Tag Archives: the only unfair fight

Q&A: A character can only teach what they know

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: How does one teach fighting? The teacher in question is a dirty street fighter who learned via being beaten up until she learned how to stop that, but assuming she doesn’t want to just pummel her student.

A teacher teaches the way they’ve been taught, especially new teachers who have no other examples to pull from. The problem, of course, is that beating someone up as a training method doesn’t actually teach anything other than how to survive being beaten up. (If the student even learns that, they may just learn how to get beaten up.) This is the sort of slug fest, even when you lose, that makes you feel powerful and strong when you come out the other side (Fight Club is an excellent example) but this is an illusion. You don’t actually learn technical skills from slugging it out with someone else.

The problem here is while I could talk about the methods one uses to teach fighting that won’t actually help you that much, because the methods are entirely dependent on the individual’s experiences and what they’re learning how to do. So, this street fighter can’t teach their student anything they haven’t learned how to do or teach from a method they wouldn’t have any reason to know especially if those methods are outside the realm of their own experience. This will be even harder if she’s never taught before and has no one to go to for advice. This gets even harder if you’re planning to tell a story where either teacher or student has to go outside their own sphere and are up against professional or seasoned combatants used to fighting higher caliber opponents than the ones you find in backroom brawls.

Have I mentioned street fighters are, by their nature, low tier?

They have the capacity to be dangerous, just like everyone else. They have the capacity to do harm, but in terms of technical skill they are at the bottom. No amount of “dirty fighting” changes that because “dirty fighting” is just breaking the expected/established rules of combat and everyone else already does that.

Again, you cannot teach what you don’t know and not all training is created equal. Instructing someone in the combat arts requires a certain level of technical skill, the ability to process and understand that skill, then contextualize it so someone else without the same experiences can understand and imitate. A street fighter can teach a lot of other skills, survival skills for the streets, but they don’t really have the luxury of putting together a robust training regimen to pass on their fighting skills. Mostly because they don’t have that many skills to begin with.

Stop an ask yourself an important question, what did this street fighting character learn from being pummeled? There’s the generic “until she learned to put a stop to it” but that’s generic and doesn’t tell you anything about her experience, about what she learned to do from being beaten. What did she specifically learn to do? How does she, specifically, fight?

Once you know what she can specifically do then you know what she can teach, and start the process of her figuring out how to teach it. If you’ve never thought seriously about the specifics of her fighting abilities then that’s the flaw you need to address. Her limitations are not a bad thing depending on what you need her for as a character and what she needs to teach her student for your narrative to work.

A drill sergeant can only teach you how to be a soldier.

A boxing instructor can only teach you how to box.

A taekwondo master can only teach you taekwondo.

And on and on it goes.

“Street fighters” generally learn to fight by brawling, usually through backroom and backyard brawls. If they don’t learn quickly, like about knives and other weapons, they die fast. This isn’t some cohesive fighting style that’s carefully cultivated and passed on from one fighter to another. When we talk about “street fighters”, we’re usually discussing gangs and similar groups who survive and thrive in the dark corners of society. The romanticized “dirty” component is usually them trying to get a leg up by using knives and other weapons in ambush combat where they finish the fight in the opening blows. Ambush combat is where you take your opponent by surprise and attack before they have time to retaliate, but for street fighters this is often a one trick pony. They often don’t have the stamina or the technical ability to keep going if the first attack fails. Outside underground boxing tournaments, they often operate in groups because numbers will make up for that lack of skill. They don’t usually have the ability to coordinate effectively in a group, but that also usually doesn’t matter because they’re preying on those of even ability or those less capable than themselves. Numbers are what give them an edge over law enforcement because high enough numbers trump skill.

All your street fighter knows how to do is survive ambush combat and execute ambush combat, which is what the beating or brawling process in the street fighter “training” is for

This probably isn’t the romanticized ideal of the “dirty street fighter” you imagine, the deadly fighter whose skills are honed by battles fought to ensure their survival on the streets. The one whose hard won knowledge beats out the soft warriors in their castles. Whose dirty tactics turn the tables to give them an edge while battling the honorable upper crust. The ones who dare to break the rules of warfare because they and they alone understand, “the only fair fight is the one you lose.”

The problem is that anyone who fights in a life or death situation understands that rule. Everyone fights dirty. Everyone takes every advantage they can to win because winning is surviving. Everyone wants to go home to their families at the end of the day. There is no pure combat, no clean combat, and no proper way of doing things. The ideal exists because the ideal is comforting, but warfare is not an honorable business.

