Q&A: Beware the Unintended Implications

 Hi! I’m writing a story that is in a dystopian setting. One of the characters is female and perhaps 110 lbs soaking wet. I want her to be a capable fighter, able to defend herself against fast moving rabid-like humans. I don’t want to overly rely on guns as this will be set about 15 years after the end time event. Any suggestions of the types of weapons a small yet capable woman could use effectively in combat? Also the kinds of strategy and fighting techniques she might use?

All of them? Sky’s the limit.

We get a lot of questions like this, and the answer is always going to be the fighting techniques and combat tactics that they thought were a good idea. It’s the wrong question, because weapons, tactics, combat techniques, and strategies aren’t based in body type or even who someone is. They’re based on who the enemy is, what their enemy’s strengths and weaknesses are, what the terrain is, and where they’ll be fighting.

The problem with this line of thinking  about women, weight, and body types is that it’s inherently sexist. Honestly, it’s sexist when we do it with men too but given the way gender norms work in fiction chasing after it with female characters will get you into a lot of trouble. The sexism begins with the thought process of “inherently less dangerous because x” or “cannot do y due to x”.  The problem with this is thought process is that it will lead you to overcompensate. Overcompensation with a character’s combat ability leads to imbalance of threat level, and will utterly wreck your tension.

A massive, overweight man can be the lightest, most graceful, and gentlest member of a Tai Chi Chuan class. (Seen it.)

A black man well over six feet can do full splits. (Seen it.)

A ninety pound girl can throw a 220 pound grown man to the other side of the room. (Seen it.)

If you want to write action, start by stripping out the preconceptions that led you to ask the question about weight. If you want your female character to be good at fighting or even just surviving, you need to start focusing on what she’ll be fighting, the dangers she’ll face, on her mental outlook, and what she’s comfortable with doing. Not what she weighs. Weight and body type are the least important question, and gender is really only relevant in regards to mental hangups. What we believe ourselves capable of is far more damaging than our gender or what we weigh.

Besides, starting weight is pointless. The body and body type changes under physical stress and conditioning. When we start training and have access to the food we need to put on muscle then you’ll put on muscle.  A character who is ninety pounds may jump to 110, a character who is a 110 will jump to 130, and it is not uncommon for female athletes to weigh in at 150. If you’ve got a character who is ninety pounds and its all muscle, it’s not going to matter. An athlete who weighs 150 will look like they’re 120.

Visuals can be deceiving.

Here’s some things to think about.

  1. Fifteen years after the end times, guns will still be working.

If you want guns not to be present or extremely rare, the character’s got to come out of some sort of utopian future where they’ve been outlawed.  Or, the technology has moved to the point where they can’t be easily replicated beyond what’s already available.  You’d still be looking at a time frame of around 100 years after the end, and for the record they might just fall back to or revive older tech. Guns designed 100 years ago are still in use, still sold, and considered to be among the most reliable on the market. The Colt M1911’s name comes from the year the design went into production, and it has a lifespan of over a century.

The problem of the gun for a post-apocalyptic setting is that they’re really easy to make. Even if the knowledge vanished (somehow), the guns themselves all vanished (somehow), you’d still be left with people who’d go, “yeah, explosive powder, barrel, small object, boom.” Or just move back to firing firecrackers at the walking dead before learning to catapult larger objects more effectively.

Never underestimate human ingenuity and their love of blowing things up. (Also, fire.)

2. There are reasons beyond lack of availability that may lead to them not being used.

Sound is the issue with guns. When it comes to zombies, loud noises will only draw more zombies. The person who fired the gun (and anyone with them) will wind up buried in bodies, which they will have no way of fighting past. The trick to understanding zombies, rabid, fast moving humans, or anything in that general category is that there are always more. It’s better not to fight them at all, if you can avoid it.  If we found ourselves in a situation where the combat viability of the gun ended up outweighed by the detriments then they’d start falling out of use. It’d have to be a very high threshold, but it’s possible. At that point, the guns would be kept around to deal with the other humans that weren’t feral. Even then, someone would be working to find a way to make them work again.

