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Writing Techniques: Fight Scenes and Clarity

kerzoro said to howtofightwrite:

What would you say at the writing techniques to write a fight? I’ve received (what I feel is valid) criticism that my action scenes need to be punchier and feel too passive, but I’m not 100% what that means, or how to translate that to paper.

What your critique partners are telling you is that you’ve got issues with passive voice which is a common problem for new writers. Passive voice is an overuse of the subject acting on the verb rather than the verb being acted upon.

Passive Voice 

She was chased.

Active Voice

He chased her.

Now, both passive and active voice have their uses in writing and can be applied to great effect under the right circumstances. Some writing advice will tell you to rid yourself of passive voice entirely, never use “was”, “were”, “felt”, “is”, etc. While the advice is useful in encouraging you to practice your active voice, it can result in your writing falling out of balance. Passive voice is excellent for framing within a scene while active voice is solid for action. Overuse of active voice can lead to reader fatigue. You want to find a balance between the two which creates a solid rhythm.

However, this is basic advice you can get from any writing blog. Many blogs will tell you that the key to writing a good action scene is to use active voice, make your sentences shorter, raise the tempo of your sentences so the pace quickens and tension increases. These are all good techniques and well worth the effort to develop. 

To really succeed at writing action sequences, you need to look beyond surface prose and dig deeper. This involves learning about both real world combat and action created for entertainment. Both have different purposes, but one informs the other by providing you with more options and ways to structure your scenes. 

The major failures of most action sequences revolve around lack of clarity.

Clarity of Understanding.

Clarity of Visual Image.

Clarity Setting Reader Expectations

How” and “Why” Create Worlds

If you don’t understand what’s happening in your narrative and why then you cannot write your story. Narratives are built on cause and effect. Actions happen and a result occurs, these actions large or small build your story. Fight scenes, down to individual actions, are the same way — action happens, result occurs.

If your critique partner is telling you that your fight scenes should be punchier, you’re not just lacking in sentence structure, your imagery and stakes are also suffering.

The problem for most writers when they sit down to write fight scenes is they don’t really understand the material they’re working with. Whether this involves the reasons and motivations for conflict (why does the bully start a fight with a male protagonist in a bar?), or the mechanics of violence itself (what happens when you punch someone?). Despite consuming violent media for most of your life, if you’ve never considered the mechanics of violence in depth, choreographing violence in your narrative is difficult.

Make no mistake. When you are crafting a fight scene in your narrative, you are choreographing a sequence like one would performance art. When a critic stresses the importance of realism, you shouldn’t chase the real world blindly. You failed to set appropriate expectations for your reader and abide by your own rules. No reader really cares about the real world, they care about suspension of disbelief. Learning how things work helps build suspension of disbelief.

For example: if your amazing military general understands nothing about troop movements, military structure, supplies lines, army bureaucracy, the role of spies, interaction with the ruling governing body, etc, then both your character and your world building will suffer. As a result, your suspension of disbelief also suffers.

The goal is not to mimic, duplicate, or import a real world individual or military wholesale, but rather to learn how and why different militaries throughout history (successful and unsuccessful) worked the way they did. From how and why, you can create. Your way doesn’t need to be the best way, the most perfect way, it can be the way that evolved because these individuals had access to these resources to create this culture.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about world building on a post about writing techniques for fight scenes, the answer is: your character’s culture and the resources they have access to defines how they fight just as much as their personality. How they choose to fight defines their portion of your action sequence. Violence is an expression of identity.

The Parry, Parry, Thrust, Thrust Conundrum

Many fiction writers treat all swords as the same. In reality, less than half a centimeter of distance can be the difference between victory and defeat with bladed weapons.

Why is this piece of information important?

If your answer was: whoever has the longer weapon wins. Well, you’re wrong.

Understanding a weapon’s designated use, it’s strengths and limitations works as a means of setting reader expectations which builds your narrative’s stakes. 

A character taking a scimitar into a narrow alley is going to be different from a character taking a rapier into the same narrow alley. In fact, a character with a rapier might choose to lure the character with the scimitar into a narrow alley because they feel choice of terrain benefits them.

This one choice transforms a character from passive into active. The character makes decisions based on the information they have available. They may make the wrong choice, but the choice itself creates an active participant. You cannot make educated choices without knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more information you have, the smarter and more interesting your setting becomes.

Take these two characters discussing the use of a specialty weapon — a lasbow, which shoots psychically generated lasers bolts.

Suits you, Nathan’s warm thoughts filled her. You could’ve killed that spino with a carefully constructed shot.

Yes, she grit her teeth, but lasbows require more concentration, expend more energy, and bolts fly only so far as imagination and focus allow. A plaspistol just needs a charge.

Here, we see the character lay out the strengths and drawbacks of a lasbow before we see the weapon in combat. We know a lasbow is different from a regular bow. While a lasbow can strike a target at any distance with devastating effect, it is not fire and forget. The wielder must maintain the shot from start to finish. This is a significant weakness in frantic melee if the wielder is not shooting from a defensive position. If the difference between life and death is losing concentration, that might be a little worrying.

Now, let’s see the lasbow in action.

Together, the rexes lumbered into the canyon. Humans perched on saddles atop their massive heads. The rexes were armored in saurohide and plasteel pieces reconfigured from ancient dragon and carno armor.

Leah raised her bow. The rexes’ large nasal cavity allowed them to locate prey from across great distances. Some bonded raiders learned to utilize this sense to locate caravans and other enemies. Probably how they found us. A sharp whine filled her ears, the buzz of electricity. And riding reconditioned fly-bikes. Six humans rode two per vehicle. One driver, one gunner, bikes with built-in weapons were difficult to come by without a technician. Surprise. Distract. Overwhelm. Simple tactics; terrify and distract with the tyrannosaurus while the bikes and raptors cut the enemy to pieces. Effective against the inexperienced.

Patterning the mental signature of the rex rider on the left, Leah generated her bolt by drawing two fingers through the air. The bolt burst to life in a crackling, snapping hiss of blazing yellow. She fired. The bolt shot through the trees, searing away fronds and leaves.

The rex rider sensed her touch. Their rifle raised, eyes scanning the canyon.

Female. She caged the woman’s mind. No alarms. The bolt pierced through the center of the rider’s helmeted forehead, sliced through the brain, and vanished.

