Fight Write: “Learn To Fight Like A Woman”

When most martial artists utter this phrase, they don’t mean it as an insult. That may surprise some of you, but in most of the martial arts community (at least, the part of it I grew up in) women are actually well-respected. A smart male martial artist knows that women martial artists bring a different perspective to the table and that it’s one that cannot be discounted. Some of this is what I came up with while working on a post talking about height and weight, but since I might not be able to get that up today, I thought I’d leave you with this.

I’m going to break this down into two aspects: mental and physical. The mental aspects work across the board, some may see the physical part as exclusionary. But when talking about martial arts, we have to discuss both the body and the mind in equal measure. The body cannot function without the mind and the mind cannot fight without the body, both are important. This is going to be general information, this is because fighting is subjective based on the individual practitioner. Everyone fights differently and how they fight has more to do with who their instructor was, what they were trained to do, and how they see the world around them than it does with gender or body type. Your character will learn to make use of what they have, because they won’t really have the option of anything else.

Mental:

It’s important to note that many smaller male martial artists I’ve known have talked about the advantages of having a female instructor. This is because women, on the whole, learn to fight from a disadvantaged position. The vast majority of women will almost always be faced with a larger, usually male, attacker and they have trained themselves to fight with that knowledge. So, they’ve learned to make use of what they have. This begins with the way they see the world.

It’s important to remember that when I say “larger attacker” we’re usually talking about a difference between eighty to a hundred pounds and a height difference of several inches. From a mental standpoint, facing someone larger and taller than yourself can be intimidating. It’s easy to become afraid and petrified by that fear. “He’s bigger than me, he’s larger than me, he’s going to hurt me, and there’s nothing I can do because he’s stronger”. In America we’ve been conditioned to believe that bigger is better, more over less, and the largest opponent always wins.

Women have to actively work at getting over all the social programming that tells them how they should behave and how they should see themselves in relation to the men around them. Female characters who start training between the ages of four and seven will be less prone to this, but the intimidation level is still a hurdle they have to master. It requires an active approach to problem solving, learning how to get in first and fast, and overcome the fear of facing a larger opponent or a male opponent even when the physical differences have little bearing on reality.

The way we see the world is the way we approach it and in a world that seeks to actively strip women of both their power and their confidence, developing a solid base to work from is much harder than it sounds. But for a female fighter to be successful, she must first prove to herself that she can do it and then, she has to fight hard in her training to make it a reality.

It’s important to remember, then, for your own characters that a female fighter or “action hero” is never a passive player. If they trained from a young age, then they’ve already fought against all the reasons why they shouldn’t be doing this and if they still are, then they won. Even if they are insecure about some aspects of social life, they will have a strong basis in who they are and the skills that got them here.

After all, to fight like a woman is to fight like an underdog and all those battles are hard fought and hard won. There’s nothing like adversity to build character.

Physical:

There are a lot of different body types out there in the world and there’s no way we can cover all of them. Women lack a man’s capacity for brawn in the upper arms and shoulders, but they come with a different set of advantages. We already talked about hips and power in the “Women Are Not Weaker Than Men” post, so I’m going to skip over that.

On the whole women have a lower center of gravity, better coordination, more natural flexibility, and better balance than men because their bodies are more compact. Women tend to have shorter torsos, shorter legs and shorter arms than men. This doesn’t mean they are more in tune with their bodies, that comes from training. But it does mean they can combine their lower center of gravity with their better sense of balance and coordination to be more precise in their attacks. While they lack the ability to brute force their way through situations, this actually makes them better and more adaptable fighters. When male martial artists say: “fight like a woman”, they mean: don’t rely on your brawn, learn to understand your body, and learn to let gravity do the work for you.

Women have more to lose from having sloppy technique, so they tend to spend more time investing in the study of body mechanics and gravity, over just developing their muscle strength. Speed is important yes, but it’s the precision that’s the killer. Knowing where you want to go and where to put your body to make it happen, where the human body is vulnerable and the places people don’t think it’s vulnerable (but really is) are all important.

Women tend to be quicker about dispatching their opponents and they spend less time playing around. They’re also, on the whole, more serious and more devoted to their studies. Any good female fighter knows that she won’t get far by coasting on natural talent and that she has more to lose in a real life situation if she does.

