All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: America, Right Now

I’m wondering if you have some follow up to Michi’s amazing post from 2015 about revolution, guerrilla warfare and terrorism? It’s impossible to analyse the current protests in real time but it seems police are escalating the violence and trying to bait civilians into fights they can’t win. Also, civil disobedience and direct action are more confrontational than what we are taught about non-violent resistance.

The problem is, you’re looking at the behavior before the event, rather than once it’s up and going. As of June 2020, the US is not currently facing an armed insurrection.

The behavior of police, right now, is publicly displaying what some have known for decades: Law Enforcement in the United States is an inherently racist and oppressive system, designed to create self-fulfilling prophecies.

There’s a number of factors here that have exposed this.

First is the increased communication technology. Police haven’t really kept up with the times on this front. They still seem to think that, if they catch someone recording them when they’re over the line, it’s easy enough to destroy the evidence, before anyone can see it. This would have been true 15 years ago, but today, someone with a cell phone camera can stream directly to the internet, with that broadcast being recorded, and watched by thousands of people.

Second is decades of of legal protection. One form of this is the police unions, which have gained an unhealthy amount of political influence. Their protection of criminal cops is such that it is nearly impossible to fire an officer no matter how egregious their behavior. Should they manage to be fired, they can easily find work with another law enforcement organization. Prosecution almost never occurs because it would result in the police unions coming down hard on the DA, and pouring money into a friendlier candidate’s campaign during the next election cycle.

For two specific examples of how extreme this is: the Minneapolis PD only punished officers in ~1.5% of cases where complaints were brought against them. The national average is ~2.5%. Many of these high profile slayings in recent years have been from officers with a history of complaints filed against them, which kind of undercuts the idea that all these claims are baseless, or retribution.

It’s being reported that Derek Chauvin will probably be able to collect his police pension as Minnesota state law does not prohibit convicted felons from claiming state pensions. Any civil suit against Chauvin will be paid by the city of Minneapolis. Meaning, ultimately, tax payers pay for the murder of George Floyd while Chauvin pays nothing, and collects a paycheck for the rest of his life, potentially as soon as 2026, (assuming state law doesn’t change before then.)

When you consider this environment, it’s not hard to see where you’d get cops that don’t feel accountable.

The third major element is popular culture. This may sound a little tenious, and I’ll probably revisit this in depth if anyone’s curious, however, yes, popular media does affect how people view the world.

We have nearly a century of video media presenting police as, “the good guys.” Some of this goes back to The Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930s, which had a very simplistic, and absolute, set of rules regarding the presentation of crime and law enforcement. However, even after the Production Code’s demise, we still have a lot of media which presents police as unambiguous heroes.

At this point, as a nation, we have two separate police forces. The one that exists in the real world, and a fictionalized version that doesn’t. If you rarely, or never, interact with the real thing, it’s easy to fill in the blanks from the fiction. The danger is, if you are part of the real thing, it’s easy to self-justify using that same fiction.

(If you’re not from the States, it’s probably worth noting that the real US law enforcement is broken up between City, County, State, and Federal agencies. There’s a lot of moving pieces. When, I’m saying, “there’s one,” I’m referring to the idea that there is the real gestalt of “American Law Enforcement.”)

With exception of shows like The Shield, the norm in American media is hero cops. Doesn’t matter if it’s Dragnet, Law & Order, CSI or hundreds of other shows and films. This creates real problems. In particular, CSI is a headache for prosecutors and defense attorneys as it has created an unrealistic expectation for, and faith in forensic evidence among juries.

The problem is that, “every good story needs a bad guy.” I’d quibble over this point, and have, but in the genre of the cop shows it is expected. Cops chase criminals, and before the hour is up, “they’ll have their man.”

The consequence of this is that police are trusted far more by the court and juries. In most cases, those juries are going to be made up of people who don’t interact with police on a regular basis. The inverse is also true, if the police said you did something, you have a much harder time convincing convincing a jury that it’s not true.

The knock on effects are legion. Judges are more often to sign off on warrants, or excuse officer’s misconduct.

For a horrifying example of this, look at the execution of Breonna Taylor by the Louisville Metro PD. The officers wouldn’t have charged Kennith Walker with attempted murder of a police officer if they didn’t believe they could act with complete impunity. I’ll remind you, the LMPD broke into a home without announcing themselves, and then opened fire indiscriminately. They also chose not to use body cameras to maintain a record of events. Again, because they had reason to believe they would not be punished.

When we look back to pop culture, we also see the other side, officers who have been primed to justify their own actions, because they see themselves as “the good guys,” without really thinking about their behavior, or the consequences of what they’re doing. They need to stop, “the bad guys.”

Now, I’m making this sound very simple; it’s not. I am putting it in the simplest terms possible, because when you step back from that fantasy and look at the actual behavior, this is really messed up.

So let’s talk about Daryl Gates. Gates served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Like a lot of World War II vets, he eventually mustered out and rejoined civilian life. In 1949, Gate joined the LAPD. By 1978 he’d risen to Chief of Police. Gates had a very militaristic outlook. This tracks with someone who’d served, and then tried to bring the military home after the war. This is someone who, in 1990 advocated for the summary execution of casual drug users while testifying before congress, comparing it to treason. While I’m painting him with a broad brush, he believed “the war on drugs,” was a war. Intentionally or not, Gates was one of the architects police militarization in the United States.

The biggest, and most successful thing Gates spearheaded was the introduction of the SWAT Teams. He was also responsible for CRASH. This was ostensibly an anti-gang unit, though extensive corruption was later discovered during the Rampart scandal. If you’ve never read up on it, this was a mess. Stolen drugs, an undercover officer killing a CRASH officer in self defense, more stolen drugs. Worth reading. This was the basis for The Shield, if you’ve ever wondered.

The idea behind SWAT was to create tactical teams who could operate like a paramilitary unit for the police. There’s a narrow range of situations where teams like that would be valuable. However, SWAT has expanded massively in the last 50 years.

So, it’s 2020, Gates has been dead for 10 years. Why am I talking about him? Because soldiers make shitty cops.

A soldier can muster out, and then go into law enforcement and execute their job admirably. There’s nothing wrong with this. They stopped being a soldier, and became a cop. Hell, I have a good friend who followed this path. He left the army, and went into the police.

Someone who is a soldier is tasked with fighting the enemy. A peace officer is tasked with protecting their community. It may sound like these are compatible, but they’re not. If you are a soldier, the foes you face are other. You cannot be a good cop and view your community as other.

So, we loop back to the pop culture thing. We have police officers who are cosplaying as soldiers. They pick up the philosophical outlook of finding and eliminating “the enemy,” whoever that may be.

You’ll notice I said, “the enemy.” For police the job should be to find, “criminals.” But, for these “cops” with surplus military hardware it’s about taking down anyone who threatens them. When that fails, it’s about making a show of dealing with, “the enemy.”

Now, we are talking about adults, not children. At least some of them understand that if they simply open fire on protesters with the cameras rolling, it will not end well for them. So, they’re looking for a pretext. They want a riot. They view the protesters as other. Their community is each other. It’s not about guerrilla warfare, it’s about the junior members of a militant organization getting bored. wanting to crack some skulls, and leadership that is either complicit, or not about to rein them in.

