The Writer as a D&D character class

While chatting to some friends about Dungeons & Dragons recently we started talking about our own jobs as a D&D character class. It was kinda fun to think about how the main stats of a D&D character sheet would apply to our gigs. Because I’m a massive nerd, I started thinking about it in more detail and writing it down. And here’s what I came up with for Writer as a D&D Character Class.

All D&D characters have 6 primary stats, so let’s start with those:

STR – Strength – You need to be able to carry the weight of whatever work is required at any time, and you need to be strong enough to keep making work while living life. Making time to write takes a kind of strength – strength of conviction at the very least. And you need to be tough. You need a thick skin to be a writer, you need resilience. You need to be able to keep going in the face of rejection, because rejection is the default. (Obviously, this crosses a lot with constitution.)

DEX – Dexterity – You need to be able to pivot to take advantage of any opportunity. So much of writing is luck, but the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get. You need the professional dexterity to grab an opportunity when it comes along.

CON – Constitution – Along with STR above, it’s important to remember that this gig is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t quit! You only fail if you quit.

INT – Intelligence – You gotta keep learning. You need to constantly improve your craft. If you stop learning, you’ll stagnate. So you have to apply your intelligence to constant improvement.

WIS – Wisdom – Not all things are equal. You need to develop the wisdom to make the right choices about what you want to write, what opportunities to prioritise and so on. (I’m constantly second-guessing myself on this one.)

CHA – Charisma – Despite what people say, there is definitely an advantage in being charismatic. This doesn’t mean looks, it means not being a dick. It means being professionally available and open, being a good person and easy to get along with. Being eloquent and appealing, online and in person. A Neil Gaiman quote comes to mind. To paraphrase: To succeed as a writer you need at least two of the following three: You need to be good at it, you need to deliver work on time, and you need to be easy to work with. Ideally you have all three qualities.

During your life as a writer, you’ll constantly need to make Saving Throws against these stats. You’ll fail a *lot* of them, but that’s okay. Keep going – see CON above.

A D&D character sheet lists a lot of Skills. The correlation here is relatively self-evident, but beyond the skills of grammar and prose, what else do you have? What life skills can you draw on for your writing? I’m a career martial artist, so I draw on that a lot. I’ve been in rock bands, I’ve had a variety of jobs and hobbies. It can all inform what I write. And then there’s the writing skills beyond grammar and spelling. What skills can you develop, like writing for an hour every morning or making notes while you’re out and about? What use of language skills can you develop, to write evocative prise that’s not purple?

In D&D you frequently roll for Initiative (usually in combat). It basically determines who goes first. In this case, who keeps working hard enough to be ready to take on projects. Who can work fast enough to get those projects done on time. What opportunities can you grab?

Again in combat, characters have an Armour Class. In D&D, that’s literally your armour, your ability to withstand hits. Plate armour is more protective than leather or chainmail, but it affects your movement and speed too. In writing, how thick is your skin? The hits keep coming, and you’ve got to resist them. But you’ve got to keep moving too. Taking hits and carrying on is part of the gig.

How many Hit Points do you have? That’s your health. How long can you stay in the game? How many hits before you fall down? But more importantly, in D&D a long rest restores all your hit points. Don’t underestimate the value of downtime, of refilling the well. You need to take breaks from writing in order to recharge. Then you can take more hits and get more done.


What do you have beyond your keyboard? A notebook and voice recorder app, sure. But what else? Life is your toolbox – get out there and experience life, listen to people, don’t just look, but notice. This is your writerly equipment. And your brain, of course. Exercise it, keep it oiled and in good working order.


Whether you like it or not, your background matters. I play life on easy – as a straight white male, I have massive privilege. And I’m not especially poor – at least, I’m not destitute. That makes it way easier to do what I do. However, I come from a poor working class background, so that plays well into the kind of stuff I write. Laird Barron once described my work as having a “strong blue collar sensibility” and I take that as a compliment. Your character background will colour your writing – PoC, LGBTQ+, your location, your socio-economic standing – it all affects what you write, how you write, when you have time to write. All of it.


Are you evil? There’s a general rule in writing, and it applies to life in general: Don’t be a dick. But some people thrive on being an arsehole. That’s true of writers too. Will you be the kind who helps people or hinders them? Will you stay neutral and quiet? How chaotic are you? This is your alignment.