I mean, there are soldiers making jokes on Instagram right now about hunting and how they want to say they hunt people but don’t want to sound like a psychopath.

Jokes on you though, because they do. They hunt people.

The romantic ideal of honorable combat which must be embraced for dirty fighting to work is actually bullshit. Honorable combat is a notion that exists both for society’s comfort and to set up rules for controlled combat scenarios like tournaments. You’ll still find people there who are standing by the letter of the rules but breaking with the spirit of them. Like those knights who would unscrew the knob off the sword hilt and bean the other knight with it at the start of the match before attacking. The reason behind the act was to distract their opponent so they could land the early points which would ensure their victory. Yes, nobles were often ransomed during the Middle Ages but plenty of regular soldiers were blinded, had their limbs removed, were imprisoned, or killed by the enemy after capture. The same often happened to those nobles who had no means or no wealthy patron to pay their way.

So, the question you should be asking yourself is how would your street fighter train someone to fight? What does she know how to do? What doesn’t she know how to do? What has she learned that her own master didn’t teach her? How would she choose to impart similar lessons to her student in ways that aren’t vastly outside her own experience or things she wouldn’t think of? Because most of the answers I could give you about how people learn to fight would involve her going to watch some other training master in some other part of the city to see how they train their students then try to imitate that, which ultimately defeats the purpose of what you’re after. She’d be teaching them to fight like someone else and not like herself.

The problem with fiction is that the best writing holds to the rules of the world it exists in. Which means that your character may be the best street fighter but she can only use her experiences to train her student to (hopefully) be the best street fighter. This doesn’t mean they’re the best fighter who can take on all comers, this just means they’re the (hopefully) best street fighter and will have to learn more from other teachers in order to progress through any other sphere. This is also a standard storytelling technique in most sports and martial arts movies, so learn to embrace it.

Remember, the world of the combat arts is vast and specificity is key. Your characters can’t act outside their knowledge without explanation, and a character who comes from a conventionally trained fighting background before going to the streets is very different from one for whom the streets are their only experience. You should review the fighting style you envision this character possessing and ensure it fits with the background you’ve set for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Not Exactly a Good Person

If my character was attacked by an armed member of a group and shoots them unfatally (she had surprise on her side) would it be considered beyond self defense if she broke the attacker’s legs so that he wouldn’t be able to get back up and try to kill again? She also applies her idea of first aid- clean the bullet wound, pour bathroom alcohol on it, and tape gause over it- and gives him a painkiller (not the smartest move, but she is a teen who normally wouldn’t hurt a spider).

So, there’s problems here.

First, she needs to know how to break someone’s leg. Being able to so efficiently and effectively is somewhat specialized information. In general, human legs are fairly sturdy. They can break, yes, but they don’t under most normal circumstances. Once you’ve learned joint breaks they’re fairly simple on a technical level. Breaking the bone itself is possible, but takes far more force, and as a result is fairly advanced.

It’s certainly possible to break someone’s leg, but knowing how to do so requires a prior commitment to violence that an untrained fighter is unlikely to posses.

Easiest way would be to use the gun, or a crowbar, claw hammer, or other large blunt object to kneecap him. Most people can probably figure those out. But that’s a pretty horrific act, when you think about it.

If she knows how, then she needs to be willing to do so. This may sound like a minor step, but it’s a significant hurdle. It’s one thing to react to a violent situation without thinking and cause harm act. Looking at a defeated foe and deciding to inflict additional harm is something entirely different. That requires a kind of emotional detachment that most, generally well -adjusted, individuals won’t have.

So, your pacifist who has no history of violence ambushes someone,  shoot them in the back and then tools them up with a crowbar, before abandoning them in a gas station toilet? You see where this is, maybe, a bit of a disconnect.

Thing is, legitimately, she might consider killing him. Not necessarily be willing to carry it out, but she’s got a gun, there’s only about four pounds of pressure between her and putting a bullet through his head; making sure he never kills anyone else. Ironically, this is an easier threshold for her to cross. Taking this guy’s legs apart is going to require a serious commitment. In contrast, pulling the trigger is much easier. It’s momentary, instead of a protracted act of sadism.

To be clear, neither of these are morally good. They’re both deeply messed up, and at best, “ethically challenging.” Executing a fallen foe because they might come back for you later or because they may seek to harm someone else is horrific. But it’s still an easier action that looking for a tool you don’t have, and maiming someone.

