The Quest for Pulp Speed

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A little over a month from now, thousands of writers will once again attempt the NaNoWriMo challenge. Once again, many will fall.

NaNoWriMo is simple: write fifty thousand words in thirty days. An admirable goal, and a challenging one. For the past ten years, the success rate hovered between a high of 19% in 2009 and 2010 to just 8% last year. To put things in perspective, NaNoWriMo has the same attrition rate as selection for the US Navy SEALs, Air Force Pararescue, and Delta Force. NaNoWriMo winners are rightly considered among the writing elite.

But if fifty thousand words in thirty days sounds too easy to you, take on the Pulp Speed challenge.

The essence of pulp is speed. Short, punchy stories flying off the typewriter in prodigious volumes. The great pulp masters were the most prolific writers of their day. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a hundred stories, H P Lovecraft had a hundred and eight. Robert E Howard wrote hundreds of poems and over three hundred stories in a fiction career that spanned just twelve years. William B Gibson wrote three hundred and twenty-five The Shadow novels alone.

To be a successful pulp writer, you had to be prolific. To be prolific, you had to write at Pulp Speed.

What is pulp speed? In the words of the inestimable Dean Wesley Smith:

PULP SPEED ONE

About 1,000,000 (1 million) original words per year. This averages to about 2,750 words a day for 365 days. (numbers rounded)

PULP SPEED TWO

1,200,000 words in a year. 100,000 words per month.

And remember, that is about 3,400 words per day. If you can write 1,000 words average an hour, that’s 3.5 hours per day.

PULP SPEED THREE

1,400,000 words in a year. To hit this, you need to be about 120,000 words per month (rounded up) or about 4,000 words per day average…

PULP SPEED FOUR

1,600,000 words per year. That’s about 135,000 words per month or about 4,500 words per day without a day off.

PULP SPEED FIVE

1,800,000 words per year. About 150,000 words per month. 5,000 words per day without missing a day.

PULP SPEED SIX

2 million words and more per year. 170,000 words or so per month. About 5,500 words per day average.

What is the Pulp Speed challenge? Write at no less than Pulp Speed One, and maintain it every day until the story is done.

This is NaNoWriMo on steroids. This is how the pulp masters won their place in literary history. This is how today’s indie writers earn success in the ever-expanding fiction marketplace. To be a pro, Pulp Speed isn’t a challenge — it’s a job requirement.

My current novel, KAGE NO OUJI, is well under way. Even with a full workload, I’m still able to meet the Pulp Speed word count day after day, week after week. If you want to write beside me, here are some pointers for the task ahead.

1. Be Prepared to Write

If you’re a pantser, this doesn’t apply to you. Just show up and do the work. But if you need to plan your works, if you need some degree of organisation to be successful, you must prepare yourself to write. You don’t want to waste precious time fumbling around, wondering what to write. When it’s time to write, write.

Before I began writing proper, I plotted out the entire story. Every chapter, every character, every key scene. For four days I did nothing but eat, breathe, drink and sleep KAGE NO OUJI. I organised them all in a reference document and keep it close to hand. Before I write, I take a few moments to mentally walk through the scenes I intend to write, consulting the plot as necessary. When it’s go time, I’m not frozen at the keyboard staring the screen. I know what to write and how to write — I just need to do it.

2. Create A Writing Regimen

If, like me, you have to juggle writing with a day job, it goes without saying that you need to make time to write. But beyond that, you need to be consistent with writing time. You need to train your brain to switch into writing mode when it’s go time. You can’t afford to be distracted by thoughts of work, lousy clients, what to have for dinner or whatever; you have to focus completely on your story. You need a regimen.

In the morning, I wake up, have breakfast, and write. Over the day, during breaks at work, I write. During lunch, I write. After work, I write. Every block of time is carefully planned and scheduled, ensuring I will be able to focus exclusively on writing. I brook no interruptions and allow no distractions. From the start of every writing session, I am writing, writing, writing. It is a career, a regimen, a way of living.

Through discipline, triumph. This is the way of the warrior, the athlete, the artist, the builder, the entrepreneur–and the writer.

3. Take Care of Yourself and Your Loved Ones

You can’t write if you’re sick or sleepy or stressed out to the breaking point. You can’t sacrifice your health on the altar of pulp. Sure, you may make greater word count in the short run, but that won’t matter if you burn out or work yourself into the ground. You can’t write to the exclusion of everything else.

Eat right. Sleep enough. Drink plenty of water. Without health you’ve got nothing. I make it a point to exercise every day when I have time: weightlifting, running, yoga, martial arts, bodyweight calisthenics. If you have family, don’t neglect them too. Be sure to spend quality time with your loved ones. You cannot neglect them for the sake of Pulp Speed.

Your life is not, and cannot, be all about writing. You need to take time off to recharge your batteries, keep your body in shape, and stay in touch with your loved ones. Writing is a means to an end, not an end in itself. You cannot let writing become a demon that drives you into isolation, sickness, and an early grave.

4. When Writing, Write

When writing at Pulp Speed, you will discover that every minute, every second is precious. Guard every moment jealously and fill them with words. If you’re watching cat videos on YouTube, sharing clickbait on Facebook, wandering down the mirrored halls of tumblr and Twitter, you are not writing. If you don’t write when you’re supposed to be writing you’re not going to make the word count. Save distractions for when you can take a break from writing.

Enforce writing discipline. Refrain from using the Internet if you can, and if you must, set yourself a very short time limit. If you need something to focus on, put on energizing music, music that won’t pull your attention from the page. Disconnect yourself from all means of social communication, or at least make it very difficult for people to casually contact you. If necessary, use apps that isolate you from all distractions, enabling you to write. No matter what happens, short of an absolute emergency, you must plant your rear end in your chair and write–and keep writing.

5. Develop Your Writing Stamina

Writing takes vast amounts of mental and creative energy. I jumped into writing at Pulp Speed right off the bat because I knew I could perform at such a level. I have regularly achieved outputs of over 3000 words a day when working on my previous stories. The challenge, for me, was to squeeze those words into a shorter time frame, and to keep writing daily. But if you’re not already used to writing torrents of words, you will burn out and fail.

If you’re not ready yet, build up your writing stamina. Get used to writing something, anything, every day. Take note of your average daily output. Then, week by week, steadily bump it higher and higher and higher. Ramp it up steadily, adding maybe a few hundred words every week, and the next thing you know, you’re writing at Pulp Speed.

With these five tips, I built myself into a writer capable of writing at Pulp Speed. Production of KAGE NO OUJI began on the 1st of September. I wrote the first proper word of the story on the 5th. Today, on the 28th of September, the novel stands at 73313 words. Daily average of 3187 words.

Pulp Speed One — without taking into account the extra words I threw into my blog.

Fifty thousand words in thirty days is no small feat. But if you think that’s too light for you, aim higher. Aim for Pulp Speed.

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If you would like to support my work, do check out my Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

When In Doubt, Go Epic

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Whenever I plan a story, I occasionally run into hang-ups. The setting isn’t coherent, the technology and/or magic system isn’t evenly applied, the characters aren’t plausible, the plot lacks history or context, the stakes are too small. In every single instance, they are resolved by the use of a simple expedient: make everything bigger, brighter and more beautiful.

