All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Refurbished Criminals

Do you know if it actually happens that the police (or similar force) would hire or work with a criminal with great fighting abilities? Because they would be expendable? Or is that just a trope used in fiction? I can hardly imagine that it’s true, but informants are a thing (from what I know), so such a kind of arrangement doesn’t seem to be too far fetched?

If I’m being blunt, I don’t remember seeing, “great fighting abilities,” being cited in one of those examples. Usually, what you’ll see is something like, “they’re a great thief,” or, “they’re a genius hacker,” not, “they’re an artist with a crowbar.”

If a police force needed combat specialists for something, they already have those. Both in their own SWAT units, and also from ex-military members of their own organization. (It’s also distinctly possible that these groups would overlap. So you can get an ex-military SWAT team member.)

The irony is, you’d be hard pressed to find a real criminal, “combat specialist.” Violence doesn’t pay the bills. It is a tool that can used during the commission crime, but violence is only one aspect.

The best you can hope for is, like with cops, that your criminal has a military background. That’s not far fetched. They’ll understand how to fight and manage their foes, but by necessity, their specialty will be something that actually pays.

For law enforcement, violence is a tiny part of the job. Far more often, they’ll be showing up after the violence is over, and piecing together what happened. When looking at the aftermath of a violent crime, having a, “combat specialist,” on hand isn’t going to be that useful. After all, investigating a violent crime is a detective’s job. They are specialists. There’s not much insight a “combat specialist” can give a detective who spends their days studying murders for clues. For a detective, violence isn’t mysterious.

Now, reformed career criminals do have a real option selling their expertise as consultants. When you’re looking to shore up your company’s security, being able to hire a former criminal to learn about the weaknesses in your organization can be a major boon. And some reformed criminals do offer consulting services. Want to learn how a professional would break into your building? Hire an ex-thief. Want to know how a con artist would get access to your client data? Learn about social engineering from the people who used it.

There’s an entire field of security called Penetration Testing (or just “Pen Testing”), where you hire someone to break into your security. This could be a hacker, or a thief. At that point, you’re paying them to find ways to break in, so you can use the information they find to improve your security. Kevin Mitnick is one example, but there are a number of others.

Law enforcement organizations may choose to use outside consultants for specialized training. This could include people with criminal backgrounds explaining their methodology. However, in most cases, this would be things things the police are already familiar with from their own investigations.

What you would not see is the cliche of an ex-criminal who works alongside detectives in their investigations. That doesn’t happen. Any half-sentient defense attorney would be able to rip apart an investigation which included criminals as investigators. Because of cultural prejudices, criminals (and former criminals) don’t have a lot of credibility. While you can argue the merits of it, this is a cultural norm. As a result, criminal witnesses and investigators are far less useful than ones with a clean record. The closest you’d get are informants.

Informants are a complex topic on their own. The short version is, they don’t assist in the investigation, they report information they have to the police. In the simplest terms, they are just another witness, the only unique thing about them is that the police have “cultivated” them. They may enjoy informal protection from prosecution over minor crimes if they’re useful. This, in turn, means their credibility is virtually non-existent in court, and as a result, the police need to justify their findings.

With a criminal investigation, it’s not about the end result; it’s about creating a complete picture of what happened, and showing how you put that together from the available information. The entire concept of, “expendable,” doesn’t apply, because it’s all part of the picture.

Using criminals because they’re expendable is a thing, just not for law enforcement. For example, if you’re working for an intelligence agency, having criminals you can use and discard can be situationally useful.

Again, you’re probably not going to grab criminals for their combat expertise. If your operation requires combat specialists, you’re better off tapping your nation’s Tier One operators. The only thing a criminal combatant would be good for is a distraction.

Ironically, that same lack of credibility makes criminals very appealing for spies. If something goes wrong, if the criminal tries to burn them, who’ll believe a burglar? Especially when “they’ll say anything to save their own skin?”

Since someone will probably mention it, one scenario where you’d have cops working with criminals is when the cops are also criminals. The widespread corruption within Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department comes to mind as a good example of this. However, at that point, you wouldn’t be looking at a real investigation, you’d basically be looking at criminals (some with badges, some without), either trying to protect themselves or attack their rivals.

On the whole, the criminal working with cops motif is a method to spice up “Odd Couple” cop teams. It has very little relation to reality, and is entirely about trying to generate drama between the characters. There are ways an ex-criminal can put their experience to use without breaking the law, but getting partnered with a by-the-book, “too old for this shit,” cop isn’t one of them.

-Starke

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Q&A: Platform

Fanfiction is good for creativity and can lead to great works. Which is good, I believe it (I’ve seen it). But how did 50 Shades get published?

angel-starbeam

In the specific case of E. L. James, she got there because of the enormous traffic that Fifty Shades of Grey generated over the years. Both as a Twilight fanfiction, and later after it was rewritten and published as e-books and in PoD variants. It spent roughly a year in that format before a publisher looked at the sales numbers and picked up the license for the trilogy. (For what it’s worth, I don’t know whether E. L. James approached Vintage Books, or if Vintage pursued the license based on buzz and PoD sales.)

So, how did this happen? A couple of things worked together. The original fan fiction was very popular. Popular enough to get readers to migrate onto a private site to read it. That’s a big deal. It’s relatively easy to cultivate a following on a social media site, but most people won’t jump to a separate site (even if they’re following a link.)