And here’s the real heart of it. Can you cast magic? I hope so, because storytelling is casting a spell. Books are a uniquely portable magic – Stephen King said that. The more you do this, the more it feels like magic passing through you rather than any conscious effort on your part. I’m fairly convinced that being a writer is constantly striving to become a high level Literary Sorcerer, where we create the most powerful magic that transports people. It’s something to always striver for, anyway.

So there you have it. The Writer as a D&D character class.

BLIND EYE MOON merchandise

BLIND EYE MOON are the best band in the world. At least, that’s true in the fictional world of Gulpepper. They first appeared in “The Band Plays On” in THE GULP, and they get another turn later on in THE FALL. A lot of people started talking about how the band should have their own line of merch, like a real band. It seemed like a fun idea. So I designed a band logo (with some valuable help from my friend, Dennis Lum – thanks, Dennis!) The logo is what you see there on the left.

I’ve subsequently made a whole line of merchandise. At this point, it’s split over two stores, which is a bit annoying. I already had a merch line at Redbubble, so most of the stuff is there. But they don’t do double-sided t-shirts and you can’t have band merch without a tour shirt, so I set up another store to manage that. At some point I think I’ll try to move everything into one place, but for now, you can get:

Stickers here.

Full chest logo t-shirt here.

Phone case here.

A pin here.

And magnets here.

There’s a different t-shirt here – this is a more subtle shirt with the logo as a “chest pocket” design instead of the full front design (see below).

All that stuff is at the Redbubble store, so you can have a look around my storefront there too to see what else I have.

And here’s the double-sided tour shirt, which is currently at a different store, as seen below.

Any problems, give me a shout!


Love, Death + Robots S3, featuring ME!

The cat is out of the bag! I am so excited this news is finally being released. I’ve been sitting on this amazing thing, sworn to secrecy, for more than two years! My story “In Vaulted Halls Entombed” has been adapted into an amazing animation for the new season of the Netflix Original Series, LOVE, DEATH + ROBOTS. I couldn’t be more excited about it! I’ve only seen a few stills from the episode thus far, so I’ll see it for the first time along with everyone else when Season 3 drops on May 20th.

The story was originally published in the SNAFU: Survival of the Fittest anthology (ed. Geoff Brown & A J Spedding, Cohesion Press) in September 2015. The following year it won the Australian Shadows Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction. Then it was translated into German for the Best of SNAFU anthology, (Festa, 2018). It’s reprinted in my second short story collection, Served Cold. Then it was picked up by Blur Studios for the Netflix Original Series LOVE, DEATH + ROBOTS. I love that series so much, it’s an incredible thrill to have a story featured in it.

To say this story has worked its arse off for me is an understatement.

You can read the story in Survival of the Fittest or Served Cold, as mentioned above, or you can read all the stories from LD+R season 2 and 3 in a brand new anthology from Cohesion Press. (They also released the anthology of all the S1 stories.)

Here’s a still from my episode. How amazing does it look?

I’m not entirely sure how close to the original story they stayed with the adaptation. I know they changed the main character to a woman, which is more than fine with me. Beyond that, the handful of stills I’ve seen look pretty close to what I wrote. I can’t wait to finally see the episode.

Here’s a rundown of all the S3 stories at Animation World Network. And below you can see the trailer for season 3:

Bring on the 20th of May!

EDIT 24th May 2022: As quite a few people are seeing this post now since the episode aired, I’m editing it to add a couple of things.

Firstly, I’m SUPER happy with the episode. It looks amazing and their adaptation is incredible. A few people who have read the original story noted how different the spider swarm thing is in the episode from the glassy blob monsters in my story. No, I don’t know why they changed that – maybe as simple as a blob monster being incredibly hard to render well in such high level CGI, maybe entirely different reasons. I can’t tell you. But I don’t mind at all, the episode is fantastic.

