Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: The Drawbacks of Teleportation

bakahimesama said to howtofightwrite:

I’m trying to write battle scenes in a war with an overpowered MC. The main character is 1 of only 5 mages in the whole world (she gained the favor of a God). Her power is the ability to teleport herself, and up to 2 other people, anywhere she can see. She has been knighted, and is currently being used as a “secret weapon” against to weaken and confuse the enemy. Would guerrilla style tactics be the best method? And how would the enemy effectively counter her, without a mage on their side?

When you call a character overpowered, it’s because you’ve already decided in your mind that they’re unbeatable. This is bad for your tension, and your combat sequences, and your story in general.

If you don’t know how a character can be beaten, then it’s because you haven’t given them, their powers, their strengths, and their weaknesses enough thought.

Your character is only one of five mages in the world who can do magic, but if all she can do is teleport and is limited to being able to see where she’s going then that’s not really overpowered. You just need to acknowledge the power’s weaknesses. She’s also not going to be a “secret weapon” for very long, extended encounters with enemies will solve that problem. (If you’re justification is, “no one will believe that!” then you may want to re-think it. First time? Yes. The next five or six? No.) If she’s actively using her powers and lacking in mental modification powers like telepathy, she’ll never kill enough of them to keep the secret safe. At some point, the secret will be blown. Likely sooner than later. Also, just in general, people talk. If your character was a nobody who got knighted after they received their powers, people (not just the enemy) are going to want to know why.

Don’t underestimate the characters without powers and their ability to both acknowledge and adapt to new situations. Don’t underestimate intellectual curiosity, or curiosity in general from side characters. Many writers do to their detriment. Remember, your main character isn’t the only one who can affect the world around them or the narrative.

Now, let’s talk about teleportation.

Teleportation:

By itself, teleportation isn’t actually an OP superpower. Like all superpowers, it can feel overpowered in the right hands with a character who can use the skill effectively and creatively. Teleportation can have devastating results, but, by itself, with a character who can teleport themselves (and two friends) rather than teleporting other people at range, they’re already limited in what they can do. If their reaction times are human (rather than supernaturally enhanced), if they don’t have the ability to read the situation before they jump then they’re going blind, and they’re even more limited. They’re also not that difficult to counter.

A character who can’t teleport an opponent at range, can’t teleport their opponent into space, into the sun, into the Marianas Trench, or kill them with fall damage (and the added psychological horror of dropping them on their comrades) without significant risk to themselves. They also can’t teleport themselves to total safety if things go wrong. If they have to look and see where they’re going as opposed to seeing where they want to be in their mind (like say five miles in the air or on a mountain peak), then their ability to use teleportation in combat will be significantly slowed.

If they can only teleport places they can see, then they can’t get to someone who’s outside their line of sight. They can’t conveniently get to high priority targets like commanders and generals who may not be on the front lines, and are unable to surgically disrupt the enemy’s ability to plan their battle without significant effort prior. There’s no casual, “your general’s encampment is way over there, right? Imma gonna go kill him. Peace.”

The teleportation/telepathy/precognition combo is brutal if the character is an assassin. Rip the secret location from your enemy’s brain, check what trouble you’d get into if you went there, and then go there.

If the teleportation is a conscious decision which requires focus rather than a reflexive ability, allowing for movement without thinking, then it’s combat advantage is also more limited.

Martial combat, for reference, is reflexive. The goal of training is for you to be able to decide what to do and do it without needing to think about the mechanics. You’ve trained your body to react to specific stimulus, meaning you can react and even attack before your conscious mind has time to catch up. When the focus is in your conscious mind, requiring concentration, you can only perform one action at a time. This means your MC would be at her most vulnerable in the moments before and after her jump, and that would be the point an enemy would exploit.

This translates into: teleport then attack versus teleport and attack.

One way to get around this issue is to have some physical component to the teleportation which allows for the port to also become an attack by itself. There’s lots of singular teleportation powers/gap closers in games which do this, but it’s something to consider for your mage character.

Personal Transport versus Ranged:

The problem with singular teleportation versus ranged teleportation is your only real advantage is surprise. It’s a great power for someone who specializes in ambush tactics, but can quickly turn into a one trick pony if the writer and character aren’t careful.

The key to understanding any power is grasping both it’s strengths, and it’s limitations. Most characters you see in fiction that have OP teleportation skills like Ciri from The Witcher or Nightcrawler from X-men either have a subset of secondary powers they can utilize to enhance those powers or the teleportation itself is a secondary to their greater abilities. 

For example: if you want a character who can appear multiple places and attack the same enemy in the same moment like Ciri does in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, then you also need a character who can control time and space. In Ciri’s case, her teleportation abilities are a byproduct of her true powers, which are primarily instantaneous dimensional travel and the ability to control the flow of time. 

Teleportation does not allow you to appear in multiple places at the same time, unless you’re also breaking dimensional physics, have the ability to spawn clones, or speed up the flow of time so it’s actually your after image someone else is seeing as you complete multiple attacks (seemingly) in a single moment.

