Thursday, June 11, 2015

10 Medieval Weapons for your next Fantasy Story (that you’ve probably never heard of)

What is it with the ever-so-important sword? Nearly every hero or heroine this side of dragons and wizards owns one (and there’s usually a prophecy or magical spell involved). Let’s face it: the sword has been there and done that. Everyone loves a cool sword… but it’s time we expanded our horizons.

Here are ten, alternative, medieval weapons that your next protagonist can take on their epic journey.

Composed of three weighted balls strung from interconnected chords, the bolas is a Spanish tool used to ensnare fleeing animals. When twirled above the head and thrown, the bolas collides with the animal’s legs, binding and capturing them. However, the bolas also doubles as a weapon, one that if thrown with enough force can break bone and even kill.

While not nearly as mainstream as the sword, the bolas has been featured in several popular franchises. In Mattemeo (part of the Redwall series), the villain, Slagar the Cruel, uses the bolas.

Deriving its name from the Slavic word for “feather” because of its resemblance to a feathered arrow, the Pernach is a Ukrainian weapon that became the dominant mace of its time. Incredibly strong and resilient, the Pernach was able to crush both plate armor and mail, making it a hand-weapon to be feared.

Sword Breaker
While it’s unknown whether a Sword-Breaker could, in fact, snap a sword in two, this type of parrying dagger was none-the-less a unique and ingenious weapon. Small notches, cut into the sides of the blade, allowed for an opponent’s sword to become trapped against the sword-breaker, therefore allowing for a finishing blow or other strike. 

Trident Dagger
Also a member of the parrying dagger family, the Trident Dagger utilized mechanical, as well as technical, prowess. Called the “Triple Dagger” for a reason, this weapon contained two spring-loaded blades which, upon release, stuck out in a “V” shape. This technique was most commonly used during fencing duels, when the trident dagger could easily parry and “capture” an opponent’s rapier between its blades.

Created in India, the chakram is a circular throwing weapon with a sharpened outer edge. With proper training, chakram users are capable of hurling this weapon up to 100 meters or more. In addition to being a throwing weapon, chakrams can also be worn on the arms or around the neck and be used to cut or maim an opponent at close, hand-to-hand combat range.

Fan-favorite character, Axel, from the Kingdom Hearts series, using flame-infused chakrams as his weapon of choice.

Lantern Shield
In its most basic form, the lantern shield was essentially lantern + buckler. The lamps hung from the buckler by a hook and was used to simultaneously defend against, and bright-light blind, opponents. However, at its most complex, Lantern Shields often included infused gauntlets and protruding blades, doubling them at both offensive and defensive weapons. While its practicality in battle is questionable, the lantern shield undoubtedly made for a fearsome weapon, psychologically intimidating opponents.

Military Fork
Much like its cousin, the trident, the Military Fork began as an agricultural tool before evolving into a weapon. Essentially two, sharp prongs on a long pole, the Military Fork was easier to master than the sword, making it ideal for the lesser skilled in combat. While spears were preferred, Military Forks could be used in place of them.

A type of polearm developed by the French, the Vougle was a fearsome weapon comprised of points for stabbing, hooks for snagging, and sharpened edges for cleaving; in fact, it bears a strong likeness to a meat cleaver. Vougles were most commonly used for “hacking” as opposed to cutting, and its design is believed to have inspired the Bayonet in the 19th century.

Morning Star
The morning star has gained renown over the years via several fictional characters, such as the Witch King in The Return of the King. While the most common portrayals of the morning star feature it as a spiked ball chained to a pole, however, many versions of the morning star simply attached the head to the pole itself. In combat, the morning star was capable of severe damage, as both blunt force trauma and puncturing spikes played a part in bringing down a foe.

Bagh Naka
Made famous by Wolverine, the Bagh Naka (or “tiger’s claw”) is brass-knuckle-like weapon that fit over the fingers and can be concealed against the palm, much like the claws of a cat. In hand-to-hand combat, the Bagh Naka was capable of severing both flesh and muscle—a messy weapon, no doubt, but one that was incredibly effective. Some versions of the claws included a top-spike, used for stabbing from the side.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Ask the Author (Anything!): How to Start a Story

Hi! I was wondering: how do you start a story? Do you just randomly start off somewhere or is there a specific reason you start it at a certain point? Any tips on how to write the intro/beginning of a fiction?

