In this article, we’ll talk some about structuring and writing combat between an individual and a group. As the title suggests, this article will focus primarily on unarmed/hand to hand strategies for dealing with multiple opponents. We’re going to avoid weapons for the most part in this discussion because the strategies can change dramatically depending on what weapon it is that your character is using and this article is going to have a heavier focus on how different groups behave and the problems you have to watch out for in your story when working with them.
So, let’s start by tearing down a few myths.
The Group is the Most Dangerous Opponent Your Hero will Face
No, really. A group of mooks together are going to be an all around tougher fight than the antagonist who waits at the end of the tunnel. Due to the rise of comics and Hollywood’s building up of the “One True Badass”, the difficulties an individual faces when fighting a large group are often overlooked. In real life, groups are much more dangerous to the lone combatant than single individuals and even the toughest fighter can be easily taken down by the untrained if he or she fails to control the situation. The reason it’s become commonplace on television for the roving badass to dispatch a group of random mooks with ease is because it is so difficult to do so in the land of reality.
This is important.
The truth is that even when you have years of training, something that seems as simple as a two on one bout can seriously screw someone over. The more people you add, the more difficult it gets. The maximum number a well-trained human being can take on at any one time is eight. The brain cannot handle tracking a number higher than that, but the truth is that even three or four is a difficult challenge.
Why is fighting groups so hard?
There are a higher number of limbs versus the singular defender
The part about there being more limbs is important. A person only has two arms and two legs (unless they are a mutant or an alien) with which to fight. Those two arms and two legs will have a difficult enough time fending off the attacks of one person, much less having to deal with four more coming in on vectors that your character can’t control. It doesn’t matter how many punches your character blocks, one will probably get through and that one can be the deal breaker. This is bad enough when the character’s opponents aren’t communicating. It gets much worse when they start, which they will because it’s a thing.
People work together
Yes, they do. Humans are social animals and they work well together in teams, very well in fact. You know the scenes you see in the movies where the stunt doubles will circle up and wait around the fighter (as seen on Buffy) for their turn to attack in a series of duels? They have a habit of coming in one by one. That doesn’t happen because it doesn’t play to the group’s strengths. If your character lets them, a group will attack together. If they can, they’ll surround the character, dogpile, and knock them to the ground. Often in more sophisticated groups that are used to working together, one or two will distract the fighter from the front while others close in from behind and either hit them in the vulnerable places like the spine, the hamstrings, and the lower back or seize control of them via the hero’s neck or limbs.
All groups work together on some level, even the uncoordinated ones. The better trained and more used to working together the individual members of the group are such as gangs or professionals like soldiers, cops, and mercenaries, the harder the fight will be.
Yeah, even the untrained will naturally start flanking your hero. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
The Hero expends energy faster
Fighting is high energy exertion, it’s like sprinting and thus, it doesn’t last long. So, the hero must take down all their opponents before they themselves can no longer fight. Thus, they walk a much tighter tightrope of how fast it will be before they’re done. They have to track more variables, their opponents, their surroundings, potential weapons, escape routes, how much time they have to hold out or finish it up before they or their enemies receive reinforcements, etc. It’s tough, tiring work. They have to know and keep track of where everyone is, actively strategizing, and moving to outpace their internal body clock.
Professionally trained combatants will approach a group, any group with a certain level of caution. For the untrained or untried hero, fighting a group can be where they find themselves in over their heads. It’s common for us to focus overly on the dangers we understand and ignore the ones we’re unaware of. Martial training can breed a certain level of arrogance in the early parts of an individual’s career before the fighter learns that everyone has the potential to be dangerous to them. Yes, even the little kids and old ladies. Disregarding the dangers of a group of lesser fighters or random idiots on the street is in character for most heroes.
Punish them for their mistakes. It’s a good humbling experience.
Well, it is if they survive.
So, how can a character deal with groups?
This sounds like the coward’s way out, but it’s not. There’s no shame in living to fight another day or retreating to find a different approach instead of wading in. Don’t think of running away as giving up, think of it instead as retreating to find a more advantageous position. When faced with superior force and superior numbers, it is important for characters to seek to fight on their terms if they have the option to do so and to try anyway, even when they are pressed for time.
Run Away With Purpose
I call this rabbiting. When dealing with two or more individuals running away is an acceptable option as a means of breaking up the group so that they become easier to manage. You see this happen more commonly in action movies with stars that already know how to fight. (Example: Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx) By chasing the character, the more athletically adept will pull ahead and the less will fall behind. Characters with a firm grasp of their surrounding area can lose members of the group in the terrain. The character can then turn the situation around to their advantage and fight the smaller groups or individuals on their own terms.