Just some things to think about.

-Michi

The Speculative World: Unusual Martial Art: Street Fighting

The Speculative World: Unusual Martial Art: Street Fighting

Thug picks Fight With MMA Fighter. (by Brandon Ryan)

Since we’ve been talking about trained versus untrained on this blog, I’ll share a clip from a local news station in Memphis where a guy picked a fight with the security guard. It’s a real world fight, but there’s no blood or broken bones. It’s just a good example of the difference between someone who practices and someone who does not, and what that means in a fight.

The security guard is certainly not the best fighter out there, but a visual example is always helpful for writers and it’ll help some of you grasp the concepts we’ve been talking about a little better.

I don’t intend to make a habit of this though. Warning for language and real world violence.

-Michi

how does a person fight if they are only depending on instincts? no training, not even a fighter, just a person trying to defend themselves from harm.

It sounds cruel to say this, but essentially? They flail.

Unless they’ve been raised in a cave, they’ll be affected on some level by what they’ve seen work around them, be that the local militia or television. There’s going to be a fair amount of hair grabbing, if their opponent’s hair is long. They’ll push at their opponent, though if their opponent is larger it’s not going to do them much good. An untrained person, for the most part, is at the mercy of someone larger and heavier. They just don’t know what to do with the weight and it’ll crush them. They’ll flail against it, but again, they won’t know how to do harm so the lasting damage they can put out is minimal.

They’ll smack at them, either with slaps or some variation of closed fists, but they’ll be using their upper body, for the most part only their arms and shoulders. Which, again, won’t do them much good. They’ll go down, usually on the first or second solid hit.

Human instincts are shit on their own, I’m sorry. A human gets caught between their fight or flight response and usually against a tougher opponent, their first instinct is going to be “huddle up in a small ball and wait for it to be over”. This is true of both men and women, by the way. There is no magical genome in the human body, buried in our ancestral memories that can tell us how to save ourselves in a bad situation.

I don’t know if that helps.

-Michi

hi, i just read your post on archery, and i was wondering if you had any advice for writing a scene where someone gets stabbed with an arrow?

Stabbing someone with an arrow is actually a lot harder than it sounds. Consider this: arrows are made to be aerodynamic, not to give you a good grip. So, for a character attempting to stab someone with an arrow, they’ll find that they’re hand is constantly slipping down the shaft. This makes penetration, even into the soft parts of the body, incredibly difficult. You need a good grip to get the stabbing part down, so they have to go hard, fast, and with absolutely zero hesitation on the part of the wielder. You need a lot of force to get an arrow to penetrate and it should go somewhere soft and unprotected like the eye or into the throat.

That said, it isn’t impossible. What is impossible is actually firing the arrow afterwards, because your character is going to damage it no matter what they try.

I hope that helps!

-Starke and Michi

Do you have any insight on the use of a spear or pike in battle?

We got this ask earlier (it’s the first one under the tag: obsidianmichi answers) so if you want to look that up, it’ll give you more insight. My answer is: yes, a little, but most of what I’ve been trained in is basic staff fighting, which is essentially the spear without the pointy-end. We’ll probably be doing a write up on it soon, like we did with archery.

Like the bow, the spear is one of the oldest weapons in existence. Just about every culture at one point in history or another has used the spear in battle, but since you mentioned the pike, I’m guessing you mean combat in medieval Europe. There’s a huge difference in style between Europe and China, for example. The Greeks also made great use of the spear (for it’s greater length) as a primary weapon.

The question is though, do you want to know how the spear was used tactically in battle by footmen in mass numbers or in single combat?

The answer to that question is actually very different, because in tight quarters the best use for the spear is to point it at an incoming opponent and make use of the weapon’s greater length such as against cavalry. The pike was a primary defense against cavalry (examples of massed pikemen are the Orcs versus Rohan Cavalry in Lord of the Rings), where it was used as stopping power against incoming horses. The spear was a common weapon because it’s easier to train someone on than a sword and is cheaper to produce.

In single combat a spear, particularly one made entirely of metal like some in China, has a greater reach than a sword and it can attack from the front (the pointy-end), it can sweep across from side to side, and switch to the back (the butt) to create a very fluid defense. The wielder has fewer worries about dulling the weapon because only the tip is sharp and a very solid wooden staff, such as the quarter-staff can actually withstand a slashing attack by a sword.