The tyrannosaur’s rider slumped, corpse held in place by saddle straps.

The rex bellowed in agony.

Surprise shook the human minds. Too late. They were committed.

Leah smiled. Let’s go.

Multiple important details occur in this scene. 

  1. The enemy is defined and the main character, Leah, instructs the reader regarding the raiders’ intended tactics. This builds anticipation for the battle to come. 
  2. The preemptive strike with the lasbow is launched, but Leah also cages the mind of her target to keep them from psychically warning the others. Tactics.
  3. Strategy is also at play, Leah waits until the raiders advancing force is in too deep and cannot retreat when they realize their enemy’s strength. She kills the rex’s rider rather than the rex to create a battlefield wild card, cutting off the only easy escape route.
  4. Leah’s confidence at the end of the scene builds the reader’s sense of security for the coming battle.

A character’s actions can be multi-pronged while the effects of those actions have multiple outcomes. If the world you create is convincing and works off its own logic, you don’t have to worry about it matching reality. If you understand how different kinds of violence work, you can create clear images within your scene that are advanced beyond punches and kicks.

The reason why I generally suggest looking at films rather than novels for your action sequences is because films have the advantage of being choreographed by professionals. As a writer, you’ll never be able to really make use of the same visual spectacle, but the important point is a fight scene choreographer’s business is choreographing fight scenes for entertainment. Whether you’re watching Spiderman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Heat, you’re given the opportunity to see a martial artist’s mind at work constructing action in the service of a greater narrative. As a creative who lacks similar experience, you can review a lot of good and bad fight scenes from the famous to the unknown. You can see what worked and what didn’t. You’ve been consuming film fight scenes non-critically for most of your life, now it’s time for you to start learning about the choreographers who created them, figuring out how they work and why.

I’m not suggesting you mindlessly copy, but carefully consider. Each action sequence is an expression of all your characters.

– Michi

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Q&A: Twenty Ton Melee & “Girl Guns”

You’ve said multiple times that weapons are never too heavy. Then why are there women’s guns that are purposely lighter? Or is that more sexism than because standard guns are too heavy? Also how about when it comes to fantasy and you get extremely heavy handhelded weapons, I’ve seen over 20000kg in one film I’ve watched and it could even change size but keep the same weight.

So, there’s two questions here. So, I’m going start with the second one.

I’m not sure what you were watching, but physics doesn’t work like that. You can’t swing a object that weighs 20 metric tons, unless you weigh more than 20 metric tons.

If you had infinite strength but the same mass you currently posses, and you tried to swing a 20 ton blade, you’d just fling yourself around the grip.

Moving an object isn’t just a function of strength, it’s also a function of leverage and mass. If you were able to get that weapon moving, somehow, it would simply drag you off on whatever path it had planned (or you’d lose your grip.) Think of a child desperately holding onto a medium sized dog’s leash, while the dog drags them across the ground, and you should have a pretty solid grasp of the problem here. It’s not that the dog is stronger than them, it’s that the dog is bigger than them. And off they go.

You could probably pick up the blade, and power lift it, but you couldn’t swing it around.

So, how does this make sense? There are a few ways this could track.

If you’re in some kind of massive exo-suit, then sure. A twenty ton sword is kinda dumb, but it’s not out of place in the mecha genre. If you’re stomping in a bipedal tank, you may already be much heavier the a 20 ton melee weapon, so sure.

If you’re watching an anime and a character’s going on about how their sword is 20 tons? That might just be poetic. It’s a reasonable metaphor for the burden of the violence a character has caused. This applies regardless of whether the story is playing the concept straight, and wants you to consider the immediate weight of violence, or the character may be poetic.

As metaphors go, massively overestimating the weight of a weapon as a larger discussion on the irrevocable nature of violence has merit. The only important critique is whether that discussion point is clearly articulated. Is Guts’s sword in Berserk supposed to be a metaphor for the burden he carries, or is it just because having a huge ass sword looks cool? I mean, “both,” is a viable answer.

One of the, frequently misunderstood, strengths of anime and manga is that there’s often, shocking, metaphorical depth to the material. It only becomes a liability when viewed without the cultural context to understand what’s being said. That cultural context doesn’t come easily, and I’d be lying if I said I understood most of the subtler points when I see them.

This is also a valid consideration in comics and animation. The artist may pick a weapon because they like the aesthetic. The size may be exaggerated because they like it, or because they want to emphasize the weapon in the character’s design. That doesn’t mean you can do it in the real world.

So, having said that, I am aware of weapons that weighed far more than 20 tons in the real world. Superguns are a kind of massive artillery. These boasted ranges in excess of 1k miles (1,600km), and the entire idea was to create an artillery piece that could fire at hilarious distances.

As an example, the 17 inch HARP gun weighed over 100 (imperial) tons. These are ludicrously large weapons. The technology has mostly fallen out of favor. In an era of cruise missiles and drone strike, having an immobile artillery piece like that isn’t as useful as it would have been.

Some smaller artillery pieces probably land closer to the 20 metric ton range. So, for big guns it’s not unheard of. Without checking, I suspect some naval guns are also in that weight range. But, obviously, these are entirely different situations from a melee weapon.

There’s another possible example with enchanted weapons that are restricted to specific wielders. The sword in the stone in Arthurian legend (which may or may not be Excalibur depending on the source) comes to mind as a potential example. The sword doesn’t weigh 20 tons, but it might require that much force to extract from the stone against its will.

Similarly the Marvel Comics (and MCU) version of Mjolnir has an enchantment that prevents most people from moving it.

In either case you’re looking at a weapon that has a fairly normal weight but resists being moved except by select wielders. Of course, once magic becomes a factor, physics becomes much less relevant.

So, there’s no real application for a 20 ton melee weapon. You couldn’t do anything with it, except sink it into the courtyard as a display piece. Heavier melee weapons will wear out their wielder faster, leaving them exhausted and vulnerable sooner. With that in mind, even blunt weapons like warhammers and maces were much lighter than fantasy tends to suggest.

So what about small pistols?

It’s marketing. There’s a real application for compact pistols. If you can take a handgun and reduce the size to make it more concealable, that can be useful in a variety of situations.

