Category Archives: Q&A

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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Q&A: Throwing Knives Versus Throwing Knives, and Other Projectile Weapons

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: First of all, your explanation upon the dagger vs. sword battle is TRULY HELPFUL in my writing as I have no idea what to do about that kind of situation when one of my characters is in that scene. However, as you have stated, one shouldnt just carry a single dagger or a sword or a bow, and you must carry at least a bunch of weapons— So, what about someone who carries a handful of knives and is skilled in throwing them against someone with a sword? No matter the distance?

Are we talking about throwing knives or actually throwing knives, because one of those is a specific weapon type designed for projectile throwing and the other one is someone who likes to give their knives away. As a great Marine once said, “when you’ve thrown your knife, you’ve given your opponent your knife.”

Distance always matters. The type of projectile you have, its weight, is relative to understanding it’s effective range. I know you brought up throwing knives to get away from the range discussion, but, you know, different projectile weapons have effective ranges too. This is a question of force and momentum versus inertia and wind resistance. The weapon needs enough force behind it to not only reach its target but also impact at high velocity, otherwise it doesn’t do much.

A thrown weapon has a shorter effective range than a bow or a crossbow. The throwing knife has the additional problem of being much lighter than other throwing weapons like the throwing axe and the javelin, meaning it can’t travel as far. They’d still have to be decently close to the sword guy for their knives to maintain effect. A standard knife is even less aerodynamic than a throwing knife, meaning you need to be even closer. That’s not the only issue with throwing a knife though.

The combat problem with throwing knives as a weapon is they fit a specific niche and are, basically, trick weapons. They can be dangerous but only under specific circumstances. You can use them against someone who is unarmored, but you’ll just annoy an armored opponent. This will include the city guards, local knights, and anyone with a dense wool coat. If padded armor can stop an arrow, a throwing knife has no chance in hell. They’re among the weakest of the projectiles, both in speed and force. A swordsman who has experience dealing with projectiles could parry them without much cost. For reference, they lose out to the throwing axe and the javelin.

Throwing axes can be parried in flight, but due to the weapon’s weight combined with its momentum it has a higher cost to stop. Martial combat is all about physics, which is a discussion about weight, inertia, momentum. Even when you successfully block, parry, or clash with an opponent, you take a portion of that force into your body. This is to say, vibration. A little like what you feel after hitting a large metal bell with a hammer. So, “ouch!”

In case of the javelin, the Northern Germanic Tribes used to catch those in flight and throw them back at the Romans. They played a game as children where they would throw sticks back and forth, and that translated into catching and throwing Roman javelins. Turned out to be an ugly surprise for the Romans.

You’ll run into a similar problem with knives, especially if you’re just throwing regular knives. Knife throwing is a common parlor trick. The further back into history we go, the more common it becomes. People used to (and still do) play knife throwing games similar to darts. Bored soldiers and sailors liked to throw their knives at things. The knife is a small weapon, doubling as a utilitarian tool, and less vital than some others so soldiers would play with them. They shouldn’t, but they did. Modern soldiers still do. So, the chance your character would run into people completely unfamiliar with knives and the throwing of knives is unlikely. Given how weak the knife is as a projectile (especially one not designed for throwing), the worst thing that can happen isn’t that another character catches the knife and throws it back, but they take the knife and keep it. Now, your main character is down a knife and that knife may be used against them next. Besides, knives aren’t exactly cheap to replace. This is doubly true when talking about specialized projectiles that aren’t regularly requested from the local blacksmith.

They’re going to need money to support their hobby. Throwing knives aren’t like arrows which can be produced easily, cheaply, and are more in demand. You’re more likely to find a local fletcher who can make good arrows than a blacksmith who’ll reproduce a carefully crafted throwing knife from a set of throwing knives. The less common the gear, the harder it is to replace.

Crossbows and bows have the reputations they do for a reason, they were warfare mainstays. The longbow, in particular, served as the artillery of their day. Eventually, generals replaced bowmen in the back lines with cannons. I understand the resistance to utilizing the bows or crossbows, especially if culturally stereotyped Archer doesn’t fit the archetype you have in mind for your character. However, it’s worth remembering that there’s often a vast gap between media and real life. In fiction, dangers presented by archery is often downplayed. The upper body strength question is also usually ignored. Bows are given to lithe, skinny people like Legolas (who is an elf and supernaturally strong), our cultural ideal of Robin Hood, or female characters like Katniss. In a lot of fiction, the bow (even more than the crossbow) is treated like the equivalent of a gun. Which, no. The bow isn’t at all like a gun.

