Yeah, this is a little earlier than we intended but let’s talk about child soldiers. But if you don’t mind anon, we’ll answer it in a separate post where we can list it with a TW and under a cut, because child soldiers are a very sensitive topic to a lot of people and I doubt neither you nor we want to disturb any other followers on this blog unnecessarily with one of the nastiest aspects of warfare. But with the rash of quasi-Dystopian novels dealing with them. It’s probably pretty important to talk about them in a realistic, real world context. So in that post, we’ll discuss how child soldiers are created, the psychology that drives them, and the reasons cultures today have in creating them. Remember, you cannot create a child who has been trained as soldier without them being a child soldier. Child soldiers have a very different psychology that drives them and it’s one most of the popular Dystopian novels right now skip over by painting them as essentially “little adults”. They however are not, so let’s talk about it.
Let’s start with your character’s background: “Prodigies” don’t generally go over well with military bureaucracies. Fundamentally, militaries tend to be insular. They dislike people coming in and telling them they need to do something different and there’s a real tradition of, “it was good enough for me, in my day, so it’s good enough for the boys,” mentality. Officers that step out of line from that have a habit of getting sidelined, decommissioned, and in some cases even court martialed.
So, here’s a question: is your character a prodigy in the sense that they’re racing up the chain of command or are they a prodigy in the sense that they’re a maverick thinker? Remember, these are mutually exclusive choices. Below is a discussion of both, so think them through before you pick. (If you haven’t already)
If your character is racing through the chain of command, then they will have an inflexible outlook. Their primary objective will be training their troops in what they were trained to do, in the exact same way they were trained, or (at the very least) as close as they can get to what their instructors taught them.
This means, for the inflexible soldier, that we’re talking training on rifles and shotguns, basic military hand to hand, knife-work, bayonets, and urban combat. Yes, the American Military still drills in bayonet charges even though the last time they actually used a bayonet charge was in 1896. Militaries change slowly, glacially slowly, they continue to add new techniques but retain a heavy focus on what worked in the past as I mentioned above. Unless your character has a background in other types of training (which is very unlikely given their age), they won’t be training snipers or any of the other stealth focused specialists. They’ll stick to the basics of what they know will work and what they’re comfortable with.
If they’re a maverick thinker, then you’re going to need to decide where their prodigious skill is. In an excessive oversimplification, pick between: strategy, tactics, operations or logistics. You’re looking at creating a commander, not a specialist, so making them really good at hand-to-hand or specific weaponry is out. I mean that.
Strategy is your goal (likely). If your character is trying to hold a city against an invading force, then their strategy might be fortification and entrenchment, luring the invading force in and exploiting the environment, or some other method. Remember, strategists use others to do their fighting for them. They are more valuable off the battlefield than on and rely on others to command small groups away from home. If you’re looking to create a “Leader of Men” in the sense of your character leading them onto the battlefield, then the strategist is out. (Michi Note: an example of good strategists in fiction is John Sheridan from Babylon 5)
Operations covers the smaller steps necessary to realize a strategy. If the goal is to fortify the city, then operations will cover getting the building materials, taking and holding areas that are vital to keeping control of the city, or protecting the civilian population. They are good at conservation, leadership, social interaction, managing bureaucracy, and the distribution of manpower for both non-combat and combat. An Operations specialist can fight, but like the strategist they are more useful off the battlefield than they are on it. (Michi Note: an example of good operations specialists is Keladry of Mindelan from the Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce, especially in Lady Knight.)
Tactics are the front line decisions. “Take that building,” “get some suppressing fire over there,” “take out that armor,” and so on. This is a character that is good for leading small guerrilla units and planning around single action events, they aren’t great at seeing the long game but they’re needed on the front lines instead of at the rear. They are excellent at working with a small fighting force and seeing the openings the enemy leaves or managing openings created on the battlefield. If you choose tactics specialist, remember that you’re going to have to create other characters who can manage the responsibilities behind the lines while he’s off fighting. Tactics specialists are good at leading small units, not large ones. (Michi Note: Really good tactics specialists are hard to find in fiction because they are harder to write, it’s easy to dumb it down or confuse it with strategy. Sam and Fiona from Burn Notice are both tacticians and very different kinds, so you can see the difference between a military approach and a more guerrilla fighting style, compare with Michael Westen, who is a strategist.)
