For a lot of authors, there’s a frustrating hold to the old adage “the best defense is a good offense”. There’s an overwhelming amount of material that focuses on just force on force. Thus, fight sequences in novels end up less like the Matrix and more like when you have two action figures being mashed into each other. It all ends up feeling rather plastic and fake, especially when the reader stops and tries to envision it in their mind. If you’re not careful, fights can end up feeling very mechanical and are often anatomically impossible. Even when they are, the fight sequences often make little sense. The human fighter takes too much damage, they get every lucky break (as in they don’t break anything), the body positioning is all wrong for the strike, the fight goes on too long, etc, we’ve all seen it.
Often, the problem is that the author is thinking too much about how to do damage, how to prove their character is badass. They end up with un-moderated aggression at worst or at best, a character who never defends and for all intents and purposes doesn’t even seem to know how to. This isn’t bad if you are creating a character who is supposed to be an all-out aggressor, who can’t control themselves or their fighting style (such as most street fighters). If you’re trying to create any other kind of character, however, then…oops.
So, in this article, we’ll be talking about why blocking is important to your writing, your fighting characters, and your fight scenes, the principles of blocking, how to implement blocks, and some of the different kind of blocks that exist.
Why is blocking important?
I’ve said this before, but in the real world fighting relies on strategy, tactics, making use of basic body mechanics, and trying not to get hit. A fighter needs to be able to protect their vital areas like their head, their stomach, their groin, and well, any of the soft parts of the body with important organs. Blocking is part and parcel to surviving a fight. It is part of showing not just your character’s skill but also their control and their fighting education. The first response of a trained character when encountering an attack is to dodge or to block, not to attack. The attack is secondary, a counter to the first attack after they have negated the chance of injury. Attacks are what allow your character to win fights, blocks are what allow your character to walk away at the end of them. So, let’s get a little more in depth.
A character who blocks is one who has accepted the idea that they can take damage.
As writers, we control everything that happens to our characters. Sometimes, what hasn’t occurred to us won’t occur to them. This happens a lot in action oriented stories and instead of a character coming off as knowledgeable, they sound arrogant. Often, this arrogance is unintentional on the part of the author, mostly because they’re thinking in gaming terms. Their protagonist is level twenty and the person they’re fighting to get information from is level 6, obviously said person can’t hurt them because they’re so low down the totem pole.
No. Every fight is dangerous. Every fighter, even a wild and untrained one leaves the opportunity for something to go wrong and for them to get themselves injured. If your character is in a setting with guns, then anyone can grab a gun and shoot your character. If your character is in a fantasy setting, then the would be attacker can always leave and get more friends or their family can report your character to the city guard or the Watch for brawling. Unless your character is someone like Superman (and even if they are), any fight they enter into is one where they risk physical harm to themselves. They can die; even a grand master can be killed by the lout with the knife on the street if they aren’t paying attention.
Getting hit hurts, but getting it in the arm hurts less than a concussion.
This one should be self-explanatory, but like I said above any fight is dangerous and there’s a chance that any hit can get lucky. The better the individual your character is fighting against, the higher the stakes get. If they can’t defend themselves from damage, why should your audience believe they can dish it out?
Blocking will let your character manage to control the fight against weaker characters without hurting them.
I’ll be honest. It looks bad when your fifteen year Special Forces/Mercenary badass protagonist is beating the village bully boys into the ground. Even if they are bullies, in a narrative context there’s no reason for your character to become a bully by bullying bullies unless that’s what you want them to be doing. It’s not okay for a stronger character to bully a bully, even when that bully bullied them when they were small and weak. If a hero is what you want, then you can’t have them taking revenge or beating up characters that the audience knows are weaker than they are. It looks bad and it sends the wrong message. Figure something else out, force on force just creates more force and more bad blood. What your character does will ripple outwards beyond just the fight and their negative attitudes can have negative effects on their circumstances.
Remember, the message you’re putting out matters. So, be careful.
