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.

You Are Not Your Weaknesses

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It’s never been easier to define yourself as a disabled minority. Autism, PTSD, agoraphobia, rape survivor, any and all of a long litany of modern-day maladies. You don’t even need an actual medical diagnosis; just slap the label on yourself, proclaim it to all and sundry as loudly and as often as you can, and only the brave will dare dispute you. If you can pass for an oppressed minority de jour–female, transexual, homosexual, racial or religious minority–more underprivileged points for you. Go on some special places on Tumblr and you’ll see people competing to slap as many labels on themselves: vegan poly autistic queer pangender otherkin diagnosed with ADHD, BPD, PTSD.

But what kind of person defines himself by dividing himself down to the smallest he can be?

Every gratuitous label represents a degradation of the human spirit. It is a narcissistic celebration of weakness. Define yourself by what you can’t do and you tell the world that you are a loser. Identify yourself with special snowflake labels and you tell the world you only crave attention.

I qualify for a number of tumblrina psuedo-labels myself. I will never use them where they are not appropriate. I do not even define myself as autistic. I choose different indicators: author, journalist, thinker, blogger.

I define myself by what I do.

Every declaration of what you won’t or can’t do tells the world that you are not interested in delivering value to others. Thus, the world will not take interest in you. Yes, you can get pity and attention with those labels, but they hold no water with people outside of those narrow circles, and feelgood brings no value to the world or to yourself. Every declaration of what you do and have done tells the world what you can, have and will achieve. It attracts like-minded people to you and bends the universe to your will.

I have achieved far more by drawing people’s attention to what I do and what I have done than to my weaknesses. So can you.

You Are Not Your Wounds

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Never before has the modern world rewarded people for being weak. All they have to do is stick those labels on themselves. Now that they are part of an oppressed underclass, they can organise and demand special rights and privileges. If someone disagrees with them, all they have to do is shout, “You are a privileged cis het homophobic/misogynistic/transphobic/Islamophobic/racist/nazi bigot!”.

This is the logic of social justice and the strategy of cultural Marxism. These people exploit social scripts of compassion, kindness, empathy and charity. By declaring themselves as part of some oppressed minority, they can claim that their demands are legitimate and draw attention to themselves. Anyone who says otherwise with them is a class enemy who must be destroyed.

In-groupers think these labels are power. They think lets them take and take and take from society without ever having to give back. But this is only possible in a society willing to give in. The winds of culture are changing. People are recognising these tactics and the parasites who use them for what they are. When society stops caring about them, what are they left with?

Nothing but shrieks and howls.

With that said, there are plenty of people out there who have experienced trauma, crippling diseases and disabilities, and genuinely need help. I am not unsympathetic. Social justice warriors have appropriated their wounds to wear as armour, and the siren song of power and pity is everywhere in the First World.

But you are more than your wounds. You are more than what you can’t do. If you want to live life fully, you cannot define yourself by the lesser part of who you are.

If you seek to excel, you must overcome them. Mind blindness, social deficits and phobias, sensory issues, what-have-you, these are not things that define you. I’ve seen too many people using them as excuses to justify why they aren’t getting jobs, why they aren’t achieving their goals, why they are wallowing in self-pity and like being losers.

Wounds are not to be picked at and paraded to the world. They are to be healed and learned from. If you want to be great you must step beyond your limits. Identify your weaknesses and reframe them. They are not things holding you back; they are obstacles to be overcome. Know your deficiencies, seek out professional advice to resolve them, and put in the work. Day by day, week by week, month by month, chip away at your weaknesses until they no longer bother you.

This can be terrifying. If you have identified yourself as ‘X’ your entire life, the prospect of changing it could make you feel adrift in the world. And the sheer amount of work needed can be daunting. One method is to identify something better to work towards, something that aspires you to act instead of dragging you into sluggishness. If you are fat, marvel at the beauty and strength of a well-conditioned human body, and work to get there. If you are poor, imagine what you can accomplish if you can increase your wealth tenfold or a hundredfold, and work to get there. Every day, find something that inspires you to reach your goals and take steps towards that, and remove yourself from people and things that prevent you from getting there.

Aspire to be your best self and work towards it.

Be Great

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You’re probably not going to overcome all your weaknesses. That’s okay.

As I grow older my sensory issues have grown more acute. Just today I went shopping for pens that glided smoothly across paper without transferring resistance up into my fingers. When I train with sticks at full power indoors I have to have hearing protection on standby. Once, when shopping for cold weather clothing, I ran my fingers across synthetic down jacket. It elicited a screeching white sensation of disgust overlaid with yellow spikes, a feeling so powerful that it blanked out my brain. These are things that have never happened to me before.

It may not be possible to completely overcome your disabilities. What you can do is strive to achieve a minimum standard of functionality. As a teen I could not stand human contact; today I can power through empty-hand martial arts training and remain functional. When I was younger I had significant social deficits; today I can maintain a healthy relationship with my fiancee. I learned to adapt and overcome, and I’m not done yet.

