Tag Archives: creative

Character Development: Let’s Talk Snark

Snark can be a great tool in your author’s dialogue box. It can be wielded well and when used well it can be responsible for creating some solid heroes and villains. So, if it sounds like I’m bashing snark, well, I’m not. I’m a fan of snark and of sass, and I enjoy heroes with a healthy dose of sarcastic wit.

But, snark comes with it’s downsides. It’s not appropriate for all situations and used in the wrong ones, it can actually be very damaging to both the tension and the story. Snark can damage the threat level of your bad guys, it can weaken and degrade your minor characters, especially your protagonist’s relationship with them (if they’re your snarker). It can be used in situations where being snarky is senseless, useless, and even stupid. While this isn’t a bad thing on it’s own, it can be very good if that’s the author’s intention in the scene, when the senseless stupid snark is the means of the character achieving what they were after in a situation where such snark would usually be detrimental or downright suicidal, it’s generally very damaging to characters, tension, plot, and the overarching story.

So, let’s talk snark:

1) Know who your character is snarking at:

If you want to prove your character is intelligent (or that they’re self-destructive), they need to be capable of assessing the situation and moderating their behavior appropriately. It’s one thing to be snarky to a friend or someone your character knows well. It’s quite another for them to be snarking off at an authority figure, or any character who is in a position of power that is greater than the character’s own. It’s especially bad if that authority figure is someone the character has come to and needs assistance or permission from. (Like in Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites, where her bounty hunter/mercenary protagonist got snarky while trying to convince the head of the area’s Magical Police Force to let her assist their investigation into the death of her mentor.)

It’s one thing to have a problem with authority, it’s another when the character is actually actively sabotaging their own efforts and the author doesn’t realize it. Think about this:

2) Snark is a defensive mechanism: snark is a defensive mechanism used to drive other people away from a character. Unlike other forms of humor, it requires making someone else look stupid to be successful. Someone’s going to have to be the butt of the joke, someone’s going to have to look bad for the protagonist to look good. Most people, especially when they are in the room to hear it aren’t going to be happy. A character whose authority relies on maintaining control of the situation and being in charge, isn’t going to be very happy when they’re mocked to their face. If they’re someone tolerant, they’ll just be more likely to say: “lol no”, when the protagonist comes calling. If they’re someone like the local crime boss, they’ll have to retaliate. Let’s just say, I hope the protagonist enjoys having all their teeth pulled with a pair of rusty pliers.

3) Snark is a sign of control: characters who have leeway to be sarcastic are usually the characters who are in charge or have power in the situation. These are the characters in charge of running the local army base, the jackass cop who is arresting your rebel protagonist. These are the characters who can get away with it, the characters who snark when they know the person they’re snarking at can’t fight back. Nobody really wants to put up with a jackass who makes them feel like shit most of the time. If your hero is constantly snarking off at authority and at their buddies because they feel out of control, maybe that’s a reason why they shoudn’t have friends. So, if your hero is snarking at your villain, it better be because they’re trying to make that villain angry enough to fight stupid or distract them, not because they believe the villain’s not a threat (and they’re proven right).

4) Snark is a good way to make someone angry: Like I said above: someone’s gotta be the butt of the joke. If you’re character’s going all John McClane snarky on someone because their tongue is the last weapon they have in a situation where their outmanned, outgunned, and dragging themselves through a skyscraper on bloody feet then…fine. Snark can be a great way for your protagonist to cover what they’re actually doing by getting the other guy angry. This is a great use of snark, so long as you remember the part about being outgunned and on the defensive. It doesn’t really work when your protagonist is in control of a situation at the end of the fight or just generally acting like an intellectual or emotional bully.

Or…they’re just not funny.

But let’s rewind that back. Snark is a good way to make someone angry. Your reader should never be questioning (unless you want them to question) why someone would ever want help your character, especially if all they’ll get from it is pain and misery. John Constantine ran into this problem on one of his more well handled comic runs, he kept getting his friends killed and he started running out of friends. Now, Constantine is a conartist (and arguably a villain protagonist), he’s a self-centered jerk, he’s an all-around asshole, he’s an adrenaline junkie, and the people in his setting generally respond to him like he is one. Including denying him assistance when he asks for it because they know they’re not going to get anything from it except pain and misery.

