Tag Archives: writing reference

Q&A: Damsels in Distress and Feminism

Can damsel in distress stories be feminist?

Yes, it’s been done many times before, but it requires you to think about what you’re doing.

In the shortest definition, feminist lit is writing which speaks to a women’s experiences. Often, this is in the way that women are treated socially, culturally and/or politically.

Damsels in distress, at their most basic, are plot coupons. They barely exist as characters, and are just another part of the prize hoard a hero receives on completing whatever story challenge they were sitting behind. There is an almost game-like reward logic to them: Your protagonist did something impressive, now he may have a cookie.

The practice of treating female characters as objects, rather than sapient individuals is, obviously, not feminist. As a result, it’s not a stretch to label the “default” damsel in distress as non-feminist; it’s not.

So, what do you need to do to change this? Your damsel needs to be an actual character. She needs to have an identity and presence in the story that expands beyond simply being reward sex for some random guy that murder-hobos his way to her doorstep.

An excellent example of a famous female character who fits the damsel in distress mold but transcends it without ever switching into Action Girl is Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Unlike other Maid Marians, she works within the confines of her role but remains an active character throughout the story, growing from a naïve, sheltered young maiden into a daring rebel spying on Prince John and Sir Guy from within the palace walls. I mean, just look at this penultimate speech she gives to Prince John before the finale.

The moment Marian becomes a damsel in distress is when she’s sentenced to death by Sir Guy for consorting with Robin Hood and betraying the Normans. Yet, her speech to John is filled with defiance as she exercises her convictions and her anger at the harm her people have done.

“Sorry? I’d do it again if you killed me for it.”

– Maid Marian, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

While Marian’s impending execution is a danger Robin needs to rescue her from, the outcome is the result of her decisions, of danger she understood, and, it’s only fair, as she comes up with the plan to rescue him after he’s captured by Sir Guy during the archery competition.

Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian is a masterclass in creating a female character challenging stereotypes while working within the boundaries of her role. She grows and changes. She bravely risks her own life to stand up for what she believes in. She stays in the midst of danger when given the opportunity to flee because she believes her continued access to Prince John’s inner circle is more valuable than her safety. Most importantly, she never needs to demonstrate incredible martial prowess to be legitimized by the narrative or respected by the men around her.

Now, strictly speaking, your damsel doesn’t even need much agency for the work to be feminist. She doesn’t even need to be a hero. Feminist Lit is an exploration of what it means to be a woman with many shapes and angles born from an individual’s experience. It can be as simple as an intelligent discussion on how she’s marginalized by society because of her sex or gender, and how that experience affects her. Not, uplifting, but a legitimate discussion on the experience of women being discounted by society simply on the grounds of, “being a woman.”

Having said that, agency is an enormous help. There are many examples of feminist characters who appear to be damsels in distress, because they’ve been captured, but when freed are revealed to be fully formed characters, who were simply having a very bad day.

The important question is: does the work, as a whole, treat the character like a person or a quest reward? Ironically, that answer is more important than their agency. (Though, agency can be a good indicator that a character is being treated like a person.)

There are some common (and less common) twists on the trope, which can also qualify as feminist lit. One obvious example would be where the protagonist and prisoner are both women. There’s also a real feminist critique in how damsels in distress are contrasted against captured male characters. One aspect of this is in the sexualization. As the damsel in distress is often a sexualized reward for the protagonist, you’ll be more drawn to sexualize her than a male character who has been captured. (Or even a female character. After all, not every captured female is automatically a damsel. The damsel in distress is a trope, not a default.) The chains move from literal to a metaphorically stripping of a woman’s agency and power, and it’s easy to play into these tropes without intending to. This extends to both how they’re viewed by the reader, and how they tend to be treated in their narratives.

One thing to warn you about: A feminist character can be an action hero, but she doesn’t need to be. However, frequently, female action heroes are prefaced with an attitude of, “not like other girls.” That last piece is not feminist. Women can, and do, learn how to fight. They can become skilled combatants. There’s a legitimate discussion in feminism about how society discourages that behavior in women, however, they have the same potential to become combatants as men. When an author decides that they need to give their female character super powers in order to justify her being able to fight, they are subtly undermining women at large. An artificially empowered female action hero can be part of your power fantasy, but it comes with a glass ceiling saying, “but you can’t do this.”

It is worth remembering that the female power fantasy is a legitimate part of feminist fiction. It exists in parallel to the overrepresented male power fantasy, and female action protagonists are frequently actually the latter, with added eye candy, rather than actual expressions of a women’s experiences. There is nothing wrong with having powerful women in your story. The critical thing about feminist literature is that the work speaks to your experiences as a women. Not how some random guy feels about it.

A good start is writing a damsel who doesn’t automatically owe their rescuer (male or female) anything.

-Starke

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Epistolary Storytelling

If anyone is wondering, this is coming from winking-widow‘s comment on our last post, so thank you for reminding me that this was a discussion that should happen.

Epistolary storytelling is a concept that should be familiar to most people who play video games, but we should go into a bit more depth because it does have some useful applications.

The basic concept behind epistolary storytelling is that the narrative is comprised of documents from within the setting itself. In an extremely traditional sense, this was letters written by the characters, though journal entries, book excerpts, and news articles are also common sources.

You have probably already encountered epistolary novels in the past, even if you didn’t know the term, however, if you want an example, Dracula by Bram Stoker is an easy recommendation. The bulk of the book consists of journal entries from various characters, though there are news clippings, and a mix of other sources.

If you’re coming to this from pop culture, you’ve probably been exposed to epistolary elements in other media. Video games in particular are extremely enamored of the audio log. In these cases, you’re looking at a hybrid structure where the player is experiencing one narrative (through the game mechanics), while the epistolary content creates a second narrative.