The spear can also be used in conjunction with a shield like the Greeks did, but that ends back up in the realm of basic stabbing and a frontal assault.

The only thing spears aren’t really good for is throwing, but that’s just because you have now lost your spear and need to go retrieve it if you wish to continue fighting.

The spear is a dynamic weapon, all you need to do is pick what culture, region, and historical period you want to begin your search and you’ll find a huge amount of data to sift through.

-Michi

Unusual Martial Art: Street Fighting

Street fighters are self-trained combatants. Usually we’re talking about poor kids, who’ve been forced to learn how to fight for their own safety. If your character’s growing up in dystopic slums (either in the future or in the modern third world), without access to any formalized hand to hand training, then you’re probably going to end up with a street fighter.

Street fighters tend to adopt a highly aggressive, improvised, and very brutal, style. They’ll use whatever techniques they’ve seen and managed to copy and place a premium on ending the fight as quickly as possible for their own survival. A lot of techniques from the Only Unfair Fight post are conceptually very at home in a street fighter’s repertoire.

Because of the prevalence of television, a lot of modern street fighters have incorporated bits from both wrestling and prize fighting. For an example: the entire collection of “backyard wrestling” videos sold in the States a decade ago were an example of street fighting (to an extent) and where that kind of combat can go horribly wrong.

It’s important to keep in mind that the major element here is “self-trained”. Street fighters are amateurs, plain and simple. While brutal styles like Muay Thai and various varieties of MMA may seem like they have a lot in common with a street fighter, they don’t. Combat isn’t really a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be a self-made man” kind of sport, so there are a lot of detriments that come with using street fighting for your character.

The first problem that street fighters suffer from is a lack control. They’ve never been asked to develop the kind of physical control martial artists are drilled in. This may not sound so bad at first, until we remember that the only lesson these combatants have ever learned is that the person who hits the hardest, fastest, wins. Street fighters version of combat is essentially flailing. It’s the twelve year old child on the street trying to do a pirouette compared to a professional ballerina. Because street fighters have never learned to control, their ability to moderate their techniques is severely limited. This means moves that come from martial arts, including wrestling, that place a premium on the fighters’ safety, become much more dangerous for both combatants even when it’s just a backyard practice match.

So, why is this bad? Some of you may be wondering, but if they strike hard and fast, always hit as hard as they can, why is this detrimental? It should make them stronger, right?

Wrong.

Hand to hand combat is not about physical strength, it’s actually about technique and making the most of your opponent’s body mechanics. A street fighter only ever learns that strength means victory, they only learn to strike hard and that’s it. But what happens when they come into contact with someone who is prepared to take the hit? Street fighting is very simple, so most street fighters have no concept of defense and they fail to grasp the underlying principles behind the techniques and how those all feed together into a cohesive whole. See below:

Street fighters lack the ability to chain attacks; this is a conditioning issue. In the beginning of almost any training, most martial arts place a focus, early on, with katas (though, they’ll mix the terminology up a bit). Katas are a specific sequence of strikes. The point here isn’t to actually train a combat sequence. Katas are singularly worthless for that, the point is to train the combatant to move from one technique to another. This can, in some cases, take years of drilling before a combatant will move smoothly from one technique to another in a fight. Because of the self taught element, street fighters don’t do this. In fact, most don’t even see the need for it or understand why they should. They might be able to follow up on a strike, but that’s it. The eight strike rule? Yeah, that’s out the window.

(Michi Note: For example, in Tae Kwan Do, the first set of moves a student learns in their first lesson is the double punch and the front kick. In a thirty minute lesson with an instructor, they are taught first to punch, then they are asked to put both those punches together, so that immediately after one they do the other. Instead of a one, it becomes a one two. Then, we teach them the front kick if they grasp the concept quickly in the first fifteen minutes. By the end of the lesson the goal is to have the student, even one as young as five years old, performing a complete combo for their parents: slide front kick then double punch. Even from the first lesson, the focus is on conditioning the body to move easily from one technique to the next without thinking.)