Fifty Shades hit a market niche that wasn’t being served. For our purposes now, it’s enough to understand that E. L. James’s specific take offered something that was absent in the mainstream romance genre. It is also important to understand that the romance genre is incredibly popular; so while Fifty Shades isn’t to my taste or (apparently) yours, a lot of people were willing to pay for it.

The short version is that Fifty Shades is a little bit of an anomaly. However, not as much as you might think.

The traditional publishing model was: You’d write your book, take it to agents, find one who’d shop it around to publishers and get it in print. With the growth of the internet, it’s become increasingly common to see new authors publishing their first works on their website. Authors such as David Wong and Dmitry Glukhovsky took similar approaches, publishing (what would become) their first novels online, with print releases coming much later, after their success was demonstrated.

One way to tilt the original model in your favor is by being able to show agents and publishers that there’s already a market for your work. If you can approach an agent and say, “I’m popular over here, and it will lead to sales,” it will make you more attractive. (If you’ve ever wondered how people like William Shatner or Snooki got published, here’s your answer.) This is a new way to demonstrate that. If fifty-thousand people will read your novel online, that tells an agent that there is a market for your work.

Self-publishing to your website isn’t a sure thing. Using the example of David Wong above, he was able to accrue around 70k unique hits during the time that John Dies at the End was on his website. That wasn’t enough to immediately convince publishers that the book was worth their time. (I can’t find full citations for those numbers at the moment, so treat the statistics with a grain of salt.)

Platform building can be a very important part of selling your book. Being able to say, “these are my fans,” can go a long way towards convincing an agent, or publisher, to take you seriously. The shape your platform takes is less important than the people on it. This can include fanfiction. A good example of that is Cassandra Clare, who got her start writing Harry Potter fanfics. She built her platform off that, and was able to bring in numbers that, when she was ready to jump over to original content, got the attention of publishers.

I’m focusing on the success stories here because we started with a discussion about E. L. James. For most people, the traditional model offers you best odds. An experienced literary agent is better equipped to advocate for your interests when negotiating with a publisher. A publisher who stands behind your work is better able to promote and distribute your novel.

E. L. James succeeded without that support, which is an extraordinary feat. Whatever your feelings on Fifty Shades, it was already success before it got in the door.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fanfic

Why do fanfic have a bad reputation when some of it is actually good or better than than the source material? Is writing as a guest for TV shows or writing a reimagined fairytale not fanfiction?

The key word here is, “reputation.” There’s a lot of really bad fanfiction out there. That reputation is earned. It’s not new. While particular “luminaries” of Harry Potter or Twilight fanfiction may immediately come to mind, we get things like the term Mary Sue from a Star Trek fanfic originally published in the 70s. This has been around for a long time.

The other side is: yes, some fanfiction writing is excellent. As with writing in general, this is the extreme minority. I’d argue that quality writing in fanfiction is rarer than most forms, because the author is likely to “graduate” from fanfiction into something else.

Writing for a TV show is not like writing fanfiction. A fanfic author can do, nearly, anything they want. They have their interpretation of the setting they enjoy, and complete freedom to explore it. If you’re signing on to write an episode of a TV series, you’re already constrained in a number of ways.

First: attaching to an existing property means you’re also going to have to contend with the style guides and setting bibles. In some cases, being attached to a tie-in novel means you’ll be fed your entire plot outline, handed documentation, and told, “write this.”

Second: as a writer in Hollywood you have the least influence on the final product. The director will take your script and then, kinda, do what they want with it. Along the way, the producers, the network, and actors may all influence it as well. Some of your ideas will end up on screen, but it’s not your work anymore. It’s a team effort. (Depending on your exact relationship with the director, your experiences may vary.)

The fantasy is that you will have freedom with the characters that you love, and your material will become entrenched in the canon. The reality is that you won’t have that kind of creative freedom.

Now, if it sounds like I’m being too harsh here; that’s what you give up. Many fanfic authors have broken into the industry because they were okay with giving up some creative freedom to professionally work on the properties they loved. There’s nothing wrong with someone doing this, but in the process they’ll be departing from fanfiction and moving into a professional writing gig.

Re-imagining a fairy tale, legend, or myth event can be fanfiction, even in commercial releases. You’re not wrong about this one.

Remember, I said the fanfiction reputation is earned. There’s a lot of bad fanfiction out there. However, that’s not the criticism it sounds like. In the range of statistics completely unmoored from empirical study; I suspect the vast majority of fiction writers begin with fanfiction. Even if I’m wrong about that, many do.

It’s important to understand that writing is like any other skill. You get better with practice. New writers make mistakes. Good writers learn from their mistakes, and grow.

Fanfiction becomes a safe environment for a new writer. It lets them experiment without having to take on the heavy lifting of things like world building, or creating an entire cast of characters from the start.

For many writers, fanfiction is a temporary home. You’ll outgrow it. Some choose to stay, it’s hobby, not a career, but they’re the minority. Most who try it will either move on to creating their own work, or decide this isn’t for them.

The result is fanfiction sees all the mistakes of new writers, and very little of experienced writers. Mocking someone for having been a fanfiction writer is a bit like mocking someone for having attended high school. It probably happened, wasn’t their finest hour, and doesn’t reflect on who they are now.

The thing about re-imagining a fairy tale is, while you’re not wrong, we all do that. The truth about fanfiction is none of us exist in a vacuum. We all read, we all watch things, we all draw inspiration from things we encounter. The media we consume shapes the media we create. In that sense, fanfiction is just the first step to making something of your own.