The wise understand their limits. You may not fully overcome your deficiencies and your weaknesses. What you can do is raise yourself to a level where they will not hamper you, allowing you to exercise your strengths and become the best person you can be.

You are not your weaknesses. You are the sum of your achievements and will become your future glories. Heal from your wounds and mitigate your flaws so they will not get in the way of your strengths. Present the greater part of yourself and leave your mark on the world.

5 Life Lessons for Autists

I won’t call myself an autist. Not yet. I don’t have a formal diagnosis. Nonetheless, I display many of the classic signs of autism: deficits in speech and communication, repetitive behaviours and rigid rituals, hyper-focus on areas of interest. And the Big Three: poor verbal and non-verbal communication skills, impaired social skills, hyper-reactive senses.

I have experienced the same challenges many autistic people have faced. Many of these challenges persist. Even so, I have met many people along the way who have illuminated the path and provided sage advice, people who have helped me make life a little brighter, a little more bearable, a little more worth living.

For National Autism Awareness Month, here are five lessons I have learned along the way.

1. Endurance

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You ready to go the distance?

The measure of a human is how he endures the unendurable and continues to function.

The world is a noisy, swirling, chaotic kinetic maelstrom of sound and motion and odour and tastes and textures. My synaesthesia marries them in unions of audible colour, tactile light and visible smells. Couple them with hyper-reactive senses and the weight of the world is too much to bear.

The slightest human caress was fire against my skin, a pat on the head needles in my mind. Singlish, the true lingua franca of my country, is an ugly irritating spiky blob on the best of days and physically painful at the worst. The screech of train brakes emits painful yellow sparks and a lingering metallic aftertaste. Every clack of a mechanical keyboard is a sharpened sledgehammer to the brain. When I took up kali training, every clash of stick on stick was an explosion of brilliant white spikes.
And the people. People yammer on and on and on, creating floods of inconsequential noise, suddenly touching others and assuming it is benign, holding people to unspoken and unarticulated standards of conduct.

There is only so much the brain can process. So much energy a person has. There will come a breaking point, when the bulwarks fail and the world comes crashing in. When every sound is a stiletto to the ear, every sight sandpaper scraping against the eye, every texture the scratching of a thousand ragged fingernails in the imperceptible space between flesh and bone. It is a sensation that is there and not there, firing nerves in places without them, an infiltration and corruption of the interstitial places between skull and cerebrospinal fluid and brain. It is the corrosion of sense and reason and the descent of chaos and pain.

Humans call it a meltdown.

Running is easy. Secluding yourself in your room and hiding under the covers is pleasant. All too often it is the only sane option left in an insane world.

But there will be times when that option is not available. If you’re in a boardroom meeting, suddenly leaving will jeopardise your career. If you’re standing in a military formation, breaking discipline will lead to collective punishment. If you’re in a crowded elevator frozen between floors, you have nowhere to go.

There’s only one option.

Endure.

Even if you feel that the world is closing in on your mind, you must endure. If that is the least of bad options, endure. Success goes not to the man who quits at the first sign of discomfort, but the one who endures and pushes through pain to the other side.

Autists can—and should—armour themselves against overwhelming sensory experiences however they can. I wrap my sticks in heavy tape to blunt the noise of impact. I carry Flare Audio Isolate titanium earplugs all the time. I choose clothes and accessories and equipment with an eye towards minimal sensory impact. I work in quiet rooms and stay away from noise.

But there is only so much you can do. If you wish to interact with the world, much less leave your mark on it, you must engage it fully. You must open yourself to the unceasing pandemonium that is life in the modern age. If you will not blind or deafen yourself, life will seep through in all its wonder and chaos.

You must endure.

And in enduring, you learn that it is not a fixed capacity.

As you expose yourself to greater and more frequent sounds, you desensitise yourself to them. You learn how to mitigate them, how to cope with them, how to keep functioning. You learn to recognise the signs of an autistic meltdown and either head off the symptoms or leave the area. The truest test is to function at the ragged edge of your abilities, to keep thinking and talking and responding on the threshold of a meltdown—or in the middle of one.

It is not easy, but it is necessary if you live in a bustling city like I do.

To achieve great rewards one must endure great hardships. If you would do more than merely exist, you must push through pain and suffering to achieve your goals. You must develop the ability to endure.

2. You Are Not Special

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Snowflakes melt. Don’t be one.

If you’re autistic, chances are you have an all-consuming interest. It could be anything: prime numbers, train schedules, memorising pi, baking pies, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the complete genealogy and medical history of a flock of sheep, the search for a Grand Unified Theory.

It doesn’t matter.

Your special interests do not make you special. If you can’t find a way to contribute to people’s lives through your special interest, you are not special.

Writing remains my singular focus in life, but I also pursued knowledge in other fields, moving from one to another in days or weeks or months. In primary school I could discuss atomic power, King Arthur and the human immune system. As a teenager I could hold court on terminal ballistics, the discography of the Bee Gees and epistemology.

