Tag Archives: superpowers

Q&A: Powerful Characters

If I already set a character to be very powerful/skilled in a fantasy setting (either like making them canonically the most powerful swordsman in the world, or giving them abilities to do something like cut a castle wall with a sword), how do I keep tension in a fight scene/story? How do I make a fight scenes with overpowered characters entertaining other than giving them more powerful enemy to fight or weakening them somehow?

There’s two types of powerful characters in fiction: Wish fulfillment power and power with consequences.

Wish fulfillment power is boring, and no amount of creativity is really going to make it interesting. This power is here to give us a high, make us feel powerful as the self-insert and then go away. The fight scenes based on wish fulfillment power never lead anywhere, they never do anything for the story. I’m not saying these characters won’t be popular, they are but they’re also not interesting.

Power with Consequences is interesting. If Superman used his powers at their full strength, regardless of his intentions, he’d be seen as a villain by everyone in his setting. He must moderate his abilities for the enemies he faces because otherwise he’ll be more terrifying than they are. That’s tension.

With Superman the question should never be: can he save the day? We know he will. There’s no tension in the question, it’s not up for debate. The real question is, can he do it without wrecking a city block or destroying Metropolis?

Regardless of their powers and abilities, a hero must still live in their world. If your swordsman can cut a castle wall in half, then that’s great up until the moment where he needs somewhere to stay and no tavern or local inn will have him due to the trouble he’ll bring.

The more powerful you are, the more famous you are. The more famous you are, the more challengers come crawling out of the woodwork to face you. The more challengers who crawl from the woodwork to challenge you in order to take the crown of “Best Swordsman” then the greater likelihood innocent people, their homes, and their means of making a living will be caught in the crossfire. Whether it’s a sword strike that levels a farmer’s field or a mass battle with hundreds dead, that farmer still will have their field destroyed. If it’s destroyed, then they’ve no way to feed their family or sell their produce. They’ll starve.

It’s important to remember that no character, no matter how powerful they are, is free from the consequences of their actions.

This is the problem of characters who are “The Best” at something. The Best is a concept, it’s a title given to someone by others. They get it through competition, and the competition doesn’t stop just because they’ve been crowned.

“My character is the best swordsman in the world.”

So? The pinnacle of ability is a moving target. The Best At This Moment isn’t The Best Ever. Perfection is what we chase, it isn’t what we are. The closer we get to the top, the more heated the competition becomes. The more powerful you are, the more skilled you are, and the more your skill is recognized then the more battles you’re forced to fight. The Best is just more incentive for all those who want to be the best swordsman in the world to come take that title from them. Like Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin, your super skilled character will never be able to get away from challengers even after they’ve decided to retire.

The Best is a state determined by others in their field and not by the character themselves. They may think they’re the best swordsman or the best assassin in the world but they’ll still have to prove it. If they’re recognized as The Best it’s because of the battles they’ve fought to get there, usually killing someone else who was also considered The Best. When a character is The Best, all they’ve done is set the mark that others will strive to reach. Being at the top is painting a target on their back, and every single asshole who thinks their the best is going to jump at the chance to knock them off the pedestal. “The Best” is a nebulous concept, it’s a title, and titles can be taken.

When you’re famous, people speak about you in hushed whispers. They talk about you behind your back. You may be asked to leave because the guards are coming and yes, you could kill them but the tavern owner will pay the price after you’re gone.

Remember, characters other than yours will also pay the price for your super skilled character’s actions. If you played The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, think about how much attention Geralt gets. He can’t go anywhere without being noticed, and most places he’ll be recognized either as a Witcher or as Geralt, the White Wolf. He attracts powerful figures to him, those who will make his life difficult if he doesn’t provide them favors. He could probably kill the garrison commander who wants him to kill a griffon, but that’d just create more problems for him in the long run and end with the nearby village getting destroyed in retaliation. Violence won’t solve all your character’s problems, and definitely won’t provide any help with the social ones.

The better you are then the more responsible you’re expected to be. The more famous you are then just as many will hate you rather than love you. You are an unwitting rival to those who want the adulation you enjoy, and a thorn in the side of the socially powerful who’d rather you just went away.

