Tag Archives: writing references

Q&A: Concealed Weapons

I have a character who always carries a knife concealed on her person. But where should she keep it? (In other words, where are the best places to wear a hidden knife and what factors might you consider in choosing between them?)

There are a couple considerations for concealed weapons. I know you’re asking about knives, but a lot of this also applies to concealing weapons in general.

Who your character is and where they operate has a huge influence on what they need to consider when deciding where, and how, to conceal a weapon.

Similarly, their clothes are a major factor in their options for concealment. A character with a lose fitting jacket, has a world of options that don’t exist for someone wearing, a restrictive formal dress.

For example, a mercenary or law enforcer wouldn’t need to worry about being seen with a small weapon in reserve, so they could settle for something that’s relatively visible, but might be missed at a glance.

If your character has a weapon hidden across the small of their back, that’s going to be very accessible, but it may be visible if someone knows to look. In this specific example, your character has an advantage in that she’s a woman. The curve of her spine at the back makes it easier to conceal a weapon there without it leaving a visible bulge while wearing a waist length jacket.

One of my favorite bad ideas for concealed weapons is the hidden blade from Assassin’s Creed. This is a retractable wrist blade which mount along the user’s inner forearm and extends into a punch dagger. It’s not a bad idea because it’s a poor place to hide a knife. In fact, it’s an excellent place to hide one. Hiding a weapon up your sleeve was an effective tactic and it led to practices such as the hand shake, which used to be a weapons check. You’d shake someone’s hand while gripping their forearm to make sure they didn’t have a knife hidden up there.

Hiding guns up your sleeve is a little less viable. There have been a number of experiments on the subject, but the results lacked both reliability and stopping power. If you’re going to hide a gun up your sleeve it’s going to be small, and your best option is to use it to kill an attacker and take their weapon. (Which was the intended use for the glove gun, incidentally.)

So, up to this point, I’ve been prioritizing access. Accessibility is an important consideration, because if you need the weapon quickly, it needs to be someplace you can reach easily. However, if their primary concern is hiding the weapon, then it’s possible they might have it concealed someplace far less obvious. She could hide a weapon against her leg, under a skirt, and it would be fairly difficult to spot, but getting to it could be quite awkward. Similarly, boot knives and ankle holsters are an option, but they do require you to have easy access to your shin. Those last two are easier to reach from a sitting position, rather than standing, so this can inform when you’d want to hide something there.

Another option, which runs contrary to what you’re looking for, is concealing the weapon in the environment ahead of time. This an option if your character will be searched for weapons on the way in. Any half-security team will do a cursory search for weapons ahead of time (if they can), but it’s possible there may be weaknesses that would allow someone to get a weapon into position for your character. (Obviously, this doesn’t work if they’re operating alone.)

Finally, there’s a very consideration with knives; folding knives are a real thing. It’s possible that your character would have a collapsible knife, or something similar. In a science fiction or fantasy setting, it’s entirely possible your character would have a device (or enchanted item) which creates the knife itself. So your character wouldn’t be hiding the weapon, she’d be wearing a piece of jewelry that creates the weapon in the moment. Of course, if we’re talking about fantasy, it’s entirely possible your character can outright conjure a blade from the aether, so that might be a possibility as well.

On a less fantastic note, there’s also tactical batons, and much like folding knives, these collapse into little more than a handle. These are pretty easy to hide in a pouch or pocket, so you have a lot of options for where she could conceal these.

I’m realizing now, some of the difficulty I have with this question is, the answer changes. I mean, I carry a knife (most of the time), but I don’t carry it in a single place. Sometimes it’s a pants/jeans pocket, sometimes it’s in my jacket. Sometimes it’s in a satchel on my person. There isn’t one answer here, and it can change whenever I’ve been using and put it away. Also, the knife itself changes, I’m a walking continuity error in that sense. I’ve got three lock-blade box cutters on my desk. I don’t carry them as self-defense weapons, I carry them as tools, and whichever one is most convenient is going to get picked up if I need it.

This is something that’s generally discouraged with characters, because it’s more chaotic, but it is true to life. If your character always has a knife, it’s entirely reasonable for her to have it hidden in different places at various times. It’s not like there’s only one possible place she could hide it. It’s also entirely possible that she has more than one.

