Tag Archives: fight write

Hello! I have a bit of an… odd question. But ths something that has been bothering me greatly. Most of the time I have seen people tell someone that (both in media and real life) “they weren’t born for combat”. Do you think anyone can become a fighter? Or do you need some “talent”?

obsidianmichi:

tarelgeth:

howtofightwrite:

No, there’s no such thing. Whether they want to admit it or not, every single person has the capacity for violence.

There are some people are so phenomenally talented like Ernie Reyes Jr., Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, to name a few, that their skill leaves you breathless with envy. However, the same can be said for any person who is extraordinarily talented like Gabbie Douglass, Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, or any Olympic level athlete. You hear phrases like “they were born for it” tossed around for them, because predestination is an easy way to explain why some people are just more talented than others.

However, by linking their success only to fate does them a disservice. It cuts out the second and perhaps most important aspect of what lead to their success. Hard work.

Being the best is a combination of multiple factors: skill, luck, love, determination, and perseverance.

You can get skill without talent, because what you need to become skilled is a willingness to apply yourself and work hard. You could be the most talented person ever to throw a punch or land a kick in Taekwondo, but if you don’t love it or want to do it then you won’t succeed. You’ll quit.

Martial arts schools have an incredibly high turnover rate because a lot of people do give up. From adults to children (especially children), the vast majority of those who sign up will be gone within the first three months. When I tested for my first black belt, though it was in a group of six or seven candidates, none of them were from the original group I’d started out with. Second and third, however, was with most of the same people at my school from my second test.

Why? Because by that point we’d built a camaraderie, and though we ran the age gamut from fourteen to fifty, we were a team. The ones who stick with it are the ones who stay. It’s not talent, it’s perseverance, and the willingness to put in the extra time.

“Born for it” is just an excuse. It’s easy to comprehend, it’s bite size, easy to swallow, and you don’t have to think about it much beyond that. The failure is outside,  whatever happened this person was always going to fail. It’s not a black mark against them, it’s just fate. Risk free and guilt free. “It’s okay, you weren’t meant for it”.

For me, it’s right up there with “women can’t fight”. You’ve heard it, “nature didn’t build them that way”. “It’s not your place”. People repeat it, even when we have a slews and slews of evidence in any martial arts school around the country that it isn’t true.

“You’ll never be good enough, so why even try?”

Because trying is the only way you will ever be any good. This is true of anything, you have to be willing to stick with it and keep going even when it’s not easy. Keep pushing when it’s hard, volunteer to put in the extra time, do what you don’t have to do.

In my martial arts school (and most schools do this), we had early practice on Saturday mornings at 7am-8:30am at one of the local high schools. We’d work out, run the mile, focus entirely on our conditioning. It was hard. Hard to wake up that early on a weekend, hard to sacrifice the first few hours of the Saturday Morning Cartoon Block, hard to show up rain or shine. It became mandatory at red belt, but the instructors suggested starting as early as blue belt, or even earlier.

The ones who put in the extra time earlier than it was required were the ones most likely to make it to the test. One of the reasons is that training for black belt not only has a conditioning/endurance test, but also a commitment test. Training for black belt takes time, the serious training starts six months in advance (though it really starts earlier than that), and training upgrades from three times a week to five with special and extra practices tacked on to what you’re already doing. Our Saturday Morning practices were taken over by the main organizations and required going down to Willow Glen to train with Master Ernie every Saturday. That required getting up at five in the morning for the hour long commute and getting home at ten. We picked up extra optional Sunday Beach Training for black belt candidates.

That’s just one example.

The most difficult part of training to fight (or any sport) is the time commitment. Training for first degree black belt was 10-15 hours a week (including travel time) on top of the 45 already covered by school. It was often late in the evenings, which meant I had to go to bed early. It left time for little else.

What do I think? I think talent is nice, but not relevant. Determination is, the will to show up even when you don’t want to (and there will be days when you don’t) is, putting in extra time and extra classes when you don’t have to be there is, volunteering around the school and helping your fellow classmates is.

You have to want to be good. You have to be willing to work to get better. Many more talented people will quit. If you work hard, you can go from being worst in the class to best in the class in a year.

You don’t need talent, you need will and to believe that you will improve. Both are much harder to come by.

Still, skills for surviving life.

-Michi

There is a difference to be noted here, though – psychological comfort.  Not too many people are ethically or deeply uncomfortable with the idea of being athletic – but there’s good reason to be deeply uncomfortable with the concept of violence against another person.

Some people can’t work around that, nor, really, should they try.  Some people instinctively go straight for the throat without a second thought.  You can train your way into an effective reaction and response time with practice and muscle memory, but you can’t really train yourself into not being horrified by the feeling of someone’s nose breaking under your hand.

This is true. I had a version of this in my original post, but Tumblr ate that one. Thanks tarelgeth for adding it back in.

-Michi

Then I derped, and Tumblr derped, and I derped again.