There’s also been heaps of speculation around the end and the big question: “Is that Cthulhu?” Again, sorry, I can’t tell you! It sure looks like Cthulhu. I write a lot of cosmic horror, but not all cosmic horror is Lovecraftian. I’ve only ever written two short stories that directly feature Lovecraftian mythos, and this isn’t one of them. In my original story, only Coulthard sees the elder god – the reader doesn’t and it’s ambiguous about whether or not the “survivor” saw it. In the episode, they showed it very clearly. Of course, what I wrote is definitely an incredibly powerful cosmic elder god of some kind, and all cosmic horror can’t help but be compared to Lovecraft – I’m entirely happy with them representing it as Cthulhu. Like I said, I think the episode is awesome.

Finally, regarding the title. When I wrote the story, I didn’t have a title. When I finished it, I decided it was the kind of story that needed the most black metal name I could imagine, while still remaining relevant to the story. I came up with “In Vaulted Halls Entombed”. I was so pleased when it originally sold to Cohesion Press for the SNAFU anthology. Then it won a Shadows Award. My black metal-titled cosmic horror story won an award. Brilliant! Then it got picked up by Netflix, and now that name is everywhere. Seriously, I couldn’t be happier.

Sallow Bend cover reveal!

Sallow Bend has an AMAZING cover. Look at it! (Click on it for a bigger version.) This is my my 8th full-length solo novel, and my first full-length solo novel since 2018. I’m so excited for it to be out in the world, and now it has this superb jacket by Francois Vaillancourt. You can read the first three chapters here to whet your appetite. The book is coming out through Cemetery Dance Publications in August 2022, so look out for pre-orders around July.

Something old and deadly has awoken.

When two teenagers go missing from the small, rural town of Sallow Bend, the residents come together to search for them. Little do they suspect that finding the wayward girls will be the start of their problems. An old evil is rising, and only one man seems to realize that everyone is in danger and this is not the first time it’s happened. With the carnival in town, people want to have a good time, but for many, this will be the worst time of their lives.

How fantastic is that cover? I am so enamoured with it. Francois Vaillancourt is one of the greatest artists working in book covers today and it’s an absolute thrill to have a cover by him. (This is actually my second, as he also did the incredible artwork for the limited edition hardcover of The Gulp and The Fall from Thunderstorm Books, but that sold out in four hours!) Sallow Bend won’t sell out as it’ll be (hopefully) in print forever. Francois captured the vibe of the book so well, I honestly couldn’t be happier.

Sallow Bend will be out in August 2022, and I hope you’ll check it out. The full wrap cover is below, and below that is Francois’s amazing cover for The Gulp and The Fall. (Click on any image here for a bigger version.)

Here’s the full wrap:

And here’s wonderful Francois Vaillancourt cover for the limited edition hardcover of The Gulp and The Fall from Thunderstorm Books.

THE FALL is out now, plus exciting Gulpepper news!

Everything is coming up Gulpepper lately and I couldn’t be happier or more proud. Firstly, the second book of Tales From The Gulp, The Fall, is out today! Go grab it, please!

It’s worth bearing in mind that this isn’t so much a sequel as a continuation. The Gulp contains 5 interconnected novellas, each one a standalone story, but across all five you can see a bigger story unfolding. The Fall is also a set of 5 novellas, again each one stands alone as a story in its own right, but those five continue to develop what began with The Gulp. And by the time you get to the end of The Fall you’ll realise there are 10 novellas, each a part of a much bigger narrative, and the two books make a kind of mosaic or episodic novel. The Fall answers a lot of questions readers were left with after The Gulp. It also asks a lot of new questions and answers some of them. Maybe not all… You’ll have to read to find out.

I took on a difficult challenge with these two books: could I write ten separate novellas, across two separate books, where each story and therefore each book stood alone, but together made something far greater than all its parts? I was terrified I wouldn’t pull it off, but if early reviews of The Fall are anything to go by, it looks like I did. I’m so pleased!

So if you enjoyed The Gulp, please grab The Fall today. I promise you won’t be disappointed. If you didn’t try The Gulp yet, now is a great time to jump on board. Grab them both and read right through.

But what did I mean when I said everything is coming up Gulpepper? Well, as anyone who follows my social media will know, The Gulp made the preliminary ballot for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection in the Bram Stoker Awards (although it didn’t make it through to the shortlist), and then last week it scored three Aurealis Award nominations – Best Collection, Best Fantasy Novella for “Mother in Bloom”, and Best Horror Novella for “The Band Plays On”. Three! Amazing. There’ll be a live and in-person awards night in Canberra to announce the winners on May 28th which is really exciting. I’ll definitely be heading down for that.

