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Weapon Primer: The Sword (Europe)

The sword is one of the most iconic weapons you can give your character. Unfortunately, this also means swords are very contextual; depending on your setting, your sword will say a lot about the character you give it to, regardless of your intent.

This post’s going to be a little different from our normal fare. Usually, when we’re doing a write-up of a style or weapon, we just talk about how you use it in combat, and how it behaves; with swords, we’re going to also need to talk about what they mean for your settings and cover some of their history.

That said, you should not be citing this for historical accuracy. I’m going to be condensing thousands of years of history into a very short primer. What this means is, I’m glossing over some historical idiosyncrasies. If you’re using an actual historical setting, and not an amalgam of an era, then you’re going to need to do more research on the people and weapons of that time.

The Shortsword:

Shortswords are among the earliest examples of the weapon, dating back to the Bronze Age. These started out as simple blades between 12 and 24 inches in length. The length of a shortsword was limited by the available forging technology. Early Iron Age shortswords were single bladed, while later ones, such as the Roman Gladius were double edged.

The shortsword itself lacks a lot of the subtlety and grace that we usually associate with swords. The characters were likely trained to use the weapon in tight formations with other soldiers, with a focus on chopping strikes. Duels between character wielding shortswords are more like writing knife fighting.

The Greeks, ancient Egyptians, and Romans all used shortswords as standard military weapons, supplemented with spears. If your setting is patterned off any ancient Mediterranean culture, the shortsword will probably be viewed as the weapon of a soldier or a veteran. There is a catch here, single bladed shortswords doubled as machetes in climates where they were needed, so depending on your setting there may be a distinction between shortswords that are tools and those that are weapons.

The Longsword:

Longswords are dependent on more advanced forging techniques. The first longswords emerged late in the first millennium AD. By the 1100s they had evolved into the European longsword we’re familiar with. Unlike the shortsword, the longsword was, for the most part, rare and expensive in Europe during the medieval era.

As with most weapons, how your character has been trained will massively influence the way they wield a longsword. Most longsword combat you see in films is built off of dueling schools; which differs from most sword combat in the use of parries. Blade on blade parrying is very destructive to a sword. While this isn’t an issue for an aristocrat who won’t be fighting another duel this month (or was using a rapier), for a soldier or knight, it is a critical issue. Their training was to evade incoming attacks, rather than to block with the sword.

Most longswords are double bladed, allowing the combatant to rapidly reverse a hew (slash); this allows for rapid flurries of multiple strikes. Most combat with the weapon focuses on quick strikes, with as much efficiency of motion as possible. Wide heavy strikes have a limited place in combat, while spinning strikes (what you see from Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films) is almost exclusively an exposition technique.

Depending on your setting, a longsword can say a lot about who your character is. If your setting is patterned off of a Viking or Celtic themed era, then the longsword is a fairly normal weapon for raiders and warriors.

If you’re using a realistic medieval setting, then swords are very rare, and the purview of nobles, their knights, and the rare elite mercenary. If you’re using a variant of the standard medieval fantasy world, then the longsword becomes a sign of nobility. Giving a peasant a sword to subtly hint that they’re really the long lost true heir to the kingdom is, well, cliché. Even Star Wars does this, accidentally.

Fencing Swords:

Unlike other swords, fencing blades began as civilian weapons. They doubled as a sixteenth and seventeenth century fashion statement, and a weapon for dueling.

Fencing weapons are one of the easiest to study, if you have an interest, the foil, epee, and saber are have all been preserved as sport styles. With a very important caveat: unlike most sport martial arts, fencing reduces its lethality by blunting the weapon, and armoring the combatants; the underlying style is still incredibly lethal. Remove the armor and the blade caps, and a fencer’s training is as dangerous as a practical martial style.

Fencing is where we get most of the blade on blade parrying from. Rapiers are, in general, much more focused on stabbing, rather than slashing, so the blade is, somewhat less critical than the tip.

Fencing is also (probably) where we get the concept of dual wielding swords. As early as the sixteenth century, it was fairly common to pair a rapier with a shortsword or buckler. The shortsword was used to parry incoming attacks, rather than as an offensive weapon.

Fencing blades are one of the easiest weapons to justify training in, for a modern character. Fencing schools still exist throughout Europe and America. It’s viewed as an elitist sport and is usually in the domain of the rich, much like horseback riding in urban and suburban areas. It’s a very expensive hobby. (Michi Note: I looked into fencing once when I was younger, Stanford ran three to four week summer courses. For reference: it cost 400 dollars, this was in the late 1990s and didn’t cover the cost of the equipment. My martial arts lessons cost less than that to pay up for the whole year.) Part of this is because fencing is a very difficult sport to spectate; matches are fast, and the scoring is very complex. Most modern fencers are trained in styles that originated in the nineteenth century.

They’re also one of the easiest weapons to see some actual sword work with. A lot of old Hollywood films, used fencing coaches for all of their sword fights, so, there’s a large body of work out there. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good starting place. (Michi Note: the old swashbuckling films, particularly the Errol Flynn films that star Basil Rathbone such as Captain Blood or the Adventures of Robin Hood and the old Zorro movies are pretty great. But really, any of the old Hollywood swashbuckler films from the 1920s to the early 1950s.)

If you’re using a renaissance era setting, and your character’s family is wealthy (either because of nobility, or as a merchant or artisan), the Rapier, Foil, or Epee is a reasonable choice. It doesn’t carry as much baggage as a normal longsword would. This is the weapon of a fop who wants to pretend they’re a warrior, the weapon of a noble who wants the world to see his status, the weapon of an actual professional duelist, or some combination of the above.

Cavalry Swords:

Cavalry swords, like the scimitar and saber are long thin curved blades designed to be used from horseback. These are primarily slashing weapons. The blade is curved to avoid getting caught in an opponent while rushing past them on horseback. The crossguard is contoured with the same goal. These started filtering into Europe from the Middle East around 1200, about the same time the first firearms made their way into European warfare.

As European powers transitioned to using firearms as their favored weapon of war (roughly the 1400s to the 1700s), the sword, along with other melee weapons started to fall out of favor.

Probably because of the difficulty of reloading on the move, cavalry kept their swords. As with other combatants they would start with a volley of gunfire, but then switch over to swords during the charge. This disrupted enemy infantry, who were trying to reload.

Also, early firearms weren’t accurate; rifling wasn’t invented until the 1700s, before that it was incredibly difficult to hit specific targets, as the bullet would tumble randomly once it left the barrel.