Combat Goals: Expediency

Starke pointed out that we haven’t actually done one of these. We have in pieces, but not as a full article. We get a lot of messages asking if certain kinds of techniques work, if they’re appropriate, if they’re practical. Most of them are pretty silly, but they’re also completely in line with what I’ve come to expect from Hollywood and media in general. Most of our askers aren’t silly or stupid, and Starke and I don’t tend to think about it because it’s something we’ve already internalized. The problem, inherently, with these asks is that they aren’t big picture questions. They don’t tend to look at fighting from the most crucial perspective: combat goals.

Expediency

All fights are on a time limit. We’ve talked about it previously, but all characters have physical, emotional, and mental limitations when it comes to combat. Most hand to hand fights end in 25 seconds, I’ve had it repeated to me by a variety of instructors from different disciplines that eight moves is the max before you are utterly physically exhausted. Before any other concerns, the primary goal of every fight is to end it quickly.

Instead of thinking about whether or not a technique is realistic and practical, you should instead ask yourself how much time it will take. The answer to the whether or not it’s realistic and practical is going to be in the minutia of sitting down and figuring out how a technique or action works.

Say you want your protagonist’s enemy to rip off their jacket and attempt to strangle them with it. Not bad in concept. Now, pause and think about the process of taking off a jacket. It’s a rather involved process.

Unless they are a supernatural creature, the protagonist’s enemy only has two hands, two arms, two legs, and two feet. Taking off a jacket requires two hands, leaving them no room to control an already struggling opponent. They have to take off the jacket first to be able to strangle them with it, even caught off guard their opponent isn’t just going to sit still placidly and let them. They are going to struggle, arms flailing, attempting to run, and possibly even attempting to slam their head back into their opponent’s face with the back of their head. It’s all very messy.

So, is the risk of losing the fight worth the reward? No. If your character is already close enough to take the jacket off, then they are also close enough to simply wrap their arm around their enemy’s neck, brace their forearm against the windpipe and squeeze. Same concept but takes less time, less effort, gives more control, all for a significantly higher reward and more quickly received reward.

In fiction, fights are character based. You have to justify the character’s combat choices beyond what seems like a good idea or looks cool in your head. A character is going to make decisions based around what benefits them, what gives them the best chance of winning. They want to win or, at the very least, they want to survive.

Now, does that mean you can’t make the setup with the jacket work? Of course you can, you just have to change one minor detail. The protagonist isn’t wearing the jacket. The antagonist grabs the jacket off a coat rack as they approach the protagonist. From there, they have a multitude of options in how to use it. They can toss it over the protagonists head, wind it up like a towel and use it to strangle them, or even wrap it around their leading fist if they need the extra protection for their hands.

Suddenly, it’s much less complicated.

But, I have other concerns…

It’s cool if your hero wants to save the village or not harm their opponent, they still have to win first and, even when the author controls the variables, no wins should be guaranteed. Many authors go into their fight scenes assuming that their hero has already won, they’re thinking further down the line to the ending, to the payoff, and the fight itself becomes ancillary.

Your goal must always be to find a way to wed the concept of what you want to what makes sense for my character in setting. Dramatic concerns should be secondary to internal consistency because if you keep your story internally consistent it will feed the fight scene drama and ratchet up the tension all on its own. The best part is that your characters will stay in character.

Keep it simple. Go with what makes sense. If you feel like you’re overthinking it then the scene may be getting too complicated.

-Michi

Hi there! I am writing a novel and in it there is a character who learned self defense plus some martial arts skill online- watching youtube videos, and what not. First of all, I want to ask you how effective that would be? And If he comes into a fight with a person properly trained in a martial art, what would be his(online learning guy) weaknesses?

It’s not going to be that effective. Let me break it down.

Self-Defense: Self-defense training isn’t about learning how to fight, it’s about learning some tools and techniques to avoid trouble and extract yourself from a bad situation. All the techniques learned are geared toward providing the trainee to create openings that allow them to get away, to see trouble happening before it starts. “Do what you have to and get away” is the mantra. The techniques should be simple, easy to use, and capable of fitting a variety of situations. This isn’t always the case. Joint locks and throws were very popular in the 90s (and probably still are), the question is of course whether or not the student will remember how to do them a month or two later after only a few days or weeks of training.

Now, there are different schools of self-defense training. They also have different lengths. The best self-defense is consistent training, especially one where the instructor has a practical combat outlook. (The term “practical combat” can be confusing if you’ve never encountered it, it means the martial training has a total focus on “actual combat” or “real world combat” as opposed to sport or exhibition. Training with the expectation of real word application and usually restricted to students 18 or over. Here, you’ll see full contact training without pads because the only way to truly know how to do a technique is to experience it. Military combat styles, Police Academy, etc practice practical combat.)

The late Close Combat and Self-Defense Legend Rex Applegate is a good resource if you want to study the difference, so is Michael Janich. These are usually instructors who have a police or military background first and foremost with secondary martial arts training.