The same is true of lighter cartridges. You wouldn’t want to go smaller than 9mm (or .380) if you’re dealing with human threats, but .22s make excellent sporting pistols, and can useful for hunting small game.

The marketing comes in when companies specifically try to sell small caliber, compact pistols to women. That is, just, sexist marketing.

Your average full frame service pistol will weigh roughly 1kg. So ignoring outliers and idiocy (like the Desert Eagle), your average woman will have absolutely no difficulty carrying or using a handgun. Put in context, your clothes weigh more than a handgun.

The irony here is that subcompact pistols aren’t much lighter than full frame ones. There is a significant weight difference in the magazine, because fewer bullets, but the weight of the gun itself isn’t going to be that different.

Recoil is a situation where an inexperienced shooter can get a bad impression. The very short version is that smaller guns tend to have more severe, perceived recoil. Put even simpler, a small gun will kick harder. This may seem counterintuitive if you’re inexperienced.

Now, smaller cartridges will have less recoil. A .45 will kick harder than 9mm, a 9mm will kick harder than a .380, and a .22 will just kinda try to get your attention when you fire. However, a full frame .45 will kick less than a subcompact .45. Ironically, the size of the gun has a greater effect on perceived recoil than the cartridge in most cases.

A danger for any shooter is to start with a subcompact 9mm or .45, and think, “this is how recoil feels, it’ll be worse on a bigger gun.”

The second major issue with marketing guns toward women is advertisers (and consumers primed by those advertisements) treating the gun like a fashion accessory. It’s not. Guns are lethal weapons. You should pick one based on it’s utility first, with aesthetics as a distant consideration after that. But, presentation sells, and people do get sold on under-powered but aesthetically attractive guns.

So, if you’re a woman and you want to buy a handgun, my top picks are the same ones I’d give a man. The Walther P99, The H&K USP, or one of SIG’s duty pistols, like the P226. While it’s not my preference, the Glocks are also a legitimate choice.

But, for someone who doesn’t know their guns, it’s easy to go in and pick up a Taurus .38 because it was pink, and fit their idea of what their gun, “should,” look like.

So, yes, “girl guns,” exist because of marketing. These are lethal weapons. Please, do your research before buying one.

-Starke

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Q&A: Hand Signals

Why don’t soldiers usually learn one sign language? Wouldn’t this be useful if you needed to sneak or if gunshots were too loud to be able to hear anything? It seems like the more ways to communicate, the better, right?

The short answer is, they do. Calling military hand signals, “a language,” might be overselling it a little. You can’t carry on a full conversation. However, hand gestures are a very common form of combat communication. Particularly when electronic communications are out.

The primary function isn’t stealth, it’s to be able to communicate in combat, when verbal commands would be drowned out. It is silent, but that’s a useful byproduct.

Because these signals are a combat language, it is preoccupied with being quick at the expense of being flexible. It has numbers 1-10, but after that, the core tends to be focused on orders and warnings.

You can’t express complex concepts beyond giving orders, or relaying tactical information. You can tell someone you see enemies and how many, but you can’t distinguish between a bridge and a statue. The only difference between an order to take and hold either is where you’re pointing. If that kind of information is necessary, soldiers can always switch to their spoken language for more sophisticated orders.

What the signs do is give the commander the ability to quickly and clearly assign tasks in combat, and gives the soldiers the ability to relay information to one another.

Hand signals are not universal; militaries have their own versions. These vary by nationality, to the point that there’s no direct translations in some cases. Additionally, units may sometimes incorporate new, unique, signals to suit their needs, and some widespread unofficial signals may exist.

If you’re wondering why they don’t incorporate ASL (or another sign language), it’s about efficiency. Fairly complex concepts, like an incoming gas attack or a sniper need to be conveyed in a single signal. ASL isn’t designed around that. It is a full language, with its own syntax and grammar. The US Military used to use the ASL signs for 1-9, and used the ASL zero sign as a 10, but that changed at some point, I’m not exactly clear when.

You can’t have full conversations in military signals because, that’s not the point. That’s not valuable for how the system is used. If you need to talk to someone, you talk to them. When the bullets are flying, you don’t really have time for that.

So, the answer to, “why don’t they?” Is, “they already do,” for the reasons you suggested.

-Starke

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Q&A: Anime Weapons

A lot of times in anime and manga, you will see characters using these massive weapons of ridiculous proportions. While this is obviously unreasonable, there are weapons that are larger than the person weilding them, such as most pole weapons. What are some things to account for when using a weapon bigger than yourself?

pink-sparkly-pirate-jedi-weeb

This may sound like a nitpick but, you’re never going to find a melee weapon larger than its wielder in the real word. This is especially true of polearms. Note the word we both used: “Larger.”

Most polearms are relatively small weapons mounted on a long stick. They’re the perfect tool for those times when you want to poke a hole in someone over there, but you’re too lazy to walk over and shank them.

Melee weapons need to be fairly light. You’re going to be swinging that thing around all day. The heavier it is, the faster you will exhaust. Once you’re exhausted, you’ll fight at a significant disadvantage. This means, a light weapon that you can continue using for hours is a vastly superior battlefield choice.

As I said, polearms are relatively small (read: “light,”) weapons on a stick. This means they have the range of a much heavier (and probably impractical) weapon without the weight.

There’s other problems with super heavy weapons in anime. The part where they hit with ridiculous force ignores that the user would need to expend the energy to get it moving in the first place. It doesn’t matter if you can cleave through a Buick if you can’t swing the sword a second time. Once these start moving, you’re committed to the strike, and you can’t stop to defend yourself. The more mass the weapon has, the harder it would be to control. In extreme cases, the weapon may be so heavy an individual with (roughly) human mass wouldn’t be able to use it at all, regardless of their strength. They’d fling their own body around rather than moving their “weapon.”

As an art style, there’s nothing wrong with oversize weapons. If your art is consistent, exaggerating elements because they’re important to the audience is defensible design.

In animation, large weapons are easier to follow. It’s the animated equivalent to the roundhouse punch. Big motions do not work in real combat, but are beneficial for the audience, for the same reason. Bigger motions are easier to read. It’s easier to understand what’s happening. If you’re trying to kill someone, this is a bad thing. If you’re trying to convey a story to someone, it’s a good thing.

