As a writer, you need to know how something works before you start trying to break it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s guerrilla warfare against an oppressive regime or a hand to hand duel. You need to know what the pieces are, and what they’re used for. This is doubly important when writing about or crafting characters with disabilities because the status quo has a direct effect on them and their existence. Most of the time, they must come up with alternate solutions.
You can’t develop alternate approaches for a character with one arm when you don’t know why both arms (and hands) are important in martial combat. Think of your character as an ingenious problem solver. He looks at the status quo rules with a new set of eyes, determined to find ways in which they can be beaten, adapted, and overcome.
You can’t write a rebel if you don’t know the rules. You can’t think outside the box if you don’t know what’s in it. Start with the status quo, establish what it is, then expand outward.
I have two rules whenever setting out to write a character with any disability (mental or physical).
First: Have a firm grasp of your setting and the types of combat, including culture and standard requirements such as with a military that you wish for your disabled character to be taking part in. Essentially, the world as it is for someone who is considered defacto “normal” by the mass majority of its citizenry i.e. nurotypical or able-bodied.
This is the world your character will inhabit. If you want to understand a character who is outside of what the vast majority consider normal, you need to start by determining what that normal is.
You can’t answer the question of “what is combat like for a character with one arm?” if you don’t understand on a basic level the function of arms in combat.
You can’t answer question about their experiences if you don’t know what the attitudes are toward able-bodied combatants even before we get to a disability. If you want to write a character who is a soldier but only has one arm then you’ll run up against questions like, “how do his buddies feel about going into battle and entrusting their lives with a one armed guy?”
Those questions are based in societal perceptions about disability. Now, there are plenty of real live human beings throughout history who have adapted their disabilities to suit their needs, survived, and thrived.
Yet, you will still find plenty of “able-bodied” people in the world who see disability as an insurmountable obstacle. Just like any number of men will say that women can’t fight, even though there are women everywhere from professional fighting to sports to law enforcement to military. Perception and reality are different, but often perception informs how we view and see ourselves, and what we believe to be possible.
The beast of fiction relies on established rules and all outsider characters in fiction rely on the author having a firm grasp on social conventions to communicate what exactly it is that they are defying.
You can’t craft solutions if you don’t know what the problem you’re trying to adapt to is. As a writer, you need to figure out how a character fights with two arms, two hands, two legs, two feet and why all the appendages are important before you move on to how they fight while missing one.
Second: Understand the limitations of the disability. What can the person do? What can they not do? How does this conflict with the expectations created for the “normal” or able-bodied who also participate? How it affects the character’s life. The perception of them by the others versus their perception of themselves.
You can’t skip the portion of “learning about combat” and go straight to “how disabled person fights” because, well, it doesn’t work like that. In addition, you won’t gain any appreciation for the level of work involved, the ingenuity, creativity, out of the box thinking, and general guts it takes to blatantly challenge social convention.
You’ve got a character who has to learn how things are “supposed to be” then adapt everything out and come up with strategies to beat what is considered to be, by most people, an insurmountable disadvantage.
They’ve got to find other characters in their desired field who are willing to teach them, work with them, and devise new ways of approaching combat/their martial art.
This is not an automatic assumption. Those people, just like the people who do in real life, will take on the social stigma and more than likely the accusation that they are just sending the protagonist out to die.
The infantilization of the disabled is very real and such a character requires a support network of those willing to assist them. Training in martial combat requires a team of people. A master and those willing to submit themselves to be practice dummies while the student learns.
It’s going to take a lot of trial and error on their part because this sort of training doesn’t come prepackaged.
And you, yes, you are going to have to most of that research and lay the groundwork yourself.
The fighting style doesn’t matter, except when it comes to the setting, timeframe, availability of the training, and the requirements of the job.
Plenty of people of all shapes and sizes get into martial arts, martial combat, professional fighting, etc. These people do so out of interest, not based on what is statistically relevant. If you’re looking at training in martial arts based off of “what’s best for my size and shape” then you’re going about it wrong.
When writing a character with a disability, you’re going to be doing the vast majority of the work by yourself. There are real life examples to draw from, which I will get to below, but you and you alone are going to be responsible for your research. There is no handy, easy chart or common martial art specifically developed to be suitable for a character with only one arm.
The character trains in and adapts their chosen martial style to suit them, developing strategies to deal with their opponents. In this way, they are just like every single other person on the planet. It’s just more obvious and therefore, more difficult. Especially when you, the writer do not share in that disability and must teach yourself an entirely new way of thinking/looking at the world while also convincing yourself (for the purposes of writing this character) that that other way is your new normal. Instead of wondering what it’s like to be without an arm, you’ve got to forget that you’ve ever had one.
You are going to be doing what you should be doing for any character you write. In this case, the differences are just more pronounced.
