Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War Special: How do War Injuries Feel?

How do war injuries feel? What’s realistic and what’s not? What hurts most and least?

This post is inspired by a specific question from one of the readers of this series (Autumn Grayson). The nature of the question is worthy of a specific answer, yet this particular topic was not something Travis Chapman and I had planned to cover. I spent some time trying to plan where to incorporate it in what we already planned to say, but in fact the best place to discuss how war injuries feel has already passed (it would have gone well with the discussion of psychological effects of warfare). So I’m going to address this issue now, out of numerical order from the rest of our series.

First, let’s make a few things clear up front: 1. What is most life threatening and what is most painful are often not the same thing at all. 2. What is the most gruesome to see is not necessarily the most painful, either. 3. Different people experience pain differently, so coming up with any absolute scale of painfulness is impossible. However, there are certain tendencies that have been noted in how people react to pain, allowing us to make some general observations. Let’s take the topic of how different people experience pain first.

Note this discussion will become a bit gruesome, though I’m not going to show any graphic pictures. But if you’re of a very sensitive nature, you may not wish to continue reading.

Pain Tolerance

“Pain threshold” refers to whether a person feels pain at all–and in fact not all human beings are the same on this topic. Though most of us are similar, barring neurological disorders that interfere with feeling pain. What varies a great deal more than pain threshold is “pain tolerance”–that is, the degree to which a person can put up with pain after agreeing that it’s there.

Some observations include the somewhat controversial notion that men tolerate pain better than women. That is, for the same injury, when rating how painful it is on a scale of 1 to 10, men in the United States in particular and in various international studies will rate the pain with lower numbers than women will use. Cold bath tests, in which someone immerses an arm in ice water (which is painful but does no serious harm) consistently shows men on average keeping their arms immersed in the cold for longer periods of time than women will tolerate.

How much of this is cultural, male machismo merely refusing to admit to pain that they feel as much as women do? That’s both debatable and debated. My own personal observations from the 12 years or so I was a medic in the Army Reserve and periodically would treat people, in particular with vaccinations, or would draw blood for testing, is that among soldiers (not the general populace) women were more likely to complain about the pain of a needle. Though some individual women didn’t complain or even flinch at all, while some individual men kicked up quite a fuss.

It’s not uncommon for women to point out that if men had to give birth, there’d be a lot less children in the world. 🙂 But direct comparisons between similar conditions, such as a woman having kidney stones verses a man having kidney stones, does not actually support the idea that men would be inherently less capable of managing the type of pain associated with childbirth.

In some cases the difference in pain tolerance is clearly physical. People with a definite hand dominance (a group which includes most people) show a higher resistance to pain in their dominant hand than their non-dominant hand. I’d also put in the category of physical differences that indicates redheads seem to experience pain differently than non-redheads, with them being less sensitive to stinging skin pain and spicy food on average, but more sensitive to cold and bone pain like toothaches.

Scientific studies seem to show at least some of the differences in how people react to pain is physical, but it’s hard to rule out cultural factors. Cultural factors may explain why one study found that African Americans consistently tolerate higher levels of pain than white people.

My own observations agree with the idea that pain tolerance is at least somewhat cultural, because I’ve observed some nationalities, say Afghans–regardless of their skin color–tolerate pain much better than other nationalities (i.e. most Americans). I think the expectation of how much pain a person can and will tolerate is affected by life experience–people raised with pain in their environment usually learn to tolerate it better.

Note that scientific studies also show athletes tolerate pain better than people out of shape. This reinforces my idea that conditioning to pain as experienced in cultures with significantly lower levels of luxury than modern life actually has something to do with training the body. Perhaps the exposure to the pain involved with working out prepares people to face much greater pain. Or perhaps a healthy body (as in very fit) is inherently better at coping with pain than an body that’s out of shape.

Related perhaps to our observation about athletes and/or cultural exposure to pain, psychologists have also observed that a state of anxiety can make pain worse. People with chronic fear or anxiety will experience pain more deeply than someone who feels confident and who deliberately relaxes during pain (such as by focusing on breathing, as is taught as a method to assist with childbirth).

One general observation we can apply to this discussion, especially since many readers of Speculative Faith are fantasy authors: We can expect people from cultures like our own Middle Ages or Ancient period to have higher pain tolerance than most people today have. Of course, this wouldn’t apply to absolutely everyone. While medieval peasants, the vast majority of people, might live with pain in a way most modern people can’t imagine very well, not everyone was a peasant–or a highly trained warrior either. The Middle Ages had monks and scribes and tailors, etc., whose reaction to pain probably would be more like a modern person’s than the majority of people from their own time.

Most Painful Wounds

To kick off this section, I’m linking a website that get’s what’s painful largely wrong. (I’m doing so as a means to discuss why the site has it wrong.) The linked set of pages, which are dedicated to the kinds of injuries found in horror movies, appears to be listing injuries based on what is horrible to watch on film, rather than what really hurts. In a counting-down-from-ten format, this is what the site lists as the ten most painful injuries:

TEN (10.) Burning, 9. Slit throat, 8. Eye gouge, 7. Removal of entrails, 6. Fingers sliced off, 5. Broken bones, 4. Amputation, 3. Meat hooked, 2. Genital mutilation, 1. Achilles slash

I’m not saying there isn’t some painful stuff on this list, but what’s wrong is it misses the general principle of what makes something painful–an injury is most painful if it stimulates nerves. The more nerves it continuously stimulates, the more painful it is. So injuries in places with a high number of sensory nerves are more painful than those without as many nerves. Yet the way they’re stimulated also matters.

So where do you have a lot of nerves? Your skin (in particular in your hands and feet), your face (in particular your mouth, nose, and eyes), your entrails, your kidneys, and even within your joints and bones. You have very few receptor nerves, ironically, within your brain cavity and not nearly as many in your chest cavity as elsewhere–though your lungs have a fair number of pain receptors. Nor do you have as many pain receptors within your muscles. So injuries to your brain or chest-located-circulatory system, which are the most life-threatening injuries, are not usually the most painful.

Most painful tattoo sites due to nerve clusters in the skin. Credit: www.beforeyourtattoo.com

And what stimulates those nerves the most? Clean slices, believe it or not, stimulate nerves the least of any major injury. What hurts more is smashing, a.k.a blunt force trauma, mangling (as in an explosion or t-rex bite), and yes, burning!

So looking back at the list I cited, burning deserves to be near the top. Note though that a complete, charring burn, as from dragon’s breath (also called third degree burns), while very painful over the short time of injury and during the road to recovery (should the victim survive), these burns don’t hurt as much as those that produce blisters (a.k.a. second degree burns). So, if writing about a fortress being attacked and boiling oil is dumped on a band of attackers, have them scream in pain–even hardened medieval types will almost certainly do so. It hurts that bad.

What doesn’t deserve to be on the list at all? Slit throat, fingers sliced off, and amputation…assuming a person receives these injuries cleanly. Smashing or crushing fingers hurts tremendously (as the time I got my thumb caught in a car door) because you have plenty of nerves in your fingertips. Smashing or stimulating with blunt trauma hurts your throat quite a lot too (as in the time I literally ran full speed into a clothesline and caught it in the neck–playing hide and go seek in the dark as a teen). But a clean slice to the throat probably wouldn’t hurt that much. Note I lost a finger to an accidental amputation as a child. While I was freaked out by the blood, I felt hardly any pain. No kidding.

Likewise a broadsword swiping through a limb and slicing it clean off will not produce all that much pain–especially for hardy medieval types. They probably would not scream at all at such an injury. Note that even a messy and manged amputation may not produce any screaming (I know of people losing limbs in explosions–for most of them as far as I know, they did not scream).

Ok, back to the list above. Will an eye gouge really hurt? That depends. The interior of the eye is actually not full of pain-receptor nerves–but the outer part, the cornea, is. It may sound strange to say it, but certain chemicals or foreign bodies in your eye probably hurts at least as bad, if not worse, as your whole eye being destroyed. If someone gouged your eyeball out of your skull (sorry for the gruesomeness) without scratching the cornea, it might actually not hurt that bad–even if it would be horrible to see. Yet corneal scratches are very painful–because that’s where the nerves are. (So a skilled archer shooting an enemy through the eye probably will not get him screaming–he’ll probably just die–but if he doesn’t die, he probably won’t scream about it.)

How about removal of entrails? The entrails themselves are loaded with pain nerves (as needed to let you know how your digestion is going), so injuries to entrails are well-known to be very painful. Yet being disemboweled without injury to the entrails isn’t as much painful as it’s horrifying and debilitating. Someone with a gut sliced open with a slashing sword will more likely try to hold the guts in or pick them up if they’ve hit the ground than scream helplessly.

Do broken bones hurt? Yes, they do, especially a broken femur (the long bone in your thigh) in part because strong muscles pull on the femur constantly without you being aware of it and if the bone breaks, those muscles are going to continually stimulate pain in the wound by pulling on the bone. But joint injuries infamously hurt as much or sometimes more. Especially a bad dislocation of knees, elbows, or ankles can cause as much or more pain than a bone break.

