Q&A: Shot in the Leg

So I read your post on gunshot wounds to the leg and it was very helpful, but what I’m looking for is a little more specific. My character gets shot in the leg, clean, nothing major hit. The wound is bandaged. But immediately after she gets shot, she passes out and isnt aware of anything. Is that believable? If the wound was bandaged right away, would she survive being carried for an hour before even reaching the hospital?

So, what caused her to pass out?

There’s nothing wrong with being able to survive for hours after taking a bullet if it didn’t hit anything vital. Some gunshot wounds can take a long time to kill you. Bandaging it is a good idea, because it will slow the blood loss.

Blood loss can result in losing consciousness. You lose a lot of blood, go into hypovolemic shock, lose consciousness, and bleed to death. If a patient loses consciousness shortly after suffering a gunshot wound, that tells you to look for serious blood loss. You may want to double check and make sure you didn’t miss any internal hemorrhaging.

You know will not cause you to pass out? The pain from getting shot. I feel like I’ve written this recently, but pain does not make you lose consciousness. Pain will keep you awake. While I’m a little less confident of this, I’m pretty sure getting shot will keep you awake. Even if the pain doesn’t, the adrenaline will.

If someone gets shot and passes out, they’re losing blood fast. You lose consciousness when you’re down ~20% of the blood in your body. You die when you lose between 30% and 40%. Napkin math says, if someone gets shot, and it takes 30 minutes for them pass out from blood loss, you’ve got a bit less than 15 to 30 minutes before they’re dead.

So, you have a character who gets shot. Their leg gets bandaged, but they lose consciousness within five minutes of the wound, they’re not going to survive for an hour without medical attention. Even if it takes two hours for them to lose consciousness, taking another hour to get them to a hospital would be an extremely risky decision.

Now, if they’re semi-conscious for most of the ride. Say, the first 50 minutes, and lose consciousness about 10 minutes out, it’s going to be touch and go, they’ve still lost a lot of blood, but that is survivable. If they pass out ten minutes earlier, it’s distinctly possible they’ll be dead on arrival.

If she’s being carried by hand, that carries extra risks because it could aggravate the wound and accelerate blood loss. Especially if they’re carrying her with the gunshot wound at a lower elevation than the heart. The ideal situation would be to lay her out on a vehicle’s bench or a stretcher, with the injured leg elevated above the heart. If you’re bleeding to death, don’t let gravity help finish the job, make your heart work to kill you. It will buy you time.

Also, hand carrying another human being for that long will be exhausting. It’s not impossible, but unless someone’s in excellent physical condition, they might not be able to carry her the distance, and shuffling her between carriers runs the risk of aggravating her wound, making things worse. This is less of an issue if they’ve got her on a stretcher or some other kind of stable platform.

Now, it’s possible she lost consciousness due to some other factor, but I can’t think of any off-hand, that would improve her odds for her survival.

If she lost consciousness shortly after getting shot in the leg, it’s a very bad sign. She’s probably losing blood much faster than anyone realized and would be dead in minutes. My suspicion would be an arterial bleed, which can be managed to a degree by keeping pressure on the artery to reduce blood loss. However, we’re talking about a character having to shove their finger into her wound to stop the bleeding (which requires some fairly specific anatomical knowledge.) Given how fast she lost consciousness, I’m pessimistic about it buying more than a few minutes without serious medical attention.

So, is it believable? No. It’s entirely believable she’d remain conscious, going into shock. It’s entirely believable she’d lose consciousness shortly after the injury, and die a few minutes later. Unfortunately, it’s one or the other.

If she’s bleeding out, her initial symptoms would include a headache, vertigo, nausea, and increased perspiration. These aren’t particularly worrying. She’s loosing blood, but she’ll probably live. However, over time, she’d start manifesting more serious symptoms. These include losing body temperature (and feeling cold), starting to suffer from impaired cognitive function, particularly confusion. Her skin would become cold and clammy, and would get paler as blood pressure dropped. Her pulse would get faster and weaker, also as her pressure dropped. It would become harder for her to remain conscious. Eventually, she would lose consciousness. The faster these symptoms manifest, particularly the more severe ones, the more dire the situation. If she’s going straight to passing out, and help is an hour away, she’s already dead.

I’m sorry, but if she drops after the firefight, you just killed your character.


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Q&A: Thigh Highs

I’m sorry if this is more of an athletics question rather than fighting but how easy would it to fight in thigh highs? Either in boots or socks. I’ve sometimes seen it being a common design choice for female fighters (usually anime or video games), even in more realistic settings. I assume that it would be a bit constricting, especially on the knee and the part where it ends off on the thigh. But maybe Im overestimating how much of a hinderance it is?

It’s there because it looks attractive, not because it’s practical. So long as it doesn’t interfere with your mobility or balance it basically doesn’t matter. There’s two potential problems, is if it too stiff and impairs bending the knee and if it has high heels.

Elevated heels started with a practical use, it makes it easier to keep your boot in a stirrup and remain mounted during cavalry combat. The earliest use of high heels in women’s fashion were deliberately playing off of this.

Over the centuries, high heels have exaggerated, going higher and pushing the wearer off balance. They barely resemble the military riding boots that inspired the trend, and are completely unsuitable for combat now.

Heels affect the wearer’s posture by forcing the pelvis to tilt forward, forcing the wearer to compensate by bending the spine and accentuating their chest. It’s not a stable stance to fight from. You’ll frequently see characters in high heels, fighting, sprinting, and generally engaging in activities that are functionally impossible with their footwear. As you pointed out, this is very common in media where reality can be distorted without having to account for an actress undertaking the acts described. In addition to animation and video games, comics are another common source for this.

Much like cosmetics, high heels are designed to increase the sex appeal of the wearer. If you’re fighting to save the world, or even just your own life, this is probably low on your list of priorities.

The question about how much it constricts will come down to the individual article of clothing. While it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the majority of women’s thigh highs heavily constrict movement, and are completely unsuitable for combat, you can reinforce a leather boot going up the leg, and allowing articulation at the knee. At that point, if the leather is thick enough to offer some protection, and the knee can move with minimal effort, it’s armor. Leather doesn’t make the best armor, but a layer of the stuff can protect against a lot of minor injuries. It’s also sturdy enough to use as a base for mounting heavier armor components.

However, we’re probably talking about a boot designed to make the wearer look good, rather than something that allows freedom of movement, and at that point it becomes a liability.

The only real potential use for a thigh high combat boot would be in situations where you wanted to armor the thigh, had a boot with a flexible knee joint, and it had a flat, or nearly flat heel. Ironically, riding boots are one of the rare moments where these would make some sense, as it would protect most of your leg from minor injuries, and if you did loose some mobility in the knee it would be less of an issue, since you’re not going to be running around on foot anyway. That said, you’re not going to get much more protection than you would with lower boots and heavy pants. So the value is limited.

Assuming the character is wearing shoes, their socks are not going to matter much. If they’re not wearing shoes, then socks can have serious issues with lack of traction, but that’s not what you’re talking about. Also, if they’re wearing heals that will still have a negative effect, but we already discussed that.

Since we haven’t mentioned this, a skirt isn’t a problem, so long as it’s lose enough not to interfere with movement, and isn’t long enough to get caught.

The real answer is thigh highs are used, mostly, for aesthetic reasons. While there are some potential uses, they’re vastly outweighed by sex appeal. You dress a character like this because you want them to be attractive, not because it’s practical combat gear.


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Q&A: Insert Witty Banter Here

Can two people really have a proper conversation while fighting? It’s my first time writing a fully engaged fighting and I keep remembering 1) all the action movies I’ve watched where they either fight as they talk or stop between moves to taunt each other 2) a tv channel that showed different martial arts completions and there were waiting between moves but no stops. So I’ve been wondering if it’s actually realistic or not.

To abuse a quote I can’t remember the source of, “No, but also yes.”

You’re not going to have a coherent conversation mid-fight. It’s a bad idea that will end poorly. Basically, when you’re in a serious fight you don’t want to split your attention between the person trying to end your life, and sounding witty at the same time.

In a firefight, you don’t want to announce your location to people armed with weapons that can blow through whatever you’re hiding behind, so belting out threats and taunts isn’t really going to work there at all.

