Sometimes, you just need to up your power level so you can master the ultimate technique and open yourself to the universe, which means it’s training time. Training is a common feature of spec fic, and it can be a lot of fun. It can also be an absolute drag, as the heroes grunt and groan for hours on end, just to raise some meaningless numbers. How do you keep that second one from happening? Listen and find out!
Generously transcribed by Darian. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Oren: And welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is…
Oren: And so I was worried that our podcast level might be too low. So I’ve been training in the Hyper-Podcasting-Time-Chamber! And now, my podcast count is OVER THREE HUNDRED!
Wes: WOOOOAH! So much experience![laughter]
Oren: Three hundred and thirty five, specifically, when this episode airs.
Wes: Oh, wow, you are SO strong. What level even ARE you?
Oren: So many podcasts! …So, we’re talking about training today. Fictional training, not real training. God, I’m not gonna… I don’t want to talk about real training. But fictional training, that… I’ve been watching a lot of anime recently. So I have OPINIONS about it.
Chris: [laughs] It’s surprising how often it comes up. I think in speculative fiction in particular—because we just LOVE our scrappy heroes that become powerful. Not that other genres don’t do this, but I think in speculative fiction it might be more common.
Wes: It’s true. You don’t really see the hard-boiled detective needing to beef up.[laughter]
Oren: To practice his… his detective-ing?[laughter]
Chris: Especially since when you have magic or tech involved, people can be REALLY powerful. And so you can definitely take somebody from just a normal scrub to badass very quickly if you want to.
Oren: Right. Also, I don’t know what a detective training regimen would look like. I can’t imagine that, other than it being very silly.
Wes: I’m thinking just lots of cigarettes, and like… furrowed brow repetitions, you know? And then the brows would get… even bushier?
Oren: Maybe it’s just a bunch of hidden object games. Can you find the one interactable object?
Wes: Just, impossible Waldo levels.
Chris: Here’s how to make your office look really grubby. Like you’re very poor. You never get any work.
Wes: I would watch that montage.[laughter]
Oren: Although you CAN have training sequences for non-physical things. There are training sequences for etiquette quite often, that’s the thing that I see a lot of.
Chris: Gotta know how to schmooze with the nobility, or what have you.
Wes: And walk with a bunch of books stacked on top of your head.
Oren: Trying to memorize what all the different fashion stuff means… There are some kind of unusual ones. Like my favorite training thing ever is the Firefly episode where they have to raid a hospital. And they’re practicing being paramedics.
Chris and Wes: Oh, wow, yes. That’s so good. [laughter]
Oren: And Jayne for the whole episode is trying to remember, you know, “We applied the cortical electrodes, but we’re unable to get a response from either patient,” and he’s practicing that for the whole thing. And then he gets there, and he doesn’t have to say it, ‘cause they just waved them through, and then he says it anyway! Oh, no!
Chris: So good.
Oren: It’s SO great. And that’s a little different than a normal training montage, because that’s just them practicing to do ONE thing. It’s not like they become paramedics after that. Most training in spec fic is training to become permanently better at something. And you typically see it for fighting, although I just mentioned you can see it for other things. You see it a lot for magic, especially magic fighting…
Chris: [in a monotone] There is no spoon.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, there is that, although it’s notable that Neo doesn’t really train very much. He just awakens at some point, I think because… Trinity kissed him?
Chris: He does have a training sequence with Morpheus. Even a fighting sequence, where Morpheus lectures him on how, “why are you still breathing? That’s not air…” Tries to get him used to the idea that he’s not bound by the constraints of reality. That “there is no spoon” mindset.
Wes: Very Highlander. When Sean Connery is pointing things out, and he’s just like, “Ah, yes, that’s the Quickening. Do you sense the beating heart of that elk?” And he’s like, “I do!” And then they have a romantic run down the beach.[laughter]
Wes: I watched a lot of training montages today, you guys.[more laughter]
Oren: The Matrix, though, is very smart and cheats out of a lot of the boring stuff by just having Neo download all of his martial arts directly into his head.
Wes: That’s cool though, when he just opens his eyes and says, “I know kung fu,” and he says, “Show me.” That was great.
