Tag Archives: writing advice

What sort of fighting style would you give a woman who grew up in a society where men and women are equally involved in fighting? I’d like to keep edged weapons involved (because my character loves her daggers), but I’m not sure what style of close-quarters fighting would work best for women. I’m also thinking her teacher eventually tried to balance out the muscle mass differences in all students, but I’m not sure how easy that would be.

I would give her a fighting style that is representative and built around the kind of work she plans on doing or was trained for. I wouldn’t even bring gender into the decision making process and the reason is that, from a character perspective at least, it’s not relevant.

Let me be frank, writing gender equal societies is hard work. I say this from perspective of someone who did build and write one, so this advice is from my own experience: you have to start throwing out every socialized norm you have about gender, the way these norms work, and the way you perceive them to make it happen.

Your character loves her knives, so what? Lots of people love their knives. The question for her is going to be: is she planning on taking those knives (with a possible over reliance on them) into a situation where they will be useless to her, like taking them into battle against the heavy armor infantry (knights who can’t afford horses and mercenaries on the ground dressed plate)? That may cause her some problems. If she’s a pickpocket or stealth based character breaking into a place where chain mail is unlikely and everyone’s going to use their fists? Knives are a great idea! Have fun!

In stories where men and women are equally involved in fighting, where they are equals in their own societies, it’s just a different landscape. In the story I’m currently working on, my MC and her sister were raised and trained by their father, who handled all the training for the children in their local area. Their mother ran the daily monster hunting operations and coordinated with other local houses in the area that were part of their culture. She ran the ops, she strategized with her operatives, and she was barely involved in raising the children. This was what she was good at and what she preferred doing. For them, this was normal and in the story neither of them ever question it or the logic behind the decision. Why would they? It’s just part of who they are as a culture and in the story it’s the attitude that carries forward, not the events themselves.

My point is: there won’t be a separate set of rules for boys and one for girls. The decisions around what they are trained in and how they are trained will be based solely on what their culture plans to do with them, why they are being trained, and what they are being trained to fight. Family groups won’t have a set structure of who is or isn’t the head, that will be decided based on personality and merit. When a character analyzes a target to be taken down, their gender will be one of the least important things about them. More important? What do we know about them? Who do they work for? What do they know how to do?

Example:

The soldier was big and barely fit into the cut of her blue-gray and white uniform. She was probably somewhere in the realm of two hundred and fifty to two hundred and seventy pounds. Pudgy too, the woman had heavy, sagging jowls and a plump stomach that pushed against the shiny, brass buttons of her waistcoat. The three pins on her white collar said she was a captain. She walked with a slight limp as she made her way back to the small table in the middle of her tent. By this point in her life, the rapier on her waist was just for show. A rapier meant naval officer. Here was a naval officer planning a land operation.

Ha, no wonder her troop placement stinks.

Still, it all fit. The dossier on their target, nicknamed The Rhino by the Brass, suggested a career military officer in their late forties to early fifties. Damaged leg. Decorated veteran. The Rhino had been responsible for a string of brilliant tactical decisions made in the taking of Giberalta twenty years ago. Now though, she was a lazy slob who could barely pull herself out of bed to file her paperwork.

“What do you want to do, Lieutenant?” Private James asked. His voice, scratchy from hours of silence, hit her ears in a harsh whisper. Good for him. James usually had a problem with volume control and this deep into enemy territory, they couldn’t risk one of The Rhino’s sentries overhearing them.

Margery focused in on The Rhino. She could probably take her now. The woman was locked right in her sights. A perfect target. But Colonel Simpson wanted this done specific and who was she to break the old man’s heart by ignoring orders? “We wait for dark,” Margery said. Turning her head slightly, she flashed James a quick smile. Her hands remained steady as she kept her rifle pointed at the target below. “Don’t worry, Private. The Rhino is ours.”

Alternately:

“Of course, the Princess will have a guard picked for their exemplary skill and proven service record. I have Martin Fletcher, Georgina James, and Laura Finch on the short list.”

“Yeah, my mom practiced the art of murder with her knitting needles. Why? What else was she going to do with them?”

(Male C): “You know what I think, George? Lauren’s the only one who really understands me.”

Now, this can all add up into some very hilarious conversations between characters as they flatly refuse to acknowledge any traditional gender roles. Still, as an author and worse a female author, it means we can’t play favorites among our characters based on their gender. We can’t rely on chauvinism and misogyny as reasons for their lack of advancement, we can’t blame our male characters being dicks on the fact that they are boys. We can’t even allow the fact that they are boys to give them any perceived advantage both in terms of their deserved or undeserved success or combat status. Traditional views on gender are absolutely off the table and this is hard because, depending on our own socialization, this is a huge part of our own outlook and our personal outlook has a huge impact on how we write.

