Tag Archives: writing advice

A character of mine is routinely tracked by agents of various organizations (think Area 51 kind of deal, not the police or the army). What kind of signs would she look for when she’s assessing whether someone is a threat to her? How to spot an agent in disguise?

Here’s the thing. If you’re going with the whole alien hunter thing, then you’re probably looking at the police and military. Remember, Groom Lake was an Air Force Base, and that is military.

The short answer is anyone that singles her out and she catches paying attention to her, and that’s about as good as it’s going to get. Unless she knows specific tells with the agents hunting her, like, say, that they’re all aliens themselves, and have some distinguishing characteristic, then there’s that, but otherwise, she’s just going to have to rely on her own paranoia.

As I understand it (and keep in mind, this is a little out of my forte); the basic advice with protective details is to scan the area, and if anyone sticks out in your mind, keep an eye on them. But, as simple as that is, it’s hardly foolproof. Over time, more details of what you’re looking for specifically will get filled in, This is just the old “one of these things doesn’t belong” game with assassins and attempted murder.

Also, “disguise” makes me think of Groucho Marx glasses. Realistically, in a situation like this, a disguise would probably be something as simple as jeans and a t-shirt, with maybe a jacket or work shirt if it’s appropriate.

This is also going to get into a protagonist/antagonist bent, so, I’m going to start with the assumption that your conspiracy agents are the bad guys.

In order to be effective, they need to be able to escalate. They need to have the ability to act openly if the situation really warrants it. Otherwise it will just be too easy to outmaneuver them. In the real world, hunting and killing anything bipedal is generally frowned upon by the police, and any antagonist that can be completely neutralized by dialing 911 is a poor foe (at least in this context.) This means, setting them up like the fake emergency call in the Bourne films would be an amazingly fast way to get rid of them, and it would work reliably.

So, your antagonists need to actually be affiliated with either the police, military, or both. If it’s a conspiracy outside of the government, they need to have pull inside the police. These need to be people that really can call the cops for backup, and possibly (depending on what they’re hunting) the national guard or marines.

If it is a conspiracy, then their front line agents will probably be ex-law enforcement or ex-military. These are the kinds of people that have the necessary skills, the background, and the outlook for the job. This also means, they’ll be very hard to spot, because you’re not looking a specific set of characteristics, you’re having to look for a lot of possible tells.

If the group is actually your protagonists, and the situation is a little different. In this case, your agents will look a lot more like resistance fighters. Ex-law enforcement and military are still preferred, but they might have to take whatever they can get.

They’re also going to need to be very careful. One slip up could mean their entire operation is in jeopardy, and the police are a serious treat to their ability to function.

In a case like this, agents could be potentially impossible to spot. The easiest way would be to look for the same faces popping up. These guys don’t have a large staff to pull from, so they can’t afford to rotate their surveillance. They also probably couldn’t afford to track someone “just because they might be a problem later”, again, they don’t have the numbers to do that. So if they’re stalking your character, it’s because they’re planning to neutralize her, soon.

You can run groups like this as antagonists, but it’s not easy. Hunter: The Reckoning is written from the perspective of the rag-tag monster hunters being the protagonists, but the books could give you some ideas for using them as antagonists. While we’re on the subject, Hunter: First Contact is specifically built around running these two types of groups against each other, and it does offer some good suggestions, even if it is geared for a world where Vampires control the police, and the werewolves are ecoterrorists.

First Wave was a… let’s call it quirky series about a lone alien hunter trying to save the world. Cade Foster wouldn’t make for a good antagonist, but if you can track the show down, it might give you some ideas. Also, the aliens in the setting are interesting, and Roger Cross’ work as an enforcer for the aliens is very memorable. Fair warning, the first season DVD set is obscenely expensive, and I don’t think SyFy’s released the others, so this might not be an example you can actually use.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention V. Either the original series from the early 80s or the reboot a couple years ago. I’m not a fan of the former, and I haven’t seen the remake. But, it is the urexample of a resistance cell fighting against an alien invasion. This is pretty much the opposite of what you’re wanting to do, but it might help.