For one thing, the bow requires a lot of conditioning for upper body strength. Different bows have different draw weights, so you should always investigate the type of historical bow you envision a character using. Unlike swords and other melee weapons, the draw happens in the shoulders with the most strain placed on a single arm. With medieval longbows, you’d be looking at a draw weight between 90 to 160 pounds. They require a lot of upper body strength in the shoulders to draw and wield effectively. They also require a lot of care on the part of the archer to maintain combat readiness. The English and Welsh archers of their day could draw and fire roughly eight to ten arrows per minute. The crossbow was slower with one to two bolts per minute. Modern bows, comparatively, you’re looking at 30 to 60 pound draw weight. A lot of advancements in technology make the drawing easier while applying greater force.

The strength of the bow is you can fire a single shaft, carrying a lot of force that impacts on a single point. The end result for the weapon’s effectiveness is the amazing power of physics. The bow still sees occasional use in modern warfare today because, unlike a gun, it’s a truly silent killer.

Despite what anime and some fantasy narratives will tell you, bolts and arrows cannot be parried by a sword mid flight. They are too fast and have too much force behind them, especially arrows. Arrows and bolts, depending on type, can go through armor. It isn’t guaranteed, but they can. Arrows and bolts never completely invalidated armor, including plate armor, the way firearms eventually did. Bolts from crossbows have a shorter effective range from arrows. While crossbows fired more slowly, but they were easier to use.

Both Lindybeige and Scholagladiotoria have some great videos about arrow ballistics, bows (longbows specifically), and (English) warbows. Which I recommend watching, if you’re interested in historical archery either for writing or just in general. I really recommend watching the Lindybeige video for an in depth discussion on the additional gear your archer would wear to avoid the injuries they might get, along with proper posture, and Hollywood cliches.

You might assume, due to common assumptions that body types are static rather than changeable, if you weren’t born with the ability to easily build muscle in your upper body (like a man, unlike women who build muscle more easily in their legs) or aren’t a big, brawny sort of person that you can’t wield a weapon that requires a lot of strength.

This is wrong.

Very few people have all the correct muscles preconditioned for success and seamlessly learn to perform any sort of martial arts without effort. Training is what you need, specifically conditioning, to build specific muscles you’ll be regularly using. Outside your bone structure, which isn’t as malleable, athletics change your body. In fact, some health and fitness gurus have developed programs and exercise regimens which will help you achieve a specific type of body rather than just the healthiest version of you. Fiction will tell you that the type of body have will decide what sort of heroic profession or martial type you’re best suited for. That’s crap, straight up.

Some women and men might face more difficulty learning to use a bow in the beginning, or take longer to build up muscle for bows with heavier draw weights, but a slow start never negates a strong finish.

What separates the skilled from the unskilled is enthusiasm, being unwilling to give up in the face of difficulty or challenge, and lost, and lots, and lots of practice. They might have natural talent, but skill is the product of hard work. Conditioning is the part of your training which builds up your wind, your muscles, and your flexibility. These are your runs up with the hill, your wind sprints, your jumping jacks, your push ups, your pull ups, and other exercises.

I do recommend watching Lindybeige’s Three General Principles of Combat as he does a good job of going over the basic principles. Though, one thing he neglects to mention when discussing ideal ranges is that the size differences between two children are actually greater than the size differences between adults. So, it is much easier to get to your ideal range in a fist fight. Hand to hand ideal ranges are defined less by size, and more by the type of discipline you practice.

Different martial arts have their ideal ranges for where specific techniques are most effective, translating loosely to kicks, fisticuffs, standing grappling, and ground fighting. While most martial disciplines cover all four, they often specialize in only one or two. A Taekwondo specialist will prefer to start further away from their opponent so they can make good use of their legs versus a boxer or a wrestler who’d rather be up close. There are outliers like Muay Thai, where the kicks and stances have been adjusted to be effective in the hand range, but we’re discussing general principles.