Worth noting that none of this is going to qualify as self-defense. Shooting the guy the first time might qualify, depending on the circumstances, but given that she ambushed him, probably not. Self-defense requires an immediate threat to her life. Even just brandishing a gun is illegal in many circumstances. If he was about to kill her or someone else, then shooting him may be reasonable, but if he was simply threatening her, or picking up groceries, then that’s not justifiable.

If your character starts mutilating their attacker, then that character becomes the victim, and your protagonist becomes the aggressor in the eyes of anyone who examines the scene.

Something I know I’ve said before, shooting to wound isn’t a thing.  There is no, “safe,” gunshot wound, and no way to safely incapacitate someone with a gun. These are tools designed to remove other living beings from this plane of existence, and they don’t really go in for half measures on that subject.

I say this because gauze won’t do the job. Bullets, when they punch through soft tissue, tear things apart, they result in bleeding. Without medical treatment, they will kill you. You need to stop the bleeding. Pouring some alcohol over the wound, and slapping some gauze on the surface won’t cut it.

So your attacker hasn’t died, yet. Without medical care, they will die. There’s a simple threshold here: if the gunshot isn’t enough to put them down, then they might live through it. If the blood loss is enough to incapacitate them, it will kill them. They won’t be getting back up to chase after your character. Anything your character does to their attacker will be viewed as torture. That won’t play well when someone finds the body, especially if it’s the cops. Bandaging the wound might slow the bleeding some, and buy them some time, but, it’s not going to be the difference between living and dead. It’ll be the difference between dead in 30 minutes and 40 or 50. If she put him down with one shot, my unprofessional estimation puts his bleed out time somewhere between 300 and 600 seconds, but it could be as low as a minute. Gauze or no.

Something else worth considering about the usage of modern handguns: In the last paragraph I mentioned the possibility that the gunshot wouldn’t be enough to incapacitate them. This is true in some circumstances. You’ll put a handgun round into someone and it won’t put them down. This can occur because it didn’t strike anything vital, or it can occur because the blood loss wasn’t fast enough. This means, with most professional shooters, they’ll fire multiple times in quick succession. If your idea was to save a friend by shooting the guy who’s got them at gunpoint, firing once won’t reliably get the job done, and will probably result in them completing the execution before turning on their attacker. In cases like this, putting three or four rounds into someone is going to be necessary, but your character probably wouldn’t know that.

Now, you can write a teenager who would do something like this. Shoot their attacker, then break a leg, stuff some gauze in the wound, and then scamper off, leaving them to die. However, that wouldn’t be someone with an aversion to violence. That’s a character who’s gotten very comfortable with the idea of doing horrific things to people. For a lot of readers, that’s a very scary character. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, but it is something to consider.

I understand the desire to write characters as, “fundamentally good people in bad situations.” The problem is that, kind of a person will have a very different outlook when it comes to violence, as opposed to someone who views violence as just another tool to get the job done. They’re not going to gun someone down, torture them, and leave them to die with some liquor and gauze in the wound. Those aren’t the actions of a good person.

It’s okay if your character isn’t a good person, but if that’s the route you’re going, it’s something you need to be honest with yourself about. It’s also fine to have a character who lies to everyone else about who they are, so long as you are on the same page. If it’s your protagonist, the reader should probably be let in on that secret as well. If it’s a support character, you might hold it back for later. But, when that lie starts to leak out, it’s something you need to address. Because, when it does, it’s a huge betrayal for your other characters to deal with. “She was our friend, she’s not some psycho-murderer. That doesn’t even make sense.”

-Starke

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Hi, Aunty Scripty! Thanks for running this blog! It’s such an amazing resource, and I appreciate all the hard work you put into it! On to my question, my character is in a bad situation, and as a last resort, because his hands are bound behind his back, bites his attacker’s throat. Would it be possible for him to actually tear out his attacker’s throat with his teeth? Sorry that it’s such a gruesome ask! Thanks again!

scriptmedic:

Probably not, but it’s certainly worth trying.

The throat is pretty well protected. The skin is thick and tough, the trachea itself is made of hard cartilage rings, and it’s actually surprisingly difficult  for a human to get a good mouth-hold on another human’s neck. (If you have a significant other who is okay with this, give it a try; don’t actually bite down though).

Hunters who do the throat-ripping thing usually have longer mouths than we do, which helps them get a grip on their prey. Humans have fairly short mouths by comparison, and really aren’t evolutionarily adapted for this task.

