I have a scene where my main char (18/yo, been training the past 6 years) is attacked by a group of 17-18/yo boys (footballers, strong brawlers but no martial art training). It’s your typical bullying thing gone violent, and my char steps in to protect the two victims. What size of group do you think a single person could reasonably fight off while protecting others, and what sorts of styles would be suited to this? Also, what kind of damage might he end up taking in the course of this?

The answer to the damage question is splatter into the pavement and die. This doesn’t mean your idea isn’t a realistic one. There are plenty of martial artists out there who would attempt to jump in and fight. However, by doing so they would only make a bad situation worse.

So, let me do a walkthrough of the factors, the fallout, the kind of training you get from martial arts programs versus the training a teen would need but can’t get, and the kind of character who could legitimately pull it off. This sort of character is probably not the droid you’re looking for. I’ll also talk about alternate, non-violent solutions to this problem that would have a better chance of working.

The rest of this is an in depth exploration under the cut. Fair warning, it’s long.

Four Limbs Versus Twenty-Six Aren’t Good Odds

When it’s a numbers game (and it always is with groups), who does and doesn’t have martial training quickly goes out the window. The only time this really changes is when the character in question is trained in threat management like you get with special forces and other highly trained operatives, the ones who are good at setting up situations where any move their enemy makes is the wrong one. Your teen can’t do that, they don’t really have the background or the general willingness to jump to the level or brutality necessary to succeed.

Group combat is difficult. A master of thirty or forty years would have difficulty dealing with six (losing would be a real option), there’s a story on the Man on Fire commentary tracks about a special forces guy hired to defend the set getting splattered by six untrained men at a local bar. I can say at 18 with thirteen years of martial arts experience under my belt, I wouldn’t have tried it. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have tried to stop it, I had a long history of sticking my nose into situations where it didn’t belong. I’d have known that trying to use violence to stop them was a losing proposition.

Violence happens fast, we’re talking fights ending in seconds. The average one on one street fight ends in 25, you can kill someone in seven seconds if you know what you’re doing. Taking on six guys requires real combat experience and a willingness to go to extremes, the sort that’s above and beyond the kind you can get from practicing in a dojo.

Here’s the thing:

Martial Arts Don’t Make You Batman

In the United States, the kind of training your character would have access to is recreational or sport martial arts. These are classes on the same level as after-school sports, horseback riding, art lessons, summer camps, and other extra-curricular activities parents feel comfortable sticking their kids into until they can collect them after they get off work.

They don’t teach you how to street fight or what will happen in a real fight, one where there are no mats, no friends, and no instructors to step in when things get to bad. Martial arts schools don’t train kids with the expectation that they’ll ever have to use their training outside of select safe spaces like tournaments or the sparring ring. The kind of training offered where a character could be trained to deal with the real world (such as with Michael Janich or other more brutal styles, a ninjutsu school in Kentucky only took students who studied another martial art and only via reference) are always limited to 18 and over. Adults are generally considered to be more trustworthy and more capable of using the knowledge responsibly. They also are less likely to take students who have a history of knocking someone to the ground and slamming their head into the concrete until their skull caves in.

Martial arts train you to deal with one opponent, if you’re lucky, they may instruct you on how to deal with to. But what you learn in those lessons is that you can only fight one person at a time and unlike in the movies, the group is unlikely to wait their turn. They aren’t going to come at you one at a time, they’ll come in together and if they have a history of doing this then they’ll use teamwork.

Your character is already strapped down by having to protect two other people, six guys can easily split up to go three to three, three for your character, three for the two who won’t fight back. Or four to two, four for your character and two for the two who won’t fight back. Martial arts aren’t going to teach your character about exit strategies beyond the basic “end it quickly and run away”, they won’t teach your character on how to defend two people while fighting off the six guys who want to hurt them. They’ll be outflanked with no room to run and limited room to maneuver, which will get them hurt or killed.

Fighting on concrete means concussions, broken bones, fractured skulls, knocked out teeth, even if they manage to put one guy down, they’ll be blind to the other one coming in behind them.

Which brings us to:

Football Players: They’re More Dangerous Than You Think

Football emphasizes teamwork and taking hits, these guys are very used to using their body to physically knock an opponent to the ground. They’re actually more dangerous than wrestlers or baseball players in that respect because they can and will work together instead of fighting alone.

While they might just use their fists with two victims who are unlikely to fight back, the minute their safety is legitimately threatened by our hero, they’ll fall back on the tried and true methods of what they know works on the field. This is: charging, shoulder checking, and knocking someone to the ground via their waist. This is bad enough when in pads on grass (football still hosts an absurd amount of injuries and deaths), now imagine a three hundred pound linebacker slamming into your protagonist, lifting him off the ground, and slamming him straight down into the cold, hard concrete.

When I say splattered. I’m not joking.