Some good examples to study (and there are few) are:

Babylon 5 – A sci-fi show from the early 90s by Michael J. Straczinsky, starring Bruce Boxleitner. It sports a gender-equal military. I recommend starting with Season 2. You can currently watch the first five episodes of that season free on the WB website right now.

Ciaphas Cain, Hero of the Imperium by Sandy Mitchell. The 40K universe has a lot of weirdness and while Ciaphas himself is not gender impartial, the first few novels involve him overseeing the integration of the gender mixed 407th Valhallan, who, ironically, are.

Star Trek: Next Generation and DS9. They don’t always succeed, but with these two it’s a decent attempt at writing gender impartiality. I’d also like to recommend TOS but the skirts make it hard. Still, Michelle Nichols fantastic performance as Uhura probably shouldn’t be missed.

I can’t think of any others at the moment, but if anyone wants to chime in with additions to this list, feel free.

-Michi

Writing Questions Answered: Story Structure: How to Begin Your Novel

Writing Questions Answered: Story Structure: How to Begin Your Novel

I know this is “fight write”, but would you have any basic first aid procedures or advice for someone who’s been in a fight. Basically after you’d get beaten up, how did you tend to your wounds? Also, do you know anything about treating gun wounds, or how a hospital would do so?

For most fights, you’re looking at bruises and minor cuts.

With bruises you want to wrap some ice in a towel and apply it to the injury, and let it heal on its own. Strictly speaking, bruises are minor, sub-dermal hemorrhages. There are rare cases where someone loses enough blood from bruising to die, but this is usually accompanied with massive amounts of trauma.

Also, it’s worth noting, it usually takes about five minutes for a bruise to start to show, if someone is killed within that timeframe, the bruise will not develop.

Minor cuts can be treated with peroxide or alcohol (usually rubbing alcohol, but anything over about 40 – 60 proof s work) to disinfect the wound, and then bandaged. Applying a petroleum jelly like Vaseline or Neosporin can help keep the wound clean. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t actually do anything, the stuff’s completely biologically inert (and as I recall, technically edible) but it will prevent new bacteria from getting into the injury.

More serious cuts, like knife wounds, can require surgery, as far as I know, this is just another round of disinfect the wound, and then stitched closed. If there’s internal damage, that will need to be dealt with, based on the injury sustained.

Gunshot wounds are an entirely different and very unpredictable animal. Again, I’m going to over simply here, so, apologies in advance to any doctors out there. The primary threat from any gunshot wound is bleeding to death. If the gunshot damaged an artery, then first aid involves compressing the artery to staunch the blood loss, this is a very basic, and limited stopgap. Otherwise “first aid” is getting the victim to a doctor (or veterinarian). The basic surgical techniques to deal with gunshot wounds is to repair whatever damage the doctor can, and closing up the wound. But, this can be a lot more difficult than it sounds.

I’m going to split gunshot wounds into three general categories, these aren’t official classifications, and shouldn’t be held up as holy writ; this is just an attempt to get everything out in a readable fashion: blowthroughs, ricochets, and fragmentation.

Blowthroughs, are the “best”, and most common kind of gunshot wound. These are gunshots that enter the victim, pass through them, and leave for parts unknown. If it’s a headshot, the victim is probably already dead, though, there are a few medical cases where people survived a shot to the head. Blowthroughs to the torso usually mean punctured internal organs, regardless what organ was hit; the injury will require major surgery to deal with. If it’s a hit to the limbs, and it missed the arteries, the wound will need to be sewn up, and cared for. The limb can’t be used for a couple weeks. If the bullet nicked or severed the artery, the surgeon will need to repair it, assuming they get the chance. A damaged artery can result in the victim bleeding to death in minutes. This, by the way, is what the whole “apply pressure here” cliché is referring to; first aid for an arterial hit is to apply pressure and staunch the flow of blood, so the victim can live long enough to reach a doctor.

Ricochets are cases where the bullet connects with a bone and reflects off in a new direction. This is highly dependent on the specific physics involved, but the result can be very messy. The best case scenario, a bullet will ricochet off a bone, and have a clean exit wound. This is slightly more problematic than it sounds; usually, you track the path of a bullet by checking the entrance and exit wounds, with ricochets, it can be very difficult to identify which internal organs have been injured. Worse, it’s not unheard of for bullets to start bouncing around inside the rib cage, tearing someone’s internal organs to pieces. It’s rare, but can result in irreparable internal damage.