None of it mattered.

Nobody was interested in such arcana. Nobody benefited from my discourses and lectures and writings. Ergo, no value was delivered through these obsessions.

It’s fine to pursue these interests as a hobby. But if you can’t find and manifest the intersection between your interests and what people desire, nobody will care about them.

Autistics will feel distressed when they cannot pursue their interests. It is tempting to drop everything to focus solely on them. But that is attachment, and attachment is the root of suffering. If you deliver no value to others, people are not going to support you or pay you or otherwise help you continue existing so you can continue to pursue your interests.

The ideal, of course, is to make a living through your passions. To get there, you must act. You cannot limit yourself to stuffing your head with information or delivering lectures to unreceptive audiences. You must act. You must be the best in your field, identify missing needs and fill them. You must be give people a reason to give you money. In my case, there is a resurging demand for excellent fiction, specially science fiction and fantasy, and I intend to fill that gap. Likewise, there is high demand for articles about self-improvement, travel, life hacks, martial arts, the craft of writing and more—and my record on Steemit speaks for itself.

It is nice to imagine that one can make a living from one’s interests, but it isn’t always so. I would love to be a professional fiction writer, but that’s not on the horizon anytime soon. There was a time when I could simply write all day and not worry about anything else, but those days are over. I have bills to pay and responsibilities to uphold. I had to scale back my writing, again and again, to accommodate reality. There will come a day when I will be a professional writer, when I can support myself through my interests…but for now, life demands its due.

Your special interests do not make you special. What you do with them does.

3. Scripts Rule Society

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How much of this scene is on autopilot?

If you will not take holy orders and seclude yourself in a hermitage, or live by yourself alone in the wilderness, you must interact with people. It is an inescapable facet of life. If you want friends and lovers and children, if you want to buy goods and services, if you want to live in the modern world with all its trappings, you have to talk to people.

Social interaction is the chief weakness of most autistics. You don’t have to be a social butterfly, but you can at least be functional in society.

Fortunately, society runs on social scripts.

Social scripts are predictable and expectable responses to specific circumstances. People who know each other exchange greetings when they meet. If someone does another wrong, the wronged party expects an apology and the offending party issues one. Societies enforce taboos and teach their members how to behave in public and private. Organisations have specific procedures and jargon so everyone is on the same page.

Imagine an intricate machine filled with uncountable numbers of enmeshed gears rotating in unison. That is society. Social scripts, especially codes of etiquette, are the lubricants that keep everything turning smoothly. They allow complete strangers to interact each other, and intimates to predict what the other party will say or do.

Social scripts enable mutual understanding and minimise conflict. Most people are unaware of these scripts. Autistics cannot afford to be—and, at the same time, can craft scripts of their own to pre-empt difficulties. For example, when buying groceries, the standard script takes six steps:

  1. Set groceries on counter
  2. Wait for cashier to register every sale and declare the price
  3. Check the price and make payment
  4. Receive change or card as necessary
  5. Double-check all items and gather them up
  6. Leave

To regular people, buying groceries is a simple, mindless transaction. It took me years to figure out how to do it smoothly. A neurotypical person may see groceries as an undifferentiated mass of stuff. For me, every bag, every good, every coin, every card, every person, every gesture, every sound, every perceivable action and object and event is a discrete item that must be logged and tracked and moved into appropriate positions or otherwise accounted for.

For autistic people, the mere act of buying groceries is a recipe for mental congestion. And that’s before accounting for off-script events.

It’s the little things: the cashier talking to you, children chatting behind you, dropping coins, incorrect change, a cash register noisier than usual, a bellicose customer. Neurotypical people may not have a problem with it, but autists with their minds busy processing the transaction will not be able to respond effectively.

If you can break down a script, you can pre-empt it and create your own scripts to your advantage. On the way to the counter you can start calculating the bill. As the cashier keys in the sales, you can prepare payment. When you pay the cashier you can take the time to check items. This frees up cognitive capacity to check items and prepare to go.

A script allows you to work with minimal cognitive load. It is a reliable heuristic governing human behaviour. Life is difficult enough; no need to make it worse

4. Empathy is A Skill

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If you can talk and think you can do this.

Neurotypical people instinctively learn social skills through everyday interaction. Autists are challenged to consciously learn them.

Empathy is a skill. Charm is a skill. All kinds of interpersonal communication are skills. Skills can be learned. If you are not brain-damaged, you can pick up the ability to communicate effectively in society.

Social scripts are useful, but they only apply to specific contexts. When events go off-script, you need to respond smoothly and appropriately. Social skills allow you to respond with a minimal of disruption. They allow you to broaden your horizons and spontaneously interact with people in multiple environments. To be an integral part of society, you must know how to talk to people. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.

There are hundreds of books and websites out there that teach people, specifically autistic people, social skills, empathy and charm. After learning them, put them into practice. Start with social scripts, then graduate to unplanned encounters. Work your way up to ever-increasing levels of difficulty.

