Well, I’m going to use the term: endurance, instead of stamina because stamina gets used too much as terminology for a stat bar in video games. I don’t want you to get confused by the video game variation that you may be more familiar with.
Endurance comes in two flavors when it comes to any kind of physical activity, these two are mental endurance and physical endurance. For combat, endurance is more important than strength or speed or any other quality because it dictates how quickly a character can recover, long a character can fight, and most importantly how far they can keep pushing themselves when moving from one battle to the next.
You need to decide which kind of endurance your character lacks. Either way though, he’s missing a critical component of success which means that as a fighter he’s going to have to make sacrifices in his fighting style and you’ll need to make concessions to the kinds of fights you write for him, a lot of them.
Mental endurance trumps all. When you see the average human performing superhuman feats, especially in sports, it’s the result of mental endurance. The mind controls the body and the mind can force the body to keep going long past the body’s breaking point. When you train, your body will always want to quit first. It’s hard, and it’s tiring, and in some cases, it’s boring. The mind must learn to push through the pain, learn which kinds of pain mean what, and decide whether stopping is actually necessary. When someone says “I can’t do it. It’s hard.” that’s usually their brain giving up.
Mental endurance is your character’s ability to keep going through hardship, pain, fear, loss, the daily horror’s of war, and their ability to keep pushing forward. The character that comes after the villain or the protagonist after having a building fall on them, with a broken arm, or a broken leg, the engine that just keeps coming. The ones who feel inhuman, unstoppable, like they’re Terminators. That’s mental endurance. It’s not immunity to pain, it’s the ability to say “yes, it hurts, every nerve in my body is on fire, but it doesn’t matter”. In villains, it’s terrifying. In heroes, it’s inspiring.
16 Blocks – this movie is interesting. Bruce Willis plays an aging, drunk, and formerly corrupt cop assigned to protect an important witness on the way to the courthouse. The distance is only sixteen blocks. The results are a harrowing chase in which he must keep the witness alive while being hunted by his former cronies. It’s an interesting watch, to say the least.
Die Hard – the original Die Hard is a play on the Hollywood action hero, namely taking the hero and instead of letting him flawlessly waltz his way through the various action sequences decides on reveling in a war of attrition. This war is on McClain’s body. It’s still ‘unrealistic’ as far as reality is concerned, but it is saying no to the idea of a few pleasingly placed scrapes and some dirt are all one needs to say “I’ve been in a scrap, Pa”. He’s still super-humanly resilient, but it’s important to realize the movie is trying address and subvert audience expectations more than it is mimicking reality. Given how beat up he gets, it leaves room for the imagination to believe this is about pure human willpower.
Terminator 2 – Sarah Conner is the model for mental endurance in this movie from start to finish. She’s an ordinary woman forced to extraordinary levels, one who will do anything and everything in order to save her son and stop Armageddon.
Aliens – Ripley is, well, Ripley. The beauty of this movie is this time around she knows what the Aliens are and still goes back for seconds. Both Terminator 2 and Aliens have strong themes about motherhood as a source for strength. Remember, self-sacrifice isn’t the only one for women.
Protector of the Small – Mental endurance, even more than hard work is pretty much the major theme of this series. It’s about striving for the goal and conquering your fears when everyone says no.
Physical endurance is probably what you’re thinking of.
Endurance is something you build up over time, some people have a natural affinity for it while others don’t. Either way, endurance isn’t something you natively have in a finite amount that always stays the same. You build it up through training and exercise, and if you stop you lose it. The only way for a character to be unable to build endurance is if there’s something stopping them like a debilitating illness or a permanent injury. For whatever reason, they just can’t.
“It doesn’t matter how much training you have; a broken rib is a broken rib.” – Michael Westen, Burn Notice, Pilot.
Debilitating injuries, illness, and other body problems will significantly hamper your character’s ability to fight. They can’t take as many chances, they will find their options for physically dealing with situations limited, and cannot simply “power through” their enemies. It’s not just that they can’t fight for very long, they can’t withstand the physical force they receive and they also can’t recover. Your body isn’t like a video game character where after each engagement with an enemy all your stats reset. For everyone recovery takes time, but the more endurance you have, the more quickly it happens. Whether it’s back on their feet in one minute instead of five, or five instead of fifteen, ready to get back in the fight, the time allotment matters.