The Principles of Blocking:
Blocking is how to take and redirect hits so that the fighter doesn’t die. On a strategic level, blocks create openings in the opponent’s guard by foiling the attack they committed to. So let’s talk about the places on the body where the kinetic force of a strike can be fairly easily disrupted.
The goal of a block is either to redirect the force away from the body, disperse it over a wider area, or take it in a place that will matter less to your fighting ability and let you keep going. Different strikes require different blocks and there are a multitude of different blocks that can be applied to different strikes. If that sounds confusing then congratulations, you’re halfway there.
So, you don’t want to take the force that’s being applied, but to disrupt it. This means that catching the fist or taking the fist with your hand directly is pretty much out. This is the sort of thing that looks cool in the movies, but is actually pretty idiotic. Your character doesn’t have time to deal with the resulting bruise on their hand or broken bones. They’re going to need that hand for punching and blocking.
The goal of a block is to identify the point of power in the strike such as in the hand or the ball of the foot and stop it by moving further up the body to the vulnerable places. Some of these places are:
Cross-Block: The cross-block is basically where you use the opposite side hand (matching your right to their left) to either catch or redirect the strike away from you. This is commonly taught to beginners and young children because it’s easy to learn and doesn’t go against natural instinct. Remember, your brain is cross wired to opposing sides. It’s more natural to block a right side strike with your left side than it is with the same side. If your character is self-taught and they block at all, these are the ones they’re most likely to use. Cross-blocks are more difficult to use against kicks.
Same-Side Block: This is when your fighter blocks a hit in mirror to their opponent, a left is met with a left and a right with a right. These blocks are commonly seen in boxing to take incoming straight strikes by pushing the hands downwards and away from the face. The hand can also drop to defend against kicks by catching the shin or hooking the arm under the knee. A same-side block is trained and it takes less time to execute than a cross-block. However, it takes time to replace the body’s natural protection instinct and difficult to mimic without a lot of practice.
Knee Blocks: This is a common block against kicks like the roundhouse, less useful against the side kick or the front kick. The knee comes up and pushes out against the force of the other kick, usually at the shin or the opponent’s knee.
Elbow Guard: The elbow guard is when you tuck your elbow up into a triangle shape and press the inside of your arm against your head. This is another block from boxing used to protect the head against curving strikes like the roundhouse punch, hooks, and haymakers. The fighter will usually also tuck their shoulders up and tighten against the blow by exhaling outwards.
Blocking with the shin and the forearm: In traditional martial arts forms like Shotokan Karate and some of the others, it’s common to have students block strikes with their forearms or their shins. However, it takes a long time to build up the bone density to be able to take those strikes and because the bone is so close the surface of the skin (unprotected by muscles) it can hurt to take strikes there, students who do often develop a habit of flinching before the hit lands, which is an opening that a clever enemy can exploit. So, the forearm is a great place to take hits, so long as it’s not bone on bone contact or it’s something they’ve gotten used to in their own training. If it is, then make sure you say so somewhere in the text.
Blocks and Counters: It may surprise you to learn that most martial arts have as many blocks as they do attacks, in fact most of the early technique chains that are taught involve blocks and the follow-up counters. They train the students to think about not just what they are doing in the moment, but what comes after. In the second form taught in Taekwondo (or at least the second one we taught in our curriculum), the base technique chain that held the form together was upper defense, front kick, punch. The upper defense used the forearm to block downwards strikes like a knife hand or a hammer fist to protect the head, then a front kick to the chest in retaliation, followed by a punch landing in a front stance to the stomach as the finisher, then you turn and do the same for the other side.
An untrained or self-trained character may be able to block, but it’ll take them a lot more time to counter. They, like most of the population, will be more likely to believe in force on force as opposed to defend and counter. It’s actually one of those all-important distinguishing traits between trained and untrained. Remember, just because your character blocked their hit the first time doesn’t mean they won’t try to hit your protagonist again if your protagonist gives them the crucial few seconds of recovery.
Feints: Your character’s block can also create openings in their guard if they move to block against feint, such as the Taekwondo combination of a backhand and right punch. It’s not common for characters who don’t know what they’re doing to use feints.
