We’re going to do a small series about writing violence, mostly because we haven’t covered some the basics yet and these are important. There are a lot of important steps that go into writing about violence, these include language choice, the intensity of the violence, the characters in question.
Today, we’re going to talk about developing your characters and more importantly than that, how to asses your own comfort zone.
There are many pieces that go into building a successful fight scene and many of those pieces begin to build together before your character ever pulls the trigger or throws their first punch. The way a character looks at the world around them is infinitely important to showing the reader the kind of fighter they are (or the kind of fighter they will be) before combat happens. Characters with different skill levels and different outlooks will all approach combat differently; the same is reflected in a character’s strategic preferences (if they have even thought that far ahead), their honor code, their choice of weapons, and the techniques they choose to use.
Not every character enjoys visceral combat. Some characters like squelching their opponent’s eyeballs with their thumbs, others will wince at the thought, others will be indifferent, and some upon witnessing the act will come to their enemy’s defense because that’s just too cruel. Every character is different and that’s part of what makes writing these sorts of scenes so hard, because a fight scene involves much more than just knowing how to throw a punch right. In fact, as funny as it sounds, for writing that is one of the most inconsequential parts. You can write your combat perfectly, but if it doesn’t reflect your characters and the themes of you’ve been setting up in the plot then it will still fail. A scene with flat out wrong combat can be the best part of a book if the sequence remains in harmony with the rest of the story and furthers the development of both the characters and the plot.
Establish Your Violence Comfort Zone
You can write a level of violence in your story that you’re not comfortable with, but you will have a great deal of difficulty writing a character who is exhibiting a level of violence that they are supposed to be comfortable with but is uncomfortable for you. Given the attitudes towards sex and violence in American culture, it may sound funny or cliché when I tell you that writing about violence is a lot like writing about sex. How graphic you get is going to depend on your audience and your own comfort level before it reaches your character. A sex scene where you were wincing every few seconds as you were writing it is going to feel uncomfortable to the reader; the same is going to be true with violence.
Some of you may be wondering, but aren’t violent sequences supposed to be uncomfortable? Some of them are, but if you are writing a character who relishes violence or an epic sword duel and you are wincing on each sentence then you have a problem. Or alternately, if you honestly, truly believe that torture is completely unacceptable, that it is always bad, always evil then don’t try to write a character like 24’s Jack Bauer. Whatever you write, you need to be able to completely submerge yourself in your character. You’re going to write characters who don’t believe the same things you do, you are going to write characters who are not you, who will do and say things that you would never in a thousand years imagine doing. But violence is difficult, it hits on a core of human experience, of misery and suffering that is hard to capture. If you can’t convince yourself in the moment to believe in what your character is doing then it’s time to step back. You must ride the ride after all and if you’re getting sick on the loopty-loops, then maybe this rollercoaster isn’t right for you.
It’s fine if it isn’t, just because this didn’t work doesn’t mean the entire amusement park is off limits. You just have to figure out what you like and learn when something goes far enough outside your comfort zone that it affects the integrity of your work. Stepping out of it can be a good thing, sometimes it’s going to be a necessary thing depending on the genre you are working with and the line in the sand will shift as you adjust to new concepts.
The only way you’ll figure it out is by experimenting, so don’t worry about it so much. The only way you can really fail is by not trying at all.
Some Helpful Tips:
-Find authors whose fight scenes you admire and who you want to write like and study their techniques
-Watch movies that represent the kind of combat you’re writing about
-Play videogames, simulation often helps up experience new things and gets us thinking
For example: the combat between Assassin’s Creed, Warhammer 40k: Space Marine, and SpecOps: The Line can all evoke different feelings and emotions through the kinds of combat they present. When you want to get in the right mindset for what you’re writing, this can help.
-Listen to music that reflects the characters and scene you’re working on
Establish a violence threshold for each of your characters
Just like you, every person has a threshold of violence that they are comfortable with and it’s similar to how some people like action movies and some people prefer slasher flicks. Just keep in mind that the media entertainment someone consumes doesn’t necessarily relate to the level of violence they’re willing to inflict on someone else. A character who loves Disney movies can still cheerfully pick up the lead pipe and bash your skull in on the cold hard concrete. So, try not to think in stereotyping details.
When working to establish a threshold, to figure out what your character is willing to do and what they’re not present them with different situations that are outside the context of your story. It’s best to do this when you’re not sure of who they are and, ultimately, is exactly the same as filling out any of the numerous character questionnaires floating around the internet.
Don’t try to forcibly decide for them. Don’t focus on the right way, the techniques that are supposed to be used, what they are supposed to know. Don’t worry about any of that, you can correct it later. Instead, present them with situations and let those situations play out in your head or as you write them down.