That said, however, there are historical examples of individuals unscrewing the pommels of their swords and chucking them at their opponents to win duels at tournaments.

So, you know, anything’s possible.

(If you’re questioning the validity of pommel throwing, understand they did it as a method of distraction rather than immediate victory. It’s a specialized dueling tactic where you’re technically not cheating by bringing a second weapon, but you’re cheating. Throw pommel. Distract opponent. Gain the initiative. Hit first. Win.)

-Michi

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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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ree-fireparrot said to howtofightwrite: Tips on how to maximize the shock and heartbreak of a betrayal (emphasis on the latter)? Specifics: the sympathetic character (a dead person’s consciousness uploaded into an artificial body) finds out that his love interest doesn’t even see him as a person; at best he’s something to amuse herself with until she gets bored or she can’t find any more uses for him. She drops the pretense of caring about him the moment he calls her on it, but what else?

You’re picking sides here. You’ve got to let both characters be sympathetic. You’ll sabotage the scene if you don’t find a way to understand the situation from the love interest’s perspective. Which is to say, why she fell out of love with him. Or, if they never had a relationship prior to his death, why she’s using him to begin with.

As it stands, you’re engaged in toxic tropes to villainize one character at the expense of the other. He’s The Sympathetic One and she’s The Bitch. (You’ve dropped into some seriously toxic tropes for female characters just off the cuff in this question. So, wow.)

I’ll make this one simple: “He’s dead, Jim. “

He is a dead person’s consciousness uploaded into an artificial body, the product of cyber-necromancy. He’s a ghost. While there’s an entire discussion to be had about whether or not he’s still human, there isn’t a debate about whether or not he’s the same person. He’s been through a traumatic event (his death), he is now, at best, a cyborg. At worst, he’s an android. He’s living an entirely different life than the one he had previously. The advanced nature of his body is an important question. The ease other humans have in connecting with him emotionally is going to depend on how well he simulates expression.

The situation you’ve described sounds like someone who’s having a rebound relationship with their dead ex.

Now, you’ve taken away everything that would let her body recognize he’s human and are blaming her for the fact she doesn’t have feelings for him. The irony is that in his current state, she’d have a stronger emotional reaction to a dog. I’m dead serious. When a human stares into a dog’s eyes, they experience similar bonding triggers to the ones they feel when looking at their child or their mate. We’ve programmed this one into our brain chemistry. You won’t have the same experience from a robot, no matter how much you tell yourself you love them.

I’m not saying she’s justified in the way she treats him, but there’s a genuine explanation for her behavior beyond, “she’s a cold, heartless bitch who is abusing him because she can.”

The genuine explanation is the more heartbreaking one because it comes from the realm of real human experience. It’s out of their control, and there’s no way to fix it. It’s also a rejection which is much more difficult to overcome.

Alice: “I love you. I mean, I loved you. You’re just not yourself anymore, Jack. You haven’t been since…”

Jack: “Don’t say it.”

Alice: “I’m sorry. No matter how hard I try, I don’t feel the way I used to. You’re dead. We need to accept we can’t be what we were to each other.”

Jack: “You don’t have to do this! I’m still the same person I used to be! And, if I’m not, well, I’ll try! I’ll change! Alice, I love you!”

Alice: “No, you’re not. You can’t.”

Jack: “I came back for you. Together forever, remember? Through thick and thin? Don’t leave me, Alice.”

Alice: “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

The part that tugs on your heartstrings isn’t the part where she’s evil, if she’s evil then it’s just a relief for the audience to get him away from her. On the other hand, if this female character is ending the relationship because she can’t emotionally handle it anymore and needs to break it off for her own well-being then that’s both a legit human response and incredibly sad.

Society has taught us to treat women who put themselves and their own emotional well-being first as sociopathic bitches. The Good Woman response mandated by society is for her to stay with him and provide him with what he wants even though she’s unhappy. She is expected to sacrifice her well-being for his, even though loving him is difficult to the point where its become toxic for her and she’s lashing out. She probably doesn’t know how to break up with him in a way that’s not uncomfortable, unacceptable, or in which she will be cast as the bad guy. Any woman who’s been in a caregiver situation and had to get out understands. Hell, most women who’ve broken up with a guy who wasn’t a flaming douche nozzle understand. (Even those who do break up with the douche still get blamed.)

