Tag Archives: writing tips

Q&A: Reality Or Entertainment? You need both.

Hi! You raise a good question on choreography. Actors can’t do realistic fight scenes and it has to look entertaining. Well, then why are we creating realistic fight scenes in writing instead of entertaining? Of course on screen it’s restrictive by the medium. Are realistic fight scenes in writing more entertaining than unrealistic movie fight scenes in writing? Or is it just because it’s writing we have free rein and not restrictive to what can be done for a movie.

Why does it have to be one or the other?

The answer is both. You want fight scenes that are entertaining and convincing, and the only way to learn how to do that is study the applications of practical combat, martial arts, choreographed fight sequences, and everything in between.

The written medium is not the visual medium, so the way one entertains their audiences is ultimately different. Besides that, the vast majority of you are not a professional fight choreographers with multiple black belts in different martial styles and years of experience in the business. You lack skilled actors and stunt performers to carry out your vision, and, because movies are a visual medium, you don’t have a moving image or even an image like in comic books or art to attract the eye. You can create an image with words, but it isn’t the same. In visual medial, this is an image you are beholden to if you want to keep your audience engaged and entertained. Realistic violence is not engaging in the same way as choreographed fights in films. They are fundamentally different due to the necessity of motion. Movies specifically go in for wide sweeping attacks like the roundhouse punch or the roundhouse kick or the wheel kick because a spinning or circular motions look better on camera. Large easily telegraphed moves so the audience can see from a distance and follow along.

In a written fight scene there is no moving image, no sound effects, no music, no lighting effects, no jump cuts, no professional actors, stunt actors, choreographers, or costume crew.

There’s just you and what you, the writer, can bring to the table.

The visual medium has different requirements than written. Try as you might, you’ll never engage your audience at the same level because you lack the tools. If you try, you’ll end up with unworkable fight scenes which are too long, unwieldy, and ultimately bore your audience.

What use is a character performing six back flips or cartwheels on page to get to the other side of the room and grab the weapon on the opposing wall?

This is a visually engaging stunt piece on screen, but the effect lays in the quality of the movement and how your eyes are stimulated by it. The over the top aspects and overlong fight scenes of your traditional action movie are a liability because their goal is to create a visual spectacle and they take a long time to get to the point. You can get to the effect much faster in a written format and be just as effective.

Now, the question you should be asking about choreographed fight scenes is precisely what those six cartwheels are conveying to the audience about this character’s combat proficiency. Why cartwheels versus them running to the opposite side of the room and grabbing the weapon? Yes, gymnastics are entertaining to watch but that’s not the only reason why they had the character cartwheel. There’s no practical reason for it, but the act is communicating an aspect of the character and the plot to you. You should learn those signals, because you can figure out how to apply those to your writing (without needing cartwheels.)

However, you’ll still face a basic issue. Can you write interesting and entertaining fight sequences if you know nothing about violence?

Let’s look at this snippet below.

Katie smiled, her fingers grazing the .44 Magnum on her hip. She pulled it, grabbed the bottle of Jack, and rolled to her feet. “Hey, Josh.”

Joshua Barnett stood across from her, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his leather jacket. Obsidian bangs fell across one eye, jaggedly cut with a razor. His look was intent on some sort of punk aesthetic, all red and black rocker tee, thick silver chains, and black designer jeans. A loose, shark tooth earring dangled on a chain off his right earlobe. He cocked his head, studying her with one, visible, inky black eye. “Look at you stealing my look.”

Katie’s lips quirked, the revolver tucked in the shadow of her thigh as she swirled amber whiskey around thick glass. She never saw much point in spending one hundred and twenty dollars on an outfit that’d be ruined by sun up. Leather was a practical choice. Spirits had an aversion to tanned flesh. Besides, leather jacket and jeans held up better when doing dirty work. She steered away from wearing earrings, piercings had a nasty habit of getting torn out. And steel-toed work boots? All the better for breaking shins.

Tianna squeaked and ducked low behind the headstone.

Josh’s eyes moved past Katie, falling to where she tried to hide. “Step away. Me and this bitch’ve got unfinished business.”

Katie snorted.

Josh took a step forward, spreading his hands in his pockets. “Hey, I’m just doing my divinely mandated duty. Am I gonna have to snap you apart like a kit-kat bar?” He grinned. “I’m kinda looking forward to tearing your weak halfsie arm out of that socket, but, you know, Cass won’t like her pet coming home broke.”

Lifting the Jack, Katie took another long drink.

Josh stood stock still, his arms half-out, and his stupid grin stuck waiting for a response. Then, he looked away. He dropped his hands and brought the black jacket back to his waist. “You never were any fun.”

“You talk too much,” Katie replied.

He nodded to the Jack Daniel’s bottle in her hand. “Hey, I’m not the one who comes to the graveyard with a weak ass club like that.” He chuckled. “Didn’t Cass teach you? Don’t bring weapons to a fist fight when you plan to go mano a mano. In a duel, it’s not sporting.”

Katie walked forward. She didn’t like to talk. As she closed, she dropped her arm. On her last step, she swung the bottle at his head.

Josh grinned, and Katie knew why. He was a full-fledged Follower of Ma’at. To him, her fastest, hardest swing moved in slow motion.

That’s why I stopped relying on hand to hand.

His forearm came up, blocked her wrist.

Their eyes met.

The .44 Magnum appeared from behind her thigh, pointed at his knee.

Josh’s eyes dropped.

Katie fired. The bullet struck flesh, hollowed through muscle into bone, and exploded. The lower half of Josh’s leg went with it. Blown off.

He tumbled to the ground, screaming.

“Fulminated mercury rounds,” Katie said. “Can’t take normal hollow points against vampires. Dense bones, denser musculature. You need a little extra. Just like Followers, Joshua.”

“Wake the Dead” – CE Schmitt & Michael J Schwarz

So, how much of this is real?

  1. Jack Daniel’s bottles are made from dense, heavy glass, and unlikely to come apart in your hand like a regular glass bottle. They work exceptionally well as clubs. (If you want to watch one in action in a visual medium, you can find it used Dirty Laundry – the Punisher short film with Thomas Jayne by Phil Joanou from Adi Shankar’s bootleg universe. This is very R. Be wary if you’re squeamish.)
  2. Fulminated mercury rounds are real. You load fulminated mercury up into hollow point rounds and create an explosive. They’re liable to explode within the chamber of a semi-automatic handgun, but the .44 Magnum is a revolver. Different delivery mechanism. Boom.
  3. Hiding a drawn gun in the shadow of your thigh is a real tactic. The position masks the profile of the gun, your arm blends with the leg, so the eye doesn’t catch it.
  4. Katie distracts Joshua from the gun and her arm’s position with a visible weapon: the bottle, then by swinging the bottle at his head. She intentionally trips his fight reflexes i.e. flashing motion in his peripheral vision and forces him to focus high. (Standard martial arts feint, where you throw a false strike to camouflage your real intentions.) This keeps Joshua from seeing the second weapon until it’s too late.

In this scene, we’ve got an underdog character turning the tables on their opponent by immediately shutting them down with superior force of arms. The fight scene lasts less than a page, but it’s effective at teaching you who this character is along with the kind of combat tactics they use.

However, the point is not what’s real; only metric you’re graded on is what you can convince your audience of. There’s plenty of embellishment in this scene, but the actions and behaviors of the characters are grounded in a real place. They’re behaving logically, in ways which make sense to them, and are on par with what we might expect of someone with their combat background. While “realistic” is not what makes a scene enjoyable, it can help you create more interesting fight sequences and sell the idea your character knows what they’re doing. A large part of what makes this scene interesting is the entire ten page setup that you’re missing, the emotional investment in Katie and why she’s brutally murdering another teen, which is part of what’s needed to get the reader invested in the fight on page.