A famous character creates problems for themselves in their own narrative by existing. They don’t need to do anything, the problems will find them the moment they step out their front door.

Himura Kenshin is probably one of my favorite examples of a powerful character who self-limits. 90% of the tensions in his fight scene aren’t built on whether or not he’ll survive, he probably will. He’s a famous manslayer who doesn’t want to kill anymore, and is trying to hold to that even as he’s forced into battle. The tension in his fight scenes is whether or not circumstances will force him to break with his self-imposed limitations, flip his blade over, and kill. (Rurouni Kenshin ignores blunt force trauma, but this is an issue for another day.)

Your famous, powerful swordsman may enter situations that handicap and essentially force them not to fight at their full potential. These handicaps are social rather than literal. They are self-limiting out of survival. Those handicaps create natural tension, especially when their enemies use the rules of the situation to their advantage. We see the potential consequences if the hero fails to abide by the social rules, and that reinforces your setting’s worldbuilding.

Kenshin could kill, and be justified in killing. However, killing betrays the person he’s trying to be and the philosophy he’s chosen to pursue. Skilled characters like Saito Hajime and Shishio Makoto actively challenge his philosophy in combat.

What brings a fight scene to life is the people in it. Tension comes from what will happen next and where the character’s actions take the narrative. The more powerful a character is then the more responsibility they have not to use those powers. That sounds backwards, I know. Why give a character powers if they won’t use them? The reason is that the other people who exist in the setting with them won’t stand by and take it. Power is fought or fought over.

You have a character who can cut through a wall with their sword? They will either end up the ruler of the kingdom (possibly just out of necessity) or every lord in the kingdom will come chasing them down to take that power for themselves. They can’t afford to have that power in the wild. The more power a character attains then the higher the stakes are for them. Extend the context beyond, “hey, my character can do all these cool things” to “what does it mean that my character can do these things?”

The consequence of power is that you are ultimately responsible for what you do with it.

When a character overreacts with their power in a situation that doesn’t warrant the reaction, they become the villain. An example is a character who can swing their sword to crack a castle wall uses that same techniques on bandits and ruins the road. Now, we have all these additional problems. They start with the asshole who blew up the road.

It is much more difficult to limit yourself so that you’re only just a little bit better than the people you’re fighting than it is going all out. However, for the warrior and martial artist, having control is a part of your responsibility. Acting reasonably and appropriately is a requirement. It is a social mandate, a choice made out of survival. Your character has to live in the world, if they throw their power around willy nilly no one will have food to sell them.

By pitting what a character can do versus what the situation allows for naturally creates it’s own tension. Superhero comics and anime do this all the time, there comes a point where the character’s abilities simply become to dangerous to the world around them. The focus shifts then to the character trying to fight while avoiding hurting the innocents around them. This is a challenge in and of itself. Moderating your ability to what is contextually appropriate and still win against someone who is going all out against you is more difficult than simply fighting.

This act of self-limiting gives the author the freedom to cloak the character’s true abilities and save their punch cards for when it counts, while also eventually bringing in more powerful enemies who will test the hero’s limits and press them to reveal more of their abilities as they a battle for their life. Then, the action versus consequence of the hero’s powers enter into the fray.

The trick to understanding this method is that self-limiting isn’t weakness, it’s acting responsibly. A black belt who spars a green belt or a blue belt must limit themselves. They fight on the green belt’s level rather than going all out like they would in practice with another black belt. The same rules apply to the “best swordsman in the world” being challenged by some random nobody in the middle of the street. If they go all out, they will have acted inappropriately and be seen as a villain by anyone watching. Their job is to mitigate and subdue, not kill. This often means resorting to skills your character may be less practiced at or less familiar with.

As a character, Superman is only interesting when he self-limits. You can’t treat Superman like Batman because he’s a different sort of character. Batman may be considered one of the best martial artists in the world, but that doesn’t help him much when he’s fighting Killer Croc. He faces challenges that test his intellectual ability from the Riddler, and a random thug on the street will still mess him up with a single well-placed bullet. The Best doesn’t mean invincible.