Injured tendons will also pull up into the body because of muscle tension, like a broken femur. So a ruptured Achilles tendon (which a site providing a “most painful injury” list by a professional football player puts at #2) is extremely painful. But a cleanly sliced one would be less so.

To round out the horror site list, of course “meat hooking” and genital mutilation have the potential to be very painful. The spine has loads of pain receptors and a metal rod shoved up there would hurt all those sensitive spinal disks–unless it severed the spinal cord itself, in which case, it might not hurt much at all. And while the genitals are sensitive to pleasure and also sensitive to pain, a baddie forcing your mouth open and breaking your teeth with a hammer and chisel would almost certainly hurt much, much more than genital mutilation…but when you affect a person’s genitals, there’s a psychological affect as well as a physical one.

Note that when in severe pain, one of the most common immediate reactions for a person is to shut down, either by losing consciousness or by feeling a rush of endorphins. But not everyone shuts down. There are many historical examples of injured people continuing to fight.

Combat Happenings

An illustration showing a variety of wounds from the Feldbuch der Wundarznei (Field manual for the treatment of wounds) by Hans von Gersdorff, (1517); illustration by Hans Wechtlin.

When I see combat scenes from a YouTube compilation from say, Game of Thrones (a series I don’t watch because of issues I have with some of its content), one thing I note is rather realistically, fights tend to end with big injuries, like a person stabbed through the chest. But from what I see, anyway, the severely injured person almost always cries out. Actually that doesn’t always happen with real injuries.

Sometimes people continue to fight after being seriously or fatally injured–we can say this is especially true for gunshot wounds, which sometimes soldiers report not even knowing they had until the firefight is over. But I can easily imagine someone taking an arrow to the chest and even if seriously injured, not crying out, still fighting. At least for a while.

Note also that while most medieval-style fights ended with one party being severely injured, injuries other than fatal still did happen, where people got hands or fingers smashed, noses cut off, feet spiked though, hard but non life-threatening blows to the head at times. And most of the hardened warriors of the past continued fighting through such wounds. No kidding.

Sometimes a more minor injury would lead to a major one, as a warrior lost the ability to compensate. Yes, sometimes a warrior would realistically scream when mortally injured, depending on if the wound was very painful–but it really was true that non-combatants like women and children screamed more than hardened soldiers or even tough peasants.

Sometimes people would stop fighting without crying out. For example, when people fall from being disemboweled, again, as far as I know, they wouldn’t scream so much as compulsively obsess over keeping in their guts as much as possible. People with a throat cut would put hands to their neck to try to keep the blood in, even if it couldn’t be done. People by instinct usually try to survive their injuries if they can, for example, cradling and squeezing the wrist of an amputated hand.

Usually, when busily engaged in fighting others, the wounded who fell were ignored until the active fighting was over. Historical accounts abound with anecdotes of battlefield injuries in which people lingered for hours or days before dying. I don’t think this is something fantasy stories capture very well. A certain percentage of people would bleed to death, which tends to make people feel cold and causes hyperventilation and loss of consciousness–but it’s not especially painful in and of itself.

But How Does it Feel?

I can imagine someone reading this, thankful perhaps for the info I’ve given, but still feeling dissatisfied.  “But how does it feel, Travis?” I can imagine someone asking.

To go back to my own personal experience, I’ve had a number of semi-serious injuries, some of them during military training. But I’ve never been wounded in combat–even though I have been present to help people who were wounded a few times, there are only so many things I can talk about as an insider, based on what I know personally.

Though all non-combat stuff, I’ve had severe ankle sprain, a knee injury, a finger amputation, a hip injury due to a hard fall (at Army Airborne school), a corneal scratch, accidentally impaled a broken branch into my calf, chemical and non-chemical burns, and have smashed my head various times, most notably in a car accident, among other injuries. I know what those things were like for me.

How does any of that feel?

It hurts. I know that’s not helpful, but describing pain is difficult. There are many kinds. To cover any possible injury in detail the obvious thing would be seek out accounts people who have experienced the same wound you want to write about. Or something similar. But bear in mind that the same injury in two different people may not be reported in the same way. Not only does the type of wound affect how it’s felt, the type of injured individual matters, too. Not everyone feels the same thing or reacts in the same way.

If you would like to talk to me further about any injuries I’ve suffered or seen happen, please let me know in the comments below and I will do my best of accommodate. Or you might have further questions. Or perhaps a reader will have something to add to this discussion, something I forgot to mention. Please free to add your thoughts below.

Leaving Michael Jackson

We have begun – too late, but better than never – our cultural reckoning of the fact that the King of Pop was a monster.
| Mar 13, 2019 | 4 comments |

The HBO documentary Leaving Neverland recently made its splash in the culture, telling the stories of two men who were sexually abused by Michael Jackson as young children. It was not really a revelation; reasonable people have suspected that Jackson was a pedophile for decades. But the documentary stands as a vivid confirmation of those old suspicions. There are still MJ groupies out there who, demonstrating why predators sometimes succeed in victimizing children despite flagrant warning signs, huff that you can’t just assume Michael Jackson was abusing those little boys he lured into his bed. Everyone else is facing the truth. So we have begun – too late, but better than never – our cultural reckoning of the fact that the King of Pop was a monster.

Many fruitful, if unhappy, avenues of discussion might be opened, not least how parents can so thoroughly fail to protect their children. Our normal focus on culture, however, leads us down another road. Michael Jackson is gone, but his music is still here. As we see with increasing clarity who Michael Jackson was and what he did, should we continue to listen to his songs?

This relates back to a larger question, and a larger debate: How much can – or should – we separate an artist from his art? There are no definitive answers; at least, I don’t have them. But there are several considerations that will clear our thinking and aid our decisions.

First, does enjoying the art fuel the wealth, celebrity, or power of the artist? A more targeted version of the question: Does it fuel the wealth, celebrity, or power of the artist in a way that enables his abuses? For example, Bill Cosby might get a little richer if networks played reruns of The Cosby Show, but he would be no more likely to assault another woman. But it might have been argued, twenty years ago, that because Jackson used his fame and money to manipulate his victims, contributing to either would be wrong.

Second, what is the nature and severity of the offense? Very few people would discard a book or song or movie because the creator was an alcoholic. But alcoholism, as terrible as it is, is in another category than the predations of abusers.

Third, how closely did the artist associate himself with his art? Some artists – generally those whose art is essentially performative, but writers have done it, too – craft a persona, wed it to their art, and sell the whole package to the public. If your celebrity is anchored to yourself as much as to your work, there is cognitive dissonance and probably some shamelessness in instructing people to take your art by itself. Michael Jackson’s self-presentation was always bizarre; now it seems sinister. There is, too, self-reference in much art, including Jackson’s “Scream”. Such reference can, with greater knowledge, be intolerable.

Good art is often made by bad people. This is a revelation to no one. We have all enjoyed art while knowing, or at least suspecting, that the creator was a bad person. Maybe, then, the real debate is not at all abstract; we all agree that sometimes you should separate art and artist, because we all sometimes have. Maybe the real debate is all about particulars: Should we separate this artist from this art?

It can be hard, especially when the artist abused children.

Mission Report, March 7–9, Lorehaven at Realm Makers Bookstore

I just got back from Realm Makers Bookstore, helping new fans find great Christian fantastical novels!
| Mar 12, 2019 | 5 comments | Series:

Now more than ever, I’m sure that 2019 marks a turnaround year for fans of excellent, fantastical Christian-made stories.

I say this because I just got back from Realm Makers Bookstore. This traveling wood-between-the-worlds exhibited March 7–9 at Great Homeschool Convention in Fort Worth, Texas. I helped on behalf of Lorehaven Magazine (which I publish), and all Christian fans of fantastical stories.

Scott and Becky Minor, founders of Realm Makers, started Realm Makers Bookstore in 2017. They’ve since taken this show on the road to many cities, fan conventions, and homeschool conferences.

Yet until last weekend, I only saw this enterprise in action at the Realm Makers conference. There, the bookstore is run and attended by (mostly) fantasy authors. Fans made only cameos. By “fans,” I mean Christian readers who aren’t also published authors.

But in Fort Worth, as in many locations that hosted the bookstore last year, things are very different.

Bookstore host (and Realm Makers founder) Rebecca P. Minor helps a guest find and purchase several great Christian-made fantastical novels.

Realm Makers Bookstore: Beyond authors, blogs, and ‘writing industry’

At Realm Makers Bookstore, we’re helping fans find these amazing novels by Christians authors.

We’re connecting with people, asking what they need, and matching them with the best books.

We got to meet so many amazing people:

  • Homeschool moms and dads
  • Curious grandparents
  • Teenagers who love finding new fantasy
  • Pre-teens exploring way over their “reading level”
  • Adorable young children

A typical Realm Makers Bookstore guest meeting:

(Person walks past, carrying shopping bags or babies, likely accompanied by children.)

(Scott Minor, Becky Minor, Gillian Bronte Adams, or myself):

Hello! We have more than sixty Christian authors. Fantasy, science fiction, and beyond. These are folks we know and can recommend.

