All posts by Chelsea Schmitt

Q&A: More Demystification of Martial Arts and Romance

autumnimagining said to howtofightwrite:

I just read your excellent response to the question about the martial arts romance. I was wondering if one way forward to help increase a sense of sexual or romantic tension would be to have the couple slowly go through the moves together, rather like a couple learning to dance. Slow, soft touches and gentle placements of each other’s bodies around each other. It would eliminate the intense physicality of sparring while still being consensual and might resemble a fight without risk of injury.

The irony is that the violence of the sequence doesn’t matter so long as the individuals are on the same page and the audience understands the context. The romantic tension doesn’t come from the activity itself, it’s about two people engaging in an activity they both enjoy separately together. Here’s an example of a character dynamic that, in isolation, doesn’t seem romantic but is within context.

In the 2010 action comedy R.E.D. (Retired, Extremely Dangerous), the KGB agent Ivan (Brian Cox) explains his longstanding, complex romantic relationship with the MI-6 assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren) to Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) who is retired CIA officer Frank Moses’s (Bruce Willis’s) new girlfriend drawn into the plot’s craziness of Frank going to war with the American government after they put out a hit on him.

Ivan shows Sarah the scar on his chest where Victoria shot him as a parting gift when they parted ways at the end of the Cold War. A scar Ivan is still fond of to this day. Sarah visibly recoils, not understanding how Ivan could perceive Victoria attempting to kill him as romantic, and Ivan says (and I paraphrase), “she shot me in the chest, she could’ve shot me in the head.” What he means is, Victoria chose the maybe kill instead of the certainty. Giving herself cover to say, “well, I tried my best” when reporting in while giving him a chance to survive. This, for Victoria, was an expression of love and it’s one Ivan understands because he knows her well. They’re bonded together by a mutual shared understanding, respect, and admiration for each other’s skills even when they are, technically, enemies on opposite sides of a conflict. Ivan is one of the few individuals in Victoria’s life who knows and loves her for who she really is, a ruthless, badass, highly skilled, and extremely successful assassin. And his competence is a major reason why she loves him. (Enemies to Lovers, but We’re Still Enemies in the End.)

The problem is you’re still looking at it from the perspective of the physical interaction being what makes the interaction romantic, what shows the romance to the audience, but it isn’t. Violence isn’t romantic and martial artists physically touch each other all the time as a matter of practice. So, there’s nothing special or unique about them touching a specific person. What makes the interaction special is the context, what each character emotionally brings to the scene and their motivations.

If you’ve got two characters who really enjoy fighting and enjoy testing their skills against each other, you have the grounding for a scene where the fighting itself could become an expression of love (whether that love is romantic or platonic.) The street brawls of Yusuke Uremeshi and Kuwabara from Yu Yu Hakusho are a good example of platonic fighting that forms a foundation friendship. It’s not the fighting itself but the enjoyment of fighting for its own sake, the pride both characters take in their skills, and in testing those skills against each other which creates the bond.

Kuwabara comes back time and time again for another sound beating because he enjoys fighting a challenging, superior opponent. Kuwabara respects Yusuke’s raw, scrappy fighting talent (long before Yusuke ever dies and gains spirit powers) while Yusuke comes to respect Kuwabara’s bullheaded tenacity and realizes that his rivalry with Kuwabara wasn’t antagonistic like he thought but rather a gesture of friendship. This friendship wouldn’t work if both characters didn’t genuinely love fighting rather than using violence as a tool of domination or a means to take power over another individual.

One of the problems for some authors (mostly American authors) is that some cultures (American culture, especially for boys) are extremely touch-starved or engage in touch-starvation due to more rigid social mores and restrictions. So, the act of touching another person gains more importance, often being read by the audience as sexual even when there are other important connotations at play. The problem they face (which acts as a form of culture shock) is that martial sub-cultures are extremely touch-heavy by necessity, you can’t train without constantly touching someone else and being touched, so the expectations that might be perceived in the mere act of touching just aren’t there.

Example: the only characters who get really excited by an instructor laying a hand on their stomach to remind them to tighten their gut and breathe from their diaphragm is the neophyte and constant training quickly disabuses them of that romantic notion unless they choose to cling to it.

Now, the same action could become romantic. However, it’s the sort of the action which requires both characters to be on the same page, when screwing around instead of focusing becomes mutual as opposed to the same action detracting from the lesson.

What I’m saying is that it’s not martial arts that brings people together, but their individual love for the martial arts that brings people together.

The act of training is cooperative interaction, but we ultimately train because we want to become better. It’s difficult to focus when you’re thinking about how much you like (or would like to bone) your training partner. The martial arts trainee usually learns to compartmentalize and put aside those feelings for the duration of training. Romance becomes a secondary consideration dealt with in the before and in the after, rather than the moment. For romance to work it’s way into the scene, it has to be what the scene is about with both characters on the same page with both ultimately okay when it comes to screwing around.

The irony is, the same is true with characters in an all out battle against each other while on opposite sides of the conflict. If you can define your characters as idealogues who separate their personal interests or romantic feelings from their work, there’s nothing inherently abusive in them trying to kill each other. They love each other, yes, but there’s this belief or code or aspect of themselves which they love more. It’s when the romance is tied to the violence and the pain they inflict on each other that situation and romance becomes abusive.

Writing your character taking it too far in a training exercise, harming their romantic interest as a means to realize they have feelings, and using one character’s injury to justify them growing closer with the person who hurt them? That’s where the asymmetrical power structure and abuse are.

Two characters who really enjoy sparring, who especially enjoy sparring with each other, sparring together? That’s fine.

Characters training together? So long as they can put their feelings aside in the moment and knuckle down, it’s cool.

For romance to work at all, your characters need to be characters. What violence is useful for is creating challenging circumstances which push characters to grow, evolve, and change. The choices we make in response to violence and in committing violence can reveal us for who we truly are, stripping away the false notions and preconceptions common in the infatuation phase of a relationship. It’s very common for people to fall in love with who they perceive someone to be or who they decide they are, the person they create within their own heads, rather than the actual person themselves. (Ironically, it happens more commonly in the romance genre and fiction in general than most authors would enjoy to copping to.)

If you’re going to sit down and write a romance, regardless of whether it’s a romance with characters who are warriors or martial artists, ask yourself some specific questions:

  1. Why do they enjoy being with this person?
  2. What is it about them (beyond the physical) that they like?
  3. What hobbies and interests do they have in common?
  4. What are the quiet moments in your story where each of these characters looks at the other and goes internally, “I really like you.”
  5. What do they admire about the other character?
  6. What annoys them about the other character? (Not hate, annoys, irritates, gets under their skin.)
  7. Are the aspects that they admire and which irritate real or they are perceptions the character has that aren’t exhibited by the other character on the page? (Is what your character sees in their love interest representative of what the audience sees?)
  8. What do they believe in, in absence of their love interest?
  9. If they are a warrior, why do they fight? Who, or what, do they fight for?
  10. Are those feelings compatible with their lover interest’s goals?
  11. What do they respect about their love interest?

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

The Rapier: Seven Minutes in Hell Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Gideon the Ninth and the Perils of Pop Culture)

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Have you read Gideon the Ninth? What did you think of the swordplay? I found it ridiculous, Gideon is supposedly so “strong” she uses a “Greatsword” with one hand.

I’ll be honest, I got about seventy pages into Gideon the Ninth before I gave up due to the novel’s pacing issues. So, in terms of sins, the swordplay itself rated pretty low. The reason one reads Gideon the Ninth is for lesbian necromancers in space, and it’s good for that. I’ve no judgments on anyone who enjoyed it, dumb space fantasy fun is one of my favorite genres. Gideon’s combat sins are the same as pretty much every other novel, they’re the same legion of sins you see when any writer takes conventional wisdom and pop culture knowledge at face value without giving it any thought. 

The short answer to Gideon the Ninth and pretty much anything to do with swordplay from conventional understanding of weapon utility to training to the wisdom spouted by the main character’s titular teacher is: it’s all wrong, often hilariously so, to the point of being nonsensical. So wrong, in fact, that I question whether or not this character was actually trained to fight because she couldn’t grasp the fundamentals. (Longsword and rapier? Not that different.) However, while Gideon was exceedingly wrong with great confidence, she’s very in line with our cultural perceptions of swords.As a result, Gideon is very convincing if you don’t think about what she’s saying too much.

Let’s start with the basics:

  1. The longsword is the battlefield warrior’s weapon. 
  2. The rapier is the tooty fruity dainty noble’s fancy dueling weapon. (It’s super fancy because it’s French.)
  3. And if you just nodded along to those descriptions, oh boy, is this post going to blow your mind.

Here’s our first foray, rapier is not a French word, rapier is derived from a French word, but is an English and/or German word. They didn’t care enough to get the pronunciation right, which sounds exactly like the English and the Germans in regards to the French. It’s also a horrible mistake if you follow suit. The French happen to be great at stabbing people. You’re welcome.

I’m not going to focus on Gideon’s issues with the zweihander or claymore. We’ve discussed the weight of swords at length in the past and how these large weapons only weigh about eight pounds because, in the real world, you’re expected to use them all day. (No, really.) In this post, we’re going to focus on the sword Gideon truly does dirty in quintessential fantasy fashion and that sword is the rapier and it’s shorter sibling, the smallsword.

One of the major problems of Fantasy as a genre, usually pulling from Dungeons & Dragons, is it tends to look at the past as The Past. A bleary amalgamation of stuff slammed together in an incoherent jumble that doesn’t really make sense but seems like it does if you don’t look too closely. Any fantasy setting, for example, that lets you have a greatsword but not a single-shot handgun is a little confused about history. So, a lot of weapons that are actually sequential technological evolutions during society’s growth and progression toward the modern era get held up as the same as their ancient counterparts. Oftentimes, these are weapons separated by hundreds of years and, in some cases, thousands. The zweihander, for example, is not a medieval weapon, it’s early modern and post the invention of the gun. It’s a 16th century weapon, and requires the smithing technologies of the era in order to exist. Your DnD Barbarian patterned off the Visigoths or the Norse using a greatsword is the same as your hard bitten 1920s P.I. using a goddamn phaser. It’s anachronistic. Now, why is this important to the rapier?