This led to another significant change on who would be carrying a sword. If your setting is based on the Napoleonic era onward, the saber was the badge of office for a military officer, or cavalryman (or cavalrywoman). For that matter, the saber actually still exists as an optional part of an officer’s dress uniform in a number of martial services, and was a common as an officer’s badge of commission up into the First World War.

If your setting is an Age of Sail style world, then you’re looking at a variant; the Cutlass. It grew out of officers being given swords to indicate their rank, and wandered off on its own. It isn’t completely historically accurate to give all your pirates and sailors swords, but, because of the nature of boarding a ship at sea, cutlasses and pistols were common weapon choices. At this point, I’d say, you’re within the expectations of the genre, and have fun.

Idiosyncrasies:

I’m going to point out a couple of those idiosyncrasies I skimmed over, before anyone asks. The longsword didn’t get more expensive in the dark ages, the economy of Europe changed, and the sword became comparatively more expensive. I’m not going to do a full write up on medieval European economics, I’m sorry. (There is a very good write up on D&D economics here: http://forum.candlekeep.com/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=10821 which can be applied to most medieval fantasy settings.)

The saber is, historically, both a fencing blade and a cavalry blade. Actually the introduction of the scimitar into Europe might be part of where the fencing blades originated from, I’m unsure.

Finally, there were longswords before the Vikings; they date back to the seventeenth century BC. They also were a vastly different weapon in combat from the longsword that evolved from the Viking Sword.

-Starke

Some Thoughts on Tension

 Hi there! Your blog is a plethora of helpful information, so thank you. I have a request–do you have any tips on writing tension? I think tension is 100% crucial to every story, but it’s hard to perfect and easy to under- or overdo. Thank you!

-beowulf-is-cooler-than-you

Thanks so much!

My advice for tension is that you always need to have your characters in some kind of real peril. There needs to be a possibility for them that they won’t win or else the tension in the scene and even for the overarching plot of the story will fall flat.

I always tell my characters both hero and antagonist that it’s an open race, whoever works the hardest will win. While I do plan my endings, I tend to get better results out of my villains if I give them the possibility of winning. I also get more worry and fear out of my heroes because they don’t know what’s going to happen next if they haven’t figured it out for themselves. One of the major tension killers in stories that I’ve seen is when a character is cheating through the author or the character isn’t facing resistance from other characters in the story and everything is going their way. A great way to build tension is to tell them ‘no’, slam doors in their face, and don’t have everything negative that happens to them somehow tie back to the villain.

For tension in fights, start building the tension before the actual combat occurs. You can build it in the way you describe the scene, what they notice about their opponent, what they know or don’t know about their opponent going in, letting the reader know that things can go screwy and actually having things go screwy in the scene itself. If they’re doing something stupid or getting into a fight because they’re angry, upset, or acting out, punish them for it. The other characters can get there too late, even if they don’t die, they can be injured. If they’re the best fighter in the group, how will the story change if they’re going into the ending on a broken arm or a broken leg? Who will be there to pick up the slack?

For example:

In The Hunger Games, how would the story have changed if Glimmer had broken Katniss’s bow and her arrows? How would it have changed if she’d broken it in front of Katniss, like when the Careers had Katniss caught up a tree and were planning to kill her? Katniss may have gotten out of the situation, but she would have lost what the novel sets up to be her greatest chance of survival and in a way, it would have been her fault as much as Glimmer’s because she abandoned the bow for safety when the Hunger Games started. Her opponents know that she’s the designated favorite to win because of that bow, again, her chances hinge on it. So, why not destroy it or get rid of it in some way?

One great way to build tension is to show your character’s greatest strength (if they’re super good at anything) and then take that away from them. The skills they’ve built their whole lives and taken pride in are no longer useful, helpful, or they’ve been cut off from the resources that allow them to make use of those skills. Suddenly, the favorite becomes the underdog and even the jaded reader is given a reason to worry.

The more real you make your story’s world, the better the tension you can create will be.

1) Always have some sort of active villain or antagonist in the story (it doesn’t have to be a person) with supporting circumstances that’s working against your character.

2) Make sure you give your character weaknesses and flaws that are useful to furthering the plot. Force the character to somehow be put into situations where they’re forced to deal with those fears and flaws. This will create great tension. Remember, a character can fail themselves.

Example: In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, we’re introduced early to Indy’s fear of snakes. We know he’s afraid of snakes, so when he’s trying to recover a clue for the Ark and he’s faced with a whole lot of snakes, we the audience worry whether or not he can overcome that and thus we have another source of tension in the story outside of the physical antagonists to worry about.

3) Never be afraid to ratchet up the tension and run your characters ragged if that’s the kind of story you end up telling. Just remember that a story where the tension is constantly high can become boring if the character’s don’t have some kind of stress valve, the valve doesn’t have to be pleasant like most kinds of humor. There’s nothing wrong with ripping your characters apart, so long as the themes, the events, and the plot somehow support that. If it’s not, then a stress valve might be needed. A time for everyone to stop and breathe between the different bouts of action, for the tension to be released, and give the reader a chance to relax.

Think of tension like a roller coaster, you wind up, the brief gasp as you see the plunge before the bottom drops out and then the car races downward. The best rides always leave a few loops where the car has to slow down, the riders pause, laugh, and wind up again on another go before the ride completes.

I hope this has been helpful. I think that’s the best I’ve got at the moment.

-Michi

I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Empowered: Self-Confidence, Bullies, and the Martial Artist

In the real world, martial training (almost always) builds self confidence. This is one of those easy to overlook character building elements. What it means is, martial artists don’t, normally, have crippling self-esteem issues, they are less likely to be bullies, and less likely to be bullied. (Michi Note: this counts on a physical level only, martial artists and other trained combatants are just as open to being verbally mocked and emotionally abused. It’s just less likely that it will escalate to physical violence beyond some basic intimidation.)

This is a general rule based off experience with many different martial artists from a variety of backgrounds over the years, but there are exceptions. Keep in mind that martial artists are people, just like everyone else, with their own unique outliers and edge cases. So, first, remember that this article is about “most” martial artists, and if your character is supposed to be some fringe case then that’s fine. You just need to make sure you point out that they are a fringe case, or else your audience might assume the behavior is normal within the context of the story.

Second, martial arts training won’t cure mental illness. It can provide good coping mechanisms, but if a character has self-esteem issues from a personality disorder, then, again, that’s fine. (However, the normal caveat about mental illnesses applies: if you don’t want to be offensive, don’t write about one you don’t have a lot of experience with. It’s best to spend time with people who have the disorder that you know well, if you were not born with the disability yourself, and a clinical understanding of how it functions is also a good idea.)