But that’s not all! The amazing folks at Thunderstorm Books approached me a while back and suggested an oversized hardcover, signed and numbered limited edition omnibus of both The Gulp and The Fall together. We’ve been working on that and the incredible François Vaillancourt made the super creepy cover art you see there on the right. For anyone who’s read the first book, you’ll know what story that art is based on. I was nervous about an expensive limited edition, hoping the publisher wasn’t going to be disappointed with sales. I needn’t have worried. The thing sold out in less than four hours. My mind, it is blown! I’m so humbled and grateful and happy about that. These books are being so well-received, my joy bubbles over.

And with that we come to the latest and perhaps most exciting news of all. I can announce now that The Gulp is under option to be developed for television. Woohoo! Now, before we all get too excited, being under option is a long way from it ever actually appearing on a screen anywhere, but it’s also a fuck sight nearer to appearing on a screen than anything not under option. So please, keep everything crossed for me and these books. Keep the love and reviews coming for them, those things help more than you would ever believe. Like I said, I couldn’t be happier with how these books are being received, and The Fall only comes out today! My mind, it remains blown!

Please tell people about the books if you’ve enjoyed them, and please give them a go yourself if you haven’t yet. I think they are among the best things I’ve ever written, if not the best so far.

And again, thank you!


Special offer for Australia: The Gulp and The Fall, signed, with free shipping!

To celebrate the release of The Fall, I’ve got a special offer for Aussies. If you buy paperback copies of both The Gulp and The Fall together, you can have free shipping. So you get both books, both signed, and sent directly to your house for $49.90. Make sure you select Australia Shipping or it’ll charge you an extra $10. (If you’re not in Australia and want signed copies, click here.)

Aussies: If you’re keen, click here!

I’m afraid I can only offer this in Australia because postage anywhere else is brutally expensive. You can still order signed copies wherever you are, along with any of my other books, and postage will be calculated in the cart, so you can check before going ahead. Go here and select the Buy Now option, then select the signed paperback button at the top.

Holy shit, I’m a 3-time finalist in the 2021 Aurealis Awards!

I was teaching a qigong class this morning and, obviously, my phone is on silent while I do that. But from the corner of my eye I kept seeing it flash with notifications. So during the break, I had a quick look in case someone from school was trying to reach me about my kid or something like that. And what do you know, it turns out the 2021 Aurealis Awards shortlists have been announced and I’m on there 3 TIMES! Three! Holy shit!

I’m so pleased to see The Gulp get some recognition like this. It made the preliminary ballot of the Bram Stoker Awards for Collection, but didn’t make the final shortlist, so this is especially sweet to see. The Gulp is up for the Aurealis Award for Best Collection, and two stories in it also got a nod – “The Band Plays On” is up for Best Horror Novella and “Mother In Bloom” is up for Best Fantasy Novella. I couldn’t be more chuffed. What an honour and a thrill. Huge congratulations to all the finalists. I’ll post the entire set of shortlists below.


The Boy Who Stepped Through Time, Anna Ciddor (Allen & Unwin)

Stellarphant, James Foley (Fremantle Press)

Dragon Skin, Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin)

The Curiosities, Zana Fraillon & Phil Lesnie (illustrator) (Hachette Australia)

Elsewhere Girls, Emily Gale & Nova Weetman (Text Publishing)

Barebum Billy, Nicholas Snelling (BAD DAD Publishing)

The Curiosities, Zana Fraillon & Phil Lesnie (illustrator) (Hachette Australia)

Treasure in the Lake, Jason Pamment (Allen & Unwin)

Mechanix, Ben Slabak & Edoardo Natalini (Cloud 9 Comix)

Killeroo: Semper Fidelis, Matthew Soall & Ignacio Di Meglio (illustrator) (OzComics)

“The Woods Echo Back”, Tania Fordwalker (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #331)

“Don’t Look!”, Lisa Fuller (Hometown Haunts: #LoveOzYA Horror Tales, Wakefield Press)

