razieltwelve

Because writing should be fun

Writing From Different Perspectives

In principle, it is possible to write a story entirely from the perspective of a single character. In practice, however, it is much more common to write a story from the points of view of multiple characters. Although writing from different perspectives is a skill that develops with practice, there are a few things that you can take into account to make it easier:

  • People are not omniscient
  • People do not perceive the world the same way
  • People do not speak or think in the same way
  • People have different habits
  • People act differently depending on whom they are with

People Are Not Omniscient

One of the most common mistakes when writing from multiple perspectives is forgetting who knows what. The fact is that people are not usually omniscient, and this should be reflected in their actions. Just because one character is privy to an important piece of information does not mean that all the other characters are too.

Consider the following situation:

  • A group of rebels has a traitor in it.
  • One character, James, discovers that the traitor is someone that everyone trusts, Tom.
  • James discovers that Tom is a traitor by following him to a secret meeting with enemies of the group.

Unless James tells the other characters what he has seen, there is no reason for them to treat Tom any differently. The other characters should continue interacting with Tom as usual. In contrast, James’s interactions with Tom may be markedly different depending on whether he decides to share his knowledge with the others or to keep it to himself in order to take Tom by surprise at a later point in time. The big mistake in this situation is having everyone else act as though they know about Tom without giving a reason for why they are acting that way (e.g., having James tell them) since there is no way they should know about Tom at all.

The best way to avoid falling into this kind of trap is to keep track of essential pieces of information. In other words, by keeping of track of where characters are, who they’ve interacted with, and what information they have access to, you can make each of their individual points of view more authentic and exciting. After all, what better way to ratchet up the tension in the aforementioned situation than showing James and Tom matching wits against each other, all while trying to keep their awareness of the situation hidden from each other and the rest of the group.

People Do Not Perceive The World The Same Way

Different people do not perceive and interpret the world and their surroundings in the same way. This is because a lot of how we think about a range of different things, from relationships to reasoning problems, is a function of our experiences, our culture, our personality, our intelligence, and our upbringing. Thus when writing from the perspectives of different characters, we need to be careful to take this into account.

Let’s compare how two different people might perceive the same situation.

Stan has lived his entire life on a safe, prosperous world with low crime. Although Stan is considered highly intelligent, he has never handled a weapon or been in any situation more dangerous than piloting a spacecraft under highly controlled conditions. Most of his friends describe him as a happy, cheerful young man.

Amy has been raised to be a soldier on a world where war is extremely common. She has handled weapons all her life and has been exposed to both intense urban warfare and larger-scale space warfare. Although she has not received a strict formal education, she has spent years learning to survive in war zones with almost no support. Like most of the soldiers from her planet, she has been trained to disdain weakness and to display as little emotion as possible.

Now, let’s imagine that both Stan and Amy arrived via transport at a world known for its industrial capabilities. Stan is there to negotiate a new contract for the company he works for – they make furniture. Amy is there to try and secure a deal to manufacture weapons for the faction she fights for. Shortly after their arrival, the world comes under attack by a third party, which begins to launch landing parties while bombarding the planet’s defences from orbit.

Are these two people, Stan and Amy, going to see things the same way?

Of course they aren’t.

It is highly probable that Stan will panic and perhaps even freeze up. He has never been in a situation like this before. The story, as told from his perspective, will probably focus on the sheer terror and horror of what he is seeing. There are likely to be heavy casualties and massive amounts of property damage – things he has never experienced before. He may struggle to understand how or why the attack is happening, and he may struggle to deal with the physical and psychological wounds in the aftermath.

In contrast, Amy is far less likely to panic or freeze. She has been raised for this. She has lived it. The story, as told from her perspective, may focus on the attack as a threat to be dealt with. For instance, she may immediately begin cataloguing the possible courses of action that she has to take to survive and even retaliate. She may also begin considering who the culprits are, and she is unlikely to be bothered by the property damage or casualties because she has been raised to think that such things are normal.

The way that Stan perceives the attack is fundamentally different from Amy because he is different from Amy. A good way of approaching this situation would be to write in a way that emphasises this difference. For example, you could try to draw out Stan’s sense of disorientation and horror while highlighting Amy’s cold, analytical approach to survival and retaliation.

People Do Not Speak Or Think The Same Way

It is almost trivially easy to demonstrate that people do not speak the same way. Simply go out onto the street and listen to the people around you. It will soon become evident that different people have different patterns of speech. This isn’t simply a matter of different accents – it is also a matter of word choice, intonation, speaking speed, and volume. All of these are influenced by a range of both personal and situational factors (e.g., where someone comes from, how they feel, etc.).

It is slightly less obvious that different people do not think the same way either. This relates both to my previous point about how people perceive the world and to the fact that thoughts are, in a manner of speaking, simply private, personal speech. Again, how a person thinks is a function of both personal and situational factors.

We’ll start off with a very trivial example. Which of the following two samples of speech do you think best fits an elderly professor in archaeology?

  • Although the Ancient Greeks had developed many of the mathematical concepts that would prove integral to the development of calculus, they would not actually manage to develop it on their own.
  • The Ancient Greeks knew some stuff that helped make calculus, but they didn’t come up with it.

