Tag Archives: writing violence

Q&A: Writing The Tournament

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

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

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

The Tournament Brackets Are Your Plot

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

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

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

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

Drama is Created By Characters

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

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

Single Elimination

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

32 Characters = 6 Matches for your protagonist.

64 characters = 7 matches.

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

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

Double Elimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round Robin, (See Also: Swiss and Dutch)

Everybody fights everybody.

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

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

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

Visual versus Written

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

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

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

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

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

Character Progression Match Ups: Establish Your Rules.

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

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

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

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

Is it a forced concession like a tap out?

Is it getting knocked outside the right?

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

Is it getting knocked out?

Is it death?

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

Does this tournament allow weapons?

What protective gear do they wear?

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

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

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

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

-Michi

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

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

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

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

A) easy.

B) You start within grappling range.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michi

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Q&A: You can be thinking or fighting… Listen, you want to be fighting.

When somebody is fighting, how much space is in their head for thinking? Sometimes you see writers put entire monologues in their character’s head, and that seems a bit excessive, but once moves become instinctive is it easier to notice/observe and process thoughts? So maybe it would be somewhere between “Thinking constantly of my movements” and “Let me theorize about my opponent’s background for paragraphs on end.”

You have enough time to make snap decisions, but that’s about it. If you actually stop and think during combat you’ll get hit because you weren’t focused on what was happening in front of you. The point of training is to internalize combat techniques to the point where they, and even combinations, become reflexive. This is because you don’t have time to think about how a technique is performed during combat where a fraction of a fraction of a second can be the deciding factor between victory and defeat. The goal is to give you the choice to act rather than just react. The time link between your brain and your muscles is dropped to near instantaneous in reaction so you know what to do next without having to think about it because you don’t have time to think.

See > Decide > Act is reduced to See > Act.

There’s no realization. There’s just action.

While you were thinking about what you wanted to do, I hit you. Your indecision is my opening to exploit. The world will not wait for you to be ready, and your narrative shouldn’t be waiting for your character’s either.

Consider this:

In the real world a street fight is over within twenty five seconds. With specific techniques, you can kill another human with your bare hands in seven seconds. That includes both the time it takes to do the technique and the time it takes for them to die. The reduction of time from seconds to fractions of seconds is the ultimate goal because the faster you are then the better chance you have. You want to get out ahead of your enemy’s brain and finish acting before they have a chance to realize what’s happening/happened to them.

All real observations and decisions happen before the fight begins. This is why tactical awareness is a key skill for any warrior, martial artist, or self-defense practitioner. This where your ability to be aware of your surroundings and observe human behavior will help you know when you are in danger. You can get into the necessary mental state where you are ready to fight before the fight begins, saving yourself on crucial seconds which could be the difference between victory and defeat. Being prepared for a fight reduces your reaction time before the first bullet is fired or the first punch is ever thrown. You don’t need to realize you’re in danger, figure out what you’re going to do, come to terms with harming another human being, and try to buy time until you’re ready, at which point the battle is already over. No, you know you’re in danger and you react accordingly in the moment.

“I didn’t really have time to think about what I was going to do. By the time I realized I was in danger, I was dead.

I saw myself falling, I remember that. The world shifted sideways. I hit the ground. My shoulder landed first. Then, I saw his face. Saw him looking down at me.

He grinned, a big toothy grin. The gun barrel moved. A blinding flash, then everything… you know, everything went dark.

I woke up here. With you.”

When you’re writing a fight scene, it’s important to realize that each sentence represents the progression of time and time doesn’t wait for your character to be ready. Speaking and thinking are not free actions, they represent critical seconds where your character could be acting either by attacking or defending. The narrative’s progression shouldn’t stop just because they’re thinking. Their opponents shouldn’t politely wait for the character to be ready.

Now, dialogue can be used as a defensive action and a strategic means of buying time for recovery. However, if your character strikes up a conversation with their enemy understand that what they’ve done is actually end the fight scene, ended the engagement  until the start of the next engagement. Dialogue can disrupt the flow of combat as a combat tactic, but thinking can’t.