Remember, fight sequences are often a release of tension. They ultimately create more problems than they solve as violence invariably escalates out of control, but they serve as a stress valve for the narrative and, with good ones, a reward for your audience.

If you know nothing about violence, the weapons used, how strategy works, and what the techniques look like, can you write the scene you imagine? Can you telegraph to your audience through classic show don’t tell? Did you realize there was more to show don’t tell for written fight scenes than simply showing your characters fighting? Do you know what makes a fight scene entertaining?

A writer has different tools available in their arsenal to create an entertaining fight sequence, but in order to write that sequence you need to understand how violence works. The physicality of it, the kinetics of it, the psychology of it, the way violence feels, tastes, and smells.

You’ve made a basic mistake in your assumption about “realistic”. Narrative Realism is based in the substructure of your story. Realism is whatever the rules are in your setting say is real. What creates suspension of disbelief for your audience is how well you adhere to those rules, this covenant you create with your audience. When your audience cries, “unrealistic!” You’ve broken their suspension of disbelief, you’ve broken the established narrative rules of your setting. You broke your covenant with your audience.

The goal of understanding “realistic” lies in learning about the realities of violence as combat, understanding the entertainment factor requires looking at the art portion of martial arts.

You need both.

Structuring a scene requires understanding violence from both an unrealistic and realistic perspective. You need to know what you’re sacrificing in order to be entertaining, heighten your tension and character drama, and then what you’re keeping. Your characters’ goals, decisions, and the way they choose to take action will be based in realism and a realistic extension of what makes sense for them. Meanwhile, the combat element will be driven from the perspective of entertainment choreography which is based in, you guessed it, real martial arts.

He had a handsome face, far as humans went, and a smug expression. Her fingers clenched into fists. She wanted to beat his smug face in.

He lifted a hand, and flicked his fingers. “Give me your best shot.”

Lunging across the distance, Katie came at him low. Her first strike a feint, she cut under his block and drove her left fist into his solar plexus. The Mark above her heart burned, energy flowing into her fists. Pinpoint like a brass knuckle overlay. Her mind hazy with deja vu. She punched him a second time in his abdomen with her right, then cut up. Her strike caught him under the chin. She drove her follow-up elbow into his throat.

Garrett grunted, stumbling backwards.

She ducked past him when he retaliated. Wheeling, she kicked him in the calf. Her leg came up, and she slammed her heel into his kidney.

Garrett turned, seizing her ankle. With one arm, he flung her over the couch.

Katie landed hard on the coffee table. The table gave way, cracking apart in a spray of wood and glass. She hit the floor. Pain spiked through her back, glass shards cut through her jacket and skin. She tasted copper on her tongue. Electricity swarmed the fingers on her left hand, alive and tingling.

He wiped the blood off his mouth.

She rolled back, kicked up, and landed on her feet.

“Wake the Dead” by CE Schmitt and Michael J Schwarz

We’ve got two characters who are not human, so the normal rules don’t apply. Still, we’re following the standard progression in the combat from Katie based on distance. She lunges strikes him with her left then her right fist in his stomach, up into an upper cut, and then follows up with an elbow to the throat after creating her opening. The upper cut knocks his chin up, exposing his throat and the arm drops into a perfect position to deliver a powerful blow with a close-quarters strike. That is four strikes together. This is called a combination. More importantly, these are four strikes structured with an understanding of both distance and placement i.e. how close you need to be in order for the strike to realistically work.

Like Katie, Garrett is not human and he has super-strength. He can throw her like a ragdoll with one arm from a standing position without needing any extra help from her incoming momentum. He gets hit by her heel, has it driven into his kidney via some version of an axe kick, and then he retaliates by one arming her across the room. This is him showing his superhuman resilience, even though the reader is liable to brush it off because of what they’re used to seeing from action movies.

The goal here is to be entertaining, to attract the imagination, but what helps sell the fight is the writer’s familiarity with the subject matter.

As a writer, knowledge is your ouroboros. Everything feeds together in a never ending cycle. The more you learn, the better the writer you become. If you want to write entertaining fight sequences, you need to learn as much about violence as you can in all its different aspects. You need to figure out why violence is entertaining, why these acts capture the human imagination, and also how they actually work within the real world so you can bring that knowledge to your fiction. Every new bit of knowledge you uncover is a new tool in your box which can be applied to your writing.

And you shouldn’t stop with violence.

Learn as much as you can about everything you can get your hands on. The more you explore, the more you discover, and the more you learn to operationalize knowledge gained, the better the writer you will be.

Q&A: Wired Reflexes

Is the moment where a trained character not being able to control their “fight reflexes” or whatever ends up hurting an innocent bystander or loved one a real thing? Like somebody sneaks up on you from behind and you just elbow them in the groin or something? Or flip them over? Then you’re like, “Oh shit babe, don’t scare me like that”.

I did this to my now ex-boyfriend when I was fifteen and a freshman in high school. We were at my house, in my kitchen. He came up behind me with the plan to hug me (bear hug style) and, before his arms had even gotten around me, I elbowed him right in the gut. Full strength strike with a full extension and he walked right into it. The arm went out and came right back into his stomach, aimed at his diaphragm. He coughed, bowled over, and it took about five full minutes before he recovered.

After asking if he was okay, my exact response was: “You can’t come up behind me like that.”

The one aspect you’re missing in this whole scenario is you think this is a fear based response. It isn’t. I wasn’t scared, and neither are the characters you’re describing. Fight reflexes are hardwired responses to specific movements occurring within your environment, movement happening or beginning within your peripheral vision. I actually had the widest peripheral vision out of my entire science class when we measured in the eight grade due entirely to my martial arts training. The goal of this training is to see the movement coming before the motion begins. You’re trained to see it before it starts and respond immediately. In a fight scenario you have tenths of a second between blocking a hit and getting struck. If you want to stop a blow, you need to go when they do and get there before they reach extension. You don’t wait, you just go.

The key to understanding what happened with my ex was the bear hug.  He was behind me, his arms were out and coming around my body. My training dictates a response before his arms get a chance to lock in, so my reflexes kicked in. There was no emotion involved, it happened because that’s what I’d spent ten years training my body to do. The training worked exactly as intended, the only difference was the person it happened to. What we got was a false flag, but in the same scenario where I was actually in danger I’d have responded the same way. I’d have started the fight with the would be attacker bowled over, unable to breathe, derailed by what happened, and at my mercy. The battle over before it had a chance to begin, which is what we’re training to do.

Starke’s had a few of them himself, but has been able to stop himself before following through. His friend’s father, a Vietnam vet, once grabbed one of their mutual friends by the throat when he failed to announce himself before walking into the room. Starke’s friend’s father was up out of his chair, turned around, and had his hand around his throat before he registered who he was looking at. According to Starke, he didn’t apologize.

This isn’t PTSD or mental illness. This is the training we were given working as intended. When you’re in a situation where you need to move without consciously ordering your body to do so, which is the beginning of most fights, your reflexes take over. The difference between victory and defeat lies in the first initial tenths of a second before the fight begins.

The only difference here is context. You go flashing your hand in the peripheral vision of someone with combat training and you may end up with a response you weren’t expecting, even when that person is someone you love and who loves you. (And you shouldn’t be flashing your hand in their peripheral vision if you love them.)