The beginning of your story is one of the most important pieces of your narrative. Here’s my top tips for starting your story off right:

1. Start at the beginning

Let me clarify what I mean by “beginning.” When I say “start at the beginning” I mean start at the exact moment when the central conflict of the story begins. Not all authors will begin their story with this moment of initiation and will instead start a few scenes prior, but the most intriguing and immersive stories open with the moment that the protagonist’s story truly starts.

Think about your favorite movie. What is the opening scene? If the film is well-made, the opening scene probably ties directly into the main plot itself and is more-or-less the crux of what the film is all about. In How to Train Your Dragon, we open with Hiccup capturing Toothless, for example.

2. Open in an exciting place

Make your opening scene interesting. Make sure that it is both relative to the plot and exciting. Open with action, or with an intense moment or conflict of interest. Which story is more likely to snag your attention: (1) a novel that opens with the main character packing up and going to school, or (2) a novel which opens with the main character in a fight with the school bully?

Remember that your readers have short attention spans. You only have a few seconds to capture your reader’s attention enough to keep them reading your book. Ensure that your opening wastes no time getting started, and that it is as exciting as it is relevant to the plot.

3. Introduce your protagonist in a compelling way

You should establish your protagonist in your opening scene. Put your protagonist in a situation that best demonstrates who they are and what makes them interesting and different.

4. Introduce a goal that your protagonist seeks to achieve

As soon as possible, introduce a goal for your protagonist, even if it’s as simple as getting a glass of water or getting a piece of food out of their teeth. This goal should line up to the greater goings on within the plot, of course, but failing (or succeeding) that goal should drive the protagonist toward the bigger story at hand. Readers find stories compelling when the protagonist has a goal in mind and actively seeks to achieve it.

5. Create a one-chapter “arc”

Most strong openings are a story arc in-and-of themselves. They are akin to self-contained short stories, much like the first level or area in a story-based videogame. A conflict should be encountered and resolved within that one scene, and your readers should be able to absorb the first chapter of your book with that mindset. Of course, being a part of a larger novel, the opening scene or chapter should leave an ending hint at what is to come. Aside from this foreshadowing, however, the chapter itself should be largely self-contained.

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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Ten Facts about Swords and Sword Fighting that Writers Get Wrong

Let’s face it, sometimes popular entertainment stretches things for the sake of our enjoyment.

Hollywood blockbusters, adrenaline-laced anime, and button-bashing video games have all given us a skewed, oftentimes downright wrong, impression of what a sword is and how it’s supposed to be used.

As a writer, adherence to reality—even in a fantasy setting—is important. Oftentimes, writers draw inspiration from the media they consume and use it as a basis for writing some pretty unrealistic stuff (almost always without the intention of deliberately doing so). Today, let’s look at ten facts about one of the most popular tools in fictional combat—swords—and uncover the truth about these beautiful blades and their use.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Creative Writing: Tips for Naming Fictional Races

Our world is populated by a wondrous variety of people from different cultural backgrounds; it’s this variety that lends our planet such beauty and diversity.

Our fiction is derived from our reality, and one of the ways in which we seek this derivation is by creating original worlds populated with original cultures and races. Oftentimes, however, the task of creating an entire race of fictional beings can be more intimidating than it appears at first glance.

Today’s writing tip will focus on one simple aspect of race creation: naming your fictional race. We’ll be discussing these seven tips:

  • Re-name an existing race
  • Derive names from physical appearance or existence
  • Derive names from land or territory
  • Incorporate root words from other languages
  • Use ending suffixes to add credibility to your race
  • Consider phonetics and their psychological effects
  • Ensure pronunciation

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Character Development: Actors VS Reactors

“Your plot should not happen to your characters. Your characters should happen to your plot.”

