Tag Archives: writing combat

Q&A: Balsa Staff Followup


add in, they’re the basis of many ancient infantry weapons. Knowing how to use one lends itself to spear and polearm fighting.

Also the sword, which may sound really weird, but there’s a surprising amount of techniques that transition over to the longsword with minor modifications. The staff is a very good “starter” weapon. A lot of the lessons you learn there can be adapted for use elsewhere.

Also bruised knuckles. All the bruised knuckles you could ever want can be found in staff training.


Q&A: Balsa Staff

I’m unsure if this is a question to ask you, but how viable is balsa wood for a quarterstaff? And how viable is a quarterstaff in combat itself?

Balsa’s a bit fragile for a staff. Usually, when you want a light weight staff, the material of choice is bamboo. But, most durable woods can do the job. Pine is nice for this. Oak is the traditional choice for a quarterstaff.

Staves of any variety are very viable, this includes the quarterstaff. They’re easy to train people on, simple to use, and they can absolutely mess someone up. Even in the hands of someone who only kinda knows what they’re doing, they’re a good weapon.


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I don’t know if you watch GOT, but how hard would it be to fight someone like the mountain hand-to-hand? (well, armed, like in the show). Does being big like him really makes for a better fighter?

Hand to hand is a bit different from armed, especially armored, but okay.
The answer is pretty simple.

Start low.

Tall fighters, especially male fighters, have a rather serious issue that’s often
overlooked: their center of gravity. It’s higher up off the ground than the
average person, and a great many men (like the Mountain) do not drop low enough
into their stances to compensate. The taller they are, the lower they need to
go to counterbalance their size. Attack their feet, or their legs. Attack their
center. Whatever you need to destabilize them. A lot of tall fighters have
issues with their base. There are other flaws, but that’s often a big one.

Cutting the legs out from under of your enemy is a real tactic, or I should
say: cutting them down to size.

Stab him in the foot. (Yeah, no, real combat tactic.)

Here’s a question: you ever hear the story about David versus Goliath?
Probably, most people know the story of the shepherd boy who defeated the
greatest, largest warrior in single combat with a sling.

The story is a parable, and a life lesson. It’s also a little more
complicated than just brains over brawn. If you take anything from the story,
the big one is going to be: never fight your enemy on their terms.
Understand where their strengths are, where you’re strengths are, and change
the rules.

What a big fighter has going for them is the intimidation factor, and mind
games in combat are a huge deal. It’s not so much about physical prowess as
much as what your enemy believes about your physical prowess. Or you
believe about your opponent’s. What you believe will affect how you fight, how
hard you fight, and how well you fight. Go into a fight believing you’re at a
disadvantage or will lose and you’ll lose.

Assessing your enemy’s strengths for their weaknesses is the winning
strategy. If never addressed, big fighters will have a lot of flaws because
their opponents often cede them the field in their minds. This is especially
true when in training, and training is the foundation of skill. When people
treat you like you’re invincible, you’ll start to believe you are. And that’s
how you get an over reliance on a natural advantage with no compensation for
the flaws it brings.

The problem is that many people treat size and body types like they’re all
or nothing. For every advantage one has, there’s a disadvantage to go with it.
A fighter with a heavy reliance on what nature has given them (size, strength,
what have you) often neglects more crucial skills if never addressed. You can
have big fighters with exceptional levels of skill, but those are the ones
who’ve realized they can’t brute force their way through every problem. When
they don’t, their technique is sloppy.

Now, really, really, really big people often have to work doubly hard to
develop their coordination because fighting with a big, lanky body is

The trick when you have (or feel like you have) the disadvantage is not to
meet the enemy on their terms. The best fighters figure out how to exploit
their opponent’s strengths in order to expose their weaknesses and fight with
an advantage. The bad fighters are the ones who choose to fight at a
disadvantage, who don’t prepare to face their enemy, and try to use the same
tactics over and over. The smart ones change up, they are proactive, and
understand the battlefield flows.

Ultimately, that’s what makes for the “best” fighter.

Fear is the biggest strength for someone who is massive in size, not
their strength and not their bulk. When you are frightened, you become
reactive, you cease to actively think, and fail to problem solve. The moment
you are defeated in your mind, that is the moment you lose. It doesn’t matter
how many steps it takes in the real world after the fact, cede the field in
your mind and it’s over. Intimidation can win that fight before the battle ever
begins, and the biggest kid on the playground is as natural as intimidation

The Mountain isn’t great because of his skill, but the fact that he makes
everyone around him afraid. His personal ruthlessness and cruelty back up that
size, and strengthens his ability to intimidate. When facing the Mountain,
you’re faced with fear over the (very real) consequences of what he’ll do to

He’s valuable because he’s frightening, not because he’s good at fighting.
The good at fighting is the bonus that makes him more frightening.

Understanding the affect the mind has on combat is like 70% to victory.
Understanding the assumptions made and why we make them is important to writing
scenes with characters like this. If you put stock in the Mountain’s size,
rather than the Mountain’s reputation then you miss where his strengths
actually lie and why people are afraid of him.