Let’s loop back to the ugly side of popular culture for a second. Policing in the United States is racist. That doesn’t mean that every police officer is, however while the structures in place are designed to appear racially agnostic, but they are not.

Let’s start with a simple one, if police designate more patrols to a, “high crime,” area, they will ensure that more, “crime,” is found. On the surface, this may sound reasonable, if there’s more crime, there’s more policing to do. However, this means that minor crimes in a low crime area are more likely to be ignored. Petty theft may be reported, but it’s less likely you’ll have multiple patrols able to respond quickly. Simple traffic violations are more likely to go unpunished. In short, crime exists, but it’s more likely to be ignored. Let’s focus on traffic violations for a moment.

In a lightly patrolled area, you can get away with behavior behind the wheel that would have a cop on your ass in a “high crime neighborhood.” I’m talking about things like pushing red lights, blowing through stop signs, speeding. While it’s not a moving violation, vehicle B&Es in low crime areas are also less likely to be detected by police.

Traffic stops are an opportunity for an officer to go fishing, and they do. “Unidentified white powder on the floorboard?” You bet they’re going to be pulling a field kit and testing that, even knowing those field kits have absolutely terrible reliability. (Both for false negatives and false positives.) This can (and has) resulted in people being arrested, losing their job, their home, and their car, because they lived in a high crime neighborhood, and had a crushed aspirin in their vehicle’s upholstery.

Now, in case you missed this, the logic is circular, “this is a high crime neighborhood, so needs to be patrolled more heavily,” will inflate the crime rate, reinforcing the idea that it’s a “high crime area.” The racism comes in when you look at the areas that are designated as high crime.

And, all of this happens because a racist picked that neighborhood 70 or 80 years ago.

Generational over-policing also results in impeded economic growth. If you’re living in an area where police are scrutinizing everything you do, there’s a much higher risk you’ll get picked up for trivial crimes when you’re younger, in turn missing out on educational and job opportunities later in life. This can easily lead to situations where the only legitimate employment open to you is entry level. If police view any acquisition of wealth as evidence of criminal enterprise, it also means you may come under increased scrutiny if you find legitimate success. Individually it is possible to escape this, but, “the deck is stacked against you.”

Another factor that comes into this is, court is expensive. Yes, you have the right to a public defender if you cannot afford an attorney. I have a lot of sympathy for public defenders, but you kinda get what you pay for. Public defenders are incredibly overworked, and you’re not going to get the best representation. I’ve seen way too many cases over the years where the public defender completely dropped the ball.

So, two completely different scenarios.

You’re from a middle class family, you get pulled over and your friend has an unlicensed firearm on their person. You might not get arrested at all. However, if you are, chances are you, or your family can post bail. For the time being, your car is in police impound, but you’re free. You can continue working at your job for the next couple months while the case is pending. You can hire an attorney who is probably aware enough to point out that you didn’t know about the gun, and had no criminal intent. Your bail money is refunded to you assuming you make your court appearances, and depending on the circumstances, you’ve got a reasonable chance of getting out of this intact, without a criminal record, and $20-30k poorer.

Second scenario:

You’re from a rough part of town. You get pulled over and your friend has an unlicensed firearm on their person. You will probably get arrested unless you make a very good showing for yourself. Your car will be impounded. You probably won’t have the money to make bail. Because you’re from, “a bad part of town,” your bail will probably be higher than in the other scenario. If you can’t make bail, you may be able to get a bail bondsman to cover your bail, however in that case, the portion of the bail you pay is straight up gone, no matter how the case works out. Given you probably can’t make bail at all, you lose your home, and your job. You have no income. You have a public defender who is also working a double digit case load, and you’re lucky if they can remember your name, much less that you were charged with a crime you didn’t even know about. If you manage to get an acquittal, you come out with any economic progress you were making zeroed out. Your car is gone, and as a result, you’re in an even worse situation than you were. If you were still paying off your car, congrats, you’re going to be expected to continue paying your loan on a car that you do not have, and can’t collect insurance on. If you’re convicted, then you spend time in prison. It’s several years later, you now have a criminal record that will bar you from employment (if you got convicted of a felony, a lot of places will turn you away), and even when you do get out on probation, you’re going to be handing a large cut of your diminished income over to the court until you complete probation.

The system is not overtly racist, however, it creates structural racism. The second case is far more likely to occur, because of over-policing, and ensures that you will not advance economically. All of this because 70 or 80 years ago, a racist pointed to a map and said, “that’s a high crime neighborhood.”

Today, we have militarized police who are looking for, “the bad guys.” They have a map drawn up during segregation that says, “this is a bad neighborhood, because this has always been a bad neighborhood.” And we have a white cop murder a black man over $20.

We have the LMPD treating the west end like it’s the set of a goddamn action movie.

Everyone is fucking tired of this.

We’ve been told, “it’s a few bad apples,” as if that excuses the rest of the aphorism. “A few bad apples spoil the bunch.” And I’d be more forgiving of the, “not all cops,” line if Police Unions didn’t have an amazing capacity for propelling the most vile and rotting, cores to the top. Today, the Chicago Police Union President holds the distinction of having more complaints filed against him than any other member of the CPD. This is the same police force that got dinged for running their own “black site,” in Homan Square (A term from the intelligence community for a covert prison used to outright disappear people.)

And, today, I’m hopeful.

Iowa just passed legislation that further restricts the use of choke holds in arrests, and barred law enforcement agencies in the state from hiring officers who’ve been fired in disciplinary actions.

It’s not much. It’s not enough.

Minneapolis has committed to completely reworking the entire concept of policing in the city. We don’t know what it will look like next year, but it’s not going to be a simple reform that changes nothing.

If this stopped at Minneapolis, it wouldn’t be enough. But it isn’t stopping there. If you’d told me four weeks ago that we’d be discussing defunding the police on a national scale today, I probably would have laughed. However, the world we’re in today has a far greater potential for positive change.

There are a lot of deeply rooted problems in American law enforcement. The death of George Floyd was the step too far. What we’re seeing from police right now are the death rattles of a horrific creature. We’re witness to bullies and their accomplices, who have been dragged into public view. For the first time in far too long, people were actually watching. And now, the only road out they can find is by provoking further violence. Problem is, everyone’s watching.

I’m hopeful because I can believe that tomorrow will not be the same as today. These are painful and frightening times, but, it has started a conversation that was long overdue.


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Q&A: Motivation to Violence

I hope you don’t find this ask inappropriate. I wanted to ask this to someone who knows a form of martial art and I happened to see your blog, which even if it wasn’t for this question, would make me very happy. Why would someone learn how to fight if they don’t plan on using it on someone? Just for the atlethic aspect of it, maybe? Still, I have a bunch of characters training in a school and to think they’re pacifist doesn’t add up.

The fundamental misunderstanding is that people are training to fight. When you’re studying a martial art, you’re studying that martial art, in most cases, you are not learning to fight.