If you answered the second one, then you must have a very odd archaeology professor. If you’re writing from different perspectives, it is important that characters that are different from each other sound different (e.g., two characters who have very similar backgrounds can and should sound more similar than those with vastly different backgrounds).

This can also come through in the thoughts/interior monologue of the characters. Consider the way that an elderly archaeology professor and a young student perceive each other:

  • The young student’s thoughts may immediately go to the professor’s somewhat old-fashioned and formal mode of dress. They might immediately begin wondering if the professor is going to be as boring as all the others they’ve met and if the class will be worth attending. They might also wonder why the professor likes using so many big words.
  • The professor may ponder the student’s clothing, wondering when ripped jeans and brightly coloured shirts became popular. They may also begin wondering if the student will actually pay attention during class or if they’ll simply pretend to listen like a lot of others. They may also consider whether or not the student has decided to study archaeology because they think it’ll be an easy credit.

As you can see, the same event (a lecture) can be thought about in very different ways by the different characters involved. This can come through in the way the thoughts of each character are phrased:

  • The old man up the front was like all the others, stuffy and overdressed. He was probably going to be boring too. Heck, he was probably just going to read off the lecture notes like all the others. It’d be better to stay home and read the notes later.
  • He’d seen people like him before – dressed like university was a party. He wondered if the boy would even bother to pay attention, or if he had simply selected archaeology because he thought it was an easy course, another way to pick up an easy credit or two.

A few subtle differences in word choice and phrasing can add depth and shade to the thoughts of different characters, fleshing out different points of view.

People Have Different Habits

Almost everyone has a routine, and this routine will usually come into play when you’re writing from a particular character’s perspective. For example, a single mother with children will probably have a routine that involves helping those children get ready for school. In contrast, a retired couple whose children have all moved out and started families of their own will have a different routine.

Including a character’s routines when writing from their perspective is not something you should do every time – and it can get boring quite quickly. But including it a few times can help readers build up an idea of who the character is and how they are different from the other characters. Again, we can illustrate this with an example. Imagine that we have two sets of parents, both with young children:

  • One set of parents insists upon the children adhering to a strict schedule, with an emphasis on order and efficiency. The children are not allowed to be late, and the parents do not spend much time talking with them over breakfast before dropping them off at school with carefully packed lunches that are designed to provide the optimal level of nutrition.
  • The other set of parents has a more relaxed schedule, resulting in minor chaos each morning as the parents and children struggle to get ready on time. At breakfast, the parents often get caught up with the daily news and with what their children will be doing before driving them to school at breakneck speed with whatever lunch they’ve managed to throw together.

In a very general sense, the basic structure of events is the same: get the children to school. However, the routines for each family are quite different. As a result of these differences, readers can draw conclusions about how each of the families differs, not only in terms of routine but also in their approach to life and childrearing.

Another example of how differing routines can express differences between characters that are experiencing essentially the same set of events is a combat situation. What does a veteran do to prepare for battle? They might calmly attend to their weapons and review the mission parameters. At the same time, the rookie beside them might be nervous, on edge, and wondering about whether or not they’ll pull through the mission in one piece. Once again, the same event can appear very different when you look at the routines of different characters.

People Act Differently Depending On Whom They Are With

How a person behaves can vary dramatically based on whom they are with. Consider a group consisting of the following individuals:

  • James (Susie’s older brother)
  • Susie (James’s younger sister)
  • Tony (Susie and James’s younger brother)
  • Melissa (Susie’s friend)

In this group, three are members of the same family. If the story is being told from the perspective of Melissa, it may include feelings of awkwardness and isolation since she may feel like an outsider. If the story is told from the point of view of Susie those feelings are unlikely to occur (assuming that the sibling all get along).

What happens if the group is reduced to just Susie and Melissa? Well, Melissa probably won’t feel like an outsider anymore since she isn’t outnumbered. Susie may even feel less confident since she is no longer surrounded by members of her family. It is also quite possible that the topics of conversation will change now that the group is composed solely of women.

If we imagine that both James and Tony are very attracted to Melissa, then the changes in the group dynamic are likely to be even more dramatic. In the group with all four of them in it, James and Tony may attempt to compete for Melissa’s attention, to the point that the situation becomes socially awkward. Susie may even feel marginalised. Reducing the group to just Susie and Melissa thus presents a drastic change – Susie might seem more outgoing now that her two brothers aren’t competing for her friend’s attention. If Melissa doesn’t actually like either James or Tony, she would definitely feel more comfortable if they aren’t around.

This logic also applies to different situations, not just different groups. People are often more confident and outgoing when dealing with things that they have expertise on. For example a professor of archaeology might be shy when talking to strangers but that shyness might vanish when the talk moves to archaeology – a subject that he is extremely confident about and familiar with. Similarly, a Special Forces soldier may be more at home on the battlefield than at home watching television with friends and family. Think of how the same situation – watching an action movie – would be like through the eyes of a trained soldier versus the eyes of a teenager.

As you can see, it is important to consider the dynamics between characters when writing from different perspectives. A character that seems highly confident in one setting may appear insecure in another. Likewise, a particular group might set one character at ease but make another feel very uncomfortable. The situation is also important, since different people will react to the same situation in different ways.

