Considerations When Writing Ambidextrous Characters

What kind of advantage, if any, would a swordfighter (specifically one with an arming sword) get from being ambidextrous? I’ve been thinking of revamping a story I wrote as a teenager and to 16-year-old me the ability to switch sword hands mid-combat was one of the main ways to show how Extra Special Badass my main character was, but I figured I should check before I bring that over to the (heavily) rewritten edition

A few things come to mind, with one being distinctly more artificial than the others.

The artificial example is that your character can continue fighting even if they lose the use of one of their hands. The reason I’m calling this artificial is because, chances are, any injury that took their arm or hand out of use, will probably also be serious enough to impair their ability to fight, beyond just that limb. (Blood loss and pain are likely to be the major issues here.)

One, very real, advantage is architectural. Medieval castles and fortifications were specifically designed with right hand dominance in mind. Many were built so that an assaulting force would have their right arms pressed against the wall. This manifests in the spiral of staircases, where an ascending assaulter is moving clockwise, and their right arm is against the center axis, while a defender above them will have their right arm free to strike from the outer radius, giving them more freedom of to attack. You’ll also see this pattern with some straight stairways along the sides of walls, so that the assaulters will have their arms pressed against the fortification, while defenders have their right arms over open space.

Somewhat obviously, if you’re ambidextrous, you can swap hands and ignore this kind of restriction. While it’s highly specific to the spaces you’re fighting in, being ambidextrous (or even just competent with your off hand) can help when fighting in very cramped spaces. (This is even relevant in the modern era, and it’s a good idea to learn how to shoot accurately with your off hand, even if you don’t expect to do so. If you’re left handed, this is borderline necessary, because you will encounter firearms that are specifically contoured or configured for a right handed shooter.)

One thing that ambidexterity doesn’t really help with is dual wielding. The best recorded historical example of dual wielding is, probably, the sword and shield. Now, being ambidextrous would help your character flip their sword and shield to the opposite hands (this would still require a bit of fumbling with switching the weapons over, so, not something to do in the middle of combat, but the option is there.

Ambidexterity is one of those character traits that sounds like this was a character you came up with as a teenager. There’s no shame in that, and this isn’t at your expense. We have all made some questionable writing decisions when we were younger, and in this case it’s not that bad. There are ambidextrous people. It’s real, and it’s realistic for someone to have some degree of ambidexterity.

Roughly 1% of the population is truly ambidextrous, with a much larger portion of the population who have some degree of self-trained ambidexterity.

Self trained ambidexterity especially common among left handed individuals who need to use everyday items that cannot be used left handed, and it is much cheaper to learn to use a pair of scissors with your right hand, rather than buying special, and expensive, left handed scissors, only to have the things disappear after a month when someone else, “borrows,” and loses them.

Ambidexterity has applications (more, a range of general utility, like being able to write with either hand, or being able to easily work a mechanism while holding something heavy in their other hand. Ironically, with characters, it’s the kind of trait you don’t really need to call out and say, “yeah, my character is ambidextrous.” Either they can perform acts proficiently with their “off-hand” or they can’t, and most readers won’t notice, unless the limitations (which your character doesn’t have) are called out.

Ironically, for the combat applications mentioned above, your character will come across as more of a badass if they’re not ambidextrous. If they have to switch hands, fighting on with their off-hand at a disadvantage, and still soldier on to victory, it’s more impressive, “more badass,” for them to overcome the limitation than to have a custom curated, “oh I don’t face this adversity,” token to play.

Hand dominance is weird, when it comes to fictional characters. Clearly they should have it, but most of the time, it’s not commented on. It’s not really relevant. Even in live action media, most of the time, characters will inherit their hand dominance from the actor playing them. This is why, focusing on ambidexterity as a combat advantage is a little strange to me.

The up shot is, I’m not saying, “don’t do it.” It’s your character, it’s a credible characteristic, it does add some unusual flavor to them without straining plausibility. My gut impulse is to say that it doesn’t really benefit the character, but it’s not detrimental, and it could certainly add texture.

There was a piece of advice from a roleplaying guide I read years ago; remember to design your characters so they have a mix of combat and social options available to them. You don’t want to be in a situation where one of the players has focused exclusively on combat, and then when the party is in a town, they will have no meaningful ability to participate in the story. (I’m paraphrasing, this is from first edition Exalted‘s core book.)

I think it’s good advice in general, but in relation to ambidexterity, this is something you can use to fluidly flavor a lot of the character’s non-combat activities. If you can find ways to reliably incorporate into their everyday activities, it will make them unique (without feeling like you’re trying to make them special.)

-Starke

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