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Fight Write: Some Thoughts on Height and Weight

“She’s taller than me, heavier too. She’s got the height and weight advantage.”

This sounds good, doesn’t it? It sounds right and reasonable, like the character knows what they’re talking about. Except, they don’t. Assume for a second that the character who says this is maybe five foot six and the girl who says this is maybe five foot two, and that seems like a big difference. It certainly is visually, but the two have a difference of maybe twenty to forty pounds between them. That’s not actually a lot, even if one was to knock the other over. So, when does weight matter? When is height important? The answer is not often and not a lot, depending on training. An untrained fighter is mostly at the mercy of their opponent’s brute strength, so height and weight start to become very important. But what about for the trained fighter? The approach varies, depending on the style and the size of fighter.

With the exception of a few, pertinent points, height and weight actually matter a lot less than you might think they do. So, let’s talk about the advantages and the disadvantages of these two. Maybe, we’ll even debunk a few preconceptions along the way.

Small versus Tall:

It’s important to say when I talk about height and “short” on this blog, that we say short as the descriptor for anyone under 5”10 or around 6”. This may sound strange for some of you, because that relegates most women to the position of “short” even when they’ve been considered “tall” their whole lives. I could say this has to do with a median of male heights and most fighters in America being around six feet, but the truth is it has nothing to do with a person’s actual height at all. The difference is a mental one and small versus tall is reoriented into “advantaged” versus “disadvantaged” fighters. This is where the male versus female outlooks become relevant. Male versus female is not so much a difference in body type as much as a difference in how they see the world around them and shift their combat style accordingly. Tall, male versus short, female is usually how many martial artists break it down. However, because these are learned skills that doesn’t mean that the outlook cannot be adopted by a student of either gender, regardless of how physically tall or short they are.

This is where things get complicated. Most of the common wisdom about fighting that gets spread in society has zero basis in reality, the mind, how it sees the world, and what it’s been prepared for is actually much more important than a character’s physiology or their body type.

Remember, like any weapon, it’s the mind that wields the body, not the other way around. How someone sees themselves is more relevant to how they fight than what shape their body is.

There are only two questions you should really ask when your character is facing a taller or shorter opponent (someone who is taller or shorter than they are): what has my character been trained to do? Have they been trained to deal with opponents who are taller or shorter than themselves?

Most fighters who have trained to think of themselves as “tall” will discount a shorter opponent if they have no experience fighting them. A character with a “short” outlook will tend not to discount anyone on the basis that they’re used to being the smallest, weakest thing in the room and they have to fight harder to prove themselves.

On the physical side:

A character who is lower to the ground will have a lower center of gravity, this means that they won’t have to bend their legs as far to reach a stable stance to keep themselves from being knocked over. This also means that when dealing with a heavier opponent (while standing), they have more time to adjust for the weight before they drop so low that their knees can’t support them anymore. They will also have a better sense of balance, if they’ve been trained for that.

On the whole when we’re talking about women (in the physical sense only), the female body is more compact than the male one. Everything is just a little tighter and more evenly proportioned. This doesn’t mean women can’t be lanky, but they are usually less so than men. This affects their sense of balance and their ability to adjust under the weight of a heavier opponent, it’s true that a woman usually will be unable to develop the brawn of a man but they counter that by having better coordination and control overall.

Weight:

There’s some confusion about weight and fighting, for this I blame Hollywood and our “health” culture. It’s important to keep in mind that being on the heavier side, particularly for women, isn’t necessarily a sign of being unhealthy. On average, most fighters are ten to twenty pounds heavier than someone who works out primarily as a weight loss system. It’s rare to find a female fighter who is under 125 pounds. Even the thinnest female fighters have a habit of averaging out to about 130 to 145, even up to 150-160, without any significant difference in what they look like visually, this is because muscles are heavy. In fact, they are much heavier than fat, though they take up less space.

Then, some people are just built more heavily than others and no matter what they do, will just be heavy. If combat was something only skinny people could do, the world would probably have been at peace a long time ago and the Viking tribes of Northern Europe wouldn’t have conquered half the globe. Sometimes, weight just happens as we get older. So, it’s important to remember that muscle can be built up underneath fat, it can exist under fat, and if the person in question (male or female) is heavier than others in the class this isn’t an immediate detriment to their speed, flexibility, or power. It can be if they don’t have the muscles to support their body or if they’ve just started building those muscles.

I doubt anyone in their right mind would tell me that Sammo Hung, an old friend of Jackie Chan cannot fight.

Heavy Fighters: It’s important to remember that though heavier or even overweight fighters are not necessarily impeded by their weight, that there are some things they have to adjust for. But they have their own advantages too.

Balance: a heavier fighter is carrying around more mass than a light weight one, that’s not necessarily more power that they can generate, but they can build up more momentum once they get going. Again, strength in combat is related to speed more than physical strength. A heavier fighter can be like a freight train and you don’t want to be in their way once they start moving. Still, as in physics: the faster you go, the harder it is to stop. If a heavier fighter misses, it’s going to be slightly more difficult for them to readjust and reorient, so they have to moderate their speed. A heavier fighter’s kicks will still be very effective, but they may find their mass getting in the way if they try to kick above the waist. More weight also means more strain on the knees, so a heavy fighter will have to spend a lot of time learning to adjust their stances and footwork to compensate for their bulk. But the differences between “thin” versus “fat” fighting styles are so minimal that I usually forget to mention them. This isn’t to be exclusionary, it’s more that on a basic level it doesn’t matter and when it does, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Natural Armor: Fat provides the body with natural armor. It covers the muscles and provides some small measure of padding for the fall. Armies don’t want their soldiers weighing in at 300 pounds, but martial artists aren’t normally army. Fat also has a nice side effect of covering up the body’s pressure points and keeping them from being visible. On a physical level women have a natural coat of fat that covers the muscles and keeps the definition from showing (except in certain circumstances of muscle development), this is why it’s difficult for women to learn pressure points when they practice with each other. An overly muscled individual provides nice targets on their arms, chest, and legs.