However, in melee, there is value in distracting your opponent. While I’m hesitant to classify anything in the 1989 Batman film as “realistic,” the idea of asking someone, “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” has some merit. (Or, at least, would in a world where that film doesn’t exist.) It’s a very strange question that has the possibility of confusing your foe. It won’t work on a disciplined enemy, it won’t work on the same person twice, but having a weird question or two, that you can spout off without thinking has some value.

Similarly, taunts, screams, and weird noises, all have uses. At best, they’ll distract, confuse, or unnerve your foes. At worst, you’re going to be exhaling as you strike anyway, so you’re not giving up much.

If you’re not trying for a, “real world,” feel, there’s a lot of justification for including witty banter, or clever dialog in your fight scenes. Characters talking shop while trying to kill one another creates a comedically mundane feeling. For them, the act of fending off assassins has become so mundane they’re tuned out. It replicates the feeling anyone working a mundane job has felt but transposes it into a context that should be exciting. Except that novelty has worn thin for the characters, and now it’s just business as usual. This can be darkly comedic, and the is some reality here as well.

People who deal with violence, or the aftermath of violence, on a regular basis, can develop an unusually dark sense of humor. Police, soldiers, doctors, EMS, and anyone else who deals with violence or its aftermath on a regular basis will start to normalize this, and at that point, their unfiltered sense of humor can become truly disturbing to the uninitiated. That even extends to us. I remember once accidentally horrifying an Australian over Discord because I was joking about a Mafia assassination from the mid-1930s with Michi while on a hot mic.

This would never result in comparing notes with someone trying to kill you, but that mindset isn’t completely unrealistic, and the humor of it isn’t as out there as it first appears.

Characters bantering with one another can be valuable for you. It will help keep your fight interesting. It allows you to play with characterization you wouldn’t normally see. (If your characters would never sit down and snark at each other, having them do that over crossed swords can let you explore that material.) If the end result is entertaining, it has done it’s job. It’s not true to the real world, but that was never the point.

The high water mark here is, probably The Princess Bride. That has some the best combat banter you’ll ever encounter. It’s high tempo, so it never drags down the fight. It’s punchy when it needs to be. It explores character relations and motivations. It helps you get to know these characters. Finally, it is eminently entertaining. That cast had a beautiful chemistry going, and the end result is some of the finest banter you’ll ever see on film.

In the specific context of film, breaking for dialog is also very useful from a production standpoint. It gives the actors time to pause and recover between bouts of action. Somewhat obviously, this is not something you’d want as a real combatant, you want your opponent exhausted and then dead, but when you’re making a film, that would be a less desirable outcome.

As for martial arts competitions, it’s there the name, you’re competing with the other participants. Even if there’s no ill will, you’re going to maintain a degree of discipline between techniques / bouts / rounds / whatever. This is less true with competitive sports like boxing or MMA, where attempting to psych out your opponent is part of a legitimate strategy. So, the exact downtime interactions will depend on the sport’s culture and competitive rules.

Professional Wrestling is a good example of the boxing / MMA behavior amplified to the point of parody. Interactions between participants will have their own scripted theater events outside of the bout. Again, it’s not real, but it was never supposed to be.

Incidentally, the wrestling likes this for the same reasons it’s convenient in film. It gives the performers time to recover. There’s also a few other non-verbal variants there, including some of the holds, which are designed to give both performers a breather without looking the match is stalling out.

Now, there are a few real applications for trying to talk to your foes, instead of fighting them. However, note that last bit, “instead of fighting.” If you’re trying to defuse a situation, or stall for time, talking can do that more efficiently than fighting (and is generally much safer.) That said, this won’t be interspersed into a fight. When you’re writing a scene like this, the dialog is carrying the tension, because if your character miscalculates, the situation could turn violent.

So, you won’t see witty banter mid-fight in the real world. At least, not unless both participants think, “that’s how it’s supposed to work,” and are playing into the cliche. It won’t end well for a character who tries this against someone who knows better. Yelling at your opponent, trying to distract or confuse them, does work, and you may see that, but it would be more in the range of, “weird nonsense,” rather than true snark. You can use words to defuse a dangerous situation. That’s real, though there’s complex psychology involved.

However, you will see witty banter in fiction because it’s very useful for many reasons. This isn’t a mark against fiction for being “unrealistic,” when it is useful, and the work as a whole benefits.

So, as I misquoted at the beginning, “no, but also yes.”


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Q&A: Games as Inspiration

When you talk about video game stats not translating to real fights, is the assumption usually that both fighters are ordinary Homo sapiens and that things like magic potions and “Clarke’s third law” tech aren’t factors? Or does that vary depending on the exact scenario and what “stat” you’re referring to? Example: Would an elixer that temporarily halves the amount of calories you burn with any activity (so a stamina boost) give you an advantage in a fight?


So, stats are a complex subject, and I’ve been dancing around this for a couple months. I thought there was a comprehensive post on the subject already, but I don’t see it, so it probably doesn’t exist.

The short version I usually go with is, be careful about trying to translate stats into fight scenes, and this is part of why. If you’re making a game, it’s reasonable enough to say, “yeah, this consumable increases your stamina by 3 points.” However, when you’re trying to use that as a narrative device, it can become harder to justify. “Why would an elixir that modifies the speed at which you get hungry increase your hit points?”

The stats you create for your story are abstractions for much more complex topics and mechanics, distilled into (hopefully) an easy to manage format. It’s fine to sit back and say, “okay, my character has a Combat stat of 5, the other fighter has a Resilience stat of 2, so, I’ll deal 3 damage when they ambush them, leaving them with 2 health,” and go from there to write a fight scene where your character ambushes another, leaving them in a wounded state as the fight proceeds.

It’s not a terrible idea to stage out the fight on a map. Move your characters around, see what other characters might observe the fight, and think about how those bystanders would respond.

This only becomes a problem when you start focusing on the rules, or when the rules you’re relying on start to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

I think I’ve used this example before, but let’s look at D&D. (Specifically I’m looking 3.5 Edition, some of this does carry forward, some has been changed.) A 7th level fighter could reasonably have 66hp. (I’m using a dice rolling site right now.) If they’re critically struck by a character using a longsword, they’ll take 1d8 damage, doubled. So, up to 16 of damage. This means your character can be stabbed in the chest and shrug it off. This isn’t an example where the blow doesn’t connect. D&D does, explicitly, allow characters to suffer superficial damage to explain how they’re getting hit without it seriously affecting them, but crits are supposed to be the hit actually connecting.

Now, it’s possible to write a scene where your certified badass hero suffers a mortal wound, and keeps on fighting until they collapse. The problem with the example above is, that Fighter isn’t mortally wounded. They took a blow which would outright kill a human without dying. If their armor held, or the blow was glancing, it wouldn’t be a critical hit. (In fact, a glancing hit off the armor occurs when you manage to clear their Touch AC, but don’t beat their full AC. Armor in D&D is both simple and stupidly complicated at the same time. If you don’t understand, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.)

So, it allows for a character who takes what should be a mortal wound to then shrug it off.

Having just trashed that, you can make a compelling scene from that scenario. Your fighter gets hit and they’re seriously injured, they’re fighting what could easily be a losing battle. Afterwards, if they survive, they can address the injuries. Maybe with a health potion, maybe with help from a healer.

What you want to do is remember that hit points are an abstraction, and that as your character is injured, those injuries will pile up. Maybe they can keep going for a little while if they have the will to keep fighting, but they’ll bleed to death and die. Strength is an abstraction. Your character really knows how to fight, and is probably a fairly solid combatant. The rules you have facilitate this, and can remind you that your character isn’t invincible, but also lead you into a situation where you forget your character just took a blade to the intestines, and probably isn’t doing too well right now.

So, I’ve been talking about how not to use stats, let’s flip this around and talk about how stats and rule systems can be incredibly beneficial to you as writer.

Games tell stories. I don’t mean in the sense of a written story presented to the player. I’m not talking about passively consuming cutscenes, and for the most part I’m not talking about the writing itself. I’m talking about the systems, and what you can extract for a story.

A cliche, and remarkably difficult example is chess. The game itself tells the story of a conflict between two equally matched forces, with the overt structure of an iron age battlefield. It’s cliche due to overuse. Writers (who use it) will frequently drop literal chess games into the background of their story. It’s also difficult because chess is extremely abstract even in the context of an infantry skirmish. However, it can open your eyes to a world of strategic possibilities. You probably don’t want to cue the audience in to each piece individually, but when you sit back and look, you can see the king (who must be protected at all costs)/queen (who is far more mobile, deadly, and ultimately expendable) structure repeated all over the place in pop culture. (Though you’ll rarely see eight fleshed out antagonists with cannon fodder to go up against eight protagonists with their own minions.)

