Q&A: Practice, Practice Practice

Would learning to use a sword for the first time cause muscle fatigue or blisters? At what age should fantasy characters typically start learning? How long does it take to become ‘skilled’? For some reason I’m having trouble figuring out how to write a realistic progression.

There’s a certain level where this question can’t be answered because “fantasy” covers a vast range, and even medieval fantasy could cover a variety of different weapons that are all under the “sword” header. Besides that, the amount of time it takes for someone to become proficient depends on their dedication and opportunities for training.

The basic issue with writing a training sequence in fiction is that you are instructing the audience as well as the character. You have to write the teacher and student both. If you can’t do that, then you can’t write the scene. Teaching requires you have the knowledge necessary to, well, teach. If you don’t know then you need to learn, and learning requires a lot of work.

If you’ve never learned how to fight, never spent a lot of time acquiring a similar skill set, or never done any martial arts of any kind then, yes, you’ll have difficulty figuring out a realistic training progression that your character went through.

So, let’s start with something simple. The easiest way to figure out “realistic” progression is to:

A) Do your research on historical figures.

C) Do your research on the art of sword fighting. There’s a lot of great references available out there. I suggest starting with Skallagrim and Matt Easton.

B) Correlate to your own experiences.

Have you ever done sports? Even sports you were forced to do as part of high school gym class? Have you ever run a mile? You couldn’t get enough air, your muscles were killing you (including some you never knew existed), you wanted to die, some asshole teacher kept yelling at  you to hurry up, and you hated it?

In broad strokes, learning to fight is a lot like that and the people you hated in gym class like the teacher’s pets who enjoyed physical exercise and were really good at it because they were also athletes… those are the ones who’d be the good fighters in your story.

If you’ve never engaged in any other serious exercise then internalize your high school gym experiences. Especially the embarrassing, sweaty, tired, bloated, painful, red-faced, gasping parts or, you know, failing to do any pull ups at all when asked. Think about how much you hated pushups. Now, think about this, your character is going to be doing lots, and lots, and lots of those!

If your character gets to hold a sword during their first lesson (doubtful, but possible), it won’t be a real one. They’ll get a practice sword, which will either be made of wood or blunted metal.

Then, they’ll spend the entirety of that lesson learning how to stand, and (maybe) how to hold their practice sword.

Eastern martial arts like the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese martial curriculums won’t let you touch a weapon during the first four years of training. Many Chinese martial arts have a very specific progression between weapons because the techniques you learn feed into each other. The staff is the foundational weapon, then the sword, then upwards until you reach the chain weapons like the meteor hammer, dart, and whip chain which are the most difficult to control.

Western martial arts aren’t quite as structured, but they’re still structured. I’m going to assume this character is not some peasant farmer called up as a levy, who has a spear thrust into their hands and thrown out into battle to die for their lord. If you’re thinking of your character as a trained martial combatant, trained by someone be it the castle arms master or someone else, then they’re going to have to learn the basics, and those start with…

FOOTWORK!

This is the rule of all martial arts: if your foundation sucks then you’re going to die. Or, at the very least, you will lose.

You don’t start swinging a sword around, you start with your feet and your legs. You’ve got to learn to perform two actions at once, by moving your arm in a way that’s different from your legs, and combine both into a single movement then link them all together into a multitude of movements. You need to build up muscles in your calves, hamstrings, and thighs. You’ve got to develop balance. Balance starts with learning how to set your feet. You’ve got to have your stances or a stiff wind will blow you over.

You can’t just take blows, you need to learn how to, and the final arbiter of staying upright is not your arms or your upper body but your feet. A shallow stance means you cannot maintain your balance, bad footwork will let your enemy know you’re coming, and you’ll never reach them. You can’t close the distance.

Footwork is one of the main tells between a professional/trained fighter and an untrained fighter. Body position is ingrained from the beginning to the point where you no longer need to think about it.

When martial artists talk about foundation, they’re talking not just talking about basic techniques, they’re literally talking about where you put your feet.

Have you ever stood with your knees bent at a forty-five degree angle, leaning forward onto the balls of your feet for one to two, much less five to ten minutes? If not, then yes, you will experience muscular fatigue.

Now, let’s get to…

CONDITIONING!

You gotta build that endurance.

The average fight will only last around thirty seconds, but you will be sprinting all out. You may be fighting multiple small battles in a large engagement, and when your body gives out then you die.