The problem with ambush tactics are they’re not built for prolonged conflict, if the MC’s reflexes aren’t better than the individual they’re attacking then it’s possible they and their teleportation could be defeated or driven off by an unpowered human opponent of superior combat ability.

Combat teleportation can come with a lot of issues: 

  • Visual Tells —  when the character is moving in and out. 
  • Audible Cues — sound of the air they’ve taken with them disappearing and reappearing, or similar disruptions. 
  • Timing – time delays for them in the moment they disappear and reappear. If they’re not actually carving holes and moving through a different dimension for travel, they may not be able to completely control the timing of their re-entry. So, they have to mentally calculate it. This means if their opponent figures out their attack patterns and strategies, they can predict where they’ll reappear and be waiting with a surprise of their own.
  • Reflexes – a character who is gifted with powers, rather than having them naturally occur, is going to need to train their reflexes even more thoroughly for combat teleportation than the one who came by it naturally. While regular teleportation isn’t going to be much of an issue, short burst teleportation in a high stress environment where you could be coming out into an opponent’s weapon, or getting shot at range is a different beast. If teleporting isn’t a reflexive action to protect from danger that doesn’t require concentration, this is easier.

Remember, a character can only protect themselves from dangers they’re aware of. This leaves them incredibly vulnerable to weaponry, tactics, and ambushes outside their perceptions. They are limited by what they know, what they see, what they hear, and their own strategic and tactical abilities.

Don’t get so caught up in your character that you give them access to everything you know about the world they live in. You need to keep them separate from you and let them make their own mistakes. When you’ve got a character who is supposed to be hyper-competent, your first instinct might be to cheat for them. If they’re your protagonist, do yourself a favor. Don’t.

Countering Superpowers: Target the person, not the powers.

This one may seem counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t be. Counters are about your techniques, yes, but long term strategy is also about sussing out the habits and preferences of your opponent. Their strengths and their weaknesses. An army is not one person, it’s a lot of people working together toward a common goal. They have an advantage your MC doesn’t: multiple creative minds working to solve a problem. More importantly, the combat strategists and tacticians are also usually backed up a solid network of spies and informants about all the strategies/advantages their opponent has.

The longer a technique is in the wild, the more opportunity the enemy has to see it and develop counters around it. The clever enemy general will use battlefield observation and your MC as their guinea pig for developing a means to kill them.

The problem of the teleporter is you don’t know where they’re going to show up. This is true if you don’t know who the teleporter is, but familiarity breeds contempt. The more your MC participates in battles, the more familiar their enemies are going to become with their style, their strategy, their preferences, how their morals and personality quirks affect their battlefield choices. They can move quickly, yes, but they can’t take an army with them.

There are some easy counters like ranged weapons. (Can they escape a bullet, an arrow, or a cannon barrage if they don’t know it’s coming?) Martial combat is predictive by nature, put the blade where they’re going to appear and let them impale themselves (less difficult than it sounds.) Bait and bodyguards, wherein you set a rather nice trap and put everything you’ve learned about them to use. 

If teleportation relies on concentration — disrupt it. 

If the teleportation is reflexive — exploit it.

You don’t attack the powers, you attack the person wielding them. If you don’t need to kill them to achieve victory then this is even easier, all you have to do is distract them away from the battlefield. Distract them. Delay them. Feed them poor information. Lead them away from the fight so that by the time they realized they’ve taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker, the battle is over.

Your MC is both empowered by and held back by human emotion. Their feelings like fear, rage, embarrassment, hatred, overconfidence, etc, can be used against them. You need to figure out their personality flaws, and then craft enemies who can use those against them.

Don’t just think about your MC as the only target for these villains. If they’re fighting an enemy army, then that army will be interested in more than just them. Your MC is an impediment.

Your villains also need to stand on their own as strong characters. Find the internal and external antagonists for the narrative. Your villains should get just as much love, if not more love, and care as your hero. Antagonists are the backbone of the novel. Without a strong one, you’re dead in the water.

– Michi

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Q&A: Magic to Power

So I’m writing a story where magic exists. But it’s not exactly outlawed In the kingdom. But there’s a bunch of superstitions involved that they don’t use it. And the king actively encourages those super stations albeit not blatantly. My question is the king still employes people with magic from a group or some sort of organisation that trains these people in secret. How would I go about forming that? Would they work better as spies or independent contractors? This is set in roughly about 1700.

They’re not going to be, “independent contractors.” I’d say, “not in the eighteenth century,” but, given the circumstances, no, not at all. So, let’s talk about how these things would have to function.

For mages to be independent of their government, one of two things has to be true. They must either be powerless, meaning the magic they perform is trivial and ineffectual, or they must be more powerful (either individually or collectively) than the governments that seek to control them.

If their magic is utterly powerless, there’s no reason to pay attention to them. They’re irrelevant. If your world’s mages struggle light a candle with their magic, they may be scapegoated by groups, but governments wouldn’t care unless they wanted to get in on that.

Basically, if magic works as advertised, that’s going to be an asset to any ruler. It doesn’t matter if someone is a soothsayer, a healer, or able to throw fireballs around, their powers are useful.

