Tag Archives: writing brutal characters

In the story that I’m writing, my character gets into a fight in a bathroom. The man she’s fighting comes up from behind her and grabs her by the hair. In response, she grabs him by the temples and shoves her thumbs into his eyes, causing him to let go. She in turn then grabs him by the back of the head and slams his forehead down onto the corner of a porcelain sink. Given she’s 5’9, 150 lbs, & physically fit but has no fighting training, how much/what kind of damage is she actually going to do?

Well, she just took out his eyes. Then she bounced his head off a wall. So, he’s done. Not dead, probably. He’s done though. He’s going to have more problems with the fact he can’t see now.

The problem with this scenario is that it’s the kind of rapid escalation you see from hyper-agressive self-defense training. This is ex-special forces, wet works, spy, ex-military levels of violence. It’s in the switch over, and the follow up.

You can have someone with no training do it. It’s possible, but they are going to shut down so hard afterwards. In an adrenaline rush, she doesn’t have the control to not take his eyes out. So, she just stuck her thumbs into his eyes. That’s not fun. That alone will shut her down. He’s screaming, and now her hands are covered in blood.

Like you don’t do combos like this without a lot of training. Or, you know, she’s got no regard for another person’s humanity. However, that reaction suggests she’s done this before.

The problem isn’t that these techniques (even as a string) are difficult to execute. It’s the violence. She has no experience with it. This is the kind of response you get off of Jason Bourne (Film version) and Jack Bauer. You don’t get it off of Michael Westen from Burn Notice.

What this says is:

This is the response from someone who likes their victories to be as
decisive as possible and damn the methods. Whatever gets them to that
win fastest. They are used to their enemies escalating as quickly with lethal force and go there first. They obliterate opposition.

This is a mindset that takes a long time germinate. It is what you get from ex-special forces. They’ve had time to master the kick over from normal state and into violence, their kick over is immediate, and then they escalate to lethal force.

The only thing missing here for a confirmed kill is a few more blows to
the head via the sink, and then she crushes his throat with her foot.

Now, he may already be dead. The extra is just for confirmation.

Your character just killed someone. At the very least, they blinded him. How they did it is not normal, and you may want to reassess just how much they know about combat. This is not the behavior of someone who has never been in a fight. This is the behavior of someone who has a close, personal relationship with turning people into sausage.

Here’s what someone with no training does when they get grabbed from behind: they freeze or they flail.

Conventional self-defense programs will have taught her to rock her body weight and slam the back of her head into his face, which causes his nose to bleed and the pain may force him to let go. Or drive her heel into his shin. Or do both.

You can actually do these things, and even (if you’re lucky) succeed at them without practice. The point of techniques in a good, conventional self-defense program is that they are easily instilled into the muscle memory. Which means, these are often basic techniques which do come fairly naturally and stay for a very long time. They’re meant to provide you with the opportunity to escape, so you can run.

This means, you can happen on these basics in a fight completely by accident. You could end up slamming the back of your head into someone’s nose just by flailing if you flail forward and back. The schoolyard bully who beats people up in grade school figured some of these out. Like the sucker punch to the stomach. Punches hurt a lot less when they’re hitting soft targets, and the stomach is a very effective place to hit with immediate results.

The major problem for someone with no experience dealing with violent situations is the mental hangups. You don’t just switch over and do. You have to decide to do. You have to decide to respond. Decide hurt someone else. Then you have to decide how you’re going to do it. In a person without training, this can amount to a lot of paralyzing seconds. When you’re talking about characters who have immediate, violent responses, they’re people who have enough experience that their decision is immediate. They don’t do it by accident, they made the choice. And deciding to hurt people, especially as the level of violence escalates from a broken nose to blinding someone else to death, takes practice.

For women, depending on how they’ve been socialized, this can be very difficult. Some have an easier time of it than others, but violence (especially this kind) rolls right up against everything the greater society tells you a woman is supposed to be. Getting over that hump is difficult, it’s harder when you’re scared, and even harder when you haven’t had any preparation at all.

The problem for you, I think, is that you’re still getting caught up in the idea that size and weight, training versus no training, have some basic diminishing effect on how successful someone is at combat. I mean that you’re thinking of it in terms of video game levels.

Combat is really about decision making, how confident you are and how comfortable you are in the level of violence of which you’re participating. Figuring out what your character can do is based on three things.

1) They have the ability to get themselves into the mindset quickly.

2) They have the experience to be confident in doing and comfortable with what they level of violence they’ve chosen to participate in.

3) They have the muscle memory and familiarity with the techniques to use them in a dangerous situation/stressful environment.

What they know how to do matters, what their intentions are matters, and the kind of violence they’ve chosen to perform matters a lot when it comes to figuring out where they are on the scale.

So, when you ask yourself or your character:

“What’s the first thing you if someone grabs you?”

Their answer is: Scream.

We’re on the right track for a beginner, or someone you just pulled off the street.

If their answer is: Stick their fingers in their eyes.

They’re on a slightly different level when it comes to what they know.