Ultimately, if you are wanting to write a character with serious self-esteem issues, you can’t simultaneously say they’re a great fighter. It just doesn’t mesh with reality; like a professional chef who has no sense of taste or smell. It’s a possible character, but it’s weird, and contradictory. We’ve talked a lot about how the mind influences a fight, what we believe about ourselves and our own skills will influence the outcome. Negative beliefs like “I won’t get away, I’m too small and fragile, I suck, I’m terrible, I’ll get in trouble if I hurt someone, it’s better if I don’t do anything at all,” etc, have the serious potential to lead to a losing bout or the death of that character. The body is the weapon, but mind is what wields the body. Talent only gets you so far, undeveloped natural talent is just that: undeveloped. Natural talent is nothing compared to training and experience, and prodigies are nothing without the will and desire to make something of themselves. Those whose lives have always been easy have a very difficult time when the going gets tough (and it will always, eventually become tough). They are unused to facing resistance and are more likely to give up because of it.

So, a character with serious self-esteem issues will have to get (or has already gotten) over them in training, at least in the context of their training and their skills, or they won’t last long. Now, a lack of confidence in the beginning along with minimal skill can be a driving force for a character to desire to become better. But that changes the character from a negative outlook to a positive one: “I can do this, I want to become better, I will work harder,” etc, thus hurting the story’s concept of a character with shattered self-confidence, because a character with no self-confidence at all won’t really be able to believe in themselves.

I’d be lying if I said, I knew exactly why martial training builds confidence. I suspect; it’s a culmination of the ability to defend against potential attackers, the normal result of learning a new skill, and possibly some of the thought processes martial arts training attempts to instill. (Michi Note: There are some principles of the Fight Club mentality at play, this coupled with discipline and a general focus on respect and humility, help to keep the jock mentality at bay. Overcoming your own fears has a powerful effect on the way you see yourself, especially if it revolves around overcoming and working through significant amounts of pain and exhaustion.)

Additionally, martial art schools present a lot of opportunity for someone to keep challenging themselves, and pushing further. This means that any impulse to be “top dog”, will be captured and channeled within their school, rather than against random people on the street or in their (normal) school. They are focused and goal oriented in their desire for self-betterment and in a good school surrounded by those who will help them (and those they can also help) to achieve their goals. Martial arts, for the most part, is a focus on self-betterment and self-empowerment. (Michi Note: Professional fighters have a habit of landing in the jock mentality, but that might be because of a tangible “top dog” position coupled with money and fame.)

Martial artists make poor targets for bullying. This comes down to how bullies usually pick their targets, they’re looking for weaker prey. Bullying (almost always) originates from internal self-confidence issues. Training won’t always cure a bully of their behavior, but it reduces the appeal. Martial artists are unlikely to become bullies after their training. In fact, the confidence most martial artists present usually removes them from the bully target category. This doesn’t mean they’re immune, a bully can misread the martial artist, and I’m not accounting for stupid bullies here. (Ones that think they’re actually better fighters than the martial artist, and deliberately seek them out, in an effort to assert their dominance. (Though, I’d strongly caution you against using deliberately “stupid” characters in your writing. It’s very easy to end up with a character that adds nothing to the story.)) If the bully does misjudge the martial artist, their ability to defend themselves is usually enough to send the bully looking for a new victim.

It’s important to remember that most bullies aren’t looking to be seriously challenged and there is a huge difference between a character getting up in the bully’s face and giving them the casual brush off. If there are a number of individuals present to back up the leader bully, then the leader bully might be forced into a situation where they have to retaliate.

(Michi Note: when I was eleven, there was a girl in my class who was upset when I challenged “what she wanted” during an in class Greek Gods roleplay. Afterwards, she tried to physically intimidate me (with her much greater height and stockier body by crowding my personal space) into capitulating and never challenging her opinion in class again. Her attitude and body language suggested that she was used to being able to cow the other girls and even boys because she was so much taller and so much stockier than the rest of us. I was confused, because it was just a class exercise and I was playing my role. So, I told her “no” and wandered off. I found “bitch” scratched into my desk the next day, but it never went any further than that and she actively avoided me from then on. The fact she was trying to intimidate me didn’t even occur to me until years later, I just thought it was strange at the time…by that point I was pretty oblivious to bullies anyway.)

Sanctioned Violence versus Unsanctioned Violence:

It’s important to remember that the above only really applies if you’re character is a martial artist. A martial artist’s violence isn’t sanctioned. If they fight in the real world they face much the same, if not greater, legal threat as the person who is attacking them. They aren’t protected by law or by the government the same way someone employed by the government or a private firm working with the government is.

Characters in professions where the violence is sanctioned face different temptations. When a cop kills someone, they’re up before the review board and often, the crime is swept under the rug. If a soldier kills someone (unless they kill another soldier) then for the most part, they were just doing their job. There is a serious temptation to become a bully or have a bully appear in places where the power dynamics are different, especially in jobs where the perpetrator doesn’t have to fear any sort of reprisal.

It’s also important to think about for authors, not just from an in-world context but also outside of it. We’ll do an article on the dangers of action protagonists and ending up with a bully, because it’s a common occurrence in fiction to have heroes who are nothing more than author sanctioned bullies. It’s very easy, especially in a world where all violence is controlled by the author, to end up with a character that never faces consequences for their actions even when they are performing bully behavior, whether that be emotional or physical.

In Summary:

So, keep in mind that martial artists don’t normally end up as football style “Karate Kid” jocks and your character can’t really win a hand to hand fight without some level of self-confidence. This doesn’t mean they’re overconfident, they can be confused and worried by experiences that are new and different to them. But their lack of self-confidence in those areas can’t be crippling and can’t really extend into all aspects of how they view themselves and their lives.

-Starke

(Michi Note: we’re still moving, we were working on this one slowly all weekend. We’ll try to get other stuff up, but we’re heading into a major push this week and weekend to try to get everything out and moved. We probably won’t have internet the week after that. We’re trying but life stuff comes first.)

Fight Write: Watch the Whole Body

The way a trained combatant watches someone, whether it’s a potential attacker or just a friend at the bar is different from how an untrained person does. This is to be expected, when the writer is a practitioner who knows what they’re doing. But I’ve seen it skipped over often by other writers. I do understand why, of course, this is actually a very difficult thing to do if you haven’t been trained to do it, told what to look for, or spent a significant amount of time in the sparring arena. So, let’s talk about a trained fighter’s ability to track movement, tells the body exhibits before a strike, and what your character will notice before they’re even in the thick of it.