Fragmentation refers to where the bullet breaks apart into multiple pieces. Usually this is associated with fragmentation rounds, also called dumdums, but a bullet that impacts a hard object, either bone, or something outside the body, can shatter; sending shrapnel into the victim. The shrapnel is slightly more prone to further ricochets and lodging in the body. As with ricochets, this can result in massive internal injuries that will require extensive, rapid surgery to survive.

One last note: In modern contexts, it is fairly common to get hit by multiple bullets in rapid succession, called a multiple gunshot wound (or MGW in police and paramedic reports), multiple bullets effectively multiply the damage. Because the victim is bleeding out faster, a doctor won’t have time to treat the victim before they expire, assuming they’re able to hold on long enough to get to a doctor.

If you’re writing about first aid for hand to hand, I’d actually recommend you look into first aid techniques first hand. It’s a useful skill to have, and it should be fairly easy to find a reputable group that’s teaching the basics.

You can learn far more than you want to about gunshot wounds in most forensic texts. I’m not sure where you’d find more detail on the specifics of surgery. Generally speaking finding information on specific surgical procedures, which are also accessible to a layman, is tricky.

-Starke

Fear is the Mind Killer: How to Avoid the Bully

Whenever you write a character who deals in violence, there is a threat that they will become a bully. This is a problem that every writer faces because we control the events of a narrative and thus the outcome of every fight. Even an author with the best of intentions can create a bully unintentionally and that’s a problem. In real life, it is all too easy to become a bully, whether that bully is emotional, intellectual, or physical is ultimately irrelevant. Your character doesn’t ever need to throw a punch and they can still end up one.

Remember, there is nothing inherently wrong with having a bully as your setting’s protagonist. When done well, bully characters like Vic Mackie from The Shield are deeply relateable and complex.  The problem comes when an author does not realize that they have created one and with the way Hollywood structures its films these days and the general attitude towards violence, a bully can be created all too easily. So, let’s talk about the ways bully characters are created and how to avoid them.

What is a bully?

A bully is someone who uses violence or the threat of violence to get what they want. This violence can be physical, emotional, or psychological. Emotional and intellectual violence often take the form of shame or shaming, a character who uses their snark or intellect to abuse others or shame them into shutting up is a bully.

How does one create a bully?

On a psychological level, a bully is created through fear. They mask their own fear with anger, so when they are pushed to feel afraid they react violently. The more terrified they are, the harder they lash out.

The problem with a bully is that they are not in control, instead of facing their fears they avoid them, run from them, or try to force reality to conform to a state where they won’t have to deal with them usually through the abuse of others. A bully cannot allow themselves to be vulnerable or the sham of the power they’ve created will be exposed. A bully’s power is consensual. They have power because they are given it, not because they take it. A bully convinces someone to give them their power through fear, it’s just that it’s their own fear that they are projecting onto others and not the fears of the individual in question.

In a written work, the protagonist may become a bully not just because of their own fears but by double jeopardy, they could be representing the author’s. This is how they are easy to create, especially when the character is the “better version” of the author or a wish fulfillment character who has been allowed to run rampant.

A bully can happen when an author cannot handle being the butt of the joke, when they have a fight with or present an idea they believe in inside their book without presenting a counter argument or giving the other characters the opportunity to fight back. We are at risk to creating a bully when we say: “It’s going to be this way because I said so” and never give the other characters a chance at the spotlight. If your characters are winning by means of humiliation then they may be a bully. If they have the attitude of “see how much better I am than you”, again, they may indeed be a bully.

It’s easy to accidentally create bullies in our written worlds because in the end, the author controls everything. Characters cannot respond in ways that the author doesn’t anticipate or allow and when the variables are all too easy to control it becomes easy to win.

A bully can be created when we fail to give voice to our secondary characters. A bully can be created when the author plays favorites. A bully can be created when the writer dictates the state of the setting, if you do not allow for the opportunity of variables and for the unexpected to occur, and plan for that unexpected state, or even allow your characters to believe that they may in fact lose then we double the possibility that a bully has already appeared in your work. They are most likely on the winning side.

How do you avoid the bully?

The answer is simple, but also hard. As authors, we put a great deal of stock in our characters, we feel what they feel and in some ways live their vicariously through our imaginations. The greater the depths of emotion we can pull from ourselves then the more real they are. The trade off, of course, is that when they lose we feel it. If they are mocked, we may feel humiliated. If one of the problems they encounter runs up against the authors fears, then a bully may be created on accident by the virtue of the author not wishing to face their own fears and force the reality they’ve created to conform to what they want.