Batman has a host of weaknesses that make each and every battle with him interesting (in hands that know what they’re doing.) Superman is one where you’ve got to fight for it. If he lets loose, innocent people get hurt. If he roughs up thugs too badly then he’s the villain. Superman dangling a thug off the roof is a villainous route, no matter his intentions. Superman inevitably attracts far more dangerous villains to him than Batman. People are afraid of Batman, but no one’s really afraid of Batman. Everyone is hoping deep down that at the end of the day Superman is a good guy because they’re screwed if he’s not. We see groups like Cadmus refuse to take the risk.

We have to trust Superman and the question is, can you?

Think about the episodes from Justice League about the Justice Lords. A setting where Superman just straight up lobotomizes… everyone who disagrees with him.

When dealing with characters who have massive amounts of power then the more you need to internally justify the scene in the narrative and it has to lead somewhere. The consequences are important because not having them will break suspension of disbelief. The more power there is, the bigger the consequences there will be. If Superman levels a building in Metropolis then something better happen as a result. That’s the beginning of a story, not the end of it.

-Michi

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Suppose someone has superhuman strength (specifics: capable of lifting a stone statue 15 feet tall with both hands and minor strain) and they land a punch. What kind of damage would be plausible for the head/jaw, chest, belly, and limbs, assuming the aforementioned body parts are uncovered? I’m initially thinking of outright pulverization and shattered bone, essentially a car smashing into them, but is that too far/little of a stretch?

Well, bone pulverization is a real risk for your character.

There’s a simple solution, but first, let’s talk about strength, and what
that means when your character is inhumanly strong.

Even without a superpower, your body is strong enough to tear itself apart.
The classic examples are improperly tensed punches, which can do all kinds of
horrible things to your hands, and improperly lifting heavy objects, which can
tear up your back.

Personal experience has seen both of us do pretty horrific things to our own
bodies without needing super strength.

Adding superhuman strength to the mix just exacerbates this. Your character
can lift a statue, but it will do horrific things to the weakest structural
point on their body. This is not a function of lacking the strength to lift it;
it’s the result of their spine being strained beyond its breaking point.

One really good example is, if you have a character with cybernetic arms,
you need to anchor those to their spine, reinforce that and their legs, or
they’ll be able to rip their own arms off by picking up a car.

If you can throw a punch with sufficient force to send a midsize sedan
flying, you will break every bone in your hand, (and possibly shatter
your arm.) Even using proper techniques. Your body simply isn’t built to handle
that kind of force. Also, it’s not going to send the car flying, I’ll come back
to that in a minute.

The simple solution is to also make your character inhumanly resilient to
damage. This has some other considerations. The same resilience that allows
them to actually punch someone at full force will protect them (to some extent)
from the people they’re fighting.

This isn’t the only possible solution. For example: a character who can
reassemble their body on the spot, no matter how mangled it becomes could use
super-strength, with the understanding that they’d need to spend a few minutes
putting their arm back together after they reduced their foe to goulash.

Without any additional powers, super strength becomes a very tricky thing to
use. Your character could still have it, but need to be very careful with how
they use it, and pull their punches. Not because they’re concerned about their
opponent’s well being, but because they don’t want to destroy their own body.

That said, a character with super strength can literally tear their foes to pieces, if they choose to. Using the
statue example, you’re already talking about a character that exceeds the
tolerances of the human body to a comedic degree.

So, the simple answer to, “how much damage” is probably, “chunky salsa.”

I mentioned that the car wouldn’t go flying a minute ago, so let’s explain
the problem. Your average car weighs around 3000 to 4000 lbs. Your average super
hero weighs between 100 and 250 lbs. When your character tries to punch that
car, the force will go both ways, and the relative masses become far more
important than how strong your character is to determining who will win. With
proper bracing, they can probably kick the car a few feet, but without
something to brace against that extra strength doesn’t translate into airtime
when you’re tossing around improbably large objects.

This doesn’t mean your character would throw a punch at a car, and go flying
in the opposite direction (they’re far more likely to find their hand embedded halfway into it, because the force has to go somewhere), but it does mean they’re not going to be
able to use a ’57 Chevy as an improvised club.

Again, this is something that characters who can flat out violate the laws
of physics can get away with. A character who can rechannel kinetic energy, or lock
themselves into their environment, can start to fundamentally mess with how
mass behaves. They’re not a 150lb guy grabbing a car; they are a 150lb guy who is
functionally fused into the city street, tossing around a car. Also a character
who can alter their own effective mass on the fly could lead to some really absurd
Berserk like combat sequences.