Relatively few martial artists train to use their skills in combat. They’ll train for fitness, they’ll train for spiritual reasons (and, no that’s not a stereotype), they’ll train to simply learn a new skill. It’s a hobby, and people engage in it for the same reasons they’d pick up any other hobby; to better themselves. A lot of kids are enrolled in martial arts classes by their parents as an extracurricular activity.

Martial arts can become a job. It can be your gateway to the entertainment industry. If you’re good enough (and lucky enough), there are places for martial artists in exhibition, competitive sports, stunt-performers, and fight choreography.

The only thing that would be, “training how to fight,” in that list is competitive sports. This is also not an exhaustive list, I took Shotokan in college for the PhysEd credits, as did most of my class. It sounded more appealing than some of the alternatives that fit my schedule, and I needed those credits to graduate.

I’ve mentioned this before, but if you’re training in martial arts for live combat, you don’t train to fight, you train to eliminate your foes. This is a very fine distinction, but if someone trains to fight, and you train to kill, when they try to fight you, you will kill them.

Let me explain this a little more extensively. Training to fight has an end goal of the fight itself. The fight will continue until one or both combatants are exhausted and cannot continue, or until one yields.

Training to kill has your foe’s death as its goal. This means, you can dispense with as much of the fight as possible. Just kill them. To be efficient, you need to work towards that goal with every action. Turns out, if you know what you’re doing, you can get there very quickly.

Self-defense is similar; it doesn’t take much to create a situation where your foe is in no condition to peruse you. You don’t need to fight them. You don’t want to fight them. You need to delay them long enough to escape. That’s easy, and (say it with me now) you can get there very quickly.

So, let’s step back and talk about something completely different, pacifism and self-confidence. There’s nothing wrong with being a pacifist. It’s not a binary state, most people will have a spectrum where they’ll eventually say, “okay, violence is now warranted.” This may be in response to violence. It may be to protect someone else. It may only be to protect themselves. It’s a rare case where someone will adhere to their convictions and refuse to use violence to defend their own life.

If you’re studying martial arts for spiritual enlightenment, it’s entirely possible, probable even, that you’ll start to develop a pacifistic streak. You’re looking at the world differently now, and you’ll probably see violence as less necessary.

If you’re studying martial arts for any other reason, you’ll probably start to develop a pacifistic streak. If you’re having trouble following that thought process, let’s talk about violence.

Nobody goes to violence as their first method for problem solving. However, for some people, violence is the first available method. Either, they don’t see how other methods could achieve their goals, or they don’t believe other methods would be effective. So, they resort to violence.

If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s difficult (or impossible) to believe you can defuse a situation. If you need to project raw confidence, that’s not an option.

If you lack self-confidence, even minor slights can be perceived as far more biting than intended.

Humans are territorial animals, and if you’re insecure, anyone invading your territory can be very threatening. (This can mean literal space, it can be social, or it can be intellectual.)

In any of these cases, a provocation can result in violence if one party does not see a non-violent option.

The irony is that martial arts training will boost your self-confidence. Meaning you’re more likely to see viable, non-violent options when antagonized.

For an example, take a kid, put them through rigorous training that gives some real self-confidence, and they will be better equipped to deal with the adversity the encounter in their life.

Now, martial arts is not a panacea, not everyone reacts the same way, but training can help you see non-violent options. It can help you differentiate between situations where violence is appropriate, and ones where it unwarranted. It can give you the confidence to defuse a dangerous situation.

In the strictest sense, this is not pacifism, however, from the outside, the difference is academic.

Now, to think that everyone in a martial arts class will have identical outlooks is a little unrealistic. You’ll always have outliers. You’ll always have differences of opinion. These are still people, not a hive mind. However, you are going to find that any long term students will have some degree of respect for violence. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have remained.


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Q&A: Body Hopping

My story is sci fi and how can characters who can move their consciousness into another body and use that body to fight with work? The character may have years of fitness training, but what if the body is not strong enough to wield heavy weapons at ease or are exhausted easily, or how about the simple fact of it’s a different body that doesn’t feel the same way.

This is an open question. There’s no solid answers. We can’t, currently, transplant your psyche to a new body, and as a result there’s no, “real world,” answers.

The closest similarity is a poor comparison. Limb transplants have a lot of considerations that simply wouldn’t be a factor here. For example, they have difficulty with fine motor control, but that has more to do with their own nerves growing into the transplant, rather than a consideration that would apply with swapping bodies.

In spite of the name, muscle memory is (probably) stored as chemical chains in the brain. This gets into an awkward problem with this entire idea. A significant chunk of who you are is stored as complex chemical data in your brain. This isn’t an insurmountable problem, with unlimited technology you could probably move these between subjects. So, if you’re able to move memories between bodies, you can probably also move muscle memory. However, the transferred muscle memory might not match the recipient body, meaning it could be useless or even actively harmful.

There’s also a difficult topic mixed in. If you’re moving memories around, even replicating “the consciousness,” you’re still not moving between bodies. There’s no continuity of self. You’re moving the data, and then (maybe) deleting the original source, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually in a new body, it just means a copy of you has been created. This is a very specific variant of the Ship of Theseus paradox.

Ship of Theseus is a fairly simple thought experiment, if you replace every single part on an object over time is it still the same object? The titular ship was put on display, but as components aged and decayed they were replaced with fresh ones. After a century of this there were no original parts left. At that point the question became, “was it still the original ship, or had the complete replacement over time transformed it into a replica?”

When you’re talking about someone’s identity, the stakes get a lot higher. It’s an abstract question about an inanimate object with some sentimental or historical value, it’s a very pertinent, and immediate question for someone who’s living in a world where they might not be the person they think they are.

When you start digging into what makes an individual who they are, things get really messy. A lot who you are chemical data stored in roughly 3 lbs of tissue with a consistency similar to butter. Some of it is volatile electrical data, though that may be directly tied to the structure of the brain. The idea that there is a concrete, “self,” is very comforting, but as we dig into this, the reality seems to be more of a gestalt.

So, on the topic of the Ship of Theseus, are you the same person after switching bodies?

I don’t have a definitive answer. No one does. We have speculation, but even if you were presented with the actual phenomena, it would still be a challenging question.

As for heavy weapons, that’s not going to be a problem. As we’ve pointed out many times, heavy weapons aren’t that heavy. Greatswords weighed less than a house cat. This isn’t as true with heavy firearms. Anti-material rifles or automatic support weapons can be difficult to haul around, but you’re not going to be running around with them, you’ll set them up and operate from a stationary position. It doesn’t matter if your 12.7mm rifle weighs 30lbs, you’re going to be laying down, with it partially concealed before you start firing. Also remember that heavier machine guns will operate from vehicles or stationary mounts.

For hand to hand, body hopping is probably a serious issue. If you’re overwriting the muscle memory, then all of your reflexive reactions and your conditioned responses will be, “miscalibrated.” If you’re not overwriting the muscle memory, that suggests the technology allows for significant editing of what does, and does not, get transferred over. We’re back to the Ship of Theseus problem, but things got even more complex, because now we’re only copying, “parts” of the subject. Also leads to a weird question of: What’s left in the new host brain from before the jump? How is that going to affect who they are?

