Q&A: British Military Recruitment Physicals

I’m planning a story with an English character who joined the army during WW1 (because he didn’t want to be considered cowardly) but eventually became disillusioned with war and with the British Empire. He was born physically disabled but managed to conceal the disability in order to enlist. Are there any disabilities for which this would be plausible?

No. It would be difficult to hide any serious disability during the recruitment medical examination. In 1914, the sheer volume of recruits meant that examinations were fairly cursory, but, anything significant would have gotten washed out. Also, he wouldn’t be alone in that respect, somewhere between 40% and 60% of volunteers were turned away for being medically unfit.

There two major exceptions, that were sometimes, “overlooked,” by the recruiters.

The first was height, a British Soldier was required to be at least 5’3″ (later revised up to 5’6″ to reduce the number of recruits that were being processed), though this was not always strictly adhered to.

The second was age, the British military required recruits to be 19 or older, though estimates put the number of underage British soldiers who served in World War I at around a 250,000.

It is important to understand, “fear of being viewed as a coward,” was not a leading cause to join up. Certainly not for someone who had a disability that they would need to work to conceal. Peer pressure was a factor among underage recruits. For adults the leading factors were patriotic impulses, or an opportunity to adventure.

Worth remembering, World War I was a significant turning point for the perception of warfare in Europe. It was brutal, and destructive on an incomprehensible scale. Twenty million people died from 1914-1918. Another twenty million were seriously injured.

That last part is important for reference. There were a lot of soldiers that went to war with the idea that it would be a grand adventure. They swore to protect king and country, but returned horrifically maimed, after receiving front row seats to industrialized warfare’s opening act.

War has a long history of taking young, healthy individuals and returning them in much less intact conditions. Even if your character left for war in good shape, it’s entirely plausible they wouldn’t return that way.

Even though the characters are German, not British, All Quiet on the Western Front is probably something you’ll want to read. You may also want to check The Great War channel on YouTube.

-Starke

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Q&A: Waterboarding

Is waterboarding deadly? Some people say it isn’t and I don’t know what to think.

Not normally, but a torturer can botch this and kill the victim.

So, normally, waterboarding involves covering the victim’s face with cloth, and them pouring water over it. Water that gets in their mouth will trigger the gag reflex, and while the water is being poured, any attempt to inhale will pull water in, so it “simulates” drowning.

The asphyxiation is real. While the water is being poured, it’s impossible for the victim to breathe. If the torturer never stops pouring, then they will suffocate the victim.

Normally, the procedure is to pour for short periods of time, and then stop, giving the victim time to breathe, before continuing.

It’s kind of telling that waterboarding has been used in countertorture training. If properly administered, the physical danger to the victim is minimal. However, there are a lot of potential, “points of failure,” here.

I already mentioned asphyxiation. If the victim is improperly restrained they may harm themselves thrashing around during the process. Even if they are properly restrained, this is still a risk. All of the usual hazards for asphyxiation are present, including brain damage from lack of oxygen.

This is where things become a problem. There are a lot of factors that can determine how well you can handle a lack of oxygen: Age, adaptation (if you live at a higher altitude, you’ll adapt to lower oxygen levels), medical history, (particularly any respiratory or cardiovascular conditions) can all seriously alter how resistant you are to oxygen deprivation. When we’re talking about waterboarding, that resistance is the difference between, “fine,” and brain damage, or alive and dead.

So, yes, waterboarding can kill, but that works against the goal. There are far less elaborate ways to kill someone. The primary use of waterboarding is to elicit false confessions. Because the torture leaves few visible injuries, it’s easier to present a waterboarding victim’s confession as voluntary. Of course, as with any form of torture, there will be significant, lasting, psychological damage, but that’s not going to be apparent when the victim is being publicly presented.