The final thing we need to remember is that people can act very differently when they are alone. A character may act very outgoing with others, quick to make a joke and have a bit of fun. But they may also be much quieter and introspective when they are on their own. When you are writing from the perspective of different characters, this is something you need to take into account.

Consider a character who likes to scheme and plot in private before modifying their behaviour to ingratiate themselves with every group they meet. Such a character could very easily be perceived as duplicitous. What happens if we then throw in the perspectives of the other characters, showing that they too act in a similar manner? This tells the reader that this behaviour is normal – perhaps even expected – in this setting. This might lead the reader to question the values of the society that the characters belong to (e.g., what kind of society encourages such treachery?) or even the values of the characters themselves (e.g., are these characters simply a treacherous subset of an otherwise normal culture?).

By showing the differences in how characters behave when they are with different people, you can help flesh out your characters for the reader. By doing this for other characters (i.e., from multiple perspectives), you can add even more detail and subtlety. Think of spy thrillers – so much of the tension and enjoyment comes from watching them play the game against each other, using group dynamics to trick, coerce, and otherwise manipulate people.

Summary

Writing from the perspectives of multiple characters is not always an easy thing to do, and it is certainly a skill that improves with practice. However, there are several things you can keep in mind to make it easier:

  • People are not omniscient
  • People do not perceive the world the same way
  • People do not speak or think in the same way
  • People have different habits
  • People act differently depending on whom they are with

It is no coincidence that most stories incorporate multiple points of view. It can make the story much more exciting and add much needed depth and shade to your characters.

I hope you found this useful. If you want to know more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction (mostly fantasy). You can find that here. If you like humorous fantasy, check out my latest story, Two Necromancers, a Bureaucrat, and an ElfIf you’re in the mood for something more serious, try The Last Huntress.

I Watched Guardians of the Galaxy Today

So… I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Today. I’ll admit that I didn’t go into the movie with particularly high expectations. Guardians has a certain quirkiness to it that I felt might not translate so well to the screen.

But I was pleasantly surprised.

What struck me, right from the beginning of the movie, was that Guardians is not a movie that takes itself overly seriously. From the use of small, alien creatures as pretend microphones (you have to see this to understand how awesome it is) to the single greatest phrase I’ve heard in a movie this year (it involves the words “pelvic sorcery”), Guardians is not afraid to have fun with itself and with quite a few of the standard “galactic villain of ultimate doom” cliches.

This isn’t to say that Guardians is just about the laughs – although there are plenty of those. The movie ticks all of the boxes you’d expect from a good comic book movie:

  • All of the main actors do their bit to keep the movie engaging.
  • The script is constantly amusing but changes tone when it needs to. I won’t spoil some of the great lines (and there were quite a few in there), but the dialogue constantly brought a smile to my face. At the same time, however, the villains were also allowed to be suitably menacing and evil.
  • The action was, for the most part, on point. I won’t lie to you. The hand-to-hand combat in Guardians isn’t going to match something like The Raid or even Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it’s not bad either. However, where the film’s action truly excels is in some space battles. The battle over Xandor was particularly cool to watch.
  • The characters are actually likeable. It isn’t strictly necessary to actually like the characters in a movie to enjoy it, but I actually liked the good guys in this one. My favourite character (probably not a surprise to anyone) was Rocket. Raccoon + Machine Gun = Awesome. Yeah, it’s simplistic, but there’s something fundamentally awesome about watching a raccoon blow the crap out of everything. Groot (tree guy) was also another favourite of mine.

Another concern I had about the film going into it was whether or not they would be able to simplify the story enough for non-comic people to follow. I think they did a pretty good job on this. Sure, most people won’t know – or care – what Xanodor or the Cree are, but they don’t have to. The bad guy establishes his bad guy status fairly clearly by being a genocidal maniac bent on obliterating a whole lot of innocent people. You don’t need to know what particular species of alien he is to realise he has to be stopped. In short, even if you’ve never read the comics, you can still follow the storyline, which boils down to: genocidal crazy dude = evil; cool guy who listens to a walkman = good.

So, yes, I quite enjoyed this one. It set a good pace and maintained my interest throughout the whole movie. I would call it one of the better comic book movies I’ve seen, and I actually liked it more than Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

This year has been pretty good for movies so far (at least in my point of view). The next movie I plan on seeing will either be Lucy or Hercules. I’m leaning toward Lucy because I’ve been a fan of Luc Bessson since The Professional.

So, what’s my final rating? I’d give Guardians of the Galaxy a solid 8.5 on the enjoyment scale.

It isn’t the most cerebral thing you’ll ever watch, but it will put a smile on your face and a spring in your step. If movies could have souls, this movie would be wearing a smile and cracking a joke while beating the absolute crap out of its enemies. And it’d be listening to some sweet 80s and 70s tunes while doing it because that’s just how it rolls. Oh yeah.

The Three Different Kinds of Dash

In English, there are three dash-like punctuation marks: the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. Although these punctuation marks appear quite similar, each of them has a slightly different purpose.