This difference in approach is one of the main reasons why street fighters are harder to train in conventional martial arts. This difficulty comes out of two competing bits of psychology: the first is that street fighters think they already know how to fight, they don’t. They have a harder time ejecting the ways they’ve learned, in favor of the much slower, more methodical, approach of traditional martial arts training. They feel like they know this, because they’re looking at the techniques not the connections between them. When you combine this with the attitude that self taught fighters have, of their techniques being good enough, it’s almost impossible to shift them over to a traditional style.

Street fighters will get utterly taken apart by trained martial artists. Whatever else we say, martial arts are about using physics and physiology to outmaneuver and disable opponents. Every trained martial artist is going to a solid grasp of at least one of these things, and any good one will have a very solid understanding of both. Against a street fighter with neither, this is an insurmountable advantage.

Street fighters will make rookie mistakes that can cost them, even when they have more practical fighting experience than the martial artist. This ties back into the previous issues, but one major one is that street fighters are more likely to end up on the ground in a fight. While this is going to get its own article in the future, the short version is the ground is the last place you want your combatant. Unless they’ve specifically trained to fight there (and some martial artists are), going to the ground is a good way to get your character killed.

(Michi Note: I was once told, in a seminar, by an experienced MMA fighter that the ground is the last place you want to go in a real fight, even if you are trained. Concrete is very hard, you risk a break in the fall and you put yourself much closer to a head injury by getting close to the pavement. The ground is a last resort and a bad place to be, because most of the advantages a shorter fighter has while standing vanish. The ground is one of the few places in combat where height and weight really matter. Where a larger opponent has all the advantages in weight, reach, and the help of gravity, for women, the ground is the kiss of death. A female street fighter might not know that, because she can use her lower center of gravity to easily knock over her opponents and stomp them. But it’ll catch up with her sooner or later. On that subject: this is why it’s important, for you women and men out there who are looking for a self-defense program to find one that starts you standing, then works the ground. Find one that will give you the necessary tools to back out of a bad situation before the guy or girl is already on top of you.)

If you understand the limitations, street fighting can be an excellent choice for your character, especially in a dystopic or authoritarian setting, if your character is outside the system and used to looking after themselves (and possibly others), without being able to rely on anyone else to guide them, then this becomes a really likely style. This also overlaps with gangs, and even in a modern context, if you’re looking at gang members, then this is the hand to hand style they’re most likely to be using.

It’s important to remember that street fighters aren’t stupid, they can be very intelligent, and they need to be adaptable to make the style work at all. They are, however, untrained and that’s their biggest weakness.

-Starke

Michi: On female street fighters

Female street fighters won’t and can’t rely on brute strength, they may think that they are, but they’re not. Female fighters base their ability to fight off making use of a smaller, more compact body to generate greater momentum through the strength in their legs and using their lower center of gravity to knock over larger opponents. Female street fighters won’t linger at the back of the pack, they’ll be aggressive and throw themselves straight into the fray with an attitude more akin to a wild animal than a trained fighter. Since they’ll mostly be used to fighting larger, male opponents, they’ll probably start by striking or grabbing low to the stomach, balls, and knees. Their goal is going to revolve around knocking over their opponent and putting them in a prone position on the ground so that they can be annihilated easily. Expect them to fight dirty.

Despite that, they won’t kick. Street fighters are primarily hands only. Kicking requires a different level of body coordination and training, which they lack. Even if they try and master some basics, those basics will be wrong and more likely to get them hurt. If you want your character to kick, then it’s a traditional martial art for you.

Female street fighters will be harder than their male counterparts, especially if they live in a male dominated society. If you want to write a street fighter, make a study of gang psychology specifically to understand the attitudes behind it. The difference in approaches between trained and untrained fighters are vast, so make sure you understand both before layering character traits on top of them.

Fight Write: Just That Damn Good

Let’s file this one under: bad ideas from movies and TV. Although it’s fun to think your characters are so good they don’t need to train, this simply isn’t the case. Any skill you neglect will degrade a bit over time. This isn’t much of an issue if we’re talking about your ability to speak a foreign language, or tinker on your car. In those cases, there are clear thresholds, either you can do it or you can’t, and if you’re above the threshold for what you need to do, you’re good enough.

The same isn’t true of fighting. If your character isn’t practicing, stretching, and otherwise keeping in shape as a martial artist, their ability to fight will be seriously affected when going toe to toe with a foe who has been.