The Mountain’s reputation is as a ruthless killing machine who delights in
rape, murder, and pillage. Torture is his specialty. He does not abide by the
code of chivalry or rules of knightly honor. He’s a sadist. For him, there’s no
such thing as just warfare. He thirsts for blood and battle. He’s protected by
one of the most powerful houses in the GOT universe, and he earns his pay as
their enforcer.

His size is just a plus. He could be just as terrifying at 5″4, and then
you’d have the joy of underestimating him before he put a knife through your
eye. If he was small, he’d be even more terrifying because there’d be more
bodies. His size doesn’t change who he is under the hood, it’s just one more
attribute he’s utilizing to its fullest potential.

Stereotypes about tall and short people are just that. Stereotypes.

Every body type has its drawbacks, and their natural advantages can be made
to work against them. Tall fighters are more gangly, their center of gravity is
further away from the earth, their weight puts additional stress on their joints
(especially their knees), and if they never work at addressing their issues
they can be slower to start. You can also have overweight/heavy weight martial
artists like Sammo Hung,
where there’s virtually no difference between them and a martial artist half
their size. Skill can close the gap. Understanding of your own strengths and
weaknesses also helps. Knowledge is power. Training yourself out of society’s
instilled biases is hard, but necessary. This is especially true if you perceive
yourself to be the underdog.

Not automatically assuming bigger equals better is the first step. The
second is realizing that the best warriors are not decided by outside metrics,
but rather through an inward understanding of how to utilize their strengths and
address their weaknesses.

On that note, I’ll leave you with a compilation of Cynthia Rothrock’s fight scenes. Cythnia Rothrock is a Hong Kong action star, a winner of world championships in the 80s, she has a wide variety of black belt level training in multiple martial arts, and is one of the most famous westerners to make it in the Hong Kong action scene.

Why end with this? Well, exposure to female movie martial artists runs the gamut between low to non-existent and that lack of exposure to different body types is where most misunderstandings about size come from.


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What would an inexperienced fight with no weapons (just their fists) be like? Especially when they’re trying to kill each other.


I mean, it’s still only going to run around 29 seconds but it can reach up to a minute or longer depending on how bad they are at it. Believe it or not, humans are not naturally good at combat. Our one natural defense is that we taste really fucking bad. It’s the copper in our blood. Punching is a learned skill.

What any inexperienced fighter will do when fighting is use techniques that they’ve seen elsewhere or use ones that they’ve used before and know work. This usually amounts to wildly swinging at each other until one falls over, the other pounces, and pounds their head into the dirt/pavement until they pass out/die.

Wild swinging, stumbling into each other, hair grabbing, whatever they think will work, until they both fall down. They may roll around on the ground for a while, but whoever landed on top is probably going to be the winner.

However, with inexperienced fighters, they may not be able to tell if the other person is actually dead or not.


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how effective is a war hound in combat against, say, an armored knight?



Dogs have a long history of being used in warfare, going back further than the Romans and the Greeks. The vast majority of armies prior to the modern era used dogs to some extent, and they still hold important a positions in our military and police force today. The only reason they no longer have a place on our frontlines is the advent of the gun and a primary focus on ranged warfare, in which the dog like the horse has no place. However, they are still used for guarding and in K-9 units. The German Shepherd has no issue bringing down a full size human.

Historically we have the Molossus and the Alaunt which are both now extinct breeds used by the Romans. However, modern compatriots of these various breeds do exist such as the Mastiff, whose males weigh in between 150 to 250 pounds, and the Irish Wolfhound.

We have records of Irish Wolfhounds being used by the Irish to bring down Norman knights on horseback during their invasion and eventual conquest of Ireland. Their role was to catch the horse and drag the knight from the saddle to be killed.

However, it’s worth noting that dogs don’t go into battle alone. They are pack animals and they travel in teams. An armored knight wouldn’t be fighting a singular dog, he’d be fighting multiple armored dogs and possibly also their handler. These dogs when on their hind legs could almost certainly reach his throat and are more than capable of bowling him over or knocking him to the ground.

He’d be battling in melee, with the fight surging around him. So, there would be other humans

whether other knights or various soldiers who could potentially finish whatever the dogs start. Or the dogs finish whatever they start.

While versus ideas are always fun to contemplate, it’s important to remember that warfare from melee to modern is not about dueling. It’s team. Like their dogs, soldiers fight together. It’s not about the individual, but the unit.

Those who fight together, survive together.

Much as we romanticize the lone knight, CIA agent, or soldier who sticks it to the man and makes their own decisions, that’s not how warfare works. Even if you choose to go this route in your storytelling, remember that there are many participating actors taking part.

The danger of the dog is the other dogs and the man or woman standing behind them.

The good news if you want to write about war dogs is that dogs haven’t changed much and their training generally revolves around their natural instincts. So, a better understanding of medieval warfare and studying the historical usage of dogs in combat will give you a good idea of what they were used for and how to write them.


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References and Resources

Dogs in Warfare – Wikipedia is a great place to go for a cursory look, but it is not the only stop you should make. The links at the bottom of the page are particularly helpful when it comes to establishing a wider scholarly base to work from in your research.

Dogs of War – Rome Across Europe’s article does a run down of the historical uses of various war dog types, with a focus on Rome and up to the present. If you want a focus on particular types of war dogs, you’ll need to do a scholarly dig in when it comes to historical periods.

