Tag Archives: writing violence

Q&A: Violence Is All About Efficiency

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

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

The Economy of Violence.

Conservation of Movement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michi

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Q&A: Using Violence

Hey I’m pretty far along in a book I’m working on, there’s a lot of hand to hand combat mixed with swords, bows and arrows and some guns (flintlock style). I’ve been doing a good job of keeping things fresh but as I’m coming towards the end of it I’m having a hard time varying the different styles so it doesn’t get stale. I was wondering if you had any tips to help my action scenes from getting stale? Thanks!

This is going to be one of those concepts that sounds utterly bizarre at first, but violence isn’t interesting.

It might be slightly more accurate to say, violence by itself is not interesting or engaging. Real world violence, especially, is not entertaining and violence for entertainment often follows when the violence is expected to carry itself. What makes an action sequence work is the mise en scène. Violence, in a narrative, has diminishing returns. If you prefer, you could phrase it as the audience builds tolerance to violence over time, but either term works.

So, let’s unpack these two pieces.

Violence, by itself is rarely interesting. This is, probably, the main issue you’re running into. The stuff that sells a fight scene is all of the stuff accompanying it. It’s the stakes.

When writing an action sequence, the important thing to remember is why your characters are there. It can be very easy to lose track of the larger context in the moment, but that’s what keeps the reader invested.

There are exceptions to the, “never interesting,” position. With some martial artists, the appeal really is simply the spectacle. They’re putting on an impressive physical performance, that’s engaging. Cool. But, it’s not the violence, which may sound like an incredibly fine distinction until you really think about it. You don’t watch someone like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Van Damme for the story or the acting, it’s the sheer spectacle of the physical performance.  Though, Jackie Chan may be a bad example, because you’re probably watching him for the comedy beats.

I realize this might sound slightly pretentious. “No one cares about your hero punching that guy, they need to experience why he punches them.” But, the reality is remarkably grounded. Your character decided to engage in this way. You need to convey that to the reader. And yes, sometimes the reason really is because: “damn that was cool.” There are ways to make that kind of spectacle work, but in general, it’s easier to remember why your character is acting, and keep their behavior rooted in who they are, and reflect that back to the audience.

 

The other thing is that violence is exhausting. This is true for both the real thing, and for your audience. The more violence you use in your story, the harder it will be to keep them engaged with the material. This also applies for severity, though it’s a little easier to see at work there; include a scene that’s far too brutal, and watch your readers disconnect from the material and wander off.

Unfortunately, precisely defining how much violence your story can support is not a hard and fast system. I would say, when writing and you come to a potential action sequence, ask yourself if you really need a fight there.

There’s a weird irony with violence, sometimes, the anticipation is better than the delivery. You can tease the audience with the idea that a fight is about to break out, and then find a way to release the pressure, rather than forcing your characters into combat. The anxiety over what could happen, especially if your characters are seriously disadvantaged, can vastly outweigh the impact of just another fight scene. As with outright violence, this will lose its impact over time, but it can help you keep your audience on their toes.

Over time, violence is fatiguing. Keeping fight scenes short and to the point can help. If you’ve got a fight that’s lasting more than a couple pages, you might want to consider breaking it up, and reusing parts for different encounters.

Repetition is another concept that can kill the flow of a story. If you’re writing another fight scene ten pages later, and it’s basically the same as the previous ones, just with one or two slightly modified details, it might be time to cut it. There are writing techniques that employ repetition, particularly in comedy, but that’s about creating callbacks and payoffs, not regurgitating the previous scene with slight variations.

As a writer, violence is a tool you can use. Using it can work, threatening it can also work, but, in order to keep its edge, you need to use it sparingly. Otherwise, the entire narrative can easily bog down in an endless procession of boss fights.

Now, I’m gong to contradict myself here a little, violence can be entertaining. However, you need to understand that the violence is there for entertainment. All the violence and fight scenes you see on television are devised with this in mind. When unsupported by every other narrative aspect, they exist purely to entertain. The difference between these choreographers and most authors is that they are professional fight choreographers often with black belts in multiple martial arts. They understand how to pace a scene, what will look good on film, which actions will be visually impressive and have a vast toolkit to work from in order to bring the entertainment portion of the fight to life. Violence is not entertaining on its own, it is created to be visually interesting and a massive amount of work is put into creating functional entertainment. What you enjoy when you watch an action movie is the work of the choreographers involved, the skill of the stunt doubles, the hard work put in by the actors, the musical scoring, the set design, and everything else which keeps the movie running.

To mimic this in fiction, you must internalize this understanding and learn to do similar work on the page. The writer is the fight choreographer, the actors, the stunt doubles, the set and costume designers. You are creating a musical score in the structure and rhythm of your sentences, in your visual descriptions. You are going to do the entire work of a full set crew in order to achieve about half as much. Creating interesting violence on the page requires understanding that martial arts choreography is an art form in and of itself. And it is, you know, there are entire divisions in many different martial arts tournaments now devoted to structured competitive choreography. These are creators who agonize over every punch and kick, every physical transition, every throw, carefully putting together the scene, practicing it out over the course of months, for, at most, forty-five seconds to a minute’s worth of action.