Logistics is all about procuring the resources you need to continue fighting. Usually this is involves locating, scavenging, and wrangling from a variety of sources the food, munitions, and other equipment your soldiers need. Unlike the other three, this is something a lot of officers pawn off onto subordinates, so it’s possible your character has no real familiarity with it. Logistics could be his weakness, in fact, and that’s something to keep in mind. That said, given the way the military treats people who don’t fall into line or exhibit an annoyingly unusual level of skill, it’s not unreasonable for your character to have been shuffled into logistics as a punishment. Remember, the military punishes individuality and exceptionalism. It does so quickly, efficiently, and with a surprising amount of viciousness. A character skilled in logistics will often be cunning, good with money and resource management, must have good social skills, and a surprising knowledge of the underlying idiosyncrasies to running a military force that most of the other specialists may overlook because these things were always provided for them. Like the strategist and the operations specialist they will be most useful behind the lines. (Michi Note: because authors often overlook the importance of logistics, there aren’t a lot of good examples. One though is Radar from M.A.S.H.)
With a younger prodigy, you’re actually restricting yourself quite a bit compared to an older, more seasoned officer in their thirties or forties. The older officer has had the necessary time to pick up some unorthodox approaches to all of these areas, while a prodigy needs to focus. We often ignore the value of experience in our culture, but youth and talent are not equal to age, skill, and a knowledge of fighting gained through real world practice. Remember, an older soldier has had time to practice and hone a wide variety of skills, while a young officer, even a seasoned one, will have had to focus their training on a single point. Talent means nothing against practice and command experience.
For looking at writing an unconventional military officer, I’d suggest the Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium novels by Sandy Mitchell and Seasons 2-4 of Babylon 5 (Michi Note: Skip 1 as it has a different main protagonist). In particular the early Cain novels can teach you a lot about leadership in combat as well as some basic social engineering and management of interpersonal conflicts within the regiment.
Now, I’m going to cover some other possible backgrounds, just to explain what they are and what they represent.
Military Intelligence: this one might sound cool in theory, but these guys aren’t military spies. There are no James Bond’s to be had here, this is strictly a desk job. The reality is that Intelligence Officers work to collect and analyze any information they can get from a very safe space behind enemy lines. They have no authority or influence over combat, beyond what they can decode, and have no say in how that information is used. They also have no experience in using it. (Michi Note: This is not the droid you’re looking for.)
Special Forces: Again, cool in theory, but in reality they’re not really that useful from a character building perspective. Special Forces Operators are just troops with very specialized training. So all you actually get is a flag to say how cool, special, and badass your character is, without actually giving them any useful combat skills, tactical skills, or leadership skills. They’re really good at being set on a target (by someone else) and killing it. That’s about it. There’s nothing here that you won’t get normally by saying the character is ex-military, from a story standpoint, Special Forces protagonists are pretty worthless. (Michi Note: They are also overused as fuck, please do yourself a favor and avoid the cliché.)
Again, your character is going to be training his forces in basic hand to hand and rifles (not handguns) or shotguns because of the ease at which they will learn the skills quickly. Military training is all about providing simple, practical, easy to use skills that can be learned within a few weeks or months instead of years. For an example: take a look at the Marine M.A.P. episode from the now defunct Human Weapon, (you can find full episodes of the show on YouTube) there’s some really good information to be had there as Marine trainers show some basic techniques that will be pretty easy for you to write, along with some basic military history and the general attitudes of the military in general and military training in particular. Explore the history of the Military, with a focus on military tactics versus guerilla warfare; much of what you want to work with already exists in the history books. I would suggest a focus on both the Army and the Marines for your character.
It’s also important to remember that just because your character is skilled at one aspect of military life, doesn’t mean they’ll A) be good at everything and B) good at instructing. Define early, for yourself, what his weaknesses are so that you can challenge him with them. Remember, training isn’t about height or weight; it’s about being able to convey information clearly and concisely to others. A good teacher keeps their focus on their trainees and off of themselves.