When fat absorbs some the impact, it can be more difficult to damage a heavy opponent.

On the Ground: On soft areas like in muddy rivers or on the ground weight is king, especially if the fighter is used to adjusting for their weight. When lying flat on the ground or even just kneeling, the natural advantages of a shorter fighter are nullified. This is because it’s harder to adjust for the weight of a heavier person without the use of your legs, relying only on your arms, hips, and your ability to disrupt their position. Fighting is hard for women on the ground, because against men, they are usually dealing with an opponent who has at least forty pounds on them, while this difference is negligible while standing, the ground is an entirely different story. Greater weight + gravity = killer.

When Does Weight Matter? From the standing position it only starts to really matter when you’re facing an opponent that has between eighty to hundred pounds on your character. This isn’t a killing blow, it’s just important to note, especially if they get themselves into a situation where they are putting all their weight on top of the smaller person. You can adjust to handle the weight, of course, but there’s always the possibility that they will sink down far enough that your character’s knees will bend too far. The added momentum only helps them if your character is unable to block or they connect solidly, but it’s not going to be that much worse than if they were hit by someone of equal size and weight.

It’s also important to remember that even a tall, heavy character with a good stance can be difficult to bring down if your characters try to fight them like they would anyone else. The answer? Don’t fight them like you would anyone else. Start low and work your way up.

The exception to this rule, of course, is street fighting. Street fighters don’t really know what they are doing and so the weight and size of another fighter really start to matter there. All this advice is for a character who already knows how to fight.

Greater Reach:

I’ll be honest, greater reach only really matters in two places: when you’re on the defensive and when you’re working with a longarm such as a staff or a sword. The theory for greater reach is this: it will be harder for your opponent to hit you, while it’s easier for you to hit them because you don’t have as far to go.

This isn’t going to matter when there’s only a difference of a few inches. This isn’t even really going to matter if the smaller individual has been trained to fight against larger opponents. And it’s really, really, not going to matter if it’s just hand to hand with no kicks involved. The reason is that legs are longer than the arms and kicking involves leaning backwards instead of forwards with the punch.

The only time in my life I ever remember being really frustrated with a height difference was when I was five or six years old as a yellow belt out on my first sparring experience against our much taller second-degree black belt African-American Instructor, Alan. Alan was in his early twenties, well over six feet, and had very, very long legs. I was four foot nothing and my tiny legs could not reach him, while his were excellent at hitting me. It was very frustrating, especially since I had no clue what I was doing. (He did let me hit him a few times, but my little legs could only reach mid-way up his thigh.)

Speed is actually much more important than reach, being able to get in and out fast while taking minimal damage is when things start getting impressive. Outside of that, it’s not really a big deal.

Professional Fighting:

This is where you really hear the terms height and weight bandied about and they say it exactly like that, on repeat, over and over. Why? It sounds good. An announcer’s job is to drum up the excitement of the crowd, to get people yelling, to get them betting. The height and weight advantage can create a very clear picture in the eyes of the audience for who has the longest odds (if that’s the case). The goal is to convince the audience and the compulsive gamblers to bet on the loser, creating the ideal of the tough, scrappy underdog that people want to succeed. Not because they will, no, in the eyes of the tournament, they don’t have a chance. But they will have succeeded in taking the audience’s money by convincing them that the longshot might very well just be a sure thing. Or, alternately, it makes for a good show. Remember, professional fighting is as much about showmanship as it is about sportsmanship.

MMA fighters, boxers, and kickboxers are all broken up into separate class distribution based on weight. With these guys, we’re talking a difference of five to forty pounds (maybe, but usually not). That’s not actually a very big difference.

-Michi

Fight Write: “Learn To Fight Like A Woman”

When most martial artists utter this phrase, they don’t mean it as an insult. That may surprise some of you, but in most of the martial arts community (at least, the part of it I grew up in) women are actually well-respected. A smart male martial artist knows that women martial artists bring a different perspective to the table and that it’s one that cannot be discounted. Some of this is what I came up with while working on a post talking about height and weight, but since I might not be able to get that up today, I thought I’d leave you with this.

I’m going to break this down into two aspects: mental and physical. The mental aspects work across the board, some may see the physical part as exclusionary. But when talking about martial arts, we have to discuss both the body and the mind in equal measure. The body cannot function without the mind and the mind cannot fight without the body, both are important. This is going to be general information, this is because fighting is subjective based on the individual practitioner. Everyone fights differently and how they fight has more to do with who their instructor was, what they were trained to do, and how they see the world around them than it does with gender or body type. Your character will learn to make use of what they have, because they won’t really have the option of anything else.

Mental:

It’s important to note that many smaller male martial artists I’ve known have talked about the advantages of having a female instructor. This is because women, on the whole, learn to fight from a disadvantaged position. The vast majority of women will almost always be faced with a larger, usually male, attacker and they have trained themselves to fight with that knowledge. So, they’ve learned to make use of what they have. This begins with the way they see the world.

It’s important to remember that when I say “larger attacker” we’re usually talking about a difference between eighty to a hundred pounds and a height difference of several inches. From a mental standpoint, facing someone larger and taller than yourself can be intimidating. It’s easy to become afraid and petrified by that fear. “He’s bigger than me, he’s larger than me, he’s going to hurt me, and there’s nothing I can do because he’s stronger”. In America we’ve been conditioned to believe that bigger is better, more over less, and the largest opponent always wins.

Women have to actively work at getting over all the social programming that tells them how they should behave and how they should see themselves in relation to the men around them. Female characters who start training between the ages of four and seven will be less prone to this, but the intimidation level is still a hurdle they have to master. It requires an active approach to problem solving, learning how to get in first and fast, and overcome the fear of facing a larger opponent or a male opponent even when the physical differences have little bearing on reality.