Writing convincing and entertaining action takes a great deal of practice, and involves actively working as hard as you can to learn everything you can about violence. In knowledgeable hands, two swords of slightly different lengths could become a tense fight where the protagonist faces a significant disadvantage and a hard uphill climb in a terrific test of skill. Or, it could just be a scene about two people with two swords. The trick is understanding concepts like reach, order of operation in fight progression, the advantages provided by different sword types, the techniques used by fencers, and more to make a fight work. The smallest differences in a fight can create incredibly tight stakes, but you need to know they’re there in order to include them.

Start by sitting down with your favorite novel sequences and movie fight scenes, start asking yourself what you liked about it and why it worked for you. Look into who created it, the work that went in, and what the surrounding narrative stakes are. What are the internal stakes within the scene itself, why is the protagonist fighting at a disadvantage? What caused their disadvantage? Why is that interesting? What tools are the characters using? Are they making full use of their available options? What is the decision making process? How is that helping and hindering them?

If you’ve reached the point where the violence is boring, then move on to understanding that you need to be the one who makes the scene interesting. You first must pinpoint why the violence has become boring, and usually that begins with a lack of stakes.

-Starke

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Q&A: Not Exactly a Good Person

If my character was attacked by an armed member of a group and shoots them unfatally (she had surprise on her side) would it be considered beyond self defense if she broke the attacker’s legs so that he wouldn’t be able to get back up and try to kill again? She also applies her idea of first aid- clean the bullet wound, pour bathroom alcohol on it, and tape gause over it- and gives him a painkiller (not the smartest move, but she is a teen who normally wouldn’t hurt a spider).

So, there’s problems here.

First, she needs to know how to break someone’s leg. Being able to so efficiently and effectively is somewhat specialized information. In general, human legs are fairly sturdy. They can break, yes, but they don’t under most normal circumstances. Once you’ve learned joint breaks they’re fairly simple on a technical level. Breaking the bone itself is possible, but takes far more force, and as a result is fairly advanced.

It’s certainly possible to break someone’s leg, but knowing how to do so requires a prior commitment to violence that an untrained fighter is unlikely to posses.

Easiest way would be to use the gun, or a crowbar, claw hammer, or other large blunt object to kneecap him. Most people can probably figure those out. But that’s a pretty horrific act, when you think about it.

If she knows how, then she needs to be willing to do so. This may sound like a minor step, but it’s a significant hurdle. It’s one thing to react to a violent situation without thinking and cause harm act. Looking at a defeated foe and deciding to inflict additional harm is something entirely different. That requires a kind of emotional detachment that most, generally well -adjusted, individuals won’t have.

So, your pacifist who has no history of violence ambushes someone,  shoot them in the back and then tools them up with a crowbar, before abandoning them in a gas station toilet? You see where this is, maybe, a bit of a disconnect.

Thing is, legitimately, she might consider killing him. Not necessarily be willing to carry it out, but she’s got a gun, there’s only about four pounds of pressure between her and putting a bullet through his head; making sure he never kills anyone else. Ironically, this is an easier threshold for her to cross. Taking this guy’s legs apart is going to require a serious commitment. In contrast, pulling the trigger is much easier. It’s momentary, instead of a protracted act of sadism.

To be clear, neither of these are morally good. They’re both deeply messed up, and at best, “ethically challenging.” Executing a fallen foe because they might come back for you later or because they may seek to harm someone else is horrific. But it’s still an easier action that looking for a tool you don’t have, and maiming someone.

Worth noting that none of this is going to qualify as self-defense. Shooting the guy the first time might qualify, depending on the circumstances, but given that she ambushed him, probably not. Self-defense requires an immediate threat to her life. Even just brandishing a gun is illegal in many circumstances. If he was about to kill her or someone else, then shooting him may be reasonable, but if he was simply threatening her, or picking up groceries, then that’s not justifiable.

If your character starts mutilating their attacker, then that character becomes the victim, and your protagonist becomes the aggressor in the eyes of anyone who examines the scene.

Something I know I’ve said before, shooting to wound isn’t a thing.  There is no, “safe,” gunshot wound, and no way to safely incapacitate someone with a gun. These are tools designed to remove other living beings from this plane of existence, and they don’t really go in for half measures on that subject.

I say this because gauze won’t do the job. Bullets, when they punch through soft tissue, tear things apart, they result in bleeding. Without medical treatment, they will kill you. You need to stop the bleeding. Pouring some alcohol over the wound, and slapping some gauze on the surface won’t cut it.

So your attacker hasn’t died, yet. Without medical care, they will die. There’s a simple threshold here: if the gunshot isn’t enough to put them down, then they might live through it. If the blood loss is enough to incapacitate them, it will kill them. They won’t be getting back up to chase after your character. Anything your character does to their attacker will be viewed as torture. That won’t play well when someone finds the body, especially if it’s the cops. Bandaging the wound might slow the bleeding some, and buy them some time, but, it’s not going to be the difference between living and dead. It’ll be the difference between dead in 30 minutes and 40 or 50. If she put him down with one shot, my unprofessional estimation puts his bleed out time somewhere between 300 and 600 seconds, but it could be as low as a minute. Gauze or no.