The hyphen (-) is the shortest of the dashes. It has a number of different uses:

  • To connect the two parts of a word when one part of the word is on one line and the other part is on the next line. You don’t usually see this anymore since most word processors automatically adjust to avoid splitting words across lines.
  • To connect parts of a compound word (e.g., son-in-law, well-being, twenty-one).
  • To connect groups of numbers or characters, such as phone numbers or number plates (e.g., 555-555-555, ABC-123).

The en dash (–) is longer than the hyphen. It is mainly used to connect numbers, dates, and other similar things that provide a range of values:

  • To connect numbers which form a range (e.g., World War II took place during 1939–1945).
  • To join months which form a range (e.g., He worked at the hotel June–October).

The em dash (—) is the longest of the three dashes. It has a variety of uses:

  • It can be used in place of commas to set off parts of a sentence (e.g., John drew his gun—a single-action Colt—and levelled it at the sheriff; John drew his gun, a single-action Colt, and levelled it at the sheriff).
  • It can be used in place of parentheses to emphasise what would have gone in parentheses (e.g., Amy was a wonderful teacher—her students always improved; Amy was a wonderful teacher (her students always improved); Michael liked a bit of mischief—who didn’t? —but he always took it too far; Michael liked a bit of mischief (who didn’t?), but he always took it too far).
  • It can be used to replace a colon to draw attention to the conclusion (e.g., The test results were in—she passed; The test results were in: she passed).
  • It can be used to indicate when speech is being interrupted (e.g., “Don’t—”)
  • It can be used to denote missing words or letters (e.g., Agent J — — was sent to spy on the targets).
  • It can be used to provide bullet points for lists.

As you can see, all three of these dashes serve a different purpose. However, there has been some disagreement about whether or not it is acceptable to use one particular kind of dash over the other.

Traditionally, the em dash is used without a space on either side of it (as you can see from the examples given above). However, there are style guides (e.g., the AP and most newspapers) that suggest flanking the em dash with spaces (i.e., having a space on either side of it).

One of the issues that has been raised with the em dash is that it looks rather hideous. The em dash can be quite disruptive from a visual perspective, drawing the reader’s attention away from the actual words of the text. Simply flanking the em dash with spaces does not solve this issue. It may, in fact, even make it worse.

My preference – and the preference of quite a few others – is to abandon the em dash in favour of using an en dash flanked by spaces (i.e., an en dash with spaces on either side). Indeed, that is what I have just done. Those who have adopted this approach typically do so because they feel that an en dash flanked by spaces is less intrusive but still manages to do the job.

You might be surprised by my stance on this issue, given my support for correct grammar. However, one of the purposes of correct grammar is to aid communication, and I believe the en dash does this by being several million times easier on the eye than the em dash.

If you found this little jaunt into punctuation interesting, you can find more of my thoughts on writing and grammar here.

I also write original fiction (mostly fantasy), which you can find here.

“Two Necromancers, a Bureaucrat, and an Elf” Now Available on Amazon

My newest original story Two Necromancers, a Bureaucrat, and an Elf is now available on Amazon! It weighs in at 35,000 words and goes for $1.99. Most of my previous stories have been fairly serious (e.g., The Last Huntress), but this one is different.

If you’ve been looking forward to something humorous from me, then your wait is finally over. Two Necromancers, a Bureaucrat, and an Elf is a fantasy with plenty of humour, warmth, action, and a healthy dose of craziness (the kind you’ve come to expect from me).

You can get it here.

And here is the blurb:

Two necromancers, a bureaucrat, and an elf – it sounds like the start of a bad joke, only the joke is on Timmy.

Timothy Walter Bolton – better known as Timmy – has spent most of his life as a necromancer. When he isn’t terrorising his enemies, he’s plotting inside his castle, which is built on top of lightless chasms filled with nameless horrors and beings of a generally malevolent and megalomaniacal nature. But after one of his latest creations, a zombie hydra-dragon-bear, tries to eat him, he decides that maybe it’s time to find a new, less dangerous, career.

But that’s easier said than done. He’s a wanted criminal with no shortage of powerful (and crazy) enemies, and he has a bone or two to pick with the Everton Council of Mages.

Hope arrives in the form of a new law. War is coming to Everton, and the Council is desperate. In exchange for providing some help, Timmy might just earn that pardon he’s been looking for. Of course, just because it’s possible to earn a pardon doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy.

To earn his pardon, Timmy is going to have to take down some of Everton’s most dangerous enemies and put together a quirky group of unconventional heroes, most of whom want nothing more than to mangle him and/or the Council in as vicious a way as possible. It’s a good thing that he’s got some help: an obnoxious ten-year-old apprentice who thinks that pink glasses are appropriate for a budding necromancer and a bumbling bureaucrat who may or may not make it through their first real fight without puking his guts up.

Wonderful.

Still, Timmy’s never been one to back down from a challenge even if their first recruit is basically the elf version of the bogeyman.

If you want to know more, just keep on reading to see a longer preview: Read more…

Writing Tip of the Day #5 – The Consequences of Human Emotion

Without telepathy, it is impossible to truly know what someone else is thinking. We can each feel emotion, so we assume that everyone else can too. But how do we know what emotions someone else is feeling? We make judgements based on verbal and non-verbal cues.