The way we see the world is the way we approach it and in a world that seeks to actively strip women of both their power and their confidence, developing a solid base to work from is much harder than it sounds. But for a female fighter to be successful, she must first prove to herself that she can do it and then, she has to fight hard in her training to make it a reality.

It’s important to remember, then, for your own characters that a female fighter or “action hero” is never a passive player. If they trained from a young age, then they’ve already fought against all the reasons why they shouldn’t be doing this and if they still are, then they won. Even if they are insecure about some aspects of social life, they will have a strong basis in who they are and the skills that got them here.

After all, to fight like a woman is to fight like an underdog and all those battles are hard fought and hard won. There’s nothing like adversity to build character.

Physical:

There are a lot of different body types out there in the world and there’s no way we can cover all of them. Women lack a man’s capacity for brawn in the upper arms and shoulders, but they come with a different set of advantages. We already talked about hips and power in the “Women Are Not Weaker Than Men” post, so I’m going to skip over that.

On the whole women have a lower center of gravity, better coordination, more natural flexibility, and better balance than men because their bodies are more compact. Women tend to have shorter torsos, shorter legs and shorter arms than men. This doesn’t mean they are more in tune with their bodies, that comes from training. But it does mean they can combine their lower center of gravity with their better sense of balance and coordination to be more precise in their attacks. While they lack the ability to brute force their way through situations, this actually makes them better and more adaptable fighters. When male martial artists say: “fight like a woman”, they mean: don’t rely on your brawn, learn to understand your body, and learn to let gravity do the work for you.

Women have more to lose from having sloppy technique, so they tend to spend more time investing in the study of body mechanics and gravity, over just developing their muscle strength. Speed is important yes, but it’s the precision that’s the killer. Knowing where you want to go and where to put your body to make it happen, where the human body is vulnerable and the places people don’t think it’s vulnerable (but really is) are all important.

Women tend to be quicker about dispatching their opponents and they spend less time playing around. They’re also, on the whole, more serious and more devoted to their studies. Any good female fighter knows that she won’t get far by coasting on natural talent and that she has more to lose in a real life situation if she does.

Just some things to think about.

-Michi

Unusual Martial Art: Street Fighting

Street fighters are self-trained combatants. Usually we’re talking about poor kids, who’ve been forced to learn how to fight for their own safety. If your character’s growing up in dystopic slums (either in the future or in the modern third world), without access to any formalized hand to hand training, then you’re probably going to end up with a street fighter.

Street fighters tend to adopt a highly aggressive, improvised, and very brutal, style. They’ll use whatever techniques they’ve seen and managed to copy and place a premium on ending the fight as quickly as possible for their own survival. A lot of techniques from the Only Unfair Fight post are conceptually very at home in a street fighter’s repertoire.

Because of the prevalence of television, a lot of modern street fighters have incorporated bits from both wrestling and prize fighting. For an example: the entire collection of “backyard wrestling” videos sold in the States a decade ago were an example of street fighting (to an extent) and where that kind of combat can go horribly wrong.

It’s important to keep in mind that the major element here is “self-trained”. Street fighters are amateurs, plain and simple. While brutal styles like Muay Thai and various varieties of MMA may seem like they have a lot in common with a street fighter, they don’t. Combat isn’t really a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be a self-made man” kind of sport, so there are a lot of detriments that come with using street fighting for your character.

The first problem that street fighters suffer from is a lack control. They’ve never been asked to develop the kind of physical control martial artists are drilled in. This may not sound so bad at first, until we remember that the only lesson these combatants have ever learned is that the person who hits the hardest, fastest, wins. Street fighters version of combat is essentially flailing. It’s the twelve year old child on the street trying to do a pirouette compared to a professional ballerina. Because street fighters have never learned to control, their ability to moderate their techniques is severely limited. This means moves that come from martial arts, including wrestling, that place a premium on the fighters’ safety, become much more dangerous for both combatants even when it’s just a backyard practice match.

So, why is this bad? Some of you may be wondering, but if they strike hard and fast, always hit as hard as they can, why is this detrimental? It should make them stronger, right?

Wrong.

Hand to hand combat is not about physical strength, it’s actually about technique and making the most of your opponent’s body mechanics. A street fighter only ever learns that strength means victory, they only learn to strike hard and that’s it. But what happens when they come into contact with someone who is prepared to take the hit? Street fighting is very simple, so most street fighters have no concept of defense and they fail to grasp the underlying principles behind the techniques and how those all feed together into a cohesive whole. See below:

Street fighters lack the ability to chain attacks; this is a conditioning issue. In the beginning of almost any training, most martial arts place a focus, early on, with katas (though, they’ll mix the terminology up a bit). Katas are a specific sequence of strikes. The point here isn’t to actually train a combat sequence. Katas are singularly worthless for that, the point is to train the combatant to move from one technique to another. This can, in some cases, take years of drilling before a combatant will move smoothly from one technique to another in a fight. Because of the self taught element, street fighters don’t do this. In fact, most don’t even see the need for it or understand why they should. They might be able to follow up on a strike, but that’s it. The eight strike rule? Yeah, that’s out the window.

(Michi Note: For example, in Tae Kwan Do, the first set of moves a student learns in their first lesson is the double punch and the front kick. In a thirty minute lesson with an instructor, they are taught first to punch, then they are asked to put both those punches together, so that immediately after one they do the other. Instead of a one, it becomes a one two. Then, we teach them the front kick if they grasp the concept quickly in the first fifteen minutes. By the end of the lesson the goal is to have the student, even one as young as five years old, performing a complete combo for their parents: slide front kick then double punch. Even from the first lesson, the focus is on conditioning the body to move easily from one technique to the next without thinking.)