When it comes to blocking out stats for characters, the kind of story you’re telling is the most important thing. You don’t need to (and realistically can’t) account for the entirety of a person in a brief stat block. So you choose the factors that are most important for the story you’re telling. D&D has a standardized stat block of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The stat range is nominally 3-18, with 10 as “average.” That’s a fairly nice general collection of stats. But, doesn’t know the kind of story you’re telling, so it tries to pull in everything. This is where things get strange as Charisma mixes in any social skill along with appearance. Wisdom is your character’s perception, their willpower, and their skill in medicine. Because Medicine isn’t an Intelligence based skill. Because, in D&D, medical training is not about what you know, it’s how self-confident you are. Right.

Okay, let’s pull an old counterexample out. The out of print Babylon 5 Card Game had three stats, (technically 5, but I’m not going to worry about that.) You had Diplomacy, Intrigue, and Military. The game didn’t bother tracking any of the D&D stats, because any combat would happen within the context of other actions. If you attacked someone with diplomacy, it was (probably) an attempt to get them removed from treaty negotiations, maybe it was a court case or an op-ed. In rare cases it might have been a formal duel. If there was an attack in intrigue, that might have been a blackmail effort, or an attempt to expose the character’s contacts, or it could be violence. Military was ship to ship combat. Fleets would engage with one another. In rare cases military conflicts might be non-violent, but there was always the fear that you were one action away from someone opening fire and turning the entire situation into a shooting war.

Note the difference: D&D is attempting to systematize the person. Each character is a piece on a fantasy battlefield. B5 was interested in systematizing the person’s influence. This is how effective a character is diplomatically, this is how well they play the spy.

There’s no right answer for this. If you want a story where you’re focused on ground level combat, you’re probably going to want a physical stat block. However, if you’re more interested in a free flowing story, you’ll benefit far more from tuning your stats to mesh with the story you’re trying to tell.

If your setting has magic, maybe that should be a stat. If you have a heavy political theme, maybe that should be a stat. If you’re not going to be distinguishing between ranged and melee combat, you probably don’t need Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution.

The important thing is, no one will see these stats, so you can be as abstract as you want.

There’s also no hard rules about what a specific number needs to mean. If you want to calibrate stats between 1 and 10 (like Fallout), you can do that. If you want to mark a character’s stats from 1 to 5, (like World of Darkness), you can do that.

The only guidance I’ll give on stat ranges is: “Be consistent.” If you have an upper cap, do not break that without a very compelling reason. Make sure each value has a specific meaning to you; one you understand. The stats are meaningless if you cannot turn that into a description without tipping your hand.

Incidentally, for creating stat blocks, if you want to use a system you’re comfortable with, have fun. For example, I would not create characters using D&D, because I find it has too much tedious bookkeeping. However, that’s me. If you want to prototype your characters in D20, it’s your pencils, have fun. (Also, on the specific subject of D&D, character level is a stat. That has meaning, it tells you how far a character has traveled from being a rookie adventurer into a wandering demigod.)

With that said, there is another major thing about games. The systems themselves can forward narrative concepts. I’m going to explain this one with examples:

In 2001, Decipher Inc. got the license to the Jackson Lord of the Rings films. The card game they produced had a very novel cost system. The player controlling the fellowship could play as many cards as they wanted (until they ran out of cards.) However, each card had a “Twilight” cost. The player controlling the forces of Sauron paid for their cards using that “Twilight.” So, the structure that resulted would encourage Fellowship players to inch forward, and cut corners wherever possible, because anything they played would give the Shadow player more resources to hunt them down and kill them.

In a broad structure this meshes with The Lord of the Rings. Theoretically the Fellowship had almost unlimited resources, but they’re traveling light to avoid detection. Armies could be rallied, but that would bring Sauron’s attention, and massively increase the risk of The Ring corrupting someone.

It’s a simple mechanic, but if you’re writing a story about characters who are being hunted by a powerful foe (or foes), it’s a concept that can be adapted fairly fluidly. If anything you do will draw attention, you’d need to plan very carefully, to ensure your actions had the most effect.

Another mechanic that comes to mind is a ticking bomb. This one isn’t exclusive to a single game, I can think of many variants. The short version of this is, “you have X (time) until something bad happens, and you need to prevent that.” This a common narrative device as well, as it puts pressure on the protagonist to keep moving forward. The reason you see this is, it works. Timers prevent characters from sitting down and waiting it out. If you find a game with a good timer system, like XCOM2, you might want to take notes.

If you’re going this route, you want to become conscious for how the systems affect play, rather than just going, “okay, here’s a thing.” As with stats, you don’t, usually, want to be overt about systems you pick up. (Though a looming deadline could easily be something characters would know about.)

When you’re looking at systems, look for rules and mechanics that tension against one another. I didn’t go into detail with it, but the timers in XCOM2 do exactly that. This is a game where slow, methodical, deliberate play is vastly superior, so timers are added forcing you to act more aggressively, and take risks you’d otherwise ignore.

The short version of this is, a game experience can tell a compelling narrative. It can also produce a jumbled mess of events. As a writer, you can extract those moments where everything came together, smooth it out, and run with it. However, the real danger is getting into the weeds with how the rules function, instead of how they affect the story being told.

The worst thing you do is try to apply the rules over the story. This includes the potion suggestion above. You have a potion that allows your character to engage in physical activity for far longer than they would normally. Cool. It doesn’t need a rules explanation. The reader doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) know that potion grants +3 Stamina for the next 8h. It doesn’t mean a consumable like that couldn’t exist in your world. It doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t affect their stats. It just means that you do not want the audience cued in on that. The advantage of magic (and Clarke’s Law tech) is that you don’t have to explain why it does what it does. “Why would a potion that is intended to reduce fatigue also make you more durable in combat?” Who knows, that’s just how the magic works. Same reason you wouldn’t ask, “how does a health potion heal a punctured kidney?” or, “how does it replace all that lost blood?” Doesn’t matter, all we know is that it does that.

Stats and game systems are one of the best lies you can learn as a writer. If you’re careful, and you let them, they will keep you honest, and help engineer creative situations.

Stats and game systems are one of the most dangerous practices you can pick up as a writer, because there will always be a temptation to game the rules to the expense of your story.

Have fun, be careful.


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Q&A: Zealots and Martyrs

What’s a good starting point for creating and understanding a zealous character e.g. characters with “I recognize what I’m doing is wrong, but the outcome is worth it” and/or “I will kill or die for my beliefs” mindsets and what are some things that should be avoided when writing one?

Remember these are rational people. People you don’t agree with. People who will do things you’d never do. People who do not care about the same things you hold dear. However, they are people.

If you’re focusing on the outcome, and willing to do anything to achieve that goal, you’re engaging in a philosophy called, “Ends Justify the Means.” It really what it says, the “ends” you’re working towards justify whatever, “means,” you used to get there. It’s an ethical slight of hand, designed to disregard the negative consequences of your actions, based on the positive outcomes.

This can either be explored honestly or hypocritically.

If you’re being honest, it can be a house of cards. If your positive outcomes are sufficient, they outweigh your negative consequences and, “hey, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.” If the negatives outweigh the positives, you’ve done a lot of damage without anything to show for it.

However, even if you’re being honest, the entire philosophy is flawed, or at least a gamble: You are betting that the outcome will be positive, enough, to justify what you’ve done to get there.

Then there is the hypocritical side, where someone espouses this as a way to excuse their actions. Frequently this is presented with the positive outcome as an absolute good. “Save the world,” “protect the cause,” “achieve our goals,” rather than in concrete terms. This is because it’s harder to qualify an absolute. “Sure, you killed all those people, tortured a bus full of kids, but what does that compare to protecting The Truth?”

Again, there is a fundamental flaw: If you are sacrificing your cause’s morals to support the cause, you’re actually sabotaging it. Undermining the movement, and over time this can result in serious damage. People break off and leave. They will come to suspect the entire movement. In extreme cases it can even poison against your cause, and give your enemies the opportunity to recruit.