Science fiction and fantasy is the literature of ideas. It is the celebration of the human spirit and a paean to the imagination. SFF readers don’t want to be reminded of the dreariness of everyday life; they want to be immersed in strange new worlds with cultures and characters and tools similar enough to ours to be understandable, yet strange enough to be exciting. They want adventure and treasures and righteous battle, they want romance and chivalry and intelligence, they want to be taken to the depths of despair and just as quickly be elevated to the rapturous heights. They want, if only for a short while, to be transported out of this time and place and be reminded of the glories of the universe.

Epics, in the original sense of the term, fulfilled that purpose. The great epics celebrated the deeds of legendary heroes, pitting them against gods and monsters and cosmic forces. They reminded the audience that evil lurked everywhere–and that even mortals can overcome the most terrible foe. Through the epics the people tasted strange foods that no human could create, saw riches and wonders beyond human ken, smelled the salt of the wine-dark sea, and heard the compelling, majestic and irresistible voice of the heavens. Through larger-than-life characters and conflicts, the epics showed the people that there was much more to life than everyday mundanity — and in doing so, expanded and elevated their minds. And, most of all, they were fun.

SFF continues the grand tradition of Beowulf, The Eight Immortals and Nieblungenlied. It doesn’t matter that it’s fiction written for a contemporary audience; there will always be a human need to experience awe and beauty and just plain enjoyment, and among the established literary genres, SFF fulfils that need. It is its raison d’etre. It is why a century ago, pulps were the best-selling stories in the world.

Much contemporary SFF no longer fulfils that desire. Pink SFF — SFF more concerned about virtue-signalling and evangelising causes — has perverted the purpose of SFF. Where we once had heroes, we now had amoral nihilistic villains; in the place of wondrous kingdoms we have rotting empires; virtue is punished and the evil elevated; gods were no longer mighty and dignified, but rather weak and piteous, or simply satanic. There is no beauty to admire, no virtue to celebrate, no heroes to adore, no truth to learn. This is why SFF is now the least popular literary genre in the world — and quite likely at least part of the reason why many people just don’t read any more.

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Story worlds are fragile things. They are consensual hallucinations held together by skeins of words and dollops of imagination. To be complete, to be coherent, these settings must have histories, peoples, politics, cultures, religions, believable geography and climate, technology and magic, language and art. These seemingly-disparate elements feed into and build upon each other, organically growing into worlds. If you replace or subordinate these elements with a single overriding political message, one that must reign supreme over every other ingredient, the result is a bland and colorless word stew, barely fit to be called a setting.

Do you want to read a story that hammers home on every page the evils of racism and oppression and sexism, or would you rather follow Conan the Cimmerian as he travels through fantasy Europe, Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, fighting men and monsters and wooing beautiful women? Does a family drama following the travails of a pack of werewolves who live in a tiny island sound interesting, or would you rather follow the exploits of a masked black-clad vigilante who dispenses rough justice with psychic powers and twin .45s? Which sounds more like a space opera: The story of a young boy who discovers he has supernatural powers, joins an order of warrior monks, participates in a galaxy-spanning war to overthrow an empire, trains to be a fighter pilot and swordsman, struggles to stay on the side of light, redeems his evil father and destroys a superweapon capable of destroying entire planets; or some kind of revenge tale featuring someone from an empire whose major identifying marker is that its people refer to each other as ‘she’ — even those with masculine titles.

The answer should be obvious.

World-building is the Bifrost that connects the author’s vision to the reader’s perceptions. A story world must allow for adventure and romance, fantastic cultures and fascinating peoples, vice and virtue, horror and honour. Without these, a story lacks colour, coherence, and cheer. It lacks fun — and if a story isn’t fun, people aren’t going to read it.

If you’re an SFF writer and you hope to make a profession out of it, your stories have to be fun. It doesn’t matter if you’re with PulpRev or Superversive or you just fly solo. If you want people to read your stories, they have to be fun. To make a story fun, the story must be set in a compelling world where fun adventures await.

If you get stuck crafting a world, if you’re struggling to bind plots and ideas together, if your magic or technology feels boring, there is a single ready solution: go bigger. Don’t let yourself be hemmed in by your beliefs or assumptions; let your imagination run wild. Escalate your stakes to encompass cities, countries, continents, worlds. Enable your magic or technology to solve increasingly larger plot problems – with an appropriately higher price. Make your villains more crafty and well-resourced and intelligent, and your heroes more skilled and brilliant and dynamic. Make everything more.

Make everything epic.

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If you want to help make SFF epic again, do consider voting for my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS for Best Alternate History novel at the Dragon Awards. You can pick up a copy on Amazon here, and with 36 reviews and an average rating of 4.4 stars out of 5, I daresay it deserves a shot at winning.

No One is Obliged to Read You

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I approach writing as a craftsman. I produce stories for sale on the market. I measure my success in book reviews, social media engagements and royalties. My goal is to entertain my readers, and if I can communicate deeper ideas in my stories, all the better. For professional writers, it doesn’t matter if a story touches on rarefied subjects, if it espouses some transcendent matter of politics or philosophy, or if it attempts to understand the human condition: if it isn’t entertaining enough to excite a reader’s passions, it is a poor story.

This interview of prominent Singaporean literary figure Gwee Li Sui is a telling reminder of the vast gulf that exists between the craftsmen and everybody else. Observe this snippet:

Bharati: How do you think we can practically achieve this?

Gwee: For starters, it would be good if an MP could cite a Singaporean writer. Then we change the dialogue where writers stop becoming just people in a corner in a library activity, talking to people who are interested. They become part of a larger conversation. I think as a writer in Singapore, I feel we are not allowed to enter the sphere of a larger conversation.

Bharati: Why do you feel that way?

Gwee: Because we don’t have an audience. We speak through our books, we speak through our poems, people read our stuff but it’s still the same group of people. We hope to find new voices to engage the issues but again, that’s slow.

It’s tied to how the press covers us, how society perceives what we are doing. If you’re seen as just doing subversive things, that’s not very helpful. Because the point of literature or at least for writers is that we want to explore possibilities. We want to ask questions. We are not against any techniques per se, or any way of seeing the world per se. But we are never happy with any way of seeing. Let’s just put it like that. No technique is going to be satisfying. That’s our job. Our job is to be free, to be able to look at things from various angles.

Gwee: I don’t think writers not being to reach their audience is the writer’s fault. We don’t have the instruments, the levels in place where the writer’s work can reach out to a certain audience.

At one stage of course there’s the censorship, there’s also the level of values. We have a work culture that makes it irrelevant to read. We also have a level of propaganda which is that writing has to reach a certain economic advantage or political advantage in order to be celebrated. Or it has to talk about nation, or talk about certain places in Singapore in order to be of value. We have so many layers that makes writing misunderstood.

Bharati: I understand that you have several things working against you. But while this is a complex issue, involving a lot of different players and societal factors, shouldn’t you bear some responsibility?