Much like first person limited, epistolary elements allow you delve into a character’s personality. They are the “author” of that document, and it should reflect who they are as a character. Except, (within in the fiction of that world) they wrote that piece. They created the document. Quite possibly with the understanding that others would read it. This allows for an intentionally deceptive narrator, without abusing the audience’s trust. This can even be used to set up a Rashomon style series of internal contradictions between characters, if you’re really wanting to make a puzzle out of things.

That paragraph above comes back to something that we get questions about occasionally. An author wants advice on how to lie to their audience, or hide plot details. It’s something we usually caution against. The author needs to be trusted by the audience to convey information accurately. In some cases, the author’s narrator will be a character who relays information inaccurately. (Again, we’re talking about first person limited.) However, that’s still tricky, because if that character abuses the audience’s trust, it’s something that does reflect on the author.

Characters like Fight Club‘s Tyler Durden only work because the narrator’s perspective is accurately relayed to the readers, even as every other character in the novel has a drastically different perspective on Tyler and the narrator. The narrator (and by extension, Chuck Palahnuik) is not lying to you. However, the narrator is suffering a serious psychological breakdown. His version of reality does not mesh with the objective version of his world.

Epistolary sources let you step around a lot of this. Because you’re writing what a character would communicate externally, instead of what they’re thinking, you have a lot of freedom. If a character would lie about something, they can. The biggest concern becomes ensuring that the audience can determine if a given character should be considered trustworthy. The nature of a document can also reflect how honest a character will be. For example: An email or letter may be downright manipulative, where the same character could be far more honest in a diary entry that they thought no one else would read.

The Epistolary format also gives the possibility to include larger context into something that would otherwise be first person limited. Documents from other characters allow you to inject perspectives that your primary narrator wouldn’t be able to report. Events they weren’t present for, or are beyond the scope of what they could see.

Two examples of this would be Watchmen and the Ciaphas Cain novels by Sandy Mitchel. Watchmen is, partially, drawn from Rorschach’s journal, but this is more of a framing device for that character’s captions. However, each issue ends with an epistolary document that further fleshes out the alternate history and politics of Watchmen. Additionally, the in setting comic book, Tales of the Black Freighter, serves as a thematic parallel to the events in the comic, with its narration bleeding over into the “real” world. (There’s a subtle bit of genius here, where Black Freighter comic panels and caption bubbles use stipple shading, which is absent from the rest of the book, and instantly sets them apart.) As a whole, Watchmen is not an epistolary comic, however it does make extensive use of the technique.

In the case of Sandy Mitchel’s Cain novels, it’s much simpler. The primary text is an autobiography by Ciaphas Cain. That text has been edited by another character, who included annotations for technical terms, added excerpts from other documents for context, and censored some portions of the text for personal reasons.

Finally, and this comes back to what Winking-Widow highlighted in her comment, you can play off factual errors in epistolary sources. You didn’t make a typo, the character made one. You didn’t say a character was a master swordsman at 4 instead of 14, your character misspoke, or misunderstood the person who relayed that information to them in the first place.

One of the really interesting things you can do with epistolary sources is present a level of mystery about the deeper workings of your world. You can obscure the metaphysics. It’s vital for the reader to be able to follow the story you’re telling. However, when you have multiple conflicting sources, you can create elements of ambiguity, particularly in the backstory for your world.

This is something you’ll encounter more often in interactive media, because the conflicting reports can be presented simultaneously and with equal weight. The video game example would be lore books, which directly contradict each other, but don’t give you the tools to assess which one is more likely to be true. Similarly, with open world structures, you’ll often see cases where the sources aren’t arranged to be encountered in a specific order.

In linear media (such as prose or video), you need to present one of those documents first. This will give it more weight than what comes later, so it’s harder to create, “either one could be true,” situations, as your audience will latch onto one of the documents. (Depending on presentation, this could be either one, and you will get a mix of preferences among your readers.)

The danger with this is a reader looking at your work and saying, “it doesn’t make sense.” Worse, they’re correct. This kind of conflicting information doesn’t make sense and asks the reader to make assessments on which account to believe. When presented with this, some readers will check out. Additionally, this kind of ambiguity should be handled carefully, because if you have a, “right,” and, “wrong,” document, you can disconnect from readers who picked the wrong answer.

There are ways to insert false information into your backstory, and epistolary elements (including dialog exposition) is a good option. However, always remember that there is an important distinction: If your characters attempt to mislead each other, or make factual mistakes, that’s fine. If you attempt to mislead your audience, that requires far more care and attention.

-Starke

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Q&A: Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild has been on my mind and I’m wondering something. According to the game he’s been beating adults in combat (I assume it’s sword play) since the age of 4. Of course in universe there are many reasons and theories for his prowess, but from a real world standpoint exactly how ridiculous is this? And more importantly, how have you guys been doing? All the chaos right now is really concerning, and I hope you stay safe. Much love <3

bakahimesama

From a human perspective, it’s not even remotely plausible. Even with children who start training at very young ages, they’re not going to be anywhere near ready to fight adults.

Things are a little muddy, because Link isn’t human. Okay, so, this is a little more complicated than it sounds. As far as I know, the official statement is that the Hylians are “human.” Though, the race has a long history of magic users, to the point that it’s resulted in physiological changes. Nothing I know about them suggests that their physiological development should be that different from real humans, but it is an easy way to justify the game mechanics.