Do you have to do this for each of the major players in your story and not just your protagonist? Yes. Yes, you do. When writing a story about violence, the level of violence a character is willing to inflict and what they are comfortable with can clash with another’s, by figuring out each character’s threshold whether it’s part of the supporting cast, your antagonist, or the henchmen, you’ll have a better sense of how they’ll relate to each other and what kind of interpersonal conflicts can arise.
Below are some helpful questions with corresponding examples to get you thinking. The more situations you come up with on your own, however, will be more helpful to you in the long run.
Example 1: Character X is walking down the street and sees a man being beating, what do they do?
On the far side of the street, Amelia could see two shapes. They were vague and hazy in the drifting fog, just outside the splash of yellow light from the lamp that stood on the corner. A big man with broad shoulders stood over a much smaller individual; she couldn’t see it well from this distance. It could have been a smaller man, or a woman, or even a child. The big man’s frame blocked her as he drove a giant booted foot into his victim’s side. All she knew was what she heard, pathetic whimpering and shrieks pitched higher with each hit. Whoever they were, they’ be dead soon.
Well, she shrugged, it wasn’t her business. Things were hard in Darkside, people died daily, why risk bringing more heat down on herself by intervening? Better to let it play out and disappear before the big man noticed her.
Example 2: Character X is breaking into a building and has made it inside, at the end of the hallway there are two guards, all that stands between them and what they’ve come for. The hall is long and narrow. The guards haven’t seen them yet. What do they do?
Amana flickered, her shape re-entering the Living Space. The bare skin of her breasts pressed against Guard 1’s back, right arm sliding up under his jaw, tilt head back, stand ear to cheek. Forearm into windpipe. Bone in and increase pressure. Cut off oxygen. Left hand down, take holstered sidearm. Glock 17. Flick safety off.
It leveled at Number 2’s skull.
Example 3: Character B has been hit by Character X, someone they trusted, how do they respond?
Leah stumbled. Hand rising, she pressed cool flesh against the warm, stinging buzz that was now blooming across her cheek. A sharp, shuddering pain was striking out from behind her eye and the world swam in dots of black and white. Her vision dropped to the floor, the crevices between the floorboards were suddenly so sharp and clear. She could see the tips of black boots lingering inches from her own.
“Leah,” that was John’s voice.
John. He had hit her.
Why? She was surprised to hear her own voice echoing her thoughts cramming into the space between them. “Why?”
These are, like I said, just some examples. You can come up with whatever scenarios you want. But when establishing a violence threshold, they should involve violence of some kind. By developing the different violence thresholds for different characters, you better understand the actions that will bring them into natural alliances or conflict with one another. One of the key ways to keep readers invested in your stories is the interpersonal relations between the major players. Once you know the boundaries the characters ascribe to, what they are willing to do, what they aren’t willing to do, the lengths that they will go to and know when they will stop, you can push them outside of that comfort zone and craft development that is naturally in line with where their story is going.
From the first example, I know that Amelia is the kind of character who puts herself first. She doesn’t believe she can make a difference and doesn’t want to deal with the trouble that intervening to aid someone else could bring down on her head. She could engage, but doesn’t want to. We know that those reasons have nothing to do with being incapable of those actions, she just won’t try because she’s not going to get anything out of it. If I were to write this character, I’d give her a plot development that forced her to engage, someone she doesn’t know, someone desperate, probably a break in at her apartment while they are running from people who are hounding them. Someone she can’t say no to, even though she wants to. She is forced to take action and then eventually she will continue to do so of her own volition.
Voila, a character arc.
So, find your character’s comfort zone and then pop them out of it. The same is true for violence, there is a level of violence that your characters will be comfortable participating in and then there is a point where they are pushed past that into uncomfortable territory. You can only get X by starting with Y. Cause and effect. Conflict that is both external and internal.
Conflict is good. Conflict is crucial. Write conflict.
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Well, keep in mind that I only have a passing familiarity with boxing, so if you really want to write it, you’re going to have to do more research. (And you should always be doing more research anyway because the information you glean from one source is never as the one you gain through your own work.)
Boxing is one of the oldest surviving Eurpoean martial forms and has been part of the fine tradition of gambling for many centuries. However, training in boxing has currently passed almost entirely into the realm of sport fighting and out of the realm of traditional combat. Today, boxing can be learned for self-defense but most of those who practice it do so to either become a professional fighter or for health and fitness reasons.
You may be wondering, what does the history of boxing have to do with writing it? Well, like civilization itself, combat evolves. How I would write boxing in 2013 is very different from, say, how I would write a character who boxes in 1908, or one who boxes in 1803, and so on. Fortunately for you, however, boxing is a sport that is very well documented. I recommend some research of it’s history if you haven’t yet, mostly because it will help show the kind of characters who become professional fighters, the tradition of boxing in the “Western”/European/American military, and of course, what the culture that surrounds modern boxing.