You have a lot of options here, the major considerations are, “how easily can she get to it?” and, “how well hidden is it?” Once you have those two considerations in mind, the rest is going to be looking at the context.


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Q&A: Modern Bows

How similar are traditional and modern bows with a ton of contraptions on it? Can someone who is used to using traditional bows use a modern bow? What problems would they likely encounter? Also can any draw be used on any bow or would some types mean a particular draw has a disadvantage?

The basic technology hasn’t changed in thousands of years. The biggest difference is that modern bows are more resilient. A fiberglass bow is more durable than a compound bow made from adhering multiple wood layers together with a water soluble glue.

The only modern invention likely to be even mildly confusing to someone in the past are mechanical compound bows. These are the bows with the cam and pully system. From a use perspective, the major difference is that the pully has a, “break,” sensation. You’ll draw to a certain weight and then the mechanical components will take over, meaning you’ll experience less draw weight as you continue to pull. Similarly, when easing off, you’ll feel the mechanical acceleration tugging until you get past that break point. This affects how you experience the draw, but all it really does is let you deliver more draw weight than you experience.

The thing about most modern mechanical compound bows is that their draw weight doesn’t exceed the weight from some historical longbows. A modern compound will have a 40lb – 80lb draw. It simply requires a fraction of that draw from the user. So the user may experience a 20lb draw, but the bow the will deliver 80lbs.

Modern archers sometimes use release systems, these are separate devices that hook and hold onto the string, instead of the user. They’re recommended for compound bows, but they’re never necessary. They can aid in accuracy.

One issue that can crop up with compound bows is pulling the string off the pully. This can happen when the archer twists the bow string while drawing. This is, generally, not a good idea, as twisting the bow string would adversely affect the nocked arrow. (I think this causes the arrow to wobble in flight, but I’m not 100% certain that’s the issue.) Either way, this is behavior your archer probably wouldn’t engage in, and is more an issue for inexperienced shooters. A release system mentioned above can prevent this prevent this from happening, but as said, they’re not necessary.

A metal shaft mounted on the limbs (usually the lower limb) facing away from the user is a stabilizer. These reduce the bow’s vibration after firing. They’re helpful, but there’s no element to their use that an archer needs to be actively conscious of.

Some modern bows can fit optics. These will provide sights to aid in seeing where you’ll fire. These are fairly self-explanatory except a user may not know where the sight has been zeroed. In the event of a graduated sight (one with markings indicating distance) the user would need to be familiar with Arabic numerals. These were introduced to Europe around the 12th century. Additionally, the user would need the ability to assess distance in the indicated units. The metric system dates back to the late 18th century, so a shooter from before that wouldn’t have any familiarity with what 50m looks like.

Modern bows sometimes offer a contoured grip. You put your hand around it. While the technology that went into creating it is somewhat sophisticated, its use is not. Similarly, the shielded rest to hold the arrow allowing any optics to function, and protecting the user from getting scraped by the fletching is self explanatory.

The biggest change with these kinds of grips is on the engineering side. Modern materials can support limbs that wouldn’t have been viable historically, so we have bows with more convenient grips, because that’s an option.

Arrows are a similar situation. Modern arrows are often made from aluminum shafts, with plastic fletching, plastic nocks, and heads that can be replaced in the field by unscrewing them. It’s still an arrow. The overall quality will be better than a historical archer would be familiar with, but it’s still an arrow.

Worth knowing that, while aluminum is a naturally occurring metal, it wasn’t possible to extract and refine it as a metal until the early nineteenth century. In the middle ages “alum,” (an aluminum salt) was used in the production of dyes, but use of it as a metal (and even recognizing that it was a metal) was a few centuries away. (While I singled out the shafts, aluminum is a common component in modern bows as well.)

Machined wooden arrow shafts are still produced. You’ll also find feather fletchings, though those are rarer. There is one major difference about modern wooden shafts, worth illustrating. They’re not better than the shafts a historical archer would have encountered. They are on par with what an extremely skilled fletcher could have produced, but an individual craftsman could not have replicated the scale of modern production. (This has implications across the board, ranging from weapons, to clothes, to basically any high quality product on the market.)