Verbal cues are perhaps the quickest and easiest way to make a judgement, but they are not necessarily the most accurate. A verbal cue for sadness might be someone stating that they feel sad. But just because someone says they feel sad does not mean that they actually are sad. It is easy to lie, and some people are very good at lying.

Non-verbal are the other way we can judge a person’s emotions. In the case of sadness, there are a particular subset of facial expressions that are associated with sadness. Tears are also often related to sadness. But we can look at other parts of the body aside from the face. For instance, someone’s posture may change when they feel sad. They may slouch, and their shoulders may slump. Sadness is not simply a facial express – it is a whole pattern of behaviour.

In writing, emotions are amongst the trickiest things to accurately depict. It is possible to simply state how a character feels, but we can paint a much richer picture if we include both verbal and non-verbal cues to better convey their emotions. Indeed, some of the most poignant moments can occur when we deliberately contrast the verbal and non-verbal cues.

Consider the impression left when a novice soldier tells their superior that they are fine despite how badly their hands are shaking. Are they really fine? Or are they simply putting on a brave face?

Likewise, what conclusions can we draw when we read about someone who claims to be heartbroken but shows no outward signs of sorrow? Are they lying? Or are they simply holding it all in?

Emotions are an important part of character development, and it is rarely enough to simply state how people feel. Instead, it is often better to look at the consequences of human emotion. Show the reader the consequences of emotion and they will be able to draw their own conclusions about how the characters feel.

How To Hit People In The Face Really Hard

Punching power is one of those things that people talk about all the time in combat sports. Fans, in particular, are obsessed with fighters who possess the kind of firepower that leaves their opponent twitching on the ground. This is why a good, scrappy brawl often pulls in higher ratings than a highly technical bout.

But what are the secrets behind punching power?

The two most obvious places to begin are size and muscle mass. There is no denying that larger combatants tend to have more striking power than their smaller counter parts. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some middle weights who hit harder than some heavy weights, but the average heavy weight is going to be a much bigger puncher than the average middle weight.

But setting those two factors aside, how can we explain the differences in punching power between people of roughly the same size and muscle mass? There are a few places we can look.

A punch is basically a collision – you are hitting someone’s face with your hand. The amount of force that is transferred during that collision is a function of the mass of objects colliding and their acceleration. This means several things.

A punch that the opponent walks into is more powerful than one they are trying to get away from. The classic example of this is when someone walks into a big right hand rather than trying to flinch away from it. If you aren’t a particularly big puncher, you can help your cause by luring your opponent into the punch. In boxing, Ali was very good at this while Machida provides an example from MMA.

Do not allow your opponent to cramp your punches. A punch accelerates most rapidly (and attains most of its speed and leverage) when it is allowed to extend fully. An easy way to test this is to throw a normal punch at a punching bag before taking a step closer and trying to throw that same punch again. In the latter case, your fist will end up shoving the bag rather than striking it cleanly. If you allow your opponent to get too close, you will not be able to extend your punches properly, robbing them of much of their power. This is why you will often see fighters with shorter reach swarming those with longer reach – their aim is to get close enough to throw their shorter punches while smothering their opponent’s longer punches. This is also why at very close ranges it’s more common to see punches like hooks or uppercuts (which have shorter ranges than jabs and straights) or other strikes like knees or elbows (in MMA).

The punch that the opponent doesn’t see is the one most likely to hurt them. Any well-trained fighter will know how to respond to a punch. They can block a punch, parry it, slip it, roll with the impact, shift to take the hit on a stronger part of the body, and so on. Any one of these approaches reduces the damage they receive. But all of these responses rely on them actually noticing the punch and reacting to it. If the opponent does not see the punch, then they cannot react to it properly and will take full damage. The classic example of this is a fighter who gets lazy with their jab eating a counter right hand (usually an overhand right) over the top of the jab before getting knocked out. Seriously, watch some MMA knock out highlights and many of them will feature fighters getting knocked out by overhand rights after throwing out a lazy, pawing jab without tucking their chin in. Boxers are hardly immune to this either – I’ve seen quite a few technicians knocked out when they throw a pitter-patter jab against a savvy brawler with good instincts.

Counter punching is another way to potentially increase the force of your punches. Fighters are often at their most vulnerable when they are in the process of striking. Think about it. If the opponent wants to really hit you, then they are going to have to commit. A properly thrown punch usually requires planting the feet, a shift in weight, and a focus on where the punch will be directed. All of these things leave the opponent vulnerable. If they plant their feet and are shifting their weight, they will not be able to evade as easily – they may even move into your punch. And their mental focus on landing their own strike can make it easy for them to miss a counter strike coming in. Fighters are also often not mentally prepared to be hit back while in the middle of throwing their own attack.

But counter punching can be very difficult – it requires both speed and timing. Speed is required because you must be able to react to a particular set of circumstances (e.g., the opponent throwing a hook) in the correct manner. Timing is also required because you have to know when to throw your counter strike to do maximum damage.

Although boxing has had its share of fighters who had Howitzers for hands (e.g., Foreman and Shavers), the majority of its knock out artists rely on more than just brute force. They rely on leading their opponents onto their punches, on speed and timing, and on getting the most leverage out of their punches.