By the same token, I’m not a fan of Earth: Final Conflict, but the show was about resistance fighters hiding inside, and working to subvert aliens who came to earth openly. It’s at its best when the aliens are ethically ambiguous, but that gets lost in later seasons, as the aliens become more overtly evil. It probably isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, but for anyone else in the general vicinity.

You can run conspiracies as protagonists, but it’s tricky. Stargate: SG1 is a good example, and The X-Files plays this for both the FBI agents and the conspiracy. The British miniseries Ultraviolet plays a lot like this as well, though they’re hunting vampires, not aliens. If you’re going for more of a comedy bent, the MIB films might not be a bad place to look. The first film in particular, has a wonderfully surreal quality.

This one might not be possible to track down, but The Visitor (1997) was a really interesting series where an alien abductee returns to earth, and is trying to save the world. It’s notable for having two separate groups, a slightly deranged military commander tasked with covering up alien activity, and a cadre of FBI agents. If you can find a copy, this was a really good series.


I have a character, not the main character but he’s still fairly important to the story, who is the top fighter at a training facility and knows he’s the top fighter. Long story short, he winds up in a fight with a younger student who is the best of his year but compared to the entire school mediocre. The better student gets cocky during the fight and allows a couple hits to get in by unintentionally dropping his guard, cliched I know. Any recommendations for what happens during the fight?

I’m going to reiterate here that we don’t solve fight scenes. We post information so that you can solve fight scenes.

The key problem with this sequence is the attempt to manufacture cheap drama. The danger to the character doesn’t feel real because you’re having him make convenient mistakes. The mistake the audience will expect. This is why it feels cliche and why you’re having trouble.

My question is: why is this sequence important to the story? What function does it serve?

It doesn’t help the character in question, all this is going to teach them is that they can screw around and fuck up with a less experienced student and still pull out a victory. If you were looking to teach them a lesson about being careful, then it’s not going to happen here.

“If we were using real swords you’d be dead!” “But we weren’t and I’m not. You lost. Go throw your empty threats at someone who cares.”

This tells the reader nothing about the character that that wasn’t already previously established by the fact that the character is the best in the school. If you want them to worry about him then give him a challenge that legitimately hits him in an uncomfortable place, otherwise it’s going to feel like ego padding.

The scene description reads: “This is what might have happened to the character! They could have gotten really hurt!” “Did they?” “No…” “Well, meh.”

The cockiness is a weakness that could be legitimately established in a fight sequence that will ultimately matter to the story and to the reader. It’s either justifiably deserved as a character trait or it’s not. However, let’s talk about “the best” for a moment.

Here’s the second problem: this character is supposed to be “The Best” in their school.

There are two kinds of “Bests”. The Big Fish in a Small Pond (these are characters who run on talent, rest on their laurels, are in it for the perks, and don’t work very hard) and the real “Bests” (these are the workaholics, they are devoted, spend every spare minute of every day dedicated to developing their talent, they’re the first up in the morning and the last to leave, when they’re not training, they’re cleaning their gear to a polish, studying theory, or any amount of other minutia important to the practice of their art, they do fuck around and goof off but usually only with people they know well, they live in a lonely state of being admired by their fellow students and despised for the amount of time the teacher spends on them. They spend a great deal of time observing and studying the world around them and are constantly working to improve themselves. They know that every up and comer is gunning for their position, they don’t have the luxury of not working hard or not loving what they do.)

One of these is legitimate and one of these generally falls apart the minute they get out of their native environment. Both will ultimately struggle in a greater world where talent and hard work are not necessarily enough to earn you anything in your chosen field, but the disciplined, hardworking “best” who long ago learned that talent only gets you so far is more poised to make it. This is especially true of characters who will be facing life or death situations when they leave school.