If you are an eighteenth century noble, you do not want the peasantry to have that kind of power. Inevitably, they will use it to kill you. This is before you consider the kind of damage a single disgruntled mage could cause to your kingdom. The ability to project fire (or any other element) could completely destroy your agricultural base. Fire in particular opens up the possibility of remote detonating gunpowder stores. Prescience or clairvoyance could be used to sabotage your economy. Simply put, having a rogue mage out there could wreck your domain.

So what do you do? You make them work for you, or kill them if they refuse. If you need to, you can justify a public execution by pointing to all the harm they could have caused, and whatever harm other mages had inflicted in the past.

At this point, the way people learn magic and gain magical power, becomes really important. I’m mostly interested in two categories, and grouping everything else in.

The first group gain their powers spontaneously. It could be random, exposure to something in the world, demonic possession, really, whatever. The end result is the magic user gains magical powers intuitively and they can pop up anywhere.

If you’re dealing with this group, your goal will be to find and shut them down before they become a problem. It’s also an issue because you could potentially get a rogue mage in your peasantry. So, this needs to be quickly dealt with. Given the time frame we’re talking about, it’s not out of the question that one of The Holy Inquisitions is specifically rooting out magic users.

The second group gain their powers predictably. You know who will become a mage before they gain their powers. This could be the traditional academic wizard, who learns magic through study, and finding hidden lore, it could be your superhuman martial arts masters, it could be people that gain magical powers through their bloodlines. The short version is, you don’t have to worry about a surprise peasant mage, and any rogue mages are an espionage problem.

If it’s academic, it’s very likely that court wizard is an established position. Similarly, if superhuman martial artists are part of your world, they may also have a permanent court position. If it’s a bloodline, then those are probably very powerful families who have a lot of political influence, if not outright control.

Depending on which group your mages fall into will determine how your ruler needs to worry about magic. If it’s completely random, then it’s more about damage control; securing (and recruiting or eliminating) mages before they can become a problem. Mages become an incredibly valuable asset in dealing with other rulers, because you don’t know if they have mages. Tipping your hand about your resources to other nobles becomes very dangerous.

Further, if magical talent manifests randomly, it is extremely likely that any unified control over them would rest with the governing religious bodies, not with your king. It’s entirely possible a single mage is powerful enough to kill your ruler, but to take on a continent wide religion that’s been in power for over a thousand years? They’ll know how to deal with an inexperienced spellcaster.

Note: This also applies if you’re dealing with a large, well established, empire, like Rome at the height of its power. They would also have the capacity to locate and detain new mages.

If we’re talking about religion, then we have a perfect justification for magic being good when the organization needs it to be and evil when someone does it else does it. When a member of the church casts a spell, “it’s a miracle,” “it’s a holy act,” “an implement of divine will.” When a heretic does it, “it’s witchcraft.” Church affiliated mages might even look at the aggressive use of magic as, “fighting fire with fire,” or “turning The Devil’s tools against his own.”

It’s also distinctly possible that you have multiple kinds of spellcasters. So it could be your church affiliated mages are using entirely different spells from the ones used by rogue mages.

This is the problem with, “superstition.” It needs to be based on something. For people to shun a mage, the magic they use has to be dangerous, unpredictable, or both. For example: If there was no, “beneficial,” magic, just curses, people would be a little circumspect about interacting with a mage. Or, if magic required the intervention of a demon, and you could never be completely certain it would do what it was told, same result.

How would a king form a secret organization of mages? With the stroke of a pen. He may simply hire from registered guild mages, offering them a job. He might form a covert group of witchhunters, possibly even hiring veteran inquisitors, with the task of finding willing, unaffiliated recruits. The options are open. What he can’t do is, have a secret cabal.

If you live in a world where magic is real, you’re going to become attuned to the idea that people use it to advance themselves. Even if you can’t, even if no one you know can, you know people can and do. A king propped up by a hidden cadre of mages will stand out. Even if this is standard practice. Even if magic is subtle. You may not be able to prove that your king is in power because of mages secretly backing him, but if the mages are helping him in a meaningful way will be somewhat obvious: Things go too well.

At the same time, if magic is subtle, it would be a boon for any court spymaster. Either directly or by employing their own mages. This isn’t a problem your king would be dealing with directly. That’s what his spymaster is for. As to a question of whether mages make good spies, it depends on your magic. Even if your magic is overt, an individual mage may make a good spy simply from their non-magical talents, and being a mage may get them access to places that a non-mage wouldn’t. Conversely, if magic is persecuted, it would also be a liability for any spy. Get caught practicing magic, and they’ll kill you for that, without even realizing you’re a spy.

Ironically, forming good relations with a magical power base is a vital skill for a king in a magically active world. He needs mages that are at least friendly enough that they won’t wipe him out for a rival. It would also, significantly alter the balance of power from what we saw in the real world, where, by the 18th century, the Catholic church was dealing with losing power in much of Europe, and the modern nation states were on the rise. For a religion empowered by spellcasters who can inflict religious edicts directly, the results would be considerably different.