Alternately, you can have characters that pick up the car, try to throw it,
and send themselves flying in the opposite direction. It’s not exactly realistic, but there’s comedic merit
to the approach.

So, the basic advice for this is, study some basic physics, and have fun
with the absolutely insane things you never thought of before.

-Starke

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What would be a fighting style for Hawkgirl/any human with actual wings on their back? They’re mostly shown just mowing down their enemies from above, I get that, but I’m talking like, in a fist fight or where they’re fighting on the ground and having to dodge blows and jump around, how maneuverable would they be with wings folded behind them?

Well, you have to consider that they have wings. Any creature with wings gives up a certain measure of maneuverability on the ground. Depending on the type of wings, they’re going to be more vulnerable there. Think about it like attaching a fairly heavy contraption to both your shoulder blades that’s also pretty delicate. Organic wings with hollow bones are very fragile.

If we’re talking about Archangel from X-men, who has had his wings ripped out and replaced with metal ones then it’s a different story.

So, depending on the rules you’ve decided to use in your story, it could be fairly maneuverable to ground equals death. Or, at least, no flying for six months if ever. They’d be giving up a lot of their maneuverability on the ground as the wings will get in the way even when folded. There’s also the extra weight to account for which will unbalance them. It’s important to remember that the martial combat techniques we have are designed for humans and human bodies. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t be modified for someone with a different body type or concerns, but adding wings will throw off the body’s equilibrium. In nature, some creatures have wings for a reason and their behavior is built around that. They trade aerial movement for the ability to move well on the ground. The wings are going to get in the way when you’re fighting, especially if you’re trying to use any sort of human combat techniques. This is because combat actually relies more heavily on power or force generated through momentum than it does strength.

You need rotation, balance, and the ability to turn the body. If the elbow is getting caught in the wings, or the extra weight tips them when they pull their arm back, turn their hips, or what have you then it could be very dangerous.

The only thing I can think of the wings being helpful for is sending multiple enemies stumbling back when they open or buffeting.

The character could fight on the ground if they really want to, but it won’t be the place where they have the advantage.

-Michi

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How would you write action scenes with characters who have superpowers. For example the power to channel light or maybe teleport.

Superpowers are a tricky beast to write. Like all fantasy, they’re also rather difficult to work with without having access to specific world building concerns. How they work, what they do, how they affect the world around them, how people with superpowers are viewed by society, and the questions go on ad naseum until your head spins free from your head and flies off into orbit. As annoying as it is, though, it’s important to understand. Details are how you ground your audience in your narrative, and allow them to buy into it.

A skill like teleportation comes in a lot of different flavors. Bending space and time like Ciri from the Witcher 3 so that one can strike an enemy multiple times at once. Jumping into mass battles to cause rather huge explosions of air and heat as physical space is displaced a la Warhammer 40k. Opening portals large enough to transport a number of troops and carving a hole through the gray space between realities. Beaming up like they do in Star Trek. Short term bursts that allow the character to quickly move around the battlefield.

You have to settle on what the hell these powers do and how they affect the world around them. You also don’t have the same luxuries to communicate this information in text that you do in visual media like comics or cartoons. So, a greater focus on how it works is necessary for describing crumbling buildings or the sharp bang of air being displaced when a character decides to jump out.

“I hate when they do that.”

“Ow, it hurts my ears. Ow. Stop blinding me. Ow. Turn off the lights, damn it!”

“Damn it!”

Fortunately, superpowers themselves are well documented and a vast array of media is available for reference. We have over a hundred years of superhero comics and serials, and this is before we get to the entire fantasy/science fiction genre.

Do you want your character’s light based powers to function like modern strobe lights? Is it light based constructs like the Green Lantern? Do you want them to be like Doctor Light? Are they heat or radiation based? Do they work more like Superman’s laser vision? What constitutes light in your mind?

You make it real by grounding it in the world. What the powers affect, what they can do and can’t do, will dictate a fairly significant portion of the way your character fights. We play to our strengths. We try to mitigate our weaknesses. This doesn’t change. You actually write actions sequences with superpowers the same way that you write any action sequence. The considerations change based on the individuals involved, but the base questions often remain the same.