Gwee: That’s a lot of things you want a writer to do. Our first responsibility is the art.

Bharati: But what is the point of the art if it doesn’t make an impact?

Gwee: It will make an impact when you read the work. It cannot make an impact until the work is engaged.

Bharati: So if you don’t want to take responsibility for that, who do you think should?

Gwee: Okay, on one level, the different agencies do engage us and bring us in so that people can listen to us talk. In that sense, the library is taking up the responsibility. When you say it’s the writer’s responsibility I keep wanting to stop going in that direction because at some stage it’s all going to collapse back on us and the writers will have to do everything. We’ve already for a time been doing everything. Sometimes we are also self-publishing. Sometimes we are being our own editors. Poets anthologising poets. Writers publishing writers. That’s sad. We have to go beyond saying the writers do everything.

Running throughout the interview is the undercurrent that Singapore literature deserves to be read. The writers have already done their part; the onus is on everybody else to make Singlit part of the cultural conversation.

This is a mistake. If you don’t produce works worth reading, much less remembering or discussing, then no one is going to care.

If you’re a writer, no one is obliged to read you. It is your duty to produce the best works possible and promote them to the best of your ability. You’re not going to get very far by demanding that others talk about the wonders of Singlit. Better to pull them to you, let them see for themselves the wonders you have made, and allow them to advocate your works for you.

Previously, I’ve made my thoughts on Singlit quite clear: I don’t believe Singapore literature has a body of work compelling enough to capture the popular imagination and become part of the cultural backdrop. Singapore has no shortage of writers, but this isn’t enough. If a story can’t connect with the intended audience, the audience isn’t going to read it. If the stories that make up the Singapore literary canon can’t command the attention of Singaporeans, they aren’t going to engage with them.

The West has the great pulp writers and the grandmasters of science fiction and fantasy. From their works came Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and other such masterpieces. These stories have inspired the Superversive and the PulpRev movements, which aim to take the art of storytelling to new heights. Japan’s horizontal integration of light novels, manga, anime and gaming ensures rapid dissemination of fiction to domestic and international audiences. These industries have a ruthless approach to fiction: series that fail to sell well will be axed, leaving only the best and most popular on the shelves. Such well-loved stories sustain the otaku subculture, which do their party in preserving and disseminating Japanese culture to the world.

Without the body of work, without memorable writers creating compelling content, there won’t be fans and influencers willing to go to bat for you. All responsibility is on the writer to make memorable stories and leave an impact on the reader.

Here’s another snippet from the interview:

Gwee: …Our responsibility first is to write.

Bharati: True, but also why do you write? You write so that you can also engage society, make an impact, right?

Gwee: No, I think we write because we have certain existential issues that we grapple with as a person living in society.

Bharati: That sounds self-indulgent.

Gwee: It’s not self-indulgent, because writers feel that in seeing our issues and then to go with a conscience, we are finding something that someone else may actually understand as well. We don’t think we need to step out in order to understand. We feel that we step in to be able to become universal. And that’s a difference.

On the contrary, it is self-indulgent if you’re writing primarily to grapple with ‘certain existential issues’. Writing is communication. It is well and good if you write just so you can thresh ideas in your head, but if you want people to read what you write, then you must write for them.

The audience comes first. If you write to expound on some weighty philosophical matter, you’re better off writing non-fiction in the form of blogs, essays and articles. People inclined to read such material would already be predisposed to such content. People who want to read fiction want something else: to be entertained. If the primary purpose of your story is to shove an idea down the readers’ throats, they will choke on it, hack it up, then close your book and walk away forever.

If you write fiction, literary or genre, you must entertain your audience. If you can awe them with wondrous feats of plot and prose, and capture their hearts with memorable characters, your audience will remember you. They will speak of you. They will make your stories part of their everyday lives.

And, as a bonus, they’ll pay you to write more stories.

The industry has changed. Online distributors and self-publishing platforms have made gatekeepers and censors irrelevant. No longer do you have to pray that your story meets a publisher’s desires — which, in Singapore, is inevitably a book about Singaporeans set in Singapore about Singaporean culture. Just write your story, edit and format it, and publish when ready. If the censors take issue with it, they can find out if Singapore law applies to overseas publishers.

Likewise, social media have made it possible for writers to reach wider audiences and access deep pools of literary resources. A fast-paced world demands fast-paced production, and a world full of distractions demands novelty. It is no longer enough for a writer to simply write books and let publishers take care of the rest. To reap the benefits of modern technology, writers must step up to the plate.

To remain relevant, a writer needs to push out at least one book a year. To make a living from writing, however, a writer must be prepared to write multiple novels a year. The pulp greats were famous for their prodigious outputs as much as their skill, and today the highest-paid independent writers are also the most prolific ones.

In addition, a writer must build his brand and pull in readers with his force of personality. My blogging is part of my content marketing activities. I engage other readers and writers online whenever I can. I talk about my stories whenever I can, and promote those of my fellow writers when the opportunity arises. All this is part of my efforts at branding. It isn’t enough to write great books; people must also be aware of your existence, and that means you need to go the extra mile and promote yourself at every opportunity.

Readers aren’t obliged to read you. You must give them something to be excited about. Write stories that make their souls sing. Make your presence felt everywhere you go. Build a canon and your fans will come.

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As for myself, my latest novel No Gods, Only Daimons is one of the most well-received Singaporean novels on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 stars from 31 reviews. You can find it on the Amazon Kindle store or the Castalia House ebook store.

How to Write Master Martial Artists

Everywhere he goes people whisper his name with fear and reverence. Bandits are either terrified of him or conspire to kill him. He walks with a palpable aura–either of carnage or of peace. And whenever he draws his sword, he leaves broken and bloodied bodies in his wake.

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Miyamoto Musashi takes on the Yoshioka School in the manga Vagabond. Spoiler: he wins.

Martial arts exponents are a staple of most genre fiction. From Chinese wuxia to Western high fantasy, sword & sorcery to steampunk, if the story justifies it, a martial hero or villain will appear. He wears an aura of supreme confidence, and woe betide anyone who stands in his way. His presence alone guarantees spectacular action scenes.

Unfortunately, most people have no idea how to write one.

To be clear, this article is aimed at writers who want to authentically portray trained martial artists in their stories. This applies to stories whose aesthetic favours the realistic portrayal of martial arts. Here, characters who properly apply martial principles survive battles, and those who are less skilled fall by the wayside or into shallow graves. In such a setting, their skills may be augmented by magic or superscience or some other justification, but this augmentation does not take the place of skill.

Why would you want to write stories like this? Readers are already used to portrayals of martial arts that are more grounded in fantasy than reality, in flashy visuals rather than gritty realism. It’s easy to just cook up a showy fight scene and move on. Why spend the time and energy to choreograph a realistic fight scene?

