The Fine Science of Stupendous Badassery

As usual, I am in the process of putting together a new science fiction/fantasy setting in which to set stories, novels, and potentially a homemade RPG or two. This one is space operatic, so we’re talking giant spaceships, exotic aliens, high adventure, and a healthy dollop of weirdo mysticism. You can read a bit about the world here, if you like. Talking about it, though, isn’t the central thesis of this post. What I want to talk about is the creation of a badass.

Not your basic, run-of-the-mill, loner badass, though. I’m talking one of a whole society of badassery. My world needs a class of super-dudes that every little kid wants to be for Halloween. The dude who gets top billing on all the movie posters. The guy who cosplay fanatics break their wallets to dress as. How does one create such a thing? Well, once you allow for lightning to strike so that your book is the most popular thing ever, the rest comes down to a kind of basic character alchemy. You find stuff that’s awesome and you add it up together somehow. Here’s my process, as it stands:

Step #1: Pick Ninja, Pirate, Samurai, or Marine

Nice start, right?

Nice start, right?

Okay, okay – I know somebody is going to start crowing about their Ninja Pirate, so lets just cut this one right off at the start: you don’t get two. You might think you get two, but you don’t. Ninjas are sneaky assassins who study the arts of subtlety and stealth to kill their enemies. Pirates are brash, freedom loving duelists who excel at pithy dialogue and clever tactics. Samurai are honor-bound super-warriors with a stoic demeanor and ancestral codes of respect. Marines are tough-as-nails destruction artists who believe in their survival and the survival of their men in situations that usually overshadow their apparent abilities. You can try adding some of these together, but it quickly becomes a muddle. Pick one to start.

I pick Samurai.

Step #2: Does He Have A Gun or a Sword?

Sure, he can have a gun and a sword, but which is his favorite? Which is the thing he uses most, the thing that defines him best. And by ‘sword’, by the way, I don’t mean it has to be a sword. I mean does he fight with his hands, or does he blow stuff away from a distance? In the first place, you’re creating a group that is up close and personal in their battles. You should expect to write a lot of duels between individuals or small groups. If you’ve got a guy who is worshipping the gun, he blows up big things and guns down hordes of nobodies like its nothing. For that character, combat isn’t a contest of individual wills but rather an environment to be survived, akin to a violent storm or a sweltering desert. You aren’t going to zoom in on everybody they blow away, but you will be following their trail of destruction with a variety of crane/wide shots (to use movie terminology).

I pick sword.

Step #3: Barbarian or Sophisticate?

Listen up, you primitive screwheads: this is my BOOMSTICK.

Listen up, you primitive screw-heads: this is my BOOMSTICK.

Is your group of bad-asses on the inside or the outside of the social order/civilization? For example, the Fremen are outside, whereas the Adeptus Astartes (the Space Marines) are inside. The Jedi began on the inside and wound up outside, but they really belonged inside all along. Barbarians are there to destroy or conquer the corrupt society, whereas sophisticates are there to protect the jewels of civilization from the barbarous ravages of the uncivilized. They are two halves of the same coin and, while they may switch sides during the story, there is a default setting to be considered.

I pick Sophisticate.

Step #4: Walk or Ride?

Does your dude go about his business on foot, or does he ride/fly/pilot himself into his incredible acts of derring-do? If he’s on foot, to some extent this means he is a part of the fabric of the battlefield. He cannot leave at a whim – his story has him bracketed by circumstance, trapped in situations he must either resolve or be destroyed by. If he rides, he swoops in suddenly and can depart suddenly, too. He is aid unlooked for, and therefore often operates alone. This is the difference, essentially, between the fighter pilot and the grunt: the fighter pilot has a plush airbase to fly back to, while the grunt hunkers down in the mud and holds on with his dirty fingernails until the job is finished. Most of your superhero types ‘ride’ in some way (Superman’s ability to fly basically counts), while your grittier heroes get stuck in.

I pick Ride.

Step #5: Born to Rock or Tooth-and-Nail?

Do folks who become badasses of this variety become so by virtue of birth (like Jedi or Aes Sedai), or do they choose to become this thing, forsaking all other goals in the pursuit of their awesomeness (Shaolin Monks)? In the first place, they are engineered to be awesome, which gives them a certain aura. In the second case, they are mentally determined and driven to succeed, which gives them a certain grit.

I pick Born to Rock.

Step #6: Magic or Muscle?

What is the secret to their super-ness? Do they have access to unique tools or superhuman talents or, instead, do they learn that the most dangerous weapon is just their own will to win? In the first place we’ve got your Jedi and your samurai and your cyborg super-soldiers. In the second place we’ve got your kung-fu masters, battle-tested campaigners, and your Dirty Dozen-esque commandos.

I pick Magic.

Step #7: Work It All Together

I’ve got myself a Magic Sophisticated Samurai, born to rock while Riding with his Sword. In my science fiction setting, this works out to my Dryth Solon using super-advanced nano-technology and quasi-organic armor to fly through space ripping things apart with his incredible nanite-blades, having become so by being raised from birth to be the supreme arbiter and bearer of his House’s honor and word. Cool, right?

