The question is usually: well, which rules are you breaking?
In a fictional context, realism is entirely dependent on the fictional world you build for your characters. You have to define what those rules are before you can break them. When most readers go “oh, that’s not realistic!” what they are actually responding to isn’t the part where it goes against their “real world”, it’s a sign the author failed at communicating their world’s systems or broke their own rules. “That’s not realistic” is really just a higher brow way of saying “something’s not right here” or “that shouldn’t be possible” but the fictional work is defining what is possible.
With most MCs, it’s more about getting the writer to start thinking outside of their character. On one level: it doesn’t matter if it’s unrealistic. It really doesn’t. The question is, does the author realize that they can’t just make the rules one way for one character and not for anyone else?
If your MC can do it, more than likely your villain can. The average mook could. The kid wandering by on the street too. Anyone. Anywhere. Probably someone else.
It’s not about what will happen. It’s about what can happen because a story is more than a single character. For violence, there’s no safety net. To unironically take the best lesson from Avatar, when Aang attempts to learn to Earthbend “there’s no special trick-trickety trick that’s going to defeat that rock”. You can’t find a way around it with 100% certainty.
You’re always risking something when you put your character into combat and the sooner that gets internalized the better off you’ll be. Don’t believe your character will make it to the end of the story when you write combat. Believe they could die at any time. From any mistake. Completely by accident. Make your characters earn their right to survive. You’ll write better, I promise.
A writer who writes with the understanding that every fight they put their character into that character can die and has them act accordingly will always be in the “This is all wrong, but it ROCKS” category. Tamora Pierce’s fight scenes, for example, especially the ones in Protector of the Small when the kids are in genuine danger. They are dealing with the situation, there is a sense of a threat, a worry that they could die, and they are thinking it through or accepting the necessary sacrifices they need in order to win.
The author who uses the violence as a means for something else or primarily as a message, who has their character acting in a way that makes no sense because they already know they’re going to survive lands in the “No” category for me. There is no guarantee your character won’t fail. There should always be a chance they will and the scene should be written from the perspective that they might just. They can get themselves killed. More importantly, they can get someone else killed. Stupidity does that. Charging into a group of eight guys intent on killing someone else doesn’t mean they’re all automatically going to turn around to fight the protagonist.
The character needs to feel like they are dealing with the situation in front of them. The author should keep the overarching narrative view in mind, they should think about the consequences of their characters actions. Fight scenes are often treated as throwaways, a character can commit them with zero consequences. The average mook does not have family or friends or anyone who will come back to take the MCs head. The character beats up some poor idiots on the side of the road, sometimes in a place they visit often, and that’s it. It’s over. No more needs to be said. Except… violence has a ripple effect and often the effects are unintended. It spirals well beyond a single individual character, events may end up affecting everyone in their left regardless of their original intentions.
Think about the real world for a second, not in terms of “what is real” but your own life. What would happen if you took a baseball bat to school? What would happen if you started a fight? What would happen if you punched someone out? What would happen if you shoplifted? What would happen if you went to Walmart tomorrow and bought a gun? How would people react? People in general? The people in your life? Do you get detention or jail time? Do people approve? Do they condemn you? What do they say? If you were beat up by some idiot what would happen? If you saw them again with a group of your friends, what would you do? If you died tomorrow, what would people say?
We get so caught up in our main characters that sometimes it’s easy to forget that every character in your story is you. They all have friends, they all have family, and they all have lives that will continue on long after the Protagonist has moved on.
Allow me to use the titular “teach girls to defend themselves as a solution to stopping violence against women” which crops up often in literature, especially in lately in YA. I will list one example where it is well done and another where it fails utterly.
Page by Tamora Pierce.
