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Okay, so this probably sounds like a really silly question, but I have to ask. Why do assassins get close to their target before killing them? Isn’t it more efficient to kill their target immediately?

Depends. Okay, so there’s actually 3 different possible meanings of “getting close to their target,” and I’ll hit them in turn.

If you just mean physical proximity, then, they usually don’t. A trained, professional killer isn’t going to want to be anywhere near the victim when they’re dropped unless it’s absolutely necessary.

If the target can be dropped with a high-powered rifle six blocks away, that’s a much safer option than going in with a garotte. No matter what popular fiction, like The Professional or the Hitman games will tell you. (To be fair, The Professional is a fantastic film, but as with most of Luc Besson’s work it’s not terribly realistic.)

Getting physically close to the victim is about making a statement. The assassin is declaring they’re untouchable, or trying to tell the world, “hey, I did this thing!”

It’s not a silly question. A great deal of modern spy fiction and most of the action adventure genre dealing with professional assassins prime the audience to view them in a way that is inherently unrealistic. This also involves burdening them with approaches to their kills that are unsustainable without the aid of authorial fiat. The general emphasis ends up being on the assassin killing, not on all the other aspects of the job needed in order for them to be successful. This approach generally relies on negating or outright ignoring the police and the protectee’s security service in order to present the idea of “badass superkiller1!1!!!!!!1”. If your primary view of assassins is as the Anime Ninja, or the action adventure heroes from R.E.D., or even the Hitman games where an assassin is just the new code word for “human killing machine” then I can see where it might be confusing.

If the kind of assassin you’re planning on writing fits into the categories above then you can feel free to ignore this post.

In a world that takes into account all the people out there (including law enforcement) willing and able to get between an assassin and their target, the game of cat and mouse an assassin has to play in avoiding the local authorities, and finding an opening to take a shot at an important person who may have upwards of twenty bodyguards watching their every move then the prospect of actually murdering them (much less getting away afterwards) becomes much tougher.

Besides what some video games and books might tell you, walking into a house and murdering everyone inside is the sort of action which makes everything worse. It doesn’t make it better and it’s not even viable in the short run. Bodyguards don’t line up in a shooting gallery, instead they’ll do their job. Taking the time to deal with them (and it does take time) will end with the assassin missing their window of opportunity as the rest of the security detail gets their boss to safety. Once the window of opportunity is gone, the mission is over. Your assassin has one chance to dance, if they blow it then it’s over. The more people the assassin fights on the way to their target, the higher the likelihood the assassin will get made. If the assassin gets made then there’s a good chance they’ll either end up on the law enforcement radar (lucky) or a criminal organization’s (incredibly unlucky). Either way even if they do escape, they’ll spend the rest of their life running.

This is why you get “close” to your target.

Getting Physically Close: Hallmark of the Political Assassin

The guy who walks up to the President and puts three bullets in his/her chest only to get tackled by some very angry members of the Secret Service is a person who wants to get caught. This is the standard conventional assassin and the one we understand best because there have been so many of them. They do it because they want to make a political statement, their imprisonment or death will lead to them becoming a martyr. In the grand scheme, there’s no difference between John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln and an al-Qaeda suicide bomber. Both acts are politically motivated and both are types of assassinations meant to draw attention to their cause (whatever cause that is). Getting physically close to the victim is about making a statement. The assassin is declaring they’re untouchable, or trying to tell the world, “hey, I did this thing!”

It’s worth remembering that President Obama gets 30 death threats a day, that’s 210 a week, and somewhere around 900 a month. All those threats must be investigated by the Secret Service. The more powerful a person is, the more enemies they accumulate, and the more people there are who want them dead. This counters all the people surrounding them whose job it is to keep them alive. The act of killing is the simple and easy part, it’s everything leading up to it that’s difficult.

Preparation is Key

A trained, professional killer isn’t going to want to be anywhere near the victim when they’re dropped unless it’s absolutely necessary. If they can manage it with a high powered rifle on a rooftop six blocks away then they will. It’s cleaner, easier, and safer that way. Still, being in the right place at the right time involves knowing their target, their habits, their security plan, and where the holes are to find the opportunity necessary to take the shot. They also have to scout the environment ahead of time, locate a place to prepare their setup with an understanding that their target’s security will be looking for exactly that. You might think sitting up on rooftop with a rifle waiting to take a shot would be easy, but it’s not and, unlike in most movies, there’s no one who will do the work for them.

