The best way to go about getting the angst factor is with the trainee themselves post-training, where you have someone who genuinely did buy in and then came to a realization later. They hate what they were trained to do, more importantly they hate what they did, and they hate themselves for it. They’re still excellent at what they were trained to do as they trained hard for it, it’s in their bones, an inextricable part of who they are, but the idea of doing it again makes them sick.
This is the setup of an internal conflict that is realistic, but requires an admission of personal responsibility. The “I Once Believed But Now I Don’t” is the foundation of a few hundred, grizzled and experienced action protagonists.
The trick behind this set up though is to go all in, the Atoner needs to have something they’re atoning for. The “I was forced” bit just weakens the motivation and gives them an easy out where they can divest themselves of responsibility. Maybe they do come from a background where they were taken/stolen from their parents at a young age and maybe they did fight against what was done to them in the beginning, but at some point they did give in. At some point, they made the choice and committed. That’s where the Atoner’s drama is. It’s born from personal choice and regret over actions taken. It really was their fault, and now they’re either running away or making up for it.
Abuse in martial combat training isn’t on the floor, it’s in much more subtle and coercive elements used to convince someone to do something they don’t want to do. It’s certainly possible to be victimized by martial combat training, used and abused. That abuse is just unlikely to come in the form of a physical beating. The problem is that martial combat is also, simultaneously, empowering. Adrenaline makes you feel good, and the act of taking control over yourself makes you feel strong. Add control over another person into the mix, get a head rush.
A good example of an abusive martial arts setup are the Karate Kid movies with the evil martial arts master. The other important reference point from these movies is a somewhat universal truth: the student is a reflection of their teacher.
Debates about use of force aside, you will occasionally find abusive setups in the real world as bullies are, unfortunately, a phenomenon where fiction reflects life. Students who come from these setups are likely going to be either abusers themselves or more prone toward falling into that category.
Strength first. Weakness is to be punished. Finish your enemy.
“Do not stop when our enemy is down. No mercy in the studio. No mercy in competition. No mercy in life. Our enemy deserves pain.” – Master Li, The Karate Kid.
Sentiments which all feel right, except the contexts they’re applied in are universal. Notice too, it’s all “us versus them”. Master Li in The Karate Kid remake is a well respected martial artist with a huge school and is famous for his ability to produce winners. The issue is where his values lie, and how he pushes his students. His hardcore, aggressive training tactics are applied only to those students who merit his personal attention, who excel. We see the values he’s instilled in his students through Dre’s conflicts with them. They all look up to him. He’s their father figure.
You’re right in that the attitudes of the trainers are the place to look
for when looking for abuse rather than the training itself. You’re
looking for scenarios that are emotionally abusive rather than
physically abusive, and they run in a pattern similar to those used by
emotionally abusive parents.
If you want to use these dynamics in your stories, it’s important to recognize the affect these figures will have on your characters. The student/teacher dynamic is a tightly knit one. This person is akin to a second parent. They are part and parcel to the character’s values, who they are, and how they’ve been shaped. Combating abuse takes real work, and it’s not as simple as shuffling the blame onto someone else.
Most of the issues when the fictional “abusive training” tropes pop up involves the author’s desire to get angst and allowing the character avoid taking personal responsibility through their victimization. Their experiences aren’t character defining, but rather perfunctory and act as a means of giving them some angst. It’s also a key means of identifying that this character is special, unique, and different from all the other rubes. In true cognitive dissonance, the presentation of this character is aces with their backstory except all the traits they’re claiming should be the ones they’re rejecting.
Atoning is an exercise in service and humility. A true Atoner is someone who has been humbled. This is a character type directly at odds with wish fulfillment. After all, the western version of this trope is Catholic. However, Atorners come from all over the world. Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin is a classic example of the trope, where in his desire to help others perverted his training and became the era’s most famous warrior (and mass murderer). He becomes a wanderer traveling Japan with a katana whose blade is reversed and blunted so he’ll never kill again. (Ignore for a moment that most of Kenshin’s techniques would absolutely still kill people via blunt force trauma and go with it.)
There are a myriad of places to take someone who has turned the people who trained them, on the system, or on their past beliefs. The Punisher is an example of a character who has decided to strike out on their own, he’s not truly atoning but rather is vengeance driven.
The problem with angst is that the good kind can’t be cheated into existence. Quality fictional angst comes from a personal place, usually resulting from a sense of personal responsibility for a situation (whether or not its their fault). A character can still be a victim of a system while also regretting the actions they took. The trick is understanding that being a victim is not automatically absolving, especially not from a personal point of view. A person can be both victim and victimizer at the same time. A bully with abusive parents isn’t automatically absolved for the bullying they’ve done, even if we feel sympathy for their situation and understand them better.
If you want to write an abusive trainer, this is going to be someone who is first and foremost emotionally abusive. If there’s physical abuse (and there may be), it will come long after the victim’s emotions have been secured. The victim will model themselves after their teacher, much like they would a parent, and become a “mini-me” because that is the best way to avoid punishment. They will become good at shuffling blame onto someone else, or trying to escape it because punishment is painful. That pain is likely to come from an emotional source rather than a physical one.
It will be difficult for the student to recognize their trainer is abusive. Their teacher will be someone they want to please, and the training will reinforce what the trainer says justifying the victim’s treatment in their own minds. All the good emotions you feel from doing exercise and the power felt by taking control over your body/over your mind becomes a parcel used to justify the emotional abuse. The student links their good feelings to what their teacher does to them and pursues it harder.
The key aspect to understand about an abusive training environment is that it is not automatically different from a normal training environment on a basic level. Which is to say, it’s not any better or any tougher or makes one a better fighter. Those in the abusive environment will believe their abusive training is the foundation of their skill and they wouldn’t be the same in a different program, but that is not necessarily true. What makes the training abusive is the way their teacher treats them and the values that are instilled. An abusive environment is often dominating, top down, and everything reflects back to the teacher.
Abuse is about control.
You can have two different teachers who do exactly the same things, but is abusive and one is not. This is why it’s so hard to tell whether or not a situation is abusive, because it’s based in attitude and outlook not in teaching techniques. The difference between an abusive teacher and one who is not is the psychological damage they leave behind.
A character with an abusive instructor may become a great fighter, but they will also be emotionally crippled. Like a bully, they will feel the need to exert control over their environment, create their own little kingdoms, and lash out at those who threaten their authority.
A character who cannot embrace their teacher’s outlook will be shattered, chased by self-doubt, and end up too mentally insecure to succeed at warfare. Their confidence is crushed, and whatever they learn from their teacher they don’t have the fortitude to use.
That’s the consequence of an abusive instructor.
You embrace them and become like them.
You reject them, and they break you.
This is not physical, they break their student emotionally through neglect, through failure, by critically hampering their ability to succeed, by undercutting them, or changing the goalposts on them.
This is where the fantasy of “the hardcore abusive training creating the best warrior ever who was never into it from the beginning” falls apart. A student is a reflection of their master.
A student in an abusive system survives and succeeds only by buying in. They can come to a different conclusion later and abandon it, but at some point they’ll be a True Believer. With the abuse serving as a means of motivation, a desire to please their teacher because of what that will earn them. Whether that’s glory, success, or just not being hit is all up to the teacher.
I hope that clears this concept up some.