Characters like Bayonetta are the extreme example of this. Out of context, her proportions are bizarre, but it makes her very easy to read in motion. This especially important in games where you need to be able to see what your character is doing, as opposed to animation where if you miss a little bit of the action, it’s not a hard stop.

I’m also not inclined to be too harsh with exaggerated weapon proportions when the goal is simply to show off the design. The entire reason you’re looking at the art is, well, the art, and if artist/animator wants to take special attention to something, that’s their call. After that it’s a question of personal taste.

So long as you remember that it has no relationship to reality, and it fits artistically, oversize weapons are fine. It’s an aesthetic or thematic choice.

-Starke

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Q&A: Rings Versus Brass Knuckles? There’s No Comparison

pomrania said to howtofightwrite: I’ve read that wearing rings while you punch someone can act as brass knuckles, and I’ve also read that it will break your fingers. Which of those is true? Both, neither?

Brass knuckles are one solid object that reinforces your fist and is designed to take the impact. More importantly, as a single object, it can spread the force across the surface, lessening the impact your hand takes.

Rings? Not so much.

A good rule of thumb is to remember that wearing jewelry during fights is inadvisable. Piercings can, and often will, be pulled out. Or, worse, if your opponent doesn’t take the easy gimmey to cause immense pain by tearing out a nose ring or dangling earring, they get can tangled on clothes or hair, stuck, and tear anyway. Someone’s probably not going to garrote you with your necklace, they usually don’t have enough integrity for that. However, like your clothes, they can provide a temporary handhold that forces you to choose between breaking free (and breaking your necklace) or stopping. Clothes are better for this tactic because your clothes are unlikely to tear enough to allow escape, but never discount the power of mental anguish.

Rings? Well, while some rings can provide superficial cuts or bruising depending on type, they won’t benefit you like brass knuckles. The real danger with rings is that you don’t really know what that hard metal band is going to do to you on impact. It could do nothing, or it could get caught and deglove your finger. Ring avulsion is not a joke (only look that up if you have a strong stomach.) That’s what happens if your ring gets stuck on something and tears off your finger.

Will it happen every time? Probably not. Is it enough of a risk you don’t want to take it? Yup.

There’s multiple problems with wearing an object that’s not reinforced and protruding off your finger when you’re punching someone. In a normal fist, the connection point is the first two knuckles/fingers which is to say your index and middle fingers. These are the fingers in the fist which are reinforced by your ring and pinky finger, and by your thumb.

If you put a protruding object on your ring finger or your pinky, that is the object which will hit first and take the full force of impact. With an object that has a small surface area, that’s even more force directed back into your hand. That’s where the potential break is going to come in. Instead of your whole hand and wrist (and forearm) taking the force of the blow, it’s just that one finger. Too much stress is how some breaks happen.

What most people who never do martial arts don’t understand is that your hits aren’t free. Whatever impact you deliver into someone else’s body in hand to hand combat, you will receive a portion of it back. The harder the region is that your punching (like the face, where the bones are heavily reinforced and close to the surface) then the more of that force you take. Vibration will wear out your muscles, though the risk for that is more pronounced with weapons.

When you punch someone (if you’ve been trained to punch someone), your whole body tightens on the moment of impact as the arm reaches extension. Your fist, your wrist, up the forearm becomes a singular funnel to both give force but to also take the force of the blow. The vibration of impact goes through the hand, up the wrist, and into the forearm. This lessens the risk of any singular part of your hand receiving the full directed force of impact.

You run less risk punching soft targets like the stomach or the throat than hard targets like the face. Even then, you’re still dealing with the force of impact.

Any sort of exercise causes increased/faster blood flow, resulting in minor swelling. The swelling isn’t normally noticeable, but you may find a ring that sits comfortably on your finger when you’re resting to be tighter when exercising. When you hit objects, even soft ones, your hands will swell. Impact does that. This is before we get to any major swelling resulting from real injuries.

Now, none of that is a guaranteed outcome. It’s risk. With combat, there are already so many other potential risks and possible injuries, taking on more just isn’t advisable. Especially for an object that really doesn’t offer much in return.

Let’s be honest, you’re not going to be wearing rings for self-defense. You’re going to wear rings because you like them. The whole bit about rings being the same as brass knuckles is just someone looking for a justification to wear their rings (or have their character wear their rings) in situations where they know they shouldn’t. The problem with wearing anything you like during a scuffle — and you may not be given a choice — is you risk that object being destroyed. One assumes you were wearing the ring because you liked it, and the value of it is personal.

The problem with wearing your rings, just like wearing your favorite article of clothing is you could lose it. Your ring might need to be cut off to save your finger. You might, in the worst case scenario, lose your ring and your finger. Your ring could end up doing more damage to you than your opponent. You might have to choose between your ring and your safety.

A good rule of thumb to assume is when anyone says X objects that aren’t weapons are comparable to X weapons, they’re usually full of it. There are a few improvised weapons that really can get the job done (crowbars, tire irons, cans of spray paint, household chemicals) but most of them are subpar options in comparison to the weapon, which is an object designed for the job, or they’re not comparable at all.

In this case, there’s no comparison. Brass knuckles will straight up break the bones in your face, they will destroy internal organs. They deliver a lot of force with minimal cost for the user. They act as dual protection for the hand on force of impact and upgrade the partially blunted force (which spreads across the knuckles and fingers) behind a punch into a narrower focus. That narrower focus focuses the point of impact, strengthening the hit because less force is lost. The same punch with brass knuckles will have greater impact on the opponent than a punch without them. They are a weapon, a weapon that is relatively easy to use and easy to conceal until you need them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Recovering From Injuries Takes Time and Patience

phantomjedi1 said to howtofightwrite: Your blog is amazing – you’ve saved me from so many mistakes! If someone is trying to come back from injury, especially one that lays them up for an extended period, what are ways that their former level of skill would trip them up in a combat situation? And is there anything they can to more quickly adjust to their new mobility limitations, etc.? I have a character who used to fight well, but was injured and has trouble walking without pain. They’re trying to get some ability back. Thanks!

The major thing an injury takes from you is your conditioning, that’s your musculature, your endurance, your wind, your flexibility, etc. The toll is primarily physical, so this character (outside of their injured body part) cannot fight as well or for as long as they used to. They’re slower, their reach is shortened, and they find themselves breathing more heavily more often.