Try this little system with other famous groups of badasses:

Jedi: Samurai, Sword, Sophisticate, Walk, Born to Rock, Magic

Space Marine: Marine, Gun, Sophisticate (or Barbarian, depending on chapter), Walk, Tooth-and-Nail, Magic

The Kingsguard: Samurai, Sword, Sophisticate, Ride, Tooth-and-Nail, Muscle

The Fremen: Ninja, Sword, Barbarian, Ride, Tooth-and-Nail, Muscle

And so on and so forth…

It might be incomplete, but tell me I’m wrong.



About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on October 15, 2013, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I think the first one is the hardest to define by organisation, especially diverse or individual ones:

    Space Marines might have marine in their name but most of them would probably be closer to Samurai (Ultramarines and their ilk), some might be Pirates (Space Wolves…) while others might even be Ninjas (Raven Guard), it is actually hard to find a fit for the pragmatic nature of the Marine in any chapter, possibly Raptors or, if Ninja doesn’t fit, Raven Guard.

    The same goes with the Kingsguard: They might be intended to be Samurai but most of them seem to be Pirates or even Marines.

    I also find the Walk or Ride point a bit confusing, especially with your rundown at the end, why do Fremen ride but Jedi and Space Marines walk?

    Still, an interesting article and a good read. 🙂

    • Well, I’d say that as much as the Space Marine chapters waver by tactical doctrine, they are *still* big guys who don’t die easy and fight against impossible odds. Space Wolves I can see the ‘Pirate’ argument, but they don’t so much win battles by ‘cleverness’ than by ‘being really, really strong.’ The primary reason I went Marine over Samurai for them is because the ‘code of honor’ that the Astartes live by is extraordinarily loose. Even the most contemplative chapter will do whatever is necessary to win most engagements, with *possible* caveats allowed for civilian casualties or collateral damage. In essence, their code is *less* important than their victories, hence Marine.

      As for the walk/ride thing, the idea goes like this: do they swoop in, kill stuff, and swoop out? Fremen do (they ride their worms or whatever, kill Harkonnen, then vanish into the desert sands), but Marines often do not (Raven Guard notwithstanding, Marines tend to get stuck in and fight grueling battles with massive casualties that last for days and days). The Jedi, likewise, are eye-ball deep in the mud with the grunts most of the time. They have transportation, sure, but they aren’t there for a moment and then gone. They stick around until the job is done, and the job usually takes some time. Also, the transportation isn’t part of their ‘primary character’. When you think ‘Fighter Pilot’, they’re flying an airplane. When you think ‘Space Marine’, they’re standing on a battlefield, bolter in hand, while lasbolts ping off their paldrons.

      Take the Dothraki, for example. They swoop in on horseback, take what they want, and then depart, never staying in the same place. Same with the Ironborn, more or less. The essence of who they are is caught up with their steed/vessel, they define themselves by it. Space Marines don’t identify with their drop pods or Thunderhawks, nor do Jedi define themselves by whatever ship they happen to be chartering. Such is my reasoning, anyway.

      • Thank you for clarifying walk or ride, though I still would say that Space Marines at least would be riding, at least in how I view them – they are very much defined by drop pods, thunderhawks, rhinos and land raiders. This sort of ties in with our differing view of them in step #1 too I think: Marines might end up in gruelling battles but it is not their purpose, they usually drop in hard, cause massive damage and then remobilise for the next strike. Their code isn’t that loose either in my view, it is simply a matter of differing interpretations (just like Bushido had different interpretations), but they still tend to have a chapter code which is very much serious business within the chapter.

        This, for me, is the classic image of Space Marines:

      • I would agree, but to me that doesn’t say ‘speed’, that says ‘we are here to stay’. I’m aware that the technical role of the Astartes are rapid strike, but that idea is pretty much never, ever been done in any piece of fluff I’ve ever read. It’s what GW tells us they do, but it is not, in fact, what they do. It isn’t how they operate on the tabletop, it isn’t how they operate in the Black Library books, and it isn’t how the tales of their battles are conveyed in the codexes. They stick, they don’t fade back. That’s Tau, Eldar, and (to a lesser extent) Necrons.

        Yeah, they arrive suddenly, but they don’t depart and they don’t flit around and they don’t finish their business in the blink of an eye. That’s somebody who rides. It’s the difference between a tank and a jet fighter. Marines are tanks.

      • It might be better with the definition being “tank or plane” than since that makes it a lot clearer for me at least and also contains other useful connotations. Still, I see what you mean and it is always interesting to try and understand the interpretation of another fan of something you yourself like.

        As for the stories, I guess it comes down to 99% of a Space Marine’s action is so successful that there really is no story to it; they hit, things go boom and they move on (some books do contain some actions of that nature in the beginning of the stories). It is probably easier to make a story interesting by simply screwing up the Space Marines so that their normal way doesn’t work and they have to overcome new challenges.

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