The bow’s been used in warfare for over five thousand years. It’s invention disappears back into prehistory. The engineering that goes into making them have changed, but the basic concept has been around for a long time, mostly unchanged.


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How would you go about showing that a woman is an equal fighter to a man in a misogynistic mediaeval setting? In-story, she’s often mistaken for a man (being 6+ foot tall and in armour) and the story isn’t narrated from her POV; how can I make sure that when the narrating character thinks she’s “good, for a girl” it’s *his* opinion, not an objective statement on female fighters as a whole?

The short answer is: remember that objective truth and subjective truth are different. The reader will assume that your narrator (POV) character is factual and a resource they should believe unless they are proven to be unreliable. The POV character, especially in a fantasy narrative, is our connection to the world. They are our state of normal, they are the providers of knowledge and our insight. The audience has to trust them, at least in the beginning, in order to be grounded in both the narrative and the world. You have to show them that the main character’s opinion is false through the character’s actions and the opinions of other characters. His perceptions and reality’s perceptions are different, other characters both male and female have lives, goals, and desires outside of him. If he is the only POV and you’re writing in First Person or Third Person Limited, then you’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of you.

Contrary to popular belief, the sexist main character does not need to overcome his sexism, does not need to be redeemed, and no romance tropes need to be invoked. (I’d also avoid the rape tropes, frankly.) You do need to show he is wrong even if he doesn’t realize it. Sometimes, main characters are shitty people and not every narrative needs to be about them becoming better ones. (He can come to respect her without giving up his sexism, this shouldn’t be treated as a solution. Seeing one person as fine but the rest of their gender as the same isn’t a realization that “x group” are people just like them.)

He doesn’t need to be, nor become, a good person.

However, again, you do have to lay in the groundwork to make it clear that his perceptions and the reality don’t lineup.

You do that by giving the female character her own arc separate from the main character, where she does her own stuff, where we find out a little about her backstory and motivations (not for the benefit of the male character or because of any man), and recognize she has an interior life with goals and dreams of her own. He may be involved in her arc, but it isn’t about him.

However, in the same hand, she also is probably accepted by the vast majority of her compatriots and they trust her to have their backs in battle (or else she wouldn’t be participating, unless she never expects to see combat). There’s a lot of fine detail work you can get into with sexism depending on the female character’s social class and background. (She sounds a little like Brienne of Tarth.) So, her reasons for being present and perception of special treatment due to her social status could be present. (She’s got her father whipped, he’s a weak man who lets his daughter run amok, she’s wild and does what she wants, she’s a fool, etc.) If she’s someone of a lower class background or a mercenary, then

A variety of sexist opinions, however, are worth using that don’t automatically fall under the “for a girl” header and they don’t always relate particularly to only the woman in question. Aspersions will be cast on everyone who supports her.

Denying her femininity and womanhood due to her choice in occupation. “Ha! Her? She’s no woman.”

One of the guys. “Yeah, but Elsa, no one thinks about you like that.”

Referred to commonly with gendered slurs that are particularly sexist.

Turned to when a “woman’s” opinion is needed.

Constantly asked to “prove her worth”. Over. And over. And over again.

Referred to as being undesirable because she doesn’t fit convention, told she’ll never “get a man”, assumptions made that she must want children. (Whether she does or not isn’t the issue.) Even though it could be said in jest with no ill will meant. “One more sword blow like that Elsa and no one’ll want you!”

Jokes about her body type. Generally invasive personal questions. Jokes made on any male character who shows an interest in her.

She’ll be passed over for jobs she’s suited for, not because she’s no good but to avoid causing offense.

People from outside the company will routinely say that they don’t want to work  with her, regardless of her skill level and, sometimes, even after she’s proven her worth.

For the men who support her, it’s just as hard. They will be ridiculed and insulted, aspersions will be cast on their “manliness” and their ability.

Friendly interest or saying anything complimentary is generally assumed to be sexual i.e. “You only said that ‘cause you want to get between her legs!”

“It’s your responsibility!”

“How can you let her…”

Her superiors will be accused of being incapable when it comes to “controlling” her. Her friends will suffer the same and will constantly be asked why they don’t “encourage” her to engage in a safer line of work. Some may even suggest them marrying her as a means to get her off the battlefield.

