Tag Archives: writing tips

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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Q&A: Where there’s two guards, there’s ten.

I’m trying to write a hand-to-hand fight scene with an injured, yet desperate resistance fighter (who has had training) and two guards who are woefully under prepared to fight him. How am I best to approach this? I figure wrangling a weapon off one of them quickly is better than trying to have a drawn out combat scene?

The part of the question that’s missing is what the injury is, what the situation is, where the resistance fighter is, and what the resistance fighter’s goals are. What I’m telling you is without those pieces I can’t diagnose your fight scene, but the tldr for group fights is don’t if you can avoid it. Just because a character can fight doesn’t mean they should, and that is a practical statement.

When you’re writing a story about a resistance, never forget that they are in a hostile environment where everything is a danger to them, and you should approach every engagement violent or not as a cost comparison. The short version is that two on one is difficult to deal with for anyone, regardless of training. It will be almost impossible when injured because if you’ve no ability to take them out at once (like with weapons) you can only lock up one person at a time. This means number two is always free to move. Guards travel in pairs for a reason. The reason is two on one kills. Where there are two guards, there’s always more. Violence is noisy, violence draws attention. Violence takes time, time this character probably doesn’t have to spare. Now, all these things are fake in a fictional context, which is why it’s up to you as the writer to consider them and the greater narrative consequences. For a resistance fighter, there are always consequences intended and unintended for every act they engage in and every life they take.

For a resistance fighter, guards are the hornets. The problem with hornets is one on their own is mostly just annoying, but you never know when you’re going to run face first into the nest. Unlike hornets, human guards can call their friends.

There is a difference between an insurgent and a revolutionary in terms of training. Insurgents often have military backing and are filled with ex-members of the fallen government military versus the revolutionary where its more shaky. The training itself is less important in considering what they’re able to do in an action sense because regardless of desperation, unnecessary violence in an unwinnable scenario when other potential options are available spells death for the resistance fighter.

When you’re working with a resistance fighter, the resistance part is more important than the fighter part. These are not people with a very large margin for error, and who need to be incredibly good at threat assessment in regard to their greater goals. The greater goal is what’s most important to them, their priority, their mission, they have limited resources and that means they have to make compromises. For the resistance fighter, violence itself draws attention. Attention is bad.

Think about this, if he does manage to fight these two and kill them then whatever kills he makes will be taken out on the civilian population. If he doesn’t kill them, and they remember his face then he’s done as a resistance fighter. Again, attention is bad. Attention brings notoriety. In a hostile state, the consequences are many and they hit the innocent population hardest.

My point is this: your character is not making decisions on what he can do or can’t do, not in what’s morally right or wrong, if he wants to survive in a resistance then he’s making decisions based on risk.

Unless there’s a very good reason for it, (we’re talking he needs these two, specifically these two dead, to move people through their post) then he has no reason to fight them at all because he’s in no position to do so. Fighting puts him and, more importantly, his mission in more risk than not fighting does; especially if these two are unlikely to realize he’s a member of the resistance. 9/10 a resistance fighter is going to be talking their way out of trouble. Trouble attracts guards, sure, but violence attracts more guards and there are always more guards. Discovery risks his safety, risks capture, capture risks the safety of his cell, risks their plans, and risks the resistance itself.

Resistance fighters are the ones who run when their friends get captured, the ones who stand by and do nothing if they’re not at risk of being outed. They wait. They strike later, though usually not to recover their friends. Well, the smart ones do. The stupid ones try. They either get gunned down or captured because hot blood and hot heads get murdered in the streets by the gestapo. There are always more of them than there are you in a resistance, and violence attracts attention. The wrong kind of attention in the wrong place means death or capture, prison, interrogation, torture, and then the firing squad. The consequences for failure are high, not just for the single resistance fighter but for everyone they know, everyone they love, and for the very movement they’re fighting for.

Your character’s very existence hangs on that thread, their actions turn on the threat of discovery, their behavior on the axis of what their missions need done in order to succeed.

He doesn’t have the luxury to kill two guards when they’re standing in his way, because two guards mean there are ten more waiting around the corner. Battle runs the risk of summoning them. Even if he winds, the two dead bodies mean those bodies will eventually be discovered, the townsfolk endure search and seizure, and the city turned upside down as the district commander hunts this character like the rat he is. They may not catch him, but they will find sympathizers among the citizens, possibly friends, and, worse, whatever other resistance cell is working in the area. Someone will be made to pay even if the character himself is not the recipient of the punishment.

If you hadn’t thought of two dead guards being the catalyst for everyone in your character’s life suddenly becoming miserable, more men stationed at every entry and exit point, a ramping up of punishment, more sympathizers dragged off the streets and thrown into detention camps or worse, or a specialist being brought in then you probably should.

Your thinking about a fight, and we’ll get to why fighting these two is a bad idea just upfront in a moment, but for a resistance fighter consequences will spiral out from every person they kill whether they survive or not. These crackdowns can work to their advantage in terms of recruitment, but they will make their immediate life much more difficult. The costs versus loss are high for members of a resistance. For every piece your character and his friends take, the enemy will take five of theirs. He is in a rigged game where his own lack of resources will crush him unless the resistance can convince the populace at large to rise up. That is how a resistance actually wins in the real world, you know. If they can’t get the citizens behind them or receive aid from an outside power or train up an army on foreign soil, they’re doomed.

I will say it now, training is meaningless if you don’t know what it means and I can tell you right now that I don’t know what that means either because resistance fighters either come in with a background like soldier, special ops, my daddy taught me how to use a gun, or they get a crash course and are sent into the fray. If someone has set up training camps, then the situation has upgraded to guerilla warfare which is an entirely different scenario from member of the resistance.  So, what training does he have? From where did it come from? Who taught him? What did he learn how to do? Unless they’re ex-covert ops from the military like the Maquis, resistance fighters learn on the job.

Even then, training just means your character is better prepared than another character to engage in violence. It doesn’t mean they have a free pass. They need to be able to assess the threat and make decisions based on their overall needs or goals. Training is supposed to give you a better chance at threat assessment, and that is the skill by which a resistance fighter lives or dies.

Resistance fighters don’t fight in the conventional sense. This is the most important fact to know about them. The fighter part is misleading because what they are actually doing is engaging in sabotage, performing strikes on high priority targets, or blowing things up.  They can’t afford to fight the way other character types do, they can’t afford to leave a trail of bodies behind them, and they need to move quickly in service of their goals. Every battle they engage in is threat of discovery whether they win or not, if these guards are not a direct threat to them/their goal then the best thing to do is walk by them or let them continue on unawares.

