Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: Games as Inspiration

When you talk about video game stats not translating to real fights, is the assumption usually that both fighters are ordinary Homo sapiens and that things like magic potions and “Clarke’s third law” tech aren’t factors? Or does that vary depending on the exact scenario and what “stat” you’re referring to? Example: Would an elixer that temporarily halves the amount of calories you burn with any activity (so a stamina boost) give you an advantage in a fight?

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So, stats are a complex subject, and I’ve been dancing around this for a couple months. I thought there was a comprehensive post on the subject already, but I don’t see it, so it probably doesn’t exist.

The short version I usually go with is, be careful about trying to translate stats into fight scenes, and this is part of why. If you’re making a game, it’s reasonable enough to say, “yeah, this consumable increases your stamina by 3 points.” However, when you’re trying to use that as a narrative device, it can become harder to justify. “Why would an elixir that modifies the speed at which you get hungry increase your hit points?”

The stats you create for your story are abstractions for much more complex topics and mechanics, distilled into (hopefully) an easy to manage format. It’s fine to sit back and say, “okay, my character has a Combat stat of 5, the other fighter has a Resilience stat of 2, so, I’ll deal 3 damage when they ambush them, leaving them with 2 health,” and go from there to write a fight scene where your character ambushes another, leaving them in a wounded state as the fight proceeds.

It’s not a terrible idea to stage out the fight on a map. Move your characters around, see what other characters might observe the fight, and think about how those bystanders would respond.

This only becomes a problem when you start focusing on the rules, or when the rules you’re relying on start to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

I think I’ve used this example before, but let’s look at D&D. (Specifically I’m looking 3.5 Edition, some of this does carry forward, some has been changed.) A 7th level fighter could reasonably have 66hp. (I’m using a dice rolling site right now.) If they’re critically struck by a character using a longsword, they’ll take 1d8 damage, doubled. So, up to 16 of damage. This means your character can be stabbed in the chest and shrug it off. This isn’t an example where the blow doesn’t connect. D&D does, explicitly, allow characters to suffer superficial damage to explain how they’re getting hit without it seriously affecting them, but crits are supposed to be the hit actually connecting.

Now, it’s possible to write a scene where your certified badass hero suffers a mortal wound, and keeps on fighting until they collapse. The problem with the example above is, that Fighter isn’t mortally wounded. They took a blow which would outright kill a human without dying. If their armor held, or the blow was glancing, it wouldn’t be a critical hit. (In fact, a glancing hit off the armor occurs when you manage to clear their Touch AC, but don’t beat their full AC. Armor in D&D is both simple and stupidly complicated at the same time. If you don’t understand, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.)

So, it allows for a character who takes what should be a mortal wound to then shrug it off.

Having just trashed that, you can make a compelling scene from that scenario. Your fighter gets hit and they’re seriously injured, they’re fighting what could easily be a losing battle. Afterwards, if they survive, they can address the injuries. Maybe with a health potion, maybe with help from a healer.

What you want to do is remember that hit points are an abstraction, and that as your character is injured, those injuries will pile up. Maybe they can keep going for a little while if they have the will to keep fighting, but they’ll bleed to death and die. Strength is an abstraction. Your character really knows how to fight, and is probably a fairly solid combatant. The rules you have facilitate this, and can remind you that your character isn’t invincible, but also lead you into a situation where you forget your character just took a blade to the intestines, and probably isn’t doing too well right now.

So, I’ve been talking about how not to use stats, let’s flip this around and talk about how stats and rule systems can be incredibly beneficial to you as writer.

Games tell stories. I don’t mean in the sense of a written story presented to the player. I’m not talking about passively consuming cutscenes, and for the most part I’m not talking about the writing itself. I’m talking about the systems, and what you can extract for a story.

A cliche, and remarkably difficult example is chess. The game itself tells the story of a conflict between two equally matched forces, with the overt structure of an iron age battlefield. It’s cliche due to overuse. Writers (who use it) will frequently drop literal chess games into the background of their story. It’s also difficult because chess is extremely abstract even in the context of an infantry skirmish. However, it can open your eyes to a world of strategic possibilities. You probably don’t want to cue the audience in to each piece individually, but when you sit back and look, you can see the king (who must be protected at all costs)/queen (who is far more mobile, deadly, and ultimately expendable) structure repeated all over the place in pop culture. (Though you’ll rarely see eight fleshed out antagonists with cannon fodder to go up against eight protagonists with their own minions.)

When it comes to blocking out stats for characters, the kind of story you’re telling is the most important thing. You don’t need to (and realistically can’t) account for the entirety of a person in a brief stat block. So you choose the factors that are most important for the story you’re telling. D&D has a standardized stat block of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The stat range is nominally 3-18, with 10 as “average.” That’s a fairly nice general collection of stats. But, doesn’t know the kind of story you’re telling, so it tries to pull in everything. This is where things get strange as Charisma mixes in any social skill along with appearance. Wisdom is your character’s perception, their willpower, and their skill in medicine. Because Medicine isn’t an Intelligence based skill. Because, in D&D, medical training is not about what you know, it’s how self-confident you are. Right.

Okay, let’s pull an old counterexample out. The out of print Babylon 5 Card Game had three stats, (technically 5, but I’m not going to worry about that.) You had Diplomacy, Intrigue, and Military. The game didn’t bother tracking any of the D&D stats, because any combat would happen within the context of other actions. If you attacked someone with diplomacy, it was (probably) an attempt to get them removed from treaty negotiations, maybe it was a court case or an op-ed. In rare cases it might have been a formal duel. If there was an attack in intrigue, that might have been a blackmail effort, or an attempt to expose the character’s contacts, or it could be violence. Military was ship to ship combat. Fleets would engage with one another. In rare cases military conflicts might be non-violent, but there was always the fear that you were one action away from someone opening fire and turning the entire situation into a shooting war.

Note the difference: D&D is attempting to systematize the person. Each character is a piece on a fantasy battlefield. B5 was interested in systematizing the person’s influence. This is how effective a character is diplomatically, this is how well they play the spy.

There’s no right answer for this. If you want a story where you’re focused on ground level combat, you’re probably going to want a physical stat block. However, if you’re more interested in a free flowing story, you’ll benefit far more from tuning your stats to mesh with the story you’re trying to tell.

If your setting has magic, maybe that should be a stat. If you have a heavy political theme, maybe that should be a stat. If you’re not going to be distinguishing between ranged and melee combat, you probably don’t need Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution.

The important thing is, no one will see these stats, so you can be as abstract as you want.

There’s also no hard rules about what a specific number needs to mean. If you want to calibrate stats between 1 and 10 (like Fallout), you can do that. If you want to mark a character’s stats from 1 to 5, (like World of Darkness), you can do that.