“Practical” self-defense will often include guns, knives, and other weapons as legitimate options to use when defending yourself. Because of the way non-martial artists and recreational martial artists think about the word “practical”, “militant” self-defense is probably a more accurate term to use.

Your character probably isn’t doing this kind of training, but it’s a good idea to stop and really hammer out where they were taught self-defense and what kind of class it was.

Did they pay for it? Go to any YMCA or public gym and you’ll find flyers for different martial arts schools and occasionally self-defense seminars. Many martial arts schools offer their own brand of self-defense as part of their school’s offerings. Any shop, like many privately owned bookstores, might keep around flyers and other sorts of community events (such as cons and author readings). Privately taught self-defense can be expensive, ringing in around $80 to $200 (or more) for just a few weeks. However, colleges and other groups do offer some seminars for free. If your character was in the Boy Scouts (or possibly Girl Scouts), they may have gotten their self-defense training as part of their activities. Sheriffs offices and Police Precincts regularly offer self-defense seminars for free to the public. (The techniques taught are usually the public safety approved variation of Police hand to hand.) I recommend at least looking into these for research if you’re serious about this character as they won’t cost you anything more than your time. (If you’re under 18, you’ll need a legal guardian to sign the waiver and participate with you.)

How long was their session? The guy who put down $200-$400 for a two week retreat into the mountains where he trained six hours a day, every day, is going to look a little different from the guy who spent a few hours learning some throws in the college gymnasium.

Did they earn any certifications? Some courses offer certifications similar to the belt ranking system, but also put in a legal prohibition of teaching the techniques to anyone else. Gun disarm seminars often include these.

Remember, knowing how to do a thing doesn’t mean you’re qualified to teach the thing. Just like me discussing the concept behind a technique doesn’t translate into practical application if you don’t already know how to do it. This segues us nicely into:

Martial Arts Instruction Through YouTube Videos:

No, it wouldn’t be effective. Just like many internet blogs, videos on YouTube are a form of self-promotion. The information handed out by martial arts instructors in those videos is useful for inspiring interest, drum up business for their studio, and help out trainees in their martial style who already have a school and instructor they train with.

Every so often, we get requests on this blog to sit down and teach what we know. My answer is always the same: you cannot learn martial arts by remote. You need the assistance of (at the very least) an instructor and of a training partner to actually learn how to properly do a technique. A video can show you a concept, it can show you step by step how something is supposed to be done, but it cannot correct your bad habits. Bad habits are inevitable. It can’t show you what the technique should feel like, it can’t push you to work harder, and it can’t help you beyond the concept. The concept may give your character confidence, just like reading through a variety of tags on this blog may have inspired you with confidence but what we are able to imagine doing and what we can do are separate things.

Example: Once, outside my apartment, I saw a little girl practicing cartwheels. Each time, she tried it but always stopped halfway and fell over. She tried again and again, but she couldn’t complete the cartwheel. Watching her, I could see what the problem was: at the beginning she wasn’t putting enough momentum in to carry her through the wheel. So, I told her “Hey, you need to throw yourself into it, use your arms more, like this,” and put my hands up over my head I showed her the motion. She looked at me strangely because I was a stranger, but then she tried it and immediately after completed the wheel. Afterwards, she did cartwheels all over the lawn.

When your character is doing the technique wrong, and they will because all beginners do, there will be no one there to help them. For a really good example of the difference, go sit down and watch The Karate Kid remake with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. In the movie, Jaden Smith’s character brings videos from his former Karate school with him to China and tries to rely on them for guidance when he’s bullied by kids who train at the famous Martial Arts school nearby. You can see where he’s going wrong when he’s practicing with the videos, but again, there’s no one around to fix it until he starts training with Jackie Chan. Really, watch it.

This is part of why I, personally, get frustrated when techniques are passed around the internet as self-defense without the context behind them. “Hey guys! Did you know you could choke someone out with your thighs!” Yes, I did actually that’s a triangle leg choke and, like all grappling moves, it’s really difficult to pull off without a lot of… “Pass this around! It could save a life!” Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Watching videos on YouTube and even practicing them in your own home is likely to inspire you with confidence that you know how to fight, but is actually much more likely to get you killed. However, as writers, it’s great for conceptual work and studying up on the different personality traits and quirks martial arts inspire in their practitioners. Seriously, I love watching YouTube videos by different experts in the same style. It’s very illuminating about how different kinds of training affect personalities. For me, it’s basically just glorified people watching. For your character, it’ll probably fill them with false confidence.

Strengths and Weaknesses:

Online Guy’s weaknesses versus Martial Arts Guy would be:

Slower: yeah, he may strike first, but he’s gonna be much slower both physically and mentally in terms of following what’s happening.

Lack the Ability to Chain: Martial artists train and train and train so that their techniques become second nature, so blocking or reacting to an attack becomes as instinctual as a non-martial artist trying to swat a fly. They can use their techniques together and switch them up. Basically: one, two, three. Online Guy will be lucky if he can pull off anything other than a one.