He spends a great deal of his time in a few of his comic runs backtracking, capitulating, and trying to talk people around into assisting him before he screws them over and gets them killed. It’s a theme.

I love Hellblazer, but let’s not pretend Constantine’s a nice guy people like. At least, not when he’s in the hands of a competent writer *cough* Garth Ennis *cough*.

5) They’re that damn good: Boba Fett is pretty much the only character I can think of who actually fits this description. He’s the best bounty hunter in the galaxy, everyone quivers at the sound of his name, and he’s actually far too skilled and useful for Vader to annihilate him for the crime of mouthing off. He’s not replaceable. Every other character in the story (including Luke) was replaceable. Yoda and Obi-wan even had a backup ready in case he failed. There are almost no characters in the universe who are so good that they can say: “You need me, so I can do and say whatever I want.” A Chosen One with that mentality who survives is a Chosen One who has the author cheating for them.

Look: Stories have to have an internal logical consistency. This internal logical consistency is what generates suspension of disbelief in the reader. You’ve got to stay inside it, if you break it, you break your setting and your story. Your character, even if they happen to be the better version of you, is someone who has to live in the setting world you create. They have to be responsible for what they do and say, even when they’re saying and doing the things you might wish you could do. Other characters will respond to them based on their own worldview, their own values, and their own needs or desires in combination with your character’s actions.

The local police chief isn’t going to want a newbie nobody assisting on his investigation, mucking around crime scenes, and mucking up evidence. Especially when that newbie nobody has no background in investigation and has a close personal tie to the deceased. It’s all well and good to say: well, they’re good enough so why would he turn them down? 1) Why would he need them in the first place?  2) Conflict of interest is a real problem. Revenge isn’t a legitimate motivation to give to a cop, it’s an understandable one, but it’s just going to get crossways of what they’re trying to accomplish.

It’s okay to have a character who is the Constantine level of self-destructive, it can create a good story. But make sure that’s the kind of story you want to be telling first, not “oh shit! I just made my biggest villain look like an idiot, now the tension bubble is gone and the reader might not be afraid of them anymore!”

I can’t worry about your character going into their final fight if I’ve already been convinced they’re going to come out alive.

Weapon Primer: Basic Kicks Part 3 (Combinations + Your Character)

Disclaimer: This is not an article designed to teach you how to kick. This article is designed to teach you about kicks, the principles behind them, and how to include them in your writing. For the uninitiated, you can risk a lifetime of injuries in your legs by practicing any of these without sufficient stretching and an instructor present. If the martial arts are something you’re interested in pursuing, feel free to message us and we can talk about the steps you can take to find a school that might work for you. Remember, we’re not liable for the damage you do to yourself or others in absence of proper training.

This is the third part of the primer on Basic Kicks, go here and here to read the first two. So, we’ve covered the kicks, some of the footwork, and how to do them.  But without basic understanding of where and when kicks are useful for your fighting sequences, they’re pretty much useless. In this section we’re going to talk about how you handle kicks in fight sequences, talk about kicking combinations and the difference between them and exhibition kicks. We’ll also give a few more tips on how to apply them to the characters you craft, some advice for writing them in your fight scenes, review our basic terminology and finally: give you some good reference material to further improve your studies. The more you know; the better writer you will be.

So, let’s get down to it.

Why is kicking important?

Pros: Kicks are a valuable part of any martial style and are well worth the difficulty that comes with mastering them. While more risky than hand techniques, they come with an advantage of speed, power, reach, and exceptional accuracy if your character has the requisite level of training. You can kick much, much harder than you can punch. A character can put more force behind kicks. Kicks can provide superb defense, keeping the other fighters off balance and your character out of arms reach. They can end the fight quickly, causing significant amounts of internal injuries, broken bones, and even death (often through grievous head wounds and concussions). They give you four limbs with which to attack instead of just two and can help make fight scenes more dynamic in the reader’s imagination.

