Tag Archives: character background

Is there such thing as a martial arts disciplines or techniques that “suit” someone? Like if someone is physically on the small, weak side but has good reflexes and spatial judgment would they emphasize techniques that rely on accuracy (or hitting people where you can cause lots of pain without lots of strength)? Or is it less what you learn and more how you use it? Am I making sense? (If the answer to the first question is yes, what’s a good discipline for the character in my example?)

You train your body to your style. In terms of physicality, there’s no barrier for entry. You adapt the techniques to your body as you train. It’s a common misconception that you need a certain body type to be able to fight, or to be good at it. Training takes care of the issue. The kind of physical training you engage in will mold your body. Practice, dedication, attention to detail, correction of errors, and time are all it takes.

There are martial disciplines that will “suit” someone, but those are psychological and philosophical in nature. Learning is faster when you desire to learn, and when the fighting style doesn’t counter your own goals. If you are mentally rejecting your training, then training will be almost impossible and produce poor results. A fast, brutal fighting style that focuses heavily on joint breaks will not suit a character with a gentle nature, who wishes to do as little damage as possible. Someone who wants a more inward focused and philosophical martial art will do better with Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan than they will with the sport focused Taekwondo.

The problem with your example is that it’s incredibly general and focuses on the character’s body rather than the character themselves. There is no good answer to it because the answer is, “all of them”.

Using physical strength as a metric for what kind of fighting your character can participate in or what martial arts they can learn is for stat based games like Dungeons & Dragons. You can take the abilities listed and apply it to any martial art you want. As I’ve said before many times, it’s better to work the other way around by finding your martial art then figuring out what you’re characters physical skills are going to look like as a result of their training. Trying to apply the combat style the other way around ultimately results in window dressing. Especially since, “all of them”.

All martial arts will hone and develop your character’s reflexes. So, the question is ultimately not that your character has good reflexes but rather, how were they developed?

You learn to judge distance through training exercises with your partner. All martial artists need spatial awareness.

You will learn accuracy by practicing your strikes on targets and then against live human partners.

Martial arts don’t rely on physical strength alone for damage, it’s cumulative and a balance of multiple factors that are all developed by training. Speed, accuracy, flexibility, momentum, endurance, learning where to hit and how to hit to achieve your desired results, your ability to move your body together, timing, these are what most people mistakenly refer to as, “physical strength”. Often, genuine effort and hard work are mistaken for natural gifts.

”Who is my character?”

“What do they do?”

“What do they want to be doing when fighting? Their philosophical outlook on the nature of combat? Their morals? What do they believe in?”

“What kind of fighting will they be involved in?”

“What kind of fight scenes do I feel comfortable writing?”

“What is my genre?”

What interests you and your character, who they are as a person, what you’re going to ask them to fight in your narrative, and, of course, how closely you want to hew to reality are what you should use to narrow down your search. After that, it’s gravy.


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I’m writing a pilot for a series where each character is skill in a different type of fighting. Can you suggest some fighting styles I can research?

I know we’ve said this before, but this is backwards. When you’re creating a character, their background will determine what their trained in. In turn, their background and their training will help to define who they are as a person.

Police (in the US) all receive a variation of Judo/Jujitsu that was brought back from Japan after WWII. So, when you say, “I have a cop,” they’re all going to start from that same basic hand to hand style. If you say, “I have a Marine,” then they’ll have been put through MAP. If you say, “I have a Marine who became a cop after he mustered out,” then they’ll have been trained in both. And the styles they learned professionally will always be their primary toolkit for dealing with problems.

It’s not uncommon for people who’ve been trained in a practical form to go out and learn other other martial arts as they get older, but their choices will be influenced by what they’re looking for.

For example: my Karate Sensei in college was a member of the city’s police department. He had gotten to a point in his life where he was more interested in the underlying philosophy and ethics of martial arts, and that had drawn him to Karate. (I’m not sure why Karate specifically appealed to him, and never asked.)

When you’re putting together someone’s background, you’ve already started to define their hand to hand training. If your character’s only martial arts training is recreational, then it becomes a question of what they would have access to, and what they value. Someone who’s taking martial arts as an alternate physical fitness routine isn’t going to go into Krav Maga or Systema, while someone who’s looking for effective self-defense probably wouldn’t look at Tai Chi (even though Tai Chi does include effective combat forms).

The best advice I can say, for things like this is: get into your characters’ headspaces. And, go (window) shopping based on their values. Look at the available martial arts, as they’re presented in ads, or other venues, and pick what your character would, if given the choice. From this perspective, it’s fine for your characters to make a “blind buy” based on the information they have. Again, practical forms of Tai Chi exist, but it’s entirely reasonable for someone to miss that, think of Tai Chi as a different flavor of yoga, and ignore it, when they’re trying to decide on a martial art.

Incidentally, all of this also applies to things like picking personal weapons, vehicles, and even clothing choices.

If you’re creating a detective in the LAPD they’re not going to be carrying a Desert Eagle, no matter how cool you think the gun is. Departments have very specific lists of issued, and approved weapons. Even though it’s an effective tactical pistol, and good enough for the Feds, they won’t have a SIG P226. They’ll have the Baretta 92, one of the approved S&W M&P pistols, one of the approved Glocks, or one of a handful of other firearms. Those are their choices. It doesn’t matter how comfortable or accurate a Walther P99 is, they won’t get to carry it while on duty. You can find these lists online, through searching, just remember, those lists will vary by department, so if you’ve got Chicago PD, NYPD, or FBI, the lists will be different. And, again, your characters’ backgrounds will tell you what weapons they can choose for their job.

