Fight Write: How Do You Choose a Martial Art?

The weapon choices and martial style that an author makes for their character is just one more expression of who they are. What we choose tells the reader a great deal about them without the author having to spend time a lot of time elaborating on what it is and what that means. So here area few simple questions to ask yourself when picking out a MA:

1) Ask yourself: what sort of person is my character?

Often times, authors choose Martial Arts based on what they look like, not on how well they mesh with the character’s outlook/job. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is actually an excellent example of this, in the first few seasons she uses a basic punching and kicking style based mostly out of Tae Kwan Do because it’s more visually dynamic. But the style rarely reflects the sort of fighting she’s actually doing, nor her personality. Buffy is a heavy hitter, she enjoys beating on others in a very close environment. She enjoys slamming them into walls and doors. She’s not actually a well-trained fighter, instead she relies mostly on her superpowers to get the job done. Comparatively, Tae Kwan Do requires an immense amount of training. It’s a style that focuses on accuracy, control, and speed over physical power to finish the fight quickly. It’s unsuitable for a fighter a) doesn’t spend a lot of time stretching and b) who doesn’t want to put a lot of effort in to become good at it.

Now, compare the choices made in Buffy to those in Avatar: the Last Airbender. In Avatar, the character’s personalities are a reference to the four elements and the styles they practice are based primarily around those elements. Aang as a character can be hyper and flighty, zooming from place to place on his air scooter. Katara is a Yin/Yang like water, capable of both extreme anger and extreme kindness, her personality is built around a complex set of pushes and pulls. Like the water she wields, she can be both stubborn and flexible in her outlook.

2) What does my character do?

If you have trouble with the first question, the second best place to start with a character and an MA is their job. What do they do? Are they a dried up policeman/woman? Then, their training will be based in what’s commonly taught to police officers with possible additions from outside sources that they pick up on their own time. Army/Marine/Air Force are the same, however their training is similar but separate, the hand to hand styles the Military uses are constantly in development and are constantly being updated to stay relevant. If your character is former Special Forces/CIA/FBI then they’re training will no longer be up to date, no matter how good they were initially.

So, make sure you pick a style that is relevant to what your character does for a living or is being asked to do.

3) Research the Style’s History

Every MA is based around a specific ideal, it was designed to counter or combat an enemy and the techniques reflect that history, even if they have been updated for a modern era. Knowing the history of the style will allow you, the author, to understand the philosophy inherent in the style itself and whether or not that will be suitable for your character.

Again, don’t pick based on what looks good or cool to you, choose what’s appropriate to your character and a style that will help you build a better story. The old adage is: Write What You Know and if you don’t know, then it’s time to study up.

Below are some examples to help you get started¸ happy writing!

Krav Maga: This is an Israeli Martial Art taught to their military forces. It’s increasingly being known as one of the best modern combat styles in the world, though that’s up for debate. It is a fighting style that, for the most part, bases it’s strikes in boxing and kickboxing with elbow, kicks, and knee strikes that have a passing similarity Muay Thai. It is an intense and aggressive MA designed around the idea of tight urban combat and close quarters fighting. Krav Maga is a heavy hitter, one that is growing in popularity for self-defense training and in the MMA arena.

Characters Krav Maga is Appropriate For: Aggressive characters and brutal characters, both male and female. It’s useful to characters who fight in an urban environment and worth looking to if you want to create a street fighter who is constantly looking to be in their opponents face all the time. Krav Maga works off the idea that your opponent doesn’t understand what they’re doing and will win by virtue of overwhelming force. Hit as hard as possible, as fast as possible, as quickly as possible while terrifying your opponent into submission. It’s an up close and personal style, if your character likes to constantly be within grabbing distance of their opponent this is one for them.

Tae Kwan Do: Like I talked about above, Tae Kwan Do is all about control, precision, and speed. This MA is for a character who is incredibly limber, small, and light. It’s a fighting style that works very well for both women and men, women especially because it bases it’s strength in kicks as primary over punches and requires an intense level of flexibility. Tae Kwan Do is all about building powerful momentum through a variety of kicks both offensively and defensively. It’s a style built around keeping your opponent away from you and finishing the fight quickly with the body’s strongest weapons. Tae Kwan Do kicks aim for the chest and the head.

