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Q&A: For Fiction, There’s No Superior Fighting Style

slutside-out said to howtofightwrite: Are there any fighting styles that are vastly superior to others? In other words where one person’s very skilled in one form of fighting but would just be completely outclassed by someone who’s skilled in another form. I’m writing a story and there’s a scene where one of the best hand to hand fighters in the group is just completely ruined by an assassin sent after him.

“Superior Fighting Style” questions are one of those which can easily devolve into fanwank. (See: katana fans.) Basically, contextualize this question as any of the loaded questions you would avoid asking about like “who is the show’s best character?” or saying “this couple is perfect and all other pairings are trash” when discussing your favorite television show. Expect heated debate with some (or no) validity, littered with good points and many inaccuracies, that eventually devolve into ALL CAPS yelling on some distant forum board.

There is no vastly superior martial art. The military martial combat forms are kept on the cutting edge for warfare in the modern world. They could (depending on definition) be considered “the best”. (Even so, you’ll still be getting into arguments about various Armed Services divisions about who is the most effective, like SEALS versus Army Rangers versus Force Recon versus Delta versus the Green Berets, etc. That’s before we start comparing different countries.) However, these martial arts are superior because they have been adapted to serve in the current environment and not because they are all the best all the time. There are plenty of other martial arts which will work better as a reference point for the character and their outlook. There are a lot of martial arts and martial combat forms with stellar reputations. There’s no unified consensus.

The superiority answer will change depending on who you talk to, and usually they’re overlooking some crucial detail the other martial art they’re degrading offers. You’ll get a flavor of the month answer like Krav Maga, Silat, Ninjutsu, Muay Thai, which is a disservice to the others like Hapkido, JiuJutsu, Judo, Taekwondo, Sambo, Northern Shaolin, Eskrima, Capoeira, and thousands of others. Taekwondo gets derided a lot by Mixed Martial Arts fans for its popularity, but the truth is that when it works, it really works.

Ultimately, mindset makes the warrior. The answer is never in the secret techniques but in the skill of the individual who wields them and their ability to face the unknown.

I’m pointing this out because I’ve seen a lot of writers fall into the secret or superior martial arts trap. There’s an initial urge to ask for the best fighting style for a specific body type or the best weapon for a character to use that’ll give them some sort of statistical advantage. The practical answer of whatever works best for you is a freeing one, but not usually helpful when you’re in a state of not knowing where to turn. You have to start somewhere.

So, where do you begin?

Start with this: your audience will judge your character based on their ability to act in keeping with their profession.

“There’s no different angle, no clever solution, no trickety-trick that’s going to move that rock. You’ve got to face it head on.” – Avatar: The Last Airbender

The application in the above quote is that only you as the author can prove your character’s bona fides and establish them by their actions. The martial art they’re using doesn’t matter. The martial art and knowledge of it is a reference point for you while you construct your fight sequence. As a writer, you don’t have to worry about visual accuracy. You need to provide enough direction for your audience to imagine the scenario. Understanding practical application and theory will take you far, even if you don’t have the option to take up a martial art yourself.

So, pick what you like. Go on YouTube and follow different martial arts professionals who discuss practical application, there’s a lot of good short videos from professionals in the self-defense field. Lots of martial arts specialists in various fields post videos both of techniques and discussing them in comparison to what’s shown in movies and television. The Black Belt Magazine’s YouTube Channel will introduce you to a lot of professionals in various fields from self-defense experts to martial arts masters.

What you’re doing here is performing a classic narrative beat where you establish the danger presented by a new antagonist through their sound beating of the team’s strongest member.

Here’s a quick list of things to keep in mind:

1) Strategy and Tactics: Plain Clothes Ambush

While the Assassin Archetype fits a wide array of combat backgrounds and ideologies, they are usually portrayed as being underhanded and ruthlessly efficient. The group coordinating and working together is the Assassin’s biggest threat, not the technical skills of a single group member. The best way to impact squad morale is to first remove the one who is perceived as the toughest. The strategy is sound, you take down your biggest single combat threat (especially when supported by the others) and freak the squad out. The best hand to hand fighter might be viewed as their linchpin. Group cohesion fractures, they stop working together, they start panicking, and they scatter. It’s much easier to target or fight individuals one on one, if it becomes necessary.

Remember, assassins aren’t warriors. They don’t prefer fisticuffs. They like weapons. They strive for single strikes in planned ambushes from a previously scouted area where they know their target will be.

For maximum effect, this assassin starts with a walk-up ambush and doesn’t give the “best fighter” the opportunity to even fight back.

2) The Skill Factor: A Killer’s Instinct

For the sake of narrative, you want to establish that his assassin beats the group’s best fighter because they’re better. The assassin beats the group’s best fighter because they’re more experienced, they’ve seen a wider range of fighting styles and can derive better counters as a result.

