How to Write Someone Else’s Martial Arts

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Fight scenes are fun. Fight scenes featuring believable techniques are even more fun. If you already know martial arts, incorporating them should be easier. But what if you don’t? Or if the story calls for characters to use other martial arts you haven’t studied?

It’s a question I faced when writing recent stories. My latest novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, required a character to be proficient in historical European martial arts, specifically the German school of longsword fencing. Another novella I wrote last year placed Chinese martial arts in the limelight. Unfortunately, I do not have any training in those styles, and there was no way to justify having the characters use the style I have trained in.

The best answer to the question is to simply train in that new style, or at least ask someone who has trained in that art to look over the fight scenes. But this may not always be available to you. Teachers in the styles I have selected aren’t readily available here. Here’s what I did to make fight scenes realistic and research less headache-inducing.

Down the Rabbit Hole

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A martial art is a paradigm. It is a method of moving your body to solve specific problems in a specific environment. These problems can be as simple as breaking a fall or as complex as handling multiple armed attackers hell-bent on killing you. The signature of a martial art lies in its approach to problem-solving based on its operating assumptions.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu aims to solve the problem of how to force a single opponent into a submission without necessarily causing permanent damage. Classical karate provides practitioners a means of unarmed self-defense against ruffians. Kali tackles the problem of confronting attackers armed with weapons. Some branches of HEMA attempt to replicate the battlefield techniques used by soldiers against enemies with and without armour in European battlefields.

Different martial arts are suited for different purposes in different environments. Once you understand how your chosen martial art is supposed to function, match it against the problem your character is going to run into. A kali practitioner with a baton may be able to fend off a single knife-welding opponent in a duel. A man who only knows BJJ and finds himself surrounded by raging gangsters on the street is in deep trouble. Depending on your writing goal, this may or may not necessarily be a bad thing. The trick is to know what kind of scene you want before writing it, and to explore the consequences of success or failure following the action scene.

The Way You Move

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In the age of YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo, it’s easy to simply watch a selection of fight techniques online and replicate them in writing. However, every trained martial artist knows that techniques do not exist in a vacuum. Throwing random techniques does not a fight scene make; to write action scenes at a higher level, you must understand why a character will choose to move in a certain way in a given situation.

Different martial arts have different ways of moving to solve problems in different environments. The key to breaking down an art into its essentials is to understand the way its practitioners move. In particular, look at footwork, power generation and weapons. These are the three pillars that define an art.

Filipino martial arts is defined by its choice of weapons: the stick, the sword and the knife. As a weapon-based art, its practitioners assume that the opponent has a weapon. If you block a weapon with empty hands you will lose your arm; if you block with your weapon you might chip the edge and lose an opportunity for an immediate counterattack. FMA answers this problem through triangular footwork and timing. Instead of meeting force with force, the ideal is to get off the line of attack, evading the attack altogether, and disable the opponent’s arm and/or finish him off.

FMA relies heavily on hip rotation to generate power. Every strike ends in a chamber position, allowing the practitioner to seamlessly chain together a string of attacks without having to reposition his hands or feet. This combination of swinging hips and attack chaining is the basis of the FMA concept of flow: transitioning seamlessly from one technique to another to overwhelm the enemy with a blitz of strikes.

Sword-based Historical European Martial Arts appears to have some superficial similarities with FMA. However, FMA was developed in a jungle archipelago; the local climate makes wearing heavy armour impractical for most conditions. Europe’s climate allowed knights and wealthy soldiers to wear armour for extended periods. Plate armour mitigates or outright defeats the FMA tactic of stepping off-line and slashing the arm or thrusting to the body. In addition, unlike many traditional Filipino swords, European battlefield swords tend to have pronounced crossguards. Later swords incorporated knuckle-bows, basket hilts and cup hilts. These guards rendered decisive strikes to the hand more difficult.

The combination of armour and weapon characteristics lend themselves to different tactics. A HEMA longsword practitioner can bind the enemy’s sword, using his crossguard to trap the blade and protect himself, and thrust his own sword through gaps in the enemy’s armour. The historical fencer may also hold his sword by the blade instead of the handle, using the crossguard to hook, trap and trip his enemy–and the crossguard and pommel can be used to deliver the infamous murder stroke, using concussive force to defeat helmets. Further, HEMA training also emphasises preventing double-kills and guarding against afterblows from a dying opponent, an element not usually found in FMA, since FMA footwork ideally places the practitioner outside of the enemy’s reach.

In marked contrast, the signature weapon of the Chinese art of Bajiquan is the spear. Specifically, the daqiang, a long and heavy spear. The length and weight of the weapon makes it much harder for a practitioner to simply evade an incoming attack and counterattack in the same beat the way an FMArtist can with a light single-handed sword. Bajiquan spear techniques instead focus on controlling the enemy’s weapon with your own, either by small circles or swats, and immediately thrusting into unguarded space.

Empty hand Bajiquan carries echoes of the spear, emphasising explosive, linear movements like those needed to drive a spear home. Bajiquan delivers power through falling steps and abrupt movements, synergising with the footwork. Bajiquan footwork carry the practitioner deep into the enemy’s space to control his centreline, enabling the practitioner to destroy him with close-in body weapons: headbutts, elbows, hooks, low kicks, body slams and grappling.

While these are generalities, we can see how footwork, power generation and weapon characteristics make up the signature of an art. Tactics and techniques are derived from how the art trains its practitioners to move and the weapons the practitioners study. Once you know how a martial artist is likely to move based on his training, you can create a more believable actions scene.

The Fighter’s Heart

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You know what art your fighter studies, how he will move, and why he will move. Now it’s time to introduce the human element.

My approach to writing action scenes is similar to Chinese martial arts film. Every fight scene is fundamentally a clash between humans, and martial arts is a medium to express their unique personalities and achieve their goals. There are as many ways to express a martial art as there are practitioners. Different fighters have different personalities, skill levels, assumptions and conditioning, and their techniques will reflect that.

A large, strong, aggressive fighter is likely to charge straight into the fray, bashing aside all obstacles in his way. A defensive fighter will stay at long range and hang back until the time for a counterattack. A crafty martial artist will use feints and deception to create windows of opportunity to attack.

A martial art is like a toolbox. A fighter’s personality tells you which tools he will prefer to use. These are the techniques you need to pay extra attention to in your research and the ones your fighter unleashes in battle. It also means you don’t need to spend so much time looking for stuff you probably won’t use in your own work.

Taking Things to the Next Level

A fight scene is a clash of wills expressed in motion. When writing an unfamiliar martial art, you don’t necessarily have to have complete knowledge of the art to properly portray it. But to do justice to the art, you need to know the pillars of the art, its footwork, tactics and weapons, and know how your character will express the art. Armed with this knowledge, you can elevate your fight scenes to the next level.

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And if you want to see how well I did writing a bunch of foreign martial arts, you can find NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House bookstore.

Thoughts on the Isekai Genre

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Fantasy writers need to solve two problems. They need to create a believable fantasy world significantly different from ours that allows for fantasy elements. But this world and the people who live in it can’t be so fantastic that they alienate their audience.

The isekai story offers a neat solution.