Now, they can get that back but it usually takes months of consistent effort as they slowly build themselves back into their previous levels of conditioning.

You have to think of conditioning, the working out part, like a mountain. A significant portion of any athlete’s day is spent working out. This isn’t just the exercise training in the techniques, it includes your conditioning. Your push ups, sit ups, pull ups, weight lifting, long distance running, wind sprints, etc. It requires a lot of effort to maintain your body at peak condition and any break (not just an injury) will cause you to start slipping down that mountain. An serious injury that requires you take months off to heal? Expect months of dedicated conditioning to get yourself back to peak performance, and that’s if the injury completely heals. You can’t just jump back in at the levels you were used to before your injury, you’ll actually hurt yourself all over again. You have to climb the mountain the same way you did the first time, bit by bit with a little more each day or each week.

This is what drives athletes crazy. Their minds say that they can go “this” hard, at the levels they were used to before their injury or they took time off, and they can’t. The trope will pop up in almost every sports movie where the main character suffers a major injury, and it’s accurate to life. Whether they’re martial combatants, Olympic athletes, or just a high school football player, they run the risk of hurting themselves all over again by pushing their body too fast and too hard to return to previous levels. Most of them will get impatient and try. Sometimes, they have good reasons, like the soldier who doesn’t want to leave his squad a man down. Sometimes, the reasons are selfish or based in fear, like missing a major competition.

Recovery is, in large part, psychological. The fastest way for a character to adjust to their limitations is to accept they have them. They need to figure out what their body can do, find their current limits, and start slowly pushing the envelope, rather than trying to get their body to behave exactly as it did before. The mind’s expectations are what’s actually lying to them. They have to retrain their brain to accept their new circumstances.

In the early parts of returning to training, the mind will constantly miscalculate because it’s relying on the body’s old reaction times. Every action will be slower. Their mind will move at a similar speed to what they had before, but their body won’t. The disconnect between the two is where most of the problems occur, and why coming back from an injury feels a lot like starting all over again. You know what you can do, but your body won’t cooperate to do it.

If your character is trying to come back from an injury and the injury hasn’t completely healed, like this leg injury, then they’re going to be forced to train around it. If they put too much pressure on the leg, if they push the injury too hard, the injury will get worse. They run the risk of the injury becoming permanent. They’re going to have to stay off it and when they’re on it, go slowly. They may not be able to train that leg more than fifteen minutes a day, and, depending on injury, are only able to stretch it out. Depending on the severity of the injury, they may only be able to put their full weight on the leg for a few seconds each day. Those few seconds can extend, they can become minutes, but that’s going to be the results of months of work. If they feel pain when they walk on it, that is their body saying no. Whatever pain they feel from just walking, strenuous activity will hurt a hell of a lot more.

Martial artists/martial combatants/athletes are trained to push past pain, but they also need to be able to tell the difference between the pain caused by the body’s resistance/laziness and serious injuries. Serious injury pain is the stop and no further pain.

The problem with leg injuries is that your entire axis revolves off the legs, if both legs don’t work then you can’t fight. You need both legs to be capable of bearing your body’s entire weight for at least a few fractions of a second multiple times throughout the fight. Both legs need to split that body weight. You can overcome that necessity and train one of the legs to carry more of the burden, but if the injury is permanent (like a knee injury) then they will always be limited in what they can do.

I’ve known a few individuals who’ve come back from major leg injuries where the doctors said they’d never be able to do martial arts again. The willpower, patience, and work they put into their recovery was monstrous. They really loved what they did. That love was their foundation, their foundation fueled their efforts and kept them from giving up. There are going to be times when the frustration sets in, when the climb feels impossible, where your body is not fixing itself fast enough to satisfy what you want, where you’ll want to throw in the towel, and the question you need to answer as a writer is, “what keeps your character coming back? What is the source of their motivation?”

To be at the top is not easy. Most people who don’t heavily engage in the world of sports, or martial arts, or martial combat, don’t really grasp how stiff the competition is. Or how hard it is to defend the seat once you’re there. Outside of true story sport’s narratives, many characters lack convincing motivation. “I don’t want to die” only gets you so far, and “I want to protect my friends” again only gets you so far. Those are the motivations of the mediocre, and, in most situations, mediocre is enough.

However, that’s not the motivation of the person who arrives first and leaves last. The person who always shows up, rain or shine. The person who sacrifices time with friends and family, the person who skips out on dates to train, the person who makes their training their life. The ones for whom their training is their life are the only ones who come back from extreme injuries because they find the motivation to go through the agony of starting over.

Recovery can take years, usually recovery from a major injury takes at least half a year and then, once you start training, there’s the three to four months (or more) of pushing yourself to return to the previous level.

For reference, when I was twelve, I broke my leg. I broke my leg in the fall and wasn’t able to get back into martial arts training until late spring, and even then, the order from the doctor was, “no jumping until June.” I went from no pressure allowed, to supported pressure with crutches, to walking, then running, and then finally jumping.

If you’re really interested in writing a character going through recovery after a major injury, I actually recommend watching the (admittedly sometimes cheesy) true story sports movies. They’ll cover everything, from the grieving period to the difficulties in recovery, to the points where it gets too hard and the character wants to stop, to when they finally get back into sync and come out stronger. Sometimes, they skate over some details but it is a realistic progression from one to the next in the cycle.

It’d be a good reference point for you.

Never forget mental fortitude when you’re writing a combat character. Willpower is their true strength, and it can be easy to forget when you’re distracted by physicality. The unwillingness to give up in the face of impossible odds. The faith they have in their own abilities to push through, even after that faith has been shaken.

It can be hard to get into that mindset, especially if you’ve never experienced a major injury (even if you’re not in sports) or been a martial artist/invested in physical training of any kind. You can do it though, but you’ll need to do a lot of research. In this case, sports movies where the character experiences a major injury and biographies/autobiographies written by sports professionals documenting their own recoveries are going to be key. You can then apply that structure to your writing, the crossover is really in the conditioning. If you really need it to be martial, there are a couple of war movies and boxing movies which cover similar material. This is well-documented, you just need to find the sources.

Once you have the framework and the arc, you can apply it to your story. The basic steps are fairly simple and can be molded into any narrative and setting.