Less Adaptable: Depending on what Martial Arts Guy has been trained to do, he or she will probably be more adaptable than Online Guy, simply because they’ve spent more time doing different things. They’re more likely to go with what’s first and reactionary. Online Guy has only been trained to use his techniques in very specific situations, he’s going to have to think about each technique he uses. At the very least, he’s been trained to flee not to fight. (Traditional martial artists weaknesses are often that they’re trained to fight (sport), not to wound and flee.)

Sloppy Technique: Sloppiness, this translates to some holes in his defense and he’ll wear out much faster. Martial arts techniques teach conservation of movement, tighter technique expends less energy which allows you to fight longer. Online Guy will have less control, making him more likely to hurt his opponent even if he doesn’t want to. He will also be unbalanced, lack precision, and his body will telegraph his movements before he moves.

Isn’t Used to Kinetic Impact: Unless Online Guy spends a lot of time actually hitting other people, he won’t be used to the pain that comes from actually connecting someone else. Martial Arts Guy might not be ready for this either, but he has the help of practicing on pads.

Those are the big ones. The big thing to remember about Online Guy is that he thinks he knows what he’s doing, but actually doesn’t. He’s barely a novice, but those qualities are what make him dangerous.

-Michi

mandy-monstar said: Don’t forget that about 80% of what you find in ‘self defense’ youtube videos is downright wrong, a bad idea, and will get you killed very quickly in real life. Someone who studies from youtube will not just be less trained, they’ll be trained wrong.

Too true. Always source whoever you find.

FightWrite: Your Killers Need to Kill

Killers need to kill. It’s surprising how many writers ignore this very specific and important piece of the ones they claim are killers, heartless or not. Sometimes, there’s a difference between the character we describe in the text and the actions the character takes. An author can tell me over and over that a character is a deadly and dangerous person who strikes ruthlessly without mercy, but if they don’t behave that way in the actual story then I’m not going to buy it.

Show versus tell: the difference between who the author says the character is and the actions the character takes in the story. Especially if the actions counteract the description. Now, you do have characters who lie, characters who misrepresent themselves, characters who say one thing and do another, but these are not the characters we’re talking about. This is about ensuring that you, the author, know the character you are writing. Unless you’re hiding their habits, let us glimpse the worst they’re capable of.

Monster. I could tell Jackson I was a monster, but he wouldn’t believe me. He saw a strawberry blonde, five feet eleven inches. A waitress, a Pilates nut, not a murderer. The nasty scar across my slim waist that I’d earned when I was ten? He thought I’d gotten it from a mugging at twenty one. Just as a natural layer of womanly fat hid away years of physical conditioning, I hid myself behind long hair, perky makeup, and a closet full of costumes bought from Macy’s and Forever 21. To him, I was Grace Johnson. The woman who cuddled beside him in bed, the woman who hogged the sheets, who screamed during horror movie jump scares, the woman who forgot to change the toilet paper, who baked cookies every Saturday morning, the woman who sometimes wore the same underwear three days in a row. The woman he loved.

No, I thought as I studied his eyes. Even with a useless arm hanging at my side, elbow crushed; my nose smashed, blood coursing down from the open gash in my forehead, a bullet wound in my shoulder, Sixteen’s gun in my hand, the dining room table shattered, and his grandmother’s China scattered across the floor. He’d never believe Grace Johnson was a lie. Not until I showed him, possibly not even then. Not for many more years to come. Probably, I caught my mental shrug, if he lives.

“Grace,” Jackson said. “Please…” The phone clattered the floor, his blue eyes wide, color draining from his lips. “This isn’t you.”

Gaze locking his, I levered Sixteen’s pistol at her knee.

“Don’t,” she whispered. “Morrison will take you in, he’ll fix this.” Her voice cracked, almost a sob. For us, a destroyed limb was a death sentence. Once, we swore we’d die together. Now, she can mean it. “Thirteen, if you run then there’s no going back.”

My upper lip curled. “You don’t know me.” I had no idea which one I was talking to. “You never did.”

My finger squeezed the trigger.

Sixteen grunted, blood slipping down her lip. In the doorway, Jackson screamed.

Do it and mean it. Let it be part of their character development, regardless of if which way you intend to go. In the above example, there’s a dichotomy present between the character of Thirteen and her cover Grace Johnson. There’s some question, even for the character, about which of them they are. It sets up a beginning of growth for the character as she runs, but it also fails to answer what will be the central question in the story: who am I? Which way will I jump?

If Thirteen doesn’t kill Sixteen, if the scene answers the question at the beginning then why would you need to read the story?

Below the cut, we’ll talk about some ways to show their struggles.

-Michi

If you want to write a killer, but don’t want to show them killing then you should at least show them struggling. Training is behavior modification. It affects the mind and the body. In combat, an action you have to think about is one that will get you killed. A character that has been trained to kill will have to mentally restrain from doing it. Showing those is important because it helps us understand the character. Behavior isn’t a switch that can be flipped on and off. This is a struggle that will be with your character in every fight, not just a few. They’ll have to work at modifying themselves, at changing their behavior, possibly even deciding whether or not they want to try.