The entire ideology is problematic in its own right. It requires the practitioner to very carefully self-regulate, while rewarding successful escalation. If you broke the rules to win, why would you go back to following them?

This can all get worse if someone is operating in an echo chamber. They go more extreme, the people around them take that as the new normal until someone suggests they all dial it further. This is how we end up with self-radicalized zealots. (It’s also a critical component for radicalization in general.)

On the other side of this, we have people who are willing to die for their cause. These are martyrs. The term is loaded with religious symbolism, and the implication that they’ll be remembered, if not venerated, after death.

The only important thing to remember about a martyr is that they’re willing to die for something. That can be belief in a cause, opposition to another. It can be because they don’t see another option, or because they don’t want to be there to see the aftermath. The options are open.

There is one critical part; they need to have the conviction to follow through. Generally, one does not choose to throw their life away frivolously. From an external perspective, this is debatable, but they believed in their action, no matter how misguided.

There is correlation, the more fanatical someone is, the more willing they are to sacrifice lives in pursuit of their cause. Presumably, others first. If someone is willing to die for their cause, they’re probably willing to kill for it. They have identified something as more valuable than their life, and as a result they probably see it as more valuable than any other life. There’s a potential edge case with people who are, philosophically opposed to violence, but still willing to die for their beliefs.

The, scary thing about this is, it’s not that hard to get into the headspace. It’s comforting to believe that this requires some kind of altered state. To tell yourself, “I could never become that.” However, the only difference between you and them is that you haven’t ceded your moral compass to a cause, and you haven’t found something you’d die for.

Now, there is one significant possibility here worth discussing. Someone from an extremist organization may have a warped understanding of how the world works. Particularly when it comes to the fields where their organization is most radicalized. You can encounter this even in semi-mainstream organizations that have fringe inclinations. When you get to a topic that actively threatens to undermine the cause, things get weird.

Most of the time this starts with people in the organization presenting the subject in the least favorable light to other members, warning them away in the process. At this point it can devolve into a game of “telephone,” where information gets more distorted over time. Anyone who’s ever had conversations about pop culture with people raised in fundamentalist Christian communities have encountered this. Of course, with an organization, this can easily trend into conspiracy theories, or serious misinformation.

If your character is not in a radical organization, then warped perspectives become optional. It is possible if you have a character who is mentally unsound, they may have some, lesser warped perspectives. It’s also possible if they’re operating in an echo chamber, that they’d have perspectives which were exaggerated within their community. Though, this isn’t necessary for your question. Someone with a sound view of the world can decide that the ends justify the means or that a cause is worth dying for.


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Q&A: America, Right Now

I’m wondering if you have some follow up to Michi’s amazing post from 2015 about revolution, guerrilla warfare and terrorism? It’s impossible to analyse the current protests in real time but it seems police are escalating the violence and trying to bait civilians into fights they can’t win. Also, civil disobedience and direct action are more confrontational than what we are taught about non-violent resistance.

The problem is, you’re looking at the behavior before the event, rather than once it’s up and going. As of June 2020, the US is not currently facing an armed insurrection.

The behavior of police, right now, is publicly displaying what some have known for decades: Law Enforcement in the United States is an inherently racist and oppressive system, designed to create self-fulfilling prophecies.

There’s a number of factors here that have exposed this.

First is the increased communication technology. Police haven’t really kept up with the times on this front. They still seem to think that, if they catch someone recording them when they’re over the line, it’s easy enough to destroy the evidence, before anyone can see it. This would have been true 15 years ago, but today, someone with a cell phone camera can stream directly to the internet, with that broadcast being recorded, and watched by thousands of people.

Second is decades of of legal protection. One form of this is the police unions, which have gained an unhealthy amount of political influence. Their protection of criminal cops is such that it is nearly impossible to fire an officer no matter how egregious their behavior. Should they manage to be fired, they can easily find work with another law enforcement organization. Prosecution almost never occurs because it would result in the police unions coming down hard on the DA, and pouring money into a friendlier candidate’s campaign during the next election cycle.

For two specific examples of how extreme this is: the Minneapolis PD only punished officers in ~1.5% of cases where complaints were brought against them. The national average is ~2.5%. Many of these high profile slayings in recent years have been from officers with a history of complaints filed against them, which kind of undercuts the idea that all these claims are baseless, or retribution.

It’s being reported that Derek Chauvin will probably be able to collect his police pension as Minnesota state law does not prohibit convicted felons from claiming state pensions. Any civil suit against Chauvin will be paid by the city of Minneapolis. Meaning, ultimately, tax payers pay for the murder of George Floyd while Chauvin pays nothing, and collects a paycheck for the rest of his life, potentially as soon as 2026, (assuming state law doesn’t change before then.)

When you consider this environment, it’s not hard to see where you’d get cops that don’t feel accountable.

The third major element is popular culture. This may sound a little tenious, and I’ll probably revisit this in depth if anyone’s curious, however, yes, popular media does affect how people view the world.

We have nearly a century of video media presenting police as, “the good guys.” Some of this goes back to The Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930s, which had a very simplistic, and absolute, set of rules regarding the presentation of crime and law enforcement. However, even after the Production Code’s demise, we still have a lot of media which presents police as unambiguous heroes.

At this point, as a nation, we have two separate police forces. The one that exists in the real world, and a fictionalized version that doesn’t. If you rarely, or never, interact with the real thing, it’s easy to fill in the blanks from the fiction. The danger is, if you are part of the real thing, it’s easy to self-justify using that same fiction.

(If you’re not from the States, it’s probably worth noting that the real US law enforcement is broken up between City, County, State, and Federal agencies. There’s a lot of moving pieces. When, I’m saying, “there’s one,” I’m referring to the idea that there is the real gestalt of “American Law Enforcement.”)

With exception of shows like The Shield, the norm in American media is hero cops. Doesn’t matter if it’s Dragnet, Law & Order, CSI or hundreds of other shows and films. This creates real problems. In particular, CSI is a headache for prosecutors and defense attorneys as it has created an unrealistic expectation for, and faith in forensic evidence among juries.

The problem is that, “every good story needs a bad guy.” I’d quibble over this point, and have, but in the genre of the cop shows it is expected. Cops chase criminals, and before the hour is up, “they’ll have their man.”

The consequence of this is that police are trusted far more by the court and juries. In most cases, those juries are going to be made up of people who don’t interact with police on a regular basis. The inverse is also true, if the police said you did something, you have a much harder time convincing convincing a jury that it’s not true.

The knock on effects are legion. Judges are more often to sign off on warrants, or excuse officer’s misconduct.

For a horrifying example of this, look at the execution of Breonna Taylor by the Louisville Metro PD. The officers wouldn’t have charged Kennith Walker with attempted murder of a police officer if they didn’t believe they could act with complete impunity. I’ll remind you, the LMPD broke into a home without announcing themselves, and then opened fire indiscriminately. They also chose not to use body cameras to maintain a record of events. Again, because they had reason to believe they would not be punished.

When we look back to pop culture, we also see the other side, officers who have been primed to justify their own actions, because they see themselves as “the good guys,” without really thinking about their behavior, or the consequences of what they’re doing. They need to stop, “the bad guys.”

Now, I’m making this sound very simple; it’s not. I am putting it in the simplest terms possible, because when you step back from that fantasy and look at the actual behavior, this is really messed up.

So let’s talk about Daryl Gates. Gates served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Like a lot of World War II vets, he eventually mustered out and rejoined civilian life. In 1949, Gate joined the LAPD. By 1978 he’d risen to Chief of Police. Gates had a very militaristic outlook. This tracks with someone who’d served, and then tried to bring the military home after the war. This is someone who, in 1990 advocated for the summary execution of casual drug users while testifying before congress, comparing it to treason. While I’m painting him with a broad brush, he believed “the war on drugs,” was a war. Intentionally or not, Gates was one of the architects police militarization in the United States.

The biggest, and most successful thing Gates spearheaded was the introduction of the SWAT Teams. He was also responsible for CRASH. This was ostensibly an anti-gang unit, though extensive corruption was later discovered during the Rampart scandal. If you’ve never read up on it, this was a mess. Stolen drugs, an undercover officer killing a CRASH officer in self defense, more stolen drugs. Worth reading. This was the basis for The Shield, if you’ve ever wondered.

The idea behind SWAT was to create tactical teams who could operate like a paramilitary unit for the police. There’s a narrow range of situations where teams like that would be valuable. However, SWAT has expanded massively in the last 50 years.