There is one resistance fighter, but there are always more guards. There are these two, then there are their ten buddies somewhere nearby, behind those ten there’s fifty more, then there’s the prison warden, the district commander, and whoever else is up the chain of command. Every body will lead someone back to someone who leads to someone else, and a messy solution to your character’s goal can lead to twenty or more innocent people winding up in prison. Or dead. Which won’t go over well with the people they’re trying to save, if a resistance fighter cannot keep the support of the populace then they are dead. If you haven’t considered how their enemy will respond to their successes, then it is time to start.

Two people are a lot to deal with even for someone who is trained, even when those two people aren’t trained or barely trained, they would be a challenge even if he wasn’t injured. They are an even greater challenge armed and, considering he is without a weapon, the odds are not in his favor. Worst of all, if he can’t kill them quickly, then the fight will slow him down to the point where he may be caught by whomever injured him in the first place.

So, there are times in fiction when fighting is absolutely the 100% wrong choice or at the very least a bad one. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but the guards are guards for a reason. They’re paired together for a reason. They work together. He wrests a weapon away from one of them, but that gives the other time to respond. He doesn’t kill the guard he took the weapon from, that still leaves two guards and one of the guards still has a weapon.

This is why most places will have their guards or work in twos. Against a single attacker, they have the advantage. One will cover what the other misses, and the other will strike when the opponent is locked up. On the sliding scale, your character’s advantage will quickly transition to their advantage.

Time is on their side, not on his.

Besides that, he’s injured. Injuries could mean blood loss, especially if the wound is still open, that means blood will be pumping out of the holes in his body. Violence is a frenetic activity, the heart starts beating faster which in turn starts pumping more blood through the body to deliver oxygen to the muscles. When there are holes in the body, this means more blood exits through the holes. This means high frenetic activity could potentially kill him through a bleed out rather than being murdered by the guards. Or, at the very least, make him woozy, which will lead to him being  murdered by the guards.

Again, time is not on his side.

Threat assessment.

If he can hide his injury, pretend he’s someone else, and talk his way past them then that is actually the best choice. If he’s escaping a prison and he didn’t steal a guard uniform in order to avoid fights, then he is a very dead resistance fighter. If there are guns involved in this scenario then he is in some real deep shit.

Don’t let the movies lie to you, two on one is the most dangerous situation a person can find themselves in. The only worst being three and up. The trick to showing your character is good at fighting is sometimes knowing when not to fight. Wits are more important than fists. This is the moment in the resistance fighter’s life where he tries to find a way past them if possible that involves no violence, goes around them, holes up to tend his wounds, and tries to escape the city by hiding in a hay cart until he can regroup with his friends. He needs his friends but, when it comes to getting away, he’s on his own.

On top of everything else, group fight scenes are difficult to write because a lot of people will be moving at the same time. We have one injured man versus two who also have weapons, the injured man will be limited in his movements depending on his injury, that injury will become a target and exploited by his opponents. His opponents have a combined eight limbs, he has four and he can’t use all of them. His opponents have weapons. He has surprise, but surprise only lets him take one of them. The other is still free. After that, surprise is gone. Guns are not just dangerous, they’re loud and bound to summon assistance, so let’s hope they’re not here. Depending on his circumstances, he could attempt to take one hostage but there’s a lot of risk involved in that, it also assumes he could hold them with his injury. Even if he manages to take the weapon away from one, the other one will still have a weapon, and the opportunity to use it while he’s doing the wresting. The two of them part actually negates the surprise part, that’s why they travel in pairs.

If he had stun guns, if he had two knives, if he had a tool he could use to take both of them out at the same time then maybe. This, however, assumes they’ll both be facing the same direction and not see him approach. His risk is far greater than theirs.

All they need to do is have one of them lock him up long enough for the other guy to call for aid, then they’re back to two on one or in a few minutes five on one. He even if he manages to get a weapon, he’s now fighting all the guards. They don’t have to fight him. Fighting him is not their job, all they have to do is delay him long enough for help to arrive.

This is why a resistance fighter doesn’t behave like this. They don’t have the option of fighting all the guards. They will always be outnumbered and outgunned. He should have this information internalized. It doesn’t matter how much training he has because all it takes is one moron with a good angle and he’s dead. The more enemies there are, the more likely those enemies are to have the opportunity for a good angle. The more desperate he is then the more likely he is to avoid combat. He cannot afford to fight. If he’s on an assassination mission, he’s still going to try to get past the guards without fighting them. Why? It’s the smart play for all the same reasons above. The person he’s here to kill is the only one that matters, and if he dies before he reaches them then the whole situation was for naught. The more people he kills on the way to them then the more likely his target is to disappear. The more time he wastes on violence then the more likely the window of opportunity for his actual mission is to disappear.

A resistance fighter lives in a game of cat and mouse, and he is the mouse. Sometimes, he is a mouse with a very large explosion but he is still a mouse. He will run and hide, he will slip through the cracks and disappear. The clever resistance fighter gets past the two guards by pretending to be an injured bystander running for his life, and that these two need to help their friends capture the dangerous fugitive who is in the direction he just came from. He banks on them caring more about their fellow guardsman or getting glory than they will about him. He is the snake who lies still until he strikes.

This is about time and opportunity. I’m not saying your character can’t make a stupid mistake out of desperation. I’m just saying that this is the exact type of situation where a character like him gets caught by the enemy, and the story takes a new turn. If that ends up being the natural outcome, don’t run away from it. Failure is as much opportunity for storytelling as victory. Understanding the stakes is what’s important, and what happens as a result of your character’s actions. I can tell you from the situation you’ve presented to me, fighting these two is a catastrophic mistake for your character. This is not a situation that ends in victory, even if he manages to kill one or both. He’ll waste enough time for whatever injured him to catch up, he’ll draw the wrong kind of attention, and probably get surrounded by more guards.

Sometimes, you let a bad situation play out and see what happens. The simple answer is that while he focuses on his first target, the second guard takes him captive. (If you’re going, “but he’s good at fighting!” then I’ll remind you this is the situation that gets lots of skilled fighters in real life captured. They retreat for a reason.)

In other similar sorts of fiction, this situation results in the resistance/spy character going to ground, trying to find sympathetic contacts, avoiding the guards looking for him, and trying to find alternative routes out of the city.

-Michi

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Q&A: Let the Wookie Win

Is shocking/disgusting someone a good way to get an opening? My antihero was captured by a villain; the villain and are waiting for the right moment to strike. The villain starts the “we’re similar” routine and my antihero chimes in & describes being a cannibal to throw them off (the villain naively assumed that all heroes are self-righteous sheep of the gov.) and create an opening. Would it be an effective tactic, or would they be better just going at the guy w/ out the cannibalism confession?