You’re already out here calling her a bad person, and you’re writing her.

Most people aren’t evil, but it’s easier to carry that narrative. It is easier to make someone the villain, and give the hero someone to blame.

Sometimes, people cheat because they’re dicks. Most of the time, they cheat because they’re unhappy or they feel unfulfilled in the relationship they have. They don’t want to hurt the person that they loved, but they don’t have the courage to leave them either. Someone who’s married with kids or someone who is a caregiver, they struggle with what to do when a relationship is over but you can’t leave. Caregivers, especially, are demonized by the general population for putting themselves first.

If the dead consciousness can’t support himself in his new existence then she is his caregiver. She is, quite possibly, doing a lot of emotional labor without getting anything in return.

The answer to your question is that a narrative becomes most heartbreaking when there is no easy point of blame, because both characters have their own struggles, both are sympathetic. Their situation is tragic. Tragedy is the inevitable crash built on the decisions of multiple characters, what they do and what they don’t, what they can handle and what they can’t. You know it’s going to fall apart but you can’t look away from the trainwreck.

The shock is not that she doesn’t care. The shock is she does, but did it anyway. The heartbreak isn’t that she doesn’t really care, the heartbreak is that she does but his new existence can’t fulfill her emotional needs. She didn’t feel she could tell him the truth, and ended up hurting him more while trying to hurt him less.

Otherwise, she’s the bitch who was fucking with him for no reason and that just makes it easier for him to move on.

-Michi

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Q&A: What’s The Cost Of Doing Business?

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: This might be a hard topic, but do human traffickers typically have fighting experience? If my mc was to notice a Latina pre-teen possibly being trafficked by an older man and attempted to talk to the girl in Spanish (the trafficker uses the language barrier to isolate her and explain away why she doesn’t talk to people herself), would the trafficker reasonably try to fight mc or run away or use threats? They are in an airport, about to board, so neither would probably have guns.

If a human trafficker is taking your character through the airport, and he’s already got her past security in a US airport which was her best chance/last chance to make a scene and get away from him then its over. If there was any risk to him or if he didn’t believe he had her under full control, he would never take her through the airport to begin with.

According to Unitas, the most common way she’d be trafficked through the US and in a public airport is if she was groomed. Grooming means the trafficker has developed a relationship with the victim, and the victim is traveling with him voluntarily. In this case, your protagonist would be a willing target either in the honeymoon phase, hopeful for a better life, for example: under the impression she’d been given a modeling gig.

In 2016, the American Government and the FAA instituted rules requiring mandatory onsite training for airline staff in the identification of human trafficking victims. The IATA (International Air Transport Association) launched it’s own program in support of identifying and halting human trafficking in June 2018.

What this means for your story: airline employees are a lot more aware of the warning signs for human trafficking today than they were in the past, ensuring the employee is likely to intervene if they feel there’s something wrong. They’re required to report it with their job potentially on the line if they don’t.

Airline employees have fewer reasons to look the other way.

The problem with airports:

Human traffickers don’t take kidnapped victims through public transportation of any kind, if they’ve violently kidnapped them at all. Giving anyone who’s been taken against their will the option of escape is a bad idea. So, they go where security is weakest. They ship them by boat, they take them across the border by car, and (rarely) it’ll be by private plane. There’s too many ways for it to go wrong at a public airport, from security to the flight attendants to the check in counter. All you need is for the victim to signal a flight attendant, make a scene at McDonald’s, or slip away from you in the crowd, and you’re hosed.

The last thing you want, especially in today’s day and age where Spanish is the second most common language in the US, is for someone to get suspicious and go, “well, Jose over there speaks Spanish. Let’s go talk to him.” That’s if the specific individual doesn’t already speak enough Spanish to get by. If they’re trafficking them through a Latin-American country, they still speak Spanish and its more likely they bribed security. If they’re being trafficked through the EU, the chance of a language barrier is higher but, again, while Spanish in Spain is very different from Mexican Spanish or various other Latin-American dialects, you still have people who speak the language or would understand just enough of it. The last thing you need is the AirFrance flight attendant speaking Catalan.

There are many eyes at a public airport, all you need is one person to get suspicious and notify someone. Airports are where human traffickers more likely to pick up a victim, usually foreign nationals traveling alone.