Remember, this female character doesn’t have to actually be better than all the boys in order to justify her existence. She doesn’t even need to be competent, though she probably is. She doesn’t need to justify her existence at all, other than she decided to do this and now takes a lot of shit for for being unconventional.

The MC could even be right, she could only be good “for a girl” aka people he believes can’t fight at all because no one has taken the time yet to teach her how to properly fight or she hasn’t figured out how to make good usage of her body. The treatment of violence or skill in combat as “masculine only” is what’s sexist, not the fact that someone could actually be bad at it or unsuited. Ability in combat is a skill set. It is acquired through time, dedication, training, luck, with experience gained by surviving through armed conflict. It is not static, but ever changing. Someone can start out slow and finish strong by working hard, whereas someone with a lot of talent can start strong but finish poorly due to resting on that talent.

If you’re wondering, this is why “Female Empowerment Fantasies” are often just as sexist as the stories they’re railing against. This is why the “One Woman Who Can Hold Her Own” is a problem. Overcoming sexism in fiction is not about exceptions to the rule, it’s the realization that the rule itself is bogus.

As Ellie Sattler, a young and fit thirty something woman with a doctorate degree in paleobotany, from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park says when John Hammond, an old man with a bad leg suggest he should be making the long walk to the generators through a compound overrun with dinosaurs just because he’s a man:

“We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.”

The one who should be doing the thing is the one best suited because of their skills and not their gender. Sexism is the assumption that a man is better at combat or war by virtue of being a man, just like women will be better at housework or raising children because they’re women.

“Look, Jack, you either trust me to make the long shot or you hightail your ass back to camp. We don’t have time for debate. You may beat me daily with that sword, but I’m more accurate than you on your best week.”

Give them a voice. Recognize that they won’t be the best at everything. Show them fighting for what’s theirs and what they’ve worked for.

Due to everyone experiencing cultural and social mores, no group is immune to sexism and no person, regardless of background, is incapable of being sexist. Sexism and discrimination change based on societal expectations for certain groups, which is where it intersects with racism and other prejudices. The female character’s ethnicity and the cultural prejudices surrounding it will play a role in how she’s perceived, just as they would a male character. Europe has a long history of discrimination based on ethnic background. An easy joke to point to is “draw me like one of your French girls”, where French women and, more specifically, Parisian women are considered to be more sexually available, sexier, or free than women in other cultures.

“Yes, but she’s Romani…”

“Yes, but she’s a Moor…”

“Yes, but she’s Scots…”

You know how they are.

Most importantly, recognize that these values are cultural and they are constantly in flux. Though often depicted as “it’s always been this way”, expectations change based on changing values. The sexism you’ll be writing for a medieval world is not the same in detail as the sexism you’re experiencing on a regular basis (regardless of gender).

So, research.

Your primary reading list is going to be:

Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce. All of it. The full quartet from start to finish. Pay specific attention to characters like Joren and the constant microagressions that Keladry suffers through.

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman.

A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England’s King Henry
I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman:
Henry’s beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude
could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and
bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned. – from the Amazon description

When Christ and His Saint’s Slept is Historical Fiction, not fantasy but I prefer it when discussing medieval sexism over a series like George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire”. The reason I like it is because it has a lot of female characters that are based on real women in history and Penman has an excellent track record for sourcing/citing her work. She’s also very honest about where and what she invents. (The short answer is almost nothing.) It’s a great look at what medieval sexism actually affected and what it didn’t.

Now, I’m going to go on a long discussion about sexism, chauvinism, and misogyny.


Start by not confusing sexism with chauvinism and misogyny. One of Tumblr’s issues is conflating the three together and, while all three can exist within the same individual regardless of sex/gender, they don’t represent the same actions or a unified set of beliefs. The vast majority of individuals, even in the middle ages, fall into the ranks of “casual sexism” rather than outright and blatant misogyny.

For example, “everyone knows” is casual sexism. Much like casual racism, it’s the most pervasive because the beliefs are commonly held. There is no active hatred there, is born more from ignorance or certain beliefs that have never been challenged rather than malice or an active desire to cause harm. “This is just the way the world is and has always been”. It’s passively damaging, but not actively abusive or automatically rapey.