(optional add-on)

A couple of our authors are here today. Here’s Gillian Bronte Adams, and Rebecca P. Minor.


(curious, comes closer, sees the books)

Oh, my son/daughter won’t stop reading. I can barely keep up with him/her.


We have books for all ages, such as (educated guess of ages of parent’s nearby children). What does your child like to read?


Oh, books about . . .

And off we went, many times, until the parent ended up finding the perfect selections.

Or, if our guest was a teenager, he or she found a fantastic read in fantasy, science fiction, or fantastical genres.

Author (and Realm Makers founder) Rebecca P. Minor shares more about the bookstore’s mission with a guest at Realm Makers Bookstore.

We heard a lot of people say things like . . .

“I had no idea these books were out there!”

“Oh, (name of fantasy-fan child or friend) needs to see this.”

“My child reads these kinds of books all the time. I need to know more.”

“I’m heading to a session now, but I’ll come back!”

(Narrator: “She did come back.”)

(From pre-teen or teenager) “I’m writing a novel too. . . .”

(Proceeds to describe it at length.)

“Do you have a catalog?”

(We did. Plus a free PDF download listing select book info of value to homeschool parents.)

Realm Makers founder Scott Minor helps two Realm Makers Bookstore guests check out several Christian-made fantastical novels.

Lorehaven Magazine: a much-needed resource

We also sold print copies of Lorehaven Magazine. (These are exclusive to events, because Lorehaven isn’t mailed to subscribers.)

As Lorehaven‘s publisher, I always made it clear that this magazine is available free online. You only need to subscribe. For free.

But, especially on the last day, several people bought print copies anyway. Sometimes there’s just nothing like print.

If people saw or picked up a magazine, I would say:

“That’s Lorehaven Magazine. I’m the publisher, Stephen. This is a free resource for parents to help them explore Christian-made fantastical novels for the glory of Jesus Christ. We have reviews, articles, and blogs. You can pick up a print copy now, or subscribe for free online. Here’s a free mission card that shares more.”

I heard people tell me things like:

“Oh, we so need a resource like this.”

“Sure, I’d like to subscribe.”

“That sounds amazing.”

Several parents asked about the content of specific magazines.

If people were browsing certain books, I could share any Lorehaven review of that book.1 Occasionally I’d open a magazine to show what we said about a particular title.

I had fantastic conversations with people about the concept and purpose of fantastical fiction, by Christians or otherwise.

Sometimes I’d say, “We love fantastical stories wherever we find them. But we have a special love for stories created by our brothers and sisters in the Church, if they’re based in biblical truth and made with excellence.”

During one conversation, I learned about one mother’s concerns about her teenagers’ love for fantasy. It turns out two Lorehaven issues, with Roundtable discussions about violence and fictional magic, perfectly addressed this topic. Her sense of grace, dedication to her children’s good, and faithfulness to the Bible were a total inspiration to me.

Oh, the children!

Have you ever looked back and realized someone changed your life by introducing you to an amazing story?

Well, I wonder how many times we may have done this at Realm Makers Bookstore.

One little red-headed girl, Melissa, proved a big fan of Adventures in Odyssey. She loved the AiO books (and a few audio drama sets) that we featured in the young-readers section. As a pro AiO fan from the early ’90s, I struck up a conversation. We both recited Focus on the Family’s Colorado Springs mailing address (as repeated by announcer Chris at each episode’s end). We recalled stories. And we geeked out.

Melissa left to rejoin her parents, then later returned and they picked up a few books.

One teenage reader, Jeremy, also geeked out. He bought books, subscribed to Lorehaven, and shared how he and his friends were writing collaborative fantasy in many genres. This chap was passionate, outgoing, biblically grounded, and a total unabashed fan.

Christian fantasy fan, your mission . . .

Melissa, Jeremy, and thousands of young fans like them are the future of Christian fantasy.

If you want to see this future come true, become a fantastical fan of Realm Makers Bookstore. Shop for the best books at the website.

If you’re an author, sign up for the annual conference.

A fan of these stories? Visit the bookstore when it comes to your area. Later this month, Realm Makers Bookstore heads to Greenville, South Carolina, from March 21 to 23. The bookstore then visits Nashville from March 28 to 30. Next month, the bookstore will feature at Great Homeschool Convention’s event in Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, Lorehaven Magazine will host its own booth at Waco’s Teach Them Diligently convention, April 11–13. We’d love to meet you there and share excellent, Christian-made fantastical fandom together.

  1. At Lorehaven, our review chief carefully selects books, which authors and publishers can submit here. Then we match the book with the best reviewer so we can near-guarantee a positive review.

Theology And Art: Are They Complementary?

For too many bored or otherwise restless and relevance-seeking evangelicals, fidelity to the arts has overtaken fidelity to Scripture.
| Mar 11, 2019 | 2 comments |

Recently Brett McCracken, through a review at The Gospel Coalition, revived a discussion about Christian theology and art, one that we’ve featured from time to time here at Spec Faith (see such articles as this by guest Mike Duran, and this, this by guest Jill Richardson, and this in rebuttal). McCracken’s discussion centers around A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts, a recent publication by theologian Jeremy Begbie.

McCracken concludes his article with these thoughts:

This is a worthy challenge indeed. The arts can lead us astray when untethered from theological orthodoxy and the “normative texts of the faith.” For too many bored or otherwise restless and relevance-seeking evangelicals, fidelity to the arts has overtaken fidelity to Scripture, with the latter deployed as theological cover when convenient, but often not at all. We can do better.

A fierce devotion to Scripture and a groundedness in the “peculiar orthodoxy” of trinitarian Christian faith should be the starting place in our art-making and art-appreciating, not a dubious add-on to justify any and every TV show, movie, or musical work we love. This proper orientation will not stifle or simplify our experience of art. It will enhance it, placing it within the glorious, illuminating frame of the ultimate referent for beauty: the triune God.

I think “relevance-seeking” is an apt description of many Christians today, as if it’s up to us to make God and His word somehow germane or applicable or pertinent to society today. In truth, God’s word is already apropos to our lives and it doesn’t need our dressing it up or our covering it up so that “seekers” will feel more comfortable with our stories.

From Begbie:

The arts do their own kind of work in their own kind of way, articulating depths of the Word of the gospel and our experience of it that are otherwise unheard or unfelt, while nonetheless being responsible and faithful to the normative texts of the faith. A major research agenda opens up here, as well as a major practical challenge to all who care about the arts in the church. (207–8)

Specifically McCracken, in agreement with Begbie, stands against several tendencies among Christians. One is the legalism that makes no room for the arts—and certainly for speculative fiction, I might add.

Second are the works that “over sentimentalize” Christianity—that make “a premature grasp for Easter morning,” ignoring the cross and the days in the tomb that preceded the resurrection. In other words, our stories are filed with triumph without much struggle, without much acknowledgement that sin costs, that it has consequences, that it hurts.

Third is a fairly new type of writing, in some ways a counteraction to the sentimentality that was so prevalent in early Christian fiction. McCracken identifies this as a ” ‘wallow-in-Good-Friday’ disposition that fetishizes brokenness and suffering, as if Easter didn’t exist.” Consequently, too many stories seem to glory in sin and the evil that seems to be winning in a broken world.

This approach fit the many general market dystopian novels that were so popular not long ago—Divergent and Hunger Games and City of Ember—and less so, Christian works such as the Safe Lands or Out of Time series, Swipe and a host of others.

I understand the need to be truthful to our experience, which means we need to acknowledge sin—in the world and in the hearts of each one of us. Consequently we do read and write about broken characters with great needs.

What McCracken seems to say, in agreement with Begbie, is that we need to walk the line between the fallen world and the reconciliation believers find in Jesus Christ. We cannot deny the fact that we were once dead in our transgressions. But at the same time, we ought not make our redemption, our new life in Christ, a mere footnote to the story.

There’s more in McCracken’s thoughtful review, and much that I think can also apply to speculative fiction as well. For instance, Christians can at times seem uncritical in our acceptance of any work of art from a Christian. The same seems to me to be true of speculative fans—we’ve gone too long having Christian speculative fiction rejected by Christian publishers, we may have become overly accepting of all things speculative.

Consequently, I’d like to see more Christian fiction, including more Christian speculative fiction, that is “more Christian.” And also more noteworthy for its artistic qualities.

Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War, part 19: War Costs: Soldiers’ Pay

Pay has always been important to warriors. Whether via looting or standardized pay systems, soldiers have usually expected payment in exchange for risking their lives.

The Travis’ are back with another installment of our regular series on Warfare. We’ve been analyzing a writer’s perspective on calculating the cost of war, developing some tools and thumbrules you might start with when calculating the cost of war in your story, and seeing how this mundane task can yield helpful ideas for your writing. At the very least, your effort to make your warfare come across as thoughtful and realistic (by your story world’s gauge of consistency) will be appreciated by the discerning uber-fans your serving. 

