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.

Can post-cyberpunk fiction be superversive?

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“The important part in Cyberpunk is just that: it’s not the technology, it’s the feel. It’s getting that dark, gritty, rain-wet street feeling but at the same time getting that rock and roll, lost and desperate and dangerous quality. Cyberpunk is about that interface between people and technology, but not in that transhumanist way where it’s all about the technology changing or improving them. It’s about how people use things… Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity. It’s about saving yourself.”
Mike Pondsmith

Cyberpunk is the literature of subversion. There are no clean, shiny and prosperous utopian futures promised in old-school science fiction; here you find the dirty streets of dystopias born from the unholy union of untrammeled megacorporations and state power. Technology doesn’t elevate people; it twists them into man-machine hybrids, exposes their secrets for all to see, and creates fresh prisons for the mind and body. Heroes are dead and forgotten; in their places are marginalised, alienated loners at civilisation motivated only by self-preservation. Where the best of science fiction tries to take humanity to the stars, cyberpunk drags humanity into the gritty, nihilistic underbelly of the world.

By contrast, superversive fiction is fiction for a more civilised age. Where subversive fiction undermines, superversive fiction builds back up. The best superversive fiction is a celebration of the values and ideas that underpin civilisation: family, law and order, morality, religion, tradition. To quote from Russell Newquist, superversive fiction is marked by at least some of the following:

Heroes who are actually heroic. They don’t have to be heroic all of the time, or even most of the time. But when the time comes, they must actually be heroic.

People are basically good. Not all the time, not in every case – and certainly not every person. But basically.

Good Wins. Not every time – a good story always has setbacks in it. But evil winning is most definitely not superversive.

True love is real. Again, maybe not for everybody. But it’s real.

Beauty is real. It’s ok to show the warts. But show the beauty, too.

The transcendent is awesome. There’s no obligation to show any particular religion, or even really religion at all. But superversive literature should show the glory and splendor of the wider universe around us, and it should leave us in awe of it.

Family is good and important. Not every family, sure. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Civilization is better than barbarism. This doesn’t mean barbarians are evil, or that they aren’t fun. But in the end, they’re… well, barbaric.

Strength, courage, honor, beauty, truth, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility are virtues. This can be demonstrated by showing people breaking the virtues. But they must be recognized as virtues.

There is hope. Superversive stories should never leave the reader feeling despair.

Cyberpunk is opposed to superversive fiction at every level. There are no heroes, only blackhearted characters either performing fell deeds or manipulating people into performing them. Love and beauty are either alien or transient, and functional families are unheard of. There is no hope of transcendence, except maybe as a ghost in a machine. The primary characters reject civilisation and its virtues, instead living by their own codes at the edge of society. Cyberpunk fiction rarely has happy endings, and those that do tend to be bittersweet or temporary.

Blend everything together and you have a recipe for darkness-induced audience apathy.

Meaningful conflict is the heart of drama. Readers need to empathise with characters. Actions should not entirely be in vain. Evil is punished, good prevails, civilisation endures or evolves. Without these elements, it becomes exceedingly hard for a reader to care. Why should a reader care about a self-destructive misanthropic loner who remains a self-destructive misanthropic loner? Why should a reader be concerned about the fate of an oppressive dystopia? Why should a reader cheer on a traitor, a liar or a murderer with no redeeming traits? With such societies and characters, it takes great skill to hook a reader and keep him invested in the story — a skill few cyberpunk writers, if any, have. Indeed, it is telling that the authors once associated with cyberpunk no longer write cyberpunk.

Is there room for superversive cyberpunk?

Probably not, but that’s what post-cyberpunk is for.

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Epitomised by works like Ghost in the Shell, post-cyberpunk draws upon the cyberpunk ethos and places its own spin on things. Shaped by the technological development and societal attitudes of the 21st century, post-cyberpunk represents an evolution of cyberpunk without necessarily retaining its nihilistic post-modern attitudes.

As Mike Pondsmith says, cyberpunk isn’t about the technology, but the feel. It’s the contrast of high tech and low life, of desperate struggles in the dark, of how people use and abuse technology. Even with this aesthetic there is room for superversion.