Sometimes how long they’ve been on the job will be indicated in their weapon choices. The Shield’s Vic Mackey comes to mind as an example of this; he carries a S&W 4506, which went out of production three years before the series started.

Also, worth pointing out that SWAT and Port Authority will often have different carry lists from patrol officers. Incidentally, as an illustration why specific research is a good idea, Chicago’s Aviation Police Officers (police at O’Hare and Midway) are not armed. (The CPD maintains a separate, smaller, armed, presence in the terminals.)

Hopefully this will give you some material to work with, though, I’ll admit, it may be a little off the topic you were originally looking for.


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How would a teenager’s personality be affected if they were trained in fighting an survival techniques since childhood?

I’d like to give an answer to this question, but the problem is that it actually encompasses a wide range of backgrounds. All of which can create significantly different personality types. Here’s a short list:

The child of uber-environmentalists or hippies, spent their weekends camping, learning the wonders of nature, and their weeks practicing Tai Chi.

The child of extreme survivalists, who spent their childhood learning self-sufficiency in the wilderness and how to drill a skull with their hunting rifle at a hundred yards.

A Boy Scout (or Girl Scout depending on merit badges), especially one who grew up in Montana, Wyoming, or anywhere that has no sensitivity to guns. (There’s a reason why an Eagle Scout gets an automatic rank bump when they enlist in the US Military.)

The kid who got boxed up and sent off to a Military Academy or Boot Camp.

The upper-middle class kid whose parents shoved them into every single martial arts program and or camping/environmentalist program in order to get them out of the house and out from underfoot.

The same upper-middle class background as the above kid, except the child did it to escape their parents.

The kid who grew up on the streets of a major metropolitan city and had to scrounge for every meal until they learned boxing after landing in Juvie.

The kid who grew up on the streets in a major metropolitan city and had to scrounging for every meal until they were discovered and taken off the streets by a kindly boxing coach.

This is only a small number of the unlimited possibilities and even within the subset, the personalities created while not unique are many.

The important truth to remember when thinking about personalities for your character is that personalities are developed through individual experiences. Change a minute detail like the kid had an instructor who liked them to the kid had an instructor who ignored them and you change the experience thus changing the effect on the personality.

A specific kind of training can develop an outlook the individual adopts. An outlook is the way someone views and sees the world around them, but training is only part of the equation. Home life, friendships, school experiences, religious background, political background, these are all aspects of our experiences informing who we are and how we look at the world. They also inform what we choose to do with the skill sets we have.

It’s also important to remember that the training outlooks for each individual martial art is different. They take on the aspects of what they were or currently are meant for and the values of the culture they come from. Taekwondo, for example, pushes the importance of community to it’s trainees. Giving back is the watch word, we have a responsibility to take what we know, what we’ve learned from our training, and use it to benefit others (not in the superhero sense). This mostly takes the form of mentoring other students in the dojang, but it also encompasses community service and other projects outside the school. In fact, in order to progress up the belt ranks, each student must write an essay as part of their final exam detailing what their understanding of their training is.

However, a child who has always had difficulty making friends or comes from difficult family circumstances may adopt these tenants differently from a child who has loving parents and lots of friends outside the school.

Think about what kind of survival training and fighting training your teenager had. What were they being trained to do? Was it self-defense? Purely for recreation? Health and fitness? Hunting monsters? Post-apocalypse survival? Why were they learning this in the first place? What sort of community surrounded them while they were growing up? Was it an insular one? Did they have regular access to individuals outside their family group? How present were their parents? Is this a family thing or something they decided to pursue on their own?

Once you’ve outlined their background and figured out what kind of training you want them to have, you can then fill in the blanks by limiting your search to martial combat and skill sets which cover what you’re looking for. This limits your search so it becomes easier. Try not to have a concrete idea in mind, otherwise you’ll end up rejecting the real world information you dig up because it doesn’t exactly match the idea in your head. Once you’ve absorbed the knowledge, then you can route back and get the character you’re looking for (or maybe one you weren’t). You’ll have a better understanding of the experiences they might have been through and thus a firmer grasp of the sort of personality they could have. By filling in their background, the person starts to become realized.

When doing this with teenagers, you may have to do some jury-rigging if you want them to have a skill set that’s not normally available to a teen with their background such as military grade Systema or military grade Krav Maga. You’ll have to figure out how they got that training and create a firm understanding of why they were trained that way. You’ll also have to accept that this training will change them in ways that are noticeable to other characters around them. People, even kids, are very good at picking out dangerous individuals and avoiding them on a gut level, even if they don’t consciously know why they’re doing it. A kid with this kind of training may also have difficulty relating to others or even seeing other individuals as individuals. Their concept of right to life may be abstract at best and they’ll already know how to push themselves through significant mental hoops in order to justify killing someone.

However, this isn’t a normal background or normal setup for a character or even something normal/average/even bad parents would allow to happen to their child. You’ll have to set up their background to justify it and allow your other characters to act accordingly.