Pro Tip: Never lie beyond what you’re capable of selling.

Your lie needs to be believable, and one you’re willing to follow up on if your bluff is called. This is the necessary quality of the liar. If your protagonist is not willing to happily eat a few bits of raw human flesh to prove their point then it’s a bad lie.

1) David Hasselhoff is my father.

You didn’t believe that, did you? Of course, you didn’t. Even if you were hopeful it might be true, you’d want proof. This is the problem of the unbelievable lie, the farther we are from what is expected then the more you need to prove that it is real. Saying you’re a cannibal is like saying your dad is David Hasselhoff, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. In this case, your mouth is happily eating sauteed bits of human flesh.  (If you’re savvy you’ll realize I pulled Hasselhoff from Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and are therefore even less likely to believe me than before. Also, this is a lie Peter Quill told when he was nine. Kids are terrible liars.)

2) People with certain backgrounds are naturally geared toward assuming dishonesty.

I’m not going to categorize this as a villain trope. It isn’t. If you’ve been lied to a lot in your life, you’re going to be naturally suspicious and assume people are lying to you. These include abuse victims, kids from rough backgrounds, victims of bad parenting, bullied children, latchkeys, criminals, spies, and, yes, supervillains. You’re problem is you’re working from the assumption that people are inherently gullible, and will believe whatever comes out of your mouth. Someone whom life has taught to be paranoid as a means of self-preservation and on the lookout for scam artists is much more difficult to lie to, and more difficult to reach in general. Natural skepticism is a kicker.

For example, you’re going to have a lot of trouble lying to a crime boss because the crime boss is used to being lied to. Self-preservation and survival requires they be savvy enough to discern truth from fiction. They’re likely to be even more suspicious when you start telling them what they want to hear.

3) What is the natural outcome of your lie?

“Shoot him.”

Bye, bye, little hero.

You say you’re a cannibal and this other person believes you. Say this is in complete defiance of the personality they assumed you had. Cannibalism is a violation of social mores, one that is way past what most people (including evil people) are willing to tolerate. Cannibalism is the sort of evil which makes a villain feel good about killing you. Yes, this is the disgusting that’ll get you killed by a group of criminals who profess any level of morality. You don’t want to tell lies that make people more likely to murder you. You didn’t create an opening, you made the situation more dangerous. Sometimes openings are created when a person gets angry, but this isn’t one of them.

Chances are though, they’re not going to believe the cannibalism assertion until they’re cramming human flesh down this character’s gullet. You could probably get them incensed if they saw your hero eating raw meat off a corpse like an animal or cooking a human over a spit. Anything less than that, and they’re just going to laugh in your face.

“Did you really expect me to believe that?”

4) Through the mirror darkly, we’re similar, you and I.

This requires the two to actually be similar. If the villain is assuming all heroes are the sheep of the government, and this includes the anti-hero, then why did they approach them? If this is their assumption, then why didn’t they double check with the character’s actual actions? Your anti-hero is taking actions that the villain relates to, sees a similarity with, and they are moving to make them an ally. This situation would require that the villain thinks they too are a government sheeple.

They are approaching the hero because they think the hero is a sheep and therefore gullible? What would they get out of that? Or because they are a sheep and they think the hero is like them? If it’s the latter, then the character is yelling, “I’m a cannibal!” at the top office in a Manhattan skyscraper. Those working in government understand how deeply the corruption runs, and there are far too many wolves wearing sheepskins in the government for this to be plausible. Also, despite their best intentions, the hero is a government bootlicker and been rounded up by a professional skilled at finding them. (The villain’s position is too precarious for them to be making stupid assumptions. Don’t undercut them like that, you’ll wreck your narrative.)

These scenes work in fiction and create tension because they’re true. The villain presents a compelling argument which appeals to the hero, they have something they want, they are something that the hero wants to be, or the hero has the potential to be them. (Or the hero’s own actions are making their case for them.)

“Look at yourself. They hurt you, and for what? For every person who thanks you, another curses you. They paint you as a villain. They think you’re bad as me, think you’re worse. Your actions have allowed the corporations to rake in billions. Allowed them to wreck lives, steal homes. You’re a schmuck in service to a status quo, oppressing the very people you insist you’re saving!”

If your villain is not presenting an argument which has the hero going, maybe you’re right. Then the scene isn’t good for much. The above example feels compelling, right up until you realize that the villain is working off the expectation that the hero cares about how others see them. Some heroes do. Some heroes really care about how other people view their actions, and let them decide what is or isn’t right. This could be a legit argument. The second half about serving the status quo is going to hurt the hero who thinks they’re doing the right thing and has never thought about the unintended consequences of their actions. Both are legitimate arguments, and could nail a hero on two levels.

You’re not a hero, you’re a villain. You’re worse than I am, and here’s why.

Drama is reliant on actual character struggles, and unless the villain is a cackling psychopath, they’ve got motivation for what they’re doing.  They have reasoning, logic, and self-justification. They can explain their position and sell that ideology convincingly to others. The means and choice of action may be the point of contention.

You could convince Frank Castle to gun down corrupt millionaires, but not their families unless those family members were equally guilty.  The villain might be killing everyone, snatching up their holdings, and re-purposing the cash to offshore accounts in full Robin Hood of the Guillotine style. They might be killing the rich to terrorize them, stealing from the rich, and feeding war orphans in Somalia. Or fueling their ill-gotten gains into non-profits meant to rebuild infrastructure in poor communities abandoned by their politicians.

5) We’re Similar is an ideological argument, forcing the protagonist to think through their position and allowing the audience to re-consider the narrative.

A “We’re similar” setup is utterly worthless if the two aren’t actually similar. Certainly not in a convincing way, if there’s no ideology or desire at play then the scene just ends up as an ego stroke for the protagonist. There’s a compelling setup which lets the audience and the protagonist think and decide their own ideology in context to the story, or there isn’t.

Vader’s “Join Me” setup is very compelling for Luke. Luke wants his father, he’s worshiped his father, Obi-wan’s stories about his father are part of the reason why he wants so badly to become a jedi. And everything he believed, everything he was told by the people he trusted turned out to be a lie. “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” No, that is a lie. The truth is his father is alive. He may be a villain, but he’s alive and, as far as Luke knows, the last of his family. Luke’s origins are tied up in Vader, his past, his family, his hopes, and his potential for darkness. That’s where the drama is. That is the choice. That self-denial is what makes Luke a hero, just as his trust in his friends, his willingness for self-sacrifice, and his belief in his father’s potential goodness/the hero he once was existing inside the monster.