Characters that have come out of the military are defined by their need for structure, unity, and discipline. This puts them at odds (even today) with civilians, who value freedom and individuality over conformity. You have a great opportunity for tension in the ranks present in your story simply from the difference in background and outlook. Keep in mind that a character who has been constantly punished for his individuality by his superiors will be less likely to give up the structure to which he has become accustomed. If he’s a career officer then his time in the Military defines who he is and how he sees the world. If he’s leading a resistance then a part of him will be at odds with his own training, thus creating internal tension. These decisions are never easy and thus it’s your responsibility to him to make it not seem so. Many people, especially exceptional ones, join the Military because they believe in the message, the system, and the cause. It’s hard to give up those beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. (Again, we both suggest Seasons 2-4 of Babylon 5 as required viewing for dealing with military officers who turn against their own out of a desire to uphold the morals they’ve been sworn to protect.)
I think this covers your question, but if we’ve missed anything feel free to remind us. As always, our ask box is always open. Happy writing!
It’s important to remember that most of the conventional wisdom about force application we have in popular culture comes from observations made about various sport styles and exhibition fighting, such as in movies and staged fights at martial arts tournaments. The assumption becomes that those moves were chosen to be allowed because they are more effective, not less. The problem though with that assumption is that while goal of fighting is to win, it’s also to do so with relative safety and not kill the opponent. Injure, wound, and maim perhaps, but again not kill.
The same is true for both tournament demonstration and media in general. When it comes to evaluating whether a television show, a video on the internet, or what they see at a tournament demonstration will be useful for imagining and creating fight scenes, a creator is required to keep three things in mind:
1) The decision on what techniques to use is primarily governed by what will look good on screen or on the floor and not practicality.
2) The action is safe for the performer to demonstrate without injury to themselves under extremely controlled circumstances. In media, this works double for the actor, the stunt double, and their work with the stunt coordinator.
3) The goal is to create something convincing for the audience, not something that is actually reflective of reality.
It’s important to remember that in demonstration performances and movies that there’s a lot of work, sometimes days, weeks, and even months that goes into crafting those scenes, preparing the actors, and putting together the performance. The other important thing to remember is that because movies and demonstrations are primarily an illusion, they can get away with a great deal more than the human body actually can in their action sequences. These fights are designed around the audience being able to follow the action, but even the best of them are often horribly impractical by design. Many authors when they try to write fight scenes look to movies, comics, and video games for easily accessible action that they can translate into their stories and that’s fine. The only problem is that often, because they are unfamiliar with physical action they end up including the same flaws from the movies into their books.
In a movie, the fight scenes are actually long exhibition fights that have been cut together into a single sequence. This means that on film, even after the editing of the fight, you get unnatural pauses where the stuntmen/women are resetting their positions and essentially taking a breather before they move on to the next action sequence. The reason for this, of course, is that if you just forced the stuntmen to continuously run, they’d keel over from exhaustion about half-way through. If an author does not step back and examine the action from an external perspective, they run a real risk of including these same flaws into their novel. There are plenty of examples in already published works where this happens and they are easy to find, once you know what to look for.
Divergent for example, is a major offender. So is City of Bones, for obvious reasons. The combat in Marie Brennan’s Warrior is essentially a Turn Based RPG. YA in general has a great many authors chasing after Joss Whedon and thus invoking the Whedon/Comic Book problem where they stand around talking and then they fight, then they stop and talk, and then they fight, and then they circle, and then again, they fight. Tamora Pierce is one of the few authors in the YA genre I can point to that escapes this trap, but then she knows what she’s talking about and it shows.
I (Michi) will also cop to having the Whedon problem, I watched (and loved) a great many Whedon shows when I was younger and the internalization of a lot of his flaws as well as his successes is something I struggle regularly against even when I should know better.