The rapier comes from an era when everyone got to have swords and the swords themselves were seen as status symbols. The rapier was not just the weapon of the super rich, but the weapon of the rising middle/merchant class. While it did see battlefield use, they were also weapons carried for self-defense and in polite society. Due to its light weight, they could be carried as a fashion accessory, just like high heels for both men (and women.) Which is where our cultural bias for the rapier being a non-serious weapon comes from, but it was the military fashion of the time because it was the military sidearm. The rapier is a weapon for killing and it is very efficient at its job. The rapier, if you didn’t know, is one step off Europe’s pinnacle of sword technology. The epee stood at the peak, which was a weapon so quick it was famous for what was called the double suicide where the duel ended with both duelists killing each other at the same time. The rapier, the smallsword, and, really, all the thrusting swords epitomize, “you’ll be seven minutes in hell before the Devil knows you’re dead.”

This is a problem that follows the weapon into modern sport fencing where we have to use electronic scoring because it is too fast for the judges to follow with their eyes. As an Olympic sport, it’s one of the reasons why fencing really struggles to draw an audience because your brain genuinely cannot process what’s happening. Again, one of the most common injuries for smallsword masters (and these are instructors who trained others professionally) was the loss of an eye. The thrusting family is fast.

Ignoring for the moment that Gideon confuses the rapier with modern fencing as most pop culture does, the narrative runs into a basic issue when it comes to training. The narrative wants Gideon to maintain her smug attitude in regards to the rapier’s frippery, so Gideon never gains an appreciation for the rapier’s rather absurd lethality (even in comparison to other swords.) This is functionally impossible from a realistic standpoint because you can’t train on a weapon without gaining some appreciation for it, even if you don’t like it or it’s not your preference. 

I’d actually say the greatest sin of Gideon is the way it writes off modern fencing without attempting to understand it. I say modern fencing because neither Gideon nor the narrative is utilizing the historical techniques of the rapier but rather falling back on the audience’s conventional understanding of fencing, which is modern fencing. Modern fencing grew out of the military sabre and the smallsword or epee, respectively. It is important to note that Gideon is not using historical smallsword fencing either, but rather the idea of it. In essence, Gideon’s fencing is Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood yelling, “Parry, parry, thrust, thrust! Good!” at the Sheriff of Rottingham.

The problem is that any character who has a juvenile disdain for the weapon they’re training with is a major red flag for an author’s inexperience. Experienced writers who’ve worked with weapons will write characters who have disdain for certain weapons and preferences for others but the character will express a grounded, detailed reason for their preference. Those reasons may be petty, as real world complaints often are, but they can provide you with a reason regarding the weapon’s function beyond “this is a girly sword.” (The rapier is three and a half feet of fuck you. The rapier is a needle razor blade of death.) I’ll put it in blunt terms, at the beginning of the novel, Gideon essentially whines about one of the most lethal swords ever created not being masculine enough for her tastes. And to that, we all say, fuck you too.

This is why we do our research. Remember, the Musketeers carried rapiers. As did most other soldiers of the period. So, complaining that it’s not a battlefield sword is kind of stupid. Especially since the battlefields of Gideon’s setting aren’t really explained very well.

So, now, I’m going to go over some pieces from Gideon’s text that really stood out to me as wrong and we should address why they’re wrong so you don’t replicate them in your own work. Then, I’ll give you an example from an author who famously did it right.

“She spent six hours a day learning where to put her feet when she wielded a one-handed sword,”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

This is the sort of statement that sounds good when you don’t think about it, but I’m not actually certain what it means in context. The longsword, which is a 19th century term and usually what we think of when referring to the Arming sword (which can be wielded two handed when it has a longer hilt for greater leverage) can be wielded with one hand and often was either on its own or in conjunction with a shield. The rapier/the thrusting blade family are not the only weapons you wield with one hand, most swords can be, even those that normally use two.

The idea that martial combat is ultimately and fundamentally different between weapon types is untrue, the stances do change between weapon types but the same rules usually apply. So, if Gideon is used to training with swords, then the rapier wouldn’t be totally alien.

“Where to rest (what seemed to her to be) her useless, unused arm,”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

Raise your hand if you’ve ever looked at the fencing stances in films like Princess Bride or Robin Hood: Men in Tights and gone, “well, that’s just dumb.” You and Gideon have something in common, but you shouldn’t because Gideon is trained in swordplay. Gideon should understand the fundamental importance of balance. Gideon does not. (Gideon’s teacher does point out the balance part later, though rather nonsensically and the knuckle weapon makes no sense, but Gideon should already know this from her years of training.) The bagh naka and the katar/punch dagger are amazing melee tools in unarmed combat, but not useful as the offhand guard against a rapier.

Useful offhand tools for the rapier — the buckler, the parrying dagger, the cloak, and the whip. (Yes, Zorro was right.)

What is the point of that off-hand position in fencing? Balance. Yeah, those hand positions are about helping you maintain balance in your stance, allowing you to move and strike cleanly without falling over or stumbling. No matter what weapon you choose, even if you’re going hand to hand, martial combat is built around your central balance point. (In fact, there are a great many styles and techniques that focus specifically on disrupting your opponent’s balance to gain an advantage in combat.) If you haven’t guessed this, falling over is very bad.

The off-hand allows for a narrower sideways/diagonal stance (making yourself a smaller target/ more difficult to hit, more on this later) while maintaining your central axis, which also, ironically, plays into the importance of your footwork (more on this later.)

Another, very important, practical reason for the position of that off hand is it brings your shoulders into line while in your stance, allowing you to take the weight of the sword off your arm and carry it in your back. This way you take the strain off the arm, and fight longer, or fight multiple duels in succession. The rapier only weighs about two pounds, but with your arm constantly extended, it becomes a lever and the weapon grows heavier as time progresses.

One of the key aspects of martial combat that is most difficult is holding position in your stance, you’re in a constant battle against gravity and your own muscles. This is why, when you watch fights progress, you’ll see stances get shallower, hands drop from their defensive position, the arms fall out of line, etc. A well-balanced stance conserves energy.

Your shoulders being in line is one of the aspects you give up if you choose to duel wield. Why did some people just fight with one sword if other tools were convenient? Well, there are several, but one is conservation of energy.

Gideon being derogatory about this and not knowing makes Gideon look like a really shitty warrior. (Which, ironically, were my feelings at the time of reading the book.)

“How to suddenly make herself a sideways target and always move on the same stupid foot.”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

This one really caught me, “make herself a sideways target.” The weird thing for me with this is, why “suddenly” and why is being sideways bad? All martial combat happens on a diagonal, some more so than others, but everything is on a diagonal. Nobody fights squared up, nobody, no one. It’s a terrible position that is out of balance. You can literally destabilize someone by stepping between their legs and shoving their chest with one hand, and they will stumble. You fight sideways on diagonals, on specific degrees, your feet spread and in balance, with your central axis protected. Combat with a rapier is, ironically, not more sideways/on a diagonal than with a longsword.

Then, the second line “always move on the same stupid foot.” I get what this phrase is referencing, but it’s also wrong. In martial combat, you always move with the lead leg first (there are exceptions to this rule, there always are, but by and large) and then the back leg. Or, when moving forward (advancing,) the back leg and then the front leg. One foot always acts as your central balance point while moving so you don’t give your opponent an opening in your defenses or the opportunity to destabilize you. This is basic combat training. Gideon is whining about basic combat training which would apply with any weapon she trained on, including the longsword.

This is really how we tell a writer isn’t approaching combat with the idea of their character being at risk of dying. Gideon has no concerns about being up against other characters who have trained their entire lives with one of the deadliest swords, mostly because the author hasn’t fully processed that there isn’t a major difference in outcome between a battlefield and a duel to the death — both will kill you. Now, this should be a point of tension in the narrative, but it isn’t because Gideon doesn’t take the rapier or dueling to the death seriously. Your POV dictates how your reader responds.

Moving on, a very important one for all you swordsmen out there:

“This isn’t your longsword, Nav, you block with it again and I’ll make you eat it!”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

A parry is, essentially, a deflection or redirection of your opponent’s blade. Instead of taking the force, you redirect that force away from you and counter strike if the opening presents.

A block involves taking the full force of your opponent’s strike and stopping it cold. Which, I’m sure, sounds cool and tough. (Far more so than it actually is.)

You don’t block with swords, at least, not swords with edges. If you block with a sword that has an edge, you will damage the edge or break the blade. Both are bad to the functionality of the weapon. Hollywood has a variation of sword combat that’s called Flynning (after Errol Flynn) for eye-catching moves where the blades bang against each other, it looks very pretty and has no relevance to real combat. All swords parry, not just rapiers, sabres, and smallswords. Estocs can block, lightsabers (beams of pure plasma) can block, longswords? No. Or, at least, you shouldn’t.

I will forgive any reader for thinking they could because pop culture trains you to believe it’s a normal part of sword combat.

So, what does the response look like from a writer who understands the art of fencing. I’ll give you an example from Rafael Sabatini’s Master-At-Arms, which was written in the 1940s. For reference, Sabatini was popular in his time for his contributions to the swashbuckling genre.

This scene is a training scene between a main character, Quentin de Morlaix (our swordmaster) and Chevalier de Saint-Gilles (one of his inevitable rivals.)

The Chevalier complied. He launched the botte with which he had twice got home. This time, however, the stroke was not only parried but with a swift counter Morlaix hit the Chevalier vigorously over the heart.

He lowered his blade. ‘That should not have happened,’ was his quiet comment to the hotly answered: ‘That shall not happen again. On guard!’

The attack was repeated, with an increase of both vigor and speed. Yet once again it was met and answered by that hit in quarte.

The Chevalier fell back and spoke sharply in an annoyance that was shared by his scowling, startled brother. ‘But what is this, then? Were you trifling with me before?’