Oren: That is unironically a good idea in the story. It’s both cool for novel purposes, AND it allows us to skip directly to the interesting part of the training, which is actually something that I need to talk about. Because I’m not gonna say who did it, but it was Demon Slayer. Demon Slayer did it. [laughter] Where we just see the characters doing… repetitive tasks, a lot. And it’s not lifting weights, because it’s weird anime training, but it’s basically as if we were just watching them lift weights. And it would be like if we had to watch Neo go through and learn all of his kung fu moves by long repetition of practice. And that’s boring. I don’t want to watch that.
Chris: Yeah, we have a half-hour episode where music is playing in the background, we just watch Neo, like… do his kung fu practice… [laughs]
Oren: Yeah, I don’t wanna watch that. So, by downloading all of that into his head, The Matrix created both a cool sci-fi thing AND a believable way that they could skip right to the fun part of the training, which is trying to get Neo to stop acting like he’s in a physical world. THAT part’s fun. I want to watch that part. Because that’s not just slow, repetitive movement. That is trying to get Neo to register a new level of consciousness or what have you.
Chris: Should we talk about building a training arc, then?
Oren: Yeah, I was going to say. Because you can use training as an actual story. That can be a conflict. And if you’re going to do that, you need to have a thing that your character is trying to achieve. It can’t just be some abstract, like, “I need to get my power level higher.” Or at least, it shouldn’t be. It can, but that’s kind of meaningless.
Chris: It’s going to be a lot easier to show why it matters if it’s something specific. Not only that, but you have to show a turning point in the mastering of it. [laughs] And so, if it’s specific, it’s a lot easier to actually SHOW a difference there, from start to end.
Oren: Hot take, but Avatar the Last Airbender—pretty good show, I would say!—has some very good training conflicts. For example, the one that I think is the best—there are many good ones—but the one that I like the most is when Aang is trying to learn earthbending for the first time. And this isn’t like, “if he does this, he will have mastered earthbending.” He is trying to get to the point where he can move a rock with his earthbending form. And that’s a single goal, and it is achievable, and you can see why it matters, and it’s a tangible thing in the story. And then we build a cool arc around it because he isn’t in the right state of mind to be able to move rock, because he’s an airbender and he doesn’t think that way…
Chris: I want to emphasize that a little bit, because we know a specific reason WHY Aang is having trouble mastering this thing. And again, that becomes important because if you need to show a turning point where the hero actually turns things around and masters it, and have that make sense, you usually need to know why they can’t do it. So in this specific episode, it communicates that the reason why Aang cannot move a rock is that he is not in the right mindset. Whereas in other places it might be like, they’re not dedicated enough, or… there can be other reasons. You don’t have the commitment. You’ve got to [in a different voice] “let go of your earthly desires!”
Oren: You could honestly say that the chakra section is another training part. And that part is bad.
Oren: Like, re-watching the chakra stuff, it’s SO boring. ‘Cause the guy is like, “You need to do this to unlock your chakra.” And he’s like, “Okay.” And then he does it. And then we get to the conflict and he’s like, “You have to let go of Katara.” And it’s like, what does that mean?
Chris: It doesn’t seem like a desirable outcome.
Oren: And what it sounds like is, Aang has to give up his feelings for Katara. And… I don’t ship Aangtara, so that wouldn’t be a huge problem for me, but it’s clearly not something that Aang would want to do. And then he apparently does it, but he still clearly has feelings for Katara. So… what? What was that? [laughter] What was it that he was letting go of, exactly?
Chris: But for the earthbending sequence, we know specifically that Aang, as an Airbender, is used to darting and dodging around and not used to standing his ground.
Oren: And a lot of training stories that I’ve seen—especially in my client work, but I see this in published stories too—will just have a problem where the issue is that the character isn’t, like, concentrating enough. And the teacher will just say, “Concentrate!” or “Feel it!” And that’s not actionable. Like, if you tell someone to concentrate harder in real life, there’s nothing they can do. There’s no setting on their brain they can change that allows them to concentrate harder.
Wes: And that’s just why good mindfulness practices tell you to, like, focus on your breath. It’s just a nice, quick lexical shift to something actionable. It’s like, I understand what that means. Okay. I will try.
