Tag Archives: writing tips

Q&A: Recovering From Injuries Takes Time and Patience

phantomjedi1 said to howtofightwrite: Your blog is amazing – you’ve saved me from so many mistakes! If someone is trying to come back from injury, especially one that lays them up for an extended period, what are ways that their former level of skill would trip them up in a combat situation? And is there anything they can to more quickly adjust to their new mobility limitations, etc.? I have a character who used to fight well, but was injured and has trouble walking without pain. They’re trying to get some ability back. Thanks!

The major thing an injury takes from you is your conditioning, that’s your musculature, your endurance, your wind, your flexibility, etc. The toll is primarily physical, so this character (outside of their injured body part) cannot fight as well or for as long as they used to. They’re slower, their reach is shortened, and they find themselves breathing more heavily more often.

Now, they can get that back but it usually takes months of consistent effort as they slowly build themselves back into their previous levels of conditioning.

You have to think of conditioning, the working out part, like a mountain. A significant portion of any athlete’s day is spent working out. This isn’t just the exercise training in the techniques, it includes your conditioning. Your push ups, sit ups, pull ups, weight lifting, long distance running, wind sprints, etc. It requires a lot of effort to maintain your body at peak condition and any break (not just an injury) will cause you to start slipping down that mountain. An serious injury that requires you take months off to heal? Expect months of dedicated conditioning to get yourself back to peak performance, and that’s if the injury completely heals. You can’t just jump back in at the levels you were used to before your injury, you’ll actually hurt yourself all over again. You have to climb the mountain the same way you did the first time, bit by bit with a little more each day or each week.

This is what drives athletes crazy. Their minds say that they can go “this” hard, at the levels they were used to before their injury or they took time off, and they can’t. The trope will pop up in almost every sports movie where the main character suffers a major injury, and it’s accurate to life. Whether they’re martial combatants, Olympic athletes, or just a high school football player, they run the risk of hurting themselves all over again by pushing their body too fast and too hard to return to previous levels. Most of them will get impatient and try. Sometimes, they have good reasons, like the soldier who doesn’t want to leave his squad a man down. Sometimes, the reasons are selfish or based in fear, like missing a major competition.

Recovery is, in large part, psychological. The fastest way for a character to adjust to their limitations is to accept they have them. They need to figure out what their body can do, find their current limits, and start slowly pushing the envelope, rather than trying to get their body to behave exactly as it did before. The mind’s expectations are what’s actually lying to them. They have to retrain their brain to accept their new circumstances.

In the early parts of returning to training, the mind will constantly miscalculate because it’s relying on the body’s old reaction times. Every action will be slower. Their mind will move at a similar speed to what they had before, but their body won’t. The disconnect between the two is where most of the problems occur, and why coming back from an injury feels a lot like starting all over again. You know what you can do, but your body won’t cooperate to do it.

If your character is trying to come back from an injury and the injury hasn’t completely healed, like this leg injury, then they’re going to be forced to train around it. If they put too much pressure on the leg, if they push the injury too hard, the injury will get worse. They run the risk of the injury becoming permanent. They’re going to have to stay off it and when they’re on it, go slowly. They may not be able to train that leg more than fifteen minutes a day, and, depending on injury, are only able to stretch it out. Depending on the severity of the injury, they may only be able to put their full weight on the leg for a few seconds each day. Those few seconds can extend, they can become minutes, but that’s going to be the results of months of work. If they feel pain when they walk on it, that is their body saying no. Whatever pain they feel from just walking, strenuous activity will hurt a hell of a lot more.

Martial artists/martial combatants/athletes are trained to push past pain, but they also need to be able to tell the difference between the pain caused by the body’s resistance/laziness and serious injuries. Serious injury pain is the stop and no further pain.

The problem with leg injuries is that your entire axis revolves off the legs, if both legs don’t work then you can’t fight. You need both legs to be capable of bearing your body’s entire weight for at least a few fractions of a second multiple times throughout the fight. Both legs need to split that body weight. You can overcome that necessity and train one of the legs to carry more of the burden, but if the injury is permanent (like a knee injury) then they will always be limited in what they can do.

I’ve known a few individuals who’ve come back from major leg injuries where the doctors said they’d never be able to do martial arts again. The willpower, patience, and work they put into their recovery was monstrous. They really loved what they did. That love was their foundation, their foundation fueled their efforts and kept them from giving up. There are going to be times when the frustration sets in, when the climb feels impossible, where your body is not fixing itself fast enough to satisfy what you want, where you’ll want to throw in the towel, and the question you need to answer as a writer is, “what keeps your character coming back? What is the source of their motivation?”

To be at the top is not easy. Most people who don’t heavily engage in the world of sports, or martial arts, or martial combat, don’t really grasp how stiff the competition is. Or how hard it is to defend the seat once you’re there. Outside of true story sport’s narratives, many characters lack convincing motivation. “I don’t want to die” only gets you so far, and “I want to protect my friends” again only gets you so far. Those are the motivations of the mediocre, and, in most situations, mediocre is enough.

However, that’s not the motivation of the person who arrives first and leaves last. The person who always shows up, rain or shine. The person who sacrifices time with friends and family, the person who skips out on dates to train, the person who makes their training their life. The ones for whom their training is their life are the only ones who come back from extreme injuries because they find the motivation to go through the agony of starting over.

Recovery can take years, usually recovery from a major injury takes at least half a year and then, once you start training, there’s the three to four months (or more) of pushing yourself to return to the previous level.

For reference, when I was twelve, I broke my leg. I broke my leg in the fall and wasn’t able to get back into martial arts training until late spring, and even then, the order from the doctor was, “no jumping until June.” I went from no pressure allowed, to supported pressure with crutches, to walking, then running, and then finally jumping.

If you’re really interested in writing a character going through recovery after a major injury, I actually recommend watching the (admittedly sometimes cheesy) true story sports movies. They’ll cover everything, from the grieving period to the difficulties in recovery, to the points where it gets too hard and the character wants to stop, to when they finally get back into sync and come out stronger. Sometimes, they skate over some details but it is a realistic progression from one to the next in the cycle.

It’d be a good reference point for you.

Never forget mental fortitude when you’re writing a combat character. Willpower is their true strength, and it can be easy to forget when you’re distracted by physicality. The unwillingness to give up in the face of impossible odds. The faith they have in their own abilities to push through, even after that faith has been shaken.

It can be hard to get into that mindset, especially if you’ve never experienced a major injury (even if you’re not in sports) or been a martial artist/invested in physical training of any kind. You can do it though, but you’ll need to do a lot of research. In this case, sports movies where the character experiences a major injury and biographies/autobiographies written by sports professionals documenting their own recoveries are going to be key. You can then apply that structure to your writing, the crossover is really in the conditioning. If you really need it to be martial, there are a couple of war movies and boxing movies which cover similar material. This is well-documented, you just need to find the sources.

Once you have the framework and the arc, you can apply it to your story. The basic steps are fairly simple and can be molded into any narrative and setting.