‘Isekai’ is Japanese for ‘other world’ or ‘parallel world’. In this other world, the author is free to dream up societies, fantasy races, magic and other fantastical elements without being hemmed in by such minor things as history or the laws of physics. To create a connection with modern readers, the author plucks a character or a group of characters from the real world (typically 21st century Japan) and plunks them into the parallel world. Adventures and hijinks follow.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Three Kinds of Isekai Stories

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I’ve noticed three different types of isekai stories: transportation, reincarnation and video game.

Transportation stories involve traversable gateways or abductions. The protagonist may be mysteriously transported to an alternate world by means unknown to everyone. He may discover a portal, accidentally or otherwise, that leads into a parallel world. Or someone from that parallel world forcibly transports the protagonist to that world using summoning magic. Examples of such stories are Now and Then, Here and There, featuring a boy who is transported to a hellish dystopia, and Gate – Jietai Kare no Chi Nite, Kaku Tatakeri, in which a gateway to another world mysteriously appears in Ginza.

In such transportation tales, the protagonist must learn to adapt to his new environment while taking on quests and other missions. Heroes summoned from our world are typically selected to defeat a demon king or some other evil being, and must survive perils and overcome obstacles to achieve his goal. Heroes who pass through a gateway that allows free two-way travel typically serve as a bridge between this world and the other, passing back and forth to exchange or transfer technology, goods and knowledge. More realistic tales have the hero learn the local language and/or the locals learning Japanese; in others, the transportation process mysteriously grants the hero the ability to speak in tongues or the locals mysteriously speak fluent Japanese.

Reincarnation tales involve protagonists being reborn in fantasy worlds, usually retaining or recalling their memories of their past lives. This neatly sidesteps the question of how the protagonist can understand the natives of the fantasy world, since he would have grown up learning and speaking the language. Reincarnated protagonists will tend to use their knowledge to single-handedly spark an industrial revolution, drive themselves towards excellence, or otherwise gain an advantage over others. Moshuku Tensei features a NEET who decides to make the most of his new life after being reborn in a parallel world, while Isekai Tensei Soudouki has a protagonist with three souls in his mind, all of whom use their respective knowledge to build a commercial empire and drag the rest of the land into modernity.

In video game stories, in addition to being plopped into a fantasy world, the protagonist discovers that the world runs on video game logic. Status windows, levels, unique skills, and health and mana points abound. In some stories, the protagonist was heavily involved in the game, perhaps as a player or game developer. In others, the protagonist doesn’t have such an advantage. Sword Art Online is perhaps the most well-known of this time, starring protagonists who have their consciousnesses transported to a game world, and quickly learn that death in the game means death in the real world.

As these worlds run on video game logic, realism tends to fly out the window. Either the transportation process grants the protagonist the ability to speak in tongues or everyone speaks Japanese. A person’s ability to fight, craft objects, recover from wounds and other such matters are governed largely by his stats. The transportation process may even grant special powers. Reading video game isekai stories can become the equivalent of reading a role playing game.

Cheat Characters

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Common to almost all isekai protagonists is that they possess a special power or knowledge after arrival, or the protagonist is already special prior to arrival. These cheats, as they are known in the genre, automatically elevate the protagonist above everybody else.

At the far end of the scale, the protagonist becomes stupendously overpowered early on. In Death March kara Hajimaru Isekai Kyousoukyouku, protagonist Satou is transported to a parallel world based on the game he is developing, and discovers he can cast a meteor shower three times. He promptly utilises the meteor showers to wipe out an army of orcs. In that instant, he hits the level cap and secures useful gear and vast treasures, effectively turning him into a walking god.

At the lower end, in Isekai Tensei Soudouki, protagonist Balud Cornelius shares his body with the soul of Warring States commander Oka Sadatoshi and otaku high schooler Oka Masaharu. None of them have any special powers, but commander Oka is an apex warrior while otaku Oka retains his knowledge of the twenty-first century. Together, the trio accomplish such wonders as inventing shampoo and treating cholera, leaving their mark on the world.

In the case of Gate, Itami Yoji is a First Lieutenant in the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force. He is a mundane human, but behind him is the might of the JGSDF. Through the gate, the JGSDF can funnel troops and resources into the parallel world, allowing them to dominate the land. Thus, the might of the all-powerful Empire easily collapses in the face of modern combined arms, and nigh-invincible dragons fall before explosives and Panzerfaust 3 rockets. Here, modern military technology is the superpower.

A superpowered isekai protagonist, when mishandled, turn the story into a clumsy self-insert power fantasy. The reader can put himself into the shoes of the protagonist and imagine that he is now the lord of the story universe. However, when the protagonist is so hilariously overpowered that nothing in existence can stand up to him, action scenes lose all drama. There is no suspense, no doubt that he will lose, no possibility that he will ever be defeated in battle. Boredom follows.

If an isekai story must have a superpowered MC, there are three ways to get around this. The first is to make the protagonist powerful enough to evoke the feel of a superhero fantasy, but not so much that he becomes a Boring Invincible Hero. Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari, Naofumi Iwatani has unmatched defensive ability, but thanks to the world’s video game logic, he has virtually no attack power and he is still not invulnerable. As he is forced to rely on his squishy companions to do the fighting, there remains the element of drama and suspense.

The second is to reverse the superpowered MC trope: give the protagonist a seemingly useless power, if at all, and force him to make his way in the world. Arifurte Shokugyou de Sekai Saikyou features Nagumo Hajime, a luckless young man transported to a parallel world only to find that he was granted mediocre stats and a useless class. After plummeting into the depths of a monster-filled dungeon, Nagumo must rely on all his wits to survive.

The last approach is to play the overpowered character trope for all its worth. Hellsing got away with starring an immortal and invincible vampire as the protagonist through his force of character. In the case of Jaryuu Tensei, the protagonist is reincarnated as a dragon. In his dragon form, he is so overpowered that nothing his enemies throw at him can do so much as leave a mark on his scales. The story becomes defined by his empathy towards everyone around him in spite of being an evil dragon instead of how he steamrolls over his enemies. While the outcome of action scenes in such cases are preordained, a flashy, cocky or humorous protagonist can inject emotional beats into the sequence, staving off boredom.

What’s So Special About Isekai?

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What’s the key difference between a standard fantasy story and an isekai story? The presence of someone from the real world. Isekai stories need to explore the fantasy world through the lens of the modern-day character. However, handled improperly, the isekai trope becomes a clumsy tool.

In *Isekai Houtei – Rebuttal Barrister*, Yuuto Shiba is a washed-up wannabe barrister. After he dies in a traffic accident, he is transported to a parallel world. In this world, the god has decreed that the Kingdom of Luanolde shall implement the law of Japan, and that Yuuto shall be a barrister. Quite mysteriously, everyone speaks Japanese (or Yuuto is suddenly fluent in the local language).

Such a forced introduction makes it transparently clear that the author is basically writing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney WITH ELVES! Fortunately, the author ensures there is a clash of cultures to fuel drama and make the isekai elements relevant. In his first case, Yuuto must defend a half-elf, in a land that persecutes elves, against criminal charges laid by a noble, whose life and dignity the kingdom views as greater than that of a commoner. Later, he discovers more unpleasantness, such as the actual age of majority in the kingdom, that forces him to use his wits instead of just rote regurgitation of the law.