I’m not going to ask why this Assassin is fighting with fisticuffs or going in hand to hand as opposed to carrying a concealable weapon like a knife or if this best hand to hand fighter survives.

It can be a huge blow to the Assassin’s credibility in their introduction (especially a violent one) if you don’t let them kill. Killing their assigned target is their job, sure, but a dead witness is better than a live one and can muddy the waters of an investigation. Assassins are professional killers and, unlike other combat professionals, their credibility is defined by the bodies.

Film usually introduces an assassin finishing a prior job (effectively killing someone the audience doesn’t care about) to establish their skill and credibility. In your novel, you can’t rely on hearsay.

You might want to consider driving the point home by feeding one of your characters to them. (This “best fighter” character, for example.)

3) Cost & Benefit Analysis: Death is Better

In every engagement, your combat oriented characters will be running a cost versus benefit analysis both before they go in and also during the battle itself. This asks if the risk of engagement is cost-effective for their goals, and if they do engage what they need to do in order to both win and undercut any potential fallout.

Cost = the energy and resources expended to achieve victory.

Benefit = what they get from fighting with or removing this individual.

Risk = the risk of injury, and other immediate dangers the engagement presents.

Fallout = this is the negative results. Alerting law enforcement to their presence, making the achievement of their overall goal more difficult. Fallout can come from the noise of the fight, the number of witnesses, accessible cameras, having nowhere to dump the body, etc.

Death removes the possibility of witnesses, making it more difficult to identify them. Death means they won’t have to deal with the same skilled combatant again, which benefits them. If the skilled combatant is dead, they can’t provide insights into the assassin’s methodology, fighting style, or strategies; keeping any others trying to protect their target in the dark. An assassin doesn’t want their target afraid, they want them complacent. If their target is aware of a threat, they don’t want them to know they are the threat. You can’t build an effective strategy for countering the unknown.

For an assassin, if they are forced into situation where they have to fight at all, killing their opponent is the best outcome. Assassins generally view bystanders as ambulatory obstacles in the way of their target instead of as people, making it easier to kill them.

However, assassins prefer not to kill anyone but their target. That is the path of least resistance and the one which is most beneficial to their future. Their goal is to complete their mission, escape undetected, and leave no evidence that they were the ones who killed the target. They want to retain their anonymity because anonymity is necessary to do their job. Their target is their goal, any cost/benefit analysis be calculated around the death of their target, and adjust based on how their actions impact those chances.

4) The Number of Moves: 1 to 3

In the world of film fight scene choreography (and real life), you signal one fighter is better than the other through the length of the fight. For maximum impact in a complete shut out, the fight part of the scene will last about a few sentences. “Getting wrecked” translates into your group’s best fighter being taken down in one to three moves. The three is part of the opening combination, rather than retaliatory. 1) Destabilizing strike, 2) Follow-up hits somewhere more devastating/sensitive, 3) Last hit (usually with the opening strike’s hand) is the due final diligence to make sure they don’t come back/puts them out of the fight.

For killing blows, this is 1) destabilize on the exterior/hit somewhere vital, 2) finishing kill/an even more vital place, 3) making sure they’re dead/another vital place.

You can do this with a knife in simple combination:

  1. Make a forward approach with the knife hidden by the body’s profile or the arm.
  2. When in range, slash on an upward diagonal across the throat.
  3. Rotate the knife (if the knife is in a forward position, not necessary if the knife is already in an icepick grip), and come back in to puncture the carotid with blade tip.
  4. Knife through the back of the neck as you move past, severing the spinal column.
  5. They collapse, dying. On to the next.

This is a simple combination which makes use of the blade’s position in the hand (the ice pick grip). You distract them with the first injury (slash) which likely landed painful but superficial injuries, to strike the vital point (the artery) ensuring a fast bleed out, and the final blade strike through the spine paralyzes their entire body. Paralyzing them ensures they cannot staunch the blood flow to buy themselves time. They have no choice but to lie there and bleed out. This strategy also benefits the attacker because the more emotional and less experienced members of the group might break to protect their friend.

This is also just one potential option, there’s a wide array of possibilities when ambushing or striking with a variety of hand to hand techniques/weapons.

The only problem with this scenario and approach is that if the assassin’s target isn’t the squad itself but a single member or someone they’re protecting then attacking head on doesn’t really benefit them. A competent group will sacrifice one or two soldiers upfront to stop the assassin, while they hustle the target to safety. Bodyguards always prioritize their protectees over stopping the assassin. Attacking this way, in clear view, the assassin reduces their chances of completing the job.

