Tag Archives: writing violence

Q&A: Self-Defense Goals

I have a 5’4. 110 lbs woman who knows self defense. She gets in a bar fight with a guy who is much bigger than her. (Think 6ft, 250) Would her training trump the guy’s size and strength? (And that he doesn’t know self defense) My beta reader thinks not. They also think that whether the guy is drunk or not doesn’t matter. True? If it is. What kind of training would she need to make her winning plausible?

There’s a lot of detail here, but there are two questions you need to ask yourself, something that needs to be remembered and one error that needs to be addressed.

First, does she actually remember her training, or was this something she did six years ago and mostly forgot? If its the later, her training isn’t going to be that helpful. We talk about the importance of updating your training, but you also need to practice. Updating means you’re also getting refreshers on a regular basis. If you don’t have access to that, you’ll lose things. Stuff that requires a partner will go first, though, it is possible you’ll eventually file a lot of your training away and forget about it. You can get this back if you take a moment to recall. In a fight, you don’t have a moment to dig up your training; you need it already there.

Worth remembering that combat training is the least valuable thing in a competent self-defense course. Most situations can be averted long before they turn violent.

Being drunk is significant. Remember that intoxication is a spectrum from slightly buzzed to barely able to stand. However, unless they already had ingrained hand to hand training, it will quickly render them unable to fight, with rare exceptions.

Second, is she willing to use her training? This sounds similar, but there’s a real social stigma against engaging in violence, particularly for women. It’s easy to think, “Hurting people is bad, and makes you a bad person,” even in situations where a violence is appropriate. If you feel it is important to be “a good person,” it can create a serious dilemma. Her self-defense course should have addressed this, and gotten her comfortable with the idea of using her training, but it’s not guaranteed those lessons took hold.

Self-defense isn’t “a martial art.” It’s a combat objective. This is how you want to use your martial arts training. In the US today, most “self-defense,” is a modified form of Judo. This form only dates back to the mid-twentieth century. That doesn’t mean it’s the only option, as a lot of martial arts can be adapted for use in self-defense. I specified, “a competent self-defense course,” before, because you will find less scrupulous schools billing their normal classes as, “self-defense.” You miss out on a lot. You don’t learn threat assessment, how to manage escalation, or how to create an exit. Worst case, you may not even learn martial arts that will be useful in a live situation.

I tend to paint those schools pretty harshly, but it is possible they have good intentions. The problem is that, as I’ve said, the hand to hand component is a small part of self-defense training. It is important, but it’s the act of last resort.

The last part here, and the major issue is a single word in the final sentence. You don’t take self-defense classes to win fights.

If you want to win fights? Take up boxing, Muay Thai, MMA, or any number of other competitive sports.

You take self-defense classes to learn how to extract from a bad situation. Self-defense teaches you how to quickly neutralize an attacker and escape.

Winning is for prize fights. Self-defense is about getting you out of there in one piece. It is not about getting into a stand up fight and beating your opponent into submission. It is about making sure your attacker cannot follow you.

So, if some drunk guy attacked her, yeah she could put him on the ground, no problem. However, bar fights are nasty, and her goal should be to get out of there as fast as possible, not stick around for a Pyrrhic “win.”

It may sound like I’m being overly pedantic here, but it is a very important concept. Combat training (whether that’s hand to hand or armed), sets specific objectives. You don’t train, “to fight,” you train to achieve those goals. If your goal is to kill someone, train to kill people. If your goal is self-defense, train to create an opening and escape. When to train to fight, you’re learning to prolong combat, and wear your opponent down. This does not work when you go up against someone who trained to end combat efficiently.

Pop culture teaches you to fight (badly.) It draws out the engagements, prolonging the experience is for entertainment value. If you don’t have a background, it’s easy to think this is how combat works. If your attacker doesn’t have a background, and is just going off what he’s learned from Chuck Norris films, he’s going to lose. He cared about winning. Your character doesn’t, her only objective is to get out safely, and she can do that without getting into a prolonged fight. In fact, it’s easier for her to do that without letting the fight go on. She throws him and, while he’s trying to get back on his feet, she bolts. That’s it, fight’s over, she’s gone.

-Starke

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Q&A: Badly written Violence

What are your biggest pet peeves when it comes to portrayals of something violent?

A few things come to mind: Violence without purpose, violence without consequence, and violence without thought.

A basic piece of writing advice holds: Everything in your story needs to serve a function. If it’s not building your world, characters, or advancing your plot, cut it. You may have written something you enjoyed, but if it doesn’t serve a purpose in your story, it should not be there. Violence is no exception; it can do any of those. The best fight scenes do all three at once.

When someone inserts a fight scene because, “there should be a fight here,” that’s where I check out. It’s easy to understand how this happens. I don’t have a problem with gratuitous violence, but if it’s not doing something for the story, it should have been cut.

There’s a few wrinkles here. Visual media (both comics and in video) can get away with stylish violence. If you are here for the spectacle they can satisfy. The extreme end of this is probably Kill Bill: Vol. 1, where the entire film is just one spectacle fight after another with the context stripped out. Except, each one does what a scene needs to. They explore the characters, build the world, and advance the plot, almost entirely through violence.

The other wrinkle is games. Not just video games; any game. Violence can be adapted into a rewarding play loop. You can build your entire play experience around violence and have an enjoyable game. Many strategy games build of the idea of managing violence, whether that’s a battle or a war.

Roleplaying games, both tabletop and electronic often have a heavy focus on combat systems. Some of this is because D&D was originally developed by tabletop wargamers, and that influence cast a long shadow on the genre. If you’ve ever participated in a tabletop D&D campaign, you’ll be familiar with entire nights lost to a few minutes of combat. You can build entire RPGs around nothing but violence. In video games this where things like Diablo came from. Taking the experience of traditional RPGs and distilling it into a pure combat gauntlet.

If I’m being completely fair, any scene can suffer from lacking purpose. This isn’t a problem exclusive to violence, however, it is easier to accidentally build your world and characters by letting them talk.