Misogyny is the fire and brimstone speech a priest gives on a Sunday morning warning about how his mother visited him as a demon in a dream and attempted to lead him into temptation. This is not a quality of a single woman, but all of them. All women are evil, subhuman, and controlling them is necessary in order to save immortal souls from the fires of damnation.

The vast majority of people do not actually want to harm anyone, the same is true of the Middle Ages. There’s a lot of hatred to go around, but if you’re going to do “misogyny” then do it right. Don’t do it because it’s more “realistic”. Often, when it comes to realism a great deal of historical fantasy that invokes it gets it entirely wrong.

You have to write these characters as individuals with differing views on what is and isn’t acceptable. You need to start researching the rules of European warfare during the Middle Ages. If you’re starting from the perspective “because girl” then it’s going to be helpful to understand why some would consider it a downside beyond just “well, woman” and “women can’t”.

An example would be that battlefield rules regarding women differ, many mercenaries and warriors during the middle ages (even knights) made their money off of ransoming a captured noble back to their family. However, female nobles are not bound by any such agreement and, more than likely, will simply be let go unless there’s a specific reason to hold onto them and the only gains the soldiers can make is the valuables found on their person (no, not what’s between their legs).

Characters may view the female character as “cheating” due to cultural loopholes that bind them to a specific course of action. They feel they’re receiving “special” privileges or are bound because they feel they can’t respond like they normally would. (Note: this doesn’t mean they should behave this way.)

I suggest reading “When Christ and His Saints Slept” and others in the trilogy because the first thing you need to do is read good historical fiction about the period you want to introduce fantasy elements to. One of the biggest mistakes writer’s make is assuming “everyone” in a group feels a certain way. If you don’t understand the social and political aspects at play for the period you’re writing then you can’t actually write racism, sexism, and the other prejudices that are reflective of the period. You can write your own prejudices and the sexism from the world you live in, but not sexism that’s reflective of the times. Often, medieval “sexism/chauvinism/misogyny” end up being lumped in with Victorian values and, more specifically, Victorian gender roles.

Cultural values, sexism, and social issues change between cultures and throughout history. You’ve got to define whose values and social rules are being used to limit mobility, with the understanding it changes vastly depending on which social class the characters belong to. And, of course, it varies due to country and territory as much as it does by religion.

While they often went unrecognized, women were partners, businesswomen, handlers of family accounts, skilled politicians and dissemblers, artists, patrons, religious leaders in their communities, and more. Some were treated as little more than chattel, some were abused, just like today.

You’ve got to start building a varied setting with as many women participating as men. They may not be participating in the same way as your warrior character, but they do exist and they are important. You can have solid and supportive marriages united by politics as much as by love. You can have male characters who love and respect their wives, much as the women love and respect their husbands, but still adhere to the culturally defined mores about what men and women are capable of. Off hand sexism is going to be more prevalent than outright hatred.

You defeat prejudice by humanizing characters and by showing the audience that the narrating character is wrong through action in the story itself.

Remember that objective truth is different from personal truth if you’re writing in first person or third person limited. Third person omniscient lets you tell a story from multiple perspectives within several paragraphs and into everyone’s mind. Your reader is more likely to sympathize with the characters you ask them to and vilify the ones the narrative does or the ones that characters they like do. It’s a balancing act and one that may take several subsequent drafts to master.

1) Sexism is a Social Construct

Whose values are you writing?

One of the problems with Historical Fiction and Historical Fantasy, especially when dealing with sexism, is the author’s importing of modern ideals and opinions into a period where the characters themselves would have no means of grasping it or isn’t relevant to them.

Sexism is a social construct. To understand it and it’s affects, we must understand the world the characters exist in. Their rules. Their laws. Their social values and mores. What is believed about women and about men, what is presented, and what the reality actually looks like.

We can go round and round about how men and women are different whether it’s psychological or physical or based on cultural conditioning with a side of societal expectations. People are complicated creatures, we’re affected by a lot of different aspects from our upbringing to our bodies. The hard boxes of “only this” hurt everyone, when we’re all trying to fit our square pegs into round holes or being pidgeonholed with our rough edges smoothed into what’s considered to be the norm. How those expectations are met though and the shapes they take rely on the culture in question. 