Morlaix was of perfect amiability. ‘You confuse a master-at-arms with an ordinary opponent, Chevalier. That is an effective botte of yours, to which I must suppose you have given much practice. The fault in its execution lies in that you offer too much body. Keep yourself narrower. Then if you are hit it will be less fatally. On guard again. So. That is better, but not good enough. Swing your left shoulder father back, more in line with your right. Now, hold yourself so, whilst making your attack. Allongez! Excellent. For whilst I counter-parry it thus,and make my riposte on the binding of the blade, I can only touch you in quinte. Thus.’

The blades were lowered again and Morlaix expounded to the discomfited swordsman. ‘That correction of your position to an unaccustomed one will have cramped you a little, so you have lost pace and force, and left it easier for the counter to get home. With practice, however, that will be overcome. When it is corrected we will come to your other faults,’ he promised, and added the cruelest cut of all: ‘You display so much aptitude it should be easy to render you really formidable.’

Master-At-Arms, 29

What should really stand out from Sabatini’s passage is the detail both in terminology and in explanation, a lot of writers skirt around detail and explanations because they don’t know and didn’t do the research. Research is hard, but when you have a solid grasp of what you’re working with, it ultimately creates better material.

The teacher who doesn’t explain, while an easy cheat, is a crappy teacher. 

What Sabatini is referring to with quarte and quinte are the eight classical parries and attack in foil fencing, basically the parts of the body he’s hitting. (I’ll point out, Quentin knows why you stay narrow and informs both Saint-Gilles and the audience: so you don’t die. Learn things, Gideon.) Interestingly, this chapter serves to establish both Quentin de Morlaix’s skill as a fencer, his rivalry with his cousins, Chevalier de Saint-Gilles and Constant which are central to the novel’s plot, and that he’s a little shit.

In short, given poor training, poor understanding, and dismal interest, Gideon would probably be murdered by a real duelist on the first strike of her first duel and then necro’d back to life. Fortunately, she lives in a setting where the rapier is not an effective weapon with which you might thoroughly humiliate your opponent.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

Q&A: Fight Like A Girl Or, Don’t

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

What do you think about Aiki Flinthart’s book on “Fight Like a Girl”? Like on the subject of girls fighting differently and I quote from an interview with Aiki.

“Women do fight differently to men, and anyone who says they don’t is making stuff up because women are physiologically, psychologically, emotionally and biologically different from men, and to pretend they aren’t is ridiculous.”

The reason why I ask this is that given it is hard to find a site or writer that has some experience in martial Arts and not invalidate female fighters. But the quote from an interview with a woman who has experience with martial art and survivor of assault throws me off and I wanted to ask this blog’s opinion on this book. Also this is one few books that directly tackles the subject on writing female fighters. I see this book alongside with this blog with seemingly contradicting statements.

So, what I will say as a female martial artist who started training at the age of five, who was trained by individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, including female instructors, who earned three black belts before they were twenty, and who also taught martial arts is — we don’t train women differently.

Ignoring the fact that Aiki Flinthart’s statement has two redundancies, (Physiologically and biologically are the same, and psychologically and emotionally are also the same) the fact of the matter is the reason why you can’t find a lot of writing that focuses on female fighters is because most martial arts advice isn’t written with the gender divide in mind. The gender divide is irrelevant to technique and training. Everyone, regardless of age, is trained the same way, they learn the same techniques. They’re tested on the same skills. They largely express the same philosophies if trained in the same martial system. The reason why I say that men and women aren’t fundamentally different as fighters is because both use the same fundamentals. We fight the way we’re trained to fight.

Reality, ultimately, doesn’t support her argument.

The follow-up argument of, “well, there just aren’t enough female martial artists to know” is also patently false. There are hundreds of thousands of female martial artists all across the world, probably millions. There are enough for the Olympics to have women’s divisions in multiple categories per accepted martial art per country. There are martial arts like Wing Chun which were created by women, and those martial arts are practiced by men. Pick up any martial arts instructional book. The philosophy and/or techniques there all apply to you. Male or female, you could learn these techniques if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.

The irony is you actually do yourself a disservice by chasing for girls when looking to create a female warrior. It’ll lead you to feeling like you’re being excluded when you’re not. It’ll lead you to exclude perfectly viable combat options, attitudes, and learned behaviors because you assume they’re men only. Most importantly, you’ll start from a false position of “how does a woman solve this problem with violence” when the important question you should be asking is, “how does my character choose to solve this problem with violence.”

The one major component Flinthart doesn’t include, because it doesn’t support her argument, is the social differences between men and women. From birth, boys and girls are socialized differently due to cultural gender expectations for their societal role. Now, socialization is very real, but socialization varies heavily by individual cultures. What is socially acceptable for a woman in one society may be completely different from the expectations of another. 

For example, you may go, “there’s no real history of women warriors on film and tv.” (False, but let’s roll with it.) And my response is, “on who’s television?” Then, I direct you to Hong Kong and Chinese cinema where there’s a well established history of female martial artists because, culturally, there’s a well established history of female martial artists. You’ll often see multiple female practitioners per film on both the protagonist and antagonist’s side. Sometimes, they’re the protagonists. There’s television shows where the male characters have female masters who train them in the martial arts. (Seriously, go to Viki. Learn to love subtitles, and, if you need a place to start, Michelle Yeoh’s filmography is a good one. Girls with Guns is/was a major subgenre in Hong Kong action cinema.)

We can move the goalposts here at this point and argue, “but, Michi, male and female warriors aren’t treated as equals in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema!”

The answer is, of course, that many societies are still patriarchal and societal expectations for women still exist. However, male and female warriors still use the same techniques, so there’s clearly nothing biological going on there. Also, every one of those films needs female stunt doubles and the actresses are either trained martial artists going in or also trained by martial arts choreographers. This isn’t some small subset, this is an entire industry.

The problem for Flinthart is that socialization for both men and women is socially conditioned behavior, it’s no different than teaching your dog not to bark at strangers, to sit, or go outside to pee. Most of what you believe about the gender divide is social and not biological, and these behaviors are socially enforced by society at large. This is in the way they look at you, the way they treat you, the way they respond to you, and what they say to you. A lot of young women are afraid to learn martial arts due to socially conditioned fears that training for violence (or even sports) will make them less desirable, because these are “men’s things.” That’s complete bullshit.

A) A lot of the behaviors ascribed as men only are actually for everyone.

B) The vice versa is also true, many behaviors ascribed to women are also for everyone.

The sexualization of female warriors in cinema is, again, about retaining and reinforcing societal expectations for women. It has nothing to do with biology. As a woman, you may even be inclined to chase that sexualized presentation because it is safer and more culturally acceptable. If you need an example of sexualized presentation, take a look at Black Widow in Iron Man 2, Avengers, and (especially) Avengers 2 versus the portrayal of Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

 Women are trained to believe objectification is desirable, we’re shown this relentlessly and constantly throughout our lives; starting at a very young age. Everything about sexual objectification is designed to take personhood, personal power, and the associated danger away.

Why should you describe a woman as fighting like she’s dancing? 

This is a really common one, a lot of writers describe female warriors as fighting like they’re dancing. Why? Because dancing implies beauty, and society says a good female protagonist must be beautiful, what is beautiful is desirable, and a woman’s first priority is to attract a mate.

Again, that’s bullshit. In combat, your first priority is to kill the enemy. However, that’s aggressive. We’re told being aggressive is a masculine tendency, and therefore undesirable. So, many women writers will shy away from aggression for their female fighters when they should run towards it. Women martial artists in the real world? They do.

I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this, but female warriors are very aggressive. On average, they are more aggressive combatants than men. Not because they need to be, just because they are. It’s a side effect of what happens when you’re trained to be passive your whole life and the shackles come off. Take the sexist definition of a cat fight, now apply that to women fully trained to kill each other. It hurts.

If you haven’t realized it yet, women can be sexist. They can be misogynists. They can buy in, even female martial artists. The myth of the gender divide feels so good, it gives the people who believe it such a fantastic sense of superiority. You get to say, “I’m different from them” then “I’m different than” becomes “I’m better than.” If you’ve ever been hurt by the opposite sex, your next step gets to be, “I’ve got nothing in common with them.”

On this blog, we have never said and never will say that martial arts training is a guarantee against sexual assault. It can act as a deterrent, it may provide you with the skills you need to identify and exit a situation, but, ultimately, a sexual predator is a social predator. The belief society instills in you and insists on is that sexual assault involves being physically overpowered, but that’s only one potential aspect. A sexual predator overpowers you with fear, fear of social consequences if you say no. Fear of getting kicked from your sports team, a failing grade, a poor report to your parents, fear of reprisals if anyone finds out, fear of your word not mattering over theirs, even fear of the predator filing a police report for assault and battery. Sexual predators don’t exist in a vacuum and you don’t either. Violence in the real world has real world consequences, both legal and social. Sexual predators know society’s rules protect them, they strike from a position of power, and their gamble is on their victim being more willing to submit in the moment than face the long term consequences of fighting back. The situation is intentionally engineered to be a lose/lose. It’s all about social power. 

The fault is never with the victim, only the perpetrator.

The sad truth is those instincts are in all of us, male or female. We also all have the same capacity for evil. The high which comes from taking power from and exerting control over others is very real. I don’t blame Flinthart for her perspective, but the claim “martial artist and sexual assault surivivor” has a lot less validity in making her a source of authority than she realizes.

The truth is that if there were a fundamental physical difference between men and women when it came to martial arts, we’d have two separate training sets for both. You’d be able to find more of a focus in the martial arts community on it if it existed because women and women’s self-defense are a huge part of the market. (We’re talking millions upon millions of dollars.) Women are, in fact, so common within the martial arts community that most members of said community genuinely forget gender parity in training isn’t a well known fact. (I forget this all the time.) Rather, most people outside the martial arts community assume a masculine default when there isn’t one.