Let that idea sink in for a minute. It may sound like an unfamiliar way to approach fictional character development, but it’s important that your main characters (actor-types) follow this approach. Reactor-types have an important part to play as well, but sometimes make poor central characters.

Let’s talk a little about the importance of plot-driving main characters (actors) and plot-supporting side characters (reactors).

Reactors: Plot-Supporting Characters
A reactor is a character who allows the plot to “happen to them.” If the plot demands that said character jumps, said character asks, “How high?” Essentially, a reactor type is OK with allowing the plot and world-rules to drift them along. They go with the flow of whatever is happening and react accordingly, usually without any desire to significantly change the unfolding of events. The patterns of the status quo is where this character type is most comfortable.

Reactors make ideal side and backdrop characters. Most every minor character fits this role, as do a lot of supporting and secondary characters. They help stabilize and set the tone of your story’s world. Reactors have no overwhelming desire to change the world around them or be nonconforming to the established rules or whims of the plot. In fiction, they are almost always paired with an actor-type.

As plot elements, reactors are invaluable. Without them, a story has no “norm” or basic tool for accomplishing its needs. Reactors may be background characters like villagers, soldiers, or students; or they may be more important and play a secondary or supporting role in the story.

Some examples of reactor-types in popular media:
  • Gobber in How to Train Your Dragon
  • Legolas, Gimli, and Sam in The Lord of the Rings
  • Suki in Avatar: the Last Airbender
  • Mikasa Ackerman in Attack on Titan
  • Pepper Potts in Iron Man
  • Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Soichiro Yagami in Death Note
  • Reno in Final Fantasy
  • Kristoff in Frozen
  • Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast
The key to knowing whether your character is an actor or a reactor is to look at how they respond to the plot. If the character does two or more of the following then they are probably a reactor-type:
  • Does not usually act out or pursue ideals and actions outside the norm
  • Is content with the status quo of the story (or whatever pattern of behavior they currently live)
  • Does whatever they are told without question or a strong feeling of divergence
  • Responds to events that the plot unfolds, as opposed to acting out in advance to change the status quo
In other words, if the plot “pushes your character around” then they are most likely a reactor. This does not mean that they will never take any initiative whatsoever during the course of the story. In fact, almost all reactor-types will take initiative at least once in the story, but usually only when their morals or something they hold inherently dear is immediately threatened (Mr. Tumnus goes against the Witch by not turning in Lucy, Sam sneaks into Mordor to rescue Frodo, and Mikasa chases down a female titan to save Eren, for example). Ultimately, reactor-types are more likely to “let the plot happen” and respond to it only as the situation demands. They are content with the status quo until the status quo acts in a way that is dangerous or otherwise unpleasant to them.

In The Lord of the Rings, for example, Legolas and Gimli are both reactors. Yes, they want to save Middle Earth and destroy the Ring, but they are also content to respond to the plot as it happens. Unlike Frodo, who dares to take the ring to Mordor, or Aragorn who sets out to reclaim his throne, Legolas and Gimli are simply there to act as supports to these greater goals. Yes, they do respond to situations, but they only respond to them. Neither of these characters has an enormous, over-arching initiative to change the status quo in their own personal way. This doesn’t diminish the character development or importance of these characters, but neither of them would probably fair too well in the spotlight because of their personal lack of individual drive.

Those who have read the appendices of The Return of the King know that Legolas and Gimli go on adventures together after the war is over, become close friends, and even travel to the Grey Haven. In this sense, they are now playing actor-type roles because they are going against the norm (elf and dwarf friendships are frowned upon, and no dwarf has ever been permitted entry to the Grey Haven). However, for the purposes of The Lord of the Rings trilogy alone, these two are reactors for the duration of the story.

Actors: Plot-Driving Characters
Actors are characters who “happen to your plot.” In fact, you might say your plot “didn’t see them coming.” When they arrive in your story’s world, things change simply because these characters actively seek to change them.

Actors have a goal, but more than that, they are the “captains of their own destiny” within the story world. Though they may rely on others, on powers, on God, or on another support system, actor-types rarely do as the plot or world system dictates. They are the characters who are most likely to challenge conformity, a belief, or a situation. In simple terms: They set out to change something about the status quo that they dislike. When the plot throws a curve-ball at them, they don’t conform to it, but rather use the curve to gain a new angle.

