Amos Yee and the Freedom to Offend

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Yesterday 18-year-old Singaporean Amos Yee was granted asylum in the United States, throwing a spotlight on freedom of speech in Singapore. Judge Samuel Cole called him a “young political dissident”, and the ruling claimed that Yee has a “suffered past persecution” and has a “well-founded fear of future persecution”. Yee has been jailed twice, once in July 2015 and again in September 2017.

A victory for freedom of speech?

Maybe, but it’s a hollow victory indeed.

Yee has spoken no hard truths, fomented no revolutions and started no grassroots movements. He has created no groundbreaking works of art or philosophy or politics, nor has he revealed any government or corporate malfeasance. He has run for no political party and has contributed not one iota to the development of Singapore’s civil society.

Yee is merely a shock jock.

In 2015, Yee released an expletive-filled video praising the death of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, calling him a ‘totalitarian’ and comparing him unfavourably to Jesus and Mao Zedong.

The government opened investigations into Yee and detained him for 53 days. A family and youth counsellor, Vincent Law, bailed Yee. On May 13 Yee demonstrated his gratitude by falsely accusing Law of molest on Facebook. Yee then claimed he would be present at Bukit Panjang MRT station to speak to the media. The media swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, and Yee didn’t show up. The following day, he posted another expletive-laden Facebook post laughing at the media, boasting about how he had trolled them.

In 2017, Yee produced and uploaded a picture and two profanity-filled videos insulting Muslims and Christians. Once again, he was arrested, this time for ‘wounding religious feelings’. He was further fined $2000 for failing to show up at a police station twice to give his statement.

Amos Yee is no hero. He has not furthered the cause of democracy and freedom, nor has he contributed meaningfully to society. He is no free thinker or dissident, only an attention-seeking teenager whose only talent lies in offensive speech.

But freedom of speech means the freedom to offend. Wounding ‘feelings’ is no reason to arrest and jail people; down that path lies ritualised self-criticism, the gulags and the killing fields. People like Yee are canaries in the coal mine: when the government squashes the canary it’s a sign that freedom of speech is under fire. If people approve of shock jocks being arrested for spurious reasons, the government will be encouraged to crack down on people with legitimate arguments and different points of view. Free speech must be for everyone, or it applies to no one.

With that said, I don’t see Yee making the most of his second chance.

Yee claims he is now an ‘anarchist communist’ who believes in feminism. He has a known history of turning on people who want to help him, displaying callous disregard for anyone whom he hurts, employing vulgarities in place of cogent argument, and generating content that rely on offensiveness instead of rational thought. When the going gets tough and he’s in trouble, he has no qualms about compromising his principles to save his skin. Anarchist communism calls for abolition of private property, capitalism and the state; but he relied on a state organ to grant him safety, and when he was held in America, he asked for people to give him money to cover his costs instead of doing stuff for him like a proper anarcho-communist. He also claims that he supports free speech but like all good social justice warriors he has no problem with media platforms taking down ‘anti-feminist’ speech.

Yee is an arch-SJW who has doubled down and continues to double down. If Yee won’t change his ways — and I don’t see that happening anytime soon — he’s not going to amount to much.

What about the impact on Singapore?

Singaporean politician Kenneth Jeyaratnam claims that the ruling “may create waves in Singapore. It may show Singaporeans that there’s nothing to be afraid about. The Singapore government is a paper tiger. We don’t have to swallow the brainwashing that is constantly put out.”

Jeyaratnam sure is optimistic. The government has not softened its stance on Yee or hate speech. The police has not signaled any shift in policy, overtly or otherwise. Opposition politicians have not argued for liberalisation of Singapore’s laws on hate speech nor proposed new free speech laws in Parliament. Political bloggers are still free to say what they want, within the blurry boundaries of the law. Citizens still won’t know what are the limits of the law until someone like Yee tests it and is slapped down. Nothing has changed.

Save for one thing.

Amos Yee is America’s problem now.

Image from Yee’s Facebook page

Behind the Story: WE BURY OUR OWN

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Writing stories is a gruelling experience. Mostly it’s like mining: you show up, you punch away at the keyboard, and you keep at it until the task is done. Sometimes it’s like squeezing blood from a stone, and most of the blood will be yours. And sometimes, the words flow unceasingly from a source higher and deeper and truer than anything the naked eye can perceive.