The problem is that your character isn’t actually being cocky, he’s being lazy. It’s a common mistake by a lot of writers when it comes to training. This guy looked at this other character and said “Eh, I don’t need to try that hard today”. He was, according to the question, right. He knows this other character isn’t good enough to beat him. But instead of facing him earnestly anyway, he slacks off and turns his mind to other things. The other character surprises him just enough to bring his mind back to the fight and he goes “oh”, then dispatches him. Like he could have all along if he’d just been paying attention or given a damn.


A lazy Big Fish in a Small Pond is one that is not long for this world when they swim out into the bigger ocean. They certainly can be interesting characters once their dreams have been crushed by the hard weight of reality, but this one is a fighter who will presumably be fighting other warriors intending to kill him. Fighters who already know that not keeping their mind on the task at hand means a quick death (and one they may get anyway).

Think about your character some more and decide what it is that you are trying to convey. Weigh the necessity of the scene and think about why you’re having trouble with it. Is it because you don’t know enough about the fighting style and combat? Or is it because your characters aren’t working with you?

Try the John Cleese approach to creativity. The first answer we come up with is rarely the right or most creative one. Think about the problem some more and see what else you can come up with. If the answer feels cliche to you already then it will to the reader. If you can’t come up with a way to get yourself interested in or excited about the events that feel cliche, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Trust in yourself and in your creations, you’ll figure it out.


In my story I have two students sparring with wooden practice swords, student A is more experienced and a bit older than student B, thus naturally bigger and stronger. If student B suddenly throws their blade aside and attacks the other with their fists could they have a chance of beating student A if they get past their practice blade? Or would they only be able to get in a few blows before student A gets the upper hand once more?

No, they can’t win. In that scenario they will be systematically beaten by Character A and probably thoroughly thrashed under the sufferance of their instructor. This is a good thing for your story and in the long run, a good thing for Character B’s development.

Let’s talk about why:

There are a few flaws going on in your language choices about Student A that come across as cliche, even though you don’t mean for them to be. The general assumption about training is that it bulks someone up, this is commonly presented in Hollywood action movies where the “average” sized  protagonist suddenly finds themselves facing an enemy that is very, very tall and usually very bulky. The difference is obvious, however, this is a visual gag and has little bearing on reality (also because it’s a visual gag, it’s not really helpful for writing unless you want to play into cliche).

For sword combat, replace stronger with faster (this will be true regardless of whether it’s a long sword, a claymore, or a rapier) and bigger with more agile. You can also add more cunning and more controlled, especially if Student A is at the stage of using fast talking and insults to distract their opponent between strikes. A character who can fast talk while fighting is one where the strikes and blows they are using have become enough of a second nature that they can turn their mind to strategy and character assessment. Yes, smack talk is actually a legitimate strategy during a fight, assuming the character has the conditioning and breath get away with it.

If this is what Student A is like (and this is what most training sequence enemies are like) then the comparison is this: Student B is the average new recruit for the track team and they’re sprinting against it’s best member. As Student B sprints, the track team member keeps pace beside them spitting out insults, you want to say something, but Student B can’t because they’re too busy sucking down oxygen. However, this spurs them to try harder and run faster, faster and faster, in silence, harder than they’ve ever run before. They think hey, I’m doing pretty good. Until they get to the final turn and Student A opens up their stride and sprints off like it’s nothing leaving Student B huffing and puffing. But Student B is still angry, so they chase them as hard and as fast as they can (or they give up). They don’t catch them, they are soundly defeated.

However, it’s not a defeat because not only now do they have an understanding of how far down the totem pole they are, they’ve been given a rival to chase, and best of all, they’ve pushed themselves (with Student A’s help) to find a source of inner strength they might not have known they had. They’ve learned more through defeat than they did through victory.

This is why many instructors do in fact put students, especially new ones, into “no win scenarios” against more powerful opponents. Kirk’s Kobayashi Maru feel good/ego stroking antics aside: facing and being beaten by an opponent that is better than you in a controlled environment, learning what that feels like, and how easily you can be manipulated is an important step towards becoming a better warrior.