Without this collision of cultures, an isekai story just becomes a standard fantasy story. The isekai element becomes just a tool to lure in the reader and artificially create empathy.

By contrast the manga adaptation of *Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari* makes almost no references to Naofumi’s history as a displaced 21st century Japanese male. Aside from the occasional reminder about where he and the other heroes came from, Naofumi’s history plays no part in the story. We do not see him struggling to learn the local language or customs, no confusion over social protocols, no dietary incompatibilities or taboos, no significant employment of modern knowledge and technology, no indication that Naofumi came from a different world. If the Naofumi’s backstory were changed to ‘wanderer from a distant land’ or ‘teenager from the frontier seeking his fortune’, there would be no significant impact on the plot or character. The isekai element here is used simply to justify the fantasy elements, the video game logic, and to handwave Naofumi’s shield and defensive abilities – and even those can be justified using other tropes.

Isekai stories comprise of two key elements: a parallel world with fantastical elements distinct from our own, and a protagonist or protagonists who come from our world. For stories in this vein to realise their full potential, they must balance both halves to create a whole, while avoiding the pitfalls that lead to self-insert power fantasies. Done right, an isekai story shows the reader the best of both worlds.

Tired Tropes: The Superpowered Loser

Everybody knows That Guy. He’s in the corner in the dorky clothes, his eyes always trained on the floor, either mumbling in hesitant whispers or holding court in long droning tirades. He holds a dead-end job and lives in a dead-end home, either in a tiny danky apartment or his parents’ basement. He’s got no obvious skills, no aspirations, no desire to rise above his lot, and no idea how to handle himself or how people really see him. He lives a life of bitterness, envious of other people’s success and maybe obsessed with the One Perfect Woman.

And one day, by an Act of Rob, he is imbued with a superpower.

His life suddenly turns around. Villains crumble at his presence. Beautiful women throw themselves at his feet. Powerful men are overwhelmed with jealousy but fail to topple him. Riches rain from the heavens. But at heart, he is still a loser in word and deed.


Only in Manhwa Land

This is not about the Super Loser trope, where the loser is acknowledged and portrayed as a loser in-universe despite his powers. Stories featuring superpowered losers as protagonists are adolescent wish fulfilment fantasies. It is a reassuring delusion that even losers can find wealth and women without needing to put in the work to overcome their weaknesses and insecurities. All he has to do is to have a convenient superpower fall into his lap.

The superpower itself comes in many forms. A supernatural boon that allows anyone to instantly feel pleasure through skin contact, a suit of high-tech powered armor, a sudden ability to use magic or extrasensory perception, or some other plot device. Whatever this superpower may be, its key feature is that its insertion into the story automatically elevates the protagonist into an untouchable, desirable being head and shoulders above everybody else. He doesn’t have to learn how to charm or think or fight; the superpower automatically takes care of that. He may encounter challenges and rivals, but thanks to his superpower, he will always prevail.

The superpower itself serves only to fulfil the loser’s greatest desires. When activated, it is an unstoppable instant-win device. In Korean webcomic Love Parameter, hopeless nerd Young Hoon receives a special pair of glasses, allowing him to read the parameters of everyone around him. When he wants to seduce a woman, the glasses tell him exactly what to say. All he needs to do is follow the script, and every woman he meets falls into his bed. Likewise, in Sweet Guy, Go Ho-Sang develops the miraculous ability to make anybody instantly feel good at a touch. He is the very model of a modern Korean loser — dead-end customer service job, unfashionable clothes, zero social skills — but after developing the power, no end of sexually aggressive women pursue him day and night.

In these stories the superpower is a crutch. Young Hoon doesn’t have to dress well, exercise or make himself more desirable; he just has to follow the script on his spectacles, and all the hot women come running at his beck and call. Ho-Sang never has to learn how to speak to women; he merely needs to ‘accidentally’ touch his target, or at most cook up an excuse to touch her, and a neverending stream of beauties will rush him into bed. Quite conveniently, they are all aggressive go-getter types, so he never needs to learn how to talk to women — not even his love interest. Take away their superpowers, and they will still be losers.

In traditional superhero stories, we see heroes using their powers for a higher and nobler cause, such as justice or protecting civilisation from world-eating monsters. They use their powers for a cause higher than themselves, face and overcome incredible challenges, and emerge as heroes worthy of the title. Superpowered loser stories are an inversion: they are about the loser relying on his superpower only to feed his ego and place himself above other men. There is no higher cause, there is no challenge to be a greater man, there is only the bacchanalian celebration of the ego.

Stories about superpowered losers are weak because the protagonists remain losers. Actions transform people. Events give people the impetus to choose to be better. Losers choose to remain static, to maintain the core traits that kept them as losers and instead lean on their superpowers. As their superpowers will never fail, they have no incentive to get better, no obstacle they have no doubt of overcoming, no reason to do anything with their powers other than feed their ego. As a result, there is no drama, no tension, no believable conflict — only the boring certainty that things will go his way and the inevitable pain of watching the loser stumble through the rest of life.

Rehabiliating the Loser


Yes, that means you.

To make a story about a superpowered loser work, the writer has to do two things: the loser must choose to use the superpower for a greater good, and the superpower cannot be a crutch. By pursuing a higher purpose, the protagonist has the motivation to become stronger, and will encounter supervillains that force him to keep honing his skills. The combination of internal and external desires combine to catalyse the loser’s transcendence. There are two ways to do this.

The first way is for the superpower to transform the protagonist. In DICE: The Cube That Changes Everything, Dongtae is a loser who is constantly bullied and shunned by everyone. One day, he picks up a mysterious die, becoming a participant in a game that allows players to complete quests in exchange for more dice. When rolled, these dice grant dicers points that can be invested in their stats or exchanged for goods. Dongtae uses the dice to become stronger, faster and more intelligent, and roundly chastises the bullies.

But there are more dicers out there. As gamemaster ‘X’ spreads the dice across the Korea, Dongtae’s school is thrown into chaos. His schoolmates will do anyything for more dice, including hunting and harming other dicers or innocents. Dongtae vows to challenge X and end the madness once and for all.

This story works on two levels. First, the proliferation of dice ensures that using them does not automatically lead to an effortless win, at least not against other dicers. While dice-granted abilities are powerful, none of them render the user invincible; a dicer must still use his powers intelligently or he will be defeated. Further, dicers who invest points in the wrong stats quickly pay the price when facing more skilled opponents. Second, Dongtae’s powers catalyse his character evolution. His motivation for using the dice stems from a desire to not be a loser, but as the story progresses, he chooses to use his powers to protect his friends and confront X. By using his power for a cause greater than himself, he leaves behind his adolescent wish fulfilment fantasies and takes on the mantle of a hero. As he encounters ever-more-powerful villains, he must strive to get better and attain more skills just to survive –- yet the dice quests force him to choose between expeditiously gaining more dice and doing the right thing.

The second way to rehabilitate a superpowered loser is to have other characters build him up. In Zetsuen no Tempest, the Tree of Genesis threatens to destroy human civilisation. Halfway through the series, Hanemura Megumu makes his debut. Hanemura is a weak-willed and wimpy construction worker who just broke up with his girlfriend…and who was incidentally chosen by the Tree of Exodus to defeat the Tree of Genesis.