The fear response is going to come for your significant other. There’s a vast gap between consciously knowing your loved one can hurt you and experiencing it first hand. My ex-boyfriend was a jock who played soccer. He used to overpowering other male teens if he got into a brawl. However he justified it to himself afterwards, he got wrecked by his 128 pound girlfriend without ever having the opportunity to defend himself and he had to live with the knowledge she could do it again if she wanted to. He didn’t look at me the same way after that. It is one thing to consciously understand, another to know they can hurt you, really hurt you in the blink of an eye, and another after to know they just might on accident. Your safety is gone, and you might experience the vertigo of being unable to exert control over your situation. There are plenty of real life relationships which end due to this problem.

If you’ve never been thrown before, you might not understand how terrifying it is. If you’ve never been thrown full force into a hardwood floor, you definitely aren’t going to grasp how much it hurts and how out of control you feel when you’re significant other is standing over you going, “oh, hey.”

The response you’re going to get is not, “oh my god, what have I done” either or intense remorse. It’s more “oops” and “don’t do that.” We all knew exactly what we were doing when we did it, we just didn’t remember who we were doing it to. For the person without these trained reflexes, this response can seem cold and unfeeling. Like their significant other doesn’t care they just hurt them. From the combat SO’s perspective, their significant other did something incredibly stupid and they’d rather they didn’t do it again. They worked very hard to develop these reflexes and incorporate them into part of their identity. There is no switch to turn them on or off. They’re always on.

Now, these ingrained fight responses are avoidable if you recognize that they’re there, they will happen, and you take steps to avoid triggering them. This can be as simple as “please say something before you walk into the room” or “let me know you’re there before you tap me on the shoulder” or “tap me on the waist instead” and “don’t hug me from behind.” The more serious the person’s experiences, the more necessary this becomes. The reflex can be consciously restrained, but it takes genuine effort to cut yourself off at the pass before you follow through. There’s mental pain involved, and you spend a great deal of time after the fact fighting the ingrained reaction off.

This is part of why it’s easier for two people with combat training to date each other than date someone without combat training. Their SO is aware of the situation, shares it, understands their limitations, and will work to circumnavigate without needing to talk about it.

Starke and I do this with each other, and we haven’t ever had a problem.

Media will often play this trope for laughs, which is a problem. Or roll these fight reactions into PTSD or mental illness, which is also a problem. Or they’ll have the combat SO be disingenuous in their reactions like you were suggesting to show how dangerous they are.

The mixed up part of this conversation that’s difficult for non-martial artists or combat veterans to understand is it’s much easier for you to avoid tapping me on the shoulder than it is for me to avoid throwing you if you try tapping me on the shoulder when a hand moving in that specific way within my peripheral vision is a motion I’ve spent ten years re-training my response to.

If you care about your SO, you shouldn’t ask them to fight themselves in order to be around you.

Remember, the non-combat SO initiated the situation. They acted first. They violated their SO’s boundaries. The only difference here between a combat and a non-combat SO is the ability to preemptively physically stop someone from violating their boundaries without requiring a verbal response. The combat SO wouldn’t have responded the way they did if the other person hadn’t initiated. If you are in a relationship with someone, you need to respect their boundaries and what they are comfortable with.

If your SO is someone who’s ingrained response is to throw someone when they sneak up behind them, then you should not only know not to sneak up on them but have enough empathy to understand this action is a violation of their personal space. This is also a violation of the trust their combat SO places in them. The non-combat SO is not the victim of their partner’s uncontrolled violence or experienced an intentional desire to do them harm. They acted first. They shouldn’t treat their combat SO’s combat reflexes like a light switch where exceptions can be made. In this situation, the non-combat SO is actually the one not respecting their partner and in the wrong.

The moral of this story is that when I was fifteen my then boyfriend violated my physical boundaries, did not let me know his intentions before acting, did not ask if his action was okay with me, and took an elbow to the gut for his trouble. I didn’t feel remorse at the time for knocking the wind out of him, I still don’t now. Ultimately, the response stuck with me. The action convinced fifteen year old me that maybe I didn’t want him touching me after all, which is what led to our break up. And, in the end, I was the one who broke up with him.

That said, in my whole life, I’ve only ever experienced my combat reflexes getting triggered in a way where the response was immediate three times.

People aren’t props. The main issue with this trope in fiction where the set up is supposed to lead to intense remorse from the combat SO which results in a cute scenario after is that the non-combat SO violated their SO’s boundaries. They don’t really care about them, or not enough to respect the other person’s experiences. If they repeat, they definitely don’t.

If your knee-jerk response is “but I shouldn’t have to change my behavior” then you shouldn’t date them, period. If they’re out there intentionally hurting you that’s different, you should run away fast. However, everyone has their boundaries. Learn to respect them before intentionally triggering someone with combat training.

-Michi

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Q&A: Where do I begin? Anywhere you want.

Hi I can’t decide the timeline to start story. What should be the main event in story?

You included either a lot of backstory or potential plot hooks for your narrative in the question, all of which have the potential to be very interesting stories in their own right, and that’s why we’re going to talk about something else.

Where do I start my story?

This is the question a lot of authors wrestle with and the answer is surprisingly simple — anywhere you want.

You don’t even need to start writing at the start of your story, you can start writing the middle first, or even the ending, and then start from the beginning once you know where you’re going. When I get stuck, I often write the parts in the future which I find interesting and work my way towards it because that gives me a point to aim for.

You have to start somewhere, so start with what interests you.

If you find yourself getting caught up in massive details for a fantasy setting spread across multiple dimensions and lifetimes then… write the ideas down, make note of them, fill up your notebooks with all that detail for your setting bible. That way, you can always come back to it later for more inspiration. Once you’ve done that, move on to your characters. Take a moment to step away from the big world changing events, but on the individuals in your story. The ones who will ultimately be the driving force behind these events.

These smaller, individual stories are the ones which carry the overarching plot and a narrative that could encompass anything from multiple books, or simply be the epic backstory of just one.

So, who interests you? The great hero at the height of their reign? The Rise of the Big Bad? The hero reincarnated into a new world, scrabbling to put together the pieces of their past life? Or, is it someone else? The rebellious general who realizes the evil they serve isn’t creating the world they hoped for? A young scribe keeping notes in the halls of an evil sorcerer  who steals the mcguffin and runs off to join the rebels? A battered, down on their luck bounty hunter after the relic so they can sell it to the highest bidder? A frustrated and angry high school student stuck in a small world, who dreams of a more fantastical one, where they’re the hero winth incredible powers, who wants the world they’ve seen in their dreams, but when those dreams become a reality realizes it might be more than they ever bargained for?

Epic narratives (rather than epics, the genre) can come from any narrative. The bounty hunter could be hunting the scribe, who could wind up on a buddy/road trip adventure as they carry a mystical object toward their world’s salvation or destruction. This could be an epic narrative filled with humor, potential romance, and heartache. Or, it could be cliche.

The story could be cliche, or it could be fantastic, it might even be cliche and fantastic. (This is, frankly, my favorite type of story.)

You won’t know until you sit down and start writing it.

You won’t know until you’ve finished your first draft. (All first drafts are terrible.)

You won’t know until you’ve restructured the whole thing in your second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts.

You may end up with a story wildly different from the one you imagined when you first sat down to write. This is part of why the place where you start doesn’t need to be your beginning. Writing is a journey of self-discovery, a discovery of your own creative process.