This difference in approach is one of the main reasons why street fighters are harder to train in conventional martial arts. This difficulty comes out of two competing bits of psychology: the first is that street fighters think they already know how to fight, they don’t. They have a harder time ejecting the ways they’ve learned, in favor of the much slower, more methodical, approach of traditional martial arts training. They feel like they know this, because they’re looking at the techniques not the connections between them. When you combine this with the attitude that self taught fighters have, of their techniques being good enough, it’s almost impossible to shift them over to a traditional style.

Street fighters will get utterly taken apart by trained martial artists. Whatever else we say, martial arts are about using physics and physiology to outmaneuver and disable opponents. Every trained martial artist is going to a solid grasp of at least one of these things, and any good one will have a very solid understanding of both. Against a street fighter with neither, this is an insurmountable advantage.

Street fighters will make rookie mistakes that can cost them, even when they have more practical fighting experience than the martial artist. This ties back into the previous issues, but one major one is that street fighters are more likely to end up on the ground in a fight. While this is going to get its own article in the future, the short version is the ground is the last place you want your combatant. Unless they’ve specifically trained to fight there (and some martial artists are), going to the ground is a good way to get your character killed.

(Michi Note: I was once told, in a seminar, by an experienced MMA fighter that the ground is the last place you want to go in a real fight, even if you are trained. Concrete is very hard, you risk a break in the fall and you put yourself much closer to a head injury by getting close to the pavement. The ground is a last resort and a bad place to be, because most of the advantages a shorter fighter has while standing vanish. The ground is one of the few places in combat where height and weight really matter. Where a larger opponent has all the advantages in weight, reach, and the help of gravity, for women, the ground is the kiss of death. A female street fighter might not know that, because she can use her lower center of gravity to easily knock over her opponents and stomp them. But it’ll catch up with her sooner or later. On that subject: this is why it’s important, for you women and men out there who are looking for a self-defense program to find one that starts you standing, then works the ground. Find one that will give you the necessary tools to back out of a bad situation before the guy or girl is already on top of you.)

If you understand the limitations, street fighting can be an excellent choice for your character, especially in a dystopic or authoritarian setting, if your character is outside the system and used to looking after themselves (and possibly others), without being able to rely on anyone else to guide them, then this becomes a really likely style. This also overlaps with gangs, and even in a modern context, if you’re looking at gang members, then this is the hand to hand style they’re most likely to be using.

It’s important to remember that street fighters aren’t stupid, they can be very intelligent, and they need to be adaptable to make the style work at all. They are, however, untrained and that’s their biggest weakness.

-Starke

Michi: On female street fighters

Female street fighters won’t and can’t rely on brute strength, they may think that they are, but they’re not. Female fighters base their ability to fight off making use of a smaller, more compact body to generate greater momentum through the strength in their legs and using their lower center of gravity to knock over larger opponents. Female street fighters won’t linger at the back of the pack, they’ll be aggressive and throw themselves straight into the fray with an attitude more akin to a wild animal than a trained fighter. Since they’ll mostly be used to fighting larger, male opponents, they’ll probably start by striking or grabbing low to the stomach, balls, and knees. Their goal is going to revolve around knocking over their opponent and putting them in a prone position on the ground so that they can be annihilated easily. Expect them to fight dirty.

Despite that, they won’t kick. Street fighters are primarily hands only. Kicking requires a different level of body coordination and training, which they lack. Even if they try and master some basics, those basics will be wrong and more likely to get them hurt. If you want your character to kick, then it’s a traditional martial art for you.

Female street fighters will be harder than their male counterparts, especially if they live in a male dominated society. If you want to write a street fighter, make a study of gang psychology specifically to understand the attitudes behind it. The difference in approaches between trained and untrained fighters are vast, so make sure you understand both before layering character traits on top of them.

Fight Write: Just That Damn Good

Let’s file this one under: bad ideas from movies and TV. Although it’s fun to think your characters are so good they don’t need to train, this simply isn’t the case. Any skill you neglect will degrade a bit over time. This isn’t much of an issue if we’re talking about your ability to speak a foreign language, or tinker on your car. In those cases, there are clear thresholds, either you can do it or you can’t, and if you’re above the threshold for what you need to do, you’re good enough.

The same isn’t true of fighting. If your character isn’t practicing, stretching, and otherwise keeping in shape as a martial artist, their ability to fight will be seriously affected when going toe to toe with a foe who has been.

This is related to the weapon maintenance bit from the Your Character’s Weapon is a Character article. Any martial artist needs to be working constantly to stay at peak. It doesn’t matter how good they are, if they’ve been screwing around, and they face off against your villain, they’re going to lose.

If your villain is supposed to be effective, it’s safe to assume they’re spending all their time working towards their goal. If they’ve achieved their goal already, somehow, they need to be working towards a new one. In short, your villain needs to be active. Moving forward, they are  a mobile target. If your hero is lazy, then they are constantly playing catch up.

It gets worse if your character is facing off against their henchmen. Outside of a few specific examples, henchmen or soldiers will be spending a chunk of every day training, exercising, and honing their abilities, even if they aren’t actually learning new material.

To keep up with that, your character needs to be training, practicing and exercising, or they will get outmatched fast.

All of this becomes even more immediate when you consider that hand to hand combat is a dynamic thing. While some of the Asian martial arts pride themselves on being built on traditional combat techniques, modern combat is constantly evolving.  Counters are being developed to the strikes that worked yesterday, and those counters will be less effective tomorrow, because of a shift in strike preferences and techniques.

If you want your character to participate in combat with professionally trained combatants, they need to train and be ready to encounter new things every day. There’s no place on the battlefield for a hero who rests on their laurels of being “just that damn good.”