The only guidance I’ll give on stat ranges is: “Be consistent.” If you have an upper cap, do not break that without a very compelling reason. Make sure each value has a specific meaning to you; one you understand. The stats are meaningless if you cannot turn that into a description without tipping your hand.

Incidentally, for creating stat blocks, if you want to use a system you’re comfortable with, have fun. For example, I would not create characters using D&D, because I find it has too much tedious bookkeeping. However, that’s me. If you want to prototype your characters in D20, it’s your pencils, have fun. (Also, on the specific subject of D&D, character level is a stat. That has meaning, it tells you how far a character has traveled from being a rookie adventurer into a wandering demigod.)

With that said, there is another major thing about games. The systems themselves can forward narrative concepts. I’m going to explain this one with examples:

In 2001, Decipher Inc. got the license to the Jackson Lord of the Rings films. The card game they produced had a very novel cost system. The player controlling the fellowship could play as many cards as they wanted (until they ran out of cards.) However, each card had a “Twilight” cost. The player controlling the forces of Sauron paid for their cards using that “Twilight.” So, the structure that resulted would encourage Fellowship players to inch forward, and cut corners wherever possible, because anything they played would give the Shadow player more resources to hunt them down and kill them.

In a broad structure this meshes with The Lord of the Rings. Theoretically the Fellowship had almost unlimited resources, but they’re traveling light to avoid detection. Armies could be rallied, but that would bring Sauron’s attention, and massively increase the risk of The Ring corrupting someone.

It’s a simple mechanic, but if you’re writing a story about characters who are being hunted by a powerful foe (or foes), it’s a concept that can be adapted fairly fluidly. If anything you do will draw attention, you’d need to plan very carefully, to ensure your actions had the most effect.

Another mechanic that comes to mind is a ticking bomb. This one isn’t exclusive to a single game, I can think of many variants. The short version of this is, “you have X (time) until something bad happens, and you need to prevent that.” This a common narrative device as well, as it puts pressure on the protagonist to keep moving forward. The reason you see this is, it works. Timers prevent characters from sitting down and waiting it out. If you find a game with a good timer system, like XCOM2, you might want to take notes.

If you’re going this route, you want to become conscious for how the systems affect play, rather than just going, “okay, here’s a thing.” As with stats, you don’t, usually, want to be overt about systems you pick up. (Though a looming deadline could easily be something characters would know about.)

When you’re looking at systems, look for rules and mechanics that tension against one another. I didn’t go into detail with it, but the timers in XCOM2 do exactly that. This is a game where slow, methodical, deliberate play is vastly superior, so timers are added forcing you to act more aggressively, and take risks you’d otherwise ignore.

The short version of this is, a game experience can tell a compelling narrative. It can also produce a jumbled mess of events. As a writer, you can extract those moments where everything came together, smooth it out, and run with it. However, the real danger is getting into the weeds with how the rules function, instead of how they affect the story being told.

The worst thing you do is try to apply the rules over the story. This includes the potion suggestion above. You have a potion that allows your character to engage in physical activity for far longer than they would normally. Cool. It doesn’t need a rules explanation. The reader doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) know that potion grants +3 Stamina for the next 8h. It doesn’t mean a consumable like that couldn’t exist in your world. It doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t affect their stats. It just means that you do not want the audience cued in on that. The advantage of magic (and Clarke’s Law tech) is that you don’t have to explain why it does what it does. “Why would a potion that is intended to reduce fatigue also make you more durable in combat?” Who knows, that’s just how the magic works. Same reason you wouldn’t ask, “how does a health potion heal a punctured kidney?” or, “how does it replace all that lost blood?” Doesn’t matter, all we know is that it does that.

Stats and game systems are one of the best lies you can learn as a writer. If you’re careful, and you let them, they will keep you honest, and help engineer creative situations.

Stats and game systems are one of the most dangerous practices you can pick up as a writer, because there will always be a temptation to game the rules to the expense of your story.

Have fun, be careful.

-Starke

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Q&A: Zealots and Martyrs

What’s a good starting point for creating and understanding a zealous character e.g. characters with “I recognize what I’m doing is wrong, but the outcome is worth it” and/or “I will kill or die for my beliefs” mindsets and what are some things that should be avoided when writing one?

Remember these are rational people. People you don’t agree with. People who will do things you’d never do. People who do not care about the same things you hold dear. However, they are people.

If you’re focusing on the outcome, and willing to do anything to achieve that goal, you’re engaging in a philosophy called, “Ends Justify the Means.” It really what it says, the “ends” you’re working towards justify whatever, “means,” you used to get there. It’s an ethical slight of hand, designed to disregard the negative consequences of your actions, based on the positive outcomes.

This can either be explored honestly or hypocritically.

If you’re being honest, it can be a house of cards. If your positive outcomes are sufficient, they outweigh your negative consequences and, “hey, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.” If the negatives outweigh the positives, you’ve done a lot of damage without anything to show for it.

However, even if you’re being honest, the entire philosophy is flawed, or at least a gamble: You are betting that the outcome will be positive, enough, to justify what you’ve done to get there.

Then there is the hypocritical side, where someone espouses this as a way to excuse their actions. Frequently this is presented with the positive outcome as an absolute good. “Save the world,” “protect the cause,” “achieve our goals,” rather than in concrete terms. This is because it’s harder to qualify an absolute. “Sure, you killed all those people, tortured a bus full of kids, but what does that compare to protecting The Truth?”

Again, there is a fundamental flaw: If you are sacrificing your cause’s morals to support the cause, you’re actually sabotaging it. Undermining the movement, and over time this can result in serious damage. People break off and leave. They will come to suspect the entire movement. In extreme cases it can even poison against your cause, and give your enemies the opportunity to recruit.

The entire ideology is problematic in its own right. It requires the practitioner to very carefully self-regulate, while rewarding successful escalation. If you broke the rules to win, why would you go back to following them?

This can all get worse if someone is operating in an echo chamber. They go more extreme, the people around them take that as the new normal until someone suggests they all dial it further. This is how we end up with self-radicalized zealots. (It’s also a critical component for radicalization in general.)

On the other side of this, we have people who are willing to die for their cause. These are martyrs. The term is loaded with religious symbolism, and the implication that they’ll be remembered, if not venerated, after death.

The only important thing to remember about a martyr is that they’re willing to die for something. That can be belief in a cause, opposition to another. It can be because they don’t see another option, or because they don’t want to be there to see the aftermath. The options are open.

There is one critical part; they need to have the conviction to follow through. Generally, one does not choose to throw their life away frivolously. From an external perspective, this is debatable, but they believed in their action, no matter how misguided.