Characters Tae Kwan Do is Appropriate For: Tae Kwan Do is best suited to characters who began training at an early age, who have a solid sense of balance, and are very flexible. Tae Kwan Do is a very effective fighting form, even in a modern world, especially when it’s weaknesses (hands) are compensated with by training in additional MAs. But, it is difficult to learn and those who come to it late will have trouble mastering it and/or achieving the required level of flexibility. A character must have near perfect control over their muscles and an almost complete synergy between body and mind to be effective. For reference: a traditional Tae Kwan Do master will be able to perform three to four kicks on a single leg, before that foot ever touches the ground. They will then be able to follow up those kicks with another strike from the same leg, by simply sliding into the next one. If your character is a slacker or doesn’t want to train, this is not the form for them.

If you’re looking to avoid Asian styles, one no nonsense alternate kicking style is the French Savate. It’s one of the major, surviving European MAs and a good style to study up on, especially if you’re interested in having a character from a European background who combines kicking techniques with fencing.

Reference:

 If you want to spend some money and avoid Wikipedia, I recommend picking up Gurps: Martial Arts which is a good primer on a variety of different MAs and some good solid background ideas that you can give to a character to make them realistic. You can usually find it used or on Amazon, if you don’t want to pay full price.

 The History Channel’s now defunct Human Weapon is sadly no longer on the air, but you can find it’s episodes on YouTube. It’s an informative show and an excellent more in depth primer on a bunch of different MAs, including some non-Asian biggies like Savate, Russia’s Sambo, and Greece’s Pankration. They also took a look at the Marines’ hand to hand combat style, if you’re looking to write a military character this is a good resource. It’s also a nice look at fights between fighters trained in one kind of MA learning another and fighting with an unfamiliar style.

 Once you find the style you want to study, it’ll be easier to find information on the web, at your local library, and talking to Instructors who run dojos in your area.

Happy Writing!

-Michi

Tip: It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re going to hurt tomorrow.

The first rule of fighting is:

1) Don’t Get Hit

The second rule of fighting is:

2) You Will Get Hit


Here’s a fact of life: real fights start cold, your character will have zero time to warm up their body or prepare their muscles. They won’t have a chance to get their body into perfect condition before the first attack comes, so the chances of them pulling or straining a muscle is high, even if they win the fight. They will be bruised, they will be battered, and their injuries will stay with them for weeks, if not months.

One of the hardest truths of combat is that no injury ever really heals. Even with medical attention, the injury will stay with the character. For an example: Go watch some of Jackie Chan’s earliest movies and then one like “The Karate/Kung Fu Kid”. You’ll notice that even though he is still an amazing fighter, he cannot really walk straight anymore. And Jackie Chan doesn’t even actually fight, he just practices martial arts and occasionally jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Fighting puts constant stress on the body and wears it out quickly, even if your character is taking fewer hits and isn’t stupid, they’re still going to hurt in the aftermath. Whether or not your character takes pride in their bumps and bruises is up to them, but the body will wear out. If you as a writer ignore that, then your characterization and story will suffer.

-Michi

Fight Write: Don’t Underestimate the Slap

Women get a bad rap sometimes from men because of the way they fight. Sometimes men are stupid, this is one of those cases.

The slap is not the most powerful attack in a fighter’s arsenal, in fact, it’s rarely in a fighter’s arsenal at all. Let’s talk about why:

1) It’s a very visible strike

Much like a haymaker or a roundhouse punch, a slap winds up from within an opponent’s field of vision, because it draws back inside our peripheral vision and the motion behind it is so large, the opponent knows it’s coming. A strike that takes a long time to wind up takes more effort from the fighter but is easier to block. This is why the roundhouse punch and the wild haymaker come at the end of the fight or are delivered when the opponent is off balance.

2) Slaps are low damage

The open palm strikes sideways, across the face, it aims for the cheek as opposed to the eye, the nose, the upper lip, or the temple. Slaps are stunning blows, they knock the opponent off balance and force them to back up. They hurt, often causing swelling in the cheek, but the chances of bones breaking are low and the chances of the attacker harming themselves with the strike is much lower than a punch.

One of the main reasons why the slap is a favored tactic of wife beaters (other than it being easy to deliver) is that while most of them are interested in punishing their wives, they are not interested in damaging them long term, thus it’s easier to hide from others so long as their victim acquiesces.