I’ll be honest, blocking relies a lot on timing and while there are natural reactions the body exhibits to being struck or threatened, most of those aren’t actively useful without a lot of guiding, shaping, and practice with partners. The tenents are fairly easy to grasp on a conceptual level, but are difficult in actual practice. Until then, your character is pretty much flailing at whatever object managed to get caught in their peripheral vision.
How to Implement Blocks in Your Fight Scenes:
For a character who is trained, blocking is going to be second nature. Their body will be prepping before the strike starts (Michi Note: Refer to our FightWrite: Watch the Whole Body post) and their body may actually start reacting to just about any movement that comes towards them, including someone coming in to pat their head, stroke their cheek, or hug them from behind. Their brain may not catch their body before it has time to catch up or may stop halfway, if you’re looking for humor. Blocking for them has been trained as an instinctual reaction, one that replaced some of their old untrained instincts. So, don’t worry if your character seems uncool if they start the fight on the defense, that’s pretty normal for someone being attacked.
Try to think about your character’s bodies and the strikes you’re having them perform, try to visualize the attacks in your mind before you put it on the page, if it helps sketch it out in an outline format first of what you want to have happen and then try to implement it in your story. Don’t worry about it coming out perfect the first time, everyone edits and rewrites. If writing fight scenes is new to you and you don’t have any real background in combat, it may be hard in the beginning. That’s okay, you’re just learning a new skill and everybody falls on their face the first few times. Track your progress and celebrate when you improve.
Some things to keep in mind:
Dodging is easier to write, because it doesn’t disrupt the flow of combat as much and is easier to visualize. However, dodging is tiring. Fighting is also tiring, your character has a limited amount of stamina, so only have them dodge once or twice, this is why blocking is important.
Blocking is pretty much always reactive. Your character is reacting to another characters action. Then, they take action themselves by attacking. It’s easier to write a block if you know what your other character is planning to attack with, this will also give you the opportunity to think about and work with your protagonist’s opponent. If you get to know who they’re fighting and what that character favors in their style then writing the fight scene is actually lot easier.
Start thinking about the mechanics of your own body and how it all functions together. If you can break apart how the body works then it’s much easier to break apart a strike in your mind and to write it as part of the scene.
Other helpful articles on this blog: FightWrite: Watch the Whole Body and FightWrite: The Art of Stepping
The only things I’d add to that list are staves, spears, pikes, and… well, guns.
The thing is 1600s Europe was rapidly heading into an era when the firearm was the primary weapon on the battlefield. Matchlock muskets had been around for, about, 150 years, and 1610 saw the introduction of the flintlock, so depending on what part of the seventeenth century you’re using, these could be a real weapon in your setting, or just an expensive, rare, novelty.
These weren’t accurate weapons, the rifle was still over two centuries away, and smoothbore firearms usually just put a bullet in the general vicinity of where you’re pointing. This is what led to the massed musket infantry formations firing in volleys.
The key here is “fantasy.” That alone gives you a lot of latitude to play with the world, and change the assumptions of how it functions. If your culture is based on some perpetuation of the Vikings, then, you’re looking at a mix of longswords, and axes. For ranged weapons, you’d either be looking at bows, spears, or (if you want to make them a part of your setting) early firearms.
The sword is one of the most iconic weapons you can give your character. Unfortunately, this also means swords are very contextual; depending on your setting, your sword will say a lot about the character you give it to, regardless of your intent.
This post’s going to be a little different from our normal fare. Usually, when we’re doing a write-up of a style or weapon, we just talk about how you use it in combat, and how it behaves; with swords, we’re going to also need to talk about what they mean for your settings and cover some of their history.
That said, you should not be citing this for historical accuracy. I’m going to be condensing thousands of years of history into a very short primer. What this means is, I’m glossing over some historical idiosyncrasies. If you’re using an actual historical setting, and not an amalgam of an era, then you’re going to need to do more research on the people and weapons of that time.