War dogs among the Early Irish

Quartermaster War Dog Program: this page talks about the different types of dogs used in 1942, just a reminder that the usage of dogs in war extends far beyond their use on the battlefield itself. From detecting snipers, to delivering messages, and sniffing out scouts, the war dog has had many important roles throughout history that shouldn’t be overlooked.


 “In France, a splendid duel was fought in 1400 between a suspected murderer and his accuser, a dog. The Chevalier Maquer killed Aubrey de Montdidier in the Forest of Bondy, near Paris, and buried the body. The only witness was Montdidier’s greyhound. The dog went back to town to a friend of his master’s and led the friend to the spot, where he whined and scratched the ground. The body was recovered and reburied, and the greyhound moved in with the friend. Shortly thereafter, it met up with Maquer and attacked him viciously; three men had to pull it off him. The dog was an otherwise gentle and amiable sort, but it kept on flying at Maquer whenever it saw him.

This was reported to the king, who decided it was definitely an accusation and arranged for the single-combat trial. The fight took place on the Ile de France in Paris, Maquer with a lance, the greyhound with its natural weapons. The dog sprang on the man with amazing ferocity and clamped its teeth around his throat and couldn’t be shaken off. Maquer screamed that he’d confess if they’d pull off the dog.

This, in contemporary eyes, proved the justice of combat trials pretty conclusively, and Maquer was hanged and strangled on the gibbet and Montfaucon.” -Gentleman’s Blood: A History of Dueling 

There’s also this.



What are the pros and cons of “street fighting”? Like no formal training, somewhat self taught, and for surviving. Can this apply to sword fighting? I’m writing about a character who has formal training but also learned street fighting because they saw some value in it and they find it unpredictable

Since these questions come up a lot, we have tags for #street fighting and #untrained fighter.

It’s worth pointing out that street fighting is just fighting, there’s nothing special associated with it and the idea that it’s unpredictable is… untrue. The true moral of Fight Club is that Fight Club is a stupid expression of toxic masculinity that is worth nothing. Getting beat up a lot doesn’t make you a better fighter. It will give you an endorphin high and sell you on the illusion of your own toughness.

Street fighting is extremely predictable, especially from self-taught fighters. This is because self-taught fighters have a limited move set. A move set that is limited to what they’ve seen in practice by someone else. Today, this means what you see on on television. Whether that’s professional boxing, UFC, WWE, or someone trying to ape the moves of a Hollywood action star like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, etc.

An untrained swordfighter is even more screwed than untrained hand to hand because sword combat on the street is called dueling and they practice that in the salle.

Your character would actually be more unpredictable via seeking out secondary instruction from “practical” aka practical application or more street minded sources. This can be police self-defense, training in forms like Krav Maga, and others that focus on teaching your character to use what they’ve learned in their studio out in the real world.

The techniques don’t change, but the mentality does.

For a character who has formal training, they’re going to re-learn to use what they already know in a new environment where the stakes are higher. The difference between a recreational martial art and a practical one is what you’re training for rather than the techniques themselves. Changing from one to the other involves changing how your perspective on your environment and learning to evaluate threats as opposed to simply focusing on technique and training for sport or spiritual enlightenment.

All martial arts training revolves around survival on some level.

For a character to “train” in “street fighting”, they’d have to go out and fight on the street. This would involve taking their life in their hands and risking it for… what, exactly? They saw value in going out to beat up/get beat up by random strangers at a bar, in a Fight Club style set up, or something similar to backyard wrestling rings.

This character isn’t actually learning a new fighting style. They’re taking what they know out into the real world to test it. (An act which will get you evicted from most martial arts studios if they catch you, especially if you’re a minor.)

The “unpredictability” of street fighters comes from the fact that most people can’t predict when a fight is about to break out. They don’t see it. They don’t get in the frame of mind for it. They see the aftermath, after the first punch is thrown, and are stuck mentally playing catch up as they’re getting pounded.

The average street fight lasts less than thirty seconds.

Those first few milliseconds at the beginning of a fight are crucial, as is your frame of mind before the first punch is thrown. Getting yourself into the right mindset, ready to defend, and ready to fight means that you’re not going to be blindsided when the time comes to go.

That is the unpredictability of street fighters, though. They’ve learned that the first one to the punch usually wins, they’ve learned that the most aggressive fighter is the successful one. So, they to take the initiative, blindside, and pound. By the time the other person mentally catches up, the fight’s over and they’re either broken on the ground or dead.

“Unpredictable” is just code for “I didn’t expect that”. It isn’t a mystical state that is forever surprising. Through time and experience, the unpredictable becomes predictable for the individual. For the same technique to continue being unpredictable, you need to consistently perform it on those who’ve never seen it before. The street fighter illusion will fall apart fairly quickly because, when you’re working from the basis of the self-taught, street fighting isn’t that complex.

Those with formal training benefit from not only their own experiences, but the experience of their instructors, their instructors’ instructors, and everything else that comes with a martial that has survived for multiple generations. It’s a battle against a multitude of experiences, against a co-operative effort.