The second issue is somewhat related to the first, violence without consequences is deeply unsatisfying. If the violence changes nothing, then it has no purpose in the story, but it goes beyond that. It’s not like I’m looking for specific, or even negative, consequences from violence. I’d just like to see some indication that your character was almost killed a couple pages back.

Violence is messy, it’s destructive. Having characters roll over from a fight like nothing happened without any aftermath just causes me to ask, “why bother?”

Violence can instantly remove characters from your story. It can introduce new challenges, such as lasting injuries, further complicating characters’ lives, or even just draining resources. If it’s not doing anything, why use it? This is a very dynamic tool for a writer. It kills me when an author pulls it out and does nothing with it.

This last one is a little more complex. When a character’s approach to violence is irreconcilable to the rest of their identity, that’s a hard no. This can crop up in a lot of ways, but it starts with the author thinking about violence as a flavor for their scene, and not a part of their story.

“My character is a good person, they would never kill!” as they leave someone stranded, and wounded, hundreds of miles from civilization, in a hostile environment that will ensure they don’t make it out alive. This is a Bond villain routine being passed off as moral high ground.

Shooting to wound ends up in here. The author wanted to use guns, without the morally icky idea of killing people, “so let’s just set those firearms to stun,” like they’re fucking phasers. (And, no, shooting to wound is not a thing. You can bleed to death from a limb almost as easily as a center mass hit.)

Violence is ethically complicated. You can have an ethical system to moderate yourself, but if you’re going to engage in violence, you will harm others. If “being a good person” is important to you, you need to spend some time meditating the ethics of violence. So of course, you get the authors who are sure that, so long as their character doesn’t personally drop the hammer, whatever horrors they inflict on their foes are entirely acceptable.

In fairness, I have a pretty low tolerance for hypocrisy, so this may be related.

If your character is going to engage in violence, be honest with yourself about the kind of person they would be. Violence, and the will to commit violence affect you as a person. This holistic, and affects the entirety of you you are. Including characters who have that capacity affects your story. Again, the entirety of your story. “But my character’s a good person, they would never…” And that’s when I start pounding my head into the desk, because anything other response would end with, “…and that’s when I shot them, Your Honor.”

Like I said, violence is a fanatic tool for an author. I love it. However, if you’re going to use it, actually use it. Don’t just pull it out as a way to break up a few scenes, and go right back to where you started.

The ethics of violence is an incredibly deep subject, there’s a lot of stuff to talk about, and it absolutely kills me when an author tries to table the entire thing in favor of logic that would have been embarrassing in a Saturday morning cartoon.

-Starke

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Q&A: Bringing Fear to Your Fight Scenes

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: How can I bring emotions like fear and anger into a fight scene without making it too long? I’m writing a blacksmith who’s never fought before, donning a suit of crude steel plate armor before being attacked by an experienced killer with a spear. The armor is supposed to be the only thing that saves him while the other guy smacks him around, and I want to capture how it would feel to be in that position… without taking up half a page to do it. Any advice?

Right now, you’re trying too hard to front end everything you want into one scene. In a fight scene, especially against an experienced opponent, all your character will have time to do is react and they won’t be able to react much because it will be over within the first few paragraphs.

Your protagonist may have time to get scared, but he won’t have time to get angry. He may not ever have time to get past shock and surprise before it’s over.

Unlike what you might have come to expect from video games or tabletop RPGs, a set of ill-fitting armor won’t actually protect him much. In fact, he may not even be able to put on all the pieces before he gets attacked.

Put Your Tension in the Lead Up:

It’s important to remember that fight sequences are payoffs, they’re supported by the other scenes in your novel. If you want to make it clear to your readers that your character is afraid and put time into showing that fear, you put those moments in the scene preceding the fight. They’ll have time to reflect, panic, slip up, stumble, as they try to decide what they’re going to do.

In this case, the best place to put the tension, anxiety, and anticipation comes from the action of this character putting on armor that doesn’t fit. In his case, plate armor was probably the worst choice because each set of plate is designed for a specific individual. Unlike what you’ll find in video games, plate is form-fitting and only works for the individual whose body it was created for. Putting on plate is an intensive process, it takes more than thirty minutes (even with armor designed for him) so this would be the perfect time to show exactly how ill-prepared this apprentice is.

Plate Mail Isn’t Grab and Go:

If this blacksmith’s apprentice doesn’t work for an armorer he may not even know how to put that plate armor on, and, even if he does, he may never put armor on himself without someone else there to help him. You can build a lot of desperation out of the mere act of his struggle to put the armor on. Armor is actually pretty complicated, properly putting armor on when you’re alone is a pain in the butt, and it takes a fair amount of time even when you know how. It would take more than thirty minutes, and, given it’s full plate, he may not be able to put all the pieces on without someone else there to help him. So, he’s not going into this battle in full plate, he’s got piecemeal plate.

You’ve probably never had the experience of wearing a garment that’s tailored specifically for you, to your measurements, to your body, made for you and no one else. Medieval armor, however crude, was not one size fits all. Putting on someone else’s armor could be debilitating all by itself, even if you were roughly the same size. This is why people didn’t just grab a fallen knight’s armor off the battlefield and wear it themselves. They couldn’t, it wouldn’t work right because it wasn’t their armor.

Plate armor is not like in video games, you can’t just slot a piece you find and go to town. The armor has to contour properly to the body in order to absorb the impact, otherwise it won’t work right.

You’re apprentice isn’t putting on the armor because its the smart choice. He’s putting it on because he’s desperate. He knows that (or he’s an idiot), and you need to let the audience know that too.

Your apprentice will be struggling with the ties, having inappropriate undergarments, feeling the metal slipping on his body, exposing vulnerable and vital parts of himself. The gauntlets rattling because his hand is too small or squeezing because his fingers are too long, too large. It’ll rattle, flop, slide, shift, and he may not be able to secure the knots tightly enough to keep it from exposing vital points.

Survival Depends on the Enemy’s Whims:

To have your own survival be entirely dependent on the whim of someone trying to kill you is a terrifying situation to be in.

The problem you’re running into on your assumptions is three fold:

  1. You’re treating armor as a applying a flat stat bonus to the character.
  2. That the enemy attacks the armor instead of the parts of the body still readily available.
  3. You assume that the experienced killer can’t easily get past the armor (that doesn’t fit right and that the protagonist can’t fight in) to kill the protagonist.