What most people mistake about swords is the idea that they’re heavy. They’re not. However, keeping two to four pounds in continuous motion for a couple minutes much less the length of a full fledged melee is exhausting. You want to run in a flat out sprint for thirty minutes? No. No, you don’t.

So, what does this mean? A large portion of your character’s early (and later) training will involve conditioning similar to what you experienced in gym class in the beginning, and grow ever more intense!

You will do your morning exercises and stretches to loosen up your muscles (because starting cold is asking for injury), then go on your jog, then you get to practice techniques, then go on another run, get a bout of conditioning, then run up a hill, and then finish up with end of day stretches before eating dinner and falling into bed.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

The point of conditioning is not to push you past what you’re capable of, but to push you past what you think you’re capable of. Building wind and muscle requires work, practicing your techniques when you’re tired helps you learn to push through exhaustion, and you need repetition to ingrain these techniques into your muscle memory to the point they become instinctive reactions. You get used to your muscles being tired so you can force them to work when you need them.

Conditioning is a training ladder, you find a variety of humps to get over, and after you manage past each then training gets easier for a short period, then more gets added and you start all over again.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

You will do those basics over and over and over and over and over and over again before you ever get to try them on another live human being, and when you finally get to they will be slowly structured by a one two three count breakdown where the entire attack is broken apart, then you get to do it at slow speed, then half-speed, then full-speed, and then one day in the far flung future you’ll get to spar. Not with a real sword, but with a blunted training sword and in padded gear so you don’t kill your partner.

Proficiency is Practice, Practice Takes Time

How fast does it take for someone to become proficient? At the very least, in a couple of months you could train someone to be infantry fodder. Consider this, a medieval knight began his education at the age of seven and was considered battlefield ready by the age of twenty-one. He probably saw combat before then as a squire when he became one at fourteen, but we’re looking at a training period of seven years for live combat training and seven years prior for general education. So, timetable necessary to produce a combat elite is fourteen years.

Now, the average knight knew how to do a lot more than swing a sword. He could handle a variety of weaponry, could fight on horseback, and presumably hold a leadership position over his lord’s infantry. A knight is a combat elite.

Your character who started training at eighteen will be overrun by the guy who started training at seven. They have a decade of training and battlefield experience on the other guy.

The men and women in their thirties are crazy good.

Masters have been doing this for thirty to forty years.

You should decide early on how good you want your character to be and plan their backstory accordingly. It’s fine if they’re not at the top, but it’s worth understanding that combat is baked into warrior cultures like the vikings or the germanic tribes. Their kids practiced spear throwing by throwing sticks back and forth as a game, then graduated as adults to catching javelins and throwing them back at Roman legionaries.

Development of Skill Requires Desire and Dedication

How quickly your character progresses will depend on their desire and their dedication. The person who wants to do this will progress faster than the person who doesn’t, who slacks off, and does the bare minimum. All the natural talent in the world won’t change that.

This is the problem a lot of fantasy novels and YA novels face with the protagonist versus their training rival. The training rival is often the guy working harder than the protagonist, especially when they don’t want to be there. A lot of the time, there’s no legitimate reason for the best in class training rival to even feel threatened by these protagonists. They’re no threat to them or their position in the class, and I use “threat” loosely.

I have a lot of experience with the kids in training classes who don’t want to be there. Trust me, as someone who once was one and who was their instructor, they don’t progress. Most of them quit at the earliest opportunity. The ones with a lot of natural talent who just put in the bare minimum because everything is easy end up middling to mediocre if not plain bad.

Physical training is pretty much 90% mental, which means you don’t become good just by showing up. You choose to commit. You chase excellence. You choose to push through the exhaustion and pain by sheer willpower. Most importantly, you don’t give up. You’re defined by tenacity, and your willingness to push past what you believe to be possible.

The guy or girl who is the best is the one who shows up to class earliest and leaves last. They eat, sleep, and dream their training.

Top level athletes are the ones who have sacrificed everything to their craft. The younger they are, then the more time they’ve devoted to that singular aspect of their life at the expense of everything else.

This is what they want.

So, decide early what your actual goal is for this character and their level of skill. Then, you need go learn about different kinds of swords, training, sports education, etc. Once you have those two things, it’ll be easier to figure out the rate your character progresses at.

-Michi

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