Now, that is not to say that having a human try to rip out your throat is not an absolutely fucking terrifying thing, because it is, and flesh missing from the neck can be psychologically devastating even if it’s not actually physically lethal. Your character could probably significantly damage the musculature and the skin, and possibly cause a severe venous bleed from the external or internal jugular.

If your character is going to get any better of a bite than that they’ll need their hands to hold the neck in place while they bite.

(Also, bites in fights is proooobably more @howtofightwrite‘s territory much more than it is mine 😉 ).

Best of luck!

xoxo, Aunt Scripty

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We’ve answered this kind of question before on several occasions, they’re in the biting and the only unfair fight tags. For a better exploration of this topic, read this ask answered by Starke about biting off fingers.

The short answer is that physically you certainly could take a good sized chunk out of their neck with your teeth (terrifying enough in and of itself), the problem is the psychology necessary to follow through with it. Biting is straight up nasty and, when it comes to other humans, runs up hard against a whole bunch of self-preservation instincts that any protagonist would need to fight past in order to pull it off.

More than that, with his hands bound he’d have no way to hold onto his opponent thus not enough time to get a good bite off. He’s got to get to them, lunge in fast enough to get his teeth around their throat or (possibly) lure them close enough to get the bite off, and hope they don’t stop his head with their hands (or head) before he gets there. Attacking the throat, even with the element of surprise, is a great way to get someone to guard it.

The truth is in the heat of battle you’re more likely to come up with
ramming your head into your attackers throat (more effective) to a
temporary stun, then follow up with a headbutt to their face or move on
to using your shoulders and legs before thinking of your teeth. (It’s
difficult, but you can kick with your hands tied behind your back.)
Strikes to the throat can crush or halt your ability to breathe entirely
with enough force, but are more often used as stunners, to distract via
fear (brain freak out, vital place has been attacked, internal screaming) and temporary loss of breath. These create what we call “openings” as in openings in defense.

As @scriptmedic says, the throat is
fairly well defended by your physiology.  This is going to be true of
the most obviously vital places.

You get far more mileage out of convincing someone they’re being attacked there in order to strike elsewhere because your instincts will move to defend those places at all cost. Like your hands automatically rising to your throat if it feels like someone is going to hit it. (This doesn’t make you good at blocking, it’s just instinctual order of operation. Sacrifice the less necessary body part for the essential one. This is why we never fight on instinct.)

And frankly, depending on his position, a fake out headbutt to the
throat while actually hitting the stomach (rising on that upward
diagonal into the diaphragm) will probably be more effective. Then, if
they’re still standing, headbutt to the face.

The first question is: can he bite?

No, really think about it. He cannot hesitate, not at all. A split second hesitation and he’s done for, he must complete the act in one simultaneous move. He can’t drop the moment he tastes the dirt and sweat coming with their flesh, then the blood running over his tongue, and get enough for a lethal rip away while his opponent is trying to get away. (And the attacker is, he started backing up the second the protagonist came at him, and the protagonist has no way to make him stand still.)
Remember, we humans don’t have the sharp teeth of a carnivore to sink in and keep our prey from running.

I mean it, spend some time thinking about what it’d feel like, taste like, and smell like. Then think about it from his perspective, it’s a dramatic idea but can he follow through?

The second question is: can he move in and bite in .5 seconds?

This is the sort of attack where he doesn’t get a second shot, and the kind where threat level is upgraded into automatic kill territory. Biting is socially unacceptable, dishonorable, and offensive.

The four scenarios for the victim are terrified enough to be paralyzed into inaction, terrified into action, so terrified they run, and righteously pissed. The protagonist has got to kill before fight, flight, or freeze takes effect. (And they can’t, really, unless they somehow manage to take out the carotid.)

The third question is: will the attacker be shocked enough by this bite to not retaliate while it’s happening?

The problem with the mechanics of a bite is you’ve got to get your teeth on the other guy’s throat for a solid rip away (and not miss because they moved their head or the teeth slip off), this takes time. The worst thing if he gets seized by the hair, punched in the face, stabbed by a knife, or gut checked by a sword pommel in the middle of (or slightly before) this bite going down. The protagonist needs to be mostly through the process of tearing by the time this antagonist realizes what’s happening. Even then, he’s in just the right range for some vicious retaliation. Even if he gets enough of a bite to kill, the other guy isn’t going to die right away. That could easily lead to an “I’m Taking You With Me” scenario.

The good news is that if he does manage a bite, he doesn’t need to take their windpipe. The human mouth is a vile, dirty, disgusting place and his victim will most likely die from either blood loss (depending on where he bites) or an infection.

