Tag Archives: character reference

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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Would going off into the mountains to train with the Ultimate Master™ of whatever fighting discipline and thus become the Ultimate Master™ yourself actually produce a skilled fighter? Wouldn’t it be better to train with multiple people so you don’t end up inheriting all of one person’s weaknesses, or relying on your opponent to have those particular weaknesses? Can you get legitimate fighting experience in a controlled environment, or is there a limit to how much you can learn in the classroom?

Just for a heads up, the “Ultimate Master” or the “Old Man on the Mountain” is usually referencing Eastern mysticism and is a long standing genre convention in cinema.  When used in fiction, it always involves some kind of pilgrimage. It also has roots in reality, enough so that a whole genre of Chinese cinema builds itself around the concept.

Now, other cultures have this concept too, and there are European branches that defy what has become the expected fictional norms. However, when you decide to follow this train of thought for your character, it’s important to recognize what the trope is, where it comes from, and what its hallmarks and audience expectations are.

If you don’t want to write a character for whom their martial arts training is a quasi-religious experience, grounding itself in philosophy and spirituality, then this trope is not for you.

In a simple, much more recognizable Western example, if you don’t imagine yourself writing a Jedi then this trope is not for you.

9/10 that’s pretty much what the trope is, and, real talk, the more spiritual side of martial arts can do some pretty crazy shit in reality. I’ve seen American martial arts masters bend rebar with their clavicles, break baseball bats with their shins, break ten bricks with their hands, and that’s the more commonplace energy manipulation you’ll see in a standard martial arts school far from their traditions.

The conceptual idea that martial arts give you superpowers is rooted in the real world. Dragon Ball Z for example, takes real world martial arts philosophies and dials them over 9,000. Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back utilizes real philosophy with real world application when training Luke. For Lucas, this is mostly by accident but nevertheless if you’ve ever been in martial arts training Yoda sounds suspiciously similar.

The philosophy at play is spiritual/religious in nature, but also real. The idea is that through training, you will reach a point of inner spiritual ascension. Upon taking this first step in understanding, you reach a new plateau of spiritual and physical harmony that is beyond what the average martial artist can access. (Ronin Warriors) That’s what the mountain training is about, that’s what its for, and that’s why the neophyte is not usually the one who seeks out the Wise Man on the Mountain. (Yu Yu Hakusho) Usually, its a secondary or tertiary step in your training. You go to the mountain when the time comes to look inward, rather than outward. When you want to face yourself.

The other version of this trope is you have a character who was taken in by the Man on the Mountain as a child and raised in a hereditary martial art until they leave (Rurouni Kenshin), to test themselves out in the world. Where they go out and find other martial artists and, for whatever reason, fight them as a test of their abilities. (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) Or they are sent out into the world on some kind of a mission. (Iron Fist, The Empire Strikes Back) If you have watched any amount of shounen/fighting anime or any wuxia cinema, I guarantee you’ve seen this one before.

You’re basically talking about people who spend their whole lives training, and who are going to be fighting a lot. You want to fight the guy who learned to channel themselves in meditation while standing in a freezing waterfall for four to six hours? No, you don’t, especially when you know the purpose of meditation in martial arts. These are the guys with the ability to balance themselves on the top of their head. Its also worth pointing out that the balancing on the head has a real combat application, the purpose is to train balance and physical control. If this person can achieve perfect balance on their head, what are you going to do about knocking them over when they’re actually on their feet? These are kinds of skills you will never achieve unless you’ve spent a significant portion of your life in isolation training your body to a level of physical excellence that is so far beyond the average you seem superhuman.

This is the level above Jet Li playing the villain in Lethal Weapon 4, where it’s all normal and then… wham. Try to remember too, when you’re watching any Jet Li, Jackie Chan, or Donnie Yen film, that the camera is often losing frames on their fight sequences because they are moving too fast for it to follow. Or they are slowing way down.

That’s just approaching pinnacles of excellence in performance martial arts.

It’s worth thinking about it this way, you’ve got a character who goes up to the mountain and comes back. They’ve spent their years, paid their dues, put in the time, and achieved that pinnacle. Now, the rest of the world is moving in slow motion. Physically, mentally, spiritually, they have reached a plateau beyond what the other (standard) combatants are capable of. These enemies are slower, less aware, riddled with flaws, and do not make the most of their energy. They also adjust faster to new challenges as they test themselves in the world at large.

The Man on the Mountain isn’t classroom training. It is not a safe environment. It is one part martial training, one part spiritual exercise, and one part survival training. What happens on the mountain is never standard martial arts training, it is never safe. Whether it’s what you saw in Mulan, hopping over a raging river from pole to pole the size of your foot, fishing from the river with your hands, or any number of other countless exercises you’ve seen in anime and martial arts movies that were glossed over. The jacket routine in Jackie Chan’s The Karate Kid which culminates in this sequence. (Did you know The Karate Kid is an Old Man on the Mountain movie? All of them are.) Some of those techniques may have looked really dumb, but most of them had a purpose.