Shortswords are among the earliest examples of the weapon, dating back to the Bronze Age. These started out as simple blades between 12 and 24 inches in length. The length of a shortsword was limited by the available forging technology. Early Iron Age shortswords were single bladed, while later ones, such as the Roman Gladius were double edged.
The shortsword itself lacks a lot of the subtlety and grace that we usually associate with swords. The characters were likely trained to use the weapon in tight formations with other soldiers, with a focus on chopping strikes. Duels between character wielding shortswords are more like writing knife fighting.
The Greeks, ancient Egyptians, and Romans all used shortswords as standard military weapons, supplemented with spears. If your setting is patterned off any ancient Mediterranean culture, the shortsword will probably be viewed as the weapon of a soldier or a veteran. There is a catch here, single bladed shortswords doubled as machetes in climates where they were needed, so depending on your setting there may be a distinction between shortswords that are tools and those that are weapons.
Longswords are dependent on more advanced forging techniques. The first longswords emerged late in the first millennium AD. By the 1100s they had evolved into the European longsword we’re familiar with. Unlike the shortsword, the longsword was, for the most part, rare and expensive in Europe during the medieval era.
As with most weapons, how your character has been trained will massively influence the way they wield a longsword. Most longsword combat you see in films is built off of dueling schools; which differs from most sword combat in the use of parries. Blade on blade parrying is very destructive to a sword. While this isn’t an issue for an aristocrat who won’t be fighting another duel this month (or was using a rapier), for a soldier or knight, it is a critical issue. Their training was to evade incoming attacks, rather than to block with the sword.
Most longswords are double bladed, allowing the combatant to rapidly reverse a hew (slash); this allows for rapid flurries of multiple strikes. Most combat with the weapon focuses on quick strikes, with as much efficiency of motion as possible. Wide heavy strikes have a limited place in combat, while spinning strikes (what you see from Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films) is almost exclusively an exposition technique.
Depending on your setting, a longsword can say a lot about who your character is. If your setting is patterned off of a Viking or Celtic themed era, then the longsword is a fairly normal weapon for raiders and warriors.
If you’re using a realistic medieval setting, then swords are very rare, and the purview of nobles, their knights, and the rare elite mercenary. If you’re using a variant of the standard medieval fantasy world, then the longsword becomes a sign of nobility. Giving a peasant a sword to subtly hint that they’re really the long lost true heir to the kingdom is, well, cliché. Even Star Wars does this, accidentally.
Unlike other swords, fencing blades began as civilian weapons. They doubled as a sixteenth and seventeenth century fashion statement, and a weapon for dueling.
Fencing weapons are one of the easiest to study, if you have an interest, the foil, epee, and saber are have all been preserved as sport styles. With a very important caveat: unlike most sport martial arts, fencing reduces its lethality by blunting the weapon, and armoring the combatants; the underlying style is still incredibly lethal. Remove the armor and the blade caps, and a fencer’s training is as dangerous as a practical martial style.
Fencing is where we get most of the blade on blade parrying from. Rapiers are, in general, much more focused on stabbing, rather than slashing, so the blade is, somewhat less critical than the tip.
Fencing is also (probably) where we get the concept of dual wielding swords. As early as the sixteenth century, it was fairly common to pair a rapier with a shortsword or buckler. The shortsword was used to parry incoming attacks, rather than as an offensive weapon.
Fencing blades are one of the easiest weapons to justify training in, for a modern character. Fencing schools still exist throughout Europe and America. It’s viewed as an elitist sport and is usually in the domain of the rich, much like horseback riding in urban and suburban areas. It’s a very expensive hobby. (Michi Note: I looked into fencing once when I was younger, Stanford ran three to four week summer courses. For reference: it cost 400 dollars, this was in the late 1990s and didn’t cover the cost of the equipment. My martial arts lessons cost less than that to pay up for the whole year.) Part of this is because fencing is a very difficult sport to spectate; matches are fast, and the scoring is very complex. Most modern fencers are trained in styles that originated in the nineteenth century.