I will point out again that combat is a science and utilizes science as a means to kill people. It isn’t part of human nature and natural instinct, it is specifically designed to exploit them.

Street fighting is fighting in an uncontrolled environment, where the risks are higher due to the lack of protections and harm is assured.


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I’ve seen a lot here about improvised weapons, but not much about improvised armour. Like, if a character just strapped on whatever they could find around the house, like a lifejacket and gardening gloves and safety goggles and winter coats, would they stand a better chance of coming out alive and uninjured from a riot/barfight/collateral damage of people not trying to kill them?

We’ve talked about improvised armor, though it’s been in the past. Like with weapons, armor is not universal. You wear armor to protect against specific threats and circumstances, rather than all the threats. Nothing will ever cover all the threats. Police riot gear, for example, is designed to protect them from the rioters. So, it’s protection from physical harm such as fists, thrown rocks, and bottles. It won’t protect from bullets.

From a writing standpoint, always dress your characters for the threats they expect face rather than the ones that may actually exist. Always dress them from a basis of what they know and are aware of rather than what you do. They may guess right, they may guess wrong, but those choices are honest to who they are.

So, while none of the ideas you floated in the questions are good ones, they are what someone with no experience in improvising armor might pick as opposed to dressing in multiple layers that can be easily shed, wearing leather, sports pads over or under the clothes, and choosing clothing that’s been designed to take a pounding.

The life vest will make it difficult to move, the goggles will cut off your peripheral vision, and, unless you’re in winter, winter coats will cause you to rapidly overheat.

Ironically, when you’re talking about improvised armor, the bog-standard male Hollywood action hero has the right of it. Thick denim jeans, leather jacket, motorcycle gauntlets, and biker boots. You might end up looking like the Terminator, but you can take a beating.

Likewise, if you don’t have boots, soccer shinguards can be helpful for protecting your shins when in hand to hand. The shins are one of the weak target points and even children know a kick to the shins hurts like hell, due to the lack of muscle, exposed bone, and nerves.

If you have the time, are desperate, creative, and have access, you can probably rig up some form of armor from various sports equipment.

It’ll be the difference between a few cuts, bruises, and the general scraping which come with hand to hand brawls. You want gear that’s designed to take impact, deflect force, and soften blows. In terms of sports equipment, though, most people don’t wander into bars wearing that unless they have some excuse. So, they will look very out of place as opposed to a jeans and a leather jacket.

However, this won’t help if someone’s coming after you with a weapon. It won’t necessarily save you, but it’ll make a difference.

Armor is, unfortunately, much harder to improvise than weaponry. Even good armor when ill-fitting can be detrimental. You need to be able to move and move freely with nothing inhibiting. So just pulling a guard’s riot armor off and throwing it on can ultimately be more harmful than helpful, due to the way it will disrupt and impede movement. You don’t want to wear anything poorly fitting or uncomfortable because the seconds you lose trying to account for it will be the difference between life and death. If you aren’t used to fighting in it, you will be bad at fighting in it, and it’s harder to learn how to fight in an outfit than it is to figure out a crowbar.

Instead, learn to assess a character’s limits. There will always be situations where our characters will find themselves outmatched. You can’t single-handedly defeat a riot, though they can work with and organize the participants. If the entire bar devolves into a fight, or they’re faced with one drunken angry man/woman plus a gaggle of friends and your character has no friends to stand behind them, the best course will be to extract themselves.

Retreat in the face of overwhelming odds is just good sense.

A single character is not going to be able to fight off an entire riot, but they can use it to cover their exit. By utilizing their surrounding environment in the bar, chairs, tables, bar stools, a character can create a path that blocks or causes difficulty when their enemies try to reach them.

Remember, improvised armor takes planning and should be based on the
threats your character expects to face. Defense always requires a basic
understanding of offense.

If you don’t know what you’ll be facing, then it’s difficult to defend against it and you can’t prepare for everything. If you’re characters aren’t in a situation where they have the time to craft and create their armor, consider the surrounding environment and use it. Terrain will always impact a fight and what characters have available to them to use.

And always have the world around them react to what they’re doing. If your character walks into a bar in mix matched football and soccer gear wearing biker boots and a helmet have the other characters behave accordingly.

Confusion and laughter are expected.

References and Resources:

This WikiHow has a lot of helpful information on how to make your own riot gear. One of the things you’ll notice and should take note of when improvising your fictional situations is the amount of preparation it takes.

This article on RideApart.com discusses how to adapt motorcycle gear into riot protection.


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Are there/ What are things to take into consideration when writing fight scenes with fat characters? I have a fat female character who gets into a lot of fights and may have congenital pain indifference (which is another monster in itself.) I just want to make her fight scenes realistic. I’ll be digging around your blog for more inspiration as fighting characters were never a thing for me before now. (smh why must they have minds of their own)

I present you with Sammo Hung. And Sammo Hung versus Donnie Yen. And a young Sammo Hung in Enter the Fat Dragon. Sammo Hung is a very famous actor in Chinese cinema, he’s contemporary of Jackie Chan and is a well-known fight choreographer. He’s also overweight and can kick your ass. It’s also worth remembering that there are “overweight” stunt doubles in Hollywood, one for every overweight actor that can’t handle a prat fall.