Watch the Chest: You can see the muscles moving in the chest, beneath even a heavy coat, before they ever reach the shoulders or the arms. It’s a much better method of identifying which hand the attacker is going to lead with than just watching their hands or their shoulders. The muscles in the chest provide a clear view of the torso, straight down to the hips, which is where the lead in for a kick always begins. When you know what they’re going to do, it becomes easy to avoid it. Over time, a character will check for this automatically without even thinking about it.

Watch the Eyes: The eyes telegraph, they telegraph a lot about what a person is thinking or feeling before they even begin to think about attacking. You’ll see a lot of trained fighters scanning an area as they walk to the car or enter into a busy bar, getting a layout of their surroundings, and checking out and noting each of the faces, how long they hold their gaze, etc. Humans are also animals and what the eyes say about dominance and submission will often tell a lot about the way an individual will react. Staring into someone else’s eyes for a length of time can be a sign of dominance, dropping your gaze quickly can be a sign of submission. Staring into someone else’s eyes for any length of time during a fight can have a somewhat hypnotic, uncomfortable effect on the opposing individual.

In a fight, the eyes often drop to the strike zone the attacker is intending to hit. This can be faked of course, but that’s unusual. The split second where someone is trying to remember where they put their weapon, be it on their belt is an opening. If they aren’t watching you, this gives you an opening to attack. I was once told by a woman, who heard it from a cop, that there’s a disturbing trend among young women who consider it rude to say no when someone asks them the time. Stop and think about this:

A man comes up and asks “Excuse me, do you know what time it is?”, the woman like so many now a days, doesn’t wear a watch and her phone is in her purse. She says, “sure, just one second” and reaches into her purse or pocket to get her phone, her eyes leave the man, he clocks her over the head and drags her off into the bushes.

It can happen that fast.

Wide Peripheral Vision: Martial artists have a habit of having very wide peripheral vision, this is also true of soldiers. They are trained that way and are used to blocking strikes that come from outside their field of vision.

Training Means You React Faster: Someone who is trained will react faster than someone who is not, they will react along the lines of how they’ve been trained. They see the shoulder in the beginnings of a punch, they will react with a block, the vector of the strike and their training will determine what kind of block it is. After the block, there will be some sort of counter.

We’re talking the time it takes for your brain to realize something is wrong, that information to reach your hand or leg and for the muscles to react. For a trained combatant this will be a matter of .5 seconds as opposed to a full 2 to 5 seconds. It’s important to note that some variations of Martial Arts training like Krav Maga specifically work to bring the speed of reaction down to around .25 seconds through drills and widening the student’s field of peripheral vision.

So, how does this translate into your writing?

When your character is out and about, even if they’re filled with concerns about their own life or in the midst of an intense conversation, throw in a sentence about what they notice in the world around them. They may not even really notice that they’re doing it, but for the audience it will be a tell.

It’ll go something like: ‘Thought’, the guy over there has his hands on his hips, could be a knife. ‘Thought’, the girl he’s with is too invested in her book to notice. ‘Self-absorbed thought’, rain on the ground makes it muddy, finding my footing will be difficult, should I go over there? ‘And so on.’

Description + choice= action. Always remember that when a character takes action, they are also taking the responsibility for that action onto themselves.

Before the first punch or kick is even thrown, have them notice the movement in the chest and torso, notice where another character’s eyes are looking, or even just have them be aware of the posture of the other character’s in the room. This doesn’t require lengthy description of every little detail, just a throwaway line about how someone else is standing, where their feet are, where the weapon is, and where their hands are in position to their face and to the character before the fight happens. You can bury it in a paragraph way on top of the page or on a different page in the buildup. When a fight starts, it should be immediate.

Example:

His chest and shoulder pulled back. Then, he swung. But Alice’s left hand was already moving as she caught his roundhouse with her wrist and drove her right fist into his throat.

-Michi

Fight Write: Some Thoughts on Height and Weight

“She’s taller than me, heavier too. She’s got the height and weight advantage.”

This sounds good, doesn’t it? It sounds right and reasonable, like the character knows what they’re talking about. Except, they don’t. Assume for a second that the character who says this is maybe five foot six and the girl who says this is maybe five foot two, and that seems like a big difference. It certainly is visually, but the two have a difference of maybe twenty to forty pounds between them. That’s not actually a lot, even if one was to knock the other over. So, when does weight matter? When is height important? The answer is not often and not a lot, depending on training. An untrained fighter is mostly at the mercy of their opponent’s brute strength, so height and weight start to become very important. But what about for the trained fighter? The approach varies, depending on the style and the size of fighter.

With the exception of a few, pertinent points, height and weight actually matter a lot less than you might think they do. So, let’s talk about the advantages and the disadvantages of these two. Maybe, we’ll even debunk a few preconceptions along the way.

Small versus Tall:

It’s important to say when I talk about height and “short” on this blog, that we say short as the descriptor for anyone under 5”10 or around 6”. This may sound strange for some of you, because that relegates most women to the position of “short” even when they’ve been considered “tall” their whole lives. I could say this has to do with a median of male heights and most fighters in America being around six feet, but the truth is it has nothing to do with a person’s actual height at all. The difference is a mental one and small versus tall is reoriented into “advantaged” versus “disadvantaged” fighters. This is where the male versus female outlooks become relevant. Male versus female is not so much a difference in body type as much as a difference in how they see the world around them and shift their combat style accordingly. Tall, male versus short, female is usually how many martial artists break it down. However, because these are learned skills that doesn’t mean that the outlook cannot be adopted by a student of either gender, regardless of how physically tall or short they are.

This is where things get complicated. Most of the common wisdom about fighting that gets spread in society has zero basis in reality, the mind, how it sees the world, and what it’s been prepared for is actually much more important than a character’s physiology or their body type.

Remember, like any weapon, it’s the mind that wields the body, not the other way around. How someone sees themselves is more relevant to how they fight than what shape their body is.

There are only two questions you should really ask when your character is facing a taller or shorter opponent (someone who is taller or shorter than they are): what has my character been trained to do? Have they been trained to deal with opponents who are taller or shorter than themselves?

Most fighters who have trained to think of themselves as “tall” will discount a shorter opponent if they have no experience fighting them. A character with a “short” outlook will tend not to discount anyone on the basis that they’re used to being the smallest, weakest thing in the room and they have to fight harder to prove themselves.

On the physical side:

A character who is lower to the ground will have a lower center of gravity, this means that they won’t have to bend their legs as far to reach a stable stance to keep themselves from being knocked over. This also means that when dealing with a heavier opponent (while standing), they have more time to adjust for the weight before they drop so low that their knees can’t support them anymore. They will also have a better sense of balance, if they’ve been trained for that.

