Tag Archives: martial arts

Q&A: Tenth Degree Black Belt Takes Awhile

not sure if this is the right blog to ask this question but its the closest one that i know of, i have a character who started doing Karate at the minimum age (Age 6 from what i see) and so i want to know what is the minimum realistic age for him to become a first degree all the way through tenth degree black belt?

Assuming we work from the commercial martial arts school metric (which is the quickest), it’ll be around 45 years. A black belt past a certain rank (anywhere between two and five) will need to start journeying Japan on a semi-regular basis in order to be tested for their next belt ranks. And if they’re not, their master is the one who is making the pilgrimage. That also assumes the belt testing for the higher echelons is handed by one master, which it may not be. It something like eight official karate strands recognized by the World Karate Federation, and more unofficial. So, your character doesn’t just know karate.

That assumes the school goes to ten.

That assumes this is the belt system used by the school. (The classic martial arts legend is that in the old days, you trained so long that your belt turned black and that was when you achieved mastery.)

Assuming they allow any underage student to test for black belt. (Some schools don’t. If not, minimum age for a tenth degree is 63.)

Assuming they don’t have specific time constraints on your belt progression that has nothing to do with curriculum and everything to do with X amount of time spent in the school before they’ll consider it.

Your martial arts master is the one who decides when you get to test. If they say you’re not ready then you’re not testing. It is possible to fail the belt rank test, at any level. Commercial martial arts schools hold rank tests at specific intervals, usually spaced two to four months apart depending on belt rank level. You’ve got to be ready when the time comes, or you’ll have to wait until the next round. The Ernie Reyes school held black belt tests twice per year, but they were a large organization with over a hundred testing participants. In smaller organizations, it may happen less often. Usually, there’s a pretest before they allow you to test for your black belt. You can fail the pretest, and they reserve the right to fail you out of training prior to the test at any time.

Forty-five years training is a generous estimate. You’re not likely to hit tenth degree until you are eighty years old. Achieving mastery is a lifelong process. This is better than the traditional Chinese method for establishing a new martial art, which was go around and beat all the other masters in duels.

Trust me, having your ass handed to you by a sixty year old man is not a fun experience. It.. will also happen. Tradition in martial arts is you get tested in combat, to go up in rank you defeat those at rank, to become a master you defeat yours. “Now, I am the Master” is not just a trope, it’s tradition. (Not today, obviously. It used to be, in some cases.)

You’d reach the point around second or third degree in the higher ranks (and depending on style proliferation) where you’d be making the trip to Japan in order to be trained and tested by the school’s Grandmaster. A high ranking black belt would need to be at least partially fluent or speak passable Japanese, even if they could not read it. This is true for most Japanese martial arts, and for other martial arts too.

In the Ernie Reyes Organization, there is a monetary cost to testing. That metric rises by around a hundred dollars per black belt stripe. Fourth degree test costs around 400-500 dollars. Again, this is assuming a commercial martial arts school, not a school that is specifically training for active combat. If the school is training you for active combat, it’ll all take a lot longer.

In modern era combat, karate does not work unless it is modified. I got that from a Shotokan master who was also a Police Officer, and tested for his last black belt rank in Japan. (Third or Fourth degree.) He knew what he was talking about, and he was in his late thirties.

I was a third degree in Taekwondo by the time I was eighteen, but that’s out of a commercial system and that’s actually unusual. When looking at third degree tests, usually, they’re in their early to mid twenties.

In a traditional school, you can usually age your black belt rank per decade. First degree in the tens, second in the twenties, third in thirties, fourth in the forties, etc. 35-40 is the lowest age for a martial arts master, younger than that they’re usually technically good but not spiritually good and the spiritual component is what’s necessary.

Realistically, your character will never see tenth degree. When we talk tenth degree black belt in a martial arts system, that’s a number you can count on one hand and they may not exist at all. I’ve trained with seventh degree black belts and order grand masters in hosted seminars, but I’ve never seen a tenth degree.

The upper echelons past around rank five are spiritual journeys rather than technical or acquired skills, and this is especially true of tenth degree. You’ll get there when you get there, if you get there at all. That also assumes commercial approach rather than traditional, because traditional means you’re lucky if you see black belt at all. Ever. My shotokan master, one of his adult brown belts had been in training for about seven years, and his green belt training for five. Under this system, it could easily take ten years to reach black belt and you wouldn’t see a black belt testing under eighteen. (Not just danger, also maturity.)

The more sacred the belt ranks are in the system, the longer time it will take to reach and the harder it will be to reach them. However, those are the systems where the rank means something.

I’ll tell you right now, most martial artists at twelve who hold the rank of black belt aren’t actually worth anything on a technical level. (I say that having been a thirteen year old black belt.) The belt rank means something else in the commercial system. A child who got their black belt at twelve will be great by the time they’re twenty if they keep training, but they aren’t right now.

The amount of time necessary with traditional martial arts for rank progression is pretty much the reason why martial artists have the reputation for being godlike. The problem martial arts have in the modern era is they still have their place but combat moves too quickly for that kind of specialization. The counters are being developed while your character is training, so a hard counter will exist when they’re ready to put their skills into practice. However, many professionals train in martial arts because of the health and mental benefits and the flexibility the additions or alternative skill sets provide.