The best fighters are cautious and disciplined strategists. They may be congenial and friendly, but they are very much in control of themselves, their emotions, and their environment. Student A is already in control of the fight and that in a nutshell is why Student B can’t win, even when they attempt to change the rules.

Okay, let’s talk about Student B:

Getting frustrated and throwing down or throwing away a weapon is actually a common beginner mistake, so brava! This is a good learning experience. The thought process is: this isn’t working, so I better try something else. However, it’s a bad idea because the wooden blade was what kept the fight anywhere near even and without it, they’re screwed.

Student B either throws aside their blade because they think it’s a good idea or they’ve been driven to do it out of anger. If it’s anger, it’s a better idea for them to throw the sword at Student A and then lunges. This is the only semi-saving grace for them because (stupid as it is) it suggests that they have some grasp of strategy. Otherwise, they’re just ditching the sword in favor of lunging at an opponent who still has their weapon and now has greater reach.

If Student B throws away the sword and lunges, then all Student A has to do is hold their sword out and let B “impale” themselves on it. Short, quick, and boom it’s over. If they throw it at A, then A has to knock it away or risk getting hit. However, if they do throw it at A, A is going to be a little upset about it especially since B just broke the rules and risked both their safety on a stupid stunt. If B throws the sword at A, then B is in the wrong (even though they’ll feel like they were in the right).

Their master/instructor will then probably allow A to thrash B (within reason, no long term damage) so that they can fully feel their mistake and then will assign them some sort of punishment work afterwards. They’ll punish A too because A did give in to anger after B threw the sword at their head.

This brings us to:

There will be an instructor watching this fight and they will intervene when necessary. Sparring bouts tend to happen one on one in front of the whole or half of the class (if there are enough instructors to handle more than one bout at a time). The observing students wait their turn and they learn by watching their fellows fight. Sometimes, if there’s a second rival group or section, instructors will bring the two together and have them spar each other one on one in order to build a greater sense of competitiveness and camaraderie within the respective groups.

Both Student A and Student B will be punished by their respective teachers depending on what happens after B throws down the sword. B will also have to face the criticism and humiliation in front of their fellow students, which will make the sting hurt that much more and may be the inciting action that drives them to throw the sword.

Try to remember that sparring is about learning, it’s not about beating the odds or winning and losing. The point of a character in training is not to show how talented and skilled they are, it’s to show them growing up and learning. Life isn’t always fair, but even the ruthless and most sadistic teachers often have the students’ best interests at heart. Other characters may be responding to a stimuli or understanding of the situation that Character B doesn’t have access to yet.

Let your characters fall down and make mistakes during training, that’s what training is for and why it’s there. It’s important to the development of the characters in the story.

Try to not vilify A or the instructor.

Either way:

It’s a good learning experience that will help you flesh out your characters. All of them. So, I suggest you keep it. Besides, B isn’t just soundly beaten, they lose the fight on the basis of what they thought was a good idea. That’s actually pretty great.


How much force do you need for chooping a head off? First time it’s an axe that’s being used, the second is a sword. The first time is with a character who doesn’t have much strenght, and the other with the sword is very strong. Do you need to chop more than one time, to get through the bones?

We can’t really answer the specifics of how much force is required. However, if you look up decapitations as capital punishment in Europe, you will find a host of information regarding how well a headsman could decapitate their victim. There’s a great deal of scientific data from the time on it and that’s worth a look. It’s also worth reminding everyone that the guillotine was invented as a method of execution not because it was more expedient (that was an unfortunate byproduct) but because it was considered to be quicker and more humane.

For reference, the average commoner (and occasionally noble) got the axe. Royalty (and occasionally nobles depending on country) could opt for the more “humane” sword. As a method of execution, swords were sharper and less likely to miss, so the death was quicker and cleaner. The headsman would often miss the first or even second swing with an axe. The axe was commonly blunt or carried a dull blade and would get stuck in the spine. The headsman might have to swing his axe a few times in order to completely remove the head from the body. It was both a terrifying and agonizing way to die.