So, pick somewhere. Don’t worry if it’s the perfect character, or the right place. You can end up at right and perfect, but you can’t expect right and perfect in the beginning. You can accept messy, clumsy, and unsure. Trust yourself to get to the gem you imagine inside your mind, keep working at it and you will. Remember that what you read from a published novel is the end result of a product polished to a shine. Where we start is with a diamond, or even a rock full of diamonds we’ll need to chip out of the mountain before we can show them off. Creation is often a messy, embarrassing process filled with horror, joy, and terror. There may occasionally be hair pulling and screaming. You’ll give yourself a lot more grief trying to avoid this, than you will by just embracing it.

You don’t have to write in a straight line.

You do write one line at a time.

So, start writing.

-Michi

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Q&A: Writing The Tournament

I’m writing a story about a fighting tournament, but I’m not especially familiar with tourney structures except for video games. What are common martial arts tournament formats? I think double-elimination ought to work well for my story because it can get so dramatic, but there might be something else more suitable.

This is a pretty good breakdown on martial arts bracket systems used in tournaments.

I’m going to spend this post talking about how tournaments and the martial arts tournament genre works in a narrative context. This includes more than your protagonist, but your role in tournament management because you’re going to need to be all the parts in order for this to work. After all, the one who structures the tournament is you. If you’ve never actively participated in tournaments, any tournaments, or done anything behind the scenes when it comes to structuring them then going complex upfront will result in your narrative spinning wildly out of control.

The Tournament Brackets Are Your Plot

In a martial arts tournament narrative every match up is a character building exercise. The fights are the catharsis to the tension building between rivals and friends in the story. Each fight is the culmination of a smaller plot running parallel to the primary narrative. These are the not just the physical challenges the protagonist overcomes in chasing their dream of winning a championship, but also challenges their morals, their emotions, and their intelligence. Each fight is a building block toward the final conflict, resulting in the protagonist becoming a stronger and more well-rounded person as they are challenged to address their flaws in both fighting style and in their character.

Each of these fights are a very important step on the rung toward victory where the greatest challenge awaits. Every fallen friend, rival, rival-friend, enemy turned friend, and friend turned enemy is a just one more means to forge your protagonist in fire.  Each match up is carefully structured to maximize the drama, and provide unique challenges to the protagonist. Seeing the protagonist overcome these challenges is what makes the fight interesting, not the fight itself.

You should consider how many small character dramas you have it in you to write in addition to your main plots as we cycle upwards, the necessary subplots for other important rival characters and matches needed to establish these rivals as a legitimate threat before the protagonist faces off with them.

The tournament is your basic plot outline. Like with seeding in a real tournament, you’re going to want to be meticulous about your match ups before you sit down to write. You need to know who if fighting whom and how that turned out, including some specific events which can reach your protagonist in whispers even if you don’t show any of it on screen.

Drama is Created By Characters

I’m going to make this point upfront because I see the thought process with double elimination, but don’t make the mistake of assuming the tournament structure will do the work for you. An exciting tournament, whether fictional or in real life, is the result of someone’s hard work. In the real world, this is multiple people. In your novel, this is just you and whomever you roped in to help you build all the characters you’ll need for this story to function.

Unless you’re really good at writing fight scenes, and you better be if you’re writing a martial arts tournament, and even if you are, you’ve got to take time to establish a whole bunch of characters who’ll be important friends and rivals. You’re going to need extra chapters between your fight chapters to establish the character dynamics, so your audience can become invested in what happens to the major players.

Single Elimination

The tournament brackets are the layout of your plot, and this is the reason why Single Elimination is the popular choice for tournaments in both real life and fiction.

32 Characters = 6 Matches for your protagonist.

64 characters = 7 matches.

This translates to about six chapters to seven, this gives you a lot of time to focus on the other characters like your character’s rivals, future rivals, take a look at the next challenger, watch a match, get to know our other characters, develop friendships, and a whole bunch of other necessary stuff during the downtime between fights.

You can devote a lot of time to building up each of the fights as their own mini-narratives in a 70,000-80,000 word novel, and not feel as pressed for time with getting a lot of different fight scenes or character narratives jammed in.

Double Elimination

So, with double elimination, the most important aspect to understand is that if the protagonist loses any match then the highest they’ll end up is usually around third place.

You’ll have twice as many matches as single elimination, which means you have that many more fights to write. A protagonist goes from having around 6 to 7 matches to 12 to 14, plus the extra matches you’ll need to put together for the rivals and friends. Which, if you’ve never put together a match up between two characters, is a lot more work with a lot less time for ancillary detail. The lower brackets constantly fill up as more players lose, everyone gets at least two fights which is great for martial arts tournaments where you’re putting them together primarily for experience. This is about half your 70,000 to 80,000 word novel (if you want to get it published) of twenty to thirty chapters devoted to one character’s fights with less time for the build up your other necessary characters.

Remember, the novel’s secondary characters are important to keeping your tournament functional. In a double elimination system where you’re defeated twice you’re out, there’s no reason to pit the same person against the person who defeated them.

The attraction of the Double Elimination to most writers is going to be the idea of the protagonist getting knocked into the elimination bracket early by their rival and then being forced to fight their way up through that entire bracket for a second match against the rival who defeated them. Then, this time, they finally win.

Except, if you allow this to happen in real life then you create a situation where there are no victors because no one finished the tournament undefeated.

In real life, the second bracket has its own final which decides third place and the person who was previously eliminated will most likely never fight someone from that first bracket again. This kills the idea of rival revenge.

Rival revenge should be based on actions that happen in previous tournaments, the next tournament down the line, or actions taken outside the tournament, but not within the tournament itself.

Have I mentioned you need to be really good at writing fight scenes?

Round Robin, (See Also: Swiss and Dutch)

Everybody fights everybody.

This one probably won’t appeal as it is a points based competition where everyone keeps fighting until someone wins. It is a popular set up in smaller tournaments, particularly for sparring, which lets students get a lot of tournament sparring practice. It is really easy for the fights to get unbalanced early, and you essentially calculate the bouts based on the number of participants.

This is a very long tournament, multiday to multiweek, and you’d most likely be cutting a lot of it out from your narrative (though you’d still need to keep track of what happened in those other bouts.) This format is primarily for soccer and similar sports, while swiss is chess.

I don’t suggest non-elimination formats for martial arts.

Visual versus Written

It is worth understanding that the martial arts tournament genre is primarily designed for a visual medium. In this case, showcasing all the fights is important because your audience is there for the experience. Establishing unique visual motifs for each character is important because it makes the scenes more visually engaging when you’re watching these characters get slapped around. We see more than we need to, yes, but that visual stimulation is part of why people watch martial arts movies or the shounen anime fighting genre like Yu Yu Hakusho, Boku no Hero Academia, or Dragon Ball Z.

You don’t get access to any of this when you’re writing.

Your characters are going to be the driving force behind the drama in a written tournament narrative, and you can’t cheat off visual stimulation provided by skilled stunt actors or vibrant artistic explosions. The fight scenes are not the focus, you can’t expect them to hold the audience’s attention, they’re an extension of the character drama occurring within the narrative itself. This means a narrowed focus on one or two characters with a meticulous and careful structuring of character experiences.

The second problem posed by anime in structure is that the fights are designed to pad out an entire season, or an entire manga arc, which, from a written perspective, encompasses multiple books. In a manga, preparations for the preliminaries are an arc (novel), getting to the preliminaries is an arc (novel), the preliminaries are an arc (arc), then the first stages before finals are an arc, and then we get to the finals which are often an arc in and of themselves. So, if you pace your story like an anime then you get about five novels. They’re set up as serialized stories.