Ghost in the Shell (the anime and manga, NOT the live-action movie) features a secret police officer who protects a future Japan against terrorists and corrupt bureaucrats while exploring heavy philosophical themes. Psycho-Pass stars an idealistic police officer who struggles to retain her humanity as she defends a dystopian police state. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its sequel Mankind Divided features Adam Jensen, a former police officer and later counterterror agent who uncovers a conspiracy to rule the world. Watch_Dogs features hackers fighting a powerful megacorp and the omnipresent surveillance system it has created.

These stories are all called cyberpunk in the popular press. They certainly share the same ethos as older cyberpunk works. But instead of descending into the depths of nihilism, at the end of these stories their worlds are just a little better and brighter, and the characters emerge with their spirits tested but unbowed. Victories may be small, but they are meaningful to the characters and the story world.

Post-cyberpunk fiction can be bent to the ends of superversion without sacrificing the core aesthetic that defines it. In a dark, oppressive world, kindness and virtue shine brilliantly. Tsunemori Akane’s humanity and idealism stands in stark contrast to the inhumanity and utilitarianism of the Sibyl System. Adam Jensen can choose to spare every enemy he meets. By creating sharp contrasts of virtue and vice, humanity and alienation, idealism and cynicism, post-cyberpunk is able to unmask the heart of darkness while still making a stand for truth and beauty and justice.

Like cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk is still dark and gritty and dystopic. There is still plenty of chrome and tech, and there are no end of villains scheming in the night. But here, there is also room for hope. Ruthless megacorporations, politicians and criminals are held to account or punished for their misdeeds. Civilisation chugs along, and ordinary people are better able to live in peace. The Leviathan may not be slain, but you still retain your soul, and even an all-powerful state can be convinced to reform itself for the better. You may not be able to save humanity, but you can still save yourself and everyone else around you, and lay the foundations for a better tomorrow.

Post-cyberpunk may be as black as pitch, but the darkness accentuates the brilliance of a candle.

And the flame can be passed from candle to candle, fiction to consumer, heart to heart.


First image: Cyberpunk 2077 trailer
Second image: Psycho-pass anime poster

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.

Disney’s Gay LeFou is Tokenism

LeFou of Disney’s 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast is the lackey of Gaston, the main antagonist. By turning LeFou into a gay man for the 2017 live action adaptation, Disney has sunk ever deeper into the abyss of social justice. Through this act of mutilation, Disney has demonstrated its contempt for the original story. In recent years, Disney has been pushing the social justice agenda hard, producing film after film starring Strong Independent Female Protagonists Who Don’t Need Men. What makes LeFou’s distortion especially egregarious is that Disney’s attempt at virtue signalling is really tokenism.

Squandered Drama

The original novel was published in 1740. The Disney animated film shifted retained the setting of 18th century France. The live-action movie also keeps this setting. And 18th century France was cruel to gay men.

During the Ancien Regime, homosexuality (specifically, male sodomy) was punishable by death. The last gay men to be executed for sodomy were burned to death in 1750. Homosexuality was decriminalised only in 1791.

There was no mention of the French Revolution or the French Terror in the source material or the 1991 animated film. Thus, it’s safe to assume that the events of the story took place before the Revolution. By exploring his feelings for Gaston, Gay LeFou runs the risk of arrest, jail and execution.

Even if the story were set after the decriminalisation of sodomy, he would not be immune. New laws do not automatically lead to new social attitudes. Homosexuality was still widely seen as immoral and unnatural. If Gay LeFou were open about his feelings, he could be ostracised and run out of town. Everyone would spurn him, leaving only the company of the pederasts who frequented the public urinals and the molly houses where they pretended to be women.

This is not to say Gay LeFou is doubleplus ungood. Rather, by casting a gay man in 18th century France, Disney had the perfect set-up for drama, angst, and conflict.

And they squandered it.

The Most Interesting Man in the Room

The most interesting person in an area is the one who is most different from everybody else. In homogenous societies like 18th century France, minorities like gay men are the most interesting people around. They have to face legal repercussions, societal disapproval and disease just to be who they are. Gay LeFou would face enough drama and conflict for an entire movie all to himself.

But the story is not about Gay LeFou. It is about Belle and the Beast.