They’re also one of the easiest weapons to see some actual sword work with. A lot of old Hollywood films, used fencing coaches for all of their sword fights, so, there’s a large body of work out there. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good starting place. (Michi Note: the old swashbuckling films, particularly the Errol Flynn films that star Basil Rathbone such as Captain Blood or the Adventures of Robin Hood and the old Zorro movies are pretty great. But really, any of the old Hollywood swashbuckler films from the 1920s to the early 1950s.)
If you’re using a renaissance era setting, and your character’s family is wealthy (either because of nobility, or as a merchant or artisan), the Rapier, Foil, or Epee is a reasonable choice. It doesn’t carry as much baggage as a normal longsword would. This is the weapon of a fop who wants to pretend they’re a warrior, the weapon of a noble who wants the world to see his status, the weapon of an actual professional duelist, or some combination of the above.
Cavalry swords, like the scimitar and saber are long thin curved blades designed to be used from horseback. These are primarily slashing weapons. The blade is curved to avoid getting caught in an opponent while rushing past them on horseback. The crossguard is contoured with the same goal. These started filtering into Europe from the Middle East around 1200, about the same time the first firearms made their way into European warfare.
As European powers transitioned to using firearms as their favored weapon of war (roughly the 1400s to the 1700s), the sword, along with other melee weapons started to fall out of favor.
Probably because of the difficulty of reloading on the move, cavalry kept their swords. As with other combatants they would start with a volley of gunfire, but then switch over to swords during the charge. This disrupted enemy infantry, who were trying to reload.
Also, early firearms weren’t accurate; rifling wasn’t invented until the 1700s, before that it was incredibly difficult to hit specific targets, as the bullet would tumble randomly once it left the barrel.
This led to another significant change on who would be carrying a sword. If your setting is based on the Napoleonic era onward, the saber was the badge of office for a military officer, or cavalryman (or cavalrywoman). For that matter, the saber actually still exists as an optional part of an officer’s dress uniform in a number of martial services, and was a common as an officer’s badge of commission up into the First World War.
If your setting is an Age of Sail style world, then you’re looking at a variant; the Cutlass. It grew out of officers being given swords to indicate their rank, and wandered off on its own. It isn’t completely historically accurate to give all your pirates and sailors swords, but, because of the nature of boarding a ship at sea, cutlasses and pistols were common weapon choices. At this point, I’d say, you’re within the expectations of the genre, and have fun.
I’m going to point out a couple of those idiosyncrasies I skimmed over, before anyone asks. The longsword didn’t get more expensive in the dark ages, the economy of Europe changed, and the sword became comparatively more expensive. I’m not going to do a full write up on medieval European economics, I’m sorry. (There is a very good write up on D&D economics here: http://forum.candlekeep.com/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=10821 which can be applied to most medieval fantasy settings.)
The saber is, historically, both a fencing blade and a cavalry blade. Actually the introduction of the scimitar into Europe might be part of where the fencing blades originated from, I’m unsure.
Finally, there were longswords before the Vikings; they date back to the seventeenth century BC. They also were a vastly different weapon in combat from the longsword that evolved from the Viking Sword.
In the real world, martial training (almost always) builds self confidence. This is one of those easy to overlook character building elements. What it means is, martial artists don’t, normally, have crippling self-esteem issues, they are less likely to be bullies, and less likely to be bullied. (Michi Note: this counts on a physical level only, martial artists and other trained combatants are just as open to being verbally mocked and emotionally abused. It’s just less likely that it will escalate to physical violence beyond some basic intimidation.)
This is a general rule based off experience with many different martial artists from a variety of backgrounds over the years, but there are exceptions. Keep in mind that martial artists are people, just like everyone else, with their own unique outliers and edge cases. So, first, remember that this article is about “most” martial artists, and if your character is supposed to be some fringe case then that’s fine. You just need to make sure you point out that they are a fringe case, or else your audience might assume the behavior is normal within the context of the story.
Second, martial arts training won’t cure mental illness. It can provide good coping mechanisms, but if a character has self-esteem issues from a personality disorder, then, again, that’s fine. (However, the normal caveat about mental illnesses applies: if you don’t want to be offensive, don’t write about one you don’t have a lot of experience with. It’s best to spend time with people who have the disorder that you know well, if you were not born with the disability yourself, and a clinical understanding of how it functions is also a good idea.)