For a novel, you need to focus. You’ll do a lot of work in setting the whole tournament up, and the novel will show about a 1/3 or less of it because there’s a lot of stuff we don’t need to know about.

Character Progression Match Ups: Establish Your Rules.

The primary reason for establishing multiple fighting styles for various characters is to help create an unbalance or underdog status for the protagonist. However, in a written format you don’t get access to the tension built by one character primarily wielding fists versus someone who is a kicker in a mixed martial arts tournament. You’ll need a solid grasp of your protagonist’s fighting style, taking into consideration both its flaws and weaknesses. A better grasp you have on combat then the easier this will be for you.

You’ll also need to decide on how someone designates a win. Most martial arts tournaments are points based with different points being assigned based on the type of hit or difficulty of the technique. Taekwondo sparring matches assign one point for basic punches to the torso, two for basic kicks to the torso, three for a kick to the head, and technical kicks score more.

The various strategies your characters use will be based on the type of competition, though they will come up with different strategies based on their own preferred tactics. An example is that technical kicks in Taekwondo like spin kicks are more risky than basic kicks, and a more careful character might not use them even when they score higher. A character who is behind in their point count might feel pressed to use riskier attacks to get the five points off a single kick even though that is more difficult to pull off.

Your protagonist and their antagonists will devise strategies based off the rules. So, you’ve got to establish what those rules are and what constitutes a win.

Is it a forced concession like a tap out?

Is it getting knocked outside the right?

Is it a point based system scored on how well a character performs like in Taekwondo, Boxing, and Muay Thai? What does that point system look like?

Is it getting knocked out?

Is it death?

Are there places they can’t hit which result in penalties and eliminations? Is this no holds barred?

Does this tournament allow weapons?

What protective gear do they wear?

There are a lot of considerations to take into account, and for that reason I do suggest starting with a Single Elimination set up. It’ll be pretty easy to upgrade to Double when you get comfortable or run out of space, though I wouldn’t worry too much about not having enough fights or interesting fights. If you have that problem then adding more won’t actually help you.

Each fight match up with your protagonist is a cornerstone in your narrative, a point of character progression, a realization they have about themselves which helps them come away stronger and more prepared for the endgame. If you haven’t been looking at the fight scenes you planned for your novel in this way, then you should consider starting.

There’s not really much difference between an underdog starting from the bottom and never losing versus an underdog losing and fighting up from the bottom all over again except how well you did with the concept the first time round. Losing a fight is not a great way to get people invested in a character if they weren’t already. Besides, in a real world setup they’d never see that rival they lost to again.

Also, you need to be really good at writing fight scenes.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Sword is King of Mid Range Melee

We got a bunch of sword questions all in a row that don’t require particularly detailed answers, so I figured we could do them all together for efficiency.

So are swords really useful/practical weapons, or just iconic/popular for media and fiction?

The sword is one of the best weapons mankind has ever designed for killing other humans. While there are other weapons we could focus on (like the staff, spear, and other longarms that don’t get enough love), don’t fool yourself in selling the sword short.  This weapon has ruled as a fixture of combat since it’s invention, and only recently fell out of popular use. We know this because of how enduring the sword is throughout history and with countless cultures across the globe who all developed their own variants then refined, refined, refined them until we finally outdid ourselves by developing the gun. Even then, we’ve had guns since roughly the late Middle Ages, and it’s only in the past 100 years or so that swords have really fallen off as the preferred sidearm used in addition to other combat weapons. The sword was also a weapon of self-defense in Europe, and wasn’t just a weapon of the upper class.

The 20th century still saw swords being fielded as part of mounted cavalry units, and were used right up until WWI where they became obsolete in the face of modern weaponry.

The sword is the preeminent king of mid range melee combat.

Weapons endure because they are useful. Weapons are discarded when they are no longer useful, or no longer appropriate to the threats faced on the battlefield.

This is the rule of the weapons. It doesn’t matter how cool they look if you’re dead. If the weapon doesn’t work then cast it off. Weapons that no longer fit the combat of the day get you killed.

The ironic truth is that the sword is actually a much better, more well rounded, and versatile weapon than popular media makes it out to be. It is also a much lighter weapon than popular media would have you believe, which means there is no strength requirement. They weigh less than your average housecat, and a lot less than your laptop.  If your protagonist can’t lift two to four pounds then they’ve got bigger problems than just one weapon.

Some sword variants are more specialized than others, and are designed around specific battlefield functions. Not all swords are created equal, and some will work far better in some circumstances than others. It is very important that you view weapons from different time periods in terms of scientific advancement and ever changing battlefield requirements.

Your protagonists are doing more than accessorizing when they choose a weapon or martial art. Suitable is decided by the world they live in and the threats they face, and then, after a host of other practical considerations, by what appeals to them.

not sure how many questions you get like this and i’m sorry is it’s been asked, but world a dagger be effective with someone with a sword. would a weapon like Asuma’s from naruto actually be useful

Asuma wields a real weapon that saw use in real combat, primarily in the trenches of WWI. The weapon is called a trench knife. One part knife, one part knuckleduster or brass knuckles, this weapon excels in tight, close quarters combat. The name itself should be a  dead giveaway for the purpose it served in combat. This is an aid for hand to hand combat, and therefore not particularly useful against swords because the person with the trench knife risks getting cut to pieces by the sword wielder before they ever get into the range their knife is suitable for.

This is, in essence, the problem for knives or daggers versus swords. In a straight up fight, the sword has the range to attack at will while the person with the dagger is forever on the offensive with no means to break past them. You don’t have the option to attack, while they can attack you whenever they feel like it. Swords face similar problems against long arms like staves and spears.

This is a martial concept called range. Range is dictated by the distance it takes for you to reach your opponent versus the distance it takes for them to reach you. Range matters most when dealing with weapons. A common misconception about range is how much that distance given by height matters in hand to hand.

The end of this story is you’ll need to kill the guy with the sword before he has the chance to get his pants on, which actually makes a knife like the trench knife the perfect weapon for an assassin like Asuma. After all, they never planned to give you the option of fighting back. The knife is the “surprise! death!” weapon, and one of the fastest combat weapons from hit to kill.

Would a left-handed knight fight with their sword in their left hand and their shield in their right? I’m writing a left-handed character who fights with sword and shield, and I want to be aware of any advantages/disadvantages such a style will give them.

Listen to me when I say this, the shield is a weapon. That is the most important lesson I have to teach you about the sword/shield combination. The sword is a weapon, the shield is also a weapon. You can hit people with it. You can also kill people with it. More importantly, you can use it as a tool to lock up your enemy’s weapon  and kill them with your primary weapon. This is an active, not a passive, article working in conjunction with your sword and a defined part of your character’s strategy in their approach to combat.

The sword/shield is an offensive combo, not a defensive one. Video games and DnD will teach you that the shield is only good for defense. You’ll find people everywhere, including those giving advice on the shield outside the HEMA community who will parrot that assumption. It is a lie.

As with anything, the combo can be used defensively but you’re not actually giving up your offensive opportunities. You are, in fact, maximizing them by giving yourself one more means to break through your enemy’s defenses. You are dual wielding, and the off-hand shield serves a similar purpose for what you’d be doing with a second weapon like a knife or sword in that off-hand and with less risk of the two getting caught cross-ways of each other. The shield lets you be bolder in your attacks because you have more defense, but you’re not just going to sit there in the midst of battle and turtle like an MMO tank. No, you’re going to be proactive. More defense gives you more options to be aggressive because there are fewer risks involved.