It’s also possible (though implausible) that the Hyrule calendar has much longer annual cycles. If you had a 1500 day year, for example, someone who was, “four years old,” would be roughly 16 years old by our calendar. Again, not something that’s relevant to the Zelda franchise, but it can result in something like a four year old who’s able to fight and win against adults. Granted, those adults might be “five to seven years old.”

So, that’s the fun part of the question. We’re hanging in here. Things have been pretty stable so far. We’re in the Seattle metro area, so things have been calm. That said, there’s a lot of ash in the air. Going outside right now can’t be healthy. I’m not just speculating there, we’ve both been fighting with brutal headaches since the smoke moved in. A couple days ago, there was a visible yellow/brown tinge to all of the sunlight. The sunlight has been mostly gray today, though, one of the cats found a patch of red sunlight this afternoon. So things aren’t great, but they could certainly be a lot worse.

If we’re lucky, we should be seeing rainfall in the next couple days, so hopefully that’ll clear the air, but until then, we’ll keep going through pain meds at an accelerated rate.

All of that said, things have been pretty stressful here over the last couple weeks. I’m hoping things will start to die down again, but we’ll try to keep you guys in the loop.

-Starke

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Q&A: Honey Badger

I have a character who is concealing a aac honey badger under a trench coat. What type of sling would be best in allowing them to quickly bring it up on target when needed?

bobbyboson

Given they’re trying to conceal the Honey Badger, a single mount quick sling is probably the best option. This has a mounting point just above the pistol grip or on the stock itself. So you loop it over your shoulder, and the rifle hangs down under your arm. Effectively, the sling is simply tethering the rifle’s butt to your shoulder, so you can simply bring it up and be ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Because the rifle hangs under the arm, it will be more concealed than with any other common sling type.

The one downside to trying to conceal it is, if you’ve got a full size mag, that’s going to result in an odd bulge under your coat. There’s not much you can do about this. It does mean that there’s a marginal advantage for carrying a shotgun, but hiding an assault rifle or SMG under your coat can get tricky. The Honey Badger can still be concealed, but there will be signs that your character has a rifle under their coat if someone looks closely.

If you’re asking for a brand recommendation, I can’t help you there. Slings are not something I deal with.

I have reservations, but that’s about the Honey Badger itself. For those unfamiliar with it, the Honey Badger is a PDW patterned off the AR-15. (So, think the M4 or M16.) The major differences are that the Honey Badger is chambered in .300 AAC Blackout, has an integrated suppressor, and is much smaller.

Like all AR 15 pattern rifles, the buffer protrudes out the back of the receiver, and is shielded by the stock. This means, if you have AR-15 pattern design, you cannot go without a stock, nor can you fully collapse it.

PDWs, or Personal Defense Weapons, are a family of compact rifles that don’t comfortably fit into either the assault rifle or SMG families. Some other examples would be the H&K MP7, and the FN P90.

Finally, .300 Blackout is a proprietary cartridge. This is pretty common among the PDWs. Both of the examples I listed above also use their own ammo types.

So, here’s my problem. If a characters is operating covertly, firing a rare and distinctive ammo type is going to make it easier to source. If your character is using a KRISS Vector, they’re probably firing .45ACP. That is a very common ammo type, and if you started to pull ammo sales for a major metropolitan area, you’d have the phonebook. You can’t tell who bought it. If someone opens up with a Honey Badger, they’re leaving brass behind that says, “this is an unusual gun. This is an unusual shooter.” Add that the gunshots were suppressed, and sourcing that gun will become much easier.

Actually, the suppressor is a larger problem than it might seem initially. US laws regarding suppressors are (arguably) excessive. The laws were driven by fears based on seeing silenced guns in films. there are real applications for suppressors, and they’re nowhere near as effective as their Hollywood counterparts. This leads back to the Honey Badger because there is a mountain of paperwork if you want to buy one. This is an automatic weapon, it has an integrated suppressor, that means an extended background check, and a hefty NFA tax stamp. Short version, unless your character has a very specific background, they probably wouldn’t have access to this gun. Figure the sticker price will be over three grand.

If the response is, “but my character is a spy/part of a paramilitary operations group,” the ammo problem stays. For the spy, it’s the problem above; a distinctive ammo type will help tie multiple killings together, and give law enforcement (or hostile agencies) an easy link to tie their shootings together. Again, they’re better off bringing ubiquitous ammo to the fight. Even if the guns themselves are exotic. (There’s the KRISS Vector example above, though the War Sport LVOA-C also comes to mind.)

For the paramilitary operator, the problem is about logistics. For an organization that runs an armory, it’s far more convenient to minimize the number of ammunition types the armorer needs to manage. You could have an organization with a whole array of specialized weapons, but would lead to situations where, “you can’t take the Five-Seven, we don’t have any ammo for it.” If you’re limiting yourself to five or six ammunition types, this is less of a problem, but when we’re talking about the Honey Badger, there isn’t much that fires .300 AAC Blackout. (At least, not in comparison to the standard NATO rifle rounds.)

The irony is, if keeping the gun quiet isn’t absolutely critical, and you were looking at .300 Blackout because you wanted more firepower than 5.56, I’d actually look at the carbine variants of the FN SCAR. It’s bulkier, but it’s also a full on battle rifle. That 7.62 NATO will blend in with the commercial ammo sales. (Ironically, there is a SCAR-SC variant chambered in .300 Blackout.)

Having said that, .300 Blackout does have a wider range of firearms than the last time I checked, and it is used by the UK’s military. (Though, it’s not clear what they’re doing with it.) However, it’s still an unusual round, and it will stand out at a crime scene.

Also worth knowing that there is a 5.56 variant of the Honey Badger. So, if that’s what you were thinking of using, it’s like any other AR-15 platform at that point, with the same consideration that it’s going to be tricky to conceal.