“We’re similar” is about internally difficult choices for your characters, and externally they’re narrative echoes. One has the potential to be the other. Luke could become Vader, but Vader could’ve been like Luke.

Allow your villain a compelling argument, one which might sway your hero and disturb them to the point where they go, “I’m a cannibal!” because they’re so freaked out by the fact the villain has struck the core of who they are or how they see themselves.

You’ve got the setup flip flopped. Your villain isn’t the naive one, your hero is.

6) This scenario isn’t about making your hero look awesome, the scene is actually about your villain.

Your hero being compelling can be the outcome, when well handled, but that isn’t the point. Within the narrative, these scenes are actually about the villain. This is the audience’s chance to understand the villain, their chance to really see them for the dangerous enemy they are, and create a new level of tension between the narrative’s protagonist and antagonist. This is about showing why your villain is so very dangerous, beyond their physical skills and penchant for violence. We experience their charisma up close as new information is revealed,  we see them in a new light. More information is shown.

“You should be careful of him, Robbie.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s you. He understands how you think, knows what you’ll do and where you’ll stop. And you? You’re afraid if you start thinking like him, you’ll never give it up.”

The hooks are real.

“He showed me things, Alec. He showed me the future, showed my potential, and what I could be if I stop struggling; who I could be if just embrace the power.”

“And that frightened you?”

“No, the future excited me. The monster felt right, I felt right, I was whole and complete. I came home. That’s why I’m terrified. Now I know this thing sleeping inside me is who I really am.”

Your hero has to wrestle with some real emotion, face down their inner monster and consider what makes them a hero. This is especially important for an anti-hero. They do some very terrible things in the name of what they believe is right.

While it’s often tempting to show off your hero, the tension created by your villain is the linchpin of your narrative. Your villain is the shadow your hero works against. They ought to be better, smarter, and more clever than the hero. When you damage their street cred, you can’t get it back. If the hero overpowers them, whether its physically or verbally, they won’t be frightening anymore.

Luke escapes Vader by, essentially, falling to his death. He’s not just looking for an opening or trying to outsmart his enemy, he’s desperate to get away. You can escape the villain, but you can’t beat them. Well, not if you want them to last until the climax. Sacrificed in this scene? Sure. Otherwise, you need your villain functioning.

Writing a villain is like walking a tightrope, you need just enough victories for them to keep them dangerous. In the Adventures of Robin Hood, Erroll Flynn’s Robin keeps winning right up until he doesn’t. He has a major victory, then due to his own overconfidence gets captured at the archery tournament, thrown in the dungeon, and sentenced to death. He has to be rescued by his Merry Man and a plan devised by Maid Marian, who risks her own safety sneaking out of the castle to find their meeting place at the local tavern. We never question Robin’s competence, but we needed the reminder that Prince John, Gisbourne, and (especially) the Sheriff of Nottingham are dangerous. The audience gets overconfident right along with Robin Hood, then the wind is snatched out of our sails. The loss reminds us that Robin’s strength is in his friends and the loyalty he inspires, and he is vulnerable when alone.

Your hero can take more competence hits than your villain, they can suffer more losses, and they can come out ahead. Your villain has to win, and they don’t win when we make them look stupid, foolish, or naive. They didn’t reach whatever position they’re in by being any of those things. They worked hard to get where they are. The villain is in a much more precarious position both internally within the narrative and externally from the audience perspective. They must earn their place every second they are on the page, and their threat must remain genuine. It is tempting to focus on the hero, but your responsibility as a writer is to remember the villain’s danger must be consistently proven to your audience.

7) If you don’t respect your villain, your audience won’t either.

This one should be self-explanatory. Your villain isn’t dangerous just because you say they are, you’ve got to prove it. Show, don’t tell. Give them more credit. Excise ignorance and naivete from your vocabulary. They know what they’re doing.

8) Let the wookie win.

C3-PO still gives the best advice. Sometimes, you’ve got to play the losing hand in order to get out of a bad situation alive.

-Michi

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Myth Busters: The Groin Strike

We get questions about groin strikes a lot on this blog. The reasons for why should be fairly obvious. However, what fiction lies to you about is the idea that the fight is over after someone has been injured or defeated to the protagonist’s satisfaction. The groin strike and results most people imagine is a fantasy presented by media because humiliation feels good, especially when you’re on the side of whoever is doing the humiliating. The problem is in 9/10 scenarios using a groin strike makes your character look really goddamn dumb. If you ever imagined your character as a martial artist or combatant of any kind, I’d exercise this one from your vocabulary until you’ve figured out how to use it responsibly.

The groin strike is a nerve strike. If you just went, “wait, what?” I don’t blame you. Those who didn’t know that the reason why we strike the groin is because there are a lot of nerve endings in your private parts. Your nerves communicate pleasure and pain to your brain. This is why pressure point strikes work.

Pressure points mess with your nervous system, those are the places on your body where your nerves cluster. Hitting someone in a pressure point can force them to experience immediate, blinding, and horrible pain. However, you’re actually just tricking your opponent’s brain into believing they’re in terrible pain rather than inflicting lasting damage. Pressure points are stunners and openers, but they’re not finishers. The pain your opponent experiences is brief, short lived enough that it may not finish the fight against an inexperienced combatant much less someone who can force their way through pain. The primary ability gained in any martial training is the ability to push yourself past discomfort and very real pain in order to keep going. You aren’t immune to pain, you just ignore it.

There are also a great many situations where pressure points will not work, or are unreachable. There are people pressure points won’t work on at all, whether they came by that naturally or through injury. Every person’s body is difficult, and a groin shot doesn’t generate enough pain to automatically put you in the safe zone.

The problem is, you’re not thinking about what comes next.

1) In fiction, the groin strike is for humiliation and domination.

Let’s be clear, the groin strike works on both men and women. What you’re actually aiming for is the scrotum or the clitoris, which is where the nerve endings congregate. From the immediate reaction, one might think this would be an obvious or effective place to hit someone. The problem is it’s over sold. However, by and large, in fiction the groin strike is used against male characters as a means of sexual domination (by either a male or female character) for the purposes of Feel Good Violence. Most often, the strike is just used as a justification for humiliation. Specifically sexual humiliation, and more specifically emasculation. The thought process works off the bully mentality that if you humiliate someone enough they will go away forever.

This only works if you believe insults to manhood matter, and that someone who has (up until this point) thoroughly ripped into the character that just humiliated them will just politely back off.

After this moment of catharsis, what comes next? If your character didn’t finish the fight with a follow up strike, they could easily end up in a worse position against a more motivated combatant.

Groin shots in fiction are about establishing superiority.

2) The groin isn’t a particularly effective place to aim.