Travis C here. Last time we left off with a detailed approach to calculating how much food both human and non-human fighters might consume and began a illustration using those calculations to gauge the financial impact of war in a fictional world. Our purpose wasn’t to delve into all possible fine details, but to give you an example where doing a bit of math can provide some values for you to work from.

This week we’re going to dive into another significant expenditure of the army: pay. Travis P early in our series described different martial cultures and types of soldier through history. We also discussed some of the reasons a nation and a soldier might go to war. To begin this post, let’s list some of the reasons a warrior might be in the army and heading off to combat:

  1. Obligatory service enforced by cultural norms (drafts and conscription)
  2. Obligatory service enforced by negative consequences (slave soldiers, indentured servants, the draft)
  3. Voluntary service driven by internal resolutions (national pride, personal convictions)
  4. Voluntary service driven by external benefits (both immediate and long-term, promptly realized or speculative)

In the cases of obligatory service, the benefits of being in service might be woefully small, but it’s an obligation that must be served out regardless. As the executor of such a system, I either need a big enough consequence to ensure fear keeps the soldiers going and not deserting, or I need sufficient positive reward to keep them from turning against or away from the system of service. Recent historical examples include American emotions surrounding the drafts during World War II versus Vietnam, and nations that still practice mandatory conscription (for instance, Norway).

In the cases of voluntary service, we can expect some degree of difference between those driven by altruistic feelings, and maybe wanting/needing less compensation for their time and effort, as opposed to those in it for the cheddar. I posit that it is highly unlikely, and therefore needs to be justified to the reader, for a person to serve with no expectation of any reward or remuneration of any kind. At a minimum, the expectation of basic needs being met should be presumed. Because there are opportunities elsewhere the soldier could be pursuing.

Keep that in mind as we discuss historical cases and speculative examples. In most situations there’s an opportunity cost at work–if those soldiers weren’t going off to war, they could be doing something else. Maybe working in a different job, earning more (or less), enjoying their individual freedoms (or not), and living a satisfied and whole life with harmonious relationships (clearly “or not”). The reward and compensation system you put in place needs to withstand your readers’ scrutiny and meet that basic test, or at least acknowledge why it works contrary to our experiences.

Before we looks at the wavetops of historical examples, let’s outline three basic characteristics of a military pay system:

  • It must be sufficient
  • It must be consistent and/or assured
  • It must be in a useful form

Sufficiency was described earlier. There will also be problems if that pay doesn’t come with some regularity or at least with assurance some form of compensation will be provided. And the pay must be useful. If you told me I wouldn’t receive my regular salary in the currency of U.S. dollars but instead would receive it all in the latest digital currency (LoreCoins? BitHavens?) I would likely have something to say about that. That’s been true of every economy over time and should hold true in our fictional worlds. If the soldiers aren’t paid enough, regularly, with something that holds value to them, there will be problems. They will desert, or loot, or steal from one another, or find some way to make it work out that will likely cause further challenges. (For example, the army that fought under George Washington during the American Revolution had continual problems with deserters because soldiers were paid with paper currency that did not have the value that precious metal coins had during that period.)

Biblical Armies & Plunder

Travis P described various historical soldiers through primitive times. To capture one snapshot of the period leading into the more organized Greek and Roman forces, I want to pull examples from the Bible. The forces of the Israelite tribes, especially early on, existed as a militia-type force, drawn from the men, age 20 to about 50, of the tribe and operating together when the collective Israelite interests were aligned, such as against an invading kingdom. Over time, through the judges and later the kings, we see Israel form a standing army through the king’s guard and develop tribal regiments that rotated duty through the kingdom. The Bible does not specify pay for those performing this duty. Those serving were expected to provide their own equipment and supplies. There was precedent for the nation to support their military forces through the giving of supplies in exchange for protection, as we learn in 1 Samuel 25. What also existed was the expectation of war booty.

The practice of looting, pillaging, sacking, plundering, and despoiling was common long before the Bible was written (and continued long afterward). By comparison with many contemporaries, the Israelites were relatively mild. Other than in the case of Joshua’s initial conquest of Canaan, Israelite forces normally:

  • A besieged town would be given terms. If accepted, the town might be put to forced labor, but not enslaved or killed and the Israelites would occupy it.
  • If the city rejected the terms and the Israelites won the ensuing siege/battles, the men might be put to death, but the women and children would be taken as spoils and divided.

The spoils that came from victory would be distributed among the Israelite militia, including shares for those who stayed behind to guard encampments. Rewards trickled down from the top with officers receiving special shares, often for acts of heroism and might. Lastly, while one-time spoils from a city could be distributed among the soldiers, it was not uncommon for occupied cities to pay annual taxes or indemnities to the victors, providing another source of national income. These expectations existed across many cultures at that time, including the Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, and later the Persians.

It feels uncomfortable to write about the spoils of war, but that was a reality of conflict and in some ongoing wars (particularly among poorer nations) is a reality up to present times. What Travis P called “barbarian” armies in fact fought primarily for plunder, all of their pay stemming from what they took from conquered enemies. Even as paid professional soldiers were incorporated into various nations’ defenses, the basic pay of warriors for a long time only marginally sufficient to meet their basic needs. Higher wages could be earned in many different non-military occupations, so the aspiration for gaining wealth through spoils was very real and necessary tool to maintain an army.

Roman Era

Rome represents an organized military example with a systematized method of compensating soldiers at different levels. According to Whiston, we see the rise of regular pay around 405 BC with a stipendium (from stipem and pendo since copper by weight was the common coin before silver was minted) for soldiers paid out from the Roman general tax (tributum) about three times per year. At times Rome also provided pensions for those who completed careers in military service, called a praemia militare after 20 years of service (this number grew through Rome’s history to 25 years or more of mandatory service). These pensions sometimes included lands, working animals, roles in local governance, and exemption from certain taxes. Steve Wills has a lot of great connections between this system, how it eventually fell apart, and the role of pensions in modern militaries.

Spoils remain a significant motivating factor for those serving in the Roman army. Striping the dead of their valuables was common. The hope of riches was a useful tool for recruiting the next generation of legionnaires, and certainly commanders could be expected to inflate the likelihood of gaining such wealth in order to draw more candidates into the ranks. Though in general, Roman soldiers primarily lived off their salaries.

Lastly, some sources indicate portions of a Roman soldiers pay came in the form of salt (and to be fair, it’s also commonly considered a myth). Coinage was expensive to produce and may have represented a hurdle to use in more common low-price purchases, salt would have represented a valuable commodity that could be exchanged for other goods. Hence our connection to any form of military compensation: it must be useful.

Middle Ages & Feudalism (and the Crusades)

Since many fantasy story worlds share medieval roots, it’s appropriate to look at this period for examples of military pay systems. We don’t have space to unpack all of feudal society and the variations of society that existed across this period right now. In fact, many parts of the world that interacted with one another during this time operated under different socio-economic systems. Feudal obligations were discussed in our earlier post covering knights. I do want to dive into a few specific elements of this system. If you are looking for something with more depth (especially for specific definitions), this is one great resource to help authors out.

Across our medieval countryside we have various divisions of land (hides, leets, hundreds, yokes, sulongs, etc.) that were worked by folks of varying social levels. Yeomen, who were freemen, were men-at-arms that held land (often 60-120 acres) in return for their military service. Yeomen would likely be vassals to a noble lord or knight, holding their land as fiefs and submitting to certain obligations to include their military service and financial aids. Working up the social ladder, lords would pay their respective obligations all the way up to their king. Knights could come from the noble ranks above yeomen and hold their lands as knight’s fee for their service or as a reward for exceptional service after rising as a commoner.

When a lord called upon his vassals for military service, it typically involved specific terms and conditions. Due to the agrarian culture, military campaigns tended to happen between planting season and harvest (which was also true for most but not all ancient armies–the Assyrians pioneered fighting year-round, as the Romans also did), and fighting seasons certainly dictated many obligations. Traditionally this consisted of 40 days per year for martial duties due to one’s lord. Feudal maintenance was the money payment made to those soldiers fighting for their lord’s interests executing such duty. And let’s not forget the reality that such small wages could be (were expected to be) supplemented with booty. From one of my favorite period pieces:

Image credit: Project Gutenberg

[Asked to Samkin Aylward, Archer & Recruiter]

“And where got you all these pretty things?” asked Hordle John, pointing at the heap [of loot] in the corner.

“Where there is as much more waiting for any brave lad to pick it up. Where a good man can always earn a good wage, and where he need look upon no man as his paymaster, but just reach his hand out and help himself. Aye, it is a goodly and a proper life. And here I drink to mine old comrades, and the saints be with them! Arouse all together, mes enfants, under pain of my displeasure. To Sir Claude Latour and the White Company!”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The White Company

As the period progressed the system changed to relieve many vassals of their military obligations via scutage, or the payment in kind for military service. For a prosperous fief it would make sense to pay money or goods to meet their obligations rather than provide service in the field. Another unique form of taxation for military purposes was feudal aid. These existed as one-time financial duties paid from vassals to their lords as part of their feudal obligations. Four common milestones included the knighting of the lord’s eldest son, the marriage of his eldest daughter, ransom in case of capture, and when called upon to support a lord during a specific campaign like a crusade.   