Don’t be content with who you are, when you can be more.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fight Scene Length

Do you have any advice for scene length/impact? I’m realizing that if writing a three page play by play of a sword fight is hard, reading it must be even worse, so I’m trying o shorten it up without diminishing its importance or the impact it’s supposed to have.

Usually, the shorter the better. I’ve talked about this before, but different mediums lend themselves to different approaches to combat.

Film and games thrive on a longer, drawn out, format. In a film, each strike can carry individual drama because you’re getting the responses of the actors. Film can also thrive on spectacle, a visually exciting environment and engaging choreography can sell a fight that, on paper, is fairly dull.

Comics thrive on spectacle. It’s not about how long the fight is, it’s about being able to have dynamic moments that your artist can bring to life. If you have that, your fight can be one panel or it can comfortably go for pages. I haven’t pointed this out before, but in comics, as a writer, you really need an artist who fits what you’re trying to do. You’re equal parts of a team.

In prose, you want your fights to be as brief as necessary. Note: “As brief as necessary.” If it’s just a fight between two characters, that can be over in a couple paragraphs. Even if it’s part of a larger battle, that stuff can be pushed to the side for this individual fight. However, background elements can intrude, extending the fight. For example: If a fight is interrupted by other characters, and one chooses to break combat to escape, you could have a much longer encounter without resorting to a blow by blow.

You want to avoid a rhythm of repetition at all costs. RPGs can easily break down combat into round after round of, “I hit them with my axe,” and the sound of dice rolling. There’s nothing wrong with that in that format. The experience that sells that is three fold: First: You’re a participant. This isn’t something affecting a character you care about, it’s affecting your proxy in the story. Second: The outcome is not preordained, you’re still rolling dice. Third: It was never about the content to begin with, it’s the people you’re there with. So combat that gets repetitive isn’t a problem because it’s not the main event. This is not true in prose, and one of the most dangerous things about transposing combat from a game system into prose.

This may sound a little stupid but, each time your character acts they should be trying to achieve a goal. Yes, “harming my foe,” is a legitimate objective, but if they can’t do that directly, they shouldn’t resort to, “I’m going to repeat the same action a dozen times hoping for a different result.”

If your character is in a fight, they try to attack their opponent, and the attack is defended, they need a new approach.

There are a few things your experienced character should do that will help with this. First, they don’t start with direct attacks, their first goal should be to test their opponent’s defenses. So, they’ll start with probing attacks, looking for weaknesses in their foe’s defenses. They’ll be studying how their opponent moves. On the page, there’s a huge difference between a character simply attacking, and specifically trying to tease their opponent’s parry to get a look at it. Once they have a solid grasp of how their foe fights, then they’ll probably move in for the kill. This could be complicated by other events. This is the background, the environment, or even sustained injuries. This stuff is not safe, and minor miscalculations could result in your character being injured, which then becomes a complication they’ll need to deal with as the fight progresses. If your character can’t exploit their foe’s weaknesses, they’ll need to find a way to open them up. This could include attempting to wound in order to create a future opening, or forcing them into a disadvantageous position. Once they’ve taken control of the fight and gotten it to a position where they have a decisive advantage, then they’ll kill.

While your character is trying to take control of the fight, an experienced foe will be doing the same. Obviously, if only one character knows what they’re doing, it will seriously impact how all of this plays out, and the fight will be very one-sided. It’s entirely possible the veteran will simply disarm and kill the rookie.

Impact is a more complex concept. I think the simplest way to describe it is: Impact is determined by how quickly, and sharply, and scene goes wrong for the characters.

In a fight scene, you want to clean it up quickly because your readers will get bored. When you’re asking about impact, you need to it to resolve fast or the impact is lost. The scene needs to transition from, “thing are going well,” to, “everything’s fucked,” in as few words as possible.

For example: Let’s look at that template above. You start with your protagonist testing their foe’s defenses, finding an opening, and moving their foe to a position where they think they have the advantage. Their opponent is struggling to deal with their assault, and then when they’re about to press and kill them, their enemy lops off your protagonist’s sword arm and executes them.

The part where things are going well can be longer, but it needs to go wrong, roughly, that fast. You can also foreshadow this in a lot of ways. If you’ve established that their foe is a more skilled swordsman than you’re seeing in that fight, you’ve warned the audience that this will happen, but in the moment they’ll think your protagonist is just that awesome, or that the villain’s reputation was unearned. It’s only after the walls are painted in blood that they realize you realize your protagonist walked into a trap.

The second thing about impact is, your audience will acclimate very quickly. You can get away with a hard shift like this, maybe, once per story. If you’re reusing characters, you don’t get that back, you’ve already turned things sideways once. If you want to hit hard again, it needs to be completely different. In the example above, if you started by killing a protagonist, you’re not going to get that kind of impact with another death. You’ve already told your audience that you’re willing to go there, and doing it again isn’t going to surprise anyone.

Fight scenes need to be as short as necessary. Impact has to as fast and hard as possible.

There is no, “this number of words/pages,” for how long a fight should be, because the answer will be different. It depends on the specific scenario. It depends on your style as a writer. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. The only universal answer is that you don’t want to waste words in a fight scene.

-Starke

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That’s Not How This Works

As a general rule, I don’t like to do this. We do get follow ups sometimes, and if it’s something I’d just tear into, normally, I’d let it slide.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy tearing a part a poor argument; less so when it was offered with innocent intent.