Trust me, if you’ve got a male character who engages in violence, they’ve been hit in the groin before. Most men have, just on accident. Women too. However, that’s not the main issue. When taking inventory, the groin is just a stupid place to aim. It is difficult to reach and outside a brief moment of pain, not damaging in the long term. You’ve done nothing to them that could stop them from getting back up and continuing. Lots of guys do in sparring when they get clipped (if they’re not wearing a cup.)

There are easier to reach places on the body more guaranteed to have the desired effect. Forgetting a knee strike to the head, kicking someone in the shin is actually more effective as a setup. When you’re a fighter, you actually want what’s easy and effective. The groin shot is neither. It will take work to get there, it’s not particularly great compared to other/better tactics, and everyone’s going to know what you did. In a friendly real world setup, they’ll side eye the person who kicked the other person in the groin rather than the person who got kicked in the groin.

Besides, if your character isn’t doing a follow up then this experienced martial artist is also a moron; especially if they’re dumb enough to stick around and lecture.

3) The groin strike is a setup, not a finisher.

The point of a setup is causing pain to open up the defenses. This strike is a distraction meant to get to a better protected or more difficult to reach target. Fiction will tell you that the groin strike is all you need. This is untrue.

The problem with the groin strike is the pain is temporary. As I said earlier, boys do get accidentally clipped in sparring from time to time. When this happens, the fight breaks. The instructors ask if the person who got clipped wants to continue, and if they say yes then they go right back to sparring. Hitting someone in the groin isn’t a serious injury, they can power through it. Recover quickly enough to get back on their feet, and back the match in fairly short order.  So, even if you’re character manages to land the full monty with knees, tears, and vomit, nothing is going to stop the tear stricken guy from climbing up out of his own vomit to smash your character’s head into the opposing wall.

You didn’t stop him, you just made him uncomfortable, hurt for a brief period of time, and maybe embarrassed him. While humiliation and retribution are cathartic, shaming often makes the situation worse. Martial training itself is often an embarrassing experience just in practice rather than by intention, you fail, you mess up, you slip up, you fall down, and get compromised.

Any groin strike in a martial system has an accompanying followup, like every other setup. The setup is the distraction. You’ve got to finish it with a second strike, which is the one that actually does the necessary damage. For example, one might knee someone in the groin to gain access to their head which they then slam down into their knee. However, in a fictional sense, that would defeat the idea of an emasculation and thus make the entire event less satisfying. After all, the point of this setup is to humiliate the other character by attacking his masculinity. This isn’t attractive because the strike itself is effective.

4) What Happens Next.

This is a real question I’ve seen plenty of writers fail to consider. They see the fight scene as an isolated incident that has no continuing effect, and is over when they say it is. Learning to take what will happen next both immediately and down the line is key to creating great scenes. More importantly, predictive failure is what gets combatants killed in the real world. Your characters need to be considering what will happen as a result of their actions, and if they’re not then that is a failing which should be addressed. Hotheads who get into fights aren’t static characters, they’re creating problems. Often, this behavior is self-destructive. Their actions will have results outside of them as the violence’s effects ripple outward. Consequences result.

This isn’t about good and bad, right or wrong. If you take a moral approach to violence, treat it as an overarching means of punishing bad characters, of deciding right from wrong, then all you get is might makes right. This might be a way a character approaches the situation, but you the author should think beyond it. This about action and reaction. Let go of the idea your character, especially a female one needs to prove her superiority. This is very important regarding violent male versus female interactions in fiction. Regardless of the author’s gender, female characters are often sexualized by default. Learning to let go of internalized stereotypes will help you be a better writer in the long run.

Start considering what happens as a result of a character’s actions, immediately. Don’t look at your female character as an example of all women everywhere. If she fails to think things through, if she doesn’t consider what will happen next as a result of her actions, or if she makes a mistake and doesn’t finish the fight then that is on her. That is not a universal example of women everywhere, or an indicator women can’t fight, or even that she’ll be on this level forever.

Every character in your scene is an actor, they are all important. Stories are about events, one leading to another both small and large.

5) Humiliation isn’t defeat. Defeat isn’t the end.

The fight isn’t over until it’s over. If they’re still able to chase you then it isn’t over.  If your character is escalating the situation, it will go from bad to worse. Defeat isn’t a moral victory or a complete victory, winning is now and not forever. Violence won’t actually solve your problems. If your character is attacking someone they see on the regular, then the same problem will still be there. In real life, you don’t have two people who hate each other spar because Defeat =/= Friendship. It will inflame the competition between them, escalate their issues, and make the situation worse.

Defeat doesn’t prove whether or not someone is superior. Defeat is just defeat. A symbolic win is even more meaningless.

5) This doesn’t prove anything about your character or anything about the male character, but it does say a lot about you.

Many female writers get nervous about female characters taking on male characters because they’ve been convinced that men are superior. This is part of why the groin strike is so enticing as a narrative tool because it feels like it’d be successful, it feels like it’s humiliating, it feels emasculating, because the symbolism of masculinity is what is threatening to you rather than the man himself. The male character is just a convenient tool.

No.

The man is the danger. You undercut yourself by making a fight scene about men versus women rather than a character versus a character. You cheapen the scene, the characters, and the message which is, I assume, that girls kick ass. The irony is that by focusing on emasculation, especially in a sexual way using the private parts, you make the scene about the man. You establish that men are superior, and you place the focus on them rather than your female character. You made the scenario about sex. More, you fell into the same objectification trap you were trying to avoid.

You don’t need it, and you hurt your own message by chasing a brief, momentary moment of disingenuous catharsis and fake girl power. You objectify your female character, you make her about sex rather than as a person or a warrior. You set her up in direct comparison with men and the concept of masculinity being superior. You didn’t defeat the concept, you embraced the idea. You made masculinity a centerpiece. You undercut her.

This is the ultimate problem with the groin shot. Regardless of whether it works or it doesn’t, regardless of whether it works in some scenarios and not in others, the groin shot isn’t about the violence. The groin shot in fiction is about framing your scenario as a sexual exchange between two men or a man and a woman, wherein one asserts sexual domination over the other. Thereby reducing both to caricatures. You explicitly link the violence to sex, making the violence in your fiction about sex, and reducing your female character into a sex object. You think it’s about one character asserting their superiority, which may feel good, but the relationship between the two fighters becomes sexualized and hyper-masculine. If you say you’re a feminist, understand this is what feminist fiction specifically seeks to avert. It directly undercuts your female protagonist to wrap the violence up with sex.

This isn’t a heroic moment anyone is going to celebrate in setting. Your audience might, but be honest: you were thinking about their reaction and not what was happening internally.

Groin shots.