Cons: That said kicks can come with some significant cons to balance them out. Many kicks are virtually useless once an opponent penetrates the fighter’s guard. (See: the Kicking Conundrum) They rely managing the opponent and keeping them far enough away for the vast majority of their arsenal to remain useful. If an opponent catches the leg, the fight is over. I can tell you that hopping across the floor to keep up with someone who has your leg tucked under their arm, even in just a friendly situation, is terrifying. You can’t extract it from them. You just have to trust that they’ll let you go. You can’t do that in a combat situation. Remember, there are no perfect techniques and no guaranteed victories. Each one has a counter and even when you and your character work hard, sometimes it’s just not enough, sometimes there’s someone better. No injury is free.

Common Combinations versus Double-Kicks:

Let’s start with Double-Kicks.

Double-Kicks: You’ve probably seen double-kicks in action if you’ve gone to any Taekwondo tournament. But let’s assume you haven’t. What is a double-kick? A double-kick is a kick, usually using the front leg, where two kicks are done with a single leg without the foot ever touching the ground. Sounds impressive, right? They are an exceptional display of control and skill when executed well. This can be confusing for non-practitioners who see them, because they look impressive and are very advanced. So, using them in a combat sequence will prove how talented their character is. But double-kicks aren’t combat kicks.

Double-Kicks like the low-high (low-high roundhouse, low-high side kick) and the double roundhouse aren’t combat kicks, they’re kicks designed to help the practitioner develop their balance, accuracy, flexibility, and fine muscular control. They’re usually taught between red belt (sometimes at brown belt) to black belt and are included in some of the higher level forms.

So, why don’t double-kicks work for combat?

The reason for this is simple, unlike in Hollywood, humans normally move away from what’s causing them pain. They will stumble, they will move back, or step away. Think back to your physics lessons for your scenes, what happens when force encounters force? Double-kicks are stationary. A character caught in the middle of a double-kick cannot give chase. Kicks generate a lot of force and they need follow-through (complete extension of the leg into the opponent) to be effective. A Double-Kick relies on balance, instead of the character going through the opponent. They have to pull their leg back to try again and don’t take into account the idea of the other person moving. Like I said, they’re not designed for combat. They are a great balance exercise and they will still look damn impressive when showing off to your friends (if you ever show off to your friends, I never did, non-martial artists just don’t understand).

Basic Kicking Combinations: Combinations are a martial artist’s bread and butter. They’re an important part of any character’s martial training. They build the connections in the brain that allow a fighter to transfer easily between different techniques, so instead of just throwing one, they can consecutively throw two, three, or four. Kicking combinations can only be done by characters that are trained, characters with a higher level of training will eventually start switching up their combinations and crafting their own. Remember, combinations are more like guidelines than actual rules. For kickers, they teach what kicks work together and flow naturally into one another, thus saving time and grief on using kicks whose movements (ending hip position, footwork) clash with each other. An example would be: combining a sidekick with a wheel kick as opposed to a sidekick and a back kick.

Now, let’s bring the rest of this guide into play and see how well you can follow along with these basic combinations:

1)      Slide front kick, front kick

2)      Front kick, roundhouse

3)      Roundhouse, sidekick

4)      Roundhouse, slide sidekick

5)      Sidekick, back kick

6)      Slide sidekick, back kick

7)      Slide sidekick, back kick, front kick, double-punch

8)      Front kick, roundhouse, back kick

9)      Slide front kick, front kick, roundhouse, slide sidekick, back kick

10)   Slide roundhouse, hook kick, cross-step roundhouse, wheel kick

I’m kidding on the last one, that’s rather advanced (red belt). You tack on the double-punch to the end of all of the above if it’s being performed in class.

