Okay, so there’s a problem in fiction where in order to make an enemy seem more impressive, we throw around terms like better, bestest, best. Master probably tops the list of improperly used terms because we know that a “master” of any discipline is really, really, really, really good. We want our characters to fight someone impressive and we want a term that’s easily recognizable to our audience so that they know this person is more skilled than the average person.
That makes sense.
The problem is that a master swordsman is an individual of singular skill. We’re not just talking about someone with between ten to forty years of dueling experience, but someone who is so skilled that they are generally recognized by their community to be at the top of their craft.
When you call someone a master, you’ve defined them as being one of the best fighters in your setting.
Your character with no sword experience is about to try and go up against someone who is considered to be one of the best swordsmen in her world. A status which only a handful of individuals will ever reach, who perhaps number in the single digits, and who fights with a rapier which is one of the fastest, longest, and deadliest swords for unarmored combat. This man isn’t just a skilled duelist, he’s a specialist. The rapier is made for dueling. Dueling is his forte. If he’s been a swordsman for twenty to thirty years, then it’s possible he’s been cutting down individuals in single combat longer than your protagonist has been alive.
A simple analogy would be like this: on your first day of fencing, would you like to duel an Olympian fencer? It doesn’t matter if they’re a gold medalist, they might be, but you’re going to duel someone who has proven their status as one of the best fencers in the world.
You’re asking her to fight Yoda, quite possibly on Yoda’s home turf.
Those are some impressively terrible odds, I gotta say.
They have to find a way to survive against one the best and most experienced warriors in their setting, where the master has all the advantages and they have none, and whatever clever trick they manage to come up with this guy has probably seen before because he has a lifetime of battle experience to draw from. However clever you think you’re protagonist is, you need to weigh that against all the other people who’ve come before them. From those who were just as inexperienced as your protagonist when they fought this guy and died to those who knew far more and died. The ones who tried to run. The ones who stood their ground. The ones who believed themselves the best. The ones who just wanted to live.
Stop and think about your master swordsman for a second. Consider how old he is and how long he has been fighting, what he has gone through to earn his rank, and how many duels he has survived to make it this far.
A master is not just going to be good/better/bestest, they’re also going to be experienced with a wealth of previous battles and defeated enemies to draw from, they’ve got their teaching experience to draw from, they’ve the duels they witnessed to draw from, able to adjust their style on the fly, skilled at reading body language, canny, and cunning. Their life has been a learning experience and they survived terrible odds on skill alone.
It may be hard to quantify, especially if you’ve never seen a master in action. (The likelihood is that you actually have. Turn your brain to Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and the other well-known action stars, they all qualify and none of them had to earn their master status on a pile of corpses.) If your only experience is action movies then the best of the best become commonplace.
So, what you’re asking is:
How can my character escape another character who has spent their life killing characters like them?
The answer is good luck.
When writing an action sequence, you should always be careful to set your characters against challenges against which they can succeed. They may be underdogs, but they aren’t helpless. It’s like balancing out blocks and the trick is to balance them just write so the sequence remains plausible and exciting, but also doesn’t stretch too far outside of what your protagonist is good at.
Say your protagonist is experienced with ranged combat, but they’re trapped inside a building with a master swordsman. Their plan is to escape and they have their preferred weapon, though it won’t do them much good in a close range fight. They have to avoid the swordsman that’s hunting them and get to the exit before he catches up.
You might say, “but doesn’t that put the swordsman at a disadvantage?”
The answer is actually: no, it doesn’t. The swordsman is a master, and one of the best warriors in your setting. We can assume he’ll probably have some experience with closing the gap between himself and a ranged weapon in order to slay the enemy.
You can stack the deck against your swordsman and he’ll still likely come out on top by virtue of skill and experience. This guy is a survivor. He’s beaten the odds before and he probably will again.
When you’re writing individuals who are hyper-competent, especially villains, the more obstacles your hero throws in their path and the more they vault over without significant issue will just make them more terrifying. You put these two characters into a position where your heroine feels that she has the advantage and then this guy turns the tables on her, your audience will go ‘oh shit’. They may not have known just how good a master in your setting is supposed to be until this point because without being shown it’s a meaningless term.
When done in reverse, the villain loses their teeth.
You set up a character who is established to be one of the best warriors in their setting but the heroine with no experience wielding a sword can face them and hold out long enough to find their escape. Unless he’s making an executive decision to offer up a half-assed fight and lets her go on purpose, that’s a bad guy failing to live up to expectations.
He becomes less scary as a result.
This is why over-stacking the odds can be a huge problem among novices and experienced writers alike. A good fight sequence acts as a supportive character developing moment for our heroes and our villains. We show who they are and what they can do. For the most part, your audience will know what the hero knows. They experience what the hero does.