Your character will not automatically know where to go or what to do. The more they know about their target the better they can predict their movements, the better they can predict their movements, the more options they have if or, really, when things go wrong. An assassin must always be one step ahead of their target and they can’t stay ahead of them if they don’t know them.

Preparation is the key to success.

Is it really more efficient?

There’s a choice every character must make for themselves: do I want to kill the once or do I want to kill multiple times? If you decided to become an assassin tomorrow then you’d probably follow the protocols that media has prepared for you as do most would be assassins. It’s what gets them caught. “What would I do if I were an assassin?” is a great opener for crafting a newbie.

Ignoring law enforcement agencies and desire for retribution on the part of the surrounding individuals who might not be too happy that their friend, loved one, hero, or source of paycheck just got offed is a mistake and it’s an easy one to make.

Take some time and investigate the other side of the equation. Watch some Law and Order. Then think about it from the perspective of all the people who are going to investigate and hunt your assassin down. Collateral and Lucky Number Slevin are great movies to watch on this account because they’re all about the shell game involved in an assassin covering their tracks or getting close to their target. In Collateral, the assassin (Tom Cruise) pays cab driver (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around the city as he performs his hits. While the assassin’s behavior toward the cab driver is friendly and amiable, we learn from the cops investigating the initial murders about a cab driver who went nuts and killed a whole bunch of random people in one night before committing suicide. I’ll give you three guesses for who really killed those people.

The goal is going to be get in, get out, without anyone the wiser. Often leaving a fall guy to take the blame (like the cab driver) or covering the killings by using another rational explanation. The first season of Elementary for example involved two assassins who covered their tracks in different ways. The first one murdered people in the exact same way every single time in order to make it look like a serial killer doing the deed, some of the people he killed on his spree were his targets but others were just random innocents who fit the profile. He only popped up every few years and each time in different places. Because the cops were looking for a serial killer and not an assassin, they missed the key motivations necessary for uncovering his identity. Thus, the assassin was able to continue his business while the cops chased their tails looking for a pattern that wasn’t there.

The second assassin covered his kills by using conveniently timed accidents to do the deed. He pushed an air conditioner off a three story building onto a passing man below (freak accident), cultivated a colony of particularly nasty bees along the workout route of a woman who had a deadly allergy (natural death), and murdered a man by disrupting the signal to his pacemaker and giving him a heart attack (hardware failure). If you look at all these victims as individuals and not at their relationships to each other then each appears to be a random accident. In that case, there’s no need to investigate further. (It’s always worth remembering that most law enforcement agencies are buried in cases that cross their desk. Homicide is a great look into the life of a homicide detective and the world of unsolved cases.)

Of the three, Collateral is the most realistic which is why I recommend watching it once and then with the commentary turned on. It’s very helpful.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

For Your Assassins:

Ronin, I know we’ve plugged this one a bunch lately. It’s not a fantastic film, but it is a fantastic thing to watch to get a look at operational preparation. That is to say, the things your assassin needs to do in order to get access to and kill their target.

Collateral is a pretty good look at both assassin and general criminal psychology. Again, we’ve plugged enough lately you should be familiar with it.

Lucky Number Slevin is a bit off-beat, but the entire film sets up a shell game to hide what’s actually going on. It’s a decent example of someone getting close to the target without blowing their cover.

Hitman: Blood Money is a murder playground. This is one of the very rare times I’ll actually recommend a video game for anything. There’s some seriously puerile elements, but it does basically leave the player with free reign to deal with the environment as they see fit. If you’re wanting to see why someone might try to pass themselves off as a member of the cleaning staff to get into a facility instead of camping outside with a rifle, this might be a good thing to look at.

For Your Investigators:

Elementary,Technically almost any faithful representation of Sherlock Holmes will work, but if it’s not Elementary then your best bet will probably be the Jeremy Brett series from the 80s and 90s. Also, if all else fails, and you’ve never read them, you should probably look at the original stories.

Law & Order is an absolute must view, probably in binges, for getting a feel for your cops. The show is slathered in it’s New York City identity, but a lot of it carries over elsewhere. In my opinion, the series really gets going in the third season, but feel free to look at some of the other seasons for a different mix of Police and members of the DA’s Office. Southland is a decent primer to update you to the current climate.

Homicide: Life on the Street is the unpleasant cousin of Law & Order. Again, you’re looking at street level detective work in the mid-90s. But the show is focused more on the psychological strain of the job, as opposed to the procedural techniques. These shows should really be watched together as two sides of the same coin. I’m told The Wire is the decent update to 20 years later, but I’ve never gotten around to it.