Remember, all media feeds into each other and into the culture at large. When looking at media for reference, it’s important to not only look at the internal consistencies, plot, and characters but also the outside motivations of what, why, and reality’s constrictions. Written work reflects, not just into other novels, but also into movies, television, video games, and comic books. So, it’s important to evaluate the constraints of the media you’re working with and its flaws while transferring some of the actions and ideas into your work.
What will work well in a visually medium for action doesn’t weather well on the page, nor will it pass the scratch and sniff test when it passes before someone who knows what to look for when dealing with fighters and fighting. So, the goal is to work toward generating the emotions in your audience that we experience when watching a well put together action sequence through a different avenue than what the director and stunt choreographer created for the movie itself.
As always, there are exceptions to every rule and there are a great many movies and television shows that work excellently as reference material. These are just some basic things to think about when looking at media for reference and some of the dangers that are associated with taking stuff wholesale without examining it from all aspects.
On the subject of RPGs and writing, Starke and I are putting together a reference article dealing with the merits and flaws of Pencil and Paper RPGs when working with characters and fight sequences. So heads up Brennan fans, we’ll be talking more about Warrior in that article.
This was supposed to be the Open Hand Primer but I ended up getting sidetracked with a tangent, it’s coming soon, I promise.
As always, happy writing!
Love this blog, realistic fighting is one thing you can’t get a feel for from research. Do you have any recommendations for things to keep in mind when two people are fighting as a team against several bad guys? Assuming the two train together and fight together fairly often.
The tactics will change substantially between characters and situation depending on whether or not they’re carrying guns or were trained in a military context. I say military over police or FBI because the military training is all about protecting, defending, and attacking as a unit, not as an individual. Since yours are probably not and I’m guessing you mean hand to hand, I’ll give my advice from that outlook.
Assuming your two characters view each other as evenly matched (and one won’t try to take the brunt of the opposing force on their own), they’re more likely to know each others weaknesses and trust in each others strengths. There will be a level of trust there that will for the most part ensure that they won’t get in each others way.
And while fighting back to back sounds good in theory (it looks great in a movie!) but in a group, it’s terrible. Because of the amount of pushing and jostling that goes on and because standing still is an unbelievably bad idea (unless you’re an Aikido or Tai Chi practioner), they’re more likely to split a group of enemies up evenly by pulling them off in different directions and fighting alone. This way, they’ll be free to drag their own opponents into each other without having to worry about screwing over their partner by accident (and accidents always happen). Remember, in hand to hand, a character can only really reliably fight one opponent at a time, so when fighting against groups, it’s a lot of bouncing around trying to get their opponents to hit each other instead of them, so they can conserve energy.
It also gives you the opportunity to build in narrative tension if there’s an uneven number of opponents, if the opponents in one fight are more coordinated than usual and refuse to be baited from going after their primary target, and things start going south. Remember, bad guys, even one-off ones are people too and some of them also have a history of fighting together. You can get a lot with just a little work on random mook motivation.
As with anything, the more opponents there are, the greater the chance for failure. To stay realistic, try to keep it between four or six (two and three per fighter). Finally, it’s important to keep in mind in fights that things always go wrong or in an unexpected direction on some level for both parties. The personalities of your characters and their own fighting outlook will affect the fight just as much as their technique. A good fighter doesn’t play around with their opponent, but a lot do anyway.
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All around the world, martial arts from many different countries are a major cultural export. I say this because it’s important to remember that your characters race, ethnicity, and gender don’t necessarily need to reflect their style’s culture or country of origin. One of the greatest beauties of the MAs is that anyone can start at any age and find both meaning and value. I’ve seen twelve year olds earn their black belts side by side with eighty year old cancer survivors. While I trained in Taekwondo and the master instructor of my dojo was Asian, he was not Korean, instead he was Japanese-American. His master and the master co-founders of the entire organization were a Filipino-American man and an African-American man. The instructor who had the greatest effect on me was (or his family was) an immigrant from Ecuador.
A good martial artist can come from anywhere and while they can’t necessarily be just anyone (just those who put in the time and effort), there’s no need for an author to limit their imagination with a student of any traditional art because their race, gender, or ethnicity doesn’t fit with what media has prepared us for.