If your character needs the weapon to be visually hidden, and isn’t concerned about keeping it quiet, a semi-auto shotgun (like a Benelli M4) might be a better option. Unlike the Honey Badger, it will hang directly down from the arm, without the magazine protruding. You might even be able to get away with optics. Buckshot does not leave usable ballistics, 12 Gauge is an incredibly common ammo type, and (if you’re lucky) comparing wear patterns on shell casings might tell you the model of firearm, but it’s basically impossible to match it to a specific gun.

Now, it’s worth remembering, if your character has what they have, and they didn’t pick their weapons, it’s entirely reasonable for them to be using something that’s not ideal for the task at hand. The Honey Badger was designed to be a replacement for the MP5SD. If your character is trying to use that for anything else, it’s not going to be the best option.

On the other hand, if your character is SAS, operating in a hostile city, then the Honey Badger makes a lot more sense. (I’m singling out the SAS here because we know the UK is using the round.) From what I know, it’s an excellent weapon for that kind of wet work. Concealing it is a little tricky, (though it’s easier than hiding an MP5SD under your coat.)

It is important to think about the guns you want to use in your story, and how that relates to what your characters are trying to do with them. I’ve just said all the reasons why this isn’t a good choice, but I’m approaching this from an optimal perspective. If your character thinks that the Honey Badger is the right tool for the job, that’s what will drive their behavior. As a writer, the forensics matter because it can tension your character, and additional threats.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Chosen One

If I have a character who is a very special chosen one, and it’s also a sci-fi story, how quickly could they master fighting from zero ability and not be too implausibly quick?

I have no clue.

We’re talking about science fiction. So, that suggests there’s technology available to characters that exceeds the real world.

It’s entirely possible to imagine technologies that would allow you to implant advanced training into someone in a matter of minutes. That’s not just martial arts, that’s any skill.

The first example of this that comes to mind is The Matrix (1999), though We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, by Phillip K. Dick, and Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan, both play with the idea of implanting memories into new bodies.

The problem you’d run into with any skill which required muscle memory is implanting the muscle memory itself. That’s a consideration, but it is solvable. Rental sleeves (bodies) in Altered Carbon are prewired with reflex packages. The Matrix is a computer simulation, so issues with muscle memory are ignored there. It’s an issue, but it can be accounted for. Either through more invasive skill implantation, or possibly even some kind of further augmentations.

So, how long would your character need? I don’t know. It could be as simple as, “take this pill and count back from 100.” That’s the joy, and difficulty of science fiction.

If you’re going to this route, you need to consider how it would affect your world. If your characters live in a world where developing an entire new skill is easier than treating a headache, that’s going to seriously affect culture and society. It’s also worth considering that, “off the shelf skills,” may be somewhat uniform. So, if two people had both gained strategic skills from the same processes, they’re more likely to have similar strategic doctrines. Someone from a different background might be able to account for and exploit that. This also applies to distilled hand-to-hand packages, where someone familiar with the package could probably anticipate how users would behave, and get ahead of them.

So, let’s rip the guts out of the chosen one. I realize my perspective is a little ironic given I just cited The Matrix, but I’m not a fan of, “the chosen one has superpowers.” Or at least, I’m not a fan of, “the chosen one has superpowers because they’re the chosen one.”

Chosen ones aren’t automatically cliche, however, that is a real risk. The more inherently special and unique they are, the greater that risk becomes. Through no fault of your own, the phrase, “very special chosen one,” sets me on edge. It’s not the wording, it’s the concept.

One of my favorite, examples of a “chosen one,” is the player character from Fallout 2. The Chosen One was picked by a village elder to go out and save their village. That’s it. While the game allows the player to announce themselves as “The Chosen One,” like it’s their name, and the rest of the world basically laughs that off. Outside of their village, they’re just another wandering tribal.

I’m bringing this up, because if your character is designated as, “the chosen one,” by someone without any real power, that’s just a title. A sheltered, or egocentric, character may not even realize that being designated The Chosen One is basically meaningless. Much like Jake and Elwood in The Blues Brothers, just because you think you’re “on a mission from God,” doesn’t mean that anyone else cares.

When the character is designated as the chosen one by a higher power, things can get tricky. The idea of a divine champion has been done to death. It’s become cliche through overuse.

These kinds of empowered chosen ones present a real problem to their writer. If you’ve said, “this character is The Chosen One,” and even worse, “they’re destined do this thing,” it strips a lot of tension from your work. Your audience knows your chosen one will survive, and succeed, because they’re necessary to fulfill the prophecy, or whatever they were tasked with. There’s a lot of variations to keep this interesting, but it is a plot element that needs to be handled carefully, with consideration towards how it will functions in relation to the mountains of fiction that went before you.

I’m going to step back for a second and just say this: It’s impossible to be 100% original. The problem with chosen ones is that they’re going to derivative of other chosen ones from other stories. That’s fine. That’s not the problem. Creativity comes from how you use this plot concept. Being labeled as cliche (in this case) only means that you failed to come up with something that felt fresh. You took the same plot components that many others have handled, but didn’t managed to assemble it into something that felt compelling. When I’m talking about cliches, and saying, “this needs to be handled carefully,” that’s what I mean. You need to take the parts of a chosen one, and assemble it into something that fits into your story in a new or interesting way.

In the narrow example of this question, we have two parts. We have the chosen one, and we have rapid training in science fiction. Both of these have been covered before. However, there have been many more works dealing with chosen ones, while the list of works where characters gain advanced skills through unusual means is much shorter. Between the two, it will be easier to come up with an original work using the latter.