In combat:

The second part of your question relates to strength. We’ve talked a lot about upper body strength being less important compared to body mechanics. You don’t need to be a weightlifter to be an effective fighter (it is in fact less effective) and that is very true when it comes to weapons like the sword and the axe which rely heavily on momentum and a sharp edge over upper body strength.

Part of the reason this is a difficult question to answer is that there are multiple different kinds of swords and axes and they all go about decapitation in their own way. With an axe, is your character using a one handed axe or a two handed axe? A long hafted axe like the bearded axe that exists in a class similar to the claymore/zweihander (german, means two hands) will have no issues decapitating someone (assuming it’s wielder can wield it correctly) but will do so in an arcing pattern and come in on a diagonal instead of horizontally. A thrusting weapon like the rapier will drive forward on a direct line through the throat (and probably won’t bother with a decapitation because dead is dead). The longsword is better as a cutting weapon and could certainly go cleanly through the neck, provided it didn’t get caught on or deflected by the spine. It’s easier to aim between the vertebra than at them for a clean strike.

Many warriors may not choose to go fully through the neck at all and instead opt for a partial decapitation by going across the front of the neck through the wind pipe, esophagus, and carotid artery that are unprotected by bone.

Instead of focusing on physical strength, focus on how the weapon behaves by looking up the specific one your characters are using. It’s also worth noting that, for medieval warriors, it’s the armor that builds the body type. A heavy, bulky upper body will be common among warriors who wear plate mail because they must be able to fight while wearing it without become exhausted. This required a strong upper body and rigorous development of the shoulder muscles. This will also be true for both male and female warriors.

A warrior in lighter armor will develop a leaner body, but will be as effective at wielding their weapon because, again, greater physical strength is not what makes it effective.


In what situations would punching with an open or closed fist be best? Like, if you didn’t want to really hurt someone or the like?

Second question first, no. If you’re fighting someone, “I don’t want to hurt them,” has left the building, wandered into the alley, and gotten beaten to death.

Combat is about inflicting pain and injury on another living being.

The first question is a bit meatier. Position of your hand is dependent on the technique you’re using at this moment, what you’ve been trained in, and where you’re striking.

The choice between fists and palm strikes is almost as much about protecting your hands as what you’re doing to someone else.

Palm strikes are slightly safer when targeting an area of the body where the bones are very close to the surface. Like the face.

Fists are safer when targeting areas where a palm strike is likely to result in injuries to your fingers.

Now, there is a difference to what a palm strike or a punch will do to someone. Open handed strikes, of all kinds, will deliver force over a smaller area. (With a palm strike, you connect with the heel of the palm, not the entire hand.) Fists will actually disperse the force over a larger area. (The entirety of the knuckles.) This doesn’t really change the amount of injury you’re inflicting, just how large an area you’re harming.

This is important when you’re looking at joint breaks, because you’re applying force directly against the joint, and a fist will blunt the strike.

There’s a perception that open handed strikes are less harmful, perpetuated by the presentation of martial arts in films, but the fact is, when properly executed, they’re both going to do a lot of damage.


How To Write a Sue-ish Character Without Sueism

How To Write a Sue-ish Character Without Sueism

If a character has their earlobes pierced, could you rib the earrings out of the ears? And how much force do you think you would have to apply?

This certainly can happen with most piercings. Almost, without exception, meat is going to be softer than metal, and if a combatant can get their hands on an opponent’s piercing, they should be able to tear it out.

How easy it is, will depend the attacker getting a solid grip. Rings large enough to slip a finger through are a massive risk, and very easy to pull out, small studs, with no easy way to grip are less so.