-Starke

Fight Write: We’re Only Human

Today, we’re going to take a break from our regularly scheduled blogging programming to discuss some important character traits. There’s a somewhat disturbing trend roaming through YA right now and while this deals mostly with female “action hero” protagonists, it’s affecting the male characters too. We can call it exceptionalism, prodigy, or perfection but there is a pervading trend right now in popular literature that says a hero must be perfect to succeed. We have a steady stream of heroes who make no mistakes, who travel on a simple, single line towards an inevitable destination. Their flaw is that they are without flaw, the mistakes they make are the fault of someone else, and all the choices are easy. I sort of wish that in real life, we fit into such easily identifiable boxes but alas, the world is a bit more confusing than that. Worse, a perfect character is a boring one. A character whose fall is softened, whose antagonists are left on a choke chain, who is perfect, ends up negating tension in their story.

Below are some basic suggestions to keep in mind when crafting your characters. This applies to female action protagonists as well as male ones, but keep in mind that female characters (unfortunately) walk a much tighter line than their male counterparts. For them, you’re fighting an uphill battle against audience expectation.

We’re Only Human:

This one is going to be a bit more general, rather than specifically about fight scenes, but it’s worth talking about: Your character does not need to be perfect. They can be wrong, they can make mistakes, and they can fail. And all of this can make your story stronger. A character with flaws will always be more interesting, to the reader, than one without. So, let’s talk about a few writing flaws, that can massively improve your characters.

The Master or the Apprentice:

Your character doesn’t need to be skilled at everything they want to be, and they certainly don’t need to be the best. Ask yourself, which is more interesting? A character who is trying to earn their place and learn the ropes of a skill, or a master of all they survey. A character who is a master of a skill can be useful if you’re trying to teach the audience about that skill, but in nearly every other situation, you’re going to get a more interesting story if other characters exist who outclass your character.

For instance, Star Wars isn’t interesting because Luke and Vader are on an equal footing. Throughout the original trilogy, Luke is playing catch up to Vader’s skill as a combatant.

Having characters who are flat out more powerful than your protagonist, creates a real threat that the they can be defeated, and for your audience, a real threat to your hero. Who will win? It’s hard to say. And that’s what’s going to keep your audience turning pages.

Beyond Right and Wrong:

Your character can be wrong, make mistakes, and screw up, just like any other person. And, to an extent, this won’t hurt your story. This is a bit trickier, because you can swing too far, have your hero be wrong about everything, and end up with a mess. But, don’t be afraid to let your character make mistakes. Trust people they want to, but shouldn’t. Misunderstand situations they’re not familiar with. Even get manipulated into doing thing things they really shouldn’t.

Bad calls are something everyone has to deal with sooner or later. How your hero deals with them can be far more interesting than a character who never makes mistakes.

What is important is the decisions the character makes have to based on a rational thought process, just one that doesn’t have all the information.

Omniscience:

On that subject, your character doesn’t need to know everything. Really, they can’t. When they’re making decisions, ask yourself: what do they know? What do they understand? What do they believe?

When you put this together, you’re character will be constructing their plans, and making their decisions, based on the information they have. This will inevitably lead to mistakes. And, again, that’s a good thing. A character scrambling to adapt to a situation they didn’t anticipate or dealing with information they didn’t even consider is far more interesting than a character who makes a perfect plan and executes it.

The original Star Wars trilogy pulls this over and over, the final acts of both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi swing on these kinds of situations. (For both the heroes and the villains.)

I’m not saying the villain needs to be your character’s father, but any time you can pull the rug out from under your character like that, especially against expectations, is a wonderful moment.

Another example comes from a game called Arcanum: Through most of the game, the player is told they’re the reincarnation of an Elven Jesus figure, “Nasrudin”. You encounter the religion that sprung up around him, you learn about the religion’s history, all while preparing to deal with the religion’s sealed evil in a can. And then, about 80% of the way through the game, you actually meet Nasrudin, he’s been alive the entire time, in seclusion. The player cannot be his reincarnation, and the entire chosen one construct in the story is a sham. I wouldn’t even remember the story of a game from 12 years ago if it wasn’t an interesting and memorable twist.

As a writer, you can create the truth of your setting and your story, but your characters don’t need to know what that truth is, and they can build their understanding of the world off faulty information.

Loved by Children and Small Animals:

Liking or disliking someone on contact can be a good indicator of potential personality conflicts, but it’s a poor excuse for knowing if someone’s good or evil. The biggest problem is, now you’re telegraphing who will betray your heroes later, or who will betray your villain.

People (and characters) like and dislike one another for any number of reasons, unrelated to plot and faction. You can get much more interesting material by forcing two characters who actively dislike and distrust one another to work together towards a common goal, or by pitting two good friends against one another (without the whole, “you turned to the dark side, the friend I knew is dead,” shtick).

Above all else, it makes your story harder to predict and more interesting. While I’m loathe to recommend most TV writing, FarScape did an excellent job shuffling heroes and villains around and forcing everyone to work together at least once.

Because Losing is Fun:

Finally, it’s okay for your character to lose. Lose a fight, lose an argument. Sometimes this goes back to making mistakes, sometimes it goes back to your character being outclassed. How your character deals with defeat can be far more interesting than having them cruise through every challenge they encounter. Do they sulk? Do they break down? Do they rage? Do they get back up, and throw themselves at it again? Do they go back to the drawing board; look for more allies; look for ways to undermine their foe? Do they even accept it happened? Also, what are the consequences of their defeat? Are they injured? Does it cause their allies to doubt them?

If you’re writing in a serialized format, be that chapters, episodes, or a series, don’t be afraid to end a sequence in utter defeat. Your heroes can rally for the final act, but the idea that your characters can lose will do wonders for showing that your villains are a legitimate threat.

Again with the Star Wars examples, the entire reason that Empire Strikes Back works (and a large part of Return of the Jedi’s ability to work as a story), is because of the defeat that kicks in at the end of ESB. I’m not saying rip off Star Wars, but you can learn a lot about making a compelling story from the original trilogy.

-Starke (just wants you to know; fifteen Bothans died bringing you this article)

Weapon Primer: Archery

With 2012 being jokingly called “Year of the Bow,” it was inevitable that we’d end up doing a primer on it.