The “traveling with a male relative” set up only works if the victim is compliant and they’re not under scrutiny. Usually, they traffic them this way after they’ve been in for a few years and you’re certain they’ll support the cover story if issues arise.

This is the often overlooked problem when you haven’t done enough research: understanding the victim’s role in schemes like this.

You take a preteen girl through the airport, she starts looking nervous, and the flight attendant, TSA, or whoever intervenes then the male relative might be the one who gets push back. If the victim supports his story, then the airline employee can’t do anything. If the victims says something, and then the flight attendant has every right to call TSA. (Remember, since 2016, FAA regulations and IATA require on sight training to target and identify human trafficking.)

If your entire scheme relies on the kid (one you just kidnapped) not throwing a fit in public, what are the odds you’d take them through the airport? Not great.

This is why they use boats. Lots of unsecured coastline lets you skip the major ports, use a private venue away from the major cities, and just make off. Once this kid is out on the open ocean, what’s she going to do? If she can’t drive a boat or operate the radio, she’s got nothing.

Human traffickers are criminals, most work for various criminal organizations. Many of whom are ex-military, ex-police (or, currently police), ex-special forces, ex-whatever. Human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, is big money with big business. If she’s being trafficked by one of the South American cartels, they wouldn’t use the airport for all the reasons listed above.

While they would know how to fight, it does not take much to man-handle a preteen. It also doesn’t take much to put the preteen down.

They also don’t, normally, work alone.

Let’s talk money: when it’s fictional everything is free.

One thing that’s easy to forget when you’re writing is the cost of doing business. You don’t have to pay out of pocket, so you might not have considered the cost and what this human trafficker hopes to gain.

To move this girl in this way, the cost to the organization would run between $15,000 to $20,000. That’s a low-ball figure.

He’s got to get her fake papers, fake ID, along with whatever forging needs to be done to prove that he is authorized to take her (a minor) on the plane. He doesn’t need to prove he’s her legal guardian, but he does need to prove that he is authorized by her legal guardian. If he’s taking her outside the country, the cost goes up. If it’s done in house by the criminal organization, it’d run them/him between $2,000 to $5,000. Done on the outside? You’d be looking at between $10,000 to $20,000 for a new identity.

There’s his fake papers, unless he wants to fly using his own identity (which, only if he’s dumb).

There’s the plane tickets for the both of them, which is going to run him about $1500 per ticket depending on where he’s flying within the US. That’s coach, not first class. Outside the US? You’d be looking at about $5,000, at least. If they were bought on short notice, the cost goes up.

That’s high class escort service kind of money.

This is a significant monetary investment for moving a significant individual in a highly unsecured way, where you stand to lose the entire investment if you get caught.

Why would he or the organization he works for pay that kind money for one preteen when they can put half a dozen in a cargo container and ship them by boat for a third of the price? There’s less risk, and the container is an investment. Short of being seized, it’s reusable.

If sex traffickers were risking $20,000 to $50,000 on moving a single kidnapped teenager across state lines or internationally, sex trafficking would not be nearly as lucrative as it is.

Most trafficking victims are actually forced to pay their own way, which is sometimes how they end up indebted to the traffickers to begin with.

Let’s break this down:

Fighting Let me ask you a question, how bad do you think it’d be for you to assault someone in public with plenty of people around to step in and security just a phone call away? Probably not.

If he’s the sort of person who traffics human beings as his profession, he’s not going to fight her.

Run Away – Once you’re inside the security cordon, that’s it. There are only a few entrances in and out, and they’re all guarded. They can lock the whole place down very quickly. If they’re searching for a kidnapper, TSA has no problem shutting the whole airport down for hours. Get on a plane? If they’re suspicious laws are being broken, they can order the plane turn around and it will.

An airport isn’t like wandering through downtown where lots of people means lots of opportunity to slip away. If something goes wrong inside, he’s getting caught. He’d know that going in.

The chance of escaping with the girl? Pretty much impossible. He’d be forced to abandon her.

Threats – Threats are an important consideration. However, the problem with threats is that the victim’s fear has to override all other instincts. They have to be more afraid of what the person threatening them is going to do than they are of what’s going to happen if they stay silent. Everyone’s response to fear is different, which means reactions to threats vary. Anyone good at making threats knows this, they understand how to tailor their threats to an individual, and they can gauge the response.