The best way to avoid these sorts of attacks is to get out of the way (it’s not to attempt to punch or kick), however if they do then the three hundred pound linebacker charges straight into the two people our hero was trying to protect. Toro, toro. The second way to effectively deal with a charge is to sprawl, the subject essentially falls forward while kicking their legs back to land on top of the charger by wrapping their forearm around their attacker’s throat. They then use their body weight to take them to the ground, but now our hero is on the ground with five other players standing around them. They’re now at their mercy.

The most important problem is not the physical one, it’s the part where the players are part of a larger team. This team has a vested interest in keeping their members in one piece and avenging them if they can’t play in the game next Saturday. Remember, your character isn’t just making an enemy out of the six guys they’re about to face down. They’re going to make enemies out of their team, their coach, and anyone in the school or town who has an interest in the team’s success. This isn’t going to be an isolated incident, this is an action that will change their life and become a central point of conflict that will follow them through the story.

Basically, they’re looking at a no-win scenario if they try to take the football players head on. In many places across the United States, Football is an important part of the High School curriculum and football players are neatly protected. A good football team/sports program brings in revenue and prestige to the school, which helps the administration and looks good on a Principle’s resume. Football players are protected, any damage they take in a fight could mean that they can’t play at the next game, which hurts the team and that makes enemies. The sort you can’t really punch your way past.

Legal Ramifications:

Violence has consequences, those consequences are physical, social, and legal. At 18 years of age with six years of martial arts training, this character would likely be looking at charges of aggravated assault and possibly attempted homicide if they tried to fight these football players, especially if they inflicted any lasting damage. At 18, they’d be tried as an adult and looking at real jail time along with a ruined future.

18 is usually a senior, they’re looking at college applications, SATs, and getting out of the hellhole that is high school. If they fight, regardless of what happens, those plans are over for them. The kind of violence they’d need to escape their scrap in one piece is actually pretty far over the line of what’s generally considered acceptable.

All you need for this to go really screwy is for the coach to have a brother who is a cop or the local police chief to have a son on the team. Worse, if the son of the police chief is one of the kids who get beat up. This isn’t your character going after individuals no one is going to care about or people they’ll never see again. They’re going up against people they have to live with, go to school with, and suffer the consequences from.

So, the question is can your character’s family afford a good lawyer?

Social Ramifications:

Hollywood and media lie about the way people react to violence and the consequences violent action can have on someone’s social life. No matter how many pretty an action sequence may look on television, the fact of the matter is that violence is monstrous. When humans are faced with an enemy they perceive as truly dangerous, a lizard part of their brain flips and they start seeing the other person not as a person but as a feral animal to be avoided.

If the students of the school didn’t see your character as a dangerous person before he fended off six bullies, they will afterwards if he succeeds. The kinds of brutal techniques he’d need to use to finish the fight quickly would ensure that. In the end, he’d set himself up as more dangerous than the football players. They’re a known quantity, they’re violence is at a level other teenagers can understand. A martial artist has the training, if they can carry it off, to bring the realities of violence home. It’s fine when it’s on television or in a video game, but no one wants to wake up and realize they’re a peasant in A Game of Thrones.

The willingness of the character in question to act has nothing to do with it, what they want has nothing to do with it, all that matters is that they crushed a linebacker’s trachea. If they could do it to him, then what could he do to them?

Friends will abandon him. People he cares about will turn their backs. People will whisper or fall quiet when he passes. It’s a lonely existence being a social pariah and for the remainder of his time at his high school this is how people will respond to him.

It really sucks.

Bully Groups Take Time to Flourish:

Six guys didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to beat the shit out of some kids on the way home. A bully group the size of six is one years in the making and suggests a protected position within the school. Bullies get to groups when they are allowed to flourish, when they are successful. They usually start out as a bully or a bully with a lackey.

You should keep in mind that your character is engaging with a known quantity here, one that is protected by someone in the authority ranks. They do this because they can get away with it, but it’s always bad to assume that if they can your character can.

We have a mistaken view of what “the right thing” looks like. If you really want your character to be engaging for the right reasons, then this is an important truth to keep in mind:

Escalation Makes a Situation More Violent:

Bullies maintain their power through inflicting their fears and authority onto others. If the situation your character is about to engage in is already becoming violent then interceding with physical violence will only make it more so. They are upping the chances of someone getting hurt, not decreasing it.

For anyone who isn’t the target, beating up a bully is a short term solution at best and disastrous at worst. Confronting a bully or an abuser while they are in process of abusing a victim will only make it worse for the victim in the long term. The bully will come back when your character isn’t there and the pain they inflict on their target may be worse as they take their frustrations out on them.

This is why these feel good tactics don’t work. Your character interceding here and playing hero will only soothe his own ego. He saw a bad situation happening and responded, but he’s not there for what happens in the bathroom the next day or behind the bleachers. He’s not there to deal with the bully in the numerous other targets still available. In order for the bully to maintain their position, they have to re-establish their authority over their group and their targets. If they can’t do it with your main character, then they will turn to more convenient targets.