Hi. Regarding the anon who asked about daggers vs sword. I have some thoughts on the matter that might help. Daggers can go up against bigger weapons. The key is to understand the pros and cons of each weapon and the strengths and weaknesses of each wielder and use that to level the playing field. Plus no one said you have to fight fair. The sword has reach, but any opponent will have trouble fending off attacks from two directions… (part 1)

(Part 2) … With swords it’s about momentum and power, with daggers it’s speed. So, the swordsman will need better footing and more space. If the dagger wielder is smart, he/she can create a reasonable chance of winning. If your opponent is stronger, you have to be smarter and faster. If your opponents outnumber you, seperate them or increase your number. Everyone has weaknesses, exploit those while maximising your strenghts. It will still be a stiff fight but it gives you better odds at least

There are so many things wrong here. So, give me a second, and I will recount the ways:

Hi. Regarding the anon who asked about daggers vs sword. I have some thoughts on the matter that might help.

You are correct, you have “some thoughts.”

Daggers can go up against bigger weapons. The key is to understand the pros and cons of each weapon…

If you just stop here, it’s fine.

and the strengths and weaknesses of each wielder and use that to level the playing field.

And there we go.

No.

The entire purpose to a knife is that you do not want a level playing field. In combat, you never want a level playing field. When you are fighting to kill someone, and someone else is fighting to kill you, you do not want them to succeed. The safest way to ensure you win is by seeing that your opponent doesn’t even have a chance to fight.

A level playing field is just an invitation to getting yourself killed. For, somewhat obvious reasons, you do not want this.

Incidentally, yes, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent a very important thing. You want to engineer a situation where you’re at your strongest, and they’re at their weakest.

Plus no one said you have to fight fair.

We, literally, have a tag called, “the only unfair fight,” referencing the longer phrase, “the only unfair fight is the one you lose.”

More than that, Michi specifically referenced the use of the dagger as an ambush weapon. Those are also, ironically, some of the first words out of her mouth whenever we get a question on daggers.

The sword has reach, but any opponent will have trouble fending off attacks from two directions…

I realize this may sound novel, but you can’t flank someone by dual wielding. Your arms aren’t that long. You are attacking someone from one direction. If you want to attack them from two directions simultaneously, you need an accomplice. Amusingly, that’s a time when a dagger will shine. Your friend, with their sword, ties up the fighter while you slip in and shank them a couple dozen times in the kidney.

Ironically, again, this is what the parrying dagger in conjunction with the sword is for. You lock up the opponent’s blade and then stab them. The difference here is you don’t have a long blade to reach your opponent. Even if the dagger could lock the sword up (see the original post for why it can’t), they’re still left with the original problem of getting close enough to their target to hit them.

Blocking with swords isn’t the same as it is with hand to hand martial arts or blunt weapons, because your goal is to maintain the blade’s edge. Swords don’t clang together, they slide around each other in an under/up or over/under fashion. Your goal is to use your blade to get your opponent’s blade off vector to miss you while creating opportunity for counter attack. You angle your blade so the opponent’s slides off the sharpened edge. However, with deflections you aren’t actually stopping the blade’s force which means if you don’t redirect it far enough then it can still connect and you run the risk of moving directly into it on your counter attack.

Daggers needs to be able to redirect their opponent’s blade long enough that they can move three feet forward past the kill zone to strike their opponent with one or both of their daggers. You’re talking a three to five seconds difference to the fraction of seconds it takes for the swordsman to adjust their grip and counter attack off the redirection. That’s if the sword didn’t hit another vital place, like Daggers adjusted the sword off center and the blade still pierced their ribs or their thigh.

This is the point you’re missing, they don’t have to retract the blade (they can, and cut Daggers up the side), a small change in grip and stance is all they need to change a thrust to a hewing strike. It came forward, went down, and now it’s switched to an upward diagonal that’s caught Daggers in their side as they’ve moved forward. That hew has cut between their ribs and punctured their left lung. The fight is now over, and Daggers will most likely die. That’s if the swordsman stops with the hew, instead of hewing up, drawing back (cutting more tissue on his way out), and thrusting again with the blade point in single action to pierce another body part like the central chest or the heart.

Again, they never have to move their feet forward or back to do this. All it takes is a slight adjustment in grip, arms, and foot position. A swordsman can thrust from a stable position without stepping forward if the opponent comes within range, they only need to move their feet if the opponent is outside the blade’s reach.

Reach translates to: how far do I need to move from my centralized stance to strike my opponent. This is the true power of weapon length. Two blades of equal length will translate to a single step forward for both parties from starting position. Daggers will require two to three because they are hand to hand range weapons, while the sword requires one or none depending on whether they are the aggressor or defender.

While hand to hand combat will always naturally move inward, swordsmen and most individuals who use weapons are trained to maintain distance between their opponent which is advantageous to them. They will move no closer than necessary in order to maintain their weapon’s effective range. While knights did practice grappling techniques with swords, if you don’t also possess one, the swordsman will never come close enough to you in a way you can utilize.

With swords it’s about momentum and power

No, that’s an axe. A sword is a shockingly agile weapon.

with daggers it’s speed.

Partial credit here, but it’s incomplete. The other major strengths of the dagger are how easy it is to conceal, and how small it is. The amazing thing about a dagger isn’t how fast it is, it’s that you can easily pull one in close quarters and shank them with a weapon they didn’t see coming.