-Starke

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Q&A: Changing the Ground Rules

Two questions. 1. Would real-world knowledge of weapons be enough to break immersion for someone when reading a book that basically uses video game weaponry? Because video games are a visual medium, it’s easier to get away with things that don’t necessarily make sense, like the bladed tonfa from Warframe. 2. If one did go about this, would you suggest blending real-world knowledge with fantasy/fantastical aspects, or would a matter-of-fact ‘it is what it is’ kind of policy be better?

Let’s take this apart into a couple different pieces.

Would real-world knowledge of weapons be enough to break immersion for someone when reading a book that basically uses video game weaponry?

Yes.

It’s not even about video games. Writers and filmmakers can screw up a lot of details, and if you’ve background in that field, it will drive you nuts. This isn’t goes way beyond weapons into other things like lawyers, police, doctors, programmers, ect. Really, if you’re in any technical field, you run a real risk of being driven up a wall by technical errors made by writers who don’t know the subject matter.

This can be true with weapons, because they’re very technical pieces of equipment, there’s a lot of information to manage, and you can easily end up with a writer who thinks, “they’re just point and click, right?”

The only way to deal with this is, simply, to do your research to the best of your abilities. There will be errors, but usually minor mistakes are forgivable, if the attempt has been made.

Because video games are a visual medium, it’s easier to get away with things that don’t necessarily make sense, like the bladed tonfa from Warframe.

No. It has nothing to do with the medium. If anything, it’s easier to screw up with weapons in a video game, because you’ve put the player in control of managing the item, and very few games seek to accurately reproduce real weapons.

The common example of this is, simply that many first person shooters use left handed variants of the weapons. Specifically so it will eject shell casings in front of the camera. It can get much more bizarre however.

For a recent example, there’s Generation Zero, which has two different 9mm ammo types. It segregates 9mm into Pistol and SMG. The weapons to pick from are the Glock 17, the MP5, and the Sweedish m/45. The problem is, all of these fire 9x19mm Parabellum. It’s the same bullet. At the same time, it has no qualms about chambering the same 7.62mm round into an H&K G3 (which fires 7.62x51mm), and an AK variant (which fires 7.62x39mm). (And before someone says anything, no, it’s not an AK-308, the game is set in 1989.)

This is a problem that, you’d probably never see in any other media. A writer is unlikely to really dig into the munitions to the point where you’d see that kind of weirdness without doing any in depth research (though, this kind of mistake does happen.) This isn’t a visual media thing, because if you have a game or film, where you only see the characters messing with magazines, the writer simply couldn’t make this kind of a mistake.

Now, I used Generation Zero as an example because the game is set in 1989. The weapon selection reflects that. However Warframe is a different animal.

Set somewhere between eight to twelve thousand years from now. The setting permits the ability to travel between planets in the solar system in minutes, and characters are wall running, cybernetic, murder ninjas. In context, I don’t think the idea that some Tenno use bladed tonfas is that weird.

2. If one did go about this, would you suggest blending real-world knowledge with fantasy/fantastical aspects, or would a matter-of-fact ‘it is what it is’ kind of policy be better?

The important thing is setting the ground rules for your world. If you fail to do so, the assumed rules will match the real world. This can trip you up, when the real world conflicts with yours. Additionally, simply redefining things in ways that are factually incorrect to the real world can be viewed as a mistake on your part.

The closer your world is to the real one, the harder it becomes to tweak things. No one questions Generation Zero’s killer robots wandering the 1980s Swedish Countryside gunning people down, it’s the weird logistical stuff that raises an eyebrow. This is clearly not our world, but the parts that almost sync up are where you’re more likely to step back and say, “wait, this doesn’t make sense.”

With Warframe, the entire world is fantasy. (Technically, science fiction, but for this discussion that’s an academic distinction.) It’s strange, difficult to rationalize, and going in you don’t have a reference for how things, “should,” work. Setting the ground rules becomes easy. So saying, “well, does this make sense?” needs to be balanced against the setting’s lore. (Incidentally, I’m not well versed enough in Warframe to get into lore discussions.)