The problem with that, of course, as much as our writing is a fiction and fantasy, it must also reflect aspects of the real world and real human emotion. We write because we have something to say and a story to tell, a story that does not jive with the reality of it’s setting is one that leaves a reader feeling unfulfilled. We must justify everything our characters do and many of the problems we face in our world are ones that they will also face in theirs.

So, let your character lose. Force them to face the consequences of their actions. Allow other characters to disagree with them without them being evil. It doesn’t matter the reason why your character did what they did, those reasons may not matter to the farmer whose property was destroyed by the rampaging golem or the surviving priest from the church that was burned down to save a town from a pesky demon. The family of the possessed may not be grateful that your protagonist killed their child. Allow characters to judge your protagonist by what they see in front of them and on the merit of what they know of the protagonists’ actions. Actions can have unintended consequences, don’t be afraid to address them and allow your protagonist to shoulder the appropriate blame (or inappropriate, in some cases).

Don’t be afraid to call them out for what they do. Acknowledge their flaws. Let them make mistakes and be wrong, even when it’s critical. Every character must earn their happy ending and in most cases we actually decide their fates when we are putting them together in the pre-planning stages before a story ever gets off the ground.

Remember, violence always has consequences and those consequences are often unpleasant. A character who participates in acts of violence will be changed by them and the reasons why they participate will not necessarily change how other people around them will see them. Those reasons are important for how they live with themselves, other characters will always have their own reasons. Also, allow other characters to make up their own minds.

A character can become a bully, even when they are bullied themselves.

My two cents,

-Michi

What are some of the physical responses to a sudden combat situation? For example, muscle tightening, heart rate, that kind of thing.

An increase to heart rate is usually a sign of adrenaline, along with a slightly bitter taste in the mouth, and in most people, some fine muscle tremors. I think we’ve talked about that before.

As with a lot of things, how someone handles an immediate combat threat is going to be very specific to that individual. A lot of people freeze up, and some can switch over smoothly and rapidly. Specialized training can help with this. But, it’s important to understand; this isn’t covered in most martial arts classes.

Usually training comes in two parts: First is an awareness of dangerous situations, so the combatant will be harder to take by surprise. The second part is rote responses to specific threats. This can vary pretty massively depending on who the person being trained is. It can include drawing a weapon, getting to cover, tensing muscles (which you mentioned), or going into a stance. It won’t always be completely appropriate, but it doesn’t really need to be, either. The entire point is just to get the combatant ready to fight faster. It’s worth pointing out, with military drills; those rote responses can include lethal takedowns.

How well someone handles an adrenaline rush is another matter. As far as I know, this is something that people either learn to deal with through experience or conditioning, rather than traditional training. The more adrenaline rushes someone’s experienced, the less they’ll be impaired by it, relatively speaking. In general, adrenaline rushes work towards your advantage in hand to hand or melee, but work against you when operating firearms.

-Starke

I have a Japanese character who is exceptionally skilled in martial arts.. lets say he is a modern day legend to some. Now I have it where he is skilled in karate, kung fu, swordsmanship and he was also a assassian/hitman type most of his life though he is very young for his experience but had to mature before normal puberty stages. I want to do a friendly yet intense fighting scene between him and an older family member for him to show how skilled he actually is but I want him to also lose the

Your character has a terminal case of “trying too hard”, best to take him out behind the woodshed right now, and put him out of your misery.

Kung Fu is not a martial art, it’s not even a family of martial arts; it’s a collection of unrelated martial arts that originated in China in a specific historical timeframe. Karate is an Okinawan martial art. Using either of these would be an affront to a Japanese hitman or assassin.

A Japanese Assassin would be a Ninja, full stop. They’d practice their family’s variant of Ninjitsu. Practicing Chinese martial arts like Wushu or Shaolin would be a stain on their honor.

A Japanese hitman would, almost certainly be Yakuza. These guys do not mix with Ninjas. To the Ninjas, and for that matter most of Japanese society, the Yakuza are street rats, it would be a disgrace to associate with them. To the Yakuza, the Ninja would be an uncomfortable reminder that their place in modern Japanese society isn’t earned. Also, like Ninjas, Yakuza aren’t going to be learning non-Japanese martial arts, including Karate.

If you’re scratching your head right now and saying, “but, Okinawa is part of Japan”, you’re absolutely right, today. Historically it wasn’t, and the Japanese still look down their noses at its people, their martial forms and weapons.