Mixing different pieces together to get a different perspective, or reworking how those pieces function, is how you get original and creative works. It’s just that’s going to be a lot harder with plot elements that have been done to death.

With that in mind, I have no idea how long it would take. I don’t know what rules apply to your chosen one. I don’t know what technology your setting has. Either one of these can set the answer for your story. That’s under your control. Ideally you want to follow those answers through. Even if it’s just that your protagonist can quickly gain skills, that’s going to have a massive, long term, effect on them.

It’s your story. Do something creative with it. Just because something’s at risk of being cliche doesn’t mean you can’t use it, it only means you need to be more creative.

-Starke

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Q&A: Talent and Training

How much talent one needs to be a good fighter? Will talent always beat training? I read some article were the best athletes are just naturally “gifted” at it

You don’t need to be talented to learn how to fight. It helps, but it’s not necessary. Talent never beats training. That isn’t just in the context of fighting, raw talent can help you get started faster, and can help reach a higher peak, but that’s only through training and practice.

You will see people confuse the value of talent and training. A lot of writers use talent as a justification for their characters operating at level which would require training without having to incorporate that into their background. That’s not what talent is; that’s not how it works.

When it comes to simply using a skill, talent is meaningless. Now, that probably flies in the face of how you’re used to thinking, so let me explain. Talent doesn’t make you a better at a thing, it simply means that you learn faster.

A talented martial artist still needs to practice. They still need to train. You aren’t getting around that. They may not need to train as much to reach the same level of proficiency as another person. However, it is in their best interest that they continue to put in the time and effort, further refining their skill. The irony is those who are worst at their chosen field in the beginning often turn out to be the best. Why? They started slower, but put in more time and more effort to become great. Effort, not talent, has value. The lie about needing talent has led plenty of people to quit what they enjoy when they didn’t receive immediate gratification. More than martial arts or martial combat, this includes art, writing, acting, gymnastics, and more. Nobody starts out a master.

Any talented individual should put in the same amount of time towards their pursuit that a non-talented individual would need to. Note, “should.” There are plenty of individuals who were talented in a field, put in the bare minimum amount of time and ended up mediocre.

It’s easy to look at the exceptional individuals, realize they’re talented, and believe that correlation equals causation. The problem is: it doesn’t. If you’re talented, and dedicated, you can put in the time and effort to exceed expectations. It does not mean you are destined for greatness.

Let’s talk about your final line, “the best athletes are naturally gifted.” This is untrue; or at least extremely deceptive. The best athletes put in a lot of work. They may also be “naturally gifted,” but they got there through staggering amounts of effort, and dedication. They weren’t simply blessed with good genetics or given some kind of destiny. They created themselves.

Those athletes did get lucky. There are lot of things that can go wrong with the human body, and those athletes managed to avoid detrimental flaws. If you want to call that, “naturally gifted,” you’re not wrong, but that makes it sound more deterministic than it is.

We’ve written a lot about the work athletes put into their chosen field, about how much they sacrifice, and, often, how overlooked their dedication is in comparison to their “natural talent.” At the highest levels, you are looking at individuals who have given their whole lives in pursuit of a dream. Individuals who’ve reached the same point competing against others who have put in similar amounts of time and energy. If you want to be an Olympic athlete, it’s not about being, “naturally gifted,” it’s about being willing to dedicate your entire life to training. All for an event that will play out over a few weeks.

Being the best is not about being, “naturally gifted.” It’s about work.

Being talented isn’t about being naturally skilled. It’s about work. The practice and time you put in will take you further. Over time it will look like you got a head start. You didn’t; you just learn faster, and used that time to refine your skills.

You don’t need talent to be a good fighter; you need training. Fighting tests your training against your foe’s training. Talent can give you an edge, but you need training.

Talent never beats training. Talent and training is an extremely potent combination, but talent alone is unrealized and meaningless.

So, two things to take with you:

First, if you have a talent, and you want to use it, you need to practice. You need an education. (There are some rare exceptions, so if you can’t get an education in that field, there may be other options.) To really bring your talent out, you need to refine it. It will help you get better, but it doesn’t mean you’re automatically, “good enough.” Strive to be more.

Second: if you have a talent, and you don’t want to use it. You shouldn’t feel guilty about setting it aside and ignoring it. Like I said, talents aren’t deterministic. This isn’t some divine mandate which you must fulfill.

It’s possible to engineer abstract situations where a character ignoring their mystically given powers is selfish, but that’s from the fictional perspective of characters who simply have inexplicable skill labeled as “talent.”

In the real world, if you’re talented at something, you’d still need to commit the time and energy to fully develop that skill set. If it’s something you detest, and you would rather commit to something else, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not that you can only have a single talent.

Further, “you’re so talented,” can be used to push you into a field. Ultimately, no one else knows how easily a topic comes to you, or how much you struggle with it. Another person, regardless of their authority, not in a position to determine if you’re talented, they can only make an educated guess. A guess that can be easily distorted by their own biases. Don’t let someone else pick your life for you.

-Starke

Q&A: Realism

Is it is possible to write a book you DON’T want to be realistic? I like cartoons and comics and I want to write something where fighting styles and powers are not realistic, but the psychology and relationships are. Like Durarara or something. No one dismisses Shizuo (superhuman strength) or Celty (a Dulahan) as unrealistic b/c they aren’t supposed to be. The real fun is in their daily lives and relationships. What is the secret for books like this? Advice from you or your followers would help!

Yes and no.

For your story to work, there needs to be some internal consistency. In that sense; yes, your work needs to be realistic, however the reality your characters live in doesn’t need to conform to the real world.

You can write a world with violence and characters straight out of Saturday morning cartoons, or superhero comics.