3. Think long and hard by what you mean by “feral” human.

This is actually very important. If you don’t, you’ll accidentally wind up caught in some very ugly imperialism/colonialism tropes. I know Tumblr likes to ascribe these thought processes as moral failings, but they’re not. What you will fall prey to in your storytelling has been here longer than you’ve been alive, and will still be here after you and I are gone. You can’t escape them by focusing on skin color or ethnicity, either. These tropes have been around before they had names because they play on our xenophobia and fear of the unknown. Whether it’s cowboys and Indians, savages in the dark depths of Africa, shrieking Bedouins on horseback, or white devils.  The civilized versus the terrifying, unknown, feral humans has been around for a very long time. There’s a term for it, one you should immediately recognize: savages.

“They’re savages, savages,

barely even human,

savages, savages”

– “Savages” – Pocohontas

Say what you will about Disney’s Pocohontas, and there’s certainly a great deal, but that song sums up the issue at the heart of these narratives. Feral humans, savages, every monster of a similar vein, they’re all historical means of dehumanizing those who are different. Now, that doesn’t mean all narratives involving this subject will fall to the trope. They can sidestep it, avoid it, get around it. They can even be transformative like Richard Mathesen’s I Am Legend. The issue is the “feral human” part and the long nasty history associated with the phrase, along with all the otherworldly qualities that get applied on top of it to disregard entire civilizations as monsters.

I get the feeling you were trying to go for “zombie” without saying “zombie” but if that’s what you want, really, just go with zombies. The mindless undead or the virus that drives everyone mad will somewhat slip under the radar. Zombies can, sometimes, sidestep the embedded colonialism due to being a commentary on something else. They can also fall right into it, like in Resident Evil 5 with the white protagonist killing African zombies. Joss Whedon managed to get there (I hope) unintentionally with the Reavers in Firefly. Given the way Firefly chases Ghosts of Mars in its aesthetics, there’s a real possibility it was accidental for Whedon. The monsters in Ghost of Mars were intentional, but count on John Carpenter to know the Western tropes he’s working with. The Reavers are a trope pulled straight from the darkest hell in the Western genre. They are an exact rendition of the way Westerns treated the Native Americans, otherwise known as the unknown darkness of the wilderness that drives men mad. The feral humans you’re talking about in your question are on their way to becoming that exact trope.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Apocalypse Now, and Spec Ops: The Line all do a decent job subverting the trope (though the last two are adaptations of the first one), I Am Legend by Richard Mathesen, with The Omega Man with Charlton Heston and The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price probably being the only decent adaptations. Sadly, the Will Smith version cut the original ending and plays the trope completely straight.

All genres have similar issues. Some more than others are fields lined with landmines. However, you get past it by not completely dehumanizing the other side. This is also not me saying you should never touch these concepts. I am suggesting you think this concept through.

4. We don’t fight animals like humans. A human reverted to the point where they aren’t cognitively functioning is approached like all other animals. (Remember, we discussed the implications of this thought process above.)

Here’s where the horror comes in.

If you’re really intent on these former humans being fast moving but mindless like the ghouls in the Fallout series or the virus filled monster freaks in 28 Days Later, then most of the standard single person combat styles aren’t going to work. Hand to hand combat doesn’t function well against dogs and it won’t work against zombies either. They can’t feel it and they’re just going to bite you anyway.

Humans fighting other humans aren’t working off the idea that they’re just going to scale you and start ripping chunks out of your neck with their teeth. The idea they will is terrifying, watching them do it is even more terrifying. What is even more terrifying than that prospect is the fact humans are both persistent predators and pack animals. They (yes, they) are just going to run her to exhaustion. They are going to follow her until she is too tired, and then they will kill her. You should get it into your head right now that she is the hunter, she is the hunted.