Here’s the thing; there’s the classic writing advice, “write what you know.” You can think of this as the training wheels of writing, eventually you’ll be researching new things, and writing about stuff you don’t have any background in, but for today, you probably want to trash this whole project and start over with something much smaller and closer to home.

I’d actually say, ditch the violence as well. I mean, from whatever you end up working on. Violence can be a very difficult thing to get right. Start with characters talking to each other, they don’t have to like one another, or agree on anything, but start with dialog. Build your stories in places you understand. It’s not what you want to write, I get that, but it will give you the tools to write what you want to once you’ve learned more about what you’re doing.

Also, writing characters in any culture you’re not intimately familiar with is very difficult. This is especially true of Japan, which, even today, has a very ridged and stratified society, with very strict rules of behavior that change based on context.

-Starke

If in the near future, guns were not preferable for some reason, what would a sword made with modern technology and practices look like and what would it be capable of?

I’m sorry, if you really want an answer to this, “for some reason” will have to be a lot more specific. The short version is; I don’t see swords coming back into use anytime in the near future.

The only situation I can think of, in a modern setting, where a sword would be preferable, is if you were dealing with things that could take an inhuman amount of damage without being affected, and where lopping body pieces off is the way to go. I’m thinking classic horror monsters, here. Even then, there are shotgun loads, and anti-materiel rounds for that kind of situation.

If you want a crash course in using firearms to hunt the supernatural, I’d recommend Ultraviolet, (the TV Series, not the film), about modern day vampire hunters, who’ve adapted modern technology to deal with vampires. They strap cameras to the ends of their guns, in order to quickly identify vampires (the whole, no reflections thing), load their weapon with pressed carbon fragmentation rounds (to effect the wooden stake through the heart), use gas grenades designed to respond to the chemical weakness in the old garlic folklore. In short, it’s a very inventive (and at six episodes, very short), look at how one can adapt modern technology to hunt monsters.

If you’re thinking of some kind of apocalyptic event, I’d refer you to Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt. It’s a post apocalyptic novel about a group that sets off from St. Louis into Canada in search of a lost archive of pre-plague books. The main thrust of the setting is that the printing press is lost technology, but firearms remain in frequent use.

The problem being; guns are incredibly easy to manufacture, and basic gunsmithing is common enough, and useful enough, that it’s unlikely to be lost.

On top of that, an apocalyptic event like that would snuff out most of the interesting things we’re seeing in modern forging technology.

If it’s a technology marches on, kind of situation, then there isn’t much that could really negate the bullet without making a sword equally useless.

On what we can actually do right now, the only thing that comes to mind is cryoforging; I suspect that’s a trade name. From what I understand it’s just a tempering process involving liquid nitrogen to quench the blade. It supposedly results in an improbably durable weapon that will keep its edge through almost any abuse you can throw at it. I’d take this with a grain of salt; the only material I’ve seen on it was from a company that was selling cryoforged katanas back around 2002.

On the “in the year 2000” side, it depends on what your setting has, nanotechnology might be an option. Pick your poison on what you want a nanotech blade to do. But it’s worth pointing out that in the real world, nanotech research has gotten mired pretty heavily in patent conflicts, and the entire field is at risk of stalling out.

Carbon Fiber Weave swords are another possibility, basically this is a plastic, but it’s fairly durable stuff. I don’t know if the current iteration of the technology can hold an edge in combat, but edgeless training swords have been around for years.

If you really want to play in that range, I’d say dig up all the William Gibson and Neil Stephenson you can stomach. They’re the architects of modern cyberpunk, and really almost required reading if you want to push the envelope of what can be done with technology. For Stephenson, I’d recommend Snow Crash, and Cryptonomicon. With Gibson, I think Neuromancer is the place to start. If I recall correctly, Snow Crash is the only one of those which really talks about a character using a sword. Still, if you haven’t read them yet, and this is the genre you’re looking at writing in, they’re all worth your time.

-Starke

Not sure if this has been asked before, but how do you write a scene that involves a gunfight? Obviously engagements happen at beyond point-blank so how does that work?

First off, I’m sorry this took so long to write up, this is a much deeper topic, and there will be some full articles on the subject coming in the near future.

But, to your question, the short answer is; not much, really. Fights at close range are very short, and will involve characters firing as quickly as they can at one another.

Some of the same assumptions also hold true, characters who have training and experience will win out over characters that don’t know what they’re doing.