I struggle to call a character like Superman realistic, but that has more to do with 80 years of inconsistent writing. The basic pitch for the character, as a superpowered alien is fine. It’s realistic within the context of a world where you have hundreds of, “last of their kind,” alien refugees descending on earth and intermixing with an equally diverse array of other superheroes and villains. It’s realistic for its world, just not for ours.

The difficult part in this is juggling the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The more, “implausible,” your world is, the harder you’ll have to work to establish what, “realistic,” means for your characters.

The best advice I can offer on the subject is remembering to make the world, “real,” for your characters. They need to plausibly live in that world. What your readers see as novel would be mundane for them. It’s also important to follow the logic of your world to flesh it out further. For example: “What does it mean to live in a world where superheroes are making the evening news?”

One danger to keep in mind is that you want to be consistent with your world, and your characters. Even if the world doesn’t reflect the real one, you want it to be a compelling and believable. Similarly, you need believable characters, as they’re what your audience is most likely to connect to.

I suspect this question came from the idea that all stories need to adhere to the real world. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Using the real world as your template can make your life easier. You already have some understanding of how the real world functions, and you share that with your audience. It gives you a shared context which you can populate with your characters and events. The more you deviate from the real world, the more work you have to do. You’ll transition from having a world your audience already knows, to one that’s similar, but you need to point out the discrepancies, to one that is almost unrecognizable. It’s more work, but that shouldn’t put you off the idea.

Prose, more than any other medium, is not constrained by the real world. You can write whatever you want. You can write things that are fundamentally impossible. The question is, can you make interesting for your readers?

Try. Even if your first efforts don’t succeed, the lessons you learn along the way will help you when you try again.

-Starke

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Q&A: Critical Veracity

I apologize if this seems too blunt, but this is a blog about writing. I would have hoped to see you address criticism in a way that is less reactive and more open. Your last post in particular seems rather angry when I felt there were better ways to deal with the topic that invited understanding and education.

If it makes you feel better, I can assure you, I’m not angry. In fact, posting while angry is a bad idea, and something you should want to avoid.

The author of that torture question annoys me. She comes back a couple times a year, and more often than not we simply deep six her posts without comment. We’ve gotten pretty familiar with her writing, and can usually recognize it on sight. In particular, any asks where she tells us to direct our followers to her blog will not see publication.

It’s important to understand that, not all critique is valid. Not all opinions have merit. In this particular case, this is a very significant factor. As I’ve said, my degree is in political science. When you get into international politics and the use of coercive force, torture comes up a lot. In contrast, the ask author’s background did not prepare them to address torture.

I made an off-hand comment comparing them to an anti-vaxer, and that analogy is more solid than it initially appears. They are, literally, telling an expert that he’s wrong because they prefer their cherry picked, and intentionally misrepresented source.

They are an amateur telling an expert to sit down, shut up, and let them do the talking because they feel morally superior.

To which, I said, “no.”

Similarly, when someone accuses you of something you didn’t do, that critique is invalid. They’re not criticizing you, they’re inventing a version of you that they can attack. This is a dishonest debate tactic called a “straw man fallacy.” They cannot win in an actual argument, so they create an artificial, and untenable position, and attempt to force their opponent to defend it.

To be fair, they’re not very good at setting up straw man arguments. Most of their fabricated positions fail to appear legitimate if you have a functional memory. Several of them can leave you scratching your head going, “where did you get that idea?” More often than not, it leaves the impression that they have very poor reading comprehension, rather than that they’re intentionally dishonest.

For example, their accusation of, “you’re a torture apologist!” as a response to, “torture is evil.”

The expectation is that you won’t realize you’ve been maneuvered into defending a different argument, and won’t be able to evaluate the weaknesses of that new argument.

Except, they’re not that subtle, and as a result, their attempts to manipulate the discussion tend to be more baffling than effective.

Remember, there were a lot of accusations in that ask regarding behavior that never happened. That’s pretty solid tip off that the author is coming to the discussion with unclean hands. They didn’t want an open and honest discussion.

Their entire goal is to get us to shrink back into corner, and allow them to speak for us because we’d be too afraid to offend someone, or too busy pleading, “please don’t hit me anymore.” If you’ve spent any time reading our work, you can understand that their goal wasn’t realistic.

There’s merit in saying that there are better ways to address asks like that. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to believe the best in people. However, in this case, that ask was not what it appeared to be. If you wanted to say that I simply should have nuked the ask without comment, that’s valid. Michi almost did until I stopped her.

In an environment like Tumblr, you are under no obligation to give someone a platform to attack you through misrepresentation. If you get someone in your inbox who is accusing you of something you didn’t do, you can simply block them.

I chose to respond, because I felt there were meaningful comments to be made along the way. Not because I was upset.

Personally, I really enjoyed writing that post. In your defense, I don’t often go for the throat on this blog, so there’s no fault in being surprised by that response.

-Starke

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Q&A: “Show, Don’t Tell,” and Drafting

How do I get around overthinking the rule “show, don’t tell” in that even when show and have enough detail in my stories, part of me worries people will mistake it for telling. Sometimes, when I edit, the story becomes overly dense or indirect and the reader needs to do too much work to understand it, which is a bad thing. However, every article online is about the virtue of details, which is the opposite of my problem. I sometimes feel like my first drafts are cleaner and more emotional.

It sounds like the overthinking is leading to a misunderstanding. “Show don’t tell,” is a warning about unnecessary exposition. It will also steer you away from some generic writing habits, towards specificity.