I’m not even discussing past angst. If you write a character that kills then accept that the training has become a part of who they are. No characters, not even badasses, are without personal struggles.

Physically Struggles With Not Killing

A character that has been trained to kill will always be tempted to kill as their first response. Martial training is a series of conditioned responses trained through repetitive motions. Their natural instincts are retrained and reconditioned. They may follow through on techniques without thinking about it because it’s now a natural part of their response system. This doesn’t mean these characters are mindless drones but as much as the mind directs the body, so does instinct and habit. Like all the things you do in your everyday life without thinking about them. It’s hard enough to control when the brain perceives a threat in what it considers to be a safe environment, but it gets tougher when someone is fighting for their life. (If your character is fighting outside a controlled environment, beyond whatever else is going on, they are fighting for their life.) Your character will fall back onto all the skills that are conditioned, have become innate. When combat happens within fractions of seconds, a single stray thought could become the difference between life and death. In the tougher the situation becomes, the more quickly joint locks will become joint breaks, choke holds are discarded for throat strikes, the faster the warrior will attempt to end the fight.

Sometimes, when soldiers return home they can have some difficulty adjusting to civilian life. I’m not talking about night terrors or the more serious cases of PTSD. It’s the routines and ingrained habitual behavior like hearing a car backfire and dropping to the floor, losing track of where they are for a moment and checking for their pistol or rifle while in a crowded restaurant, or checking their corners while playing an MMO.

If you’ve ever done a sport, you’ve experienced this (though obviously not the same way). Think about all practices you went to and how, over time, the things you were doing became automatic, instinctual, until you just did it. It’s the same here. In combat, reactions need to be instinctual. Just like if you try to think about how to catch a baseball or pass a basketball, you’ll miss them or be too slow to keep up with what’s happening around you. In combat, if you get caught thinking, get caught in your emotions, you’ll get killed. If your characters have been trained to kill, then they’ll do what comes naturally. If killing is what they’re used to doing in combat, then it’s going to be their habit.

If they’ve been trained for it, they’ll kill without thinking about it. If they don’t want to, they’re going to have to give it some thought.

Her hand whipped around, seizing Jonathan’s wrist. Free hand planting on his elbow, Angela wrenched his arm up and pushed. Cartilage popped, tendons ground together, his hand bending inward toward her ear.

Jon shrieked.

Fingers dug deep into her shoulder. “Angela!” Instructor Markab yelled.

“Oh shit!” she gasped. Letting Jon go, she stepped back, hands dropping to her sides. Her arms trembled. Excess adrenaline, she told herself. That’s all, just excess adrenaline.

“It’s practice!” Instructor Markab said, loosing a loud sigh. “That’s all, girl. Just practice.”

Mentally Struggles With Not Killing

This one is more common. Some characters like to kill, some characters believe killing is the right thing to do, and for some it’s their answer to everything. If your character believes killing people is the solution to their problem, then they’ll probably struggle with not being allowed to. Depending on how you structure it, this can create some creepy scenes or show your character frustrated and feeling powerless.

It would have been so easy, she thought. Just stretch out two fingers and press them into the soft knoll at the base of the throat. Close the cavity. Let the brain and body suffocate. Easy as you please with no muss or fuss. No one would ever know the cretin was gone.

But, Jane sighed, a promise was a promise.

She leaned forward. Pinning him to the wall with her right hand, her left fingers to slide up his throat and close around his windpipe. She squeezed, watching the man’s eyes bulge. His hands leaped to his throat, clawing at her wrist, Jane smiled. “I’ll ask again, where is Jordan Siegfried?”

It’s a question of which sounds better in concept: elite warriors in a society are not allowed to fight each other out of turn because showing emotion is a weakness and won’t be tolerated. Or: elite warriors are forbidden from fighting because they are so well conditioned and adept at their jobs, they cannot help but kill each other. You could start your story with your character getting disgraced by letting her emotions get the best of her and fought another warrior in a public place leading to a swift and sudden demotion. Or you could start with your character disgraced because your character let her emotions get the best of her, fought in a public place, and murdered a comrade. This action lead to a sudden demotion and a suicide mission.

Actions have consequences, dealing with those consequences is part of what makes these characters so intriguing.

FightWrite: Emotions, Physical Reactions, and the Flow of Combat

In this article, when I talk about combat flow I don’t mean it in the actual combat sense. Rather, it’s about joining your characters mental and emotional state to their physical one during an action sequence. The mind and body don’t work independent of each other. Our emotions are often exhibited in physical reactions and sensations. The same is true about trying to split our focus between two different targets. This is part of why fighting groups is so difficult. Even kids understand that when you gang up on someone, it’s best to surround them before they notice. Tracking someone’s movement in our peripheral vision is difficult and getting an identifier is impossible without turning to look.