Something else worth considering about the usage of modern handguns: In the last paragraph I mentioned the possibility that the gunshot wouldn’t be enough to incapacitate them. This is true in some circumstances. You’ll put a handgun round into someone and it won’t put them down. This can occur because it didn’t strike anything vital, or it can occur because the blood loss wasn’t fast enough. This means, with most professional shooters, they’ll fire multiple times in quick succession. If your idea was to save a friend by shooting the guy who’s got them at gunpoint, firing once won’t reliably get the job done, and will probably result in them completing the execution before turning on their attacker. In cases like this, putting three or four rounds into someone is going to be necessary, but your character probably wouldn’t know that.

Now, you can write a teenager who would do something like this. Shoot their attacker, then break a leg, stuff some gauze in the wound, and then scamper off, leaving them to die. However, that wouldn’t be someone with an aversion to violence. That’s a character who’s gotten very comfortable with the idea of doing horrific things to people. For a lot of readers, that’s a very scary character. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, but it is something to consider.

I understand the desire to write characters as, “fundamentally good people in bad situations.” The problem is that, kind of a person will have a very different outlook when it comes to violence, as opposed to someone who views violence as just another tool to get the job done. They’re not going to gun someone down, torture them, and leave them to die with some liquor and gauze in the wound. Those aren’t the actions of a good person.

It’s okay if your character isn’t a good person, but if that’s the route you’re going, it’s something you need to be honest with yourself about. It’s also fine to have a character who lies to everyone else about who they are, so long as you are on the same page. If it’s your protagonist, the reader should probably be let in on that secret as well. If it’s a support character, you might hold it back for later. But, when that lie starts to leak out, it’s something you need to address. Because, when it does, it’s a huge betrayal for your other characters to deal with. “She was our friend, she’s not some psycho-murderer. That doesn’t even make sense.”

-Starke

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Q&A: Joint Breaks

Is it actually possible to mess up someone’s leg by kicking them in the side of the knee, which seems to be really common in movies? If not, what would be a plausible, effective way to attack/disable the legs?

Yes, absolutely. Any joint you have that you enjoy using that bends in one direction, applying pressure in any other direction until it pops is going to be unhappiness. This is what joint locks do, and joint breaks are simply applying enough pressure or force to break it. It’s about leverage, not strength. Anyone can do it.

The common kicks for this are the sidekick and the shin kick, but you can also break the knee with your elbow, your hand, or a car door. Understand though, once the joint is blown, it takes major surgery to get it back if you can get the joint functioning again at all.

In a real life context, whatever you need to stay alive and escape. They can’t chase you without functioning legs. In a fictional context, you probably want to take this reality into account. This is a joint break, and the knee is a necessary part of a human being’s ability to move while on their feet. Blown joints are usually permanent, or have a long recovery time with modern medicine.

You’re going to want to take that into account according to your character’s own views on violence and it’s uses. The thematic aspects of violence in fiction are as important as the practical applications. Your character’s morals mesh with their approaches, regardless of what is or isn’t best or smart. Everything your character does says something about them, and if your character is one of the peaceable “Everyone must live!” types then a joint break in application creates implied hypocrisy and dysfunction. Catherine of Russia didn’t kill her political rivals, but she locked them up in prison, had them tortured, and this included children. So… what is benevolence? Breaking someone’s arm forever isn’t murder, but it’s also not a nice thing to do and weighing the morality of your character’s actions is something you should consider. One might consider locking a child up in a tower, away from their parents and the sun, refusing to allow them to learn to speak, read, or write, better than killing them. (That was the ultimate fate of Ivan VI.) Some might not.

The question is not just does the approach work, but does the action and its consequences fit with the character’s stance? The second is sometimes much harder to answer than the first, but, for me, the real problem is character actions not matching mentality and intention. Remember, “Does it work?” should always be followed with “Should this character do it?”

-Michi

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hey there! thanks for answering all our questions on this blog + how possible would it for someone to crack ribs with a solid kick? there’s a character i have in mind that’s escaping captivity, but they’re also young, so i’m not quite sure how easily they’d be able to hurt the (adult) antagonist in such a manner, especially lacking any fighting experience to begin with?

Well, you can break someone’s ribs with a kick. That’s the entire purpose of the roundhouse, especially the version where you strike with the ball of the foot rather than the top of the foot. (And… aren’t like me when I was seven or eight, when I was new to sparring and totally stubbed my toe in another kid’s side at a tournament after my brain/body got confused between the two. I didn’t break my toe, but I could’ve.)

That story above is important, by the way. If you’ve got a character who doesn’t know how to fight then they’re not even going to get that far. If you don’t know how to kick then that’s a great way to get your leg caught by someone who knows what they’re doing. They catch the foot by the ankle, and then drag you wherever they want. That’s assuming the character can get their leg up and out without falling over. Even if they do manage that, say because they’ve watched a lot of martial arts flicks, they won’t know how to generate power and will be very slow. A, B, and C occur anyway. Your protagonist is going to end up back wherever they were being kept, this time in a much less comfortable position.