2) People are varied individuals who express their prejudices in vastly different ways

It’s not just about hatred. Chauvinism. Paternalism. Backhanded compliments. Kindness. Even Chivalry. Most prejudice is well-meaning. While there are plenty of men out there today, and who existed during the Middle Ages, that see women as their personal property, there are just as many who will never raise their hand against them.

However, that doesn’t mean their actions or opinions aren’t damaging. Stopping and thinking about how sexism and chauvinism, not just misogyny affects an individual’s daily life is important. The reverse is also true, women just as easily support the same sexist system and their prejudices about “women’s work” can be just as harmful to their sons as their daughters. Women can hate men and other women, women can discriminate against men and other women. Women can beat men, women can be the architects of pain and misery.

A woman laughing at a man being abused by his wife is sexist because she buys into societal expectations about how men and women are supposed to behave. She applies those prejudices to the man for being “weak” or “unable to control his wife”, just as another man might. She blames the victim rather than the abuser because it’s easier to sympathize with someone who is like her and because she can’t imagine doing it herself.

Some people accept that system. Some people say no to it. Some of the people who say no aren’t always the ones we expect. Good and bad is based on the actions we take and on how we treat people.

At the end of the day, we’re all just people.

3) Not all men hold to or agree with the social rules and laws that bar some from taking or gaining power

People are individuals, I think that’s the most important thing to remember when working with a setting. I’m not saying you should frame the “good” characters as the not-sexists and the “bad” ones as misogynists. It’s not really true to human nature. It’s tempting to make “all men” in a story out to be chauvinists, sexists, and misogynists, and that’s just… not realistic. People are on a median and people don’t blindly follow social convention just because it’s social convention. There will be fathers who look out for and want to protect their daughters or find a way to provide them with happiness, who recognize their talents, and want them to succeed. There will be sons who want to protect their mothers and who see them as their formative parent. Cousins who love and respect their female ones. Men and women who conspire together. Men and women who fight together. Loving marriages. Marriages of convenience where the two happily pursue their own separate interests.

Women who do hold power because their masculine spouse or parent is either incapable. They have responsibilities. They aren’t just baby-making machines that spend their days stitching. The female side of the nobility are powerful in their own way.

There’s the perception of what female nobles did and what they actually did. Most of fantasy, sadly, revolves around the perception because much of what women are responsible for is forgotten by history.

Finally, it is worth saying that it is more difficult for someone who comes from a privileged class to recognize the extent to which injustice is happening. For someone who experiences discrimination and prejudice on a regular basis, it’s obvious. Experience has been the key teacher. Realizing your whole world, and the world you’ve built for yourself, is wrong isn’t easy.  

4) There are those from all quarters who challenge these rules and those from both sexes who benefit from the way things are

Both individual men and women benefit from sexism in their own ways. We can get frustrated at “Not All Men” and “Not All Women”, while neither excuse behavior it’s important to remember that it is true. There will be women who have learned to make the system work for them, they’ve manipulated it and those around them to make their own position of power. Like anyone with power, they don’t want to give it up.

On the same hand, there will be those who want to help their families. Who have a strong sense of filial duty and do hold to the values that their cultures have taught them are right. They want to do what’s expected of them and work within the system to get the benefits.

What’s unrealistic is a portrayal that all women are victims and all men are abusers. Some people benefit from a system more than others, but just as many either work to change it or manipulate it to their benefit. You can have female characters who are fine with their arranged marriages, even when they’re marrying old men. You can have older male characters who take a young wife with no intention of abusing or even sleeping with them until they’re either ready or just because it’s culturally expected that they’ll remarry.

You have noble parents who take care of their bastards and who may even take care of their cheating wives, either out of love or to keep up appearances. You have nobles who’ll be fine with lovers on the side, both for men and women.

Complexity, really, is the name of the game. Establish the system, but then work to figure out how people navigate it, manipulate it, and break it. For as many victims (both male and female), there will be just as many victors. There will be those who live happy and content lives, it doesn’t make the system any less prejudiced but they do exist and it’s important to recognize that.

George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan both managed to beat this one (depending on how you look at it) by writing in multiple perspectives, allowing other characters to have an interior life and showing the multitude of prejudices different characters have. When done right, it’s very successful for creating a vast and varied world where we’re reminded that the objective reality differs from personal truth and that prejudices aren’t always right. They blind us to the real world in front of us and are part of human nature.