Speed only means, once you’re there you can poke a lot of times in quick succession. The irony is that an individual knife wound isn’t likely to be that dangerous. It’s all the immediately following successive strikes that seal the deal.

Somewhat obviously, if you can’t get close enough to stab someone, you also can’t get close enough to stab them a couple dozen times.

The swordsman will need better footing and more space.

The footing part is backwards, in the original scenario, the dagger user would need vastly better footing. A sword user does need more strength, it’s true, but the sword remains an effective deterrent against getting to close even in extremely cramped environments. This is less true of some specific weapons, like the katana, and even more true of some other blades, like the epee, rapier, or estoc, which can be used in a tight hallway.

On footing, to borrow an old quote, “I do not think that word means what you think it does.” Footing is your ability to remain standing. If you think a sword has so much momentum that it will try to drag off balance, no. Just, no.

When you’re reading or watching a training sequence, and the instructor is telling the student they’re off-balance, or over-extending themselves, that’s a fault of the student, not the weapon. It’s a natural thing, a student will try to press their attack using their upper body and not simply advance. It’s simple, it’s a mistake, and it’s one that can be easily corrected.

Fighters should be able to fight on all terrain, but all they need is the ability to set their stance to establish their internal balance point to create a stable foundation from which to attack. The swordsman doesn’t actually need to move much in order to be defensive. He can control the fight’s tempo by advancing if he chooses, or he can wait for Daggers to come to him. It will depend on which of them is the aggressor. Either way, the swordsman will be the more stable of the two because he doesn’t need to veer as far off his central axis to create strong strikes.

I’ll explain stance based movement to you. One leg, your back leg, creates your central point when you move your front leg to create the necessary momentum for attack. If you thrust, the front leg moves and the back leg stays, lifting onto the ball of the foot. If you want to move forward on that thrust, the front leg will become your balance supporting leg in the moment it takes for your back leg to come forward and assume the next position. Forward, back, forward, back. Or, if you’re being attacked from a different vector, the back foot becomes your pivot point. Sideways, back, Sideways, back. Your defense is centralized on that back leg. Over-extension happens when you’re upper body reaches too far past the front leg, destabilizing your internal balance point. If you want to judge how far apart your legs need to be to maintain balance, it’s all in the shoulders. On the other hand, the wider apart your feet are, then deeper your stance needs to be. If you need to stretch really far to reach someone on a full extension, or even over-extension of your arms, you’re going to need to get really low. Likewise, the taller you are, the more your knees need to bend in order to maintain balance.

This centralized axis in your stance becomes the point for your entire combat foundation. And, yes, for the experienced fighter, this is as simple as breathing and very quick. The movements of the upper body coordinate with the legs and hips, relying on that strong foundation for effectiveness.

Daggers requires two steps or more to reach the swordsman before they can deal any sort of hit, while the swordsman requires one or none. That’s reach.

If the dagger wielder is smart, he/she can create a reasonable chance of winning.

As discussed, by shanking the swordsman rather than getting into a fight.

If your opponent is stronger, you have to be smarter and faster.

And strength has what to do with using a sword, exactly? To be clear, we’re talking about a sword, not a machete. You’re not trying to hack your opponent apart, you’re using three feet of steel to selectively disassemble your foe. It’s different.

Longswords, historically, weighed between one to five pounds. If you can pick up a house cat, you’re strong enough to use a longsword. Acclimating to the weapon’s balance is a matter of training; which can make a sword “feel” heavier than it is when you’re starting out.

The longsword is a weapon of leverage, you utilize your second hand to create a rapid 180 degree defense allowing you to go from foot to head in fractions of seconds with a minute adjustment to grip. There are no big swings with wide openings here, but a focus on small movements based around the target’s center with strike adjustments based off that axis.

Swords are very fast weapons. Because of leverage, a sword can actually be faster than a dagger. I realize this is a wild concept because it violates basic ideas about physics if you’re only looking at the weapons.

This is actually a problem for fencing as a spectator sport. Points are scored so fast it’s impossible for the audience to follow the action. Hell, it’s difficult for the judges. This part of why the sport has moved towards electronic scoring. Simply put, it’s more reliable.

If your opponents outnumber you, seperate them or increase your number.

If your opponent outnumbers you in a one on one fight, you may have bigger problems.

Kudos for mimicking the Giles translation of Art of War, but, the suggestion is misapplied.

There’s an interesting error here. Sun Tzu frequently advises that you divide your enemy’s forces (or their attention) in The Art of War. This is very good advice; an enemy who is forced to into multiple simultaneous engagements will have a harder time identifying and focusing on the real threat. However, Sun Tzu almost never talks about is recruiting more forces. There’s a simple reason for this: If more bodies were available, and the logistics could support them, they would have already been recruited.

He’s far more interested in offering ways to use the available resources as efficiently as possible. Remember, Sun Tzu was offering instruction on command. “Simply get more guys,” is a tactical choice that occurs at a ground level.

Everyone has weaknesses, exploit those while maximising your strenghts. It will still be a stiff fight but it gives you better odds at least

Well, if you’re planning for a fight, a good place to start would be not bringing a knife to a sword fight.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Art of War, I’d strongly recommend it. If you want a physical copy, you can pick from a wide variety of editions translations and annotated versions. It’s the rare book where I’ll just say, you should read this.