They’re just a terrible idea.

-Michi

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Q&A: Don’t ask if the weapon works, consider what you did with it instead

I have a character whose weapon is a broomstick, like in Mulan’s training. I was pretty young when I came up with that, but should I change it ? Can a broomstick actually make a good weapon ? If not, what should I use instead ? All my characters have improvised weapons that they use for an extended period of time

Well, a broom is just a short or long staff with the side benefit of being able to potentially throw dust and detritus in the face of your enemy (and yourself) if wielded broom end first. (When did Mulan use a broomstick? Or a broomstick used like the staff Mulan trained with? Or when she was play fighting at home before she goes to training?) So, you’re asking if someone can do this with a broom? Then graduates into something more like this (starts 2:46,  for reference: this is high level martial arts choreography in competition from the SEA Games – Singapore (2015). This is equivalent to high level gymnastics. They’re choreographed fight scenes. Yes, there is a category dedicated to choreographed like a movie fight/dance sequence duels. Yes, this is one of the most popular and prestigious categories at some martial arts tournaments.)

The basic question to begin with is this: do you want the weapon to be a broom? Do you want the scenes to be serious or not? You can have a serious story with a silly weapon, but there is a vast difference between a Jackie Chan-esque fight sequence played for laughs when the experienced martial artist picks up the broom because it’s what they have available versus the character who has no idea what they’re doing and picks up the broom just because.

A Jackie Chan fight sequence will work like this:

 The experience martial artist finds themselves jumped by several guys, grabs the first weapon they come across. This weapon is a broom. They brandish it. (Pause.) The broom is a silly weapon, everyone (including the audience) laughs. Moment ends, and the fight begins. Experienced martial artist holds their own, kind of. Probably a few scenes where the broom head is shoved into someone’s face and used to wail about an enemy’s head. (This is Jackie Chan, so cleaning supplies may also be used.) However, this proves ineffective whenever the experienced martial artist attempts to fight with the broom end. They wield it like they would a staff, but only one end is helpful. They’re mostly free when more enemies arrive, someone brings an edged weapon.

New fight commences against more dangerous/experienced opponents. Experienced martial artist is pressed. Broom = advantage over unarmed enemies, less helpful against actual weapons. Fight sequence will have that broom head cut off by whichever enemy comes in wielding an edged weapon on the break beat. So, fight with the broom and kind of works; then broom becomes staff = accidental upgrade. Hero given new chance to make their escape.

Jackie Chan’s humor in his fight scenes, especially his early ones, is sophisticated in that it plays into your expectations and will subvert them several times in a single scene for laughs. We know the broom sucks as a weapon, so that brings in the uh-oh, but the martial artists/martial arts movie goers know the broom’s length and similarities to the staff will give the protagonist a slight chance against the enemies they’re facing.  Oh yay! Enemies underestimate the hero because their chosen weapon sucks. Hero proceeds to flail because the improvised weapon doesn’t behave the way a normal weapon would, hijinks ensue, but in the end they succeed… kind of. Hero either manages to make their escape from the bad situation or a new enemy shows up with higher stakes to raise the tension. (More skill, better weapon.)

Underdog > Winner > Underdog.

The beat goes like this:

1) We know the broom is a silly weapon. (Audience and Enemy expectation.)

2) After overcoming their own surprise/shock, hero does the first thing they can think of in line with their training: wield the broom like a staff. Proves to be successful. (Enemy and Audience surprised.)

3) Hijinks. (The hero turn tables and is winning… kind of. This is the period where the surprise is behind the hero, so they’ve a little room to mess around. Someone’s nose is getting tickled, or they’re taking a broom head to the face.)

4) The broom fails at key moments. (Enemy adjusts past their surprise.) Hero will find themselves in a position of accidentally striking with the broom head; which does nothing because, (surprise), you can’t wield a broom exactly like a staff. (Hero and weapon incompatible.) The hero becomes pressed as smarter enemies come up with new strategies.

5) Weapon conveniently breaks to create the needed staff against stronger enemies. Hero still at disadvantage.

What Jackie Chan does is a pretty sophisticated in the balancing of audience expectation combined with an understanding of how to balance weapons, enemies, and genre convention to create both humor and tension. That’s the root of his success as a choreographer, and why I do recommend watching his fight sequences compared to other less successful martial artists. His storytelling through action is much better, especially when you want unconventional surprises.

He understands the boundaries of realism, and incorporates the failings of an object into his fight scenes as well as the successes. He’s thinking from multiple angles, which is what makes his characters so relatable. Jackie Chan is king of making his fight scenes feel spur of the moment, his characters go with their gut and training when put under pressure. However, the situation doesn’t always fit that training perfectly (broom =/= staff) and so this creates new problems for the hero. He shifts the hero’s advantages into disadvantages and their disadvantages into advantages, this happens on multiple levels in the scene.

Hero has superior fight training (advantage), but there are too many enemies (overwhelming disadvantage) so they must run. Hero finds a weapon similar to one they’re used to using (advantage!), but the weapon is improvised (surprise disadvantage!), their training works to fend off multiple enemies (advantage!!), but fails to be totally successful so they end up only holding their own (disadvantage!!), then new enemies arrive with better weapons (overwhelming disadvantage!!!), and the pattern repeats with higher stakes.

The problem with improvised weapons is in the name: improvised.

A broom can be wielded like a staff but, when wielded just like one would a staff, it will fail at key moments. The broom is not a staff, a broom is a broom. For the most part, you can only use one end of the broom successfully where a staff uses both ends. For a character (like Jackie Chan) who is utilizing Chinese staff work, this is a big problem they’ll end up stumbling into. Staves are either used with the tip to stab if wielded by holding the bottom like one would with a spear, or from the center where they rotate between top and bottom in their strike pattern. A staff can strike at your head, and on the next strike at your opposing thigh. As a weapon, the staff is one of the most versatile and very easy to use. However, in this case, you’re going to end up switching between hard end/soft end on every second or third strike. (You can use this for humor too because humor is in patterns and expectations broken at surprising moments.) Hard (ouch), soft (fine), hard (ouch!), soft (fine?), hard (ouch!!), soft (fine?!), CRAP! Both characters glance at the broom head. Enemy smiles. Hero starts wailing on enemy with the hard end, and breaks the pattern.

Jackie Chan knows how to fight and understands audience expectations (primarily Chinese audiences) and genre conventions (primarily wuxia action scenes), which is why his visual gags work. He’s, honestly, in a class of his own when it comes to fight choreography because of this. Like most martial artists, he knows you can take the broom end off and then you’d just have a staff. Like a great choreographer, he’ll see the potential failings and weaknesses in the improvisation. Then, he’d plan to incorporate them into his scenes for humor. Funny comes from failure and surprise success.

