Tag Archives: female fighters

Q&A: Sparring

My protagonist needs to win a “friendly” spar against a fellow Marine who has at least six inches and a hundred pounds on her. How does she beat him? He’s a bodybuilder who’s more into the aesthetic of strength than actual balanced fitness, so she probably has the edge in endurance and agility, but as long as they’re both at least pretending they’re not trying to seriously hurt each other, his sheer size still seems like it outweighs everything else.

I’m going to take issue with some things here.

We’ve said this before, but, apparently this needs to be discussed again. Sparring isn’t about winning or losing, it’s a part of your training.

Sparring is not, “play fighting,” it’s about learning to put techniques together.

Most of martial arts training consists of practicing the motions until they are reflexive and second nature. It’s about retraining your body until you don’t have to think about what you’re going to do, and simply do it. This won’t win a fight, for that you need to learn to transition smoothly from one technique to the next.

Sparring is the process of learning to turn the techniques you drilled with into something you could actually use against a real opponent.

Sparring isn’t about winning or losing. It’s not a low stakes fight your characters can do to show off. It’s your character learning to chain their techniques together.

How’s she going to beat him? She’s certified in MCMAP. She’ll do it using her training. But, they’re both trained in MCMAP, so this is the next issue.

When it comes to creating a character, who they are is the sum of their experiences, training, and views. Your characters are Marines.

Your marine can’t weight 100 lbs more than her. At most, he can weigh about 60 lbs more than her. This is because the Marines have very strict weight requirements. If your character is 66 inches tall, she must weigh between 117 and 170 lbs. Now, the Marines kinda expect her to be trending towards the upper end of that spectrum, because muscle mass is heavy.

If your character is 66 inches tall and her foe has six inches on her, that’d put him at 72 inches (6 feet), and he can weigh between 140 and 184.

See the problem? He literally cannot exceed her weight by 100 lbs with them both passing physical. You can adjust the heights a bit, but, without pulling apart the entire chart, there’s just not enough range for that kind of weight difference unless he’s much taller than her.

This is also where the whole, body builder idea doesn’t quite work. Marines are specifically pushed towards balanced fitness. The goal is to turn out effective combatants, not meatheads who think their pecs of steel will stop a bullet.

I get that the idea here was to show up the misogynistic meathead, but that’s not a marine.

Also, stereotypes aside, I’ve never met a dumb marine. A few idiots who were in the army, and at least one navy vet prone to dubious life choices, but never a marine. They’re weird, but not dumb.

The military’s training structure prioritizes teamwork. They are not single operators, they are a unit. They train with their unit, and fight with their unit. Soldiers live and die by their ability to work together. All the hellish training Marines go through is there in part to build that bond, not just between individuals but with everyone who shares a similar experience.

You don’t need to prove your female character can fight. She’s a Marine. She can kill someone. She’s trained to do it. That’s not a question. Writing a sparring session on the idea she needs to win puts you in the wrong mindset, because, again, sparring is not about winning or losing. Sparring is all about figuring out how to use the skills you’ve been drilling in a free-flow environment where you act and react to an opponent.

If you don’t believe me, let’s quote the Marine’s own training manual:

1. PURPOSE. The purpose of body sparring is to bridge from static to dynamic and inoculation to interpersonal violence.

a. Bridge from Static to Dynamic. Body sparring is the bridge between static punches and a dynamic environment. This is the final stage of training after executing punches in the air and on pads. Free sparring gives Marines the opportunity to apply the individual techniques they have learned in a realistic environment with a live resisting opponent. Executing techniques one at a time in the air is much different than using them together against another person who is defending themselves and also trying to hurt you.

b .Inoculation to Interpersonal Violence. Inoculation is the process of introducing something to the body so it can defend itself in the future. By introducing Marines to violence on a personal level, they will be more prepared for a real close combat scenario.

This is a learning experience, not a contest.

Sparring is just about providing a live experience with a resisting partner, not an exercise in who can hurt the other more.

The part you’re having an issue with is that you don’t know what it is Marines are trained to do. The good news is they make their training manuals available online. So, in the event you’re willing and able to do the research, you can write an entire sequence that is up to code.

2. CONDUCT OF THE BOUT. Free sparring is a training tool designed to develop Marines’ skills and confidence, and must not become a fight club or beat-down.

This is the problem with almost all sparring sequences in fiction. If you’re using it for dramatic tension then you’ve already sabotaged the purpose of the exercise, and your character’s own training. No competent instructor will pair up two people who have a legitimate beef with each other, because neither will learn anything from it. Any instructor who wants to stack the deck against a misogynistic meathead will stack the deck so hard against him that he can’t win, and has no method of recourse. They use someone who has already finished training or one of the TAs. They can also turn it into a good learning exercise for said meathead about making assumptions and assuming size matters. There’s nothing like the experience of someone half your size tossing you around the room to bring the point home.