The economics aren’t there. The training isn’t there. The philosophy isn’t there. We can’t lie to ourselves by saying there aren’t enough women for it to be an oversight. I mean, you could, a lot of people do, but that doesn’t make it true.

Don’t make me drag out all the videos from that time the whole HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) online community had a collective conniption when right wing personalities/misogynists said women couldn’t lift a sword or wear plate armor. It was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now.

What’s uncomfortable for a lot of female writers when working with female warriors and looking for references is the sensation, “but, if I do this, my character is behaving like a man.” That’s natural, these behaviors (which are necessary to be effective combatants) have been designated by society as masculine. They aren’t though. They’re normal behaviors for someone who has been trained in this style to fight. The appropriate answer is, “my character is behaving like a warrior.”

Listen to the wise words of martial arts masters in instructional manuals and on YouTube. They’re as much for you as they are the men in your life. Take it from a kid raised in martial arts, I’ve often found I have more in common with male action heroes than female ones (unless they’re from Hong Kong.) There’s a reason for that, and it has nothing to do with the limitations of sex or gender.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

Q&A: How To Punch

How can I properly show the difference in size/ability/personality when two characters are fist fighting? Do a bigger and stronger guy throw a punch differently than his younger shorter opponent? Is that even a thing in real life?

The great irony, despite all media has taught you, is that two people of different heights, weights, and genders will actually fight (mostly) the same way if they are they are trained in the martial same style. Everybody learns the same move set, what makes the difference is how well they execute it and how disciplined they are when they start to flag.

The easiest are with people who don’t know what they’re doing versus people who do. For trained fighters, a lot of personality is going to get shed when they settle in and focus. You can have a cocky shit who talks a lot of trash outside the ring before the match and then say absolutely nothing inside it. Talk wastes air and you need oxygen to keep your endurance up. The person who talks during the fight gets punched, and should because they’re not focused. They deserve it.

No, they really do. Competitive fighters will take advantage of that kind of distraction. If someone’s talking in the ring, they’re doing it at a safe distance (at starting distance/outside arms reach) while both they and their opponent are searching for an opening.

The best fighters are the ones with the highest technical proficiency and the least amounts shits to give about their opponent’s future.

Let’s talk about technical proficiency for a second:

Technical proficiency relates to how skilled your character is i.e. how good they are at executing their techniques. What is technique?

It’s more than just a punch. It’s every minute movement involved in the movement of your body as it executes that punch. This includes

A) Your stance: the width of your feet in comparison to your shoulders, the degree at which your knees are bent, creating a centralized point of balance as you move.

B) The twist of your hips as you punch. This is, in combination with your shoulders, is your main generator of momentum i.e. power. (Yes, this has nothing to do with how many muscles you have.)

C) The position of your hands in relation to their distance from your face before you throw your punch. (This would be part of the fighting stance.)

D) The twist of your shoulders in time with your hips. Did they move together or are they out of slightly sync?

E) The position of your elbows. Were they inside or outside the body, is your arm in line with your shoulder when it extends?

F) The extension of your arm. Did you overextend past that front foot in your stance and put yourself out of balance?

G) Did you properly lock your fist when you punched? This is all five fingers clenched together when you punch, locked by your thumb. If your thumb is inside your fingers or outside your hand, you’re at risk of breaking your fingers. (Yes, beginners do this.)

H) Did you lock your wrist in line with your fist and your elbow and your shoulder? (Yes, beginners also do this.)

I) Did you do lock up at the fraction of a second before you struck your target? Thus applying maximum force? Momentum = movement + speed. If you lock too early, you slow down in the critical instant before striking and blunt your force/create more opportunity to be blocked.(Yes, beginners do this. They also flinch.) Punching a target, even a soft target, hurts. It will hurt when you do everything perfectly. That’s before we get to the psychological aspect of hurting someone else and the affect of that indecision on your physical body.

J) Did you return to resting or flow smoothly into your next combination/strike? Or did you just stand there like an idiot?

K) How quickly did you manage it? Again, this entire move happens within a fraction of a second, often too quickly for the untrained eye to follow. It’s fast. (Fun Fact: film cameras lose frames of professional martial artists/martial arts actors like Jet Li and Jackie Chan when they go full tilt.) Most of the time, audiences at professional matches mistake and respond to the secondary, follow-up strikes rather than the actual winning hit.

These are only some of the considerations toward basic technical proficiency, there are more and more ways you can screw up a simple, basic punch. When we say someone has “flawless technique,” we mean they can execute every aspect of the technique flawlessly from start to finish. The best contenders will all be in that range, especially when looked at by outsiders. A strong technical foundation is essential to success. In fact, it’s necessary. Strong foundations aren’t just needed for strong defenses, offenses, or executing your techniques successfully, they’re also energy efficient. A fighter with an excellent foundation and high technical proficiency continues when the their opponent with a shoddy foundation flags. You can win when you’re opponent is tired.

If you have a poor foundation, you are poor in everything. You’re technique is inefficient, you’re slower, your defense has more openings, your movements are bigger and thus have more tells, wasted movements means you’re wasting more energy. You’ve essentially hobbled yourself.

Now, poor foundations can be fixed. Technique is tightened with practice. The more experience a fighter has, the more they’re willing to address their flaws and work toward improvement then they have a chance to become better. Martial arts is skill based, not talent based. The person who works the hardest, the longest, and is the most determined is one who eventually stands among the best.

The best way to address this in your writing is to start looking at different how to videos on YouTube from martial arts masters discussing how to perform different techniques. You’ll be able to see the breakdowns, have them explained, and see what it looks like when a person with experience does it right. If you’re trying to write a character describing another character as inexperienced, it helps at least get a window into what the technique is supposed to look like.

I must say though, that even with a technique as simple as a single punch (whether front hand or backhand) there’s a lot of variation in technical detail between different martial styles. So, different characters could punch in different ways depending on their backgrounds.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

Q&A: Fear is Instinct, Understanding is a Weapon

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

“If you fear your own sword you cannot fight” – this concept sometimes shows up. Is it real? If so, how are students/trainees/apprentices taught to work through it?

This one is actually real. If you’re afraid of your weapon, no matter what that weapon is (including your own body), you cannot wield it effectively. This is true for all weapons, including guns, swords, staves, hand to hand, everything. It doesn’t matter.

The reason why is it’s difficult to fight an opponent, but it’s even more difficult to fight yourself and your opponent at the same time. You split your concentration, you lean back, you break focus, you flinch, your stance is terrible, you’re tentative rather than cautious or you overcompensate. The same is true if you’re afraid of getting hit.

Respect your weapon, but don’t fear it.

If you don’t respect your weapon, the power it holds, and the destruction it can inflict, then you’re likely to misuse it. If you’re frightened of your weapon, it’ll get you killed.

A good way to understand this concept is to start with hand to hand. A lot of beginners are frightened of getting hit. You can probably grasp why without experiencing the actual event. Getting punched or kicked hurts. Punching someone else hurts too. Before we even move to the emotional or spiritual impact, let me make this clear: on a purely physical level, violence hurts you coming and going. If two people fight, no matter their skill level, both are going to get hurt. The question is, how much more will one person be hurt than the other? The one who gets hurt less is the winner.

Fear is a natural response to the expectation of experiencing pain. Fear is your body instinctively trying to defend you from harm. When you flinch, your eyes close, you tuck inward, your muscles (your body’s natural armor) tense up to take the hit. This is all a natural, instinctual attempt to limit the damage. You don’t want to get hurt, getting hurt sucks. It’s dangerous. If you get injured too badly, you could lose substantial elements of your life that you take for granted. Your mind is always making risk based assessments in dangerous situations. It will instruct your body to react in accordance with baseline instinct because that is what it knows how to do.

So, if you are afraid of your weapon, you will respond to that fear while trying to use the weapon.

Let me give you an example with a weapon that’s easier to understand without experience than a sword: the modern handgun.

Handguns are loud. They are noisy. They smell. When they fire, if they’re not properly controlled, they will snap back toward your face on the recoil. So, what does someone who is afraid of a gun do? They do what’s natural. They lean away from it. When you are afraid, you naturally want as much distance from the object causing that fear as you can get. The person holding the gun does so with one hand, their arm extends way out, their upper torso leans back out of balance with their lower body, their eyes narrow. When the gun fires, they flinch. Their eyes close, they lose sight of their target, the uncontrolled muzzle jerks upward and the bullet flies on a different path than the one they intended. The bullet is more likely to miss or, worse, hit a target they didn’t intend. Their fear cost them control and concentration.

The irony is this happens with all weapons when you’re afraid, including hand to hand combat. The physical reaction differs slightly, but the same baseline occurs — leaning back, flinching, squeezing the eyes shut, tensing up. In the worst case scenario, the individual will turn away or roll over in an instinctual attempt to defend the most important part of their body. The reason you get virtually the same reaction regardless of weapon type is because the human fear response is natural instinct.

If you just went, but, wait, Michi, isn’t violence natural instinct too?

No. 

Aggression, yes, that’s natural. Society and media teach us that expressions of violence like punches and kicks are a natural part of the human condition, and that’s fantasy. Being exposed to violence from an early age, a lot of people will try to mimic what they see, but you can’t really fight effectively in accordance with modern understanding until you’re trained. Martial combat is science. Martial combat is unnatural. You’re trained to act in opposition to your natural instincts like your fear response or your response to anger.

You overcome fear with familiarity. You replace the unknown with understanding. You retrain your instincts through conditioning. With practice and repetition, you change everything. The way you think, the way you move, the way you observe your environment, the way you react physically, mentally, and emotionally to stress. A large portion of martial training is about getting you accustomed to physical discomfort. This is where the general misunderstanding about martial training and pain comes from. Learning to differentiate between physical discomfort and real damage is vital. You will be hurt while fighting, but understanding the difference between a bruise and a torn muscle can save your life. In the same way, understanding your body, knowing where to hit, how to hit, and what hurts when hit, allows you to better formulate strategies to defeat your opponent. As you become more effective, streamlining your physical movements and prioritizing targets allows you to conserve more energy meaning you can either fight longer or have enough gas left in the tank to escape.