Since I got distracted a moment ago, if the muscle memory is being retained from the original host, then the transferred user will be limited by what the previous owner(s) conditioned into their body.

This raises fundamental questions about how much we adapt to our bodies. The human brain is a very adaptable organ, but this is a scenario where there really isn’t any good comparisons.

If you want some other thoughts on this, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon is an obvious choice. In his case, the characters store their consciousness digitally on a implanted data storage device. He also posits the use of “hard wired reflex packages,” which allow users to have functional muscle memory and combat capacity after swapping bodies.

On the other end of the spectrum we have SOMA from Frictional Games. This one is interested in persistence of self, and if someone is the same person after being moved between bodies. The specific questions you’re asking don’t apply with this one, but the game may be useful for feeling out larger philosophical themes.


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Follow-up: Rey is Kinda a Problem

If you wanted to highlight a Mary Sue/Gary Stu style character on your blog, you could have chosen Luke instead, as his instant skill with lightsabers/the force is much less believable than Rey’s. The fact that you went after a rare sci fi female lead and echoed the voices of so many misogynist male fans is just disappointing to me. This is not what I’ve come to expect from this blog.


Luke is, actually, a pretty good counter example. His, “instant skill with a lightsaber,” consists of pointing it at his own face as soon as it is handed to him.

In A New Hope, the height of his demonstrated ability is to avoid lopping off his own limbs while trying to learn how to parry blasts from the remote. In the first film, Luke’s preferred weapon is an E11 Blaster Rifle. The first time we see him use his lightsaber in combat is a single swipe with it on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. Luke doesn’t use his lightsaber in combat in the first film.

So, in ANH he gets limited training from Obi-Wan. This is enough for him to start learning Force Pull, though he clearly struggles with it. Having been, “learning on his own,” for three years, he still struggles with very basic Jedi powers, and this is as someone who has been told that The Force exists, and received some introductory training. He barely manages to pull the saber to him in time to save his own life from a wampa.

Rey has the ability to override a Sith Lord’s Force Pull. She has the ability to use Affect Mind, and she has lightsaber proficiency on par with, again, a Sith Lord.

So, back to Luke, he goes to Dagobah receives training from Yoda, a Jedi Master, and returns with a slightly stronger grasp of how to use The Force, and operate a lightsaber. Vader immediately hands him his ass.

The duel on Cloud City is a bit of a sham. It fits what I said about balancing your challenges against the strength of your heroes. Vader knows Luke is his son. He spent decades cleaning up the remains of the Jedi Order. He’s able to go toe-to-toe with Obi-Wan without issue. Luke has a couple weeks of training under his belt. The only reason he’s able to survive is because of two conflicting factors. The Emperor wants Luke alive, “as a prize,” and Vader is having conflicting ideas about killing his own son.

Jump ahead to Return of the Jedi, and we see that Luke learned force choke, and has learned affect mind by this point. However, the finale still runs into another duel against Vader that’s a sham. Again, the point isn’t about killing Luke. Vader doesn’t want to kill his own son, he wants to turn Luke to the dark side, turn on The Emperor together, and take control of The Empire. Luke doesn’t want to fight his father, he’s trying to turn him from the dark side. Palpatine wants Luke to kill Vader and take his place, but he’d be fairly happy so long as one of them takes a dirt nap.

Again, this is not about Luke being a godlike fighter, it’s about him working through his incredibly dysfunctional family issues.

Rey’s got none of that. Kylo is a psychopath who has no qualms about waxing his own father. He doesn’t care about her. He’s a weak, and whiny villain on his own merits, but he is still A Dark Lord of the Sith. He has completed force training. He’s gone toe to toe with with trained Jedi and somehow avoided dying. There is nothing to keep Kylo from killing Rey in the first film except her inexplicable use of active Force powers and specific Force related combat skills (like fighting with a lightsaber) at odds with every other screen canon protagonist.

Let me break this down:

Luke: minimal training, struggles against wildlife, captured by possessed teddy bears, loses his hand in domestic argument. Dude never has his shit together.

Anakin: significant training, holds his own against other Jedi and Sith, but can’t beat Sith without a tag team. Loses limbs during academic dispute.

Rey: no training, no prior knowledge of the Force, defeats Sith Lord on first outing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Rey are the only characters in screen canon who can beat Sith Lords in single combat. I don’t know about you, but something is off with this list.

This is unfortunate because Daisy Ridley is actually really good. So is Adam Driver. There was a lot of excellent casting in those films, but they’re undermined by shoddy writing. There’s roughly two thirds of a decent film there, and then everything derails.

J.J. Abrams and George Lucas have something in common. They’re both extremely fond of emulating material they found elsewhere, repackaging and re-purposing it. This where you’ll find a lot of Kurosawa “homages,” in the original trilogy, and why The Force Awakens is almost a beat for beat retread of A New Hope. In the process, something got seriously scrambled.

The version of Luke that you’re thinking of, the egregious Mary Sue, doesn’t actually exist on screen. It’s pop culture gestalt, conflating the original trilogy into a jumbled clip show bereft of context. Parts, the duels with Vader lose their narrative context. Parts from Anakin in the prequels may get meshed in for good measure. (There is a legitimate argument that Anakin is a Mary Sue in The Phantom Menace, and the only reason I don’t want to delve into that topic is because it involves thinking about TPM for more time than is absolutely necessary.)

The worst part is, those misogynistic shitheads aren’t threatened by Rey. Rey doesn’t have the potency to hold their attention. They’re pissed with Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers drives them into a frenzy, because she is a very powerful character, and their only attack is to accuse her of being a Mary Sue.

The point we’re at now, a small cadre of fans who’ve gone off the deep end have no response to critique of Rey beyond crying about how it’s misogynistic. Which, doesn’t help your case.

You can do better. There are much better female leads in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Off the top of my head, Ellen Ripley (Alien, Aliens) and Sarah Conner (Terminator 2) set a much higher bar for female protagonists in science fiction who completely own their space. I already mentioned her, but Captain Marvel is easily another example from recent years. Moving beyond that you have characters like Aeryn Sun (Farscape), Ambassador Delenn (Babylon 5), and Captain Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager). And if one second you think Aeryn or Delenn aren’t leads, because they’re not getting top billing in ensemble shows, you really need to sit down and actually watch those.

If you want to see why old guard Star Wars fans are pissed with Rey, grab a copy of Heir to the Empire, and then realize that Disney erased all of that from existence to pave the way for Rey. We lost the version of Leia who became the leader of The New Republic. We lost Jaina Solo and Mara Jade. They destroyed all of that so J. J. Abrams could regurgitate a stale rendition of A New Hope without competition.

So, no. Fans who lost decades worth of characters they loved are going to be a little upset, especially when the replacement is breaking all the rules in a setting they adore and still can’t manage to make the stage. More importantly, if a female character needs to break the rules to appear powerful in their setting that’s not feminism or girl power.