Ultimately, if you are wanting to write a character with serious self-esteem issues, you can’t simultaneously say they’re a great fighter. It just doesn’t mesh with reality; like a professional chef who has no sense of taste or smell. It’s a possible character, but it’s weird, and contradictory. We’ve talked a lot about how the mind influences a fight, what we believe about ourselves and our own skills will influence the outcome. Negative beliefs like “I won’t get away, I’m too small and fragile, I suck, I’m terrible, I’ll get in trouble if I hurt someone, it’s better if I don’t do anything at all,” etc, have the serious potential to lead to a losing bout or the death of that character. The body is the weapon, but mind is what wields the body. Talent only gets you so far, undeveloped natural talent is just that: undeveloped. Natural talent is nothing compared to training and experience, and prodigies are nothing without the will and desire to make something of themselves. Those whose lives have always been easy have a very difficult time when the going gets tough (and it will always, eventually become tough). They are unused to facing resistance and are more likely to give up because of it.
So, a character with serious self-esteem issues will have to get (or has already gotten) over them in training, at least in the context of their training and their skills, or they won’t last long. Now, a lack of confidence in the beginning along with minimal skill can be a driving force for a character to desire to become better. But that changes the character from a negative outlook to a positive one: “I can do this, I want to become better, I will work harder,” etc, thus hurting the story’s concept of a character with shattered self-confidence, because a character with no self-confidence at all won’t really be able to believe in themselves.
I’d be lying if I said, I knew exactly why martial training builds confidence. I suspect; it’s a culmination of the ability to defend against potential attackers, the normal result of learning a new skill, and possibly some of the thought processes martial arts training attempts to instill. (Michi Note: There are some principles of the Fight Club mentality at play, this coupled with discipline and a general focus on respect and humility, help to keep the jock mentality at bay. Overcoming your own fears has a powerful effect on the way you see yourself, especially if it revolves around overcoming and working through significant amounts of pain and exhaustion.)
Additionally, martial art schools present a lot of opportunity for someone to keep challenging themselves, and pushing further. This means that any impulse to be “top dog”, will be captured and channeled within their school, rather than against random people on the street or in their (normal) school. They are focused and goal oriented in their desire for self-betterment and in a good school surrounded by those who will help them (and those they can also help) to achieve their goals. Martial arts, for the most part, is a focus on self-betterment and self-empowerment. (Michi Note: Professional fighters have a habit of landing in the jock mentality, but that might be because of a tangible “top dog” position coupled with money and fame.)
Martial artists make poor targets for bullying. This comes down to how bullies usually pick their targets, they’re looking for weaker prey. Bullying (almost always) originates from internal self-confidence issues. Training won’t always cure a bully of their behavior, but it reduces the appeal. Martial artists are unlikely to become bullies after their training. In fact, the confidence most martial artists present usually removes them from the bully target category. This doesn’t mean they’re immune, a bully can misread the martial artist, and I’m not accounting for stupid bullies here. (Ones that think they’re actually better fighters than the martial artist, and deliberately seek them out, in an effort to assert their dominance. (Though, I’d strongly caution you against using deliberately “stupid” characters in your writing. It’s very easy to end up with a character that adds nothing to the story.)) If the bully does misjudge the martial artist, their ability to defend themselves is usually enough to send the bully looking for a new victim.
It’s important to remember that most bullies aren’t looking to be seriously challenged and there is a huge difference between a character getting up in the bully’s face and giving them the casual brush off. If there are a number of individuals present to back up the leader bully, then the leader bully might be forced into a situation where they have to retaliate.