The answer is this “experienced killer” can get past the armor by going for the parts of the body which are exposed like the joints, or the neck. Plate armor has gaps, and if the armor is not made for this character those gaps are going to be even less protected.

An experienced killer will go for those like the armpit, the knees, or (if exposed) the groin, or they’ll put him on the ground, brace the spear to put the tip directly through the breastplate, or drive the spear through the eye slit in the helmet. They won’t waste time playing pinball, and his best hope is that they’re in enough of a hurry that they won’t confirm the kill. Or, that he’s not their target, they genuinely don’t care if he’s dead, and they just want him out of the way. Dead or not, so long as he’s not moving, it doesn’t make a difference. He’s irrelevant.

His survival depends entirely on the person trying to kill him and how sloppy they decide to get. He has no control over living or dying, and the armor he’s put on? That gives him the illusion of protection, it might prolong his death, but it’s not what saves his life. The experienced killer is the one who saves him by deciding to (or not being given the chance to) be thorough.

They assume they’ve killed him. So, he lives.

Loss of Agency is Terrifying All By Itself:

There’s a mistake a lot of writers make when setting up scenarios with lopsided power dynamics where they call it a “fight scene” in an effort to inject some sort of equality into the sequence. There is no equality here. You need to call the sequence what it is. This isn’t a fight scene, this is a murder.

Your character is being victimized. They’re a victim.

Your protagonist has no control, no power, no ability to save themselves. They’re stripped of their agency and left defenseless. This is the fight scene you’ve constructed for your protagonist, which is why his survival is dictated by the whims of experienced fighter. The experienced fighter holds all the power.

One of the problems with this sort of scenario is that most writer’s don’t want their character to experience this kind of powerlessness.

However, this is helplessness is the true source of fear your character is going to be experiencing in the sequence.

Nothing. They. Can. Do. Will. Save. Their. Life.

Their life is in the hands of the person trying to kill them.

That’s terrifying.

You’re Not Giving the Experienced Killer the Respect They Deserve:

The real issue you’re having with your scene is that your treating this Experienced Killer character as a mook. A minor character who shows up to get this protagonist the experience they need then wanders off to never be seen again.

You’re not afraid of them, and, if you’re not afraid of them, why would your audience be?

It is very important to establish motivations and characters for your minor characters because their actions shape your narrative. This one character is formative for your protagonist, the memory of them is going to drive your narrative.

Who are they? How do they behave? What are their mannerisms? Why are they trying to kill this kid? Is this a job for them? Are they here specifically for him? Or is he just in their way?

If this character doesn’t unnerve you in your protagonist headspace, if your gut doesn’t twist, and your body doesn’t tense up a little in anticipation of the arriving horrors, then go back to the drawing board. Focus on crafting a character who feels threatening from start to finish.

Stop Remembering Your Protagonist is Going to Live, Start Focusing on the Fact They’re Going to Die:

Fear isn’t actually that difficult to write. You’ve experienced fear. Everyone does at some point in their life. Fight/Flight is different, but fear is common. You’ve experienced anger. The problem is you’re not properly simulating the experience when writing your scene. The solution is behaving like your protagonist can actually die. Forget that you intend for him to live. He needs to believe he will die, and this individual going to kill him.

Embrace your powerlessness. How does that make you feel?

“I’ll give you six gold pieces to toss him out that window.”

“Seven and you’ve got a deal.”

Personally, if I had to choose how to deal with killing this character, I’d go with defenestration. I’d have the experienced fighter throw or kick him out a (probably second story) window. They’d assume the fall in combination with the forty to eighty pounds of armor killed him, and go on with their day. This way, they don’t take him seriously, the “death” is humiliating, they don’t care enough to finish it, and the protagonist is, for the moment, out of reach.

This is an old sleight of hand sequence in media from novels to film, and a good one because it allows you to make the scene about something other than the killing for the character holding the power. If they look seriously at the protagonist as a threat, the protagonist will die. If they’re focused on doing their job, the protagonist dies. So, make it about something else. Entertainment is usually a good alternative. Experienced professionals don’t, usually, play with their kills. I toss this method out to bored soldiers or mercenaries looking to spice up a Tuesday pillage.

Casual cruelty, especially dismissive cruelty, is terrifying all by itself because it highlights the protagonist’s powerlessness. The antagonist’s power is amplified because they don’t bother giving the protagonist the benefit of dignity or the illusion of being a challenge. The protagonist is going to die, and the villain is going to have their fun before they roll right over them onto their next victim.

-Michi

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Q&A: Raising a Militia

What do you think of the plot that goes the bad guys announce they’ll come back to fight soon but the majority of the good guys have no clue how to fight and it’s up to a couple of people to train everyone asap?

I’m not wild about villains who announce their presence, and then wander off and give people time to get ready. I’m fully aware there are legitimate, character, and story reasons a villain might do this, it’s just something I just have a hard time buying that structure. The reasoning being, if your villain announces their intentions, someone will try to stop them. So, either they should keep their mouth shut until their ready to act, or they should act to suppress any resistance before they can finally enact their grand plan.

Should this matter to you? Probably not. This is just my personal taste. There’s certainly room for Saturday Morning Cartoon villainy that requires someone to announce their intentions. There’s even real world examples of this. Monty Python taught us that, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” However, as it turns out, that was a lie, the Spanish Inquisition would file notice a month in advance, to give the accused the opportunity to secure testimony and other exculpatory evidence, (or put their affairs in order.)

So, it’s fine, just not to my taste. That doesn’t reflect on you, and shouldn’t impact your decision to write it.

The good news is, if you have a few characters with similar training backgrounds and a willingness to work together, you have everything you need to set up a combat training class. What, exactly, this will look like depends on the technology involved, and the combat doctrine the characters are following. They’ll need improvised training weapons, and (somewhat obviously) live weapons. (From a logistical standpoint, if your characters are using firearms, they’ll need at least roughly one thousand rounds per weapon to train the recruits, and then equip them. This is a factor that a lot of people overlook when trying to equip untrained militias.)