There is correlation, the more fanatical someone is, the more willing they are to sacrifice lives in pursuit of their cause. Presumably, others first. If someone is willing to die for their cause, they’re probably willing to kill for it. They have identified something as more valuable than their life, and as a result they probably see it as more valuable than any other life. There’s a potential edge case with people who are, philosophically opposed to violence, but still willing to die for their beliefs.

The, scary thing about this is, it’s not that hard to get into the headspace. It’s comforting to believe that this requires some kind of altered state. To tell yourself, “I could never become that.” However, the only difference between you and them is that you haven’t ceded your moral compass to a cause, and you haven’t found something you’d die for.

Now, there is one significant possibility here worth discussing. Someone from an extremist organization may have a warped understanding of how the world works. Particularly when it comes to the fields where their organization is most radicalized. You can encounter this even in semi-mainstream organizations that have fringe inclinations. When you get to a topic that actively threatens to undermine the cause, things get weird.

Most of the time this starts with people in the organization presenting the subject in the least favorable light to other members, warning them away in the process. At this point it can devolve into a game of “telephone,” where information gets more distorted over time. Anyone who’s ever had conversations about pop culture with people raised in fundamentalist Christian communities have encountered this. Of course, with an organization, this can easily trend into conspiracy theories, or serious misinformation.

If your character is not in a radical organization, then warped perspectives become optional. It is possible if you have a character who is mentally unsound, they may have some, lesser warped perspectives. It’s also possible if they’re operating in an echo chamber, that they’d have perspectives which were exaggerated within their community. Though, this isn’t necessary for your question. Someone with a sound view of the world can decide that the ends justify the means or that a cause is worth dying for.

-Starke

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Q&A: Motivation to Violence

I hope you don’t find this ask inappropriate. I wanted to ask this to someone who knows a form of martial art and I happened to see your blog, which even if it wasn’t for this question, would make me very happy. Why would someone learn how to fight if they don’t plan on using it on someone? Just for the atlethic aspect of it, maybe? Still, I have a bunch of characters training in a school and to think they’re pacifist doesn’t add up.

The fundamental misunderstanding is that people are training to fight. When you’re studying a martial art, you’re studying that martial art, in most cases, you are not learning to fight.

Relatively few martial artists train to use their skills in combat. They’ll train for fitness, they’ll train for spiritual reasons (and, no that’s not a stereotype), they’ll train to simply learn a new skill. It’s a hobby, and people engage in it for the same reasons they’d pick up any other hobby; to better themselves. A lot of kids are enrolled in martial arts classes by their parents as an extracurricular activity.

Martial arts can become a job. It can be your gateway to the entertainment industry. If you’re good enough (and lucky enough), there are places for martial artists in exhibition, competitive sports, stunt-performers, and fight choreography.

The only thing that would be, “training how to fight,” in that list is competitive sports. This is also not an exhaustive list, I took Shotokan in college for the PhysEd credits, as did most of my class. It sounded more appealing than some of the alternatives that fit my schedule, and I needed those credits to graduate.

I’ve mentioned this before, but if you’re training in martial arts for live combat, you don’t train to fight, you train to eliminate your foes. This is a very fine distinction, but if someone trains to fight, and you train to kill, when they try to fight you, you will kill them.

Let me explain this a little more extensively. Training to fight has an end goal of the fight itself. The fight will continue until one or both combatants are exhausted and cannot continue, or until one yields.

Training to kill has your foe’s death as its goal. This means, you can dispense with as much of the fight as possible. Just kill them. To be efficient, you need to work towards that goal with every action. Turns out, if you know what you’re doing, you can get there very quickly.

Self-defense is similar; it doesn’t take much to create a situation where your foe is in no condition to peruse you. You don’t need to fight them. You don’t want to fight them. You need to delay them long enough to escape. That’s easy, and (say it with me now) you can get there very quickly.

So, let’s step back and talk about something completely different, pacifism and self-confidence. There’s nothing wrong with being a pacifist. It’s not a binary state, most people will have a spectrum where they’ll eventually say, “okay, violence is now warranted.” This may be in response to violence. It may be to protect someone else. It may only be to protect themselves. It’s a rare case where someone will adhere to their convictions and refuse to use violence to defend their own life.

If you’re studying martial arts for spiritual enlightenment, it’s entirely possible, probable even, that you’ll start to develop a pacifistic streak. You’re looking at the world differently now, and you’ll probably see violence as less necessary.

If you’re studying martial arts for any other reason, you’ll probably start to develop a pacifistic streak. If you’re having trouble following that thought process, let’s talk about violence.

Nobody goes to violence as their first method for problem solving. However, for some people, violence is the first available method. Either, they don’t see how other methods could achieve their goals, or they don’t believe other methods would be effective. So, they resort to violence.

If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s difficult (or impossible) to believe you can defuse a situation. If you need to project raw confidence, that’s not an option.

If you lack self-confidence, even minor slights can be perceived as far more biting than intended.

Humans are territorial animals, and if you’re insecure, anyone invading your territory can be very threatening. (This can mean literal space, it can be social, or it can be intellectual.)

In any of these cases, a provocation can result in violence if one party does not see a non-violent option.

The irony is that martial arts training will boost your self-confidence. Meaning you’re more likely to see viable, non-violent options when antagonized.

For an example, take a kid, put them through rigorous training that gives some real self-confidence, and they will be better equipped to deal with the adversity the encounter in their life.

Now, martial arts is not a panacea, not everyone reacts the same way, but training can help you see non-violent options. It can help you differentiate between situations where violence is appropriate, and ones where it unwarranted. It can give you the confidence to defuse a dangerous situation.

In the strictest sense, this is not pacifism, however, from the outside, the difference is academic.

Now, to think that everyone in a martial arts class will have identical outlooks is a little unrealistic. You’ll always have outliers. You’ll always have differences of opinion. These are still people, not a hive mind. However, you are going to find that any long term students will have some degree of respect for violence. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have remained.

-Starke

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Q&A: Body Hopping

My story is sci fi and how can characters who can move their consciousness into another body and use that body to fight with work? The character may have years of fitness training, but what if the body is not strong enough to wield heavy weapons at ease or are exhausted easily, or how about the simple fact of it’s a different body that doesn’t feel the same way.

This is an open question. There’s no solid answers. We can’t, currently, transplant your psyche to a new body, and as a result there’s no, “real world,” answers.

The closest similarity is a poor comparison. Limb transplants have a lot of considerations that simply wouldn’t be a factor here. For example, they have difficulty with fine motor control, but that has more to do with their own nerves growing into the transplant, rather than a consideration that would apply with swapping bodies.

In spite of the name, muscle memory is (probably) stored as chemical chains in the brain. This gets into an awkward problem with this entire idea. A significant chunk of who you are is stored as complex chemical data in your brain. This isn’t an insurmountable problem, with unlimited technology you could probably move these between subjects. So, if you’re able to move memories between bodies, you can probably also move muscle memory. However, the transferred muscle memory might not match the recipient body, meaning it could be useless or even actively harmful.