Traditional martial arts is not fair, it is not quick, and it takes decades of work. Commercial martial arts is/can be quick, but it’s balancing the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with money. That is survival, and martial arts schools cannot or will have great difficulty surviving in the US without the commercial/business side. Usually, the first two black belt ranks get sacrificed to the commercial because kids are where most commercial martial arts schools make their money. That first black belt test is all important to the school, to the kid, and their parents. It’s an achievement, it’s a journey, and it looks great on a college application. It is real, but it means something else than what it would mean in a traditional system to someone who trained for ten years. Five years is much more reasonable/palatable to a parent and a child than ten. (That’s a long time, you’ll still have something like a 60% drop off between the kids who come for a few months to those who stay.) I know, that information kills the mystique some.

Understand, that every black belt earned their rank by the metric set for them. The question is do others agree, and the answer is usually no when we’re discussing more stringent systems. A lot of really popular martial arts will have that accusation leveled against them by others, and a lot of popular schools will as well. That their business model produces inferior students. Whether that is true or not is a matter of opinion and the opinions are diverse. I suggest carrying that knowledge with you into your fiction.

If you can’t tell me or anyone in your book which version of Karate they are practicing, then that’s where you should start working. Karate also gets used in the US as a catchall term for martial arts, just FYI.

-Michi

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Q&A: Drunken Punchin’

Does drunken fighting have any basis in reality?

I don’t think this is the question you’re asking, but, yeah, bar fights are a thing. People will do all kinds of stupid things while boozed up, as any bouncer or bartender can tell you.

I seriously encourage you look for work stories from bartenders and/or bouncers. They make for some very amusing reading, and can be very useful inspiration when you’re writing someone who’s been killing their brain cells for the past four hours.

Drunken patrons are mostly harmless. Most of them haven’t been in a fight since high school, and don’t know what they’re doing sober, to say nothing of when they’re unable to walk in a straight line. Mostly.

There are plenty of unfortunate accidents, or fluke occurrences, where a bar fight turns fatal. They’re the exception rather than the rule. But it is there.

There’s also plenty of unfortunate incidents where someone tried to run down the person who pissed them off, when they’re staggering out of the bar, or someone pulled a knife or gun.

But, I don’t think that’s what you wanted to hear about.

There are (at least) a couple Chinese martial arts variants that imitate drunken movements into their combat style. One is Drunken Monkey Style, which is, unsurprisingly, a variant of Monkey Style Kung Fu. The second is Drunken Fist, which is a variant of Shaolin. There’s also a Wushu Drunken Form, which is what you may have seen Jackie Chan practice on film. (At least, I think that’s the variant he’s using.) There may be others I’m unaware of.

The important thing to remember is that the practitioner behaves as if they are drunk, they don’t actually get wasted. In both cases, the martial artist uses exaggerated and relaxed movements to mask their movements, and make it more difficult for their opponent to read their body and react. There may be other benefits involving resisting restraint holds and taking hits, but I’m not an expert on these styles, so I’m not 100% certain what the full implications are.

There are real applications here when dealing with a trained opponent. There are also practical reasons you might want a foe to think you’re drunk until it’s too late to respond. Which goes beyond the scope of these martial arts.

So, if you’re asking, “is there a school of Kung Fu where you get drunk, and fight people?” No. There isn’t. However, there are multiple Chinese styles where you pretend to be drunk to confuse and distract your opponent; as tactics go, it’s not a bad one.

-Starke

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We’ve had questions about machete combat in the past, so I thought you might find it interesting to see a documentary on the Haitian martial art:
Tire Machèt

and its master Papa Machete. The style is (for the most part) unknown outside of Haiti and it is tied to their cultural traditions.

For more information on this little known Haitian fencing, check out their website.

What are some hurdles a person who has practiced taekwondo, fencing and aikido might have to jump when thrown into a real life or death fight? What will happen when they get much better at escalating quickly (almost too quickly) and they’re thrown into a situation where that’s the opposite of what they need to do?

By, “the opposite of what they need to do,” you mean, not
escalate the situation, or specifically work to try to limit the harm being
inflicted. You know, like an Aikido practitioner?

I know we’ve said this before, but; martial arts are not interchangeable.
They’re not just alternate move sets, or aesthetic considerations. Every
martial art, every one, brings its
own philosophies and outlooks into play. When those philosophies overlap, you
might have options to start mixing them together, or lifting elements from one
for the other. Aikido and Taekwondo don’t really have much of anything to talk
about.

Aikido is a martial art of pacifism. It works well for self defense
because the entire idea is, you stand at the center, plant your feet, and send
anyone who attacks you to the floor, so they can think about all of the mistakes
they just made.

As I said at the beginning, Aikido doesn’t escalate, at
least not on its own. This is a martial art that focuses on ending conflicts
with as little harm done as humanly possible. People will get hurt, that’s an inevitability,
but, this is a martial art that is heavily focused on avoiding escalation.

If you want to start mixing it with something else, there
are other martial arts that have common ground. Jujitsu and Judo both have some
of the same philosophical underpinnings, they’re just pretty sure that plopping
someone on the ground isn’t enough to get the message across, that sometimes
you’re going to want to get down there and make your point in person.

There are even aggressive martial arts that you can
(probably) mix Aikido with fairly effectively, including Muay Thai or Krav
Maga. Martial arts that say, “I want to get really close to someone and turn
them into goulash.” They do have common ground on the ranges that they think
combat should be taking place at.

Taekwondo doesn’t. It’s a very active martial art. It wants
to go places and kick people in the head. As a practical martial style it
shares almost nothing with Aikido. Where Aikido wants its foes close enough to
reach out and touch, Taekwondo is all about forcing your foes away, and keeping
them off balance while you drive your foot through any internal organs they
were using.

Taekwondo exists as a practical martial art, but you’re
going to be hard pressed to find that variant outside of Korea. If your
character served in the South Korean military, worked for the police or as a
bodyguard there, then it’s possible they learned this.