(Michi Note: when I was eleven, there was a girl in my class who was upset when I challenged “what she wanted” during an in class Greek Gods roleplay. Afterwards, she tried to physically intimidate me (with her much greater height and stockier body by crowding my personal space) into capitulating and never challenging her opinion in class again. Her attitude and body language suggested that she was used to being able to cow the other girls and even boys because she was so much taller and so much stockier than the rest of us. I was confused, because it was just a class exercise and I was playing my role. So, I told her “no” and wandered off. I found “bitch” scratched into my desk the next day, but it never went any further than that and she actively avoided me from then on. The fact she was trying to intimidate me didn’t even occur to me until years later, I just thought it was strange at the time…by that point I was pretty oblivious to bullies anyway.)
Sanctioned Violence versus Unsanctioned Violence:
It’s important to remember that the above only really applies if you’re character is a martial artist. A martial artist’s violence isn’t sanctioned. If they fight in the real world they face much the same, if not greater, legal threat as the person who is attacking them. They aren’t protected by law or by the government the same way someone employed by the government or a private firm working with the government is.
Characters in professions where the violence is sanctioned face different temptations. When a cop kills someone, they’re up before the review board and often, the crime is swept under the rug. If a soldier kills someone (unless they kill another soldier) then for the most part, they were just doing their job. There is a serious temptation to become a bully or have a bully appear in places where the power dynamics are different, especially in jobs where the perpetrator doesn’t have to fear any sort of reprisal.
It’s also important to think about for authors, not just from an in-world context but also outside of it. We’ll do an article on the dangers of action protagonists and ending up with a bully, because it’s a common occurrence in fiction to have heroes who are nothing more than author sanctioned bullies. It’s very easy, especially in a world where all violence is controlled by the author, to end up with a character that never faces consequences for their actions even when they are performing bully behavior, whether that be emotional or physical.
So, keep in mind that martial artists don’t normally end up as football style “Karate Kid” jocks and your character can’t really win a hand to hand fight without some level of self-confidence. This doesn’t mean they’re overconfident, they can be confused and worried by experiences that are new and different to them. But their lack of self-confidence in those areas can’t be crippling and can’t really extend into all aspects of how they view themselves and their lives.
(Michi Note: we’re still moving, we were working on this one slowly all weekend. We’ll try to get other stuff up, but we’re heading into a major push this week and weekend to try to get everything out and moved. We probably won’t have internet the week after that. We’re trying but life stuff comes first.)
Focused Impact Volume 1: A Practical Course In Self-Defense With Tactical Pens (by StaySafeMedia)
We haven’t had a lot of time to come up with anything new. (Moving sucks!) Anyway, I’m leaving this here for you guys. In this video, Michael Janich (a self-defense expert) talks about using a tactical pen (any metal pen will work) as an alternate form of self-defense.
We’re still planning on doing a write up on improvised weapons, but I thought this would be good to get some of you thinking about what sort of weapons a character can carry that won’t be immediately identified.
If you can, watch the video a few times to get an idea, not just on how to fight with a pen, but how to control an attacker.
Notice: when he grabs, he grabs to the upper arm, this greatly limits the possibility of movement by the assailant by eliminating their ability to use their elbow. While the shoulder can be dangerous without the rest of the arm, it’s difficult, especially if you take out the legs. The upper arm also has a pressure point half-way up the inside where the bicep and the triceps connect. This is also why he suggests striking to the inside of the thigh half-way up the upper leg, again, to a pressure point. Also, when he traps the foot while attacking.
These are all ways a smaller, weaker fighter (any fighter really) can nullify the strength advantage and control their opponent’s movements to limit their avenues of attack.
Warning: Please, do not go searching for your pressure points if it’s your first time. The pressure points connect to your nervous system, messing around with them can be highly dangerous to the continual functionality of your body. If you insist, never cross-grab (search for two pressure points on different sides of your body), pick the left or the right, never both. With a cross-grab you’ll send two different signals through your heart, which can get crossways and damage it. So, don’t. Write it only or take a class. This stuff is very dangerous, so always practice under the eye of a trained professional.
The way a trained combatant watches someone, whether it’s a potential attacker or just a friend at the bar is different from how an untrained person does. This is to be expected, when the writer is a practitioner who knows what they’re doing. But I’ve seen it skipped over often by other writers. I do understand why, of course, this is actually a very difficult thing to do if you haven’t been trained to do it, told what to look for, or spent a significant amount of time in the sparring arena. So, let’s talk about a trained fighter’s ability to track movement, tells the body exhibits before a strike, and what your character will notice before they’re even in the thick of it.