With limited endurance, he will become tired far more quickly, he will be unable to withstand injuries (and become injured more quickly), the injuries he receives will be more severe, and he will take longer to recover from them.
Simply on a level of self-preservation, this is a character who is incredibly limited when it comes to dealing with violent situations. He’s lost a significant number of alternate options when it comes to how he chooses to engage or what he can do when he’s forced to. He cannot fight for very long, he cannot risk injury, and he doesn’t have the time to waste. He basically is reduced to two options for dealing with all situations: not fighting at all and hardcore brutality/fight to kill. (Or finding alternate non-violent solutions.)
I mean that too, whether it’s gang members, an enemy agent, or a six year old on the sidewalk, when it comes to combat it’s them or him. He doesn’t have the time to engage because any hit he takes from anyone really, really, could be his last (or leave him tied up recovering for a week, six months to a year).
He can’t really fight to subdue because fighting to subdue takes longer and requires more endurance than simply fighting to kill. He has a lessened ability to withstand injury, so any he takes while his opponent struggles will cost him. This is going to include everything from gunshots to getting thrown into walls. Any physical damage is going to hurt him and he won’t be able to avoid it.
He can’t. When you fight, you get hurt. The only way is to minimize the damage and he’s got to focus on minimization more than most.
Now, that doesn’t mean he has to solve every problem the same way, but we are talking about a guy who isn’t an “Honor Before Reason” type or an “Honorable Warrior”. Preemptive strikes, punches to the throat, sand in the eyes, Wrapping a toaster in front of the fist, down and dirty, whatever it takes to finish it as fast as possible. This leads to rapid escalation into extreme violence.
This is how your character can “save energy” by prioritizing which fights are important, staying aware, and ensuring it ends (usually with debilitation and/or death) as quickly as possible.
What is worth remembering when you write is that your character is extremely fragile physically. He may be able to push through the pain under necessary circumstances, but it’s not something he can do all the time. You may not be able to do all fight scenes you imagine due to limitations, but limits are what make characters interesting.
For reference, you need to start looking at films that refuse to give their heroes the “Hollywood Action Star Superhero” treatment and movies which focus on “burst violence” into rapid escalation of force including human fragility. Films and novels focusing on the Western genre, with your hero alone in the wilderness and having no margin for error.
Spartan – Spartan is a film where the main protagonist specializes in rapid escalation. The violence isn’t gratuitous, it’s pretty clean and sterile. It’s also immediate and the good instant dose you might be looking for.
24 (First and Second Season only) The first two seasons of 24 try to at least pretend that Jack is mortal, and the part about dealing with serious things mostly extends to the violence. When Jack is treated as fragile, he’s worth looking at.
Burn Notice (The Pilot only). Burn Notice is useful for a lot of different aspects of writing. It’s a great “how-to” or introduction to the basics for writing spies. Most of it’s suggestions are on the mark, or they’ll at least get you thinking in a way you might not have before. However, Michael is exceedingly durable. He is a Hollywood Action Hero in almost every episode except the Pilot. The Pilot though, the Pilot is good. Watch the Pilot.
Heat – No matter what we say, we always come back to Heat. It’s a really good movie striving for at least a semblance of realism.
Alien and Aliens – These two seem a little oddball, but the point you should be focusing on in these films is the part where individuals are in combat situations where there is zero margin for error. For reference, your character is the human and all the other humans are the Aliens. Have fun.
Cop Land – This film with Sylvester Stallone stars as a New Jersey sheriff coming to the realization that the cops he idolizes are using his town as a front for mob activity. It’s a little silly, but the movie in the tradition of the Western treats his character as fragile.
Ravenous – Ravenous is a horror movie and a vampire movie involving cannibalism, but it has a focus on human fragility and individuals trying to find ways around it. In process, they become more and more horrifying. If you’ve never seen it then it’s worth a look.