-Michi

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Q&A: Pay Attention

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: I see on this blog a lot of important self-defense lessons include avoiding sketchy situations, places, or people. However, a lot of women have been attacked by dates, friends, bosses, family members. Why does so much of self-defense seem to focus on potentially defending yourself against some mugger or, basically, a stranger and act like you won’t ever have to use your self-defense if you stay alert? How do you stay ‘on’ around your father or husband? Unless I am mistaken about this.

You are mistaken about this.

1) We’ve said multiple times that this blog is not a self-defense blog and it cannot teach you self-defense. No internet blog can. No post on the internet can. No pictures can. You can’t learn self-defense from a video or a gif.

You need a real class, or a real school that can actually physically instruct you because all articles on the internet do is… not much, actually. You need to train with professionals.

2) The people who have this perspective? They’re the people who aren’t in the community and who haven’t actually ever taken a self-defense class. So, you are trying to make a point about something you know nothing about.

The truth about self-defense is that there is no one single established curriculum, there’s a lot of different approaches. As many different schools of thought as there are martial arts. There are curriculums which focus solely on weapons self-defense from guns to knives. There are curriculums designed by women for women. There are curriculums, which may be the most common, based off a civilian designed variation of police adapted judo. There a curriculums which come off of the military strands. This is a big, complicated field that is constantly evolving. Some curriculums focus on home defense, some focus on muggers and stranger danger, others teach you skillsets for how to deal with someone right next to you. Some teach you how to deescalate fights starting between other people. Some do all of the above.

Right now, you’ve learned something about statistics and you’re scared. That’s rational. You’ve learned the world is a far more dangerous place than it initially appeared. However, while you have the statistics, you don’t understand how those statistics translate into the real world, or what you can do to protect yourself.

What you need is a self-defense specialist.

Again, the purpose of this blog is not self-defense. The irony here is that the self-defense posts we’ve written in the past are about threat management and threat evaluation. Threat management applies as much to people you know as it does to people you don’t.

Right now, the way you look at the world involves divvying spaces up between dangerous and safe. We’ve talked about spaces considered safe not being safe on this blog before, but you’re still applying it to muggers and scary alleyways rather than the party at your dorm, a bottle of booze, and an open door. You’re not thinking about the cute guy at the coffee shop, whose smile maybe puts you on edge, but he asked for your number. You’re not thinking about the college professor or high school teacher who touches your shoulder in ways overly familiar and says very complimentary things about your work. You’re not thinking about the team doctor who showers with you and the others after practice. The senior mentoring the lonely kid at the back of the classroom.

The problem is that you still think tells for dangerous situations come with road flares, that they’re framed in ways exceedingly obvious. Unfortunately, that’s a common assumption most people make about self-defense. The general culture has trained you to think that way, but it isn’t actually true. A lot of the lead ups and tells are subtle. You can train yourself to be alert for them. However, that involves admitting you haven’t been. Lots of people can’t or won’t, because they think they already do. Or, they feel they shouldn’t have to. If you think people aren’t aware of the statistics, because you weren’t, then you haven’t been looking or, in this case, listening.

Learning to constantly evaluate the people around you can become as natural as looking both ways before crossing the street. It’s not fear, or a result of paranoia, it’s habit. Checking their behaviors, their expressions, their postures, learning about their families, their backgrounds, noticing who their friends are, who they hang out with, who they talk to, and what they say.

Pay attention to what people around you say about your co-workers, or your classmates, or your family members. Pay attention to who men and women around you home in on, how they behave when they’re brushed off or encounter a no. Who do they favor? Who do they ignore?

When new information comes up, reevaluate.

Accumulate information, not out of paranoia but because information is good to have. The same habits which can save your life or tell you when to exit a bad situation are also great for figuring out the best presents for a friend.

The danger is not from riding the bus at midnight, the potential danger is the other person on the bus. If the danger comes from people and opportunity, then there’s no difference between that person on the bus at midnight and your creepy cousin cornering you in the garage. By extension, the creepy cousin in the garage isn’t any different from being screwed over for promotion by your co-worker or dealing with an emotionally abusive parent. They all have tells.

Unfortunately, while you can learn situational awareness from martial training, it’s far more common among children and adults who grew up in unstable environments. If you don’t have the habit, you probably haven’t encountered a situation where you’ve needed to develop it.

Self-defense training should be preemptive, just like learning to drive a car, but for most people it isn’t. Part of this is the way violence is presented in media, which is as a natural extension of the self rather than a skill to be learned. The other half is most people feel they don’t need to learn because they believe the world they live in is inherently safe. While danger exists, it exists elsewhere. Or, if it does, there’s nothing they can do about it. The vast majority of people you’ll find in self-defense courses are law enforcement professionals, recreational martial artists, people who’ve already been victims of violent crime, and kids like boy scouts/girl scouts who are there for the extracurriculars.

When my high school had a mandatory self-defense PE course, the students mocked it. They thought they wouldn’t need any of the techniques or the theory. Statistically, some of them did.

The problem is that you think about threat management and situational awareness directly relate to physical violence or threats of violence. As a result, you think of it as a state of mind to turn off and on. Instead, you should think about it as habitual, observational skill. No different from noticing which of your friends is the one with an explosive temper, seeing the tells for when they start to rev, and intervening before they can explode. Violence isn’t just physical, it’s behavioral, and behavior patterns are the warning signs.

Look both ways before you cross the street.

Again, you cannot learn self-defense from the internet. You can’t learn it from self-defense blogs, from videos, from pictures, or from gifs. Anyone who says you can is lying to you. You can’t learn self-defense from books. You can pickup some good theory, but for practical you need an instructor. If you want to learn self-defense, you need to seek out programs in your area. Usually, your local community centers (if you have one) or local precincts are good places to start. Like with everything, there are different self-defense specialists with different focuses. You want a specialist, not a recreational martial artist who moonlights with a few evening courses every few months to round out the curriculum.

If you feel you need a self-defense program, find one. If you have questions about what a self-defense program offers, speak with a professional instructor. Speak with multiple instructors. Quoting statistics will not help you, learning to determine the behavioral tells in the people around you will.

As a writer, you really should be learning to observe the people around you for your craft. You’re a student of human behavior, and you can’t find stories if you don’t look for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reject Toxicity, Prepare for Apathy

Any advice for female writers on showing trauma and recovery in men without toxic readers saying he isn’t masculine enough?

You’ll never satisfy toxic people. The game is rigged. Even if you acquiesce to their demands, it will never be enough. The reason for this is because of their desire for control over you, your beliefs, your ideas. They bully to invalidate anyone who isn’t like them. They lash out because they feel threatened. If they do, you can take comfort in the knowledge you not only did it right but your writing affected them in ways which left them deeply uncomfortable.