Most every protagonist in fiction is an actor-type, largely because they possess the drive to create an engaging story. This, of course, can differ depending on the genre, but more often than not, actor-types serve as more compelling and exciting protagonists than reactor-types. Nearly all villains are actor-types, and many supporting characters share this type as well.

Some examples of actor types in popular media:
  • Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon
  • Frodo in The Lord of the Rings
  • Zuko in Avatar: the Last Airbender
  • Eren Yeager in Attack on Titan
  • Tony Stark in Ironman
  • Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Light Yagami in Death Note
  • Sephiroth in Final Fantasy
  • Anna in Frozen
  • Belle in Beauty and the Beast
Again, you can determine if your character is an actor by studying their relationship with the plot. If your character does two or more of the following, then they are probably an actor-type:
  • Challenges the “normal” way of thinking, acting, or believing
  • Seeks to change something significant about the status quo through proactive attempts
  • Questions what they are told; does not usually act just because a person or ideal wants them to
  • Acts in advance to change the status quo, as opposed to merely reacting to the plot as events unfold
If the mere existence of your character drastically changes the face of your story because said character advocates those changes directly, then you’re dealing with an actor-type. Frodo showcases one of his greatest “acting” moments when he volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor. What classifies this bold move as actor-type is that Frodo speaks up of his own accord and personally decides to change the status quo by making a difference. If another character (like Gandalf) had recommended Frodo for the job, and Frodo had merely accepted as a result, then Frodo would have been acting like a reactor instead (responding to a situation that the plot threw at him).

All actor-types will change the face of your story. Eren Yeager speaks out against humanity’s confinement within the walls and seeks to join the dangerous Survey Corps in order to reclaim mankind’s birthright. By contrast, Mikasa (a reactor-type) doesn’t want Eren to join the Corps, going so far as to warn his mother about Eren’s plans, and sticks to Eren like a loyal shadow thereafter, supporting his ideals but not acting outside of them otherwise.

It’s important to realize that actor-types will not go against every-and-all conformity. A character who rebels against every standard and norm quickly becomes psychotic, obnoxious, or highly predictable (sometimes all three) to your reader. Rather, actor-types will refuse to conform to at least one significant aspect of your story's status quo. For example, Light Yagami takes the law into his own hands when he obtains a notebook that allows him to kill criminals simply by writing their names. The status quo of the law is the one specific thing that he does not conform to and that he proactively sets out to change by his own means.

A Final Note about Actors and Reactors
It’s important to remember that, like good and evil, actors and reactors are almost never clear-cut black-and-white. Actors will sometimes respond like reactors, and reactors will occasionally become actors. That being said, reactors typically transition only when something they hold invaluable is immediately threatened, forcing them to become proactive (sometimes this is just an elaborate reaction disguised as pro-action, however).

At the beginning of this article, I said that reactor types do not usually make strong central characters. While their being content with the “norm” and unwilling to make drastic changes does indeed make them poor pro-activists, reactors can also make emotionally-investing main characters if their reactor-type tendencies are paramount to their growth throughout the story. 

Take Marlin from Finding Nemo for example. Marlin hates change. He doesn’t want Nemo to go to school, doesn’t want to do anything remotely dangerous or unstable, and seeks to maintain as much stability as possible. When Nemo is kidnapped, Marlin is forced to go after him, but his fixation on maintaining the status quo gives him a lot of problems. Rather than trust a friend to go through a seemingly deadly cavern, for example, he swims above it, nearly getting both himself and said friend killed by jellyfish. Marlin’s gradual transition from a reactor to an actor is pivotal to his growth throughout the story. Thus, Marlin works tremendously well as a reactor-type protagonist turned actor-type protagonist.

There are exceptions to every rule. Consider these mere guidelines that you can use as a sounding board for measuring whether your characters—protagonist, antagonist, secondary, background, and otherwise—are compelling enough to engage your reader and keep your story moving forward.

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