There’s also a difficult topic mixed in. If you’re moving memories around, even replicating “the consciousness,” you’re still not moving between bodies. There’s no continuity of self. You’re moving the data, and then (maybe) deleting the original source, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually in a new body, it just means a copy of you has been created. This is a very specific variant of the Ship of Theseus paradox.

Ship of Theseus is a fairly simple thought experiment, if you replace every single part on an object over time is it still the same object? The titular ship was put on display, but as components aged and decayed they were replaced with fresh ones. After a century of this there were no original parts left. At that point the question became, “was it still the original ship, or had the complete replacement over time transformed it into a replica?”

When you’re talking about someone’s identity, the stakes get a lot higher. It’s an abstract question about an inanimate object with some sentimental or historical value, it’s a very pertinent, and immediate question for someone who’s living in a world where they might not be the person they think they are.

When you start digging into what makes an individual who they are, things get really messy. A lot who you are chemical data stored in roughly 3 lbs of tissue with a consistency similar to butter. Some of it is volatile electrical data, though that may be directly tied to the structure of the brain. The idea that there is a concrete, “self,” is very comforting, but as we dig into this, the reality seems to be more of a gestalt.

So, on the topic of the Ship of Theseus, are you the same person after switching bodies?

I don’t have a definitive answer. No one does. We have speculation, but even if you were presented with the actual phenomena, it would still be a challenging question.

As for heavy weapons, that’s not going to be a problem. As we’ve pointed out many times, heavy weapons aren’t that heavy. Greatswords weighed less than a house cat. This isn’t as true with heavy firearms. Anti-material rifles or automatic support weapons can be difficult to haul around, but you’re not going to be running around with them, you’ll set them up and operate from a stationary position. It doesn’t matter if your 12.7mm rifle weighs 30lbs, you’re going to be laying down, with it partially concealed before you start firing. Also remember that heavier machine guns will operate from vehicles or stationary mounts.

For hand to hand, body hopping is probably a serious issue. If you’re overwriting the muscle memory, then all of your reflexive reactions and your conditioned responses will be, “miscalibrated.” If you’re not overwriting the muscle memory, that suggests the technology allows for significant editing of what does, and does not, get transferred over. We’re back to the Ship of Theseus problem, but things got even more complex, because now we’re only copying, “parts” of the subject. Also leads to a weird question of: What’s left in the new host brain from before the jump? How is that going to affect who they are?

Since I got distracted a moment ago, if the muscle memory is being retained from the original host, then the transferred user will be limited by what the previous owner(s) conditioned into their body.

This raises fundamental questions about how much we adapt to our bodies. The human brain is a very adaptable organ, but this is a scenario where there really isn’t any good comparisons.

If you want some other thoughts on this, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon is an obvious choice. In his case, the characters store their consciousness digitally on a implanted data storage device. He also posits the use of “hard wired reflex packages,” which allow users to have functional muscle memory and combat capacity after swapping bodies.

On the other end of the spectrum we have SOMA from Frictional Games. This one is interested in persistence of self, and if someone is the same person after being moved between bodies. The specific questions you’re asking don’t apply with this one, but the game may be useful for feeling out larger philosophical themes.

-Starke

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Follow-up: Rey is Kinda a Problem

If you wanted to highlight a Mary Sue/Gary Stu style character on your blog, you could have chosen Luke instead, as his instant skill with lightsabers/the force is much less believable than Rey’s. The fact that you went after a rare sci fi female lead and echoed the voices of so many misogynist male fans is just disappointing to me. This is not what I’ve come to expect from this blog.

seekingidlewild

Luke is, actually, a pretty good counter example. His, “instant skill with a lightsaber,” consists of pointing it at his own face as soon as it is handed to him.

In A New Hope, the height of his demonstrated ability is to avoid lopping off his own limbs while trying to learn how to parry blasts from the remote. In the first film, Luke’s preferred weapon is an E11 Blaster Rifle. The first time we see him use his lightsaber in combat is a single swipe with it on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. Luke doesn’t use his lightsaber in combat in the first film.

So, in ANH he gets limited training from Obi-Wan. This is enough for him to start learning Force Pull, though he clearly struggles with it. Having been, “learning on his own,” for three years, he still struggles with very basic Jedi powers, and this is as someone who has been told that The Force exists, and received some introductory training. He barely manages to pull the saber to him in time to save his own life from a wampa.

Rey has the ability to override a Sith Lord’s Force Pull. She has the ability to use Affect Mind, and she has lightsaber proficiency on par with, again, a Sith Lord.

So, back to Luke, he goes to Dagobah receives training from Yoda, a Jedi Master, and returns with a slightly stronger grasp of how to use The Force, and operate a lightsaber. Vader immediately hands him his ass.

The duel on Cloud City is a bit of a sham. It fits what I said about balancing your challenges against the strength of your heroes. Vader knows Luke is his son. He spent decades cleaning up the remains of the Jedi Order. He’s able to go toe-to-toe with Obi-Wan without issue. Luke has a couple weeks of training under his belt. The only reason he’s able to survive is because of two conflicting factors. The Emperor wants Luke alive, “as a prize,” and Vader is having conflicting ideas about killing his own son.

Jump ahead to Return of the Jedi, and we see that Luke learned force choke, and has learned affect mind by this point. However, the finale still runs into another duel against Vader that’s a sham. Again, the point isn’t about killing Luke. Vader doesn’t want to kill his own son, he wants to turn Luke to the dark side, turn on The Emperor together, and take control of The Empire. Luke doesn’t want to fight his father, he’s trying to turn him from the dark side. Palpatine wants Luke to kill Vader and take his place, but he’d be fairly happy so long as one of them takes a dirt nap.

Again, this is not about Luke being a godlike fighter, it’s about him working through his incredibly dysfunctional family issues.

Rey’s got none of that. Kylo is a psychopath who has no qualms about waxing his own father. He doesn’t care about her. He’s a weak, and whiny villain on his own merits, but he is still A Dark Lord of the Sith. He has completed force training. He’s gone toe to toe with with trained Jedi and somehow avoided dying. There is nothing to keep Kylo from killing Rey in the first film except her inexplicable use of active Force powers and specific Force related combat skills (like fighting with a lightsaber) at odds with every other screen canon protagonist.

Let me break this down:

Luke: minimal training, struggles against wildlife, captured by possessed teddy bears, loses his hand in domestic argument. Dude never has his shit together.

Anakin: significant training, holds his own against other Jedi and Sith, but can’t beat Sith without a tag team. Loses limbs during academic dispute.