When we’re talking about alternate histories with fantasy elements, there are a lot of historical events that could go very differently, which I couldn’t even begin to list here. The big thing I’d suggest considering is that if mages were aligned with multiple groups, you could easily see a “cold war” type situation, with proxy wars playing out, or a even a magical, nuclear detente.

What you have here digs pretty deeply in your world building. It’s not simply, “1700s, but with mages,” or at least, shouldn’t be. You need to reevaluate history up to that moment, and try to figure out what would have happened with those changes.

-Starke

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Q&A: Multiple Martial Arts

A lot of times in the comics/superhero stuff somebody will have this whole long laundry list of different martial arts they’ve studied. I can see how it could be beneficial to dabble a bit in different styles, but is there a point where it would be better to just stick to one style and learn that really well? Is there truth to the “knows every martial art” master, or is it mainly just the author trying to make their character sound impressive?

This the result of someone trying to make their character (or themselves) sound impressive and in the process, cuing you in to the fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Achieving mastery of a single martial art is a lifelong exercise. This will take decades of hard work. Even if you were to live forever, there simply wouldn’t be time to learn every martial art, as they evolved and changed. There isn’t enough time to keep up with everything, to say nothing of catching up.

If we focus on getting a character’s martial arts to basic combat proficiency, instead of actual mastery, that’s still going to take years in most traditional schools. You learn the fundamentals, and gradually learn to apply them.

If you’ve been paying attention to the blog, you’ll know this is the exact opposite of how practical hand-to-hand training works. If you’re studying something like the modern law enforcement variant of Judo, or MAP, you’re going to be learning how to use it on someone immediately, because you need to be up to speed within eight weeks of starting the class. This is proficiency, not mastery. You’re also going to need refreshers and updates because this is not static.

To an extent, when you start learning a new martial art, you need to start over. It’s not like you master a martial art, and then you can just roll over and pick up another one. You need to go through the basics, because they will be different. In many cases this is a point of failure. You have trained your muscle memory to do things one way, and you’re now being asked to do it differently. You’re being asked to do it, “wrong.”

I was supremely lucky. In college, I took Shotokan for the phys ed credits. The class’s Sensei was an off-duty cop who taught Karate as adjunct faculty. This meant he was more understanding of the residual Judo positions in my muscle memory. For example: he was more concerned that my curled knuckles on a palm strike were in a braced position, rather than that my fingers were extended. From a Karate perspective, I was trained to do it, “wrong.”

For many martial artists who try to start a new discipline, they will not have the benefit of an instructor who shares their background. Quirks that are a result of their previous teaching may be viewed as flaws. If you have a solid foundation. If your hand to hand style has a solid identity, this is fine. It will result in conversations with your instructor, and they may, or may not, be accepting of that. If the differences are irreconcilable, it may be impossible for you to learn this martial art.

So, we’re basically left with three real groups who practice multiple martial arts.

The rarest are actual masters. They’ve mastered a martial art, and now they’re auditing others. They’re not masters of those arts. They’re not even practitioners. They’re looking for something new to learn. In some cases they may be looking to start their own martial art. This is slightly more common than you might think. Most often these new martial arts are referred to as a school or style of the original martial art. The basics are the same, but there will be distinct elements that reflect the school’s founder. In some cases, you may see entire “genealogies,” where one school resulted in another, and another.

You can find masters who have extensively studied two martial arts, with the intention of producing a unified style. An example of this would be Ginchin Funakoshi, who fused two of the Okinawan schools of Karate together to create what would become Shotokan.

I skimmed over this, but it is easier to learn multiple schools of the same martial art. The fundamentals should be compatible, and even at more advanced levels, there will be similarities that make life easier for the martial artist. In contrast if you step out of your martial art entirely, you are, at best, starting over.

The second group are practitioners who have a martial art, and are looking for any techniques they can adapt. This is similar to the masters above, but tends to occur on the practical side. These are martial artists who are looking to expand their repertoire. Being able to perform the martial art as a whole is less important than being able to replicate specific techniques for themselves.

Mixed in with this group are experienced martial artists who are looking for, “something.” I made this sound a little mercenary earlier, but it can be philosophical, or even spiritual. A martial artist can take classes in another martial art simply because they’re curious about that style’s philosophy.

The final group have no idea what they’re doing. They’ll join a school, take classes until their interest wains, wander off, and then their interest is piqued, they’ll scamper in someplace new, and repeat the process. They have no foundation, or worse, it’s an unworkable mess of a half-dozen other martial arts. These are the ones who will proudly proclaim, “I’ve studied a dozen different martial arts.” You’ve studied eight, do you have belt rankings in any of them? Of course not.

Now, in defense of the last group, it is important to find a martial art that fits you, and that means you might jump through a few before you find one that’s a good match. That’s not who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ones who bounce the moment things stop being fun.

Learning martial arts, particularly in traditional schools is not easy. It takes time and dedication. You need to find the drive to keep going even when you feel like giving up. You will be pushed beyond the limits of what you thought you could do. That is difficult. I would argue, it is worthwhile.