In Page, Keladry acquires a new maid named Lalasa. Lalasa has a history of abuse and has been targeted by both servants and nobles in the palace for her shy nature. Kel takes Lalasa on as a favor to Lalasa’s uncle Gower, even though she’s reticent about it. When dealing with Lalasa’s abuse in the novel, Pierce hammers out all the different ways in which the abuse is allowed to continue as part of the world building. She makes a point of noting that the abuse is systemic, that victims are persecuted and they are blamed, were Lalasa to take her complaints those higher up both she and her uncle risk being turned out. She also notes that you can’t command people to change, the attitudes which allow the abuse are perpetuated even after someone powerful says “no, stop it” are important to understanding why it happens. They will no longer do it within the hearing of said powerful person, but you can’t just snap your fingers and expect immediate change to happen.
Page makes a point of saying in the actions of the surrounding characters and the events it relays in regards to Lalasa’s situation that sexism and abuse are systemic. Change takes time. And indeed it does, because Lalasa’s character arc runs the length of the novel.
While she think its silly not to, Kel respects that Lalasa does not initially wish to learn to defend herself. She waits for Lalasa to make the choice and it takes time. They both accept that self-defense is mitigation, not a solution. This is harder for Kel, who comes from a privileged perspective, than Lalasa, who is more practical. Lalasa’s learning self-defense is part of her regaining her confidence and taking her life back, she does not take just a few lessons, once she agrees to begin then she works at it and she works hard. She practices often and learns so well that when it finally all wraps up, she takes what she knows and passes her knowledge on other girls. Indicating that while systemic change takes time, people can change and work to aid others who suffer similar circumstances. Both women learn from each other, Kel in teaching and Lalasa in learning. Lalasa is a minor character in Page but her narrative is powerful. Both girls embody change in a system that fights tooth and nail to keep them in their place. Their struggles are difficult and they are real.
Graceling by Kristen Cashore.
When Katsa travels to an Inn, she sees a serving girl being assaulted by one of the tavern’s patrons and moves to intervene. She proceeds to think that if girls were taught to fight then they wouldn’t have to suffer because more violence is what solves violence problems.
However, she gives no thought to whether or not the girls want to learn. No thought to what would happen to them after she leaves. No thought to how this would affect the tavern and the girl’s ability to work or continue working. No thought to whether or not they’d even be able to fight the way she (super powered character) fights.
The total train of thought is “if the girl knew how to fight then she wouldn’t be assaulted” which is ultimately just another form of victim blaming and lacks the awareness that whatever they do or don’t know affects other aspects of the character’s life. This includes their ability to keep working, the fact they may be rejected by other people in their life, what happens to them next, and an understanding that introducing violence into a situation is a great way to escalate it.
It never occurs to Katsa when she witness the scene that the reason the girls aren’t fighting back may be because they can’t or a response to other circumstances, not that they don’t know how. It doesn’t even matter that she’s right (they don’t know how), the problem is the thought never occurs. This is why one of these is “that’s amazing” and the other is “No”. One thought it through while working to ensure reminder to long term consequences and the other didn’t.
Good scenes are all about asking questions and then answering them. Drama is something happens and then there is fallout. Cause and effect. One action leads to another and then another and then another, each building every higher into what eventually becomes a story. If you can justify your character’s actions in story then it doesn’t matter, but if you’re giving them preferential treatment then be prepared to justify it through the other characters. This requires treating them like characters as opposed to nameless mooks or a cheerleading section.
More importantly, a good author needs to recognize that violence creates as many problems as it solves. It’s a short term solution only, one with long lasting consequences. Being good at fighting doesn’t mean the protagonist can brute force their way through their problems and doesn’t mean that they are safe from someone else hurting them.
Respect that there are characters in the setting who are better at fighting than the protagonist. Understand that not all combat training is created equal. Learn what good combat training looks like as opposed to sensationalized training like in Divergent. Respect characters who put the time in to be good at something, even if they are just a throwaway enemy.
Recognize all characters in the right circumstance (or any circumstance) can kill your MC.
You will get into the “That’s not right, but it’s AWESOME” category.
That’s my two cents, anyway.