How to Build Your Own:

If you were wondering why this guide in particular is so damn long, this is why. As writers, but (mostly) non-practitioners you don’t have the advantage of being able to experiment with your scenes before you put them down on paper. The reason for the step-by-step instruction is so you can learn the ins and outs of the kicks without having to learn to use them yourselves even if they’re imported piecemeal into your writing. Once you start being able to visualize the kicks in your mind, you can start putting them together into different combinations, combining them with hand motions as you become more advanced in your understanding. Your characters won’t always hit the enemy, but what matters is convincing your audience that you know what you’re talking about. So, some things to consider when putting together your own combinations:

Ignore the legs and ask where did my character’s feet land? What direction are their hips facing? Are they pointed sideways (finished a sidekick) or towards the opponent (front kick, roundhouse, punch)? Is someone coming in from the side (throw sidekick)? Or from behind (back kick)? Do they need to turn or come across (roundhouse)? How close are they to the opponent (punch, grab, or sidekick)?

Think beyond just techniques to the situation. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. Remember, there are thousands of different combinations out there. So, don’t worry about it too much unless the scene you’re writing is anatomically impossible or you’re performing a kill strike and calling it self-defense.

Kicking and Your Character:

You don’t have to include kicks if you’re not comfortable with them. In fact, if we’ve gotten this far and it’s all confusion, I really recommend avoiding them. Kicking is a very specialized skill and characters who practice them require specialized backgrounds. Not all martial artists can kick or kick well enough to get away with it in combat. Many of my Instructors, the ones who began training in martial arts at an older age, were only passable. Kicking wasn’t what they were good at, but they were still excellent in every other aspect. So, remember, you don’t need kicks and they’re much easier to screw up even in a fictional context than hand technique.

Kicking is not a required trait for a female fighter. While women do have a better sense of balance and flexibility, any woman who begins her training even into her early teens will have some difficulty with kicks (balance + muscular control) and older than that she’ll run into the same problems her male counterparts have. The older you get, the more difficult it is to master kicks in a combat context. The speed and fine muscle control just isn’t there. Besides, a woman’s only value isn’t in her legs.

Traits of a Kicker:

Beyond the obvious (limber, flexible, etc), here are a few traits that characters who use kicks as their primary offense will have.

They think with their feet:  A character that comes from a kicking discipline will have a “feet first” mentality. They’ll be more aware of other characters and keep a wider circle of awareness around their body (the extension of the leg), they’re usually aware of any other character who has entered into “kicking range”.

The knees go: snap, crackle, pop. This is one of the things they won’t tell you, but fighting is hard on the body. Even just training for it, you begin to wear out your body at an early age. Most kickers have knee problems later in life and even if they don’t, you can hear their body when they kneel down or bend over: snap, crackle, pop, the sound of the cartilage in their joints rubbing together. It doesn’t mean much of anything, but it’s common in most Taekwondo artists. My knees were going snap, crackle, pop by the time I was twelve years old. It isn’t painful for the practitioner, but it does make the listener wince and go: ‘oooh, ouch’.

Calluses: Kickers have hardened feet from years on the mats; no amount of lotion will ever soften them.

Writing Kicks in Your Fight Sequences:

We went over everything associated with the basic kicks in this write up not because all of it needs to be included in on the page, but because it’s part of what you need to be thinking about when you write them. There’s no reason to take the audience through a step-by-step accounting of every technique unless they’re a complete beginner. For most characters, these techniques will have already naturally become part of who they are, how they move, and how they think. They won’t consider the step-by-step because they already know how to do them. The problem is that you are not your character even though they are built out of your experiences and your imagination. If you don’t know, they can’t know, even though they should. It can be very frustrating.

So, let’s talk about the parts your scenes should focus on:

Impact: Remember our terminology and be specific: where on the body is your character hitting or being hit by their opponent? What parts of the body are they using, foot and leg don’t cut it, details are key. Compare:

Bad example: Samantha yanked her leg back and rammed her foot into Steven’s stomach.

Better example: Samantha yanked her leg back and struck out, ramming the blade of her foot into Steven’s stomach.

The differences are minor, but the visualization for the audience is better. You don’t need much, techniques happen fast, so you must attempt to marry brevity with detail to create scenes that move quickly. Remember, time doesn’t stop for us in real life when we stop to think about stuff, so it shouldn’t for your character.

Focus on what the technique does, not what the technique is: Use of proper terminology is great, but most people won’t know what that means and the effect is lessened. It feels like reading a textbook, instead of a fight.