Martial combat also teaches you to capitalize on and even induce this same fear response in someone else then use that reaction to your advantage. A basic example of that is: I flick my hand at your face to get you to flinch (you see an object flying toward your face, your eyes instinctively close to protect them) and punch you in the stomach instead. That’s not natural, that’s tactical.

The same principle applies to weapons. The difference is there’s more danger associated with weapons because weapons are designed to end lives. This is true even if you’re using your weapon for self-defense. In the process of defending your own life, you may take someone else’s. That’s not a judgement. That’s reality. Weapons are designed to kill people, it is natural to be afraid of them, coming to terms with that reality and respecting the damage your weapon can do (and the damage you can inflict with it) is part of wielding weapons effectively.

Again, you overcome fear through familiarity. This is what training is for. Those long hours practicing your stances and physical movements, learning about your weapon by learning to care for it. Endless repetition until those techniques, those movements from stacking mags to drawing your gun to aiming become a natural part of you. You train until your sword becomes an extension of your arm, so you know intuitively where it is at all times. You repeat the same action over and over and over again until the action is part of you so when the stimulus is applied you react without thinking. 

The motions and training for these weapons, even weapons within an individual family or with some similarity, will be different. You can’t pick up a pistol and expect it to be the same as every other pistol. There are different makes, different models, different types, and the subtle differences between them can be a gamechanger. You can’t pick up a rapier and expect to wield it like a longsword. You can’t pick up a smallsword and expect to wield it exactly like a rapier. The saber and the epee are similar, with some crossover, but different weapons. The military saber used in Britain during the 1800s and 1900s is a different animal from the modern fencing saber. Training in one is not training for all and training in one style is not an automatic counter to every other.

The problem with familiarity, of course, is that the reverse is also true. After all, familiarity breeds contempt and it is just as dangerous to become too comfortable with your weapon. People who are too comfortable lose respect for their weapon’s power, forgetting the ever present danger both to themselves and to the people around them. They treat the weapon like a toy. Screwing around is how people get hurt.

A weapon is always dangerous, no matter who holds it. Weapons are never 100% safe. However, in the hands of someone who respects it and who understands it, the risks are reduced to the people around them.

You overcome fear of a weapon the way you overcome fear of anything else, through knowledge of what it is, how it works, what it can do and what it can’t do, through understanding, through practice, and eventually via familiarity. It is very difficult to be frightened of something you know and understand, especially when an object with no will of its own. At that point, you’re no longer frightened by the gun or sword when it’s in your hand. It could be a different story when it’s in someone else’s.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

Writing Techniques: Fight Scenes and Clarity

kerzoro said to howtofightwrite:

What would you say at the writing techniques to write a fight? I’ve received (what I feel is valid) criticism that my action scenes need to be punchier and feel too passive, but I’m not 100% what that means, or how to translate that to paper.

What your critique partners are telling you is that you’ve got issues with passive voice which is a common problem for new writers. Passive voice is an overuse of the subject acting on the verb rather than the verb being acted upon.

Passive Voice 

She was chased.

Active Voice

He chased her.

Now, both passive and active voice have their uses in writing and can be applied to great effect under the right circumstances. Some writing advice will tell you to rid yourself of passive voice entirely, never use “was”, “were”, “felt”, “is”, etc. While the advice is useful in encouraging you to practice your active voice, it can result in your writing falling out of balance. Passive voice is excellent for framing within a scene while active voice is solid for action. Overuse of active voice can lead to reader fatigue. You want to find a balance between the two which creates a solid rhythm.

However, this is basic advice you can get from any writing blog. Many blogs will tell you that the key to writing a good action scene is to use active voice, make your sentences shorter, raise the tempo of your sentences so the pace quickens and tension increases. These are all good techniques and well worth the effort to develop. 

To really succeed at writing action sequences, you need to look beyond surface prose and dig deeper. This involves learning about both real world combat and action created for entertainment. Both have different purposes, but one informs the other by providing you with more options and ways to structure your scenes. 

The major failures of most action sequences revolve around lack of clarity.

Clarity of Understanding.

Clarity of Visual Image.

Clarity Setting Reader Expectations

How” and “Why” Create Worlds

If you don’t understand what’s happening in your narrative and why then you cannot write your story. Narratives are built on cause and effect. Actions happen and a result occurs, these actions large or small build your story. Fight scenes, down to individual actions, are the same way — action happens, result occurs.

If your critique partner is telling you that your fight scenes should be punchier, you’re not just lacking in sentence structure, your imagery and stakes are also suffering.

The problem for most writers when they sit down to write fight scenes is they don’t really understand the material they’re working with. Whether this involves the reasons and motivations for conflict (why does the bully start a fight with a male protagonist in a bar?), or the mechanics of violence itself (what happens when you punch someone?). Despite consuming violent media for most of your life, if you’ve never considered the mechanics of violence in depth, choreographing violence in your narrative is difficult.

Make no mistake. When you are crafting a fight scene in your narrative, you are choreographing a sequence like one would performance art. When a critic stresses the importance of realism, you shouldn’t chase the real world blindly. You failed to set appropriate expectations for your reader and abide by your own rules. No reader really cares about the real world, they care about suspension of disbelief. Learning how things work helps build suspension of disbelief.

For example: if your amazing military general understands nothing about troop movements, military structure, supplies lines, army bureaucracy, the role of spies, interaction with the ruling governing body, etc, then both your character and your world building will suffer. As a result, your suspension of disbelief also suffers.

The goal is not to mimic, duplicate, or import a real world individual or military wholesale, but rather to learn how and why different militaries throughout history (successful and unsuccessful) worked the way they did. From how and why, you can create. Your way doesn’t need to be the best way, the most perfect way, it can be the way that evolved because these individuals had access to these resources to create this culture.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about world building on a post about writing techniques for fight scenes, the answer is: your character’s culture and the resources they have access to defines how they fight just as much as their personality. How they choose to fight defines their portion of your action sequence. Violence is an expression of identity.

The Parry, Parry, Thrust, Thrust Conundrum

Many fiction writers treat all swords as the same. In reality, less than half a centimeter of distance can be the difference between victory and defeat with bladed weapons.

Why is this piece of information important?

If your answer was: whoever has the longer weapon wins. Well, you’re wrong.

Understanding a weapon’s designated use, it’s strengths and limitations works as a means of setting reader expectations which builds your narrative’s stakes. 

A character taking a scimitar into a narrow alley is going to be different from a character taking a rapier into the same narrow alley. In fact, a character with a rapier might choose to lure the character with the scimitar into a narrow alley because they feel choice of terrain benefits them.

This one choice transforms a character from passive into active. The character makes decisions based on the information they have available. They may make the wrong choice, but the choice itself creates an active participant. You cannot make educated choices without knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more information you have, the smarter and more interesting your setting becomes.

Take these two characters discussing the use of a specialty weapon — a lasbow, which shoots psychically generated lasers bolts.

Suits you, Nathan’s warm thoughts filled her. You could’ve killed that spino with a carefully constructed shot.

Yes, she grit her teeth, but lasbows require more concentration, expend more energy, and bolts fly only so far as imagination and focus allow. A plaspistol just needs a charge.

Here, we see the character lay out the strengths and drawbacks of a lasbow before we see the weapon in combat. We know a lasbow is different from a regular bow. While a lasbow can strike a target at any distance with devastating effect, it is not fire and forget. The wielder must maintain the shot from start to finish. This is a significant weakness in frantic melee if the wielder is not shooting from a defensive position. If the difference between life and death is losing concentration, that might be a little worrying.

Now, let’s see the lasbow in action.

Together, the rexes lumbered into the canyon. Humans perched on saddles atop their massive heads. The rexes were armored in saurohide and plasteel pieces reconfigured from ancient dragon and carno armor.

Leah raised her bow. The rexes’ large nasal cavity allowed them to locate prey from across great distances. Some bonded raiders learned to utilize this sense to locate caravans and other enemies. Probably how they found us. A sharp whine filled her ears, the buzz of electricity. And riding reconditioned fly-bikes. Six humans rode two per vehicle. One driver, one gunner, bikes with built-in weapons were difficult to come by without a technician. Surprise. Distract. Overwhelm. Simple tactics; terrify and distract with the tyrannosaurus while the bikes and raptors cut the enemy to pieces. Effective against the inexperienced.

Patterning the mental signature of the rex rider on the left, Leah generated her bolt by drawing two fingers through the air. The bolt burst to life in a crackling, snapping hiss of blazing yellow. She fired. The bolt shot through the trees, searing away fronds and leaves.

The rex rider sensed her touch. Their rifle raised, eyes scanning the canyon.

Female. She caged the woman’s mind. No alarms. The bolt pierced through the center of the rider’s helmeted forehead, sliced through the brain, and vanished.

The tyrannosaur’s rider slumped, corpse held in place by saddle straps.

The rex bellowed in agony.

Surprise shook the human minds. Too late. They were committed.

Leah smiled. Let’s go.

Multiple important details occur in this scene. 

  1. The enemy is defined and the main character, Leah, instructs the reader regarding the raiders’ intended tactics. This builds anticipation for the battle to come. 
  2. The preemptive strike with the lasbow is launched, but Leah also cages the mind of her target to keep them from psychically warning the others. Tactics.
  3. Strategy is also at play, Leah waits until the raiders advancing force is in too deep and cannot retreat when they realize their enemy’s strength. She kills the rex’s rider rather than the rex to create a battlefield wild card, cutting off the only easy escape route.
  4. Leah’s confidence at the end of the scene builds the reader’s sense of security for the coming battle.

A character’s actions can be multi-pronged while the effects of those actions have multiple outcomes. If the world you create is convincing and works off its own logic, you don’t have to worry about it matching reality. If you understand how different kinds of violence work, you can create clear images within your scene that are advanced beyond punches and kicks.