This is about testing yourself beyond your limits.

It’s the quintessential difference between student and master.

So, do they have weaknesses? Not if the master knew what he was doing. If he or she didn’t, if they were dicking around or the training didn’t properly sink in, then yeah, they’ll have lots of weaknesses. If not, they’re moving into the territory One Punch Man is subverting, mocking, and critiquing.


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About the ask involving using an unloaded gun to intimidate, how do you think that scene went in Mad Max: Fury Road when Max tried doing that to Furiosa?

I don’t actually have a copy of Mad Max: Fury Road to rewatch the actual scene and I can’t rent it off the usual places, so I’m just going to go off my memory for this one. So, I could be wrong. Just fair warning.

What happens in Mad Max and what the question was asking are two very different scenarios. Mad Max, even just as a series, is based on desperation. The characters are driven by it, they have limited options and are doing the best they can with the given situation. They are combining what they want (escape) with what they have. Max’s bluff with the unloaded gun is ultimately the same in concept you’d get with any other scene.

The conceptual idea is this: the person being threatened will care more about their own life than they do about than they do about the person holding the gun. TLDR: they don’t want to get shot.

The bluff banks on this to be successful.
Max’s bluff with Furiosa fails. Like him, Furiosa wants freedom more than she cares about securing her own survival in the moment. If she fails, she’s dead or tortured and dead. If he shoots her then she’s also dead.

This is part of what makes the scene successful as opposed to where another might fail. It’s not that the rules are forever unimpeachable, it’s the context surrounding the situation which changes what will or won’t work. We try to remind our readers that most violence is context specific, but I also understand why this can be confusing. Especially when you’re looking for universal rules rather than contextual ones.

You have a situation where a guy carries an unloaded handgun around on his person to threaten people with but doesn’t want to hurt them is, ultimately, stupid. They’re escalating a situation rather than trying to defuse it, but they also lack the guts to make good on the threat. However, this doesn’t mean that this won’t work in a story context. People do stupid things all the time and someone taking an unloaded handgun into a fight because they think they want the threat of the gun without the risk of getting hurt is the kind of dumb shit real people do. It’s not that the idea itself is bad, it’s just that it might not have the results the writer was hoping for or make the statement they wanted in regards to the character’s care for defusing the situation or the safety of others.

In this context, it’s someone who wants the threat of the gun without having to deal with the consequences of one and who thinks they won’t have to. It’s dumb because many people will respond to threats made on their life with violence. You could make a great scene out of a stupid kid who threatens another with an unloaded handgun because they think it’s A) funny or B) will work as a means of stopping bad guys and get their ass beaten as a result.

Meanwhile, we have Max. The guy who has been trapped for a long time, is trying to escape while backed into a corner, and has nothing but an unloaded handgun with which all he can do is threaten? That is very different. It’s a desperate character making the best of a bad situation, which is what Starke brought up in his answer. Characters use the tools they have available to them. It’s in the same category as the guy or girl who is carrying a grenade ready to prime. (And the grenade is ultimately a threat that can be followed through on.)

If Max had a loaded handgun he’d probably be using that. However, we also know that between him and Furiosa, he’s the actual softie. And we certainly see Furiosa respond reasonably to someone who has just threatened her life. She and Max get into a struggle over her shotgun where they do, in fact, shoot at each other. In fact, the entire scene sets up both characters’ desperation. The basis of their partnership is built off their desire to escape.

When you’re sitting there trying to structure your scenes, think about the context surrounding what’s happening rather than just focusing on “The Rules”. Think about the people involved, think about what is at stake, think about your characters and what they know about the world, utilize their knowledge to build your story.

I know a lot of you want your characters to be or come across as competent, but the truth is they don’t have to be. What makes a character competent isn’t how well they handle violence in general anyway, it’s how they deal with the specific events surrounding them in their own narrative.

If you want a real litmus test between a scenario you have planned and a scenario you saw in another story delve into the specifics of the scene in comparison to yours. Look in greater context of the narrative, what influenced the events leading up to it and what it affects in the aftermath. Figure out what made it work for you and how is that different from the one you have planned. Character motivations will make or break this, previous actions by characters change the level of the threat present in the scenario. If you have a character that’s already been proven to shoot people with a handgun bluffing someone with it unloaded, the threat comes across as more real to both the participants and the audience versus two strangers that have no prior experience with each other.

I get that it’s confusing and frustrating, especially when you’re looking to establish a pattern in your own work. Most of the time on this blog all we can do is generalize because we’re dealing with questions in generalities. Your homework is to take what we say if you agree with it or find it interesting and then start looking at context clues/specifics relevant to your work.

The trick is to start making the necessary observations and figure out why it works here even if it doesn’t somewhere else. Just because it worked there in X doesn’t mean it’ll work in another place at Y, but figuring out how and why it did will make the concept easier to adapt into a new context.

This is why you can’t just sit down and copy because when you change context, you change everything.


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