As the Magician of Exodus, Hanemura may be the avatar of destruction, but he is still a loser. The other main characters train him to become worthy of his powers. He is beaten black and blue repeatedly, and keeps whining whenever that happens, but he still comes back for more. At the series’ end, Hanemura saves the world from catastrophe, and prepares to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend.

Once again, we see the superpowered loser choosing to use his powers for the greater good and to put in the effort to overcome his failings. Here, instead of the superpowers catalysing his growth, other characters force him to grow. Where superpower-as-catalyst brings out the protagonist’s innate drive, this approach uses characters to catalyse the loser’s development. The former approach makes for a story that allows the protagonist to dig deep and find himself, while the latter has plenty of opportunities for character drama.

The third way of reversing the superpowered loser trope is simply to play it straight. The superpower is a crutch and the loser is still a loser. Sure, he can elevate himself above others for a while, but there are always better men — and when reality hits, it hits hard. A villainous example of this are many of the evil vampires in Hellsing. They believe that their vampire powers make them unstoppable, but Alucard curbstomps them without breaking a sweat, usually by showing them the error of their ways through absorbing their most powerful attacks without even a scratch.

This approach knocks out the superpower, revealing it for the crutch it really is. Assuming the loser survives the fall, he now has the impetus to become stronger and stop relying on his gift. To complete the transformation, the sudden shock causes the loser to re-evaluate his life and strive to become a better man.


You ready to be a hero?

Zero to Hero

The superpowered loser is a tired trope because it is mere wish fulfilment. Instead of pursuing transcendent goals, it is all about elevating and preserving the ego. This inevitably leads to a boring story without drama, tension or opportunity for character development. Instead, give the loser a reason and a drive to be great, and watch him become a superhero.


Photo Credits:

Sweet Guy cover: original image from Baka Updates
Hanemura Megumu: Zetsuen no Tempest anime episode 15
Blast of Tempest Volume 10

Tired Tropes: The Potato Protagonist

If a potato has more personality than the protagonist of a story, the writer is doing it wrong.

The best stories are driven by their characters. The best characters aren’t two-dimensional constructs of excessive verbiage, but a reflection and amplification of the myriad facets of humanity. Characters must resonate with readers, acting, talking and thinking the way people in their situation would do. Shaped by their background, genes, personality and networks, these characters take on a life of their own, and in doing so become distinct people in their own.

Character creation is complex. The more complicated and technical a person is, the more likely a creator will make a mistake somewhere, creating a false note that jars a reader’s sensibilities. If there are too many mistakes, or if the mistake were too serious, the reader would drop the story there and then. Creators must give their all when building characters; at the very least they must try their best. But the ones who reach for the potato protagonist don’t even try.

The potato protagonist is as blank as a potato and has the personality of one. Everything about him is dull, flat and humdrum. His skills, backgrounds and talents don’t matter; his core is empty, his thoughts and behaviours utterly predictable by anyone familiar with standard storytelling tropes. There is nothing about him that makes him stand out from other protagonists, nothing that draws and retain the reader’s attention.

A classic example of the trop is Ichijo Raku of Nisekoi. Ichijo is allegedly the son of a yakuza family at odds with a rival gang. To prevent a gang war, Ichijo must pretend to date the daughter of the rival gang boss, Chitoge Kirisaki, during his high school years. This couldhave been a fascinating setup, but the creator wasted the potential of the main character.

(Unmarked spoilers ahead!)

Ichijo’s background has minimal influence on him. He is supposed to be the heir of a nation-spanning yakuza group, with an army of servants at his command and a fortune to his name. But from the get-go he spurns the notion of inheriting the group, and insists on getting an ordinary job in the real world. This is a thin excuse to explain how and why he goes to a regular school, but this falls flat.

Someone who grew up surrounded by wealth, luxury and (allegedly) murderous yakuza acts, talks and thinks differently from a regular person. He would have a cavalier attitude towards money and possessions, yet he would act and talk with grace and refinement. He would be mindful to act in a way that would not bring dishonour to his family, because the yakuza are allowed to exist only because of the goodwill they have built in their community, and because in the underworld, careless words leads to deadly violence. He would have been groomed to study people, keep track of favours and relationships, network with the children of the rich and powerful, and influence people. Depending on how violent the underworld is at that time, he would also have trained in martial arts and learned how to use illegal weapons.

Instead, Ichijou comes off as an ordinary high school boy. Indeed, his background is almost never referenced until a story arc demands it. For much of the story, you can replace ‘scion of a powerful yakuza family’ with ‘ordinary high school student’ and it would not affect him one bit. Ichijou fits the mold of Bland Shounen Harem Protagonist to a T. Nothing about Ichijou makes him stand out from any of the thousands of high school student protagonists out there…except for his utter inability to notice how the girls around him feel about him until the manga draws to a close.

Fundamentally, the potato protagonist is not meant to uphold a story. He exists to solve a marketing problem.

The primary target audience of shounen anime and manga are Japanese high school boys. The easiest way to reach out to them is to have a protagonist that vaguely reflects them andallows them to project themselves into the character. By granting the main character the personality of a potato, the audience has an empty vessel to pour their own unique selves into.

The same applies to other audiences of other categories. Want to write a trashy romance story for women? Create a blank ordinary everywoman. Drawing a shoujo manga? Have a fluffy emotional girl as the protagonist and a cool, handsome boy as the love interest. Writing a men’s action adventure novel? Make the protagonist a cold killer and play up the guts and gore.

The Potato Protagonist is easy, but writing is about truth, and most of the time, when employed this trope does not reflect the truth of the world. High school students do not embark on grand adventures; at least not without coming through unchanged. People do not exist to reflect the quirks and desires of other people.

And for characters to be realistic, they must pass as people.

The Potato Protagonist Done Right

(Mass Effect 3 wallpaper, http://www.hdwallpapers.in/female_shepard_in_mass_effect_3-wallpapers.html)

The point of Tired Tropes is not to deride a targeted trope, but to see how it can be employed effectively. And even potato protagonists can be redeemed.

Potatoes are bland lumps. They absorb the flavor of the foods, spices and oils they are cooked with. They can be steamed, fried, boiled, stewed, roasted, grilled or microwaved. They can be cooked as is or cut up into different shapes. This essential malleability is key to properly understanding this trope.

Potato Protagonists lend themselves well to choice-driven games, especially role playing games. The point of such games is to allow the player to shape his experience in the game world with the protagonist as his vehicle. As such, a protagonist without any unwanted baggage is excellent — the player is free to act however he likes within the confines of the game, without having to experience dissonance between a protagonist’s actions and his supposed background.

Where the protagonist does have a backstory, the intelligent developer would find ways to integrate that backstory into the overall choice mechanic to create a deeper gameplay experience. In Mass Effect, the player is free to customise his own Commander Shepherd , and can choose between three separate backgrounds. But these backgrounds exist independently of the player’s choice. If the player wants to play a Shepherd who ordered a massacre but later regretted his actions and is trying to be a better person, he can. if the player wants to play a Shepherd who survived a slave raid by hostile aliens, propelling him to become a ferocious war hero and twisting him into a ruthless xenophobe, he can. In games that allow players to deeply customise their experiences and see themselves as active participants in the story events, the potato protagonist is unmatched.