The reason why I generally suggest looking at films rather than novels for your action sequences is because films have the advantage of being choreographed by professionals. As a writer, you’ll never be able to really make use of the same visual spectacle, but the important point is a fight scene choreographer’s business is choreographing fight scenes for entertainment. Whether you’re watching Spiderman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Heat, you’re given the opportunity to see a martial artist’s mind at work constructing action in the service of a greater narrative. As a creative who lacks similar experience, you can review a lot of good and bad fight scenes from the famous to the unknown. You can see what worked and what didn’t. You’ve been consuming film fight scenes non-critically for most of your life, now it’s time for you to start learning about the choreographers who created them, figuring out how they work and why.

I’m not suggesting you mindlessly copy, but carefully consider. Each action sequence is an expression of all your characters.

– Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

Q&A: Even Prodigies Have To Learn

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

OK I know you said that martial arts needs a lot of practice to be good. But how about real savants? I mean in real life Varsha Vinod has a black belt at age 5. This type of thing truly is possible obviously. Or are you talking about grades beyond black belt? I don’t know much about that. But perhaps there is obviously still a difference between actually fighting a bad guy (but not trying to kill you. bad guys do have limits too or don’t want a murder rap.) than training??

There’s an unfortunate assumption that a lot of people make about child prodigies: they put in less time and effort.

To be a black belt at age five, Varsha Vinod started training at roughly age zero. Yes, I am saying she was literally trained from infancy. Time compression means more training rather than less. She had a father with two black belts. He could train her all day, every day, and he did. While you were learning to walk, she was learning stances. While you were playing with your friends, she was learning katas. The first five years of her life were karate. If you think that sounds fucked up, well, it is.

There are a lot of kids out there like Vinod, I’ve known some of them or known people who trained with them. Ernie Reyes Jr was competing in adult divisions at twelve. They are very impressive, but gaining that kind of skill that early comes at significant cost.

While Vinod has (or had) impressive hand eye coordination and muscular control for her age, acquiring adult level technical skill requires an extensive daily time commitment. (We also don’t know if she had adult level skill. Unlike Junior, she didn’t compete in the adult divisions.) The time commitment is more than if you mediated out your training. For most of these children, that “youngest female in the world to ever achieve a first degree black belt in karate” will be the high point of their lives. The vast majority fade out or fade into the sea of similarly talented individuals who started later but are also more driven because they were given a choice about what they wanted. You’ll notice Vinod has not continued her trajectory, her meteoric climb through the ranks ended at five.

The second assumption you made is actually a common one as well, which is the idea physical talent or skill equates with intellectual and emotional maturity. Child prodigies are not little adults, they’re still children. Vinod had a technical proficiency at five which qualified her, under the standards and grading systems of her martial art, for the rank of first degree black belt. This doesn’t mean she could, at five, fight an adult on equal footing. More importantly, karate is a traditional martial art and a recreational martial art. It has a very specific range of application, which is the Japanese annexation of Okinawa. Karate is unusual because it’s not a reconstruction, but it reoriented its purpose. Karate is designed for fighting samurai at a very specific moment in history and is very good at what it does, but you’re unlikely to be fighting a samurai anywhere in the world today. What I’m saying is: you can’t use karate to fight bad guys.

My shotokan instructor specifically pointed out that you can’t use shotokan for self-defense, and, since he was also a police officer, I trust his assessment. We’re talking about someone with seven black belt ranks who needed to leave the US and test with the grandmasters in Japan. Journeying to the origin of your martial art is a customary practice in many martial arts traditions when you achieve a certain high rank.

There’s the final major issue of your question. You’ve assumed a black belt means more than it does. When you strip away all a black belt’s mystic, what you’re left with is a certification. In karate, a black belt means you’ve memorized a fixed number of katas with an acceptable level of technical proficiency. This certification is also fluid. It changes based on who is doing the grading, what school it is, and who the student is. It shouldn’t, but it does.

There are a lot of kids like Vinod, some of whom are far more famous. Jet Li was the national Wushu champion in China at twelve, Ernie Reyes Jr competed against adults in the forms division and made some significant strides in Hollywood as a child martial artist, Rhonda Rousey is another individual who was trained from a young age in Judo. She has an Olympic gold medal. The irony is they aren’t any different from Simone Biles or any number of other high level athletes. They’re not warriors. They’re athletes engaged in competitive sports. As a UFC fighter, Rousey and Ernie Reyes Jr (who competed in StrikeForce competitive kickboxing) could charitably be considered gladiators. This is still entertainment.

You’ve confused skill with intent, and it is a common misconception put forth by anybody outside the martial arts community. There’s a lot of mystique surrounding martial arts and martial combat. For the East Asian martial arts, there’s a lot of orientalism to go with it. All of which are problematic because it gives an inaccurate impression of a skill set which primarily breaks down into a lifestyle —  personal empowerment, spiritual enlightenment, self-betterment — and a sport. These aren’t skills comparative to those learned in a modern military. You aren’t collecting a new weapon.

This is why I suggest parents enroll their kids in martial arts programs. Their kids aren’t going to learn to kick ass, what they will learn is mental determination and how to overcome adversity. These are important life skills anyone can benefit from. If you train a child to become a weapon, what you eventually get is an emotionally broken adult. 

If you want a standout warrior as an adult you need to follow the pattern gifted to us by a millennia of warrior cultures. What you’ll notice about these cultures (with the exception of the Spartans, who produced emotionally broken adults) is they let children be children. Instead of condensing their training, they stretch it out. They learn other skills in association with martial combat like strategy, tactics, command, and hunting. They structure training exercises as games. When the child is old enough, in their pre-teens or early teens, they are assigned an apprenticeship with another seasoned warrior. They don’t start engaging in serious combat until their mid to late teens, and complete their training at twenty.

You can throw a child into combat at twelve. There were plenty of cultures who conscripted soldiers that young. It doesn’t normally work out. There are exceptions, but they’re not the rule.

I know the idea you can cheat past the acquisition of skill is appealing, but it’s also as much a fantasy as a unicorn. This attitude ultimately devalues the time, effort, and dedication it takes to become skilled. You lack appreciation for how much work and sacrifice was made for Vinod’s achievement. You also lack the context to understand those sacrifices were not her decision. They were made for her by her father. The irony is, because she was so young, she needed to put in more effort and more time on a daily basis than a child twice her age. Karate was Vinod’s positive reinforcement, and it’s a fucked up thing to do to a kid.

The treatment of prodigies as magic in fiction bothers me, and the villainization of them also bothers me. Talent does not replace learned skill. Talent is just a building block letting you start a little further ahead of everyone else. You’ve still got to put in the time. The younger you are, the more talented you are, the more likely it is you’ll be putting in more time than other kids your age. And, honestly? That sucks.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

Actions Create Plot: Let’s Talk About Shakespeare (Don’t Run)

I know, Shakespeare is a subject that makes many high school students crawl up inside their own heads and shriek in agony. (Unless you’re a theater kid, had an excellent teacher, or were like me, went to college, and had his plays properly explained.)

So, buckle up. We’re gonna talk about Shakespeare’s use of character, structure, and dramatic tension. Specifically, we’ll be discussing how Shakespeare used the same narrative five act structure for both his comedies and his tragedies. He built happy endings and tragic endings from a character oriented perspective, the personalities of each character, their flaws, their foibles, their human failings, from the information they had on hand, and the decisions they made as a result. Most importantly, this will be a discussion about how you can apply these helpful lessons to your writing, because that’s what this blog is about.

If you’ve ever been confused by Shakespeare and the language, understand, it’s not your fault. Language is always changing, reading the language of Shakespeare, Elizabethan English is like reading a completely different language. I missed almost all the jokes and the insults when I studied Shakespeare in high school (both high and low) or I didn’t understand why they were funny, and there were a lot of them.

Below, I’ve included a passage from one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing where Claudio breaks his engagement with his fiancee Hero after he and Don Pedro are convinced by Don John that Hero is faithlessly meeting with another man.

There, Leonato, take her back again.

Give not this rotten orange to your friend.

She’s but the sign and semblance of her honor.

Behold how like a maid she blushes here!

Oh, what authority and show of truth.

Can cunning sin cover itself withal! Comes not that blood as modest evidence.

To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,

All you that see her, that she were a maid.

By these exterior shows? But she is none.

She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.

Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

When Claudio calls Hero a “rotten orange” in Much Ado About Nothing, he’s calling her a prostitute. Changes the tenor of the scene, doesn’t it? A man drags his fiancee before her family and his boss to break the engagement, and claims she’s a prostitute. This is a comedy!

And so it is, because Much Ado About Nothing has a happy ending. However, the play could just as easily been Othello or Romeo and Juliet if the crucial information of Hero’s innocence and Don John’s treachery had not been revealed on time. If Benedick had dueled Claudio as Beatrice requested, in her anger, and they’d slain each other. Everything might have fallen apart, and we’d be left with a tragic outcome.

One of the things to understand about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, even his romances, is they all share the exact same structure in the first four acts. At the ending of the fourth act, when events come to a head, as we head toward resolution, our characters hit their tipping point and the whole play rests on a razor’s edge of whether our story will end tragically or happily. The villain of the play incites the action, sets the fall, but ultimately it’s the choices of the other characters (and the timely arrival of crucial information) which decide the outcome.

We, the audience, are given information throughout. We know all, from Don John’s plot to the fact Hero is not dead but still alive. We feel more dramatic tension from that anxiety, wondering how or if, the characters will ever find out. Will Claudio learn he has accused Hero falsely? Will Benedick be forced to duel his best friend? He will, for the woman he loves and her belief Claudio has slandered her cousin. And what of Hero? Will her name be cleared? Will she get the happy ending she deserves?

There’s that building anxiety, even when we know what the outcome will be, until the tension finally releases at the climax.

In the tragedy, the truth is never revealed, opportunities are missed, offers of reconciliation are rejected, and our heroes set themselves on course for the worst possible outcome. Their decisions based on the knowledge they have and their own personalities, their strengths, their flaws, their foibles shown throughout the earlier acts, ultimately create these tragic endings for their stories.