When it comes to martial arts specifically, it’s important to remember that the make-up of a school you might expect is not there in actuality. Many people are drawn to the martial arts from many different walks of life, and while there is certainly some very interesting mysticism and philosophical tenants grounded in some of the Eastern MAs, in a modern context the techniques and philosophies are more than able to transfer into backstories the author needs. All the author needs to do is be aware and sensitive of the culture and philosophy ingrained in the martial art they choose.
If you are working with a historical context, research as needed. Either way, you might be surprised.
You’re very welcome!
Starke and I are going to do some write ups on spies vs. assassins and spies in particular soon (ish?), we’ve got a lot of stuff we’re putting together. But in the mean time, let me direct you to some helpful media that’s both very informative when it comes to talking about what a spy is, because the way most folks (even really good writers) approach them in fiction is completely wrongheaded.
Spies are all about social engineering over combat, though they do have training, if a spy is forced to fight it usually means something has gone very wrong and shit has hit the fan. Here are some examples that I’ve personally found really useful for distinguishing the difference between a spy versus an assassin. For reference, James Bond and Movie!Bourne both fall into the assassin category.
Burn Notice, (2007-Current) The story of burned spy Michael Westin as he tries to survive in Miami and uncover who burned him, he helps down on their luck people on the side. The latest few seasons are kinda meh but the first two are an absolute must watch, Westin’s internal monologue makes the show pretty much an example of “How To Be A Spy”. It has the added bonus of all the advice being practical and all the devices working because they tested all of it. Some of the bomb stuff is wrong (chemicals mostly), but that’s to be expected. If you take a look at nothing else (or can’t find them) on this list, look into this one. (It’s also really good!)
Spy Game (2001) with Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. Half the movie is Redford’s character flashing back to training Brad Pitt’s character on how to be a spy (very useful and good information), the rest is him working using a variety of bluffing and social engineering techniques to secure the same character’s release from a Chinese prison without ever leaving his office. It’s worth a look on that alone, the training examples are also incredibly useful.
Queen & Country – This comic book gem by Greg Rucka is based, somewhat on Sandbaggers a British television show from the seventies (also on the list). It’s one of the only books I’ve ever come across with a realistic and believable female spy as it’s central protagonist (as opposed to non-believable and non-realistic). It’s also a good example of how intelligence gathering functions and how British spies work in particular.
Sandbaggers (1978) This British television show is going to be harder to find, but not impossible. It’s good to look at, not just for field agents, but also their minders and how spies are often caught up with their own country’s internal politics and bureaucracy. It’s a precarious balance between duty to their charges and their responsibility to their superiors and the good of their country. Even if this isn’t the central tenant to what you’re thinking about doing, it can be a great reference for creating background characters and tensions.
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. The book, not the movie, where Jason Bourne is an amnesiac spy trying to convince everyone that he is an assassin in order to fulfill a mission he barely remembers in an attempt to uncover his past. It has some great stuff on how spies behave, social engineering, and a really solid female supporting character who is much more than just a love interest. (Marie rocks.)
Starke would probably have some more suggestions but he’s sleeping, if you need more information, our askbox is always open.
Some contrary examples for assassins:
Collateral (2004) with Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise. A cab driver is held hostage by a contract killer and forced to drive him around Los Angeles for a night. To get into the role, Cruise dressed in a FedEx/ UPS/Mail Order uniform and went around town delivering packages in an effort to get into character and see if most people really didn’t look past the uniform. None of them did.
Spartan (2004) with Val Kilmer, watch it. The investigation into a the kidnapping of the daughter of a high ranking government official. It’s got some good info and is great for comparison to the spies.
The Bourne Movies with Matt Damon. He’s an assassin and the movies are a little boring but it’s good for reference and he does some good work here and there with his avoiding detection.
Some Examples I’m not sure on, but you should watch anyway:
Ronin (1998) with Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno, a freelancing former U.S. Intelligence agent is trying to track down a package wanted by both the Irish and the Russians. This is another great example of social engineering and it’s a great movie!
I hope any and all of this turns out to be useful and happy writing!
Where the head goes, the body follows.