For melee weapons, you can begin walking the recruits through basic techniques, then moving to group drills. For some techniques, you’ll need to pair trainees against one another. In these cases having assistants who’ve already undergone training can work wonders for making sure that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to. For melee combat, the purpose is to drill the movements until they become rote. This means if someone is training incorrectly, they’ll be committing those errors to muscle memory. Assistants can be invaluable for finding and assisting recruits before these mistakes become ingrained. At this stage, the use of training weapons is preferable.

If you’re dealing with ranged weapons, then you’re going to need to commit time to training them on those weapons, in order to be able to operate them under the stress of combat. To a certain degree, some of this is the same. You’re getting them to commit acts like aiming, firing, and reloading to muscle memory. That said, they also need to learn how to fire accurately.

Beyond basic combat training, you’ll need to instruct them in basic battlefield tactics. This includes things like how to move through an area safely without exposing themselves to enemy attack. This will look radically different depending on the technology in use.

Your militia will need a coherent chain of command. This is really important when things start going sideways. The priority will probably be a simple structure where the most experienced combatants are spread out and can direct the recruits.

Parallel to this, the experienced combatants need to identify useful skills in the local population. This includes things like medical training, hunters, engineers, and someone can manufacture weapons and armor. Skills that can be useful. If a specific role isn’t available, the next best thing may have to suffice. For example, if you don’t have access to a doctor or nurse, a veterinarian can do the job in an emergency.

Specialists are useful for a number of specific functions. Some are self-explanatory (you’ll need medics to help treat the wounded), you’ll need builders to help fortify their location (aided by whatever materials are nearby, which may also involve miners or lumberjacks), you’ll need hunters as skirmishers, for reconnaissance, and possibly as trappers. Just because the villain said they’d come back doesn’t mean you should hold them to their word, stay vigilant and prepare. A smith can be useful for aiding in the fortifications, or assisting in arming the militia.

While having a well trained force is important for winning a battle, taking control of the battlefield, restricting how, and where, your opponent can attack, and using every resource at your disposal to undermine them is vital to victory. How your characters do that will depend on their ability to tilt the odds in their favor.

Your villain said he’d come back. That doesn’t mean your characters should just sit around waiting for the inevitable. They have time to prepare, dig in, and make sure that by the time the villain arrives he never had a chance.

-Starke

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Q&A: Be Careful of “Everyone”

Do soldiers or people who want to join the military usually look down on civilians in general as weak, or look down on disabled civilians who couldn’t join? I have encountered this from a few family members, unfortunately, and wanted to incorporate that experience into my novel, but I don’t know if this is common for former soldiers or if it’s more about age or some of my family members just being mean. What are your thoughts on this?

I think the best way to view the different branches of the Armed Services regarding their attitudes is that they all have their own cultures. The culture of each branch is based on their shared experiences, and those shared experiences do differentiate them from civilians who lack their background. Sometimes, this can result in an “us versus them mentality” among specific individuals but looking down on civilians as weak isn’t part of that culture. Regarding civilians as being unable to relate or understand their experiences is more on point. This is true to an extent, but it’s also true for every subculture from EMTs to police, to surgeons, and even Hollywood insiders.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly have difficulty relating to the story one of Starke’s friends told him about two Marines taking turns drinking from a bottle of liquor, zapping themselves with a light socket, and running headlong into a wall before switching places and repeating. I’m also just as sure after hearing that story a Marine would find nothing strange about it, and also cackle.

There are generational differences between the cultures. There’s a different culture among those who served in the past and are now civilians themselves versus those still serving. There’s a different sub-cultures among the officers and special forces than the general enlisted. Everyone agrees the Marines are weird, especially the Marines.

Now, the above doesn’t apply to the people who want to join the military. People who want to join the military and look down on people who don’t share their passion are fans. They’re not any different from any other fan out there. They aren’t part of the military culture or its rivalries yet. They want to be. They behave the way they imagine they should. They co-opt their beliefs about the military into their identity or use the identity to justify their own biases. Remember, though, it’s not just them. They’re not really any different or more special than the katana fans, the Krav Maga fans, Star Wars fans, or Naruto fans.

Personally, if you plan to write about anything to do with the military, I always recommend the more information on hand the better. Read web comics like Terminal Lance about daily life in the US Marine Corps, most of the US training manuals are actually available online which will give you insight into the thought processes of the people who wrote them. You may not enjoy or agree with the humor, but experiencing it can be instructive.

In my experience, I have several family members who served in the US Army. Neither my brother nor I were ever pressured by them about serving, or regarded as weak because we didn’t. My grandfather, who guarded General MacArthur’s family during WWII, celebrated when my father got out of the Vietnam draft due to a medical condition. Neither he nor my grandmother wanted my father to go to ‘Nam. My co-worker appreciates his time in the Navy, and he’d have liked to recommend his son join up. However, the Armed Services of today are very different from when he served. His son didn’t want the risk and he respects that.

The short answer is there are veterans who are assholes and veterans who aren’t. There are people who make their service too much a part of their identity, and feel they’re owed more than what they got. There are people who understand their service was their choice, who don’t resent others for choosing differently.

There’s never anything wrong with using your own life experiences for your novel. They’re yours, you should use them. All I’d caution you about is making the jump from “these people” otherwise known as your family members to a general perspective shared by everyone who ever served. Your family members aren’t alone in their attitudes, but theirs isn’t the only attitude that exists.

When following the everyone route, you run the risk of alienating readers who don’t share your experiences, even those who are willing to accept the perspective from a single character or in a story about a specific group of people. They stop short when you switch over into that perspective as ideological fact uniformly followed by everyone everywhere. Everyone everywhere is being intellectually lazy and that can impact the reader’s suspension of disbelief. While you don’t have to show those other perspectives, you want to practice leaving room in your narrative for a variety to exist.

-Michi

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Q&A: What The Value of a Good Education?

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: Since there’s a definite advantage, what DOES mean the difference between the training a Marine gets versus what a criminal gets? Experience and refinement, since the military has had so many years to figure out what’s effective versus the criminal who’s more or less starting from scratch? Focus, since the Marines are getting Actual Lessons versus the criminal’s just sort of learning on the job, as it were? Something else?