What do they want? What’s their goal? What are they hoping to achieve?

Where are they fighting? What is the layout?

Why are they fighting? What are they willing to sacrifice to win?

What do they bring to the table? What are their unique abilities? Their experience level with combat? Their other skills? Their morals? Their personal values? What are their specific weaknesses? What are they not good at?

Is this a surprise attack or premeditated?

How does that change their approach or plan?

How can those approaches be countered?

Do either opponent know how to counter these ability sets?

On a basic level, action sequences are a reflection of your characters and your setting. They are a way for the audience to get to know both and see what they’re like when put to the test. It’s a test of creativity, ingenuity, and brutality. Where everything that your character chooses to believe about themselves and the kind of person they are is put to the test. And, yes, you do need to test it.

At the end of the day, superpowers are actually about ethics. You give someone phenomenal powers and then you see what they’ll do. What do they become? What are the temptations they must fight in order to keep from abusing their powers? Can the average non-powered individual even trust them?

Yes, that’s a serious question and, more importantly, it’s not one that you as the author really get to decide. Not without taking a step back after you’re done and looking at it from an objective viewpoint, and what your character actually did over the course of their action sequence or the narrative itself.
The guy who can slag you, vaporize your brain, cook your eyeballs, or dump you in the middle of space or on some alien planet with no recourse? Yeah, that guy. Would you trust them?

Try thinking about life in New York City from the perspective of the average non-powered Marvel denizen. Any minute, Rhino could come blazing down the street, killing you, destroying your car, demolishing your business or where you work. Your only hope is that one of the countless superheroes in New York manage to get to you in time before the 800 pound meathead crushes you beneath a concrete wall. You’re just a fly on the wall to him. Meanwhile, the Spider-Guy is up there cracking wise while you’re trying to drag a half-dead friend or another citizen out from under an overturned car because there’s no way the paramedics are getting here in time. All while cars (hopefully empty), pieces of broken concrete, roads, and who knows what else are flying over your head.

Characters with superpowers are not automatically owed the love or loyalty of anyone just because they fight crime. Or, at all, really.

So, when you’re thinking about superpowers and combat, it’s also helpful to think about the consequences. To think about what your characters are actually doing to other people. Whether the harm that they’re causing them is justified. Superpowers get us into some really interesting questions about use of force, personal boundaries, public safety, and privacy violations.

Yes, these are important to writing your fight scene because your character will eventually have to face the consequences of their actions. Or, at least, they probably should.

It’s all fun and games until someone’s internal organs get liquefied.

-Michi

My current character is in a situation where she has to learn to fight well enough to bring down gangsters very, very fast. A friend said she could learn the basics (character has a friend who teaches self defense) and then do the rest on instinct. It was also suggested that since she has no qualms about honor, she can fight dirty; hair-pulling, sand in the eyes, etc. My question is, is this realistic? (Character can also travel almost instantaneously through shadows, if that helps)

Not really.

Self-defense is one of those justifications that don’t work, because the one day to three work self-defense courses aren’t about teaching someone how to lay on a beat down. They don’t teach you how to fight, they teach you how to get away. What self-defense is most useful for is teaching you how to respond to bad situations and how to extricate yourself from them. It doesn’t usually come with a solid technical base and if you don’t practice, you’ll rapidly lose the skills. Self-defense is fantastic for teaching you new ways to look at your environment to locate threats and, most importantly, learning how to spot incoming trouble. It will also teach you how to avoid looking like a target. With self-defense, the preventative measures that are easily adopted and learning about the way a predator thinks are more useful than the technical. Self-defense does work, but it’s not a replacement for combat training. Much in the same way recreational martial arts are not a replacement for military or police hand to hand.

Instinct is usually the cheat by the lazy author who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Your actual, native instincts are far more likely to get you killed in combat because those are the first aspects of human nature combat training exploits. A character who has been training since the age of five to kill people can probably rely on their instincts in combat (they are unlikely to, but they can) because their instincts have been completely retrained and they’ve learned how to avoid the more exploitative ones. Half of combat training (and this is six month to many years of training) is about taking your shitty instincts and rebuilding them into new and better ones. Ones that are less easily exploited and preparing the mind to deal with the general horror of combat. (The first time always goes wrong anyway, the preparation is to get you into a place where you can survive it and then learn from the experience.)

