Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Story Combat Realism, part 1--Flight, Fight, or Surrender

Especially in epic fantasy stories, human beings or demihumans like elves or dwarves are often portrayed as fighting to the death with a disregard to danger. Creating larger-than-life struggles is part of the appeal of epic literature, but an author should be aware of the behind-the-scenes psychology of that is normal to be able to grippingly and realistically portray the abnormal. Because it happens to be the case that people don't usually fight until the death--they fight until the surrender.

Many people are familiar with the so-called "Fight or Flight" response, a state of stimulation by danger that can alternatively cause a person to fight or to run away. But as documented in the book On Killing, when fighting members of their own species, not only human beings, but all social animals in creation have a third response--to surrender.

So wolves in a pack fighting to be the dominant member of the group--the "alpha"--don't usually fight until one is dead, but until one surrenders or yields dominance, which is signaled in a specific way by members of canine species, i.e. rolling on the back and exposing the belly. Male bighorn sheep joust, crashing their horns into one another for the right to mate, and on occasion seriously injure or kill one another, but don't usually. They usually go at it until one has had enough and quits the combat, "turning its tail" and moving away. And there are many other examples of this same sort of thing in the animal kingdom.

Human beings also have a surrender response as part of what I would call the "common operating software" that the human brain shares with many other living creatures. It's strongly influenced by culture, but humans usually signal quitting combat by raising up empty hands, showing themselves weaponless.

There are certain kinds of stimuli that trigger the surrender or flight response. For example, human beings tend to be intimidated by opponents who are taller. Which gives a reason why Greek, Roman, and other soldiers wore plumes on the top of their helmets--in addition to making someone easier to identify on the battlefield, such devices makes a warrior look taller. Looking taller didn't help a soldier fight better in the slightest, but it did increase the chances an enemy will feel the urge to run or surrender. (I believe ancient warriors comprehended instinctively that a helmet plume helped them fight, without having identified the reasons why.)

This understanding adds depth to the Biblical account of David and Goliath. Goliath's size not only made him more powerful, it made him more intimidating, which is not necessarily the same thing. Note that the Bible records that Saul had been in many battles and was a noted warrior long before Goliath challenged his army to send a champion to single combat. Yet in spite of his battle conditioning, Saul had no desire to face off against the Philistine giant himself. This went beyond a calculation of the threat the giant posed. It was instinctual--Saul seems to have found Goliath's height intimidating on a level deeper than reason--and David marked himself as a hero by his ability to overcome that instinct through his confidence in God.

Likewise early firearms, while they had the ability to do devastating damage, they were difficult to aim. So each had a practical range less than that of bows and crossbows of the same era. Not only was their range more limited, their rate of reload made them slower to operate that crossbows and much slower than bows. In terms of the ability to kill the enemy, bows or crossbows were not only more effective than the guns that replaced them, they were much more effective. But as a weapon of intimidation, firearms that roll like thunder and shoot flames like mythical beasts (the word "gun" is in fact short for "dragon") were intimidating to enemies in a way arrows could never dream of being. Early guns triggered panicked flight and openhanded surrender to such a degree that the gun was far more effective on the battlefield than bows and arrows, even though it was an inferior killing weapon in the beginning. In other words, it replaced the arrow as the distance weapon of choice primarily for psychological reasons. (Note this is not likewise true with cannons--cannons actually do more damage than the catapults they replaced).

It happens to be historically the case that soldiers have proven more likely to surrender rather than run when attacked from the front and behind simultaneously, i.e. when surrounded. When a route of escape is evident, there is a higher tendency for an intimidated army to run. Running triggers an instinctual response in opposing forces to chase after those fleeing the battlefield (like a wolf chases prey or an angry, territorial bull chases intruders on his terrain). Many warriors in ancient and medieval battles were killed after they psychologically broke and were in the process of running away. Ancient Roman armies employed cavalry primarily for hunting down and killing enemies fleeing from the battlefield.

So the clash of two armies on a battlefield, with both on the line against one another, often ended when one side perceived they would lose and morale broke. And often, especially in ancient and medieval times, far more people were killed on the battlefield after an army broke and ran than before, during what we would consider the normal phase of combat, army facing army.