For violence in the narrative, you actually need to stay on point or you lose your tension in the scene. In a visual medium like comics or movies, violence is often treated as spectacle. In a movie, what you’re actually enjoying isn’t the violence itself but the acrobatic movements of professional stunt performers. Certain types of movement on film are incredibly engaging visually and the film doesn’t lose much by letting these actors go at it for prolonged periods.

As writers utilizing a written medium you don’t have that option. You’re not a professional stunt choreographer and stunt actor, and even if you were you don’t get the perks visual action buys for you. You don’t get spectacle, you get novelty, and you’ve got to keep the scene moving quickly so your audience remains invested.

You want short and sweet with lots of little fights interspersed by running for your life or buying time or getting to cover instead of long, drawn out battles.

Treat each sentence like it’s a second. That’s enough time for an attack and for the attack to be over. Enough for several attacks if you’re good at conserving time.

Attack > Hit > Next Action.

Attack > Deflect or Attack > Deflect + Counter > Next Action.

Character A punches. Character B catches punch, steps forward, uses other hand to strike under the chin with their palm and force A’s head up.

If B sits around thinking about what they’re going to do next from this position then they give A time to attack them and take back the fight’s inertia. Once you have the inertia, you want to keep moving. While you’ve got your opponent off balance you want to make the most of their defenseless state while you still can. Consistent action doesn’t give them time to recover, but waiting does. Drifting into your thoughts while you consider your next move also gives your enemy time to recover.

Notice also, Character B just changed ranges within a single second. They went from punch range straight into grappling range and put A into a bad situation where they can’t see what’s going on. They’ve set themselves up for several options. One is to force A backward by applying pressure to their head until they fall over or transition their hand across A’s face to their ear and put them into a sideways throw utilizing the head, the wrist they captured, and their front leg.

If you just went… what? It’s this:

The hand on the wrist yanks backwards and pulls their opponent forward. This puts them off balance. The hand on the head applies pressure sideways and forces the head sideways. Where the head goes, the body follows. They turn sideways, catching their opponent’s back leg with their front leg and use that calf/knee as the tripping mechanism. This forces all the balance onto the destabilized front leg, which while already on the ball of the foot will give as the ankle twists, and when it does they are put on the ground.

Now, A is on the ground and B is still standing. B can do what they want from here to A, but unless A is very good at fighting while prone and finds a way to take B to the ground with them then the fight is over. Likewise, your fight scene is over in less than a minute.

That’s the other side of training.  You don’t just spend your time learning one or two techniques so you can do them without thinking about it. You train to link those techniques together into combinations so when the time for the next action comes you already know what to do.

The character doesn’t have to plot out: “I’m going to catch his punch, put my hand under his chin, and ram my opponent into that wall over there. After, I’ll rest my forearm on his windpipe to apply pressure and cut off airflow but not completely choke him.” They already know because they trained to do all that without thinking about it. This gives them time to perform an entire string of complex actions before their enemy has time to realize what’s happening to them. There’s also the classic, “From the position with my hand under his chin, I’ll transition my arm up and around his throat into a guillotine with my forearm on his windpipe then knee him in the groin before lifting up into the choke.”

“I hit you with the roundhouse to your ribs with my front leg and knock the air out of you, then retract into a chamber, swing my leg across to hit you in the head with a hook kick while you’re stumbling sideways, which dazes you and gives me opportunity to transition into a standing jump roundhouse off my back leg. Bye bye.”

This is the slightly more advanced concept called setup. You use your basic techniques in combination to fire off the large action finisher. This is actually what your characters beyond green belt level are fighting for the opportunity to do. (And… yes, some variants of taekwondo jump kicks and other discipline’s jump kicks can be performed with one foot already off the ground because the power leg that initiates the jump is the one which transitions into the kick. That’s where the momentum is.)

The ultimate goal is to reduce risk for yourself while maximizing the other person’s. Your character should be doing their observations and planning in the moments before the fight begins, not while the fight is occurring. You can get most of what you need through observation, and if you get a chance to observe their fights before you fight them then all the better.

You want your exposition in the moments between fights as a padding out breather for your audience before the next fight starts. Whenever the fight ends, the fight scene part of the scene ends. You’ll probably have multiple little fights which constitute a larger fight, but it’ll be easier for you to think of the scenes as scenes.