What you sacrifice is the extra power, finesse, speed, and control lent by the second hand (your non-dominant hand) on two handed weapons like the long sword. This is the drawback: you give up the power, precision, fine control, and utility of a single weapon. Note, power does not mean strength in the way you imagine. That second hand is needed as a lever to provide your weapon with greater momentum than you can achieve with a single hand or arm. The front hand or gripping hand is the guiding hand and the back hand or the hand on the pommel is the power hand. You’ve limited yourself to attacks based on the movements of that single arm,and the power you can generate from that arm. You’ve also given up the utility provided by your off-hand for the shield.

In martial arts, the off-hand or the non-dominant hand is the control hand or the utility hand. It is much more important than your power hand, in fact losing your non-dominant hand is much more catastrophic as a fighter than losing your dominant one. The control hand lacks the power of the dominant hand, but because it’s harder to learn to control the side your worse with due to that hand being less natural during training you end up developing a lot of fine motor control. You use this hand to strike, to defend, to grab,  and create openings for strikes with the power hand.

Martial artists are mostly ambidextrous by necessity, all the parts of your body are going to be used. A character who is left-hand dominant will actually use their right hand in combat more often than their left, and vice versa is true. I’m right handed, but my left will almost always strike first. This is the side I predominately turn to for any and all utility. This is the opposite of my regular life, where my right is doing most of the work.

A left-handed person will use their dominant hand in a fight, but that doesn’t mean their right is useless. Their non-dominant hand is one of the most important combat assets they have. This is their defense hand, their blocking hand, the set-up hand, the fast striking hand, the risk-taker hand that seizes for joint locks. The non-dominant hand is the one with all the finesse. This is why the finesse hand/arm holds the shield, you’ll be taking complex actions with it.

This is going to be a backwards way of thinking if you’ve never done martial arts. Your dominant hand is not the hand that’s better at “doing things”. The dominant hand is the power hand, the finisher hand, it’s really good at hitting harder than the non-dominant hand which is why you want it handling your sword.

A left handed person can have an advantage over someone who is right handed because the left hand being dominant is less common than the right hand, and therefore someone who is right handed encounters left handed fighters less often. However, a left hand dominant fighter is nowhere near rare enough to hang your character’s hat on that as a decided advantage over the other warriors they encounter.

Writing combat with weapons requires an entire re-framing of what popular culture has taught you about combat, including concepts like “strength”. Power is not created by physical strength, but by momentum. Momentum is generated through proper technique. Proper technique is developed through training. Weapons are, by and large, not heavy because physically heavy weapons are difficult to wield for prolonged periods and you might have to fight for prolonged periods. A weapon you can’t wield is useless to you, and one which wears you out quickly is actively dangerous to you.  You don’t need a weapon to weigh much in order to generate the momentum necessary to kill another human being.

You’ll notice weapons like the warhammer and the morning star put most of their weight in the head of the weapon. Why? Not because you need to be physically strong to wield them, but to aid the wielder in generating more momentum on that downward swing.

Is a baseball bat heavy? Your answer should be no.

Someone in armor, with a shield and a sword has the opportunity to take more risks than the person without those. This leads to them being more aggressive, rather than less. That defense serves the specific purpose of allowing you to take actions you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Knights in heavy armor were both highly mobile and incredibly versatile, they weren’t slowed down much by that armor.

Weapons aren’t just an aesthetic choice for your character,  they’re designed with a specific purpose in mind. Most of what those weapons were designed for will, on occasion, actively roll against the grain of how they’re presented in popular fiction or used in video games. There’s a lot of missing nuance, strategy, and tactics in the application of a dice roll.

-Michi

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Q&A: In Fiction, the Groin Strike Proves Freud Right

How can i expose someone’s groin for a strike?

So, the groin strike is one of the most oversold attacks in fiction. You don’t “expose” anything. There’s not some secret or special means of getting there, it’s not particularly well protected (except when your opponent is wearing a cup, in which case… yeah, very well protected); it’s just a matter of being close enough to hit.

The groin strike with the knee features prominently in self-defense because it is:

A) easy.

B) You start within grappling range.

In most self-defense scenarios you will be defending yourself from someone who is already close enough to touch you. Someone who is standing right next to you. When you are facing them, the knee to the groin makes sense. It’s a reflexive and easy strike,  and relatively well hidden when they’re focused on something else. You can even play along, put your arms around their neck (with one hand strategically positioned on the back of their head to take control), and… bam. Knee to the groin.

However, like all pressure point strikes, the knee to the groin is a stunner and not a finisher. Whoever you hit with it will recover rapidly, which is why we combine it with other strikes.

Now, the knee to the face can be performed in the same range, and featured as the finisher in a combination with a groin strike. Again, the groin strike is not a “finish them” technique. It’s a distracting technique which opens up better protected parts of the body. You grab the other person by the back of their head, and drive their face down into your rising knee.

And… that’s about the extent of what we do with the groin.

You can kick someone there. You can punch someone there.

Both cases are more a matter of having poor aim or taking someone by surprise than a test of skill. The strike is an opportunistic one, not a dedicated martial move requiring a lot of setup because the move is risky. It doesn’t require a particular amount of skill either, you mostly just have to hit it hard enough to get lucky in clipping the nerve cluster. The issue with the groin strike is more that it’s considered a “dishonorable” move, which leads people to assume it’s a super effective one. They put it on par with throwing sand in someone’s face, but other dirty moves like throwing sand in someone’s eyes is actually much more effective as a battle tactic. There are better places to hit someone which lead to long term damage.

The short answer on exposing the groin is you don’t. You actually don’t need to because the strikes are not nearly as effective as Hollywood insists. Also, outside backroom bar brawls, most men (and women) actually do wear protection when engaging in actual combat or sparring scenarios. That protection is called the cup otherwise known as the jockstrap.

You don’t need to do anything special other than be close enough to pull off the hit. However, the question becomes why aim there? If you can get a better result from performing a front kick or a push kick into the stomach when you’ve exposed your opponent’s defenses then you’d aim there instead. The stomach has a lot of nerve endings too, you can forcibly disrupt the diaphragm, and hit a fair number of major organs. You get everything you’d get from hitting someone in the groin and more with results that last for a longer period of time.

In a friendly bout scenario, like in sparring sessions, hitting someone in the nether regions is frowned upon (especially if not accidental) and clipping occurs often enough that the intelligent wear protection.

In a self-defense scenario, a groin strike won’t be enough to stop your enemy in their tracks.

In a combat scenario, a groin strike suffers similar problems with the added benefit of likely being protected by actual armor.

Discussing groin strikes in fiction usually revolves around men, usually specifically around heterosexual women hitting heterosexual men in their “weak spot”. (If you never realized that sex is what this specific joke is about in fiction then I’m sorry, and, yes, this is a way to hypersexualize your female fighter. Why do you ask?) However, it is worth noting that groin strikes work on women.

If you write female fighters or just female characters in general, please do not fall for this bit of fiction about groin strikes. In the world of popculture fantasy, they’re just a means of proving Freud right. Everything is about titillation and the genitals.

In the real world, and I say this as someone with extensive experience in martial arts, the groin is not some secret weak point that must be defended at all costs. The groin is either convenient or just meh.