Never be afraid to throw your protagonist a bone so your villain can steal it from them later.
The higher they get before the rug gets ripped out from underneath them is what makes the fall so awesome. Especially when the villain has overcome, perhaps effortlessly, what we know the hero is good at.
If the hero is good at archery, it tells us nothing about a villain if the hero loses to them at hand to hand. Both the audience and the heroine can say, ‘oh, but it would be different if she had her bow. Next time, she’ll have a chance.’
However, suppose the heroine has the advantage but cannot manage to hit her enemy, who outwits her, proceeds to close distance, and finally defeats her in hand to hand before forcing her to retreat. Suddenly, our perspective shifts. The stakes have changed. The hero has just been forcibly punted toward necessary character development, which she must have in order to survive the next encounter.
It’s okay for your hero to lose. In fact, it’s necessary and it’s better for the loss to happen when they’re trying their best at what they’re best at. Losing when they’re at the top and in the safety zone establishes more about the challenges they’ll need to overcome.
Get over thinking about fights from the perspective of who has the most advantages in terms of weapons. Weapons are only one part of the equation. The other is the individual themselves, their experience, their skills, and their ability.
If your character is hyper-competent give them challenges which prove that competency.
One of my favorite moments from Erroll Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood is the Archery Tournament. Up until this point in the movie, Robin Hood has made a mockery of Prince John, Guy of Gisborne, and the Sheriff of Nottingham. He wins at the beginning of the movie against incredible odds, swaggering his way alone into Prince John’s castle, a illegally slain deer across his shoulders which he tosses nonchalantly on the table as he sits down to dinner and casually explains his motives to protect England from John. Then proceeds to make an outrageous (and treasonous) declaration of war in a castle full of John’s loyal retainers, two of whom happen to be sitting next to him. He fights his way to freedom, using his wits, swordsmanship, and archery skills to escape before running off into the woods.
We see his campaign against John and Gisborne begin in the first half of the movie, success after success, culminating in stealing the taxes Gisborne collected while he travels through Sherwood, and taking the entire party (including Marian) captive. In the end, out the magnanimity of his heart, he humiliates the knights and sends them home in rags.
Up until this point, the Sheriff has been treated as a bumbling buffoon secondary to the more talented Gisborne. However, he is the one who comes up with the idea for an archery tournament and using Marian as the bait. Showing us, that the minor characters overlooked and played for laughs by the stronger characters have a dangerous edge. Using Robin’s flamboyancy and overconfidence against him, they lay a trap. Robin bites, as we knew he would, and is captured.
Thus our secondary characters, the Merry Men, are left searching for a way to free him. They find it, but only because Marian decides to help. It is her plan that saves his life. But the act of Robin losing shows us how precarious his position truly was while also giving Marian the push she needs for character development, showing us that she’s not just his romantic partner. She’s clever in her own right and she knows a great deal about the inner workings of John’s court, which makes her a much needed ally.
You may be wondering what this has to do with your question. The answer is The Adventures of Robin Hood balances its fight scenes to perfection, they all serve as a means to both push the plot forward and establish the characters. From major to minor, every sequence and character interaction is important. They set up all major plot threads, skills, deficits, and character flaws, which culminate in consequences later on.
Think about what you want to establish with these characters. What is the point of this scene where an unskilled character tries to fight a hyper-competent one within his own wheelhouse? What are you trying to set up in this scene? What are you attempting to establish?
Tension isn’t created just by having one character be an underdog. It’s crafted by wants and desires, by goals and plans, and the characters who make them. Set up by the story they’re in and the plot in play.
Hyper-competency in combat is useful when you want to upset the status quo. The best of the best isn’t useful or scary because they’re the best. It’s because they can overcome a great deal more than we expect. They have a lot of useful skills and the ability to adapt into different circumstances. You don’t really know how skilled a character is until they’re put into a situation where they don’t have an advantage, but you also need to be careful of what that situation is and ensure they have the tools (personal, character, cleverness, or what have you) to get themselves back out.
Use this sequence to establish something about these characters and who they are.
Don’t cheapen the moment.
Don’t fuck around with Masters.
They’ve seen it before.
They will see through your bullshit.
References and Resources
#swords – Our swords tag.
Wikitenaur – this isn’t precisely for beginners, but there are a lot of free and translated manuscripts here from HEMA enthusiasts written by the masters of their style. You want to know how a master swordsman thinks, you can find their descriptions of combat and technical manuals here. Written in their own words.
Scholargladitoria – Matt Easton has fantastic breakdowns on swordsmanship, combat, and Historical European Martial Arts which make him an excellent entry point for beginning your research.
Skallagrim – Skallagrim is just fun. Okay?
Samantha Swords – Just good general advice from a HEMA practitioner, and a female perspective.