What you don’t want to be doing is thinking about what you’re going to be doing in the moment because then you’re not focused on acting and are instead taking a ridgehand to the head, which at worst will cost you two points on the sparring scorecard. This is much better than taking the bladed inside of your enemy’s hand to your temple. You didn’t just give them the opportunity to hit you, you let them hit you with an incredibly powerful but heavily telegraphed strike.

Your body will react for you, but you’re still piloting the vehicle. In some ways, it’s like driving and not driving on a highway. No, this is driving in a winding canyon with everyone around you going sixty to eighty miles per hour. If you space out that could be difference between your survival and you going off a cliff. You’ve got about enough awareness to say, “there’s an asshole tailgating me, and I better ease off the gas ’cause that’s a twenty mile an hour turn ahead.” So, if you’re not focused then your body won’t be either. So, you’ve got to focus on what’s immediately happening in front of you in order to react to it. Training just carves away all the excess thinking which will slow you down, like trying to remember how to do a technique, or trying to decide on which technique, or spend too much time focusing on strategy, or cracking wise. This way your reaction times have been shaved down to .25 seconds and you can perform several actions before the single second is over.

Realize > React > Act.

“I need to fight now” is a sentence you don’t have time for because by the time you’ve said it the punch has already arrived. The air is also now gone from your lungs, so you’ll need to breathe again before you act. On the page, a fight flowing at the pace time progresses while you’re thinking will look like this.

Shit!

Punch.

He’s not—

Punch.

Giving—

Punch.

Me—

Punch.

Time to—

Punch.

React!

That’s five potential punches per thought, and only if they miss. If you’re very lucky, your character may manage to multitask by thinking and dodge at the same time. However, because their focus is split they will be slower and may miss objects in their environment which can trip them.

So, was the time spent on thinking worth it?

For all that people talk about the simplicity of violence, you should know that hand to hand violence is actually very mechanically complex. You’ve got to be doing a lot of complex actions at the same time, which is why you train to perform them. However, that doesn’t mean the time you rid yourself of thinking of how to perform them is freeing you up for other things. You’ve freed yourself up for near instantaneous action. This is your trade off. If you pack other thoughts in where those previous thoughts were then you’re actually slowing yourself back down. Your focus is spent on the action itself. Your character’s goal is actually to finish the fight within a single sentence rather than an entire paragraph. That’s what all participants of violence want, for the fight to be over as quickly as possible. H2H is also the slowest form of violence with the least amount of risk when it comes to sudden death. With weapons, you better not be thinking because a mistake will result in broken arms, fatal stabbings, and getting shot.

You can think or you can fight.

Trust me, you want to be fighting.

-Michi

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Q&A: Bloodsport Isn’t Soldiering, It’s Entertainment

When it comes to child soldiers, how realistic do you think the “Careers” kids are in The Hunger Games and the participants as a whole? Honestly, I think they suffer from the “writing children like mini adults” problem that most bad writing has. That, and it ignores emotion and trauma. They react and fight like emotionless drones or trained fully adult soldiers instead of scared, bumbling children.

I want you to understand something exceedingly crucial before we get into this. Starke and I both technically qualify as Careers. I started doing martial arts when I was five years old, I knew how to kill another human being when I was twelve, I could perform disarms when I was fourteen, and before I was eighteen I was working to teach other kids the same age as myself when I started.  Starke is an Eagle Scout, and that should really say it all.

What I am essentially telling you is that I grew up around other kids, children to teens and young adults who spent their life doing martial arts, some of whom competed on a professional, national to worldwide competitive level and in the care of adults who grew up doing martial arts, some of whom competed on a worldwide competitive level. I’ve seen all sorts of kids do all sorts of things, and what a child can do is heavily dependent on the child we’re talking about. Yes, the average child might be bumbling, but the lifer? The one picked out early and heavily trained? Like these kids? Like Jade Xu? Ernie Reyes Jr? Jet Li? Then, there’s the seven year olds in Thailand who compete in Muay Thai bouts. There’s these kids. And these kids.  And these kids.

Did you know this is a worldwide industry that utilizes children’s performance art for the entertainment of the masses? You just participated in it by watching these videos.

Congratulations.