This is an exceptional post, but perhaps consider that Rey raised herself on a desert planet? She probably learned to tap into the force to survive, even if she didn’t know exactly what she was doing. I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue for that. Unless you’re going to call Luke a Gary Stu for being able to destroy the death star while flying an x-wing for the first time. If a character is believable if you switch the pronouns, the character isn’t the problem.


The irony here is, there’s elements for both parts. We know from the three untrained Jedi we encounter in the films that force sensitivity manifests with heightened skills. Being force sensitive makes you unusually talented at the things you focus on. Of those three, Luke is the least egregious. If we were to ignore the active force powers and lightsaber proficiency, (and inexplicable piloting skills), Rey would be fine, unfortunately, we can’t.

With Rey, we do see that she has an unnatural aptitude for finding and maintaining scrap on Jakku. That she’s been able to survive as long as she has is a pretty good sign that she’s force sensitive, and that’s consistent with what we’ve seen before. That part is absolutely fine. The problem is the situations where her skill hasn’t been set up.

When we first meet Anakin in TPM, he’s already a supernaturally skilled podracer pilot. I’d like to be able to purge the entirety of the podracers from my memory, but we’re all here together now, and I’m pretty sure Sartre only said what he did about hell because he didn’t know that TPM would exist one day.

All these years later, I still have issues with Anakin piloting a fighter for TPM‘s finale, but, I’d be lying if I said the vast majority of that film isn’t a massive, painful blur for me.

What we see from Luke is reasonable. We’re told he wants to be a pilot, and it’s something that he’s been training for. His initial goal is to leave Tatooine, and enroll at The Imperial Academy. He claims he’s “not such a bad pilot.” We’re later told that he’s been practicing precision shooting at high speed using a sub-orbital fighter. (It was later stated in background material that the T-16’s controls and handling were similar to the X-Wing, though I suspect Lucas was thinking of piloting as a kind of universal skill, and the connection between the T-16 and X-Wing were retrofitted on later.) We see Obi-Wan teaching him to use the force in a way that specifically sets up the trench run. The biggest offender here is, simply, that there’s a lot of telling rather than showing. When you dig into earlier drafts of the script, there were scenes outlined that couldn’t be shot in ’76/’77, so the resulting development was dumped back into exposition. As a writing decision, this is something you’d want to avoid, but when we’re talking about a film, shooting considerations may require less optimal solutions.

Switching the pronouns doesn’t fix anything. There are plenty of male Mary Sues, just like there are plenty of powerful female characters who are not Sues. A female version of Luke wouldn’t be a Mary Sue; a male version of Rey would still be one.

I don’t fault Rey for having an intuitive grasp of The Force. I fault her for having fully developed Force powers, and lightsaber proficiency, without training.

But…Rey does do force training? What the fuck? This is a strange post


With whom? Han may believe in the existence of The Force, but he’s no Jedi. He can’t teach her how to use the force. She has no one to train with in The Force Awakens. You’re thinking of the second movie, That Which Shall Not Be Named, the rough draft from Rian Johnson where she gets her training with Luke. She fights Kylo in the first film completely unaided. This is where her Mary Sue rep comes from and why she never shakes it.

What she does is spontaneously manifest Force abilities. By that point, we had six films that hammered home the idea this not how you gain force powers. If that was the case, Vader’s crusade to exterminate the Jedi Order would have been fundamentally impossible, as the Order would be reinforced by spontaneous Jedi popping up. This retroactively makes all of Palpatine’s plotting from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi both pointless and incomprehensibly stupid. Makes you wonder why the Jedi need to recruit kids young if Jedi just pop up fully formed like daisies.

This is before we look at the lightsaber. That is an incredibly difficult, and dangerous to use, a weapon, which Rey has no problem operating, in spite of having no formal combat training of any kind. Much less fighting on an even keel with a trained Sith Lord who has been handling one for most of his life.

This is like a character who hears about the existence of martial arts, and then instantly gains advanced combat proficiency… by shadow boxing for a few minutes. Yeah, that’s a Mary Sue. (And, the comparison of Jedi training to martial arts comes Lucas himself.)

My point is: Rey is not the representation you’re looking for. There are a lot of fantastic, well-rounded, and well-acted female characters with a wide variety of personalities and outlooks in the science fiction genre if you’re willing to look for them. Daisy Ridley does her best, but she can’t save Rey. That’s unfortunate, but crying misogyny or trying to rewrite the films doesn’t help your argument stand up to scrutiny.

-Starke & Michi

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Q&A: Building Characters

What do you think about “character specialization”? I’m afraid of giving my female character too many skills like Rey in SW and make her a Mary Sue.

The problem with Sues (regardless of their gender) isn’t that they’re proficient in multiple areas, it’s that they’re, “the best,” at everything important. I’ve said this before, but a Sue is a character who doesn’t inhabit their own world, they’re simply an authorial power fantasy. Beyond that, they have no background to justify their ability. There’s no explanation for their skill, they simply are.

So, let’s look at a different character from Star Wars, who walks the line with being a sue. One of the many victims of Disney’s Star Wars purge was Mara Jade. She was, “The Emperor’s Hand,” a combination secret apprentice and personal spy/assassin/inquisitor for Emperor Palatine. She was first introduced in Heir to the Empire in 1991. Both women have access to the full suite of common force abilities, both are proficient with lightsaber combat. When we’re introduced to them, their backgrounds (and the source of their abilities) are mysteries. The difference is, you never had to ask, “why would Mara Jade know how to use force pull?” You’d never need to ask, “how did Mara learn to use a lightsaber?” In both cases, there’s a clear answer, “Palpatine trained her.”

Mara Jade has the kind of, “exceptional background,” that can easily signal a Sue, but it does explain her skill set, and her abilities do dovetail with who she’s supposed to be. She’s very clearly written to be part of the larger story, and not to dominate it. In case it’s not clear, I don’t think Mara Jade is a Sue, however the risk was there.

Maybe Disney’s expanded universe has compelling explanations for how Rey gained her force training, or where she learned to use a lightsaber, but, what I saw before I lost interest was, “she’s just that special. No explanation needed.” Literally every other character in Star Wars gained force powers from training and practice. But, not for Rey, she’s special.

You can make hyper-competent female characters without them being Sues. The important thing is that they must exist as part of their world. Their background needs to make sense, explain their skills, and mesh with who they are now.

So let’s talk about specializations in an entirely abstract and extreme way, using classes in role-playing games.

The class “trinity,” in RPGs is usually the Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. The names change, but the basic idea is fairly central to that genre. You have characters that interact with violence, with stealth (frequently this includes social skills), or with magic. Alone it’s very reductive, but it carries a larger context that’s worth thinking about when you’re building your own characters. (This is unrelated to Tank/Healer/DPS. That’s MMOs.)

The fighter is a professional combatant. They’ve spent most of their adult life training for, or engaging in violence. They could be a professional soldier, a mercenary, hired muscle for a criminal group, they may have moved between these roles during their life. The end result is a character who is better suited to combat. Their background makes them better suited to violence than other characters, and that’s realistic. The class concept itself is an abstraction that limits who the character is, but the idea that someone who’s spent their life training for and engaging in violence is going to be a better fighter makes sense.