However, it won’t be your female character currently in training who makes that point. She can’t. She doesn’t have the experience or the skill for the defeat to be so total that it sticks in the student’s memory forever. The woman who makes this example will be someone who has finished their training. This teaches your male students a valuable lesson and gives your female students motivation, and a reminder to work towards when the going gets tough.

The only way this scenario works on face value with the antagonism angle is if she’s sparring someone much greener than her who she has no problems turning into mush.

b. Maturity. All Marines must control their egos and tempers at all times. Marines who demonstrate immaturity, lack of control, or unsportsmanlike conduct will not be allowed to participate.

Sparring is not a free space to beat the crap out of someone you don’t like. The only grading score here is that you can achieve a kill with a simulated weapon before your opponent. That’s all the Marines care about. And in case you thought they didn’t have rules for girls… you were wrong.

b. Safety Gear. The safety gear required for body sparring is head gear, mouthpiece, 16 ounce (minimum) boxing gloves, and groin protection. Females must also wear a flak jacket for added protection for the female anatomy.

Did you envision your characters wearing protection in this sparring session? They better be.

Remember…

Training not only the physical but also the mental is crucial to the development of the combative mindset. Body sparring prepares the Marine to function when faced with stress and violence. These skills are the building block to developing the physical skills and combative mindset vital to success on the battlefield.

Whatever other goals for this scene you may have as a writer, you want to keep the above in mind. This is what your characters’ sparring session is for. If they are not learning this lesson through this training in your narrative then you are failing them as well as yourself. You are also failing in showing their combat ability and professionalism. Marine is a mindset, it is a profession, and will become a core part of your character’s personal identity. If you haven’t begun researching who the Marines are, what they do, what their outlook on life is, and how they behave… now would be good time to start. This is who your character (male or female) is going to be at the end of their training.

How does your character “win”? By using her training. Now, go take another look at MCMAP (Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.)

Everything Milspec has to be available publicly. If you want to write soldiers, say thank you to Uncle Sam. You can read up on all of the training documentation online. Therefore, there is no excuse for you not to do your homework. They will tell you exactly how the Marines handle sparring, put together by Marines for Marines, and you too can follow the training outline.

I will leave you with this last instructor note:

Unsafe Conditions. It is the referee’s, and RSO’s, responsibility to immediately stop the fight if they see any unsafe condition such as a defenseless fighter, safety gear problems, or if a fighter is injured. A fighter is defenseless if they appear unable or unwilling to intelligently defend themselves by exposing their back, falling to the ground, dropping their weapons,or dropping theirs hands. If any safety gear is unserviceable, missing, or not fitted properly the fight must be stopped to correct the problem. If a fighter appears to be injured, by screaming or yelling, the fight must be stopped. Once the unsafe condition is corrected, the referee will restart the fight.

-Starke & Michi

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What sort of sword would you recommend for a female fighter? I have also heard that the sword was a secondary weapon, but the time period is pre – guns and I have no a clue how much muscle is needed to fire a crossbow vs a long/short bow? Which one?

My best recommendation is to stop thinking about this character as a girl first and fighter second. You’re trying to come up with ways to make the fighting possible for her, instead of accepting that combat is a skill that can be developed by anyone given the proper amount of training and dedication. What weapon would you give this character if they were male?

That’s your answer.

As for picking weapons, I tend to pick weapons as a part of character creation and developing backstory (that blows up a little if the character is already established). I have a habit of doing this the same way I would write a crime: Motive. Method. Opportunity.

Motive: Why did this character want to learn to fight? What reason did they have to seek out training?

Most times, even in a family of established fighters, a character has to make the decision to train and to fight. This decision is a personal one and it can be anything from a desire for self protection to dreaming of being a knight in ballad. If you are working with a setting where female warriors are uncommon, then the character’s motivation for going against societal norms becomes that much more important.

Learning to fight is hard work and depending on that character’s background may well ruin any chance at conventional beauty/traditional womanhood/marriage opportunities that will better the standing of their families. It’s more than just an unusual choice, depending on the setting and gender constraints it could very well be an incredibly selfish one.

So, it’s important to establish that as part of the character.

Method: Who taught them? The good combatants have a teacher and the sword is a weapon that requires instruction, both in the manner of caring for the weapon and how to use it against other opponents. The character is going to need a teacher who can teach them to use that specific version of the weapon.