I do it because I’m a contrarian who grew up reading thrillers, and I get bored when I see unrealistic action scenes. Less flippantly, a realistic fight scene would reinforce the aesthetic of a story that is meant to carry the weight of reality. The gritty feel of action movies like Taken and the Bourne series come in no small part from the way the characters move, think and act in combat, reinforcing the notion that the protagonists are truly highly-trained operatives. Furthermore, a fight scene that respects martial applications demonstrates the true power and grace of the human body, a kind of beauty that can manifest in the real world outside of the screen or the page. Done right, it is so awesome it inspires people to seek training and build up their bodies.

It’s Not (All) About Speed, Strength, Size or Fancy Techniques

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Tiny girls, huge swords, not quite what we’re looking for.

When described in fiction, martial experts tend to fall into two not mutually exclusive categories: superstrength or superfast.

In the first category we have characters who rely heavily, if not exclusively, on physical might. Conan the Cimmerian is described as ‘steel-thawed’ and as primal as a wolf, with sword by his sword and magnificent musculature on display. Guts from Berserk carries a stupendously long and heavy sword, and is seen cleaving armored enemies in twain. Such characters are shown accomplishing incredible feats of strength, all the more impressive if they are merely mortal. More often than not, these characters tower over everyone else, emphasising their strength.

In the second we have characters who are incredibly fast and/or agile. Himura Kenshin is the most famous Japanese example, being able to accelerate and strike so quickly no one sees him coming. Yoda appears tiny and elderly, but he is deceptively acrobatic. These characters impress the audience by acting much faster than the average human.

At the intersection of both categories, we have characters noted for their special skills, which are usually flashy named moves. Himura Kenshin’s ultimate technique is an attack so fast it appears to strike all nine key targets on the body at once. In wuxia stories with heavy fantasy elements, heroes and villains routinely execute special techniques that grant them supernatural speed or strength. These techniques come to define the character, and the appearance of an ultimate technique signals the desperation of the moment.

In a realistic fight scene, none of these elements are paramount.

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Prodigious size and strength are useful, if you live long enough to employ them.

This is not to say that strength, size or speed don’t matter. They do. Mere mortals are not going win a grappling match with a three-hundred-pound sumo wrestler, or go toe-to-toe with Jack Dempsey in the ring at his prime. However, true mastery of martial arts allows the practitioner to at least partially negate these elements through applied skill. Being strong and fast and resilient is useful, and indeed necessary for the kind of physical work that martial heroes find themselves doing, but they don’t always decide the outcome of a battle.

As for flashy techniques, it is my experience, and the experience of those more experienced than me, that flashiness equals death. For the user. Sure, they can be fun to perform, and they may even work against rank amateurs, but the more complex a technique is, the more likely it will fail under a life or death situation. And that’s not even counting techniques that violate the laws of reality (see Himura’s ultimate technique).

Mastery of the Fundamentals

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Kenji from the eponymous manga shows us how it’s done

In my previous post on martial mastery, I described how mastery of the martial arts comes from mastery of fundamental skills. In my opinion, many creators ascribe to the physical what they should instead ascribe to skill.

The perception of superstrength comes from perfection of body dynamics. You can be the strongest person in the world, but if you don’t know how to punch, you’ll just hurt yourself. People with an innate understanding of how their bodies work will be able to transfer their entire bodyweight into the target, allowing them to defeat seemingly larger and stronger opponents. In addition, people who can move efficiently have no wasted movements, allowing them to move faster than those who can’t fully control their bodies.

The perception of superspeed comes from the understanding and application of footwork to control range. If you control the range between yourself and the opponent, you control the speed of the action. Counterattacks in the martial arts tend to involve stepping towards the enemy–in addition to adding momentum to the blow, you are also reducing the range to your target, which makes you look faster. Likewise, using deceptive footwork and body language, you can create a false perception of the distance between you and the enemy, allowing you to seemingly move faster than he can react. Stepping to the side maintains the range but changes the angle between you and the enemy, and a large enough side step may carry you out of an enemy’s cone of vision, effectively making you disappear to his eyes. Stepping backwards is usually contraindicated since a human can move faster forwards than back, but if weapons are in play it is one method of sniping at an opponent’s hands without getting struck yourself.

Proper timing creates the perception of speed and invincibility. A person with proper understanding of timing knows just when to move, allowing him to block an attack, strike at an opening, evade a counter. Such a person seems to have an impregnable defense and unstoppable offense. He doesn’t need to be strong or fast; or just needs to know where to move and when to defeat you.

Dojos and martial arts schools break out fancy techniques mainly as a means to attract and retain students. For combat applications, instead of flashy techniques, strive for what Rory Miller calls ‘Golden Moves’. These should do four things: put you in a better position, put the enemy in a worse position, defend yourself from the enemy, and dump power into him. For example, in FMA, a response against a downward slash is to step out with a rising cut. By moving to the outside, you have evaded the enemy’s attack and put yourself in a position where you can flank him. The enemy, in turn, can’t attack you without turning, buying you time to react. If your timing is poor, the rising cut deflects the enemy’s blade, and now you are at the right angle to pin the enemy’s arm and deliver a finishing stroke. If your timing is good, you’ll cut off his hand or arm. With excellent timing, you’ll slice right through his torso. Such techniques are easy to remember and pull off, are grounded in reality, are still accomplish the same goal as a flashy technique — that is, to finish the fight.

Every martial art is built upon certain assumptions and principles of movement. Kali is based on weapons, and practitioners move as though weapons are always in play. Boxers focus on punches, footwork, timing, slipping, blocks and footwork, usually with gloves on. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has a powerful ground game. Every master has an inherent understanding of these principles of movement, as well as the above-mentioned skills, allowing them to perfectly execute their favourite techniques.

Going beyond mastery of the principles, martial masters control the fight. They won’t fight someone else’s game; instead, they use their skills to force the opponent to fight their game. For example, against a boxer, our master may use long-range kicks or shoot in for a throw. When facing a grappler, he’ll keep out of grappling range and wear him down with strikes. If the stakes are high enough and it’s a life or death situation, he won’t even go for a stand-up fight. He’ll call friends, bring tools, and use deception and the environment to get in close enough to unleash his skills without risking the chance of a counterattack.

Reference Materials

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Kamishiro Yuu gets his game face on in Holyland

This article is just a primer. I do not claim to be a master, only that I have studied under them. If you want to delve deeper into the subject, you need to do your research.

The ideal is to study a martial art and pay close attention to acknowledged masters of the art. Even if you don’t or can’t attend classes, you can find plenty of books and videos. Look at how these masters move. Observe the totality of their bodies, starting with their feet and working your way up, and seek the principles they employ. Look first at the universal skills — body mechanics, range, footwork, timing — then look at the skills specific to the art.

If you want to dive deeper, you need to develop the vocabulary to understand and describe what you’re looking at and for, and the effects of violence on characters. Rory Miller’s Violence: A Writer’s Guide and Marc MacYoung’s Writing Violence series are excellent primers aimed at writers. NRA Freestyle Media Lab examines action scenes in popular movies and breaks them down from a self-defence perspective, while Nerd Martial Arts and Martial Gamer examine techniques in martial arts.

Once armed with the basics, you have the foundations for additional research.