In print media, a potato protagonist is also acceptable…if he does not remain one. Events change people. Stories change characters. The reader must be able to compare a character at the beginning of the story with his future self and see how much he has changed. A potato protagonist facilitates character development, since there is no fear of violating established background or character regression. This also has the effect of making character development appear more obvious to the reader.

An example of this is Rosario + Vampire. Aono Tsukune is an ordinary high school boy who accidentally gets enrolled in a high school for monsters. Predatory monsters who feed on humans and who are learning how to blend into human society, starting with magic that makes them appear human. His innate humanity attracts the attention of a group of monster girls, leading to harem hijinks.

Not.

The story begins as a generic Monster of the Week manga. Then the creator delves into each character’s personal life, creating opportunities for drama and character bonding and deconstructing the Unwanted Harem trope. Soon, villains appear, threatening the fragile peace between humans and monsters, and targeting Tsukune and his friends. Tsukune, in turn, resolves to help his newfound friends and love interest, and embarks special training to grow stronger. At the start of the series, Tsukune is a high school boy well over his head, desperately trying not to be unmasked as an actual human; by the final arc of the second season, Tsukune stands alongside his friends to save humanity from a monster terrorist organisation.

Personally, I dislike potato protagonists. Such characters hold little appeal to me, and it takes a great deal of work for me to continue putting up with them longer than an hour. That is usually because they aren’t understood and employed properly. But done right, they can become icons in their own right. Case in point: Commander Shepherd.

The potato protagonist is the quintessential blank slate. In choice-driven games, he is a vessel for the player to shape his experiences. In fixed stories, he has maximum potential for evolution and development, pushing the story to greater heights. In both cases, the protagonist changes into someone better.

A potato protagonist is not enjoyed raw; he must be prepared and cooked through the events of the story. Or, like a raw potato, he could poison the reader and turn off the reader permanently.

Tired Tropes: the Tsundere

Welcome to Tired Tropes, in which I dissect popular tropes I find annoying. While tropes are tools, they can be overused or done badly, and Tired Tropes are especially gregarious examples of them. Here, I take on the tsundere.

The tsundere is a staple of Japanese media. She—for the overwhelming majority of tsunderes are female—is defined by switching between harsh (‘tsun’) and lovestruck (‘dere’) personalities, due to how she feels towards a love interest and her reaction to having these feelings. While Tropes are Not Bad, it takes great skill to properly utilise tsundere archetype, and many, many, many creators have failed to do it properly.

When people think tsunderes they think Type A tsunderes: harsh and aloof as her default setting, but sweet or vulnerable towards her love interest…eventually. And by ‘harsh’ I mean abusive. Examples abound in media: Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere from Zero no Tsukaima, Ayatsuji Tsukasa of Amagami, Kirisaki Chitoge in Nisekoi, and so on.

Type B tsunderes, who have dere as their default setting, are also abound, but I haven’t encountered (too many) problems with their portrayals. This post will focus exclusively on the ultra-Type A tsunderes: the abusive types.

In the real world, abuse has consequences. It inflicts horrendous psychological damage on the victim over time. More assertive individuals would simply refuse to have anything to do with such people, or turn to the authorities (or arrest them, if they are the authorities). In fiction, for some reason, abuse is rewarded with love.

Louise physically and emotionally abuses Hiraga Saito throughout the entire series, including berating him, whipping him and punishing him whenever she gets jealous of another girl who talks to him—and they become the official couple. Ayatsuji blackmails Tachibana Junichi into helping her by threatening to accuse him of sexual assault when he accidentally picks up her diary—and in her route she becomes his lover. Kirisaki Chitoge is abusive, haughty and violent towards Ichijou Raku, especially in the early chapters—and he falls for her anyway.

Writing is about truth. Tropes are a tool to point the reader towards truth. And the truth of the world is that if a woman were arrogant, abrasive, manipulative and outright violent towards anyone, she is not girlfriend or wife material. This is a clear indicator of intimate partner violence—better known as domestic violence. And yet the relationships described above are portrayed as loving relationships.

Consider what would happen if the gender roles were flipped: if male tsunderes abuse their female love interests. There is no expectation that the relationship would end well. Yet this portrayal of female tsunderes endures. After all, Abuse is Okay if it’s Female on Male.

This is not to say that the tsundere archetype should be abandoned, rather that it should be deployed with skill.

Instead of playing abuse for laughs, especially in a serious work of fiction, it should be explored to the bitter end. Unflinchingly explore the consequences of being around someone who switches between harsh and sweet at the drop of a hat. The result is confusion, a tendency to walk on eggshells around her, and a dysfunctional relationship. More assertive characters will stand up and put a stop to such nonsense, or ruthlessly cut out these people from their lives.

If the tone of the story is comedic or light-hearted, downplay the violence or abuse to the point where it won’t actually harm anyone. Imagine the female lightly punching a male’s arm or softly bouncing her fists against his chest without actually hurting him, or limiting the use of insults and retorts. This provides insight into her character without crossing the line. Or, as in the case of Kaze no Stigma, the female may be lashing out at the male with full force, while the male easily avoids or no-sells the attack with boredom or amused mastery. In either event, it is immediately clear that what happens isn’t abuse, as it doesn’t actually affect the target in any meaningful way.

If the male does have a background in martial arts and/or a profession that requires the regular use of force (soldier, mercenary, police, etc.), show the real-world results of attempting to abuse that person. Force will be met with force, dodged or redirected. These are survival mechanisms, so deeply ingrained that they cannot be turned off so easily. Such people will also have no tolerance for abuse: either the tsundere shapes up or is dropped.

Steins;Gate.full.742594.jpg

An example of the Type A tsundere romance done right is Steins;Gate. Makise Kurisu is a classic Type A tsundere, who developed her acerbic tongue after being looked down on for being the youngest scientist in her lab. Okabe Rintarou roleplays a mad scientist all the time, to the point where nearly everyone thinks he acts like a twelve-year-old, and also displays classic tsundere characteristics. Unlike other media, the character dynamic is both hilarious and realistic, thanks to the way it’s handled.

While Makise and Okabe bicker over literally anything, their interactions showcase both chemistry and growing respect for each other. Makise maintains her tsun side by talking in scientific terms when annoyed, acting cynically towards Okabe, and (in the Japanese version) by using rude forms of address, while reserving her ultra-tsun moments for times when it’s justified—such as reacting to a perverted joke about her, usually with a sharp remark. And she doesn’t abuse people who don’t annoy her, like Shiina Mayuri. Okabe, in turn, feeds off her energy, responding with aplomb and genuinely hilarious comebacks.

Most importantly, when the chips are down and push comes to shove, Makise drops the tsundere act. She demonstrates her brilliance as a scientist, supports Okabe through difficult situations, and acts as a loyal member of his lab team. In this sense, Makise is more than just a two-dimensional character; she is a complete character who drives the story. And in the end, she (mostly) drops the tsun act and acts more affectionately towards Okabe.

Looking at Steins;Gate we see an instance of effectively deploying a Type A tsundere without alienating the audience. She doesn’t go overboard with her harshness, or when she does it’s met with resistance. She shows character development over time instead of flipflopping back and forth. Most of all, she is more than just an archetype: she contributes meaningfully to the story, becoming more than just a set of clichéd behaviours.

