You know, a character can be brutal and malicious in their combat style without resorting to dirty tricks. It’s worse here because you’re writing women and the common sense assumption is that if a woman is good at combat (especially if she’s evil), she must be cheating.
Besides, a dirty trick in combat is a knee to the groin or throwing sand in your opponent’s eyes. Essentially, dirty tricks are just all the things you can do to someone to debilitate someone and take them out of the fight before they can fight back. And, as anyone who’s been in a real fight will tell you, fairness is relative. After all, The Only Unfair Fight is the One You Lose, Brutally.
Skill in Combat Can’t Be Faked
Now, there’s some sheer terror involved in having an antagonist who is simply flat out better than the protagonist and for the scene to have tension, this character has got to be able to hack it.
When most non-practitioners think about cheating, they’re thinking about it the context of “I pulled the paper down off the internet”. “I’m cheating because I’m too lazy to do the work”, “I’m incapable of doing it on my own”. The difference is that a fighter has to actually be able to execute the illegal technique and they have to be able to do so (and do it well enough to get away with it) under the supervision of people who know what they’re looking for.
“Accidentally” hurting your opponent will not be treated as an accident. The supervisors know what they’re looking for and if this character “accidentally” hurting their opponents is a continuous habit then they’ll bear the cost for it. It’s also worth noting that accidentally wounding your opponent in traditional martial arts and in most sparring matches where the point is emphasis on skill and precision is the practitioner lacking in skill. A truly skilled cheater will make their opponent look like they fucked up and in a situation with multiple eyes on you, all of whom know what they’re looking for, that’s not easy.
If they can get away with it, especially multiple times, then they’re really damn proficient. Cheating in a martial arts context is about using techniques that endanger the health and safety of the practitioners in the sparring match. It’s only valuable if the emphasis on skill is not hurting your opponent (because you’re not allowed to kill them anymore).
These two characters are probably military, right? You can’t adhere to martial arts tournament rules because the focus of the training is different and thus what constitutes cheating and bad behavior will be different. Beating each other to a bloody pulp may be an attitude expected of the top recruits. Depending on your setting, the degree of injuries allowed to be inflicted will be significantly higher and injuries will be more common. They’re trained to hurt and kill, hurting each other in training is to be expected.
And, believe it or not, your villain/antagonist is not the first person in their setting who has thought: “I can gain an advantage by doing something I’m not supposed to”. Why does this character believe they can get away with this? If it’s easy to do, why isn’t everyone doing it? (And no, don’t say it’s because they’re evil. That’s not a legitimate answer.)
The rest is below the cut.
Cheating is in the Eye of the Beholder
When we talk about martial arts and cheating, we’re talking about characters using techniques outlawed in a controlled environment/friendly competition like a tournament. The techniques are outlawed because a tournament is not a real combat situation, it’s essentially a practice match for money and is done with the understanding that everyone is going home healthy. This story is set in the future (probably) or in some fantasy setting with magic science, if this character is actually cheating then they’re breaking rules meant to ensure the safety of both people participating in the bout. What counts as cheating will depend on your setting’s rules and the rules that govern this match. Again, if these are genetically enhanced killing machines, then you can’t really expect them to do anything other than what they’ve been trained to do. (Brutally murder.)
What is honorable combat?
No, really. Honorable combat is just a code meant to govern social behavior, to protect society and, more importantly, maintain the current power structure. Who the code protects is often limited and in the words of Captain Barbossa “they’re more like guidelines than actual rules”. You follow the rules because they keep order and support the rules because the rules protect you. In a place like a training facility and any other controlled environment where the rules are easily enforced, it’s easy to color inside the lines. When you leave the safe confines of the world you know and travel more dangerous territory, the lines begin to blur. See: Spec Ops: The Line, Apocalypse Now, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
After all, when you’re used to fighting for your life: the only unfair fight is the one you lose.
There’s No Better Weapon Than Experience
The experienced combatant is the most dangerous combatant.
Not speed, not power, not strength, not talent, not even skill. Experience, they’ve been through it and they’ve come out the other side. They more they’ve seen, the more prepared they are to face unexpected challenges. You can’t quantify it on a stat chart, so it’s a difficult one to understand.
We are shaped and changed by our experiences. Through them, we learn and grow. Practical experience in the real world is better than a thousand test scenarios run in safety, where the variables are controlled. It’s difficult to take experienced combatants by surprise. Experience can build confidence through victory and erode it through defeat. They’ve survived their losses and triumphed. If they have a reputation, it’s probably earned.
Obviously, they’re not invincible but one character having more experience than the other is a wide gap. The mind drives the body. The more confident and experienced the warrior, the more likely the victory.
A Character Who Is Confident and Comfortable With Their Skill Level Will Not Feel the Need to Cheat
Especially not against a character who is less experienced than they are/who they do not regard as a legitimate threat. Cheating and underhanded tactics are the province of characters who cannot win or who do not believe they could if they tried.
What is the character gaining by cheating? Other than it being the evil option, what exactly do they get out of it?
Honor, glory, respect, and reputation aren’t really answers unless the character is an idiot. Proving their mettle and showing their skill in combat will earn them more dangerous assignments, not less. It increases the likelihood of their deception being exposed. They can fake it until they make it, but to achieve success they do actually have to make it.
“I Don’t Like Them/I Don’t Like Their Methods” Does Not Mean Bad At Their Job
Don’t let your protagonist’s personal feelings about this character govern how you (the writer) and the greater narrative perceives that character. Whether this character is famous or infamous, they get the assignments they do because they get the job done. Or someone in command.