Watch the Chest: You can see the muscles moving in the chest, beneath even a heavy coat, before they ever reach the shoulders or the arms. It’s a much better method of identifying which hand the attacker is going to lead with than just watching their hands or their shoulders. The muscles in the chest provide a clear view of the torso, straight down to the hips, which is where the lead in for a kick always begins. When you know what they’re going to do, it becomes easy to avoid it. Over time, a character will check for this automatically without even thinking about it.
Watch the Eyes: The eyes telegraph, they telegraph a lot about what a person is thinking or feeling before they even begin to think about attacking. You’ll see a lot of trained fighters scanning an area as they walk to the car or enter into a busy bar, getting a layout of their surroundings, and checking out and noting each of the faces, how long they hold their gaze, etc. Humans are also animals and what the eyes say about dominance and submission will often tell a lot about the way an individual will react. Staring into someone else’s eyes for a length of time can be a sign of dominance, dropping your gaze quickly can be a sign of submission. Staring into someone else’s eyes for any length of time during a fight can have a somewhat hypnotic, uncomfortable effect on the opposing individual.
In a fight, the eyes often drop to the strike zone the attacker is intending to hit. This can be faked of course, but that’s unusual. The split second where someone is trying to remember where they put their weapon, be it on their belt is an opening. If they aren’t watching you, this gives you an opening to attack. I was once told by a woman, who heard it from a cop, that there’s a disturbing trend among young women who consider it rude to say no when someone asks them the time. Stop and think about this:
A man comes up and asks “Excuse me, do you know what time it is?”, the woman like so many now a days, doesn’t wear a watch and her phone is in her purse. She says, “sure, just one second” and reaches into her purse or pocket to get her phone, her eyes leave the man, he clocks her over the head and drags her off into the bushes.
It can happen that fast.
Wide Peripheral Vision: Martial artists have a habit of having very wide peripheral vision, this is also true of soldiers. They are trained that way and are used to blocking strikes that come from outside their field of vision.
Training Means You React Faster: Someone who is trained will react faster than someone who is not, they will react along the lines of how they’ve been trained. They see the shoulder in the beginnings of a punch, they will react with a block, the vector of the strike and their training will determine what kind of block it is. After the block, there will be some sort of counter.
We’re talking the time it takes for your brain to realize something is wrong, that information to reach your hand or leg and for the muscles to react. For a trained combatant this will be a matter of .5 seconds as opposed to a full 2 to 5 seconds. It’s important to note that some variations of Martial Arts training like Krav Maga specifically work to bring the speed of reaction down to around .25 seconds through drills and widening the student’s field of peripheral vision.
So, how does this translate into your writing?
When your character is out and about, even if they’re filled with concerns about their own life or in the midst of an intense conversation, throw in a sentence about what they notice in the world around them. They may not even really notice that they’re doing it, but for the audience it will be a tell.
It’ll go something like: ‘Thought’, the guy over there has his hands on his hips, could be a knife. ‘Thought’, the girl he’s with is too invested in her book to notice. ‘Self-absorbed thought’, rain on the ground makes it muddy, finding my footing will be difficult, should I go over there? ‘And so on.’
Description + choice= action. Always remember that when a character takes action, they are also taking the responsibility for that action onto themselves.
Before the first punch or kick is even thrown, have them notice the movement in the chest and torso, notice where another character’s eyes are looking, or even just have them be aware of the posture of the other character’s in the room. This doesn’t require lengthy description of every little detail, just a throwaway line about how someone else is standing, where their feet are, where the weapon is, and where their hands are in position to their face and to the character before the fight happens. You can bury it in a paragraph way on top of the page or on a different page in the buildup. When a fight starts, it should be immediate.
His chest and shoulder pulled back. Then, he swung. But Alice’s left hand was already moving as she caught his roundhouse with her wrist and drove her right fist into his throat.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.