All things in a story must serve the story. A subplot about Gay LeFou finding his feelings adds nothing to the story. It will have no impact on the protagonists or their relationship; LeFou, both Gay and Regular versions, have exactly no influence over them. That makes the gay subplot a distraction at best, a time-waster at worst.

Disney claims there will be a happily ever after moment for LeFou. This flies in the face of historical fact. The gay subculture of mid-18th century France was marked with profligacy, prostitution, casual sex and group sex. Men in committed relationships with other men were despised — especially those with reputations for being debauchees.

A happily ever after for LeFou doesn’t do anything for the core story of Beauty and the Beast. How his life turns out has little to do with the main characters. As such, Gay LeFou’s story is just a sideshow, a sop to progressives, and nothing more.

By turning LeFou gay, Disney has injected modern liberal attitudes into a setting with vastly different values and attitudes. Through its focus on Belle and the Beast, Disney turned the spotlight away from the struggles Gay LeFou would realistically face in a believable 18th century France, bringing him out only to reaffirm that Gay Is Okay.

Disney’s first gay character is just a token, an object to be trotted out to signal to left-wingers that Disney shares their values, then quietly hidden away when it comes time to actually explore what it means to be gay in such a society. And yet Disney continues to be lauded for its progressive ideas.

In other words: tokenism is okay is progressives do it.

The Altar of SocJus

Gay LeFou isn’t the only indicator of social justice infection. Emma Watson, a self-proclaimed feminist, plays Belle. In the movie, Belle says, “I’m not a princess.”

This is a time and place when girls and women aspired to be treated with the grace, courtesy and respect accorded to princesses, and to receive the wealth and luxury the title implies. Further, in that time period, such a retort would indicate that a) Belle is a troublemaker who will not acknowledge the roles of women at that time, b) Belle disrespects the Beast’s servants, and by extension her host, and c) the Beast (who is a prince) has poor taste for choosing such a troublesome woman as a companion — which suggests his ability to judge people and make decisions is impaired. This, in turn, would lead the Beast’s servants to either ‘educate’ Belle on proper manners and/or convince the Beast to find a new companion.

Likewise, Belle wears a dress that conforms to modern fashion sensibilities, flying in the face of historical female fashions of the time that emphasise narrow, inverted conical torsos. The excuse is that Belle is a more active heroine than before. Which is nonsense — clothes do not define a character. As any good creator knows, having your character deal with clothing hang-ups at the most inconvenient of times is a prime source of comedy and tension. At the very least, everybody would look askance at Belle’s fashion sense and actions, and start whisper campaigns against her, forcing Belle to change her ways. At worst, the Beast would believe them and ditch her.

Again and again, the movie sacrifices verisimilitude on the altar of social justice. Instead of capturing the little details like the difficulty of wearing women’s dress of the period or the drama that arises from making social faux pas, Disney chooses the easy way of toting a token gay man and a feminist from out of time, and pretending the drama that should have occurred would not happen.

The live action film had so much potential. It could have been filled with the angst, drama, social sniping and prejudices that define an epic historic fantasy romance. Instead, Disney sacrificed it all to signal to progressives that they, too, hold modern ideas.

Such a poor prize for such a grand price.

The disease of virtue-signalling must be fought wherever it appears in fiction. It robs stories of their full potential, turning them from potential epics to hollow tales, just so that the creator can say, “Look at me! I believe in SocJus too!” Creators like these are not interested in fiction. They are only interested in ramming their ideas down your throat.

Sources:

Still: Beauty and the Beast, 1991, first sourced from Disneyfied or Disney Tried

From Twickenham to Turkey: Eighteenth-Century Gay Subcultures in Europe, America and Australia

Gay subcultures in eighteenth century Europe

The Sodomite Becomes a Molly

1700-1750 in Western fashion

Emma Watson’s Belle ditches the corset and princess title in ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Beauty and the Beast Director on His Decision to Make LeFou Gay: ‘In a Very Disney Way, We Are Including Everybody’

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

‘Gritty’ and ‘Realistic’ SFF Isn’t

Today it is all the rage to label a specific brand of modern science fiction and fantasy as ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’. Championed by writers like Joe Abercrombie and George R R Martin, these stories star villain protagonists and antiheroes, oceans of blood, torture and treachery, and all manner of depredations. Every time such a dark story is published, critics declare them as masterpieces of gritty, brutal realism.