Bad example: Samantha hit Steve with a hammer blow to the chest and then drove a sidekick into the side of his knee.

Better example: Samantha drove the bottom of her fist down into the center of Steve’s chest, like a hammer striking a nail. As he stumbled back, she whipped her knee up and around, tucking it tight against her stomach. Then she struck out with her left leg, driving the blade of her foot through the side of his knee. It gave way with a crunch and he howled, falling to the ground.

Any writing is about communicating ‘what happened’ to the reader, the rules for ‘show, don’t tell’ apply to writing fight scenes too. This is why writing fight scenes is so hard, because you need more than just the technique, you need: how to do it, what it does, where can it connect, what are the effects, and how will others respond to my character’s actions?

Most martial artists won’t provide that information for you, because they don’t need it. There are no easy answers to writing, just the ones you find for yourself. Give yourself some time to learn and you’ll come out the other side better than you began.

Review: Basic Terminology

The Fighting Stance: the beginning defensive stance for fighters

The Chamber: The position of the knee and the intermediate step between the foot on the ground and the kick in the air.

The Ball: the front part of the foot, between the arch and the toes.

The Blade: the outside edge of the foot

The Top: the top of the foot, point the toes

The Heel: the hardened back of the foot, behind the arch

Front Kick: a kick done while facing forwards, uses the ball of the foot

Side Kick: a kick done while facing sideways, uses the blade of the foot

Roundhouse: a kick done while the leg arcs around and across the front of the body, uses the ball of the foot

Back Kick: a kick done when the back is facing the opponent, uses the heel of the foot

Snap Kick: a fast version of the above kicks, a half-kick that strikes to the lower regions of the body, often taught in self defense

Turnover: when the hip turns over so the strike can connect, this happens during the chamber.

Follow-through: the concept of going through your target, instead of stopping at the body

The slide step: a step done while sliding forwards, kicks are done with the front leg

The cross-step: a step done where the legs make a cross-shape, turning the front leg into the powerful back leg

Review: Homework

Yeah, yeah, I know, boo. But this is just a guide, to actually learn more about how to use kicks in combat, you’re going to have to do more research and visual aids always help. The films and television series on this list aren’t great art or even great movies, but that’s not why you’re watching them is it? We suffer for our art, after all, and the martial artists in these films and shows are pretty damn incredible. If you’re watching any of the really good “Kung Fu” movies out of China, just try to keep in mind that Wire-Fu is a thing, so take some of the more elaborate stunts with a grain of salt. Remember, kicks are complicated and difficult to be really good at once you’re past a certain age. The pool for the media you can turn to that includes them is very small and must be performed by martial artists for the required speed and fluidity. (Summer Glau, though she is an excellent actress, ballerina, and terminator, has terrible form. You can’t skip this list by watching Serenity, I’m sorry. The same is true of Buffy and honestly, most of Joss Whedon’s work.)

Jean-Claude Van Damme: I haven’t seen most of his movies (which are terrible), but as a martial artist the man is incredible. His claim to fame is kickboxing, so he does fancy leg work better than just about anyone else on screen.  This is one of the few series of movies where you’ll ever see wheel kicks on film, especially the jump wheel kick. Check it out in Expendables 2 during his fight with Stallone, the man has perfect form.

Bruce Lee: The Master and progenitor of Jeet Kun Do. That said, the hype is real, Bruce Lee was a fantastic martial artist who defied a great many conventions and pretty much widened the gap for Asians in Hollywood. We’ve got a long way to go to push it further, but for martial artists, his movies are some of the finest. From the Green Hornet to Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee

Chuck Norris: I don’t really recommend Chuck Norris’s movies or his politics, unless you’re into pain. But the man is a master of the roundhouse kick and his fight scenes in Walker Texas Ranger, while silly, are a good example of some basic kicking techniques. You can also watch him deliver a Chuck Norris joke in character (while mocking his own movies) in Expendables 2. Chuck Norris like Kareem Abdul Jabbar was a student of Bruce Lee. (Also, check out Bruce Lee’s filmed fight with Kareem from the last movie he was filming before his death. There aren’t enough examples of black martial artists on film in Hollywood.)