Roman soldiers showed that disciplined footmen could hold off a cavalry attack even without using the pikes or spears used to break up cavalry charges in other armies. In truth, one of the reasons a cavalry charge was generally effective against foot soldiers came from the intimidation value of the charge itself, horses taller than men galloping their direction, their hooves making a roar like thunder. This often caused men on foot to break and run, or surrender.

As a general rule, troops who are poorly-trained are more likely to break. Troops that are highly disciplined and trained over and over again that surrender is a dishonor, surrender far less often, but still do. For example, while all Japanese troops in WWII believed giving in to an enemy was a grave dishonor and many refused to do so, a certain percentage still actually surrendered. As did even some of the Spartans fighting Athenians in the Peloponnesian War.

Soviet and German troops facing off against each other in WWII had a greater likelihood of fighting to the death than is normally the case, not only because of soldier discipline, but because of the high likelihood of troops being killed upon surrender by either side. A "take-no-prisoners" approach stiffens an enemy's resistance to giving up. But even so, soldiers under the strain of battle, even when they knew surrender would likely result in death, even if they were highly disciplined and had been ordered to fight to the bitter end even then still surrendered sometimes. That's how strong the surrender instinct is in a human being.

So, my fellow writers of fantasy and science fiction, in writing battles, it should happen sometimes that characters feel overwhelmed and surrender. Or run. Or if they don't, there needs to be something special about them that accounts for how they differ from what is in fact normal for human and nearly-human characters.

More about that on the next post covering this topic..

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

7 Ways to Deal with the Problem Magic Poses Christian Fantasy Writers


First off, what is the problem with magic for Christians? Or sorcery? Or witchcraft? (Are all of those things even the same?)

An entire book could be written on this topic (perhaps I'll do that someday) but to keep this as brief as possible, the short reason this is a problem is the Bible has nothing good to say about the practice of magic (neither does extra-Biblical Christian tradition). No translation of Scripture will record the 12 Disciples watching Jesus walk on the water and say, "Wow, that was magical!" Nor is the mana falling from heaven in Israel's wilderness wanderings described as some kind of powerful spell that Moses used, nor even is his rod described as "magic," even though Moses had the power granted to him by God to turn it into a serpent at whatever time he chose. No, the Bible describes events like these as "miracles," or "signs," or "wonders."

On the other hand, when the Bible talks about "magic" and calls people "magicians" or "sorcerers" (you could substitute "wizards" if you wanted), it includes the court magicians of Pharaoh, who resisted Moses by demonstrating to Pharaoh that the power Moses showed from God was not really that special after all. The Bible also makes mention of a death penalty for witches (Exodus 22:18--though the Bible does not record any instances of this particular death penalty being carried out). It also mocks the interpreters of dreams who worked for Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, showed sorcerers converting to Christianity and demonstrating the genuineness of their faith by voluntarily burning all of their own scrolls of magic (Acts 19:19), lists magic as a sin from which the Earth under judgment from God will not repent in Revelation 9:21 (the Greek word for "magic" or "sorcery" there is linked to the word "pharmacology" and indicates the use of drugs to induce mental states associated with sorcery), and in general has only bad things to say when the word "magic" or related words like "sorcery," or "witchcraft" come up.

A verse in Isaiah (8:19) directly contrasts reliance on God with the use of magic: "When they say to you, 'Consult the mediums and spiritists who whisper and mutter,' should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on the behalf of the living?" (NASB--the King James Version uses the word "wizards" instead of "spiritists.")

So this seems to be the basic problem with magic as the term applies in the Bible. As defined by the examples the Scriptures provide: Magic is the attempt to use supernatural power outside of relying on the one Creator God of the Bible. Note I've phrased this so that it does not comment on whether "magic" really does contain supernatural power. The very attempt to circumvent God to gain access to the supernatural is, Biblically speaking, a problem.