There’s a few basic problems in the way most media approaches violence which is what throws people who’ve never received any training off.

  1. There’s an assumption being good at violence comes from talent and not hard work.
  2. There’s an assumption that violence is not a skillset.
  3. There’s an assumption that if you’re good at one kind of violence, you’re good at all of them.

None of these are true.

Violence is like any other skillset. Education is king, and the quality of education you receive, as well as who you receive that education from, matters. Education opens up your possibilities, exposes you to new ideas, individuals, and experiences you might never have considered. It allows you to learn from others whose experiences are great than yours, and lets you learn from their success and their mistakes. In an organized system, you have a system backed by a few hundred years or more. This system is co-operative with multiple people working toward a singular goal. The value of this cannot be overstated, especially in the world of violence where everything changes with every new discovery.

In the US Armed Forces, training is updated every six months in response to newly developed counters, tactics, and strategies that upset the current status quo. We often view the military as stuck in its ways and, socially, that may be true. However, when it comes to developing new technologies, new fighting tactics, new strategies for a changing combat environment, they are on the cutting edge. They have access to the militaries of other countries, and are constantly adopting new techniques into their curriculum either from allies, guerrilla fighters, or from individuals while being stationed in foreign countries. A Marine’s hand to hand training pre-WWII and post-WWII are very different beasts. Every Marine today benefits from experiences gained by servicemen in previous eras. They learn from their successes and their failures.

Criminals don’t get training. Usually, they have to learn on the job and most of their additional education comes from other criminals while networking in prison. They can be very good at what they do, but the scope of that technique is limited. The chances they’ll have a general or even hand to hand skillset to back up their chosen specialization is low. If they have learned hand to hand, most of it comes from television, boxing lessons they had in high school, or what they’ve experienced from police or witnessed police use. They have fewer options, every weapon they learn how to use is on their own dime and based on what they can scrounge or barter from their local arms dealer. There is no coherent system, a low chance of mentoring, no real opportunities outside a limited pool, and even if you do get mentored, you’re at risk to be the fall guy.

The value and benefit of training cannot be overstated. If you ask someone who has had martial training what the value of training is, the first thought after staring at you in confusion is everything. You get everything from training. Training provides you with the building blocks, it provides you with your connections, it provides you with the scenarios where you can practice. Someone who is self-taught has no stances, they have no base and therefore no defense, they don’t know how to maximize the effectiveness of their punches, they probably can’t kick at all, they’re not particularly flexible, they may or may not have learned the value of cardio.

Self-taught criminals are very good at ambush tactics, but lose out in a protracted conflict. Why? They have nothing else and need nothing else. Ambush tactics are sufficient to deal with most people, including professionals (if you can catch them unawares). Criminals are better served by developing their social engineering, their ability to appear different than how they are, to blend in with society until the time comes to make their move.

Criminals and Marines have different approaches to violence because their goals are not the same. Criminals, especially assassins, have more in common with spies than they do soldiers. They don’t want to stand out from the crowd because when you appear suspicious, you’re a second away from getting caught.

I think there’s a perception among some writers that if you write a self-taught fighter, you get to skip having to learn about violence. You don’t have to dirty yourself by learning about government organizations or other groups whose perspectives and attitudes you may not like. You get some additional cache for beating the system. If you know nothing about violence, getting to skip the hassle of learning is definitely an attractive idea. Most of the authors whose novels I’ve read that had fighters who were “self-taught” took this route. The characters and the narrative suffered for it. All they really wanted was an excuse where they wouldn’t need to explain how their character knew or could do what they did.

Violence isn’t any different from acquiring any other type of skillset. Studying martial combat is just like studying basic mathematics, learning to speak a second language (or even your first language), or learning to read.

This question is a lot like asking, “what’s the value of high school?” or even just school in general. What do you learn in school that provides you with an advantage over people who’ve never been to school? What is the value of a good education?

-Michi

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Q&A: Angels, Physics, and Wings

Disregarding the physics of it, how do you think the ability of an ‘angel’ ( basically a human with wings in this case ) to fly would influence their fighting style? Would it be an advantage, or a hindrance, you think?

This is a bit like asking, “disregarding their ability to move, what’s the fastest car?”

Physics is a critical component of hand to hand combat. Things like momentum and leverage are what you use in a fight to harm your opponent. Techniques are just the way you apply the laws of physics to your opponent.

So, it’s not entirely inaccurate to say, “if you disregard physics, nothing stops you from turning your foes into chunky salsa.”

A more reasonable example of this is if you’ve got an angry, 200lb, bird man who can take flight at will. They can land on the exact spot they want, because they’ve been doing this for their entire life. They drop on someone, and it’s over. This is part of why the physics are so important. The amount of force they apply on landing is a direct result their mass and velocity. Without physics, there’s no grounding element, no limits, and no way to reasonably predict the limits.

That said, there are huge problems. On the ground, a winged human would be at a combat disadvantage. There’s a lot of very fragile tissue on their back which is vulnerable in melee, and can’t be fully shielded by the fighter’s body. You can’t really armor it without making the wings non-functional, and if you’re emulating birds (which seems likely), you’re looking at hollow bones, which will never heal properly from being crushed. At range, they’d make the character a larger target. You don’t need to hit a normal human sized target, just clip their wing.

The only way to get around these disadvantages is to veer into the overtly supernatural. If the wings are conjured when need and otherwise don’t exist, then getting in the way wouldn’t be an issue. If they were somehow immune to harm that would still have the mobility issues on the ground, but at least they’d be less of a liability.

You started with, “angels,” and then backed off of it onto normal humans. It’s worth pointing out that if you’re wanting to work with the idea of angels as supernatural creatures, then being able to disregard the laws of physics at a whim isn’t that far out there. As they exist in religious texts angels (or whatever your preferred term for them is; the general concept of divine messengers is nearly universal in religion) are more akin to cosmic horrors than Roma Downy standing under a key light. So that’s a situation where I would say, “ignoring physics,” is entirely legitimate, and the results can be suitably gory.