We Bury Our Own is most definitely the last.

The genesis of the story was an odd one. In late 2015 I stumbled across a strange manga:Shuumatsu no Maristella. It was the most surreal manga I had ever seen. It featured soldier girls with assault rifles sworn to the church who take drugs to spawn angel wings to fight sea creatures spawned from the information sea and copulating with certain monsters to produce valuable materials, in an attempt to retake the world.

I’m probably understating the craziness of the whole affair; that’s how strange it was.

But it stuck.

It bounced around my head, merged with my martial arts training, the omnipresent Mist of Final Fantasy IX and the monsters of the entire franchise, the Kabballah and other concepts. From there came the spark of an idea.

But inspiration alone isn’t enough, of course. The first time I tried writing a story based on those ideas, nothing came of then. There was too much Shuumatsu no Maristella, too little of myself.

Then came the 2016 Baen Fantasy Award I started pondering the possibilities. Baen wanted heroic fantasy. Tales of warriors solving problems with weapons or wits. Not boring allegories, talky political drama, angst or any draggy stuff. It was right up my alley. And I had a concept ready for it.

I tore down the old story. Re-examined every assumption, every concept, every pillar of the story. Created an overarching storyline, characters, concepts, settings, and more. There was enough material in there for a novel, maybe a series. And from there I fished out just enough for a short story, a snapshot of life in the Order of Saint Joshua.

Thus was born We Bury Our Own.

It was unlike anything I had written to date. It was a story of pride and consequences. Of men who tried to be like gods and fell prey to their hubris. It was about men with unusual powers, seen as angels and monsters, who had to venture into the all-corrupting mists of the world and wield the powers of creation to save humanity without falling prey to the mist. It was nothing more and nothing less than a battle between an angel who saw himself a men and a man who saw himself an angel.

Or, in simpler terms: a story about sci fi battle angels armed with blasters and swords versus mist monsters spawned from thought.

Writing it was…strange. It was as though my consciousness had stepped back, letting something else, something greater, take over the keys. I only had the barest inkling of a plot and characters, yet as I went along I saw the story take shape before my eyes. In the prose I saw bands of gold and gray, streaks of steel and silver, thunderbolts turned solid and swords fading into mist.

Normally I would discuss the hows and whys of writing this story but I don’t think there was much of ‘me’ writing it. Not this time. I only made a few conscious decisions: incorporating sword and gun, how the world was set up, how the characters were seen and what defined them. Everything else…

Call it God, intuition, the muses, whatever, but I got out of its way and let it do the writing. The resulting story was unlike anything I had ever done before. But it felt right. It was clean. Beyond a few edits for typos, no further changes were needed. When I sent it in to my writer’s group, there was nothing but praise.

When I sent it to Baen, I received new response. Then I sent it to Silver Empire’s Lyonesse project.

And it was accepted.

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Lyonesse went online three days ago. For the price of a single ebook, Lyonesse will release one science fiction or fantasy story a week for a year. It’s practically a steal — and if you’re a writer, Lyonesse is still looking for fresh material.

When I read We Bury Our Own again, I did so with fear and trembling. Never before had people praised my work so highly. By publishing it I had set a new benchmark for myself. A new standard I had to meet and surpass. I don’t know if I can ever do it, but I have to try: in this business you’re only as good as your last remembered work.

And yet…

Everything about the story was different from what I had previously done. The themes, the abstract concepts, the vocabulary, the aesthetics, even the cadence of the dialogue and narration. It’s so vastly different that I don’t know if I could do it again, much less replicate it if I ever revisit the universe.

And yet…

In this business you’re only as good as your last remembered work. You cannot settle for being good enough, for being mediocre, for plateauing out. You have to keep getting better. It’s the only way to master the craft and stand out from a market deluged with self-published wannabes and pretentious pseudo-literary message fic. You have to be the best you can be, and I know that I’m nowhere near there yet.