Genre can also establish rules that you then need to work around. We, “know,” vampires can’t walk out in daylight, because those are “the rules,” until you get into something like The Witcher or, ironically, even, Dracula, where that rule doesn’t apply. Vampires can walk in daylight, they may choose to avoid it if they can, but it won’t kill them. Or will only harm them under specific circumstances. Hold this in contrast to something like Vampire: The Masquerade where catching a sunrise will reduce a Kindred to ash. I bring up vampires because it’s a sub-genre that frequently needs to need to set the ground rules telling the audience what does, and does not work, for this version of vampires.

It is easy when it’s a fictional attachment to the world. It’s harder when it’s bundled into a world that appears to follow the same rules as the one you live in. Staying with the video game theme, a very good example of a fantasy world with it’s own rules layered into a, “modern,” setting is last year’s Disco Elysium. The firearms technology seems to have stalled out around pepperbox pistols, which exist next to ceramic assault armor more advanced than what we have in the real world. It spends a lot of time with world building.

Blending fantasy and reality together is difficult, but doable. First, you need to cue the audience in that this is not, “the real world.” Doing this organically can be challenging. Second, you need to explain that divide enough to maintain the suspension of disbelief. The audience has to believe in you world, more than they care about nitpicking.

Some rules are much harder to break than others. It’s easier to tell a story with fictional weapon than it is to tell a story that breaks the laws of physics, or violates logical structure. The latter needs a good justification.

It’s all about the story you’re trying to tell. If you’re looking at something and trying to make a decision if you want to the real world or throw it out for something fantastical, do some research first, and once you’ve gotten there, decide if you want to twist things.

Nothing ties you to the world that exists, but, you need to know the world you live in, before you decide to depart it.

-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: War Animals

Familiars and other animal companions are a staple in fantasy literature, and eagles and falcons have been used to hunt for centuries. How practical is it to use animals in battle?

derederest

It depends on the combat role, but animals have seen use in combat.

The big example are, of course, horses. Cavalry would not exist without them. At least, not in our world. Elephants and camels have also been used as cavalry mounts. I’m sure I’m forgetting some others. Many animals have been used in non-combat support roles.

Dogs are another major combat animal. The specialized breeds of war dogs are mostly gone now, but they did see use historically. There is still combat application for dogs today. A dog is far more adept at running down fleeing foes, and they remain a highly mobile skirmishing unit. They also have superior senses of smell and hearing, making them valuable sentries. Even if you don’t have as much control over them than with human soldiers, they’re still quite useful.

None of that’s familiars, though. Animals used in warfare are one thing, but a familiar is a magical “accomplice.”

I’m going to be a bit vague here, because the concept of the familiar isn’t a single thing, it’s varies widely based on the setting. The familiar assists the mage in some way, it’s not generally a combat animal. This is usually something like a cat, rodent, or a small bird. It may not even be an animal, it could be a supernatural creature assuming the form of that animal. Also, depending on the familiar, it’s entirely possible it would be something overtly fantastic, like an imp or small demon.

Depending on the rules associated with a familiar, it may be psychically linked to magic user, meaning mage draws significant advantages from their familiar, such as spying and reconnaissance. In extreme examples, it may even be vital to their ability to channel (or cast) magic. So, these can be very important beings, but it depends on the rules for that setting.

In the real world, there were beliefs that the pets of suspected magic practitioners had intrinsic magical powers, or were proof that someone had entered a pact for their power. The entire idea of the familiar has historical basis, even if the concept itself had no grounding in reality.

You mentioned falconers, and also the use of hunting animals earlier. There is a concept of some varieties of magic users having combat focused animals with them. Again, there’s some history here. A number of animals, including birds of prey and dogs have been used as hunting companions. It’s a distinct concept from the familiar, and also from the use of animals in warfare.

So, there’s several different concepts here, and all three have some historical basis, but they’re all distinct. You probably don’t want to mix them indiscriminately, but there’s also room for blending them together, depending on the rules for your setting.

-Starke

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Q&A: Refurbished Criminals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: 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: 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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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.