Did they have an in house tutor like Brienne of Tarth or Arya Starke? Did they receive their training when they joined the local military or militia? Did they have a parent train them? Were they carrying a blade that was common amongst peasants of their time like the arming sword or a weapon that was more regularly associated with the nobility like the long sword?

Opportunity: And what is a method if the character has no opportunity to take it? Think about your character’s background and social constraints, then pick a path that makes the most sense for them and was common for the people of their time (or the time/culture you’re basing it off of). The method they use will inevitably lead them to the right weapon.

This is where research is your friend, by narrowing down your path to profession and time period, you can better establish what your options are.

Remember: any weapon will work. Combat is a skill that can be learned and the only real physical barrier to entry is how hard you’re willing to work to learn it and the opportunities given to learn.

I didn’t pick taekwondo because it was the best suited to my size and body type, I picked the Ernie Reyes organization because they put on a performance at my elementary school that I really enjoyed. I saw it, said “I want to be able to do that”, took home the flier, and my parents signed me up.

I knew a lot of other kids (both boys and girls) who got into martial arts because they loved Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.

The longbow versus crossbow question is actually fairly easy, both require a fair amount of strength to wield, but the truth is that care for the weapon is the most important point to maintain ease of drawing. Both require regular oiling and careful, specialized handling to ensure that they remain in a ready state of use.

The longbow is for characters like hunters, scouts, and nobles. Someone who grew up learning to or needing to hunt as a means for providing for their families. It can fire more rapidly than a crossbow, but requires more time to learn, more practice, and more training to be used effectively. In mass combat, archers were used in the same manner modern artillery is used today. The crossbow surpassed the longbow for the same reason that the gun surpassed the crossbow: it took a shorter amount of time to become as or more deadly than the other weapon, thus cheaper to replace when your troops fell. A lost archer is one to two to ten years of experience, compared to a lost crossbowman or gunman which is “point that way and fire”.

The crossbow is probably for a character who was trained via the military. A military trained character, depending on the time frame, will also be proficient in the use of anti cavalry tactics and pole arms. A female military conscript could easily just be a peasant girl whose mother dressed her up as a boy to either hide her from the men or hide a more valuable male sibling from the soldiers looking for recruits. It was not uncommon for peasants in the medieval period to be called up as levies to support their lord on the battlefield. They were usually just handed a spear and sent off to die, but there might be some workable ideas in there.

Training molds the body into a more suitable shape for the physical activity. So, if your fighter is a noblewoman, don’t expect her to keep the secret  for long. Also, servants talk. People are observant. They will know.

Some things to think about.

-Michi

How would my girl character be able to defeat my male character in hand to hand combat? Clearly, it won’t be easy to do so through physical means, but are they any clever moves or tricks she could pull to win?

With respect, you’re approaching this the wrong way. Unless your intent is to take your character out at the kneecaps.

She doesn’t need clever moves or tricks to win. If she actually knows how to fight, she can win.

There is no real strength gap between the sexes. There’s a social expectation. There’s culturally acceptable activities. But, there isn’t a real strength difference. This is one of those societal illusions that doesn’t relate to reality. You don’t need to write your female characters as superheroes or trick fighters to come out on top against normal male opponents. They just need to know how to fight.

It actually devalues your character to say they need special means to win in a fight. You’re saying, “I need to make my character special so they can compete.” You don’t. You will make stronger, better, more compelling characters, when you avoid cheating them past adversity.

What you need to change isn’t in your story, it’s your perspective, as a human being looking at the world.

(Also, you might want to read Women are not Weaker than Men.)

-Starke

deepredroom:

A reminder that “male” armour usually works just as well with female bodies. If you’re trying to design something practical, useful and historical looking (or even just something the follows the laws of physics), never ever put in boob cups. Aside from the fact they give the armour a sort of “focus point” for swords, falling down on them would send the shock right into the sternum. Regular plate armour leaves enough space between the chest for small to medium sized boobs anyway. But say the girl underneath is a buxom lass, you can still avoid that cleavage, boob cup shape while leaving enough space for her melons.

But aside from plate, things like the top picture, chainmail and all sorts of leather armour are unisex. I know you might be thinking that the feminine thing to do when designing a female warrior is to show off a bit of thigh or neck or cleavage or something, but really, understand that if the goal of that armour is to protect completely, putting an obvious gap in it is a terrible idea and she’ll surely get stabbed very quickly.