Not So Helpful, But Good Movies Anyway:

The Professional is like most most Luc Besson films, not terribly realistic, but it entertaining and quite good. Jean Reno’s character is, unfortunately, a major part of the modern myth of a professional assassin.

Red, this is actually an adaptation of a comic by Warren Ellis. Keep an eye on Helen Mirren and Karl Urban, they’re good references, and their characters don’t really exist in the comic. Especially the way Urban’s character preps and cleans crime scenes.


I’ve been curious about this for a while: how do you train to not freeze up when you’re attacked? It seems like a lot of novels conveniently gloss over the “I got stuck between flight and fight mode” thing, but how do you really overcome that? Does preparing for “surprise attacks” in a dojo or something similar really work, or not really, since you’re already kind of expecting it?

Most recreational martial arts won’t teach you how to avoid freezing up because they’re not technically teaching you how to fight outside of a controlled environment. This is why coupling recreational martial arts with self-defense training is important because it’s not so much about training your body as it is training your brain. “Professional” martial training i.e. someone who performs a dangerous job for a living where they have to be watchful will receive training in what to look for and practice being ambushed as it’s a problem they’re much more likely to have to deal with.

Even a trained warrior can get stuck between flight or fight mode if they get caught off guard. So, the trick becomes not getting caught off guard. It’s a matter of mental preparation and practice while being out in the real world.

There’s really no way to beat the fight or flight response, or even really retrain it. There is a way to avoid it. We do this by being mentally ready or when faced with a dangerous situation that hasn’t erupted yet (say you’re being threatened by a very large guy, large guy already wants to hurt you but hasn’t acted yet) you have to leapfrog past their mental point on the attack ladder and be willing to go first, even take the initiative.

It’s hard to surprise someone who is expecting to be surprised.

However, you can’t just do this in a safe environment like on the training floor. It has to be out in the real world, learning to look at the world differently, learning to assess threats from people around you. So much so that it becomes habit to simply scan the room or check the dark alleys, to see the guy who is following you, to keep a heavy improvised weapon like a flashlight in the side door of your car just in case.

The most important aspect of training isn’t what it conditions your body to do. In my martial arts training for third degree, we’d circle up and perform “surprise attacks” on a member in the middle. It was only with a set of techniques but you never knew if it was going to come from the front, behind, anywhere. It was merely a test of our body’s ability to react and perform under pressure. (And the sort of test you only give to black belts because they have the physical control to do it.) Would I say it prepared me for “defending myself on the street”? Not really.

Again, it was a test of my ability to physically react to threats within a controlled environment. Did it build my confidence? Sure, but it was with people I knew and trusted. Learning the mindset and tactics used by people who want to hurt me in a self-defense seminar and strategies for dealing with that? Just as valuable, if not infinitely more so on a practical level.

TLDR: the goal is to get into the mental “ready” state before the fight even begins, this is how you beat out “fight or flight” because there’s no reason for it to trigger. If you expect trouble, you won’t be surprised when it happens.

Alternately, also read this post we did On Psychological Shock


Love & Horror – Kindle edition by Kris Noel, Danny Hynes. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Love & Horror – Kindle edition by Kris Noel, Danny Hynes. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

On Unfortunate Implications

In fiction, we often use the supernatural and fantasy races as analogies to real world situations. We can say that it began with Buffy, but that does the genre a disservice. Linking vampires to sexual freedom and using them as an analogy for the dangerous sexuality of foreigners goes all the way back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Horror, mystery, speculative fiction have used monsters as stand ins for xenophobia, repressed sexual urges, and countless other social issues. Both horror and speculative fiction have always been venues for which we talk about real world issues and fear in different guises.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with writing a story about monsters where the monsters are analogies for the fears and worries we have about growing up. Werewolves, for example, make for an excellent parallel to going through puberty. The issues pop up when a writer decides, accidentally or intentionally, to make their monsters thematically representative of a real world issue. When you explicitly make your werewolves about sex, remember that you’ve also opened them up to a discussion about rape. If your story involves a violent act on an unwitting party and spurred on by traumatizing transformation then yes, you may indeed by dealing with a rape analogy. Making magic, particularly demonic possession, your stand in for a discussion about mental illness is more than a little awkward given the history of treating mental illness. The discussion cannot simply be waved off because you don’t want to have that conversation. If you choose to start it, you will end up telling a story that says and means something vastly different from the one you intended.