If there is one lesson I need to learn from this story, it’s that I shouldn’t think too much. I found that after a certain point, when the worldbuilding is settled and the characters understood, rational thought gets in the way. Thinking through every tiny detail becomes a waste of time and energy. I just need to show up, set my conscious mind aside, and write.

Time to see how that works out.

Artwork by Andy Duggan

Lyonesse picture by Silver Empire

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.

Movie Review: A Silent Voice

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The anime Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice) is an excellent movie marred by flawed execution. At its heart, Koe no Katachi is a story about redemption, friendship and overcoming social anxiety, covering childhood bullying, suicide and the psychic scars of isolation and ostracism. The anime makes excellent use of its heavy subject matter, creating a realistic and entertaining character study.

But only of the protagonist.

The Sole Driver

The story focuses on Ishida Shoya, a former delinquent trying to do good. When he was in elementary school, Nishimiya Shoko transferred into his class. Nishimiya is deaf, relying on hearing aids and communicating mainly through written notes on her notebook or through sign language. While she can speak, she is unable to properly articulate her words. Her mannerisms lead Ishida to pick on her, causing the rest of the class to join in.

Until one day, he goes too far.

In an instant, the entire class turns on him. Nishimiya transfers out. Nishimiya’s deeds haunt him through the rest of his days in elementary school. Guilt and regret set in, festering into crippling social anxiety. In high school, Ishida is unable to even look at most people, picturing a ‘X’ in place of their faces.

With no plans and no hope for the future, Ishida contemplates suicide. But one day, he meets Nishimiya again, discovering that she attends the same high school. Ishida reaches out to her, and begins his long journey to acceptance, recovery and redemption.

The anime’s critical weakness lies in having too many characters. Nearly named character from the manga appears in the anime. This leaves very little screen time for all of them. While a manga has the capacity to fully explore the minds and actions of supporting characters in depth, the two-hour anime adaptation can only do so much. The anime elects to focus on Ishida’s struggles to face his past, understand the meaning of ‘friendship’, and fight through the mental block that isolates him from everyone else. While it was masterfully done, it came at the cost of character development for everyone else.

Every supporting character is defined by their deeds and personalities, and remain static for much of the film. Aside from Ishida, only Nishimiya Shoko and Yuzuru enjoy character growth — the former by being more willing to interact with others, the latter by growing friendlier and less sullen.

While everybody has believable personas and act entirely in line with their core beliefs and attitudes, the secondary characters exist mainly as a means to reflect Ishida’s progress in becoming more sociable. Indeed, characters like Mashiba Satoshi and Nishimiya Ito barely have spoken lines and almost no influence on the plot. Further, at times in the anime I found it difficult to understand why some characters did the things they do; only in the manga are these motivations revealed, such as why Ueno Naoka began bullying Nishimiya, why Yuzuru takes so many photographs, or why Mashiba joins in Ishida’s social group.

It is inevitable for lengthy manga to suffer major cuts when adapted to the big screen, but at least in Koe no Katachi, the core ideas and story remain intact. It is a testimony to the studio that they managed to deliver a powerful anime in spite of eliminating major story arcs and being forced to work with many shallow characters.

Almost-Amazing Cinematography

The major flaw of the anime is its cinematography. To be sure, Koe no Katachi has excellent visuals. Every scene is stylishly depicted, combining traditional anime iconography with beautiful background scenery and fluid motions. The art direction and soundtrack shifts at key moments, driving home Ishida’s mental and emotional state.

However, those key moments are also interrupted by flashbacks and surreal sequences. This is especially jarring in the opening segments of the anime, covering Ishida’s elementary school and early high school days. These shots distract from the main event instead of adding to it, making it more difficult to keep track of events and characters and muting the overall emotional impact of these scenes. The flashbacks could be cut from the anime without loss to the story — and should have been, to retain its overall coherence.

Final Thoughts

Koe no Katachi is a beautiful coming-of-age tale of friendship and redemption — but poor cinematographic techniques undo the key scenes. It stars realistically-portrayed characters suffering from deep psychic stories and personal failings — though the secondary characters are all static. Koe no Katachi is a few steps short of being a genuine masterpiece, but it is nonetheless an amazing story in its own right.