“Of Slaves and Lions”, Pamela Jeffs (Stories of Survival, Deadset Press)

“Slaughterhouse Boys”, Emma Osborne (Hometown Haunts: #LoveOzYA Horror Tales, Wakefield Press)

“Way-bread Rising”, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Stories of Survival, Deadset Press)

“Hunger”, Marianna Shek (Hometown Haunts: #LoveOzYA Horror Tales, Wakefield Press)

“Don’t Look!”, Lisa Fuller (Hometown Haunts: #LoveOzYA Horror Tales, Wakefield Press)

“Traces of Us, Hot Enough for Dinner”, Ephiny Gale (The Dread Machine 1.3)

“The House that Hungers”, Maria Lewis (Aurealis #146, Chimaera Publications)

“The Quiet Room”, Martin Livings (Midnight Echo #16, The Australasian Horror Writers Association)

“Sins of the Mother”, Tracie McBride (Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies, IFWG Publishing Australia)

“Mother Dandelion”, Antoinette Rydyr (Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies, IFWG Publishing Australia)

When the Cicadas Stop Singing, Zachary Ashford (Horrific Tales Press)

“The Band Plays On”, Alan Baxter (The Gulp, self-published)

“Hell’s Teeth”, Matthew R Davis (Haunted: An Anthology, Specul8 Publishing)

Cryptid Killers, Alister Hodge (Severed Press)

“All The Long Way Down”, Alf Simpson (Cthulhu Deep Down Under Volume 3, IFWG Publishing Australia)

“Who Wants to be a Reaper”, Jane Brown (The Centropic Oracle)

“So-called Bin Chicken”, E J Delaney (Curiouser Magazine #2)

“All my Tuesdays”, Laura J Fitzwilson (Cicerone Journal Issue 5: Curious Worlds)

“Old Souls”, Aiki Flinthart (Relics, Wrecks & Ruins, CAT Press)

“The Woods Echo Back”, Tania Fordwalker (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #331)

“Frabjous”, Alexander Gibbs (Cicerone Journal Issue 5: Curious Worlds)

“Mother in Bloom”, Alan Baxter (The Gulp, self-published)

“The Little One”, Rebecca Fraser (Coralesque and Other Tales to Disturb and Distract, IFWG Publishing Australia)

“Bones Of The Sea”, Amy Laurens (Inkprint Press)

“Echo and Narcissus”, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Sheep Might Fly podcast, self-published)

“The Scarab Children of Montague”, Suzanne J Willis (Falstaff Books)

“He Leaps for the Stars, He Leaps for the Stars” Grace Chan (Clarkesworld #178)

“For Autumn”, Melissa Ferguson (Revolutions, Deadset Press)

“Honey and a Hanging”, Aiki Flinthart (Tribute, Black Hart Publishing)

“The Reunion”, Emily Fox (Nature: Futures)

“Relict: (noun) A Widow; a Thing Remaining From the Past”, Alison Goodman (Relics, Wrecks & Ruins, CAT Press)

“Legacy of the Species”, Pamela Jeffs, (The Terralight Collection, Four Ink Press)

“Access Denied”, Baden Chant (Aurealis #142, Chimaera Publications)

The Cruise to the End of the World, Craig Cormick (Merino Press)

“The Birdsong Fossil”, D K Mok (Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban Futures, World Weaver Press)

“Problem Landing”, Sean Monaghan (Analog Science Fiction and Science Fact Mar/Apr)

“Preserved in Amber”, Samantha Murray (Clarkesworld #178)

“A Vast Silence”, T R Napper (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Nov/Dec)

The Gulp, Alan Baxter, (self-published)

Danged Black Thing, Eugen Bacon (Transit Lounge Publishing)

The Terralight Collection, Pamela Jeffs (Four Ink Press)

The Tallow-Wife & Other Tales, Angela Slatter (Tartarus Press)

Little Labyrinths: Collected Microfictions, Sean Williams (Brain Jar Press)

Who Sleuthed It?, Lindy Cameron (Ed.) (Clan Destine Press)

Relics, Wrecks & Ruins, Aiki Flinthart (Ed.), Lauren Elise Daniels & Geneve Flynn (assistant Eds.), CAT Press