When setting up this scene, keep the assassin’s goals in mind. It can be easy to try and structure a fight scene around what you want to happen, but always make sure the character motivations are backing that up. If you’re imagining a Byung Hun Lee type assassin from R.E.D. 2. (By the by, that’s Taekwondo.) Or John Wick, both are the typical Hollywood badass assassins. (The first John Wick film is notable for its use of modern shooting techniques like CAR. (Center Axis Relock), it’s worth looking at if you want to write gunfights.) Or like Lucy Lawless in the Burn Notice episode False Flag, you want to watch the full 16 minute clip or the full episode for even more good tradecraft to build off of. This episode centers around what you can expect when dealing with an assassin in the real world, the tactics and techniques they use, along with how to counter them. Another really good example of an assassin hewing closer to what you’d find in the real word is Vincent from Collateral. (Michael Mann’s films are also really good examples of professional shooting.)

I really recommend watching the False Flag episode and Collateral even if you’re planning to go with a Hollywood badass assassin.

Be honest with yourself about the type of narrative you want to write and the violence you’re looking at implementing in your novel. Honesty goes a long way toward narrowing your search. There are a lot of different approaches which are valid, what’s most important is finding the kind which interests you and then learning the applicable practical theories.

Last Note: If you’re interested in learning more about US Armed Services training, all their manuals (including special forces) are available online for free. It may take a few internet searches, but you’ll find the right PDFs.

-Michi

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Ok so I just read some of your posts about martial arts, and if I understood it right, is that greater muscle mass doesn’t actually make you stronger, it just makes it easier/faster to build up strength. Thinking of the upper body, if you have two individuals where one has more mm than the other (or a man/woman), on the assumption that both have equal capacity and training, the person with greater mm wouldn’t directly be *stronger* because of the mm, but has just progressed faster? Is that it?

So, here’s the thing. Martial arts do not rely on strength, some techniques such as joint locks and throws require no strength at all. Muscle helps, but it is not comparable to understanding of technique. You’re not actually going to be build up a lot of muscle mass when practicing martial arts techniques by themselves. You will when doing endurance training and strength training separately, but that’s about it. Then, in the more advanced section, we get into the admission that its not about how hard you hit but rather where (and how deeply the force penetrates the body).

You don’t need to be physically “strong” to break bricks, for example. Rather, it’s a question of your ability to visualize past an object so the force carries through.

Most of martial arts is about manipulation of body mechanics to generate force. Muscles help, but not as much as most people think and certainly not in the way they think. The average athlete will have more muscle mass and muscular definition than the average martial artist. For fighting, endurance trumps flat physical strength. Too much of a certain type of muscle, such as that seen on a body builder, becomes detrimental. After all, muscle weighs more than fat. If you’re totally ripped, it becomes more difficult to move quickly which is detrimental and the amount of weight you’re carrying around reduces the length of time you can fight.

More than that, different humans develop visible definition in their musculature at different rates. In some cases, it requires a very specific, pointed regimen to get the look you see off of body builders and actors. Women have a very difficult time achieving visible definition, especially in their upper body. So, being able to see muscle doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t there.

So, you’re still thinking about it wrong. Muscle mass (as in the size of your muscles) isn’t what’s important. There are essentially two different kinds of muscles that one can develop.

1) the ones gained by stretching/elongating the muscle over a period of time, which is what you get from most sports like running and general aerobic exercise.

2) the ones gained by tearing the muscles so they build up over time, this is what you get from body-building, weight lifting, pushups, and other similar exercises.

For a combatant, the first one is actually more important because it emphasizes building of endurance. Your muscles remain lean, you build up wind, though you won’t gain much in the way of definition. The second one is also important but in moderation as too much muscle mass will actually impede movement and slow you down. One is endurance, the other is strength. Endurance is far more necessary, because that’s what allows you to fight for a prolonged period of time without growing tired.

The problem is the vast majority of the population is only aware of the second and most obvious type of muscle. They place all the emphasis on it. Ironically, of course, this shouldn’t be news to fans of Dragonball Z. Where the problem of over emphasizing training on building up muscle mass gets addressed during the Cell Saga. (Kudos for anyone who remembers which Super Saiyan got their butt whipped.) In this case, a bodybuilder would be at a greater disadvantage in a fight as opposed to a runner.

The second thing to understand about women is that they have what’s called a subcutaneous layer of fat underneath the surface of the skin. For some women, it is very difficult to build up any sort of visible definition and sometimes even requires a specific type workout regimen to achieve it. This doesn’t mean these women don’t have muscle, it’s just not visible and that makes it hard to accurately judge how much. Women also develop muscle differently from men, having an easier time building up their legs and their core than the upper body. However, those are just as essential to combat as your upper body. Your core is your primary means of maintaining balance, and acts as the body’s centerpoint. If you’ve got a weak center, it doesn’t matter how strong your arms are.