This is related to the weapon maintenance bit from the Your Character’s Weapon is a Character article. Any martial artist needs to be working constantly to stay at peak. It doesn’t matter how good they are, if they’ve been screwing around, and they face off against your villain, they’re going to lose.

If your villain is supposed to be effective, it’s safe to assume they’re spending all their time working towards their goal. If they’ve achieved their goal already, somehow, they need to be working towards a new one. In short, your villain needs to be active. Moving forward, they are  a mobile target. If your hero is lazy, then they are constantly playing catch up.

It gets worse if your character is facing off against their henchmen. Outside of a few specific examples, henchmen or soldiers will be spending a chunk of every day training, exercising, and honing their abilities, even if they aren’t actually learning new material.

To keep up with that, your character needs to be training, practicing and exercising, or they will get outmatched fast.

All of this becomes even more immediate when you consider that hand to hand combat is a dynamic thing. While some of the Asian martial arts pride themselves on being built on traditional combat techniques, modern combat is constantly evolving.  Counters are being developed to the strikes that worked yesterday, and those counters will be less effective tomorrow, because of a shift in strike preferences and techniques.

If you want your character to participate in combat with professionally trained combatants, they need to train and be ready to encounter new things every day. There’s no place on the battlefield for a hero who rests on their laurels of being “just that damn good.”

-Starke

Fight Write: We’re Only Human

Today, we’re going to take a break from our regularly scheduled blogging programming to discuss some important character traits. There’s a somewhat disturbing trend roaming through YA right now and while this deals mostly with female “action hero” protagonists, it’s affecting the male characters too. We can call it exceptionalism, prodigy, or perfection but there is a pervading trend right now in popular literature that says a hero must be perfect to succeed. We have a steady stream of heroes who make no mistakes, who travel on a simple, single line towards an inevitable destination. Their flaw is that they are without flaw, the mistakes they make are the fault of someone else, and all the choices are easy. I sort of wish that in real life, we fit into such easily identifiable boxes but alas, the world is a bit more confusing than that. Worse, a perfect character is a boring one. A character whose fall is softened, whose antagonists are left on a choke chain, who is perfect, ends up negating tension in their story.

Below are some basic suggestions to keep in mind when crafting your characters. This applies to female action protagonists as well as male ones, but keep in mind that female characters (unfortunately) walk a much tighter line than their male counterparts. For them, you’re fighting an uphill battle against audience expectation.

We’re Only Human:

This one is going to be a bit more general, rather than specifically about fight scenes, but it’s worth talking about: Your character does not need to be perfect. They can be wrong, they can make mistakes, and they can fail. And all of this can make your story stronger. A character with flaws will always be more interesting, to the reader, than one without. So, let’s talk about a few writing flaws, that can massively improve your characters.

The Master or the Apprentice:

Your character doesn’t need to be skilled at everything they want to be, and they certainly don’t need to be the best. Ask yourself, which is more interesting? A character who is trying to earn their place and learn the ropes of a skill, or a master of all they survey. A character who is a master of a skill can be useful if you’re trying to teach the audience about that skill, but in nearly every other situation, you’re going to get a more interesting story if other characters exist who outclass your character.

For instance, Star Wars isn’t interesting because Luke and Vader are on an equal footing. Throughout the original trilogy, Luke is playing catch up to Vader’s skill as a combatant.

Having characters who are flat out more powerful than your protagonist, creates a real threat that the they can be defeated, and for your audience, a real threat to your hero. Who will win? It’s hard to say. And that’s what’s going to keep your audience turning pages.

Beyond Right and Wrong:

Your character can be wrong, make mistakes, and screw up, just like any other person. And, to an extent, this won’t hurt your story. This is a bit trickier, because you can swing too far, have your hero be wrong about everything, and end up with a mess. But, don’t be afraid to let your character make mistakes. Trust people they want to, but shouldn’t. Misunderstand situations they’re not familiar with. Even get manipulated into doing thing things they really shouldn’t.

Bad calls are something everyone has to deal with sooner or later. How your hero deals with them can be far more interesting than a character who never makes mistakes.

What is important is the decisions the character makes have to based on a rational thought process, just one that doesn’t have all the information.

Omniscience:

On that subject, your character doesn’t need to know everything. Really, they can’t. When they’re making decisions, ask yourself: what do they know? What do they understand? What do they believe?