The Weapon

The bow is an ancient weapon, it is in fact one of the oldest weapons in the history of mankind. Almost every civilization that has ever existed and perhaps ever will exist has invented the bow in one form or another. It is important then, to note where you choose to draw your inspiration from because there are many varieties of this weapon. Combat with a bow is not unique to any one civilization or society, just as combat tactics have mirrored each other in similarity between different civilizations throughout the centuries. It is also important to remember that unlike other weapons of war, the bow was not invented for the sole purpose of murdering the wielder’s own species. This is a utility weapon, one that is meant to fulfill basic needs such as providing food for survival.

Because of its history, this weapon should be 100% recognizable to any and all serious characters as a dangerous threat. They will know what it is and what it can be used for. This is a weapon that will be noted and noticed by any city guard or local authority, so you’re character better have a damn good excuse for carrying it around (even if it’s not true). In a society that restricts access to weapons, such as futuristic fascist cultures, the bow will not be allowed. The reason for this is that even though the weapon itself may be outdated, it is still a dangerous weapon and any intelligent culture you create will know that and act accordingly.

The bow is still used in modern combat, though it has lost its edge. That said, historically, the bow is not used as a primary weapon for single combat. It has a select set of uses but ones that have it fall short of other weapons like the spear and the sword. The bow takes a great deal of time to master, it lacks flexibility of movement, and a single archer must always be accurate and thus their sighting will be slower. No matter how good your character is, they will always end up in melee, the bow is designed for hunting not killing and there is a vast difference in both technique and tactics between these two approaches.

Historical Bows:

There are many different bows throughout history, many different versions of the longbow and the recurve, many reinventions of the same weapon over and over through time. Some versions are designed for combat on horseback and some are not. So, be specific to which one it is, research how it is cared for, any reader who is familiar with the care and maintenance of this weapon will know if you ignore it. A bow is high maintenance and finicky, you can skip over a lot with some weapons but you can’t with a bow.

An older, wooden bow requires more strength to draw than a modern one. More importantly, the care for the weapon will impact how easily it can be used. Historical bows require a lot of maintenance, even more than their modern counterparts: the wood needs to be oiled frequently, the bow needs to be kept completely dry, transport over long distances requires unstringing and wrapping the bow, finally fletching a half decent arrow involves a lot of skill, even with modern tools and resources. Any responsible archer must be able to fletch their own arrows or risk being unable to use their weapon. This requires a whole skill set, one common in history but harder to come by in more modern times. This is especially important if the character is alone and without resources such as an army or placement in a lord’s household.

The projectiles are just as important as the care and maintenance of the weapon. This is less true in a society or culture where arrows are more readily available for purchase and the bow is a common weapon, but in a world where it is rarer, then the character will have to fend for themselves.

Arrows are weight your character must carry, if they fire the arrow they must retrieve it or lose it. Arrows do not self-replicate through magic. They are a limited resource and that resource must be considered. So, always ask: how much does the character’s gear weigh? How many arrows can they carry in the quiver reasonably without a huge loss of stamina? How do they protect the arrows from the weather? Arrows are made of wood. If wood gets wet it warps. The sinew that holds the arrows will also warp. The metal heads of the arrows will rust. The quiver needs as much careful protection as the bow itself to maintain functionality and combat readiness.

Also: don’t set arrows on fire. It’ll put itself out the minute you fire it. Self-immolation is not a thing your characters signed up for. Though if you want them to for the sake of the story, go right ahead.

(Michi Note: So, when working with or reading about an archer, always stop and ask yourselves a simple question: where do they get their arrows from? If the storyteller cannot answer that or has not put the answer into the text, then they’ve made a critical error. More than that, where are they getting their bowstrings from?)

Modern Bows:

Modern bows are usually either fiberglass composites or the more mechanical, compound bows. Composite bows match the general idea of a classic longbow. Compound bows are the ones using pulley systems. Composite ones require upper body strength, to draw. Compound bows tend to have a catch, early in the draw, where the pulleys take over and the bow’s mechanics take a lot of the draw weight off the archer. Because of the mechanical systems, there’s a lot that can go wrong with a compound, and more than most weapons, mishandling will destroy one.

Most modern arrows are hollow aluminum shafts that are bought pre-fletched and have a plastic nock already mounted. The tips can be easily removed and swapped out for convenience.

Target tips are small pointed cones, about the size of the arrow itself. These are easy to pull from a target, and they’re slightly less likely to deal lethal damage if they catch you.

Hunting tips are flying razor blades. They’re usually three or four blades held at an angle working their way towards a tip. They’re designed to cut arteries as they pass through the target. Most also feature barbs that further tear the meat if something tries to remove the arrow.

Hunting

Hunting is the traditional use of the bow. The reason for its creation and evolution is pretty simple and most of you can probably guess why. This is: firing a projectile at an animal (such as a boar, a deer, or a buffalo) is much safer than trying to go into melee with it using a spear. Most humans who hunt as a profession (not as a sport) prefer some measure of safety and security in their job. When fighting an animal in close quarters there’s a risk of being gored by a tusk or horn, missing the animal with the spear, or frightening it off which is a waste of time, energy, and resources. It is important, though, to keep in mind that hunting an animal or hunting a herbivore is different from hunting a human or a predator. In nature, most of the hunters we hunt will hunt us in return. (Michi Note: This is part of the reason why we domesticated dogs.)

This usage of the weapon has remained popular among some hunters and is part of the reason why the bow can still be purchased today. The reasons of modern hunters, however, are completely unrelated to its value as a practical weapon. For hunting, the bow is an excellent choice. I’m told that killing game with a gunshot kills result in a different flavor to the meat, and of the two, bow killed meat tastes better. Of course, the people who’ve told me that have been bow hunters, so there’s your caveat.