Jet Li: All of it, no, seriously, including the badly subtitled obscure ones from China and the silly ones in the U.S. like Romeo Must Die (African-American crime families fight Asian-American crime families and the only white dude to be seen anywhere are working for the NFL. Also, Jet Li does incredible tricks with plastic ties) and Lethal Weapon IV where he takes apart a gun with his knees. (I don’t care if he’s the bad guy in that movie, I will never be over that stunt, omg!) Jet Li has a huge catalogue of movies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean and when it comes to studying up on writing fights most of them are worth a watch at least once.

Jackie Chan: Jackie Chan is the joker version of Jet Li, he does a lot of stunts and his movies are comedies, but he’s just as good and possibly more entertaining. Drunken Master is an incredible exhibition of skill all on its own and he’s done some of the craziest stunts.

The Karate Kid (Remake) Also, check out the Karate Kid remake as another decent Hollywood movie that pretty much skips white folks entirely. The sequences in it are very good and all the actors are fantastic. The young Chinese martial artists in the movie are fantastic and Jaden Smith is very good. It’s a great movie about martial arts, spirituality, and one of the only places you’ll get to see a good representation of competition and tournament culture. Michelle Yeoh also has a cameo where she faces off with a cobra.

Mortal Combat: It’s a cult classic and it’s really dumb, but the fight scenes really are pretty good. Don’t feel bad about popping in this flick in and watching it when you’re bored one evening. It might be worth your while.

The Mortal Combat Legacy: This mini-series is full of martial artists and stuntmen doing martial arts things and is free to watch on YouTube. This list is mostly full of boys and girl martial artists (especially ones who use kicks) can be hard to find, but check out the second episode of the Kitana and Mileena two-parter for some excellent girl on girl brawling action in the first scene.

GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra (Ray Park and Byung-hun Lee (and their child counterparts)) Ray Park was the stuntman who played both Darth Maul and Toad in Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace and X-men respectively (famous for Storm’s “what happens when a toad gets hit by lightning” line), but he’s at his best as Snake Eyes in the ridiculously silly GI Joe movies. Throw in the excellent Byung-hun Lee as his counterpart villain Storm Shadow and you get some very impressive fight sequences. The flashback sequences between these two rivals as children are also pretty incredible. I’m rather eagerly awaiting the sequel on DVD to watch their rematch.

I would recommend Gina Carano, but I don’t like Haywire. For multiple reasons, you’d be better served looking up her actual fights and only if you’re really interested in a study of grappling moves. Those are what she’s best at. So, she really doesn’t have a place on this list. If someone more versed in some of the excellent movies out of China wants to recommend some female martial artists, we’ll put ‘em up.

Michelle Yeoh: She’s considered one of the greatest of female action movie martial artists, so if you’re starved for women who can kick butt, check out some of her films. Or catch her in the Supercop series opposite Jackie Chan. She’s a better example of what a ballerina can do when combined with martial training. But like Summer Glau, the tells never quite go away.

Finally: Human Weapon, the now defunct show on the history channel. The Discovery Channel has or had its own version, but it’s not as entertaining or as informative. Human Weapon isn’t great and it’s not always accurate (it is TV). It’s a great window into a lot of different martial arts from around the world. It’s a great starting primer to use as a launch for your research. You can find most of the episodes for it on YouTube.

Also, check out our article: The Points Where Weapons Become Useless for more information about when to kick and when not to.

-Michi 1, 2, 3

Weapon Primer: Basic Kicks Part 1 (Body Parts)

Disclaimer: This is not an article designed to teach you how to kick. This article is designed to teach you about kicks, the principles behind them, and how to include them in your writing. For the uninitiated, you can risk a lifetime of injuries in your legs by practicing any of these without sufficient stretching and an instructor present. If the martial arts are something you’re interested in pursuing, feel free to message us and we can talk about the steps you can take to find a school that might work for you. Remember, we’re not liable for the damage you do to yourself or others in absence of proper training.