If there’s an aspect of The Hunger Games that’s incredibly unrealistic, it’s the fact that the novel ignores all of the above. This is not some far flung future, this is now, and its a billion dollar industry worldwide. When you’re looking at a character who is a Career, this is what you should be thinking of. We call this phenomenon: sports.

The Hunger Games is YA, which provides a mistaken impression that kids wouldn’t be able to compete in arena style gladiator death matches. That’s untrue. They already do. The fights aren’t to the death, for the most part, because adults intervene but the ability is there. Children are actually a lot better at bloodsport when pitted against other children than The Hunger Games gives them credit for. You’ve seen child athletes. Add the fact that it’s mentally easier for children to kill because the concept of death and the permanence of it doesn’t really register for them, you have a situation where bloodsport games would be very easy. Condition them an environment where this type of killing is okay, even acceptable, where they’re rewarded for their success, and they’ll be perfectly happy to keep at it. They’ll even be perfectly sane and mentally well-adjusted without any abuse or forcing necessary.

This is the one criticism I’m going to really level at The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games does not understand the mentality of violence, specifically the mentality behind bloodsport, and what draws people to it both as participants and as a form of entertainment. The novel really can’t grasp what draws people to it, what makes bloodsport a billion dollar industry, and why someone would want to participate. The Careers are gladiators, they’re not child soldiers. They’re professional athletes in the Olympic level category, which is the sort of competition they’re training for. They won’t have the same hangups an ordinary child would in regards to violence because this event is not just what they trained their whole lives for, but the competition they competed fiercely to gain access to.

They’re not going to have the kind of trauma you might expect because they’ve spent their lives preparing for this. We’re talking someone age sixteen and seventeen who has been training for around twelve to thirteen years.

What should really disturb you about gladiators is they’re entertainers. They exemplify the commodification of violence and of human beings as vehicles of violence for entertainment. They’re putting on a show, putting on a spectacle, and, yes, there may be death at the end of the experience but that’s part of the experience. The crowd came to watch the bloodsport for the enjoyment of it, and your success in the arena is decided by how well you can put on that show. How well you entertain the audience while you beat the living shit out of someone else. It’s disingenuous to say one would ever need to force people to watch bloodsport because they don’t, they don’t need to force them to participate either. Humanity’s appetite for violence as entertainment is about as old as humanity, and its a cornerstone in many cultures around the world.

The Careers are not child soldiers, which is a very specific term identifying very specific circumstances. They don’t fall under that category. They’re children raised to violence. From a mental outlook perspective, they should have more in common with Olympic athletes, competitive martial artists, and those children in the real world who are raised for bloodsport. You want to find a decent comparison to a “Career” type character, you’re going to be looking at the kids participating in competitive sports martial arts.

Twelve year olds who participate in scheduled Muay Thai bouts against other twelve year olds for the enjoyment of the masses do exist. In Thailand, they participate as young as seven. Olympic boxers, Olympic athletes competing in Judo, Taekwondo, Fencing, Greco-Roman Wrestling, Free-Style Wrestling, you’ll find most of these combatants were training from a young age and competing from a young age in appropriate age group categories in order to get their foot in the door. Martial artists like Jackie Chan and Jet Li technically qualify under the Career title. Jet Li won his first wushu changquan champion when he was fourteen years old. This is before we get into backyard wrestling, where we have kids imitating what they see on the TV on friends or family members in their own homes. However, none of these children are child soldiers.  Child soldiers aren’t really trained, they’re children stolen from their families, brainwashed, and hopped up on drugs then sent out to kill. They’re competitive athletes which, when you really stop and think about it, is another can of worms all on its own.

What you’re missing about these kids in this specific mold is the part where they’re professional athletes, they’re not soldiers. Soldier is the wrong skillset for a gladiator. It’s a good starting skill set, but you need more than that in order to succeed in the entertainment industry. What’s easy to forget when you’re looking at novels like The Hunger Games is we already have a billion dollar industry in bloodsport, and watching humans beat up other humans for audiences everywhere is, at this point, a staple in entertainment. Careers are gladiators, they’re professional athletes, and that’s pretty much where they land on the spectrum. They’re somewhere in the collegiate to Olympic levels of serious with a lowball at Friday Night Lights.