Oren: Or in stories where emotion is important, do things to stimulate the emotion you want. Because very often it’s like, “You need to be happy. If you’re not happy, then you can’t… make the magic go.” Or “You have to be angry. And if you’re not angry, the magic won’t go.” And it’s like, okay, well, I can’t just become angry by sitting here. I have to DO something to be angry. So you could be like, “Think of someone you really hate. Imagine their face. TODD.” [laughter] That’s an actionable thing. Or if you want to be happy, sing a song from your childhood, a song that makes you happy. There are things you can do to make this happen, but you have to make them TANGIBLE.
Chris: And the other thing that happens is that you do want some stakes for the training sequence. Why does the hero need to learn this? Why is it important? Now for Aang, his training is basically part of the throughline of the whole series. We know he has to learn it so that he can defeat the Fire Lord. So we have a specific reason why this is important. But in a lot of training sequences, they’re supposed to learn this new cool, fancy move. Why do they need to know the cool, fancy move? It’s gotta be beyond the satisfaction of having leveled up. There needs to be something specific that they are supposed to do in the plot or the story that requires them to make this breakthrough.
Oren: And another thing you can do with training is, it can be something that happens in downtime, that you skip over. And that’s just useful for a number of reasons. One, it can be a reward for accomplishing a task. I’m not a huge fan of the anime Yu Yu Hakusho, but it has a pretty good sequence like this, where the protagonist is like, “I wanna train with that cool master lady, and she’s badass, and I wanna train with her!” So he has this whole story arc of trying to earn a place as her student. And then we come back the next season, and he trained with her offscreen. Because he earned that—there was a whole conflict about it—and we didn’t have to WATCH him train. Because at that point he’s just getting stronger. So you just have that happen offscreen, and you’re good to go.
Chris: Or you could have it in the background, while other things are happening. Like, if you imagine in Star Trek: The Next Generation, we know that the characters play poker. [laughs] Because we have scenes where we see them playing poker. But usually when they play poker, there’s some other point to the scene, right? They have a discussion, or there’s drama, or they notice some weird pattern with the numbers that has to do with the space anomaly they’re in… And the fact that they happen to be doing poker isn’t what is driving the scene, but it also establishes that they’re people who get together to play poker. So similarly, with training, we can open the next chapter, or episode, or what have you, showing the character training with their mentor and then they can get in a plot relevant discussion. But we’ve seen them there together, and we know that they’re doing it.
Wes: Yeah, I like that. It’s kind of multitasking, right? That’s the goal. I was, as I mentioned, watching a lot of videos today, and I liked Ant-Man and the Wasp. I didn’t really care for the first Ant-Man, but that did have what I thought was a pretty good training sequence—if you can get over the whole, why is Paul Rudd doing this, and not Hope. [laughter]
So setting that aside… there is a time crunch. They need to train him in how the suit works, how to fight, AND set the plan for going in for the heist job. So there’s a lot happening in that moment. And all of that is relevant to carrying out the task, because he has to learn how these things work, he has to learn how to fight, and he has to pay attention to make sure that the plan gets executed correctly. So there’s a lot happening in that training sequence, but it’s ALL important to the story, to the final execution.
Oren: It’s also funny. Paul Rudd’s a funny guy.
Wes: Yeah, that… it helps. Yeah. He’s a funny guy.
Oren: Giving those scenes some extra novelty entertainment value is very valuable, ‘cause if we just had to watch him seriously train to operate an ant suit, it’d be like, uhh, okay. But we’re watching him joke around and meet an ant that he names Antony. And that’s funny.
Wes: [laughs] Yeah. That is funny.
Oren: I laughed at that.
Wes: And that’s a good… that playfulness is fun. The Captain Marvel training sequences early on are a lot more serious, and I think that’s good, because the payoff at the end… Because Jude Law in the beginning is talking about control and, you know, patriarchy and all that stuff. And at the end, Carol rightly shoves it all back in his face. So that balances out well for a pretty good resolution to her training arc of a movie.
Oren: You could say that at the beginning, he tried to… lay down the Law.