Answering violence with more violence doesn’t lead to peace, you can’t cow someone into submission. Your character’s goal is to help the people the bullies are beating on, to stop the situation before it can progress further. An ego stroking isn’t the answer and, unless your character is intent on monstrous action, violence isn’t either.

Heroism is Inherently Self-Sacrifical and Self-Destructive:

For the most part, we’ve come to directly associate heroism with violence because it’s easier and simpler to comprehend. Self-sacrifice and swallowing your own pride is messy and often inglorious. Still, if you want your character to play hero here then they’re going to have to avoid making a bad situation worse. If they jump in they could get the people they’re trying to help hurt, themselves hurt, just as quickly as the football players get hurt.

Figuring out how to help someone else without compromising your own safety is a difficult thing, but there are plenty of other methods your character could use. In a real world situation, I would say run for an authority figure and if your character has a friend present that’s what they should do.

After all, the goal here is to stop the bullies from hurting these characters not your character proving how badass they are. If the scene is about showing how your character is a badass then stop. Take a step back and remember that heroism is sacrificing yourself for other people, the act is all about other characters and not your protagonist. If they’re only going to make the situation worse then they shouldn’t intervene at all.

There’s a Difference Between Intelligent Bravery and Stupidity:

When my brother was in high school, he had a friend who was planning to commit suicide. During lunch in their junior year, he left to go to the bathroom but they noticed something was off and checked his backpack. In it, they found a suicide note. His friend planned to commit suicide on the train tracks that ran past our high school, this had become a trend back during my freshman year and it was an awful one. They went to the tracks and found him standing on them as the train was coming, my brother and his other friend leapt onto the tracks and wrestled their friend off safely.

Then, instead of letting him go, they promptly hustled him straight off to the councilor’s office so that he could get the help he needed. What they did was very brave, they could have all gotten hit by the train. My brother’s friend is still alive today.

The reason why I’m telling this story isn’t because it took two guys (one of whom was a fourth degree black belt) to get their friend off a track. I’m telling the story because it’s always important to recognize the limits of what you can do. My brother could have let his friend go back to class and assumed just because he’d pulled him off once that it was over. It wouldn’t have been over, because nothing would have been there to stop his friend from going right back to the tracks, waiting for another train, and ruining not only his own life but the life of the driver and the lives of the passengers on board. Instead, they got him to someone who could help him, who could alert his family, work through the problem and save his life.

No matter how tough or powerful your character is inside your story, they lack the authority and the ability to actually stop these bullies for any length of time. If they are intent on stopping them from hurting these other characters, then they are going to need to find another way to disrupt them and put them into the path of an authority figure who can deal with them.

A martial arts character will be trained to seek out authority instead of fighting or, at the very least, luring authority to them. The knee-jerk black eye of shame reaction for “telling” or “snitching” doesn’t apply here. For six years, this character will have had it beaten into their skull (like I did with mine), if you see a problem on the floor get an instructor.

There are only two good ways to stop a group.

1) Make it impossible for the fight to happen (good if you wish to avoid jail time)

2) Respond with such overwhelming force that they are unwilling to take it further (is your character prepared to cripple individuals with no real provocation? From behind? With a fire extinguisher? No? Good. This approach is more suitable to drug dealers and mob enforcers, not eighteen year old martial artists.)

Here are some simpler solutions than beating them up:

Stand on the outside of the group and attempt to talk them down while a friend runs for a teacher. The longer they can keep them talking, the less time they have for fighting and a greater chance more people will stumble on them and make fighting difficult. A fight not started is a victory.

Stand by the teacher’s lounge and yell “FIGHT” really loudly. Same with any nearby classroom that’s bound to have a teacher inside.

Get out their cell phone and record, then upload it to YouTube. They can tell the Football Players that they did, but they should prepare to be jumped and have their phone destroyed.

Pull a fire alarm. They’ll get in trouble for this, but no one will see them as a monster and their side of the story won’t be automatically dismissed on virtue of their actions. Also, it works. Loud sounds freak people out.

Final Thoughts:

Knowing when to fight and when to walk away is the most important lesson any martial artist ever learns. Sometimes, you have to take actions that don’t benefit yourself and sometimes, you have to walk away from a bad situation when every fiber of your being is screaming at you to do something. It’s important to recognize when you do that you’re not walking away because you’re a coward but because there’s no way for you to make the situation better by engaging. This isn’t going to change. Whether you have six or sixteen years of martial arts training, there will always be battles you can’t win.

This doesn’t mean turn your back entirely, offering support and encouragement to the victim is the way to go if you really want to help them. We can’t fight someone’s battles for them, but they don’t have to face them alone. If your character really wants to help these bullied victims, he’ll offer to take them around to his martial arts school and introduce them to his master. He’ll provide them with the opportunity to change their own life and give them the means to fight their own battles.

Can’t do that if he’s packed off to prison or makes them afraid of him though, so, some things to think about.

-Michi

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