Photo credits:

Anime poster from Wikipedia

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

Martial Concepts: Principles of Footwork

When people think martial arts, they think of stunning strikes, intricate grappling and dynamic takedowns. Footwork is underappreciated in pop culture. But footwork makes these techniques work.

In some martial arts and sports, such as boxing and Muay Thai, it may be advantageous to absorb blows to less vital parts of the body in exchange for setting up a decisive blow. This is Rocky Balboa’s favourite strategy, letting his opponents wear themselves out and setting up opportunities to counterpunch. You can see this in his immortal fight against Ivan Drago.

In Filipino martial arts, when faced with an incoming blow, the preferred approach is to get out of the way. To understand why, simply replace Drago’s gloves with knives.

You can be as tough as Rocky, but mere flesh and bone isn’t going to stop steel and hardwood.

FMA originates from a weapon-based culture. The main assumption is that everyone is either armed or has ready access to a weapon. There is no way you can block a blade or stick with your body. You’ll just end up a bleeding, broken mess. Even if you don’t see a weapon, it doesn’t mean that the threat doesn’t have one—in the dark, against a small blade, you can’t tell if the threat is armed until your lifeblood gushes out on the floor.

You cannot afford to take a hit in FMA. The surest defence is to evade.

This is the guiding principle behind footwork. But it’s not the only reason to train footwork.

Footwork and Range

To understand footwork, we need to first understand range. There are three main ranges in Pekiti Tirsia Kali, my base art: largo, medio and corto. They are analogous to long, medium and short range.

At largo, you and your opponent are out of range. Neither of you can attack each other. Footwork in largo serves three purposes: place yourself in an advantageous position, bridge the distance and strike, or to escape before he and his buddies catch up to you.

In medio, you and your opponent can strike each other. This is the most dangerous zone in FMA. Assuming the two of you are equally skilled, there are three outcomes: you hit him, he hits you, or a mutual kill. Two out of three outcomes against your survival is not a winning proposition. In PTK, footwork at medio is designed to take you out of the danger zone: either out into largo, or deep into corto.

Corto is bad breath range. This is the realm of grapples, elbows and knees. PTK specialises In combat at this range: its name loosely translates into ‘chop up into little pieces’. In PTK, the goal of offensive footwork is to carry you safely into this position to finish off the threat. If the opponent resists you more effectively than you realise, or if he has friends coming to his rescue, footwork also takes you out of corto and into safety.

Footwork lets you control the range to your opponent to suit your goal. If your goal is to escape, you want to maintain distance at largo, identify a clear escape route, and run. If he tries to catch up, footwork helps you evade.

If your goal is to finish the threat, footwork places you in prime position to launch your attack. It puts you at the range and angle to employ your favourite techniques without exposing you to the enemy’s.

Against multiple opponents, mobility is critical. You cannot afford to slug it out with one guy. His buddies will flank you, slam you to the floor, and introduce you to the joys of a boot party. You need to keep moving to avoid being swarmed. This allows you to either exploit an opening to escape, or to maneuver yourself so that the threats get in each other’s way, allowing you to engage just one at a time.

Footwork and Angles

The second component of footwork is angles. Different styles have different approaches to controlling range and angles. FMA players use the analogy of a clock to describe angles of attack and movement. You can see this in the picture below.

You are the blue circle. The threat is the red oval. The lines indicate possible angles of movement. In front of you is 12 o’clock, where the threat is. He is in medio, advancing to strike you. As mentioned earlier, there are only three outcomes, and only one will go your way. You must get off the X and turn the situation around. There are four ways to do it.

The first method is to close in with a diagonal forward step. You step off on the 10 or 2 o’clock line, about 45 degrees off the line of attack. Other styles prefer the 11 or 1 o’clock, or 30 degrees. Combine this footwork with a turn towards the opponent. This places you on his flank. When the enemy sees you vanish from his 12, he needs to reorient towards you, buying you a precious moment to escape or to strike.

This is the preferred approach of PTK. PTK is an offensive-oriented art. This step places you in corto, giving you easy access to the threat’s head, throat, arms, side and legs. From here you can employ elbows, knees, stomps, traps, whatever you like. Other styles go one step deeper, circling around the threat to gain his back. From here, you can do whatever you like to him without fear of retaliation.