Here are a few examples:

In this video you can see quite possibly the most perfect left hook ever thrown. Sugar Roy Robinson catches Gene Fullmer leaning in to throw his big right hand and catches him with a blindingly fast short left hook that Fullmer never sees before he’s down on the ground. Sugar Ray’s punch not only had speed and placement behind it, he also caught Fullmer moving into the punch.

And in this video you can again see what happens a fighter is caught in the middle of a punch. Ricky Hatton throws a pawing left and gets caught by a tremendous left hand from Pacquiao that hits him right on the jaw. Not only was Hatton caught unawares by the punch but he was also leaning into it. Take a look at Pacquiao’s body placement as well. His feet are planted firmly, his entire body is pivoting into the punch, and his punch connects at the perfect distance – he has maximised his leverage.

And finally here. This is the great Ali putting Sonny Liston down with an “anchor punch”. Ali, though a great boxer, was never known for the kind of chilling power that some of his contemporaries had (Foreman comes to mind here along with the doozy of a left hook that Frazier possessed and Shavers’s bomb of a right hand). What makes this punch so effective is that he catches Liston missing and hits him while he is still moving forward but before he can take a defensive a stance again. Heck, Liston doesn’t even seem to see the punch, it comes out so quickly.

The Last Huntress Free Today On Amazon (Friday 4th July, Pacific Standard Time)

The Last Huntress will be available for free on Amazon today (4th July, Pacific Standard Time). Get it here. If you enjoy fantasy with a healthy dose of atmosphere and action, give it a try! Here’s the blurb:

Scarlett is the last of her line – a huntress sworn to kill all monsters.

Rose is a girl searching for the power to take back her homeland.

In the icy forests of the north, on the trail of the only werewolf to escape her, Scarlett will teach Rose what it means to be a huntress. There can be no room for softness in a huntress’s heart, no room for weakness. And a huntress must be willing to kill anything – and anyone – that poses a threat to the innocent.

If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry. You can download a free Kindle app from Amazon from here.

You can find my original fiction here.

A History Of My Love Of Basketball

My father has loved basketball ever since he was a kid. During the 1980s, his two favourite teams were the Lakers and the Celtics. Magic Johnson is still his favourite Laker, and he still firmly believes that Larry Bird is the best small forward to ever play the game.

My earliest memories of basketball are the Jordan years. There was something special about him. It wasn’t just about the clutch shooting, the suffocating defence, or the ability to completely ignore the laws of physics for yet another impossible dunk or hand-changing lay up, it was about the way he uplifted an entire franchise. Like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird before him, Jordan put an entire city on his back and made them believers.

But basketball is a team sport. As great as Magic Johnson was, he didn’t win those championships alone. The Showtime Lakers won those championships, and they did it with phenomenal passing and an offence that you had to see to believe. There are very few things in the world as beautiful as watching the 1980s Laker burst out of their half with Magic Johnson handling the ball. I didn’t watch those games live (I’m too young), but I’ve watched tape of those games so many times. Likewise, Larry Bird’s Celtics were a team. Their team defence was renowned, and their three great big men (Bird, Parish, and McHale) were a front court that has arguably yet to be surpassed.

What stuck in my mind about Jordan’s Bulls was the absolute intensity with which they played. Jordan refused to lose, and he refused to let his teammates play at anything less than their best. There is an entire class of Hall of Famers who never won a ring because the Bulls were there to break the hearts year after year. The Bulls didn’t just beat teams – they demoralised them, leaving them burnt out, ruined shells of themselves. Just ask Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz.

After Jordan retired for the second time, I remember feeling lost. My favourite player had retired. But there were other players that I liked. I’d always been a big fan of David Robinson. Part of that was his nickname. Everyone called him “the Admiral” and that was what first got me interested since my father was a marine and my granduncle was a commodore.

David Robinson was very easy to cheer for. He was extremely athletic and skilled, but he was also articulate, well-mannered, and humble. He was exactly the kind of player that you wanted to do well. The only problem with David Robinson, however, was that he could never quite get over the hump and win a championship. Some people said he wasn’t nasty enough. Others said that he was a choker. I prefer to believe that the Spurs were one piece short of being good enough.

And then they got Tim Duncan.

My father always impressed upon me the importance of the fundamentals in basketball, and Tim Duncan was as fundamental as it got. He came into the league with all the moves that a big man could possibly want. He could bank the ball off the glass, nail shots off the elbow, and he was an absolute monster in the post. But his impact wasn’t just on the offensive end. He was – and remains – one of the best defenders in the NBA. His ability to read passes before they happen and anticipate the flow of an attack is exceptional. Lots of big men appear good defensively because of their athleticism. What has allowed Tim Duncan to remain an excellent rim protector and defensive player even after his knee troubles is his ability to couple his physical size and length with unmatched basketball IQ.

Tim Duncan led the Spurs to their first championship, and I almost cried along with David Robinson during the celebrations. Timmy would go on to lead the Spurs to three more championships (they won in 99, 2003, 2005, and 2007). Those early teams were characterised by two things: exceptional selflessness and stifling defence.