For example, in Paranormal Romance and some Urban Fantasy, there’s a disturbing trend of supernatural creatures who want to be “normal”. There’s nothing wrong with this concept or desire in isolation. In fact, it’s a perfectly natural to want what society tells you you’re supposed to. Nearly every person experiences this desire at some point in their lives. However, there’s a difference between a swinging single young woman with a history of abuse entering into a relationship with the average handsome romantic lead and a werewolf jumping into bed with someone who has no clue that they just ate the neighbor’s cat (or used to kill runaways in Atlantic City on long weekends before they decided they didn’t like it anymore). When we step back and realize that most supernatural communities are treated as the equivalent of criminal organizations, mobster families, or gangs in their worlds then the process of leaving becomes much more complicated.

How do you feel about characters who knowingly endanger the lives of their loved ones without their knowledge or consent? Who knew they would be endangering their lives by entering the relationship before it even began? Is it romantic to sign the person they claim to love up for a gruesome death because their desires are more important than their lover’s life?

It doesn’t matter if you’ve decided that your character is a good person. It doesn’t matter if they’re supposed to be a hero in the context of their novel. There is no out to a dangerous lifestyle, there’s only delay. They know this, or they should, because most stories will bend over backwards to tell us how intelligent their protagonist is. If your character is a supernatural monster engaging in turf wars or a monster hunter or merely existing trying to get by, they’ll have made enemies. Those enemies aren’t going to simply go on sabbatical and hang up their hat just because the character has decided they’re done. While this can be a good source of drama in a story, it’s also worth noting that any character who does this is a selfish asshole. They can be a hero and an asshole.

What I’m saying is that it’s slightly different when a character discovers their boyfriend/girlfriend is a telepath who has been reading their mind the whole time after they’re already emotionally invested. Telepathy represents the ultimate breach of privacy and a character should have a choice to decide whether they want to have their minds read at all, much less realize that their “perfect guy” is literally knows their every whim. When the thread of the novel revolves around the idea that the love interest must acquiesce to allowing this character inside their mind (whether or not it’s within their control) and the character making no move at all to even negate the effects says very little about how much they value their lover and their right to privacy. When the novel ignores these problems, it becomes an issue.

For a real world parallel, how would you feel if your boyfriend hacked your Tumblr without your permission? How would you feel if a guy you’ve been crushing on at school did because he wanted to know more about you? Not just Facebook stalk or Twitter stalk, but a full on investigation into every aspect of your life. Instead of talking to you, he reads your diary and decides you’re the perfect girl for him. You don’t even get a chance to tell him you like him, he already knows. He’s decided you’ll be together, you can’t say no, and everyone in your life agrees with him. They think he’s great for you even though he’s been in your bedroom rifling through your underwear drawer.

Connotations and implications do matter, there’s a disconnect when the author says one thing about a character that doesn’t match up with who the character is in text. What your characters do and say, how the novel approaches their problems, who you choose to say is your character’s True Love, all these things matter.

There’s an easy solution to the problem which is allowing other characters to react in a realistic manner and sort through their feelings without being pressured or introducing new information to make the previous transgressions okay within the narrative. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if there’s a good reason for their harmful behavior. Kant is bullshit.  Regardless of intentions, justification is just how we live with ourselves and the choices we’ve made. It doesn’t mean other people have to be okay with or accept the choices we’ve made.

“I’m sorry I was a dick, but I was only doing it protect you!”

This doesn’t change the fact that one character hurt another character and now these two characters have to sort out where they’re at in the context of their relationship. Own it, your story will be better if you hold your characters to the consequences of their actions. Don’t force your characters to stay, give them the choice to walk away. Maybe they stay, maybe they don’t, I personally never know until I’m working in the moment. I’m often surprised.

In the end, there’s no way of escaping Unfortunate Implications. We are all flawed human beings shaped by our experiences and cultural prejudices. Despite our best intentions, they’ll always be there. All we can do is attempt to mitigate and address the problems we find. The trick is to acknowledge that they’re there and work to circumvent them both with our world building, plot, and characters. Handwaving or ignoring the problem won’t make it go away nor does it mean you automatically have to dislike or hate those characters because of it.


How do I improve my dialogue

Since you’re asking us, I’ll make the assumption that you’ve already checked elsewhere and gotten the basics. If you haven’t, then, there’s decent primers here and here. With thanks to The Writing Cafe for compiling this list of general writing resources.

Stephen King’s On Writing scatters dialog advice through the book. It’s more holistic, and interested in talking about how to be better as a writer, but, if you haven’t read it, grab a copy.