I don’t know about those critics, but such stories don’t match my experience of ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’.

I grew up reading thrillers. The first time I encountered ‘realistic’, it signalled an impeccably researched story. Every important detail—tactics to terminology, dialogue to descriptions—reflected reality. ‘Gritty’ stories starred indomitable heroes who confronted overwhelming odds with charm, intelligence and firepower. Through force of will they overcame obstacles, identified and neutralised villains, and achieved their goals. The protagonists weren’t perfect, and many of them were not good people, but they held fast to their own code of honour. They might be hardened street predators, but even they had standards. Barry Eisler’s John Rain would never hurt a child, while Andrew Vachss’ Burke took one step further by punishing those who preyed on children. These protagonists demonstrated grit in story worlds that reflected reality.

The SFF Establishment has no idea what ‘grit’ and ‘realism’ really mean.

What is Gritty?


Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean…

The Oxford English Dictionary defines gritty in this context as:

  • Showing courage and resolve
  • Showing something unpleasant as it really is; uncompromising

The difference seems simple: the thrillers I read used the first definition while dark SFF insists on the second. And yet this is not so.

The thrillers of my youth weren’t about pleasant things. Vachss’ stories had unflinching portrayals of child abuse, murder-for-hire, gang life, sexual assault and more. Dennis Lehane had stories about murderers, mobsters, kidnappers and other monsters in human skin. These and other stories dive into the darkness that dwells in the hearts of men and rip off the gilt to reveal the maggots squirming underneath. Yet they also show courageous and resolute protagonists who are willing to confront these villains and bring them to justice.

In the dark SFF style championed by Abercrombie and Martin, we only see the unpleasantness. A Song of Ice and Fire is marked by murder, betrayal, rape, intrigue, incest, rape, atrocities, war and of course, rape. SFF books in a similar vein feature unsympathetic protagonists with no redeeming traits, wanton cruelty and sadism, and temporary or hollow victories by the more sympathetic characters—if they indeed secure victories at all.

While the real world is unpleasant and unforgiving, these ‘gritty’ SFF works overexaggerate this bleakness to the point where the discerning reader cannot but disbelieve the stories. If the protagonists are cruel and sadistic murderers, why would everybody else still permit them to live and walk freely? Better to kill them before they cause more harm. If churches serve no purpose except as dens of iniquity and intrigue, why do they still exist? They certainly aren’t elevating humanity and have no positive impact on the story world, so people would not tolerate their existence. If oathbreakers and monsters consistently seize and maintain power, why has civilisation not already fallen into a barbaric free-for-all? This is the final fate of societies shattered by the weight of the Kali Yuga or the Twilight of the Gods, where brother turns on brother and all makes war on all.
A gritty work is harsh and uncompromising. It does not blow up the evils of the world well out of proportion. Writing must reflect the truth of the world to maintain verisimilitude. Allegedly ‘gritty’ SFF does not.

What is Realistic?


Man has two selves

The key part of ‘realistic’ is ‘real’. A realistic story must reflect reality. On the surface it simply means that the story must be well-researched. In my view, though, it is merely a basic requirement. Thrillers and SFF may be different genres, but the best examples of both fields have at least one thing in common: believable characters. And characters can only be believable through accurate portrayals of human nature.

Everybody knows the darkness of the human heart. Open a newspaper and you will see terrorist atrocities, gangland wars, murderers, child abuse and lying politicians in abundance. Evil lurks everywhere in the world. Humans can be beastly, cowardly, bloodthirsty, vicious and covetous creatures. This is reality.

Yet humans can also be noble. Churches have sponsored universities and hospitals, opposed tyrants and freed slaves, and propagated virtues and values. Ultra-rich people give away millions or billions of dollars every year to charitable causes. Strangers have banded together to help people in need. Troops and civilians demonstrate valour on and off the battlefields of the world. This, too, is reality.

Every man has two aspects. One is craven, power-seeking, vengeful, petty, and self-centred. The other is selfless, kind, virtuous, determined and undefeatable. A truly realistic work would reflect both sides of human nature. ‘Realistic’ SFF works shun this holistic approach, seeking only to amplify the former.