When Duncan arrived, Robinson could very easily have been offended and defensive. Instead, he saw the future of the Spurs in Timmy, and he set about teaching the younger man everything he knew. As good as Timmy is, I think he owes a lot to the Admiral. Robinson spent countless hours facing off against Tim and helping Tim hone his defence and his post moves. Robinson gave Timmy everything he had, and Timmy repaid him with championships.

But everyone gets old. Robinson slowed down and eventually retired, and for a few years Timmy had to carry the Spurs on his back. That 2003 championship run remains one of the most astonishing in the history of the NBA. Timmy had very little help that year, but he dragged the Spurs to their second championship while putting up some monster numbers.

But with the descent of Robinson came the rise of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Both arrived as relatively unknown overseas players, but both have made their mark. There are few point guards in the league who can finish at the rim and penetrate into the paint the way that Parker can. And even after all these years, I still have a hard time believing half the stuff that Ginobili does. I swear, I can go from wanting to stab Ginobili to wanting to throw him a parade in about thirty seconds.

But after the title in 2007, things took a turn for the worse. The Spurs continued to be good – they’ve never missed the playoffs during the Duncan era – but they were never quite able to get there. Dallas, Memphis, and Oklahoma all threatened to sweep aside the dynasty from San Antonio.

And then 2013 happened. Tim Duncan led the Spurs to yet another Finals appearance. They took a 3-2 lead against Miami and all seemed well until the last minute of Game 6 when everything fell apart.

I’ll admit that I was scared after the loss last year, scared because I know that chances like that don’t come around often, and every year that passes means that the Big Three are one year older. Tim Duncan is no longer a young man. Ginobili no longer has a full head of hair. 2013 felt almost like the ending of an era.

But the Spurs didn’t break. When a team loses like they did last year, they can either fall apart or come back stronger. The Spurs did the latter. This year, the Spurs unleashed what I consider to be the most beautiful offences that I’ve ever seen.

Every man in the Spurs offence this year knew what to do. The passes were swift, precise, and designed to carve open defences. The Spurs passed up on good shots to create great shots. They used ball movement and movement without the ball to leave defences wrong-footed and confused. If the Spurs of the late 1990s and early 2000s were a defensive juggernaut that relied too much on Tim Duncan to carry the offence, the Spurs of this year were a whirlwind of surgical passing and brilliant offensive execution.

This year’s Spurs also had a phenomenal bench. If you don’t believe me, look up how the Spurs’ bench stacked up to the benches of its opponents in the playoffs. It was a blood bath. If you still don’t believe me, watch the series against Portland, Oklahoma, and Miami where the Foreign Legion (San Antonio’s bench) left a trail of corpses in their wake. The Big Three can no longer carry the Spurs the way they used to, but they don’t have to. Not anymore.

What I love most about these Spurs is how they’ve taken players and made them better. Kawhi Leonard came to the Spurs a raw talent. They turned him into a Finals MVP. Danny Green was on his way out of the league, but at the Spurs he became a key 3 and D specialist. Boris Diaw was washed up only a few years ago, but he was instrumental in dismantling Oklahoma and Miami. Tiago Splitter has proven himself to be a superb defender with the Spurs, shutting down first Dirk Nowitzki and then Marcus Aldridge. And let’s not forget Patty Mills (go Patty!). The plucky, little Aussie came back this season fitter than ever before and Popovic rewarded him with more playing time and a bigger role. Mills responded beautifully, becoming a key component of the bench and showing the kind of shooting touch that let him top the 2012 Olympics in scoring. Even Marco Belinelli found a new home at the Spurs, becoming yet another contributor off the bench.

This year’s Spurs embody everything that I love about basketball. They play as a team and for each other. When someone does well, they all cheer for him. When someone is struggling, they all rush to help out. They are unselfish, moving the ball and always looking for an assist to set up an easy basket rather than trying to play hero ball. They are humble, never trash talking but instead preferring to let their play do the talking. They play defence, hustling for every ball, pressuring every single possession. They are a deep team, with every man contributing and knowing what he has to do.

In an era when the league seems more and more driven by individuals and superstars in search of glory, the Spurs are a throwback to the days when the team came first. They are a reminder that a great team is more than just the sum of its parts. A great team is like a great watch – every piece fits together perfectly and performs its own specific purpose perfectly, and the result is something beautiful.

Writing Tip of the Day #4 – Understand the Story You’re Telling

There are many different kinds of stories. Some stories focus very heavily on character development, and others focus more on developing a rich, immersive world. Of course, there’s no rule against a story doing multiple things, but most stories tend to focus on a few key areas.

The important thing is to understand what your story needs – not what it wants, but what it needs. A character-based drama might want a detailed, imaginative setting, but what it needs is deep, engaging characters. Likewise a mystery might want interesting and original characters, but what it needs is a well-paced plot and enough clues for the reader to keep interested.

Instead of worrying about what your story wants, focus first on what it needs. Once you’re sure that you can give your story everything that it needs, then you can worry about adding on all the things that it wants.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find thosehere.

I also write original fiction, mostly fantasy, which you can find here.

Thoughts On Game Design #1 – Easy To Learn And Difficult To Master

“All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth” (Nolan Bushnell, 1971).

The ideas contained in Bushnell’s quote are some of the most discussed in game development, but I’d like to go over them again. It never hurts to make sure that you understand the basics.