The tsundere archetype in of itself is not bad. But when poorly handled, it is a portrayal of female abuse and generates violent dissonance with the truth of the world. Properly crafting a Type A tsundere requires careful calibration of her character, showing her harshness without crossing the line into unchecked abuse, while giving her opportunities to be more than just a cliche.

5 Writing Lessons from Manga

As a child, I couldn’t understand the appeal of manga. To me, they were simply a different kind of comic book, and comics held little appeal to me. Then, in my teens, English-translated anime took off in Singapore. Almost all of them were adaptations of Japanese manga. I pursued the source material, and found Ghost in the Shell.

That experience led to an explosion of stories: Rurouni Kenshin, Rave Master, Appleseed, Full Metal Alchemist, Ao no Exorcist, Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio, Twin Star Exorcists, Claymore and more. These days I read at least as much manga as I do prose works. Part of that is enjoyment — another part is to study them and apply the lessons learned to my own writing.

On first glance there seems to be little transferability between prose and manga. The former is a written medium, the latter is visual. The former is carried entirely on the strength of its words; the latter combines images, dialogue and exposition into a coherent whole. But both are storytelling media, and in my explorations of manga I have found five lessons that are universal to both.

Concise and Engaging Narration

Dialogue in manga is limited. Being a visual medium, there is only enough room for a handful of lines in every page. Narration must be concise, advance the story and engage the reader.Dialogue has the additional burden of reflecting the speaker’s character. Not everyone can pull a Masamune Shirow and get away with filling entire pages with philosophical exposition without boring the reader.

Similarly, in fiction, narration must also keep readers invested. There is no room for rambling that does not serve the story, and large chunks of exposition without context will just turn readers off. Excellent manga demonstrate economy of words–the same concision writers should aspire to.

Showing, not Telling

Manga is primarily a visual medium. Stories are literally shown to the reader. Mangaka will draw as much as possible–people, settings, actions–using as few words as possible. In excellent manga, exposition is limited to the barest minimum for world-building. Some mangaka will disguise such exposition as dialogue, or simply portray events and have the reader figure out how the world works. In Rave Master, as in many shounen manga, characters tell each other what their weapons or skills can do in the place of creator exposition. BLAME! takes the other approach: almost nobody says anything about the world, forcing the reader to figure things out.

Likewise, instead of simply telling the reader how grand a place is or what someone did, writers should strive to draw a picture with their words. Create an image of a magnificent estate and enormous riches by talking about the marble floor, solid gold sculptures, rare artworks and army of maids, cooks and gardeners. Go in-depth into an action scene, delving into emotions, everybody’s actions and reactions, injuries, and more.

Aesthetics and Worldbuilding

In manga, the setting is a silent character. It sets the tone of the story and gives context to everybody’s actions. Manga achieve this through aesthetics, the accurate and/or authentic portrayals of the story’s setting.

Ghost in the Shell emphasised its cyberpunk nature through juxtaposing gritty streets and sleek skyscrapers, and the use of high technology everywhere. In Twin Star Exorcist, the mundane story occurs in modern-day Japan, but the desperate, magic-fuelled action-packed battles are set in Magano, a parallel world filled with ruins and evil spirits. This dichotomy, especially in the early issues, reinforces the mood of the scene, be it peaceful or adrenaline-packed. Shoukoku no Altair has Mahmut running all over alternate-world Europe and the Middle East, and each country he visits has its own unique architecture and visual design, reinforcing the sense of place.

Aesthetics is the visual manifestation of the world the mangaka is building. It is how the reader grasps the nature of the story world. Similarly, in written fiction, extensive background and setting descriptions gives the reader a sense of place, placing the characters’ actions in context while differentiating the story from other stories.

Character Differentiation

Mangaka need readers to quickly and reliably tell characters apart, especially in busy scenes where many people are acting or talking all at once. Mangaka employ many tricks to do this: unique hairstyles and colour schemes, archetypical behaviours (think the infamous tsundere), signature clothes and weapons, and accents and dialogue quirks. All of these tricks have become tropes and character stereotypes — but that’s because these tricks work.

In prose, writers do not (usually) get the benefit of visually illustrating their characters to give the reader a reference point. Writers must therefore find ways and means to keep each character unique in the reader’s minds. They can use many of the same tricks mangaka employ. Jim Butcher, for instance, inserts physical descriptions into the text of his stories every so often, such as Harry Dresden’s famous coat, to remind readers of what his characters look like.

Discipline

On average, a weekly manga runs between 15 to 25 pages per issue. Monthly manga usually has 30 to 60. There are exceptions (usually shorter), but bestsellers tend to run between these lengths. To put things in perspective, Western comics are issued monthly, but have similar page counts to weekly manga.

Mangaka must produce an average of 2 to 5 complete pages every day. More if they are working on  multiple series at once. This does not even include storyboarding, editorial input and other corrections.

Unlike Western comics, most manga are in black and white, with the exception of the occasional special full-colour issue. This saves time on inking and colouration. Also, many mangaka have assistants to help with background art and research. Nevertheless, mangaka must consistently produce high-quality work over dozens, even hundreds, of issues–or they will be dropped, and may need to find a new line of work.

Maintaining such a pace requires discipline. Discipline to uphold standards, discipline to do the work, discipline to keep learning and getting better. This is the same discipline writers require: without the discipline to produce regular content, you’re not going to produce good stories.

Manga is as legitimate a storytelling medium as prose, and despite the differences between them, there are many lessons to be learned. The key is to read not as a consumer, but as a creator. Pick apart the stories and characters, discern the thought processes that go into design and worldbuilding and dialogue, understand the creation process, and see what lessons you can apply to your own work.

Plan Your Antagonist First

People read fiction to escape reality in pseudo-reality. They want to immerse themselves in the protagonist’s adventures, marvel at his derring-do, and cheer as he overcomes the obstacles in his way and attains his goal.

But where would the protagonist be without the antagonist?

The antagonist is the yin to the protagonist’s yang. Without the antagonist, there is no drama, there is no conflict, and there is no plot. The antagonist catalyses the plot, and the protagonist drives the story forward. There can be no murder mystery without a murderer, no space opera without a powerful overlord. The events of the Bible could not have unfurled without the Snake tempting Eve, nor would Star Wars have became a galaxy-spanning epic without the institution of a Galactic Empire.

The antagonist is as important as the protagonist. Like the protagonist, he must be fully-fleshed. To the reader, he exists only in the shadow of the hero, but a poorly-crafted villain creates an unbelievable hero and a ludicrous plot. A hero receives no glory for beating up a wimp, nor would readers believe that a mere basement-dwelling computer geek would summon the dread forces of Hell to achieve his darkest desires of kissing a girl.

When planning a story, start with the antagonist. All stories must start from the beginning, and as the catalyst, his deeds start the ball rolling.

To create your antagonist, you must answer the following questions:

Who is he? What is his name, nationality and job? Who are his superiors, peers, and subordinates? How do they think of him, and does he care?

What drives him? What is his ideology? His motivation? Does he inspire others, and if so, how? What is he comfortable doing, what will he never do, and what falls in between? What does he want?