-Michi

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Q&A: Short Fighters and Centers of Gravity

any specifics to be mindful of on writing a very short fighter? like under five feet tall? i don’t necessarily mean children, just like, ppl who are short

I’m going to discuss writing short combatants below, but I want to make it clear. What I’m going to be discussing is about adults, not children. You want to set a clear distinction between the two in your mind right now. Children are their own category, broken down into several separate categories of roughly 1-5, 6-8, 9-10, 11-14, 15-16, 17-19. Segment them out by age categories, break apart older and younger teens, and keep a beat for mental/intellectual/emotional maturity in line with their physical growth rates. Children are different from adults, and different ages face different challenges.

When you’re writing children, you need to take their age into consideration, the fact they’re bodies are still changing and growing, the fact their minds are maturing. They don’t have the same capacity as adults, the understanding, or the ability to utilize their experiences to the same degree. The problems for children are not just in their size, but in their brains, in the softness of their bones, in the bodies that are constantly changing, emotions only just emerging, which combined with a lack of experience and maturity often put them at a significant disadvantage.

A twelve year old who is set against a seasoned killer faces a lot more problems than just a height difference, would face those same challenges even if they were the same height.

Now, let’s talk about short fighters. They’re not much difference from anyone else, nothing more than a different set of natural advantages, that may not even mean much in the grand scheme. Spend too much time obsessing on physiological differences and you’ll end up thinking they’re the only thing that matters. There’s not that much difference between someone who is 4″10 versus someone who is 5″1 or 5″2 in terms of combat.

What you want to understand about the size of humans is that the benefits are mostly in the mind. There are a lot of culturally defined stereotypes, conventional wisdom, and cries of “realism” when it comes to martial combat that are complete bunk. The perception that short people are at an automatic disadvantage is one of them. Every body type comes with their own strengths and weaknesses, learning to compensate for the weaknesses and take advantage of the strengths is what training is all about. You’re going to need to throw out most of your internalized prejudices and start over. You’ll find you’re full of biases when you really get down to thinking about it,  ones you’ve subconsciously picked up over the years, and, I want to make this very clear, addressing them doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.

Center of Gravity – People who are short are closer to the ground. This is important because  the center of gravity is your body’s balance point. This is your body’s point of stability, and useful to know about for a large variety of exercises. This point changes based on each individual human being, with constant motion, and is somewhat subjective. So, everyone has to locate this point within themselves and find their own individual balance.-

However, what you need to know about for the purpose of this question is: Short people are very difficult to knock over if they know how to create their base and set their weight.

Now, the center of gravity in a man versus in a woman are physiologically different. A man’s is located in his chest, and a woman’s is approximately in her pelvis. Physiological differences mean men and women will show progress in different exercises more quickly because they’re more naturally inclined toward them. A woman’s balance point being lower lends itself to more stability in the lower body. From a practical perspective, what this means is that a man has to spread his legs wider and get lower in his stances in order to achieve the same physical stability as his female counterpart, and likewise a tall man has to bend his knees more than a short guy for similar results.

This is a taught advantage, not a natural advantage.

What does this mean?

Well, it doesn’t mean much of anything except that short people are naturally better at grappling than taller people. If they know how to set their feet and get down low then good luck throwing them. You won’t pick them up. They’re not going anywhere. After all, throws are not strength based (someone who is tall is not necessarily going to be stronger than someone who is short) but are instead dependent on destabilizing your opponent’s base (the position of their feet, and stance) then utilizing their own force against them.

Someone who is short is much closer to the earth than someone who is tall, and this advantage lends them more stability. Weight isn’t weight, and strength isn’t strength. The martial arts battle is primarily over an ever-shifting balance point and breaking your opponent’s stability. You’ve got to work harder to get them to fall over.

The Intimidation Station – Tall people can be naturally intimidating, because conventional wisdom says they are. Intimidation happens in the mind. However, short people can be intimidating, because intimidation comes from presence, not physicality.

Here’s something to keep in mind when writing short characters: When you’re short, you live in a world of tall. You’re used to being (physically) looked down on. These characters will have been learning to compensate (if they need to) from day one, so the idea they’ll fall apart while facing off against someone significantly taller than they are is silly… really silly. They’ll be more used to fighting tall people than someone who generally fights people of equal height or mild differences. If you’re used to constantly being at a “disadvantage” then that state becomes normal and you learn to just roll with it.

Aggression – Short fighters can be, but are not uniformly, or always more aggressive combatants, and women are often more actively aggressive in combat than men. This doesn’t mean they have more aggressive personalities, but they can be much more pro-active when it comes to rolling over into an offensive mode.

Reach – You’ll hear this one brought up a lot, mostly by people who don’t really understand the concept. Reach matters more with weapons than with bodies.

I hear a lot of writers searching for “natural” advantages, or see an over reliance on those perceived advantages in fiction. The reality of success lies with technique and hard work, not the body you were born with or the talents you were gifted with. You’ve got to polish what you have. In hand to hand, there are plenty of ways to compensate for a difference in height. The primary means of overcoming distance is footwork, not the length of your arms or legs.

Mind Over Matter – In terms of physiology, the rules aren’t hard and fast. They’re not black and white. There’s no can and can’t. There’s mind over matter, mind over internalized biases, and mind over perceived impossibilities. What there isn’t is magic. No matter who they are, your character will never be suddenly amazing or skip all the perilous trials of learning. There’s pain, yes, embarrassment, frustration, and failures, which are all part of building character. Skill requires training and practice. It’s difficult, it takes time, and you’ll need to do a lot of pushing past what you believe to be physically possible (rather than what is) before you’re done.

What your character perceives about their own abilities and their actual abilities are not one and the same, the same is true of their potential. The hill may seem impossible from the bottom, but we progress up it one step at a time.

Here’s one last thing to keep in mind:

They’re short. So, what?

-Michi

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Q&A: Metafiction; the story inside the story inside the story inside the… uh… yeah.

Bungou Stray Dogs has a mafia that uses a few teenage characters with useful/deadly powers. Any tips on making them realistic in fanfiction without being weak or useless? There IS trauma involved but trauma doesn’t always show up immediately/in readily recognizable ways especially in teenagers. The characters also have varying levels of maturity and ambition. Even if it’s wrong, it wouldn’t make sense for the CRIMINAL boss to NOT use teens if they could be useful even on the short term.

Okay, so, this is a very defensive question. You’re asking for tips, but arguing on the tips you expect us to give you. There’s a mistaken assumption that criminals don’t use teens because it’s morally wrong, and not because it’s, well, bad for staying in business because teenagers are less reliable than seasoned professionals for mob hits, or that’s just a lot of responsibility to trust to someone so young. Criminal organizations do use children, they just don’t usually use them to do anything important (like kill people.)

There’s even all caps.

None of that is important though. We’re talking about an anime where Herman Melville transforms into the ghost of Orson Welles and takes off into the night sky. The entire argument you’re trying to make just isn’t applicable. So, let’s talk about a very special genre called metafiction instead.

Bungou Stray Dogs is both an anime, and a piece of metafiction. When discussing how this piece of media handles its characters or structures its plots, realism is not even a tertiary concern.  The anime doesn’t care. If you’re writing fanfiction in the world created by this medium neither should you. Now, let’s talk about about this small piece of the literary genre called metafiction; where there is a contextual narrative within the narrative based entirely on your familiarity with the other narratives being referenced.