Horrifically mangling people is not normal, natural human behavior. You work your way up to it. Mostly because it requires being able to look at another person as two hundred pounds of ambulatory meat. You’ve dehumanized them inside your head to point of being a problem that needs to be removed from your environment. It can be developed, and not just by training. Depending on your environment and socialization, it can occur naturally. However, it does mean you’ve grown up in some kind of hazardous environment.

A person who has gotten to this point isn’t someone who is having their first violent experience. Their collecting frequent flier miles.

Over time, the ability to escalate builds. You don’t train to it, you develop it from personal experience. As you experience violence and violent encounters, you learn how fast you can escalate. You learn new points to escalate to, you learn what you need to do in order to keep yourself from harm. It is learned, and not in a safe environment.

This is why I say its the response of someone who is in the range of ex-special forces. They have gone so far that they don’t manage, or attempt to control, or worry about the fallout, they just do. They’ve reached the point where this response is reasonable, where if they don’t immediately respond this way then they will die. It’s this or death.

Now, that doesn’t mean your imagined scene is wrong. It just means there may be more to this character and their background than they’ve decided to share with you.

This is why, honestly, understanding escalation of violence is important. Why understanding reasonable force is important. So you know what your characters chosen method of response says about them and act accordingly.

I have seen many characters, especially female ones, go to this level of violence when it’s not the author’s intention. They wanted something slightly more normal. They do it because they think its cool, or bad ass, or some level above normal, or because Jack Bauer did it. It’s what they thought the appropriate response was, and they were wrong. (And when they do it with law enforcement, well, they dumb.)

The kind of violence a character chooses to participate in and enact on another person says a lot about them. It’s another expression of who they are, it’s a clue into their character, and it’s a clue to their past. It is, very much, show don’t tell.

You need to know what exactly it is you’re showing. When you know, you can have others respond to it and have control over where it goes.

A sane, rational person’s response when happening upon this scene is “what the fuck was that?” It’s the sort of scene that turns her into the scary, terrifying aggressor. It doesn’t matter what her victim’s intentions were, because she went so far over the line there is no coming back. Well, not in polite society. From the perspective of an outsider inside the setting (not you, not her, not the reader) she looks like a monster straight out of a horror movie. She dehumanized herself. It is worse for her, now, if he lives.

See when it comes to the rest of humanity, there’s such a thing as overdoing it. Brutality alienates, it defies and defiles ethics and morality. A character who participates is segregated out because they’re no longer “safe”. Not all violence causes a visceral, negative reaction in those who witness it or its aftermath, but the more brutal it is then the more genuinely terrifying they become.

And it is the actions themselves, it’s not the character’s intentions, experience, context, or moral alignment. They don’t get off or excused for being new, if anything that makes it worse for them because that means this is their default state.

Now, this means nothing when it comes to the quality of the work or audience investment. You can get the audience on board for it, just look at 24 and Jack Bauer or Walter White. Sell it right, and people will root for anything. However, like with those shows, there need to be in setting consequences and recognition of the behavior. There are characters we love in concept, and characters we would hate to be in the same room with. Make no mistake, anyone who would tear another human’s throat out with their teeth or pinning them to their chair as they forced their eye open and held a ball point pen just above their pupil is downright terrifying. Their actions may be entirely justified in the narrative’s own context, they may justify them to themselves, but outside justification doesn’t govern visceral, knee-jerk reactions. Taking someone’s eyes out will freak out another human’s survival instincts.

Forget your attachment to your character for the moment. How would you react if you walked in on a 5″9, 150 pound woman pounding a man’s head into the sink? Her hands covered with blood, clothes spattered, his as she isn’t bleeding.

It’s a different reaction from walking in on the same woman struggling against a grown man whose nose is bleeding, clawing at his face, and beating him with her purse while screaming, “No, No, No!” Or just, “not today, motherfucker!”

Both these situations offer interesting story dynamics and characters, but its important to figure out which one is what you want because they are not the same. They are not even in the same hemisphere.

A character doesn’t need to be a great warrior, capable combatant, or brutal fighter. They can be great without that, they don’t need to succeed when they fight back, and they can utilize their other strengths to craft tense, brilliant sequences. They can flail, and struggle. Scream, and cry. Stand frozen like a deer in the headlights. Hide in the restroom stall, crouched on top of the toilet with their hand clapped over their mouth. Run away.

The most important thing when crafting a character is to be honest.

I know, you probably didn’t intend for the thumbs to go into the eyes. They will though, because she’s either scared and high on adrenaline who doesn’t have any idea where his eyes actually are as she can’t see them or a practiced combat who really doesn’t give a fuck.

There’s a reason why brutality is a real life scare tactic, why shock value is an embraced tactic on film. It’ll freak you out, and it doesn’t discriminate.

The best narratives accept these sorts of actions for what they are, treat the effects they have on the characters, and deal with them honestly, the worst assume the rules are different because Protagonist.

In the end, learning how to balance force with narrative necessity, a character’s personality/characterization, and the consequences will lead to a more fulfilling story. Be honest with yourself about who this character is and who you want them to be. Ultimately, that’s where the best scenes and the best badassery come from.

Nothing is stopping her from stomping his foot, pushing him into a stall, hitting him with the door before fleeing toward the exit and locking him inside the bathroom.

-Michi

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