If you’ve already done all that, and wanting more advanced advice, then I can offer some random thoughts:

When it comes to fight scenes, remember that talking is not a free action. (With thanks or ire directed at D&D and TV tropes for that phrase.) Everything your character says in a fight is time they could better spend recovering and preparing for the next strike. I know it’s a genre staple in anime and manga, but outside of a deliberate homage, it’s just going to be bad writing. Cut your combat dialog down as hard as you can. It needs to be information that really cannot wait, or at least that the characters think can’t wait.

I have a minor preference for hearing dialog over reading it. Which means when it comes to dialog sampling, I put a slight priority on watching TV series with good writers over extensive reading, but, I also go read some of what they’ve written, and this isn’t a free pass to just binge watch whatever you want and say, “no really, I’m learning to write.”

Don’t try to copy another writer’s dialog style. You’re not Joss Whedon, and actually nailing the idiosyncrasies of his dialog takes a lot of work. It’s not that you’ll never be able to mimic another writer’s dialog patterns, but it’s a really bad way to start because he’s breaking rules you shouldn’t. Also, I’m singling out Whedon because I see so many writers (both amateur and professional) try to ape him, usually with disastrous results.

Whedon’s schtick is the way he mutilates the English language. It’s part, “in ways science never thought possible,” part teenager with an undefined attention deficit disorder (I’m not throwing this out there as a pejorative, his work reads like of someone trying to sound like they have an amalgamation of ADD and ADHD). Obviously, it works for him, but he’s walking a very fine line between sharp dialog and sounding like grammar is a thing that happens to other people.

Obviously, I’m not just talking about Whedon, though. Chances are, wherever you’re going to look at good dialog, you’re going to see a writer that habitually breaks the rules. Be that something like Aaron Sorkin’s obsession with context misalignment and high tempo conversations that run headlong into walls, or Straczynski’s habit of dumping entire pages of exposition into his dialog.

Look at them, study what they do, but don’t try to copy their styles.

Collect and study idioms. This is one of the things to do when you’re listing to other people talk, or reading other writer’s work. Just keep a mental list of idioms. Make sure you know what it means, and where it’s used. No, it wouldn’t make sense for your SoCal teen to say, “that dog don’t hunt no more.”

Also, remember that idioms are language specific, and are consistently one of the hardest things for a non-native speaker to pick up. So, non-fluent character probably shouldn’t be breaking out complex idiomatic phrases.

The reason is fairly simple: while idioms might follow normal grammatical rules, the meaning is, completely, arbitrary. “That dog don’t hunt no more,” has nothing to do with hunting or dogs. “Butter them up” has… well, none of those words actually mean anything. And of course, your reflexes are too good for metaphors to go “over your head…” …or something.

The insidious thing about idioms is, you already have a huge library of them. They’re a byproduct of how we use language on a day to day basis. What you need to do is step back, filter them out, and make sure they’re appropriate for your character, especially when your character comes from a vastly different background. Then, listen for ones that you don’t know.

Also, please resist the urge to re-purpose an existing idiom into your non-modern setting. “Like a cop eating doughnuts” getting adapted into your high fantasy story is like what Garfield strips are to comedy. Just, don’t do it.

On a related note: keep track of dialect changes. America doesn’t have a completely unified dialect. Cambridge was doing studies and surveys on the subject a couple years ago, though most of the easily accessible information now is just raw data. This isn’t huge stuff, but just word choice between things like “soda” and “pop” will change depending on where in the country you, or your characters, were raised. This is easily one of the hardest things to get right because of how subtle it is.

Keep track of verbal crutches and tics. Using words like “like,” “literally,” or “actually,” as flavoring particles. It’s something a lot of real people do, but be careful to moderate your characters, so they don’t use them too much, and so their verbal tics don’t match your own.

Just because you know what your character is trying to say doesn’t mean your other characters will. I mentioned context misalignment with Sorkin, earlier, because it’s something he uses for laughs. But, your characters are separate individuals, while dialog is about them interacting, it doesn’t mean they’re approaching the world with the same perspective, even if they think they’re agreeing with one another.

Actually, while we’re on this subject, remember your characters are separate people, with different interests, motivations, and backgrounds. It may seem unrelated, but it is important to keep your individual characters in mind when writing their dialog.

Do not try to be “enigmatic” with your dialog. Dialog is there to convey information to the reader. Conveying information between characters is a happy accident that happens along the way. Having someone trying to be deliberately enigmatic without a very solid character justification is just asking for messy, obnoxious dialog.

Also, note that pissing characters off with enigmatic dialog can be conveying information to the reader, it’s just not what the person is saying that matters. Just, be very careful with it.

If your characters need to use some kind of verbal code, make sure you translate that for the reader.