Have you ever spent much time around professional athletes? If they’re good at what they do, they have the potential to be worth a lot of money. If they’re at the top of their game, they know it. They’ve beaten out a lot of people to get where they are, and, in the case of bloodsport athletes, those beatings are literal. No, they don’t kill anyone but the reasoning behind that is there’s no money in it. There’s a lot of resources invested in training a gladiator and, whether they’re successful or not, you can make your money back off them over the course of their career. Even in the Roman arenas, the professional gladiators rarely died. They had fans, they were worth a lot of money, and it’s better to have them around to fight next weekend than bury them.

The Hunger Games has the same problem a lot of YA has which is formula. The Careers aren’t emotionless drones, they’re the popular kids in your high school cafeteria. They’re the jocks and the cheerleaders with a touch more homicide rather than the ones who can never show up to any functions or hang out with friends because they’re training from six to eight and then three thirty to eight with eight hours left in the middle of the day for school.

The problem with this set up is that professional athletes and kids training to become professional athletes aren’t “normal” kids. The Best is a competition, the closer you get to that pinnacle the rougher the competition gets. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to put in the effort. To be the best requires a lot of work, a lot of dedication, a lot of sacrifice. You can throw in blood, sweat, and tears but that still won’t be enough. Talent can pave your way, but it isn’t enough to be a winner. You have to be all in, you’ve got to want it, and be willing to sacrifice everything to win.

The formula for The Hunger Games is wrong because you need to be using the formula from your average sports film about the kid trying to make it big. The kids in the new Karate Kid movie with Jackie Chan, for example. That’s the expected level of competency you’d be getting out of a thirteen year old training for high level sports competition. You ever gone ahead and watched high level gymnastics? That shit is fierce, and the behind the scenes competition for top spots on national teams is about as fierce. This is before we get to other countries like China where the prospective child candidates are scouted early and taken into custody of the state to be trained.

The Careers are gladiators, which means (under normal circumstances) they’d be trained to be one part killing machine, one part actor, and one part stuntman. The training part here is key, and that’s what would keep them emotionally and physically stable. Gladiators are showmen. They’re bloodsport, and bloodsport is honest-to-god entertainment. This is an industry which makes billions every single year worldwide, and there are kids the same age as the Careers preparing for their debut UFC bouts out there right now in the United States.

Reality TV isn’t real, it’s entertainment. The WWE is entertainment some people do believe is real. Bloodsport is real… ish, but to be successful at it you need to be more than just good at fighting. Fighting another human being for the enjoyment of the masses is a different skill set. Gladiators are the one place where I’ll say, yes, the flashy additions to their fighting style suits a real purpose. They can kill their opponent or beat them to a bloody pulp and they’ll look good doing it. With someone who is very good, you’ll find yourself enjoying the bout even when you didn’t want to.

When we’re talking about “Careers”, we aren’t discussing kids most middle class Americans would consider “normal” teenagers, not by any stretch of the imagination. They’re trained for a very specific utility, and working the arena is their job. They’re like every other sort of young professional from child models to child actors.

The key component to understand with professional bloodsport is poverty.  Like professional sports, this is a route people choose when they have limited options. They often don’t come from privileged backgrounds, and for most of these kids in the real world this is a way out. There aren’t better options for them to choose, and by the point they’re seventeen or eighteen they wouldn’t choose another path. They fought for this, they’re invested in this, and this part of their life is an important aspect of who they are. However, to really delve into the dystopic aspect of this part of society we’d end up in Lord of the Flies territory.

A career is a job. You can take a child of five and train them for eleven to twelve years, by the time they’re sixteen to seventeen they’d be perfectly capable of doing much more than we see from the Careers in The Hunger Games. In fact, the entire problem with the Careers approach to the Hunger Games is that they don’t treat it like a job. We have hyper specialized characters who’ve trained their whole lives to compete in bloodsport, perform, and win the heart of the crowd. They’d be capable of taking someone like Katniss, who was competent in their own right but not prepared for the Games, and incorporate them into their performance. Like in any good reality TV show, you use your actor plants to stoke drama and create entertainment. There’s a real aspect to preliminaries in sports where you use them as an opportunity to size up the competition, which is why you should always be carrying around more than one routine.