The second method is to step off with a diagonal rearward step (or leap). You move back on the 7 or 5 o’clock line (or 8 and 4), taking you to largo. This is not a permanent solution: a person can advance three times faster than he can move backwards. If you keep retreating like this the enemy will catch up and overwhelm you. This is a desperation move, to be employed only when you are surprised.

There are two main reasons to do this in PTK. The first is to buy you time and space to turn and run. The second is to stage a counterattack. For the latter, as you move, you take a piece of the enemy by striking at his hands while moving your body (and vital organs) out of the way. Then, with the enemy weakened, you can close into corto for the finish.

The third method is to sidestep to the 3 or 9 o’clock. This maintains the range between the two of you, but it puts you on his flank. If you have a long weapon like a stick or a staff, this lets you employ the weapon’s reach to the fullest; had you moved to corto, you would either have to give up the weapon’s advantages or employ different techniques. Further, if the opponent is bull-rushing you, this sidestep uses his momentum against him, either by giving you an opportunity to strike him before he can turn towards you, or to let him give his back to you.

The last method is the most dangerous: you move along the 12 or 6 o’clock line. You are still on the enemy’s angle of attack. But this may be your only option if you are attacked in a train, a bus or some other location where you have no room to maneuver.
If you go down the 12 o’clock, you are countercharging into corto range. This is the realm of clinches, infighting and takedowns. Once inside, there is little art here, just single-minded aggression and a desperate fury of elbows and knees, chokes and strangles, throws and takedowns. As the enemy can also do the same to you, you need to finish him off before he recovers–especially if he has a weapon.

Down the 6 o’clock, you encounter the same perils as the backward diagonal, with the added disadvantage of still being in the line of fire. Committing to retreating on the 6 o’clock is viable only if you are going to turn and run. If not, you need to use this move to set up a counterattack. When the enemy attacks, he is opening a line to his body. What you want to do is to step out into largo (ideally striking his hand), then counterstrike along the open line before he puts his guard back up. High-level players don’t even step; they just subtly sway or shift their bodies, just enough to take the target out of range, then lunge in on the counter. Floro Fighting Systems specialises in this method of countering a threat.

Notice how the players subtly sway and step back as the attack comes in, then immediately counter along the exposed line. This requires a superior sense of range and timing to pull off—but highly effective when done right.

Footwork and Fighting

Moving isn’t just about getting to safety: it powers your attack. Since you’re already burning all the calories to move your body, you might as well drive your bodyweight into the threat too.

FMA torques the hips to generate power. After completing a technique, the player is in a position that allows him to twist his hips and launch into another attack, which places him in a new position to strike yet again. This synergy is the basis of kali’s famous flow principle

For example, assume a threat is throwing a straight right punch. A kali player might crash in on the 10 o’clock line, slapping down the extended arm with his left hand and jabbing at the eyes with his right. As he retracts his right arm, he snatches the target’s arm and pulls it down. This clears the way for a left cross, a right uppercut and another left cross. Four blows in three seconds or less.

Different martial artists will have different responses. A silat player may step off-line on the 11 o’clock line and follow through with an ankle stomp, and if that doesn’t finish the job, he can whip around into a groin slap, then grip and rip. A boxer might slip the punch and shovel hook the threat’s side, then continue swarming him with punches. A judoka could attempt a throw, a Brazilian jiujitsu player might go for a takedown and a submission. But they all have one thing in common: they move off the line of attack, then use their new position to recapture the initiative.

Different styles have different methods of generating power through movement. Find the techniques that suit your body and personality best and see how your footwork can accelerate these techniques. Then drill incessantly to ingrain them.

Final Thoughts

Footwork is critical. For martial artists, proper footwork takes you out of danger and places the threat at risk of your most effective moves. For fiction creators, understanding footwork lets you choreograph exciting, dynamic fight scenes a cut above bog-standard Hollywood brawling. For gamers, proper footwork means you won’t bleed so much, especially in action RPGs.

Martial arts is about doing to the enemy without him doing the same to you. Footwork is how yo do this. If you are a martial artist – get on the mat and train.