The answer to how to fight them is you don’t. One human against two is a losing proposition for anyone, no matter how well they’re trained. Groups are the greatest of all threats a single individual can face and as the numbers increase, so does the danger. The upper human limit of what we can deal with at once is 8, and that’s for martial arts masters who’ve been training for thirty years. For most everyone else, they have a small chance against two and three is out the window. The problem is you can’t fight them one at a time, they’ll come at you together as a unit. They circle, they flank. That’s just normal human instinct, we don’t need to know how to fight in order to coordinate. One person against a team is screwed, doesn’t matter if they’re feral dogs or a bunch of drunken frats leaving a bar.

We avoid predators, and drive them off as necessary. This involves making ourselves less valuable as targets because of the effort necessary to succeed outweighs the risk. All you can do with predators is drive them off, so they’ll attack easier targets. The stakes will make it so they eventually get in or will no longer be dissuaded, but that’s the nature of the post-apocalyptic zombie genre. The problem is there’s no winning. It’s just people trying to survive as long as possible and ensuring they don’t get into a situation where they’re in over their heads. The other humans surviving are a far greater danger to the protagonists than the mindless, devouring swarm. (This is usually how we sidestep some of the accompanying grossness, though not all of it.)

5. How a character fights is based on what they know, what they’ve been taught, and what they’ve learned how to do.

How your character fights will be based on what she has access to and how she’s been trained to deal with the environment around her. Unless she’s the result of an experiment and turned out superhuman like Alice in the Resident Evil movies, standing toe to toe won’t be an option unless it’s a last resort.

It’s not a function of gender or training, it’s a function of numbers. If she’s working with a team of survivors then that’s a different story, but on her own she faces the same problem that these other humans do. She has to consider water, food, and the cost versus reward of expending her energy to fight if she doesn’t have to.

Combat risks injuries she can’t afford, requires energy which she’ll need time to recoup, would need to eat more food in order to regain (possibly more than what she has, meaning she’ll have to take more risks later to find food), and, of course, water. Not to mention sleep, exhaustion, and attracting the attention of other members of this species which will inevitably result in a fight she can’t win.  When she hits that point, game over.

The tension in survival stories is all cost versus benefit, and the inevitable consequences that result from people having to choose between morals and pragmatism. Ingenuity and problem solving skills are the order of the day, not how many monsters one can kill because there are always, inevitably, more. The guy who runs off to murder all the zombies is the moron who screws up the supply run because we were here to get baked beans, Bob, and now we have to find a way home through every zombie in the goddamn neighborhood.

6. Weapons and Strategies.

The answer to how to fight is ranged weapons, traps, and spears. Shotguns really wouldn’t hurt, they’re easy to load, easy to maintain, spray wide, and can be a great equalizer against the crowd.

The staff is the easiest hand to hand weapon to learn, provided she has someone to teach her. The spears has range (provided there’s room), and the reach means you can hit your opponents before they hit you. It is one of the best weapons for handling groups of enemies as a single. At the very least, she can swing it around in front of her to make it a bad idea for anyone to try and get close.

The bow is the silent killer but, fair warning, if she trains on one she’s gonna end up stacked. The compound bows will most likely have difficulty surviving, and regardless all bows require way more care than most people think. They also take time to prep, string, they cost arrows that’ll need to be either collected or replaced, and it’s not great for single combat or melee. In addition, if she goes out with just a bow, she’ll end up in the Jurassic Park velociraptor problem. One distracts and the others come in from the side. (However, when these “feral” humans begin showing signs of intelligence we’re back into those nasty colonialism themes. The colonialism issue can be solved by them being intelligent, but that defeats the initial purpose and any feel good killing.)

Traps. The traps are for the home front, so she can sleep well at night barred behind carefully erected walls. We’re looking at barbed wire and hanging cans. Pit traps, snares, etc. Anything she can come up with that makes getting to her difficult. (With exit strategies in case someone lights the tree house on fire.)

In the end, she has two basic options.

One: Hunt them down before they get her.

Two: Run like hell.

In a survival setting, number two is the smarter option.


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