Even for an experienced martial artist, kicks require fairly constant bodily upkeep in order to be able to do them cold (much less perform them at all). That’s not a combat scenario, that’s just in general. You’ve got a great chance of pulling all the leg muscles you need to get away, including ones you didn’t realize you had and that’s if you don’t break your toes. Board breaks with the roundhouse kick are the most terrifying of them all because you’ve got to remember to curl your toes just right in order to carry your foot through the board.

Kicks are off the table.

More importantly, this is an exact rendition of the “Feel Good Violence” trope: My Instincts Performed A Wheel Kick.

The protagonist is suddenly and randomly enough good at fighting to not only fight, but win when making their first attempt at a violent altercation. They use techniques which require a fairly high level of dedication and aptitude out of “natural ability” and “instinct”.

Unless you’ve got an ironclad reason for invoking the trope (past lives/ immortality/memory loss/the matrix) it will undercut your narrative credibility in ways the story cannot recover from.

When you’ve cracked your foundation, you’re done.

“The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible,” – Mark Twain

Narrative integrity is based on the rules or limitations we’ve set for ourselves, those limitations are the ironclad rules by which the narrative functions. They exist on two levels: in behavior and actions of characters within the world, and on a secondary level the setting’s behavior around them. Everything in your story must be working to uphold the fiction. When it doesn’t the audience’s “suspension of disbelief” starts to crack. You are beholden to the rules and limitations set down by your setting. Without them, you have no story.

When you’re setting out to create a character, there are four questions you should ask yourself:

1) What can the character do?

2) What can’t the character do?

3) What is the character willing to do but can’t?

4) What can the character do, but is unwilling to?

Within these four circles you have your character, their ethics/morals, and their limitations. That is the box you’ve created for yourself. It is important to own it and abide by it. When dealing with a protagonist, those limitations are not just the foundations of a character but the entire narrative.

Your character cannot fight your antagonist in a one on one and come away with any victory because you have established they don’t know how to. That
is a limitation you set for yourself. That the audience knows and
understands, so they will expect this character to act in accordance
with it. They may want to walk up to the antagonist and kick them in the ribs so hard those ribs break, but they can’t. That desire could be a driving force behind them learning to fight later. As of now, though, their powerlessness in active violent conflict serves to reinforce the antagonist’s position. Reinforcing the antagonist’s position is for the narrative good.

They should be making choices based on the Venn diagram’s center: when what they can do meets what they are willing to do.

If what they can’t do conflicts with what they’re willing to do and they go with it anyway then the result is a failed escape attempt. A captive’s survival is based on their value. If they’re valuable enough for the antagonist to go through the trouble of capturing them in the first place, then they’re probably not going to be killed. At least, not until their value runs through. They lose and wind up back in captivity under more scrutiny, more security, and with fewer exit options. This reminds us why they were captured in the first place, and reinforces our villain’s position.

A protagonist can fail and retain their legitimacy many more times than an antagonist can. While this is a perfectly legitimate narrative outcome, I don’t think its the one you’re looking for.

This is the second issue with your question:

A narrative’s antagonist is its backbone.

Your antagonist is one of the most important pieces of your story, if not the most. They are the lingering threat, the shadow hovering over the story, and the knife at your protagonist’s throat. They are seventy percent threat, and the last thirty relies on their ability to make good on it.

One of the biggest mistakes an author can make is assuming their antagonist’s position in their narrative and the threat they provide are impervious to harm.

Unlike your protagonist, your antagonist is always in a precarious position. They must constantly re-affirm themselves and the threat they represent through their actions. That threat is all consuming and when challenged, it must either be defeated or confirmed.

If defeated, then the threat is gone.

If confirmed, then the threat level is heightened because now we imagine what they might do next.

An antagonist can re-affirm themselves after a defeat, but they’ve got to double down on their effort and create a new threat rather than relying on their old one. You as the author must work harder to make up for what you lost, and even then you’ll never have the initial fear ever again.

The first rule of the antagonist is: your capital is limited, so spend it wisely.

When you undercut an antagonist in favor of the protagonist before its necessary, you damage the antagonist’s credibility and, subsequently, their position in the story. When you lose your antagonist, you lose most of your narrative tension.

A character who doesn’t know how to do something is applying a limitation to the character. You are applying a restriction to what they can and can’t do. If you’re character doesn’t know how to fight, then fighting will be off the table. More importantly, having your character succeed at a skill set they have no experience in doesn’t make them “awesome” or “cool”, it means instead that the other characters who put time and effort into honing these skills suck.

When those characters are your antagonists… that hurts.

If you’ve got a protagonist with no hacking experience who manages to overcome a supposedly great hacker on their first or second go round with no time spent learning how to hack, then who looks bad? The second hacker. They’re the ones who are supposed to be good at hacking. If the narrative hinges on them being a major antagonist, then the author just shot their narrative in the foot.

Combat skills are the same way. They’re a skill set, not an instinct. They don’t come naturally, and take a great deal of time and effort to hone.

If your goal is to show your dangerous antagonist is a bumbling moron when an untrained teenager gets a lucky shot so miraculous they manage to lay them up for the rest of the story, then that’s a job well done.