-Starke

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Q&A: Mysteries, Witnesses, and Informants

In a lot of detective stories there’s often a shady character who can find out questionable pasts/ information about suspects for the detective. They have widespread connections with both upperclass and the underworld. Do these people actually exist? And how would a character get in touch with them?

I’m going to be blunt for a second, characters like this are cheating. It’s not a deus ex machina, but it is a cheap way to consolidate exposition onto a single character. You’ve identified one of the weaknesses for the character in your question; how did the investigator first encounter this character?

With armchair detectives, this role often gets filled with a semi-sympathetic police detective. In that context, this character makes sense: they have a background that would familiarize them underworld activities. For example: If there’s a power struggle between organized crime families, it stands to reason that a detective who works that field would have some insight.

Similarly, a police detective is far more likely to know about criminal activities in high society because even they didn’t investigate it personally, they’ve probably heard rumors, or know the detectives who were involved.

Flipping this around, it’s not that outlandish to suggest a seasoned detective would have contacts in the criminal underworld. It’s a more complex situation, because those contacts would have to weigh the information they’re giving the investigator against how much it would expose them to reprisal.

If the contact is criminal, they might have insight on events in high society that were covered up. This could be the result of police investigations, or it could be the result of corruption.

Bridging the criminal contact’s information over to high society requires a very specific kind of cynicism about the world. Your setting needs to have solid ties between the people in power, and the criminal underworld. It’s not that this is an unrealistic cynicism, as there are real world examples where this fits. It also meshes nicely with noir as a genre, as that kind of criminal corruption elegantly fits the genre’s themes.

So, the short answer is, the right person, with the right contacts, and the right background, could know what your character needs. That’s a lot of things that need to align.

It’s just as plausible that your investigator would need to pick up each of the pieces individually.

So, let’s step back from all of this and talk about the genre: Mysteries, and this includes the entire detective genre, are puzzles. You’re presented with many pieces of evidence and asked to assemble this into a coherent chain of events. Your detective’s investigation is the act of collecting that evidence for the audience. This includes examining physical evidence, and also interviewing witnesses. In the process of their investigation, evidence and witnesses will lead to more evidence and witnesses. This is how an investigation (and a puzzle) grows.

I called this omniscient information broker as cheating earlier. The problem isn’t the existence of a witness who can finally give the detective context to solve the mystery, it’s when that character is omniscient and doesn’t flow from the investigation. This is the cliche you’re questioning.

If your detective is questioning someone, they need to be connected to the investigation somehow. This can be pretty flexible; for example, your detective might question people who worked maintenance or housekeeping for the building where the event happened. Maybe they think one of the employees saw something (either on the day of, or before.) They may question one of the participants’ associates in an attempt to learn about what was happening in their life before the event. They’re probably not going to wander off and check with someone, “because they know a guy.”

If your witness is giving information to the detective, you need to consider what they know, and also what they’re willing to reveal. A witness can’t tell your investigator something they don’t know, and they’re not going to (intentionally) provide information that will harm them. A character who knows all, and will share, is the antithesis of the genre.

Getting at secrets is something your investigator should be working towards. Who they are will determine what access they have. A cop or ex-cop will have vastly different resources compared to someone who was a friend of the victim.

Could you have a character that fits the cliche? Yes. As with most cliches, there are ways to make it work. They became cliches because they were very useful, and now the suspension of disbelief has started to crumble. There’s still the potential for interesting material here as well. Particularly if the, “omniscient” character has their own agenda and can’t be fully trusted.

Do these people exist in the real world? Actually yes, but not in the form you’re thinking of. Most people do become repositories of weird information over time. The exact intersection of criminal activities and high society has certainly occurred in a few places, so for example, a crime reporter in post-war LA, or 1960s Vegas would certainly fit that specific combo. A political operative in 1930s Chicago? Same situation. (And, without checking, I suspect I just described multiple James Ellroy novels.)

Do you need them? Probably not. In building your mystery, you can pick your witnesses, and you probably don’t need this specific collection of information.

How do you find them? By following the investigation.

-Starke

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Q&A: Black Markets

What do people actually buy on the black market? Some of the things they supposedly buy (hair, sperm) seem odd or are things you can easily get for free. Male order brides seem silly because no one is going to believe you got a Russian wife in a day (or wherever they’re from). Buying babies seems more like pedophilia than adoption. Organs also seem strange because you don’t know what you’re getting or if they’ll be comparable. Aside from guns, what do people actually buy if they aren’t silly?

The simple answer to the first question is: products and services where the demand is not satisfied by the legal markets.

The conventional products you’d expect to see here are weapons and drugs, though depending on the economy supporting that black market you could also see more essential items like medical supplies, fuel, or even food.

The easiest way to calculate this is to look at the open market value for a product, slap on the markup for going through the black market (this will modify based on how difficult or expensive it is to obtain, and how dangerous it is to be caught with it), adjust up a bit more based on perceived risk of using the black market (and, yes, this a subjective modifier), and then ask, “is the product available for less than that on the open market?” If the answer is, “no,” then the black market wins out.

Let’s focus on medicine for a second. Under normal circumstances, medicine is a fairly well regulated industry. It’s also one where the consumer has no choice whether to participate or not. There is a strong governmental interest in imposing quality control. The consumer doesn’t chose to need medicine, and when they do, they’ll be under duress. This need can be easily exploited by the unscrupulous. “Go into horrific debt or die.” At that point, a black market option starts to look a lot more viable. The downside is that all of the normal quality control you’d expect to see isn’t there, this isn’t the same stuff you’d be getting through legitimate channels, it’s the bathtub brewed equivalent. In some cases, it may not even be the same medication, it’s something just close enough.