The biggest difference is with guns, there is no playing nice. Any character that’s injured from getting hit will be seriously injured. Healing from a gunshot wound will probably involve months of recovery.

As with other weapons, guns are unique to one another. A character that’s used to using a USP .45 will be at a serious disadvantage if you hand them an M1911. Some of the basic theory and practice caries over, but the way you operate one is different from the other.

Bullets will penetrate light cover. If you’ve played a lot of recent military themed shooters, this should be a familiar concept, but games tend to undercut how severe this can be. If your character is opening fire with a handgun, there’s a real risk the bullets will blow through walls, cars, and whatever else, and hit someone they didn’t intend to.

In most residential or business settings, you won’t find cover thick enough to stop a handgun round, meaning the whole “take cover behind that couch/upended table/car door/lawn chair” tactic doesn’t actually work. Throwing a conference table on its side may look cool, but it won’t save your characters from getting perforated.

Military combat is a completely different animal. It focuses on long range fire, suppressing a target (keeping them from moving or firing back), while other squad members move in to eliminate them.

This tactic makes its way back into gunfights involving trained characters. In a firefight, their primary goal should be getting out of sight, and moving around to the side or behind their attackers.

-Starke

Five Simple Ways To Write Convincing Fight Sequences

Writing relies on ‘where, what, how, and why’ to develop a convincing narrative. This is a rule that is an umbrella over of both the entire narrative and the individual scenes that hold the plot together. A fight scene has to fulfill those requirements and it must do so within the greater context of the narrative while supporting the underlying logic of the setting as well as remaining functional and relevant on its own. This should always be your primary goal: making sure that all your sequences work together to support a cohesive and coherent whole. Knowing how to write fights and fighting characters is an extraction and extrapolation from the skills you’re already developing as a writer. Remember, it’s not a separate skill or knowledge: it’s a supplementary one. In American popular culture, martial combat tends to be mystified and it’s ironically done in the same way whether we’re working with the military or overlaying orientalism in the martial traditions of “the mysterious East”. Many writers, ironically or not, treat combat skills like they’re magic or a superpower. Often: it just happens. The discussion of what happens in the scene is vague and often anatomically incorrect. The characters are incapable of supporting their own backstories with important details and outlooks. Violence and its effects are segregated out as unimportant because again the character’s ability to fight isn’t treated as an important part of their personality or a skill they possess but as a tacked on superpower that the author doesn’t feel they need to explain. It just is. It just happens. They’re just amazing. Don’t ask questions.

As easy as this approach is, it doesn’t work and it will handicap both your characters and your writing in the long run. Like so many other skill sets, knowledge of combat isn’t something we can actually fake in our writing. Well, we can’t by being vague about the particulars. You need research and for research, you need a place to start. So, here are five simple pieces of advice to improve both your descriptive writing of your fight scenes but also line the sequences up with your characters.

Remember: your characters are the driving force behind your narrative, if the skills they’re using do not jive with their personality then that’s like throwing a rock through the reader’s suspension of disbelief window. Everything must sync together, a character can only do what they know based on their own experiences, these actions have to be justified by the setting, the narrative, the character’s backstory, their personality, and their outlook. These tips are just as applicable to character development as they are to the single scene on the page.

1) Develop a Functional Grasp of Anatomy

Fighting is all about the body and the body is all about anatomy. You can’t write a strike without understanding where that strike can go and what it’s designed to disrupt once it gets there. A punch to the windpipe will have different results than a punch to the stomach or a punch to the kidney. But what does that mean in the long run? You can only know that if you know what the organs are necessary for in the first place. A punch to the windpipe will either disrupt or destroy someone’s ability to breathe depending on the level of force, a punch or any strike to the kidney risks death from internal bleed out over the course of three days and that’s part of the reason why strikes to the back are outlawed in most forms of professional sport fighting (Muay Thai is an exception), a punch to the stomach will knock their wind out. When working with fighting, it’s good to know the end result and since we’re working with fiction we control what happens. This is both a gift and a trap. So, ask yourself before you sit down to write a scene: how does the body work together? What makes it function? What openings can be exploited? How does your character keep from killing someone?

Anatomy combined with technique is a nice cheat sheet.

2) The Trick is in the Application

Here is where anatomy comes in and becomes important. The trick to convincing your audience is not what the character knows, but in what they can do with the techniques they have. Once you know what the technique is supposed to do when it connects, you can dial it back: is the technique I’m planning to use logical to the beliefs and motives of the character I’m writing. Characters of varying skill level may or may not know what it is that they’re doing in the moment, but the writer better know the difference. I’ve encountered too many well-trained characters who are supposed to be opposed to killing who then turn around and perform kill strikes on a target in the name of subdual. Now, this isn’t bad when it’s intentional but when it’s not? Pitch another rock through the suspension of disbelief window.