-Michi

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Q&A: Pay Attention

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: I see on this blog a lot of important self-defense lessons include avoiding sketchy situations, places, or people. However, a lot of women have been attacked by dates, friends, bosses, family members. Why does so much of self-defense seem to focus on potentially defending yourself against some mugger or, basically, a stranger and act like you won’t ever have to use your self-defense if you stay alert? How do you stay ‘on’ around your father or husband? Unless I am mistaken about this.

You are mistaken about this.

1) We’ve said multiple times that this blog is not a self-defense blog and it cannot teach you self-defense. No internet blog can. No post on the internet can. No pictures can. You can’t learn self-defense from a video or a gif.

You need a real class, or a real school that can actually physically instruct you because all articles on the internet do is… not much, actually. You need to train with professionals.

2) The people who have this perspective? They’re the people who aren’t in the community and who haven’t actually ever taken a self-defense class. So, you are trying to make a point about something you know nothing about.

The truth about self-defense is that there is no one single established curriculum, there’s a lot of different approaches. As many different schools of thought as there are martial arts. There are curriculums which focus solely on weapons self-defense from guns to knives. There are curriculums designed by women for women. There are curriculums, which may be the most common, based off a civilian designed variation of police adapted judo. There a curriculums which come off of the military strands. This is a big, complicated field that is constantly evolving. Some curriculums focus on home defense, some focus on muggers and stranger danger, others teach you skillsets for how to deal with someone right next to you. Some teach you how to deescalate fights starting between other people. Some do all of the above.

Right now, you’ve learned something about statistics and you’re scared. That’s rational. You’ve learned the world is a far more dangerous place than it initially appeared. However, while you have the statistics, you don’t understand how those statistics translate into the real world, or what you can do to protect yourself.

What you need is a self-defense specialist.

Again, the purpose of this blog is not self-defense. The irony here is that the self-defense posts we’ve written in the past are about threat management and threat evaluation. Threat management applies as much to people you know as it does to people you don’t.

Right now, the way you look at the world involves divvying spaces up between dangerous and safe. We’ve talked about spaces considered safe not being safe on this blog before, but you’re still applying it to muggers and scary alleyways rather than the party at your dorm, a bottle of booze, and an open door. You’re not thinking about the cute guy at the coffee shop, whose smile maybe puts you on edge, but he asked for your number. You’re not thinking about the college professor or high school teacher who touches your shoulder in ways overly familiar and says very complimentary things about your work. You’re not thinking about the team doctor who showers with you and the others after practice. The senior mentoring the lonely kid at the back of the classroom.

The problem is that you still think tells for dangerous situations come with road flares, that they’re framed in ways exceedingly obvious. Unfortunately, that’s a common assumption most people make about self-defense. The general culture has trained you to think that way, but it isn’t actually true. A lot of the lead ups and tells are subtle. You can train yourself to be alert for them. However, that involves admitting you haven’t been. Lots of people can’t or won’t, because they think they already do. Or, they feel they shouldn’t have to. If you think people aren’t aware of the statistics, because you weren’t, then you haven’t been looking or, in this case, listening.

Learning to constantly evaluate the people around you can become as natural as looking both ways before crossing the street. It’s not fear, or a result of paranoia, it’s habit. Checking their behaviors, their expressions, their postures, learning about their families, their backgrounds, noticing who their friends are, who they hang out with, who they talk to, and what they say.

Pay attention to what people around you say about your co-workers, or your classmates, or your family members. Pay attention to who men and women around you home in on, how they behave when they’re brushed off or encounter a no. Who do they favor? Who do they ignore?

When new information comes up, reevaluate.

Accumulate information, not out of paranoia but because information is good to have. The same habits which can save your life or tell you when to exit a bad situation are also great for figuring out the best presents for a friend.

The danger is not from riding the bus at midnight, the potential danger is the other person on the bus. If the danger comes from people and opportunity, then there’s no difference between that person on the bus at midnight and your creepy cousin cornering you in the garage. By extension, the creepy cousin in the garage isn’t any different from being screwed over for promotion by your co-worker or dealing with an emotionally abusive parent. They all have tells.

Unfortunately, while you can learn situational awareness from martial training, it’s far more common among children and adults who grew up in unstable environments. If you don’t have the habit, you probably haven’t encountered a situation where you’ve needed to develop it.

Self-defense training should be preemptive, just like learning to drive a car, but for most people it isn’t. Part of this is the way violence is presented in media, which is as a natural extension of the self rather than a skill to be learned. The other half is most people feel they don’t need to learn because they believe the world they live in is inherently safe. While danger exists, it exists elsewhere. Or, if it does, there’s nothing they can do about it. The vast majority of people you’ll find in self-defense courses are law enforcement professionals, recreational martial artists, people who’ve already been victims of violent crime, and kids like boy scouts/girl scouts who are there for the extracurriculars.

When my high school had a mandatory self-defense PE course, the students mocked it. They thought they wouldn’t need any of the techniques or the theory. Statistically, some of them did.

The problem is that you think about threat management and situational awareness directly relate to physical violence or threats of violence. As a result, you think of it as a state of mind to turn off and on. Instead, you should think about it as habitual, observational skill. No different from noticing which of your friends is the one with an explosive temper, seeing the tells for when they start to rev, and intervening before they can explode. Violence isn’t just physical, it’s behavioral, and behavior patterns are the warning signs.

Look both ways before you cross the street.

Again, you cannot learn self-defense from the internet. You can’t learn it from self-defense blogs, from videos, from pictures, or from gifs. Anyone who says you can is lying to you. You can’t learn self-defense from books. You can pickup some good theory, but for practical you need an instructor. If you want to learn self-defense, you need to seek out programs in your area. Usually, your local community centers (if you have one) or local precincts are good places to start. Like with everything, there are different self-defense specialists with different focuses. You want a specialist, not a recreational martial artist who moonlights with a few evening courses every few months to round out the curriculum.

If you feel you need a self-defense program, find one. If you have questions about what a self-defense program offers, speak with a professional instructor. Speak with multiple instructors. Quoting statistics will not help you, learning to determine the behavioral tells in the people around you will.