To highly introverted autists, this is extremely difficult. It requires obsessive study, the willingness to put theory into practice, the recognition that failure is inevitable and the will to get back up and try again anyway. It requires endurance and courage and sheer bloody-mindedness to keep trying. It is exhausting, but this is why you manage your energy and develop endurance.

And the rewards?

Friends, family, a career. The ability to be a functional member of society, to share your thoughts and aspirations and emotions, to find companionship, to divide sorrow and multiply joy. To live, fully and completely, in the world.

It is difficult, but it is worth it.

5. Change Yourself, Change the World

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Start with the man in the mirror

The world is not made for autists.

It’s simple demographics. Most people are neurotypical, ergo they shape society per their thought patterns, their quirks, their foibles. Many of them don’t know how to interact with autistics, many don’t want to, many don’t even care.

It’s nice to call for autism awareness. It’s nice to call for neurodiversity. It’s nice to call for autism rights. People who want to be nice will try their best to accommodate the needs of autists.

Not everyone will.

Nobody can change the world. Not by themselves.

Nobody can force people to change. Not without guns and concentration camps and the tools of dictatorship. People who demand that everybody change to accommodate them without themselves being willing to compromise are little more than bullies and petty tyrants.

You can’t change people without coercion but you can always change yourself.

You can choose many things: how you feel about events, how you act in response to stimuli, whether to change or stand fast.
Choose growth. Choose change. Choose to be the best person you can be. Choose to surround yourself with people who bring out your best.

Do this, and the world will change with you.

Summing Up

I lied.

These five lessons aren’t just for autistics. They are for everybody. Autists need them the most, but they apply to neurotypicals too.

No matter where you stand on the autistic spectrum, if you are on the spectrum at all, you are as human as me and everyone else. Growth is universal to all humans. All I have done is lay bare a few aspects of growth and placed them in a frame. Frame them a different way and the lessons still apply.

Life awaiting.

Embrace it.

Writing Through the Churn

 

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Show up. Sit down. Write.

Time-honoured writer’s advice. For the nine months I did exactly that. Whenever I had a spare moment, I booted up the word processor, sat down, and wrote. Between blogging and fiction I must have churned out hundreds upon thousands of words. Going by word count alone, it was an unqualified success.

It’s not.

Of the hundreds of thousands of words I spilled on the page, I only produced two stories that I can reasonably hope to publish.

Just ten percent of the words I wrote.

In the profession of writing most people only see the successes. The marketing copy, the press releases, the interviews, the blog and Facebook and Twitter announcements of the Next Upcoming Bestseller by Another World Renowned Author.

They don’t see the uncounted hours at the keyboard, banging away against the keys, squeezing every spare second from the clock while simultaneously wishing that the session was over. They don’t experience the joy of visualising something transcendent in one’s daydreams and the agony of watching it turn to clay on the screen and the horror of knowing that you are not good enough to fix the story and elevate it to that rarefied state in your vision.

It’s tempting to give up and walk away. But the difference between success and failure is often determined by how long and how well you stick to something.

The old-time SFF greats and the pulp masters of the early 20th century could sit at their typewriters and churn out ten-thousand-word short stories and hundred-thousand-word novels in the sure and certain hope that publishers would buy them, no questions asked. They had to: with their livelihoods on the line, they couldn’t afford to waste a story.

And they only got to that stage after innumerable hours of toiling at the keys.

Jerry Pournelle advised writers to be prepared to write and throw away a million words of material. I suppose at this stage in the game I’m still paying the toll. Eliminating nine in ten words sounds horrible, but it’s better than ten in ten. And I still have stories that have turned out well.

Up to this point, I’d been reliably turning out at least one novel and one novella every year. I was limited not by output, but by how fast publishing platforms, editors and artists could act. So I wanted to try something new. New genres, new concepts, new tones, new stylistic choices.

And found the difference between my ambition and my ability.

Coming up with ideas is easy. I can recite from memory at least five dozen story ideas at any time. But in this business only completed and published stories count.

To get published stories you need completed stories. To get completed stories you need to write. But in the course of writing or editing you may find that what you thought was literary gold was little more than dust.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. I don’t think it’ll be the last either.

It’s easy to chuck failed stories into the recycle bin and forget them. When you’re churning out words and discover the story isn’t what you think it is, it’s easy to give up and do something else. But the better approach is to approach it as a learning experience.

You have to write through the churn. Even if the story feels like it’s falling apart, if the prose you produced doesn’t come anywhere near your standards, if your characters don different masks and become other people, if your own writing voice metamorphoses into something else, you have to keep writing. You have to keep going and see the story through. In the worst case scenario, you’ve found what doesn’t work. In the best case, you can come back to it later and fix it, when you’re no longer so emotionally invested in the prose, or recycle the key concepts elsewhere.

But there is a time to know when to give up.