Character A is a trained professional combatant, but due to circumstances he has little stamina and can get exhausted easily. If involved in a fight (involving either hand-to-hand combat or firearms) what should A do to avoid wasting energy? (Besides not showing off or trying to not get involved in violence at all)

Well, I’m going to use the term: endurance, instead of stamina because stamina gets used too much as terminology for a stat bar in video games. I don’t want you to get confused by the video game variation that you may be more familiar with.

Endurance comes in two flavors when it comes to any kind of physical activity, these two are mental endurance and physical endurance. For combat, endurance is more important than strength or speed or any other quality because it dictates how quickly a character can recover, long a character can fight, and most importantly how far they can keep pushing themselves when moving from one battle to the next.

You need to decide which kind of endurance your character lacks. Either way though, he’s missing a critical component of success which means that as a fighter he’s going to have to make sacrifices in his fighting style and you’ll need to make concessions to the kinds of fights you write for him, a lot of them.

Mental endurance trumps all. When you see the average human performing superhuman feats, especially in sports, it’s the result of mental endurance. The mind controls the body and the mind can force the body to keep going long past the body’s breaking point. When you train, your body will always want to quit first. It’s hard, and it’s tiring, and in some cases, it’s boring. The mind must learn to push through the pain, learn which kinds of pain mean what, and decide whether stopping is actually necessary. When someone says “I can’t do it. It’s hard.” that’s usually their brain giving up.

Mental endurance is your character’s ability to keep going through hardship, pain, fear, loss, the daily horror’s of war, and their ability to keep pushing forward. The character that comes after the villain or the protagonist after having a building fall on them, with a broken arm, or a broken leg, the engine that just keeps coming. The ones who feel inhuman, unstoppable, like they’re Terminators. That’s mental endurance. It’s not immunity to pain, it’s the ability to say “yes, it hurts, every nerve in my body is on fire, but it doesn’t matter”. In villains, it’s terrifying. In heroes, it’s inspiring.

16 Blocks – this movie is interesting. Bruce Willis plays an aging, drunk, and formerly corrupt cop assigned to protect an important witness on the way to the courthouse. The distance is only sixteen blocks. The results are a harrowing chase in which he must keep the witness alive while being hunted by his former cronies. It’s an interesting watch, to say the least.

Die Hard – the original Die Hard is a play on the Hollywood action hero, namely taking the hero and instead of letting him flawlessly waltz his way through the various action sequences decides on reveling in a war of attrition. This war is on McClain’s body. It’s still ‘unrealistic’ as far as reality is concerned, but it is saying no to the idea of a few pleasingly placed scrapes and some dirt are all one needs to say “I’ve been in a scrap, Pa”. He’s still super-humanly resilient, but it’s important to realize the movie is trying address and subvert audience expectations more than it is mimicking reality. Given how beat up he gets, it leaves room for the imagination to believe this is about pure human willpower.

Terminator 2 – Sarah Conner is the model for mental endurance in this movie from start to finish. She’s an ordinary woman forced to extraordinary levels, one who will do anything and everything in order to save her son and stop Armageddon.

Aliens – Ripley is, well, Ripley. The beauty of this movie is this time around she knows what the Aliens are and still goes back for seconds. Both Terminator 2 and Aliens have strong themes about motherhood as a source for strength. Remember, self-sacrifice isn’t the only one for women.

Protector of the Small – Mental endurance, even more than hard work is pretty much the major theme of this series. It’s about striving for the goal and conquering your fears when everyone says no.

Physical endurance is probably what you’re thinking of.

Endurance is something you build up over time, some people have a natural affinity for it while others don’t. Either way, endurance isn’t something you natively have in a finite amount that always stays the same. You build it up through training and exercise, and if you stop you lose it. The only way for a character to be unable to build endurance is if there’s something stopping them like a debilitating illness or a permanent injury. For whatever reason, they just can’t.

“It doesn’t matter how much training you have; a broken rib is a broken rib.” – Michael Westen, Burn Notice, Pilot.