There will be plenty of times in your life when trusting your instincts is a good idea, often even leading up to the moment that first punch is thrown. If something around you feels off, it often is. Your intuition may pick up on things that your brain hasn’t caught up to yet, I know mine does.

In combat, though, no. Basic human instinct will be exploited, it is predictable and any practiced combatant will prey on it. The sleeping warrior inside a person is their own determination and willpower, not the ability to automatically kick ass once they’ve spent five minutes introduced to the proper tools.

Also, gangsters and other criminals are excellent at exploiting human nature. These guys may not have any traditional training, either. What they do have though is an outlook and a “kill or be killed” mentality. They also have experience and that experience is probably about 200x more vicious than anything this character has gone through. I actually recommend sitting down and going through the historical backlog for gangsters and gangster films because they often have a very specific mentality, also a tendency for some extreme brutality. (This is gangsters across the board, no matter the historical period or racial identity.)

The gangster is the guy who takes a tire iron or a nine iron out of his trunk and proceeds to break their legs, then their arms, then continue to beat them until they’re nothing more than chunky salsa on the sidewalk. They may have some version of “honor” or personal code that they hold to, but trust me when I say that version is not the one you’re thinking of. Their strongest loyalty will be to the “Brotherhood” i.e. the other gangsters, particularly their gang, the outlook is very much “us against the world”. After all, gangs specifically have their roots in marginalized groups that go unprotected by the larger society. While the gang itself may eventually evolve to the point of terrorizing or oppressing their neighborhood, they did begin as a form of protection. They provide or say they are providing the community with goods and protection services not provided by the outside majority.

You also can’t expect them to pull their punches or give her leeway because she’s a girl. Their social and gender politics will be based on whichever culture they come from, but if she’s not a member of the same cultural group then their norms won’t protect her and if she is then it gives them a different kind of license for rejecting their authority. Just in general, it’s a bad idea to assume one’s gender or cultural will protect them from any kind of retaliatory action. This is especially true to those who reject standard cultural norms or values. And honestly, any plan that relies on your character’s opponents being either stupid or better/honorable people is a bad plan. (It’s also not feminism. Any story where the author looks at the camera and tells the audience “don’t worry, they won’t hurt her as badly because she’s a girl” is pure sexism.)

Petty street level criminals don’t have the luxury of letting someone go and they really don’t have it when they exist in a culture of toxic masculinity that has been supercharged. Gang members walk a pretty fine line the vast majority of the time. Their toughness is always in question and if they’re seen as being “weak” then it can have deadly consequences for them. The younger they are, the worse it’ll be. Mad Max: Fury Road is probably a decent example of this kind of masculinity.

The one thing you must never do with gangsters is assume that they’re stupid. Uneducated? Maybe. Never stupid. You don’t survive in the world they live in by being stupid. To quote Capote, “The problem with living outside the law is that you no longer have it’s protection.”

A stupid gangster is a dead gangster and even the smart ones have no guarantee they’ll live very long. This is before we get to the ones that have been to prison and back or are ex-military. Whatever your character does, they’re going to figure it out and start to counter.

This is a good thing for you as a writer because it’ll keep your character from turning into a one trick pony and work as a means to keep the tension high.

Some alternate solutions:

This character needs to rely on their brain and their observational skills primarily, not on the idea that they can brute force their way to success. Besides that, not every character needs to be Black Widow to be awesome. Your character has the background that will make her a scrappy fighter at best and that’s okay. This gives you more room to focus on survivalist tendencies and adaptation than kick ass fighting skills. The scrappy, driven, but fragile survivalist pushing forward on their own willpower is a great character.

She’s tackling enemies that are more than likely much too big for her. She’s the underdog and, even with her powers, she always will be. That’s fine. What this character needs is going to be courage, brains, and guts with a will to walk into fire when there’s zero chance of walking back out again.

This is what the classic action heroes are built on.

You don’t always get to see it with female protagonists, but there are a few.