Let me drop this in front of you,

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
If you are a someone who came out of an education system from a former British colony you should have some passing recognition of this stanza, even if you don’t know who the author is.  (Or, you slept through you’re high school English classes.) This is from William Blake’s “The Tyger“, and, no, this isn’t just a literary joke based on the fact the protagonist of Bungou Stray Dogs transforms into a tiger under the moonlight. No, this is a reference to the fact the protagonist of Bungou Stray Dogs is named after Japanese author Atsushi Nakajima, who was a fan of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphisis” and whose story “Sangetsuki” features a man who transforms into a tiger. “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright…”

This is an on the nose reference which would be immediately obvious to a Japanese audience, just like so many other characters featured in Bungou Stray Dogs, but would require a fair amount of digging from someone not well versed in classic Japanese literature. Which, I’m not, I had to look it up.

When you’re talking about a narrative this deep into Japanese literary history and culture, whose characters and their powers are based on other characters from other more famous stories you never read because you didn’t go to a Japanese high school, you have to realize that they’re not discussing the “mafia” in any realistic fashion. No, they’re talking about the Yakuza and not the Yakuza as they exist in the real world. We’re talking about the Yakuza as they exist in classic Japanese literature and as a cultural touchstone within their media.

An example is the Italian mafia as seen in The Godfather and not the Italian mafia from Goodfellas. One embraces the cultural idealization of the mafia, while the other… well, is trying for a biographical portrayal of an ex-mafioso’s life and experiences in the mob. Watch both, you’ll find very different movies working underneath the surface.

Metafiction, at heart, is a story within a story using characters/individuals or basing itself on characters who are either public domain or simply easily recognizable via simple motif. Metafiction relies heavily on a cultural contextual awareness of these characters (or historical individuals). These characters need no introduction because you’re expected to already know who they are. You know. The story lies in how they interact with each other, but their underlying narrative is one of exploration about these pieces of art in comparison and contrast, their values, their political views, their social mores, and how they interact with each other.

The surface story is John Locke and Thomas Hobbes hook up to fight crime in Victorian London. The underlying narrative explores the philosophical views of Locke and Hobbes as they deal with the human and societal circumstances forged by this variation of a rapidly changing British society neither experienced in their own lifetimes.

We already got a version this idea with the comic Calvin and Hobbes. We get the hijinks of a boy and his imaginary tiger friend, but the underlying comedy is exploring an interaction between the philosophies of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes. The content is there if you know what to look for, and, if you’re from a cultural background where learning something about these two is required, you’ll pick up on the humor within the humor without needing it explained; even when you can’t articulate why.

Bungou Stray Dogs is like Calvin and Hobbes.

There are other Western versions of metafiction. An easy example to point to is Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Another is the show Penny Dreadful, which works off a similar concept with contemporary characters from the same time period as League. The Assassin’s Creed games are another example, they’re mashing a lot of contemporary historical figures together as touchstones for their narrative even if these individuals never actually interacted.

There’s a story, but that story is also built on the reader’s knowledge of these characters outside the fictional work itself. In a way, all fanfiction is metafiction. The major difference between one and the other is ultimately legality. The characters of metafiction are public domain, copyright does not apply, and so you can do what you like with them. You want to write a massive fanfic crossing over the works of Austen, Gaskell, and Bronte? In a coffee shop or high school setting? Go right ahead. You can do that legally. Be interesting enough and you could even get it published by a traditional publisher. After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did get published.

So, you writing fanfiction about Bungou Stray Dogs which is itself a massive crossover alternate AU fanfic about classic Japanese literature is extremely meta in its own right. Congrats!

Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the characters of Bungou Stray Dogs have personalities and powers based on the literary figures they’re associated with. If you want to make these characters useful to the criminal organization then you need to do your reading. They’re not just random characters in an anime, they’re based on a real author, probably an author who died young, and their famous protagonist. You should look at this crime boss and figure out which literary figure he’s based off of, the focus of the author’s narrative fiction, and accept that Japan has a tendency to throw around synonymous non-Japanese words willy-nilly. When calling an organization the mafia, they’re not really talking about the mafia within conventional Western understanding. This character is a very specific reference to a very specific individual and their works.

The trouble with metafiction is that it requires you do the reading, and in this case do the reading on other authors and their works you may not have ever heard of or realized were a primary influence and major reference on the material you’ve been watching/reading. However, to find the actual answer to your question, you’ve got to take a look at their works. Realize, these works may not be readily available or easily understood if you don’t read Japanese. Though the works of the authors referenced by the American association “The Guild” will be easy enough to get hold of, though thoroughly more confusing if you know anything about the authors Kafka Asagiri is referencing.  (From an American perspective, just looking at the versions appearing in this anime, I can say that I don’t know what the heck they read but that’s the key difference between looking at someone else’s literary culture versus your own.)

I mean, let’s be honest, Mark Twain’s power should be his ability to completely destroy your self-esteem. This requires a contextual understanding of Twain’s humor which may not be easily accessible via translation; especially if you only read a poor translation of Huckleberry Finn in high school. This is, after all, the man who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And, if you’re writing metafiction, or just fiction, or even fanfiction in general, he’s got some great advice, “get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

But, I digress. When writing metafiction, or any fiction, or just in general, it helps when you know what you’re talking about. Or, have the confidence and showmanship to convince people you do.

One of the great aspects writing fanfiction has to teach you is how to do your research. As a writer, you’re stepping into someone else’s shoes and learning to think from their perspective. You create a facsimile even though your creations will never truly match. You can’t be someone else, but you can try out their style and see if their work works for you. You have the opportunity to step back from a work and ask what this means to you as you put your own personal spin on it. You might even find yourself depending on how easily you wind up coloring outside the lines.

You should ask yourself, does canon matter to you? 

Canon doesn’t have to, sometimes fanfiction is simply a launchpad to doing your own work when you’re still trying to build up strength in your wings and aren’t ready to leave the nest.

Does realism matter to you?

Again, “realism” doesn’t have to matter. Realism is defined entirely by the narrative your working with. You make reality. Your research into criminal organizations is to discover how they work and how they think. Learn the rules so you can break them.  Learn the facts so you can distort them. You want to know how the world works and how people think the world works so you can change those rules, or realize the rules you thought were important don’t matter at all.

Reality is stranger than fiction.

Learn to act without waiting for permission.

For that reason, we work on giving you options and helping you understand how the world works. This may not have any bearing on the story you wanted to tell, but we can’t tell your story for you. A big step on the road to writing is learning to write for all the characters in your narrative and not just your protagonists. Learn to think like a crime boss or a villain, give them motivations and logical reasoning behind their actions as they weigh their decisions.

Crime is entirely based on risk versus reward. Does the opportunity for reward outweigh the risks involved? Is your desire to use these characters and create exciting plots for them overshadowing the decision of this other character? Can you internally justify the choice beyond just the fact these characters have supernatural powers?

Your characters making choices is what takes them from the realm of dolls and transforms them into people.

-Michi

(PS. I give a gold star to whomever reading this got that joke about Orson Welles.)

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Q&A: Computer Logic is not Human Logic

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

Have you ever played chess against a computer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “One More Lap” mentality is the Determinator.

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

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

It’ll screw up an algorithm.

And that’s why the computer cheats.

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got a headache just thinking about it.

-Michi

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

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

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

They want to kill you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s talk about knife disarms.

Some Golden Rules of Knife Disarms

Don’t. Touch. The. Knife.

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

Get Off The Vector!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chamber. Extension. Recoil.

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Track of the Knife.

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

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

It’s All About The Thumb

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

Gotta Go Fast.

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

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

Onto some other problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the point?

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

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

Where are the other characters?

Where is the bartender?

Who else is going to intervene?

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

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

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

So, don’t be cheap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michi

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