-Starke

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Q&A: Choke Holds

How long does it take someone to lose consciousness from a choke hold? Google gives you answers that are anywhere from a few seconds to seven minutes.

That’s because there are many different types of choke holds with different positions, focuses, and purposes. They all require different amounts of time to take effect.

The one that takes seven seconds is: the blood choke.

The blood choke is strangulation, where you cut off the blood flow to your opponent’s brain by choking the carotid artery with pressure. The terminology I learned for this one was the triangle choke (confusing, because there’s a separate variant you can perform with your legs) which is decent because it describes the positioning of the arm, but its also called the rear naked choke and others depending on discipline. You form a triangle around your victim’s neck, with your elbow under their chin, and then squeeze. This choke is designed to cut off the blood circulation to their brain. Starving the brain of blood will put your opponent under much faster than starving it of oxygen. You also have a much smaller window on this choke between putting someone under and death.

Keep in mind, this isn’t like putting someone to sleep. When you knock someone out, they usually wake up a few seconds later.

The one that takes seven minutes is: the two hand throat grab.

The two hand throat grab is ironically the least effective choke and one of the easiest to escape from. This is because while the position is more stable than the single hand grab (which is very easy to break), the dual hands get in each other’s way. This choke hold goes directly after the windpipe, squeezing to cut off oxygen to the brain. Seven minutes is a very long time for professional martial combat. Consider that the standard street fight lasts less than thirty seconds. Martial Combat is all about economizing your time efficiently and this choke is not efficient. However, unlike more effective choke holds, it is easy to do. You’re also unlikely to kill your victim with it, unless you sit there squeezing their throat for about twenty minutes. The reason why I say this is because the hands get in the way of each other and don’t completely cut off the oxygen flow. It’s really hard to squeeze the windpipe shut with your fingers. Ironically, it’d be faster to smother them with a pillow.

These are the two (three) big ones most people think of when discussing choke holds. However, chokes aren’t the only way to strangle someone. There are quite a few techniques from the palm strike to the knife hand designed to perform similar functions like closing the carotid artery or collapsing the windpipe.

When considering knockouts, it’s very important to remember that a knockout isn’t the same as putting someone to sleep. Therefore, it isn’t “safe” and consequence free the way a lot of media portrays.

-Michi

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Q&A: Just Make It Their Phys Ed Class

Kids in my story are taught flashy stage staff fighting to build endurance, confidence and coordination. They complain about it and are told if they can successfully master a complex method of not hurting each other, then the simple methods of real staff fighting should be fairly easy later on. Would this be realistic? Not talking child soldiers, just kids who think they’re getting dumbed-down lessons.

No, it’s not realistic and, in this context, the kids would be right. They are being lied to by their teachers.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is a much more complicated discussion about stage fighting versus real fighting, how you get children to learn, and the very real question of how you intend to sell flashy stage fighting that looks really cool as something that’s boring. I can already tell from the way you’ve structured your question that you’re looking for a “safe” way to get what you want i.e “cool” staff fighting without having to answer questions about how one responsibly trains kids to use weapons. Kids training on staves is realistic because it does happen in modern American suburbia without the drugs, the abuse, or the mental scarring, or the shitty Hollywood Orientalism.

Now, let’s start with stage fighting. There’s two kinds of stage fighting. One is actual stage fighting and the other is martial arts choreography which is in the category of stunt work. They’re in the same field but you don’t get to both from the same place. You can learn the first kind of stage fighting without learning anything about martial arts, this usually gets rolled into a side note course in theater classes. The second kind works best if you have a solid base in martial arts to start off with because it draws off real techniques. In both cases, stage fighting relies on making big eye-catching motions that are visibly distinct and easy to see which is the exact opposite of what you want from practical combat.

The first kind of stage fighting is what we’ll call, “The Art of Whiffing While Looking Good”. The looking good part relies on you only looking at the motions from a specific line of sight otherwise you’ll be able to see them miss by a mile. It’s all about big, eye-catching motions that work as slight of hand to convince the audience that something is happening which isn’t. It is a real art form, one which takes a lot of skill and control to be good at in the upper echelons of professional stunt actors, but it’s not real. Lots of people mistake this for being “safe” fighting. It is the same as a magician’s stage trick. There are plenty of theater kids who do think that learning stage sword fighting means they can fence. (We’ve gotten questions from a young fencer before about their theater friend who always wanted to fight them with a sword, and how they didn’t want to. The reasons should be obvious.)

If you teach stage fighting to kids first then it will actually be much harder for them to learn the real thing later. You’d have to completely retrain them from the ground up, retrain their foundation, their reflexes, their stances, their ability to apply power. On top of that, you’d have to give them real endurance training too, which is the actual boring part of martial arts training all the kids complain about.

Now, if you’re thinking about the fight sequences choreographed and performed by actual martial artists, then that’s just martial arts. The kids won’t be good at this “stage fighting” unless they master the techniques underlying it… which is again martial arts. This would undercut them if your end goal is for them to actually be able to effectively use a staff in combat because skill in the substance is what makes you good at the flash.

The basic rule is you can’t train people to whiff and then expect them to be able to hit things. You have to train them to hit things first, then you can teach them how to whiff. (You already taught them to whiff while you were training them to hit things, because they spent a lot of time practicing not hitting things or hitting things gently at different stages while learning to hit things full force. This is where the real control comes from.)

Kids can’t initially tell the difference between flash and substance. You can use that flash as the carrot to get them excited about learning and to push them into applying themselves through the boring, repetitive parts. You can hold out the cool technique as the reward for wind sprints until they reach a point where what’s hard becomes enjoyable. You’ve got to be careful with this method though, because what kids can do is smell bullshit. As an authority figure you need to maintain their trust.

You can’t continue to sell stage fighting as a pathway to real martial arts if your students get exposed to the real thing. As a writer, you shouldn’t be so terrified of the child soldier specter that you think learning violence has to be all or nothing. Also, that’s not what a child soldier is. Child soldiers are kids who’ve been stolen from their families, given very little training, hopped up on drugs, and sent out to die. Conflating a child soldier with an Olympian judoka or just a regular six year old practicing martial arts for forty-five minutes three days a week disrespects everyone. Martial arts training is not by its nature abusive or dangerous for children.