If your goal is for the antagonist to maintain their credibility within the narrative? Don’t use them for a punching bag.

Violent confrontation is based just as much on threat of force as it is on the follow through. The threat is usually more frightening than what follows, and your protagonist is already challenging the fear by trying to escape. From a narrative perspective, if they get over their fear enough to challenge their antagonist directly then it’s game over. You spent your all capital either at the beginning or midway through the story, and you’re not getting it back.

Remember, your antagonist has to do just as much work to earn their street cred as your protagonist. Their position is a delicate balance of power management and threat of force. They rely on show over tell. They need to live up to whatever it is you’ve been saying about them. They need to be as dangerous as they’ve been puffed up to be, unless their reputation itself is the real antagonist. Never forget, your antagonist (whoever they are/whatever it is) is the backbone of your story. They are often the driving force of action, the reason why the protagonist is struggling, and the focal point. In some ways, they are more important than your protagonist because without them the protagonist’s got a whole lot of nothing.

When you undercut your antagonist, you also hurt your protagonist’s development. You cheat them of their chance for growth, and deny them their ability to show off whatever it is that they’re actually good at i.e. using their bravery, intelligence, and cleverness to sneak out.

If your protagonist beats down their Goliath at the beginning of (or even the middle) of the story then there’s no reason for them to go to the mountain master and learn to throw rocks.

-Michi

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Would actual sword fights end with a lot of cuts on both combatants or is it more of a “you get tagged first and your out” kind of deal?

Yes?

This one can really go either way, depending on injuries
sustained. So, let’s parse this out a bit, because I might not have been really
clear about this in the past.

Shallow nicks won’t do much. You’ll lose blood, but not at an
appreciable rate. You’ve almost certainly sustained a few of these in your
life. From a writing perspective these are basically cosmetic. From a medical
perspective they’re not much more. A sword or knife can absolutely inflict
these.

There are rare circumstances where these immediately
relevant. Cuts to the forehead can cause blood to get in the victim’s eyes. In
combat, this is a debilitating situation. Blood that gets onto the palm can
make it more difficult to grasp objects or weapons. (Fresh blood is quite
slick. As it dries it will become sticky, so the effect is reversed at that
point.)

When you’re talking about lots of cuts, then you’re probably
talking about this kind of injury. Individually these aren’t dangerous, but if
they start stacking up, blood loss is cumulative, so they can potentially
become life threatening, but that’s not a likely outcome for a duel.

Incidentally, if you’re writing a scene where characters are
dueling to first blood, then these cuts qualify. In fact, that’s what the
duelists will aim for. It’s the easiest kind of injury to sustain, and if the
participants don’t want to kill one
another, this is the safest route to victory.

When I’ve been talking about injuries that create a decisive
advantage, I’m talking about deeper cuts; ones that open up veins or debilitate
limbs. Injuries where bloodloss will lead to impairment and death.

In a duel, these will kill you. When I say things like, “with
first blood, the clock is ticking, and your character will die if they don’t
find a way to turn the fight around,” I’m talking about these deeper injuries.
A person can survive a few shallow cuts without much ill effect, and in most
cases can survive quite a few without aid. Deep cuts are immediately dangerous.

Here’s the problem with this: I’m talking about these like
they’re two separate kinds of wounds; they’re really not. They’re both cuts. If
we’re being technical, the deeper variety are “lacerations.” But, that makes it
sound like there’s a clean delineation between these injuries which simply
doesn’t exist.

So, I’m going to step back and put this in abstract terms, as
they apply to characters for a moment.

Characters can suffer “cosmetic injuries.” These will result
in bleeding. As I mentioned earlier, blood After the fight is over, they’ll
hurt. Unless your character is getting covered in these things, they’ll never
kill them. These can be sustained anywhere, but when you’re talking about
strikes to the forearm (except along the inner arm) or to the face, bone will
usually stop the strike before it gets to deep.

Characters can suffer “wounds.” These will result in a lot of
bleeding, way too much bleeding. These, “start the clock.” Without medical
attention, even just self inflicted first aid, these will kill your character.
Usually these are sustained to limbs or the torso. Places where you can get
fairly deep without striking bone.

In the real world, blood loss will impair the fighter, slowing
them down, confusing them, making combat more difficult. This means their
defense (if they have one) will suffer, and it will be far easier for their
opponent to get through it with a kill strike. A blade through the throat or
chest, for instance. This isn’t always true in fiction, but it’s a function of
how the human body works that’s worth remembering.

If you’re asking, “is it plausible for a character to win a
swordfight with lots of tiny cuts?” Yes. If you’re asking, “is it plausible for
a character die in a swordfight with one or two deep, lethal wounds, and to be
otherwise untouched?” Again, yes. It really depends on the circumstances of the
fight.

I hope that clears things up some, and am genuinely sorry if
I’ve confused any of you by glazing over this. That one’s my mistake.

-Starke

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Im writing a character who is supposed to be an terrifyingly lethal fighter, so I’m wondering how it’s possible to kill someone without a weapon (other than snapping a neck)

I’m
tempted to be glib, and simply say that your character’s limbs and body are
weapons, but let’s start by turning this one around.