On the whole when we’re talking about women (in the physical sense only), the female body is more compact than the male one. Everything is just a little tighter and more evenly proportioned. This doesn’t mean women can’t be lanky, but they are usually less so than men. This affects their sense of balance and their ability to adjust under the weight of a heavier opponent, it’s true that a woman usually will be unable to develop the brawn of a man but they counter that by having better coordination and control overall.

Weight:

There’s some confusion about weight and fighting, for this I blame Hollywood and our “health” culture. It’s important to keep in mind that being on the heavier side, particularly for women, isn’t necessarily a sign of being unhealthy. On average, most fighters are ten to twenty pounds heavier than someone who works out primarily as a weight loss system. It’s rare to find a female fighter who is under 125 pounds. Even the thinnest female fighters have a habit of averaging out to about 130 to 145, even up to 150-160, without any significant difference in what they look like visually, this is because muscles are heavy. In fact, they are much heavier than fat, though they take up less space.

Then, some people are just built more heavily than others and no matter what they do, will just be heavy. If combat was something only skinny people could do, the world would probably have been at peace a long time ago and the Viking tribes of Northern Europe wouldn’t have conquered half the globe. Sometimes, weight just happens as we get older. So, it’s important to remember that muscle can be built up underneath fat, it can exist under fat, and if the person in question (male or female) is heavier than others in the class this isn’t an immediate detriment to their speed, flexibility, or power. It can be if they don’t have the muscles to support their body or if they’ve just started building those muscles.

I doubt anyone in their right mind would tell me that Sammo Hung, an old friend of Jackie Chan cannot fight.

Heavy Fighters: It’s important to remember that though heavier or even overweight fighters are not necessarily impeded by their weight, that there are some things they have to adjust for. But they have their own advantages too.

Balance: a heavier fighter is carrying around more mass than a light weight one, that’s not necessarily more power that they can generate, but they can build up more momentum once they get going. Again, strength in combat is related to speed more than physical strength. A heavier fighter can be like a freight train and you don’t want to be in their way once they start moving. Still, as in physics: the faster you go, the harder it is to stop. If a heavier fighter misses, it’s going to be slightly more difficult for them to readjust and reorient, so they have to moderate their speed. A heavier fighter’s kicks will still be very effective, but they may find their mass getting in the way if they try to kick above the waist. More weight also means more strain on the knees, so a heavy fighter will have to spend a lot of time learning to adjust their stances and footwork to compensate for their bulk. But the differences between “thin” versus “fat” fighting styles are so minimal that I usually forget to mention them. This isn’t to be exclusionary, it’s more that on a basic level it doesn’t matter and when it does, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Natural Armor: Fat provides the body with natural armor. It covers the muscles and provides some small measure of padding for the fall. Armies don’t want their soldiers weighing in at 300 pounds, but martial artists aren’t normally army. Fat also has a nice side effect of covering up the body’s pressure points and keeping them from being visible. On a physical level women have a natural coat of fat that covers the muscles and keeps the definition from showing (except in certain circumstances of muscle development), this is why it’s difficult for women to learn pressure points when they practice with each other. An overly muscled individual provides nice targets on their arms, chest, and legs.

When fat absorbs some the impact, it can be more difficult to damage a heavy opponent.

On the Ground: On soft areas like in muddy rivers or on the ground weight is king, especially if the fighter is used to adjusting for their weight. When lying flat on the ground or even just kneeling, the natural advantages of a shorter fighter are nullified. This is because it’s harder to adjust for the weight of a heavier person without the use of your legs, relying only on your arms, hips, and your ability to disrupt their position. Fighting is hard for women on the ground, because against men, they are usually dealing with an opponent who has at least forty pounds on them, while this difference is negligible while standing, the ground is an entirely different story. Greater weight + gravity = killer.

When Does Weight Matter? From the standing position it only starts to really matter when you’re facing an opponent that has between eighty to hundred pounds on your character. This isn’t a killing blow, it’s just important to note, especially if they get themselves into a situation where they are putting all their weight on top of the smaller person. You can adjust to handle the weight, of course, but there’s always the possibility that they will sink down far enough that your character’s knees will bend too far. The added momentum only helps them if your character is unable to block or they connect solidly, but it’s not going to be that much worse than if they were hit by someone of equal size and weight.

It’s also important to remember that even a tall, heavy character with a good stance can be difficult to bring down if your characters try to fight them like they would anyone else. The answer? Don’t fight them like you would anyone else. Start low and work your way up.

The exception to this rule, of course, is street fighting. Street fighters don’t really know what they are doing and so the weight and size of another fighter really start to matter there. All this advice is for a character who already knows how to fight.

Greater Reach:

I’ll be honest, greater reach only really matters in two places: when you’re on the defensive and when you’re working with a longarm such as a staff or a sword. The theory for greater reach is this: it will be harder for your opponent to hit you, while it’s easier for you to hit them because you don’t have as far to go.

This isn’t going to matter when there’s only a difference of a few inches. This isn’t even really going to matter if the smaller individual has been trained to fight against larger opponents. And it’s really, really, not going to matter if it’s just hand to hand with no kicks involved. The reason is that legs are longer than the arms and kicking involves leaning backwards instead of forwards with the punch.

The only time in my life I ever remember being really frustrated with a height difference was when I was five or six years old as a yellow belt out on my first sparring experience against our much taller second-degree black belt African-American Instructor, Alan. Alan was in his early twenties, well over six feet, and had very, very long legs. I was four foot nothing and my tiny legs could not reach him, while his were excellent at hitting me. It was very frustrating, especially since I had no clue what I was doing. (He did let me hit him a few times, but my little legs could only reach mid-way up his thigh.)

Speed is actually much more important than reach, being able to get in and out fast while taking minimal damage is when things start getting impressive. Outside of that, it’s not really a big deal.

Professional Fighting:

This is where you really hear the terms height and weight bandied about and they say it exactly like that, on repeat, over and over. Why? It sounds good. An announcer’s job is to drum up the excitement of the crowd, to get people yelling, to get them betting. The height and weight advantage can create a very clear picture in the eyes of the audience for who has the longest odds (if that’s the case). The goal is to convince the audience and the compulsive gamblers to bet on the loser, creating the ideal of the tough, scrappy underdog that people want to succeed. Not because they will, no, in the eyes of the tournament, they don’t have a chance. But they will have succeeded in taking the audience’s money by convincing them that the longshot might very well just be a sure thing. Or, alternately, it makes for a good show. Remember, professional fighting is as much about showmanship as it is about sportsmanship.