Hometown Haunts: #LoveOzYA Horror Tales, Poppy Nwosu (Ed.) (Wakefield Press)

Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies, Deborah Sheldon (Ed.) (IFWG Publishing Australia)

Waking Romeo, Kathryn Barker (Allen & Unwin)

Aurora’s End, Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin)

Terciel and Elinor, Garth Nix (Allen & Unwin)

Echo in the Memory, Cameron Nunn (Walker Books Australia)

Dirt Circus League, Maree Kimberley (Text Publishing)

It’s Not You, It’s Me, Gabrielle Williams (Allen & Unwin)

The Bridge, J S Breukelaar (Meerkat Press)

Midnight in the Chapel of Love, Matthew R Davis (JournalStone Publishing)

Papa Lucy & The Boneman, Jason Fischer (Outland Entertainment)

The Airways, Jennifer Mills (Picador Australia)

Holly and the Nobodies, Ben Pienaar (Hellbound Books LLC)

Supermums – And So It Begins, Meg Grace (self-published)

The Rose Daughter, Maria Lewis (Piatkus / Hachette / Little Brown)

A Marvellous Light, Freya Marske (Tor)

Dark Rise, C S Pacat (Allen & Unwin)

She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan (Mantle)

All the Murmuring Bones, Angela Slatter (Titan Books)

Waking Romeo, Kathryn Barker (Allen & Unwin)

The 22 Murders of Madison May, Max Barry (Hachette Australia)

Stealing Time, Rebecca Bowyer (Story Addict Publishing)

Papa Lucy & The Boneman, Jason Fischer (Outland Entertainment)

Aurora’s End, Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin)

Deepwater King, Claire McKenna (HarperCollins Publishers)

Lifespan of Starlight [Lifespan of Starlight (2015); Split Infinity (2016); Edge of Time (2018)], Thalia Kalkipsakis (Hardie Grant Egmont)

Elementals [Ice Wolves (2018); Scorch Dragons (2019); Battle Born (2020)], Amie Kaufman (HarperCollins)

Unearthed [Unearthed (2017); Undying (2018)], Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner (Allen & Unwin)

Lifelike [LIFEL1K3 (2018); DEV1AT3 (2019); TRUEL1F3 (2020)], Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin)

Winter [The Road to Winter (2016); Wilder Country (2017); Land of Fences (2019)], Mark Smith (Text Publishing)

Blood and Gold [Crown of Rowan (enovella, 2014); Daughters of the Storm (2014); Sisters of the Fire (2016); Queens of the Sea (2019)], Kim Wilkins (HarperCollins)

Damnation Games coming later in 2022

I was very happy when Clan Destine Press asked me if I’d like to edit together an anthology of horror stories for them. I said, “What about supernatural horror and crime, combined?” and they said, “Fuck, yes!” Thus was the concept for Damnation Games born. It’s no secret to anyone that I’m a huge fan of Clive Barker – his work has influenced mine more than anyone else. So yes, the name is a nod to the debut Clive Barker novel, The Damnation Game. But that’s only a tiny hint at what will hopefully be a book full of wild and varied takes on the theme.

I’ve asked a slew of amazingly talented writers to send me stories for this and I can’t believe they all said yes. Honestly, you wait until you see the list of contributors for this anthology. I’ll be slowly revealing them over the next few weeks, so watch my social media. If I remember, I’ll update this post each time I announce another one.

Meanwhile, feast your peepers on the wonderful cover art by the talented Luke Spooner of Carrion House. I can’t believe what an amazing job he’s done here, it looks fantastic. I’m so excited for this book. It should be out in late-2022, so watch this space for more news.

The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai – Getting on my soapbox

Me with my National Championship trophy and my teacher at the time, Sifu Ian Sibley.