Oren: And that’s an example of, the training is mostly a backdrop, right? We’re not really wondering if Carol is going to become a better fighter because she’s doing some sparring with Jude Law.
Wes: Yeah, exactly.
Oren: That’s a thing that’s happening in the background. Because for the most part, Captain Marvel starts the movie already knowing how to use her powers. A lot of the Marvel characters learn to use their powers in their first movie, but we don’t do that with Captain Marvel. And the various “learning to use your powers” things, those have different degrees of coolness. And again, in a Marvel movie, they almost always use humor to offset it. Even the first one, with Iron Man, as we watch Tony try to build a suit, we see him trying to fly with his little jets and falling over, and then the little arms spraying him with the fire extinguisher, and it’s like… okay, I see we’re making this funny. I get it. I get it.[laughter]
Wes: There’s something else that you can do to make the training sequence relevant, as long as it’s not too long. In Batman Begins, when Bruce sets off, and he ends up somewhere in the mountains to train with Ra’s al Ghul… Liam Neeson. He goes to train with Liam Neeson. [laughter] And that has some fun novelty, right? There’s the sword fight on the frozen lake, which is just kind of cool. There’s that… balancing on elevated posts while getting whacked with sticks, that lasts like five seconds, and it was like… what was THAT? But it’s short, which I think is helpful. And as part of his training, there’s that whole… “This is a thief. You should kill him.” And that’s important to him becoming Batman. But what I liked the most is when they make him breathe the smoke that makes him kind of hallucinate. Because that comes back later, with Scarecrow. And he knows that he’s experienced this kind of thing before. So I liked that connection, how the training sequence paid off to figuring out what’s going on with Scarecrow’s effects. So that was a cool connection with the training sequence.
Chris: Now that’s an antagonistic mentor, if I remember correctly.
Chris: Right, which we would love to see more—antagonistic mentors. However, I think it’s worth noting that he’s not, as far as I remember, an actual ABUSIVE mentor while he is training Batman.
Wes: No, he’s not. That’s important.
Chris: Yeah. Because that’s the other thing that, again, Demon Slayer [cough]…[laughter]
Chris: There’s this yelling sergeant stereotype, that… as far as I know, sergeants don’t even do this anymore, because it’s not a good idea, this mentor that just tears down the trainee. And sometimes it’s done to make it feel like they are the underdog, or give them spinach, so that it can be satisfying when they gain a level. But let’s not do that. [laughter] A good mentor is not going to tear down who they’re training and make them feel terrible about themselves. That’s just not a good idea.
Wes: I think it’s just more effective too. Because I played some organized sports back in the day, and the best coaches I’ve had were even-keeled and consistent. So if we didn’t do something right, it was like, “Okay, let’s practice that again.” That was… aggravating, and made us want to do it better. Because we also had coaches that would yell at us for messing up. And I’m like, I just want to go home now. This isn’t motivating. I want to please you, but if you are just wildly out of control with your own emotions, then no, that’s not going to happen.
Chris: And there’s plenty of ways to show that a character has a lot of room to grow that doesn’t involve making the mentor emotionally abusive. If they have peers, you can show that they’re not doing as well as their peers. That’s always embarrassing. And the mentor can still have really high standards and make them repeat the same thing over and over again. That’s fine.
Oren: You can even build tension or conflict with a mentor who is a hard-ass without making them abusive.
Chris: You could also question whether or not the hero is even at the level where they can train, right? It’s like, “Actually, no, you have to go back to the beginning. You’re not actually at the level necessary to even engage in this training.” That can be a conflict.
Wes: What about the training situation where the mentor’s whole point is to make the hero know that “you don’t know what you’re doing?” Season one of The Flash had that, when Arrow shows up. And Arrow is like, “You’re late. You have super speed and you’re still late?” And then he talks to him and talks to him. He’s like, “Do this, do this, you have the time. You’re the fastest.” And then he shoots him with a bunch of arrows. [laughs] And I’m just like, okay, so the whole point of this was for Arrow to demonstrate that he’s Batman and can out-think The Flash, and that’s… good?