Your writing making people, especially toxic people, feel uncomfortable is good. Trauma is uncomfortable. Trauma is painful. Trauma leaves you feeling vulnerable and exposed. This is the antithesis of all our cultural bullshit surrounding masculinity, the whole “real men don’t cry or show their emotions” crap fest. Repressing your emotions doesn’t make those emotions go away. Ignoring your pain, especially emotional pain, because you don’t want to deal with how it makes you feel leaves you with a compounding bill in the future. You can avoid dealing with your suffering, but avoidance isn’t healing. Avoiding a problem doesn’t make it go away. Processing your emotions is a skill, just like any other, if you never learn to then it will be difficult until you do.

The answer to for dealing with toxic people is either to antagonize them, which is not recommended unless you have a strong stomach, or ignore them. Delete their comments, don’t publish their complaints, and ignore them if you have no control over their reviews. Give them the middle finger at every opportunity. Strangle them in darkness.

They are not voices you should be listening to. You shouldn’t fear them. Don’t let them control your creative process.

You will never make them happy, so don’t bother trying.

I really do mean that. As women, we are taught to put aside our needs for those of others, and prioritize the care of those around us even if we are suffering. If someone else is angry, it is our fault. The onus is on us to make amends, rather than the individual who reacted badly in the first place. We’re told we shouldn’t expect any rewards for these sacrifices, and, if we’re suffering, we should suffer in silence. You know, what? That’s stupid.

You’re not responsible for the behaviors of others. Other people are outside your control, how they choose to react is on them. Lashing out is a choice. The sooner you engrave your lack of control over others into your soul, the happier and freer you’ll be.

Always remember, there’s a difference between critical and cruel. The opinions of others are, similarly, just opinions. Sometimes, a critic will offer you something helpful, but the helpful only reinforces what you already knew. The rest of it isn’t.

Toxic people are never useful. They aren’t critics. They’re bullies.

Toxic people know, whether its conscious or not, the behavior patterns they are exploiting in their victims. They expect you to give them legitimacy through an apology, for “making” them upset. They expect their temper tantrums to carry weight because the person they’re angry at has been trained to pacify in order for the problem to go away. In their mind, the angriest dog pile wins. They can suffocate dissent or narratives which make them uncomfortable by attacking the source. They intimidate you into doing what they want.

Intimidation, though? It’s just fear. They have no control over you, and on the internet? They have less access than they realize. Intimidation and scare tactics work when the person who is being intimidated lets them. Maybe their intimidation tactics make you afraid, maybe they hurt your feelings, but you’re the only one who gets to decide what you do about it. They can say mean things, but those mean things are just words. Those words can hurt, but they can’t stop you. Abusers only have the control you give them.

The risk of putting your work out into the world for public consumption is that you may run into people who disagree with you, who criticize what you’ve written, or who will say nasty things about your work. You may also find lots of people who say positive things about your work too, but those positives are often lost in the negatives if you focus on what people didn’t like. You’ll never escape criticism. There is no “right way” to avoid being targeted. You cannot control what someone else will do or say about something you’ve written. What you can do is prepare yourself to decide what criticism you’ll accept versus the comments you’ll stick in the trash.

The truth is that not everyone knows better than you do. Just because someone has an opinion, doesn’t mean they’re opinion can help you. Complaints and criticism aren’t always a sign you’ve done something wrong, sometimes they mean you’ve done something very right.

The response of individuals to creative works isn’t good or bad. Most of the time what you’ll get is apathy. The vast majority of people who read what you write will never comment on it. If they didn’t like it, they’ll just leave in silence. People will ignore your work if it doesn’t appeal to them, they may read your book or short story but never bother with a review. If you’re writing upsets someone? Great! You’ve broken through their apathy and gotten an emotional response, that’s better than silence.

Don’t let fear of criticism decide what you write. If you want to write about trauma and recovery then you owe it to your readership to do your research rather than giving in to schlocky tropes. Approach the subject with respect, learn as much about it as you can, and take your risk. There’s so much information available on the internet for free, but don’t forget your libraries and reading texts by doctors on the subject. Regardless of what you do, you need to write. We learn by doing, you won’t improve unless you try. You won’t get it right on your first time, no one does. Everyone when they start is bad, regardless of talent. The practice, the learning from your failures, and the way you build off what you’ve learned are what make you good. You get more than one shot, you have as many as you choose to give yourself.

Regardless of what you do, if you get stuck worrying about what might happen, you’ll never finish your story.

Write now, worry later.

The eventuality you should prepare for now isn’t that toxic people will hate you, or target you, but that they won’t care. The most soul-crushing outcome is for your work to never move anyone at all, that it will be read only by a few people, if read by anyone, and the returns are much less in the way you hope they will be. The silence can be far more soul-crushing than any negativity you receive.

If people do react badly, give yourself permission to tell an unwanted critic, especially a toxic one, to fuck off.

– Michi

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Q&A: Platform

Fanfiction is good for creativity and can lead to great works. Which is good, I believe it (I’ve seen it). But how did 50 Shades get published?

angel-starbeam

In the specific case of E. L. James, she got there because of the enormous traffic that Fifty Shades of Grey generated over the years. Both as a Twilight fanfiction, and later after it was rewritten and published as e-books and in PoD variants. It spent roughly a year in that format before a publisher looked at the sales numbers and picked up the license for the trilogy. (For what it’s worth, I don’t know whether E. L. James approached Vintage Books, or if Vintage pursued the license based on buzz and PoD sales.)

So, how did this happen? A couple of things worked together. The original fan fiction was very popular. Popular enough to get readers to migrate onto a private site to read it. That’s a big deal. It’s relatively easy to cultivate a following on a social media site, but most people won’t jump to a separate site (even if they’re following a link.)

Fifty Shades hit a market niche that wasn’t being served. For our purposes now, it’s enough to understand that E. L. James’s specific take offered something that was absent in the mainstream romance genre. It is also important to understand that the romance genre is incredibly popular; so while Fifty Shades isn’t to my taste or (apparently) yours, a lot of people were willing to pay for it.

The short version is that Fifty Shades is a little bit of an anomaly. However, not as much as you might think.

The traditional publishing model was: You’d write your book, take it to agents, find one who’d shop it around to publishers and get it in print. With the growth of the internet, it’s become increasingly common to see new authors publishing their first works on their website. Authors such as David Wong and Dmitry Glukhovsky took similar approaches, publishing (what would become) their first novels online, with print releases coming much later, after their success was demonstrated.

One way to tilt the original model in your favor is by being able to show agents and publishers that there’s already a market for your work. If you can approach an agent and say, “I’m popular over here, and it will lead to sales,” it will make you more attractive. (If you’ve ever wondered how people like William Shatner or Snooki got published, here’s your answer.) This is a new way to demonstrate that. If fifty-thousand people will read your novel online, that tells an agent that there is a market for your work.

Self-publishing to your website isn’t a sure thing. Using the example of David Wong above, he was able to accrue around 70k unique hits during the time that John Dies at the End was on his website. That wasn’t enough to immediately convince publishers that the book was worth their time. (I can’t find full citations for those numbers at the moment, so treat the statistics with a grain of salt.)