Done properly, though, violence is boring. If your character can reliably end the fight in one move, it’s not particularly exciting for your audience. To write exciting fight scenes, look also at how creators choreograph them. For movies, I recommend Taken (the original!), The Raidand The Raid 2, the Bourne series, and the Rorouni Kenshin live action film trilogy. In written fiction, look up John Donohue’s Sensei series for Japanese martial arts, Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town for Western stick fighting, and Marcus Wynne’s novels to examine modern combatives. For manga, there areVagabondOokami no Kuchi: WulfsmundKenji and Holyland. Anime has Junketsu no Maria and its authentic portrayal of Historical European Martial Arts while Cowboy Bebop has stylised depictions of Jeet Kune Do.

Fight scenes, authentically and excitingly portrayed, make stories stronger and show the reader what a trained human can truly do. If you want to do more than rely on the same tropes of superstrength, superspeed and flashy techniques, seek out the fighting arts of the world and see how you can apply them to your own work.

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Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that my own novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS features an exacting portrayal of Filipino and Historical European Martial Arts. You can find it on the Amazon Kindle store and the Castalia House ebook store. It is also eligible for the Dragon Awards; please vote for it under the Alternate History category. Thanks!

How I Wrote a Novel in 12 Weeks

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135456 words. 12 weeks.

A full novel in 3 months. By pulp standards it’s sluggish, but it’s the fastest I’ve ever completed a novel of this length. And I was juggling a full-time work schedule and regular blog posts alongside it.

If there’s one thing I understand about the writing industry, it’s that if you want to make real coin from writing, you need to churn out lots of high quality work fast. To even come close to the success of the pulp greats, you need to write as much and as often as you can. Here’re the principles I applied to write a novel in 12 weeks.

Planning

Well before I wrote a single word of the novel, I had planned everything out. I knew the characters, the major plot events, how each scene led to the next and the long-term ramifications of significant events on the story and the series. Errors and plot holes and inconsistencies had been caught and fixed before they were written, saving time and energy and frustration. With knowledge of the entire book, all I had to do was show up and write.

I planned my writing schedule and stuck to it. I set aside a block of time every weekday and many weekends to write. Before I sat down to write, while I was busy doing other mundane things, I planned the day’s work. I would visualise the actions and the dialogue, putting myself in my writing frame of mind. When it came time to write, I already knew what to do, so I didn’t have to waste time wondering what would happen next. I just had to do the work.

Planning is half the battle. If you know what you have to do, you won’t waste time correcting yourself or wondering what to write next.

Focus

The secret to success is to blind yourself to everything but what you need to achieve your goals. I set myself a goal and refused all distractions.

My goals were, to me, modest but ironclad. One hour every weekday. Five thousand words every week. Minimum. If I couldn’t hit that target I kept going until I could. If I had free time on weekends I spent it writing, effectively doubling my average word count per week.

During planned writing sessions, I focused solely on writing. Not editing, not researching, not chatting with people. Writing. I placed myself in a state of flow and rode it all the way to the end of the session. If I absolutely had to research something, I set hard limits for myself, restricting the time and topics to look it up, and then went back to writing immediately. If you’re not writing, you’re not getting closer to your goal.

Inevitably, I thought of many ideas to improve the story. I didn’t allow myself to get distracted or caught in the trap of endlessly polishing incomplete copy. Instead, I left notes for myself inside the text and continued writing. In doing so I maintained the momentum, keeping the story going while honouring the ideas that could make it better later. Likewise, when I had ideas for other stories and universes, I pursued them only when I wasn’t busy writing.

When you write, write. Keep your eyes on the prize and entertain nothing that leads you off the trail.

Personal Care

You can’t write if you’re bedridden. You can’t write well if you’re sneezing all the time or feverish and miserable. Thus, taking care of your health is paramount.

I maintained a regular workout schedule, and used the time to develop the story further. I pushed my body to the limit, in preparation of stretching my mind further. I made sure to eat right, drink plenty of water and sleep as well as I could.

An important side benefit of personal care is discipline. You need discipline to stick to an exercise regime, a nutrition plan and a sleep schedule. That same discipline spills over into writing, allowing you to stick to your plan and focus on writing.

A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. You need both to succeed at the writing game.

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt

Don’t stick slavishly to plans and regimens. If you develop an idea superior to the current plan, roll with it. If a block of time suddenly frees up, use it for writing or writing-related tasks if you can. If you find that deviating from a plan leads to a superior outcome, do it.

While writing the novel, I came up with a number of new ideas on the spot. They deviated from the plan, but they fleshed out the antagonists, created a new one, and added a deeper layer to the story lore. I changed the location and circumstances of the climatic action scene, making it even more awesome and explosive than before, and altered the planned ending to inject tragedy, humour, hope and sequel hooks.

Have a plan, work the plan, but don’t be afraid to branch off and do something else if doing it will lead to superior outcomes.

Conclusions

Know what you are going to do before you do it. When you start, commit fully and do not stop until you have achieved your goals. Look after your mind, body and spirit. Deviate from your plans if doing so will achieve a superior outcome.

These principles allowed me to write a massive (by modern standards) novel within a short timeframe. While nowhere near close to Pulp Speed, I believe continued application will allow me to quickly produce the quantity and quality of content my readers demand. And I’m only getting started.

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If you’d like to see the novel that preceded the one I mentioned here, you can find NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

7 Writing Lessons from Wonder Woman

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Wonder Woman doesn’t suck.

After reading all the rave reviews and the recommendations about the movie, actually seeing it felt like a disappointment. Wonder Woman isn’t a terrible film by any measure, it’s just that I have a high bar for entertainment. Indeed, it accomplished what it set out to do: tell a straightforward superheroine tale filled with courage, battles, charisma, and spiced with romance and humour.

The story begins with Princess Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, discovering a man on the beach. The man is Steve Trevor, an American spy, who discovered a German superweapon factory and was shot down while attempting to flee on an airplane. Trevor speaks of the War to End All Wars engulfing the world, and Diana believes that Ares, the god of war, is responsible for instigating the conflict. Having sworn to defeat Ares once and for all, she teams up with Trevor to end the war once and for all.

It’s a simple story, competently told. But it could be done much better.

The Negatives

I am a pessimist, so I shall start with the negatives. The major knock against Wonder Woman was the presence of two major plot holes.

When Trevor makes his great escape, Germans intercept him and shoot him down. A squadron of ships chase him to the island of Themyscira, penetrating the mysterious veil that keeps it hidden from the outside world. The ships send a landing party to hunt for Trevor on the island, and the Amazons beat them back.

As a set up for a fight scene, it works. But what happens after the Germans are beaten?

Nothing.

Consider the situation. The Germans pass through a strange barrier and discover an unmapped island. They send a landing party and see a band of female warriors kill them…with bows and arrows and swords. The logical thing to do would be to rake the beaches with naval gunfire, massacre the defenders, and send in a second landing party to claim the island for the Kaiser and the Reich. Indeed, this scenario could have provided an impetus for the Amazons to act: realizing that their home is now threatened by the implacable machinery of modern war, the Amazons are forced to flee (or are wiped out), and Diana is driven to stop Ares and avenge her people.