So, what are the advantages of the slap?

1) It’s a fast strike

Yup.

2) For the untrained it can be performed with minimal risk to themselves

Because the force of the blow is distributed across the palm or the back of the hand, it’s unlikely that the blow will break the smaller more sensitive bones in the hand.  The bitch-slap allows someone to use their knuckles without risking them to a break.

3) If the strike succeeds, it can be used to create openings in the opponent’s guard to open the way for a strong follow-up

Pain is a method of distraction, pain induces usually a fear response in the opponent, giving one fighter an advantage over the other. Distracting an opponent with pain in one part of their body, leaves them vulnerable to being struck somewhere else. Remember, fights are as much about tactics as they are about speed and power. Block, distract, finish.

4) It carries a fairly low energy cost, allowing a fighter to fight longer with less effort

Yes, it’s a low damage strike that won’t finish the fight fast, however, a feint that saves your character energy is energy they can apply later or use to get away. In the realm of strikes, a slap is cheap and it can be performed many more times in short succession than a punch or a kick.

Protip: Don’t confuse the slap with a more traditional open palm strike. The palm strike hits with the lower meaty portion of the palm and they come in straight to the nose, throat, or solar plexus. A palm strike can crush the throat or connect with the nose and force the broken cartilage up into the brain. This is a killing strike, but one that is often overlooked. The palm strike rarely appears in movies for this reason, it’s also not very cinematic.

-Michi

Tip: Fights Start For A Reason

Often in novels and television shows, it can seem like fights start for no reason at all. The author bases their fights around a moral stand point, the other character is a bully, they are a bad person, or evil, and there are often no follow up consequences.

It’s actually rare in life to find a living person who wanders around randomly spoiling for a fight. Now, they do exist, I know people who’ve met a few, but the amount that they actually appear in fiction is actually rather ridiculous.

Someone who’s planning to start a fight will actively assess several different factors. Here are some basic ones:

-They will weigh their chance of injury and death versus success

-They will look at the numbers advantage (does their opponent have more people than they do)

-What is the target’s social connections

-What fallout will occur with victory and defeat

-What they can gain from the fight versus what they will lose

-The cost of victory

Even if your villain is a minor character, spend some time with them, and examine what their motivation is. The same is true for your hero. Most victories are won in combat without ever firing a shot and someone trained and untrained will notice (sometimes subconsciously) the difference between a character who is pretending they know how to fuck someone up and a character who really does.

What one character knows about another will change the underlying reasons for why they are fighting and remember, no fight  is free. There are always consequences.

-Michi

Tip: It’s necessary let your character be afraid.

Fear may be the mind-killer, but it’s a very necessary component of any character. For an action hero or any protagonist who deals with power (physical, psychological, spiritual, supernatural) how they approach fear will be the deciding factor in whether or not they will fall into the category of a bully.

For any true combatant (who isn’t a psychopath) overcoming the instinctual fear of harming themselves and causing harm to someone else is a key part of their training. How they handle the prospect and reality of causing harm to another, especially if that person falls into the category of “us” as opposed to “them”, will be a defining part of who they are. Combat is a terrifying, brutal, and uncomfortable place that is as much based in psychological willpower as it is a physical action.

Remember, fear is much more important than anger. Does your character face their fears? Do they run from them? Or do they inflict their fears on others?

-Michi

Tip: How do you know when the actor in the show is an inexperienced fighter?

You watch their feet.

Hollywood Action Movies can fake a lot of things when it comes to actors and combat. The one thing they can’t is footwork.

You want your character to be an experienced fighter? Learn to watch the feet.

Fight Write: Pulling Piercings

It may sound odd to the uninitiated (and weird if you’ve read Divergent), but the one thing you do not want your character to have when they fight is piercings. Why? Because piercings are often put in nerve sensitive places: the ear lobes, the eyebrow, the nose, the lips, or simply embedded in the skin.

