Tag Archives: writing violence

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

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

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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Hey there. I have a concern as to how short and one-sided fight scene of mine is. Really it’s just one-on-one with a struggle over a gun in the beginning, but I was hoping you had some advice as to how long is long enough for a good fight.

About this long.

The fight scene needs to be long enough to get the events across. Anything beyond that is just padding, and can be cut. You can easily play an entire fight scene in a paragraph or two and be done with it.

The more complex the scene is, the longer it can run. But, for a simple setup (like two characters struggling over a gun) you can knock that out in a paragraph and then move on with your story.

Fight scenes are not created equal. It may actually be useful to think of it as a game. This character does this, so that character responds, so this character reacts, so that character would react, but they don’t have any options left. A fight scene running on that structure can run for pages, until your characters are out of options and cornered.

For a simple setup, you don’t need a long or elaborate fight scene, you just need to write the scene as you see it. If you can do that in a couple sentences, you’re golden.

There’s an easy mistake to be made here. On screen, or in comics, the violence is the payoff. You watch the fight play out, and that’s its own reward. In text, violence is a vent for drama. The meat of your story is what happens around it. In text, it is much harder to tell a compelling story where the violence itself is the payoff.

You don’t need to approach fight scenes like there’s a minimum word count. Write what happens, as clear and concisely as you can.

-Starke

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A point that comes up often in these post is if a character uses violence, they invite the possibility of doing great harm or killing regardless of their intent. I’ve been trying to write a character who is ok with using violence if necessary, but is opposed to killing and I’ve had some concerns about the feasibility of that. Is it possible to write a good character like this? If so, how? If not, what’s a good compromise?

It’s entirely possible. When you engage in violence, there’s a real risk of inflicting serious harm or killing someone. That does not mean you need to like or enjoy that. Some people do, some people eventually find a way to make peace with it for the sake of their own mental health, some people come to enjoy it, and some never do. The possibilities for the myriad of ways one can deal with or come to terms about the consequences or even prospect of violence are endless. It’s a part of where the internal conflicts of violence come from and the questions your asking have been asked by countless individuals over the generations.

The only good answer is this one: we all have to find it for ourselves.

For people who deal with potentially violent situations on a regular basis, the consequences are a constant concern. For themselves and the people they’re dealing with.

Realizing and weighing your actions against this is a cornerstone to writing characters who engage in violence in a mature way. With that in mind, there’s no real wrong way to write a character’s approach to violence. Potentially hypocritical approaches, but not wrong ones.

Everyone who deals with violence regularly will have slightly different outlooks on it. The best way to categorize this would be as a kind of personal philosophy. The trickiest part is simply making sure their philosophical approach to violence is internally consistent.

You could have a character who only resorts to violence as a last resort; will attempt to defuse any potential situation, and only resort to violence if someone else escalates to it first. They’re going to try to talk it out first, use their words, and remain calm instead of leaping into the action. They wait until the other person fully commits to an attack and then answers with violence of their own.

You could write a character who will preemptively engage in violence if they see no way to defuse a situation. This approach could be the same as above, or it could be based on them pre-empting simply by noticing events swinging toward violence in their environment. This is essentially the guy who hits the other with a beer bottle as he sees them going for a knife or gun. This one waits and attempts to defuse, but attacks before the other person can commit in an attempt to stop the fight before it begins.

You could write a character who responds to provocations, and engages in excessive brutality as a necessary evil. This could be the guy when passing by someone who yells, “hey your mother!” delivers to them either a solid punch to the face or even a crowbar. They are provoked, they escalate harder and faster than the other person can respond. Their logic is that excessive violence safeguards them by ensuring the other person can’t respond. This is possibly never, for any reason.

You could even write a character who goes out, tortures and kills people, presents themselves as a monster to scare others into line, and believes that killing is wrong, and no one else should engage in violence, because this is their burden or sacrifice or whatever. They’d be a hypocrite, but so long as you remembered that, and had your other characters calling them out over it, there’s nothing that will inherently make them a badly written character. A difficult to write character, but not impossible.

Someone can engage in activities they find distasteful, because they believe it is necessary. Violence is one possible example. Understanding that this can do dire things to other people, and have serious consequences doesn’t change the situations where it’s necessary.

It’s also possible that a character will engage in violence because they saw no other option, but have regrets and second thoughts after the fact. This is actually also fairly common in the real world. Just because you shot someone to save your life, doesn’t mean you’ll be automatically okay with that decision tomorrow.

Real world violence comes with a sickening sensation that it cannot be walked back afterwards. You can never undo the things you’ve done; only live with the aftermath.

A character who dislikes violence may make their decisions entirely on the aftermath and consequences, rather than a philosophical aversion. They may not want to engage in violence because the people around them will suffer, or because they know the consequences for intervening will be more severe than letting the current situation slide.

There’s probably a broader metaphor in there somewhere.