Don’t break the fourth wall in dialog. It’s fragile enough, it doesn’t need you taking a sarcastic claw hammer to it.

That should give you some things to start with.



Some links I have found in various Tumblr Posts that I have saved on my computer. I do not take credit for collecting all these links. Unfortunately, I did not have the mind to save/note where these various links come from. Thank you to whoever compiled these links together.

General Writing Tips, Guides and Advice

How to be Confident in Your Writing
Start Your Novel Already!
Why First Chapters Matter
How to Outline a Novel
Incorporating Flashbacks
Word Building 101
Common Mistakes in Writing
Tips on Getting Started
What Not to Do
7 Tips to Become a Better Writer from Stephen King
How to Use Reading to Become a Better Writer
Why Writers Must Read
How to Finish What You Start: A Five-Step Plan for Writers
31 Ways to Find Inspiration for Your Writing
10 Tips to Write Fanfiction
Writing a Blurb
10 Writing Tips
Perfecting Description
Point of View
Speed Up Your Writing
Recieving Bad News
Useful Writing Apps
Avoiding Clichés
Writing Lessons
Finding Inspiration

Plot and Conflict

What is Conflict?
Where’s Your Conflict?
Adding Conflict to Your Scenes
Guides for Using Inner Conflict That Makes Sense
Plotting Your Novel
Internal and External Conflict
The Top Ten Plotting Problems
The Elements of Plot Development
Plot Help
Writing a Plot Your Own Way
Plot Development
Develop a Plot
Tension and Conflict
Your Plot, Step by Step
Plot vs. Exposition
Plot and Conflict

Character Development

How to Describe the Body Shape of Female Characters

Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar

Placement of Speech Tags

All About Names

List of Names

Genre Based

20 Tips to Writing Love Scenes


Word Count

hi, so two of my characters are going to fight, they are both female, highly trained and genetically engineered so they are faster stronger etc and one of them is much more malicious than the other and has years more experience so I was wondering if you had any suggestions for dirty/brutal fighting/tricks. I can’t think of anything other than like those knives that come out of peoples shoes in mobster movies.

You know,  a character can be brutal and malicious in their combat style without resorting to dirty tricks. It’s worse here because you’re writing women and the common sense assumption is that if a woman is good at combat (especially if she’s evil), she must be cheating.

Besides, a dirty trick in combat is a knee to the groin or throwing sand in your opponent’s eyes. Essentially, dirty tricks are just all the things you can do to someone to debilitate someone and take them out of the fight before they can fight back. And, as anyone who’s been in a real fight will tell you, fairness is relative. After all, The Only Unfair Fight is the One You Lose, Brutally.

Skill in Combat Can’t Be Faked

Now, there’s some sheer terror involved in having an antagonist who is simply flat out better than the protagonist and for the scene to have tension, this character has got to be able to hack it.

When most non-practitioners think about cheating, they’re thinking about it the context of “I pulled the paper down off the internet”. “I’m cheating because I’m too lazy to do the work”, “I’m incapable of doing it on my own”. The difference is that a fighter has to actually be able to execute the illegal technique and they have to be able to do so (and do it well enough to get away with it) under the supervision of people who know what they’re looking for.

“Accidentally” hurting your opponent will not be treated as an accident. The supervisors know what they’re looking for and if this character “accidentally” hurting their opponents is a continuous habit then they’ll bear the cost for it. It’s also worth noting that accidentally wounding your opponent in traditional martial arts and in most sparring matches where the point is emphasis on skill and precision is the practitioner lacking in skill. A truly skilled cheater will make their opponent look like they fucked up and in a situation with multiple eyes on you, all of whom know what they’re looking for, that’s not easy.

If they can get away with it, especially multiple times, then they’re really damn proficient. Cheating in a martial arts context is about using techniques that endanger the health and safety of the practitioners in the sparring match. It’s only valuable if the emphasis on skill is not hurting your opponent (because you’re not allowed to kill them anymore).

These two characters are probably military, right? You can’t adhere to martial arts tournament rules because the focus of the training is different and thus what constitutes cheating and bad behavior will be different. Beating each other to a bloody pulp may be an attitude expected of the top recruits. Depending on your setting, the degree of injuries allowed to be inflicted will be significantly higher and injuries will be more common. They’re trained to hurt and kill, hurting each other in training is to be expected.

And, believe it or not, your villain/antagonist is not the first person in their setting who has thought: “I can gain an advantage by doing something I’m not supposed to”. Why does this character believe they can get away with this? If it’s easy to do, why isn’t everyone doing it? (And no, don’t say it’s because they’re evil. That’s not a legitimate answer.)