Combat is revolves around causing a damage to the opponent as quickly as possible. Ripping out someone’s piercings means that they will be put on the defensive, meaning that your character can move to the offensive by distracting their opponent with blood and pain (it’s difficult to fight if your eyebrow is leaking blood and clouding your vision or into your mouth). Pain in one region of the body, will distract the mind from pain in another, so while the opponent thrown back by the shock of “Oh god, you just ripped out my piercing!”, your character can be spending that time hitting them in the groin or the throat, or grabbing them and slamming their head/temple into a wall/table. Honor is a nice sentiment, but it has no place here: the highest priority in any combat situation is survival. Always take the advantage when it lands in your corner.

Studs are smaller and more difficult to grip, rings and any larger pieces are simply an excellent distraction piece.

Military Tip: For the most part, the Military outlaws piercings for men. It allows studs for women if they are in a non-combat position, however, it’s a bad idea. The only setting I’ve ever seen really get away from the piercing problem in a legitimate way is Warhammer 40k and their Space Marines. However, the Space Marines piercings are bolted into their skull. So, you know, good luck getting those out.

Protip: You usually don’t haul someone around by their piercings, they come out too easily and besides, that’s what hair is for.

-Michi

Reference for Writers: When you need to do a lot of research on something

reference for writers: When you need to do a lot of research on something

ObsidianMichi’s Real World Fight Facts

For those of us who come from a non-combat, non-Martial Arts background, watching action sequences in movies, television, and MMA fights, or even reading them in a book the action can seem almost magical. Of course, it is. The fights in television shows and even in the ring are designed to be as entertaining and as safe for the actors/fighters as possible. The rules of the street and even natural human behavior are often ignored to put on a better show.

What does this mean for authors? Well, if you use these things as your fighting basics, your characters won’t ever pass the scratch and sniff test and the fight sequences in your book or fanfiction will never achieve their potential.

So, below the cut are some simple rules from a Black Belt to help you get started. Happy writing!

1) Fights end fast.

On the street your character will realistically only be able to perform eight moves before they’re finished and if they fire off any kicks, reduce that number by two. This is true of any martial artist, regardless of their level and skill. If your fight sequence lasts more than a page, then it’s gone on for too long, so keep it short and figure that thirty seconds to a minute equals one to three paragraphs. Fights are exhausting, end stop, so finish it and move on.

2) Always Keep Moving

A fight is built on constant motion, if your character is standing flat footed, they’re going to be bowled over. Back up, shift from side to side, bounce on the balls of your feet, and stay aware for second and third additions to the fight. Moving hides the body’s tells from the character’s opponent and will mask their strikes as they dodge. Remember that timing is everything and a wasted move is wasted energy, when your character misses (and they will) deduct the move from the eight they have to finish the fight.

3) The Bad Guys Never Queue

While there is a difference when fighting untrained versus trained groups, one thing is always true: the bad guys never queue. What do I mean? Well, if you love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, pull out the first or second season, then start paying close attention to the fights. One thing you’ll notice is a Hollywood standard: the stuntmen all line up and come in separately, instead of together and the hero fights them one at a time. In the real world, groups always come in together, instead they often surround their targets to pound on the back’s soft tissue. This is why backing up is essential, if you are surrounded and can’t escape, then it’s over.

4) The Maximum Number of Opponents a Single Master Can Take On is Eight

The realistic number a very experienced fighter can face at one time on their own is no more than eight. If there are any more and they are outside the eyes and brain’s ability to track and the information will overload. If your character attempts to fight more in a straight on bout, they will lose. If your character is not a master, eight opponents, even unskilled ones, are going to wreck their day. The best advice for fighting groups I’ve ever been given is to run away.

5) It’s Never Shameful to Run From a Fight

Always know what your character can take and what they can’t, if they are skilled fighters they will also know. Fighting a losing battle is not a
sign of bravery, but stupidity, in the real world, a fighter’s first goal is to survive. Take a page from the Self-Defense Handbook, do just enough damage to disengage and prevent an opponent from following, then get away before they’re killed.

6) People die. Fast.

The goal of a fight is not only to hurt your opponent, but also to kill
them. The human body, for all it’s strengths, is ridiculously fragile. A blow to the throat, to the solar plexus, or a slamming an opponent’s head into the concrete are all more than enough to kill them. The writer must always be aware that their character could die at any moment and from any opponent, it doesn’t matter if they are the hero or the villain, a master will die just as easily from a blow to the temple or a knife stabbing their kidney as a beginner. Remember, even if your character is only participating in a training exercise or a supervised bout, injury and death are always possibilities, even when it’s accidental.