So, it’s 2020, Gates has been dead for 10 years. Why am I talking about him? Because soldiers make shitty cops.

A soldier can muster out, and then go into law enforcement and execute their job admirably. There’s nothing wrong with this. They stopped being a soldier, and became a cop. Hell, I have a good friend who followed this path. He left the army, and went into the police.

Someone who is a soldier is tasked with fighting the enemy. A peace officer is tasked with protecting their community. It may sound like these are compatible, but they’re not. If you are a soldier, the foes you face are other. You cannot be a good cop and view your community as other.

So, we loop back to the pop culture thing. We have police officers who are cosplaying as soldiers. They pick up the philosophical outlook of finding and eliminating “the enemy,” whoever that may be.

You’ll notice I said, “the enemy.” For police the job should be to find, “criminals.” But, for these “cops” with surplus military hardware it’s about taking down anyone who threatens them. When that fails, it’s about making a show of dealing with, “the enemy.”

Now, we are talking about adults, not children. At least some of them understand that if they simply open fire on protesters with the cameras rolling, it will not end well for them. So, they’re looking for a pretext. They want a riot. They view the protesters as other. Their community is each other. It’s not about guerrilla warfare, it’s about the junior members of a militant organization getting bored. wanting to crack some skulls, and leadership that is either complicit, or not about to rein them in.

Let’s loop back to the ugly side of popular culture for a second. Policing in the United States is racist. That doesn’t mean that every police officer is, however while the structures in place are designed to appear racially agnostic, but they are not.

Let’s start with a simple one, if police designate more patrols to a, “high crime,” area, they will ensure that more, “crime,” is found. On the surface, this may sound reasonable, if there’s more crime, there’s more policing to do. However, this means that minor crimes in a low crime area are more likely to be ignored. Petty theft may be reported, but it’s less likely you’ll have multiple patrols able to respond quickly. Simple traffic violations are more likely to go unpunished. In short, crime exists, but it’s more likely to be ignored. Let’s focus on traffic violations for a moment.

In a lightly patrolled area, you can get away with behavior behind the wheel that would have a cop on your ass in a “high crime neighborhood.” I’m talking about things like pushing red lights, blowing through stop signs, speeding. While it’s not a moving violation, vehicle B&Es in low crime areas are also less likely to be detected by police.

Traffic stops are an opportunity for an officer to go fishing, and they do. “Unidentified white powder on the floorboard?” You bet they’re going to be pulling a field kit and testing that, even knowing those field kits have absolutely terrible reliability. (Both for false negatives and false positives.) This can (and has) resulted in people being arrested, losing their job, their home, and their car, because they lived in a high crime neighborhood, and had a crushed aspirin in their vehicle’s upholstery.

Now, in case you missed this, the logic is circular, “this is a high crime neighborhood, so needs to be patrolled more heavily,” will inflate the crime rate, reinforcing the idea that it’s a “high crime area.” The racism comes in when you look at the areas that are designated as high crime.

And, all of this happens because a racist picked that neighborhood 70 or 80 years ago.

Generational over-policing also results in impeded economic growth. If you’re living in an area where police are scrutinizing everything you do, there’s a much higher risk you’ll get picked up for trivial crimes when you’re younger, in turn missing out on educational and job opportunities later in life. This can easily lead to situations where the only legitimate employment open to you is entry level. If police view any acquisition of wealth as evidence of criminal enterprise, it also means you may come under increased scrutiny if you find legitimate success. Individually it is possible to escape this, but, “the deck is stacked against you.”

Another factor that comes into this is, court is expensive. Yes, you have the right to a public defender if you cannot afford an attorney. I have a lot of sympathy for public defenders, but you kinda get what you pay for. Public defenders are incredibly overworked, and you’re not going to get the best representation. I’ve seen way too many cases over the years where the public defender completely dropped the ball.

So, two completely different scenarios.

You’re from a middle class family, you get pulled over and your friend has an unlicensed firearm on their person. You might not get arrested at all. However, if you are, chances are you, or your family can post bail. For the time being, your car is in police impound, but you’re free. You can continue working at your job for the next couple months while the case is pending. You can hire an attorney who is probably aware enough to point out that you didn’t know about the gun, and had no criminal intent. Your bail money is refunded to you assuming you make your court appearances, and depending on the circumstances, you’ve got a reasonable chance of getting out of this intact, without a criminal record, and $20-30k poorer.

Second scenario:

You’re from a rough part of town. You get pulled over and your friend has an unlicensed firearm on their person. You will probably get arrested unless you make a very good showing for yourself. Your car will be impounded. You probably won’t have the money to make bail. Because you’re from, “a bad part of town,” your bail will probably be higher than in the other scenario. If you can’t make bail, you may be able to get a bail bondsman to cover your bail, however in that case, the portion of the bail you pay is straight up gone, no matter how the case works out. Given you probably can’t make bail at all, you lose your home, and your job. You have no income. You have a public defender who is also working a double digit case load, and you’re lucky if they can remember your name, much less that you were charged with a crime you didn’t even know about. If you manage to get an acquittal, you come out with any economic progress you were making zeroed out. Your car is gone, and as a result, you’re in an even worse situation than you were. If you were still paying off your car, congrats, you’re going to be expected to continue paying your loan on a car that you do not have, and can’t collect insurance on. If you’re convicted, then you spend time in prison. It’s several years later, you now have a criminal record that will bar you from employment (if you got convicted of a felony, a lot of places will turn you away), and even when you do get out on probation, you’re going to be handing a large cut of your diminished income over to the court until you complete probation.

The system is not overtly racist, however, it creates structural racism. The second case is far more likely to occur, because of over-policing, and ensures that you will not advance economically. All of this because 70 or 80 years ago, a racist pointed to a map and said, “that’s a high crime neighborhood.”

Today, we have militarized police who are looking for, “the bad guys.” They have a map drawn up during segregation that says, “this is a bad neighborhood, because this has always been a bad neighborhood.” And we have a white cop murder a black man over $20.

We have the LMPD treating the west end like it’s the set of a goddamn action movie.

Everyone is fucking tired of this.

We’ve been told, “it’s a few bad apples,” as if that excuses the rest of the aphorism. “A few bad apples spoil the bunch.” And I’d be more forgiving of the, “not all cops,” line if Police Unions didn’t have an amazing capacity for propelling the most vile and rotting, cores to the top. Today, the Chicago Police Union President holds the distinction of having more complaints filed against him than any other member of the CPD. This is the same police force that got dinged for running their own “black site,” in Homan Square (A term from the intelligence community for a covert prison used to outright disappear people.)

And, today, I’m hopeful.

Iowa just passed legislation that further restricts the use of choke holds in arrests, and barred law enforcement agencies in the state from hiring officers who’ve been fired in disciplinary actions.

It’s not much. It’s not enough.

Minneapolis has committed to completely reworking the entire concept of policing in the city. We don’t know what it will look like next year, but it’s not going to be a simple reform that changes nothing.

If this stopped at Minneapolis, it wouldn’t be enough. But it isn’t stopping there. If you’d told me four weeks ago that we’d be discussing defunding the police on a national scale today, I probably would have laughed. However, the world we’re in today has a far greater potential for positive change.

There are a lot of deeply rooted problems in American law enforcement. The death of George Floyd was the step too far. What we’re seeing from police right now are the death rattles of a horrific creature. We’re witness to bullies and their accomplices, who have been dragged into public view. For the first time in far too long, people were actually watching. And now, the only road out they can find is by provoking further violence. Problem is, everyone’s watching.

I’m hopeful because I can believe that tomorrow will not be the same as today. These are painful and frightening times, but, it has started a conversation that was long overdue.


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Q&A: Motivation to Violence

I hope you don’t find this ask inappropriate. I wanted to ask this to someone who knows a form of martial art and I happened to see your blog, which even if it wasn’t for this question, would make me very happy. Why would someone learn how to fight if they don’t plan on using it on someone? Just for the atlethic aspect of it, maybe? Still, I have a bunch of characters training in a school and to think they’re pacifist doesn’t add up.

The fundamental misunderstanding is that people are training to fight. When you’re studying a martial art, you’re studying that martial art, in most cases, you are not learning to fight.