The funny thing about this entire concept is, there’s no point. Okay, so martial arts have their own strengths and weaknesses. Learning a second martial art can help shore up some of those weakness, in theory. In practice, if it’s a reputable martial art, those weaknesses won’t matter much. You were trained around those weaknesses, and they probably can’t be exploited in any meaningful way. Most of the time, picking up a second martial art wouldn’t benefit you. (Yes, there are some specific edge cases, where two martial arts may compliment each other, but that gets into very technical territory.)

Learn your style. Stick to it. The value in “dabbling,” is in expanding your knowledge of how other people solve the challenges they face. It can be valuable, but don’t do it at the expense of furthering your training.

-Starke

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Q&A: Hand Signals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Anime Weapons

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

pink-sparkly-pirate-jedi-weeb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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This is Bait

There’s a recent medical study that says men out punch women by 162%, and even the weakest man is stronger than the strongest woman. This really discouraged me to even stick to weight lifting and training tbh. There’s no point

So, as the title states, this bait hit our inbox last week. Normally, the appropriate response would be deep six this, but let’s use it for educational purposes. I’m holding out the possibility that the person sending this was being misled by someone else. I don’t think it’s likely, but their ask is worth debunking.

First, I’m not going to bother searching for that medical study. You notice, it doesn’t say, “a published study.” In fact it says, “recent,” which suggests that it hasn’t been published yet, and is still undergoing peer review. This creates the illusion that you’re getting in on credible information first, and all that’s left is the formalities. What it really means no one’s checked to see if the article is anything more than an angry screed written on dirty cocktail napkins.

In theory, a published study was examined by other academics in the field. (In the case of medical studies, we’re talking doctors, probably in that specialty.) They’ve examined the data sets. They’ve determined that the data supports the claims made. In controversial cases, they may even try to replicate the results before signing off.

The process of academic publishing isn’t perfect, but it does weed out a lot of garbage “research.” A couple high school students who grabbed some football players and cheerleaders could be described as, “conducting a medical study,” and it would probably return results very similar to this. If you submitted that to peer-review, you would be mauled for drawing those conclusions from your data set.

In fairness, peer-review struggles with outright deception. If a researcher (for example, Andrew Wakefield) decides to wholesale invent their data set, and that data would be difficult or time consuming to replicate, reviewers are less likely to take the time and expense to reproduce the results. That’s not the case here, because the conclusions are absurd, and the data set would be trivial to replicate. (Or, more accurately, it would be trivial to debunk the data set.)

The reason I said you’d be mauled for drawing those conclusions is two-fold.

First, impact force from punching isn’t strength. In fact, a body builder will have a harder time punching, because all that extra muscle mass will get in the way and slow them down. The critical element to being able to strike someone is knowing how to punch, not raw strength. Ask anyone who’s had any background in martial arts. This is also a warning sign about the researchers. (Whether they exist at all.)

The claim that men (universally) punch 162% harder than women is bullshit. This isn’t a video game. You don’t do a fixed amount of hand-to-hand damage every time you take a swing. You’d be hard pressed to generate that statistic in the first place, simply because you couldn’t legitimately get consistent data by gender. To say nothing of being able to cross compare.

The second claim is laughable. Or at least, would be if there weren’t idiots out there who take it at face value.

I’m not sure if, Rebecca “Becca” Swanson is the world’s strongest woman, but I do know she can dead lift over 680lbs, and she’s not the only female power lifter. So, you’re trying to tell me this phantom study found that every man on the planet can bench over 600lbs? I have questions about the drugs these researchers were on.

Becca Swanson also, excellently, underlines the stupidity of anyone arguing against the strength of women. Particularly when they try to resort to sloppy pseudoscience disguised as actual research.

A problem in research is that you cannot check everyone. There’s nearly eight billion people on Earth. It’s far too much work to study all of them at once. With that in mind, researchers will select “sample populations” of people. You can’t check everyone, but you can deal with a couple hundred people. That’s doable. Particularly if you have other researchers, or research assistants, helping collect the data. A reputable researcher will try to get a representative population. There will be statistical errors, but you try to minimize or acknowledge them. A less scrupulous researcher may try to cherry pick their population to support an agenda.

This is where sexism (and outright misogyny) collide with with science. There’s a long, and very shameful history of science being used to justify prejudices. Much like science being used to justify racism, there’s a tradition of “scientific research” using irrelevant or misleading physiological data to support misogyny.

There is also an issue here: The medical field is struggling with a lot of institutional sexism. This ranges from women being under-researched and under-diagnosed. It is a serious health issue. Doctors are, statistically, more likely to disregard a woman’s reported symptoms than a man’s. Medical issues that predominantly affect women are far less researched. In recent years medical researchers and doctors have become more aware of this, and it looks like change is coming, but this is a real problem.

The point to life is what we create for ourselves. No one else can live your life. No one else can tell you who you are. There is no point in letting small-minded little shits shut you down.