MMA fighters, boxers, and kickboxers are all broken up into separate class distribution based on weight. With these guys, we’re talking a difference of five to forty pounds (maybe, but usually not). That’s not actually a very big difference.

-Michi

Fight Write: “Learn To Fight Like A Woman”

When most martial artists utter this phrase, they don’t mean it as an insult. That may surprise some of you, but in most of the martial arts community (at least, the part of it I grew up in) women are actually well-respected. A smart male martial artist knows that women martial artists bring a different perspective to the table and that it’s one that cannot be discounted. Some of this is what I came up with while working on a post talking about height and weight, but since I might not be able to get that up today, I thought I’d leave you with this.

I’m going to break this down into two aspects: mental and physical. The mental aspects work across the board, some may see the physical part as exclusionary. But when talking about martial arts, we have to discuss both the body and the mind in equal measure. The body cannot function without the mind and the mind cannot fight without the body, both are important. This is going to be general information, this is because fighting is subjective based on the individual practitioner. Everyone fights differently and how they fight has more to do with who their instructor was, what they were trained to do, and how they see the world around them than it does with gender or body type. Your character will learn to make use of what they have, because they won’t really have the option of anything else.

Mental:

It’s important to note that many smaller male martial artists I’ve known have talked about the advantages of having a female instructor. This is because women, on the whole, learn to fight from a disadvantaged position. The vast majority of women will almost always be faced with a larger, usually male, attacker and they have trained themselves to fight with that knowledge. So, they’ve learned to make use of what they have. This begins with the way they see the world.

It’s important to remember that when I say “larger attacker” we’re usually talking about a difference between eighty to a hundred pounds and a height difference of several inches. From a mental standpoint, facing someone larger and taller than yourself can be intimidating. It’s easy to become afraid and petrified by that fear. “He’s bigger than me, he’s larger than me, he’s going to hurt me, and there’s nothing I can do because he’s stronger”. In America we’ve been conditioned to believe that bigger is better, more over less, and the largest opponent always wins.

Women have to actively work at getting over all the social programming that tells them how they should behave and how they should see themselves in relation to the men around them. Female characters who start training between the ages of four and seven will be less prone to this, but the intimidation level is still a hurdle they have to master. It requires an active approach to problem solving, learning how to get in first and fast, and overcome the fear of facing a larger opponent or a male opponent even when the physical differences have little bearing on reality.

The way we see the world is the way we approach it and in a world that seeks to actively strip women of both their power and their confidence, developing a solid base to work from is much harder than it sounds. But for a female fighter to be successful, she must first prove to herself that she can do it and then, she has to fight hard in her training to make it a reality.

It’s important to remember, then, for your own characters that a female fighter or “action hero” is never a passive player. If they trained from a young age, then they’ve already fought against all the reasons why they shouldn’t be doing this and if they still are, then they won. Even if they are insecure about some aspects of social life, they will have a strong basis in who they are and the skills that got them here.

After all, to fight like a woman is to fight like an underdog and all those battles are hard fought and hard won. There’s nothing like adversity to build character.

Physical:

There are a lot of different body types out there in the world and there’s no way we can cover all of them. Women lack a man’s capacity for brawn in the upper arms and shoulders, but they come with a different set of advantages. We already talked about hips and power in the “Women Are Not Weaker Than Men” post, so I’m going to skip over that.

On the whole women have a lower center of gravity, better coordination, more natural flexibility, and better balance than men because their bodies are more compact. Women tend to have shorter torsos, shorter legs and shorter arms than men. This doesn’t mean they are more in tune with their bodies, that comes from training. But it does mean they can combine their lower center of gravity with their better sense of balance and coordination to be more precise in their attacks. While they lack the ability to brute force their way through situations, this actually makes them better and more adaptable fighters. When male martial artists say: “fight like a woman”, they mean: don’t rely on your brawn, learn to understand your body, and learn to let gravity do the work for you.

Women have more to lose from having sloppy technique, so they tend to spend more time investing in the study of body mechanics and gravity, over just developing their muscle strength. Speed is important yes, but it’s the precision that’s the killer. Knowing where you want to go and where to put your body to make it happen, where the human body is vulnerable and the places people don’t think it’s vulnerable (but really is) are all important.

Women tend to be quicker about dispatching their opponents and they spend less time playing around. They’re also, on the whole, more serious and more devoted to their studies. Any good female fighter knows that she won’t get far by coasting on natural talent and that she has more to lose in a real life situation if she does.

Just some things to think about.

-Michi

Unusual Martial Art: Street Fighting

Street fighters are self-trained combatants. Usually we’re talking about poor kids, who’ve been forced to learn how to fight for their own safety. If your character’s growing up in dystopic slums (either in the future or in the modern third world), without access to any formalized hand to hand training, then you’re probably going to end up with a street fighter.

Street fighters tend to adopt a highly aggressive, improvised, and very brutal, style. They’ll use whatever techniques they’ve seen and managed to copy and place a premium on ending the fight as quickly as possible for their own survival. A lot of techniques from the Only Unfair Fight post are conceptually very at home in a street fighter’s repertoire.

Because of the prevalence of television, a lot of modern street fighters have incorporated bits from both wrestling and prize fighting. For an example: the entire collection of “backyard wrestling” videos sold in the States a decade ago were an example of street fighting (to an extent) and where that kind of combat can go horribly wrong.

It’s important to keep in mind that the major element here is “self-trained”. Street fighters are amateurs, plain and simple. While brutal styles like Muay Thai and various varieties of MMA may seem like they have a lot in common with a street fighter, they don’t. Combat isn’t really a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be a self-made man” kind of sport, so there are a lot of detriments that come with using street fighting for your character.

The first problem that street fighters suffer from is a lack control. They’ve never been asked to develop the kind of physical control martial artists are drilled in. This may not sound so bad at first, until we remember that the only lesson these combatants have ever learned is that the person who hits the hardest, fastest, wins. Street fighters version of combat is essentially flailing. It’s the twelve year old child on the street trying to do a pirouette compared to a professional ballerina. Because street fighters have never learned to control, their ability to moderate their techniques is severely limited. This means moves that come from martial arts, including wrestling, that place a premium on the fighters’ safety, become much more dangerous for both combatants even when it’s just a backyard practice match.

So, why is this bad? Some of you may be wondering, but if they strike hard and fast, always hit as hard as they can, why is this detrimental? It should make them stronger, right?

Wrong.