The rest is below the cut.


Cheating is in the Eye of the Beholder

When we talk about martial arts and cheating, we’re talking about characters using techniques outlawed in a controlled environment/friendly competition like a tournament. The techniques are outlawed because a tournament is not a real combat situation, it’s essentially a practice match for money and is done with the understanding that everyone is going home healthy. This story is set in the future (probably) or in some fantasy setting with magic science, if this character is actually cheating then they’re breaking rules meant to ensure the safety of both people participating in the bout. What counts as cheating will depend on your setting’s rules and the rules that govern this match. Again, if these are genetically enhanced killing machines, then you can’t really expect them to do anything other than what they’ve been trained to do. (Brutally murder.)

What is honorable combat?

No, really. Honorable combat is just a code meant to govern social behavior, to protect society and, more importantly, maintain the current power structure. Who the code protects is often limited and in the words of Captain Barbossa “they’re more like guidelines than actual rules”. You follow the rules because they keep order and support the rules because the rules protect you. In a place like a training facility and any other controlled environment where the rules are easily enforced, it’s easy to color inside the lines. When you leave the safe confines of the world you know and travel more dangerous territory, the lines begin to blur. See: Spec Ops: The Line, Apocalypse Now, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

After all, when you’re used to fighting for your life: the only unfair fight is the one you lose.

There’s No Better Weapon Than Experience

The experienced combatant is the most dangerous combatant.

Not speed, not power, not strength, not talent, not even skill. Experience, they’ve been through it and they’ve come out the other side. They more they’ve seen, the more prepared they are to face unexpected challenges. You can’t quantify it on a stat chart, so it’s a difficult one to understand.

We are shaped and changed by our experiences. Through them, we learn and grow. Practical experience in the real world is better than a thousand test scenarios run in safety, where the variables are controlled. It’s difficult to take experienced combatants by surprise. Experience can build confidence through victory and erode it through defeat. They’ve survived their losses and triumphed. If they have a reputation, it’s probably earned.

Obviously, they’re not invincible but one character having more experience than the other is a wide gap. The mind drives the body. The more confident and experienced the warrior, the more likely the victory.

A Character Who Is Confident and Comfortable With Their Skill Level Will Not Feel the Need to Cheat

Especially not against a character who is less experienced than they are/who they do not regard as a legitimate threat. Cheating and underhanded tactics are the province of characters who cannot win or who do not believe they could if they tried.

What is the character gaining by cheating? Other than it being the evil option, what exactly do they get out of it?

Honor, glory, respect, and reputation aren’t really answers unless the character is an idiot. Proving their mettle and showing their skill in combat will earn them more dangerous assignments, not less. It increases the likelihood of their deception being exposed. They can fake it until they make it, but to achieve success they do actually have to make it.

“I Don’t Like Them/I Don’t Like Their Methods” Does Not Mean Bad At Their Job

Don’t let your protagonist’s personal feelings about this character govern how you (the writer) and the greater narrative perceives that character. Whether this character is famous or infamous, they get the assignments they do because they get the job done. Or someone in command.

Viciousness and brutality are combat choices, they’re not cheating. An example of this is the fan produced Punisher short film (tw: graphic violence, violence against women, violence against children, implied rape) Dirty Laundry with Thomas Jane (starred in the 2004 film) and Ron Perlman. Or this sequence from Spartan with Val Kilmer (tw: graphic violence). Or this (slightly over the top) scene with Angelina Jolie in Salt.

Antagonist and evil are not synonymous with incompetent. If they’re doing well, it means someone with power in this organization likes their work. It has to be more than a few someone’s too, so not just the bad guys. If they’re known, they’re known for having done something. Which brings us to:

Reputations Are Earned, Not Given

We get places by being competent. If someone has a reputation, it’s not going to be just because. They’ve been out there doing stuff. That stuff may have been dirty, but it likely didn’t involve any tricks.

Cheating Is An Easy Out

I don’t mean for the villain. I mean for you, as the writer, it’s the easy way out. If the character cheats, then the protagonist can place the blame on outside forces. “I failed because she broke the rules”, “I failed because she cheated”, “I failed because…”, but never have to wrestle with the question “Did I fail because I wasn’t good enough? Wasn’t strong enough?” and more importantly has to ask “is that really what it takes to win?”.