Taekwondo traditionally pairs with Hapkido. I don’t know
much about the martial art itself, beyond that it has a focus on joint locks.
But, these are designed to work together, and against one another, so a
practitioner in one would probably also learn the other.

Ironically, Taekwondo can also find common ground with
martial arts like Muay Thai or Krav Maga. These are all martial arts that enjoy
moving around a lot and messing people up. Where Taekwondo excels at doing this
at range, Muay Thai or Krav Maga offer options to do this up close.

Now, if you’re sitting there and wondering why I just listed
the same two martial arts as compatible to both of the ones you picked, that’s
because they have common ground with one another, the two you picked, really
kind of don’t. It’s not that martial artists never learn conflicting styles.
That does happen. But the benefit you gain from that isn’t being able to blend
them together into a single style, it’s being able to switch up your approach
to fit the situation you’re in. And, yes, escalation control is an element of your martial art.

A character who’s been trained in Aikido and (practical)
Taekwondo, would be in a very good position to work as a bodyguard. Taekwondo
allows for rapid vicious responses when called for, and Aikido allows for them
to deal with attackers in public situations where you really wouldn’t want a
bodyguard tearing apart an overly eager fan.

I’m just going to toss this one out, but fencing really
doesn’t add much to this situation. It will help with physical conditioning,
but then again they’d already be getting that from Taekwondo and Aikido.

So, if your character’s been training in Aikido, either
recreationally or practically, they shouldn’t be having issues with escalation.
Remember, escalation is where you increase the amount of force you use to a
point where combat ceases to be an appealing option for your opponent. The
entire concept is anathema to Aikido, which seeks to end combat with as little
violence as possible.

Also, there’s a side nitpick, it’s not really possible to
escalate too quickly. The issue is escalating too far. Again, the idea is that
you demonstrate a degree of violence your opponent isn’t psychologically ready
to handle, forcing them to back down.

Escalating too slowly can give them time to come to terms
with what you’re doing, but the only problem with escalating too quickly is
that you’ll use excessive force. For example, grabbing someone by the skull and
gouging out their eyes would (almost certainly) convince their friends or
allies to back down, but if the situation doesn’t warrant that kind of force,
it’s excessive, you’ve escalated too far, and there will be consequences. These
can be the obvious legal issues associated with extreme violence, or it can
provoke responses in opponents where, instead of backing down, they’ll be more
willing to retaliate in kind. For example, pulling a gun on someone’s friend
might get them to back down, where killing their friend will drive them to come
after you, where they wouldn’t have with less escalation.

The problems faced by a character who escalates too far is, that
they’ll make far more enemies, which will eventually catch up with them. This
is part of why escalation is such a tricky concept. It’s requires a substantial
amount of finesse to pull off effectively.

Escalation is also something that is seriously frowned on by
most of the recreational martial arts community. Unnecessary, and excessive
violence is a serious liability issue for the school, particularly if their
students are children (and, honestly, that’s pretty common.) A large part of
this is because of the exact problem you’re describing. The actual difficulty
is about going too far. It’s not hard to go way too far in an instant, that
happens all the time. But, unless your character is operating with some kind of
“above-the-law” protections, going too far once is a good way to end up
spending the next 25 years in a small cell.

-Starke

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I have a character (in a typical swords-and-sorcery world ala Middle Earth) who decides to fix metal ridges to the bottom of her boots that doubles as better traction and making it hirt more and deal more damage if she needs to kick in a fight. Is this realistic, or would it be too heavy to fight in?

I’m going to be that pedantic asshole here for a second and remind you that Middle Earth is High Fantasy, and if we’re going with Lord of the Rings then it’s Epic Fantasy. “Sword and Sorcery” is actually a different sub-genre of fantasy established (mainly) by Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard. The famous narratives surround the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Conan the Barbarian.

You will probably break your brain trying to figure out all the fantasy subcategories from dark fantasy, to low fantasy, to gaslamp, but the distinction here is important. “Sword and Sorcery” is a sub-genre is a set up where the fantasy focuses on the personal costs to the characters rather than a sweeping epic. It’s generally populated with anti-heroes, but if you’re writing a story that involves a small group of friends on an adventure and they are focused on personal growth over epic battles then you’ve got Swords and Sorcery.

However, if you don’t understand your genre then you eventually end up in this situation: Dragon Age (epic fantasy) versus Dragon Age 2 (sword and sorcery).

If you want my advice though, I’d say you pull a Tolkien and start researching medieval combat. Too many authors attempt to come up with “clever”, more “modern“ solutions in order to give their characters an edge that people in the middle ages either actually solved or just weren’t applicable.

In this case, it’s probably both and definitely the latter. Steel ridges on the bottom of the boot aren’t going to add anything to the foot’s stopping power. The reason for this is that stiffening up the sole in a boot or shoe that you intend to use for kicking is a bad idea.

When you’re looking at application of force via a punch or a kick, you learn quickly that the body position and posture ensure that the force is distributed over a small area rather than a large one.

In simple terms = the smaller the area, the more penetrating force you get.

For example, the reason why a boxer’s fracture occurs in the fore and index finger on the hand is because that’s where the connecting force is being applied. The rest of the hand is reinforcing those two fingers. Ultimately, a similar principle applies with the foot.