The short version is that overweight doesn’t automatically equal unhealthy. It’s also not as big an impediment as most people like to pretend it is. A lot of fitness tries to force people to conform to certain body types, which are easier to achieve by some and ultimately impossible by others. At the end of the day, your body is your body. It can only be changed so much through exercise.

If this character doesn’t work out much, hasn’t developed muscle beneath the fat and leads a mostly sedentary existence then the fat is going to matter. Then, it’s a sign that she’s unhealthy. However, if she’s spent time working out, training, building up her stamina, flexibility, and muscle mass beneath it all? Yeah. Sure. There’s really not that much to consider.

Martial artists come in all shapes and sizes.

She’s not locked into any particular fighting style due to her size.

The advantage of the fat is going to essentially be extra armor and she may be a little less tight in terms of her fighting style. More mass means more force, but it also creates more inertia which works both for and against you. Basically, she’ll hit hard and, initially, she had trouble stopping. More likely over rotation until she learned to compensate.

If she’s been fighting for a while and has actual training, then she’s learned to compensate. She won’t look that much different other than martial artists or professions she’s surrounded by, other than she’ll hear a lot of comments like “Damn! That fat chick can kick high!” (Because it is known that overweight women cannot be as competent as skinny ones.) It won’t save her from derogatory comments or the general population constantly underestimating her abilities until she’s a known quantity, but that’s there.

If she’s fighting without training, then it’s a different kettle of fish. She’ll have learned to compensate some, but not a lot. Even without the pain indifference, it’s hard to hurt her. Especially if she’s figured out how to tense her stomach. Muscle and fat both function as a kind of natural body armor. Muscle, being hard, can be trained to lock up to take impact and reduce the amount of force that can penetrate into the body. Dealing with fat is a little like trying to punch a beanbag chair, with tensed muscles underneath it, the force gets spread across a wider area because a softer surface is being punched. When both work in concert with each other in a body which naturally leans toward that weight, it can be every intimidating.

However, like with anything else, if she doesn’t know how to use her body or fight then she’s at risk for causing greater injury. The more force one can bring to bear, the more likely it can rebound back onto you. This means greater strain on her joints, particularly her ankles and her knees. She’s going to lean toward over-rotation when she punches or attempts a kick because of the mass involved. When one performs a punch or a kick like a roundhouse, the body turns and twists in order to create force. The twisting occurs in the shoulders, the hips, and the feet. Over-rotation refers to turning too far when the force carries through and putting undue stress on the joints. Anyone can fall prey to over-rotation, but the more mass one has then the more common it is. More than that, your body naturally wants to over-rotate because it feels good. It makes you feel powerful.

You’ll generally see it happen with nearly ever single person who doesn’t know how to punch.

What’s going to get her isn’t the fat, it’s the pain indifference. That’s the real killer. The difference between indifference and insensitivity, I think, is that she can actually process the pain coming in and register it’s there but doesn’t react to it. If she uses it to her advantage the indifference can have a psychological effect (short term) on those she’s fighting, but the side effect may be that she also considers herself invulnerable or even invincible. She knows she can get hurt, but it doesn’t matter.

That is a very dangerous mental place to be in.

Pain is actually very important to the business of martial combat. Not just the giving and the receiving of it. Pain is important as a character building exercise, for pushing through adversity and continuing when things get tough. It’s important for building empathy and understanding the weight of your own responsibility in regards to the skills you have. You know what can be done because it has been done to you and thus are more circumspect about using those skills recklessly without regard for another person’s safety. It impacts your ability to accurately make threat assessments and decide whether or not a fight is worth it. Pain is actually what you feel when you work out as you rip and stretch your muscles to build new ones. Learning the difference between good pain and bad pain is very necessary toward knowing when to push your body, when to stop, and when to auto-correct.

Someone who doesn’t feel pain or is congenitally is unlikely to know when to stop and will come away with extra flaws in their technique that they didn’t correct. Your character’s teachers would’ve fixed it in the beginning, but flaws come back over time if the student doesn’t put the corrections into practice and if they can’t feel the difference. That difference is often pain, how much pain and whether or not it’s good pain. Fixing your footwork, deepening your stances, stopping over-rotation, and a host of other issues rely on the person being able to feel the difference.

Pain both good and bad in various gradations is that difference. It’s not just that you feel it, it’s learning why it matters.

Pain suppression is the helpful skill, but anyone who trains learns it. They experience the pain coming in but they decide whether or not it matters. Knowing where you’re hurt, what’s hurting you, and being able to determine whether or not that pain is important enough to change tactics or even stop is exceedingly important.

Combat is one part physical and one part psychological, and the psychological is vastly more important. A character who believes that they can’t be hurt or are invulnerable is one that will get killed in very short order. They take more chances. Get into fights that they shouldn’t. And, well, die. Your opponent can and will use overconfidence against you, especially if they have time to figure out what precisely is going on. Then, they put a plan into play that will let them get what they’re after.

Recognize the strengths. Identify the weaknesses. Exploit.

This is not a specialty skill that only the really brainy get. This is normal. Everybody is trained to do this and most people who engage in scenarios regarding high personal risk learn it very quickly.