This is having your cake and eating it. The protagonist loses (oh no!) but it wasn’t through any failing of their own (don’t worry, reader), if only that dastardly antagonist had played fair then they’d have gotten their ass handed to them (next time!). By not having them face an opponent who is legitimately better, you’re cheating your protagonist out of their character growth. They never have to really question themselves, question their beliefs, or question their understanding of how the world should work. What they take from those lessons is up to you, but it’s important for your character at least ask them.

I do understand the temptation. Especially when working female combatants, there’s a certain knee jerk reaction to the idea of them being weak, of failing, and so the narrative works to find excuses for why they did. But, failing is a part of being human. It’s a part of learning. The first failure is what gives the reader their sense of satisfaction when the protagonist comes back to win. It’s a justification of their struggle, their questions, and their hard work to better themselves.

Sure, both The Karate Kid and the remake with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith involved the hero overcoming injuries dealt him by his opponent via cheating (though this is treated as a black mark against the movie’s real villain, the rival Instructor) and his returning to the ring injured to face his tormentor in a head to head is incredibly moving. But it’s the first failure and all both Dre and Daniel’s hard work leading to that point and discovering the true meaning behind martial arts which give the moment so much meaning. (It’s also worth noting that the kid who hurts Dre and Daniel is a sacrificial lamb and is disqualified from the competition. The rival Instructor knew he was harming his student’s future competitive career by doing so and, in this context, his willingness to do whatever it took to win is what made him evil.)

Through the Mirror Darkly

Step away from your protagonist for a moment and think about this second character. Don’t think of the protagonist or what you want from the fight when you think about them. Look at their past and their experiences. People don’t start bad. They have reasons, often compelling ones (beyond traumatic pasts) for why they behave the way they do. Sometimes, they’re driven to it. More often, they choose it. Why they chose their path and their methods is important because your antagonist, especially the older, more experienced fallen warrior is the mirror of your protagonist.

The threat of Vader is that he is Luke or that Luke is him. Luke cannot shake off the fear that he is going to become Vader, even though he initially scoffs at the idea. As he progresses through the trilogy, every test and interaction he faces forces him to question himself.

“You will be me” is the central threat and what defines the protagonist is how the choices they make are different from their predecessor, mentor, rival. The difference between Luke and Vader is not that Luke is a better fighter really, it’s just that Vader cheats. It’s Luke knows when to stop fighting and accept he cannot win through force alone or control the actions of others. This is the central theme of his journey and the Lightside/Darkside conflict. Likewise, Vader’s unwillingness to give up control of events is what ultimately doomed him.

Some other good match ups: Buffy versus Faith,  Captain America versus The Winter Soldier,

Are They Dangerous or Not? What Kind of Dangerous Do You Want Them to Be?

The implication with cheating is that their skill is all smoke and mirrors. If they were fighting by the rules, they’d lose. Remove the extraneous weapons and advantages they rely on and they’re easy to take down. Pick a Saturday morning cartoon or goofy Stargate episode and you’ll find this trope all over the map. This doesn’t mean you can’t make it compelling, it’s just worth noting this is the first check in the Cartoon villainy handbook.

On the other hand.

This character is vicious, they’re brutal, and they’re not above hurting (possibly even crippling) one of their own in order to establish their superiority. When they walk into a room, they radiate power and authority. They’re good, they know it, and they’re not afraid to use it to their advantage. Someone who is willing to use excessive force to get what they want and protect what is theirs. Basically this guy, (tw: bullying, preteen violence). Picture that happening between two girls or two grown women and you’ll be well on your way to the kind of attitude you need. (Seriously, this makes the above so much more awesome.)

Reference, because this list is mostly full of boys, Emma Teo, 13 and under Girls, CMX Forms, US Capitol Classics and China Open, Noell Jellison, 13 and Under ISKA World Championship Open, Haley Glass, 13 and Under Girls CMX Forms, US Capitol Classics,Dayna Huor, US Capital Classic’s Forms Grands, Sammy Smith, 14-17 Girls CMX Weapon’s Forms Grands, etc. (These are all exhibition performances, not combat, still watch the attitude.)

Other things you might want to keep in mind Archetypes of Female Martial Artists, Child Martial Artists training (Shaolin Tagou Wushu School).

On Writing: Girls Hiding As Boys


Let’s say you’ve got yourself a female character, but she needs to hide as a male character for plotty reasons.  How does one go about hiding their gender?  It’s so easy, I’m going to tell you how to do it in two simple steps!

  1. Conform to the host culture’s visual cues that indicate male gender.
  2. Tell everyone you’re male.

Ta-da!  That’s it!  You’re done!  Let’s take a look at why.

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