"So why bother putting magic in stories at all?" someone might ask. "If magic is an issue, why shouldn't a Christian writer leave it out of stories altogether?" I'd say there are three basic reasons to work out a means to include it: 1) Fantasy is a popular genre with loads of readers. It makes sense to desire to reach them from a strictly analytical point of view. Not to mention it can inherently interesting to write fantasy for people who've read it--and fantasy normally contains magic. 2) Fantasy has the ability to use analogy or allegory to create powerful messages about the world we live in. And what is called in the story "magic" can be a key part of any such analogy. C.S. Lewis achieved using magic that way in the Chronicles of Narnia, in fact. 3) And it so happens to be that magic is a staple of fantasy as much as aliens are a staple of science fiction. You could write the one without including the other, but it would not really represent the genre well for the most part. Or be as interesting.

So, how to proceed? I would say the basic task is to make it plain the magic in the story world is not the same thing as the sorcery the Bible condemns. In order to harmonize with the Bible's condemnation, a Christian writer must make it plain that the supernatural power referenced in the story is not in fact in opposition to reliance on the Creator God of the Bible. I know of six good ways to do this (and will reference a seventh):

1. Only the villains have "magic." 
This is probably the most straightforward approach. Bad guys use spells, sorcery, incantations, and magic items. Good guys are stuck with either plain items devoid of any magical powers, or have supernatural power openly linked to God and under His control rather than theirs (and which is never described by the term "magic"). The Left Behind series actually shows baddies into witchcraft whereas the good guys, especially the two prophets in Jerusalem, call down supernatural power overtly in the name of God. To take this notion into the realm of fantasy, take this same sort of thing but instead of setting it on planet Earth, put it in a world of imagination, but one where God is still God, though perhaps under a different name (e.g. Aslan--though note that magic in Narnia is not just reserved for the villains).

2. Rename miracles and prophets as "magic" and "wizards."
Take a person who acts like a prophet of the Old Testament, but call him or her something other than "prophet." Create situations similar to Moses parting the Red Sea or Elijah lighting the sacrifice to God with fire from heaven, but don't call it prophecy or a miracle or a sign or a wonder. Call it "magic" or "sorcery" instead and those who them "wizards" who call upon the equivalent of the name of God in the story. Or along those lines. Doing this would take advantage of the fact that fantasy readers expect magic in a tale, but turns their expectation on its head so the story magic works the opposite from how the Bible negatively uses the word. Therefore, done correctly, such wizards would really point back to prophets and their sorcery powers back to God's power (by whatever name He is presented in the story). Readers who are not Bible-savvy may not immediately notice that the story points back to a Biblical way of seeing the supernatural, even though that's what it would do. By the way, L. B. Graham, Christian author of fantasy, mentioned at a previous Realm Makers conference using an approach roughly similar to this method in some of his books.

3. Treat "magic" as an allegory for the workings of God.
I'm thinking especially of how C.S. Lewis used the term "Deep Magic" as a description of what the "Emperor-beyond-the-sea" had written in the stone table where Aslan was sacrificed (in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). It stated that the White Witch was entitled to kill every traitor and if anyone denied her that right, then all of Narnia would perish in fire and water. But an even deeper magic said that if a willing innocent victim was killed in the place of a traitor then the Stone Table would crack and death would be overcome. Clearly this references how Christians see Christ dying on the cross for sin, but is phrased as "magic." A story could call other acts of God or properties of God that parallel what we know to be true, magic. Wizardry of this sort would not allow characters to use spells and as such might call for the addition of another method of dealing with "sorcery" (one that does allow spells). Though I can imagine a fantasy story without spells at all in which all references to "magic" are simply to acts of God in allegorical form.

4. Treat magic as a form of undiscovered science.
In the multiverse I've imagined behind my book The Crystal Portal, I imagined there is a kind of physics that operates in other universes that is undetectable here. I conceived of magic as a form of power that flows though the multiverse not unlike how electricity flows through a circuit. For universes closest to the source, this power is readily available. It's subject to manipulation by acts of the will and spoken words (so the use of this power resembles spells), but other universes drain most of the power by the time it hits our reality, so it has never been discovered in our world. In universes that have active magic, wizards are like scientists who study the properties of the invisible and learn how to use it, like how scientists learn to manipulate the forms of energy and matter we know about. Like science, such power can be used for either good or evil and like technology, there are unexpected residual wastes that can be harmful. 