The version of this for the character who has no idea what they’re doing (and therefore is not using Chinese martial arts), is Rapunzel from Tangled and her frying pan. The frying pan is an unexpected weapon, but it works and serves to emphasize to the audience that Rapunzel has no idea what she’s doing when it comes to violence. This is where a frying pan is different from, say, a machete or a tire iron. So, again, there’s humor in subverted expectations. We don’t expect the frying pan to work, then it does more than she expects. We’re consistently reminded that the heroine doesn’t really know what she’s doing and she’s never given a real weapon, which keeps her safely in the non-combatant role while allowing her to be active/assert herself at key narrative moments. Her character has other skills that are more useful, and the frying pan shows the audience Rapunzel’s resourcefulness as a character.

In fiction, weapons show us something about the character and create certain expectations that are based in genre cliches. The hero who picks up a named sword is the narratively anointed Chosen One, whether that is played straight or not. Improvised weapons serve primarily as a means of showing resourcefulness, but they are either props (like in the Jackie Chan example) to be discarded when a better weapon comes along or they’re character defining like in the Rapunzel example where the weapon is a symbolic representation of personality and role.

Rapuzel, as a character, doesn’t know enough about martial combat to reach beyond what works in the moment whereas a Jackie Chan protagonist isn’t going to stick with the broom because they know the broom won’t work long term. The threats a Jackie Chan protagonist is going to face will be primarily physical, and the resourcefulness he exhibits is the “whatever works” mentality. Meanwhile, Rapunzel’s on an emotional journey of self-discovery and her primary antagonist is Mother Gothel.

Mother Gothel’s violence is entirely emotional. Flynn using the frying pan is a callback to Rapunzel using the frying pan which serves late story as a means to firmly unite the two characters together on a thematic level, so we the audience no longer question his loyalty. It also serves the character on a “well, it worked on me” level. We understand why Flynn might think using the frying pan is a good idea, which is the dual overlay you need. Internal justification to serve the narrative’s external thematic needs.

So, the question about using a broomstick as a weapon is entirely on you. It will certainly work in general as either a scene prop or an expression of identity. The question is whether or not it will work for the story you’re telling and the challenges your characters are facing.

An improvised weapon is spur of the moment. You can wrap the toaster to your hand and use it as an impromptu set of brass knuckles, but that doesn’t make it the same as brass knuckles. If you had a choice between the toaster and brass knuckles, you’d probably pick the brass knuckles. There’s the recognizably violent improvised weapons associated with mobsters and gangs like tire irons, baseball bats, crowbars, wrenches, etc; and those will put your character into the (middling) combatant category. There’s the machete which is practically a sword, and the sledgehammer which is practically a two handed warhammer, and the shovel which is potentially a spear. The last form of improvised weaponry is chemical warfare with household items and bomb building. The closer we get to the weapon category, the closer we get to live combatant territory. The narrative expectations are different for non-combatants and combatants, the behavior is also different.

The warrior is going to be looking for the better weapon. You’ve got a character with Mulan-style Chinese military training then the first thing they’ll do once they’re in a safe space is break off or cut off the broom end to make either a staff or a sharpened end for a spear. They’ll modify whatever they have to make it more dangerous. They’ll find the kitchen knives or the box cutters or whatever else is lying around that’s sharp. They’ll grab the tire irons and the wrenches; they’ll grab multiple objects because that’s how their mind works. They’re looking for what’s going to give them an advantage in the situation, especially when they don’t know what that situation is.

The staff is a helpful weapon because of it’s reach advantage. As I pointed out in the Jackie Chan example, you can use a staff to fend off multiple attackers and gain an advantage when you’re overwhelmed. Numbers are overwhelming, in that situation you’re better off armed than unarmed, and the distance the staff provides means keeping multiple enemies at distance is easier. In the Jackie Chan scenario, the broom is actually a great choice. The surprise is the broom doesn’t seem like it would be on the surface because we don’t think of brooms as staves. However, the underlying theme in the Jackie Chan scenario is you use the weapon until it ceases to be useful. While the drawbacks are funny, they’re also realistic.

The non-combatant like Rapunzel will grab what works and, for the most part, they’ll stay there. They have no experience, so if it worked once then it’ll likely work again and they’re going to approach every scenario the same way until personal experience or the wisdom of another more experienced character teaches them not to do that anymore. For example, Rapunzel wants to escape from the guards. She doesn’t want to fight them. They’re outside of what she’s capable of handling as a character, and violence is not her purpose. Her advantage is surprise, and the fact her enemy underestimates her because she is seemingly helpless, she’s a genuine, kind, mildly confused young woman without a combat background, and gives no sign of being dangerous to someone else who is vastly more qualified. Her character arc is her learning to stand up for herself. (Never make the mistake of believing “female” is universal for being underestimated. The character’s background is more important and more influential than their gender/sex.)

One of these setups has the violence at the forefront, and in the other the violence is on the back burner. There’s action and conflict, but the physical violence is not what you’d get in a wuxia film or Hollywood big budget summer action flick. You’ve got to answer which story you’re telling. That has nothing to do with whether or not the broom will work as a weapon and is entirely dependent on who your characters are. (For example, they can’t use a broom like a Chinese staff without training but they certainly could use it successfully as a self-defense weapon.)

Like with Rapunzel, an improvised weapon can be a great limiter that allows you to set a character’s ability at a certain level and say, no further. It is a hard limit, reflecting their personality; emphasizing what the character is capable of both in terms of their combat ability and their resourcefulness. It limits the kind of violence you’re going to allow in your story, because it limits the potential violence your characters can successfully participate in, and potentially the level of graphic detail.

In fiction, a character tackling a Navy Seal head on with a broom is going to be a joke and an act of desperation whether it’s played straight or not. You could certainly tackle a Navy Seal with a broom, you might even win, but it wouldn’t be a good idea. That’s the point of the improvised weapon, they’re weapons of desperation. You use it until you can figure out something better.

Or, they’re magical. Everyday household item imbued with magic to transform it into Weapon X is a weapon the protagonist is just stuck with. See: The Spoon of Perpetual Torment. (“It’s perpetually tormenting me, okay!”)

If you plan to play this for laughs, the broom and other improvised weapons aren’t a joke that will last you 60,000 words. The spoon of perpetual torment won’t last that long either. You’ll get a scene out of the gag, maybe two if you’re clever. They require you understand how to use the broom, creativity, and an understanding of how staves work in combat in order to pass the gist on.