If Romeo wasn’t such a hasty overly emotional twit… (ah, youth.)

If Othello had only accepted the evil in Iago… If only he’d believed Desdemona…

If only…

If only…

Except, it couldn’t have been otherwise. If it were, they’d be different people and that’s the core of what makes Shakespeare’s plays so great. That’s why we still put them on four hundred years later. Love him or hate him, it’s one hell of an accomplishment.

So, what can you learn from Shakespeare?

Actions create plot. The actions of your characters. A single decision, one small action, can change the course of an entire narrative.

Many writers think of plot as external, overarching, moving from Point A to Point B with events happening because they need to. The end result is characters who are recipients and passengers rather than a force driving their narrative forward. This isn’t true with Shakespeare, nothing happens because it needs to. The entire narrative is driven by the decisions of various characters from major to minor.

We never ask, why did that event happen? We don’t need to. We know why, we know who, we understand the exterior circumstances which forced the issue, how the character made their decision, and, for good or ill, why they acted the way they did.

Instead, we ask, why didn’t X, or Y, or B choose differently?

There have been endless debates, discussions, and scholarly papers written about the decisions and choices of characters in Shakespeare’s plays. They’re treated as such a gold standard, a hallmark of excellence in storytelling, that their brilliance is often not explained unless you choose to make a study of them.

If you were to take one lesson from Shakespeare, I would say look at each choice your character makes without thinking of where you want your story to go and look at the array of potential outcomes.

Every moment in life is filled with choices, of maybes, of might have beens. Your characters have a kaleidoscope of options, pick one, and ask yourself what happens as a result? What are the external forces which lead to cascading dominoes? And as the dominoes fall, what results from them? At what point are your characters locked in? When in your narrative have they passed the point of no return? What was the decision which got them there? How do other characters react to those decisions?

Human beings are messy, they’re imperfect, and filled with flaws. Every quality which leads to greatness can just as easily be the hubris which causes the fall.

Write your stories with such tight characterization and plotting that your audience never asks, why did that happen? They won’t need to. They’ll know it could not have been otherwise.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

Building Narrative Tension: How to Keep Your Fight Scenes Interesting

Let me start by saying that violence by itself is actually rather dull.

I’m talking, of course, about fictional violence. Fictional violence is meaningless until given meaning by it’s creator.

Have you ever asked yourself, why violence is terrifying? If you haven’t, ask yourself that question. Why is violence so frightening?

Answer that question for yourself, in detail. Now, don’t just settle for one answer or a broad answer. Keep digging until you get specific, until you get personal.

One of the major problems writers face when writing violence is the assumption that the violence or the act of violence is going to do the work for them. The truth is, it won’t. You’re going to need to put in the effort to move your characters from stick figures slapping each other to people with meaningful goals and stakes. Action means nothing without emotions to hook into, without costs and consequences.

So, again, why is violence scary?

Think about your favorite fight scenes either in written fiction, comics, or in film. Consider why it works for you. Why were you invested? Why did you care?

You’ll probably have different answers depending on the scene you chose, but behind each one, you’ll find a host of them. Those which are overarching in terms of plot, those which are personal on the character level. Goals. Desires. Stakes.

Part of the reason why it is so hard to provide good examples of fight scenes, (just like every other fictional scene, really) is that the real impact isn’t actually in act of the violence itself. In fiction, a fight scene is actually a climax, a culmination, and release of the tension built up in prior scenes. You might immediately think of a climactic battle at the end of a narrative like the Battle of Gondor, but it can be as small as two people arguing in a bar until one of them hits the other across the face with a glass mug.

A is standing at the bar, chatting with their friends. They’re a little tipsy, they’ve been drinking, but they’re not so drunk as to have lost all cognitive or motor function.

Enter B, at a nearby table with their companions. B is a mercenary from a unit garrisoned just outside of town. B gets up from the table and goes to the bar. B elbows A’s friend, a member of the local militia aside to order from the bartender.

A’s friend stumbles.

A grabs B by the shoulder and pushes him back.

B glares at A, demanding to know why he’s in the way.

A insists B apologize.

B refuses, insults the state of the local militia.

A’s friend tries to break in, stating they’re fine. They think everyone should calm down.

A takes a breath, relaxes.

B spits in A’s face.

A grabs their glass mug off the bar, clocks B across the face.

B stumbles backwards.

Pause.

Let me break this down:

A hitting B with the glass is actually the moment where the scene ends, the tension releases, even though the action continues into a new scene with B’s reaction. We’ve got our setup, our dilemma, our decision, and then action. On the action, the tension releases, and you start all over again.

An example is the scene from The Princess Bride where Wesley is climbing cliff and Inigo offers to throw him the rope. This sequence is a separate scene from the following duel, but works as establishment for the characters and the kind of men they are. The scene climaxes when Wesley tells Inigo to throw him the rope and enters it’s denouement as he finishes making his way to the top.

This sequence is crucial to the duel. We begin to really care about Inigo, feel a sense of camaraderie. This camaraderie is now in conflict with our desire to see Wesley save Buttercup and, as a result, we worry over Inigo’s future. He’s no longer just a mook, but a compelling character in his own right.

If you wanted the true underlying tension of The Princess Bride’s duel, it’s this conflict and not the duelist’s skill level.

The equal skill provides additional tension against the goal of saving Buttercup, but, due to Princess Bride’s fairy tale structure, we know Wesley is going to win. What keeps the duel itself interesting is, how will Wesley win and will he defeat Inigo before Buttercup is killed by Vizini?

The same question is asked in the following duel with Fezzik with a similar structure. Then, we see the same structure play out again with Vizzini. Wesley matches their skills against his in a fair fight, and, ultimately, defeats them.

There are, however, multiple fight scenes within Wesley and Inigo duel. You can see those breaks when they stop fighting, to give the audience a breather and breaking the fight up to ensure the scene doesn’t become monotonous. With action sequences, monotony is, ironically, a real danger. Putting in breaks allows you to extend the action without losing audience attention, and let’s their brain rest.

These breaks are just as important in writing as they are in film. You want to make sure you keep ratcheting up and releasing that tension, along with audience expectation.

(If you’d like an interesting breakdown of how historical fencing compares to The Princess Bride, Skallagrim’s got a good one. The Princess Bride itself is a love letter to the likes of Zorro and swashbuckling films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, digging into it’s influences can help you if that’s a genre you want to chase.)

You should start thinking of every fight sequence in your novel as not one scene, but many little scenes broken up around character action and dialogue. Build up, up, up, then release, and start over.

Setup: This is the moment before your characters engage, where you establish the stakes and potential consequences. The surrounding pieces at play, A is drinking with their friends, B is a mercenary, A’s friend is in the militia, and there might be some bad blood between them.

You start establishing your tension here, your pieces stressed against each other before we start ratcheting up.

Rising Action: This is where the tension really starts to build. Depending on the type of scene you’re structuring, your character’s violent actions could actually fit in here. Most likely, initially, prolonged violence will be part of the second scene.

Climax: Your tension dissipates on the opening strike. Then, the characters must decide if they’ll escalate. Any violence in the following scene can end here.

The climax of the example is A hitting B.

Denouement: I like to call this “The Decision”, the fallout, the realization, where characters decide if they’re going to back out. This can be the retreat, where they try to get away before being forced back into a fight, the dialogue where characters try to buy themselves time, realizations of injuries, or just their breather between bouts.

The denouement of the scene is B stumbling.

Escalate: The violence in the next section escalates, which means the situation becomes more serious, more intense, more violent. Basically, things get worse.

The escalation of the scene? If A continues to attack B, or if B’s mercenary friends join the fray.

The consequences of violent actions are, usually, events escalate into more violence.

Remember, violence is about problem solving. It’s a tool in the box of conflict resolution, one which often acts as a short term solution but ultimately makes the situation worse in the long run. If your character has chosen to resolve a conflict this way then they have limited their options to resolve the conflict differently. This is true whether you’re looking at widespread warfare or an interpersonal dispute. Violence closes off alternative routes for resolution, and builds expectations for audience over what will happen next.

When you build your world, your characters, and your narrative, you are making promises to your reader. A large part of the tension which comes from violent actions by your characters, or fight scenes, will be consequences resulting from them. If you promise, say, that violent actions by your MC will result in swift, harsh consequences which could cost them their life, then you better deliver. The character doesn’t need to die, but something should happen. Showing up to work the next day like nothing went down, especially if someone else in a position of authority saw it? Now, you’ve not only undercut your narrative tension but devalued your world and broken the reader’s trust. You promised consequences. You didn’t deliver. At that point, there’s no reason to take any other threat presented to your characters seriously.

Suspension of Disbelief is not built on realism, it’s built on your compact with the reader, the rules you’ve set for your narrative and their expectations, the narrative you’ve promised to deliver. You need rules because they create a framework for your story, for your scenes, and, especially, for you fight scenes.

Your fight scenes are only a part of your story, but they’re important. They provide an opportunity to expand your character and also create disruptive inciting incidents around which action occurs.

If people complain your characters aren’t realistic, you shouldn’t immediately jump to make events and characters more like the “real” world. Rather, you should step back, look at your worldbuilding and the expectations you set in the early pages. Did you do the prep work?

You can’t win ’em all, but, often, the criticism you’ll get won’t be helpful until you realize what it means. Everything is permissible, so long as you put in the work to set it up first.

A bar brawl at the beginning of your novel could be the foundation of the entire story with all the spiraling consequences falling like dominoes from that one action. And that, my friend? That is tension.

Tension is uncertainty. It’s in the question, what will happen next? What will happen to these characters I care about? Will they be okay?

Turning heel, Leah raced toward the window at the cavern’s opposing end.

Soldiers struggled to stand, clamoring off the benches. Some of the beta-kings drew their lasabres and laspikes, while the pteroriders yanked out pistols and force-blades.