As a writer, you really should be learning to observe the people around you for your craft. You’re a student of human behavior, and you can’t find stories if you don’t look for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reject Toxicity, Prepare for Apathy

Any advice for female writers on showing trauma and recovery in men without toxic readers saying he isn’t masculine enough?

You’ll never satisfy toxic people. The game is rigged. Even if you acquiesce to their demands, it will never be enough. The reason for this is because of their desire for control over you, your beliefs, your ideas. They bully to invalidate anyone who isn’t like them. They lash out because they feel threatened. If they do, you can take comfort in the knowledge you not only did it right but your writing affected them in ways which left them deeply uncomfortable.

Your writing making people, especially toxic people, feel uncomfortable is good. Trauma is uncomfortable. Trauma is painful. Trauma leaves you feeling vulnerable and exposed. This is the antithesis of all our cultural bullshit surrounding masculinity, the whole “real men don’t cry or show their emotions” crap fest. Repressing your emotions doesn’t make those emotions go away. Ignoring your pain, especially emotional pain, because you don’t want to deal with how it makes you feel leaves you with a compounding bill in the future. You can avoid dealing with your suffering, but avoidance isn’t healing. Avoiding a problem doesn’t make it go away. Processing your emotions is a skill, just like any other, if you never learn to then it will be difficult until you do.

The answer to for dealing with toxic people is either to antagonize them, which is not recommended unless you have a strong stomach, or ignore them. Delete their comments, don’t publish their complaints, and ignore them if you have no control over their reviews. Give them the middle finger at every opportunity. Strangle them in darkness.

They are not voices you should be listening to. You shouldn’t fear them. Don’t let them control your creative process.

You will never make them happy, so don’t bother trying.

I really do mean that. As women, we are taught to put aside our needs for those of others, and prioritize the care of those around us even if we are suffering. If someone else is angry, it is our fault. The onus is on us to make amends, rather than the individual who reacted badly in the first place. We’re told we shouldn’t expect any rewards for these sacrifices, and, if we’re suffering, we should suffer in silence. You know, what? That’s stupid.

You’re not responsible for the behaviors of others. Other people are outside your control, how they choose to react is on them. Lashing out is a choice. The sooner you engrave your lack of control over others into your soul, the happier and freer you’ll be.

Always remember, there’s a difference between critical and cruel. The opinions of others are, similarly, just opinions. Sometimes, a critic will offer you something helpful, but the helpful only reinforces what you already knew. The rest of it isn’t.

Toxic people are never useful. They aren’t critics. They’re bullies.

Toxic people know, whether its conscious or not, the behavior patterns they are exploiting in their victims. They expect you to give them legitimacy through an apology, for “making” them upset. They expect their temper tantrums to carry weight because the person they’re angry at has been trained to pacify in order for the problem to go away. In their mind, the angriest dog pile wins. They can suffocate dissent or narratives which make them uncomfortable by attacking the source. They intimidate you into doing what they want.

Intimidation, though? It’s just fear. They have no control over you, and on the internet? They have less access than they realize. Intimidation and scare tactics work when the person who is being intimidated lets them. Maybe their intimidation tactics make you afraid, maybe they hurt your feelings, but you’re the only one who gets to decide what you do about it. They can say mean things, but those mean things are just words. Those words can hurt, but they can’t stop you. Abusers only have the control you give them.

The risk of putting your work out into the world for public consumption is that you may run into people who disagree with you, who criticize what you’ve written, or who will say nasty things about your work. You may also find lots of people who say positive things about your work too, but those positives are often lost in the negatives if you focus on what people didn’t like. You’ll never escape criticism. There is no “right way” to avoid being targeted. You cannot control what someone else will do or say about something you’ve written. What you can do is prepare yourself to decide what criticism you’ll accept versus the comments you’ll stick in the trash.

The truth is that not everyone knows better than you do. Just because someone has an opinion, doesn’t mean they’re opinion can help you. Complaints and criticism aren’t always a sign you’ve done something wrong, sometimes they mean you’ve done something very right.

The response of individuals to creative works isn’t good or bad. Most of the time what you’ll get is apathy. The vast majority of people who read what you write will never comment on it. If they didn’t like it, they’ll just leave in silence. People will ignore your work if it doesn’t appeal to them, they may read your book or short story but never bother with a review. If you’re writing upsets someone? Great! You’ve broken through their apathy and gotten an emotional response, that’s better than silence.

Don’t let fear of criticism decide what you write. If you want to write about trauma and recovery then you owe it to your readership to do your research rather than giving in to schlocky tropes. Approach the subject with respect, learn as much about it as you can, and take your risk. There’s so much information available on the internet for free, but don’t forget your libraries and reading texts by doctors on the subject. Regardless of what you do, you need to write. We learn by doing, you won’t improve unless you try. You won’t get it right on your first time, no one does. Everyone when they start is bad, regardless of talent. The practice, the learning from your failures, and the way you build off what you’ve learned are what make you good. You get more than one shot, you have as many as you choose to give yourself.

Regardless of what you do, if you get stuck worrying about what might happen, you’ll never finish your story.

Write now, worry later.

The eventuality you should prepare for now isn’t that toxic people will hate you, or target you, but that they won’t care. The most soul-crushing outcome is for your work to never move anyone at all, that it will be read only by a few people, if read by anyone, and the returns are much less in the way you hope they will be. The silence can be far more soul-crushing than any negativity you receive.

If people do react badly, give yourself permission to tell an unwanted critic, especially a toxic one, to fuck off.

– Michi

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Q&A: Knives Out

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: What are the odds of winning a fight when one character is skilled in daggers more than swords, and in this fight, the opponent uses a sword?

The short answer to this question is almost none, barring being indoors, especially if you’re envisioning a straight forward fight. The answer to why is a concept called reach.

Reach is commonly misunderstood by a lot of writers and even some martial artists when it gets applied as a blanket statement to all combat (including hand to hand, where the difference between two people of different heights is centimeters), but with weapons of two different lengths it’s a game breaker.

The dagger wielding character has weapons that are between three to six inches. The sword, if its a longsword, is probably between thirty-six to thirty-nine inches. That’s a three foot difference full of bladed steel. Your dagger wielding character needs to get past the three feet, to be eight inches away from their target before that steel stops being a danger. (And, that’s if the sword wielder doesn’t half-hand, or chooses to hit your dagger wielder with the pommel of their sword.) Even then, the blade can still cut.