Platform building can be a very important part of selling your book. Being able to say, “these are my fans,” can go a long way towards convincing an agent, or publisher, to take you seriously. The shape your platform takes is less important than the people on it. This can include fanfiction. A good example of that is Cassandra Clare, who got her start writing Harry Potter fanfics. She built her platform off that, and was able to bring in numbers that, when she was ready to jump over to original content, got the attention of publishers.

I’m focusing on the success stories here because we started with a discussion about E. L. James. For most people, the traditional model offers you best odds. An experienced literary agent is better equipped to advocate for your interests when negotiating with a publisher. A publisher who stands behind your work is better able to promote and distribute your novel.

E. L. James succeeded without that support, which is an extraordinary feat. Whatever your feelings on Fifty Shades, it was already success before it got in the door.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fanfic

Why do fanfic have a bad reputation when some of it is actually good or better than than the source material? Is writing as a guest for TV shows or writing a reimagined fairytale not fanfiction?

The key word here is, “reputation.” There’s a lot of really bad fanfiction out there. That reputation is earned. It’s not new. While particular “luminaries” of Harry Potter or Twilight fanfiction may immediately come to mind, we get things like the term Mary Sue from a Star Trek fanfic originally published in the 70s. This has been around for a long time.

The other side is: yes, some fanfiction writing is excellent. As with writing in general, this is the extreme minority. I’d argue that quality writing in fanfiction is rarer than most forms, because the author is likely to “graduate” from fanfiction into something else.

Writing for a TV show is not like writing fanfiction. A fanfic author can do, nearly, anything they want. They have their interpretation of the setting they enjoy, and complete freedom to explore it. If you’re signing on to write an episode of a TV series, you’re already constrained in a number of ways.

First: attaching to an existing property means you’re also going to have to contend with the style guides and setting bibles. In some cases, being attached to a tie-in novel means you’ll be fed your entire plot outline, handed documentation, and told, “write this.”

Second: as a writer in Hollywood you have the least influence on the final product. The director will take your script and then, kinda, do what they want with it. Along the way, the producers, the network, and actors may all influence it as well. Some of your ideas will end up on screen, but it’s not your work anymore. It’s a team effort. (Depending on your exact relationship with the director, your experiences may vary.)

The fantasy is that you will have freedom with the characters that you love, and your material will become entrenched in the canon. The reality is that you won’t have that kind of creative freedom.

Now, if it sounds like I’m being too harsh here; that’s what you give up. Many fanfic authors have broken into the industry because they were okay with giving up some creative freedom to professionally work on the properties they loved. There’s nothing wrong with someone doing this, but in the process they’ll be departing from fanfiction and moving into a professional writing gig.

Re-imagining a fairy tale, legend, or myth event can be fanfiction, even in commercial releases. You’re not wrong about this one.

Remember, I said the fanfiction reputation is earned. There’s a lot of bad fanfiction out there. However, that’s not the criticism it sounds like. In the range of statistics completely unmoored from empirical study; I suspect the vast majority of fiction writers begin with fanfiction. Even if I’m wrong about that, many do.

It’s important to understand that writing is like any other skill. You get better with practice. New writers make mistakes. Good writers learn from their mistakes, and grow.

Fanfiction becomes a safe environment for a new writer. It lets them experiment without having to take on the heavy lifting of things like world building, or creating an entire cast of characters from the start.

For many writers, fanfiction is a temporary home. You’ll outgrow it. Some choose to stay, it’s hobby, not a career, but they’re the minority. Most who try it will either move on to creating their own work, or decide this isn’t for them.

The result is fanfiction sees all the mistakes of new writers, and very little of experienced writers. Mocking someone for having been a fanfiction writer is a bit like mocking someone for having attended high school. It probably happened, wasn’t their finest hour, and doesn’t reflect on who they are now.

The thing about re-imagining a fairy tale is, while you’re not wrong, we all do that. The truth about fanfiction is none of us exist in a vacuum. We all read, we all watch things, we all draw inspiration from things we encounter. The media we consume shapes the media we create. In that sense, fanfiction is just the first step to making something of your own.

Don’t be content with who you are, when you can be more.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fight Scene Length

Do you have any advice for scene length/impact? I’m realizing that if writing a three page play by play of a sword fight is hard, reading it must be even worse, so I’m trying o shorten it up without diminishing its importance or the impact it’s supposed to have.

Usually, the shorter the better. I’ve talked about this before, but different mediums lend themselves to different approaches to combat.

Film and games thrive on a longer, drawn out, format. In a film, each strike can carry individual drama because you’re getting the responses of the actors. Film can also thrive on spectacle, a visually exciting environment and engaging choreography can sell a fight that, on paper, is fairly dull.

Comics thrive on spectacle. It’s not about how long the fight is, it’s about being able to have dynamic moments that your artist can bring to life. If you have that, your fight can be one panel or it can comfortably go for pages. I haven’t pointed this out before, but in comics, as a writer, you really need an artist who fits what you’re trying to do. You’re equal parts of a team.

In prose, you want your fights to be as brief as necessary. Note: “As brief as necessary.” If it’s just a fight between two characters, that can be over in a couple paragraphs. Even if it’s part of a larger battle, that stuff can be pushed to the side for this individual fight. However, background elements can intrude, extending the fight. For example: If a fight is interrupted by other characters, and one chooses to break combat to escape, you could have a much longer encounter without resorting to a blow by blow.

You want to avoid a rhythm of repetition at all costs. RPGs can easily break down combat into round after round of, “I hit them with my axe,” and the sound of dice rolling. There’s nothing wrong with that in that format. The experience that sells that is three fold: First: You’re a participant. This isn’t something affecting a character you care about, it’s affecting your proxy in the story. Second: The outcome is not preordained, you’re still rolling dice. Third: It was never about the content to begin with, it’s the people you’re there with. So combat that gets repetitive isn’t a problem because it’s not the main event. This is not true in prose, and one of the most dangerous things about transposing combat from a game system into prose.

This may sound a little stupid but, each time your character acts they should be trying to achieve a goal. Yes, “harming my foe,” is a legitimate objective, but if they can’t do that directly, they shouldn’t resort to, “I’m going to repeat the same action a dozen times hoping for a different result.”

If your character is in a fight, they try to attack their opponent, and the attack is defended, they need a new approach.

There are a few things your experienced character should do that will help with this. First, they don’t start with direct attacks, their first goal should be to test their opponent’s defenses. So, they’ll start with probing attacks, looking for weaknesses in their foe’s defenses. They’ll be studying how their opponent moves. On the page, there’s a huge difference between a character simply attacking, and specifically trying to tease their opponent’s parry to get a look at it. Once they have a solid grasp of how their foe fights, then they’ll probably move in for the kill. This could be complicated by other events. This is the background, the environment, or even sustained injuries. This stuff is not safe, and minor miscalculations could result in your character being injured, which then becomes a complication they’ll need to deal with as the fight progresses. If your character can’t exploit their foe’s weaknesses, they’ll need to find a way to open them up. This could include attempting to wound in order to create a future opening, or forcing them into a disadvantageous position. Once they’ve taken control of the fight and gotten it to a position where they have a decisive advantage, then they’ll kill.