If you develop a basic grasp of anatomy you will be more capable of dissecting the strikes and techniques you uncover in books, see in movies, or read about on Wikipedia. Once you know what the technique is supposed to do, you’ll know how the character feels about using it and whether or not they fit into the philosophical and thematic elements their style supports. The writer is responsible for cause and effect in a story, a character is responsible for their actions regardless of their intentions. We have to know what happens to the characters the protagonist hurts and the more skilled the protagonist is supposed to be then the more exacting and greater detail is necessary. You want to write a character that is considered to be the best in their field? They better know exactly what they’re doing and they have to be able to convey that knowledge to the reader. The writer doesn’t need to actually possess the level of skill their character is supposed to have, but they need to support the illusion.

So, stop and consider the techniques your planning on using, what are they designed to affect? How are they applied? What parts of the body are necessary for their application? How does it affect the acting character? How does it affect the character they hurt? Does your character know what they’re talking about?

3) Detail, Detail, Detail

So, you want to prove you know what you’re talking about? Well, the devil’s in the details. Now, you have a functional grasp of how the body works together and possibly some of the techniques you want to use and it’s time to put it all together. Be specific. Be exact. Be ready to explain both the action and the consequences when necessary. For example: what are the intervening steps between someone getting their throat cut from the front: they need to be quick and be able to get close without arousing suspicion, because they are in plain view of the guard or the target, they must keep their blade somewhere where it won’t be visible and drawn quickly, possibly in a wrist sheath as opposed to on their belt. They have to slash before their target can cry out in alarm and also be able to get out of the area before anyone else notices, if escape is part of the plan. A slash across the windpipe reduces the risk of the blade being caught in muscle or bone, it’s also a big strike and more risky.  While a strike to the carotid artery requires the blade go up at an angle, it’s more exact but also difficult to hit without a fair amount of practice in a tense situation.

Remember, detail extends beyond just the action and the description, it’s also important to character. A character’s behavior is based on what they do and don’t know and their outlook. The details you provide about them and in the way they behave will key the reader to the kind of character they are and what they will be willing to do. Violence changes us, a character who participates in acts of violence regardless of what they intend will be changed by it. Their ability to fight will be reflected across every aspect of their personality, inform who they are, and plays a role in what details they notice in the world around them. For example: tensed, hunched shoulders with tightened back muscles in a standing position could be a sign that someone is depressed or angry or it could be a sign that they were in fights as a child, are worried about getting jumped, or that they’ve been to prison. Hunched shoulders and tensed back muscles are a defensive posture used to protect the vitals against assault, someone who has lived a life where they have to worry about being shanked by anyone for anything may stand like this. Whether the character notices will be predicated on their training and their past experiences. A cop will notice, someone else who has been to prison will notice, a military professional or martial artist may not.

These pieces that your character picks up are part of the greater whole of the story. They need to fit into the thematic elements of the narrative and the plot. They are important for creating a coherent picture and part of convincing your audience to trust what you’re saying. Attention to detail for a writer means more than just step-by-step walkthrough of a technique or how many pine needles a branch on the tree has. It is part of putting together a clear picture before the fight ever occurs. Too much information can slow down a fast paced sequence but it can also distract from the story at large with details that are unnecessary. The details you use need to further connect the character to the action, show the character’s personality, outlook, and training, while syncing them together with the setting.

It’s ironic to say that your character fighting, even in a technically well-written fight scene isn’t enough to prove that your character knows how to fight. The believability of your fight scenes is being set up from the very first page and in the first character introduction. I’m not even talking about foreshadowing. I’m just talking about consistency.

4) Know Your Style

So, how do you know what details are going to be important? Well, you need to know what style of combat your character is practicing. This is one of the major problems that writers face when trying to convince their audience that the character knows how to fight. They use terms like “high level martial arts” or “exceptional fighting ability”. Skill means nothing, except when combined with experience. They choose umbrella terms for a bunch of different styles like “karate”, “taekwondo”, or “kung fu”. With the exception of taekwondo, that actually doesn’t really tell the reader anything.