7) The Greatest Threat to an Untrained/Inexperienced Fighter is

Themselves

It doesn’t matter how much natural talent a character possesses, there’s a reason why beginners in any martial arts program are forbidden from sparring and when they are then it’s only in very controlled circumstances: they will hurt themselves. A technique performed before the muscles have been properly prepared will lead to injury.

Example: Have you ever attempted to perform a roundhouse kick or seen little kids after a movie trying to practice their favorite moves? Yes? What did that look like, I’m betting slow, staid, and barely able to get their leg up over their hip or maintain their balance. It’s not uncommon for them to fall over or even twist an ankle. Why? Because even a movement as simple as a roundhouse kick is actually fairly complex. The leg comes up in the knee, the foot on the ground shifts to point sideways and then to a forty five degree angle, the hip turns over as the leg extends and the toes pull back to slam the ball of the foot into the opponent’s side, which, of course, leads to broken ribs when the strike connects. When I was seven years old and a blue belt, I once stubbed my toes on my opponet when I was point sparring, because in the foot pads I couldn’t pull them back. This is why in Tae Kwan Do point sparring the foot points and you hit with the flat top of the foot to avoid injury. However, black belts will still kick hard enough to leave bruises, even through the padding.

Second Example: In some forms of Karate they do full contact sparring a.k.a no pads, but it is for black belts only. Why? Because only the black belts have the training and skill to avoid hurting themselves, much less their opponents. I once heard a story from a friend about a training session involving two green belts when their instructor wasn’t paying attention and allowed them to spar, full contact. What happened? Both green belts kicked, their kicks collided with each other, and both ended up with broken legs.

The average green belt is someone who has consistently trained between two to five years. If you’re character is a beginner then they are in the same danger as those green belts were.

Never forget it.

8) A broken bone is a broken bone

If you’re character breaks a bone, from a rib to a leg, then that’s it. Game over. This is why you never punch someone in the face. Why? The hand is full of small, delicate bones, any of them break and your character is out a hand for the next two (?) to five (?) months or longer. Your opponent’s face is full of dense, heavy bones, designed to protect the body’s most valuable assets, much like rock beats scissors, face usually beats hand. So, why risk it?

Forget what you’ve seen in MMA or in Boxing or in the Movies. MMA fighters and Boxers protect their hands with gloves and the Movies fake it. The bones in the face are much tougher than the bones in the hands, so keep it to open hand strikes and if you must go blow for blow, a backhand to the temple or a punch to the soft tissue of the throat will save your character and finish the fight faster.

Or in the words of Burn Notice’s Michael Westen “In a fight, you have to be careful not to break the little bones in your hand on someone’s face. That’s why I like bathrooms… lots of hard surfaces.”

Why have your character break themselves on someone else when they can break their opponent on with a much lower risk to themselves?

9) Dual Wielding is Not Actually a Thing

Except in rare cases and small weapons such as knives or eskrima, dual wielding has no place in regular combat. Why? Because you need your free hand to block and in the case ofa firearm to reload and stabilize the weapon. The enemy with the most is rarely the one who wins, the character with the ability to apply their defensive damage to somone is the one who wins. Dual wielding makes that harder, not easier.

A) Dual wielding hand guns: no accuracy and even if your character does spray and prey, the reload times (two guns take up both hands) and the 15 round magazines makes them less effective than a single SMG. Our brains are not designed to handle the mismatched parallax data and therefore cannot process how far away the target is, thus no accuracy.

B) Dual wielding swords: the blades will get in each other’s way, full stop, and if you cannot hit your opponent, you cannot kill them.

Does it look cool? Maybe. Is it practical? Oh, god no. Remember, practicality is your character’s means of not dying horribly, so don’t discount it just because you think they need to be X-treme.

10) Don’t forget to block

In a fight, blocking will save your character’s life. It is also the means of creating openings by which they can attack. Blocking incoming strikes is an essential basic part of every single martial art, so learn how to make the most of it for your character. It doesn’t matter how high their dexterity is or how skilled they are at dodging, if a character is in a fight they are going to get hit. So, how about learning the fine art of making sure the recieving blow doesn’t kill them. Defense is more important than offense if you want your character to survive.

-Michi

Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.