A lot of bow hunters enjoy the additional challenges in taking an animal down with a bow. It’s a similar mindset to those hunters who use a revolver. That said, when you’re choosing a weapon for its “additional challenge” it’s not something you want to take into a fight.

Historical Combat

Historical bow combat was built around massing archers and using them to send a lot of arrows in the general direction of the enemy. No, seriously. The idea wasn’t to hit a specific enemy, but to put a lot of arrows in their vicinity, and hope that a few would hit something useful. In many ways, archers are more analogous to mortar teams or artillery on a modern battlefield, than snipers, or even riflemen.

A mass regiment or company of archers was incredibly dangerous, especially to cavalry, but they were almost never in amongst the footmen or on the front lines. The medieval combat disposition was to put a line of skirmishers in front of the archers to protect them from enemy infantry. This is because the bow really does suck in close combat and has no real defensive capability.

Modern Combat

There are a few places where bows excel over firearms: armor penetration and stealth. A skilled bow user can easily dispatch heavily armed and armored opposition, provided they can remain undetected.

That undetected part can be a real problem. The bow is very sensitive to movement by the shooter, meaning it’s impossible to fire on the go. Arrows are more sensitive to air movement and have a sharper ballistic trajectory than bullets, meaning it’s harder to fire quickly and accurately. This means that once a combatant is seen, their bow becomes dead weight, very fragile dead weight.

Finally bows are very short range (compared to modern firearms). You’re working with around 20 to 80 feet, or within shotgun range, meaning they need to get uncomfortably close to their enemy to use it, increasing the risk of detection.

Injuries

Even when hunting tips sever arteries, arrow wounds take a long time to kill. Tracking animals for hours, after they’ve been shot, is fairly common for modern bow hunters.

Arrows tend to seal up the injuries they create, a lot like knife wounds, so even if your archer severed something vital, it’s entirely possible that the character they’re trying to kill will survive for hours. There are confirmed cases, in the modern world, where people have taken an arrow, and survived for ten to twenty hours before receiving medical attention.

So, if your character is shot with an arrow, please do not have them rip it out. Much like the knife, the projectile must be removed carefully or stay within the body to prevent the character from bleeding out. Also, an arrowhead can do as much damage leaving the body as it did going in, so research how to remove an arrow or your character will die, if they don’t already die from infection in a medieval, fantasy, or even a modern day/futuristic setting. (Michi Note: GERMS!)

Character Options:

More than most weapons, bows represent a major commitment when constructing your character. It takes a lot of time and dedication to become proficient with a bow outside of combat, and it can easily take a character’s entire life to truly master the use of one.

In fantasy settings, you can pretty easily give the bow to any adult who spends a lot of time in the wilderness and lives off the land or hunts for a living. In a fantasy setting where firearms exist, bows become less common as guns become more accessible. These characters are more likely to use an axe or sword for actual combat, even if they have a firearm, instead of a bow.

In most historical or fantasy settings, you can have professionally trained archers, who operate as part larger military force. Just remember, these characters will have been trained to fire arrows over longer distances, without any real accuracy. As with the above option, these characters will gradually phase out as guns become more common. Historically: firearms started appearing in Europe and the Middle East in the 14th century.

In a modern setting, you’re basically left with bow hunters, and sport shooting enthusiasts. For these characters, they choose the bow deliberately, over more convenient methods of killing because they enjoy the challenge, prefer the purity, or like the idea of being self-sufficient.

In a post apocalyptic setting where bullets are hard to obtain or produce, the bow has some potential, both in the historical military applications, and for hunting.

In a distant future setting, a variation of the bow might make sense for its stealth and armor penetration aspects, particularly if characters are outfitted with equipment or implants that allows them to aim and fire more efficiently.

In a horror setting with traditional vampires, the bow might be an effective choice for vampire hunters, though, at that point, modern crossbows would probably be a better weapon choice.

I’m just going to go out and say, in a fascist/dystopic setting, unless bows are explicitly permitted or regulated, they’re a very poor weapon choice, because of the difficulty in concealing them, and the amount of training and practice required to gain proficiency with one. (Michi Note: the recognizability and difficulty in concealing them is the kicker here, it’s better to go with a weapon like the sling or the slingshot which is still quite dangerous but considered to be a children’s toy by many, so the adults will be more willing to overlook it and it’s much easier to hide.)

-Starke

Fight Write: The Only Unfair Fight Is the One You Lose (Part 1: The Nietzchean Defense)

This is going to be a rough ride for some of you, so we’re listing this with a trigger warning for violence. Fighting is very violent, any aspect of the human condition that deals with survival usually is. I believe it’s important for authors to be aware of the full brutality of combat so they can go in with their eyes open and taper back as they see fit. The only way to ever truly be in control of your story is when you have as much information about the subject matter as possible. This includes delving into some basic aspects of human psychology and how that affects combat. We’ll be breaking this article up into two to focus on two very important but different aspects of brutal combat.

“The only unfair fight is the one you lose.”

The first time I heard this phrase was in a self defense class when I was about twelve or thirteen. At the time, I’d come to fights with the idealistic belief that there was some kind of fair play involved in how to fight someone. There isn’t.

I’ve since heard the phrase from several former military men and a few cops. Here’s what it really means. You do whatever you need to, to survive a fight. In the real world, a lot of these moves have serious legal consequences, if they’re used outside of a life and death situation, and they probably should in your story as well.

The Psychology

The moves I’m going to talk about are both based on a simple psychological assumption. The idea is to look at people the same way you look at any other social animal. Then have your character present the illusion of being more of a monster than they actually are, in order to scare off aggressors.

This works with untrained thugs, bullies, and petty criminals. It will not work as well on characters who have extensive experience with combat and or the aftermath of violence.

The Eyes

Gouging out someone’s eyes is an excellent counter to choking. This is best achieved by gripping the skill with the thumbs next to the eye, and the index and middle finger near the ear, and pushing the character’s thumbs into their eyesockets.