This approach does not make for good fiction. Readers need a reason to invest themselves in stories and characters. They must see themselves in the stories, or better yet, the people they aspire to become. Readers have no reason to care about story universes filled with nihilistic bloodshed and unsympathetic villain protagonists. They do care about characters who face struggles that resonate with the readers.

John Rain is a stone-cold hitman, but his conscience haunts him and he tries to redeem himself throughout the series. Burke is a career criminal, but he is loyal to his family of choice and targets monsters even worse than him. In their own way, these men embody honour and ethics in worlds that reject such values. They represent both the best and the worst of humanity, resonating with readers who live in the light and want to peer into the darkness. Contrast this with blackguards and torturers who revel in death and destruction, so far removed from conventional norms of good and evil that they have no common frame of reference with regular people. Readers have no ability to sympathise with such characters, and no reason to. If such people are the protagonists, it becomes very difficult for most readers to invest themselves in the story.

Make SFF Great Again


First the Hugos, and then, the industry!

I don’t understand why the purveyors of dark, dim fiction are pleased to call these stories ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’. I wonder if they truly understand the meaning of the words they use, if their experience of reality is so small that they have experienced only corruption and depravity, or if they are simply projecting their beliefs about reality into fiction.

They are sad benighted souls who praise only the dark side of man and cannot or will not acknowledge the light. They flee from the brilliant splendour of creation for the nihilistic emptiness of unending atrocities. It is as if they dwell in the dark alien chambers beyond space and time where they spend their days playing accused flutes and vile drums to the nameless blasphemous bubbling nuclear chaos at the heart of nothingness.

Grit and realism means more than just stark portrayals of evil. It also acknowledges the bright side of human nature. The great SFF works of the past understood and explored cravenness and courage, villainy and heroism, good and evil. Thrillers today still do. Now is the time to study the lessons of these stories and make SFF great again.


Photo credits:

Sam Spade: The Maltese Falcon
Drama masks: Pixabay
Rabid Puppies 2016 logo: Vox Day

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

Why Singapore Literature Turns Me Off

Once again, the arts community is promoting Singapore literature through social media and the mainstream media. The latest initiative is #BuySingLit, billed as “an industry-led movement to celebrate stories from Singapore”.

Once again, the news turns me off SingLit.

A History of Disappointment

As a child I was a voracious reader. I read every book I got my hands on, no matter the subject. I inhaled encyclopedias, fairy tales, the Norse epics, Greek and Roman mythology, world folklore, comics, and so many more stories. In the mornings I would read about hobgoblins and dragons, in the afternoons I studied atomic theory and photography, in the evenings I followed the exploits of supersoldiers and scientists.

At the age of 12 I grew conscious of Singapore literature and the classics, and began to seek them out. Catherine Lim, Gopal Baratham, Goh Poh Seng, Russell Lee, Wena Poon, Joanne Hon and other less-famous writers. Always I compared them to the other stories I’ve read, and found them wanting.

My synesthesia won’t allow me to read books. Instead, I experience them.

Ernest Hemingway’s prose is lean and taut and muscular, demanding a hundred percent of your attention. Michael Connelly’s stories are as black as a murderer’s heart and as slick as ice. Tom Clancy alternates ponderous white slabs with blazing crimson streaks. J. K. Rowling began as smooth caramel, but her later works transformed into dark coffee shot through with green and gold. J. R. R. Tolkien seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, stretches out into lush green vistas and soaring grey mountains. John C. Wright ignites fireworks with his words, blending them together into gold and bronze and violet and emerald on every page.

Compared to all that, every Singaporean writer produces thin mist of pale shades. Some are white, some are yellow, some are brown. Occasionally the mist parts to reveal black-on-white shapes as shallow as the ink that produce them. Other writers make the mist so thick and sticky and dry it feels like wading through a hail of glue drops frozen in the air. These stories are plain, staid, prosaic, illogical, shallow, boring, unreadable — and nearly interchangeable.