Instead, after the beach sequence, the ships simply cease to exist.

Here is the first lesson from Wonder Woman: always track your villains and give them agency. Bad guys cannot simply vanish from a scene without good reason, more so if they possess the advantages the Germans did in this scene. Like heroes, believable villains have motives and agendas of their own, and will do everything in their power to meet their goals. By giving them the chance to interfere with the protagonists, the villains will be seen as a powerful, threatening foe and a significant player. Reintroducing the Germans would have added emotional impetus to the rest of the story. Instead, the following sequence is the same tired tale of a child rebelling against a parent by going her own way.

Plot hole number two comes near the end of the film, during the showdown with Ares. (Spoiler ahead!) Ares is revealed to have taken the form of a minor character who helped Diana and Trevor reach the frontlines. Which suggests that Ares himself helped Wonder Woman travel to the front, allowing her to defeat him.

Why would a supervillain be knowingly complicit in his own destruction?

This is lesson number two: Villains should not help the heroes unless it benefits them.

A superhero story demands constant conflict between superhero and supervillain. One would expect Ares to do everything in his power to stop the Diana and Trevor: sending military policemen to arrest them, having Allied command brand them as traitors and spies, dispatching the entire German Army to stop them. These maneuvers would have forced the duo to overcome these obstacles and set up Ares as a terrifying enemy. Instead, Ares allowed Diana to discover his weapons factory, derail his plot to continue the Great War, and knowingly meets her, a woman of a race Ares knows Zeus created to defeat him, face-to-face just to have a cliched We Can Rule Together speech. Instead of being a superb and subtle manipulator, Ares comes off as a cardboard character who exists only for Diana to punch out. If a story must have a villain aid the hero, the villain must believe he will benefit in some way, ideally leading to the hero’s destruction. That would make for a more clever and complex story, portraying the villain as smart and Machiavellian, and give the hero a chance to shine by reversing the scheme.

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Central to the movie is a German superweapon, a new chemical weapon that its developers believe will allow Germany to triumph. This Wunderwaffe is seen as an ominous orange gas destroying gas masks and breaking glass, killing all it touches. And just what is this Wunderwaffe called?

Hydrogen-based mustard gas.

This is utter nonsense. Mustard gas isn’t a gas; it is a liquid. It is deployed as a fine mist of clear droplets, not a thick billowing colored cloud. Further, mustard gas is composed of sulfur, chloride and, in a couple of formulae, oxygen. ‘Hydrogen-based’ mustard gas would yield, among other things, hydrogen sulfide (which was actually used by the British as a chemical weapon and later discarded) or hydrochloric acid. The only reason ‘hydrogen’ comes up would be to justify the final major explosion, which is ridiculous. Having hydrogen atoms does not automatically make something explosive: water, among other things, will not ignite.

This is the third lesson: if you must use technobabble, it must make sense. If you have to use technobabble in a story, then the properties of said technobabble must be employed in some fashion later on. If you encounter a reader who actually knows something about the science you’re pretending to employ, you’re going to annoy him. For the purposes of the movie, it would have been easier and quicker to simply call the Wunderwaffe an improved version of mustard gas, or just refer to it by some ominous-sounding codename, and have a character note that it is highly flammable. This achieves the same effect without having to delve into eye-rollingly bad psuedo-science. If you must use technobabble, it should either be clearly fictitious (i.e. made-up science like Minovsky Particles) or suitably and convincingly complex (like everything by John C. Wright).

Like every good superhero story, Wonder Woman has plenty of action. Like every Hollywood blockbuster I’ve seen, I turned off my brain when the action began and tuned it out. The action scenes are competent…for Hollywood…but I hold my entertainment to much higher standards of realism.

A critical action scene takes place at the front. Diana hears of the Germans occupying a town and catches sight of refugees somehow being allowed to linger in the Allied trenches. She is outraged, but the army won’t help her. She leads a one-woman charge across No Man’s Land, plows into the German lines, inspires the rest of the Allies to help her, and single-handedly liberates the town.

This scene establishes Diana as an idealistic, driven and impetuous woman. If she can’t get what she wants, she simply plows straight through the obstacles, heedless of the consequences. There were just so many things that could have gone wrong.

The Germans could have fired on her from so many angles she couldn’t block all of the bullets. Shells could have detonated against her armour instead of being deflected. She could have stepped on a mine. She could have run into a cloud of poison gas (and she never has chemical protection). A nearby blast could have blown her off her feet and showered her with shrapnel. Even if she makes it all the way across, the rest of the Allies are mere humans–and the German defenses would have cut them down. The Allies would support their hasty offensive with machineguns and artillery, and she could have been hit by friendly fire.

This could have been a scene where Diana discovers that her training was woefully inadequate to prepare her for the horror of modern industrial war. At the very least, Diana could have unleashed her superpowers, justifying her survival. Instead, she survives all this because the plot demands it , and because in Hollywood, Strong Action Females are more powerful than men and never pay the price for brashness.

Here is lesson number four: action scenes must make sense. The protagonist cannot survive simply because the plot demands it; her victory must be justified. On the flipside, the enemy must be believably threatening, and an enemy as powerful and dangerous as the Imperial German Army must act in a manner consistent with their portrayal. This means proper defensive tactics and measures designed to defeat an attack they were expecting.

Fixing this sequence is simple. Diana tries to cross No Man’s Land. Trevor holds her back, and explains to her in graphic detail what happens to idiots who try to make a frontal attack across No Man’s Land. She insists on going, convincing him that liberating the town is a worthy cause, and he in turn convinces her to launch a night time raid. Our heroes sneak across No Man’s Land, infiltrate the enemy lines and knock out the defenses, allowing the rest of the Allies to overrun the Germans and liberate the town. This scene would have satisfied the demands of characterisation and action while not being suicidal.

The Positives

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Despite the issues mentioned above, Wonder Woman isn’t all that bad. What sets it apart from other similar films is the character interactions.

Diana is a brave, headstrong, stubborn, rash and naïve woman who was raised on an isolated island. She is utterly ignorant about the outside world beyond knowing how to speak multiple languages (a convenient plot device to justify how everyone can talk to each other and how she can read a coded notebook). This shows throughout the story: she doesn’t know anything about fashion, she is filled with curiosity about the outside world, and she operates under the childish-yet-believable assumption that stopping Ares will stop the war. Despite all this, she acts in a consistently heroic fashion, fighting for the weak, the innocent and to end the slaughter of millions.

This is lesson five: heroes must be heroic. Heroes are memorable because they are larger than life. They have ideals they fight for and lines they will not cross. They will go the distance and commit themselves to their cause. Every aspect of their personality is magnified and consistent throughout the story, and their behaviours flow organically from their backstories and personalities. Diana walks with an aura of charisma because she lives and acts with honour and integrity, and Gal Gadot convincingly portrays this on the silver screen.