In the Roman arena, the thumbs up symbolized the gladiator performing well enough to kill their opponent. The thumbs down indicated they hadn’t performed well enough. The right to kill another warrior was one that had to be earned, and this was difficult to do. These rules were put into place because gladiators are valuable commodities, they are worth more alive than they are dead. At least, until they reach the point where they’re no longer useful.

Looking at a Career would be similar to the feelings inspired when you look at a gif with some martial artist performing martial arts that seem to be outside the laws of nature. Whether that’s climbing up a willing partner to use their legs in a scissor to bring them swinging to the ground or a gun disarm that involves kicking someone’s legs out from under them from a kneeling position. It’s the Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This was the aspect of the Roman arena that was so demoralizing. You can’t figure out how they did what they just did, they seem so incredibly superior, and now your entire culture is ripped apart into bits for the titillation and tantalization of the masses, but goddamn if some part of you doesn’t enjoy it. (See: the Roman treatment of Sparta.)

The trick to understanding any violence is understanding the kind of training they receive, the purpose of the role they’re preparing to serve. All violence is not the same.

If you’ve never spent any time around children who participate in high end sports or martial arts, you’re not really fit to judge what they are and aren’t capable of. The truth is that children are much more capable than you might think, especially when you train and prepare them for what they’re going to experience. There’s an assumption they’ve suffered abuse, be it mental, emotional, or physical, but that’s actually unlikely. You get more out of a willing participant than you do from one that’s been forced, and bloodsport has never in human history had a shortage of individuals willing to sign up. Modern bloodsport is all volunteers, and many of them began training as children in one form or another.

We can debate the nature of traumatized children, how young is too young, but it is important to remember that in sports like gymnastics you’re often looking at children who are sixteen to eighteen years old. These kids train from four in the morning to eight in the evening, and, for the high fliers, their entire education is probably home schooled. Ballet requires a lifetime of preparation in order to achieve professional status. We have child actors. And, of course, there are the Muay Thai kids I mentioned earlier. They get into the ring and give each other injuries that make their brains look like they’ve been in car accidents. But, if you ask them, most would be happy to keep doing it. The rewards outweigh everything else.

Don’t think of these kids as props. They’re very real, and they have very real desires, real wants, and real goals. You can’t become good at something if you don’t love it.  If you want to write these kinds of characters, you need to try thinking from the perspective of the kids who actually want to be there. Who want to do this. Who looked at the glamour, and the blood, and the cheers of the crowd, and said, “YES! I WANT TO BE THAT!” Not as a passing fancy, not in a way that discounts their experiences or chides them for being childish or naive, but the ones who understood what they were getting into. The ones who were raised in the environment and never wanted anything else, and nothing anyone can offer will ever make them feel quite as good. The harder one works to be good at something, the more invested they become. You can be proud of your skill, how hard you worked, and how you struggled without being proud of your ability to kill. This is who they are.

You can cringe from it, you can be terrified by it, you can feel sorry for them, but while you’re doing all that pearl clutching you can’t write genuine stories about their experiences. You can’t write them if you don’t understand. At best, your writing is patronizing. At worst, it ignores the real dark side of their experiences, their struggles, their sacrifices, and the cost of their dream. You also ignore the good that comes from their actions, like the Muay Thai children who are so successful in the ring they can buy their parents houses, the family bonding with parents and siblings who also fight. The friendships, the families, the community, the support, and what its like to be around people who want the same as you. The ones who truly understand your experiences.

Honestly, if you want to be doing anything gladiator, you need to be looking at sports and the influence sports has on our culture. If you want to discuss the evils of bloodsport or violence as entertainment, then you need to understand the cultures we’re talking about. You need to grasp why people like it in the first place, what draws them to watching children beat the shit out of each other, and why they enjoy it without just outright initially dismissing them as psychos. You also need to grasp performance and sports martial arts as their own skill set, with one not completely rejecting your ability to kill people.

In those videos, you’re watching some kids who are twelve and thirteen years old with enough physical control to perform the same sort of stunt fighting you see in a Hollywood film. That’s forgetting Ernie Reyes Jr, who could do the same when he was about five.

What I’m saying is: The Hunger Games doesn’t give children enough credit.

-Michi

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Q&A: Violence Is All About Efficiency

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

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

The Economy of Violence.

Conservation of Movement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michi

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Q&A: 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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