-Starke

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Q&A: More Gunfire

Hi. Yet another gunfire question, actually two: 1) While ricochets can be just as lethal, are they more realistic for “flesh wounds” that don’t break (shatter) bones? 2) Looking at stats like muzzle velocity, many late 19th-century rifles seem roughly the same power as modern handguns of the same caliber. Can we use this to estimate what the bullets can or can’t do?

cathreese-blog-blog

I’m going to focus on a minor, but critical part of this question: Grazing hits from direct fire and ricochets are equally realistic. Both of these things occur. It’s not that they’re particularly common, but it’s no more or less realistic for a character to suffer a superficial injury from a gunshot than from shrapnel or a ricochet. These things happen.

With gunfire, a graze is one that doesn’t penetrate deeply. It may skim across the surface, though in some circumstances a bullet will skate across bone. The victim walks away with a minor injury

Of course, a bullet doesn’t need to break bones to kill you. A through and through that ruptures an artery is immediately life threatening. A shot to the lower abdomen is an excruciating way to die. Either of these can occur without any skeletal damage. If you get shot, you can bleed to death and die from, “a flesh wound.”

This is before you get into, “fun,” concepts like hydrostatic shock, which holds it’s possible to cause neural damage from suffering a gunshot elsewhere on the body. (Though, last I checked, hydrostatic shock was a disputed phenomena.)

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth reminding people that it’s quite easy to miss the fact that you’ve shot in combat. The adrenaline means your pain response is dulled, and your body doesn’t know what to make of a gunshot wound. This has a few implications:

First: You don’t know if you’ve received a grazing hit. You probably won’t find out until afterwards.

Second: It’s entirely possible to end up with shrapnel in your body that you don’t know about. This is unusual, but not particularly noteworthy.

Third: It’s possible to suffer a terminal injury and not realize it. You can’t feel the injury, and in the adrenaline fueled state your only warning is if you realize you’re bleeding heavily. It is entirely realistic for someone to just keep fighting until they lose consciousness and bleed to death.

The exception to that final point is if the gunshot does shatter bones. That is something you cannot ignore. It’s not a pain issue, you need your bones to function, break them and you’ll be unable to use those limbs.

As for 19th century weapons? No, not really. I’m not going to say it’s completely impossible to take a 19th century weapon and find some modern analogy. Physically, it’s the same principle; you’re ejecting a chunk of metal at your target, so, if the math lines up, all things should be equal. However, the engineering is entirely different. That engineering meant that 19th century weapons had a lot of issues we just don’t see anymore. Rapid fouling (the buildup of unburnt powder) isn’t an issue. Overpressurizing the chamber causing the firearm to explode is still technically possible, but you’d only see that with sloppy hand loads, faulty weapons, or loading the wrong cartridge into a weapon.

There is a significant difference in how you’d use a 19th century firearm compared to a modern one. Because reloading took significantly longer, you couldn’t afford to spray and pray, the way you can with modern box magazines. This means less bullets in flight, more focus on making sure those rounds connect.

So, can we compare 19th century firearms to modern ones? Not really. Even stuff like ballistic gel tests are going to be somewhat suspect. Just remember that any bullet can kill if it hits something vital.

-Starke

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Q&A: Residential Gunfire

In a story where the character has to take cover from bullets in a house, I actually read that a refrigerator (maybe steel) or cast iron tub could do a decent job of stopping ammunition. That or a safe. What do you think?

It depends on the bullet.

All bullets are not created equal. Handgun rounds (generally) pack a lot less punch than rifle rounds. Assault rifles have limits, but it’s still going to tear the place up. A high-power rifle will cut through most of the things you’d find in a house. An anti-material rifle will obliterate anything short of reinforced concrete.

I’ve never tested it, but a modern fridge probably won’t stop a bullet. The actual metal shell on the outside is quite thin. It’s more for show than actual structure. Metal is a terrible insulator and it’s heavy to move around. So, you put a thin shell over an insulated plastic frame, and you’ve got something that’s light weight, energy efficient, and looks expensive. Also, the metal shell is more resistant to casual abuse than the plastic beneath.

Heavy, metal tubs are becoming a rarity. They still exist, obviously, and depending on the tub, they may be heavy enough to stop some rounds. Ironically, the problems are the same as with fridges. The metal is a poor insulator, and the tub is extremely heavy. Even older metal tubs tended to minimize the amount of material used to keep the weight down. Fiberglass is the material of choice these days.

In either case, bullets will, probably, punch through, tearing ragged holes in the metal. And blowing apart the contents. If the bullet does stop, it’s still going to make a significant dent. You can look up what gunshot damage looks like, and it’s entirely reasonable your characters would try to take cover behind those objects, believing that they would offer safety.

The safe will do what you want it to do. It will provide shield against incoming gunfire. However, this is where things go a little off the rails. Free standing safes are a rarity. They’re fantastic for cartoons because it’s an instant cue telling the audience, “here’s a safe.” The problem with this is, if a thief wants what’s in the safe, they’ll just take the safe, and crack it at their leisure. The easy solution to this problem is to build the safe into the structure. The safe may be built into the concrete slab the house is built on. It could be part of the wall. It could be part of a larger furnishing piece that can’t be easily moved (such as a full office desk.)