Rey: no training, no prior knowledge of the Force, defeats Sith Lord on first outing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Rey are the only characters in screen canon who can beat Sith Lords in single combat. I don’t know about you, but something is off with this list.

This is unfortunate because Daisy Ridley is actually really good. So is Adam Driver. There was a lot of excellent casting in those films, but they’re undermined by shoddy writing. There’s roughly two thirds of a decent film there, and then everything derails.

J.J. Abrams and George Lucas have something in common. They’re both extremely fond of emulating material they found elsewhere, repackaging and re-purposing it. This where you’ll find a lot of Kurosawa “homages,” in the original trilogy, and why The Force Awakens is almost a beat for beat retread of A New Hope. In the process, something got seriously scrambled.

The version of Luke that you’re thinking of, the egregious Mary Sue, doesn’t actually exist on screen. It’s pop culture gestalt, conflating the original trilogy into a jumbled clip show bereft of context. Parts, the duels with Vader lose their narrative context. Parts from Anakin in the prequels may get meshed in for good measure. (There is a legitimate argument that Anakin is a Mary Sue in The Phantom Menace, and the only reason I don’t want to delve into that topic is because it involves thinking about TPM for more time than is absolutely necessary.)

The worst part is, those misogynistic shitheads aren’t threatened by Rey. Rey doesn’t have the potency to hold their attention. They’re pissed with Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers drives them into a frenzy, because she is a very powerful character, and their only attack is to accuse her of being a Mary Sue.

The point we’re at now, a small cadre of fans who’ve gone off the deep end have no response to critique of Rey beyond crying about how it’s misogynistic. Which, doesn’t help your case.

You can do better. There are much better female leads in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Off the top of my head, Ellen Ripley (Alien, Aliens) and Sarah Conner (Terminator 2) set a much higher bar for female protagonists in science fiction who completely own their space. I already mentioned her, but Captain Marvel is easily another example from recent years. Moving beyond that you have characters like Aeryn Sun (Farscape), Ambassador Delenn (Babylon 5), and Captain Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager). And if one second you think Aeryn or Delenn aren’t leads, because they’re not getting top billing in ensemble shows, you really need to sit down and actually watch those.

If you want to see why old guard Star Wars fans are pissed with Rey, grab a copy of Heir to the Empire, and then realize that Disney erased all of that from existence to pave the way for Rey. We lost the version of Leia who became the leader of The New Republic. We lost Jaina Solo and Mara Jade. They destroyed all of that so J. J. Abrams could regurgitate a stale rendition of A New Hope without competition.

So, no. Fans who lost decades worth of characters they loved are going to be a little upset, especially when the replacement is breaking all the rules in a setting they adore and still can’t manage to make the stage. More importantly, if a female character needs to break the rules to appear powerful in their setting that’s not feminism or girl power.

This is an exceptional post, but perhaps consider that Rey raised herself on a desert planet? She probably learned to tap into the force to survive, even if she didn’t know exactly what she was doing. I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue for that. Unless you’re going to call Luke a Gary Stu for being able to destroy the death star while flying an x-wing for the first time. If a character is believable if you switch the pronouns, the character isn’t the problem.

kahziel

The irony here is, there’s elements for both parts. We know from the three untrained Jedi we encounter in the films that force sensitivity manifests with heightened skills. Being force sensitive makes you unusually talented at the things you focus on. Of those three, Luke is the least egregious. If we were to ignore the active force powers and lightsaber proficiency, (and inexplicable piloting skills), Rey would be fine, unfortunately, we can’t.

With Rey, we do see that she has an unnatural aptitude for finding and maintaining scrap on Jakku. That she’s been able to survive as long as she has is a pretty good sign that she’s force sensitive, and that’s consistent with what we’ve seen before. That part is absolutely fine. The problem is the situations where her skill hasn’t been set up.

When we first meet Anakin in TPM, he’s already a supernaturally skilled podracer pilot. I’d like to be able to purge the entirety of the podracers from my memory, but we’re all here together now, and I’m pretty sure Sartre only said what he did about hell because he didn’t know that TPM would exist one day.

All these years later, I still have issues with Anakin piloting a fighter for TPM‘s finale, but, I’d be lying if I said the vast majority of that film isn’t a massive, painful blur for me.

What we see from Luke is reasonable. We’re told he wants to be a pilot, and it’s something that he’s been training for. His initial goal is to leave Tatooine, and enroll at The Imperial Academy. He claims he’s “not such a bad pilot.” We’re later told that he’s been practicing precision shooting at high speed using a sub-orbital fighter. (It was later stated in background material that the T-16’s controls and handling were similar to the X-Wing, though I suspect Lucas was thinking of piloting as a kind of universal skill, and the connection between the T-16 and X-Wing were retrofitted on later.) We see Obi-Wan teaching him to use the force in a way that specifically sets up the trench run. The biggest offender here is, simply, that there’s a lot of telling rather than showing. When you dig into earlier drafts of the script, there were scenes outlined that couldn’t be shot in ’76/’77, so the resulting development was dumped back into exposition. As a writing decision, this is something you’d want to avoid, but when we’re talking about a film, shooting considerations may require less optimal solutions.

Switching the pronouns doesn’t fix anything. There are plenty of male Mary Sues, just like there are plenty of powerful female characters who are not Sues. A female version of Luke wouldn’t be a Mary Sue; a male version of Rey would still be one.

I don’t fault Rey for having an intuitive grasp of The Force. I fault her for having fully developed Force powers, and lightsaber proficiency, without training.

But…Rey does do force training? What the fuck? This is a strange post

theskyexists

With whom? Han may believe in the existence of The Force, but he’s no Jedi. He can’t teach her how to use the force. She has no one to train with in The Force Awakens. You’re thinking of the second movie, That Which Shall Not Be Named, the rough draft from Rian Johnson where she gets her training with Luke. She fights Kylo in the first film completely unaided. This is where her Mary Sue rep comes from and why she never shakes it.

What she does is spontaneously manifest Force abilities. By that point, we had six films that hammered home the idea this not how you gain force powers. If that was the case, Vader’s crusade to exterminate the Jedi Order would have been fundamentally impossible, as the Order would be reinforced by spontaneous Jedi popping up. This retroactively makes all of Palpatine’s plotting from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi both pointless and incomprehensibly stupid. Makes you wonder why the Jedi need to recruit kids young if Jedi just pop up fully formed like daisies.

This is before we look at the lightsaber. That is an incredibly difficult, and dangerous to use, a weapon, which Rey has no problem operating, in spite of having no formal combat training of any kind. Much less fighting on an even keel with a trained Sith Lord who has been handling one for most of his life.

This is like a character who hears about the existence of martial arts, and then instantly gains advanced combat proficiency… by shadow boxing for a few minutes. Yeah, that’s a Mary Sue. (And, the comparison of Jedi training to martial arts comes Lucas himself.)