The whole bottom of the foot isn’t used for kicking, except in a very few circumstances (like the push kick, which does exactly what it’s defined as). Kicks use the blade of the foot (the outside edge), the ball of the foot, and the heel. Sometimes, the top of the foot is used. When you use the whole of the foot to kick i.e. spreading the force across a wider surface, you get the push kick rather than the front kick. The push kick is a defensive kick, used for maintaining distance. You bury your foot into the other person’s gut and shove, like a literal push. You use your foot to push your opponent away from you. (This is the point where some of you may be realizing that martial techniques are often given literal names that correspond directly to their purpose, which will help you in the future when figuring out what X technique does. Case in point = triangle choke (arm forms a triangle and chokes) and the arm bar (opponent’s arm is extended to form a literal bar).)

The front kick  = leg kicks toward the front (point of impact: ball of the foot)

The side kick = turn sideways in order to kick (point of impact: blade of the foot or heel, depending on type)

The roundhouse = the leg comes across the body, literally swings around to kick. (point of impact: either ball or top of the foot depending on type of kick used.)

The back kick/spinning sidekick = your back faces your opponent when you kick. (Point of impact: Heel.)

The hook kick = leg’s chamber forms a hook as it kicks. (Point of impact: Heel)

The spinning hook kick/wheel kick = you spin and perform a hook kick. (Point of impact: Heel)

The axe kick = leg lifts and drives the heel on a sharp downward angle like an axe. (Point of impact: Heel.)

The shin kick = instead of connecting with the foot, this Muay Thai kick connects with the shin. (Point of impact: Shin.)

The mule kick = you know how mules and horses kick with their hind legs? Yeah, it looks like that. (Point of impact: heel.)

The push kick = A defensive kick which pushes an opponent away from you to create distance.  (Point of impact: the entire underside of the foot.)

When you see someone breaking down a door with their foot in the movies, they are, usually, using a push kick.

If you’re wearing boots that don’t allow for much articulation of the ankle or bending in the foot then your character isn’t going to do much kicking. Kicks are easiest to do with no shoes on, then in sneakers. There’s a lot of bendy, rotational, mechanical detail that goes on with kicks like the side kick or the roundhouse. Add in that kicks are risky business, going up on one leg is sacrificing a lot for attack, and their use in most modern combat is confined almost entirely to the mid/lower body.

With the way kicks function, there’s no point to affixing steel to the bottom of the boot. It won’t matter if they’re fighting someone unarmored and if they’re armored then they’re best bet will be going after the joints left exposed in the armor for articulation like the knee. You wear steel on the top of the foot to protect the foot and the toes, and on the shin.

If you don’t plan on having her kick as a major part of her fighting style, then I suggest going with a medieval variant of the steel toed boots. The boot will be too heavy for fancy kicking, but you get to upgrade kicking someone in the shin from “OH GOD WHY” to “OH GOD YOU BROKE IT!”

Something similar to the sabaton.

I’ll be honest, cool as they are, kicks aren’t the easiest to pull off especially in a combat situation. Most fighters, especially when going up against enemies in armor, will avoid them entirely. Unless you’re doing a lot stretching and remaining loose, getting practice in, they’re very difficult to do cold. Do to the necessity of going up on one leg, kicks end up in the category of risky business.

Also, unless you’re building your setting on “Rule of Cool”, avoid the spin kicks. While devastating when they connect, the average combatant isn’t going to want to risk taking their eyes off their opponent for any length of time. They also aren’t going to want to expose their back to the enemy.

You need your spine and your kidneys.

The back kick and its brother the mule kick will get the most mileage off an enemy coming in from behind you. However, take care of the opponent in front of you first. Otherwise, it’ll put them in the perfect position to grab your head with all the other openings provided to pick from.

The other thing that’s important to remember about kicks is that due to their risky business (very big motion, up on one leg, total commitment), you gotta be fast. Wearing heavy footwear will impede the speed, which ultimately both lessens the power of the kick and makes it easier to avoid/block/counter.

The one thing you don’t want is to throw your leg out there only to have the other person catch it and then break your knee. Or, you know, drag you around the field until you fall down.

No, really, it happens. If you ever want to know about the horrors that can be committed on a captured leg, check out Hapkido.

TLDR: Just give them some normal protection for their feet.

Please.

While the most risky, kicks are the most powerful of the hand to hand techniques. They don’t need help to make them more effective against unarmored opponents. They crush organs and break bones just fine all by themselves.

Your bones, even, if you screw up. (Hello, Sixth Grade.)

If they are facing enemies in armor then take weapons.

-Michi

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stephfitblr:

that moment when your grandmaster stops class to help a black belt candidate learn how to do a brick break and then turns it into a life lesson 😅

I grabbed my phone to capture a video for when she breaks it, and I’m glad I got this motivating speech. The clip is just over a minute.

Caption: Grandmaster standing in front of a thick concrete block upon two others, with a student who is going to attempt breaking it, in front of a class: “think through, think through. This is, you know, guys, breaking is a metaphor for breaking through stuff. You know the challenges that you have – I’ve seen 240lb linebackers, football tough guys [tough guy noise] they can’t break one. It’s in here [points to head]. During testing, they got their black belts, they’ve been kicking everybody and they’re really strong, they’re like this, right? [poses like bodybuilder].

They come and they go ahhhhhh eeek [winds up to break but pauses short]. Stops. The reason is, the brain is really powerful and so what happens is, it tells you, ‘That’s a brick. That’s a brick. I cannot break that!’ And as soon as your brain says that, subconsciously when you say that, your hand just stops because your brain stops everything in motion. And so the biggest guys can’t break through this. Until they learn how to do that. And then after, after 2 years, 2 years, 240-50 pound guy, big guy [flexs again] he broke eleven after 2 years of training.