The Crusades are a good place to end our Middle Ages discussion. The perceived spiritual rewards of joining a crusade were substantial enough to draw many participants. Early crusade planners like Pope Urban II recognized that financing such ventures would be critical: “If the money be not wanting, the men will not be wanting.” Individual crusaders had to pay their own way, and many sold their lands, goods, inheritances, or financed their participation via loans and with gifts from their families and friends in order to participate. Why would a soldier put themselves under such obligations? Certainly the promise of heavenly rewards was strong, but the reasonable expectation of temporal reward in the form of prizes and new lands was a powerful motivating force. If you are interested in an easily read reference on such matters, I highly recommend this resource from the University of Wisconsin by Zacour & Hazard.

Transition From Feudal to Modern Militaries

Looking at the periods after the Middle Ages up into the 19th century (when many of our modern military pay structures were maturing), we see a transition to consistent pay with reduced reliance on plunder. Ashore, the armies of Europe transitioned from service as part of feudal obligations toward a more formal pay system executed by central governments. Using the British Empire as an example, soldiers had clear gradations in pay based on rank like we see today. Varying levels of skill and perceived risk impacted take-home pay as well; the drummer and trumpeter in the foreranks might actually receive more than a common foot soldier, and neither as much as a dragoon or standard cavalry. Recruiting efforts were creatively designed to draw in those in need with the promises of regular pay and recruiting incentives, starting with the King’s Shilling.

Credit: redcoat.org

“If any gentlemen soldiers, or others, have a mind to serve Her Majesty, and pull down the French king; if any prentices have severe masters, any children have unnatural parents; if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife; let them repair to the noble Sergeant Kite, at the Sign of the Raven, in this good town of Shrewsbury, and they shall receive present relief and entertainment.”
From the play The Recruiting Officer, by George Farquhar

Soldiers were expected to pay for certain portions of their kit from their wages. While basic rations might be supplied through the quartermaster, the cost for additional supplements like beer may have been borne by individuals. For those in the cavalry, this could include the feed and forage for their horses. Officers were expected to provide their own uniforms and generally provided for themselves in most respects. An officer’s appearance was truly a reflection of their financial state. Some nations also practiced the purchase of commissions as a means of generating national income (limited) and helping to assure loyalty to the nation they served. Such an economic decision would be weighed against the likelihood of receiving a positive return on the investment through social influence, prizes, ransoms, or other compensation.  

Pay was certainly a strong influence on the sailors of the day. Volunteers for sea duty were often scarce and “The Evil Necessity” of impressment, that is, capturing crews of other ships and forcing them to sail for your military, was used to crew military vessels of the British Navy (among others). While individual wages were generally low (and not adjusted for inflation from 1653 through about 1797!), crews could be eligible for prize money based on participation in successful combat. Like all things, it trickled down from those of higher rank taking the lion’s share, but contributed a not insubstantial amount of a sailor’s compensation.

Credit: Painting by Robert Dodd, Royal Museums Greenwich

How could nations during this post-medieval period afford such militaries? To some degree, it was access to capital, growth of centralized governments, and expanding their reach into new markets and gaining access to previously unrealized resources. In a circular argument, the need for greater resources required the use of military power to conquer and then hold those colonies against internal and external threats. Hence you end up in situations like the British paying Hessian forces to serve in the Americas, and the American upstart government offering lucrative terms for Hessians to defect (I mean, I don’t know what I’d say to farmland, two pigs, a cow, and citizenship? Sounds pretty good.)

The Modern Military Pay System

Most modern nations have implemented consistent pay systems for their military forces as a means of providing assured defense for their people. The United States and other industrialized nations have systems that generally follow these practices:

  • Pay and allowances are based off of some combination of rank, seniority, time-in-service, with a differentiation between officer and enlisted service.
  • Certain allowances may be treated more favorably for a soldier than a civilian (e.g., some portions of military pay are tax-free).
  • Pay is issued with regularity and predictability. Honestly though, ask a service member for a good pay story and they will certainly have some example where “the system” caused challenges due to delays, overpayments, underpayments, recoupments, etc. There is a lesser degree of uncertainty today than we’ll see in past generations.
  • Generally, there are no financial incentives for military performance other than through structured promotions in rank. You won’t see a general receive a cash award for how well they executed a campaign. You might correlate a major rising to lieutenant colonel a little faster because of her performance and therefore receiving that pay raise earlier than her peers.
  • Pay is issued in the currency of the nation.
  • There are often other tangible and intangible benefits that are used to promote volunteering for service. Tangible benefits such as healthcare, education opportunities, housing, training, and retirement pensions continue to be used across services and nations as a way of attracting talent. Intangible benefits such as the sense of camaraderie, service to a greater mission, and national/collective defense wax and wane with circumstances, but each generation has had something to point towards as an internal positive benefit of service.
  • Taking loot is actually forbidden and is in some cases a crime under military law.

To some degree, modern military pay systems operate against internal competition with non-military employment opportunities. In order to attract and retain talented people, the military must offer compensation that reflects a similar opportunity for the person serving. Otherwise, at some rate, fast or slow, people would migrate away from service into other roles in society and fewer would join the ranks to replenish them. One current challenge the U.S military faces is attracting and, more so, retaining those with significant information technology (IT) skillsets. The civilian market for such talent is strong and aggressive, with many perceived benefits the military cannot guarantee. Why maintain a computer system while deployed far away for long periods when you can maintain such systems here and go home at night? Military leadership has been forced to consider new ways to compensate those technology specialists it gains and trains to avoid shortfalls in those unique capabilities.

Looking into the recent past of the United States, both the Union and Confederate forces come across as having military pay systems similar to today. As this source suggests, the regularity was likely much different as quarter and paymasters had to catch up with moving military units, causing delays in payment. The pay period of every two months is also shocking to our modern expectations. We see a differentiation between enlisted and officer ranks, some disparity between the two forces, and a significant reliance on variable allowances for rations, forage, and fuel, along with support for horses and attendants. We also see the disparity between ethnic backgrounds when it came to pay.

The Future: Where Are We Heading?

We can certainly look around and see the future unfolding. Pure digital currencies? A return to standard-backed currencies based on other rare (or limited) resources? Either of those may come to pass and factor into how an organization (nation-state or otherwise) might choose to compensate those who serve. Stories like Avatar suggest access to advanced technologies (like medical treatments) might motivate individuals to provide martial services when such capabilities are beyond the reach of the masses. Avatar also provides an interesting viewpoint on the role of private security forces that are effectively self-contained armies used for corporate, non-governmental purposes. To some degree the future is here with the increased presence of paid professional security forces (i.e., contractors) in modern conflicts.

Credit: Vignette Wikia

Lady Katie Illustration Part II: Paying for an Army in the Field

We left off with our illustration as the Lady Katie needs to fund 2200 archers, 3300 foot soldiers, of which 1000 are mercenaries drawn from other lands, 400 knights and their attendants, 12 war wolves, and a dragon. All to stand up a field army to fight against her neighbor, the Mad King Crabcakes of Old Seaside, who threatens invasion. We made some simple assumptions and determined her cost for food for a six month campaign would run nearly £19,605 which we pegged to the value of the pound around 1400 A.D. and representing nearly 2/3 of her demenses’ annual income.

My first reference will be to payments of wages during Edward III’s reign and the Hundred Year War. My favorite fictional knight, Sir Nigel Loring, served on campaign during this period, and his contemporary the Earl of Salisbury was paid:

  • £933 for services rendered over three months
  • £2003 for his wages, 23 knights, 106 men-at-arms, 30 mounted archers, 50 Welsh footmen, and 63 sailors aboard ship.
  • £38 for siege engines and other works
  • £37 for sundries
  • £155 for the loss of 8 horses

That gives me a ballpark figure when thinking about subcommanders and their smaller units. But it doesn’t help me differentiate between the types of soldiers and their expected pay levels. I found some helpful information that did break down, by day and by role, some common pays:

  • Foot Archer: 2-3d/day
  • Mounted Archer: 6d/day
  • Knights: 2s/day
  • Cavalry: 18d/day
  • Infantry: 2-8d/day (2d/day for foreign soldiers) depending on rank

Using our earlier estimates of personnel, that gave me a figure near £32000. That’s about the annual royal incomes from Edward III’s period and for Lady Katie will represent a huge obligation to meet. That doesn’t count for paying off her dragon or the war wolves. So where does that leave us as the author?