My point is: Rey is not the representation you’re looking for. There are a lot of fantastic, well-rounded, and well-acted female characters with a wide variety of personalities and outlooks in the science fiction genre if you’re willing to look for them. Daisy Ridley does her best, but she can’t save Rey. That’s unfortunate, but crying misogyny or trying to rewrite the films doesn’t help your argument stand up to scrutiny.

-Starke & Michi

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Q&A: Building Characters

What do you think about “character specialization”? I’m afraid of giving my female character too many skills like Rey in SW and make her a Mary Sue.

The problem with Sues (regardless of their gender) isn’t that they’re proficient in multiple areas, it’s that they’re, “the best,” at everything important. I’ve said this before, but a Sue is a character who doesn’t inhabit their own world, they’re simply an authorial power fantasy. Beyond that, they have no background to justify their ability. There’s no explanation for their skill, they simply are.

So, let’s look at a different character from Star Wars, who walks the line with being a sue. One of the many victims of Disney’s Star Wars purge was Mara Jade. She was, “The Emperor’s Hand,” a combination secret apprentice and personal spy/assassin/inquisitor for Emperor Palatine. She was first introduced in Heir to the Empire in 1991. Both women have access to the full suite of common force abilities, both are proficient with lightsaber combat. When we’re introduced to them, their backgrounds (and the source of their abilities) are mysteries. The difference is, you never had to ask, “why would Mara Jade know how to use force pull?” You’d never need to ask, “how did Mara learn to use a lightsaber?” In both cases, there’s a clear answer, “Palpatine trained her.”

Mara Jade has the kind of, “exceptional background,” that can easily signal a Sue, but it does explain her skill set, and her abilities do dovetail with who she’s supposed to be. She’s very clearly written to be part of the larger story, and not to dominate it. In case it’s not clear, I don’t think Mara Jade is a Sue, however the risk was there.

Maybe Disney’s expanded universe has compelling explanations for how Rey gained her force training, or where she learned to use a lightsaber, but, what I saw before I lost interest was, “she’s just that special. No explanation needed.” Literally every other character in Star Wars gained force powers from training and practice. But, not for Rey, she’s special.

You can make hyper-competent female characters without them being Sues. The important thing is that they must exist as part of their world. Their background needs to make sense, explain their skills, and mesh with who they are now.

So let’s talk about specializations in an entirely abstract and extreme way, using classes in role-playing games.

The class “trinity,” in RPGs is usually the Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. The names change, but the basic idea is fairly central to that genre. You have characters that interact with violence, with stealth (frequently this includes social skills), or with magic. Alone it’s very reductive, but it carries a larger context that’s worth thinking about when you’re building your own characters. (This is unrelated to Tank/Healer/DPS. That’s MMOs.)

The fighter is a professional combatant. They’ve spent most of their adult life training for, or engaging in violence. They could be a professional soldier, a mercenary, hired muscle for a criminal group, they may have moved between these roles during their life. The end result is a character who is better suited to combat. Their background makes them better suited to violence than other characters, and that’s realistic. The class concept itself is an abstraction that limits who the character is, but the idea that someone who’s spent their life training for and engaging in violence is going to be a better fighter makes sense.

The rogue illustrates the weakness in simply lifting these systems without question. If you’re wondering why I chose the D&D names, it’s the rogue. Traditionally the rogue has been called “the thief,” and many games will use that name. The rogue may have been a thief, a spy, an assassin, or any number of other clandestine professions. Where the fighter has a clear identity, the rogue is a muddled collection of related ideas. There’s a huge difference between a burglar who sneaks into places undetected, an agent who infiltrates a foreign government to feed them bad information, and an assassin who covertly murders for pay. It makes sense if you have a character who worked as an assassin and, as a result, has a phenomenal grasp of human anatomy. It makes considerably less sense for your burglar who abhors violence to have that same knowledge, however they’ll frequently get the same sneak attack bonus.

D&D (and many games for that matter) address some of the limitations by adding (somewhat) redundant classes to provide more flavor. If your character is patterned off Conan, then you have the Barbarian class. If you’re looking at Aragorn or Legolas, there’s the Ranger. If you want your character to be a holy knight, roll a Paladin. This a band-aid solution that can be easily applied in game terms to address the limitations of the classes. Fortunately, as a writer, you have the freedom to create your characters’ history individually. You don’t need (and don’t benefit) from sticking to classes beyond the general idea of what your character does.

Your character’s skills and knowledge will be shaped by their history. People do specialize, and given enough time they can become quite proficient in a number of fields. They can also generalize. A character who spent twenty years campaigning across “The Empire,” will (probably) be a very proficient combatant. A character who studied magic for those twenty years will (probably) be quite skilled at it. A character who studied as a mage when they were younger, but was recruited to become an Imperial agent, never completed their studies, but has spent the last fifteen years working as a spy may not be quite as good at, “being a spy,” as someone who specialized in that exclusively, but they’ll still have their magical education, and whatever else they picked up along the way. In fact, they’ll be better able to deal with situations involving magic, where their limited training gives them an advantage over someone who spent their entire career as a spy.

While I don’t encourage rigid class systems driving your characters, the idea that your character has a background and history which inform their current skills and identity is very useful. Saying, “my character has 6 levels in Rogue and 3 in Wizard,” isn’t particularly useful, but the idea that your character may have been more than just one thing in the past, transitioning from one career to another can produce interesting, and unique characters. That said, there is nothing wrong with saying, “my character dedicated their life to being the best wizard The Empire has ever seen,” and actually making good on that.

There is another useful lesson in RPGs: In a well balanced game (either a tabletop campaign or a video game), your characters will face foes worthy of their power. For example, if you’ve created this once-in-a-generation mage, their powers will be wasted picking fights with bandits and goblins. This is the kind of character who spearheads investigations into a curse that threatens to destroy The Empire, or plays politics to try to get closer to the Emperor. The greatest thief will be looking for the greatest score. The greatest warrior will be the Emperor’s champion, facing off against things no one else could hope to stop. No matter how powerful your character is, they need challenges that will push them further. They also need to see those challenges through, it’s unfair to the players to take away the struggle and hand them an easy win, it’s equally unfair to your audience to pull that victory down for your characters and drop it in their laps. One of the major symptoms of the Mary Sue is that they don’t face these kinds of challenges. They glide over any opposition without facing any real threat.

A weakness in this lesson is that RPGs tend to get more bombastic as you climb through the levels. Weak enemies frequently fall off, and your characters start facing off against epic monsters, but if your character is still human other people may still be a threat. Getting the challenge “just right” becomes increasingly difficult as your characters become more powerful.