Debilitating injuries, illness, and other body problems will significantly hamper your character’s ability to fight. They can’t take as many chances, they will find their options for physically dealing with situations limited, and cannot simply “power through” their enemies. It’s not just that they can’t fight for very long, they can’t withstand the physical force they receive and they also can’t recover. Your body isn’t like a video game character where after each engagement with an enemy all your stats reset. For everyone recovery takes time, but the more endurance you have, the more quickly it happens. Whether it’s back on their feet in one minute instead of five, or five instead of fifteen, ready to get back in the fight, the time allotment matters.

With limited endurance, he will become tired far more quickly, he will be unable to withstand injuries (and become injured more quickly), the injuries he receives will be more severe, and he will take longer to recover from them.

Simply on a level of self-preservation, this is a character who is incredibly limited when it comes to dealing with violent situations. He’s lost a significant number of alternate options when it comes to how he chooses to engage or what he can do when he’s forced to. He cannot fight for very long, he cannot risk injury, and he doesn’t have the time to waste. He basically is reduced to two options for dealing with all situations: not fighting at all and hardcore brutality/fight to kill. (Or finding alternate non-violent solutions.)

I mean that too, whether it’s gang members, an enemy agent, or a six year old on the sidewalk, when it comes to combat it’s them or him. He doesn’t have the time to engage because any hit he takes from anyone really, really, could be his last (or leave him tied up recovering for a week, six months to a year).

He can’t really fight to subdue because fighting to subdue takes longer and requires more endurance than simply fighting to kill. He has a lessened ability to withstand injury, so any he takes while his opponent struggles will cost him. This is going to include everything from gunshots to getting thrown into walls. Any physical damage is going to hurt him and he won’t be able to avoid it.

He can’t. When you fight, you get hurt. The only way is to minimize the damage and he’s got to focus on minimization more than most.

Now, that doesn’t mean he has to solve every problem the same way, but we are talking about a guy who isn’t an “Honor Before Reason” type or an “Honorable Warrior”. Preemptive strikes, punches to the throat, sand in the eyes, Wrapping a toaster in front of the fist, down and dirty, whatever it takes to finish it as fast as possible. This leads to rapid escalation into extreme violence.

This is how your character can “save energy” by prioritizing which fights are important, staying aware, and ensuring it ends (usually with debilitation and/or death) as quickly as possible.

What is worth remembering when you write is that your character is extremely fragile physically. He may be able to push through the pain under necessary circumstances, but it’s not something he can do all the time. You may not be able to do all fight scenes you imagine due to limitations, but limits are what make characters interesting.

For reference, you need to start looking at films that refuse to give their heroes the “Hollywood Action Star Superhero” treatment and movies which focus on “burst violence” into rapid escalation of force including human fragility. Films and novels focusing on the Western genre, with your hero alone in the wilderness and having no margin for error.

Spartan – Spartan is a film where the main protagonist specializes in rapid escalation. The violence isn’t gratuitous, it’s pretty clean and sterile. It’s also immediate and the good instant dose you might be looking for.

24 (First and Second Season only) The first two seasons of 24 try to at least pretend that Jack is mortal, and the part about dealing with serious things mostly extends to the violence. When Jack is treated as fragile, he’s worth looking at.

Burn Notice (The Pilot only). Burn Notice is useful for a lot of different aspects of writing. It’s a great “how-to” or introduction to the basics for writing spies. Most of it’s suggestions are on the mark, or they’ll at least get you thinking in a way you might not have before. However, Michael is exceedingly durable. He is a Hollywood Action Hero in almost every episode except the Pilot. The Pilot though, the Pilot is good. Watch the Pilot.

Heat – No matter what we say, we always come back to Heat. It’s a really good movie striving for at least a semblance of realism.

Alien and Aliens – These two seem a little oddball, but the point you should be focusing on in these films is the part where individuals are in combat situations where there is zero margin for error. For reference, your character is the human and all the other humans are the Aliens. Have fun.

Cop Land – This film with Sylvester Stallone stars as a New Jersey sheriff coming to the realization that the cops he idolizes are using his town as a front for mob activity. It’s a little silly, but the movie in the tradition of the Western treats his character as fragile.

Ravenous – Ravenous is a horror movie and a vampire movie involving cannibalism, but it has a focus on human fragility and individuals trying to find ways around it. In process, they become more and more horrifying. If you’ve never seen it then it’s worth a look.