Racism Is Not Hurt Feelings

If Social Justice Warriors are to be believed, we live in the most racist period of human history. Racists are everywhere: in school, in church, in government. The only way to deal with them is to point your fingers and shriek. And to an SJW, there is a simple test for racism: if you are offended, it is racist.

Mothership.sg ran an article detailing the ‘everyday racism’ an Indian girl, Chandralekha, described in her blog. She is a student at the Business School of the National University of Singapore, and claimed that she she experienced so much racism she broke down into tears. I went to her blog expecting stories of discrimination, bullying and violence.

What I got was the usual litany of SocJus complaints.

Racism is Everywhere!

Her first complaint came from orientation:

We had a lot of games and for some reason, it required everyone to say some “phrases” in Mandarin. I can’t speak Mandarin >because I have never learnt it. I struggled to remember the phrases and say it properly. But I tried my best. Having noticed >this, my group’s leader came up to me and asked me how come I didn’t know Chinese? I was taken aback because no one has >asked me that before. Like it was an expectation. Everyone in Singapore is supposed to know. I told him that I didn’t take >Chinese in school. He got very confused. If the question that he had already asked wasn’t bad enough, he then asked me if I >was a Singaporean and if I was born in Singapore. That was a slap on my face. My nationality was questioned because I didn’t >speak Chinese. Wow. It was just plain ignorance. I can’t remember what I said after that or if I even said anything at all. I was >just stunned. Since primary school, I have been on the receiving end of Appunehneh jokes and jokes on my skin colour. It >doesn’t help that you’re a girl and that too a fat one. I had foolishly hoped that when I go to university, it would all stop >because people would be less ignorant. I realized that it had just taken another form.”

I’ve been asked similar questions my entire life. I have been asked if I were American, Australian, British, Taiwanese, a Chinese national, a Hong Konger, Korean, a New Zealander, a Eurasian or half-Indian half-Chinese. (The answer is no.) I don’t speak with a Singaporean accent and I don’t speak Singlish. My voice and appearance throws off a lot of people. It is annoying to field the same questions over and over and over again, but these questions indicate that the questioner wants to know more about you.

The alternative is that they don’t care about you and don’t want to learn more about you. Or are too afraid to be called racists for asking.

Yes, the group leader in question was insensitive and ignorant. But these are not sins equivalent to racism. He did not insult her, attack her, exclude her from activities, or shun her. All he did was say something stupid. It was an opportunity for Chandralekha to correct his misconceptions, but she chose to feel offended and justify it by calling him racist.

Her next complaint goes:

During breaks, I would sometimes join my classmates but they would often speak in Mandarin and I would just not >understand. I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they did not know that I did not understand Mandarin. One day, during >a class on cross cultural communication, I shared my experience in NUS Business School where sometimes people leave me >out in conversations by speaking in Mandarin. Following that public confession, it just never happened to me again. Maybe it >was my fault that I did not tell them the first time they did it. Wait, I think I did. They probably thought that I was just joking. >But this is what makes it difficult. You would have to forever be explaining and earning your rights. It would just never come >easy.

I’ve been in groups where I’m in the linguistic minority. I’ve been in groups where Malays speak Malays to each other, Indians interacting in Tamil, Chinese speaking in dialects. It doesn’t bother me because I am not the subject of the conversation. They’re not speaking to exclude anyone; they’re just using a language both parties are familiar with. It is the height of selfishness to assume that you must be part of every conversation whenever you’re in a group, even if it’s about topics that aren’t relevant to you. Singaporean etiquette is to always use English when talking to someone who doesn’t speak your mother tongue, unless you know the other party shares the same language as you. Since everyone around the writer spoke English after she made her preferences known, they aren’t being deliberately racist.

Racism is only involved if people are deliberately shunning minorities using language, and even then, they wouldn’t just insist on a different tongue: they would turn away from the person, close the circle, look only at each other and never engage the person being excluded. People don’t exclude others simply by using a different language. They will demonstrate a cluster of behaviours, from subtle body language to outright requests for the ostracised person to leave. The writer has provided no descriptions of their body language. If these groups did not do any of this, then they aren’t being racist — the people are likely just having separate conversations while she is in the vicinity.