Why is he doing this? Why does he do the thing that starts the whole story going? What’s in it for him and his allies? How does it affect his enemies? How will it help him achieve his goals?

How does he do what he does? What special talents, traits or resources does he have? What skills does he posses? What are his strengths and weakness? How does he maximise his strengths while minimising exposure while dioing what he does?

Answer these questions and you will build up a complete dossier of the antagonist, making him a believable and powerful threat to the protagonist.

Sauron is the Lord of the Rings. Prizing order above all else, he is the equivalent of a fallen angel, intent on conquering all of Middle-Earth and bending it to his will. He has armies at his command, with a squad of Ringwraiths for special missions, and compared to mortals has overwhelming power. However, he has invested most of his strength in the One Ring, currently missing. He has dispatched his forces to find the Ring…but a lowly hobbit in the middle of nowhere has found it first. And without the Ring, Sauron will be crippled forever.

Walter Peck, by contrast, is a lowly inspector in the Environmental Protection Agency. He upholds the letter of the law and is utterly rigid. After learning of the Ghostbusters’ activities, he realises that they violated multiple environmental regulations–including improper disposal of toxic waste and possession of unauthorised and unregulated particle accelerators–and does everything in his power to stop them.

One antagonist is a supreme evil being, the other is merely an obstructive bureaucrat with a point. Antagonists don’t have to be evil; they just have to oppose the protagonist in some way. They do, however, have to be believable.

Sauron is a supernatural creature; one can ascribe supernatural motives to him, including a desire to dominate the planet. Such a being could believably possess supernatural powers and resources, including the ability to craft mind-control rings and raise armies of barbarian orcs. He also has a supernatural weakness: by investing his power in the One Ring, he has created his Achilles heel, allowing a sufficiently brave and resourceful team of heroes to defeat him.

Peck is a human with human motivations; he is simply out to do his job and prevent an environmental catastrophe in New York City. Being a human, and a minor bureaucrat at that, he only plausibly has access to the kind of power an inspector can possess. Magical powers and grand armies are out of the question. But he is an agent of the law, and since the Ghostbusters are clearly in violation of environmental regulations, he can shut them down.

Once you know who your antagonist is, you know what he can do and what resources he has available. You know what he wants, how he can get what he wants, and what he will do to get what he wants. This action of getting what he wants is the spark that sets the story into motion.

Know your enemy, know yourself, and you will a hundred battles. In this case, know your antagonist, know your protagonist, and you will craft a masterpiece.

 

 

 

Drop the ‘Strong and Independent Female’ Label

Progressives, social justice warriors and feminists love gushing over strong, independent females in fiction. It’s an affirmation of their beliefs and ideas, a reflection of their worldview in popular culture. Critics constantly highlight the presence of such strong, independent females everywhere they appear: books, games, films, everywhere. What is truly remarkable about this phenomenon is that the phrase ‘strong, independent female character’ means nothing at all.

Let’s break it down. We have ‘strong’, ‘independent’ and ‘female character’. The last is self-explanatory. The former two, in the context of fiction, make little sense.

Let’s look at ‘strong’. When pertaining to people, the Merriam-Webster dictionary says:

1:  having or marked by great physical power

2:  having moral or intellectual power

3:  having great resources (as of wealth or talent)

6:forceful, cogent<strong evidence><strong talk>

10:ardent, zealous<a strong supporter>

11a:  not easily injured or disturbed :solid

11b:  not easily subdued or taken <a strong fort>

13:  not easily upset or nauseated <a strong stomach>

While ‘strong’ makes for a convenient shorthand, the word carries so many connotations that as a descriptor it is vague to the point of meaninglessness.

A female character may have an IQ in the 99th percentile, but if she can’t even lift a 20kg barbell, can she be called ‘strong’? A female character may be an Amazonian, but if she runs away at the first sign of conflict, can she be called ‘strong’? If a female character is a billionaire with a talented staff of hundreds, yet squanders her wealth and time chasing frivolities, can she be called ‘strong’?

The word ‘strong’ requires context for a complete understanding of the character. Why not simply use more specific words?

What about ‘independent’? Merriam-Webster says:

:  not dependent: as

a(1):  not subject to control by others :self-governing

(2):  not affiliated with a larger controlling unit <an independent bookstore>

b(1):  not requiring or relying on something else :  not contingent <an independent conclusion>

(2):  not looking to others for one’s opinions or for guidance in conduct (3):  not bound by or committed to a political party

c(1):  not requiring or relying on others (as for care or livelihood) <independent of her parents>(2):  being enough to free one from the necessity of working for a living <a person of independent means>

d:  showing a desire for freedom <an independent manner>

The character doesn’t need other people to make decisions for her. She is capable of making her own choices and driving the plot through her actions. By being self-reliant, she stands out from the other characters, and her will sometimes clashes with theirs, creating the drama that feeds fiction.

In other words, she is a major character.

‘Strong and independent’ basically means ‘plausible major character’. There’s no point in celebrating main characters just because they happen to be female; all it means is that you’re only concerned about appearances. The label of ‘strong and independent’ will not make female characters stand out. The term has been used so many times, semantic satiation has set in, rendering the label little more than fluff.

In the realm of fiction, words are currency. If you are a writer, marketer, reviewer or otherwise involved in the industry describing a female character, seek superior words to more accurately reflect the character and make her stand out from the crowd.

Is she a sharpshooter and a martial arts expert? That makes her a human weapon. Is she capable of defending her dignity and achieving her goals in the face of widespread prejudice? That makes her assertive. Does she have an IQ of 180 and regularly invents world-shaking inventions? She is a genius. Has she survived major trauma and bounced back? She is resilient. Can she turn her enemies against each other? Then she is manipulative.

In other words, describe her as though she were a man.

Male characters aren’t described as ‘strong and independent’; they are described by skills, history and worldview, making them stand apart from each other. When freed of fluffy shorthand labels, they all become unique.

By contrast, female characters who labelled ‘strong’ and ‘independent’ are reduced to three words: strong, independent and female, signifying nothing of import. Their identities are erased, and they are all damned by faint praise.

This post isn’t about sexual differences or sexual politics. It is simply about crafting a brand for major characters through the use of powerful descriptors.

Don’t settle for the ‘strong and independent’ label for females and males. Seek more accurate and impactful words, and make the characters shine.

Inducing Flow Through Mindful Writing

You have finite time and energy. The world has infinite distractions. How, then, can a writer stay true to his calling?

I began writing my first novel when I was 13. Every day, I sat at my beat-up second-hand laptop and wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote until I was done. Then I went to bed, got up and did it all over again. When I wasn’t doing homework, studying or tending to other activities, I was writing. A year later, I had a 300-page manuscript.

The year after that, I completed a shorter novel in nine months. This year, I wrote the equivalent of three full-length novels, each over 120,000 words long.

I strive to be mindful in my writing, to develop and maintain moment-by-moment awareness throughout the act of writing. When I write, I write with the union of mind, body and soul, racing to the moment when consciousness implodes into a singularity of being, where the story and I are one and the same.

This is a state of flow. It is energised focus and total involvement, enjoyment and wonderment that goes bone-deep, a thousand seeds blossoming into ideas and characters and actions and turns of phrase. It is the hand of the muse and the voice of God working through you.