Oren: I enjoyed that sequence for a couple of reasons. That sort of sequence CAN work, if what you have is a character who is established to be kind of arrogant. And—in that sequence, at least—The Flash was definitely being shown to be kind of arrogant. There was definitely a feeling of “well, what do I have to learn from you? You’re just a human, I have super speed.” And so having a mentor pull something like that to take the character down a peg or two? Yeah. I don’t think that’s inherently wrong. Now you can go overboard with that…
Chris: I mean, if you demonstrate that a character has a big ego, and they need to be humbled a little bit… I still think there are boundaries on what the mentor should do, but at the same time, something that’s a little stricter is fine. But usually a challenge—being like, “Hey, can you do this?” and showing where they are inadequate in their skills—is enough.
Oren: One trait of mentors that just—I hate it, it really irritates me, and this is just a small mentor trope—is the thing where the mentor will be like, “Okay, we’re training!” and like, “You’re doing well. And then I’m going to cheat to win and make you feel bad.” And then be like, “You need to be ready for anything.” And it’s like, I’m sorry, were we TRAINING to be ready for anything? I thought we were training in sword form. Is this the training where you’re going to throw daggers at me? ‘Cause if we’re going to do that, fine, but not telling me that doesn’t teach me anything. Other than that I can’t trust you.
Chris: [laughs] One of the things that happens in Demon Slayer is Tanjiro has been supposedly training with these “mentors” that he can’t beat no matter what he does. And if he had good teachers, the mentors would be like, “Hey, here are the exercises that you should work on. This is where you’re lacking. These are the exercises you should work on to get better at this.” But instead he’s just left to flounder a number of times. And instead, these assistants that have been helping out just randomly approach him in the hallway, and they’re like, “Hey, have you tried this?” And that’s great, but why didn’t a teacher tell him… [laughter] That’s the ROLE of a teacher, is to tell you what you should do to get better. And it comes off as very silly.
Oren: I think more fiction could learn to understand that whether the hero succeeds is at least partly a function of how skilled the teacher is. And if the hero is doing badly—or the student, not necessarily the hero—if a student is doing badly, that doesn’t a hundred percent mean it’s the teacher’s fault, but it does not reflect well on the teacher. Whereas a lot of fiction just seems to assume that actually the teacher is amazing by default, and so if you’re not doing well, that must be YOUR fault. And as someone who has a more or less teaching job—that’s what a big part of content editing is, is teaching—that really irritates me. Because I work hard to be good at my job. The idea that that doesn’t matter, because whether or not the student succeeds is entirely up to them, is just like… I find that insulting.
Chris: And there ARE creative writing professors out there who claim that their students aren’t getting better at writing because they just don’t have talent. They’re not the… [mystical voice] the Chosen. [normal voice] Right? It’s like if you’re claiming that most people can’t learn storytelling, and you’re teaching storytelling, that just means you’re bad at your job. But people use that argument.
Oren: It’s a nice excuse when your teaching doesn’t work.[laughter]
Wes: I’m glad you brought up the writing component of this, Chris, because it reinforces this “you have talent, or you don’t” dichotomy that just… is harmful. It’s not helpful.
Chris: And I have to say, if somebody reads my story and calls me, like, “talented,” actually I feel a little cheated by that, because the skills that you have, you work really hard to get. And reducing it to like, “Oh, you just had that to start with” really does kind of erase a lot of the hard work that goes into building skills.
Wes: Maybe it was season three of Buffy where the Watchers de-power her? I was frustrated by that for a few reasons, but Buffy gets de-powered and then suddenly is like the most frail, helpless person. And I’m like, Giles has been training you. Yeah, you probably can’t punch as hard, and you’re not as durable, but you know how to fight, right? I don’t know. I guess that wasn’t really maybe the point of the episode, but she’s spending all this time training with Giles, but all we ever see of that is her just kind of… roughing him up, and then leaving. [laughs] But is he teaching her martial arts? Is he teaching her weapons training? If she lost all her powers tomorrow, could she reasonably defend herself? Xander seems capable of doing this. Even Giles does. So what is Buffy learning?
Oren: Buffy spends all this time fighting and training—does her Slayer power mean that she just like… can’t build normal muscles?
Wes: Great point.