The third thing to understand is about rippling muscles. The more visible the muscle, the easier it is to find the pressure points. Most pressure points on the body exist in the places where separate muscles meet, so the more definition someone has then the easier they are to find.

If you assume both have equal capacity and training, then it doesn’t matter how much muscle mass is visible or who has more.

The issue you keep running into is in thinking that muscle = strength, which it doesn’t. The second is the assumption that physical strength is what matters, which again it doesn’t.

Technical proficiency matters. Endurance matters. Wind, as in how much oxygen you can get into your body, matters. Balance matters, your core muscles as in the abdominal muscles are the most important muscles to develop. The rest of it? Less so.

 Physical strength can enhance, but only to a certain, limited degree.

In martial arts, force is generated through the motion. Being able to deadlift 200 pounds doesn’t mean you can hit with anywhere near 200 pounds of force when your arm is moving. The amount of weight you lift doesn’t translate to force. Instead, we look to how force is generated through the movement of the body. To generate the maximum amount of force in a punch, you need to throw your whole body behind it.

This means your hand, your wrist, your arm, your shoulder are working in concert with your hips and your legs and your feet. However, there is a limit to how much force can be generated. A kick creates more momentum and is more powerful than a punch. Techniques where you spin, such as the spinning backfist or the wheelkick, are more powerful than the average martial arts technique. The more momentum you generate, the harder you hit. The same goes for jump kicks. The more momentum there is, the more force created. When you’re talking a judo or aikido throw, the point is to let the opponent’s body do the work for you. You get them into the air and their body in motion provides the force when they hit the ground. You don’t need to be strong, you just need to get them moving.

Martial arts techniques both offensive and defensive revolve around the concept of creating, negating, and redirecting momentum. This includes both yours and your opponent’s.

Here is a simple example:

Someone charges at you. You’ve got three options. You can stand there and take it. You can attempt to negate the charge by grabbing hold of them as they come and springing your feet backwards so you both likely end up on the ground. Or, you can get out of the way. (Maybe, you risk sticking your foot out to trip them.)

These are the basic concepts of martial arts defense.

It doesn’t really matter if it’s a big person charging you or a small one. It will matter a lot more if they are a linebacker, a wrestler, or someone who understands how to slam their shoulder into their opponent’s core to knock them over.

I get that this concept runs directly counter to the way combat is presented in media, and that’s why it ends up harder to comprehend. Just as many people end up discouraged when they start exercising to lose weight and end up gaining instead, because they were never taught that muscle weighs more than fat. That muscle will eat your fat, and help them achieve the body they want. All they know is weight itself as an aggregate is bad, if they are gaining then exercise must not be working, and they end up quitting because of it.

If you think about combat primarily in terms of strength then you will miss all the other fundamental pieces that are ultimately more important. When martial artists talk about “strength”, they’re usually referring to the generation of momentum rather or the technique’s effectiveness rather than how much you can lift or some other definition of physical strength.

Otherwise, the word you’re looking for fortitude.

-Michi

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Hi guys. Love the blog! I was wondering if you guys have ever watched Deadliest Warrior on Spike TV, and if you have, what are your thoughts on it? I was interested at first, but it got way too ridiculous real quick, particularly when they tried to prove a baseball bat was better than nunchaku.

That’s the show which convinced my brother a Samurai would defeat a Viking in single combat, then he tried to use it as evidence to prove it.

He was a fourth degree black belt and in college at the time. So, no excuse.

Deadliest Warrior is entertainment in the same vein as the nature shows that stack animals against each other in CGI battle to see who would win. It has no relationship to reality or any real value as it fails to take into account important details like context, experience fighting on foreign soil, and, you know, metallurgy. It is just there to entertain you.

The katana they used in that episode was one of the modern, high quality steel blades, possibly one of the ones tempered with liquid nitrogen that supposedly cut through car engines. Real katanas made from Japanese steel are vanishingly rare, worth somewhere around a million dollars or more, degrade very quickly, and are forged from low quality iron, which is the main reason why the katana is folded so many times during the forging process.

The Vikings had better armor, armor and weapons made from a higher quality of metal, shields, and more experience raiding on foreign soil against an unknown enemy.

Who would you put money on?

Deadliest Warrior doesn’t take much into account when plotting out their fights, and they don’t really do a good job delving into history for its category. While some history programs are exceptional in their discussion, the Deadliest Warrior isn’t history. Hell, Human Weapon’s premise was dumb but still it was generic but more accurate. Programs like this are there to sensationalize and entertain, not educate.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.