You once said no loose braids for fighting. In a series by Tamora Pierce, the Beka Cooper series, the titular character uses a loose braid but she braids a spiked strap into it so whoever grabs it would get a nasty surprise. Would that be reasonable? Or would it still be easy for it to be turned against her?

Well, you never want to put anything in your hair that can end up buried in your neck. However, that’s not the primary and most glaring issue in this case.

The problem with Beka Cooper’s solution is that she is a cop.

In the beginning books, she is a patrol officer or a “beat cop”. These cops walk what is called “a beat” or travel a specific route or around a set area on the lookout for miscreants and lawbreakers. She travels the same route every day. In large part, she arrests rather than kills her opponents.

The spiked strap is a one trick pony. It’s there to surprise her opponents when they grab her hair. Surprises like that work all of once.

People talk. The information gets around that the young pup has a spiked braid. The more she wears it, the more likely they are to notice. The cautious will avoid it. The enterprising will look to turn it into weapon they might use to their advantage. After all, there’s nothing more poetic than strangling a cop with their own braid. This one’s got a braid that’s just begging for a try. And gorgets? They don’t protect the whole neck.

The cautious that are in her beat just start wearing better protection on their hands, procure some thicker leather gloves and they’re good to go. “Heard Johnny in the clink got his hands torn up by that thing!” and “Better start wearing some more protection if you’re in the East End during Night Watch!” Braid’s still fair game.

Worst case, it’d make her even more of a target than before. It’s more of a distinguishing feature. It’s the sort of thing you remember, and what gets remembered means they think about it. They think about it, they’re more likely to come back for seconds. “You seen a Pup with spikes in her braid? Know where she runs?” More likely others have seen her. More likely they know where she lives. More likely to be tracked down.

More likely to be snuffed.

It sounds plausible, possibly even reasonable, until you stop and realize that it’s fairly worthless for the time invested. Nothing is stationary, there are no permanent fix solutions. You go out with that, someone will devote time and energy to developing a counter. The counter will make the primary solution useless. The braid is still there, the braid can still be used the same way it might’ve been if there were no spikes. Now one must come up with a new solution to a problem easily solved if they weren’t prioritizing their vanity over their own life.This is why the advice is cut off the damn hair, hide it under a helmet, or stuff it down your clothes.

This is how warfare works, by the way. This is how it progresses. Someone comes up with an idea, maybe the idea works/maybe it doesn’t, surviving enemies have seen technique and develop a counter to it, we all go back to the drawing board to modify technique so it can continue to work.

That is the problem with this solution and it’s what you should be considering with your own villains. People see what goes on around them and they respond to it. For example, the running philosophy that Batman’s presence actually caused crime to escalate in Gotham is a legitimate one. One crazy running around successfully running about causing trouble causes even more dangerous ones to come crawling out of the woodwork to challenge him.

This is actually a good thing. It’s organic growth. It’s characters responding to and living in their environment, this progression makes the story more fun. You escalate a situation, someone else will escalate further to match you. Look at any arms race in history. They are often complicated, but in simple terms it’s about not wanting someone else to be able to take what you have by force. Answering force with force is a survival mechanism. The people who believe they need a gun in their home to protect themselves if someone else breaks into their home with a gun (or just breaks into their home) aren’t really wrong.

I’ll be frank, Beka Cooper is extraordinarily well-outfitted for a police officer. Historically, money was not heavily spent on police forces and most of the time police were ex-soldiers who basically went out with the clothes on their back. Royal Guards got armor, not the guys walking the late night docks near Cheap Side.

Criminals and Cops work together very closely even when they’re on opposite sides. They exist within the same sphere, they start to know each other. That means information gets passed around. Knowledge goes both directions. Criminals are opportunistic and predatory, they don’t have the same protections that one gets from working within the law. Whatever their motives, they have to take what they can get and jump to see their goals met. This means becoming more clever, changing up their strategies, getting a foot in on who works where on what nights, where the openings are, and who is vulnerable. It will never be perfect, but they can’t afford to not take advantage of an advantage just because something stupid is in the way.

The advantage one gets from hauling someone around by their hair supersedes the threat of the spikes.

When you lose your advantage, you do what you have to in order to get it back. It doesn’t help, again that the solution to this problem is very simple, it’s: “thicker gloves”.

The other problem is that a spiked strap in your hair will inevitably cause more problems then it solves. It’s the character choosing to escalate a situation that doesn’t need to be escalated. Pierce pulls heavily from more modern police work and a more idealized judicial system for her Tortall setting than standard medieval Europe, so it’s also one where a character like Beka is in a profession which restricts her from killing her enemies. The guy who grabs that braid and gets a hand full of spikes will either escape and want his pound of flesh for his injury, or he’ll have friends who will want their pound in return for the arrest and the maiming.

It’s a great way for Beka to quickly make enemies, to distinguish herself as memorable, in the way that ends with rookies like her having their throat slit and their bodies dumped in ditches.

If you’re writing anything, spend some time thinking about it from the perspective of the villains. Criminals are, in large part, naturally enterprising people. They are often creative. They have to be, they’re always working on shaky ground. More than that, be a scientist. Test every “clever” solution you come up with rather than just running with it.

Play with it, consider what horrible things someone could do now that you’ve given them the option. How can they turn this to their advantage?