First,
snapping someone’s neck, the way you see in films, doesn’t work. You can annoy
someone, and rack up an attempted murder charge, but it doesn’t actually work.
That said, the list of things that can, in fact, kill someone is not short,
ranging from blood chokes (where the attacker holds their opponent in a
headlock which obstructs the carotid artery) to crushing the trachea, rupturing
the kidney (though this one will take awhile), or any number of other attacks
that will interrupt the victim’s ability to continue getting oxygen to their
brain.

So, go
back to that comment about your body being a weapon. It’s a concept that’s
pretty easy to dismiss as pseudo-mysticism; doing that is a mistake. The
important thing to take away from that phrase is the mindset. With enough
creativity and dedication, just about anything
can be a weapon. A character who’s willing to walk into a fight, grab their
opponent by the skull and ram them face first onto a chunk of rebar is using
weapons. They’re using their body and environment.

This is
also where the idea of a character using a weapon being limited comes from.
Again, it’s an idea that’s easy to dismiss as abstract philosophy, but it does
reflect a kind of thinking that people, including writers, can trap themselves
with. “I have a sword, therefore, I can…” as opposed to, “I have all these
options to turn my enemies into meat pudding.”

I
realize this isn’t, exactly, the catalogue of kill strikes you were hoping for.
If you’re looking for more discussion on brutality and it’s psychological
impact on combat, I would suggest you take a look at our The Only Unfair Fight
tag.

-Starke

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Earlier in your post about swords on fire and lightsabers, you wrote “Many writers have a mistaken view that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person and end up having heroic characters commit horrific atrocities as a result, doing more damage in the long run than they might’ve if they’d just killed the other character.” Could you please give a more specific example of what would be worse? Thank you!

The Joker just killed half of Manhattan.

Seriously though, there are characters in YA that believe putting arrows through people’s joints is the more merciful option and those characters are portrayed as heroes. Not only that, the author seems to believe it’s the more merciful option. The character is never shown they’re wrong.

Death is the worst thing ever.

This is Saturday morning cartoon logic, often used to excuse a character’s capriciousness and cruelty. This excuse often comes into play when some writers want their characters to be violent but don’t want them to be judged for it or seem like bad people. Thus, they take up the approach that as long as their victim lives then they haven’t really done anything wrong.  

This is where we get characters that say stuff like, “Well, I only ever kill when my evil uncle tells me too. However, the rest of the time I just use disabling shots to hit them in their joints and cripple them for life!”

Yay!

Don’t you feel their kindness?

You can no longer use both your legs because you took a few arrows through your knees. This would be difficult to repair in a modern environment much less the Middle Ages.

You get this a lot when writers want to imitate the success of a more popular but dark franchise like 24, there are others but that was a big one for a while. They want the darkness and brutality without having to deal with minor issues like accountability or question what level of violence is actually acceptable. Or, really, ask any questions about it at all. They see their Saturday Morning Cartoon logic as a get out of jail free card.

It’s the extension of the superhero or PI detective that ram a guy, who isn’t even a suspect, into a wall to get answers. The supposed detective who goes around waving guns in people’s faces and threatening to shoot them if they don’t cooperate or just casually threatening to shoot them in general. (No, really, a real police officer would get into so much trouble for that.)

“You shut up or I’ll break your kneecaps!”

Hero, yes, this is our hero.

“I’m having an off day. Do you mind if I just break your arm in three places, snap your elbow, and send you home?”

It’s the hero who tortures people.

K.

Aren’t they such a good person!

What?

The hero who protects their city, doesn’t kill their villains, but runs a secret prison on an island in the middle of nowhere where they hold their villains indefinitely without due process.

Aren’t they such a great and noble person?

The answer is no.

No, mutilating an enemy so they’ll never walk right again isn’t kindness and it isn’t actually better. If you haven’t spent a lot of time looking at the consequences of your favorite hero’s behavior or thinking beyond what the narrative shows you to the context of their actions, you might want to. Especially if the narrative is insistent that they are a truly good person while they engage in any sort of violent activity.

It may also be somewhat disturbing, especially if they land in the “They’re Such A Good Person” category.

Did your character just stab someone through the hand with a knife in order to make their point? Are they supposed to be your hero? Have you constantly focused on how hard their life is and how tough things are for them throughout the narrative?

Say it with me: that’s not a good person.

And you know what?

That’s okay.

Navigating the line of what violence is and isn’t culturally or morally acceptable should be part of a narrative if you intend to bring morals into your story. There are huge debates happening all over the world today about violence, about what kind of violence is allowed, who should be able to commit violence, and what is acceptable.

The problem for a lot of writers ultimately comes back to Kant.

At a basic level, there’s a subset of Kantian philosophy which says that intention rather than action is what defines guilt.

For writers it often comes back to this:

“My character didn’t intend to hurt anyone.”

 They didn’t think they were doing wrong, so they weren’t doing wrong.

Superman destroys half of Metropolis in his battle with Zod.

People claim he is a hero. Not only is he a hero, but he’s someone every human on the planet should look up to and believe in as a symbol of hope.

This is standard Superman, but does that fit at all with the Superman who destroys the people’s homes, places of business, cars, like a one man hurricane that passed through their lives with no regard for them or their safety?