The downside is his mouth will be full of their blood, and he’ll probably get sick too. If he doesn’t manage to escape, whoever else is working with his attacker will probably kill him because biting another human is as feral as it gets and automatically shifts whoever does it from “human being” into “animal”. While dehumanizing yourself to terrify your victims is a great strategy for psychological warfare, it doesn’t work so well when the shoe is on the other foot. In writing, you also run the risk of dehumanizing the character for the audience too. If it fails or the other guy lives, then he’s still the crazy idiot who tried to grab a guy’s throat with his teeth.

The trick to writing good fight scenes is being able to see and plan from the perspective of both parties in a fight. When trying to figure out whether something is possible never assume the guy they’re doing this action to is just going to stand there and take it. Everyone wants to live.

When talking about fighting, you’ve got to go through two steps. The first is the purely theoretical of “would it work?”, if the answer is maybe then ask “what would the other guy do in response?”

Most of the stupidest fighting ideas in real life die in this second stage (sometimes on the battlefield itself) because a live actor is much more difficult to deal with than lifeless dummy or someone whose given you permission to put your teeth around their throat. If the idea doesn’t float or sound good when pit against resistance then it’s usually no good, even if you’re crazy enough or desperate enough to try.

If rapid escalation into sudden, terrifying brutality isn’t in this character’s skill set (eye crushing, biting, and others) then this approach probably won’t work out for him. Does he think about ripping people’s throats with his teeth on a general basis? Has he ripped throats out before? Does he find the idea repulsive? If there’s a no to any of these questions or a yes to the last one then this approach may not be right for him.

Alternate approaches:

1) With only his head, shoulders, and feet, your protagonist could put his attacker on the ground and then crush his throat with their foot. It would take slightly longer, be less shocking, and require a finer grasp of tactics, but that’s possible.

This has the potential to be exciting. I understand, however, that it is very difficult for someone without a martial arts background to think with their feet or plan a fight scene around kicks or anything other than fists.

2) Ram their attacker and drive them both to the ground, and give their head a few solid hits with their forehead if they manage to land on top. Then run for it.

This one would be much easier to go with, though their chances of killing via this method are slim unless they manage to land a concussion or damage the brain some other way. However, it could provide them with a chance to make an exit if they can do enough damage so their attacker doesn’t try to stop them from escaping.

There’s also the risk of what the other guy does with his hands. However, the one who lands on top is usually in the best position.

3) The environment surrounding your character and where they are fighting can become a weapon they utilize in their escape.

This is often overlooked in fight scenes, but utilizing the environment and terrain is a huge factor in combat. There may be a way for your protagonist to kill their attacker sitting right next to them, or they can take advantage of.

Throwing your body weight around is something anyone can do because your utilizing your core and momentum to destabilize the enemy’s balance. This can be done with just your shoulder and feet planted in the right place. Knock ‘em into walls. Use this force to create new, creative means of attack and opportunities in the environment.

4) Stun this guy, duck past, and run for a crowded area to make his escape.

This is what it says on the tin.

5) Or wait and plan an escape later when he’s in a better position.

This may not work depending on what’s about to happen to him in prison. The best time for a prison break is not from the prison itself but while the prisoner is in transit. Try to remember, depending on the situation, your character needs to escape in a way that keeps his pursuers from following him. This doesn’t necessarily they have to die. (At least, in this exact moment.)

6) He tries it and fails.

He tries it, he fails, or might be mildly successful but not successful enough, gets caught and the situation plays out another way.
Sometimes, scenes don’t go the way we want but that doesn’t mean the
story ends. Another interesting path is waiting right around the corner.

7) You ignore all advice and just do it. YOLO.

Try it and see what happens.

-Michi

Q&A: Carotid Strike

(I don’t know of this a question for you or @scriptmedic but I’m hoping you’ll be able to help a little) how effective is the carotid strike actually? Will it actually knock someone out and does it cause brain damage like other knockouts? Is there any way to block against it or lessen the effect? Thank you so much and am very grateful for your blog ))

If I’m bluntly honest, I’m not sure how you could strike the carotid artery in a way that would cut off the flow of blood long enough to render someone unconscious without also killing them.

If you’re deliberately cutting off the flow of blood to the brain by compressing the carotid, that would be a blood choke. As we’ve said before, those can turn lethal with shocking speed. But, I’m not seeing where a strike to the neck would temporarily block the flow of blood long enough to put someone under, without cutting off the flow long enough to kill them.