  1. I need to consider a reason why the dragon would serve in her army. Gold? Jewels? Avoid being hunted? Probably getting a bunch of cows as food will be insufficient to satisfy her during the six month campaign. I need to really dig into a dragon’s motivations for aligning with a human-centric cause.
  2. Mostly because I’m cheeky, I think the war wolves will demand payment in salt. What use would they have, being sapient mammals, with coins? They can trade the salt with foresters in exchange for venison jerky to last them through winter. Similar to the dragon question, we need to think through a legitimate compensation for this non-human entity in the story.
  3. Lady Katie will need to determine what military obligations she’s willing to take in the form of scutage. If some of her baronesses have lucrative economic situations, it’s likely they may balk at providing people for military service. Rather than fight an internal battle at home and against them, Lady Katie may concede to receives funds in exchange.
  4. If she receives funds in exchange for service, she still needs to find sufficient soldiers to fill the ranks. If not filled via feudal obligation, are there enough fighting men and women inside her realm to serve as freefolk? Or will she need more than her 1000 mercenaries?
  5. Maybe Lady Katie has been in this place before and demonstrated she can’t meet her financial obligations to her troops, and there’s a strong current of distrust among her subjects. Once they hear the tax collector coming around and word of feudal aid being taken up, they will react.
  6. Maybe it’s not Lady Katie who is the concern, but her own leaders who have taken advantage of their roles distributing pay in previous campaigns. If corruption is rampant in the paymasters and noble leadership, how will the fighting forces react? We saw this in Braveheart as the Scots recognized their leadership would parly for new lands and titles while commoners would likely see nothing.
  7. If Lady Katie can’t come up with sufficient funds from her coffers, where will she get them? Loans from other nations? Loans from banks? Taxes? The expectation of gaining new lands when she marches into Old Seaside and attacks King Crabcakes? I think, as we noted earlier, she needs to manage expectations as far as looting goes. Maybe she’s altruistic and wants to prevent looting, so she promises extravagant wages and will set up strict discipline again such actions; she knows innocent people will suffer due to her army crossing lands (friendly and foe) and seeks to prevent negative reactions. Maybe she decides this is all Old Seaside’s fault and they deserve to be plundered for making her have to go to war. Maybe she decides to blindly not ask questions of what her soldiers will do. In any case, there are clearly some plot points to be developed from her decision.


Any of those factors could provide a seed for tension in the story. They also represent opportunities for authors to use mundane topics like figuring out the pay schedule as vehicles for deeper characterization.

We hit several historical wavetops, but hopefully gave you a starting point to explore further how various pay structures impacted the militaries of nations through time. The reliance on plunder to supplement no wages, followed by limited sustenance-only wages, ultimately shifted toward a regular salary comparable to many related professional fields.

As writers of speculative fiction coming from the faith, we have guidance concerning not only military compensation, but pay in general. God provides us His perspective on wages in a few places, but his command in Deuteronomy 24:14-15 says it well:

Do not oppress a hired hand who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. You are to pay his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and depends on them. Otherwise he may cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

And in the later part of Matthew 10:10: “The worker is worthy of his wages.”

We have a visceral reaction to cases where work is performed but inadequate wages are paid. Anytime you monkey with this equation, you should expect a consequence:

Effort x Time = Internal Reward + External Reward + Spiritual Reward

As an author you have all the power in your world to leverage that equation and drive the emotions of your characters, and therefore, your readers as well.

Does This Avatar Make Me Look Fat?

It’s easy for our imaginations to outpace reality. It’s a blessing and a curse of being human. Naturally, we imagine what we crave, but what if it’s far out of reach?
| Mar 6, 2019 | 3 comments |

The Matrix turns twenty years old next month. Nine out of ten doctors agree that it is the pinnacle of 90s scifi awesomeness. I still remember watching the movie trailer during the Super Bowl a couple of months before and my jaw hitting the ground when I saw Neo’s gravity-defying bullet ballet. Twenty years later, it’s still a pretty sweet movie, and although it’s politically incorrect to say the Wachowski “Brothers” anymore, movie lovers will be forever in their debt for giving us this classic.

Image copyright Warner Bros Pictures

Despite all of its amazing moments, one part in the movie always made me chuckle. It’s the scene were we get a rotating view of the crew on board the Nebuchadnezzar. Everyone is seated and plugged into the ship’s computer. While drum-and-bass music pulses in the background, we also get a rotating view of a ringing phone, and behind it are the same crew members dressed in pseudo-Goth finery and fancy shades. It’s a scene made purely for the movie trailers, and it personifies a statement made by Morpheus to a confused Neo earlier in the film, where he explains that who we are in the Matrix is the projection of our digital selves. Essentially, we can look however we want in the Matrix, and of course, everyone chooses to look as cool as possible.

This concept plays out in real/virtual life every day. Look at any game with customizable characters or any online message board with a buffet of avatars to choose from. People spend countless hours (and countless dollars) making their “digital selves” as cool and unique as possible. Girls often try to strike a balance between tough and sexy, and guys usually go as macho as possible. Form-fitting outfits to show off curves and/or muscles, cool gadgets and weaponry, tattoos (wink wink), jewelry/accessories, etc. are irresistible catnip to fans of all gaming genres. Best of all, it doesn’t have to make sense in the real world. Did Neo and Trinity ever stop to think about how dumb it is to wear sunglasses indoors? Or how bulky and cumbersome trenchcoats are, except for the purpose of concealing weapons? No; sunglasses and trenchcoats are cool, and that’s that.

There is nothing wrong with indulging in virtual wish-fulfillment when it comes to avatar creation (as long as one doesn’t neglect their real world responsibilities by spending excessive amounts of time choosing the right hairstyle). I doubt there is a person on this planet who is 100% satisfied with their physical appearance, and I guarantee you that every avatar or playable character is sexier, stronger, or generally more attractive than its real-life counterpart. Sometimes, though, this can morph into an unhealthy perspective, where a person identifies more with their avatar than with the person in the mirror. They see themselves as the young, slender, popular, fashionable Sims character, rather than the mother-of-four who struggles with her weight and gray hair or the obese kid who gets teased at school and has trouble making friends.

Image copyright Snapchat

It’s easy for our imaginations to outpace reality. It’s a blessing and a curse of being human. Naturally, we imagine what we crave, but what if it’s far out of reach? It seems that the more society tries to ingest ideas like body positivity and loving the skin you’re in, the more hyper-conscious people become of their bodies, and more aware of their personal flaws in comparison to the barrage of models and celebrities they are pummeled with every day. Creating an awesome avatar is a temporary escape, but only as long as the computer is turned on.

While our current bodies will eventually die and decay, it’s necessary to realize the important role our bodies play in God’s plan for us as believers. Our bodies are literally temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) and are intended to be living sacrifices that please God (Rom. 12:1). So instead of thinking about what is wrong with our bodies or dwelling on a cheap substitute, let’s find ways to honor God with our bodies, which can mean using our muscles to help someone in need or going to the gym to increase our health and fitness. What matters is that we all have a body, but it’s not who we are. It is simply a tool to be used during our short time here on Earth.

Why Are Fans Turning Against Their Favorite Franchises?

Anti-fans are despising many fantasy series, and their attitudes reveal a lot about human nature and idolatry.
| Mar 5, 2019 | 5 comments |

We’re now days from the release of Marvel’s next film, Captain Marvel. But some “anti-fans” already claim to despise this prequel. They seem to be despising this film about as much as they (and/or other fans) have despised the Star Wars prequels.

Or the Star Wars postquels (especially Episode VIII: The Last Jedi).

Or the movie Justice League. Marvel Comics. DC Comics. Or the television series Star Trek: Discovery and Doctor Who, The Hobbit film trilogy, the Ghostbusters movies . . .

The trend goes on. And I needn’t even really comment on legitimate reasons fans turn against these franchises. I’ve had a few of those myself.1 But I can move on with my life. Apart from a few web articles, I don’t make videos, crusades, or lengthy essays about my turnabout.

Others do. And even for legitimate gripes, they can’t seem to let it go. They make a cottage industry out of despising that franchise. Former fans verbally thrash the franchise’s (and its creators’) reputation with the fervor of a jilted lover.

Some of these feelings are understandable. For example, fans may perceive that a story’s creators are literally telling them, “You’re not welcome here.” Some controversies about Captain Marvel actor Brie Larson are grounded in this. Fans interpreted (rightly or wrongly) some of her comments as meaning, “Your kind are not welcome here.” In the future, I may explore more about these fan feelings.

But for these next three reasons, I think anti-fan attitudes reveal a lot about human nature and idolatry.

1. Fans may not view their favorite stories in perspective.

I don’t like saying “it’s just a movie” or “it’s just a show.” Such a slogan disregards the power of stories for good, evil, or both. The slogan also ignores the real feelings of their fans, and the hard work that humans, God’s image-bearers, put into stories.

But what about people who first embrace story franchises, then despise them to the point of making reams of videos or essays about how terrible they are now?

For the record, I’ve seen The Last Jedi only once, and I only felt so-so about it. I suppose this means I also did not receive the film well.

At that point I would say, “Move on. It’s just a movie/show/whatever.”

Only in a prosperous, first-world society would anti-fans have enough spare time to “review bomb” a movie they haven’t even seen. Or to spend hours arguing with fans or the just-plain-indifferent viewers about whether certain directors secretly “hate” heroes like Superman or Luke Skywalker.

No matter your political or religious perspective (but I repeat myself), the world has greater, more terrible issues. Like abortion. Or whatever degree of racism you think still exists. Or injustice, poverty, and the $22 trillion U.S. national debt.