The worst part is, a lot of these items will deflect the bullet. The metal shell on a modern fridge won’t stop a bullet, but it can cause it to bounce off in a new direction.

If you’re dealing with rounds that will fragment on impact, ricocheting can turn bullet from a single projectile into a spray of shrapnel. It is entirely possible to be injured from bullet fragments bouncing off concrete or hard metal surfaces.

Your characters aren’t going to have a lot of options for cover in a normal house. However, assuming someone is on the outside shooting in, they will have a lot of concealment. The best option is to hit the floor, make themselves as small a target as possible and try to avoid detection until the attackers leave, or they can find a safe way to escape undetected. It’s not, “safe,” but your scene doesn’t benefit from your characters safety. You may be interested in getting them out alive, but that doesn’t mean you should let your audience relax until you’re ready.

If your attacker is inside the house, then your character’s goals are to eliminate them before they’re found (and killed), or to escape (again, undetected.) If it turns into a gunfight, neither side has any cover. It is harder to accurately target someone through a wall, but you can make an educated guess for where they “should” be, and fire blind.

Incidentally, this is also the only safety your characters have. If someone is firing into into the house, it’s impossible to tell the difference between a kill, and someone dropping to avoid gunfire. Even if they did score a hit, walking in to confirm the kill is an extremely risky decision. They’re putting themselves in a situation where they could be easily ambushed and killed by people who know the layout of the place.

A house is not a good place for a firefight. You won’t be able to find safety when the bullets start flying. However, that is true for everyone. When you put your characters in jeopardy, you’re putting them in jeopardy, you don’t need to immediately walk it back and say, “but I’m sure they’ll be fine.” Tension works best when your audience isn’t sure what will happen next. Will they live? Will they die? Keep reading to find out.

-Starke

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Q&A: Different Kinds of Violence

Sometimes you say violence is viewed as monstrous and your character would be viewed with caution by real life bystanders but on the other hand, you also highlight blood sport and how the masses can be entertained by violence. So what causes people to perceive violence differently?

The simple answer would be to say, “Different kinds of violence are different.” It’s a little reductive, but when you change the circumstances around violence, you radically alter how it will be perceived.

There’s at least three major things parts to this: Structure, distance, and context.

Sports fighting is very different from real violence in a number of ways. I’m generalizing a little. For example: underground fight clubs aren’t going to follow the same rules as UFC, however there are some basic tenets to how you structure sport fighting.

The purpose behind sports fights is to present entertainment. The violence needs to be drawn out and slowed down so that the audience can actually see what’s happening. This is also true for violence on films. How many movies have you watched where the characters find themselves engaged in protracted slug fests?

Professional wrestling is a wonderful example of this. Before anyone asks: Yes, professional wrestling is semi-choreographed. The wrestlers are working together. It’s a performance, and their goal isn’t to hurt one another, though injuries do happen. However, they’re able to present a simulacrum of combat in front of a live audience. It’s slow, telegraphed, easy to watch, and easy to follow. This isn’t how real violence works; it’s romanticized, packaged, and presented for consumption.

Stepping back from that, even in things like UFC or boxing, the rules slow things down, and help the audience watch the fight. These rules serve to protect the fighters. Each one represents a significant investment, and the goal is to keep them alive and in fighting shape after their bouts.

Fencing is a good example of a sport that struggles with a more realistic understanding of violence. Even if you know what you’re seeing, it’s difficult to spectate. Fencing bouts are extremely fast. The foils have adapted to be safe for use, and the fencers move at a speed appropriate for their weapon, which is to say, “too fast to see.” Fencing has become utterly dependent on electronic scoring. It’s an amazing sport, but it struggles to get attention because it’s nearly impossible to understand what’s happening in the moment.

On the surface it may sound like I’m saying that practical combatants simply move faster. That’s not entirely accurate, practical combat tends to focus on techniques and movements that minimize motion and avoid telegraphing. So, even if an individual strike is only marginally faster, your brain has a harder time parsing what’s happened. The other part of this is that practical combat focuses on neutralizing the foe as quickly as possible, this means that it will be over in far fewer strikes.

The idea that the person next to you in line at McDonald’s was just killed in less time than it took you to read this sentence should be terrifying. and you’re still not sure what happened. This is not the violence that TV prepared you for.

Incidentally, I’ve been focusing on hand-to-hand here, but adding weapons only ramps the speed up. Add a blade or a gun and someone will be dead or dying before you realize what’s happening.

When you go and watch boxers, there’s structure. There’s a referee. The fighters are brought out. You know what’s coming. You know who these people are. You’re here for this.

When you’re walking down the street, and suddenly all you’re sure of is that the guy over there just executed someone in the street, and there’s blood everywhere. Things are a little different.

That’s the second thing. When you go to a sporting event, you’re up in the audience. You’re watching the fight from a safe distance. Even if you’re ringside, there’s still the ring itself. Sometimes it’s just some ropes delineating you from the fight, other times it’s chain link. Either way, the fight is happening, “over there.” Even when you can say you saw it live, it’s still happening at a safe distance.