Assuming you managed to find a way to do this, you’d be dealing with the same problems associated with knocking someone out. You’re cutting off oxygen to the brain and hoping you get a very specific kind of brain damage. I mean, this is the problem here; you’re asking for a way to inflict brain damage without inflicting brain damage.

Even if you did manage to put someone down, as with chokes, you’re talking about the victim being unconscious for a few seconds. So, the value of doing so is fairly limited.

The martial arts I’m aware of that practice strikes to the neck, like Krav Maga, don’t particularly care if the victim survives. They’re more interested in decisively ending a threat and, generally speaking, the dead aren’t much of a threat.

There’s an irony here; you’re describing a kill strike that the victim might be able to accidentally survive. Not, the other way around.

Writers like to use knockouts as a “safe” alternative to killing someone. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But, the reality is that being knocked unconscious is close enough to killing someone that you really can’t selectively inflict the desired outcome. Similarly, you can’t knock someone out for long periods of time, without inflicting severe brain damage. It can, and does happen, but you can’t choose that result.

Ultimately, this stuff comes from a desire to include, “safe” violence. I’m sorry. There is no such thing. No one who engages in violence has full control over the situation. Some people like to think they do, but they’re deluding themselves. You can have characters who try to do the Batman, “I control all the factors,” but without (some very specifically tuned) superpowers, they really don’t.

Attempting to knock someone out, by any means, means you’re taking on the very real risk that the victim will end up dead. That’s a potential outcome.

-Starke

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Im writing a character who is supposed to be an terrifyingly lethal fighter, so I’m wondering how it’s possible to kill someone without a weapon (other than snapping a neck)

I’m
tempted to be glib, and simply say that your character’s limbs and body are
weapons, but let’s start by turning this one around.

First,
snapping someone’s neck, the way you see in films, doesn’t work. You can annoy
someone, and rack up an attempted murder charge, but it doesn’t actually work.
That said, the list of things that can, in fact, kill someone is not short,
ranging from blood chokes (where the attacker holds their opponent in a
headlock which obstructs the carotid artery) to crushing the trachea, rupturing
the kidney (though this one will take awhile), or any number of other attacks
that will interrupt the victim’s ability to continue getting oxygen to their
brain.

So, go
back to that comment about your body being a weapon. It’s a concept that’s
pretty easy to dismiss as pseudo-mysticism; doing that is a mistake. The
important thing to take away from that phrase is the mindset. With enough
creativity and dedication, just about anything
can be a weapon. A character who’s willing to walk into a fight, grab their
opponent by the skull and ram them face first onto a chunk of rebar is using
weapons. They’re using their body and environment.

This is
also where the idea of a character using a weapon being limited comes from.
Again, it’s an idea that’s easy to dismiss as abstract philosophy, but it does
reflect a kind of thinking that people, including writers, can trap themselves
with. “I have a sword, therefore, I can…” as opposed to, “I have all these
options to turn my enemies into meat pudding.”

I
realize this isn’t, exactly, the catalogue of kill strikes you were hoping for.
If you’re looking for more discussion on brutality and it’s psychological
impact on combat, I would suggest you take a look at our The Only Unfair Fight
tag.

-Starke

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Are there actually such a thing as “dirty tricks” in fights? I mean, whatever makes you win, right?

Yeah, or at least sort of. Dirty tricks just mean you’re employing “dishonorable” methods to win. We’ve talked about honor in combat before, and we have an entire tag dedicated to the “only unfair fight is the one you loose” truism.

In case you didn’t follow either of those links, a quick short version is, a “dirty trick” is anything your opponent thinks is unfair. So… somewhat obviously, there’s a lot of potential for disagreements over what is, or isn’t, “dirty.”

Many people approach combat with the idea that there’s some kind of “honorable” way to comport yourself. Concepts like, “don’t strike your opponent in the genitals,” or “don’t shoot them in the back.” The historical basis for these concepts probably has a lot to do with historical European combat, where nobles were expected to participate directly, but were afforded special protections, and the rules of “honorable” combat evolved to reduce the risk of a peasant shock trooper accidentally waxing an opposing noble who could have been ransomed back after the battle.

Similarly deliberately maiming your opponent is also viewed as dirty. It’s not hard to guess that the origin is the same, though I have nothing to back up that suspicion. Some “dirty tricks” also simply fall under the heading of unsanitary. There’s many medical reasons you’d never want to tear a chunk out of someone with your teeth. Again, I’ve gone into this in a lot more detail in the past.