Human traffickers use manipulation and coercion along with threats, making escape far more difficult. The threat is unlikely to be directed at her, her person, or her personal safety, but to her family members or someone else she cares about.

Physical threats are only good if they can be carried out freely. If the girl realizes that the man trafficking her faces a greater external threat which exceeds the threat he represents to her, she’ll act. It is far better to threaten her family with financial ruin, deportation, legal trouble, or something else than it is to threaten her with violence.

The End versus The Middle or Beginning:

This scenario, the airport, is a narrative end point. You already have to do a lot of work justifying this option to your audience.

If this sequence is not the penultimate climax of the novel, where she finally gets the courage to act then you should consider what you hope to achieve with it.

What you can do:

If you’re serious about this story, you’re going to need to do your homework. There are a lot of online (National Human Trafficking Resource Center: Polaris Project) resources (TraffickingMatters.com) you (HumanTraffickingSearch.org) can (DHS) turn (Anti-Slavery.org) to (ICE) in order (FBI) to (End Slavery Now) help you understand (Unitas) the risks faced (International Labor Organization) both by the victims and the traffickers.

Understanding traffickers and their operations, specifically your trafficker and his operation, is going to be key in writing a successful narrative. Even if we never see inside their heads, you need to understand the individual perspective of every character in your story (no matter how vile) so you can let their background, their motivations, their opportunity for reward and the dangers they face inform their choices. Otherwise, your character’s choices will make no sense.

Stop and consider your local airport, if you’ve ever been inside an airport, from the perspective of a criminal. Think about the check in counter, the security checkpoints, the store employees, the airline employees. Think about you and the girl standing in line, all pressed together with the other travelers. Think about all the cameras, the careful oversight, the bomb dogs, the security cordon, the responsive security, the fast response from both local police and federal law enforcement. ICE? They’re already onsite if the airport has an international terminal, and, quite possibly, even if it doesn’t. Remember, any significant airport within one hundred miles of the border or the coastline has an ICE presence.

Human trafficking is incredibly lucrative as a business, but, like all crime, has a high cost if you’re caught.

All it takes is one person to get suspicious, and act on it.

If the underlying logic of your characters doesn’t support the narrative or makes no sense in context, then your audience’s suspense of disbelief breaks and your narrative is dead in the water.

The goal of any criminal is to have the victim do the work for you. So, what is the trafficker doing to ensure that?

The old adage “write what you know” is really “write what you understand” and that means doing the necessary research. While traffickers do, occasionally, take girls on the plane, it isn’t the most common option. You’ve got to figure out what kind trafficker you’ve got, and structure their motivation accordingly. They need to make sense.

How do they make the traffickers make their money? Remember, making money requires you get more out of it than you put in.

If they can rent a cheap car for $200 a day and drive them from California to Colorado with a friend to dump them in their new life, why would they take them on a plane? If they already own the car? Even better, then all the second option costs is gas and time.

-Michi

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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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Q&A: If Cowardice is the Absence of Courage, Clichés are the Absence of Detail

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on writing a “cowardly” character without making them “cliché”? Usually people write “brave” characters as not being afraid of rushing headfirst into combat, or the “cowardly” character is also shy but I find that boring. 

Well, you know there is the saying, “only fools rush in.”

The issue with the labels of brave versus cowardly is not that the issue is complex, but rather that people tend to apply them to actions instead of motivation. The same action can be brave or cowardly or neither, depending on who is doing it and why. 

I’ll break it down for you:

Coward – Cowards always take the easy way out.

“Cowardice is a trait wherein excessive fear prevents an individual from taking a risk or facing danger. It is the opposite of courage. As a label, “cowardice” indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge. “ – Wikipedia

Whether you will be a coward or not depends on the challenge you’re facing, those challenges can be physical (commonly understood as part of physical conflict and violence), but they’re also emotional, social, or facing what causes you fear or anxiety. A coward is defined by specifics, not abstracts.

Example: a great hero who goes on a quest to save the world in order to escape the emotional difficulties of dealing with their significant other or loved ones is, ironically, a coward.