One fantasy outlier would be things like 40k’s service studs. These are piercings that attach directly to the bone, and pulling them out (particularly if they don’t have any easy to grab features) would be incredibly difficult in a fight. Of course, pulling them out would also be significantly more catastrophic. And, since we’re talking about Space Marines, there’s a possibility that the studs are actually softer than their bones, which isn’t usually a consideration.


shortlimbs said: Just wanted to add—as a former baby sitter, I know that if an earring is dangly or a hoop, it takes approximately the strength of a toddler to rip it through the lobe.


Yeah, an adult combatant can rip a piercing out with a thumb and forefinger, easily, if they can actually get a solid hold on it.

What kind of training does a character have to go through if he has to be able to keep going in a fight but was injured?

None. There’s actually two parts to this; the injuries themselves, and the pain from those injuries.

Nearly any physical activity will eventually introduce you to managing pain. Note: “managing”, not ignoring.

Managing pain isn’t something you can teach, you can’t rationally explain it to someone. You experience pain, and push on.

This is part of the point of all those extreme endurance training exercises, it’s as much about learning to deal with discomfort and finding your actual limits as it is about physical conditioning and fitness. The trick is to inflict as much discomfort as possible (not just pain) without actually harming the participants.

Of course, this also gets warped into outright sadism by writers that don’t understand the point. So, if you’ve got a story where they’re torturing characters as “training”, that’s probably what you’re looking at.

It doesn’t make you ignore pain, but it does give you a better grasp of what pain actually means.

You can’t power through injuries. If your character’s actually been seriously hurt, they can’t ignore it. This is the point where something in their body has been damaged, and there is no way you can simply go “I’m givin’ ‘er all she’s got, Captain!” and keep fighting.

Minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises hurt, and could cause someone without any experience to think that something’s gone really wrong, but the fact is, it hasn’t. Also, remember, bruises take a few minutes to form, so they won’t really start until after the fight is already over.

Deep tissue cuts, severed tendons, torn muscles, broken bones, concussions, punctured lungs? These are things that your character will need to work around. You can’t use a broken arm to fight. It just doesn’t work anymore. The same goes for everything else on that list.  These don’t automatically mean your character is out of a scene, but they’re not going to be able to continue to fight.


Are there any little tells that someone has combat experience? Such as the way they stand or the way they act?

Yes. Unfortunately, nothing universal. Specific schools, styles, and backgrounds will result in tells, but those are going to be unique to that individual.

For example: police will frequently walk with their arms well away from their body, this is to avoid the Sam Browne belt they wore when they were patrol officers, and it gets ingrained in their body language over time.

Here’s the problem, that’s only police, not even all law enforcement officers. Anyone who never wore those belts, for instance Federal agents who came out of a military or academic background won’t have that tell.

There are hundreds of examples like this, and I know for a fact that even if we racked our brains we couldn’t even scratch the surface of all the possible tells.

It’s going to be specific to who your characters are and what they’ve been through.


About how long would it take the average person to become highly proficient in boxing? Thanks in advance! Love the blog!

I know some colleges offer boxing classes or have full competitive boxing programs. So, one or two semesters should be enough time to build a student up to competitive levels.

I’ll be honest, with hand to hand styles, “highly proficient” is a lot more subjective than you might think, and it makes this question a lot harder than it would seem.

A boxer is going to have to train constantly if they want to make a professional career out of it, and they will always be at a disadvantage when facing able bodied competitors with more experience.

Note the “able bodied” part. As with all sport fighters, injuries do pile up over time, and with boxing, concussions are a real risk, and can impair a more experienced fighter.

With non-sport combatants, more recent training has the advantage. Actual combat styles, including self defense, military and police forms evolve ridiculously fast. To the point that most of my hand to hand training is completely out of date. It will still work against untrained opponents, but I can’t take that and use it against someone with police training. And, again, makes the question of “highly proficient” really hard to answer.

This isn’t an issue with most sport forms, because the rules create a stable structure to work with, and it isn’t an issue with most highly traditional forms, those are trained a specific way because that’s how it’s done, and anything else is just incorrect.

In those cases, “highly proficient” will be a very rigidly defined point, but how long it takes to get there will depend completely on the style and it’s approach to progression.