Okay, this is something the students at my kung fu school have heard me rant on about a lot, but I need to get it down here, especially as I’ve binged all four seasons of Cobra Kai and I can’t wait for more. I hate it but I can’t stop watching, because I love it too. And we’ll talk more about why here. I have opinions, and they’re coming at you. Apart from my issues with this from a martial arts perspective, it’s also an excellent study in storytelling, so it enters both my professional lives. For those of you who only really know me from my writing, I also teach martial arts. I’m qualified as an international master (a Fire Dragon Disciple of Master Chen Yong Fa, Grandmaster of the Chan Family Choy Lee Fut School). I’ve trained in Judo, Muay Thai, and Karate in the past, and Kung Fu now, for over forty years. I don’t say this to brag – do anything for almost your whole life and you’ll hopefully be half-decent at it – but to clarify that I come at this from a perspective of knowledge and real experience. I’ve fought in many tournaments, semi- and full-contact. I’ve never been the All Valley Champion (because that’s not actually a thing anyway) but I was a British National Champion back in the 90s. So I get this stuff. I live this stuff!

So, why do I both love and loathe this show? It’s a complex relationship, to say the least.

Let’s take it back to the beginning. The best person in The Karate Kid is Johnny Lawrence (although he’s flawed like we all are). John Kreese, the original Cobra Kai sensei, is an abusive asshole. Mr Miyagi, Daniel LaRusso’s reluctant sensei, is a nice guy, but a terrible sensei (more on this later). Daniel LaRusso is an asshole, a spoiled brat, or as this excellent video calls him, a rotten little prick. Watch this 5 minute video to get an idea of why Daniel LaRusso is a rotten little prick. It only covers part of the problem, and I kinda disagree with the premise, but it’s an excellent frame for the other issues I’m going to raise.

Okay, so yeah, Daniel is a shithead and Miyagi is a demon sorcerer. I sorta disagree that Daniel’s a bully, but that’s up for debate. He certainly shows aspects of bullying, but there’s more to this that that. Way more. He’s spoiled, despite a hard childhood. He’s entitled. He refuses to learn. Not only in this film but throughout the franchise, Daniel again and again doesn’t listen, does whatever he wants, and causes mayhem. And again and again, Miyagi forgives his bullshit. But more than that, he encourages it. When Daniel is rightly beaten, Miyagi does his demon sorcerer nonsense. Whenever Daniel fucks up, Miyagi gives him another chance without even trying to teach him the error of his ways. There’s never any consequence for Daniel. That kid would be kicked out of my school in no time. I know it’s all a movie and there needs to be an arc, but no way would some slick kid be shown a few trick moves and then, in just a few short months of (quite frankly awful) training, show up and win the biggest tournament in the area. Despite what this film would try to have you believe, Daniel hasn’t earned it. Not even close. He’s actively worked against the lessons of the martial arts from start to finish. He’s the antithesis of a karate kid. He’s an anti-karate kid. He’s an asshole. So the writing in these movies is compelling, but the way it trades on the mystical woo-woo of the martial arts is frankly insulting.

In fact, Johnny Lawrence is the actual karate kid. He’s trained hard for years. His sensei is an abusive, damaged fuck, but Johnny has been determined and diligent and dedicated and all those other good D-words. He’s tested himself in combat, in the street and on the mat. He’s the All Valley Champion and he deserves that title. Daniel is none of those things – the only D-words that apply to him are Daniel and Douchebag. And Dickhead. Yet he expects to have all the accolades Johnny has earned handed to him simply for showing up.

There’s a real habit in the original films and in the recent Cobra Kai TV series for teenagers to train for a few weeks, or maybe months, and suddenly be kick-ass karate masters, beating out actual champion karate fighters with years of training. Daniel does it to Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid. Miguel does it to the current All Valley champ in the first Cobra Kai. And on and on. Kids who have spent more hours taking a shit than hours in the dojo are turning up to tournaments, putting on black belts, and winning. From a martial arts perspective, this is such egregious bullshit it’s hard to go past. It’s massively disrespectful to the martial arts in general, and to the people who’ve actually trained their arses off for years. Perhaps the only really deserved win in all of it is Hawk – his arc is by far the best across this entire franchise, but that’s a whole other post. The truth is, no matter what “secrets” we teach our students (spoiler: there are no secrets only good technique) you still have to put in the years to master them. I can show a student all kinds of bad-ass moves, fight-winning moves, but that student needs to put in the training. It’s not about simply knowing the technique, it’s about doing the thing, again and again and again. So here again we have the mystical woo-woo bullshit. As if anyone with years of training would be caught out by the stupid-ass one-legged crane kick. It’s insulting. But when you’re not a martial artist, it’s great storytelling, so the same thing actually manages to piss me off twice. And I can’t stop watching!