It’s probably worth remembering: Fights don’t occur in a discrete space away from the rest of your story, or your life. Sometimes, winning a fight by any means necessary is not worth it. The consequences of your decisions will follow you. You can win a fight by grabbing your foe’s head, and running your thumbs through their eye sockets, but you do need to step back and ask, “is this something you/your character can live with?”

-Starke

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Hey! I need a character to break a guy’s neck with her bare hands, but I’m well aware that the ease with which this is often done in movies is not realistic. That’s fine – I’m going for a pretty brutal kill anyway – and my character is physically powerful, vicious, and more than willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. I had intended to have her pin the guy face-down with all her weight and wrench his head back from there – would that realistically do it? Any advice is welcome. :)

It would probably be easier to simply stomp on the victim at the base of the skull without even bending over. Breaking the neck with your hands is, almost always, a non-start. It might be possible to achieve the same result with a well placed hand strike, but that wouldn’t be nearly as brutal.

The other, arguably, more horrific option would be to run a screwdriver, icepick, or other similar tool through the base of the skull into the brainstem once they’re in that position. It’s not exactly the same as breaking their neck, but it’s certainly a brutal way to go.

In general, I’d recommend you check out our The Only Unfair Fight tag for more relevant ideas and concepts.

-Starke

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Why are techniques such as biting, scratching, pulling air, jabbing people in the eyes, and going for the groin considered underhanded or “fighting dirty”? They definitely hurt and they could buy you more time to escape…

Because they’re dishonorable. Phrased that way, it might sound kind of stupid, but that is the logic behind why these get treated the way they do. Another example would be shooting, or stabbing, someone in the back, or gouging out an eye.

Also, these techniques aren’t created equal. Some of them will legitimately end a fight, others will just annoy an attacker.

Tearing a chunk out of someone with your teeth is a very effective way to convince them not to mess with you. Biting has some serious social stigmas associated with it. Human bites are very dangerous. The bacteria in your mouth are a major health hazard to anyone you play Pacman on. This is before considering that you can deliver a lot of force with your teeth. Your mouth is designed for tearing apart meat, much like the meat found in your foe’s arm or neck.

Biting someone can kill them. It’s also not a great idea, because you’re exposing yourself directly to their blood. If they have a blood communicable disease, then there could be serious health implications for you in the future.

Scratching someone doesn’t really work. In most cases, it will annoy them, at best. Even with long nails, the only damage you’ll do is superficial. One rare exception is if you rake the eyes. But, honestly, targeting the eyes is another underhanded tactic.

Pulling hair is iffy. It gives you some control over the head (if you hold on.) Unfortunately it also puts you very close to your opponent, and if depending on their tolerance for pain, it ties up one of your hands for limited advantage. If you’re using their hair as a tool for bouncing their skull off a hard surface, then it is an option, but on its own, this does nothing but irritate your opponent.

Tagging someone in the groin will piss them off. Depending on the individual, it might not do much else. Pop culture will teach you that this is an instant off switch for any guy. Reality will sometimes shrug off the blow, and retaliate. It will hurt, but connecting with enough force to incapacitate is not a certainty.

A lot of our concepts about what is acceptable behavior in a fight is inherited from historical rules of engagement. Rules which were originally designed to prevent a medieval peasant from accidentally killing a noble instead of capturing them for ransom, still filter up to the surface today, in prohibitions about killing someone without seeing their face.

In very general terms, dirty fighting is anything that undermines the rules of “fair fight,” and the general idea that combat is about a direct physical contest between two opponents.

It’s important to understand that concepts like honor and dirty fighting are defined entirely social norms and values. Social norms dictate what is acceptable behavior in combat. There’s nothing intrinsic about any of these techniques that make them evil, or particularly underhanded, but our society says, “don’t do this, it’s beneath you.” So, it’s “dirty,” because social norms said so.

-Starke

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About the incapacitation without tying up – we did a self defense unit in physical education my sophomore year of high school. Our instructor told us that if somebody came after you that you could cut their Achilles. I think his point was no Achilles = no walking on that leg. Not sure what you’d consider this, but that’s another way to stop somebody, especially if you want to get away

Sounds like the work of the same sadist who ran my first self defense class.

Okay,
so, there is a strand of thought in the self defense community that
says, “if someone comes after you; you fuck them up.” Usually,
these guys are adults, teaching other adults, and that’s fine. It’s a
philosophical outlook. You decide to make absolutely sure your attacker stays down. As an adult, you’re expected to
be able to weigh the consequences of your actions, look at the situation
you’re in, and respond appropriately.