This is what happens when we separate a character’s actions and the destruction they cause from the context of what they are actually doing within their narrative. And, hey, who cares about the human wreckage so long as there are no body bags? Right?

It’s not like there are any consequences to violence other than death, right? Anything between reckless endangerment to flat out cruelty don’t count at all.

One of the great things about characters like Daredevil, the Punisher, and (sometimes) Batman, is that they often don’t have the full-throated support of their communities. They cross lines that you’re not supposed to cross and make people question whether or not this is really appropriate.

If your character is making controversial choices then let there be controversy. Violence is, at its heart, controversial.

The act of hurting another human being is.

It should be.

How many sacrifices can you make before you’ve sacrificed your soul?

“I don’t kill enemy soldiers, I just hurt them.”

“And how do you hurt them?”

“I ensure they’ll never harm anyone again.”

If those words don’t chill you, I don’t know what to say. Maybe you’ve never been faced with another human looking to take away everything that you take for granted about the way you live your life. If you did, you’d find this “kindness” isn’t kind at all.

It’s time to graduate to the next level in morality.

Hurting people is wrong.

Thank god we got this far.

There are so many more steps to climb.

-Michi

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Hi there. the majority of stories I write are in first person which makes it even harder for me to write action or fight scenes. I’m always afraid of using words like “then I” or he/she” and so on. Like say if it’s just a fist fight. How could I make it interesting without being too repetitive?

First Person is the most interior of the different writing perspectives, which means you’re almost entirely inside out and can only rely on your character’s experiences. One aspect that you can do in First Person, which you can’t in Third is put the entire focus on the sensations the character experiences, their emotions, their fears, their feelings as they’re trying to sort through what is happening and what they’re going to do. You can make it extremely unique, personal, and immediate. Try focusing on intimacy in the sequence. Establish what exactly is going to happen in the fight, the setting, the characters, the surroundings, then put your narrative blinders on and see through your POV character’s eyes. Limit yourself only to that.

Here’s an example:

Ronald walked toward me, his head lifted. I watched as his chest puffed up, and he cast a glance over his shoulder to where his friends waited at the bar. He grinned and so did they. All of them grinning at me.

I took an automatic step backwards, bumping into the chair. I stumbled, but my hand found the table edge. Heart hammering in my ears, I raised my chin defiantly. I made a show of bumbling about, fingers scraping the table’s stick surface until I found the beer I’d ordered. Cal, the bartender hated me, so it arrived still sealed. Just over eighteen meant, I could totally drink around here. Still, Cal was old fashioned. When the law said eighteen, he still felt girls should drink only at twenty-one. Boys? Boys he let drink at sixteen. Fifteen if they were big. Bastard. Still, Cal hated guy on girl violence. Felt it was dishonorable, or something. If it came down to it, maybe I could make his old fashioned values work for me.

Slowly, tucking my bottle into the shadow of my left leg, I turned back to face the boys.

Ronald arrived in a few short steps, his body looming over me as he blocked out the light. At six foot four, he was way bigger than my five foot seven. I liked to think myself pretty big for a girl, but Ronald? Ronald blew all my confidence right out of the water.

“Hey, Ron,” I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Cal straighten up off where he slumped on the bar.

“Lizbet,” Ronald spat. His fingers clenched into a meaty fist. “I want my money.”

“Well, now,” I grinned and tossed my head, “there’s a problem.”

He grabbed the chair, setting it in front of him. He leaned down on it, and the chair groaned beneath his weight. “You lost it.”

“I didn’t. I spent it.”

Ronald snorted. “You got cheek.”

“I try.” I glanced back to Cal, saw his hand sneaking under the bar for where he kept the twelve gauge. Just need Ron to take a swing. Then, I could make a run for it. I let my gaze slide, casually, back to Ronald’s buddies. They were getting up too. Or, worst case, I wouldn’t be fighting alone. My eyes went up to the ceiling, to the hundred black dots embedded in the wood. Or, at least, I could hope I wouldn’t get shot.

Ronald’s head dropped and he glared into my eyes. “I want what’s mine.”

“Well, I don’t have it.” My fingers clenched around the bottle’s neck. “Take it up with Cal.”

His jaw clenched, molars grinding to together. Cheek twitching, tensed all the way up to his ear.

Our noses came close. Super duper close, the closest we’d ever been. Best shot I’ll ever have, I thought. With nowhere to run, it probably be a good idea if I hit him first. Bottle rolled over in my hand. I whipped it up, swinging it right into the side of Ronald’s head.

Remember:

Active verbs are your friend.

“I ducked behind a table.” “My foot found the table and I kicked it over, dropping behind it in time to hear bullets impact the wall behind me.”

Describe body language.

Describe the actions that lead to other actions. “I raised my hand.” “My arms tightening, I rolled my fist back, and slammed it right into Gerald’s face.”

Try to picture it in your head rather than focusing just on fists, go with feet, with the upper body, lower body, and the environment. Please, use the environment.

Use the environment.

Your set pieces are your friends and key to making your action sequences feel unique. In first person, it’s tight corner view. We’re experiencing what the character feels about their environment. How is it helping or hindering them? What do they do about it?