When you put this together, you’re character will be constructing their plans, and making their decisions, based on the information they have. This will inevitably lead to mistakes. And, again, that’s a good thing. A character scrambling to adapt to a situation they didn’t anticipate or dealing with information they didn’t even consider is far more interesting than a character who makes a perfect plan and executes it.

The original Star Wars trilogy pulls this over and over, the final acts of both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi swing on these kinds of situations. (For both the heroes and the villains.)

I’m not saying the villain needs to be your character’s father, but any time you can pull the rug out from under your character like that, especially against expectations, is a wonderful moment.

Another example comes from a game called Arcanum: Through most of the game, the player is told they’re the reincarnation of an Elven Jesus figure, “Nasrudin”. You encounter the religion that sprung up around him, you learn about the religion’s history, all while preparing to deal with the religion’s sealed evil in a can. And then, about 80% of the way through the game, you actually meet Nasrudin, he’s been alive the entire time, in seclusion. The player cannot be his reincarnation, and the entire chosen one construct in the story is a sham. I wouldn’t even remember the story of a game from 12 years ago if it wasn’t an interesting and memorable twist.

As a writer, you can create the truth of your setting and your story, but your characters don’t need to know what that truth is, and they can build their understanding of the world off faulty information.

Loved by Children and Small Animals:

Liking or disliking someone on contact can be a good indicator of potential personality conflicts, but it’s a poor excuse for knowing if someone’s good or evil. The biggest problem is, now you’re telegraphing who will betray your heroes later, or who will betray your villain.

People (and characters) like and dislike one another for any number of reasons, unrelated to plot and faction. You can get much more interesting material by forcing two characters who actively dislike and distrust one another to work together towards a common goal, or by pitting two good friends against one another (without the whole, “you turned to the dark side, the friend I knew is dead,” shtick).

Above all else, it makes your story harder to predict and more interesting. While I’m loathe to recommend most TV writing, FarScape did an excellent job shuffling heroes and villains around and forcing everyone to work together at least once.

Because Losing is Fun:

Finally, it’s okay for your character to lose. Lose a fight, lose an argument. Sometimes this goes back to making mistakes, sometimes it goes back to your character being outclassed. How your character deals with defeat can be far more interesting than having them cruise through every challenge they encounter. Do they sulk? Do they break down? Do they rage? Do they get back up, and throw themselves at it again? Do they go back to the drawing board; look for more allies; look for ways to undermine their foe? Do they even accept it happened? Also, what are the consequences of their defeat? Are they injured? Does it cause their allies to doubt them?

If you’re writing in a serialized format, be that chapters, episodes, or a series, don’t be afraid to end a sequence in utter defeat. Your heroes can rally for the final act, but the idea that your characters can lose will do wonders for showing that your villains are a legitimate threat.

Again with the Star Wars examples, the entire reason that Empire Strikes Back works (and a large part of Return of the Jedi’s ability to work as a story), is because of the defeat that kicks in at the end of ESB. I’m not saying rip off Star Wars, but you can learn a lot about making a compelling story from the original trilogy.

-Starke (just wants you to know; fifteen Bothans died bringing you this article)

Tip: Don’t Make Threats, Make Promises.

We’re going to do a few articles on villain/antagonist construction and on threats in general, but I figured I’d leave you all with this piece of advice today. Our coffee maker also broke.Threats are incredibly easy to botch in fiction, because frankly they’re also difficult to succeed at in real life. Your character needs to not only be convincing to the other characters in the story, but also to the reader.

Anyway, some of the best advice I ever got on making threats was from the movie Spy Game when Robert Redford’s character tells Brad Pitt after he succeeds during a training exercise “If she was your asset, then every lie you just told her would now have to be true.”

You, author, must be willing to follow through on every single threat your characters make. So, make sure you’re not only comfortable and capable of writing that in your story, but also able to enjoy it. It’s part and parcel to understanding what makes violence and the threat of violence so very terrifying. It’s not enough to just make a threat, the horror is in the follow through. You’ll always have to make good on at least one over the course of the story.

Remember, you are not just your hero, you also have to be your villain. You are them in body and mind, so commit to it. Don’t make threats. Make promises.

-Michi

Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.