Wonder Woman might be Diana’s story, but Steve Trevor plays a significant role too. He helps her navigate the modern world, fills her in on critical details, and fights alongside her in the action scenes. At the climax, he gets a big action scene all to himself, stopping the mundane threat so Diana can concentrate on Ares. Throughout the film, the duo enjoy a respectful relationship. They may have their differences, but instead of sniping at each other or wasting time on pointless bickering, they solve problems and support each other, building each other up all the way to the end.

Lesson six: supporting characters must support the protagonist and the story. If a supporting character does next to nothing in a story, then that character can be deleted and his actions handed off to other, more important characters. If a support character does not support the protagonist, then there is no reason why the protagonist keeps him around. This is especially important for stories about superheroes and high-level violence professionals: such people will not tolerate the presence of people who could drag them down and potentially undermine the mission. Instead, they will keep around people who build them up and help them overcome problems, and Steve Trevor fulfils this role magnificently.

As an aside, consider this: how did modern culture reach the point where having a male supporting character contribute significantly to the plot and action scenes in a female-led story without being denigrated by the heroine become a noteworthy novelty?

Women are Wonderful

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The main flaw running through Wonder Woman is the assumption that Women are Wonderful. Diana makes no major mistakes and does not pay the price. She walks around with a sword in wartime London and nobody bats an eye; she wears her sword in the back of her dress at a fancy dress ball and nobody notices or cares. She leads an Allied army on a suicidal attack across No Man’s Land but it somehow makes out unscratched. Ares conveniently comes to her instead of making her fight to find him. As an Amazon she is destined to defeat Ares, so instead of having to work for her victory all she has to do is pour on MOAR POWA until he is defeated.

This is the Women are Wonderful trap. In fiction, women cannot be seen to make mistakes so women get away with making stupid decisions. In reality, the police would have hounded her, the Allies would have taken horrendous casualties to support her solo charge (and every death would be on her), and Ares would have opposed her every step of the way and forced her to find him. At every critical juncture, the Hand of the Director intervenes so that Diana need never suffer the consequences of her actions and never has to work hard or change her perspective to accomplish her goals.

This is the final lesson: actions have consequences. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. Charge in recklessly and you get killed, or your allies get slaughtered. Slip up and the enemy will exploit it. Diana survived this adventure and remained an idealist simply because she suffers no consequences for any of her actions. As a writer, you must make your characters reap the bitter harvest of bad decisions. Only then can you have a believable story.

Wonder Woman could have been great. Instead, it is distinguished from other Hollywood blockbusters only by virtue of the characters. Learn from Wonder Woman, and craft better stories.

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If you’d like to see how I applied these lessons to my writing, check out my latest novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon or the Castalia House ebook store.

Tired Tropes: It’s Only A Flesh Wound

You’ve seen versions of the scene a hundred times before. Our Hero is engaged in a gunfight with The Villain. The Villain takes a potshot at Our Hero. Our Hero staggers. When his sidekick catches up with Our Hero and asks after him, Our Hero declares, “It’s only a flesh wound”. In the next scene, Our Hero is patched up and good to go. If the creator even bothers with medical treatment.

In a creative work that treats deadly violence with deadly seriousness, the flesh wound trope is a cop-out. It is a cheap way to increase tension in the scene by showing that Our Hero isn’t invulnerable and that The Villain isn’t incapable, while simultaneously preventing Our Hero from receiving a wound that would prematurely retire him from the story altogether.

To be clear, I’m referring to instances where a character can shrug off an injury as though nothing happened to him, not instances in which a character insists he can keep fighting even though it’s clear he’s gravely wounded. The latter is drama, the former is cheap. Ten seconds on Google would rob anyone of any delusions that a ‘flesh wound’ isn’t serious.

When weapons are involved, there is no such thing as a ‘flesh wound’. It’s like being pregnant: you can’t shoot or stab someone a little bit, and you can’t pretend there won’t be long-term consequences. Once weapons come into play, there are just two questions: how much damage is caused immediately, and how much functionality you recover.

Functionally like this, with more bleeding and screaming.

The human body is amazingly resilient and incredibly fragile. It is resilient in that the major critical organs—the brain, the heart, the lungs—are protected by thick, hard bone, making it difficult to immediately kill someone, and most bodily functions are duplicated, allowing someone to survive the loss of a limb or eye or some other organ. It is fragile in that it is ludicrously easy to shatter bones, sever nerves and destroy muscle if you know what you’re doing—and there is no easy way to undo the damage.

Let’s take the classic example of the bullet to the arm. If the round strikes the forearm, it could break the radius and/or ulna, potentially disabling the arm. If the bullet hits the hand, it would produce an explosion of blood and pain, crippling the hand and potentially severing fingers. A round to the elbow or shoulder will destroy the joint and require reconstructive surgery. And a large enough round will blow off the limb altogether. Even with reconstructive surgery, there is no guarantee the limb will be saved, and there will usually be some degree of permanent loss of function.

Blunt weapons don’t offer much relief. They are technically less lethal in that the user can choose not to kill someone, but it doesn’t mean it won’t cripple the target either. Many stick striking techniques target the head and the joints. A club or cudgel, used properly, will cause fractures, concussions and traumatic brain injuries. A knockout blow to the head might still kill someone if it strikes with with enough force or if he lands on a hard surface.

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The most effective targets are no-go zones for law enforcement…but not for bad guys.

Police officers are specifically trained to target muscle groups instead of bones with their batons—not because these are effective techniques, but to minimise harm to the suspect. This is also why police baton striking techniques create the appearance of police brutality: they are striking the least effective targets on the body, and a subject high on drugs or adrenaline may not feel the pain. When striking with a club, you get to choose between causing pain—not effective against an adrenalized target—or shattering bones—not conducive for allowing Our Hero to continue his adventures. The only time a blunt weapon would inflict the equivalent of ‘flesh wounds’ is by striking muscle, which is not usually in a bad guy’s repertoire.

What about edged weapons? A core concept of Filipino martial arts is defanging the snake, in which the practitioner disarms an aggressor by disabling a limb. When applied to knives, this means targeting the major muscle groups of the arms and legs, leading to an instant stop. Surely, then, this is a flesh wound?

No.

In Martial Blade Concepts, a key technique is the quadriceps cut. The practitioner moves to the target’s side, then stabs the quads and cuts out. There will be little blood and relatively minor nerve damage…and the target will no longer be able to stand unaided.

In Libre Knife Fighting, a tactic is to circle around a target’s weapon side to gain his back, plant the knife next to the spine and cut down. This would sever the major muscles in the back, including the latissimus dorsi. Little blood, minor damage…and the target will no longer be able to lift his arm.

Even if you can inflict an actual flesh wound on someone, if done properly that person will not be able to walk away from it—in some cases, literally. It will take long weeks to recover, if at all. Once weapons are thrown into the mix, the question is not how to ‘safely’ harm the target, but rather how much harm you are willing to do, starting with merely disabling a limb and climbing all the way to death.

