Hi! I apologize in advance if this isn’t the right place to ask this kind of question, but I read through a couple of your tags and you seemed to be answering quite a bit of stuff about the psychology connected to fighting, so… I’m trying to write a fanfic for a story where I feel the author really didn’t do his research on the fighting/training. There’s one thing in particular that’s been bugging me; (continued in 2)

(2) He has one of those Super Elite Secret Ninja organizations, and it’s claimed that they are raised together in pairs ‘like brothers’ and then suddenly forced to fight to the death when they’re – I’d guess around 14. This is supposedly to ‘kill their emotions’; it’s claimed that after that they don’t have emotions and are obedient to their leader. I… have a feeling that it wouldn’t work that way, but I don’t know much, so I wanted to check it against somebody more knowledgable.

You’re right, it doesn’t work that way.

The mistake the original author made is one that is very common. I’m going to use a historical example, the Spartans are generally used when writing these kinds of stories because their training methods for preparing children are more brutal than, say, the Vikings. (Brutality doesn’t necessarily make for a better warrior.) Often cited is this one:

The Spartans would take their boys and place them in special camps, they would purposefully limit the amount of food given to the trainees. In order to survive, the children were forced to steal. If the children were caught, they were beaten within an inch of their life.

Many authors look at this concept and assume that the brutality was the lesson. The idea is basically: “looking at this shocked my emotions into shutting down, that must be the goal of the training exercise” and they don’t take it further. But, brutality is only a tool. The goal of the Spartan training method was to teach the idea of consequences. The children were expected to steal food and they weren’t doing anything wrong, what they were being punished for was being caught stealing. Those that succeeded at successfully stealing food without being caught were not punished, they were rewarded. The extra food allowed them to become stronger, better, and more capable of keeping up with their training. The ones who failed at stealing food or sneakily fighting the others for it died.

When you encounter these sorts of methods, you have to look past the brutality to the inherent concept of what the lesson is there to teach. It’s best not to discard these lessons as lesser or bad simply because they are unpalatable. If you understand what the lessons are there to teach, then you will understand the kind of person the training is creating.

The concept of “two enter and one leaves” is actually a common practice among highly elite/specialized military units. The Army Rangers engage in this practice (though their fights aren’t to the death) and so do many others. The goal of this though isn’t to “kill the emotions”, it’s to generate an intense feeling of loyalty to the leadership by the participants proving their dedication. Loyalty does not equal obedience, you need emotions for loyalty.

Pause, stop looking at the killing and think about what the roommate really represents to the character in question. They are their closest companion, their confidant, their battle buddy. They may have been the character’s source of support, the one who helped carry them through their training. When the characters dreamed of joining the organization, it was always with the idea that their friend would be by their side. The roommate is more important than family, more important than friendship. This is a bond that connects to the deepest part of the protagonists soul.

This is who he is being asked to kill.

The character killing his roommate is him proving how much he wants to join the brotherhood. The goal of the lesson is to show that there is no emotional connection more important than the ideals of the brotherhood. Killing his roommate ensures that he will consistently place his loyalty to this organization above any bonds of friendship or love with any single individual he meets later in his life. Essentially, the goal is to create an incorruptible fanatic who will remain utterly devoted to the ideal of the organization long after the organization itself is ashes and rubble.

The goal of the organization is not to kill off his emotions or even his ability to connect with other people. It’s an act of embracing the ideals of the organization over any individual person. He is devoted to a higher cause, whether that cause is a person or a greater system of belief.

A good personality to look at for this kind of behavior would be Kir Kanos from Crimson Empire, who remains a devoted servant of the Emperor and hunting for vengeance long after the Guard has been destroyed and the Emperor dies. Even when he does develop a relationship with a member of the Rebellion, it can’t override his devotion to revenge. He’s notable for remaining loyal to the ideals of the Empire, not the individuals and throughout the comic’s run hunts down those Imperial betrayers who are seeking to use the Empire for their own gain. The training sequences are worth looking at.

However, this will really only work with mature young adults in their late teens (18-19) at the earliest. The reason for this is this level of psychological manipulation requires an emotionally mature mind capable of comprehending what is being asked to do. To build the best, most devoted warriors, you need your warriors to make the decision that this is what they want. It’s not about having the best warrior, if they’ve survived this far into training then they are among the best. It’s about who wants it most, who is willing to fight the hardest, you want the one who wants to be in. These sorts or death matches are really about characters embracing their commitment to the cause. The individuals, friends, family, the people you trust do not matter, the ideal is all that matters. In particular, killing a roommate is teaching the lesson: “One day, you may be asked to kill your brother to protect the ideal, to rid us of corruption. Can you? Prove it.”

It’s easy to assume that this is about creating an emotionless killing machine, but it’s not. It’s about creating a fanatic. If this is starting to sound an awful lot like fundamentalist religious cults, then congrats! This is very similar to the psychology cults use to ensnare members.

A child, even in their early teens, can’t fully make those decisions. 14 is too young to have them killing their friends. Introducing death into the equation there is an excellent way to create shock troopers/child soldiers/suicide bombers, because the authority doesn’t care about ensuring their emotional stability. The kids are prepped with the idea of their own immortality, but they are being sent in to die. They aren’t expected to live long and they don’t need to understand.

Your Elite Ninja School is looking for a long term investment. I’d suggest looking into Military Academies/Boot Camps/The Boy Scouts if you’re going to rewrite (or just write for yourself) the childhoods for these characters. These characters are going to be raised with the idea that they are valued, important, and special. Their training will be hard, but they are part of the elite. The select few. They will trust in their authority figures and, later, they will kill for them.

A person who understands what they are being asked to do and chooses to participate is far more valuable than one who has to be tricked into it. They are also much harder to corrupt and the personal sacrifices they make strengthen their commitment.

If you change it, then change it so that killing the roommate happens as part of the graduation exam, make it the final challenge. You can also start introducing death as part of training accidents earlier at around 16/17 by making training more dangerous (adding in training with real weapons for example). One of my favorites from Crimson Empire was Vader coming in during the middle point of their training and killing the best in the class as a lesson to the others. It’s important to keep in mind that every trainee is expendable, even the most talented. Killing the best reminds the students that there are always more dangerous opponents and will spur them to work harder. After all, if that guy died then anyone could.

I hope that helps.

-Michi

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