A game that is easy to learn is one that a player can pick up and understand relatively quickly and without a great deal of outside assistance. A great example of a game like this is Tetris. The rules of Tetris are very simple, and its controls are equally easy to grasp. You can give Tetris to a child and be confident that they’ll learn how to play it inside of a few minutes.

Another game that is easy to learn is Space Invaders. All that players have to remember is that they need to kill the aliens without being killed. The controls are extremely simple: they can move from side to side and shoot. Once again, you can give Space Invaders to almost anybody, and they will only need a few minutes to understand how it works.

But why does it matter if a game is easy to learn? The answer lies in the psychology of the player. Human beings only have so much time to invest in leisure. If a game doesn’t start to entertain fairly quickly, people will simply move on to another activity. People also like to feel like they are at least partially in control of what happens in a game. If players don’t understand what’s going on (i.e., why they are winning or losing), they will quickly become frustrated and quit. People hate feeling powerless. In contrast, people enjoy feeling powerful. The quicker someone learns how a game works, the quicker they can start feeling powerful.

There are several ways to make a game easy to learn:

  • Have simple rules. Games like Tetris, Pong, and Space Invaders have very simple rules, and this makes them very straightforward and easy to learn. In contrast most RPGs tend to have fairly complex rules, which can make them quite daunting to someone who has never played them before.
  • Take advantage of familiarity. Racing games and sports games can be easy to learn because they are activities that players are already familiar with. For example, most people who play soccer games already know the rules of soccer. The only things they have to learn are the controls. Likewise, most people who play racing games already know how racing works, all that remains is for them to learn the controls.
  • Follow the players’ intuition. During the heyday of the gaming arcade, gun games were very popular. These games were almost always easy to learn because the basic ideas behind the game (e.g., point the gun at the screen and shoot at the bad guys) were all things that seemed natural to the players.

As you can see, there are at least two axes along which a game can be made easier: rules and controls. Rules can be made easier when they are simple, obvious, or similar to the rules of other activities that are already familiar to the player (e.g., the rules of a sport). The controls of a game can be made simpler by matching them more closely to what feels natural for players (e.g., using a gun to aim at enemies on a screen is much easier to learn than learning to use a joystick and buttons).

One thing that not many people are aware of is that there exist versions of the original Street Fighter game that used two buttons (one for punch and one for kick), as opposed to the more familiar six (three different kinds of punch and three different kinds of kick). The trick was that how hard a player pressed the buttons determined what kind of punch or kick came out. As you can imagine, trying to control how hard you pressed a button in the middle of an exciting battle proved to be quite difficult. It is not a coincidence that all subsequent versions of Street Fighter have used the six button configuration – it makes the game much, much easier to learn since the player isn’t struggling with the controls the whole time.

If it’s good for games to be easy to learn, why do we want them to be difficult to master? The answer can be found, once again, in the psychology of the player. If something becomes too easy, it usually becomes quite boring (i.e., unenjoyable). People like winning, but they like it even more when winning actually means something. Think of how it feels to play chess against someone who is much, much worse than you. You might enjoy beating them the first few times, but after that it gets boring. There is no sense of achievement involved, no feeling that you’re doing something awesome – and people like feeling awesome.

A game that ceases to challenge players will become boring, and people do not play boring games for long. This applies to more than just video games. A skilled crossword player will naturally seek out harder crosswords. A gifted chess player will look for stronger opponents. Elite athletes hunger for elite competition.

Mastery involves achieving greater and greater proficiency at something. So how can we make games difficult to master?

  • Scale the game’s mechanics. The basic mechanics of Tetris never change. However, as the player reaches higher levels, blocks are dropped at an ever-faster rate. This forces the player to improve, and makes the game difficult to master. You can also increase the number of blocks ahead that a player can see, adding yet another thing to the game that the player must master (planning ahead).
  • Include non-essential mechanics that add depth. Street Fighter IV includes a host of mechanics that are not strictly necessary to win (e.g., special moves, Ultra Combos, Super Combos, focus attacks, focus attack dash cancelling, etc.). However, truly mastering the game involves learning all of these things, which is no small task. Indeed, it can take years to learn how all of these things apply to a single character.
  • Provide opportunities for players to separate themselves from each other. In Starcraft II, marines are an extremely powerful unit that is highly vulnerable to area-of-effect damage. In order to master Terran in Starcraft II, it is necessary to learn how to overcome this weakness (e.g., by spreading marines out to avoid area-of-effect attacks).
  • Reward knowledge and better decision-making. Magic: The Gathering is not the simplest game. But what separate masters from average players is not usually knowledge of the rules. Instead, it is understanding of how all of the various cards interact with each other that sets masters apart from average players. Masters learn how to use their cards to maximum effect, generating card advantage. They also learn how to use cards in combination and how to properly process what can be very complex decision trees. You can give an average player and a master the exact same set of cards, and barring extraordinary luck, the master should win much more often than the average player.

A game that is easy to learn rewards you from the moment you put in the first quarter (assume for a moment, that you’re back in the glory days of the arcade). A game that is difficult to master ensures that your hundredth quarter is worth it too.

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