They teach you to ramp up
to 10, and trust you to know when not to. So that, some day, if you run
into someone that requires that kind of a response, you can go there
immediately.

…and then, sometimes, guys who come from that strand end up in a classroom full of kids and everything goes to hell.

This
is where my outlook on unarmed combat comes from, if anyone was
wondering. A Wyoming Sheriff’s Deputy who probably should not have been
tapped to teach teens self defense.

Severing the Achilles tendon
is one of those injuries that will not heal on their own. If I’m
remembering correctly, the specific result is, you
cannot properly control the angle of your foot without the tendon.
Practically, this means no walking, no kicking, no use of the leg for
anything useful. This is an injury that will require surgery and, up to a
year of recovery time. This is very serious. Not life threatening, but (if untreated) it is permanent.

It’s
also not an injury you’d expect to see in a normal self defense
environment. Severing the tendon requires getting a blade in there. This
requires a very low strike (in the literal sense), because the tendon
is almost at ground level. You’re also hoping they’re not wearing
footwear that protects the ankle. Any self defense plan that stops if
your opponent is wearing a pair of boots, has some issues.

Actually,
I should clarify, it’s not an injury you expect to see intentionally
inflicted in a self defense situation. This does happen as a sports
injury, so this is something common enough that any doctor with a
history of dealing with sports medicine should know what to do. It is
also an injury that can occur when teaching martial arts. Not because
someone cut it, but because they misjudged a technique and tore their
own.

There is a related sword technique called hamstringing, where you cut the tendons at the back of the knee. Same basic result, except it’s their shin they can’t control, not their foot. Nasty, a little tricky to execute, but it does what it says. You’re slightly more likely to have a chance to go after that in a self defense situation, especially since very few people wear any armor there, but I still wouldn’t recommend it, because it’s exceedingly disproportionate.

Here’s the thing about this kind of self defense; It assumes you’ll use it in situations where the alternative is dying. Literally, if you didn’t do this, your attacker would have killed you, and you had no lesser option to save yourself.

Within that range, going after the Achilles tendon is kind of an odd choice. It’s not an easy target to nail. If you’re in some situation where it is available, and those kinds of extreme tactics are appropriate, then, sure. But there are far safer, and easier to exploit, options.

-Starke

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Considering that humans can deliver a bite strong enough to sever a finger, how effective would a bite be against an assailant trying to put you in a headlock? Would biting the arm be enough to make them let go?

Assuming the arm was in a position you could get to? Yes. Given a little time and the inclination, you can completely destroy someone’s arm (or, really, just about any body part,) with your teeth. The difficult part isn’t biting chunks out of someone’s arm, it’s being willing to bite chunks out of someone’s arm.

Think of it this way; your teeth are there to remove meat from bone, and they’re actually pretty good at doing it. On top of that, humans are one of the worst kinds of bites to receive. We build up some really nasty bacterial colonies in our mouths, and applying them to an open wound is a recipe for infection. Our immune systems (usually) recognize and know how to handle our own colonies. But, those are unique to an individual, so if you’re bitten by someone else, there’s no immunity, and the results are very unpleasant.

The hard part here is actually being willing to chow down on someone else. There’s a lot of social and psychological conditioning telling you not to bite fellow human beings.

The thing is, that conditioning is there to protect you. Exposure to blood is a fantastic vector for all kinds of illnesses that are otherwise non-transmittable. Some forms of viral Hepatitis and HIV are the big ticket items here; but, given the choice, there are many reasons to never touch a random stranger’s blood, much less gargle it.

So, you need to be willing to actually push past your own self preservation instincts, which is much harder than it sounds.

You also need to be willing to commit to seriously injuring your opponent. That’s a much easier threshold to hit, but combining it with the ability to shuck self preservation to mangle your opponent creates a weird paradox.

There’s a strand of combat philosophy that advocates rapid brutal escalation. Literally, “the best defense is a good offense.” You can see elements of this in a lot of the armed self defense forms. The problem is, outside of very extreme circumstances, biting someone takes the defense part of that equation out at the knees. You’re not using rapid escalation to protect yourself from attack, because you’re exposing yourself to far more potential harm now.

Now, obviously, you can end up with characters that have no problem taking out someone else’s throat with their teeth. But, that’s a rather singular kind of brutality. I did talk about the combat applications of brutality awhile back. So, that might be worth reading, if you haven’t seen it.

-Starke