The rogue illustrates the weakness in simply lifting these systems without question. If you’re wondering why I chose the D&D names, it’s the rogue. Traditionally the rogue has been called “the thief,” and many games will use that name. The rogue may have been a thief, a spy, an assassin, or any number of other clandestine professions. Where the fighter has a clear identity, the rogue is a muddled collection of related ideas. There’s a huge difference between a burglar who sneaks into places undetected, an agent who infiltrates a foreign government to feed them bad information, and an assassin who covertly murders for pay. It makes sense if you have a character who worked as an assassin and, as a result, has a phenomenal grasp of human anatomy. It makes considerably less sense for your burglar who abhors violence to have that same knowledge, however they’ll frequently get the same sneak attack bonus.

D&D (and many games for that matter) address some of the limitations by adding (somewhat) redundant classes to provide more flavor. If your character is patterned off Conan, then you have the Barbarian class. If you’re looking at Aragorn or Legolas, there’s the Ranger. If you want your character to be a holy knight, roll a Paladin. This a band-aid solution that can be easily applied in game terms to address the limitations of the classes. Fortunately, as a writer, you have the freedom to create your characters’ history individually. You don’t need (and don’t benefit) from sticking to classes beyond the general idea of what your character does.

Your character’s skills and knowledge will be shaped by their history. People do specialize, and given enough time they can become quite proficient in a number of fields. They can also generalize. A character who spent twenty years campaigning across “The Empire,” will (probably) be a very proficient combatant. A character who studied magic for those twenty years will (probably) be quite skilled at it. A character who studied as a mage when they were younger, but was recruited to become an Imperial agent, never completed their studies, but has spent the last fifteen years working as a spy may not be quite as good at, “being a spy,” as someone who specialized in that exclusively, but they’ll still have their magical education, and whatever else they picked up along the way. In fact, they’ll be better able to deal with situations involving magic, where their limited training gives them an advantage over someone who spent their entire career as a spy.

While I don’t encourage rigid class systems driving your characters, the idea that your character has a background and history which inform their current skills and identity is very useful. Saying, “my character has 6 levels in Rogue and 3 in Wizard,” isn’t particularly useful, but the idea that your character may have been more than just one thing in the past, transitioning from one career to another can produce interesting, and unique characters. That said, there is nothing wrong with saying, “my character dedicated their life to being the best wizard The Empire has ever seen,” and actually making good on that.

There is another useful lesson in RPGs: In a well balanced game (either a tabletop campaign or a video game), your characters will face foes worthy of their power. For example, if you’ve created this once-in-a-generation mage, their powers will be wasted picking fights with bandits and goblins. This is the kind of character who spearheads investigations into a curse that threatens to destroy The Empire, or plays politics to try to get closer to the Emperor. The greatest thief will be looking for the greatest score. The greatest warrior will be the Emperor’s champion, facing off against things no one else could hope to stop. No matter how powerful your character is, they need challenges that will push them further. They also need to see those challenges through, it’s unfair to the players to take away the struggle and hand them an easy win, it’s equally unfair to your audience to pull that victory down for your characters and drop it in their laps. One of the major symptoms of the Mary Sue is that they don’t face these kinds of challenges. They glide over any opposition without facing any real threat.

A weakness in this lesson is that RPGs tend to get more bombastic as you climb through the levels. Weak enemies frequently fall off, and your characters start facing off against epic monsters, but if your character is still human other people may still be a threat. Getting the challenge “just right” becomes increasingly difficult as your characters become more powerful.

Having a character who is extraordinarily talented within their field is entirely valid. The problems start when your character is extraordinarily talented at everything, without giving up anything. Someone who spent decades of their life improving themselves gave up a lot along the way.

This idea that you need handicap a female character in case she’s too competent and becomes a Sue is very self-destructive. The misogynists you’re worried about placating will label any powerful female character as a Sue. No one else will care if she’s compelling.

The panacea for the Mary Sue is simple: Make an interesting character and give her legitimate challenges.


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Q&A: Boons and Stressors

What do you think of altruism? Can it make someone more resilient or does it make them weaker?

This feels a little overly simplistic. It’s saying this a direct consequence, but my suspicion is, it’s a little more nuanced.

So, there’s a theory that receiving help actively makes you weaker. This is one of these things where the person espousing the idea is taking a model for how they think the world should be, and applying it irrelevant of evidence.

The problem is, this only makes sense if you think that you learn nothing from receiving help, and that the world will queue up more difficult challenges as you progress. The former is absurd, because you can learn from seeing what others do, and the latter simply doesn’t reflect how the world works. Yes, the challenges we face can escalate as a result of our actions, but the world isn’t trying “keep up with you as you level.” That’s an abstract concept that has limited relation to reality.

There’s a legitimate idea that if you become dependent on others to help you, and they abandon you, you’ll have nothing to fall back on, but that’s justifying a philosophy with the most extreme scenario.

There’s also the inverse, if you’re burning resources to deal with challenges, it can actually leave you in a weakened state if you’re insisting you need to face every challenge alone. Additionally, you probably won’t have anyone to call on, because you didn’t build those connections earlier.

In case it’s not clear, I don’t have a particularly high regard for the entire self-sufficiency argument. I’m fine with saying that you should prepare for the possibility that you’ll need to face challenges alone. It’s a good contingency to have. However, I don’t buy into the, “sanctity of being self-sufficient.”

With that said, there as a satisfaction from overcoming a challenge. As an individual, you may find greater satisfaction from overcoming it on your terms.

That’s the other end of this. I don’t think receiving altruism directly increases your resilience, however, I do think it’s a very reasonable consequence, so, let’s talk psychology.

Your overall mental health does affect a host of things. “Resilience,” is a pretty nebulous term, but your overall mental health does influence nearly all of those factors. It can improve your immune response. It can affect your emotional resilience. It can’t protect you from physical harm, but it can help you cope with that. It can even help offset fatigue. (You still need to rest, but it will help you push on.) This is not an exhaustive list. So, being in a good state of mind can help with all of those things. It can even help you cope with tragedies and misfortune.

Altruism can help with this, but it’s not just receiving it, being on the giving side can also provide that. There’s also a major caveat, the altruism needs to be a positive experience.

There’s a pair of psychological concepts, “boons,” and, “stressors.” You can find other terms for these, but the basic idea is sound. A boon is a, “nice,” experience. It makes you feel better about your life in a small way. A stressor is a negative experience, and it wears on you. Individually, none of these will change your life, or even ruin your day. However, when you start stacking stressors together, it can have a corrosive effect. Similarly, when you start stacking boons together, it can make a significant difference, and help you deal with the challenges you face.

As an example of a stressor: I have a burn on my hand from the coffee press back flushing and spraying boiling water over my hand on Friday. That was not fun. It didn’t make my day better. Individually it didn’t ruin the day, but these kinds of experiences can stack up. And, yes, this a valid example; boons and stressors can be very minor things. Even a brief conversation with a friend can be a boon.

So, why do I have an issue with, “altruism makes you more resilient?” Because it’s a boon. In some situations it’s a significant one. That kind of help can make you feel a lot better about yourself, your life, you future. In turn, that can increase your overall mental health, and increase your resilience.