Having a character who is extraordinarily talented within their field is entirely valid. The problems start when your character is extraordinarily talented at everything, without giving up anything. Someone who spent decades of their life improving themselves gave up a lot along the way.

This idea that you need handicap a female character in case she’s too competent and becomes a Sue is very self-destructive. The misogynists you’re worried about placating will label any powerful female character as a Sue. No one else will care if she’s compelling.

The panacea for the Mary Sue is simple: Make an interesting character and give her legitimate challenges.

-Starke

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Q&A: Boons and Stressors

What do you think of altruism? Can it make someone more resilient or does it make them weaker?

This feels a little overly simplistic. It’s saying this a direct consequence, but my suspicion is, it’s a little more nuanced.

So, there’s a theory that receiving help actively makes you weaker. This is one of these things where the person espousing the idea is taking a model for how they think the world should be, and applying it irrelevant of evidence.

The problem is, this only makes sense if you think that you learn nothing from receiving help, and that the world will queue up more difficult challenges as you progress. The former is absurd, because you can learn from seeing what others do, and the latter simply doesn’t reflect how the world works. Yes, the challenges we face can escalate as a result of our actions, but the world isn’t trying “keep up with you as you level.” That’s an abstract concept that has limited relation to reality.

There’s a legitimate idea that if you become dependent on others to help you, and they abandon you, you’ll have nothing to fall back on, but that’s justifying a philosophy with the most extreme scenario.

There’s also the inverse, if you’re burning resources to deal with challenges, it can actually leave you in a weakened state if you’re insisting you need to face every challenge alone. Additionally, you probably won’t have anyone to call on, because you didn’t build those connections earlier.

In case it’s not clear, I don’t have a particularly high regard for the entire self-sufficiency argument. I’m fine with saying that you should prepare for the possibility that you’ll need to face challenges alone. It’s a good contingency to have. However, I don’t buy into the, “sanctity of being self-sufficient.”

With that said, there as a satisfaction from overcoming a challenge. As an individual, you may find greater satisfaction from overcoming it on your terms.

That’s the other end of this. I don’t think receiving altruism directly increases your resilience, however, I do think it’s a very reasonable consequence, so, let’s talk psychology.

Your overall mental health does affect a host of things. “Resilience,” is a pretty nebulous term, but your overall mental health does influence nearly all of those factors. It can improve your immune response. It can affect your emotional resilience. It can’t protect you from physical harm, but it can help you cope with that. It can even help offset fatigue. (You still need to rest, but it will help you push on.) This is not an exhaustive list. So, being in a good state of mind can help with all of those things. It can even help you cope with tragedies and misfortune.

Altruism can help with this, but it’s not just receiving it, being on the giving side can also provide that. There’s also a major caveat, the altruism needs to be a positive experience.

There’s a pair of psychological concepts, “boons,” and, “stressors.” You can find other terms for these, but the basic idea is sound. A boon is a, “nice,” experience. It makes you feel better about your life in a small way. A stressor is a negative experience, and it wears on you. Individually, none of these will change your life, or even ruin your day. However, when you start stacking stressors together, it can have a corrosive effect. Similarly, when you start stacking boons together, it can make a significant difference, and help you deal with the challenges you face.

As an example of a stressor: I have a burn on my hand from the coffee press back flushing and spraying boiling water over my hand on Friday. That was not fun. It didn’t make my day better. Individually it didn’t ruin the day, but these kinds of experiences can stack up. And, yes, this a valid example; boons and stressors can be very minor things. Even a brief conversation with a friend can be a boon.

So, why do I have an issue with, “altruism makes you more resilient?” Because it’s a boon. In some situations it’s a significant one. That kind of help can make you feel a lot better about yourself, your life, you future. In turn, that can increase your overall mental health, and increase your resilience.

Please note the conditional statements. “…that kind of help can make you feel better…” “…that can increase your overall mental health…” It is not certain that it will. Remember the people who view accepting help as a weakness. For someone like that, receiving help can be a stressor. If they need it, or cannot refuse it, it’s an indictment of their self-sufficiency. Meaning, two people, in similar situations, can receive the same help, and have radically different psychological responses.

Remember when I mentioned that overcoming a challenge on your own terms can result greater satisfaction? That’s a boon. So, there are circumstances where someone will benefit from facing and overcoming their challenge alone. This is a factor in whether or not help will be beneficial. To be blunt, this isn’t simple. Someone may need help, but not want it, or state that they don’t want it for appearances, when assistance would be welcome.

As a general statement, altruism will be more beneficial than not. However, the topic is a bit more nuanced than just, “receiving altruism makes you more resilient.”

-Starke

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Q&A: Self-Defense Goals

I have a 5’4. 110 lbs woman who knows self defense. She gets in a bar fight with a guy who is much bigger than her. (Think 6ft, 250) Would her training trump the guy’s size and strength? (And that he doesn’t know self defense) My beta reader thinks not. They also think that whether the guy is drunk or not doesn’t matter. True? If it is. What kind of training would she need to make her winning plausible?

There’s a lot of detail here, but there are two questions you need to ask yourself, something that needs to be remembered and one error that needs to be addressed.

First, does she actually remember her training, or was this something she did six years ago and mostly forgot? If its the later, her training isn’t going to be that helpful. We talk about the importance of updating your training, but you also need to practice. Updating means you’re also getting refreshers on a regular basis. If you don’t have access to that, you’ll lose things. Stuff that requires a partner will go first, though, it is possible you’ll eventually file a lot of your training away and forget about it. You can get this back if you take a moment to recall. In a fight, you don’t have a moment to dig up your training; you need it already there.

Worth remembering that combat training is the least valuable thing in a competent self-defense course. Most situations can be averted long before they turn violent.

Being drunk is significant. Remember that intoxication is a spectrum from slightly buzzed to barely able to stand. However, unless they already had ingrained hand to hand training, it will quickly render them unable to fight, with rare exceptions.

Second, is she willing to use her training? This sounds similar, but there’s a real social stigma against engaging in violence, particularly for women. It’s easy to think, “Hurting people is bad, and makes you a bad person,” even in situations where a violence is appropriate. If you feel it is important to be “a good person,” it can create a serious dilemma. Her self-defense course should have addressed this, and gotten her comfortable with the idea of using her training, but it’s not guaranteed those lessons took hold.

Self-defense isn’t “a martial art.” It’s a combat objective. This is how you want to use your martial arts training. In the US today, most “self-defense,” is a modified form of Judo. This form only dates back to the mid-twentieth century. That doesn’t mean it’s the only option, as a lot of martial arts can be adapted for use in self-defense. I specified, “a competent self-defense course,” before, because you will find less scrupulous schools billing their normal classes as, “self-defense.” You miss out on a lot. You don’t learn threat assessment, how to manage escalation, or how to create an exit. Worst case, you may not even learn martial arts that will be useful in a live situation.