Her issue is that she can be tricked, fairly easily, into going beyond her limits. Her mental fortitude may be in issue when she faces challenges switch suddenly from easy and safe to very hard. She’ll be thrown for a loop when an activity that she views as “safe” because of her invincibility suddenly becomes “not safe”. Then, her congenital indifference to pain goes from advantageous to very frightening. Then, her own body is working against her. She may not know how to stop it.


If I have a character who wants to deliver a disabling but not lethal blow, would she be able to realistically use the butt of her battle axe handle or the broad side of the blades to knock a man out? To clarify, she’s not using it like a club, she’s using it like a battering ram against the side of his head while he’s kneeling over her comrade, not paying attention to her.

A protip for disabling blows is that any weapon strike toward the head is intended to be lethal. Knocking someone out is causing them brain damage, it’s hitting them hard enough so that they’re brain goes “nope! I’m not working anymore!” and you can deliver more pinpoint directed force by driving a weapon sideways into someone’s head than you can by swinging it. The ends of most weapons in the middle ages like the pommel of a sword or the end of the shaft in a battle axe were designed so they could be used as weapons. Even the flat of a blade can be dangerous, though less so than the others. She’d either be hitting them in the cheek, the jaw, or the temple.

This opponent on the field of battle is also, more than likely, going to be wearing a helmet. So, even then, it’s not really going to work.

Frankly, unless there’s a specific reason not to kill this person then it’s best to just finish it. Either that or stab them so they can’t follow and pray. If you’re going to write characters that fight, especially characters who use weapons, it’s best to get used to the idea that they’re going to kill people.

Disabling doesn’t work like it does in the movies where a single blow to the head knocks someone out and it’s all good. It’s slightly more involved. Disabling blows will be striking the hands, the wrists, or the other joints like the knees and shoulders as a means of stopping the other person from hitting back. With the exposed body, you can also strike bone and muscle with a blunt weapon to stun it and make moving painful. Pain is a decent motivator (which doesn’t always work) to making someone else stop. The success tends to depend on the person who is on the receiving end. They’re the ones who actually decide how far the person trying to disable them has to push, and they can hurt themselves more than necessary by refusing to give in after they’ve been secured.

Unless you’re trying to actually kill your enemy, you don’t move to any of the serious vulnerable points. The key to understanding disabling as a fighting style is that the goal is to keep your opponent awake and conscious, you’re just starting on the outside of the body and working your way inward. This is going to be much more difficult if they’re in armor.

If you’ve hit someone hard enough in the head that they’ve blacked out, then you’re running the risk of them never waking up again. The risk of them actually dying goes through the roof if they’re unconscious for more than a few seconds. Again, this is brain damage. It isn’t “and then, sleep”. Even if they do manage to luck out, we get into other problems that aren’t solved with a knockout like what happens to them next. The other characters leaving them unconscious on the battlefield is under the assumption that they’ll be fine, but without any guarantee. There’s no guarantee no one else will kill them. No guarantee they’ll stay down long enough for the characters to get away.

If the character wants to disable this other character then they have to either damage them so they can’t fight back or chase them if they’re planning to run. If they’re planning to stick around, then they need to take them prisoner.

The easiest way to do this if the other person doesn’t see them coming may be to simply press the tip or edge of their blade against some exposed portion of the enemy’s throat while standing behind/beside them. Of course, if they’re side isn’t in control of the battle then they’re in a stalemate that has an out. If they’re not, then they’re in a stalemate that will probably lead to their eventual death or capture.

They can wound them or cripple, which will vary in difficulty. It does count as disabling and will be quicker than trying to do it without leaving a permanent injury. However, this won’t stop them from yelling or trying to attract attention from their friends. It also won’t stop them from screaming. It also doesn’t guarantee that they won’t die. Whether that death comes from blood loss, infection, or another less scrupulous warrior finishing them off after our heroes have gone on their way. Even if they are killed, they may not die immediately. Death can take awhile.

This is where I say that disabling or subduing someone else in a way that doesn’t harm them takes time. It takes a great deal more time and effort than simply killing them. It’s the kind of time a lot of characters just don’t have. A lot of violence is risk assessment and the weighing choices. Characters accept they can’t control everything, they’re in a race against time where they have to start making hard choices about what they need to do rather than what they’d prefer to do. They’re making decisions based on the information they have available.

Depending on the surrounding situation and their understanding of it, this character may be asked to choose between the life of their comrade and the life of the enemy who is kneeling/standing over them.

They can knock them over and take them prisoner, but if they have to run then they’ve got to run with them or leave them to tell their superiors where they’ve gone. If they’re friend is wounded, then they’re trying to save/carry their wounded friend while holding this prisoner hostage as they attempt to run.

In fiction, the knockout has become a sort of cheap way out so characters can avoid consequences or guilt over causing a death. None of this means you can’t do it, but it’s worth thinking about alternate avenues that are ultimately more interesting and put more stress on the characters in question. At it’s heart, violence in fiction is about consequences and how a character deals with them is a defining aspect of who they are. Your character could knock this guy out on the assumption that he’ll survive, only to learn later that he died.

How would they deal with that?