This scenario reads like you’re looking for a roundabout way to get what you want while avoiding both the idea of kids learning about violence and the necessary repetitive, boring parts which make up the bulk of martial arts training.

Violence is very boring, and learning to do violence is even more so. You learn your new technique in pieces. You practice the pieces separately. You put the pieces together into a single bodily motion. You practice this for a while, then with a partner where you never touch each other but get used to the idea of spacing. Then, then, then you get to use slowly, carefully, and with great patience on the other person. Depending on the associated danger, the other person might be wearing a lot of padding. You get your cool technique moments interspersed between hours, and hours, and hours, and even more hours of repetition. You will practice the same techniques over and over and over again until you can do them in your sleep. When you’re not doing that, you’re doing your conditioning which is your pushups, your sit ups, your wind sprints, your mile-runs, etc. When you’re not doing either of those things, you’re stretching.

The average, recreational martial arts school is like PE class, except more fun. In fact, martial arts does get offered as Physical Education in some schools. I took Shotokan in college.

The mistake a lot of people who never practice martial arts make is the assumption that learning about violence inevitably makes people more violent. This is actually not true. Kids who learn martial arts are much less likely to mess around and use those skills outside of class than, say, the theater kids who learned stage fighting. Stage fighting is safe, so this leads to them more likely getting overconfident with it and practicing outside adult supervision. Kids who practice martial arts learn very quickly that martial arts can result in them or someone else getting hurt if they make a mistake, and the result is they become more responsible about using the skills that they acquire.

Real violence needs to be respected for the harm it can cause. Teaching someone “safe” violence sends the wrong message, and this scenario you’ve concocted is actually more likely to result in these kids hurting each other outside of where the adults can see. They were taught they couldn’t be hurt by the techniques they learned, so why not use them?

The irony here is that the real thing is actually safer for them and better for achieving all the things they’re supposed to be learning from it than the fake thing. It’s also more honest.

They also still won’t be able to whip around and take on a Navy SEAL because all martial arts training is not the same.

You’d be better suited to having these kids learn recreational martial arts which is martial arts training dedicated to health and exercise than stage fighting if what you want them to develop is endurance, confidence, and coordination. At the end of the day, martial arts is just sports and it fits as easily into your average PE class as baseball, soccer, dodgeball, and football. Most martial arts classes don’t run longer than a conventional PE period anyway. Wealthier schools often offer various extra class types for the kids who don’t want to do general Physical Education. It wouldn’t be a difficult sell that these kids’ school has that option, where you could sign up for fencing, karate, or taekwondo rather than taking the general. You also don’t run into the problem of asking, “do their parents know about this?” because their parents already signed the waiver.

I took Shotokan in college. I grew up next door to Stanford University, where they offered a whole slew of special programs and afternoon activities in the summer for kids that included fencing. These kinds of activities are a lot more common than you might imagine in the places where they can afford it.

If you’re serious about writing this story, I suggest hitting up your local YMCA or youth center and seeing what they offer as programs for kids during the summer. You might be surprised what you find.

-Michi

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Q&A: Emotions Are Not A Weakness

Do good fighters have to become emotionally distant/stunted/withdrawn in order to be effective? Often strength is seen as the same as being unemotional (not just being able to hide them) and not being ‘soft’ at all. Empathy, kindness, patience, etc, are considered weaknesses. Avatar: the Last Airbender is one of the only mediums I have seen that places some value on these traits even when the characters fight. Is there room for these traits in real life martial arts, other combat, or militaries?

Put. The. CW. Down.

If Avatar: The Last Airbender is the only example which comes to mind you either need to broaden your horizons or reevaluate what you’ve been reading/watching. You don’t need to expand beyond the YA, where this attitude flourishes, but you may want to read some better material or chase Avatar’s actual genre. Avatar: The Last Airbender is part of the martial arts fantasy adventure genre, known as wuxia in China, and for that genre it actually lives in the shallow end of the pool for the material its discussing.

I challenge you to go watch Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Letters from Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, M.A.S.H, Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, Bleach, Yu Yu Hakusho, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Black Clover, Claymore, That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime, Full Metal Alchemist, read Protector of the Small, All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey to the West, or countless other novels, manga, and comics which delve into this topic at length, and tell me they promote the idea of the emotionless combatant. Oh My General is on Amazon Prime right now. You can watch Ice Fantasy, Eternal Love/Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms, A Korean Odyssey, Violet Evergarden, Mr. Sunshine, Train to Busan, and many others are available on Netflix. I mean, watch Captain Marvel and Captain America: The First Avenger. Neither of these two are emotionless drones. I mean, have you watched The Two Towers? Aragorn and Legolas were in the process of becoming unglued at Helms Deep, they started yelling at each other in Elvish so the Rohirrim wouldn’t know how scared they were in order to maintain moral.

I’m not sure where you’ve gotten this perspective from. Though, it is a common misread of combat discipline, compartmentalization, and that someone must not have emotions if they don’t outwardly show their emotions in performative way or let their emotions rule them. The emotionless drone plot is one that does occur in many East Asian narratives, but its not presented as a strength. The plot revolves around the individual running away from a traumatic experience and giving up their humanity as a result, this is treated as a display of weakness rather than strength. You need your emotions, we make some pretty shitty choices without compassion, kindness, and empathy. You need your emotions like anger to give you purpose and to drive you. You need your frustrations to dig deep, to find the strength to overcome. You just can’t allow them to control you.

At the beginning of your question you asked,

Do good fighters have to become emotionally distant/stunted/withdrawn in order to be effective?

These three words are not the same, they do not share the same meaning, and to combine them is to misunderstand the difference between being emotionally distant or withdrawn and being emotionally stunted. You then go on to combine being stunted, withdrawn, and distant with the idea of having no emotions at all.

Someone who is emotionally distant has emotions, but is choosing not to connect to other individuals in the moment. This is a choice.

Someone who is emotionally withdrawn has exited their emotions from the situation. They are unreachable, and are trying to protect themselves.