Viciousness and brutality are combat choices, they’re not cheating. An example of this is the fan produced Punisher short film (tw: graphic violence, violence against women, violence against children, implied rape) Dirty Laundry with Thomas Jane (starred in the 2004 film) and Ron Perlman. Or this sequence from Spartan with Val Kilmer (tw: graphic violence). Or this (slightly over the top) scene with Angelina Jolie in Salt.
Antagonist and evil are not synonymous with incompetent. If they’re doing well, it means someone with power in this organization likes their work. It has to be more than a few someone’s too, so not just the bad guys. If they’re known, they’re known for having done something. Which brings us to:
Reputations Are Earned, Not Given
We get places by being competent. If someone has a reputation, it’s not going to be just because. They’ve been out there doing stuff. That stuff may have been dirty, but it likely didn’t involve any tricks.
Cheating Is An Easy Out
I don’t mean for the villain. I mean for you, as the writer, it’s the easy way out. If the character cheats, then the protagonist can place the blame on outside forces. “I failed because she broke the rules”, “I failed because she cheated”, “I failed because…”, but never have to wrestle with the question “Did I fail because I wasn’t good enough? Wasn’t strong enough?” and more importantly has to ask “is that really what it takes to win?”.
This is having your cake and eating it. The protagonist loses (oh no!) but it wasn’t through any failing of their own (don’t worry, reader), if only that dastardly antagonist had played fair then they’d have gotten their ass handed to them (next time!). By not having them face an opponent who is legitimately better, you’re cheating your protagonist out of their character growth. They never have to really question themselves, question their beliefs, or question their understanding of how the world should work. What they take from those lessons is up to you, but it’s important for your character at least ask them.
I do understand the temptation. Especially when working female combatants, there’s a certain knee jerk reaction to the idea of them being weak, of failing, and so the narrative works to find excuses for why they did. But, failing is a part of being human. It’s a part of learning. The first failure is what gives the reader their sense of satisfaction when the protagonist comes back to win. It’s a justification of their struggle, their questions, and their hard work to better themselves.
Sure, both The Karate Kid and the remake with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith involved the hero overcoming injuries dealt him by his opponent via cheating (though this is treated as a black mark against the movie’s real villain, the rival Instructor) and his returning to the ring injured to face his tormentor in a head to head is incredibly moving. But it’s the first failure and all both Dre and Daniel’s hard work leading to that point and discovering the true meaning behind martial arts which give the moment so much meaning. (It’s also worth noting that the kid who hurts Dre and Daniel is a sacrificial lamb and is disqualified from the competition. The rival Instructor knew he was harming his student’s future competitive career by doing so and, in this context, his willingness to do whatever it took to win is what made him evil.)
Through the Mirror Darkly
Step away from your protagonist for a moment and think about this second character. Don’t think of the protagonist or what you want from the fight when you think about them. Look at their past and their experiences. People don’t start bad. They have reasons, often compelling ones (beyond traumatic pasts) for why they behave the way they do. Sometimes, they’re driven to it. More often, they choose it. Why they chose their path and their methods is important because your antagonist, especially the older, more experienced fallen warrior is the mirror of your protagonist.
The threat of Vader is that he is Luke or that Luke is him. Luke cannot shake off the fear that he is going to become Vader, even though he initially scoffs at the idea. As he progresses through the trilogy, every test and interaction he faces forces him to question himself.
“You will be me” is the central threat and what defines the protagonist is how the choices they make are different from their predecessor, mentor, rival. The difference between Luke and Vader is not that Luke is a better fighter really, it’s just that Vader cheats. It’s Luke knows when to stop fighting and accept he cannot win through force alone or control the actions of others. This is the central theme of his journey and the Lightside/Darkside conflict. Likewise, Vader’s unwillingness to give up control of events is what ultimately doomed him.
Some other good match ups: Buffy versus Faith, Captain America versus The Winter Soldier,
Are They Dangerous or Not? What Kind of Dangerous Do You Want Them to Be?
The implication with cheating is that their skill is all smoke and mirrors. If they were fighting by the rules, they’d lose. Remove the extraneous weapons and advantages they rely on and they’re easy to take down. Pick a Saturday morning cartoon or goofy Stargate episode and you’ll find this trope all over the map. This doesn’t mean you can’t make it compelling, it’s just worth noting this is the first check in the Cartoon villainy handbook.
On the other hand.
This character is vicious, they’re brutal, and they’re not above hurting (possibly even crippling) one of their own in order to establish their superiority. When they walk into a room, they radiate power and authority. They’re good, they know it, and they’re not afraid to use it to their advantage. Someone who is willing to use excessive force to get what they want and protect what is theirs. Basically this guy, (tw: bullying, preteen violence). Picture that happening between two girls or two grown women and you’ll be well on your way to the kind of attitude you need. (Seriously, this makes the above so much more awesome.)
Reference, because this list is mostly full of boys, Emma Teo, 13 and under Girls, CMX Forms, US Capitol Classics and China Open, Noell Jellison, 13 and Under ISKA World Championship Open, Haley Glass, 13 and Under Girls CMX Forms, US Capitol Classics,Dayna Huor, US Capital Classic’s Forms Grands, Sammy Smith, 14-17 Girls CMX Weapon’s Forms Grands, etc. (These are all exhibition performances, not combat, still watch the attitude.)
Other things you might want to keep in mind Archetypes of Female Martial Artists, Child Martial Artists training (Shaolin Tagou Wushu School).