You can’t count on your feelings. Emotions matter in the moment when you’re writing. When you take the long view and read a story from an editor’s or reader’s perspective, how you feel about the story while writing it doesn’t matter. What matters is the bones of the story: the worldbuilding, critical plot elements, underlying assumptions about characters and organisations. The only reason to give up on a story is when you realise it is fundamentally flawed, and by fixing the flaw and following through you have to change the rest of the story. At that point, you’re basically writing a new story from scratch. No sense spending time and energy on something that has already died; better to refocus your energies on a better concept.

Even then, you shouldn’t give up on the idea of the story. The manifestation of the story may be fatally flawed, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the idea itself is wrong. If the core themes, character traits, technology or magic systems, or other aspects can be salvaged, then they must be retained. One should never throw out the baby with the bathwater.

When I was 17 years old I came up with an idea of a secret organisation that travelled around the world dispatching monsters. Its distinguishing feature was that its members were directly supported by supernatural entities, and would be drawn into an epic battle between good and evil.

That story didn’t work.

Even so, I kept at it. I generated idea after idea, smashed them together, blended them in different ways, discarded the ones that didn’t work. I created and destroyed plots and technologies, characters and critical historical events — and I finally got to writing stories to see how well they would work.

I had a story about a civil war between factions of a religious organisation — it didn’t work. I had an arcanepunk story with energy blades and teleportation and rogue agents — it didn’t work. I had a story that mixed Final Fantasy and Task Force Talon with Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon — it didn’t work.

Yet over the years, I kept going back to the core concepts, refining them, thinking about the setting and characters, contemplating what else might work. Even as I focused on other stories this one was still in the back of my mind. In 2015 I tried again, and I produced a novel.

And that novel, No Gods, Only Daimons, will be published soon by Castalia House.

Writing is a long game. It took 11 years to turn the original concept into reality. And over the course of 11 years, I developed a basketful of ideas that be recycled into other worlds, if or when the time is right.

My latest works haven’t panned out so well, but that’s nothing to get upset over. Now I think I know what works for me and, more importantly, what doesn’t work. I have a better understanding of where to focus my energies to manifest my ideas and deliver maximum impact. And I’m going to keep writing, always.

Treat every story you write as a learning experience. Whether you’re riffing off familiar concepts or doing something new, you should strive to do better than your last. You have to write through the churn and see stories to the end, whether it be bitter or glorious. You can always go back and fix things, and even if you can’t, at least you know what doesn’t work. For now.

The secret to writing success is simple. Show up. Sit down. Write.

Always.

How to Bring Out Your Characters’ Personalities in Action Scenes

Everybody loves action scenes. The thrill of the fight, the kinetic spectacle and suspense combine to create a high emotional beat in the story. Action scenes are also a great way to show the reader what kind of person a character is. To elevate action scenes to the next level and integrate them into the story, every action scene should reflect the personalities and backgrounds of every character involved.

Heart, Mind and Soul

Violence is the crucible that brings out the best and worst of people. Different people will react differently to violence. A 6’12 bodybuilder with huge, bulging muscles may cut and run at the first sight of blood. A 5′ soft-spoken woman may transform into a furious wolverine when gangsters threaten her children.

Fighting is not simply about techniques, angles, positioning or other technical matters. Every conflict is a clash of wills between everyone involved. When choreographing an action scene, delve into how every party involved will react to violence. What are their attitudes towards violence? What are they comfortable with? What hang-ups do they have? What are their goals in that scene? How far are they willing to go to achieve them? Do they think they are engaged in social violence or asocial violence?

For more information, please see my earlier post on the subject of writing violence.

Once you have an idea of what your characters can and cannot do, and will and will not do, see how these mesh with your characters’ personalities.

In Ken Bruen’s novels, his antiheroes and villains readily turn to violence to settle their affairs. In the stories set in Ireland, the hurley stick is the weapon of choice. Armed with these sticks, characters routinely beat down other characters to send a message or to kill them.

Here we see the characters’ personas . Weapons are highly limited in Ireland, but the characters don’t want to fight fair. They turn to hurley sticks because they are legal (“We’re just off to play a game of hurley, Garda!”), and because they are so widely and cheaply available they can be disposed of after the job. The use of legal sporting goods as weapons, the disposal of evidence and the use of seemingly unfair advantages emphasise the dark and criminal nature of these characters. When the characters go to work with the hurleys, they viciously batter their targets to a pulp, either killing them or sending a message the targets will never forget. The brutality of such scenes reflects the darkness in the attackers’ hearts and lives — either they feel they have no recourse to softer and more legal means, or they simply enjoy the violence.

Contrast this with Team Rainbow from Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (the novel). Rainbow is a secret multinational counterterrorist organisation staffed by NATO military and police personnel. They operate with the latest equipment and hone their skills to a razor’s edge. When they are called up, they meticulously plan every step of the operation and seize every tactical advantage they can get. Once they blow in the doors, violence is swift and precise. They are all trained to perform headshots, and they never miss.