Singaporean genre fiction consistently ranks the lowest among the books I have read. Star Sapphire by Joan Hon is a romance story thinly veiled as science fiction, and not a particularly memorable one at that. The Singapore Noir anthology is bleakly bland while Best of Singapore Erotica fails to titillate. Douglas Chua and Barry Chen claim to write thrillers, but I have found their stories more useful as reusable sleeping aids. Only two writers caught my eye: Johann S. Lee, whose writing is competent but unremarkable (and I don’t swing towards gay male romance stories), and Neil Humphreys (who was born in England), specifically his thrillers.

The majority of Singapore’s prose output is high-brow literature, and even that fails the test. Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun promises a spy story focusing on a radical Christian sect, but all that stands out is that the protagonist seemed very concerned over whether he (and his manager) was gay — and that the secret police seemed pointlessly sadistic and otherwise inefficient. Lions in Winter by Wena Poon has multiple scenes that possessed neither a story arc nor relatable characters, yet claimed to be stories. Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore by Catherine Lim is little more than dry sepia. Held against the starkness of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the hidden depths of Road Dahl or the dark absurdity of Jean-Paul Sartre, these stories were limp and colourless.

Even so, I tried to participate in Singapore’s literary circles. I joined writers’ groups — and left soon after. I paid to attend workshops and classes — and learned nothing. I joined writers’ events and seminars — and all I found was navel-gazing, bloviating and boredom.

Everything But Writing

The chief problem as I see it is that the Singapore writing scene is about everything but writing.

Every writers’ group I have joined were for hobbyists. They brought together like-minded people to talk about their own writing, encourage them to write and participate in writing activities. This isn’t wrong per se, but I am not a hobbyist. I aim to be a professional. Professionals delve deep into craft and examine the state of the industry. These groups did not.

Programmes at writers’ events do not build up writers. #BuySingLit‘s events have art displays, treasure hunts and book tours. Only a handful of workshops are geared towards writing — and even those workshops are foundation-level courses. The same holds true for Singapore’s premier writing event, the Singapore Writers Festival. SWF has film screenings, music, history, panel discussions — anything and everything about the writers’ craft, or, indeed, writing. Contrast this to events like Dragoncon or Thrillfest, which teach more about the art, craft and business of writing in three days than SWF does in a month. The instructors at Dragoncon and Thrillfest go into the kind of detail that is sorely lacking in Singapore. I don’t have anything against the non-writing oriented events in local writing events, but one would think that the events, being about writing, would at least focus on the core audience and try to do more than teach beginner-level writing craft.

Singaporean publishers are only interested in a specific type of literature: stories about Singapore culture set in Singapore aimed at a Singaporean audience and foreigners who enjoy reading about Singapore. Writers who do not fit the mold will not find much support from the industry. While publishers are free to pursue whatever business model they like, people like me, a Hugo Award nominated science fiction and fantasy writer who will not limit his stories to Singapore, will have to look elsewhere. Likewise, Singapore’s mainstream media tends to focus on Singaporean writers who have either published through the usual publishing houses, or who are too big and controversial to ignore.

Add them all up, and what you have is a culture that encourages newbies to write and people to feel good. Not a culture that encourages people to sustain their writing or to further hone their craft. The only goal is producing a novel, anthology, poetry collection or whatever, not about living journey about pursuing a career at writing or the art of the written word. When someone publishes a work, the usual cry of “Support local talent!” echoes in the usual circles, without anyone paying heed to the actual quality of the content. Indeed, a couple of the stories and writers I mentioned above were award winners — and the award-winners of today aren’t better.

No Country for Writers?

Sturgeon’s Law states that ninety percent of anything is crud. In Singapore’s case, there aren’t enough writers to have a statistically significant ten percent of non-crud stories.

I intend to change that.

I’ve been writing fiction since I was 12 years old. My published fiction writing career spans 4 years. Later this year, I will publish at least one novel through Castalia House and one short story through Silver Empire’s [Lyonesse] (http://lyonesse.silverempire.org/) programme. I am already working on a bunch of other stories, which will be revealed in due course. If Singapore is no country for writers like me, then I will find other avenues to publish my works.

I will also be passing on the tricks of the trade. It’s been a long time coming, and now I feel ready to give back to the wider community of writers. Expect more posts zooming in on the way of the pen.

Fundamentally, I don’t care whether stories, especially mine, can be labelled SingLit or not. I care about good writing, wherever they may come from. Since my country continues to disappoint me, I will reach out to a wider audience.

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.