It’s important to remember there are no universal rules about how to write. You’ll develop methods that work for you. The rules, and guides are just there to help you find your method. The vast majority of people produce better results through multiple drafts. If you really are best suited to one and done writing, that’s not wrong, but most people who attempt that produce substandard results.

That said, always save copies of your old drafts. If a revision is inferior to previous draft, don’t use it. You may need to write another draft to address problems that came up, but if a draft is a step down, save a copy, and go back.

The value of a second draft is learning what you need, and what you don’t. It lets you properly set up future events, and eliminate the threads you didn’t use. Chances are, you didn’t fully understand what the story would be when you started, and redrafting is the opportunity to go back and tell the finished story from the beginning.

None of this has anything to do with, “show don’t tell.” Like I said, that has more to do with exposition. For example, don’t tell me about a character’s personality, show it in action. Don’t tell me about their habits, show them. Don’t tell me about character traits, show how they shape their behavior.

It’s easy to get hung up on “show don’t tell,” when you’re working in prose; everything is text, it can feel like everything is, “telling,” and nothing is, “showing.” The critical thing to remember when you’re writing is, simply saying the thing is, “telling.” You, “show,” when it’s presented as part of the world, events, or character behavior.

For example: With a character’s emotional state, simply saying they’re happy would be “telling.” Writing about their body language, tone of voice, and other cues can “show” their mood without having to, “tell.”

Traits are an important concept for writers to internalize. It’s not that it’s a difficult concept. The idea that someone would “smart,” “beautiful,” “creative,” whatever, is natural. The, “show don’t tell,” failure is when traits are identified through exposition, but never actually come into play during the story.

A personal pet peeve on this subject are characters described as strategic or tactical geniuses, but when the fighting starts, they do little more than frontal assaults.

Compare that to a character like Grand Admiral Thrawn, where his strange art obsession is part of a larger practice of studying how his foes think to identify and exploit strategic and tactical blind spots. (In fairness, I think Thrawn is also described as a strategic genius in exposition, but he certainly earns that distinction through his actions.)

That example illustrates something else. If it’s important enough, sometimes it is worth showing and telling. You may detail something in exposition, and then later show it. This something that should be done very sparingly. Only when that detail vitally important for understanding the story or world, and your readers are having difficulty picking up on it.

The magic number for repetition is three. Usually as setup, reinforcement, and payoff. So, if you have something critical for your story, you establish it, come back later to remind the readers, “oh, yeah, this is a thing,” and then use it when the time comes. As with everything else, this isn’t universal. You don’t need to follow this rule, however it can be helpful. It assists your readers identify and remember important details.

Just like the rest, “show don’t tell,” is not an absolute prohibition. Sometimes you need exposition. It’s something that you probably want to minimize, but it can be right tool for the job.

The strength of exposition is that it is extremely efficient about providing information to the reader. This is a way to directly tell the reader about your world, you plot, or your characters, without any unwanted ambiguity.

The weakness of exposition is that it can be extremely dull, to the point that your readers may tune out if you overuse it. At it’s worst, it can leach the spirit out of your work, turning the drama and emotion into a dry recitation of trivia.

The advice of, “show don’t tell,” is attempting to push you away from overusing exposition. Exposition is a very useful tool to have and understand, but it’s one that should be used very carefully.

Ultimately, your goal in rewriting should be to improve the clarity. Find the things that matter, find the material that improves the work, and eject anything that drags it down.

-Starke

Q&A: Effective Use of Torture

I am disappointed by how often you excuse and promote misinformation about torture just because “experts” use it. You have stated it doesn’t harm torturers much (not true) and it can convince people not to oppose your organization (not true). You also have many posts against police brutality and many about the price of violence and I wish you would apply that to your torture apology. You can start by believing victims and prioritizing their accounts instead of un-critically believing torturers.

I don’t do this often, but this deserves to be broken down into individual pieces and examined in depth.

However, it’s been a little over a year, so I guess we were due to get another one of these tantrums from someone with poor reading comprehension. So, let’s take this shit show apart… again.

I am disappointed by how often you excuse and promote misinformation about torture just because “experts” use it.

Even if we ignore the leading tone, we don’t talk about torture very often. From a writing perspective, it’s a somewhat dull subject, and there’s not really that much to say about it. I checked, the last post on torture was in 2019, and the one before that was in 2018. Yeah, I wasn’t joking about this gradually turning into an annual thing.

From an ethical perspective, it’s not much more nuanced. We could spend six paragraphs going over how it’s bad and wrong, but anyone with three functioning brain cells could have told you that, and dedicating 2k words to the subject would be a waste of everyone’s time.

Well, I thought it would be, but every year someone wanders through who doesn’t understand that, and throws a tantrum. So, here we are.

However, I do love this attack on experts. No, wait, that’s the wrong word, I actively hate this kind of willful ignorance. It’s the same thought process that fuels anti-vaxers and flat earthers. “I read it on the internet, I’m an expert now,” used to be a joke, however we live in a world where someone believes they are better suited to discuss torture than people who have actually studied the subject in a professional capacity.

Now, in fairness, I’m coming from reading primary and secondary sources, not from actually torturing people. But, I’ve also got an academic background in history and politics. Short version? This really is my field.

This kind of anti-intellectualism can be harmless in some situations, however when it comes to torture, this simple surface read allows people to sign off on torture. It’s not enough to understand that torture is a bad thing, it’s important to understand what it can and cannot do, because real people in the real world employ torture to further their goals. If you believe torture serves no purpose, you will poorly equipped to understand what they’re doing, and the results they achieve.

You have stated it doesn’t harm torturers much (not true)…

First, I don’t remember saying that. We’ve cited Tony Lagouranis in the past, including his his book Fear Up Harsh. So, if we didn’t talk about the psychological consequences to the torturer, that would be somewhat surprising.