So, the classics are weapons and drugs. There’s always a market for weapons, and you’ll always see advantages for bypassing legal channels. Drugs vary, but, if they’re illegal, that’s black market. Essentials like food and medicine only hit the black market when they’re not readily available.

Luxury items that are otherwise unobtainable also end up on the black market. Usually this is because the luxury items cannot be imported or possessed legally. This is most common in oppressive or isolationist regimes. While this might sound sexy, more likely it will be mundane objects to anyone living outside of that space. We’re talking about things like posters, music, movies, and other pop culture paraphernalia which isn’t legally available.

If you live in the US, an excellent example of a black market luxury item is the Kinder egg. These are small egg shaped chocolates which include a capsule with a toy inside. They’re illegal in the the US, as the design runs afoul FDA regulations, so you cannot legally bring them into the country, or (somewhat obviously) sell them. There is, in fact, a significant black market for them, both as candies and among collectors (for the toys inside.)

Finally, and this is really important, there is no unified, “Black Market.” There’s many small black markets for a number of different products. A drug dealer is a black marketeer, that does not also make him an arms dealer, nor does it mean they’re going to have a supply of Kinder Eggs to sell.

Okay, let’s revisit some other parts of this:

Some of the things they supposedly buy (hair, sperm) seem odd or are things you can easily get for free.

Citation needed. Actually, strike that, I don’t want citation on this. I’ve never heard of black market sperm. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a potential black market for bovine sperm, but human? Yeah, I’m not going to dig into that.

The only market I’m aware of for human hair is high end wigs. Most commonly, you’ll see this quality associated with patients undergoing chemotherapy, though there are a number of other reasons someone would want (or need) a wig. I’m not familiar with much of a black market for this stuff.

Male order brides seem silly because no one is going to believe you got a Russian wife in a day (or wherever they’re from).

The phrase that comes to mind in this case is, “doesn’t matter; had sex.”

“Belief” doesn’t factor into this. It’s not about being able to go to your friends and say, “yeah, see, someone likes me.” It’s about the sex. No one cares why you’re in a relationship, unless it’s clearly unhealthy.

Mail order brides may also be about the domestic duties associated with marriage in a given culture. Ultimately, the mail order bride is the recourse of someone so narcissistic they don’t even want to look at their sexual partner as a person.

Buying babies seems more like pedophilia than adoption.

Ew.

Second, no. This one does track back to the same factors which control a black market. Someone wants to adopt. They may not be able to have children themselves. There may be other factors. They’re also unable to adopt through conventional channels. So, they turn around, and throw money at the problem.

I’m not giving this a pass. There may have been very good reasons they weren’t able to adopt through normal channels. Also, legitimate adoptions do cost money. It’s not a free service, there’s fees and sometimes legal expenses involved.

To immediately jump to human trafficking is a bit extreme.

Organs also seem strange because you don’t know what you’re getting or if they’ll be comparable.

Last I checked, black market organ harvesting was basically an urban legend. Like you said, there wouldn’t be much of a market if the organ isn’t compatible. On top of that, extracting the organ isn’t really something you can do in a hotel room on short order. (At least, not without killing the donor.) Also it’s not like you can just show up at the hospital with a spare kidney and say, “yeah, plug this one in!”

Since I should probably say, non-consensual organ harvesting is possible, it’s just not the kind of thing that works at a black market level. This requires extensive institutional support.

Black Market anon: I had a thought! Are the organs actually for cannibals instead of organ donations? Apologies if this is too weird.

No. What? Why?

-Starke

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Would supersoldiers actually be useful in a modern army, or would technology make them obsolete before they could even happen?

firebird766-blog

It depends. A supersoldier isn’t a specific power set, it is simply a character who’s been augmented in some way. This could be biological, could be cybernetic, could even be mystical. Those enhancements could remain useful on the battlefield, even as technology evolves.

If your world has supersoldier programs, that will be part of technological advancement. There is an uncomfortable element to it where soldiers would actually become obsolete in favor of newer, more enhanced, recruits. In that world, augmentation would be seen as a necessary technological advantage. You’d still be chasing the next iteration of supersoldiers in order to keep up with your enemies.

So, biological upgrades are, probably, going to be a one and done. You probably can’t keep tinkering with the same organism indefinitely. That said, things like improved vision, increased reflexes, even just modified clotting factors could be useful in combat. In some ways, this is the variation most likely to age into obsolesce, and in this case it really matters what’s expected from the soldier.

With biologically enhanced supersoldiers all you’re really looking at are a new baseline for your soldiers. I’m also lumping in chemical enhancements here. So, if your supersoldiers were created using some kind of chemical cocktail, this is what we’re talking about.

If you’re expecting a biologically enhanced supersoldier to walk out in the open, soaking incoming fire, that’s not going to happen. If you’re asking for people who are enhanced beyond normal human limits, but are still, functionally human, then, yeah that works. Even facing advancing technology. Some things you can do with hardware, but if you have a soldier who doesn’t need NVGs, that’s one less thing that can go wrong in the field.

Cybernetic augmentations are bit more complicated, because depending on the implant architecture, you could simply swap out obsolete components. If you replaced a soldier’s eyes 20 years ago, and there are now better versions available, you can just pull them out and plug fresh ones in. In more extreme cases, like if their old eyes are using an interface that fell out of favor, you might have to replace a larger swath of components, but the basic idea is still solid. So, a cybernetic supersoldier probably wouldn’t be rendered obsolete if they had access to regular upgrades.