Someone who is emotionally stunted is someone who has not actually developed their emotions, and as a result experiences them in an often explosive and immature way. Emotionally, they are a child in the body of an adult dealing with adult emotions. They are more likely, rather than less, to be controlled by their emotions.

Someone who is unemotional, is someone who does not feel at all and that is different from all of the above.

None of these are a person who practices combat discipline because combat discipline is a necessary survival mechanism for keeping yourself and your friends alive. Combat discipline doesn’t negate your emotions, but uses them for motivation while keeping the mind clear. They are able to review the situation logically, and make rational decisions. Combat discipline doesn’t necessarily follow someone out of a combat scenario. They can and do emotionally engage with others outside of violence. (They can emotionally engage with someone during a combat scenario also, however their emotions are not the basis of their decision making.)

Your emotions are positive and negative, and both can be manipulated by your enemy. They can also manipulate you. You can use your emotions to justify narcissism, use your anger to justify harming others, and can make incredibly poor long term choices for the good of others based on short term gratification. The desire to feel like a good person can be destructive when that desire blinds you to the reality of the situation you’re inhabiting, when your life and the lives of others are riding on that decision. There’s a lot more to violence than technical aptitude. There are a lot of ways to kill someone, many which involve maneuvering someone into a position from which they can’t defend themselves. An easy way to do that is by manipulating your opponent’s emotions, their desires, their anger, their greed, their compassion, their kindness, and their empathy. If you approach a situation blindly, you can fall.

There’s a combat tactic called a honeypot, where you specifically wound an enemy soldier and leave him/her out in the open. When the other soldiers come to rescue them, you kill them.

This is a tactic which specifically preys on the human desire to help a comrade who is suffering. The trap relies on you to jump based on a knee jerk emotional response, to act without thinking.

This is where your emotions can get you into trouble and why combat discipline is a necessary skill to develop. If you don’t, then even a high school bully can bait you into acting against your own interest and maneuver you into a bad situation.

Read Sun Tzu’s Art of War and you’ll start to get an idea.

The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. – Sun Tzu

You want to reduce the opportunities someone has to take advantage of you. Only by shoring up your mind and seeking clarity, can you defend yourself against an enemy’s mental attacks. We like to imagine that battle takes place only in the clashing of bodies, but strategies and tactics are provided by the mind. A clever enemy will strike at you in all the places you are weak, often in those you do not expect.

The mistake is assuming this means the character cannot have any emotional connections at all, that they must have no emotion and must be a drone to save themselves. Many writers have taken this direction on the assumption the emotionless approach is the best way to secure victory, even if it’s a self-sabotaging one which exists only in the fantastical.

The emotionless drone is also a misreading of Taoism/Daoism, Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and other philosophies and religions; just as Avatar also misunderstands the philosophies of the material it draws from. The search for enlightenment and transcendence has nothing to do with giving up your emotions, giving up what matters, and going to live on a mountaintop away from anything which can threaten your inner peace. Aang cannot give up Katara because Katara is not an object Aang can control or possess. Giving up your desires is code for giving up your illusion of control, giving up your preconceived notions of who someone else is, and realize only when you have given up the illusions which blinded you can you see clearly. The distinction between Aang’s love for Katara and Aang’s love for his idea of Katara is important. While the Avatar narrative is steeped in these themes of enlightenment and transcendence, it never delves into them and, as a result, the martial arts component of the fantasy becomes a prop. Aang defeating the Firelord through violence at the end of Avatar: The Last Air Bender is actually a failure by the narrative to understand its own genre inherited themes.

It is important to remember when asking questions about the real world and real world martial arts, that the bending martial arts of Avatar are based on four distinct Chinese martial arts: Baguazhang (Air), Tajiquan (Water), Hung Guar Kuen (Earth), and Northern Shaolin (Fire). All these martial arts have a real history, with real philosophies, ones that are often contrary to their use in Avatar. Baguazhang and Tajiquan are what are commonly referred to as “soft” martial arts in the West, but better definition for them is “internal”. They are meditative, philosophical, and introspective martial arts with a focus on Daoist transcendence.

Part of Avatar’s problem is the idea that only specific people are born with the ability to bend, and therefore only specific people practice the martial arts rather than manipulating the elements being the result of interest, hard work, and training. This piece of worldbuilding is in defiance of all the martial arts and genre conventions it utilizes, such as Martial Arts Gives You Superpowers. Bending should be attainable to the average person even if they’re not born with natural talent, but isn’t. Transcendence through enlightenment, harmony, and understanding of the natural world is barred based on the luck someone has when they’re born. Avatar has the same problem as Star Wars after the introduction of midichlorians.

Compare to Naruto, which as a shounen manga/anime has a far better grasp of chi/qi/ki baked into its world building, where the distinction for the average person becoming a ninja is access, and where the discussion about the place of emotion in warfare is contrasted with individual loss and suffering and the prejudice which results from it. There’s also a lot of ugly crying in that first episode. Never let it be said real men don’t cry.

Most of war, shounen, and other martial arts fantasy narratives discuss the importance of relationships, of the bonds created between people which give them motivation to survive through horrific circumstances, through trauma and loss. How those bonds cause pain which can destroy you, and how they can save you in the hard times, how we can mistake one emotion for another, how feelings are an important component of what it is to be human.

The idea of characters being emotionless is mostly just a cheap out to avoid needing to write the characters as having difficult emotions which can be hard to express, are frightening, make us ugly or unlikeable, self-obsessed, or, in romantic stories, letting in that one special person who awakens their long buried feelings. In poor writing, kindness, compassion, patience, empathy are the province of certain characters rather than regular human traits because possessing empathy makes those characters look better.

So, no, being emotionless doesn’t make someone a better warrior. Giving up your emotions is the coward’s way out, it’s a means of escaping difficult feelings and pain, and repressing so you don’t have to deal with them. Facing your feelings takes real courage.

The truth is someone can go to war and return fine without any trauma, not be damaged, still be a loving parent, sibling, child, husband/wife, even after they’ve ended the lives of others. This can be difficult for some people to wrap their heads around. Likewise, compartmentalization can be hard to understand. They don’t have to find the act of killing hard, usually they take more exception to losing those they care about.

-Michi

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