There is no guarantee your swordsman isn’t also trained in hand to hand along with their swordsmanship, allowing them to utilize their blade (or simply fight) in close-quarters. Most were.

Say it with me, “daggers are for shanking.”

The Kill Zone: Who hits first?

The first problem for the dagger wielder is that the swordsman can hit them long before they ever manage to close. This allows the swordsman to control the battle tempo, allowing them to attack without giving the fighter with the daggers opportunity for recourse. Daggers will be on the defense, looking for an opportunity to close so they can strike and, if the swordsman is just mildly competent, those opportunities will be few and far between.

The second problem is that the sword’s greater range also gives them a wider array of targets than the dagger wielder has access to. For example, the swordsman can aim for the foot and, from there, carve up the groin to the chest without an issue. Thrusts easily transitions to slices with the point, which change to hews across the body. The sword’s defense is total. If they keep up attacks, all daggers can do is respond.

The third problem is blocks and counters. They can’t, daggers really aren’t designed for that. They could try to Deflections? The sword will recover in a few fractions of a second. While that’s enough for another swordsman to move from parry to strike, the daggers are too short. They’d be about midway to the swordsman, and take a hewing strike or just a retreating cut to the their side (or somewhere more vital to continuing combat, like their arm. The arm/leg/foot/hand get caught in just a basic slice and that’s it for using those body parts.)

The fourth problem? Well, they can’t bull rush. All they get out of a rush is plowing headlong into the steel end of a long blade. A swordsman can set their weight in stance to take that hit without being forced to even take a step back.

You should never fight a superior weapon on that weapon’s terms. You have to fight on your own, where you negate the other wielder’s advantages. If your dagger wielder isn’t planning ways to use their environment to negate the swordman’s massive advantage, you may want to rethink your fight scene. (And yes, fighting in an alley makes the situation worse for Daggers. Indoors where the sword’s movements are limited by tightly clustered objects like furniture, or in ambush before the sword is drawn.)

Targeting Extremities: How do you run when you can’t move?

What many authors forget about, because they don’t normally work with bladed weapons, is how dangerous they actually are. They also think you need to go directly for the interior parts of the body, such as the heart, the head, stomach, and neck.

Combat is, ironically, far more sophisticated than that and, with an unarmored opponent, cuts and lacerations can be debilitating to any part of the body you hit. While your heart is pumping, your heart will be pumping that blood out of your body. Holes in the body mean the blood leaves the body, the more holes, the faster that happens. This is the strategy with both sword and dagger, you can target major arteries with your daggers or your swords, but anywhere actually works.

The primary targets are usually the best defended. So, you don’t go for those unless the enemy puts up a very poor defense. You start outside, on the extremities, and work inward. If you take the arm, they can no longer use it or will be forced to use it more slowly, to their own detriment. If you take the foot, you cut off their maneuvering. If you pierce their thigh, similar problem. Keep in mind, you don’t have to cut the extremity off. A cut or piercing thrust is enough. Cut muscles or pierced muscles, even surface cuts, mean debilitated muscles. With their defense disabled, you go in for the kill.

On the other hand, your dagger wielder cannot reach the swordmans extremities without closing past the three foot bladed steel barrier that is constantly in motion.

Eliminating Threats: How the combatant thinks.

Combat is all about calculated risk. Every action, every decision is a trade off. You want to maneuver past the enemy’s defenses without taking injuries. No injuries is preferable, but unlikely. Any injury means recovery time, which can severely hamper you’re ability to move forward to the next fight. You want to fight from the position which favors you, and gain nothing in fighting from an underdog position. If you’re forced to, you work with what you have. If you choose to, prepare to suffer.

All weapons are not created equal. Every weapon has a field which is favorable to it. The sword, for example, loses out to the staff or spear when out in the open. However, in areas that are denser like a marketplace or city street, the spear or staff will run into maneuverability issues just like the sword does when indoors.

Canny fighters know how to turn their disadvantages into advantages by changing the field of battle, such as luring the swordsman indoors where his strike pattern is more limited. At worst, they know when to disengage and retreat. Survival is more important than ego.

As a writer, you should always try to understand the threats your characters are facing so you don’t accidentally tip the scales too far in one direction and then try to treat the ensuing battle as equal. Bringing knives to a swordfight is a lot like bringing knives to a gunfight, the upset can be brilliant if you plan your scene around getting past the gun/sword’s advantages or horribly one-sided if you don’t.

Your dagger wielder should shank like their life depends on it (because it does.)

The Sliding Edge: Why blocks and deflections with daggers don’t work.

The short answer here is simple: the dagger is actually too short for deflecting another bladed weapon. Outside of parrying daggers (which are a different animal entirely, and paired with a long blade like a rapier), daggers do not deflect other daggers. That’s what your off hand is for.

If you have chosen two daggers, you’ve chosen that offensive life. This means your fighting style is all offense, all the time. Offense is your defense. You will run headlong into a wall when you encounter a weapon which forces you on the defensive.

You might be wondering, “but why can’t I just cross my blades?” Because, while it’s a favorite move for anime, it doesn’t actually work. A pincer block like that is about pressure and you can’t apply enough pressure to stop the incoming blade before it hits.

Swords and daggers don’t clang together when they hit, they slide on those sharp edges. The goal of the swordsman is to protect his blade’s edge, and the same goes for the daggers. The goal, even when parrying, is to apply opposing force to redirect the opponent’s weapon away from its chosen course. Sword combat isn’t about strength, it’s about geometric angles. A dagger wielder doesn’t have that option if they have two weapons, their blades are too short, they have no choice but to attack and keep attacking. This is great if they’re against an unarmed opponent, but a problem if they are not in range to hit anything.

Choose your field of battle wisely. Or? Better yet? Carry additional weapons. Most real warriors throughout history carried multiple weapons to avoid this problem. The conceit of single weapon styles is from anime and role-playing games like DnD or video games. A warrior carrying a spear, a bow, a sword, and a dagger was not unheard of. They’d also carry a variety of more specialized weapons depending on the type of battlefield they expected to encounter.

You could lure the swordsman into territory that doesn’t benefit him, only to have him switch up and come at you knives out.

The well-rounded warrior was the warrior who survived.

-Michi

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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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