The clever solution in this case will open the character up to more misery and opens the door for more brutality than they were asking for to begin with. You cannot strangle someone with their own hair, it’s not tough enough for that. You can strangle them with the spiked leather strap they were dumb enough to wear in it. On the same hand, they can also grab the braid and jab the spikes into the back of Beka’s neck in that opening between the gorget and the helmet. Any weapon sharp enough to cut your enemy is sharp enough to also cut you. In an effort to deter and defend with a weapon outside the character’s own control, you’ve suddenly made that viable and far easier than it would be if they weren’t wearing it at all. More dangerous than an enemy just grabbing their hair. Worse, it’s even more likely to occur as an idea for an enemy than if they were just carrying a knife.

This isn’t just a Beka Cooper problem or a Tamora Pierce one, we’ve recommended her work before on this blog, it’s a fairly common writer/creative industry problem. The invention of complex solutions which create more issues than they solve. They seem reasonable on the surface, right up until you start thinking about all the ways it could go wrong. This can be especially difficult if you’re not used to thinking in terms of ruthless pragmatism or just plain viciousness. The sort of viciousness you don’t see in a YA novel.

For example, you’re not going to see Careers going back for the dead bodies of other children, weighting them, and floating them out into a lake to poison the water supply. Anyone dumb enough to go after an easily accessible source and lacking the resources to acquire clean water from their sponsors. Just like they didn’t set fire to the tree when they noticed Katniss was in it.

It’s the things we don’t think of that come back to bite us, mostly because we’ve no experience with them. In this case, there is a very simple solution to the hair issue that avoids all these other problems.

Cut it.

Bun it.

Braid it.

Hide it.

If you choose not to for your character, then just accept that is them signing on for the problems which come with it. That’s okay, you know. You can choose to do that. There are plenty of people out there in real life who do. There’s no need to justify it through fancy solutions that lead to greater idiocy. (Though that’s an acceptable character trait too.)

Instead of running in fear or trying to make it “better”, use it. Use it as a character choice to flesh out who they are. Maybe you’ve got a female character who uses her physical appearance, especially her hair, as a defining factor of her femininity. Explore that and the consequences which come from it, use it as a part of their plot and their exploration of identity, rather than trying to say it doesn’t matter because I can just add in X.

It makes them relatable, and more human.

There have been warriors throughout history who have culturally had long hair and had to figure out ways to mitigate it. However, don’t just pull at random from history and say but “this group did it so it’s okay!”. Look at the circumstances surrounding those choices and the context which allowed for it to work, is it the same for you? Or were you just looking for a shallow example to justify something that doesn’t really work?

Ask yourself why. Why are you so intent on making this work? Why is it necessary to defend a female character having long hair when she fights? Does yours feel like she’ll be less of a girl if she has short hair? What is the fantasy here? Why do you care so much?

Use that.

I mean it.

Writing is in large part an exploration of human experience, those experiences are at the core of good storytelling. Not just a fantasy versus reality, fantasy is reality and vice versa in fiction, but access the parts of yourself that maybe aren’t so comfortable like your insecurities, your worries, and your fears.

Adopting a masculine role or traits that feel more “masculine” can be uncomfortable. Writing female characters who are active, action characters can be and often is them taking on a narrative role that isn’t usually deemed acceptable. And if you think there isn’t a strong backlash against female characters who don’t properly adhere to gender norms even just within the minds of their writer then, what can I say? You’re wrong.

Women are often expected to meet impossible standards. A female character who participates in violence can end up as non-stereotypical as it gets, but there are just as many forces which try to conform them back into the support role/damsel in distress box. This can happen to female characters even when they’re the protagonists of their own narratives. It has before and it will happen again, often on accident.

I, personally, have to fight against my internalized sexism every time I
sit down to write. It is difficult to escape that box, to find the line
between expectations, reality, and personhood. Pro points go to Tamora Pierce and many authors like her, both male and female, who have worked hard to widen and diversify those fictional roles. Providing us with many different characters, rather than singular voices. No one will ever hit the mark every single time. One failure does not discredit them for the rest of the good they do. Just don’t take everything as a gospel truth.

Addressing internalized
sexism within yourself rather than avoiding it will help you write
better. In the end, regardless of what they look like, how they come
off, or feel about themselves, addressing your own hangups will make you
better and it’ll help you write characters who are more than just the fantasy definition of “strong”.

Lastly, let me say that Tamora Pierce is, without a doubt, one of the best writers in the Young
Adult genre today. Her work addresses many important issues in regards to sexism, particularly institutionalized sexism, and she is incredibly influential. Hers are one of the better examples of true “Feminist” literature in the sub genre as they address the cultural effects of sexism and how characters both male and female deal with those realities, rather than just being books with a “Strong Female Protagonist”. As a writer, she is, at heart, an idealist and the expression of that idealism, those good people fighting the good fight is where her work is at its best. Despite it’s popularity, I’ve never felt that Beka Cooper’s novels were some of her strongest narratives.

There’s a certain amount of cold pragmatism at the heart of police work, it’s the place where the idealism which makes Protector of the Small so uplifting is drowned in the bay’s murky, stagnant blood filled waters next to the floating corpse of a six year old with a crushed-in skull. Crime fiction is really where the idealistic go to be crushed by the establishment’s unending weight.

The corruption, the darker aspects of human nature, and the exploration of the hero in it’s mirror are where that’s at. Didn’t really happen with Beka for me.

Those are just my thoughts on the issue.

I’d appreciate never hearing about that damn strap again though.

-Michi

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