Other novelists have invented other means in which "magic" is either science by another name (as I've done myself in the "Time of Magic" referenced in Medieval Mars) or have stated magic is an undiscovered science. Note that making sorcery equal science may create a story universe very similar to ones written from a non-Christian perspective, of the sort that have wizards and spells. But the difference is the kind of story that creates magical power which can be used in a neutral sense isn't really supernatural power anymore. It's the power derived from the ordinary physical world as much as photography, internal combustion engines, and atomic power is. What is called "magic" really should be considered part of the natural order.

It still would be possible for someone to seek supernatural power in an illicit way in such a story world (as magic is referenced in the Bible). Which would make the sin of witchcraft, i.e. trying gain supernatural power while circumventing God, a separate thing from the use of magic, which would in fact be science by another name or in another form.

5. Blend the lines between the supernatural and natural.
What I just suggested in effect blends the supernatural and natural by making acts that would appear to be supernatural merely the acts of a type of science instead. But I'm suggesting here applies stories that go the opposite way. 

Instead of giving everything a natural explanation, nothing has one. Everything is off-the-rails strange and nothing can be said to be a deliberate attempt to achieve the supernatural without God because everything (or most everything) is already supernatural from the point of view of planet Earth as we know it. I'm thinking of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz type story universes, where scarecrows and rabbits talk, where changing your size is a matter of what you eat and drink, and tornadoes will transport a house to another land without killing its occupants. If magic is so worked into the fabric of everything that it isn't special and using it is as natural as walking and breathing then that sort of magic does not relate to the Biblical condemnation of people seeking the supernatural without God. Though such a story can shut out God by never mentioning Him and can act as a sort of allegory for witchcraft, it certainly does not have to be. A story universe like this can just as soon mention God in various ways, even though the classic examples I mentioned do not.

6. Treat magic as an innate special ability in analogy to spiritual gifts.
This approach in some ways is a subset of #5, but can also employ notions of #4 as well. It might seem logically contradictory for a story to be both more and less scientific in its approach to the supernatural at the same time, but the author I know who uses this method makes both work. Kat Heckenbach in both Finding Angel and Seeking Unseen (both these books are listed on her website that I linked) treats the power of magic as a gift that an individual has, given from beyond herself or himself. As such, her approach runs parallel to what the Bible has to say about spiritual gifts, almost forming an allegory of them. Yet since working the supernatural is just a natural ability, she in effect makes the supernatural more common and ordinary as per point #5. But at times she gives specific descriptions of how someone's ability affects matter or energy in terms someone who has studied science on planet Earth would recognize. Which goes back to #4. In truth, Kat's approach is unique, but her basic idea of making magic an inherent gift the magic user possesses can well harmonize with a worldview that does not include witchcraft in the Biblical sense of the term.

7. Downplay the Biblical objection in the first place.
This approach would be to either ignore altogether what the Bible says about magic or claim it only references a specific kind of attempt to gain supernatural power without God. I have heard people use the verse I quoted in Isaiah to claim the Bible does not condemn all magic, it only condemned necromancy, that is, trying to interact with or raise the dead. Which is why I gave examples outside of Isaiah. No, the Bible condemns far more that just necromancy. It takes a broad shot at magic as a whole, though we need to understand by study what that really means.

I don't recommend approach #7. I think one of the things that distinguishes an overtly Christian writer of speculative fiction is the attempt to work these issues out by some means or other. Not to ignore them. It does not mean conformity to just one way of thinking and it doesn't mean it's impossible to be creative or imaginative. (Kat certainly is creative in her solution.)

There's no reason in most cases to use just one of 1-6 above. In some instances, you can blend two or more of them. Or create your own. I'd be fascinated to see in comments below if there are any other methods to resolve this issue that I didn't think of. If you have an idea, please share it. (thank you) :)

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