Some people might say it’s cheesy, but accidentally killing someone is real and it happens. Unintended consequences are a huge part of violence confrontations and are most often forgotten unless the writer is looking to teach the audience “a lesson”. However, it’s worthwhile to think about. Especially if you’re dealing with younger characters or those new to violence. Older/more experienced characters look for ways to mitigate them. There are answers to how they handle it which go beyond the breakdown or the angst-ridden cliches.

I’m not going to ask why this warrior is doing something as risky as stopping and kneeling if they’re still in the middle of a battle. That is a very exposed position. If they’re planning on actually killing them, they’ll stay on their feet as it’s more defensible and check their face (to see if they’re worth money) then cut their throat with the tip of their blade. You don’t need to be leaning over to do that. (And if that’s the case, the character probably won’t get to them in time.)

Otherwise the character is attacking someone… who may be friendly. Possibly might be, causing them brain damage is probably a bad idea.


writingcatsworld said: Although, if they’re stiletto heels, you could theoretically still use the heel as an improvised weapon?

Not… really? Someone is chasing you, and in order to use the heel, you’ve got to stop and break the heel off the shoe (it’s going to be very awkward if it’s still on it) then turn it around. This assumes you can get the heel off quickly. Stiletto heels are also extremely short, so very limited amount of range. Shorter than a knife with less puncturing or cutting power. It’s also difficult to hold onto and without a good grip, there’s very little you can do with it. In the end, the only thing you’ve got is a ruined pair of shoes.

Honestly? You’re better off grabbing whatever is nearby, a plate, a mug, a beer bottle, a piece of plywood, a broom, a wrench, whatever is on hand and in easy reach. Hell, in a purely fictional context (because doing this to someone in real life is cruel), if you really want something that screams “women power” then get the cleaning supplies from the laundry room or under the sink and spray the asshole in the eyes. Then, when they open their mouth to scream get them in there for good measure. As they are hacking, coughing, crying, and vomiting you can then use this golden opportunity to either escape or finish them off. (Side Note: Doing this to someone in real life has a likelihood of blinding them or killing them. It will also, probably, hurt you. Don’t fuck around with chemicals. This is writing advice only.)

Still, if it’s all you’ve got then it’s all you’ve got. I’ll take a screwdriver over a stiletto any day though. Unless we’re talking about an actual stiletto, but that is a weapon.

As for stamping, well, balance is still an issue. To get the best power out of a stamp, you’ve got to tilt your foot up and slam the heel down one the other person’s foot. That’s the body’s natural movement. However, it’ll put the stiletto at an odd angle. Besides that, the foot is already arched. So, any force you’ll get out of dropping it is minimal at best. This is also assuming that you’re perfectly balanced on the other foot and can stay that way while in a scuffle with another person, who may be doing any number of things. If it doesn’t puncture (and it probably won’t, it’s more likely to slide off), it’s going to hurt a hell of a lot less than stamping some asshole barefoot. It’ll still hurt… maybe. The other person is most likely wearing shoes too. So, the heel has to make it through that too before it reaches the foot. How well it does that will depend on what they’re wearing. If it’s industrial work boots, biker boots, or combat boots, or anything leather then, you know, good luck.

Even if it does puncture, what then? Now the shoe is stuck in some idiot’s foot, and you’ve got to get it off in order to get away. Unless we’re talking about the knife, a stiletto is designed for walking on the street. It’s blunt, it’s dull, and it’s oddly shaped. It’s going to have trouble getting out. This will lead to you being stuck within easy grabbing distance, regardless of whether or not your back is turned. And for them, when you’re not that far away and walking isn’t an issue, well, pain isn’t quite as immobilizing as most people think. This is especially true when that person is angry. Pain can be a showstopper, it can also act as incentive to make the other person stop whatever it is they are doing.

It’s also probably worth pointing out that, when it comes to the foot, it’s the instep that’s horribly sensitive and not the top of the foot. The top can take a lot of abuse. The toes not so much, but really, you are going to to want to be able to hit more than one. Plus, high heels, and especially stiletto heels, make it awkward to go after the real money shot: the shin.

With the shin a lot of nerve endings and the bone are close to the surface, unprotected by a nice layer of muscle. Much like stamping the instep, kicking the shin (provided it’s exposed) has immediate, painful, and viable results. Kicking someone in the shin still requires a decent level of balance though, especially if you’re knocking them with your heel instead of your toes.

When it comes to combat, the stiletto heel is a Hollywood conceit. It’s like the catsuit. A lot of people will use stupid arguments to try and justify it, but at the end of the day a tank top, khaki’s, and combat boots are just the smart choice.


As the door slammed shut behind them, Ella, Beth, and Serenity came skidding to a stop. Ella’s reddened fingers gripped the knob. Blood leaked from a set of shallow cuts on her knuckles, discoloring smooth white skin. Her second hand pressed to the wood, ear close. Music pounded on the door, loud even this far from the gymnasium. It drowned out the sound of following footsteps.

“Okay,” she said with a slow exhale. “We should be safe, for the moment. Kick off your heels and grab a weapon, girls.”

“Gotcha, boss,” Serenity replied and she started across the room.