While your character is trying to take control of the fight, an experienced foe will be doing the same. Obviously, if only one character knows what they’re doing, it will seriously impact how all of this plays out, and the fight will be very one-sided. It’s entirely possible the veteran will simply disarm and kill the rookie.

Impact is a more complex concept. I think the simplest way to describe it is: Impact is determined by how quickly, and sharply, and scene goes wrong for the characters.

In a fight scene, you want to clean it up quickly because your readers will get bored. When you’re asking about impact, you need to it to resolve fast or the impact is lost. The scene needs to transition from, “thing are going well,” to, “everything’s fucked,” in as few words as possible.

For example: Let’s look at that template above. You start with your protagonist testing their foe’s defenses, finding an opening, and moving their foe to a position where they think they have the advantage. Their opponent is struggling to deal with their assault, and then when they’re about to press and kill them, their enemy lops off your protagonist’s sword arm and executes them.

The part where things are going well can be longer, but it needs to go wrong, roughly, that fast. You can also foreshadow this in a lot of ways. If you’ve established that their foe is a more skilled swordsman than you’re seeing in that fight, you’ve warned the audience that this will happen, but in the moment they’ll think your protagonist is just that awesome, or that the villain’s reputation was unearned. It’s only after the walls are painted in blood that they realize you realize your protagonist walked into a trap.

The second thing about impact is, your audience will acclimate very quickly. You can get away with a hard shift like this, maybe, once per story. If you’re reusing characters, you don’t get that back, you’ve already turned things sideways once. If you want to hit hard again, it needs to be completely different. In the example above, if you started by killing a protagonist, you’re not going to get that kind of impact with another death. You’ve already told your audience that you’re willing to go there, and doing it again isn’t going to surprise anyone.

Fight scenes need to be as short as necessary. Impact has to as fast and hard as possible.

There is no, “this number of words/pages,” for how long a fight should be, because the answer will be different. It depends on the specific scenario. It depends on your style as a writer. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. The only universal answer is that you don’t want to waste words in a fight scene.

-Starke

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That’s Not How This Works

As a general rule, I don’t like to do this. We do get follow ups sometimes, and if it’s something I’d just tear into, normally, I’d let it slide.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy tearing a part a poor argument; less so when it was offered with innocent intent.

Hi. Regarding the anon who asked about daggers vs sword. I have some thoughts on the matter that might help. Daggers can go up against bigger weapons. The key is to understand the pros and cons of each weapon and the strengths and weaknesses of each wielder and use that to level the playing field. Plus no one said you have to fight fair. The sword has reach, but any opponent will have trouble fending off attacks from two directions… (part 1)

(Part 2) … With swords it’s about momentum and power, with daggers it’s speed. So, the swordsman will need better footing and more space. If the dagger wielder is smart, he/she can create a reasonable chance of winning. If your opponent is stronger, you have to be smarter and faster. If your opponents outnumber you, seperate them or increase your number. Everyone has weaknesses, exploit those while maximising your strenghts. It will still be a stiff fight but it gives you better odds at least

There are so many things wrong here. So, give me a second, and I will recount the ways:

Hi. Regarding the anon who asked about daggers vs sword. I have some thoughts on the matter that might help.

You are correct, you have “some thoughts.”

Daggers can go up against bigger weapons. The key is to understand the pros and cons of each weapon…

If you just stop here, it’s fine.

and the strengths and weaknesses of each wielder and use that to level the playing field.

And there we go.

No.

The entire purpose to a knife is that you do not want a level playing field. In combat, you never want a level playing field. When you are fighting to kill someone, and someone else is fighting to kill you, you do not want them to succeed. The safest way to ensure you win is by seeing that your opponent doesn’t even have a chance to fight.

A level playing field is just an invitation to getting yourself killed. For, somewhat obvious reasons, you do not want this.

Incidentally, yes, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent a very important thing. You want to engineer a situation where you’re at your strongest, and they’re at their weakest.

Plus no one said you have to fight fair.

We, literally, have a tag called, “the only unfair fight,” referencing the longer phrase, “the only unfair fight is the one you lose.”

More than that, Michi specifically referenced the use of the dagger as an ambush weapon. Those are also, ironically, some of the first words out of her mouth whenever we get a question on daggers.

The sword has reach, but any opponent will have trouble fending off attacks from two directions…

I realize this may sound novel, but you can’t flank someone by dual wielding. Your arms aren’t that long. You are attacking someone from one direction. If you want to attack them from two directions simultaneously, you need an accomplice. Amusingly, that’s a time when a dagger will shine. Your friend, with their sword, ties up the fighter while you slip in and shank them a couple dozen times in the kidney.

Ironically, again, this is what the parrying dagger in conjunction with the sword is for. You lock up the opponent’s blade and then stab them. The difference here is you don’t have a long blade to reach your opponent. Even if the dagger could lock the sword up (see the original post for why it can’t), they’re still left with the original problem of getting close enough to their target to hit them.

Blocking with swords isn’t the same as it is with hand to hand martial arts or blunt weapons, because your goal is to maintain the blade’s edge. Swords don’t clang together, they slide around each other in an under/up or over/under fashion. Your goal is to use your blade to get your opponent’s blade off vector to miss you while creating opportunity for counter attack. You angle your blade so the opponent’s slides off the sharpened edge. However, with deflections you aren’t actually stopping the blade’s force which means if you don’t redirect it far enough then it can still connect and you run the risk of moving directly into it on your counter attack.

Daggers needs to be able to redirect their opponent’s blade long enough that they can move three feet forward past the kill zone to strike their opponent with one or both of their daggers. You’re talking a three to five seconds difference to the fraction of seconds it takes for the swordsman to adjust their grip and counter attack off the redirection. That’s if the sword didn’t hit another vital place, like Daggers adjusted the sword off center and the blade still pierced their ribs or their thigh.

This is the point you’re missing, they don’t have to retract the blade (they can, and cut Daggers up the side), a small change in grip and stance is all they need to change a thrust to a hewing strike. It came forward, went down, and now it’s switched to an upward diagonal that’s caught Daggers in their side as they’ve moved forward. That hew has cut between their ribs and punctured their left lung. The fight is now over, and Daggers will most likely die. That’s if the swordsman stops with the hew, instead of hewing up, drawing back (cutting more tissue on his way out), and thrusting again with the blade point in single action to pierce another body part like the central chest or the heart.

Again, they never have to move their feet forward or back to do this. All it takes is a slight adjustment in grip, arms, and foot position. A swordsman can thrust from a stable position without stepping forward if the opponent comes within range, they only need to move their feet if the opponent is outside the blade’s reach.