But he had to train himself to do that: ‘I can do it, I can do it.’ So, this is, you can do this. But you have to tell yourself you can do it. You know what I tell my little dragons (toddler class)? Yes I can? Or I say ‘can you do it?’ and they say ‘YES I CAN!’ It’s the same deal, you have to look at that and say ‘I can go right through that.’ And then you have to convince yourself, (student’s name), you have to believe it, and the belief has to become real, and then you make that happen.

And so, that happens with anything you can do. Any endeavor that you come across. Okay? Right? You wanna be the next Bill Gates? If you tell yourself, ‘Ah, man, that’s already been done’ then you’ve already lost. That’s exactly the same thing! You have to start thinking about that. That – [points at brick] – you have to break through that barrier.”

My reasons for posting this excellent motivational speech to this blog for you writers is two fold. The first is that it’s an important life lesson and reminder about mind over body. Overcoming your own inner negativity is difficult and something I still struggle with when approaching my daily life. Reminding myself that ‘Yes, I can’ and believing in myself are very difficult for me when dealing with depression. To fight through the feeling that I’m worthless and have nothing to contribute. I actually broke three bricks when I was eighteen after passing my third degree black belt test, the first two on the first impact using a palm strike and the third with my forearm/elbow. I had a bruise the size of my forearm for about a month and a tiny scar left over to this day. (That isn’t normally what happens.) However, it took me nearly ten years to accept the life lesson that the brick offered.

It was really scary because you have to look past the brick, aim beyond it, in order to break it. It also has absolutely nothing to do with physical strength, but in overcoming the barriers your mind creates for you. The truth is that we’re all a lot more powerful than we think we are. It’s not some mysterious gift that some people have over others, but rather a willingness to overcome the internal barriers we set for ourselves that say X is beyond us. As the Grandmaster states above, when you say ‘I could never’ then you’ve already lost.

The great misconception most people, not just writers, bring to martial arts or fighting in general is that’s about “the biggest and the best”. This pervades popular culture to the point that perfectly legitimate characters are seen as unrealistic due to the false reality created by the media. We get questions in our inbox all the time about “How can my physically weak character learn to fight?” or “How can my female character learn to fight?”

There is no special path to combat. There is only patience, dedication, and hard work. What is so beautiful about characters for authors who embrace this in their understanding is that they realize that there is nothing holding these characters back. They become action characters, driving their own narrative. Fighting is not some aspect separate from their personality, they are in control and that’s the moment when a character becomes empowered by their narrative.

They are an active force driving their story forward rather than a passive one. They control themselves, they control their own mind, and they are in control of their own destiny.

It’s not the act of violence which empowers a character or person in their life, it’s the realization of their freedom to make decisions for themselves and that those decisions push the narrative forward. They take power and the responsibility which comes with it. When someone is forced to do something, they are not empowered. When they choose to do something, even if they are afraid, even if it is terrible, even if it is a hard choice, a bad one, or a wrong one, then they are.

The ultimately best part about all of this realization is that it’s within your power to make the change. It will take time and hard work, it won’t happen all at once, but you can train yourself to overcome those things which make you afraid or fill you with the belief that what is before you isn’t meant for “someone like me”.

Even if you don’t believe in yourself now, you can train yourself to.

There is no right way, just a way and you’ll find the one which works best for you.

-Michi

Hello! Long-time reader, first-time query. I know y’all often talk about Tamora Pierce and her representations of fight scenes and fighting. Something I’ve noticed she often does is emphasize how her characters learn pattern dances or patterns with their weapons. How useful are these for someone learning how to use a weapon, or how central might they be to training? You wouldn’t be able to use them in battle very often, would you? Thanks! :D

They’re a real and important part of training, but the chances of using them in combat is close to never. About the most you’re ever likely to use are the transitions and the smaller combinations. Every martial art has their own term for “Pattern Dance”. In Japanese, which are the martial arts Pierce pulls heavily from in Protector of the Small, it’s “kata”. Kel’s glaive “pattern dances” are from naginatajutsu. (Or, at least, they’re supposed to be.)

For reference: Kata versus Sparring

Taekwondo Koryo

The usual, convenient english terminology used is “form” and that’s how I’ll be referring to the practice in this post.

Definition: A form is a routine or set pattern of movements, either preset or freestyle that is a major component of many different martial arts. Basically, it’s just a routine like any other. In concept, it’s not actually different from dances or the routines seen in competitive gymnastics. They can be performed in single or with a partner, as is often the case when practicing with weapons.

Forms predominantly emphasize their focus on technique and act as a means of of testing a student’s training by putting what they’ve learned together into a single routine. They advance in complexity as the student themselves advances in their training. Sometimes, you’ll hear martial artists refer to them as techniques usable in combat, but they’re not. Live combat itself has no room for such fixed patterns. Think of it like working from a script. Combat requires you being able to adjust yourself, to put your techniques together, and be spontaneous. Sparring is where someone the actual practice for combat occurs, but sparring is useless if your technique is crap.

Forms are where all the technical details are honed and perfected. It’s the student putting what they’ve learned into practice, in a specific pattern of movement designed to teach them about flow, transition, and synchronizing breathing to attack. The transitional flow from one technique into another, moving from one combination to another, from one stance to the next, changing direction, all while managing to nail each technique is exceedingly difficult. Forms aren’t where you learn to face multiple opponents, but they are where you learn how to change direction. They’re where you start to familiarize yourself with attacks outside of a single line and transition into different ones.

Mostly though, it’s a combination and compilation of every technical you’ve been practicing in training. The way one shows they’ve mastered their base and their techniques. How skilled your student is in their technique actually depends on how well they perform their forms rather than their sparring.