Even in a secular worldview, anti-fans need to get some perspective. Fast.

2. Fans may commit the sin of ‘gluttony of delicacy.’

Fantasy fans have never had it so good as we do in the early 21st century.

Every top film is space opera, fantasy, superhero, or some other fantastical genre. Dozens of TV shows focus on every obscure figure who ever peeped out of a comic panel. And for some heroes, if you don’t like a particular interpretation, you can just wait a few years for the inevitable reboot!2

No one in a starving nation goes to Yelp to review-bomb the food relief truck.

The fact that many fans feel the luxury of criticizing—with personal ire—any recent franchise installment is simply a side effect of this cultural luxury. Whereas a fan from the 1990s and earlier, who is starving for a new Star Wars movie or superhero adaptation, will more than likely take whatever he can get and appreciate it.

Some of that is a natural side effect. I wouldn’t call that sinful. Why not advocate for the best, or constructively criticize when creators simply reheat the old recipe?

This legitimate criticism, however, can quickly turn into a kind of gluttony. As C. S. Lewis once explained, it’s a kind of gluttony that doesn’t look like gluttony. Speaking through his satirical demon Screwtape, Lewis called this a “gluttony of delicacy.” Just switch out a few words—I’ll show them in brackets—and Lewis’s wisdom applies:

[He] is a positive terror to [storytellers and other fans]. [He] is always turning from what has been offered [him] to say with a demure little sign and a smile, “Oh please, please . . . all I want is a [story that makes me happy, completely original but not too subversive, and the teeniest weeniest bit of nostalgia].”

You see? Because what [he] wants is [more creative and less popular-level] than what has been set before [him], [he] never recognises as gluttony [his] determination to get what [he] wants, however troublesome it may be to others.

At the very moment of indulging [his] appetite [he] believes that [he] is practising temperance. . . .

The [fan] is in what may be called the “All-I-want” state of mind.

All [he] wants is a [movie] properly made, or a [TV show properly adapted], or a [novel properly written]. But she never finds any creative or any friend who can do these simple things “properly”—because [his] “properly” conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatal pleasures which [he] imagines she remembers from the past; a past described by [him] as “the days when you could get [really great movies]” but known to us as the days when [his[ senses were more easily pleased and [he] had pleasures of other kinds which made [him] less dependent on those of the [popular culture].3

3. Fans may idolize stories, and idols never satisfy.

Let us never assume that discerning Christians no longer risk twisting stories into idols.

Absolutely Christians can make these stories into idols. How much more, then, can non-Christian people fall even deeper into the trap of expecting more from a fantasy story than any director or writer can possibly hope to give us?

This is plain idolatry: investing a human gift, a human creation of images, with such hope and expectation that the instant it disappoints you, you turn in rage against it.

Like David’s son, Amnon, who “loved” his sister Tamar, tried to seduce her, and then when she righteously refused, “hated her with a very great hatred.”4

Or like anyone who lusts after a pleasure rather than loving it for a greater purpose.

Only God, the prime source of all joy and goodness, of all creativity and wonder and imagination, never “runs out” of these gifts. He is the definition and embodiment of these gifts. Apart from him, to quote (and slightly subvert) the old hymn’s lyric, “the things of Earth will grow strangely dim.” But in light of his glorious grace, Earth’s good things can “grow strangely bright,” as author Joe Rigney suggests.5

Toward a better fan response based in godly joy

Understand, I’ve felt the sting of disappointment with a fantasy franchise

Once or twice I’ve even wondered how I could ever go on now that XYZ is getting rebooted, or taken in a different direction, or ruined forever.

Then, honestly, I have to laugh at myself. What nonsense!

I don’t want to become this kind of person. I’d rather become a happy person.

I don’t want to view any human story as the be-all-end-all of my life. Instead, I want to see human stories in the perspective of real life now, and even more so in the eternal afterworld that Jesus will renew here on Earth.

I don’t want to become a delicacy-glutton, trying to subsist on memories of times I could delight in new stories. I’d rather become open to new experiences and interpretations of stories, for the sake of respecting the imaginations of other people, and maybe even discovering new flavors to enjoy.

And I definitely don’t want to turn any story into an idol to worship. If I did, I would not only lose ultimate joy in God, but I also lose even the lesser pleasure I could have enjoyed in the gift. Instead, I’d rather worship God, the source of all these humans’ creative gifts, and make him my greatest joy. That way, if all these other stories turn to dust, I’ll still have greatest joy. But if these stories last—and change and reboot or even fail—I’ll have a far greater chance of enjoying these gifts.

  1. I myself oppose religious-based reasons to make a franchise “woke,” at the expense of story. Star Trek: Discovery’s first season lost me with pandering “female power” moments and plain porn. And I needn’t rehash my disinterest in the one-regeneration-too-far that is Doctor Who’s eleventh season.
  2. Unlike some fans, I don’t automatically scoff at the idea of rebooting, say, Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man. With some exceptions, each new director’s and/or actor’s version of the hero offers new strengths.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, chapter 17. I’ve added some new paragraph breaks. I also added brackets to indicate pronouns and other terms I’ve inserted to indicate relevance.
  4. 2 Samuel 13:15.
  5. See Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God By Enjoying His Gifts, Crossway Publishers, 2015. Apart from some references to sports games, Rigney does not apply his thesis to popular cultural works, such as movies and TV shows. Whereas I suggest that all Rigney’s applications of Christian joy, to human cultural gifts like food and vacations, are just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from popular culture.

Safe Fiction Is Dangerous (Or, A Review Of How To Train Your Dragon)

Ideas that float in under the radar, however, enter our minds unchallenged, co-exist with the truth, and someday, after they’ve been fortified, may even challenge the truth to a shootout.
| Mar 4, 2019 | 2 comments |

In light of the newest edition of the How To Train Your Dragon franchise, I thought running this article from the archives, a revised version of one first published here in June, 2014, might be interesting.

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boy_w_dragonA few years ago I saw How to Train Your Dragon, the first installment of the How to Train Your Dragon series. The original is a wonderful, fun, well-executed, “safe” production.

The main themes involved parent-child relationships and being true to oneself. Good things, for the most part. There was even a touching moment when the dad tells his son he’s proud of him.

I can see parents happily taking their children to see this movie and its sequel and feeling oh, so good about it. I know I felt uplifted when I walked out of the theater.

But here’s the thing. There are some side issues in How To Train Your Dragon that parents would be wise to think about and to discuss with their children, yet many may draw the false conclusion about the movie because of its happy ending and the reconciliation achieved—father with son and humans with dragons—that there are no ideas that may need to be questioned.

Here are some of the those issues, most not central to the main point.

  • The decision not to kill a dragon (animal rights?)
  • The existence of a “greater evil” than the one the humans saw (big government? big business? God? Satan? Who is the greater evil extorting the “dragons” today?)
  • The attitude toward war. (Father: They’re killing hundreds of us. Son: But we’ve killed thousands of them. They’re just defending themselves.)
  • Be true to yourself. (No matter that your true self is sinful?)

Am I saying How to Train Your Dragon is a bad movie and people should smash the DVD they bought and boycott the newest edition to the series? Hardly! I loved the first movie (and the second) and would recommend it to anyone. It’s family friendly, but it’s artistic, too. At times I thought I was seeing an animated version of Avatar (an animation of an animation—now if that doesn’t say something about the digital revolution).

What I am saying is that “safe” fiction is the most dangerous kind because people are disarmed, no longer alert to possible ideas that may foster a false worldview.

Ideas, of themselves, are not dangerous. I could, and did, listen to the late Christopher Hitchens, an atheist, in a debate about the existence of God, and was unaffected by his worldview because I was alert to his worldview.

Ideas that float in under the radar, however, are another thing. They enter our minds unchallenged, co-exist with the truth, and someday, after they’ve been fortified, may even challenge the truth to a shootout.

For the last thirty years at least, broadcast media as well as print media has taken this “under the radar” approach as a means to introduce a shift in worldview through “safe” stories. In fact, stories like those depicted in Glee and other “harmless” TV programs validated a belief and lifestyle that contradicts Scripture.

But the reality is, “safe” Christian fiction is no more safe than the secular media brand of safe. Pornography, for example, is now accepted by the secular media as normal, so “good, family-friendly” programs, not surprisingly, may include instance of involvement with pornography.

Sadly, the same is true with the Christian media. For example, I read one book put out by a Christian imprint that was all about lust. However, the heroine refused to marry the hero (because he wasn’t a Christian), but she didn’t refuse his kisses and didn’t stop dwelling on them or longing for them or becoming aroused by them. The story came to one titillating climax after another (pun intended). But it was safe since it had no bad words and no bedroom scenes.

That book purposefully stretched the normal boundaries (the author called it “edgy”). What about those stories that are in the Christian fiction sweet spot, Amish romance? Does anyone know or care how Christian the Amish actually are? Are these books addressing legalism? (I’m asking, because I haven’t read any.) Church divisions? (Amish churches have divided over whether a woman’s dress must be double-breasted or not, whether or not a hook-and-eye is acceptable, and many other such particulars.) Or is there an underlying assumption that whatever the Amish do is good because of their safe externals?