Remember, it’s not enough to write a character who can box, you also have to create a realistic persona to go with it and a surrounding back story that supports them. A character who started boxing as recreation at their local YMCA is going to be very different from the character for whom professional boxing was the only way to escape poverty, and they both will be different from the character who learned to box at college and worked the collegiate sports circuit (and whether that was East or West Coast in America), they will also be different from the character who started boxing because they joined the Military and went to one of the officer Academies like Westpoint where boxing is a tradition.
Okay, so let’s talk about boxing.
First, I want you to check out this post: FightWrite: A Basic Upper Body Primer (Fists) because it does cover some of the basic punches and how they work.
Boxing is limited almost entirely to the upper body, with the exception of knees, and, in a modern context, almost all the strikes are based around the assumption that your hands are wearing boxing gloves or, at the very least, some sort of wrap for reinforcement. A common beginner mistake is assuming that the boxing gloves are there to protect the opponent’s face, they aren’t. They are there to protect the hands from a metacarpal break (fracturing the fragile bones in the fingers). A metacarpal break is commonly called a “boxer break” or a “boxer fracture” for this reason, a broken finger bone is a common injury for a professional boxer. The incidents of serious head injuries actually increased after the introduction of the boxing glove because fighters could suddenly punch to the face without fear of injury.
This is important because this is how your character is going to be trained, unless they receive supplementary training for when they are assaulted on the street, they will follow their first instinct and today, the opening boxing strikes do go to the head.
Because of it’s reliance entirely on the upper body, boxing has to happen in very close quarters aka inside arm range. This means that if the fight doesn’t begin with a face to face altercation then the boxer has to close the distance. Boxers will be at a disadvantage against kickers if they can’t get past the legs and may also be at a disadvantage against grappling experts and joint locking practitioners if they can’t knock them out before they get a good grip on their arms/legs/shoulders/head etc. It goes without saying that they will also be off balance against an armed opponent, especially a knife or crowbar/club/tire iron. That said, boxing would not have survived so long if it was not an extremely effective martial form and, also, fun to watch.
The Fighting Stance: The fighting stance for boxing is a very square one, both shoulders face the opponent on an even line, the back foot is on the ball and bent at a 45 degree angle. The boxer leans forward slightly on the front foot, tilting forward, ready to spring into action. Both hands are up to protect the face, with the fast hand (usually the left) slightly forward with the right hovering right at the cheekbone. The power hand (right or left) will always match the foot that’s tilted onto the ball, because of the greater hip rotation provided by the pivot of the back foot.
Blocks: Boxing blocks are very simply and are great when studying conservation of movement. Unlike some of the more traditional martial arts that use big movements, blocks in boxing rarely move much. They involve batting and pushing the incoming hands away from the face, freeing the fighter up to retaliate quickly. When they need to protect the head from a high strike like a haymaker, the fighter tucks their elbow up against their head in a triangle to take the incoming hit.
Slip: The slip is when the weight drops and the head tilts slightly to get out of the way of an incoming attack. A slip will often lead into a hook or an uppercut, because the lower positioning of the body allows for greater rotation of the hips and puts the fighter into a position to easily attack the ribcage.
The clinch: When the fighter gets in close enough that he can wrap his hands around the back of his opponent’s head, the clinch is often accompanied by powerful knee strikes while the other fighter attempts to defend himself from a disadvantaged position.
The jab: This is the opening punch used to soften up an opponent’s defenses before delivering a cross. The jab is always the front hand or the fast hand and while it doesn’t deal much damage, it can pound away on an opponent to create openings for much stronger attacks.
The cross or the straight right: The cross is the back hand or the power hand, this punch achieves a full rotation of the hips. It’s slower due to the windup, but is much stronger. In a professional fight, the cross often aims for the cheek, the nose, and the eyebrow (to cause bleeds). These attacks correspond to the same side as the punch, so one fighter’s right connects to the fighter’s left side of their face.
The hook: the hook is a punch that comes across and aims for the ribcage. The hook can also go high, if the opening is right, and aim for the back end of the jaw to the gap between the jaw and the rest of the skull, right beneath the ear. A successful hit here will cause a knockout.
The uppercut: The uppercut is a punch that comes up, underneath the jaw or drives into the stomach/solar plexus region of the body.
Elbows: I think boxing allows elbow strikes, these usually go to the face if the opponents are close enough for them.
Shoulder check: ramming the shoulder into the chest.
Hip check: ramming the hip into the opponent’s side, when on a horizontal angle.