I tend to paint those schools pretty harshly, but it is possible they have good intentions. The problem is that, as I’ve said, the hand to hand component is a small part of self-defense training. It is important, but it’s the act of last resort.

The last part here, and the major issue is a single word in the final sentence. You don’t take self-defense classes to win fights.

If you want to win fights? Take up boxing, Muay Thai, MMA, or any number of other competitive sports.

You take self-defense classes to learn how to extract from a bad situation. Self-defense teaches you how to quickly neutralize an attacker and escape.

Winning is for prize fights. Self-defense is about getting you out of there in one piece. It is not about getting into a stand up fight and beating your opponent into submission. It is about making sure your attacker cannot follow you.

So, if some drunk guy attacked her, yeah she could put him on the ground, no problem. However, bar fights are nasty, and her goal should be to get out of there as fast as possible, not stick around for a Pyrrhic “win.”

It may sound like I’m being overly pedantic here, but it is a very important concept. Combat training (whether that’s hand to hand or armed), sets specific objectives. You don’t train, “to fight,” you train to achieve those goals. If your goal is to kill someone, train to kill people. If your goal is self-defense, train to create an opening and escape. When to train to fight, you’re learning to prolong combat, and wear your opponent down. This does not work when you go up against someone who trained to end combat efficiently.

Pop culture teaches you to fight (badly.) It draws out the engagements, prolonging the experience is for entertainment value. If you don’t have a background, it’s easy to think this is how combat works. If your attacker doesn’t have a background, and is just going off what he’s learned from Chuck Norris films, he’s going to lose. He cared about winning. Your character doesn’t, her only objective is to get out safely, and she can do that without getting into a prolonged fight. In fact, it’s easier for her to do that without letting the fight go on. She throws him and, while he’s trying to get back on his feet, she bolts. That’s it, fight’s over, she’s gone.

-Starke

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Q&A: Embrace the Scrap Pile

Hi guys! I’ve just spent a solid two chapters building up to/procrastinating on a grand battle and I can procrastinate no longer. The enemy is right frigging there. Any tips on writing this monster from the perspective of A) an army general/king/etc (someone physically there and able to see what’s going on from a ((ttly safe)) distance) and B) someone in the thick of it? We’re in a fantasy setting with swords, arrows and pirates on a river in the desert, if that plays any relevance.

annarti

I feel like I’ve written this recently, but a general writing tip would be: don’t procrastinate. If a scene isn’t necessary, take it out. Every word in your finished work should serve a purpose. If a scene does not need to be there, it shouldn’t.

With that in mind, there’s no shame in writing scenes no one will read. You never know when a useful turn of phrase or a good idea will appear. If something works in an unnecessary scene, set it aside and save it for later. We learn from doing, so your scrap pile is a valuable collection of experience and experiments.

The joy of your scrap pile is that you have complete freedom. “How do I do this?” is a question best answered in experimentation. Write your battle. If you’re not satisfied with what you wrote, go back and do it differently. Keep at it. Learn the things you like, the things that fit what you want. Remember those, and throw out the things that disappointed you.

On your question: preparation for battle lets you set the stage before it begins. You can show the forces your characters are commanding. You can cover their readiness and morale. You can examine what your characters know about the enemies they’re about to face. You can discuss their plan of attack.

For example: You can literally show the troops on your side. Your characters can walk among them inspecting how prepared they are. They can talk to them, either individual or collectively. This basic set up can change dramatically from if you’re dealing with professional soldiers or if you have mercenaries and irregulars who are already weary from a long campaign. In fact, in a larger work, you can track the deterioration of the army as a campaign wears on.

The environment is vitally important for you. Moving over rough terrain will wear more heavily on your forces. Loose sand is extremely taxing to move through. It will slow them down and exhaust them. Unless they’re at a bridge or ford, the river creates a natural barrier which they’d be unable to cross. This is means they can’t be flanked from that direction, but it also means they can’t move in that direction, would be easier to surround, (because you don’t have to get behind them.)

As for how to explain what the creature looks like, you need to describe it. Remember that in prose you have access to all five senses. Okay, four senses, taste would be a little weird in this context. Work out a mental image for how the creature moves, and keep track of how it behaves. Keep track of details. Things like physics can sell the “substance” and reality, of your monster on the battlefield.

The big thing is just, don’t be afraid to rewrite the battle with something radically different if you’re not happy with your draft.

-Starke

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Q&A: Historical Research

Hi! First of all I love your blog ! So i’ll try to say this as clearly as i can: basically how to write accurate and realistic fights scenes, with miedeval weapons in my case, and develop fighting strategy when you have 0 notions in these domains? My characters are knights , they master specific weapons and strategies of battle. But i have no idea how to put it with words. Sorry for my english. 🙂

Depending on your native language, that may be an asset. There are a lot of surviving training manuals out there, and most were written in languages other than English. Being able to read German, Italian, Spanish, or even French can be a huge boon to studying how these weapons were used historically.

If you want to get a look at this stuff, Wiktenauer is an open source wiki focused on collecting, and digitally preserving, surviving primary sources. Expect to do a lot of reading. Understand that what you learn won’t be 100% correct. Keep an eye on things you’re warned not to do, because it means people did that often enough to piss off the author.

You may also want to do some basic reading on the exact timeframe you’re looking for. Weapons and armor were constantly changing and evolving.

There’s a lot of good literature on historical battlefield tactics and strategy. I can’t make recommendations for your native language, but I am sure the material exists. Nothing will give you better examples of how people fought in history than studying how actual battles played out. Detailed battlefield maps which track troop movements, is a major plus. This will help you see how the forces were arrayed and fought.

A slightly oddball suggestion would be Medieval II: Total War. I haven’t played that entry, but the Total War series present semi-realistic battlefield strategy playgrounds. This can teach you basic concepts, and let you experiment with strategies. The downside is (if later games are anything to go by) some of the systems are going to be poorly explained. The game doesn’t force “proper” deployment structures, so you would be free to make mistakes without learning from them. The game is focused on the entire army operating together, so you couldn’t focus on just your knights. It doesn’t do small scale skirmishes between a couple units, it’s focused on full armies clashing. If you’re zooming in on the units, don’t expect to learn a lot about how to use a weapon, the animations are fairly primitive. Finally, you might want to verify your language is supported.

Even video games are not your thing, there is a lot of potential in tabletop wargaming. This is going to be somewhat dependent on finding a game that fits the time and place you’re focusing on. Normally I’d suggest checking Avalon Hill’s back catalog, but the translation issue makes that a bit tricky.

For strategy, I’m certain The Art of War has been translated to your native language, and even if the book itself would be anachronistic, it is something worth reading to help with the mindset you’re looking for.

I hope this helps get you started.

-Starke

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