Relatively few martial artists train to use their skills in combat. They’ll train for fitness, they’ll train for spiritual reasons (and, no that’s not a stereotype), they’ll train to simply learn a new skill. It’s a hobby, and people engage in it for the same reasons they’d pick up any other hobby; to better themselves. A lot of kids are enrolled in martial arts classes by their parents as an extracurricular activity.

Martial arts can become a job. It can be your gateway to the entertainment industry. If you’re good enough (and lucky enough), there are places for martial artists in exhibition, competitive sports, stunt-performers, and fight choreography.

The only thing that would be, “training how to fight,” in that list is competitive sports. This is also not an exhaustive list, I took Shotokan in college for the PhysEd credits, as did most of my class. It sounded more appealing than some of the alternatives that fit my schedule, and I needed those credits to graduate.

I’ve mentioned this before, but if you’re training in martial arts for live combat, you don’t train to fight, you train to eliminate your foes. This is a very fine distinction, but if someone trains to fight, and you train to kill, when they try to fight you, you will kill them.

Let me explain this a little more extensively. Training to fight has an end goal of the fight itself. The fight will continue until one or both combatants are exhausted and cannot continue, or until one yields.

Training to kill has your foe’s death as its goal. This means, you can dispense with as much of the fight as possible. Just kill them. To be efficient, you need to work towards that goal with every action. Turns out, if you know what you’re doing, you can get there very quickly.

Self-defense is similar; it doesn’t take much to create a situation where your foe is in no condition to peruse you. You don’t need to fight them. You don’t want to fight them. You need to delay them long enough to escape. That’s easy, and (say it with me now) you can get there very quickly.

So, let’s step back and talk about something completely different, pacifism and self-confidence. There’s nothing wrong with being a pacifist. It’s not a binary state, most people will have a spectrum where they’ll eventually say, “okay, violence is now warranted.” This may be in response to violence. It may be to protect someone else. It may only be to protect themselves. It’s a rare case where someone will adhere to their convictions and refuse to use violence to defend their own life.

If you’re studying martial arts for spiritual enlightenment, it’s entirely possible, probable even, that you’ll start to develop a pacifistic streak. You’re looking at the world differently now, and you’ll probably see violence as less necessary.

If you’re studying martial arts for any other reason, you’ll probably start to develop a pacifistic streak. If you’re having trouble following that thought process, let’s talk about violence.

Nobody goes to violence as their first method for problem solving. However, for some people, violence is the first available method. Either, they don’t see how other methods could achieve their goals, or they don’t believe other methods would be effective. So, they resort to violence.

If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s difficult (or impossible) to believe you can defuse a situation. If you need to project raw confidence, that’s not an option.

If you lack self-confidence, even minor slights can be perceived as far more biting than intended.

Humans are territorial animals, and if you’re insecure, anyone invading your territory can be very threatening. (This can mean literal space, it can be social, or it can be intellectual.)

In any of these cases, a provocation can result in violence if one party does not see a non-violent option.

The irony is that martial arts training will boost your self-confidence. Meaning you’re more likely to see viable, non-violent options when antagonized.

For an example, take a kid, put them through rigorous training that gives some real self-confidence, and they will be better equipped to deal with the adversity the encounter in their life.

Now, martial arts is not a panacea, not everyone reacts the same way, but training can help you see non-violent options. It can help you differentiate between situations where violence is appropriate, and ones where it unwarranted. It can give you the confidence to defuse a dangerous situation.

In the strictest sense, this is not pacifism, however, from the outside, the difference is academic.

Now, to think that everyone in a martial arts class will have identical outlooks is a little unrealistic. You’ll always have outliers. You’ll always have differences of opinion. These are still people, not a hive mind. However, you are going to find that any long term students will have some degree of respect for violence. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have remained.


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Q&A: Body Hopping

My story is sci fi and how can characters who can move their consciousness into another body and use that body to fight with work? The character may have years of fitness training, but what if the body is not strong enough to wield heavy weapons at ease or are exhausted easily, or how about the simple fact of it’s a different body that doesn’t feel the same way.

This is an open question. There’s no solid answers. We can’t, currently, transplant your psyche to a new body, and as a result there’s no, “real world,” answers.

The closest similarity is a poor comparison. Limb transplants have a lot of considerations that simply wouldn’t be a factor here. For example, they have difficulty with fine motor control, but that has more to do with their own nerves growing into the transplant, rather than a consideration that would apply with swapping bodies.

In spite of the name, muscle memory is (probably) stored as chemical chains in the brain. This gets into an awkward problem with this entire idea. A significant chunk of who you are is stored as complex chemical data in your brain. This isn’t an insurmountable problem, with unlimited technology you could probably move these between subjects. So, if you’re able to move memories between bodies, you can probably also move muscle memory. However, the transferred muscle memory might not match the recipient body, meaning it could be useless or even actively harmful.

There’s also a difficult topic mixed in. If you’re moving memories around, even replicating “the consciousness,” you’re still not moving between bodies. There’s no continuity of self. You’re moving the data, and then (maybe) deleting the original source, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually in a new body, it just means a copy of you has been created. This is a very specific variant of the Ship of Theseus paradox.

Ship of Theseus is a fairly simple thought experiment, if you replace every single part on an object over time is it still the same object? The titular ship was put on display, but as components aged and decayed they were replaced with fresh ones. After a century of this there were no original parts left. At that point the question became, “was it still the original ship, or had the complete replacement over time transformed it into a replica?”

When you’re talking about someone’s identity, the stakes get a lot higher. It’s an abstract question about an inanimate object with some sentimental or historical value, it’s a very pertinent, and immediate question for someone who’s living in a world where they might not be the person they think they are.

When you start digging into what makes an individual who they are, things get really messy. A lot who you are chemical data stored in roughly 3 lbs of tissue with a consistency similar to butter. Some of it is volatile electrical data, though that may be directly tied to the structure of the brain. The idea that there is a concrete, “self,” is very comforting, but as we dig into this, the reality seems to be more of a gestalt.

So, on the topic of the Ship of Theseus, are you the same person after switching bodies?

I don’t have a definitive answer. No one does. We have speculation, but even if you were presented with the actual phenomena, it would still be a challenging question.

As for heavy weapons, that’s not going to be a problem. As we’ve pointed out many times, heavy weapons aren’t that heavy. Greatswords weighed less than a house cat. This isn’t as true with heavy firearms. Anti-material rifles or automatic support weapons can be difficult to haul around, but you’re not going to be running around with them, you’ll set them up and operate from a stationary position. It doesn’t matter if your 12.7mm rifle weighs 30lbs, you’re going to be laying down, with it partially concealed before you start firing. Also remember that heavier machine guns will operate from vehicles or stationary mounts.

For hand to hand, body hopping is probably a serious issue. If you’re overwriting the muscle memory, then all of your reflexive reactions and your conditioned responses will be, “miscalibrated.” If you’re not overwriting the muscle memory, that suggests the technology allows for significant editing of what does, and does not, get transferred over. We’re back to the Ship of Theseus problem, but things got even more complex, because now we’re only copying, “parts” of the subject. Also leads to a weird question of: What’s left in the new host brain from before the jump? How is that going to affect who they are?

Since I got distracted a moment ago, if the muscle memory is being retained from the original host, then the transferred user will be limited by what the previous owner(s) conditioned into their body.

This raises fundamental questions about how much we adapt to our bodies. The human brain is a very adaptable organ, but this is a scenario where there really isn’t any good comparisons.

If you want some other thoughts on this, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon is an obvious choice. In his case, the characters store their consciousness digitally on a implanted data storage device. He also posits the use of “hard wired reflex packages,” which allow users to have functional muscle memory and combat capacity after swapping bodies.

On the other end of the spectrum we have SOMA from Frictional Games. This one is interested in persistence of self, and if someone is the same person after being moved between bodies. The specific questions you’re asking don’t apply with this one, but the game may be useful for feeling out larger philosophical themes.


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Follow-up: Rey is Kinda a Problem

If you wanted to highlight a Mary Sue/Gary Stu style character on your blog, you could have chosen Luke instead, as his instant skill with lightsabers/the force is much less believable than Rey’s. The fact that you went after a rare sci fi female lead and echoed the voices of so many misogynist male fans is just disappointing to me. This is not what I’ve come to expect from this blog.


Luke is, actually, a pretty good counter example. His, “instant skill with a lightsaber,” consists of pointing it at his own face as soon as it is handed to him.