Hand to hand combat is not about physical strength, it’s actually about technique and making the most of your opponent’s body mechanics. A street fighter only ever learns that strength means victory, they only learn to strike hard and that’s it. But what happens when they come into contact with someone who is prepared to take the hit? Street fighting is very simple, so most street fighters have no concept of defense and they fail to grasp the underlying principles behind the techniques and how those all feed together into a cohesive whole. See below:

Street fighters lack the ability to chain attacks; this is a conditioning issue. In the beginning of almost any training, most martial arts place a focus, early on, with katas (though, they’ll mix the terminology up a bit). Katas are a specific sequence of strikes. The point here isn’t to actually train a combat sequence. Katas are singularly worthless for that, the point is to train the combatant to move from one technique to another. This can, in some cases, take years of drilling before a combatant will move smoothly from one technique to another in a fight. Because of the self taught element, street fighters don’t do this. In fact, most don’t even see the need for it or understand why they should. They might be able to follow up on a strike, but that’s it. The eight strike rule? Yeah, that’s out the window.

(Michi Note: For example, in Tae Kwan Do, the first set of moves a student learns in their first lesson is the double punch and the front kick. In a thirty minute lesson with an instructor, they are taught first to punch, then they are asked to put both those punches together, so that immediately after one they do the other. Instead of a one, it becomes a one two. Then, we teach them the front kick if they grasp the concept quickly in the first fifteen minutes. By the end of the lesson the goal is to have the student, even one as young as five years old, performing a complete combo for their parents: slide front kick then double punch. Even from the first lesson, the focus is on conditioning the body to move easily from one technique to the next without thinking.)

This difference in approach is one of the main reasons why street fighters are harder to train in conventional martial arts. This difficulty comes out of two competing bits of psychology: the first is that street fighters think they already know how to fight, they don’t. They have a harder time ejecting the ways they’ve learned, in favor of the much slower, more methodical, approach of traditional martial arts training. They feel like they know this, because they’re looking at the techniques not the connections between them. When you combine this with the attitude that self taught fighters have, of their techniques being good enough, it’s almost impossible to shift them over to a traditional style.

Street fighters will get utterly taken apart by trained martial artists. Whatever else we say, martial arts are about using physics and physiology to outmaneuver and disable opponents. Every trained martial artist is going to a solid grasp of at least one of these things, and any good one will have a very solid understanding of both. Against a street fighter with neither, this is an insurmountable advantage.

Street fighters will make rookie mistakes that can cost them, even when they have more practical fighting experience than the martial artist. This ties back into the previous issues, but one major one is that street fighters are more likely to end up on the ground in a fight. While this is going to get its own article in the future, the short version is the ground is the last place you want your combatant. Unless they’ve specifically trained to fight there (and some martial artists are), going to the ground is a good way to get your character killed.

(Michi Note: I was once told, in a seminar, by an experienced MMA fighter that the ground is the last place you want to go in a real fight, even if you are trained. Concrete is very hard, you risk a break in the fall and you put yourself much closer to a head injury by getting close to the pavement. The ground is a last resort and a bad place to be, because most of the advantages a shorter fighter has while standing vanish. The ground is one of the few places in combat where height and weight really matter. Where a larger opponent has all the advantages in weight, reach, and the help of gravity, for women, the ground is the kiss of death. A female street fighter might not know that, because she can use her lower center of gravity to easily knock over her opponents and stomp them. But it’ll catch up with her sooner or later. On that subject: this is why it’s important, for you women and men out there who are looking for a self-defense program to find one that starts you standing, then works the ground. Find one that will give you the necessary tools to back out of a bad situation before the guy or girl is already on top of you.)

If you understand the limitations, street fighting can be an excellent choice for your character, especially in a dystopic or authoritarian setting, if your character is outside the system and used to looking after themselves (and possibly others), without being able to rely on anyone else to guide them, then this becomes a really likely style. This also overlaps with gangs, and even in a modern context, if you’re looking at gang members, then this is the hand to hand style they’re most likely to be using.

It’s important to remember that street fighters aren’t stupid, they can be very intelligent, and they need to be adaptable to make the style work at all. They are, however, untrained and that’s their biggest weakness.

-Starke

Michi: On female street fighters

Female street fighters won’t and can’t rely on brute strength, they may think that they are, but they’re not. Female fighters base their ability to fight off making use of a smaller, more compact body to generate greater momentum through the strength in their legs and using their lower center of gravity to knock over larger opponents. Female street fighters won’t linger at the back of the pack, they’ll be aggressive and throw themselves straight into the fray with an attitude more akin to a wild animal than a trained fighter. Since they’ll mostly be used to fighting larger, male opponents, they’ll probably start by striking or grabbing low to the stomach, balls, and knees. Their goal is going to revolve around knocking over their opponent and putting them in a prone position on the ground so that they can be annihilated easily. Expect them to fight dirty.

Despite that, they won’t kick. Street fighters are primarily hands only. Kicking requires a different level of body coordination and training, which they lack. Even if they try and master some basics, those basics will be wrong and more likely to get them hurt. If you want your character to kick, then it’s a traditional martial art for you.

Female street fighters will be harder than their male counterparts, especially if they live in a male dominated society. If you want to write a street fighter, make a study of gang psychology specifically to understand the attitudes behind it. The difference in approaches between trained and untrained fighters are vast, so make sure you understand both before layering character traits on top of them.

Fight Write: Just That Damn Good

Let’s file this one under: bad ideas from movies and TV. Although it’s fun to think your characters are so good they don’t need to train, this simply isn’t the case. Any skill you neglect will degrade a bit over time. This isn’t much of an issue if we’re talking about your ability to speak a foreign language, or tinker on your car. In those cases, there are clear thresholds, either you can do it or you can’t, and if you’re above the threshold for what you need to do, you’re good enough.

The same isn’t true of fighting. If your character isn’t practicing, stretching, and otherwise keeping in shape as a martial artist, their ability to fight will be seriously affected when going toe to toe with a foe who has been.

This is related to the weapon maintenance bit from the Your Character’s Weapon is a Character article. Any martial artist needs to be working constantly to stay at peak. It doesn’t matter how good they are, if they’ve been screwing around, and they face off against your villain, they’re going to lose.

If your villain is supposed to be effective, it’s safe to assume they’re spending all their time working towards their goal. If they’ve achieved their goal already, somehow, they need to be working towards a new one. In short, your villain needs to be active. Moving forward, they are  a mobile target. If your hero is lazy, then they are constantly playing catch up.

It gets worse if your character is facing off against their henchmen. Outside of a few specific examples, henchmen or soldiers will be spending a chunk of every day training, exercising, and honing their abilities, even if they aren’t actually learning new material.

To keep up with that, your character needs to be training, practicing and exercising, or they will get outmatched fast.