Reach translates to: how far do I need to move from my centralized stance to strike my opponent. This is the true power of weapon length. Two blades of equal length will translate to a single step forward for both parties from starting position. Daggers will require two to three because they are hand to hand range weapons, while the sword requires one or none depending on whether they are the aggressor or defender.

While hand to hand combat will always naturally move inward, swordsmen and most individuals who use weapons are trained to maintain distance between their opponent which is advantageous to them. They will move no closer than necessary in order to maintain their weapon’s effective range. While knights did practice grappling techniques with swords, if you don’t also possess one, the swordsman will never come close enough to you in a way you can utilize.

With swords it’s about momentum and power

No, that’s an axe. A sword is a shockingly agile weapon.

with daggers it’s speed.

Partial credit here, but it’s incomplete. The other major strengths of the dagger are how easy it is to conceal, and how small it is. The amazing thing about a dagger isn’t how fast it is, it’s that you can easily pull one in close quarters and shank them with a weapon they didn’t see coming.

Speed only means, once you’re there you can poke a lot of times in quick succession. The irony is that an individual knife wound isn’t likely to be that dangerous. It’s all the immediately following successive strikes that seal the deal.

Somewhat obviously, if you can’t get close enough to stab someone, you also can’t get close enough to stab them a couple dozen times.

The swordsman will need better footing and more space.

The footing part is backwards, in the original scenario, the dagger user would need vastly better footing. A sword user does need more strength, it’s true, but the sword remains an effective deterrent against getting to close even in extremely cramped environments. This is less true of some specific weapons, like the katana, and even more true of some other blades, like the epee, rapier, or estoc, which can be used in a tight hallway.

On footing, to borrow an old quote, “I do not think that word means what you think it does.” Footing is your ability to remain standing. If you think a sword has so much momentum that it will try to drag off balance, no. Just, no.

When you’re reading or watching a training sequence, and the instructor is telling the student they’re off-balance, or over-extending themselves, that’s a fault of the student, not the weapon. It’s a natural thing, a student will try to press their attack using their upper body and not simply advance. It’s simple, it’s a mistake, and it’s one that can be easily corrected.

Fighters should be able to fight on all terrain, but all they need is the ability to set their stance to establish their internal balance point to create a stable foundation from which to attack. The swordsman doesn’t actually need to move much in order to be defensive. He can control the fight’s tempo by advancing if he chooses, or he can wait for Daggers to come to him. It will depend on which of them is the aggressor. Either way, the swordsman will be the more stable of the two because he doesn’t need to veer as far off his central axis to create strong strikes.

I’ll explain stance based movement to you. One leg, your back leg, creates your central point when you move your front leg to create the necessary momentum for attack. If you thrust, the front leg moves and the back leg stays, lifting onto the ball of the foot. If you want to move forward on that thrust, the front leg will become your balance supporting leg in the moment it takes for your back leg to come forward and assume the next position. Forward, back, forward, back. Or, if you’re being attacked from a different vector, the back foot becomes your pivot point. Sideways, back, Sideways, back. Your defense is centralized on that back leg. Over-extension happens when you’re upper body reaches too far past the front leg, destabilizing your internal balance point. If you want to judge how far apart your legs need to be to maintain balance, it’s all in the shoulders. On the other hand, the wider apart your feet are, then deeper your stance needs to be. If you need to stretch really far to reach someone on a full extension, or even over-extension of your arms, you’re going to need to get really low. Likewise, the taller you are, the more your knees need to bend in order to maintain balance.

This centralized axis in your stance becomes the point for your entire combat foundation. And, yes, for the experienced fighter, this is as simple as breathing and very quick. The movements of the upper body coordinate with the legs and hips, relying on that strong foundation for effectiveness.

Daggers requires two steps or more to reach the swordsman before they can deal any sort of hit, while the swordsman requires one or none. That’s reach.

If the dagger wielder is smart, he/she can create a reasonable chance of winning.

As discussed, by shanking the swordsman rather than getting into a fight.

If your opponent is stronger, you have to be smarter and faster.

And strength has what to do with using a sword, exactly? To be clear, we’re talking about a sword, not a machete. You’re not trying to hack your opponent apart, you’re using three feet of steel to selectively disassemble your foe. It’s different.

Longswords, historically, weighed between one to five pounds. If you can pick up a house cat, you’re strong enough to use a longsword. Acclimating to the weapon’s balance is a matter of training; which can make a sword “feel” heavier than it is when you’re starting out.

The longsword is a weapon of leverage, you utilize your second hand to create a rapid 180 degree defense allowing you to go from foot to head in fractions of seconds with a minute adjustment to grip. There are no big swings with wide openings here, but a focus on small movements based around the target’s center with strike adjustments based off that axis.

Swords are very fast weapons. Because of leverage, a sword can actually be faster than a dagger. I realize this is a wild concept because it violates basic ideas about physics if you’re only looking at the weapons.

This is actually a problem for fencing as a spectator sport. Points are scored so fast it’s impossible for the audience to follow the action. Hell, it’s difficult for the judges. This part of why the sport has moved towards electronic scoring. Simply put, it’s more reliable.

If your opponents outnumber you, seperate them or increase your number.

If your opponent outnumbers you in a one on one fight, you may have bigger problems.

Kudos for mimicking the Giles translation of Art of War, but, the suggestion is misapplied.

There’s an interesting error here. Sun Tzu frequently advises that you divide your enemy’s forces (or their attention) in The Art of War. This is very good advice; an enemy who is forced to into multiple simultaneous engagements will have a harder time identifying and focusing on the real threat. However, Sun Tzu almost never talks about is recruiting more forces. There’s a simple reason for this: If more bodies were available, and the logistics could support them, they would have already been recruited.

He’s far more interested in offering ways to use the available resources as efficiently as possible. Remember, Sun Tzu was offering instruction on command. “Simply get more guys,” is a tactical choice that occurs at a ground level.

Everyone has weaknesses, exploit those while maximising your strenghts. It will still be a stiff fight but it gives you better odds at least

Well, if you’re planning for a fight, a good place to start would be not bringing a knife to a sword fight.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Art of War, I’d strongly recommend it. If you want a physical copy, you can pick from a wide variety of editions translations and annotated versions. It’s the rare book where I’ll just say, you should read this.

-Starke

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Q&A: Mysteries, Witnesses, and Informants

In a lot of detective stories there’s often a shady character who can find out questionable pasts/ information about suspects for the detective. They have widespread connections with both upperclass and the underworld. Do these people actually exist? And how would a character get in touch with them?

I’m going to be blunt for a second, characters like this are cheating. It’s not a deus ex machina, but it is a cheap way to consolidate exposition onto a single character. You’ve identified one of the weaknesses for the character in your question; how did the investigator first encounter this character?

With armchair detectives, this role often gets filled with a semi-sympathetic police detective. In that context, this character makes sense: they have a background that would familiarize them underworld activities. For example: If there’s a power struggle between organized crime families, it stands to reason that a detective who works that field would have some insight.