Have you ever tried to watch someone out of the corner of your eye? Pick an object in your room, one that’s just inside the corner of your visual range. Then, think about that object. Notice, your eyes move toward the object. This is a natural response.

Human vision is actually a narrow band. This is part of why so many spy movies and books have the “don’t turn your head” moment when the experienced trainer is talking to the newbie, why so many muggers or people attempting to attack their victims on the street will ask for the time, and why a lot of kids will yell “look over there!” before they throw a punch. By distracting someone’s mind away from what’s happening in front of them, they create a physical opening or can accidentally give themselves away. Peripheral vision works to track movement and widening serves as enhancing our early warning system: “Oh that thing is coming in from the right. I should put my hands up”. But it’s going to be blurry, to get an exact identification you either need to wait or look at it (unless your character identified them before they did anything).

So, why is this important? Your characters’ physical reactions are tied to their emotional ones and, like dominoes, one thing leads to another in a long string of consequences.

Here’s an example:

The flicker of motion caught in the corner of her eye. A shape moved out of her peripheral vision, a black jacket, tall with short, spikey black hair and heading toward the door. Tom? Maria’s gaze jumped away from her opponent, Jane Johnson. Her head followed. It couldn’t be Tom.

                The door opened and she saw the man glance back over his shoulder. Yes, there were Tom’s green eyes above the high planes of Tom’s pasty cheeks and shadowed by his tall forehead. His lips pressed in a tight line. The skin around them was dead white, drained of what little color he normally possessed. Then, he stepped into the hall. The steel door slammed shut.

                He was gone.

                “Begin!”

                Fire speared through her cheek, exploding behind her left eye. Maria’s head flew back, white spots dazzling the ceiling. Huh, really do see stars. She blinked rapidly, bringing her head down and hands up in time to see the second strike.

Jane’s right slammed into her nose.

Maria heard the crunch of cartilage before she felt it. Eyes watering, squeezing shut, she stumbled back. Heels rocking against the sawdust floor, Maria’s fists clenched. Jaw loosening, she forced her eyelids. A black and red flash on her outside left, her right hand rose to knock it away.

Keep your jaw locked, Tom’s advice drifted through her mind, they won’t give you a mouth guard. He bumped her chin with the tops of his knuckles, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. Don’t bite your tongue.

Grinding her molars together, Maria threw her counter: a quick hard punch with her left hand.

Tom…

Jane’s fingers swiped down, wrapped in red cloth with knuckles protected by black fiberglass, batting her fist away. A black flash rose from the ground, cranking inward.

Maria turned sideways, left hand dropping…

Why did he leave?

“RODRIGUEZ!” Coach Jericho?

Maria gasped, spit bubbling on her lips. Her upper body caving in as the blackened tip of Jane’s boot slammed up into her gut. Stomach in her throat, she tasted her lunch.

“Get your head in the game!”

Yeah, definitely Coach.

Not Tom.

Jane’s boot left boot lifted off the ground, sweeping up in a blur of black and blue against sandy yellow. Maria’s head snapped left. Black spots in her eyes. She staggered, swung sideways.

No, she thought, head knocking against the floor. Not the guy who said she had talent, who said he believed in her.

The harsh scent of rubber filled her nostrils. The world swam black before her eyes with the vague, dull ache of Jane’s boot heel grinding her cheek into the sawdust, warm liquid seeping across her lips, the taste of copper lingered on her tongue.

Tom left.

Mental preparation for a fight is as important, if not more so, than physical preparation. You may never be able to get a 1:1 ratio on the connection between the character’s distracting thoughts and their physical interactions with their opponent. If a character goes into a fight distracted or gets distracted by circulating events then it’s going to affect their performance and their emotional state needs to be treated as relevant. Going inside your character’s head or having them study the environment and make observations isn’t a narrative pause button. Once they’re in the action, we’re committed. Every pause and every internal comment become openings that their opponent can exploit just like they would in the real world. It’s important to remember that world outside your character is still going to move, characters are still going to act and they’re going to notice your protagonist staring at them with eyes glazed over like a deer caught in the headlights.

This is especially true if you’re writing in First Person and Third Person Limited. In Third Person Omniscient you can change the camera like you might see in a movie to jump between different character perspectives and we can assume the action keeps going. This isn’t true when you’re limited to one character and everything around them is happening in real time.

                When trying to convey the motivations of other characters like Tom, it gets more difficult. I could switch the actions around and make it clear Tom is leaving because he doesn’t want to see Maria, the girl he cares about get hurt. (This is a stupid, cowardly choice and betrayal which should be addressed later on in the narrative.) However, if I do that, the prose looks more like this:

“Begin!”

Fire speared through her cheek, exploding behind her left eye. Maria’s head flew back, white spots dazzling the ceiling. Huh, really do see stars. She blinked rapidly, bringing her head down and hands up in time to see the second strike.