And all this is assuming that the story takes place in a setting with modern medicine. In a historical setting or an austere environment with limited access to healthcare, a mere flesh wound would become infected, quickly becoming a horrific pus-filled wound leading to a terrible and painful death. Before the advent of penicillin, anesthesia or even germ theory, there were precious few methods of treating injuries that were not immediately fatal. There was no point trying to save an injured limb if it would inevitably become septic. The preferred method was to amputate the limb to prevent the spread of disease—and even then, prior to the development of sterile surgery people still caught diseases and died. In the American Civil War, one in four patients died from post-surgical illnesses. In such a setting, even if a character survives a non-fatal injury, he is in for a miserable time.

In a creative work where violence is played straight, it would not do for characters to walk off flesh wounds. It flies against the aesthetic of the work, revealing the scene for what it is: a cheap trick to artificially induce tension. And yet a character who routinely prevails in deadly encounters without a scratch appears invincible, inducing audience boredom.

The Art of Safely Injuring Our Hero

For better or for worse, an easy way to increase tension and retain audience interest is to prevent the perception of invulnerability. Our Hero must be seen taking a blow. But he must also survive his injuries without being too damaged to continue his career. There are four ways to do this.The first method is to take away the weapons. Without weapons, it will be more difficult for people to grievously harm each other. By focusing on body shots, slams, throws, chokes and the occasional head punch, both parties can whale on each other without necessarily causing permanent injuries. Fight-ending shots like throat strikes, eye rakes and joint breaks can be evaded, parried, blocked or countered, prolonging the scene while ratcheting the tension until the time is right to end the fight. Using clever fight choreography, a creator can disguise the fact that neither party is trying to kill or cripple the other while still increasing suspense.

Look past the wire fu and you’ll notice that they are not using or landing lethal or crippling techniques.

Chinese martial arts films love this trope. In the above clip from Ip Man 2, Ip Man fights three kung fu masters in succession. Here, Ip Man is fighting to prove his calibre as a teacher and earn the right to run a martial arts school in Hong Kong. Since this conflict is inherently a social one, the combatants will want to avoid lethal techniques, but this implicit rule does not shield Ip Man from failure. The audience may be assured that Ip Man will survive the fight (Ip Man is, after all, a historical character), but not necessarily that he will win, thereby maintaining suspense.

The second method is to use the setting to mitigate the damage. In a fantasy setting, you can have healers with the power to reattach severed limbs and cure terrible wounds. In a science fiction story, a crippled character may rely on prosthetics or cutting-edge medical regeneration technology. Such a setting gives you the best of both worlds: you can still play serious battle wounds straight, leading to loss of blood and limb function, but as soon as the character receives medical care he can be restored to full heath, allowing him to continue the adventure.

During Luke Skywalker’s duel with Darth Vader on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand. This demonstrates the disparity in skill between them and allows Darth Vader to reveal that he is Luke’s father. Luke later receives a prosthetic hand, allowing him to participate in Return of the Jedi. In this instant, the science fiction setting makes the prosthetic hand believable, maintaining suspension of disbelief while averting the flesh wound trope.

This would naturally be more difficult to do in a modern setting. Armour is the easiest way to do it, if you can justify its inclusion in the scene. Armour may stop bullets and shrapnel from penetrating flesh, but it would still feel like a hard punch and possibly leave deep bruises. To maintain drama in such a situation, focus on pain, shock, surprise and other psychological effects. In effect, the character knows he’s been hit, but since he took it on the armour, he can keep fighting—even if it hurts like the devil, forcing him to slow down. Wounds to unarmored limbs will still disable the limb, but by applying a tourniquet, the character will still survive – and now he must figure out how to survive despite the loss of a limb. Which is a rich vein to tap for more drama, if you know what you’re doing.

The third method is to play grievous wounds straight but allow a long time for rest and recovery. It’s no coincidence that heroes in realistic thriller series suffer their most debilitating injuries near the end of the story. From the writer’s perspective, since the hero won’t participate in any more combat later in the story, the hero need only survive the scene. By the time of the next story, the hero would have recovered fully—or at least, to the point where he can continue his adventures.In Barry Eisler’s Winner Take All, John Rain almost bleeds to death. By the time of the next book, Redemption Games, Rain has recovered and is ready for his next contract. By contrast, in Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games, Jack Ryan suffers the classic shoulder wound in the beginning of the story. Ryan spends weeks in hospital, and weeks more in a cast. He also loses some permanent use of his arm. Despite that, by the time of the climax, Ryan is fit for action. This makes sense because Ryan is an analyst: as a desk jockey he doesn’t have to run around and chase bad guys, allowing other characters to participate in action scenes until it’s Ryan’s time to shine.

The last method is the riskiest: inflict the lowest amount of damage possible while justifying it in-universe. This requires extensive knowledge of tactics, techniques, technology and procedures. This method should only be relied on if you do possess such knowledge—or if you know someone who does.

In swordfighting, medium range is the range where both parties can reach each other with their weapons. This is the realm of the double kill. Blade styles that specialise in combat at this range demand mastery of timing, footwork and body mechanics. For instance, when facing a thrust, an exponent may sway back to evade the blade, then launch a riposte along the open line. Such a subtle movement minimises the distance and time the swordsman needs to deliver a counterattack, but it also demands perfection. When dodging an attack, Our Hero may slightly misjudge the distance and receive a shallow wound. Likewise, the villain may evade Our Hero’s slash and launch a sudden riposte; Our Hero shields with his secondary arm and tries to step off, but the offending blade still takes him in the arm. In both cases, Our Hero doesn’t receive a fight-ending injury, or even necessarily a serious one, but the narrowness of his escape emphasises just how close he is to dying and the seriousness of the situation. When played straight, these apparently-shallow wounds will begin to degrade his combat effectiveness, forcing him to take risks. For instance, a seemingly-superficial forehead cut may bleed into the eyes, creating an avenue for reversal and tension, while the arm wound might lead to loss of blood pressure and later consciousness.

With live weapons, a small error in timing and footwork will lead to injury. Notice how narrow the dodges are, and how slim the margin of error.

It is much harder to pull this off in gunfights. In Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, a villain shoots Bob Lee Swagger twice in the chest. Swagger survives and escapes. It is revealed that the villain missed Swagger’s heart and had loaded his weapon with hollow point bullets that had failed to expand. The latter is plausible because the story is set in the early 1990s, and hollow points were not a mature technology then. Even so, Swagger is still critically wounded. He struggles with his injuries and requires medical attention (and recovery) before he can continue his investigation. Without knowledge of firearms, ammunition and terminal ballistics, it is very hard to plausibly pull of flesh wounds from a firefight. The old standby, of course, is to have Our Hero grazed by bullets or be struck by fragments from bullets disintegrating against hard cover, but with such minor wounds Our Hero (and therefore the audience) may not even notice them until after the fight.

Flesh wounds are impossible wounds. In a work that plays violence straight, downplaying the effects of injuries contradicts the feel and tone of the work. Instead of going for transparent theatrics, see if you can use the setting to plausibly mitigate the effects of injuries, or play the violence straight and force Our Hero to roll with what he has left. By respecting the consequences of deadly violence, you can maintain dramatic tension while respecting reality and the audience.


Image credits:

Baton target: Original image by Monadnock, first retrieved here.

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