In this article, we’re going to talk about the four basic kicks and how they work. We’ll also be talking about the different terminology for the parts of the foot that are used for combat and try to help you understand how the foot, knee, leg, hip, and even the upper body work together to create a kick. Keep in mind, this primer is just focusing on basics. You won’t really learn the principles of how to write “the flying Taekwondo death kick, the teleportation death kick, and the flying death kick of doom” as Starke calls them in this article. You need the kicks that build into those and the principles they teach about balance and momentum first. Learn how to write the kick on the ground before you put it into the air. Remember, basics are the building blocks of a fighting style. A character with fancy tricks but a weak base is a character who is just asking to be knocked over.

So, let’s start with the bread and butter kicks. No matter what martial art your character studies, they will learn some sort of variation of these four: the front kick, the roundhouse, the side kick, and the back kick. These four can all be done jumping, both from a standing position and while running. These four can also be used to form a variety of different combinations that a character could, if they begin training early enough, perform in combat situations and provide a solid defense against opponents who primarily use fists. If you wanted to know when longer reach starts making a difference, well, it’s in the legs.

Let’s begin with the foot and work our way up from there.

The Foot:

The ball: The ball is the front pad of your foot, between the toes and the arch. This is the part of the foot used to deliver momentum in hand to hand strikes, to bounce, and to provide quick movement. If your character is going to pivot, they’ll do so on the ball of the foot. The ball is useful in a variety of kicks, but primarily in the front kick and the roundhouse.

The blade: The blade is the outside edge of the foot, opposite from the instep. It sees less use than the other parts of the foot, though the instep sees even less than it does. It’s commonly used in some varieties of side kick (depending on style) and other, more uncommon kicks like the outside crescent kick.

The instep: the instep is the inside of the foot, not many kicks use this part of the foot and none we’re going to talk about in this article. The only kick I can remember off hand that uses it is the inside crescent kick.

The heel: A lot of kicks use the heel. It’s a tough and solid part of the foot that’s great for dealing damage. It’s most common in the back kick, some varieties of side kick (depending on style), the mule kick, the axe kick, the hook kick, and the wheel kick.

The top of the foot: this is mostly just for sparring and competition to make some kicks safer, the top of the foot does less damage than the other parts when it connects. The reason is that it spreads the kinetic force over a wider area. However, if your character is wearing shoes or some sort of footwear in which they cannot pull their toes back, then this is the best way to perform the roundhouse without risk of a broken toe. I have broken boards with a roundhouse using the top of the foot, so keep in mind that any kick that connects solidly can be dangerous.

The Set Up + Basic Terminology:

The Fighting Stance: Every martial art will have its own variation on the fighting stance; each one is built around the tenets of the style. So, you’ll need more research to study up on just what this stance looks like for the style you’re planning on using. Since we’re dealing with kicks, the stance I’ll be detailing is the Taekwondo one.

Step-by-Step:  From a standing position, your character will either step forwards (offensive) or backwards (defensive) into this stance. The feet will be on a diagonal from each other, the back foot turning outwards on a 45 degree angle facing the opponent and tips forward onto the ball of the foot. The hands come up matching the feet, with the left (or right) slightly forwards with the right (back) guarding the cheekbone. (Protip: because of the reliance on the legs as the primary weapon, Taekwondo fighters have a nasty habit of dropping their hands when they fight. This is less true of other kicking martial arts like Kickboxing, where more hand techniques are mixed in with kicking techniques.)

The Front Leg: Much like the jab and right cross in boxing, the front leg represents the speed leg, while the back represents the power leg. Kicks done with the front leg are often combined with a slide step forwards to achieve even faster momentum. Unlike in the Boxing combo, it’s not necessary to kick with the leading leg to begin a combination.

The Back Leg: This is the power leg and is used for power strikes. A leg swinging up from the back achieves greater momentum than the forward leg, which comes from a shorter distance. It is not as fast. It’s always the leg that is furthest back on the fighting stance diagonal.