Similarly, a police detective is far more likely to know about criminal activities in high society because even they didn’t investigate it personally, they’ve probably heard rumors, or know the detectives who were involved.

Flipping this around, it’s not that outlandish to suggest a seasoned detective would have contacts in the criminal underworld. It’s a more complex situation, because those contacts would have to weigh the information they’re giving the investigator against how much it would expose them to reprisal.

If the contact is criminal, they might have insight on events in high society that were covered up. This could be the result of police investigations, or it could be the result of corruption.

Bridging the criminal contact’s information over to high society requires a very specific kind of cynicism about the world. Your setting needs to have solid ties between the people in power, and the criminal underworld. It’s not that this is an unrealistic cynicism, as there are real world examples where this fits. It also meshes nicely with noir as a genre, as that kind of criminal corruption elegantly fits the genre’s themes.

So, the short answer is, the right person, with the right contacts, and the right background, could know what your character needs. That’s a lot of things that need to align.

It’s just as plausible that your investigator would need to pick up each of the pieces individually.

So, let’s step back from all of this and talk about the genre: Mysteries, and this includes the entire detective genre, are puzzles. You’re presented with many pieces of evidence and asked to assemble this into a coherent chain of events. Your detective’s investigation is the act of collecting that evidence for the audience. This includes examining physical evidence, and also interviewing witnesses. In the process of their investigation, evidence and witnesses will lead to more evidence and witnesses. This is how an investigation (and a puzzle) grows.

I called this omniscient information broker as cheating earlier. The problem isn’t the existence of a witness who can finally give the detective context to solve the mystery, it’s when that character is omniscient and doesn’t flow from the investigation. This is the cliche you’re questioning.

If your detective is questioning someone, they need to be connected to the investigation somehow. This can be pretty flexible; for example, your detective might question people who worked maintenance or housekeeping for the building where the event happened. Maybe they think one of the employees saw something (either on the day of, or before.) They may question one of the participants’ associates in an attempt to learn about what was happening in their life before the event. They’re probably not going to wander off and check with someone, “because they know a guy.”

If your witness is giving information to the detective, you need to consider what they know, and also what they’re willing to reveal. A witness can’t tell your investigator something they don’t know, and they’re not going to (intentionally) provide information that will harm them. A character who knows all, and will share, is the antithesis of the genre.

Getting at secrets is something your investigator should be working towards. Who they are will determine what access they have. A cop or ex-cop will have vastly different resources compared to someone who was a friend of the victim.

Could you have a character that fits the cliche? Yes. As with most cliches, there are ways to make it work. They became cliches because they were very useful, and now the suspension of disbelief has started to crumble. There’s still the potential for interesting material here as well. Particularly if the, “omniscient” character has their own agenda and can’t be fully trusted.

Do these people exist in the real world? Actually yes, but not in the form you’re thinking of. Most people do become repositories of weird information over time. The exact intersection of criminal activities and high society has certainly occurred in a few places, so for example, a crime reporter in post-war LA, or 1960s Vegas would certainly fit that specific combo. A political operative in 1930s Chicago? Same situation. (And, without checking, I suspect I just described multiple James Ellroy novels.)

Do you need them? Probably not. In building your mystery, you can pick your witnesses, and you probably don’t need this specific collection of information.

How do you find them? By following the investigation.

-Starke

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Q&A: Black Markets

What do people actually buy on the black market? Some of the things they supposedly buy (hair, sperm) seem odd or are things you can easily get for free. Male order brides seem silly because no one is going to believe you got a Russian wife in a day (or wherever they’re from). Buying babies seems more like pedophilia than adoption. Organs also seem strange because you don’t know what you’re getting or if they’ll be comparable. Aside from guns, what do people actually buy if they aren’t silly?

The simple answer to the first question is: products and services where the demand is not satisfied by the legal markets.

The conventional products you’d expect to see here are weapons and drugs, though depending on the economy supporting that black market you could also see more essential items like medical supplies, fuel, or even food.

The easiest way to calculate this is to look at the open market value for a product, slap on the markup for going through the black market (this will modify based on how difficult or expensive it is to obtain, and how dangerous it is to be caught with it), adjust up a bit more based on perceived risk of using the black market (and, yes, this a subjective modifier), and then ask, “is the product available for less than that on the open market?” If the answer is, “no,” then the black market wins out.

Let’s focus on medicine for a second. Under normal circumstances, medicine is a fairly well regulated industry. It’s also one where the consumer has no choice whether to participate or not. There is a strong governmental interest in imposing quality control. The consumer doesn’t chose to need medicine, and when they do, they’ll be under duress. This need can be easily exploited by the unscrupulous. “Go into horrific debt or die.” At that point, a black market option starts to look a lot more viable. The downside is that all of the normal quality control you’d expect to see isn’t there, this isn’t the same stuff you’d be getting through legitimate channels, it’s the bathtub brewed equivalent. In some cases, it may not even be the same medication, it’s something just close enough.

So, the classics are weapons and drugs. There’s always a market for weapons, and you’ll always see advantages for bypassing legal channels. Drugs vary, but, if they’re illegal, that’s black market. Essentials like food and medicine only hit the black market when they’re not readily available.

Luxury items that are otherwise unobtainable also end up on the black market. Usually this is because the luxury items cannot be imported or possessed legally. This is most common in oppressive or isolationist regimes. While this might sound sexy, more likely it will be mundane objects to anyone living outside of that space. We’re talking about things like posters, music, movies, and other pop culture paraphernalia which isn’t legally available.

If you live in the US, an excellent example of a black market luxury item is the Kinder egg. These are small egg shaped chocolates which include a capsule with a toy inside. They’re illegal in the the US, as the design runs afoul FDA regulations, so you cannot legally bring them into the country, or (somewhat obviously) sell them. There is, in fact, a significant black market for them, both as candies and among collectors (for the toys inside.)

Finally, and this is really important, there is no unified, “Black Market.” There’s many small black markets for a number of different products. A drug dealer is a black marketeer, that does not also make him an arms dealer, nor does it mean they’re going to have a supply of Kinder Eggs to sell.

Okay, let’s revisit some other parts of this:

Some of the things they supposedly buy (hair, sperm) seem odd or are things you can easily get for free.

Citation needed. Actually, strike that, I don’t want citation on this. I’ve never heard of black market sperm. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a potential black market for bovine sperm, but human? Yeah, I’m not going to dig into that.

The only market I’m aware of for human hair is high end wigs. Most commonly, you’ll see this quality associated with patients undergoing chemotherapy, though there are a number of other reasons someone would want (or need) a wig. I’m not familiar with much of a black market for this stuff.

Male order brides seem silly because no one is going to believe you got a Russian wife in a day (or wherever they’re from).

The phrase that comes to mind in this case is, “doesn’t matter; had sex.”