It’s hard to have a fist fight in a bar when you’re worried about running into a table, tripping over another patron, or getting caught in the back with a chair.

Don’t be afraid to get silly.

You may go, “I don’t want to be embarrassed or my characters to be.” Well, tough. Violence is messy, muddy, dirty, and interspersed with the seriousness we also get the ridiculous which is part of human nature. Terror is offset by humor. You may end up with your protagonist fleeing down the hall or hiding under a bed, beating themselves up about their life choices while they run for their lives. So long as you don’t forget that they’re running for their lives, it’s fine.

Honestly.

Screw ups happen, they have consequences. No one is ever going to get it 100% perfect the whole time.

Never forget you’re on the clock.

One of the rules we put forth for writers new to fight scenes is to try to limit your sequences to eight moves or less. Fighting is like sprinting. It’s high energy output and it’ll leave you exhausted at the end of it. A lot of fights make it feel easy to go on forever, but most are fast and over quickly. Throw in more stumbling, rocking, and describe what it’s like getting hit.

You’ve only got a certain amount of time before these people can’t fight anymore. Limit yourself. Make the most of it. The more self-imposed limits you have then the more creative you’re going to get within them.

Define your options

Your characters’ personalities slamming together are usually the defining factor on how a fight is going to go down, so take a good look at who they are as people. Violence is primarily about problem solving. It is not always about the most successful means of solving a problem, but rather how a person has chosen to solve it. Is this person direct? Do they like to have fun and play with their defeated foes? Are they prone to “RUN AWAY!!!!!”? Who are they? How do they perceive violence and it’s uses?

In the example above, we see Lizbet trying to plan how she can get the bartender on her side in the fight against Ronald, even though she is very clearly the one at fault. Think about it, is your character the type who involves other people or who fights alone? How do they feel about the people/bystanders around them? What if those bystanders decided to join and not with them?

All fights are an exercise in character development, but First Person fights are personal. Not necessarily in the events themselves, but for the character whose eyes we see through.

-Michi

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Could my character (a somewhat small woman) conceivably rip out her would-be rapist’s throat with her teeth? Also, if someone were completely awful at swordfighting in general but was just the most determined person in the world and just kept going at it until he attained something resembling skill, what would his fighting style be like?

In reverse order:

Like someone who had practiced until they got it right. When you’re training, how good you were at the beginning doesn’t matter when you’re done. If you have the dedication to commit, and push yourself you can do pretty much anything. You practice until you get it right. That’s where the dedication comes in. It’s about not giving up until you’ve learned.

An unremarkable student who commits to the training, puts in the time, and has a drive to “get it right,” can become a formidable fighter.

In comparison: a talented student who views training as a distraction, wants out as fast as possible, and thinks their starting point is “good enough” is doomed to mediocrity.

Just because you don’t have a natural aptitude for something doesn’t mean you cannot do that. It just means you’ll need to work harder. If you’re ready for that, then initial talent is no obstacle.

Okay, on to the first question:

Physiologically? Yes. Psychology? Maybe not so much.

It is physiologically possible. The throat is comparatively soft tissue, and if your mouth is right there, against a foe who is otherwise distracted, it’s a relatively easy target.

Failing that, the nose, ears, and lips are also vulnerable in this kind of a situation. But, it is entirely possible to bite a chunk out of an attacker.

The real question is, “can your character get to a place where they’re willing to kill someone with their teeth?” For most people, that answer is “no.” This is a state of mind that runs contrary to all of your social conditioning.

Biting someone else is a behavior that has been conditioned out of you since childhood. Everything you’ve been taught about acceptable behavior says, “this is not okay.”

For example, ask yourself, “could I bite that guy over there?” I don’t mean as a gag, for fun, or foreplay. I mean, can you look at that human being as 200lbs of ambulatory meat? Not just at an intellectual level, but in such a way that you could just rip pieces out with your teeth?

For most people, the answer is, “no.” They can’t force themselves into a mindset this feral. They won’t even consider it as a possibility. Maybe as an intellectual exercise, but not an option in the heat of the moment.

As I’ve said before, this is some pretty messed up behavior, with some very serious social consequences and medical risks. It can be done, but it’s something you need to build towards when creating your character.

This can work with a character who is feral in their own right. Either because they were never exposed to civilization, or because they’ve chosen to reject it. A D&D style barbarian or a character with some kind of animalistic approach. Expanding on fantasy concepts, a character who magically transforms into animals (D&D Druids and Rangers, or lycanthropes) could also probably get there pretty easily.

A character who is incredibly opportunistic, brutal, and disciplined enough to fully disregard social norms when it suits their purpose could work.

In either case, this will cause others to view the character as little more than an animal. In the case of the later, you’re informing your audience that said character is more of a trained attack dog rather than a person. In the former case… you’re telling your audience and anyone who witnesses the attack that your character is (at least partially) more animal than human.

Just remember: If one of your characters is willing to bite their attacker, this is sending a permanent message to your audience about who this person is. If you want that, then this is an excellent way to send a message. If you don’t, then this is probably something you should avoid.

-Starke

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