The best stories come from the place of eternal stillness within. It is the throne of the muse and the palace of the soul. It is where your subconscious processes and integrates every idea floating in your head, spinning threads of pure gold. In that place there is no room for distraction or excess motion, only the truth of your vision and the truth of the world. From this stillness comes flow, and from flow comes mastery.

To reach that place of stillness, you must emulate it.

Approach writing as a ritual, with all the sacredness that entails. Block out a time and place for writing, when you are sure you will not be disturbed and have the time and energy to write. This may be early in the morning, during lunch, late at night, or whenever it pleases you. Set yourself a writing goal, be it to write for a set period of time or a set number of words, and get to it.

Once you begin writing, do not blaspheme this region of spacetime with the noise of the world. Brook no distractions. No chatting with people, no switching to YouTube at whim, no wandering down Wikipedia articles, no people coming in and disturbing you. There should be nothing in the background; every additional stimulus saps attention, energy and time from your work. Sink yourself fully into your work. Where attention goes, energy goes; where energy goes, mastery goes; where mastery goes, success goes.

The exception to the rule is if that stimulus helps you write better. Some authors work best at a standing desk or on a treadmill. Some find inspiration in music, others in the chatter of a lively cafe around them. If such background stimuli engages your brain and helps produce better work, then seek out and create these conditions. As for myself, the sight of words appearing on the screen, the texture of the keyboard and the clacking of keys is more than adequate simulation to propel my fingers along.

You may find yourself distracted while working. That is fine. The fact that you are aware of yourself being distracted means that you are being mindful. Simply redirect your attention to your work carry on. Do not let your thoughts linger on self-recrimination; the emotional energy is more profitably spent on your work.

You may not always meet your writing goals. You may occasionally exceed them. Neither event should leave much of an emotional impact on you. Allow yourself to feel regret or jubilation as appropriate, then reconcile yourself with the fact that the time has slipped away and there will be more opportunities to write in the future. Approach these sessions as lessons: if you have failed to meet your goal, think about how you can improve; if you have exceeded your goal, see what you did right and do better. No matter what happens, the computer, the desk, and the page will still be waiting the following day. There is always a story waiting to be written.

When you are done, walk away. Return to your mundane life, absorb fresh ideas from the world, and re-energise yourself. Energy is wealth and energy is limited; if you do not recover, you cannot create.

Mindfulness leads to flow, flow leads to productivity, productivity leads to success. Cultivate mindfulness, create and sustain the conditions for flow, and produce the best work you can.

The Truth of Your Vision, The Truth of the World

Fiction writing is about truth. The truth of your vision and the truth of the world. The best stories marry these truths into a seamless, dazzling, inspiring whole.

The truth of your vision is at once simple and complicated. It is the story you want to tell. It is the aesthetics of the story world, the technologies, characters, worldviews, setting, everything that composes a story. At the meta level, it is the mood, tone, outlook, themes, the overall energy of the piece. It is your interpretation and execution of the writer’s art.

The truth of vision is simple because you are the originator. You get to decide what the story is about. If you want to write a grimdark steampunk fantasy story with a heavy, broody atmosphere populated by antiheroes and tyrants, that is your vision. If you want to write a light-hearted children’s story about a kid detective solving everyday crimes in the modern day, that is your vision. If you want to write an adrenaline-soaked thriller featuring a superspy travelling the world and fighting terrorists and criminals, that is your vision.

The truth of vision is complicated because you cannot cut any corners. All things must serve the story. Everything inside the story must be an organic development of the paradigms, technologies, ethical frameworks, geography, aesthetics, tone and themes of the story. These are the fundamentals of every story, the field upon which the story grows. If the field is conducive to a certain kind of story, then inserting irrelevant elements corrupts the truth of your vision. They are weeds in your garden, crops planted out of season, and distasteful to the reader. Having a kid detective solve a brutal murder and violently confront a vicious killer does not lend to a light-hearted children’s story, nor is there much room for portrayals of calm, everyday life in grimdark fantasy.

Your truth must be pure and holistic. A reader must understand the story, characters, themes, technologies and settings and see how they all fit together. There is no room for careless dissonance or extraneous elements. Side stories must contribute to the big picture, not lead down a dead end. Actions must fit characters, technologies must make sense, worldviews must sound reasonable to the characters who hold them. Every element of the story feeds into everything else, reinforcing every seam and pillar of the text.

This is not to say dissonance is unwanted. Deliberate dissonance, a planned juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible elements, is a useful tool. But like all tools, there is a time and place for it, and it must contribute to the story. John Ringo’s black humor adds significantly to his stories, as they provide insight into the characters, give the reader breathing room, and highlight the absurdity or intensity of the situations his characters find themselves in. This dissonance must be both obvious and planned, to throw into sharp focus, else it appears to be a mistake.

The truth of the world is a reflection of reality. Different genres reflect different facets of the grand tapestry of life. Romance looks at love, thrillers focus on human evil and conflict, science fiction examines the relation between humanity and technology, and fantasy seeks timeless truths. Stories drill deep into reality and show the reader a deeper truth, be it about crime, politics or human nature. In a masterwork of fiction, the reader sees the writer, a fragment of the world, and a reflection himself.

The temptation here is to conflate the world with yourself. It is easy to see the world in a single light, to interpret human nature and events by your biases, and to ignore everything that doesn’t fit your personal beliefs. Thus, it sounds reasonable to proclaim in your stories the death of capitalism, the self-contradictory nature of patriarchy, the evils of the far left, the joys of communion with God, the self-destructive nature of violence, the aggression of Russia and China, or whatever your own point of view may be. To readers with a more expert understanding of this facet of the world, stories like this come across as shallow, facile, and little more than intellectual masturbation.

If you do not want to write for a narrow audience by appealing to their biases, if your goal is to reach as wide an audience as you can, then you must write beyond yourself. Study the ideas, history and cultural values that drive the characters, factions, nations and other groups in your stories. Stories are about drama, and drama comes from clashing perspectives and the struggle for dominance. Doing this effectively requires research, an unflinching examination of how your own ideas influence your work, and the willingness to give all parties a fair showing.

And if the truth of the world decisively contradicts the truth of your vision, the former will always trump the latter. At best your story will be no different from midmarket works, consumed once and quickly forgotten; at worst, your story is mocked and condemned to the bottom of the pile.

It is not wrong to advocate a point of view in your stories. But the reader is looking for a story, not a screed. It is tempting to hammer your point into the reader’s brain on every page through character ‘dialogue’ or ham-fisted events. A far better way is to place the story first, make all events and actions organic to the characters and plot, and lead your reader to your conclusions.

Like yin and yang, writers have to blend these two truths into an integral whole. Allowing the truth of your vision to overwhelm the truth of the world leads to ideological screeds. It becomes boring message fic, the kind of fic good only for virtue signalling and left-wing SFF awards. Letting the truth of the world overpower the truth of your vision creates stories heavy on exposition and infodumps and light on characters and action; the great classics have cornered that market now and forever, so you might as well just write non-fiction.

Balancing both truths is the writer’s high art, and the great background struggle that dominates the creative process. Done properly, your story will become a glittering diamond, every facet reflecting a dazzling truth.