Thursday, November 5, 2015

Terror is also a form of Communication

So when I was going through older posts to repost, I came across this one -- Terror is Also a Form of Communication.

The problem is as I read it, it wasn't actually that interesting. Maybe it's because I'm now at a point in my life where I'm doing nothing by marketing, writing blogs, and writing books -- and the blogs ARE the promotions, etc, etc, et al.

However, I had a theme going, and it just stopped.

So, with your permission, let's start this conversation again...

* * * *

During The Pius Trilogy, and during Honor At Stake, I've had characters who are a little vague. And no, I don't mean mysterious. The most vague characters in both are the most blunt, and the most straightforward, and the person who's seemingly the most willing to tell you exactly what's on his mind.

In Honor, Marco Catalano will tell you exactly what he's thinking if you ask him. Just have to ask. Granted, he won't volunteer what he's thinking, you have to ask, but he'll answer. He is rarely evasive, but even when he is, he can be honest while he's lying. Because truth makes for the best lies.

For Pius, Sean A.P. Ryan is the other end of that spectrum.  mercenary,self-described cleanser of the gene pool, and he lists his resume in terms of property damage and body counts.

Both of these characters are a little intense. Neither have to be evil, despite destruction, chaos and / or death. Heck, just look at comic book characters like Wolverine who slash hordes to pieces all the time, and his kill count is probably somewhere in the thousands by now ... assuming he doesn't get rebooted into being a hippy... And then there's Deadpool ...

But I digress.

But you have to make this serve the plot. Sure, it's part of character, but just because it's a character thing doesn't mean you can't make it a plot thing. Just look at the trilogy: with Ryan, he's working for the Vatican ... he's supposed to be training priests and nuns in nonlethal combat.  His third scene in the novel has Sean crippling an opponent -- not many people recover well from a shattered kneecap. And people wonder why I make the Pope a suspect in A Pius Man ... if he's hired this lunatic, almost nothing could be put past him.

And then there's Marco.  One of his first scenes in Honor At Stake, is a sword fight that looks like it's to the death, and you have to wonder what he is, exactly. There are two options on the flap copy -- a cold-blooded monster, or a vampire.  Looking at his actions, and his motions, what he knows and what he says, even how he speaks, he has a slightly ancient feel to him -- maybe just gravitas, but it's there.

Frankly, that's a large part of what a solid intimidating character needs. One needs gravitas if nothing else. There needs to be a certain solid confidence in one's abilities. Look at Jack Bauer in his interrogations in his first season. I think the first one takes place around episode 10 or so, and it's simply Jack and his target sitting in a limo, and Bauer talking in calm, controlled tones, discussing just how badly his target is screwed, and just what exactly Bauer is willing to do to get results. Now, keep in mind, at this point in the story, Bauer has been framed for an attempted assassination, his wife and daughter are kidnapped, and every law enforcement agency in he country is hunting him down, including his own people, probably with shoot-to-kill orders.

And let's face it, what's more intimidating: the out of control maniac, or the one who's sitting right across from you, having a polite, calm conversation about how they will horribly murder you, slowly?  The maniac is a threat, but the calm one allows you to fully appreciate the predicament.

So, do you necessarily need violence for a good, intimidating character?  Nope.  All you need is the implication that there will be very, very, very bad things that happen if someone crosses him/her.

If you want, all you need is a reputation and let that carry it for you -- see Doctor Who in the original post, for example.  Part of the problem with one of the more recent Doctors, played by Matt Smith, is that he bluffed and blustered his way past some villains with the reputation of his previous incarnations. He did very little badassery himself.

Yes, he could possibly glare one to death.
Look at David Tennant in some of his conversations as the Doctor -- "School Reunion," for example -- where it's very clear that he will not tolerate any BS. There is only surrender or death, and only for the enemy. Then again, the person he was talking to at the time (played by actor Anthony Stuart Head of Buffy, the series) was creepy as hell.

With Sean Ryan, his most intimidating is his quiet moments. Like Bauer, or Tennant's Doctor, when he is controlled, and calm, and quiet, he gives the impression of an undetonated explosive.

Though in Marco's case, he's an explosive who wants to go off.

You don't need much sometimes, if you do it right. Heck, a calm, controlled discussion of violence would be interesting. Heck, a recitation of violence works sometimes

But you really do need the gravitas.