More importantly, are readers asking questions about the pastoral culture they lose themselves in? Or are we letting our guard down? Because these stories are about a group of Christians. And Christian are writing them, Christian companies are publishing them, and Christian bookstores are selling them.

As I see it, if “safe” fiction makes us drop our guard, then it is the most dangerous fiction of all.

‘Maquia’ Shows A Different Side of Epic Fantasy

Many epic fantasies focus on adventurers, but Maquia explores the wonder of motherhood.
Audie Thacker | Mar 1, 2019 | 12 comments |

In summer 2018, the movie Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms briefly appeared in theaters.

I knew almost nothing about the movie. But after some research, I thought it might be good. On the weekend it was showing, I decided to take the risk and go see it.

There weren’t many people in the theater. But as the movie ended and the end credits played, I think none of us moved to leave until the credits were finished, and not because it was a Marvel movie. It’s a tricky thing to assume what others are thinking, especially strangers, but I’d guess that none of us were in a great hurry to leave behind what we’d just seen and felt.

The story of ‘Maquia’

The Iorph consider themselves the Clan of the Separated. They are a people who look like normal humans, but who can live decades and even centuries and still look young. They live apart from the human societies around them, and their main occupation is the creating of a fabric they call hibiol, which seems to serve as a kind of weaving of fate and as a way they can communicate with each other. Maquia is a young Iorph girl.

When the Iorph city is invaded by the human kingdom of Mezarte, Maquia finds herself far from home and alone. About to give in to despair, she hears a cry and comes on the remains of wagons that had been attacked by robbers. There is only one survivor, a newborn child still protectively clutched in his dead mother’s arms. Maquia decides to take this child and raise it, naming him Ariel, and through many years and throughout all the other large-scale events in the movie, royal maneuverings and kingdoms in revolt against each other, the story always comes back to the joys and struggles of this mother who is forever a stranger in the human world and her foundling human child.

Mother and child

I guess it’s a bit of a cliché that the main characters of a fantasy story are people who do not have parents, and to some degree that is a part of this story, too. Maquia is an orphan, though the leader of the Iorph seems to care for her a parent would, and Ariel has lost his parents while he’s still very young. But the fact that this movie focuses so much on this mother-child relationship between Maquia and Ariel puts it a bit apart from a lot of other epic fantasy stories, and is in most ways a welcomed change from the cliché.

Yet it shows the limits to that relationship in itself, too. When Ariel is little, Maquia seems to be enough for him, but as he gets older, beginning to work to help them live and growing into that awkward stage where he’s no longer a boy but not yet a man, the lack of a father begins to have an affect on him, and not always a good one. For the men he works with, their ideas of Ariel becoming a man involve getting him staggering drunk. It’s a bit of an irony, then, that at the same time that Maquia turns down a marriage proposal from a man she’s known for a long time, Ariel turns to that same man to help him become a soldier.

The other story

The movie also has a subplot involving two of Maquia’s Iorph friends, Krim and Leilia. If Maquia’s story is in the end difficult but happy, theirs is a tragic one. At the moment the Krim expresses his heart towards Leilia and she happily responds, their city is invaded by soldiers riding dragon-like creatures and is quickly overrun. Leilia is taken captive and forced to marry the Prince of Mezarte. It’s a loveless marriage meant solely to put Iorph blood into the royal bloodline.

Krim is free, and tries desperately to get to Leilia and free her from her gilded royal prison. But as years and decades pass, he falls more and more into hatred and bitterness. In the end, his demands that Maquia and Leilia forget their children, Maquia’s adopted human boy Ariel and Leilia’s half-human daughter Medmel, is as cruel as any other hardship either woman had faced.

The last part of Leilia’s story is the only part of the movie that really rings wrongly to me. Perhaps the best way to understand it while not excusing her actions and decisions is that after all the things she’s been through in the years since being taken from her home and her people, things implied as well as shown in the movie, including her last encounter with Krim, she’s gotten a little too close to madness and despair.

Why can’t Christians create like this?

As much as I enjoyed seeing this movie, I’ll also admit to some frustration, too. It’s a frustration that can be expressed in a few different ways. Why can’t Christian movie makers create stories about motherhood that are as gripping and moving as Maquia? Why can’t Christian story tellers, me and people like me, create stories about characters that are sympathetic, frustrating, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, go through trying situations without convenient answers and escapes, and anything else that keeps Maquia from becoming a collection of sappy tropes strung predictably together?

No doubt, these questions tend to be unfair. It’s not like anime movies don’t fall into trope-fests, just watch almost any that are based on popular series. Nor is it as if everyone who watches Maquia will definitely like it; I’ve not doubt there will be some who will see it and will not be impressed.

There is always an element of mystery and uncertainty in story-creation. It’s one of those things that just won’t be put into set formulas and step-by-step patterns. Still, I wonder what I can learn from Maquia that may help in whatever my next story idea might be.

Maybe that a fantasy adventure story doesn’t need to be about the typical “Dungeons and Dragons” idea of a group of adventures seeking trouble and treasure. Maybe it can be about a seemingly insignificant little woman and her adopted child who have to move around in order to stay alive and keep secret her identity as someone not exactly normal.

Maybe that a story about a mother and child doesn’t need to be overly sappy and sentimental, nor do it’s conflicts need to be overblown and cliché.

Maybe that a story like this doesn’t need to rely on a romance element, even if it does have a slight one in it.

Maybe that it doesn’t need the typical happily ever after ending to have an ending that will not easily be forgotten.

Yet, I also find myself asking the the question in reverse: what could a Christian view add to a story like Maquia?

After all, there is a bit of a religious element in the story, as Mezarte claims that their renatos, the dragon-like creatures, and the prince’s Iorph bride are signs of God’s favor on them. But that’s also as far as the religious element is developed.

I offer this only as a thought experiment, not any kind of way to improve on the movie, but where I able to throw my two cents into adding to the story, I might think about ways of developing that religious element. Was the church just playing the political game with the ruling family? Were their elements in the church that were against the king’s too desperate attempts to keep his power? What about the church leaders in the small village where Maquia and Ariel first stayed? Would they have offered help and charity to the newcomers? And, mostly, what about sin and redemption, especially in the light of how the movie ends?


If the subtext of this review hasn’t already told you that I highly recommend Maquia, then here it is plainly stated, “Go watch this movie! It is well worth seeing!”

Favor the Franchise

It is possible, with sequels and spin-offs and a faithful public, to make an entire career of one story.
| Feb 27, 2019 | 4 comments |

If you pay attention to Hollywood today, you have probably noticed that western civilization is in the latter stages of spiritual and intellectual degeneration. You will also have noticed, by the by, that most of Hollywood’s output these days consists of (a) franchise movies, (b) movies based on pre-existing cultural artifacts, such as books, comics, other movies, theme park rides, and decades-old Disney cartoons, and (c) franchise movies based on pre-existing cultural artifacts like books, comics, etc. The percentage of such derivative works in Hollywood’s modern oeuvre has been estimated to be as high as 99 percent, but it might be as low as 96 percent.

So Hollywood is not terribly original these days. But the reliance on franchise is not a phenomenon isolated in Hollywood. The adventuresome reader seeking out a new book by a new author must be careful – careful that he doesn’t end up picking book 3.25 in an eleven-book series, finale coming out next spring. (By the way, decimal books: a thing.) (Decimal movies, too.) It is possible, with sequels and spin-offs and a faithful public, to make an entire career of one story. A standalone book is an increasingly rare bird.

Movie studios favor the franchise for the same reason that book publishers do: money. It must be admitted that this is a sensible reason, particularly in the case of movie studios. When you’re pouring out money in the tens of millions for a single film, you want a sure thing. How do you know people will like your newest project? Well – they liked the last one, didn’t they? It is a well-worn axiom that the sequel is never quite as good, but that does not prevent the sequel from inheriting the audience of its predecessor.

That truth brings us to another significant fact: People do not seem to easily tire of the franchise. Publishers and studios are looking for a profit, and audiences give it to them. Diminishing quality ultimately ends in diminishing financial returns, perhaps even in the death of the franchise – but along that road a great deal of money is given up to mediocre and even poor installments. Franchises depend on the powerful attraction of effective stories. You never want your favorite story to end, and the characters who have inspired more emotion than half of the real people you know – it is hard to let them go. The desire for the story to go on, the curious attachment to non-existent people, sustains the franchise.

And yet maybe it all is a little too much. Beyond the bankruptcy of individual franchises, we have been trained to a certain insouciance regarding the endless sprawl of connected films. Of course they’re making a sequel. There is, too, a downgrading of regard for those who seem too inclined to revisit old triumphs; Pixar toppled from the creative heights when it discovered the sequel, and no one counts on Pixar’s annual offering being one of the film highlights of the year anymore. This, then, is what I would like to know: Does the paying public want more standalones and more variety, or are we content with franchises as long as they are well-maintained?