The World Karate Federation recognizes four distinctly different forms of karate: Shotokan, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu. The World Union of Karate-do Federations recognizes eight different and unique styles that fall under the karate header. Those are the just styles that are officially recognized. They don’t cover the different variations between master to master or between different schools or the outlooks of those schools. There’s a big difference in the training a character receives from a traditional school and the training they receive from a non-traditional school. In America, karate is a catch all phrase by most for any Eastern martial art regardless of the country it comes from. When I was growing up it was easier to refer to the style I was practicing as “the karate school” than it was trying to explain the difference between karate and taekwondo ten different times in a single afternoon. Especially when the people I was explaining it to weren’t going to remember the next time I brought it up.

But, if you’re going to write a character that fights, you need to know the specifics of the style they practice and the social customs of the country they practice in. A karate school in America, even with a Japanese instructor trained by a master in Japan or a master trained by a master in Japan or a master who was trained by another master who was trained by a master in Japan will be different from a school based in Japan. There will simply be different values at play on the social end much less the technical end and those will also have influenced the character.

Be specific. Be exact. Know what you’re talking about to the best of your ability and you’ll be less likely to fall on your face. For example: variations of police hand to hand come from CQC, the Military uses CQB. (CQC stands for Close Quarters Combat, CQB stands for Close Quarters Battle.)

How can anyone take your character seriously if they can’t even tell the audience what style they’ve been trained in? This is an important part of their backstory, they’ll know the ins and outs of it, who trained them, and who they trained with. Even if your character has a supernatural level of aptitude, they’re going to need to learn how to refine that skill somewhere.

5) Stick to the Basics

Many writers think that to write a black belt or an extremely proficient fighter they need to show them using advanced techniques. This isn’t true.  In times of crisis, a character will turn to the techniques they are most familiar with, the ones they practice constantly, and the ones they know best. Those techniques are the first ones they learn, the basic techniques. These are the techniques that you can get an easy overview on in any practical handbook relating to the style, go to your local library or bookstore and dig through the many, many self-help books relating to each individual style. These books will provide you with pictures and diagrams and usually an overview of the style’s history, the reasoning behind its development (or why it was revived). Pretty much most of what you need to start to piece together how the style is supposed to work, with background research and other books or interviews with local schools about the style, combined with an understanding of basic anatomy, you should be able to begin the process of writing a decent fight scene.

This is the stuff you can learn in a short amount of time. If you can use these techniques convincingly and effectively in your writing, then you’re golden. You don’t need anything else. Besides, in a real world fight most of the fancy exhibition stuff will get you killed. It will get your character killed. They aren’t usually appropriate as combat techniques anyway or are the risky kill moves. The basics are the safe stuff and they are the easiest to begin working with. You can learn how to write your character using them quickly and learn how to write them well.

Here’s the thing to remember: being able to fight and being able to write a convincing fight scene are two different skill sets. There’s a point of knowledge that overlaps, but that’s it. A martial artist isn’t necessarily going to be able to write about what they do and writer martial artists have a whole subset of potential flaws that they have to work to avoid. You don’t need to be a master martial artist to write a master martial artist, all you need to know is the steps that go into the creation of a master and what the general results are.  

Breaking the pieces apart from the whole picture and puttng them back together is an important skill in any writer’s toolbox. Writing about fighting is supplementary to the skills you already posses, figure out what something is, how it was created, and what it means in the backdrop of the bigger picture and you’ll have what you need.

It’s as easy as that.

-Michi

Is there some kind of moves in martial arts that resemble dancing moves? Like a really elegant, swift, and light way of fighting?

No.

Pretty much, any master can make their style look elegant as hell. With practice and dedication, any competent martial artist can polish a kata down to really good performance art.

But, katas aren’t for fighting. They’re a set of moves designed to help students get used to shifting from one strike to the next. In theory, anyone can polish them into one fluid performance; but it’s kind of missing the point.

And, nothing will get you killed faster in a fight, than digging out a kata. It’s a rote set of moves, anyone who recognizes the kata you’re using will instantly know what you’re going to do next, and while they’re not standardized, they are teaching tools, they get around.

Here’s the thing; outside of a fight, as a demonstration or a kata or an exhibition, most mainstream martial arts can be performance art. There are styles like Capoeira that were specifically designed to be disguised as dancing. But, when a fight starts, the styles change.

In combat, martial arts styles are reactive. They key off what your opponent is doing at this moment. As an unarmed combatant, you need to be building momentum, building force, or working with pinpoint precision. You can’t do any of those things while you’re pirouetting around; you have neither the time, nor the energy.

More than that, at a training level, dancers make poor martial artists, and vice versa. To an outside observer, what they do may look similar, but on a technical level, the skills are almost completely incompatible.

-Starke