In A New Hope, the height of his demonstrated ability is to avoid lopping off his own limbs while trying to learn how to parry blasts from the remote. In the first film, Luke’s preferred weapon is an E11 Blaster Rifle. The first time we see him use his lightsaber in combat is a single swipe with it on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. Luke doesn’t use his lightsaber in combat in the first film.

So, in ANH he gets limited training from Obi-Wan. This is enough for him to start learning Force Pull, though he clearly struggles with it. Having been, “learning on his own,” for three years, he still struggles with very basic Jedi powers, and this is as someone who has been told that The Force exists, and received some introductory training. He barely manages to pull the saber to him in time to save his own life from a wampa.

Rey has the ability to override a Sith Lord’s Force Pull. She has the ability to use Affect Mind, and she has lightsaber proficiency on par with, again, a Sith Lord.

So, back to Luke, he goes to Dagobah receives training from Yoda, a Jedi Master, and returns with a slightly stronger grasp of how to use The Force, and operate a lightsaber. Vader immediately hands him his ass.

The duel on Cloud City is a bit of a sham. It fits what I said about balancing your challenges against the strength of your heroes. Vader knows Luke is his son. He spent decades cleaning up the remains of the Jedi Order. He’s able to go toe-to-toe with Obi-Wan without issue. Luke has a couple weeks of training under his belt. The only reason he’s able to survive is because of two conflicting factors. The Emperor wants Luke alive, “as a prize,” and Vader is having conflicting ideas about killing his own son.

Jump ahead to Return of the Jedi, and we see that Luke learned force choke, and has learned affect mind by this point. However, the finale still runs into another duel against Vader that’s a sham. Again, the point isn’t about killing Luke. Vader doesn’t want to kill his own son, he wants to turn Luke to the dark side, turn on The Emperor together, and take control of The Empire. Luke doesn’t want to fight his father, he’s trying to turn him from the dark side. Palpatine wants Luke to kill Vader and take his place, but he’d be fairly happy so long as one of them takes a dirt nap.

Again, this is not about Luke being a godlike fighter, it’s about him working through his incredibly dysfunctional family issues.

Rey’s got none of that. Kylo is a psychopath who has no qualms about waxing his own father. He doesn’t care about her. He’s a weak, and whiny villain on his own merits, but he is still A Dark Lord of the Sith. He has completed force training. He’s gone toe to toe with with trained Jedi and somehow avoided dying. There is nothing to keep Kylo from killing Rey in the first film except her inexplicable use of active Force powers and specific Force related combat skills (like fighting with a lightsaber) at odds with every other screen canon protagonist.

Let me break this down:

Luke: minimal training, struggles against wildlife, captured by possessed teddy bears, loses his hand in domestic argument. Dude never has his shit together.

Anakin: significant training, holds his own against other Jedi and Sith, but can’t beat Sith without a tag team. Loses limbs during academic dispute.

Rey: no training, no prior knowledge of the Force, defeats Sith Lord on first outing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Rey are the only characters in screen canon who can beat Sith Lords in single combat. I don’t know about you, but something is off with this list.

This is unfortunate because Daisy Ridley is actually really good. So is Adam Driver. There was a lot of excellent casting in those films, but they’re undermined by shoddy writing. There’s roughly two thirds of a decent film there, and then everything derails.

J.J. Abrams and George Lucas have something in common. They’re both extremely fond of emulating material they found elsewhere, repackaging and re-purposing it. This where you’ll find a lot of Kurosawa “homages,” in the original trilogy, and why The Force Awakens is almost a beat for beat retread of A New Hope. In the process, something got seriously scrambled.

The version of Luke that you’re thinking of, the egregious Mary Sue, doesn’t actually exist on screen. It’s pop culture gestalt, conflating the original trilogy into a jumbled clip show bereft of context. Parts, the duels with Vader lose their narrative context. Parts from Anakin in the prequels may get meshed in for good measure. (There is a legitimate argument that Anakin is a Mary Sue in The Phantom Menace, and the only reason I don’t want to delve into that topic is because it involves thinking about TPM for more time than is absolutely necessary.)

The worst part is, those misogynistic shitheads aren’t threatened by Rey. Rey doesn’t have the potency to hold their attention. They’re pissed with Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers drives them into a frenzy, because she is a very powerful character, and their only attack is to accuse her of being a Mary Sue.

The point we’re at now, a small cadre of fans who’ve gone off the deep end have no response to critique of Rey beyond crying about how it’s misogynistic. Which, doesn’t help your case.

You can do better. There are much better female leads in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Off the top of my head, Ellen Ripley (Alien, Aliens) and Sarah Conner (Terminator 2) set a much higher bar for female protagonists in science fiction who completely own their space. I already mentioned her, but Captain Marvel is easily another example from recent years. Moving beyond that you have characters like Aeryn Sun (Farscape), Ambassador Delenn (Babylon 5), and Captain Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager). And if one second you think Aeryn or Delenn aren’t leads, because they’re not getting top billing in ensemble shows, you really need to sit down and actually watch those.

If you want to see why old guard Star Wars fans are pissed with Rey, grab a copy of Heir to the Empire, and then realize that Disney erased all of that from existence to pave the way for Rey. We lost the version of Leia who became the leader of The New Republic. We lost Jaina Solo and Mara Jade. They destroyed all of that so J. J. Abrams could regurgitate a stale rendition of A New Hope without competition.

So, no. Fans who lost decades worth of characters they loved are going to be a little upset, especially when the replacement is breaking all the rules in a setting they adore and still can’t manage to make the stage. More importantly, if a female character needs to break the rules to appear powerful in their setting that’s not feminism or girl power.

This is an exceptional post, but perhaps consider that Rey raised herself on a desert planet? She probably learned to tap into the force to survive, even if she didn’t know exactly what she was doing. I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue for that. Unless you’re going to call Luke a Gary Stu for being able to destroy the death star while flying an x-wing for the first time. If a character is believable if you switch the pronouns, the character isn’t the problem.


The irony here is, there’s elements for both parts. We know from the three untrained Jedi we encounter in the films that force sensitivity manifests with heightened skills. Being force sensitive makes you unusually talented at the things you focus on. Of those three, Luke is the least egregious. If we were to ignore the active force powers and lightsaber proficiency, (and inexplicable piloting skills), Rey would be fine, unfortunately, we can’t.

With Rey, we do see that she has an unnatural aptitude for finding and maintaining scrap on Jakku. That she’s been able to survive as long as she has is a pretty good sign that she’s force sensitive, and that’s consistent with what we’ve seen before. That part is absolutely fine. The problem is the situations where her skill hasn’t been set up.

When we first meet Anakin in TPM, he’s already a supernaturally skilled podracer pilot. I’d like to be able to purge the entirety of the podracers from my memory, but we’re all here together now, and I’m pretty sure Sartre only said what he did about hell because he didn’t know that TPM would exist one day.

All these years later, I still have issues with Anakin piloting a fighter for TPM‘s finale, but, I’d be lying if I said the vast majority of that film isn’t a massive, painful blur for me.

What we see from Luke is reasonable. We’re told he wants to be a pilot, and it’s something that he’s been training for. His initial goal is to leave Tatooine, and enroll at The Imperial Academy. He claims he’s “not such a bad pilot.” We’re later told that he’s been practicing precision shooting at high speed using a sub-orbital fighter. (It was later stated in background material that the T-16’s controls and handling were similar to the X-Wing, though I suspect Lucas was thinking of piloting as a kind of universal skill, and the connection between the T-16 and X-Wing were retrofitted on later.) We see Obi-Wan teaching him to use the force in a way that specifically sets up the trench run. The biggest offender here is, simply, that there’s a lot of telling rather than showing. When you dig into earlier drafts of the script, there were scenes outlined that couldn’t be shot in ’76/’77, so the resulting development was dumped back into exposition. As a writing decision, this is something you’d want to avoid, but when we’re talking about a film, shooting considerations may require less optimal solutions.

Switching the pronouns doesn’t fix anything. There are plenty of male Mary Sues, just like there are plenty of powerful female characters who are not Sues. A female version of Luke wouldn’t be a Mary Sue; a male version of Rey would still be one.

I don’t fault Rey for having an intuitive grasp of The Force. I fault her for having fully developed Force powers, and lightsaber proficiency, without training.