If you want people to know where you are coming from, you have to tell them. Humans are not telepaths. They won’t know what you are thinking or your preferences unless you tell them. Expecting people to always know your preferences without telling them is being immature. If you want to be part of a conversation, you have to let people know. It’s basic human behaviour, evidently lost on people like Chandralekha.

Her last complaint was this:

To commemorate NUS Business School’s 50th Anniversary, there was a Special notebook giveaway at the BBA office. There >were limited number of books and being the Kiasu Singaporean who loves freebies, I went to the NUS BBA office to collect it. >While the people before me were allowed to just take it and leave, when it came to my turn, the staff told me that they were >only for NUS BBA students. I said that I am one. He asked me to show my matriculation card but seeing that I was going to >take it out, he said nevermind and giggled. I stared at him. In a vain attempt of lightening up the situation, he said that he’s a >racist and giggled again. I just took the book and left immediately. I was disgusted by the entire event. That was just another >reminder that I would have to forever be explaining and earning my rights.”

There will always be idiots. How you handle idiots tells the world what kind of person you are. This is a minor matter. He did not attack her, insult her, deny her the freebie, or otherwise inflict any kind of harm against her. Her response is to get offended and complain about the inconvenience of having to assert herself.

Society runs by unspoken codes of conduct, but in the First World, the assumption is that these codes are sacrosanct. There is no formal education in assertive communication, and conversely, no explicit expectation that you have to stand up for yourself. When some jerk violates this code of behaviour, many modern youths like Chandralekha have no idea how to handle them. If they swing towards SJW and progressive tendencies, inevitably they will screech about how they have to keep explaining themselves.

It is incredibly selfish and immature to assume that the world must bend to your whims just because you don’t feel comfortable asserting your boundaries. Throughout my life, I have experienced constant taunting, insults, bullying and swarms of SJWs. I’ve been called a race traitor by members of my own race, and had people of other races insinuate I’m a fraud because of my name. Whining about how they were behaving didn’t do any good. People like that don’t care about how you feel. You can’t change those people, but you can change how you perceive and handle them.

Throughout her post, we have seen exactly zero incidences of racism. There is plenty of insensitivity on display, but not actual racism. She has not suffered physical violence, unfair marking, deprivation of resources, or any other such actions. She simply felt offended over and over again about trivial matters.

The Age of the Crybully

Babies and children have no frame of reference for life. When they experience an emotion, it is so huge and overwhelming they don’t know how to respond appropriately. When they want something, they whine and cry until their parents tend to them. If something doesn’t go their way, they continue to cry and throw tantrums. As they grow older, they learn how society works, pick up communication skills, and learn how to self-soothe when hurt and how to calibrate their responses and actions to suit the audience and situation.

SJWs are the exception. They still act like babies, screeching and crying and raging whenever they feel hurt. ‘Everyday racism’ is an excuse to find offense in everything to maintain the two minute hate. Instead of dealing with the situation, they want to guilt-trip or intimidate everybody around them into obeying their whims. They don’t want to grow up and enter adulthood; they want everyone else to coddle them. They are crybullies.

It’s clear Chandralekha has no idea what racism looks like. It is corrupt cops pulling over people of the wrong skin colour and cooking up excuses to levy punishing fines, teachers marking down minorities, governments restricting minorities from taking public office or exercising their rights, allegedly neutral organisations casting out people for being of the wrong race. It is violence and deprivation and exclusion from mainstream society. She has experienced none of these. Instead, she blew up her hurt feelings way out of proportion.

Chandralekha has not exposed racism to the world. She has merely exposed the smallness of her heart.

Crybullies prevent people like Chandralekha from growing up. They encourage and reward people for acting like babies by showering them with soothing words and SocJus dogma. Organisations further incentivise these crybullies by publicly supporting them or bowing to their every demand. By painting themselves as victims, crybullies manipulate society to meet their demands. They are overgrown children whining to adults.

Childhood is over. It is time to grow up.

Photo credits:

Everyone I don’t like is Hitler: KnowYourMeme
Racism everywhere: Memegenerator
Weaponised victimhood: Firebreathing Christian

‘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