In the real world, martial training (almost always) builds self confidence. This is one of those easy to overlook character building elements. What it means is, martial artists don’t, normally, have crippling self-esteem issues, they are less likely to be bullies, and less likely to be bullied. (Michi Note: this counts on a physical level only, martial artists and other trained combatants are just as open to being verbally mocked and emotionally abused. It’s just less likely that it will escalate to physical violence beyond some basic intimidation.)
This is a general rule based off experience with many different martial artists from a variety of backgrounds over the years, but there are exceptions. Keep in mind that martial artists are people, just like everyone else, with their own unique outliers and edge cases. So, first, remember that this article is about “most” martial artists, and if your character is supposed to be some fringe case then that’s fine. You just need to make sure you point out that they are a fringe case, or else your audience might assume the behavior is normal within the context of the story.
Second, martial arts training won’t cure mental illness. It can provide good coping mechanisms, but if a character has self-esteem issues from a personality disorder, then, again, that’s fine. (However, the normal caveat about mental illnesses applies: if you don’t want to be offensive, don’t write about one you don’t have a lot of experience with. It’s best to spend time with people who have the disorder that you know well, if you were not born with the disability yourself, and a clinical understanding of how it functions is also a good idea.)
Ultimately, if you are wanting to write a character with serious self-esteem issues, you can’t simultaneously say they’re a great fighter. It just doesn’t mesh with reality; like a professional chef who has no sense of taste or smell. It’s a possible character, but it’s weird, and contradictory. We’ve talked a lot about how the mind influences a fight, what we believe about ourselves and our own skills will influence the outcome. Negative beliefs like “I won’t get away, I’m too small and fragile, I suck, I’m terrible, I’ll get in trouble if I hurt someone, it’s better if I don’t do anything at all,” etc, have the serious potential to lead to a losing bout or the death of that character. The body is the weapon, but mind is what wields the body. Talent only gets you so far, undeveloped natural talent is just that: undeveloped. Natural talent is nothing compared to training and experience, and prodigies are nothing without the will and desire to make something of themselves. Those whose lives have always been easy have a very difficult time when the going gets tough (and it will always, eventually become tough). They are unused to facing resistance and are more likely to give up because of it.
So, a character with serious self-esteem issues will have to get (or has already gotten) over them in training, at least in the context of their training and their skills, or they won’t last long. Now, a lack of confidence in the beginning along with minimal skill can be a driving force for a character to desire to become better. But that changes the character from a negative outlook to a positive one: “I can do this, I want to become better, I will work harder,” etc, thus hurting the story’s concept of a character with shattered self-confidence, because a character with no self-confidence at all won’t really be able to believe in themselves.
I’d be lying if I said, I knew exactly why martial training builds confidence. I suspect; it’s a culmination of the ability to defend against potential attackers, the normal result of learning a new skill, and possibly some of the thought processes martial arts training attempts to instill. (Michi Note: There are some principles of the Fight Club mentality at play, this coupled with discipline and a general focus on respect and humility, help to keep the jock mentality at bay. Overcoming your own fears has a powerful effect on the way you see yourself, especially if it revolves around overcoming and working through significant amounts of pain and exhaustion.)
Additionally, martial art schools present a lot of opportunity for someone to keep challenging themselves, and pushing further. This means that any impulse to be “top dog”, will be captured and channeled within their school, rather than against random people on the street or in their (normal) school. They are focused and goal oriented in their desire for self-betterment and in a good school surrounded by those who will help them (and those they can also help) to achieve their goals. Martial arts, for the most part, is a focus on self-betterment and self-empowerment. (Michi Note: Professional fighters have a habit of landing in the jock mentality, but that might be because of a tangible “top dog” position coupled with money and fame.)
Martial artists make poor targets for bullying. This comes down to how bullies usually pick their targets, they’re looking for weaker prey. Bullying (almost always) originates from internal self-confidence issues. Training won’t always cure a bully of their behavior, but it reduces the appeal. Martial artists are unlikely to become bullies after their training. In fact, the confidence most martial artists present usually removes them from the bully target category. This doesn’t mean they’re immune, a bully can misread the martial artist, and I’m not accounting for stupid bullies here. (Ones that think they’re actually better fighters than the martial artist, and deliberately seek them out, in an effort to assert their dominance. (Though, I’d strongly caution you against using deliberately “stupid” characters in your writing. It’s very easy to end up with a character that adds nothing to the story.)) If the bully does misjudge the martial artist, their ability to defend themselves is usually enough to send the bully looking for a new victim.
It’s important to remember that most bullies aren’t looking to be seriously challenged and there is a huge difference between a character getting up in the bully’s face and giving them the casual brush off. If there are a number of individuals present to back up the leader bully, then the leader bully might be forced into a situation where they have to retaliate.
(Michi Note: when I was eleven, there was a girl in my class who was upset when I challenged “what she wanted” during an in class Greek Gods roleplay. Afterwards, she tried to physically intimidate me (with her much greater height and stockier body by crowding my personal space) into capitulating and never challenging her opinion in class again. Her attitude and body language suggested that she was used to being able to cow the other girls and even boys because she was so much taller and so much stockier than the rest of us. I was confused, because it was just a class exercise and I was playing my role. So, I told her “no” and wandered off. I found “bitch” scratched into my desk the next day, but it never went any further than that and she actively avoided me from then on. The fact she was trying to intimidate me didn’t even occur to me until years later, I just thought it was strange at the time…by that point I was pretty oblivious to bullies anyway.)
Sanctioned Violence versus Unsanctioned Violence:
It’s important to remember that the above only really applies if you’re character is a martial artist. A martial artist’s violence isn’t sanctioned. If they fight in the real world they face much the same, if not greater, legal threat as the person who is attacking them. They aren’t protected by law or by the government the same way someone employed by the government or a private firm working with the government is.
Characters in professions where the violence is sanctioned face different temptations. When a cop kills someone, they’re up before the review board and often, the crime is swept under the rug. If a soldier kills someone (unless they kill another soldier) then for the most part, they were just doing their job. There is a serious temptation to become a bully or have a bully appear in places where the power dynamics are different, especially in jobs where the perpetrator doesn’t have to fear any sort of reprisal.
It’s also important to think about for authors, not just from an in-world context but also outside of it. We’ll do an article on the dangers of action protagonists and ending up with a bully, because it’s a common occurrence in fiction to have heroes who are nothing more than author sanctioned bullies. It’s very easy, especially in a world where all violence is controlled by the author, to end up with a character that never faces consequences for their actions even when they are performing bully behavior, whether that be emotional or physical.
So, keep in mind that martial artists don’t normally end up as football style “Karate Kid” jocks and your character can’t really win a hand to hand fight without some level of self-confidence. This doesn’t mean they’re overconfident, they can be confused and worried by experiences that are new and different to them. But their lack of self-confidence in those areas can’t be crippling and can’t really extend into all aspects of how they view themselves and their lives.
(Michi Note: we’re still moving, we were working on this one slowly all weekend. We’ll try to get other stuff up, but we’re heading into a major push this week and weekend to try to get everything out and moved. We probably won’t have internet the week after that. We’re trying but life stuff comes first.)