This is only an effective strategy for characters that have good stamina, understand their area, and excel at thinking on their feet. It can go wrong for characters up against groups who can communicate over long distances and who are trained to outmaneuver that tactic. This includes the police (Example: Southland), the military, former military professionals, mercenaries, characters who possess some sort of telepathy, and characters who draw from a Pack mindset (werewolves, animalistic characters, etc).
Keep the opponent in front of you and protect the back
If a character cannot run or doesn’t have the option, then they might have to stand and fight. This can be difficult, given the tendency of a group to circle around and dog team (one distracts from the front, while another shoots in from the back or the side to tag the fighter before shooting off again, as the fighter attempts to recover from the blow, another comes in, and then another, and then another until they’re done) their opponents. A character fighting a group needs to keep the group in front of them. It can be difficult to defend from behind and while there are techniques (such as elbows and kicks) that allow characters to defend against individuals coming in behind them but they are limited. Characters fighting groups will want to keep moving, forcing their opponents to stay in front of them to limit their avenues and vectors of attack. By constantly moving, the character forces their opponents into each other as they attempt to attack and attack their enemies one at a time.
You can only attack one opponent at a time, so don’t waste movements
A character may switch between enemies, but they can only attack one enemy at a time. All their enemies may attack them and they don’t have to take turns. At best, they can block two, if they are really, really Jackie Chan fight scene choreography good then maybe three. But it’s best to have them focus on one at a time as they attempt to lock up the others. A fighter only has time for six to eight movements per fight, so they have to be dispatching each of their opponents in two or three blows depending on the numbers. Even the gentlest character may be forced to become ruthless.
All fights end on the ground, the character should make sure they don’t go down first
Suggestions on Writing:
This sort of chase scene or group fight can be tense an exhilarating and is helpful for establishing the nature of the fighter, especially if the audience is aware that they are up against a greater force. It can be a better reveal for who they are and what they’re willing to do when they are forced to be on their A game. However, as the writer, you need to be on the ball. Each of the characters in the group need to be clearly identified to the reader so they can track what is happening. Writing combat against a group is actually very difficult, because it is very messy and confusing. The sequence must be carefully choreographed in order to keep the tension kept high.
Graph out the setting area where the scene takes place, much like mapping an environment, writing and creating becomes easier when we know the pieces and materials that are at our disposal. A fight scene needs it’s the environment to be an active part of the scene because it changes the nature of the fight. A character running into the woods to escape a group hunting them will have different tools available than someone starting a chase in an urban environment. A character fighting in a bar may have nowhere to run but more objects at their disposal to throw and use in their own defense (beer bottles, chairs, tables, glasses, etc).
If you’re writing your character is going up against a group, then their understanding of their environment may be key to their success. Fights with groups are tense and require more than just skill for survival, creativity is also important. So, get your set pieces in place and see what happens.
Clearly identify each member of the group. Give them names based on distinguishing traits that a character observes about them, such as Number One and Number Two, The Brown Haired Guy, Blue Eyes, Buck Teeth, etc.
It’s important not to humanize the group members too much unless you want the audience to feel sorry for them, they shouldn’t be clearly evil, but they need to remain menacing. Knowing a character’s name humanizes them, so it’s not just a question of description, it’s a question of how much. Writing violence requires walking a careful line with the audience between just enough and too much. Managing the emotions that your story evokes is important; too much makes it difficult to sympathize with the hero.
Garvey came at Kel from the right, punching at her head. She slid away from his punch, grabbed his arm, pushed her right foot forward, and twisted to the left. Garey went over her hip into Vinson, who’d attacked on her left. Joren, at the center, came in fast as his friends hit the wall. Kel blocked Joren’s punch to her middle, but his blow was a feint; his left fist caught her right eye squarely. Kel scissored a leg up and out, slamming her right foot into Joren’s knee. Joren hissed and grabbed her hair. Someone else—Vinson—tackled her. Kel let his force throw her into Joren. Down the three of them went in a tumble. Joren let go of her hair, fighting to get out from under her and Vinson. Kel elbowed him in the belly and turned to thrust her other hand into Vinson’s face, encouraging him to get off her by pressing his closed eyes with her fingers.
Page by Tamora Pierce
This sequence by Tamora Pierce is compact, but it shows the sort of attention to detail you need when writing an individual versus a group. It’s not the only way to do it and whatever we suggest here, there are always many more strategies for you to uncover and develop in your own work.
We hope this has been helpful!