Sarah Connor from Terminator 1 and 2. Ripley from Alien and Aliens. Possibly Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road as I haven’t seen the movie. You’re looking for plots about normal women pushed to extraordinary measures by circumstance.

She’ll probably be heavily reliant on that superpower, just a heads up. It is her only means of evening the playing field and may keep her alive long enough to adapt.

This character is not a head to head fighter. She doesn’t have the ability or the time to be, so play to her strengths. Ambush. Ambush. Ambush. In the shadows and out to BAM, then back into the shadows. Run and hide. Try to lure them into places with low or bad lighting. (They’re going to figure this out, so it won’t work for the long term but in the beginning then yes.)

Worth noting that ambushing takes work and forethought, it also requires brains and observational skills. It can be very exciting due to burst and release tension, so long as you make the consequences of failure clear. This is high risk, high reward combat. You take them down fast and silent (silently as possible, she’ll bungle this a few times) or not at all. Run and hide may eventually transform to run and gun over the course of the story, but this is a character who needs to keep moving in order to maintain her advantage.

If she has to kill them fast, then the answer is not hand to hand. It’s weapons. It could be a gun, but more likely it’ll be something she can swing while ducking in and out of the shadows. Crowbar or tire iron across the back of the head, then back into the shadows. She doesn’t have the time or skill to be fancy here, but you don’t need either of those to be effective.

Honor has no place here, it’s something she can moralize about or feel guilty over but discard it. It won’t help. Have her prioritize turning off the lights.

Start developing that power over the course of the story. What else can it do? What new ways can she make it work for her that she hasn’t thought of before? Can she start to perform new techniques with it. I suggest looking at Obtenebration from Vampire the Masquerade. You can also check out the Darkness, though I don’t know how helpful it’ll be.

Gangsters usually like to work in groups, so she’s got to split the group up to be able to tackle them one at a time. Fighting groups as a group is not recommended because they are many and she is one. They are used to working together, they will circle up, and one will distract while the others nail her.

Treat her as fragile when you write, any combat screw up is going to hurt. She’s going to get hurt. This will be a war of attrition and she’ll come to the end bloody. There’s absolutely no way to avoid injury.

Remember, combat situations are mostly about problem solving. A character can only solve the situation with the skills they have. Half of writing and character building is learning how to bring what you want and what you have together to create something satisfying. Three weeks of training or a single self-defense session is not going to give a character the ability to take on five guys in one on one.

So, don’t try.

Do something else. Get creative. You are creative. Come up with alternate solutions to the problem. So what if your character doesn’t actually know how to fight, it doesn’t mean she can’t still be awesome.

Some Things to Remember:

1) The first time out always sucks.

If your character has never killed anyone before or been in a fight before, then she’s going to screw up her first time. In that event, coming out alive is a victory. This isn’t a sign of weakness or a failing, it happens to everyone. Combat is hard. Violence is scary. Things will probably go screwy, get a little haphazard, and she may fail instead of succeed. That’s okay.

2) Don’t forget the emotional consequences.

Your character is not a robot. Anger. Guilt. Fear. Sadness. Worry. These are all natural. You might want to familiarize yourself with the seven stages of grief as a reference point. Both the act of inflicting and receiving violence is traumatizing, especially when asked to go from 0 to Kill. Getting upset, guilty and feeling bad are normal. Try not to let it degenerate into angst/wangst. Still, she’s human. Emotions are not a sign of weakness. They’re natural.

3) Learn from experience, not instinct.

I talked above about how instinct is the solution of the lazy writer. Experience, on the other hand, is the solution of a good one. Grade A Bad Ass is not something a character is, it’s a state they work towards and earn over the course of the story. One of the best ways to keep your fight sequences fresh is to have the character learn from their successes and failures, then apply those lessons to their next fight. They reflect on what didn’t work and on the ideas that nearly got them killed, they think about their enemy, they come up with new solutions. Whether that’s upgrading or adding additional weapons, missing less often when they nail a bad guy across the back of the head, or stopping to survey their surroundings before going in, this leads to the writer constantly showing their character’s evolution and makes that arc part of the story.

The character goes from passive to active, their combat style becomes a part of their character arc, and you guarantee that every fight is different because you’re figuring it out with them.