When put together, this portrays Rainbow as an elite group of special operators. They are swift and efficient, protecting the weak from terrorists. They also harbour a professional contempt for their prey. After a terrorist executes a child, a sniper punishes him with a highly painful and assuredly fatal wound. However, their focus is on preserving life: if a situation can be resolved through negotiations or arrests, they will take that option. As they operate with the blessings of national governments, they can focus on getting the job done with the best gear. Between their gear and the actions, the reader can believe that they are truly the best of the best soldiers in the world.

Violence is an expression of a character’s will. Understand the will and manifest it in his actions.

Personality, Skills and Physique

Let’s say your characters have more than a modicum of experience or training in violence. Maybe they are hardened street fighters, or they have training in martial arts and other combat skills. They aren’t going to react to violence like civilians (or, frankly, many Hollywood actors and fiction characters in action scenes). To portray them accurately, you want to go a step further.

Different people will have different ways of fighting. Scott Bab, Founder of Libre Fighting, says it best:

A martial arts system is a tool box. A tool box that was hopefully assembled by a skilled craftsman. The instructor shows the student how each tool works, but it is up to the student to determine which tools they will put on their tool belt and carry around with them.
Although each has been trained in person, by my own hands, when I look at my own senior ranks, in my own class, each of them fights entirely differently.
One is lightning fast and crafty. He teases his opponents with opportunities then exploits the openings when they take the bait. He rarely engages directly, he plays games and manipulates his opponents.
Another is a bruiser. He is stocky and powerful, and overwhelms his opponents with the sheer intensity of his presence. He yells, stomps, and powers forward like a machine tearing through whatever is in his path.
Yet another plays chess. He knows every angle that can come his way and knows how to negate each one. He has a deep inherent understanding of the tactics and approach I teach and relies on his technical proficiency to overcome opponents.

A character’s martial expression is the sum of his personality, skills and physique. A trained and/or experienced fighter will find a set of techniques that meshes well with his body dynamics and his expected threat. He will pick a set of tactics that enable him to make full use of his favourite techniques, be it charging in, deception or counterattacking. These techniques and tactics together reflect the person’s character.

In my American Heirs series, Master Sergeant Christopher Miller is a soldier with a distinguished career in the Combat Studies Unit of the Cascadian Defense Force. He doesn’t have any formal training in martial arts, just generic military combatives and other specialised programs for Spec Ops types. His training emphasises fighting as a unit instead of working solo, seizing every advantage possible, and taking no chances. He would rather shoot a threat than touch him, but he won’t hesitate to go hands-on if he must.

This is portrayed in the combat scenes. If a subject tries to grapple with a Unit operator in close quarters battle, the operator will shove the subject aside into a corner, clearing the way for his buddies to continue the fight. After gunning down a threat, Miller and his fellow operators will fire insurance shots if they hadn’t landed a headshot. In the latest story, I, Eschaton, Miller employs stealth, speed and violence of action to overcome his tactical disadvantages. At the same time, he takes care to avoid hurting innocents and will not engage in gratuitous violence. Miller is a professional soldier par excellence: decisive, cunning and ruthless, but he will never harm anyone who doesn’t deserve it.

Contrast this with Luke Landon from my upcoming novel No Gods, Only Daimons. Landon is a black ops agent, and often has to improvise weapons in denied environments. His preferred weapon is a knife, and he is an expert in Filipino martial arts. While Landon is no slouch with a firearm, he is far more skilled with a blade. He is also a highly intelligent operator who regularly employs deception. Before opening combat, he employs deceptive speech and body language to get his enemy to drop his guard, then lunges in for a pre-emptive strike. When engaging threats, he uses feints and footwork to set up and exploit openings, crashing in for the kill. Where possible, he will make use of the environment, slamming targets into walls, objects or each other. Landon knows that he is not fighting bodies; he is fighting minds. He approaches combat like a high-speed chess game with the highest stakes, creating and exploiting advantages.

Everybody has preferences. Discover your character’s preferences and employ them in action scenes, distinguishing them from other characters and other stories.

The Cost of It

Violence is a two-way street. Violence professionals will stack the deck in their favour as far as they can, but the other guy always get a vote. Injuries and diseases and fatalities are the price of the profession. They stack up over time, changing how a person views the world. And even if a person walks away physically unscathed, his mind may not.

Combat is the most toxic environment known to man. A single exposure alters the brain forever. It shakes up the soul, alters brain chemistry, and leaves psychic scars — especially if combat were particularly intense, harrowing and emotional. After the action scene is over, show your reader how your characters cope with their experiences.

Take the case of Audie Murphy. Murphy is one of the most decorated American soldiers of the Second World War, winning every US military award for valour, including the Second World War. But his wartime experiences shook him deeply, leaving him afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. He became addicted to drugs, and suffered from insomnia and depression. Murphy is clearly brave, skilled combatant — but even he was not immune to the psychological ravages of war.