Going for the eyes, before beginning the actual gouge, will usually evoke a very primal response and force a character to stop choking their victim while they try to deal with the gouger’s hands. Gouges can be done from behind, if the victim is being garroted or held, simply by having the victim reach over their head and behind them. Finally a successful gouge will make other combatants leery of closing in on the gouger for fear of joining the Blind Justice crowd.

Tooth and Claw: Biting vs. Scratching

The strongest muscles in your body are located just below your cheekbone. Regardless of if you believe if it was simple efficiency or divine inspiration, your mouth and teeth are designed to separate meat from, well, pretty much anything.

On the bright side, people are made mostly of meat, so, if it comes down to it, taking a chunk out of someone’s shoulder is just a new application of something you practice three times a day.

Forget zombies, the worst bite a human can suffer is from another human. Our mouths are loaded with bacteria that we’re used to, but other people… not so much. Even if your character doesn’t take a piece off, the injury will need actual medical attention, and explaining away a bite wound to a medical professional or a cop can be very difficult.

Additionally, depending on how you bite, your molars can apply enough force to crush some smaller bones; completely, and permanently, crippling their hand.

After biting off a chunk, your character’s going to want to spit it out, along with as much of the blood as possible. There are a lot of potential pathogens that can be spread from blood or tissue contact (off hand; some flavors of Hepatitis and of course HIV/AIDS are the two most dangerous possibilities) , so, your character is taking on a fairly serious health risk from chowing down. As with the eye gouge, this is going to make other attackers back off; with the logic of, “if she just bit off his fucking ear, what’s she going to do to me!?”

There’s also a pretty serious psychological block about going toe to toe with someone who’s covered in someone else’s blood. This is just as true of people attacking your character.

In contrast, scratching, and this is personal experience, just doesn’t seem to be that viable. You do some surface damage to the tissue, and you do get some skin samples, but it’s far more socially acceptable, and far less dangerous. It won’t have the psychological effect you want and can actually spur more aggression.

-Starke

reference for writers: Writing Reference: Sprains and Strains

reference for writers: Writing Reference: Sprains and Strains

Tip: Your character can only strike in the directions their hips point.

Hand to hand combat is all about strategy, tactics, improvisation, and making the most of basic body mechanics. Yes, basic body mechanics. I’ve talked before about how the hips lead the body and they do. It’s not the arms or the shoulders or the legs, though each of the muscles has their place in making the body work. The hips are the guiding factor to creating momentum, the strength that comes from the pivot, the turning of the hips in conjunction with the upper and lower body to create force through movement. You create better results through conditioning the body and training your reflexes, but the limitations the body faces are its limitations.

 So, what are the directions you can strike in without stepping?

Forwards: front kick, roundhouse, shin kick, straight punch, cross, backhand, hammer fist, etc. Most of the basic strikes with the hands go straight forwards, the elbow can also strike going forward by coming across in a circular motion to strike at the face or the neck.

Side to side (right or left): The primary strikes on a sideways vector are the sidekick and the elbow. (Michi Note: Erp. I forgot the backhand, sorry.)

Backwards: the back kick, the mule kick, and other variations striking backwards (or with the fighter’s back to the opponent). Again: the elbow. The elbow is most useful for striking enemies from behind in close quarters, especially an enemy who is reaching in to grab them in a bear hug. Please keep in mind that the elbow is a close-quarters strike only, check it yourself by bending your arm at the elbow and bringing it across in front of your face. That’s the distance your character will have to strike effectively with the elbow, the elbow is the strike used when you are too close to get the windup for a punch to be effective. (Michi Note: my Divergent irritations are showing again, sorry.) Because of limited movement backwards, (yes, surprise! the joints betray us), the elbow is one of the most effective strikes from this direction. Strikes backwards are usually low (to the stomach) because visibility is either bad or non-existent, so the fighter is working off instinct. The stomach is a large, easy, soft target to aim for. (It’s not uncommon in the grab, if the arms are left free for a fighter to reach back over their head for their opponent’s eyes. Eye gouging is a thing, guys.)

It seems pretty limited when you stop and think about it. Forward, back, left, or right. Much of hand to hand and even basic weapons combat is all about maneuvering your opponent onto a vector they can’t strike from, while the protagonist is still able to strike them. This is both why stepping is important (focus on the feet). Now, it’s also important to remember that their opponent won’t want to go that way and may not be easily led. This is why stepping to get on diagonals or out of the way is important.

Always keep track of which directions all your characters in a scene are facing, what they want, where they are going, and what they are doing. It can be hard to visualize this and keep track, so always go back and double check (even triple check) that you didn’t accidentally magically move your characters to a different place just because they need to get hit on that line. Make sure the reader knows how they got from point A to point B to point C in the scene, even if the fighting itself is confusing for the characters.

Happy writing!

MBC Guerrilla Video Volume 1: Concepts (by StaySafeMedia)

So, I’m posting another Michael Janich video. This one is about basic concepts that have to do with self-defense and his own personal style that bases itself in knife fighting.

I’m a big fan of self-defense training for everyone, but on a craft level for writers especially. The difference is that many martial artists will focus their training on how to do a technique and not the focus of what it’s for until after the student has developed a decent base. This is fine, even good, for martial artists because it’s a necessary step. But it can make researching MAs rather obtuse when trying to divine how it works without the necessary years of training. Practice for real world situations often won’t happen until the upper belt ranks and sometimes, not until black belt. For example, I didn’t start working knife disarms until I started training for my second degree black belt test at 15.

Compare to self-defense, where training focuses on techniques that can be picked up easily and puts a primer on user understanding. The focus is not just on how to do a technique, but what it is and what it does, how it can be used practically and with different variations. This is the sort of information a writer needs to be able to write about fight scenes well.

Also, studying up on body mechanics and basic physiology never hurts.

I’ll be posting an article of my own later today. If you have any questions either regarding writing or self-defense, our askbox is always open.