“Belief” doesn’t factor into this. It’s not about being able to go to your friends and say, “yeah, see, someone likes me.” It’s about the sex. No one cares why you’re in a relationship, unless it’s clearly unhealthy.

Mail order brides may also be about the domestic duties associated with marriage in a given culture. Ultimately, the mail order bride is the recourse of someone so narcissistic they don’t even want to look at their sexual partner as a person.

Buying babies seems more like pedophilia than adoption.

Ew.

Second, no. This one does track back to the same factors which control a black market. Someone wants to adopt. They may not be able to have children themselves. There may be other factors. They’re also unable to adopt through conventional channels. So, they turn around, and throw money at the problem.

I’m not giving this a pass. There may have been very good reasons they weren’t able to adopt through normal channels. Also, legitimate adoptions do cost money. It’s not a free service, there’s fees and sometimes legal expenses involved.

To immediately jump to human trafficking is a bit extreme.

Organs also seem strange because you don’t know what you’re getting or if they’ll be comparable.

Last I checked, black market organ harvesting was basically an urban legend. Like you said, there wouldn’t be much of a market if the organ isn’t compatible. On top of that, extracting the organ isn’t really something you can do in a hotel room on short order. (At least, not without killing the donor.) Also it’s not like you can just show up at the hospital with a spare kidney and say, “yeah, plug this one in!”

Since I should probably say, non-consensual organ harvesting is possible, it’s just not the kind of thing that works at a black market level. This requires extensive institutional support.

Black Market anon: I had a thought! Are the organs actually for cannibals instead of organ donations? Apologies if this is too weird.

No. What? Why?

-Starke

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Q&A: If Cowardice is the Absence of Courage, Clichés are the Absence of Detail

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on writing a “cowardly” character without making them “cliché”? Usually people write “brave” characters as not being afraid of rushing headfirst into combat, or the “cowardly” character is also shy but I find that boring. 

Well, you know there is the saying, “only fools rush in.”

The issue with the labels of brave versus cowardly is not that the issue is complex, but rather that people tend to apply them to actions instead of motivation. The same action can be brave or cowardly or neither, depending on who is doing it and why. 

I’ll break it down for you:

Coward – Cowards always take the easy way out.

“Cowardice is a trait wherein excessive fear prevents an individual from taking a risk or facing danger. It is the opposite of courage. As a label, “cowardice” indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge. “ – Wikipedia

Whether you will be a coward or not depends on the challenge you’re facing, those challenges can be physical (commonly understood as part of physical conflict and violence), but they’re also emotional, social, or facing what causes you fear or anxiety. A coward is defined by specifics, not abstracts.

Example: a great hero who goes on a quest to save the world in order to escape the emotional difficulties of dealing with their significant other or loved ones is, ironically, a coward.

Example: an anti-social individual who is circumspect and distant from strangers, but not afraid of social interaction isn’t a coward.

Example: an individual who rushes in because being called a coward negatively affects their self-image is… a coward.

There are plenty of times when people are called cowards when they aren’t, usually this has to do with confusion over action versus motivation and cultural bullshit about courage.

Courage – Merriam Webster’s definition of courage is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”

I think the key word for you to understand is “difficulty.” Courage is not about being fearless, it’s about facing what you’re afraid of. In a limited scope, only the individual can define what actions are courageous for themselves. No one else can tell you what to be afraid of, or define what’s difficult for you. If you are someone for whom the words and labels applied to you by others define who you are, then rejecting those cultural standards may be courageous.

You want to be careful about saying bravery is the absence of fear, or logic. Stupidity isn’t courage. Someone who lashes out because they’re afraid isn’t more brave than the person who runs. Running at your problem can be the same as running away. When you don’t consider the problem, you’re still practicing avoidance. Building up walls, filling your day up with pointless tasks, putting off dealing with what’s bothering you, those are all symptoms.

A character who isn’t bothered by or afraid of physical conflict isn’t brave or courageous. There are plenty of characters, like people, who will use physical conflict or action to escape from what makes them emotionally uncomfortable.

If you’re retreating into what makes you comfortable, you’re not being brave. If you’re taking stupid risks trying to prove you’re not scared of something, you’re probably afraid of it. 

Example: adrenaline junkies aren’t brave, they’re looking for a high.

If your character is talking back to a villain who would kill anyone else who wasn’t the protagonist for doing the same thing, they aren’t being brave… they’re engaging in author sanctioned stupidity. (I mean it too, there are plenty of authors who can’t handle their protagonist being powerless and use witty comebacks as a means of restoring control. Undercutting their villain, and the scene’s tension, in the process.)

How do you write it?

This part isn’t easy.

Writing characters who are brave versus characters who are cowards requires sitting down and figuring out what your characters are afraid of. You have to figure out what situations and scenarios are physically, emotionally, or morally challenging for them. That’s complicated, usually requiring a fair amount of self-reflection. However, it’s the only way to escape clichés.

No one likes dealing with uncomfortable situations or making challenging choices. If you use your writing as an outlet for your personal fantasies then writing characters who are courageous can be difficult because what is uncomfortable disrupts that fantasy. The power fantasy, for example, is tenuous and reliant on a narrative where things aren’t specific even if they’re difficult emotionally. Fears begin to define a character and the more a character becomes an individual, the more difficult it is for the reader to insert themselves into the story.

Depending on what you’re reading, many authors will steer toward the generic rather than specific or gloss over the fears entirely. We can make as many jokes as we like about “Pants” the protagonist, but the vague outline and generics serve a specific narrative purpose. 

If you’re using a novel where the protagonist is Pants for reference, then you might run into difficulties when writing. The narrative outline will steer you into generics, specifically for your protagonists. Pants can’t really be brave because Pants isn’t a person, they’re a simulacrum cobbled together from stereotypes. A shadowy outline of a person designed for self-insertion. While this is an intentional choice on the part of the author, it won’t help you when you’re writing.

Your characters are built from you, so the best point of reference is always going to be yourself. Which means self-reflection, acknowledging situations social or otherwise which make you or made you uncomfortable.

It is easier, for example, to have a conversation about your emotions and struggles with a complete stranger than someone who knows you. The reason is that the stranger doesn’t know you, can’t affect you, and you don’t need to see them every day so the conversation can’t have any lasting impact on your life. If you’re afraid of change, of the consequences of voicing your opinion, of those you care about disregarding what you have to say, then this can be a safe release which ultimately changes nothing. Is this courage? Not really, no.

Delving into our own weaknesses isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable, and it isn’t always fun. Poking at the wounds inside your mind or figuring out what you’ve been avoiding, what makes you feel insecure or unsure. Then taking those feelings to your writing, to the scenarios you’re structuring. You ask yourself questions about what your characters are feeling. If it’s hard, then why is it hard? If they’re running away, why are they running away? If they’re charging forward, why are they charging forward? What motivates their actions?

Specificity combats clichés. Clichés are by their nature generic, a character who provides specific detail to make the cliché about their personal experiences isn’t.

-Michi

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