All of this becomes even more immediate when you consider that hand to hand combat is a dynamic thing. While some of the Asian martial arts pride themselves on being built on traditional combat techniques, modern combat is constantly evolving.  Counters are being developed to the strikes that worked yesterday, and those counters will be less effective tomorrow, because of a shift in strike preferences and techniques.

If you want your character to participate in combat with professionally trained combatants, they need to train and be ready to encounter new things every day. There’s no place on the battlefield for a hero who rests on their laurels of being “just that damn good.”

-Starke

Fight Write: We’re Only Human

Today, we’re going to take a break from our regularly scheduled blogging programming to discuss some important character traits. There’s a somewhat disturbing trend roaming through YA right now and while this deals mostly with female “action hero” protagonists, it’s affecting the male characters too. We can call it exceptionalism, prodigy, or perfection but there is a pervading trend right now in popular literature that says a hero must be perfect to succeed. We have a steady stream of heroes who make no mistakes, who travel on a simple, single line towards an inevitable destination. Their flaw is that they are without flaw, the mistakes they make are the fault of someone else, and all the choices are easy. I sort of wish that in real life, we fit into such easily identifiable boxes but alas, the world is a bit more confusing than that. Worse, a perfect character is a boring one. A character whose fall is softened, whose antagonists are left on a choke chain, who is perfect, ends up negating tension in their story.

Below are some basic suggestions to keep in mind when crafting your characters. This applies to female action protagonists as well as male ones, but keep in mind that female characters (unfortunately) walk a much tighter line than their male counterparts. For them, you’re fighting an uphill battle against audience expectation.

We’re Only Human:

This one is going to be a bit more general, rather than specifically about fight scenes, but it’s worth talking about: Your character does not need to be perfect. They can be wrong, they can make mistakes, and they can fail. And all of this can make your story stronger. A character with flaws will always be more interesting, to the reader, than one without. So, let’s talk about a few writing flaws, that can massively improve your characters.

The Master or the Apprentice:

Your character doesn’t need to be skilled at everything they want to be, and they certainly don’t need to be the best. Ask yourself, which is more interesting? A character who is trying to earn their place and learn the ropes of a skill, or a master of all they survey. A character who is a master of a skill can be useful if you’re trying to teach the audience about that skill, but in nearly every other situation, you’re going to get a more interesting story if other characters exist who outclass your character.

For instance, Star Wars isn’t interesting because Luke and Vader are on an equal footing. Throughout the original trilogy, Luke is playing catch up to Vader’s skill as a combatant.

Having characters who are flat out more powerful than your protagonist, creates a real threat that the they can be defeated, and for your audience, a real threat to your hero. Who will win? It’s hard to say. And that’s what’s going to keep your audience turning pages.

Beyond Right and Wrong:

Your character can be wrong, make mistakes, and screw up, just like any other person. And, to an extent, this won’t hurt your story. This is a bit trickier, because you can swing too far, have your hero be wrong about everything, and end up with a mess. But, don’t be afraid to let your character make mistakes. Trust people they want to, but shouldn’t. Misunderstand situations they’re not familiar with. Even get manipulated into doing thing things they really shouldn’t.

Bad calls are something everyone has to deal with sooner or later. How your hero deals with them can be far more interesting than a character who never makes mistakes.

What is important is the decisions the character makes have to based on a rational thought process, just one that doesn’t have all the information.

Omniscience:

On that subject, your character doesn’t need to know everything. Really, they can’t. When they’re making decisions, ask yourself: what do they know? What do they understand? What do they believe?

When you put this together, you’re character will be constructing their plans, and making their decisions, based on the information they have. This will inevitably lead to mistakes. And, again, that’s a good thing. A character scrambling to adapt to a situation they didn’t anticipate or dealing with information they didn’t even consider is far more interesting than a character who makes a perfect plan and executes it.

The original Star Wars trilogy pulls this over and over, the final acts of both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi swing on these kinds of situations. (For both the heroes and the villains.)

I’m not saying the villain needs to be your character’s father, but any time you can pull the rug out from under your character like that, especially against expectations, is a wonderful moment.

Another example comes from a game called Arcanum: Through most of the game, the player is told they’re the reincarnation of an Elven Jesus figure, “Nasrudin”. You encounter the religion that sprung up around him, you learn about the religion’s history, all while preparing to deal with the religion’s sealed evil in a can. And then, about 80% of the way through the game, you actually meet Nasrudin, he’s been alive the entire time, in seclusion. The player cannot be his reincarnation, and the entire chosen one construct in the story is a sham. I wouldn’t even remember the story of a game from 12 years ago if it wasn’t an interesting and memorable twist.

As a writer, you can create the truth of your setting and your story, but your characters don’t need to know what that truth is, and they can build their understanding of the world off faulty information.

Loved by Children and Small Animals:

Liking or disliking someone on contact can be a good indicator of potential personality conflicts, but it’s a poor excuse for knowing if someone’s good or evil. The biggest problem is, now you’re telegraphing who will betray your heroes later, or who will betray your villain.

People (and characters) like and dislike one another for any number of reasons, unrelated to plot and faction. You can get much more interesting material by forcing two characters who actively dislike and distrust one another to work together towards a common goal, or by pitting two good friends against one another (without the whole, “you turned to the dark side, the friend I knew is dead,” shtick).

Above all else, it makes your story harder to predict and more interesting. While I’m loathe to recommend most TV writing, FarScape did an excellent job shuffling heroes and villains around and forcing everyone to work together at least once.

Because Losing is Fun:

Finally, it’s okay for your character to lose. Lose a fight, lose an argument. Sometimes this goes back to making mistakes, sometimes it goes back to your character being outclassed. How your character deals with defeat can be far more interesting than having them cruise through every challenge they encounter. Do they sulk? Do they break down? Do they rage? Do they get back up, and throw themselves at it again? Do they go back to the drawing board; look for more allies; look for ways to undermine their foe? Do they even accept it happened? Also, what are the consequences of their defeat? Are they injured? Does it cause their allies to doubt them?

If you’re writing in a serialized format, be that chapters, episodes, or a series, don’t be afraid to end a sequence in utter defeat. Your heroes can rally for the final act, but the idea that your characters can lose will do wonders for showing that your villains are a legitimate threat.

Again with the Star Wars examples, the entire reason that Empire Strikes Back works (and a large part of Return of the Jedi’s ability to work as a story), is because of the defeat that kicks in at the end of ESB. I’m not saying rip off Star Wars, but you can learn a lot about making a compelling story from the original trilogy.

-Starke (just wants you to know; fifteen Bothans died bringing you this article)