The flicker of motion caught in her gaze. A familiar shape moved out of her peripheral vision, tall with short, spikey black hair and heading toward the door. Tom? Maria’s gaze jumped away from her opponent, Jane Johnson. Her head followed. It couldn’t be Tom.

The door opened and she saw the man glance back over his shoulder. Yes, there were Tom’s green eyes above the high planes of Tom’s pasty cheeks and shadowed by his tall forehead. His lips pressed in a tight line. The skin around them was dead white, drained of what little color he normally possessed. Then, he stepped into the hall. The steel door slammed shut.

He was gone.

Jane’s right fist slammed into her nose.

While this might make more sense for the sake of letting us in on the reasons behind Tom’s actions, it undermines the second most important character in the scene: Jane, our antagonist. We’re forced to assume that Jane (who has no problem beating the snot out of a distracted Maria) is polite enough to wait for three paragraphs before delivering her follow up.

In the real time sense, she waits for Maria to stop, look away, wait for Tom to leave the room which could take a full five seconds, and then strike. This might provide more drama to the scene, but it comes at the expense of a narrative promise from the author about cheating for their characters. It also cheapens the scene because we can assume Tom leaves because he cares about her and makes her wondering about whether or not he does irritating, allowing the sequence to devolve into false drama.

If the character of Jane is a polite character, one who wants a fair match with their opponent engaged then this is less of a problem. It becomes a moment which allows us to call our protagonist out on her distraction and remind us that yes: people in setting are waiting for her to get her act together. But, most characters aren’t that polite. This is why it’s important to take the enemy’s personality and habits into account when working on your fight scenes. It takes two to tango.

Control Points: The Head

Disclaimer: The material present in this article is meant for academic study and writing only. It is not meant for instructional use in your everyday life.  This information will not be useful without physical instruction from a qualified instructor. If you are interested in this information within the context of self-defense, please seek out a martial arts school or self-defense program in your area. We are not liable for the harm you do to yourself or others with this information. We are also not liable for the legal ramifications that come with those actions.

In this article, we’ll discuss the weak target points on the head in order to help your fight sequences become more detailed.  The conventional martial arts advice is “where the head goes, the body follows”. The body has an instinctive desire to protect the head and face from attack, a clever fighter can trigger these instincts in a less (and even sometimes more) competent one by understanding how to use the body’s protective instincts against an opponent. A character can make these instincts work for them if they realize that they are there, they may learn to trigger them intentionally against someone else. They may not know on a conscious level or scientific level that they are doing it, they may simply be working off their combat experience or techniques that were taught to them by a more experienced instructor. They may not know how it works, just that it does. You, the author, need to know because you are the one who must relay these actions to the audience in your story. There is a vast difference between what an author must know and what a character may know, you are the deciding force behind the character’s actions and you must be able to communicate to the audience what happened in the scene. Fighting is, at its heart, a very sophisticated and scientific animal. To communicate it effectively requires a functional understanding of human behavior, bodily reactions, an understanding of the body’s physical form, and a good solid sense of physics.

So, today, we’re going to talk about the vulnerable places on the head and how they can be exploited in a multitude of different ways to distract a target and create openings in the guard that allow for finishing strikes. This won’t cover everything, but it should be enough to get you thinking.

Control Points:

The Skull: On the top of the forehead, there are dents in the skull where the plates are fused together. By placing pressure on these dents, one can effectively force the head to move in any direction (preferably backwards). The skull is made up of around eight different bone plates that are fused together. The places where they are structurally weak can be exploited. However, for the untrained or even general martial artist, these can be difficult to find in the confusion of combat.

The Hair: We covered a lot about the hair in a few articles, including Hair Pulling. The hair can in certain cases provide a good grip for fingers, be used to drag the head back or slam it forward. The hair follicles are all nerve endings which can cause pain (distraction) when pulled. If the brain is thinking about something else (ouch, ouch, it hurts!) it is less able to muster up the necessary concentration in order to fight back.

The Back of the Head: The bone in back of the head is actually much softer than the front. While it’s not a good striking point for hands, it is a common one for blunt force trauma using an object or by driving the head (when controlled using a control point, such as the hair) into something solid such as a wall or concrete. To abuse the back of the head in hand to hand, one must be facing their opponent. This usually only comes into play if they are close to a wall or on top of them when on the ground.

The Bottom of the Skull: The bottom of the skull, where the spine joins with the skull and the brain. It’s difficult to affect with hand to hand, but a strike from a knife, a sword, or a bullet can kill.