Looking at fiction, Barry Eisler’s John Rain is a hitman who kills without remorse…but his conscience droves him to make amends. In Redemption Games, his conscience causes him to botch a job, turning him into a target. At the end, his guilt drives him to atone for his deeds.

Here we see people dealing with the cost of violence in markedly different ways. Murphy was clearly shaken by the war, affecting his everyday life. In contrast, Rain experiences no psychological stress from the act of killing, but he is haunted by the knowledge of the long-term impact on the people affected by his kills. Rain isn’t a wreck, but his guilt informs his future actions and mindset.

The more intense an actions scene, the higher the price the character has to pay. This comes in the form of injuries, permanent loss of function, maladjustment to civilian life, psychological trauma, and more. How they cope with this trauma shows the reader the depths of their souls. Is a character prone to spiralling into self-destruction? Or will he rise above his new wounds and strive to overcome them? This drama creates greater depth in writing.

Putting Everything Together

Violence is a tool for people to impose their wills on others to achieve their goals. Every act of violence is an expression of the actor’s being. His physique tells you what he can and cannot do. His mindset and beliefs show what he will or will not do. His tactics show his preferences. The best action scenes combine these three elements, bringing out the actor’s character. And when the action is over, different people will find different ways to cope with what they have done.

To create top-notch action scenes, learn your characters inside and out, pit them against each other, and let them be themselves.


Further Reading:

This is just an overview. To create verisimilitude, you have to do your research. Study the techniques and mindsets of fighters and warriors and survivors, and embody them in your characters. Here are some books that point the way.

  • On Combat, Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen
  • On Killing, David Grossman
  • Meditations on Violence, Rory Miller
  • Warrior Mindset, Dr Michael Asken

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

Take Back Your Mind

The world is filled with noise. Talking heads spewing propaganda disguised as news. Clickbait sites screaming for attention. Outrage mongers twisting your heart to become more like theirs. A never-ending stream of pop-ups and notifications and messages, all urgent, all demanding your time and energy. In the face of such madness, there is only one thing to do.

Take back your mind.

The Art of Stillness

Digital noise is like a tempest, blowing your spirit one way, then another. It wears you out, scrapes down your soul, leaving you with nothing. A steady diet of clickbait grinds down your ability to focus, to read, to think deeply. It short-circuits your brain, triggering your amygdala instead of your neocortex. Instead of embracing the rationality that is the birthright of all humanity, it leaves you mired in a cesspool of anger, fear, sorrow, outrage, a whirlpool of negative emotions like a tribe of ever-chattering monkeys.

The antidote is stillness.

Silence the monkey mind. Let no thought touch you and no-thought pervade your consciousness. With a still mind and calm heart, the stress of ever-rioting emotions fades away. Here, you can reclaim your soul and transform your mind into a clear spring. This state of being allows you to immerse yourself fully and deeply in life. With constant practice, you can ease your stress, sleep better, digest well, and move with grace.

There are many ways to meditate. Mine is simple.

Find a secluded time and place where you will not be disturbed for the next ten to thirty minutes. This could be your bedroom, a yard, a park, someplace that is reasonably quiet and free from people. Take no distractions with you: no phone, no computer, no television, nothing.

Sit upright. Spine erect, head upright, hands held upright on your lap. Beginners may choose to sit on a chair or cushion. More advanced practitioners can sit cross-legged on the floor, in the half- or full lotus position. The object is to place yourself in a neutral state that your body can hold for a period of time.

Now, half-close your eyes and breathe into your belly. If you need to, place your hands on your stomach and breathe. On the inhale, your abdomen should expand and your hands move. Breathe gently but smoothly, going as deep as you can go, then just as calmly, breathe out. This is a calm, unhurried motion: there is no need to pant like a dog.

As you breathe, find your rhythm. My preference is to breathe in for four counts, and out for four. Others may prefer different rhythms. Find one that suits you best and keep to it.

And now, just breathe.

Focus on your breath. Be aware of the air rushing through your nostrils, reaching into the depths of your lungs; feel the movement of your diaphragm, the rise and fall of your belly. Should stray thoughts away, return to your breath. There is no forcefulness here, just the deliberate direction of intention. Instead of squashing stray thoughts, focus your attention completely on breathing.

If you find your mind wandering, that’s all right. The objective is to develop mindfulness. By detecting a stray thought, you are cultivating mindfulness. Simply bring yourself back to the neutral state and carry on.

Beginners should try to meditate for five to ten minutes. When you find you can keep a clear mind, expand your practice by a minute. If you can meditate for at least a half hour, you’re well on your way to becoming an advanced practitioner.

You can mark your meditation progress by examining the intensity and volume of your thoughts while meditating. The softer and more indistinct they become, the better.