References and Resources:

Die Hard, the ultimate war of attrition and willpower. Your character is obviously not a cop, but if you’ve never seen this movie then watch it. It’s one guy versus a group of criminals, trapped in a tower with limited ammunition and no shoes. While not realistic per say, Die Hard busted on the action scene with a real willingness to make it’s protagonist pay and show them taking damage throughout the film.

16 Blocks This is another Bruce Willis action movie, but I like it. A broken down NYC detective is set to escort a petty criminal to the courthouse. Works well until the other cops want the criminal dead. It’s an intense run for your life scenario and a fun one. It could give you ideas.

Home Alone This one may seem like a weird choice, but it actually isn’t. A small child has no chance in one on one with two adults, so he’s making use of what he has: knowledge of his environment and his excellent pranking skills. He’s successful because he starts thinking outside the box and finds a means to fight that plays to his strengths. Your character doesn’t need to build elaborate traps, but it’s worth figuring out where the box is and how to get outside of it.

Hope that helps!

-Michi

In my story one of my mc’s has the hability to regenerate so there are this guys testing his power (so far successfully with wounds like cuts, etc.) and they want to push his limits to the next level, and chop his arm in half, they apply a torniquet to stop the blood-loss and leave him to see if he survives (note: he’s passed out from pain). Could he survive the, like, 3-5 hours it takes his arm to re-generate? With nothing else than a torniquet?

There is literally no way to answer this question satisfactorily. It might not be possible for that character to bleed to death. Either because he doesn’t actually need the blood (the regeneration keeps the cells from dying due to lack of oxygen), or he produces blood to replace it at a fast enough rate to survive. It’s possible the regeneration supercharges the clotting response to the point that arterial damage isn’t lethal.

It’s also possible that the blood loss, even before the tourniquet, would be enough to push him into shock. If he’s already unconscious, that’s not a good sign. Generally speaking, pain doesn’t actually put someone under, believe me, with some kinds of pain you’ll wish you could lose consciousness. But, bloodloss will. That suggests that if he’s unconscious, his brain is getting starved of oxygen, and it’s quite possible that, yes, this could result in him bleeding out. Though, if that will actually arrest the regeneration is anyone’s guess.

-Starke

I am a young writer and it helps me a lot in writing some action scenes. I was wondering about how can someone fight using sound, you know, like, ability to manipulate the soundwaves with own will and create sound from nowhere. I love your blog.

You can’t. I mean, sound based weapons have certainly popped up in sci-fi a few times, Dune comes to mind off hand (at least the David Lynch film). DARPA’s been funding research into sound based weapons for decades with a little success, though, DARPA will fund research into pretty much anything.

Throwing your voice is an old stage trick. It’s not making sound come from someplace else, but tricking people into thinking your voice is there. I don’t really know the details of how this works, so you’re going to need to do some research on that front. But, what I do know is, you’re probably going to be asking a lot more from this than is actually possible.

DARPA’s been trying to get people to design less-than-lethal weapons for years now. Sonic weapons are one of the kinds that’s made the list, but DARPA’s anything but choosy. If you’re not familiar, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is just a funding organization, and they will fund nearly any weapons technology research, no matter how bizarre. If you have an insane technology that might have combat potential, you can poke them with a stick to get funding. This results in some really weird and goofy research, like a vacuum cleaner powered, suction cup wall climber, net guns, glue guns, and of course, sonic weapons.

You can use sound in combat to distract and confuse your opponent. The best example of this is Bruce Lee, and his vocalizations in combat. Most martial artists learn to shout when striking, it help focus their strikes, and time their breathing. But, in it’s era, Lee’s technique was psychologically disruptive to practitioners. Sound can play a key role in psyching out your opponent, though, simply taking Lee’s vocalizations and bringing that into the modern day wouldn’t have the desired effect.

Now, what you’re describing, “using soundwaves to fight” would actually end up in the superpower range. There’s a couple comic book characters with exactly that power set, in fact. If you’re going for the superhero genre, then your fine. (Remembering what I said at the beginning, there’s a pretty solid interpretation of Dune that plants the novels solidly in the superhero genre.) It doesn’t mater that it’s physically impossible, it is their superpower. But it isn’t something normal combatants can do.

-Starke