If your character cared about “the best way for someone like me”, he wouldn’t be doing this at all. Conventional wisdom would kill his fighting dreams right out of the gate.
You’ve got a character who when the world said “there’s no room prepared here for you.”
He said, “That’s okay, I’ll do it anyway.”
He went out, found someone to teach him, and pursued his dreams in the face of social convention. Those deep desires should be the foundation for how you pick his martial style. Base it off of what he wants, what he wants to be, and what he thought would be the best way to get there.
Don’t think about that missing arm.
In this decision making process, it’s irrelevant. He chose to pursue what he wanted regardless of what conventional wisdom said. His disability is not going to factor in until the time to learn comes.
For example, I have ADD. Born with it, diagnosed in the second grade. Was always considered to be “strange” even before my diagnosis. When I was in kindergarten, KWJN Gary Nakahama and his Palo Alto West Coast Demo team came to my elementary school and put on a presentation.
I was five years old and enthralled. I grabbed one of the flyers they were handing out, carefully stashed it in my backpack, held it in my head until my parents picked me up from afterschool daycare, and begged them to sign me up for classes.
Now, I have three black belts in Taekwondo.
This is the story of thousands of kids all around the world and I didn’t even need to add my mental disability as a qualifier, but I did because we’re talking about disabilities and how, at this stage, they really don’t matter.
The desires this character is going to have and the drive to pursue what they’re going to do come from events in their own life, like anyone else. The specific martial art can be a choice made by chance or research.
Here’s a few more examples.
Nick Newell, born with a congenital amputation of his left arm, wanted to be a UFC fighter and found a gym willing to train him. He was a walk-in. Now, he’s a UFC Champion.
Johnny Tai, a blind man, who already possessed a brown belt in Taekwondo but began training in Krav Maga because his blindness restricted him from participating in competitions.
There are multiple other examples of other martial artists with disabilities who sought out training, either because they wanted to defend themselves, because they were interested, because they wanted to do competition, because they wanted to be on TV, the list goes on. The story behind why they began learning is ultimately going to be more relevant due to their desires than their disability. Training for martial combat is a long, difficult process on its own. Your character is going to be better off doing it because they love it rather than for some mythical, statistical “better”.
Most people who go in for “better” or “best” often end up miserable and quit.
Research different martial arts. Pick one. Learn everything you can about it. Then figure out how it applies to your character and how your character applies it. As needed check for stories about those with disabilities and martial arts programs which cater to them. Learn about them, and use them to help further your character within their setting.
More on Nick Newell:
Check out Nick Newell for inspiration. He’s a UFC fighter born with a congenital amputation of his left arm. He’s made a pretty good career for himself on the professional fighting circuit.
Now, before you get too excited, remember that combat on the street or on a battlefield has different priorities than combat in the arena. You can’t just take one and slap it onto the other. It’ll work out about as well as Gina Carano in Haywire where they decided to use straight UFC combat for their action sequences with Federal Agents. The problem with UFC combat is primarily it’s perennial focus on grappling. It isn’t about ending fights quickly, like most forms of entertainment, it’s about extending them.
Boxing and other forms of bloodsport are where the misnomer about the amount of time combat takes come from. Street fights are usually under a minute, usually withing the 30 second range. It’s fast and it’s over.
UFC makes its money on butts in the seats. If the fight’s over in a few seconds then the crowd leaves disappointed. One of the major complaints levered against Ronda Rousey, for example, was that she’d end a fight in the first few minutes rather than being a showman.
So, instead of looking at Newell’s fighting as a source of inspiration, my suggestion is to look at Newell himself. Look at his determination to overcome a handicap most people thought to be impossible, even on an amateur level. Look at the way he and his trainers adapted the techniques he used in order to make that handicap (missing half his arm) his strength. Look at how he made his lack of a lower arm part of his fighting style and transformed what most saw as a disadvantage into a championship winning strategy.
However, also look at the resistance to him from other members of the UFC community. His difficulty at getting fights. The way he was occasionally pidgeonholed as a sideshow act, and how many fighters turned down bouts with him because they saw it as a lose/lose situation for them.
Don’t copy Newell.
Instead, research the core of personal dedication which brought Newell success, his strategies, the training devised for him, his approach, and the discrimination he faced. Try to get at the underlying principles of how someone with a disability adapts their techniques to their advantage, rather than trying to force fit them into a preconcieved notion of what a fighter is.
To do that, you need to understand the type of combat that you plan on writing in your novel and what the general rules associated with it are. This is both from a technical/technique standpoint and a cultural one.
Writing disability in fiction requires a lot of research on the simple basis that someone who is disabled is actively influenced by the culture that surrounds them and how it perceives them. A disability is not the total sum of a disabled person’s being, and it’s wrong to present it that way. For them it’s a fact of life, a part of themselves they negotiate around and adapt strategies for. It’s the rest of society at large who try to define a disabled person by their disability.
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