I suppose if you want to go the full Ghost in the Shell route, a human consciousness in a synthetic body would probably fall under this category as well.

There’s also some edge cases here, if you’ve got a cyborg where their implants are proprietary, you might not be able to upgrade them at all. This is trending into some really messed up discussions on human obsolescence, but the option is there.

There’s also a consideration here where you might be looking at supersoldiers who are enhanced by non-invasive technology. Technically anyone with contact lenses is a cyborg, so you could have supersoldiers wearing incredibly futuristic armor and qualify as “cyborgs,” even if it’s not what you’re normally thinking of.

Either way, cybernetic supersoldiers are more of a question whether you can stay ahead of the curve on tech.

Mystically empowered supersoldiers could be pretty much anything. Your soldiers are mystically enhanced somehow, and the results are going to directly follow the rules for magic in your world. More than the examples above, this stuff really can transition over into superheroes. Can this keep up with advancing technology? It depends on your magic. If the enhancements grow stronger over time, or manifest new abilities, then absolutely. If its fixed, then, maybe not.

In this case, more than the others, the major question becomes whether their foes can find to subvert the supersoldiers’ advantages. This isn’t about technology advancing, it’s about probing your enemy’s weaknesses, and finding a way to exploit them. If your characters are mystically enhanced and your foes realize that, they might have magical tricks up their sleeve. This is also true for the other varieties as well. For example: A cybernetically enhanced supersoldier might be shut down by their enemies using EMP weapons, or even exploiting software weaknesses.

Also worth knowing that developing supersoldiers is (probably) illegal under Article 35 of the Geneva Conventions. This is more of a real world consideration, so it’s something you may wish to disregard in your work, but it could also spur some story threads. The specific legal analysis is contested, so if you want to research that in more depth, feel free.

Finally a major consideration with supersoldiers is, what do you do with them when you’re done? Especially in more invasive modifications, like the cybernetic options above, it’s awkward. Eventually your soldiers will rotate out of the military and back to civilian life. Taking that out of the equation is incredibly messed up, and if you don’t, it’s a serious worldbuilding consideration.

Can supersoldiers be viable? It depends on your technology and what you want from them. Will they find themselves outdated by the newest iteration? It’s quite possible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Bad Opinion, No Biscuit

So… I have a protagonist and some of their opinions are supposed to be wrong. I know I’m supposed to show in the text that they’re supposed to be wrong, but how exactly do I do that? Thanks.

By calling them out on it.

I’m going to preface this by pointing out, depending on what those opinions are, this could be a lot more complicated than I’m going to address. Particularly if you’re lumping political, religious, or philosophical beliefs in with opinions.

So, how do you show when your protagonist is wrong about something? By showing that they’re wrong. By illustrating the errors in their judgement.

You can do that by having alternate PoV characters who bring external context to the reader. You can put this directly on the character, where their expectations don’t play out. You present the evidence they’re ignoring to the reader. You show that they’re wrong.

I’d say you don’t reward them for their opinions, but this does, actually, happen. People’s baseless opinions can be accepted as fact, and they can find success through that. However, in a fictional environment, you can regulate how much success someone finds with their views.

Important to remember that you cannot control who your audience sides with, even if you make it pretty clear where you stand. There are lot of people who look at Bill Foster (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down (1993), and can relate to the character, even though he’s a psychopath. This is intentional in the material, even as you’re supposed to understand how destructive his views are.

Fight Club is a similar situation. A lot of readers take Tyler Durden’s philosophy and accept that as the thesis of the book, even though the novel is satire, and is arguing against toxic masculinity.

Satire is an important thing to remember. Satire as a genre is where you forward an argument against your position, and then attack it. Depending on how you want present your position, having a protagonist with views you violently oppose can be a critical component for satirical work.

If the point is that your protagonist’s views are wrong, and you want to tear them down over that, you’re talking about satire, and you probably want to spend some time familiarizing yourself with that genre. A Modest Proposal is always the first example that comes to mind. However, satire can be a little tricky to read, because it does depend on your familiarity with the position it’s arguing against.

In the example above, Fight Club assumes you’re familiar the modern cultural stigma over men showing emotion (or in some cases, even admitting to experiencing them.) If this is new information, then you’re going to have a harder time understanding what the novel is about. It is a repudiation of the “solving your problems through violence,” solution that culture will happily place in front of men. Tyler Durden’s opinions and ideology are wrong, but that’s the point. Incidentally, this is the actual definition of “toxic masculinity”: the cultural stigma among men against expressing emotions, and being encouraged to look for aggressive outlets.

It’s also possible your character is an idiot, or at least, uneducated. No judgement there, there’s plenty of room for fools as protagonists. It’s a different kind of writing. If this is the case, then you’re looking at a character where they’re going do, and say, things that just unwise. When called on, they’ll offer responses that are consistent with their understanding of the world, but don’t really match the reality. There’s a lot of room for this. If this is what you want, it’s a fine approach. You just need to be careful to cue your readers in that their hero is a moron. Note: This isn’t incompatible with satire, if that’s your goal. It’s a bit heavy handed, but these aren’t mutually exclusive.

So, how do you manage your protagonist’s bad opinions? You show the audience that their view doesn’t mesh with empirical evidence.

-Starke

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