Torturers do suffer some psychological damage. I’m sure we’ve mentioned that before. If it seems like I don’t put a lot of emphasis on it, it’s because, frankly, I don’t really have much sympathy for them.

Second, it’s important to understand that concepts like morality and ethics are heavily based on our cultural backgrounds. The idea that these are universal is an excellent route into xenophobia. However, one thing, I hope most of us can get behind is the idea that torturing someone is evil.

So, the only reason you’d want to really dwell on the psychological damage is because you’re trying to woobify the torturer. Which is fucking repugnant.

You want us to feel sorry for them? You want us to empathize with them? Go fuck yourself.

And before you drag out the, “I was only following orders,” excuse, no. A soldier has a legal obligation to disobey any illegal orders they receive. If someone tells you to break the law and you do it, that was your decision as much as theirs. You are a part of that crime now. The argument wasn’t convincing at the Nuremberg trials, and it’s not convincing now.

…and it can convince people not to oppose your organization (not true).

This one is entirely true. Ultimately, it’s one of the two things that torture does very well. Obviously, if you’re getting tied down to a chair, and having your hands amputated a bone at a time, it’s not going to convince you that you made a mistake. However, it will convince others that, maybe getting involved is a bad idea.

Now, it’s not 100% effective. Not much in life is. But arguing, “torture isn’t effective because it doesn’t convince everyone,” is a bit like arguing that “because seat belts don’t have a 100% survival rate, we shouldn’t wear them.”

The systematic use of torture has severe chilling effects on political activity in a nation. There are significant diminishing returns. As torture becomes more widespread the unrest it causes will eventually start to outweigh the chilling effects.

This dynamic isn’t unique to torture, and most forms of political suppression will foment varying degrees of unrest. This is a problem that most totalitarian regimes face. The more coercive force they exercise, the more the population will become restless. Also worth knowing that this does scale based on the population’s size, so, a massive nation can apply significantly more coercive influence to it’s population without things boiling over.

However, it does suppress politic activity. Which was the entire point of this exercise. Torture as a tool of political oppression is not about the torturer or the victim, it’s about how that threat affects the population’s activities at large. So, yes, being told that if you express your political beliefs you and your family will be disappeared by the state is a huge disincentive to political activity. It works.

In case this is somehow confusing to you, yes, suppressing political speech is a bad thing. It may shock you to realize, some people don’t give a shit. They really do not care about being seen as a good person, and are willing to do things you would find unpalatable. Explaining what they’re doing is not the same as endorsing their actions.

It may be comforting to shove your head in the sand, insist that none of this is real, and angrily lash out at anyone who threatens that fantasy; but this is real, and trying to ignore it empowers those who would use these methods.

You also have many posts against police brutality and many about the price of violence and I wish you would apply that to your torture apology.

So, this might confuse you, but police brutality is torture. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cop repeatedly tazing a victim, sodomizing them with a broom handle in a Manhattan precinct house, choking them, or just beating the ever living shit out of them. It’s torture.

But, according to you, we should feel sorry for the cops and the emotional trauma that they suffer, because they got to live out their deranged, fascist fantasies, and it wasn’t as much fun as they expected? No, fuck that.

Ironically, you can actually see the efficacy and limitations of torture as a political deterrent through police brutality. When you see people standing at the sidelines as the cops choke someone to death, that’s the deterrent in full swing. They won’t get involved, they won’t express their opposition, because they know that if they do, they’re next.

So, bystanders pull out their cameras, and the police threaten them with violence. Hell, in some cases, the police outright shoot them, claiming they mistook the camera was a weapon. Camera phones are the line they can’t fully cross. The political activity of witnessing the event and sharing it with the internet allows spreading the unrest generated in the moment to the population at large. It is the point where the use of torture is causing more unrest than the torture is suppressing. As torturers, the police understand that this undermines what they’re doing, but those videos escape beyond their grasp.

You can start by believing victims and prioritizing their accounts instead of un-critically believing torturers.

Ironically, uncritically believing torture victims is one of the amateur mistakes that helps perpetuate the practice. The average person is far too willing to trust statements extracted under duress.

I’ve seen actual academics who willingly accepted confessions extracted under torture by the goddamn Spanish Inquisition at face value. Far too many people are willing to accept statements from torture victims without question.

So, what do you expect to learn from a torture victim? That torture is bad? No shit. You don’t need a living torture victim to realize the practice is vile.

Accepting the statements of a torture victim perpetuate one of the greatest lies about torture: That torture can be used to collect intelligence. It’s a lie told by regimes that that torture serves an intelligence gathering role. It cannot.

However, if you believe that torture serves no purpose, that it has no effect, and that you should accept the statements of torture victims at face value, you have primed yourself to accept false confessions. After all, if torture doesn’t work, “why would they lie about those things they did?”

Transparent lies, like, the ones associated with torture are truly insidious. If you accept the lie that you can collect accurate information from torture, then you will accept information collected via torture. If you believe that torture does nothing, then confessions extracted under torture are still accepted because the torture, “did nothing.”

When someone is torturing you, you will do anything in your power to get them to stop. Torturers, torture victims, and the experts all agree on this. When someone is torturing you, you will say what they tell you to in order to make it stop. This happens without regard for what will come next.

The real apologists here are the ones who say, “torture gets usable intelligence,” and (ironically), the ones who say, “torture does nothing.” The former perpetuate the lie, the latter legitimize the results.

Torture isn’t about getting information, it’s about using force to put words in the victim’s mouth. Saying that it doesn’t achieve that is denying those victims, and ignoring the real evil.

-Starke

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