In the beginning, your thoughts might sound like this: Bread milk eggs is the kettle on boil i need to answer an email wonder whats for lunch work is…

Later, they may go: Bread…eggs…kettle boil…answer mail…lunch…

With consistent practice, they become increasingly muted: Bread…mail..work…

At more advanced levels, all you’ll feel is the impression of a thought, the incoherent firing of random neurons. It may feel like this: ?

When you are ready, all you will sense is this: …

When you have reached that state of emptiness, grow your capacity to meditate.

The Wakeful Mind

In the waking world, strive to hold that clear state wherever you can. It won’t be easy, of course, or desirable. There are plenty of activities that require you to think. But what you should strive for is the conscious direction of intent, the same way you consciously focused on breathing and a clear mind.

When thinking through a complicated math problem, this means applying one hundred percent of your thoughts on cracking the equation instead of drifting off into unrelated tangents. When driving, you’re focusing on the wheel, the road and your vehicle instead of a random butterfly. When talking to someone, you’re focusing on what he is saying and how your words affect him. This is the state of the wakeful mind.

Buddhism teaches that there is a gap between the creation of a thought and your perception of it. Meditation teaches you to find it. It is something to be experienced, not read about. Once you find that gap, you are better able to respond appropriately instead of reacting unthinkingly. If someone bumps into you by accident, this allows you to smile and shrug it off instead of flying into a furious rage.

At a higher level, you may find your thoughts circulating around fixed themes and ideas. No matter how you try, these ideas colour the way you think about something. This could be things like “I am ugly” or “I am a victim”. These thoughts come up again and again everywhere you go.

These sticky thoughts are attachments. They stir up your emotions, making you feel a certain way. Every time you touch it, you will get the same emotional response. Such thoughts prevent you from fully living in the moment. Here, apply meditation to dissolve these thoughts. Calmly examine these thoughts, digging deeper as you go. If you mind that these thoughts are baseless, apply the same mind-clearing process to dissolve them. If these thoughts are not without merit, you can reframe them.

For example, someone may think “I am fat”. If an examination in the mirror and weighing scale reveals a perfectly healthy body, then the thought is obviously a delusion and can be released. If evidence suggests otherwise, the thought can be reframed as as a catalyst for action: “I am fat now and I do not like it. I will find a gym and sign up for personal training.” While you don’t need to be a meditator to do this, meditation makes it easier.

In a meditative state, there are no positive or negative emotions. Only a calmness as serene as a peaceful lake. In this state of perfect serenity and awareness, you can act without hesitation, without mental roadblocks, without fear. This is the state of a wakeful mind.

Feeling emotions is not wrong. Every normal and healthy person will feel emotion. You should neither shun negative emotions like anger, fear or sorrow; nor should you flee from positive ones like happiness, joy or pleasure. By sealing off emotions you seal off your heart to life, the opposite of what we want to accomplish. What you want to do is simply feel them in the entirety and let them go when the moment passes.

Emotions should come and go like a meditative breath. They should be experienced fully, then released completely. Imagine yourself to be a cup. A steam of emotions pours in, filling it to the brim. So long as it is full, it cannot hold more or different liquids. Empty the cup of your heart like you empty your lungs; let your breath carry out the emotion from the world. Holding on to emotions means holding on to something longer than is appropriate, leading you to self-harm.

Emotions are like snowballs. Small ones can pile up into an unstoppable avalanche. Here is a story about a famous warrior chief who decided to feed a flock of birds. As he scattered grains among them, he noticed that the grains were like the farms of a valley downstream of his village. Farms in lands he had taken from his former enemies as spoils of war. His enemies must surely be eager to take them back. He had to stop them! He must! So he gathered his men and marched to war.

This applies equally to positive emotions too. A woman decided she would never feel sad or depressed again. She went out with her friends, going to clubs and parties all the time. But she was never satisfied, graduating to drinking parties, hard drugs and one-night-stands with random men. She’s trying to numb herself by chasing highs, but all she’s doing is spiralling into self-destruction. This is the story of Tove Lo’s Habits (Stay High).

Thoughts control emotions. A wakeful mind can sever emotional attachments, preventing the avalanche before it begins.

(I should point out at this stage that meditation is not a replacement for psychiatric treatment. People with mental health issues should seek help from a professional instead of attempting to self-medicate with meditation.)

Final Thoughts

There are many ways to meditate. Some traditions use extensive visualisation exercises, taking the meditator on a journey to the inside of their minds. In analytical meditation, one attempts to investigate a topic deeply with the power of a focused mind. Another practice requires you to observe the flow of your thoughts as they wander in your head. Yoga and qigong demand absolute focus, calmness and relaxation, like meditation in motion.

Find the method that works for you. There is a plethora of benefits associated with meditation that make the time worth it. To start, all you have to do is dedicate five minutes a day, every day, just for conscious breathing. This is only one-third of one percent of your day — and the payoff is spectacular.

For further reading, please see the following links:

Tired Tropes: The Potato Protagonist

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

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

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

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

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

(Unmarked spoilers ahead!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Potato Protagonist Done Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not.

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

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

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

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