Humor requires you keep moving because you’re subverting patterns and expectations. The surprise broom weapon is a surprise once, the nervousness and tension accompanying its use will last you one scene. This is why, in a wuxia setup, the broom gets broken at an opportune moment to become a staff. We continue with the surprises by turning the tables one way or the other in order to keep the audience invested.

The weapons your characters choose are reflections of their decision making, they will say something thematically about them whether you wanted that connotation or not. Fight scenes are built on stacking advantages against disadvantages. Instead of just building a single chessboard, you put the chessboard on a spit, play for a bit, and then spin it to rearrange all the pieces when a new challenger enters. That shifting tension is where the interesting parts of the fight scene happen. How you get that tension doesn’t matter, really. The first step is recognizing that it’s there. The underdog serves an important conceptual purpose when balancing out what the character can and can’t handle.

That’s the external logic.

There’s also the character’s internal logic of why they chose this particular weapon. It can be as simple as they ran through the hall closet or past a bunch of cleaning supplies left out by the janitor.

They started by grabbing the bucket, threw gross soapy water at their enemy, then ran out of things to do with the bucket. So, they threw it at their enemies and grabbed the mop. The enemies slip on the soapy water spread over the floor, buying the protagonist time. The mop worked okay at keeping the enemies away, but the head was heavy because of the water and didn’t swing well. So, they threw it and ran. The time their enemies spend getting past the mop buys the protagonist time to find a new weapon, but less than last time. The bad guys are almost on them when, finally, they locate the broom. Trapped in an empty hall without a good exit, against three (now soapy) enemies. They went, “well, why not?”, whip around, and brandish it broom head first.

They look at the bad guys, the bad guys look at them. Then, the three bad guys look at each other and laugh. While they’re distracted, the protagonist lunges in. Attacks with the broom.

In this example, you see the internal logic based on character’s choice of action combines with the Goldilocks pattern of threes.  We know the third option is just right. The second is we get closer and closer to the right/best available choice.

The bucket didn’t work, and has no reach. The worst that happened was the bad guys got wet. However, the water on the floor provides the character time to get to their next weapon. The mop sort of worked, but the head was too heavy. When they throw it, their enemies trip over it, buying them time but less than before. The broom isn’t perfect, but we’ve seen how its a better version of the mop. However, the situation has changed and the protagonist is now in a worse situation than before.

The audience receives catharsis, has confidence in the character’s choice, but new problems have arisen to create new tensions. On top of that, the scene has served the secondary purpose of showing the character’s problem solving skills.

The changing environment gives the protagonist a chance to shine without hampering the tension provided by the three unnamed mooks, whom we know are dangerous because the protagonist wants to escape from them. The protagonist isn’t trying to beat the mooks, they’re trying to escape (because they’re smart, they know three on one is terrible odds. Take note from The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. Six bullets, seven enemies. Numbers kill.) They try to run, but the situation forces them to fight their way out.

Here’s what we learned from the scene: they picked the best weapon available to them, they’re capable of using their environment to help them, the change in terrain can provide an advantage (enemies trying to get across a slick floor), long weapons are good against multiple enemies (they create barriers), and light weapons with smaller heads are better than heavy ones.

Our protagonist is clever enough to turn a situation where they face overwhelmingly poor odds that should get them killed or captured to their advantage. The audience gets a tense fight and a chance to become invested in the main character’s survival. We answer all our narrative questions.

This is how you show a character is good at fighting. It’s not beating an enemy that matters, it’s how they did it, what the odds were, and how well you paced the fight itself.

The answer with everything is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea or not. Stories don’t exist in “good ideas”, they exist in “what happened when these two things combined?” What happens when a Chinese martial artist skilled at staff combat picks up a broom to defend themselves? What happens when a teenager picks up a broom? Both situations equally have the potential to be interesting. The question is, what happens? Munchkining your character to victory won’t help them, giving them better odds just means you do more work to stack the odds higher against them.

The odds and outcome will decide for the character whether their choice was right or not. Every weapon will have strengths and drawbacks. There is no one size fits all. A gun is great, provided you stay at distance but, eventually, you’re going to run out of bullets. Swords are great, if you know how to use them, but there’ll be situations where they won’t work. Both sword and staff could get stuck on a doorframe. Too many enemies is absolutely certain death, even for the most skilled combatant. A fight scene is heavily dependent on where it’s occurring, what’s happening around it, and where the priorities of the combatants are.

This is where the narrative’s internal logic is important. As the author, you can decide lots of things externally and be focused on Point A and Point B. You can get caught up on external themes. You can get caught on the plot you’ve envisioned, or the decisions you made prior to starting the story. However, if your characters aren’t justifying those choices through their actions in the narrative then all you have are dolls getting smashed together.

Essentially, like lots of authors, you skipped the question of: why the broom?

I don’t care why you decided on the broom. At some point in your life, author you thought it would be cool. No, I care about why your character decided they were going to carry this broom around with them. Why did they pick it up? Why did they decide to keep it? Spend some time thinking about the broom, and not as a combat weapon. Think about the logistics of carrying this thing around, what your protagonist is going to do with it, how other people react when they see it, how they feel about the broom. If this is challenging, just take a day and carry a broom around with you in a public place. If that’s too intimidating, then do it inside your house. Every time you move, everywhere you go, pick it up and carry it with you.

I can tell you, having had to carry staves around before, it’s gonna get annoying pretty quickly. However, you will figure out how to set it so it doesn’t fall over, rest it on your shoulder, and all the other day to day bits your character will need to do when they’re not fighting with it. Your ability to convey the broom and its importance to your audience is what matters, and the most important bonding factors have nothing to do with its usefulness to fighting.

She uses a broom because she either knows how to use it, is comfortable using it, or is confident in her ability to use it rather than another, better weapon. Or, ditch the broom and go with the staff. It is one of the most innocuous weapons.

Lastly, unless you’re really stuck on Mulan, I advise you to focus on figuring out basic staff movements in the cross-pattern before getting stuck trying to figure out (much less write) Chinese martial arts. Wushu is very pretty, but you may break your brain trying to figure out the mechanics of the neck spin trick as seen in the broom fight scene from Cowboy Bepop. If you haven’t figured out or conceptualized the concept of attacking with two ends interchangeably, grasping the reasoning behind the circular sweeps might be difficult.  (For reference, this is what the Mulan staff work translates to in real life martial arts competitions.) The question you need to answer is not just why your character fights with a broom, but why would they choose to if they were trained to fight with a staff? It is really easy to take one and get the other. So, why keep the broom intact?

-Michi

(Starke and I are still sick, so I apologize for any grammatical errors, slips in this post, and nonsensical sentences in this post.)

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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.

-Starke

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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.

-Michi

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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.”

-Michi

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