Strategy: most professional and collegiate fights rely on a significant amount of strategizing pre-fight for success. A similar kind of strategy will be at play if the fighter finds himself or herself in combat on the street. So, it might be worth reading through a few memoirs and how to books to get a solid feel for what the basics of those strategies are. You want to write a boxer, you’ve got to write a character who thinks like one.
There’s a lot more to it than this, but this should be enough to get you started. Also, do yourself a favor and start learning the differences between professional boxing and Olympic boxing. Then, watch some professional fights if you haven’t yet. You can find quite a few for free on Youtube. Have fun!
Well, believe it or not, there are actually quite a few of them.
The two big ones used by the Russian Military are Systema which translates to “The System” and Sambo. Sambo comes in a few different flavors, such as the variety used for sports and the version used by the Russian Military. Systema is military only, though you can find a few schools in the United States that teach it as a form of self-defense.
Systema is more about joint locking and screwing with someone’s body.
Sambo is more about grappling.
Neither of these martial systems were inspired by their southern neighbors. They are unique to Russia.
These two are from the Academy of Historical Fencing and they are sparring with a spear versus a sword and buckler. The sword is a light blade, but here’s a good example of European spear combat. Notice, they hold the end of the weapon to extend it’s reach and maximize the momentum with quick bursts.
A fair number of them do, actually. Many of the kicking forms like Taekwondo, Muay Thai, and other forms of Kickboxing are really good for women because they teach one to use the full body. The joint lock disciplines are also excellent, because joint locking relies on leverage, accuracy, and body placement, not physical strength.
Women are also very good at wrestling because of their lower center of gravity, which once mastered, can be used to destabilize their opponents. One of the physical female advantages is having a lower center of gravity than their male counterparts as a simple part of their physiological makeup. You have to learn how to make your body work together to take advantage of it though.
Female power comes from the center and below the waist (which doesn’t negate the upper body) by focusing on martial arts that focus on those things (which is most of them) and having an instructor who won’t handicap his or her female students by forcing them to fight one way instead of adjusting their teaching style to the students technique.
Techniques will only get you so far to learn well one needs a good instructor. Also, learning how to think and fight with the entire body is important. I wish I could say that it was as simple as just a physical match up of statistics, but it’s not.
Unfortunately, I can’t really do a weapon primer on the nunchaku until I reclaim them from my mother’s house in California. The same is true for the staff, it would be too difficult to do a write up on both weapons without having them in hand to mess around with. So, it won’t come up until after Thanksgiving.
But, here are some basic points to keep in mind when working with the nunchaku.
1) It is not a weapon of the Samurai.
The nunchaku is an Okinawan weapon that comes out of the Karate disciplines, so many of the outlooks of budo and honor that come with the Japanese warrior class simply don’t apply to it. The nunchaku is not an honorable weapon and it does not belong on a character who follows, what the West anyway views as, traditional ideals. You can’t take a character who is supposed to have what is considered to be a traditional warrior code or samurai outlook and hand them a nunchaku. It won’t work, the way the weapon works and the outlook behind it are too different. (You can take a character who is subverting that mentality and give them a nunchaku, because why not.)
2) A nunchaku functions more like a whip than a baton
The nunchaku is a weapon that creates power through rotation, you hold one end and spin the other. The chain or rope connecting the two pieces allows the weapon to gain a more significant force and also be more flexible in it’s approach. When rotating, it is controlled almost entirely by the wrist, where subtle shifts allow the wielder to change both the application of force and direction. However, because of it’s free nature, there is a certain level of control to the force application that the wielder will never have.
This is part of the reason why the nunchaku is outlawed without owning a concealed weapons permit. Unlike the balisong, the nunchaku is a very dangerous weapon and can quite easily be used, even by a beginner, to kill someone else.
3) When learning to use the nunchaku, expect pain.
The nunchaku is a fantastic weapon. However, when training, many of the stops and transitions require catching the loose end with your own body. Now, over time the wielder develops the necessary skill to keep from hurting themselves but in the beginning that level of control isn’t there. When one of my friends was training on the three-section staff, he had to wear headgear. The reason was that while he could control the first two pieces relatively well, the third was always coming up to clock him in the back of the head. Even the most basic beginning strikes with the nunchaku require catching on both the lower and upper body, if your character started their training on a non-padded weapon (which is traditional), it’s likely that they ended each training session with a bevy of bumps and bruises on their shoulder blades and both sides of their ribcage.
Now, the pain works as a form of encouragement for the student to develop the required level of control. Still, it hurts! As with all training mishaps, assume your character has clocked himself or herself in a few uncomfortable places at least once.
I’ll get into the nitty gritty later, once I can practice with it again. But, hopefully that’ll give you a headstart for now.