The Temple: The temple is an open gap and soft point that can provide direct access to the brain when struck. Pinpoint strikes may go here such as with the knuckles (in Taiji Chin Na), with the heel of the foot, or with a knife. Striking here will cause a loss of equilibrium and balance

The Forehead: The forehead is the densest and hardest point on the human body, which means that while a frontal assault is usually a pointless endeavor, bouncing the brain off it can get interesting. Much like the back of the head, the forehead can be a focus point for blunt trauma strikes (baseball bat, crowbar, tire iron, piece of wood) or be driven into a wall. Since the head must go back to go forward, someone driving the head into the wall or ground will have to be behind the individual. And in tips from Contemporary Knife Targeting by Michael Janich and Christopher Grosz: “Some traditional edged weapons systems such as Japanese iai-jutsu (sword drawing and cutting), purposefully target the forehead because it is highly vascular and, when cut, will bleed into the eyes, obstructing vision.” (20)

The Eyebrow: The eyebrow can be easily split or cut to bleed into the eyes, which is why it is such a popular one in professional boxing. Doing this with bare hands is not recommended because the forehead is so solid and one can cut their knuckles, which allows their opponent’s blood to mix with theirs, but it could be a priority target for someone wearing armor, brass knuckles, or using a knife.

The Eyes: The sense a human being relies on most is their sight, they cannot block what they cannot see. You know that instinctual reaction you have when you see something coming towards your face and know you can’t get out of the way; you squeeze your eyes shut? This is why. The body knows the eyes must be protected. Blind someone, temporarily or permanently, and they will have difficulty fighting back. This can be anything from blood in the eyes, to thrown dirt or sand, waving a knife blade near the eye, to faking out the peripheral vision by forcing someone to protect high when the attacker is actually going low. Moving towards the eyes will cause someone to flinch, while covering the eyes may cause them to panic. Strikes to the eye can be distraction based or lead to permanent injury, deep enough strikes to the optic nerve can cause unconsciousness, they can even kill by puncturing the brain (most commonly with a #2 pencil or a pen).

The Nose: We can go round and round about whether or not a palm strike to the nose can kill but, either way, the nose is a vulnerable target. Striking the nose, even if it doesn’t break, will cause swelling which can obstruct an individual’s vision, cause their eyes to water, and on impact to close. Placing the knuckle of the index finger directly under the nose and above the upper lip can be used to force the head back and the eyes up, creating openings for escape from grabs.

The Cheek: The cheek is a good control point because it can be used to drive the head sideways using the flat of the hand and create openings. A strike from an elbow coming in from the side can cause someone to bite their cheek hard enough to require stitches. Strikes to the cheekbone can lead to swelling and bruising, which can obscure vision.

The Mouth: We normally think of the mouth for biting, but the truth is getting knocked in the teeth really hurts. Knocking the head around can lead to someone biting through their tongue, biting their cheek, losing a tooth, all of which results in blood in the mouth. Enough blood in the mouth is a choking hazard and a hard enough bite can require a trip to a hospital, try to imagine how your characters would feel about spitting out their front tooth in the middle of a fight (or worse, a piece of their tongue).

The Jaw: The soft point at the back of the jaw where it connects to the skull is a vulnerable point that when struck can cause a knockout. However, the jaw has other uses too. Striking it specifically can lead to the jaw becoming unhinged or forcing it to clench (bite down), which means that it can chew into some of the mouth’s vulnerable places. This is why all sparring involves wearing mouth guards and why I side eye books that fail to mention mouth guards very hard. Most professional fighters will clench their teeth reflexively when they fight, those who spar will be practiced at breathing through their nose. They may or may not exhale through their mouth when fighting (mostly not).

Under the Jaw: Striking up under the jaw can cause the head to knock backwards, this is where some of the traditional palm strikes and uppercuts come in. However, a persona can also grasp under the jaw to control it (fingers should avoid the mouth or be bitten). The hand and forearm can also wrap around from behind and press up under the jaw to force head backwards, characters may do this when taking hostages or forcing someone else to look. A common way professionals will avoid taking a head butt from someone knocking their head backwards is to control the skull this way, allowing the neck no freedom of movement and pressing their cheek to their enemies’ ear.

The Ear: The ears, through sound, can control someone’s sense of equilibrium. Disrupt that and they may experience vertigo. The human being is very sensitive to sound and one of the best ways to screw with the brain is by hurting the ears. The ear is vulnerable to being boxed (two fists or palms come in on either side to strike inwards against the outside of the ears), they may be stabbed with a knife, or someone may scream into or use a blowhorn at close range (pressed up against the ear) to force a person to respond in a predictable manner (loss of balance, stumbling, falling over, etc).

Under the Ear: under the ear, there is a pressure point that when pressed can cause a substantial amount of pain. This pressure point is commonly taught in self-defense courses. A person who is familiar with this pressure point may also use it to stimulate response and keep themselves awake when tired.

This is by no means a comprehensive list and individual styles will all have their own methods and techniques of making use of these things.

Recommended Reading:

FightWrite: The Only Unfair Fight is the One You Lose Pt 2 (Brutality)

On Hair Pulling

Pulling Piercings

If you have a strong stomach:

Contemporary Knife Targeting by Christopher Grosz and Michael Janich is an interesting read. However, because the discussion is knives, it’s gory.

Taiji Chin Na by Doctor Yang, Jwing-Ming discusses the seizing art of Tai’chi and could be useful for those of you looking to learn about joint locking systems outside of Japan.