“Building your base” refers to the beginning, the way you stand, the way you breathe, your stances, and your single techniques. You start at the beginning and work your way up, repeating the same techniques over and over until you do nothing but eat, breathe, and dream them. The form is the culmination of that base, of those techniques, and how well it’s come together. Without a solid base, your technique suffers. If your technique suffers, nowhere will that be more evident than in your forms.

It’s a rote pattern, set practice, and beautiful when set into motion. Forms themselves comprise the major portion of the performance art aspect of martial arts.

If your character has “beautiful technique” then their forms are where that’s actually established. If they’re in a regular martial arts school training, then the forms are a part of their instructor’s evaluation of their ability and testing between belt ranks.

So, yes, they’re real. No, you don’t use the full thing in combat. What gets used is the smaller combinations inside them and the techniques practiced outside of that, often drills performed with a partner. Combat is, in large part, about pattern recognition. One of the major aspects of training is to teach your body to react before an attack begins or notice it’s early stages, to predict, and then either act or counteract while on the defensive.

It will be a major part of any character’s training, both by themselves and with a partner. Rote patterns practiced over and over and over in drills until they can do it while they eat, breathe, and dream.

As for the term “pattern dances” that’s the term Pierce chose to use for her fantasy setting. The Yamani culture is basically just medieval Japan with the serial numbers filed off. Patterns, forms, routines, or the proper corresponding term for the martial art like “kata” for Japanese/Okinawan martial arts are all acceptable.

Kel’s habits, like getting up early to practice in her quarters, those are good traits to have your character pick up.

-Michi

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Hi! So I am a blue belt in Tae Kwon Do and I was wondering if I could ask you for some advice. How do I not get so frustrated at my lack of skill? A few days ago I was in the kids’ class and I started freaking out in front of all the children because my kicks were coming out sloppy, then later in the adults’ class I started crying for the same reason. And every test I have, I always breakdown during the forms because I get stuck… Advice?

You’re thinking too much, you’re stressed, and you’re possibly making bad comparisons about where you think you should be at versus where you are.

Think about it this way:

White – Green: Beginner

Blue – Red: Intermediate

Red – Black: Advanced

Blue Belt is the transition period, the beginning of the intermediate belt ranks, where everything starts to get harder. You take on more responsibility (in your case teaching), you’re asked to commit more time, and the techniques become more complicated. You’re stepping out of the honeymoon stage and starting to realize how little you actually know. It’s just like writing actually, where you write a story, fall in love with it, think it’s the best thing ever, then you come back three to six months later and all you see are the flaws. Right now, you’re in the flaws stage. You aren’t as good as you thought you were. That’s okay.

More importantly, that’s normal.

So, take a step back and breathe.

Your instructors wouldn’t have you demonstrate for the lower belt ranks if they thought your technique was shit. If they thought your technique was shit, they’d tell you. Trust me.

They’re asking you to demonstrate because you’re an assistant and they like your technique. Your technique is where it’s supposed to be at for your rank (or it could be better). They have a better objective view of you than you do. Objectivity is good.

This is where I say that you’re thinking too much. You are so focused on doing it right that you’re forgetting to do it. Like most martial arts, Taekwondo at the higher levels is actually based in muscle memory. The more you do, the less you think. You perform the repetitions enough times that you don’t have to think about it, your body knows. You perform better when you’re relaxed. All that worry and confusion is sneaking in, and it’s making your technique worse because you keep trying to force it. Then, you punish yourself for not doing it right and it becomes a vicious cycle.

This is even more important when it comes to forms. If you can do it in class, then you can do it in the test. So, relax. Breathe deeply. Trust yourself. Your body knows what to do. Or, the actual Star Wars line I like for this, “Let go of your conscious self and act on instinct”. Turn off your inner critic.

Your head is what’s tripping you up here. So, let go of everything else. Stress. Fear. Worry. Or any of the parts which give you trouble. Focus on doing. Think of it like moving meditation, let there be nothing happening upstairs.

1) Ask your instructors what you can do to improve. They know you and your technique better than I do.

2) If you’re breaking down and crying because you think your technique is no good, then maybe it’s time to move back to a less stressful position. Tell your teachers about your problem and ask that they maybe call on someone else for a little while. No shame in that. Honest communication between you and your instructors about your mental state is important. You may not be ready for the responsibility and stress that comes with teaching. That’s okay. Teaching is stressful. More than that, it’s a learning experience.

3) Re-evaluating your technique while passing it on is supposed to happen. That’s normal. We teach because it helps us become better. The first step is recognizing the issues. The second is acceptance that we aren’t what we thought we were. The third is patience. Improvement happens slowly, gradually, inch by inch. Be patient with yourself. You aren’t going to be equal to your instructors tomorrow. They and the older students been doing this longer than you. Forgive your mistakes. Focus on the technique itself, on what you can do to become better rather than chastising yourself for not being good enough.

We’ve all been where you are. We were all white belts once. We all had terrible technique once. (Some of us still do.) We all thought we had terrible technique when our technique was actually kind of awesome. (Some of us still do.) We’ve all suffered from fear and feelings of inadequacy. (Some of us still do.)

Keep working at it. Be positive. Trust yourself. You will be better.

Giving back to your community is important, but not if it’s driving you to a mental breakdown. Your health what is most important here and if your teachers can’t or won’t see that, then that’s not your issue. It’s theirs. You may need to find another school. However, I’m sure that if they know the extent to which this is troubling you that they’ll be more than happy to help. Think about focusing on just being a blue belt.

Give yourself time to adjust. Your at the beginning of a journey that may last your entire life. So, no need to rush. We all travel at our own pace.