Leah dodged past a soldier reaching for her, jumped onto the table, and flung herself forward with a telekinetic thrust. She landed hard, half-way free, lasabre springing to life in her hand. An orange flash sliced through a long wooden table hurled at her head. The pieces fractured cleanly and broke apart into two flat planes. Thrusting them behind her, she didn’t wait for the crash but heard the screams.

Overhead, footmen moved to the edges of the balconies, rifles ringing the room. They took aim as a unit, and fired into the crowd.

Dancing between the bolts, Leah dove through fleeing petitioners. Three strong presences flashed through her.

A knight in silver lunged into view, a turquoise blade ignited in his hand. His armor shone, his identity hidden by his mask.

Another, familiar, presence closed in from behind.

Nathan, Leah thought. Cor!

They were going to cut her off, pile on like raptors in the diplohouse. 

Leah’s jaw tightened. She needed to get out. That meant reaching the cavern’s overlook. Her eyes moved to the left-side balcony. There!

Orlya thrummed with approval.

Leah spun, diving into the crowd.

Two knights gave chase.

A third followed, but at an easy pace. Petitioners screaming as his telekinesis seized and hurled them from his path.

Switching off her sword, Leah catapulted high into the air, over the soldiers at the balcony railing, and landed hard. Shoulder and back aching, she rolled to her feet.

Several men stared at her.

Leah smiled.

A soldier lifted his rifle.

With raised hands, she stepped backwards.

Roaring, Hector Darenian dropped in from above — a raging ball of sapphire blue. He crashed into the gathered soldiers, plowing through them, blade shearing through their bodies. Hot blood cascading across the stone, Hector slammed headlong through the opposing wall.

Leaping over the fallen, Leah landed neatly on the balcony’s railing and stepped off. She hit the cavern floor. Another quick dash carried her to the overlook.

“Stop!”

We can sit here and talk about tension, but tension is all about the pieces you pressure against each other. External factors pressure internal goals and desires, external consequences cut off alternate paths. You can switch up with more techniques, add new odds like more enemies or more dangerous enemies, change the rules like switching from the left hand to the right, pull out new pieces of information, but there also needs to be the promise the event is going to lead somewhere, that it will affect something, that this furthers our story.

Some writers, especially new writers, have a habit of writing their story like it’s modular. The scenes are individual rather than interlinked. The hot boy gets into a bar fight to show how cool and dangerous he is, but that’s the only narrative purpose the scene has. However, you can add tension to this scene and the MC’s relationship with said boy if the police show up at their house a day later to ask questions about the brawl. Now, interacting with him could have real consequences for their own goals, their future, how good an idea is this? And, suddenly, we’ve got stakes.

If your violence serves no purpose, it has no purpose. In the world of fiction, your fight scene is what you make it. You can’t expect real world expectations or fears or the concept of violence itself to do the work for you. You’ve got to latch the actions into both your characters and your world.

How does a bar brawl between two factions affect the relationship of the town militia and the mercenaries camped outside? How does a bar brawl affect A and B’s relationship with the other locals in the bar? With the bartender? With their friends? How do the injuries sustained change the severity of what happens? What if someone dies?

Your inciting incidents are what you make of them. Your fight scene can be a workhorse building up your narrative, or it can be meaningless fluff with stick figures clashing together on the page.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

Q&A: No One Decides How Many Chances You Get (Except You)

flowerapplejacks said to howtofightwrite: I have always felt that the phrase “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is not only patently false but harmful and ignorant. It seems to romanticize the concept of pain and suffering always leaving potential for individuals to grow. Often times the reality is completely opposite. Pain cripples and stunts, it doesn’t help you grow. What are your thoughts?

So, what is the alternative? Lie in a corner and hide from the world, and hope it all goes away? It won’t. You can roll over and wallow in the pain if you want. Sometimes, you need to. Sometimes, you’ve got to nurse your wounds. The problem is you can’t lie on the floor forever. In the end, you’re gonna have to get up and figure out what you’re doing next.

You can’t stay on the floor.

You shouldn’t stay on the floor.

Don’t give up.

I say this as someone who’s lived with clinical depression since I was thirteen, I’ve lost most of my family members, lost my dog, broke my leg when I was twelve. I’ve learned from my pain. My mistakes have taught me a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am today (or who I am today) without them.

I’ve been in the pit. I climbed out. It took twenty years, but I made it. I wouldn’t have, if I was avoiding pain.

One of the truths about life is that it’s painful, often in a variety of different ways. You can learn a lot from pain. You learn about yourself, about your body, about your personal weaknesses. You’re often stripped of the illusions you had about yourself, about your bravery, about how far you’d go to protect your ideals, about the kind of person you are, which can be damaging all by itself.

What I don’t like about the statement “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is that it’s passive. It assumes a positive outcome rather than acknowledging the courage, hard work, and emotional toil which often comes with overcoming traumatic incidents, overcoming injuries, or even just getting up to try again after you’ve made a mistake. I think what you’ve missed is the core message of the statement, which is that if it didn’t kill you then you still have the opportunity to make things better, to rectify your mistakes, to be better than you were before. If you’re dead, there are no second chances. That’s it. That’s the end. There’s no more you.

Pain is your body’s response to getting hurt, and also for saying, “don’t do that.” Like all natural instincts, it’s not always right. Not all pain is bad for you, and some of it, like the kind you experience from change, is unavoidable. Learning to distinguish between the two is a natural part of living. Learning to distinguish between the pain from a stubbed toe and a major injury is important. Learning to push past the limits your mind has set for you, that’s important. It’s just like learning to ignore or push past your fear when it’s standing in the way of what you want. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean you should be. You need to learn which fears are valid, and which are standing in your way.

My feelings on pain are very simple. Pain is one of life’s constants. You will experience a lot of different kinds of pain throughout your life. Emotional pain, pain from fear, from disappointment, from rejection, from loss, from embarrassment, from change, from growing up, from your memories of past, painful experiences. You’ll experience physical pain from injuries major to minor, you could break your leg, you could bump your head, or just walk into a door. You experience low-grade pain from working out. Your stomach hurts when you’re hungry. You’re gonna feel pain from stubbing your toe. Getting hurt is an eventuality.

My approach to pain is the Rafiki quote, “you can either run from it, or learn from it. So, what are you going to do?”

If I took your advice, that pain should be avoided at all costs because pain is bad, I wouldn’t have two functioning legs. I wouldn’t have eventually reached acceptance with my father’s death, which has taken most of my adult life. I wouldn’t have three black belts. I wouldn’t have gone to college. I wouldn’t run a successful blog while also managing clinical depression. Hell, I wouldn’t be managing my depression. My depression would be managing me.

When I was twelve, I fractured my tibia (the big bone in your leg) doing martial arts and I needed to get surgery. The break itself was incredibly painful, yes, but so was the recovery. Learning to use crutches was painful, I made mistakes and those mistakes hurt. Every day, I had to work on stretching my leg and performing exercises to keep the musculature up in my leg. I had to learn, among other things, to navigate a world not designed for people with physical disabilities. I had to learn to deal with my situation when my circumstances were no longer novel to my friends, when they didn’t help anymore. I had to learn to deal with the stares and curiosity, and even bullying.

However, I learned from it. I learned how to open doors while in a wheelchair when there was no one around to do it for me. I learned how to navigate and get to my classes on time. I learned how to get around on one leg with just my own internal balance. I learned how to handle classmates who hid my crutches. I learned how to get into a house that had only stairway access. I learned how to take showers without getting an infection. I learned how to not just live with my broken leg, but thrive with it while I worked toward recovery. I had school counselors who’d tell me the story, years later, about how they were so impressed with how I figured out how to open my junior high’s heavy, double doors in my wheelchair. And do you know why I figured it out? I couldn’t sit around waiting for someone else to do it for me.

Yes, pain hurts. Pain can be uncomfortable. Pain can be horrible. Crippling? Only you really get to decide that. Stunted? Again, being emotionally stunted is something you can address.

You’re going to get hurt no matter what you do, even if you spend your life trying to avoid it. The act of learning… anything, really, is painful. You’re going to make mistakes, and making mistakes can be painful. It’s also unavoidable. Life is short. You’re going to get thrown by the horse while learning to ride, and I say that having been thrown by many horses. You’re going to lose people you care about. You’re going to face rejection. You’re going to be disappointed. You’re going to fail. You’re going to fall down. You’re going to get injured. You’ll face setbacks.

However, that pain can help you develop resilience. You can develop emotional strength, and the courage to face what you’re afraid of. When you encounter setbacks, you learn how to push past disappointment. You realize the pain isn’t as big a hurdle as you thought, that you are tougher than you previously believed.

When you get knocked down, you have two choices. You either get back up or you stay down. And, you know? Some people do choose to stay down. Some people choose to wallow. Some people never try again. Some people need time before they’re ready. Getting back up isn’t always easy, but the more you do it the easier it becomes.

No one ever gets to tell you how many chances you get.

The question of what you do after the pain occurs is what matters. Just because you got hurt doesn’t mean you should give up. Maybe you should take a step back and reassess before trying again, but you should, probably, try again.

I broke my leg trying to do a tornado kick. Now? I can do a tornado kick. I could have given up, but I didn’t. I could have avoided dealing with my father’s death, I could have run from it and there were certainly points where it felt like I’d never feel anything again, but now I get to celebrate his memory.

Pain is a learning experience, but what you learn from it is up to you. You’ll experience so many different kinds of pain. You’ll learn to distinguish the good from the bad and the mild or middling from the terrible. Hurting yourself more to get better might feel like an oxymoron, but, sometimes, you need to.

Celebration of survival isn’t irresponsible. Sometimes, the simple act of existing requires courage. Courage deserves recognition. If you’re bothered by someone saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” then you might not have come out the other side yet. You might not be ready to celebrate how your experiences and what you’ve gone through have made you the person you are. In the end, it’s not really any different than saying, “you know, we went through some rough and tumble times but we made it!”

Do you stop playing on the jungle gym because you bashed your funny bone? Probably not, but you might be a little more circumspect about where you put your elbows.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.