“Weapon,” Beth mumbled. She patted down her chest. Black silk and chiffon tickled her thighs. Not much there, she thought. She had her belt, but it was a cheap chain. And I left my purse back in the gym. Biting her lip, her eyes dropped to the silver sandals still strapped to her feet. The heel was only three inches, but… Better than nothing. Well, she thought, at least they were cheap.

With a regretful sigh, she undid the straps and stepped out of them. Picking up the left, Beth gripped the base of the heel and gave a wrench. The shoe buckled, silver plastic biting into her hand. Beth gritted her teeth.

And, after another grunt, it popped free. 

Rolling it around in her palm, Beth loosed a relieved sigh. “I know it’s not much,” she said. “But…” Her gaze rose, then it stopped.

Both girls stared at her. Their pair of matched expressions could only be categorized as chagrin.


The other two chuckled.

Ella lifted a pair of finely plucked black brows. Then, she shook her head and turned back to the door.

“Really?” Serenity asked. There was something in her hands. Long, thin, pipe-like, it rolled between black fingers. A set of perfect, pearly white teeth flashed between ruby lips in a brilliant grin. “You sure that’s the best you could find?”

Frowning, Beth shook her head. “Sure,” she said. “I… I mean…” her eyes moved back to the smooth tool in Serenity’s hands. For the first time, she glanced around the dimly lit room.

It was big. Much larger than their normal classrooms. In the center, a small silver car lifted up on some kind of steel platform. It had no wheels and was more than a little rusted. Tall moveable steel cabinets stood beside her. Red doors. Like the ones her father kept in the garage. Large wooden desks were set up all around the room. Plenty of long tables – no, she thought, not tables, work benches – mostly clean with a few exceptions.

“I…” Beth swallowed. Her cheeks burned. “We’re in the machine shop, aren’t we?”

Ella’s lips twitched as she stepped away from the door and to some sort of desk next to it. A rattle followed. She produced a pair of thick brown gloves, work gloves, from inside the shelf. Pulling them on, she strode past Beth and snagged a small rotund canister off one of the shelves.

It looked, Beth decided, like a blow horn. Or a blow torch. What would she need with a blow torch though?

“Coach gets a little lax after he’s had a few beers,” Serenity said. “Leaves a lot of this stuff unlocked. Accidentally, of course.” She turned back to Ella and Beth thought she saw a wink. “Right, Ellie?”

“Yup,” Ella replied. She didn’t look up. “Toss me the tire iron?”


The hand extended, twisted, caught the spinning steel object in a single sweep, and the girl set it on the table next to her. A warm orange light burst in the darkness. It turned beneath Ella’s calm hand and she pointed it at the knob. Firelight flickered off her hair, illuminating a cold expression in her eyes.

Beth’s stomach twisted. Ella’s my friend. Sometimes, even though they’d only met three weeks ago, it felt like they’d known each other all their lives. But this Ella? This wasn’t a girl she knew. “What’s she doing?” Beth whispered.

“Doing prep,” Serenity said. Her navy dress swirled around her, silver bracelet jangling on her wrist. Crinkling brown-black hair bound back in a small knot on the top of her head. Bare feet padded on checkered tiles. A second weapon, another like the one she’d tossed Ella, rested in her hands. “We don’t have to just sit around and wait, you know.”

Right, Beth realized. Tire iron. This place probably had plenty of those. A warm hand gripped her shoulder and she glanced up.

“You should grab a weapon,” Serenity said. Her dark eyes glimmered in the moonlight, their expression not unkind. “Then, find a good place to hide. Fight only if you have to.” And she gave Beth a good squeeze. “We’ll take it from here.”

“Like a hammer?” Beth asked.

“Or a screwdriver,” Serenity laughed. “Since you seem to like stabbing things.”

“A wrench would be best,” Ella said. “And pipe down, they’re getting close.”

Beth stiffened. Memories of the gym flooded her. Normal looking boys and then, their strange hands. Claws. All twisted up in her hair. That’s what would be coming.

“Don’t let Ellie over there spook you,” Serenity added. “You’ve done well for your first time. Besides,” she leaned in and Beth felt her cheeks warm. “First time always sucks, anyway.”

“Yeah?” Beth asked.

“Oh yeah,” Serenity replied.

This is more of a conceit of mine, because the problem with using a shoe heel as an improvised weapon involves writers pass up better (smarter) options that are in the scene with them. Almost anywhere your character is, there’s going to be better options.

Ultimately, sticking to the heel just involves the character looking silly and, more often than not, inept.

If you are wondering what the plan was in this scene, it runs like this:

Ella sets heats up the door knob so it burns anyone trying to open the door. (She may have suffered a few burns.) With turning the knob out of the picture, when they try to break it down she opens it on them and lets the first one come tumbling into the room. At this point, Serenity whacks them back with the tire iron. This gives Ella time to get a hold of her tire iron (though with the gloves, she can still use the door as a weapon), allowing her to ambush the next one through the door. The doorway stalls out the approach of the group, forcing them to come through in ones or twos. While the second one chases Serenity, Ella gets him from behind (presumably they know there’s not third man or if there is then that’s where the fight starts to turn).

The power of teamwork.