Remember, this is supposed to be fun.

Smile.

No, I mean it. Smile. Are you smiling? Good.

You’re doing just fine.

-Michi

Just stumbled across your blog. Love it. Omg the dancing thing, I trained as a fencer and while the dancers I trained with did have good core strength the problem was that in fencing you ARENT supposed to keep to a rhythm while you are moving. You can’t move in a predictable rhythmic way. We were NEVER allowed to do drills while music was playing. If you move in that fashion you will get nailed every time.

Yes. That’s pretty much the main issue with dancing. The body becomes trained to respond to specific rhythmic cues that are matched in time with the music. This is part of the reason why so many dancers have managed to cross-over into convincing stunt work. Stunt choreography is ultimately choreography, it’s predictable. The ducks and dodge rolls seen on screen are a routine, one that is practiced over and over and over again.

The performer is still working within that pattern. It’s important for safety that the pattern remains unchanged. Learning choreography can be helpful to writers when they’re trying to stage a fight inside their brains, but the issue is when this gets translated out into the belief that dancers make for superior martial artists. (A trait commonly given to female characters like Black Widow, rather than male ones. If anyone suggested that Batman train in ballet for undercover work and to improve himself as a combatant, most people would laugh. It probably would still be one of the best workouts he’d ever had.)

It’s a great point though. Thanks for contributing!

-Michi

What styles/weapons would you suggest for a fighter who is a bit shorter/stocky, and is modified (scifi style) and has to deal with multiple, large, or powerful opponents(aliens and such). She’d need to fight both ranged and up close and personal, and she would need to be able to completely dispatch opponents as well as remove them from a fight without (too) serious injury. (I know, far fetched) And does personality affect what style someone uses(in your opinion)? I’m sorry if this is too vauge.

We get these questions about body type a lot, especially in regards to fighting and what style an author should pick. Ultimately, it’s more of a perspective issue and it’s understandable since the vast majority of Hollywood and Anime have a love affair with the “Five Man Band”. Anime often puts forward unique and individual fighting styles which match a character’s body in order to make them more visually distinct i.e. the big guy usually wields the big honking ass sword and relies on physical strength and the rail thin glasses guy is a tactician who is dexterous and quick, often with flawless technique. The Five Man Band is a very successful technique, at least visually. It works under the same rules for writing which state that you shouldn’t give characters similar sounding/looking names because it because it becomes difficult to distinguish them.

It’s probably the worst decider when it comes to choosing a fighting style for a character. Training itself changes and molds the body. If your female character starts out lithe and lean, learns a combat art which heavily favors the upper body such as boxing or kick boxing, she won’t remain that way for long. She’ll develop musculature in her chest which widens it (her breasts will also, probably, shrink), her legs will become thicker and more stocky, she’ll become more weighted in her upper body, her neck will thicken from the development of her shoulder muscles. Depending on her dedication, she’ll gain some very nice definition in those arms. You can expect a little thickness in the jaw. Depending on the kind of training and how long she’s been doing it, she may possess a scar across one eyebrow and her nose probably won’t be entirely straight.

Training molds you to it. Stop and take a look at professional or Olympic athletes like gymnasts or runners. Look at the U.S. Armed Forces, especially by division, and you’ll see something similar. Even though there are slight differences, there’s also a fairly impressive uniformity of body type. That’s the training. If I had to state a real pet peeve, it’s that this gets routinely ignored for female characters because it often leads to them possessing an “unconventional” body. By unconventional, I mean that they aren’t often within the standards or weight range of what society considers to be feminine or beautiful.

There’s a part to training where the body is sculpted and can significantly change what a person looks like. Professional trainers in Hollywood who cater to actors employ different training regimens to achieve different looks, to create a specific type of body. It’s actually something to keep in mind when looking at any actor: you’re seeing months, if not years, of dieting and specific physical training to achieve a singular result.

The kind of training a character engages in won’t change their height or the length of their arms, but it will have a significant influence on what they look like. What that is depends on the training involved.

So, what are the deciding factors?

What are they doing? What are they fighting? What is their job? What is their background? Who is training them?

The problem with “short/stocky woman” faces “multiple larger/more powerful opponents” is that’s the life of every short woman ever and they will need to learn to deal with it regardless of the martial style they pick. Martial arts are designed around the idea that the opponent will be a human being, and everything from the approach to the psychology is geared toward that. You don’t go box a bear and expect it to work the same way, because a bear and a human come with different considerations, different dangers. Now, people did box with bears. Bear boxing was a real side show performance, but bear boxing and regular boxing are different. Why? One of them is a bear. Also, the bears were historically abused and mistreated by having their teeth and claws removed in order to make it possible. Or, the boxer would have died.

My point is that the enemy one faces is the deciding factor in how one fights. You don’t go hand to hand with a Xenomorph. You don’t go hand to hand with a tentacle monster. You can go hand to hand with a Klingon, but it will be unpleasant.

The problem is that there is no one size fits all solution, not in real life and not in a future where everything is much, much more complicated.

Combat is a form of problem solving. To figure out what you’re solving, you have to figure out what the problem is. Then, you justify the solution. Martial training is used to support a setting, but to have one you need an enemy and aliens come in all shapes and sizes. And, the more variety there is, the more new and inventive ways one must come up with to counter the threat.

Subduing an opponent is all well and good, provided the character has a means to support that approach. This could be through tools such as handcuffs or weapons like a taser or a futuristic form of stun gun. The question is looking at the right group for the solution you want. In this case, if you want a character who uses a form of professional combat that predominantly focuses on non-lethal takedowns and subdual, you’re looking at police, their martial techniques and their H2H. When you’re looking for professional groups with a combat focus that orient on using violence as a non-lethal means to solving problems that’s law enforcement. It’s their job, they develop down that route. Other combat professionals don’t have the luxury. A great example of a fictional militarized police force is the Peacekeepers from Farscape.