Great guy, terrible Sensei.


Anyway, let’s get back on track here. Despite the fact that Johnny is a bit of a dick (the reasons for which Cobra Kai does a nice job of covering), he’s an innocent in all this. John Kreese is an abusive piece of shit with no business running a dojo and he corrupts those people who come to him to learn. Miyagi is a lovely guy, but he has no place moulding the minds of young people. In Cobra Kai we get a nice arc where Johnny starts to repeat the behaviour of Kreese, but then recognises the problems and tries to redeem himself. It’s the best bit about Cobra Kai. Because Daniel is still largely an asshole. Cobra Kai also does a pretty good job of highlighting that too, but they can’t be really honest without undermining what they’re all about.

So this is why Cobra Kai is a great show. Because it does address these things. But it’s also a shit show, because it’s so unrealistic. The one thing that’s really missing from everything about this franchise is the concept of  mo duk (that’s Cantonese – in Mandarin, it’s wu de 武德). This is something that’s a massive area to cover in detail, but in short it means “martial virtue”. It’s the ideals of virtue in all aspects of life that are developed and exemplified in the martial arts. The principles of mo duk are things like righteousness, loyalty, respect, humility, trust, forbearance, perseverance, courage and a strong will. Or, to look at that list another way, everything Daniel LaRusso lacks. These principles should always be taught in the dojo. John Kreese teaches a broken and corrupt version of mo duk, but he does at least have a code, albeit a truly fucked one. Johnny Lawrence followed his teacher. Mr Miyagi acts like he’s all wisdom and sage advice, he makes all these little comments, but does nothing to actually develop those qualities in Daniel. And whenever Daniel has the chance to develop some virtue for himself, he chooses not to. And Miyagi forgives him and covers for him every time, even going so far as to beat up a bunch of kids on Daniel’s behalf. In some ways, this is the heart of what this franchise is exploring without realising that’s what they’re doing. It’s a body without a heart all the way through.

The Johnny Lawrence arc in Cobra Kai is powerful because he does actually come out from under the shadow of Kreese and, despite all the flaws of the 80s child grown into a manchild that he is, he grows and becomes something far better than he ever was before, while all the time trying to hold onto the essence of the martial arts that has been deep in his soul since childhood. Daniel kinda has similar revelations, but is still that guy who just won’t learn. Miyagi is dead by the time we get to Cobra Kai, and that’s the best thing that ever happened to Daniel, because now the man’s wisdom lives on without the man himself there to undermine it at every turn. And Daniel, in trying to honour the memory of Miyagi, actually has some growth in a positive way instead of simply being handed everything he doesn’t deserve.

But the real reason this entire franchise is compelling, the real triumph of the storytelling here, is because it’s a fantasy soap opera. Boom. I said what I said. This is the only reason we can forgive all of the above and still enjoy it. These people are able to walk in and out of their jobs however the story requires. Despite all the traumas of their lives, it’s always glossy and superficial. Massed fights in schools and shopping malls are huge fun, but entirely impossible. It’s the interplay between all the characters that is compelling (that’s the soap opera part) set against the backdrop of a feudal warrior state in modern California (that’s the fantasy part). And while we’re talking about fantasy, why do all these guys only teach teenagers? Where are the kids classes? The adults classes? It’s kinda creepy that middle-aged karate masters have squads of willing teenagers to pit against each other as proxies for their own damaged childhoods, and no one else in their schools. Teenagers are the hardest people to keep in the dojo – kids get brought by their parents, adults come of their own volition, but teens are famously capricious. But by focussing the storytelling tightly on teens and their hijinks managed by weirdo adults and their bullshit we get some compelling soap opera action that refuses to look too deeply at itself in the mirror. And for that reason, we simply can’t look away. It’s actually a pretty stellar achievement and, much as it pains me to admit, Cobra Kai has managed to take all the magic from The Karate Kid and distill into something far greater.

Anyway, the TL:DR of all this is that The Karate Kid franchise is 40 years of TV and movies trading on the martial arts that entirely misses the heart of the martial arts at every turn. Despite that, it’s a compelling fantasy show, and a soap opera. Deal with it.