-Starke

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Let’s say I have a friend who’s about to do something stupid dangerous and I have to knock them out as quickly as possible without risking death/permanent damage. What would be the best (least damaging) way to render them unconscious?

Knock a friend out to keep them from doing something stupid and dangerous, like knocking a friend out?

I will say again, in fiction the knock out is mostly just a cheap problem solver that often has no consequences. One of the things you need to start embracing is that violence is not only a limited method of problem solving but it is also about hurting people. It doesn’t respect intent, only results.

You’re always at risk causing death or permanent damage. No matter what it is you’re doing with violence or how safe you try to make it, the danger is always there. It is real, it is present. No matter how skilled you are, there is a great deal about what may or may not happen that is outside of your control.

A person who cracks their friend over the head with a mallet or a glass bottle on the way out the door to do something really stupid is one who is on some level willing to risk them never waking up again.

Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. But the chance? The possibility they won’t is always there. This is also true in situations where they try to drug them. This is why truly peaceful solutions which put no one at risk do not involve violence at all.

It is also incredibly difficult to put someone under in a high stress environment, even when you know what you’re doing. The question is not: do you want to kill them? It’s: are you willing to risk it?

They call it a dirt nap for a reason.

Oftentimes in fiction the “cool” response like knocking out a friend doesn’t match or merit the severity of the situation. Especially since it’s used as a means to sap out the sense of danger.

Lastly though, honestly?

It’s cheap.

You take your drama and you bitch slap it into next week. It’s even worse when it’s treated like an actual solution. Unless the stupid thing is time sensitive, you’re not stopping anything. You’re delaying it. In the end, the only one who can choose to stop themselves is the friend.

You have this scene in your story, two friends. One character decides to attack the other in order to stop them, they manage to knock them out and it works like it does in the movies where they’re out for hours instead of a few seconds. Then what? Is that the end? It’s that easy? Instead of popping the balloon, it sort of lets out a flatulent wheeze and flops over.

It’s a painful inverse of another common scene, which is one person tries to talk the other down and think they’ve succeeded. They relax. Then when they turn their back, the other person cracks them across the back of the head with a beer bottle and walks out the door.

One of these is escalating, the other is ending. In one, the character doing the stupid thing shows how committed they are to the cause of stupid thing. It can be either an anti-hero or villain moment depending on who the audience is asked to sympathize with and what the “stupid thing” is. Either way, it’s the character showing that they’re willing to hurt anyone, possibly kill anyone, even people they care about to see it achieved. It builds worry over what will happen next and what just happened to the character they care about.

You’ve already sapped whatever drama you had by wanting a “safe” knock out solution. The character drama in this scenario doesn’t come from the action itself but the decisions, the drama comes from being willing to risk harming another person, possibly permanently, in order to stop them from doing the “bad thing”. The drama isn’t in the knock out and neither is the solution, it’s in the character deciding that the risks inherent in violence are acceptable given the circumstances. It’s even more poignant between two characters who care about each other, possibly deeply. One character deciding that whatever the other character is going to do and the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to stop them is worth possibly destroying them over or, at the very least, their friendship.

That’s the drama in the scene, that’s the gray area, and that’s where all the moral questions are.

What is about to happen that is worth the risk of killing or destroying someone you care about? What happened to make you even think about going there?

You don’t get to take violence back. Once you go there, that’s it. The other options are closed off. You embrace the fallout and all the consequences which come with it. You can only hope the other person is willing to forgive you, if you even want forgiveness at all.

Either way, in the end, violence is just a stop gap. It’s not an actual solution.

This is where the arguments about violence being a solution actually come from. Where the arguments for genocide and life sentences in prison are born from. Unless we kill them all, it will never end. If we let them back out of the cage and onto the street then they’ll just go back to their old ways. Where the central moral theme between the Punisher and Daredevil in Daredevil’s Season Two has it’s heart. Do you believe in the inherent goodness of people and try to rehabilitate the monsters? Or do you just murder everyone in the name of keeping innocents safe? And, honestly, is that really a solution? How many people do you have to kill until there are no more people?

Violence is not a permanent solution. It is a stop gap. It is a deterrent.

It solves nothing.

Unless the people involved change their minds about their own course of action, the danger will repeat itself. Over and over and over again, ad naseum on both a personal and global scale.

Commit to your course of action as a writer and be honest, but don’t look for a trick-ety trick solution that let’s you get what you want while bypassing reality or the legal, physical, moral, and emotional consequences which make the setup interesting to begin with.

You can embrace the fantasy and kill the drama or honestly look at what you’re trying to do in your narrative instead of going for the cheap way out, especially since similar sequences amount to very little for the narrative unless you work at making them interesting.

There are a few things you can do:

1) Talk to them.

It starts here because if the stupid/dangerous thing isn’t time sensitive then nothing will convince them to go right back to it after they regain consciousness or the minute you turn your back. Physical domination itself is a temporary solution, it solves nothing in the long run. The same danger will still be present, it’s just been delayed or they simply won’t mention it to you the next time.