Please note the conditional statements. “…that kind of help can make you feel better…” “…that can increase your overall mental health…” It is not certain that it will. Remember the people who view accepting help as a weakness. For someone like that, receiving help can be a stressor. If they need it, or cannot refuse it, it’s an indictment of their self-sufficiency. Meaning, two people, in similar situations, can receive the same help, and have radically different psychological responses.

Remember when I mentioned that overcoming a challenge on your own terms can result greater satisfaction? That’s a boon. So, there are circumstances where someone will benefit from facing and overcoming their challenge alone. This is a factor in whether or not help will be beneficial. To be blunt, this isn’t simple. Someone may need help, but not want it, or state that they don’t want it for appearances, when assistance would be welcome.

As a general statement, altruism will be more beneficial than not. However, the topic is a bit more nuanced than just, “receiving altruism makes you more resilient.”


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Q&A: Self-Defense Goals

I have a 5’4. 110 lbs woman who knows self defense. She gets in a bar fight with a guy who is much bigger than her. (Think 6ft, 250) Would her training trump the guy’s size and strength? (And that he doesn’t know self defense) My beta reader thinks not. They also think that whether the guy is drunk or not doesn’t matter. True? If it is. What kind of training would she need to make her winning plausible?

There’s a lot of detail here, but there are two questions you need to ask yourself, something that needs to be remembered and one error that needs to be addressed.

First, does she actually remember her training, or was this something she did six years ago and mostly forgot? If its the later, her training isn’t going to be that helpful. We talk about the importance of updating your training, but you also need to practice. Updating means you’re also getting refreshers on a regular basis. If you don’t have access to that, you’ll lose things. Stuff that requires a partner will go first, though, it is possible you’ll eventually file a lot of your training away and forget about it. You can get this back if you take a moment to recall. In a fight, you don’t have a moment to dig up your training; you need it already there.

Worth remembering that combat training is the least valuable thing in a competent self-defense course. Most situations can be averted long before they turn violent.

Being drunk is significant. Remember that intoxication is a spectrum from slightly buzzed to barely able to stand. However, unless they already had ingrained hand to hand training, it will quickly render them unable to fight, with rare exceptions.

Second, is she willing to use her training? This sounds similar, but there’s a real social stigma against engaging in violence, particularly for women. It’s easy to think, “Hurting people is bad, and makes you a bad person,” even in situations where a violence is appropriate. If you feel it is important to be “a good person,” it can create a serious dilemma. Her self-defense course should have addressed this, and gotten her comfortable with the idea of using her training, but it’s not guaranteed those lessons took hold.

Self-defense isn’t “a martial art.” It’s a combat objective. This is how you want to use your martial arts training. In the US today, most “self-defense,” is a modified form of Judo. This form only dates back to the mid-twentieth century. That doesn’t mean it’s the only option, as a lot of martial arts can be adapted for use in self-defense. I specified, “a competent self-defense course,” before, because you will find less scrupulous schools billing their normal classes as, “self-defense.” You miss out on a lot. You don’t learn threat assessment, how to manage escalation, or how to create an exit. Worst case, you may not even learn martial arts that will be useful in a live situation.

I tend to paint those schools pretty harshly, but it is possible they have good intentions. The problem is that, as I’ve said, the hand to hand component is a small part of self-defense training. It is important, but it’s the act of last resort.

The last part here, and the major issue is a single word in the final sentence. You don’t take self-defense classes to win fights.

If you want to win fights? Take up boxing, Muay Thai, MMA, or any number of other competitive sports.

You take self-defense classes to learn how to extract from a bad situation. Self-defense teaches you how to quickly neutralize an attacker and escape.

Winning is for prize fights. Self-defense is about getting you out of there in one piece. It is not about getting into a stand up fight and beating your opponent into submission. It is about making sure your attacker cannot follow you.

So, if some drunk guy attacked her, yeah she could put him on the ground, no problem. However, bar fights are nasty, and her goal should be to get out of there as fast as possible, not stick around for a Pyrrhic “win.”

It may sound like I’m being overly pedantic here, but it is a very important concept. Combat training (whether that’s hand to hand or armed), sets specific objectives. You don’t train, “to fight,” you train to achieve those goals. If your goal is to kill someone, train to kill people. If your goal is self-defense, train to create an opening and escape. When to train to fight, you’re learning to prolong combat, and wear your opponent down. This does not work when you go up against someone who trained to end combat efficiently.

Pop culture teaches you to fight (badly.) It draws out the engagements, prolonging the experience is for entertainment value. If you don’t have a background, it’s easy to think this is how combat works. If your attacker doesn’t have a background, and is just going off what he’s learned from Chuck Norris films, he’s going to lose. He cared about winning. Your character doesn’t, her only objective is to get out safely, and she can do that without getting into a prolonged fight. In fact, it’s easier for her to do that without letting the fight go on. She throws him and, while he’s trying to get back on his feet, she bolts. That’s it, fight’s over, she’s gone.


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Q&A: Embrace the Scrap Pile

Hi guys! I’ve just spent a solid two chapters building up to/procrastinating on a grand battle and I can procrastinate no longer. The enemy is right frigging there. Any tips on writing this monster from the perspective of A) an army general/king/etc (someone physically there and able to see what’s going on from a ((ttly safe)) distance) and B) someone in the thick of it? We’re in a fantasy setting with swords, arrows and pirates on a river in the desert, if that plays any relevance.


I feel like I’ve written this recently, but a general writing tip would be: don’t procrastinate. If a scene isn’t necessary, take it out. Every word in your finished work should serve a purpose. If a scene does not need to be there, it shouldn’t.

With that in mind, there’s no shame in writing scenes no one will read. You never know when a useful turn of phrase or a good idea will appear. If something works in an unnecessary scene, set it aside and save it for later. We learn from doing, so your scrap pile is a valuable collection of experience and experiments.

The joy of your scrap pile is that you have complete freedom. “How do I do this?” is a question best answered in experimentation. Write your battle. If you’re not satisfied with what you wrote, go back and do it differently. Keep at it. Learn the things you like, the things that fit what you want. Remember those, and throw out the things that disappointed you.

On your question: preparation for battle lets you set the stage before it begins. You can show the forces your characters are commanding. You can cover their readiness and morale. You can examine what your characters know about the enemies they’re about to face. You can discuss their plan of attack.

For example: You can literally show the troops on your side. Your characters can walk among them inspecting how prepared they are. They can talk to them, either individual or collectively. This basic set up can change dramatically from if you’re dealing with professional soldiers or if you have mercenaries and irregulars who are already weary from a long campaign. In fact, in a larger work, you can track the deterioration of the army as a campaign wears on.

The environment is vitally important for you. Moving over rough terrain will wear more heavily on your forces. Loose sand is extremely taxing to move through. It will slow them down and exhaust them. Unless they’re at a bridge or ford, the river creates a natural barrier which they’d be unable to cross. This is means they can’t be flanked from that direction, but it also means they can’t move in that direction, would be easier to surround, (because you don’t have to get behind them.)