Example: an anti-social individual who is circumspect and distant from strangers, but not afraid of social interaction isn’t a coward.

Example: an individual who rushes in because being called a coward negatively affects their self-image is… a coward.

There are plenty of times when people are called cowards when they aren’t, usually this has to do with confusion over action versus motivation and cultural bullshit about courage.

Courage – Merriam Webster’s definition of courage is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”

I think the key word for you to understand is “difficulty.” Courage is not about being fearless, it’s about facing what you’re afraid of. In a limited scope, only the individual can define what actions are courageous for themselves. No one else can tell you what to be afraid of, or define what’s difficult for you. If you are someone for whom the words and labels applied to you by others define who you are, then rejecting those cultural standards may be courageous.

You want to be careful about saying bravery is the absence of fear, or logic. Stupidity isn’t courage. Someone who lashes out because they’re afraid isn’t more brave than the person who runs. Running at your problem can be the same as running away. When you don’t consider the problem, you’re still practicing avoidance. Building up walls, filling your day up with pointless tasks, putting off dealing with what’s bothering you, those are all symptoms.

A character who isn’t bothered by or afraid of physical conflict isn’t brave or courageous. There are plenty of characters, like people, who will use physical conflict or action to escape from what makes them emotionally uncomfortable.

If you’re retreating into what makes you comfortable, you’re not being brave. If you’re taking stupid risks trying to prove you’re not scared of something, you’re probably afraid of it. 

Example: adrenaline junkies aren’t brave, they’re looking for a high.

If your character is talking back to a villain who would kill anyone else who wasn’t the protagonist for doing the same thing, they aren’t being brave… they’re engaging in author sanctioned stupidity. (I mean it too, there are plenty of authors who can’t handle their protagonist being powerless and use witty comebacks as a means of restoring control. Undercutting their villain, and the scene’s tension, in the process.)

How do you write it?

This part isn’t easy.

Writing characters who are brave versus characters who are cowards requires sitting down and figuring out what your characters are afraid of. You have to figure out what situations and scenarios are physically, emotionally, or morally challenging for them. That’s complicated, usually requiring a fair amount of self-reflection. However, it’s the only way to escape clichés.

No one likes dealing with uncomfortable situations or making challenging choices. If you use your writing as an outlet for your personal fantasies then writing characters who are courageous can be difficult because what is uncomfortable disrupts that fantasy. The power fantasy, for example, is tenuous and reliant on a narrative where things aren’t specific even if they’re difficult emotionally. Fears begin to define a character and the more a character becomes an individual, the more difficult it is for the reader to insert themselves into the story.

Depending on what you’re reading, many authors will steer toward the generic rather than specific or gloss over the fears entirely. We can make as many jokes as we like about “Pants” the protagonist, but the vague outline and generics serve a specific narrative purpose. 

If you’re using a novel where the protagonist is Pants for reference, then you might run into difficulties when writing. The narrative outline will steer you into generics, specifically for your protagonists. Pants can’t really be brave because Pants isn’t a person, they’re a simulacrum cobbled together from stereotypes. A shadowy outline of a person designed for self-insertion. While this is an intentional choice on the part of the author, it won’t help you when you’re writing.

Your characters are built from you, so the best point of reference is always going to be yourself. Which means self-reflection, acknowledging situations social or otherwise which make you or made you uncomfortable.

It is easier, for example, to have a conversation about your emotions and struggles with a complete stranger than someone who knows you. The reason is that the stranger doesn’t know you, can’t affect you, and you don’t need to see them every day so the conversation can’t have any lasting impact on your life. If you’re afraid of change, of the consequences of voicing your opinion, of those you care about disregarding what you have to say, then this can be a safe release which ultimately changes nothing. Is this courage? Not really, no.

Delving into our own weaknesses isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable, and it isn’t always fun. Poking at the wounds inside your mind or figuring out what you’ve been avoiding, what makes you feel insecure or unsure. Then taking those feelings to your writing, to the scenarios you’re structuring. You ask yourself questions about what your characters are feeling. If it’s hard, then why is it hard? If they’re running away, why are they running away? If they’re charging forward, why are they charging forward? What motivates their actions?

Specificity combats clichés. Clichés are by their nature generic, a character who provides specific detail to make the cliché about their personal experiences isn’t.

-Michi

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