Martial arts that come off of bloodsport are the runner up with varying degrees of success. The reason is that unless we’re talking about a death match, bloodsport is primarily entertainment and the goal of the fight is to entertain so it shies away from quick kills or more pragmatic combat. It becomes a war of attrition. However, these are martial arts with a primary focus on dueling and fighting single opponents. If there’s one lesson to take from Gina Carano’s Haywire, it’s that putting the wrong kind of combat on a character is debilitating. Carano is a fantastic martial artist, but MMA is far too slow and discordant for a spy thriller.

Making combat work will require a decent amount of worldbuilding from you for each alien type, plus hammering out technology and how that affects combat. (Ray guns, stun guns, cybernetics, etc.) Martial combat is a form of both individual and cultural expression, showing their values and priorities, how they respond to threats. To know how a character fights, you need to understand the culture they belong to and how they navigate it. This goes far beyond a character’s moral makeup or their pragmatism, the values their culture ascribes to and the threats they faced are the deciding factors in how a combat style developed… which shapes a huge portion of their lives and who they are.

Start to think about creating a toolbox for this character, much in the same way you would if you were writing a paranormal story. Different strategies for different types of enemies. Depending on setting rules, you don’t use the same approach to dealing with zombies that you do with werewolves and the same is true of vampires.

Dealing with a genetically modified human will require a different approach, just like dealing with a psychic will require a different combat approach.

Dealing with different alien species will require navigating their culture as much as their combat. After all, their culture defines how and why they fight. Every alien is an individual with their own reactions and responses to the social mores they follow. And, depending on the advantages the character in question possesses, they might not even be able to go into hand to hand so they’ll need a tool to deal with that.

A character’s personality may lead them toward the job type, institution, or training they sign up for, but the training itself will have the greater affect on their personality. Whether they are an actual participant in the system or hold the job is up to you, but if you want a character fight like a professional combatant then they need a professional’s training. Which means a teacher who is a professional of some kind.

In the end, it’s really a question of what you want and the kind of story you want to tell.

-Michi

References, Resources, and Recommendations:

Farscape – We recommended this one just recently, but really. Farscape.There’s a bevy of aliens here, with characters having to make use of minimal resources in order to survive.

Babylon 5 – We usually recommend this for politics, but I recommend it for it’s worldbuilding. Everything from accounting for different alien physiology to the handling of telepaths among different races, to various martial styles based on alien cultures, to hilarious misunderstandings based on translator errors, this series has a a lot to love for any writer looking to craft science fiction.

Stargate SG1 – This may seem like an oddball recommendation, but a lot of science fiction settings have all their cultures progressing at the same rate. Stargate is all over the map and it’s an interesting look at the different ways cultures develop when dealing with or faced by advanced technology. Campy as it is, you might find some neat ideas hidden in this one.

Psycho-Pass – We rarely recommend anime, but Psycho-Pass is a wonderfully well-developed dystopic future that’s a love letter to many older cyberpunk settings from Ghost in Shell to Blade Runner to the cult classic Johnny Mnemonic. It references 1984, Gulliver’s Travels, and a surprising amount of literature in its first season. It’s for mature viewers only and is fairly disturbing. But the reason why I’m recommending it to you is that it does an excellent job with the idea of a computer deciding who lives and who dies, of guns that won’t fire unless a person is above a certain number and that will kill only if they reach another threshold beyond that. It’s cops attempting to hunt down killers in a society where their very emotions and ability to do their job are their own enemy. (I’d actually watch this one after Law & Order and Southland.)

Law & Order Law & Order isn’t just important for understanding cops, it’s actually very important to understanding people and why people commit violence.

Southland – I recommend Southland because it’s set in Los Angeles and, much like New York, there are a lot of different racial tensions that the cops need to navigate on multiple levels. It’s very informative for teaching you about how to look at and think about an environment, even one that we don’t initially perceive as hostile.

Trinity – This was a science fiction roleplaying game from White Wolf. The setting itself does a good job of bridging between real world politics, and a near future spacefaring civilization with exposure to alien civilizations.

We don’t usually add supplements for games to the list, but the Trinity Technology Manual is an exception. This goes into a lot more detail on the specific hardware in the setting, and if you’re wanting to think outside the box for dealing with enemies, this might give you some additional ideas. Just, be aware, you’ll need to have read the core book to fully understand a lot of the stuff being thrown around.

Shadowrun – As with Trinity this is another sci-fi roleplaying game. The setup is a little different, instead of traditional sci-fi, this is urban fantasy cyberpunk. You (probably) don’t need to worry about magic in your setting, but even ignoring that, this is still a setting where characters will routinely go toe to toe with things that are larger than themselves and inhumanly resilient. So it might be worth a look.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – this game is really good for dealing with and getting you to think about the different ways of dealing with transhuman enemies. Also, the tensions brought in by transhumanism itself.

Crysis 2 – Really good if you want to write a character who has been heavily modified, doing the impossible, being put through inhuman amounts of physical abuse, and treated as interchangeable by the people around them.

Alien and Aliens – How to deal with an enemy you cannot face in single combat.

Predator and Predator 2 – Stupid, yes, but relevant. These movies are all about dealing with aliens that are predatory and as intelligent as the humans with goals of their own. Predators have some great limitations and weaknesses, but they’re not human ones and aren’t what we expect.