In the real world, there’s no ring. There’s no tangible barrier between you and the carnage. It’s not something you’re observing, you’re part of it.

When we’re talking about firearms, this gets worse. Firearms are (basically) line of sight weapons. Additionally, bullets penetrate soft tissue, and can ricochet off of hard surfaces. If someone starts shooting in a crowded space, you are in real danger of taking a bullet unless you can put some solid cover between you and the shooter. More than that, a lot of things you’re prepped to think of as cover, like furniture, interior walls, or cars, are not. Hide behind a car, and you can still end up taking a bullet. This isn’t the gunfight tempo that TV, Movies, and video games promised.

The violence isn’t happening in some safe environment. It’s not on the other side of a barrier. It’s not safely in a fantasy world on your TV. It’s right here.

The third part is something that has been sprinkled through all of this, it’s context. In a sporting event you’re already primed to understand what’s going on. You know that a fight is going to happen. You know who the participants are, at least in concept, even if you’re not familiar with the fighters as individuals. There’s even fully developed rituals to how the fight starts, when it pauses, when it’s over, and how the winner will be recognized. At every step along the way, you’ve been told what’s happening, either by the actions themselves, or from someone explaining them to you. Sport fighting, even blood sport, has rules, and as an audience member you’re cued into them.

As a bystander, real world violence has none of that context. It happens, and you’re left to your own devices to figure out what happened. Again, all you’re sure is that something happened which you were not prepared for.

It’s one thing to watch a prize fighter victoriously limping out of the ring. It’s entirely different when the person standing next to you is spattered in the still warm blood of their victim.

-Starke

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Q&A: Can a Woman Pick Up A HOUseCat?

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: I was wondering since I read this in a fic… how true is that a woman wouldn’t able to use a great sword since it uses strength and mass?

Complete bullshit.

Great swords, like zweihanders, only weigh eight pounds. That is considered heavy, by the way, for weapons. They can be wielded one handed. You probably wouldn’t want to, but you can. If a small man can wield a zweihander, a small woman can to.

The argument a woman can’t wield a weapon because it’s too heavy is he-man machismo chest beating that’s often wriggling its way toward outright misogyny. It’s right up there with women can’t fight, and the bow being a weapon that doesn’t take much strength to wield. (Which can be true, but that depends on the bow’s draw weight. War Bows like the English Longbows? 180 pounds. That’s lifting a normal sized man with one shoulder. The strain these bows produced was so high they warped archer skeletons after periods of prolonged use. Now, if you’re asking, could a woman draw one? With enough training, yes. Same goes for men. You gotta build the right muscles.) We invented crossbows because shooting with regular bows required a lot of skill, and was difficult for the average person.

The irony is that heavy weapons work against battlefield goals. The heavier the weapon is the more drain it places on the combatant’s energy reserves and their endurance, meaning they can’t fight as long as they might with a lighter, but similarly effective, weapon. The trend in weapons development is always to make the weapon more effective, more streamlined, more usable, and ultimately more deadly. The better the forging techniques, the lighter a weapon became while maintaining its structural integrity. Bronze isn’t just a soft metal, bronze is heavy.

You don’t want a weapon (or gear) that’s heavy to carry when you’ve got to march six or seven miles to the battlefield and then fight. You don’t. Male or female, you can’t fight forever. The more exhausted you are, the higher your chance of being killed.

While often treated as anomalies, history is filled with examples female combatants. The truth is that women have always fought, even if they are often forgotten by history as leaders, battlefield tacticians, strategists, and warriors. As it turns out, the Amazons were real. They were Scythian, and recent archaeological discoveries about their tombs have discovered that about one third of Scythians originally assumed to be men were women. This has happened a lot to women warriors in history. Many archaeologists assumed skeletons buried in warrior tombs were men when they weren’t.

The truth is that the impediments to women pursuing a career in combat is cultural not physical. You don’t believe me? Read this article by Micah Ables from the Modern Warfare Institute refuting arguments against female combatants in the US Military. (That’s the West Point website.)

Martial combat is about enhancing your own advantages and stripping the enemy of theirs. Skill is the hallmark, experience, endurance, and luck are the secondaries. The arguments against women are dressed up in discussions about physiology, but it’s really just enforcing cultural gender norms. It’s racist and sexist phrenology all over again. (This is the 19th century pseudoscience which argued that because women had smaller heads than men they were less intelligent. Then, when they realized women had proportionally larger heads in connection with their bodies and thus proportionally larger brains than men, argued women were intellectually similar to children because children also had proportionally larger heads.) This is just someone trying to use science to justify gender bias and chauvinism. They show their hand by focusing on physical differences and factors which are simply not relevant. Or, they don’t understand martial combat enough to grasp the importance (or lack thereof) of upper body strength. Just look at this short list of weird things men have believed about women.

Think about this, the idea a woman couldn’t lift an eight pound weapon, much less effectively wield one, is as idiotic as the idea women can’t do math.

Now, go watch Hidden Figures.

-Michi

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