But…Rey does do force training? What the fuck? This is a strange post


With whom? Han may believe in the existence of The Force, but he’s no Jedi. He can’t teach her how to use the force. She has no one to train with in The Force Awakens. You’re thinking of the second movie, That Which Shall Not Be Named, the rough draft from Rian Johnson where she gets her training with Luke. She fights Kylo in the first film completely unaided. This is where her Mary Sue rep comes from and why she never shakes it.

What she does is spontaneously manifest Force abilities. By that point, we had six films that hammered home the idea this not how you gain force powers. If that was the case, Vader’s crusade to exterminate the Jedi Order would have been fundamentally impossible, as the Order would be reinforced by spontaneous Jedi popping up. This retroactively makes all of Palpatine’s plotting from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi both pointless and incomprehensibly stupid. Makes you wonder why the Jedi need to recruit kids young if Jedi just pop up fully formed like daisies.

This is before we look at the lightsaber. That is an incredibly difficult, and dangerous to use, a weapon, which Rey has no problem operating, in spite of having no formal combat training of any kind. Much less fighting on an even keel with a trained Sith Lord who has been handling one for most of his life.

This is like a character who hears about the existence of martial arts, and then instantly gains advanced combat proficiency… by shadow boxing for a few minutes. Yeah, that’s a Mary Sue. (And, the comparison of Jedi training to martial arts comes Lucas himself.)

My point is: Rey is not the representation you’re looking for. There are a lot of fantastic, well-rounded, and well-acted female characters with a wide variety of personalities and outlooks in the science fiction genre if you’re willing to look for them. Daisy Ridley does her best, but she can’t save Rey. That’s unfortunate, but crying misogyny or trying to rewrite the films doesn’t help your argument stand up to scrutiny.

-Starke & Michi

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Q&A: Building Characters

What do you think about “character specialization”? I’m afraid of giving my female character too many skills like Rey in SW and make her a Mary Sue.

The problem with Sues (regardless of their gender) isn’t that they’re proficient in multiple areas, it’s that they’re, “the best,” at everything important. I’ve said this before, but a Sue is a character who doesn’t inhabit their own world, they’re simply an authorial power fantasy. Beyond that, they have no background to justify their ability. There’s no explanation for their skill, they simply are.

So, let’s look at a different character from Star Wars, who walks the line with being a sue. One of the many victims of Disney’s Star Wars purge was Mara Jade. She was, “The Emperor’s Hand,” a combination secret apprentice and personal spy/assassin/inquisitor for Emperor Palatine. She was first introduced in Heir to the Empire in 1991. Both women have access to the full suite of common force abilities, both are proficient with lightsaber combat. When we’re introduced to them, their backgrounds (and the source of their abilities) are mysteries. The difference is, you never had to ask, “why would Mara Jade know how to use force pull?” You’d never need to ask, “how did Mara learn to use a lightsaber?” In both cases, there’s a clear answer, “Palpatine trained her.”

Mara Jade has the kind of, “exceptional background,” that can easily signal a Sue, but it does explain her skill set, and her abilities do dovetail with who she’s supposed to be. She’s very clearly written to be part of the larger story, and not to dominate it. In case it’s not clear, I don’t think Mara Jade is a Sue, however the risk was there.

Maybe Disney’s expanded universe has compelling explanations for how Rey gained her force training, or where she learned to use a lightsaber, but, what I saw before I lost interest was, “she’s just that special. No explanation needed.” Literally every other character in Star Wars gained force powers from training and practice. But, not for Rey, she’s special.

You can make hyper-competent female characters without them being Sues. The important thing is that they must exist as part of their world. Their background needs to make sense, explain their skills, and mesh with who they are now.

So let’s talk about specializations in an entirely abstract and extreme way, using classes in role-playing games.

The class “trinity,” in RPGs is usually the Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. The names change, but the basic idea is fairly central to that genre. You have characters that interact with violence, with stealth (frequently this includes social skills), or with magic. Alone it’s very reductive, but it carries a larger context that’s worth thinking about when you’re building your own characters. (This is unrelated to Tank/Healer/DPS. That’s MMOs.)

The fighter is a professional combatant. They’ve spent most of their adult life training for, or engaging in violence. They could be a professional soldier, a mercenary, hired muscle for a criminal group, they may have moved between these roles during their life. The end result is a character who is better suited to combat. Their background makes them better suited to violence than other characters, and that’s realistic. The class concept itself is an abstraction that limits who the character is, but the idea that someone who’s spent their life training for and engaging in violence is going to be a better fighter makes sense.

The rogue illustrates the weakness in simply lifting these systems without question. If you’re wondering why I chose the D&D names, it’s the rogue. Traditionally the rogue has been called “the thief,” and many games will use that name. The rogue may have been a thief, a spy, an assassin, or any number of other clandestine professions. Where the fighter has a clear identity, the rogue is a muddled collection of related ideas. There’s a huge difference between a burglar who sneaks into places undetected, an agent who infiltrates a foreign government to feed them bad information, and an assassin who covertly murders for pay. It makes sense if you have a character who worked as an assassin and, as a result, has a phenomenal grasp of human anatomy. It makes considerably less sense for your burglar who abhors violence to have that same knowledge, however they’ll frequently get the same sneak attack bonus.

D&D (and many games for that matter) address some of the limitations by adding (somewhat) redundant classes to provide more flavor. If your character is patterned off Conan, then you have the Barbarian class. If you’re looking at Aragorn or Legolas, there’s the Ranger. If you want your character to be a holy knight, roll a Paladin. This a band-aid solution that can be easily applied in game terms to address the limitations of the classes. Fortunately, as a writer, you have the freedom to create your characters’ history individually. You don’t need (and don’t benefit) from sticking to classes beyond the general idea of what your character does.

Your character’s skills and knowledge will be shaped by their history. People do specialize, and given enough time they can become quite proficient in a number of fields. They can also generalize. A character who spent twenty years campaigning across “The Empire,” will (probably) be a very proficient combatant. A character who studied magic for those twenty years will (probably) be quite skilled at it. A character who studied as a mage when they were younger, but was recruited to become an Imperial agent, never completed their studies, but has spent the last fifteen years working as a spy may not be quite as good at, “being a spy,” as someone who specialized in that exclusively, but they’ll still have their magical education, and whatever else they picked up along the way. In fact, they’ll be better able to deal with situations involving magic, where their limited training gives them an advantage over someone who spent their entire career as a spy.

While I don’t encourage rigid class systems driving your characters, the idea that your character has a background and history which inform their current skills and identity is very useful. Saying, “my character has 6 levels in Rogue and 3 in Wizard,” isn’t particularly useful, but the idea that your character may have been more than just one thing in the past, transitioning from one career to another can produce interesting, and unique characters. That said, there is nothing wrong with saying, “my character dedicated their life to being the best wizard The Empire has ever seen,” and actually making good on that.

There is another useful lesson in RPGs: In a well balanced game (either a tabletop campaign or a video game), your characters will face foes worthy of their power. For example, if you’ve created this once-in-a-generation mage, their powers will be wasted picking fights with bandits and goblins. This is the kind of character who spearheads investigations into a curse that threatens to destroy The Empire, or plays politics to try to get closer to the Emperor. The greatest thief will be looking for the greatest score. The greatest warrior will be the Emperor’s champion, facing off against things no one else could hope to stop. No matter how powerful your character is, they need challenges that will push them further. They also need to see those challenges through, it’s unfair to the players to take away the struggle and hand them an easy win, it’s equally unfair to your audience to pull that victory down for your characters and drop it in their laps. One of the major symptoms of the Mary Sue is that they don’t face these kinds of challenges. They glide over any opposition without facing any real threat.

A weakness in this lesson is that RPGs tend to get more bombastic as you climb through the levels. Weak enemies frequently fall off, and your characters start facing off against epic monsters, but if your character is still human other people may still be a threat. Getting the challenge “just right” becomes increasingly difficult as your characters become more powerful.

Having a character who is extraordinarily talented within their field is entirely valid. The problems start when your character is extraordinarily talented at everything, without giving up anything. Someone who spent decades of their life improving themselves gave up a lot along the way.

This idea that you need handicap a female character in case she’s too competent and becomes a Sue is very self-destructive. The misogynists you’re worried about placating will label any powerful female character as a Sue. No one else will care if she’s compelling.

The panacea for the Mary Sue is simple: Make an interesting character and give her legitimate challenges.


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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.