This is one of the most important tenants of self-defense and it’s why every combatant, male or female, should keep their hair either short or bound to their heads in a braid that is so skin tight the fingers cannot seize it. The fighter who does not risks having the back of their head grabbed in the middle of combat by providing a decent, easily accessible grip for their opponent. Regardless of what television will tell you, the ponytail is not good enough.
The hair is a much easier target than attempting a headlock or grabbing behind the neck. Once an opponent has their target in their grasp and control of their head, they can take them almost anywhere they wish.
Your hair may be dead, but beneath the skin it is very much alive. Wrap your fingers in your own hair and pull, you’ll find it to be fairly painful, then, imagine the pull from the hands of someone who doesn’t care about your feelings or maybe your hair was pulled by someone when you were younger. It can hurt a great deal and pain has a way of locking us up when we are unprepared or it or when we haven’t been properly trained to deal with it.
It’s important to remember, no matter what folks say about hair pulling, that it is a real, acceptable, and commonly used tactic, especially against women. It will also work against men with hair long enough for a good grip. Honor has very little place in real world combat, remember that an advantage taken is an advantage gained and the only true imperative is survival.
Hair pulling is very common in fights among groups, such as in clubs, mobs, etc as a means of taking someone down. The best advice for when someone takes you or your character by the hair or by the head is to go with them, not politely, but in the same general direction by ramming sideways, forwards, or backwards in the direction of their grip and to keep going until they fall or are driven into a wall or another individual. This will keep you from being injured or having your hair yanked out, it will also save on the pain because it releases tension.
I’m the anon asking about the character who lived the majority of his life in South America. I forgot to mention that he lived a large chunk of his life in poor areas, frequently moving due to trouble his family would get into, and so there were times were he lived in the streets.
The two most major Brazilian MAs I know of are Capoeira, a martial art that is descended from Africa and was created by the slaves as a method to retain their fighting traditions by hiding them as a form of dance, the other is Brazilian Jiu-jutsu, as you mentioned. I think the most important thing to remember about all traditional MAs is that they take time to learn, if your character moved around a lot then he would constantly have to be finding new schools and instructors to train him. He most likely would spend a good portion of his time covering the basics that he already knew as the instructors established for themselves what he already knows and what he doesn’t. His skill would be decided mostly by how much time he spent training outside of lessons. Also, remember that MA training through a professional school can be both expensive and time consuming, expect the lessons to take up a half hour to an hour of his time no less than three to five times per week on regular intervals. If he is trained by a specific instructor on a personal basis, then it could be a lot more. If he is trained by his parents (the easiest under the circumstances) it may be his whole life like a lot of the kids I knew whose parents were instructors.
Decide this for yourself.
If he lives on the streets and you want a martial art that is specifically Brazilian, I’d suggest Capoeira. It involves dancing, tumbling, and other exercises that make it more of a stealth MA and he could make money off his skills as a street performer. It is a very unique style, however, so make sure you’re comfortable with writing it.
Other than that, it may be he picked up his skills from a non-professional source such as the local gangs and other forms of general street fighting. A character can still be an effective fighter from a non-traditional background, especially if he’s fighting other non-professionally trained combatants. It’s only when we get into it with professionals (of varying degrees of efficiency) that the shit really starts to hit the fan.
I hope this helps!
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Hello, new followers! I’m so glad you’ve found my blog and hopefully it’ll be at least a little educational. It seems most of you started following me (us, sometimes, but mostly me, Michi, hi!) from my post about “Women Are Not Stronger Than Men”, I don’t do too many posts about women versus men, but I plan on doing more about female protagonists and women and fighting, plus more information about real world fighting versus staged/movie/book fight scenes in general. I don’t post a lot, I mostly try for one a day, I know that’s low for tumblr, but it’s mostly content I and Starke generate ourselves from personal experience and what we dig up through research for our own work.
It’s hard for me to remember sometimes that what’s common knowledge for me, the stuff I basically grew up knowing, isn’t what most of us learn. So, if you ever have any questions about women and fighting, women and weapons, self defense, or just fighting, fight scenes, etc, in general feel free to ask!