Case in point.
Yes, having a 6'5" protagonist like Jack Reacher would help. But then again, Reacher has enough gravitas to make his own planet. However, the shorter Ryan or Kovach can be easily intimidating to even larger opponents -- grabbing someone's little finger and bending it back until it touches the back of his hand will at least get someone's attention.  Or should, depending on if someone's on drugs, or have friends.

Intimidating people on drugs would generally depend on what drugs.

Intimidating groups of people -- who have no knowledge of the character -- would probably require violence, or a weapon. Unarmed intimidation at least needs a crippling or a full takedown if not straight-out killing someone.

For example?

Imagine one protagonist surrounded by six guys -- let's make it Marco. Before the group charges, or gets their act together, Marco bursts sideways, driving a side-elbow into the first guy's throat, crushing the windpipe, then makes a quick burst foreward, kicking the next guy's knee sideways.

Two moves, two enemies down. And Marco's next move is to return to his starting point. He stands their calmly, casually, his little smile on his face, amused, his eyes entertained, waiting, wanting the next poor dumb son of a bitch to consider making a move. Then next person who does think about it, who has even the slightest ounce of confidence? Marco laughs with joy and leaps upon that poor bastard and twists an arm, breaking it, holding onto it, twisting it slower and slower so his friends can watch his agony and listen to the screams.

Marco can enjoy his job.

Okay, Sean Ryan would just keep leaping from one to the other until they were all on the ground or running away (if they had the time), but you get the idea.

A resume, gravitas, and ability are pretty much all you need. Weapons help, sure. Size helps, of course. But it doesn't matter if your character is five-feet tall -- if s/he is jamming a pen into someone's balls, the shorter person will have the attention of his / her target, as well as everyone in line of sight.


  1. "Yes, having a 6'5" protagonist like Jack Reacher would help."

    I hear they shortened him by about a head...

    "Or should, depending on if someone's on drugs, or have friends.

    Intimidating people on drugs would generally depend on what drugs."

    And some other things. Extreme situations produce their own drugs, for starters. And not everyone reacts the same way to the exact same drug, much less to its impurities.

    Take care.

    1. Yeah, they really did cut Reacher off at the knees. Cruise had to work on his gravitas a LOT for that. Reacher is a stoic, solid presence, and Cruise usually isn't, going more for intense and going for a slight nervous breakdown.

      Yes, people do produce their own drugs. Combat chemicals? Yeah. But intimidation usually doesn't happen during a fight, but before.

      Drugs in general really do have too many variations to them for me to go into -- otherwise, this would be a dissertation. :)

      Be well.

  2. It's difficult to write about this, as much of it is on a visceral level that defies analysis . . . but there's a quality of evil that is beyond words. In my work as a prison chaplain, I knew several such people, and I also had the misfortune to encounter a couple "in the field" in Africa from time to time. They're the sort of people where you look into their eyes, and there's nothing and no-one there. There's just emptiness - a lack of a soul, for want of a better description. It's chilling beyond my ability to describe it. They're pure evil. There are no restrictions, no boundaries, nothing holding them back except the knowledge that retaliation will follow as certainly as the dawn if they transgress - and if they want you badly enough, even that knowledge won't stop them.

    You can stop them by killing them, but you can't intimidate them or scare them off. Such concepts hold no meaning for them. When the chips are down, it's literally you or them, and the only way you can stop them is to stop them permanently. Once they've marked you as a target, they WILL keep coming back, even if you evade them once or twice, or hurt them badly enough that they have to temporarily stop the fight. I know this. I speak from bitter experience, and the loss of friends to such people.

    I'm not sure whether to describe facing such people as 'terror'. It's not terror so much as the absolute, bone-chilling certainty in your soul that you're either going to win, or die. There are no other alternatives.

    I hope this makes sense . . . it feels very inadequate to use mere words to describe such encounters. Those of you who've seen "the mark of the beast" up close and personal will know what I mean.

    1. Welcome aboard Mr. Grant.

      From my limited experience, I would usually term what you describe as someone with flat and / simply dead eyes. Generally, not people I want to meet in a dark alley. Evil comes with its own chill factor (chill as in chilling, not as in "cool").

      I would put the quality of evil you describe on par with the crazy or the drug-fueled. And I concur. You can't really do anything with scaring them off. Knee-capping (as a temp solution) or killing them really is the only way to handle them properly ... I know this sounds like I'm discussing a bug problem, but frankly, I think the solution is the same, and for similar reasons (can't have a rational discussion with a scorpion).

      Terror might work, depending on the person. In my case, I generally become strangely calm. Might that be what you're referring to?

      And it makes perfect sense to me.


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