The only way to get them to actually give up is to convince them to and that requires words, not fists. Make your choice between the stop gap of a few seconds of unconsciousness versus the actual end of the issue.

2) Physically restrain them with your body.

Sometimes, in order to get someone to listen, you need to corral them. Engaging in a physical confrontation that ultimately ends with you trying to physically stop them from leaving is valid. It’s also less dangerous and, ironically, less likely to result in permanent injury.

This is basic grappling, grabbing hold of the other person and not letting go. Pinning them to a wall, the ground, whatever. It can go wrong, but it’s one person trying to physically keep the other person from leaving. This can be anywhere between standing between them and the door, getting back in the way, trapping them in another room until the opportune moment has passed, or even grabbing hold or physically engaging.

You can actually get some really great drama off two friends beating each other up to the point where they exhaust themselves and actually have to discuss their issues. It works.

3) Be a friend to the friend

Get friend the help they need. Don’t resort to giving friend brain damage.

Brain damage bad. Friending good.

Help friend.

Support friend.

Call cops.

Real Life Notice:

If you have a friend who is going to endanger themselves or others in a serious way, please, please, please reach out to those with more training and ability than yourself to handle the situation. Whether that is the police or counseling services, please help them get the help they need and protect others without endangering yourself or at the risk of worsening the situation.

How much you involve yourself will always be a judgement call that you have to make on the spot and I do respect that, but it’s important to do what is best for them and yourself and to stay safe.

-Michi

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Hello! My main character (who has considerable knowledge of fighting) wants to incapacitate another guy without killing him, wounding him (considerably) or knocking him out (and she probably doesn’t have time to tie him up or drug him either), and she wants to do this with hand-to-hand combat. Is there any way in which she can do this?

It’s probably worth stressing again: there is no such thing as safe
violence. You can try to mitigate the harm done, but you can’t negate it entirely. When you’re
looking at a situation and saying you need a solution that ends without
anyone getting hurt, the only ones which can guarantee that are
non-violent. If you’re resorting to violence, it has to be with the understanding that harm is an acceptable outcome. As someone with “considerable”
combat experience, your character would know and understand that.

Note that, I said “acceptable,” not “desired.” You can get a lot of
mileage out of someone who wants to deescalate the situation, doesn’t
want to hurt their opponent, but is running out of non-violent options. The final duel in Return of the Jedi is a classic example of this playing out.

Responsible hand to hand combat is (usually) about balancing the amount of force you need to achieve your objectives, without harming your opponent(s) excessively. Unfortunately when your goal is to incapacitate, that’s going to require a lot of harm. This is also why you’ll see actual martial artists try to defuse the situation rather than resorting violence. It is the safest way to achieve their goals (of not having everything pear-shaped around them).

With that said, joint locks and submission holds come to mind. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t the solution you were hoping for, because it means you can’t just wander off, you need to stay there, physically holding your opponent in place. If your character wants to try to talk their opponent down, these do allow for the attempt, but it’s still better to start with talking, and only resort to locks when persuasion fails.

Locks work by manipulating your opponent’s body into a position it can’t escape from. Twisting the arm up behind the back is a classic example, you’ve probably seen in film and TV. This is mostly because it’s a very easy lock to fake for the camera. But, there are a lot of joint locks (particularly ones that start with the wrist) that can completely immobilize a foe from basic counters.

If you just need to hold someone in place to buy time for reinforcements or the police, then this is the ideal solution. Honestly, generally speaking, this is the best option in a self defense situation, when it’s viable.

Even then, this isn’t harmless. In a controlled environment, locks and holds can be practiced safely. But, if your opponent struggles against the more effective holds, and refuses to submit, they can seriously injure themselves. Also, if you misjudge the hold, it is possible to lose control. These are temporary solutions at best, not permanent ones.

If you need your character to stay mobile, that’s not an option. If their opponent is just an obstacle, they need to get around, then simply bolting past may be the best option.

If they need to immobilize their opponent, and stopping him is the priority, then one good option is restraints. These aren’t harmless, or foolproof, but it sets a good balance for neutralizing them without adding unnecessary force.

Zip tie restraints are pretty cheap, disposable, and allow you to “tie someone up” in a matter of seconds. Depending on the style, you can get them for less than $2 a unit, meaning even if they’re on a budget, your character can probably afford a few. They’re also fairly secure, unless you know what you’re doing, most people cannot get out of these on their own.

If you need something a little more secure, police handcuffs are going to cost, but unless you’re dealing with police, or an escape artist, getting out of these is probably not happening. Of course, they’re also a lot more expensive, so just leaving someone in cuffs is probably not happening, unless they’re very well funded.

Still, your best option is probably to try to talk it out, and, if need be, bolt. Or accept that if violence is necessary, someone’s going to get hurt.

-Starke

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