And don’t feed me the “it’s magic, I don’t got to explain shit” line. Bollox. Magic armour and forcefields need to make some sense too. Show me something that LOOKS like it’s generating a barrier over the character instead of just saying “Oh the G-string of Invulnerability is just as good as wearing full plate anyway”. If that’s the case, everyone would wear it. And why can’t they just tie it around their belt? Make me believe that your magic armour and spells have logic to them. If not, please don’t play your world straight. I’m all for super stylised designs as long as they’re sold as such, but if you’re trying to make a world that feels real enough for people to believe and get immersed in, think this stuff out. If you’ve designed someone with sparse, gapped armour that shows skin, give your character a reason to wear it.

This showed up on my crawl while I was packing up (and getting ready to carry) another load of comic books. Figured some of you might like it. We need more recognition for women warriors and a better focus on practical gear for them in fiction. If there’s one thing that really hurts a female character’s believability, its the lack of appropriate dress sense and gear. It’s nice to want to have it all, but sometimes we’ve got to make sacrifices for common sense.

-Michi

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

Women Are Not Weaker Than Men

Divorce yourself from this idea right now, author. While I’m sure it is the narrative you’ve been presented with your entire life, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t true. Women do find building up muscles in the upper body more difficult than men, but since power does not come from the arms, it’s actually a superfluous distinction. Women build up muscles in the lower body and in the core muscles (abdominal) very rapidly.

Skill in combat is not a matter of biology, but in training and dedication. Remember, if your female character fights, she’s neither unique nor special. In my experience as a martial artist and a martial arts instructor, there are on average per class 2 girls to every 10 boys, with the female number either remaining constant or doubling as the class goes up in age. While there are fewer female combatants around than male, it’s not hard to find 20 women to every 100 men. Extrapolate that out and think about it, women who fight are not as rare as you might have previously imagined.

Here are a few things to consider:

Power comes from the hips.

I will harp on this until the end of time until everyone shakes the myth of punch strength being decided by arm muscle strength out of their heads. The strength of the strike comes from the pivot of the hips and guess what? Women have wider hips than men, thus a greater opportunity to generate more power and hit their opponents harder. Combine this advantage with a low-center of gravity and the ability to push that center even lower  and you have a fighter capable, not just in power, but able to topple much larger opponents.

Women have a lower center of gravity.

This is the advantage of the short fighter, it’s the same for short men and short women, a tall woman fighting a shorter woman will encounter the same resistance as a tall man fighting a short one. I list this as a female advantage because most women will always find themselves facing larger opponents. So, it’s important for an author to keep in mind.

So, how does this work? A center of gravity is the height difference from the ground to your core, around the belly button. The shorter the fighter, the lower their center of gravity, the lower the center of gravity the closer they are to the earth, the closer they are to the earth the better their ability to generate a stable base and the harder they are to knock over. A fighter who knows where to put their feet and weight to make use of their center is a hard one to take to the ground. This is one way for women to overcome the height and weight disadvantage.

Women are naturally more resistant to pain and fatigue than men, have a greater potential for stamina, and can fight harder for longer.

It’s important to note: it’s not just that men cannot biologically carry a child to term and survive the birth, but if they did with their current make-up, they would die. So, you may call it the miracle of childbirth, but a woman’s body is gifted with a much greater level of resilience than their male counterparts. While these abilities must be honed and improved through training, the natural talent is already present in every woman’s body.

The only combatants who ever actively terrified me were women.

I’ve met a great many master martial artists from a great many different styles, all of whom I deeply respect, and can trust in their ability to utterly annihilate me. But the female black belt sparring division, my first thought on encountering those women as a teenager was: “I want to spar with the boys.”

Women live in a very different world than men do, they live in a world that is comprised of dangers even in places that are supposed to be safe. A woman cannot walk down a street alone, never mind if it’s at night, without wondering if an attack will happen. Rape and other acts of violence are very real, every day threats, and women live with the knowledge that the places they have been told to go to for protection will disregard them, laugh at them, and judge them on their worth for “allowing” these acts to happen to them. Every woman, even the ones like me who began at a young age, will eventually be faced with the realization that they may have to use what they know against another person one day. This is not fantasy assessment full of wishful thinking, but a cold reality. What if one day I have to hurt someone else? What if one day I have to kill them? The women who practice and prepare through forms of combat do so with that in mind, with the knowledge that they are the underdogs and that one day, they may have to use that training to fight for their lives.

The ferocity with which they beat on each other in sparring matches is a reflection of that. Remember, these are women who have shaken off the socially ingrained idea of ’I can’t hurt anyone’ and moved on to ’I will break you if you hurt me’. They follow that up with: you will never walk right again.

Unless your character comes from a very different society, this attitude will be part of who they are. Women who are trained and dedicated have the capacity to be terrifying, especially in a patriarchal society. Why? It’s not the behavior that most men expect.

-Michi

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