gallows humor is often utilizing people’s pain to mock something else occurring in the scene. In the case of M.A.S.H. for example, the point is the realities of war and death versus the jingoistic illusions sold to the populace at large. The humor works to firmly root our understanding in the horrors happening, and make us aware of them. Humor also transforms the horrors into something less incomprehensible. It connects the incomprehensible to the absurd in ways that can make performing “meatball surgery” on hundreds of teenagers who were torn apart into an almost manageable experience.

Gallows humor is often specifically targeting cultural illusions about death, about the way people die, about the arbitrary nature of it.

“He was such a brave and noble soldier. Too bad he shat himself right there at the end, and then again after his corpse went cold. You’d think the human body could only stack up so much shit, but no. There’s always more.”

The joke is you shit yourself when you’re scared and after you die, and the fact the whole situation was shit to begin with.

Gallows humor is often biting, bitter, and disillusioned. It has a target, though that target may not be what you initially think. After all, a gallows humor joke at a funeral is usually targeting the mourners themselves. The disconnect between the person who died, who they were, and what is said about them. Gallows humor at a crime scene or over a dead body could very well be about the situational irony or an observation of the person’s unexpected nature or the nature of their death. It can be crass and cruel, and very difficult to hear.

The ending point is that humor is about who your character is as a person and how they express themselves. However, to successfully carry the humor off, you’ll need to be realistic about how other people would respond. (Specific people, not a generic response.) You’ll also need to get used to not giving a shit. This is not the kind of humor one uses in order to make people like them. It’s more the kind that gets people to like you in spite of themselves. This is a very specific type of humor which appeals to a very specific type of character, and is an example of the way they look at other human beings. The kind that gets people to call you an asshole, but, you know, a funny asshole.

Try to remember, assassins are not nice people. Assholes can indeed be very funny. You’re character doesn’t have to be likeable to be a good protagonist. Humor is an expression of character, experience, and the way the mind puts information together.

Again, there’s only one real metric: was it funny?

Your character has three audiences, themselves, the people around them, and the audience at large. If you tell the joke right, then the audience will sympathize with your character. Tell it wrong, and they’ll sympathize with the people who got offended. If you don’t provide them with that outlet within the narrative because you’re desperate for your character to appear funny, you risk taking them out of the narrative entirely. You need a good foil, and a way to catch yourself when the joke fails. Don’t get so caught up in trying to be funny that you lose the perspective on when your character goes over the line. This is a high bar, your character is going to fall down a few times. Jokes just don’t land.

You’re never funny 100% of the time, even when you do it for a living. Add the dynamic for your character of when the joke doesn’t land, and those who don’t find them funny.

It makes them human.

-Michi

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