Oren: That would be a real downside to the Slayer power. [laughter] Because even if she doesn’t have her Slayer power, she should still be stronger than me, just as a rule. Because she’s constantly doing hard physical activity. That part really irritated me for a couple of reasons. You could argue that the Watchers have a nearly infinite supply of potential Slayers to choose from, but we’ve established that even if you can pick another one, it still takes a while to get them ready. And so in this case, what they’re doing is they’re risking losing a Slayer basically for no reason, because they’re risking losing a Slayer in a scenario that would never come up. Like, it’s not a real scenario. And so it’s not like it’s testing whether this Slayer can deal with a high-stakes scenario in the field, because it’s a fake scenario. It’s like testing whether or not the Slayer can resist being shot in the head while she’s sleeping.
Chris: For people who are not familiar—because I’m not sure we’ve explained the premise of this episode—this is the episode where Giles—and this is apparently some kind of ritual that is done with every Slayer without her consent—he drugs her, to basically get rid of her powers, and then leaves her in an abandoned house with a vampire. So we can go through this, like, rite of passage, where she kills a vampire without the aid of her powers. And you could say that there are some ways in which this is useful for gaining confidence, and be like, “I don’t really need my powers,” but the way that it’s done is manipulative and violates consent. [Giles] drugs her without her permission. All of that is unnecessary to that lesson.
And this is a problem with a lot of stories that want to make training sequences that are dramatic, is they have some weird puzzle or surprise reveal or things that don’t actually make sense in a real training scenario. If we really want her to be confident without her powers, we could prepare her for this. Right? And have her, you know, CONSENT to losing her powers as part of this training sequence. And she wouldn’t be any less good at accepting that she didn’t have her powers, and working without them, if she was prepared to do it. [laughs]
Oren: I’m not going to say that there’s never a point where an antagonistic mentor—’cause the Watchers are supposed to be kind of dicks—I’m not saying that there’s never a point where an antagonistic mentor might do something that serves THEIR goal but is potentially bad for the student. That’s a thing that could happen. But in this context, it seems like this doesn’t fit what the Watchers want out of this either. And so the best argument you could make is that this is just a bad training idea that someone in the Watcher organization had a hundred years ago, and they’ve just stuck with it out of tradition, and I just don’t really think the show gives you enough context to make that conclusion.
Chris: And there are just other circumstances where the mentor is being super cryptic about what they want, and making the protagonist figure it out to learn some profound lesson, and you just have to stop and ask, okay, if the mentor had just been straightforward about this, would the lesson actually have been less effective? And in a lot of these cases, the answer is no, and they were just playing games with the protagonist for no reason. Just to get a dramatic story out of it.
Oren: Gotta crush their spirits.
Chris: [laughs] Gotta crush their spirits.
Wes: [laughs] That’s how they’ll learn.
Oren: A final thing that I’ll note, since we’re pretty much out of time, is you probably want to think about what the limits of training are. Because of course in real life, there are upper limits to what you can feasibly do, even if you are training all the time. There are points at which the human body simply cannot accomplish further feats. Once you’re at the top point one percent, point zero one percent—that’s when things like genetic quirks, maybe you have a bigger heart than somebody else, or whatever, that’s when those things start to come into play. But in fiction, if you aren’t careful, you can set up a situation where technically the protagonist can just get stronger forever if they just keep training. That’s the Dragon Ball Z problem.
And one of the reasons Dragon Ball Z feels so weird and repetitive is that every time a new bad guy shows up, the protagonist’s like, “Well, we better go train!” And it just kind of leaves you feeling like, why aren’t they always doing that? Is there a reason that everyone isn’t just constantly training, since it has this direct proportionality to your ability to blow up planets? Seems like a thing you would spend more time on. And you can even get into a situation where it feels like the protagonist should stay home and train, instead of going out on adventures. If you’re not careful, you can get there. So just be aware of that. Like, consider what kind of things your protagonist can actually accomplish by practicing.
And so I think that is going to be a good point to end this podcast. I’ve practiced a lot for this ending speech, so I’m just going to do the same thing I always do, which is to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber; he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week!
[Advertisement] If you have a story that’s not quite working, we’re here to help. We offer consulting and editing services on mythcreants.com.[Outro music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?