As for how to explain what the creature looks like, you need to describe it. Remember that in prose you have access to all five senses. Okay, four senses, taste would be a little weird in this context. Work out a mental image for how the creature moves, and keep track of how it behaves. Keep track of details. Things like physics can sell the “substance” and reality, of your monster on the battlefield.

The big thing is just, don’t be afraid to rewrite the battle with something radically different if you’re not happy with your draft.


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Q&A: Historical Research

Hi! First of all I love your blog ! So i’ll try to say this as clearly as i can: basically how to write accurate and realistic fights scenes, with miedeval weapons in my case, and develop fighting strategy when you have 0 notions in these domains? My characters are knights , they master specific weapons and strategies of battle. But i have no idea how to put it with words. Sorry for my english. 🙂

Depending on your native language, that may be an asset. There are a lot of surviving training manuals out there, and most were written in languages other than English. Being able to read German, Italian, Spanish, or even French can be a huge boon to studying how these weapons were used historically.

If you want to get a look at this stuff, Wiktenauer is an open source wiki focused on collecting, and digitally preserving, surviving primary sources. Expect to do a lot of reading. Understand that what you learn won’t be 100% correct. Keep an eye on things you’re warned not to do, because it means people did that often enough to piss off the author.

You may also want to do some basic reading on the exact timeframe you’re looking for. Weapons and armor were constantly changing and evolving.

There’s a lot of good literature on historical battlefield tactics and strategy. I can’t make recommendations for your native language, but I am sure the material exists. Nothing will give you better examples of how people fought in history than studying how actual battles played out. Detailed battlefield maps which track troop movements, is a major plus. This will help you see how the forces were arrayed and fought.

A slightly oddball suggestion would be Medieval II: Total War. I haven’t played that entry, but the Total War series present semi-realistic battlefield strategy playgrounds. This can teach you basic concepts, and let you experiment with strategies. The downside is (if later games are anything to go by) some of the systems are going to be poorly explained. The game doesn’t force “proper” deployment structures, so you would be free to make mistakes without learning from them. The game is focused on the entire army operating together, so you couldn’t focus on just your knights. It doesn’t do small scale skirmishes between a couple units, it’s focused on full armies clashing. If you’re zooming in on the units, don’t expect to learn a lot about how to use a weapon, the animations are fairly primitive. Finally, you might want to verify your language is supported.

Even video games are not your thing, there is a lot of potential in tabletop wargaming. This is going to be somewhat dependent on finding a game that fits the time and place you’re focusing on. Normally I’d suggest checking Avalon Hill’s back catalog, but the translation issue makes that a bit tricky.

For strategy, I’m certain The Art of War has been translated to your native language, and even if the book itself would be anachronistic, it is something worth reading to help with the mindset you’re looking for.

I hope this helps get you started.


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Q&A: Badly written Violence

What are your biggest pet peeves when it comes to portrayals of something violent?

A few things come to mind: Violence without purpose, violence without consequence, and violence without thought.

A basic piece of writing advice holds: Everything in your story needs to serve a function. If it’s not building your world, characters, or advancing your plot, cut it. You may have written something you enjoyed, but if it doesn’t serve a purpose in your story, it should not be there. Violence is no exception; it can do any of those. The best fight scenes do all three at once.

When someone inserts a fight scene because, “there should be a fight here,” that’s where I check out. It’s easy to understand how this happens. I don’t have a problem with gratuitous violence, but if it’s not doing something for the story, it should have been cut.

There’s a few wrinkles here. Visual media (both comics and in video) can get away with stylish violence. If you are here for the spectacle they can satisfy. The extreme end of this is probably Kill Bill: Vol. 1, where the entire film is just one spectacle fight after another with the context stripped out. Except, each one does what a scene needs to. They explore the characters, build the world, and advance the plot, almost entirely through violence.

The other wrinkle is games. Not just video games; any game. Violence can be adapted into a rewarding play loop. You can build your entire play experience around violence and have an enjoyable game. Many strategy games build of the idea of managing violence, whether that’s a battle or a war.

Roleplaying games, both tabletop and electronic often have a heavy focus on combat systems. Some of this is because D&D was originally developed by tabletop wargamers, and that influence cast a long shadow on the genre. If you’ve ever participated in a tabletop D&D campaign, you’ll be familiar with entire nights lost to a few minutes of combat. You can build entire RPGs around nothing but violence. In video games this where things like Diablo came from. Taking the experience of traditional RPGs and distilling it into a pure combat gauntlet.

If I’m being completely fair, any scene can suffer from lacking purpose. This isn’t a problem exclusive to violence, however, it is easier to accidentally build your world and characters by letting them talk.

The second issue is somewhat related to the first, violence without consequences is deeply unsatisfying. If the violence changes nothing, then it has no purpose in the story, but it goes beyond that. It’s not like I’m looking for specific, or even negative, consequences from violence. I’d just like to see some indication that your character was almost killed a couple pages back.

Violence is messy, it’s destructive. Having characters roll over from a fight like nothing happened without any aftermath just causes me to ask, “why bother?”

Violence can instantly remove characters from your story. It can introduce new challenges, such as lasting injuries, further complicating characters’ lives, or even just draining resources. If it’s not doing anything, why use it? This is a very dynamic tool for a writer. It kills me when an author pulls it out and does nothing with it.

This last one is a little more complex. When a character’s approach to violence is irreconcilable to the rest of their identity, that’s a hard no. This can crop up in a lot of ways, but it starts with the author thinking about violence as a flavor for their scene, and not a part of their story.

“My character is a good person, they would never kill!” as they leave someone stranded, and wounded, hundreds of miles from civilization, in a hostile environment that will ensure they don’t make it out alive. This is a Bond villain routine being passed off as moral high ground.

Shooting to wound ends up in here. The author wanted to use guns, without the morally icky idea of killing people, “so let’s just set those firearms to stun,” like they’re fucking phasers. (And, no, shooting to wound is not a thing. You can bleed to death from a limb almost as easily as a center mass hit.)

Violence is ethically complicated. You can have an ethical system to moderate yourself, but if you’re going to engage in violence, you will harm others. If “being a good person” is important to you, you need to spend some time meditating the ethics of violence. So of course, you get the authors who are sure that, so long as their character doesn’t personally drop the hammer, whatever horrors they inflict on their foes are entirely acceptable.

In fairness, I have a pretty low tolerance for hypocrisy, so this may be related.

If your character is going to engage in violence, be honest with yourself about the kind of person they would be. Violence, and the will to commit violence affect you as a person. This holistic, and affects the entirety of you you are. Including characters who have that capacity affects your story. Again, the entirety of your story. “But my character’s a good person, they would never…” And that’s when I start pounding my head into the desk, because anything other response would end with, “…and that’s when I shot them, Your Honor.”

Like I said, violence is a fanatic tool for an author. I love it. However, if you’re going to use it, actually use it. Don’t just pull it out as a way to break up a few scenes, and go right back to where you started.

The ethics of violence is an incredibly deep subject, there’s a lot of stuff to talk about, and it absolutely kills me when an author tries to table the entire thing in favor of logic that would have been embarrassing in a Saturday morning cartoon.


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