You may have noticed that the legs lack the left and right tags like the fists do. The reason for this is that the legs will constantly switch between these two positions during combat depending on what position the legs land in after a kick. A good Taekwondo fighter will be ambidextrous, moving fluidly from one kick to the next as the situation calls for it and be comfortable using any kick, from any position, with either leg. (This is good in theory. However, most fighters tend to favor the side they’re strongest with for their power leg. The higher level the kick, the more obvious it will become.) A fighter who uses hands has little reason or need to switch their stance up other than to confuse their opponent.

The Chamber: The chamber is the intermediate step between the beginning of the kick and the end of it. It’s usually the points where the knee bends as the leg comes up and the hip turns over, before the leg unfurls to connect. The chamber will decide where the kick is going and how high it’s going to go from its positioning. Every kick has some sort of chamber.

-Michi

1, 2, 3

I think this will be at least three pieces, the kicks and the steps are next, then character information and the stuff you need to know to make them work. I’ll post those when I’m done and link them here.

FightWrite: The Art of Blocking

For a lot of authors, there’s a frustrating hold to the old adage “the best defense is a good offense”. There’s an overwhelming amount of material that focuses on just force on force. Thus, fight sequences in novels end up less like the Matrix and more like when you have two action figures being mashed into each other. It all ends up feeling rather plastic and fake, especially when the reader stops and tries to envision it in their mind. If you’re not careful, fights can end up feeling very mechanical and are often anatomically impossible. Even when they are, the fight sequences often make little sense. The human fighter takes too much damage, they get every lucky break (as in they don’t break anything), the body positioning is all wrong for the strike, the fight goes on too long, etc, we’ve all seen it.

Often, the problem is that the author is thinking too much about how to do damage, how to prove their character is badass. They end up with un-moderated aggression at worst or at best, a character who never defends and for all intents and purposes doesn’t even seem to know how to. This isn’t bad if you are creating a character who is supposed to be an all-out aggressor, who can’t control themselves or their fighting style (such as most street fighters). If you’re trying to create any other kind of character, however, then…oops.

So, in this article, we’ll be talking about why blocking is important to your writing, your fighting characters, and your fight scenes, the principles of blocking, how to implement blocks, and some of the different kind of blocks that exist.

Why is blocking important?

I’ve said this before, but in the real world fighting relies on strategy, tactics, making use of basic body mechanics, and trying not to get hit. A fighter needs to be able to protect their vital areas like their head, their stomach, their groin, and well, any of the soft parts of the body with important organs. Blocking is part and parcel to surviving a fight. It is part of showing not just your character’s skill but also their control and their fighting education. The first response of a trained character when encountering an attack is to dodge or to block, not to attack. The attack is secondary, a counter to the first attack after they have negated the chance of injury. Attacks are what allow your character to win fights, blocks are what allow your character to walk away at the end of them. So, let’s get a little more in depth.

A character who blocks is one who has accepted the idea that they can take damage.

As writers, we control everything that happens to our characters. Sometimes, what hasn’t occurred to us won’t occur to them. This happens a lot in action oriented stories and instead of a character coming off as knowledgeable, they sound arrogant. Often, this arrogance is unintentional on the part of the author, mostly because they’re thinking in gaming terms. Their protagonist is level twenty and the person they’re fighting to get information from is level 6, obviously said person can’t hurt them because they’re so low down the totem pole.

No. Every fight is dangerous. Every fighter, even a wild and untrained one leaves the opportunity for something to go wrong and for them to get themselves injured. If your character is in a setting with guns, then anyone can grab a gun and shoot your character. If your character is in a fantasy setting, then the would be attacker can always leave and get more friends or their family can report your character to the city guard or the Watch for brawling. Unless your character is someone like Superman (and even if they are), any fight they enter into is one where they risk physical harm to themselves. They can die; even a grand master can be killed by the lout with the knife on the street if they aren’t paying attention.

Getting hit hurts, but getting it in the arm hurts less than a concussion.

This one should be self-explanatory, but like I said above any fight is dangerous and there’s a chance that any hit can get lucky. The better the individual your character is fighting against, the higher the stakes get. If they can’t defend themselves from damage, why should your audience believe they can dish it out?

Blocking will let your character manage to control the fight against weaker characters without hurting them.

I’ll be honest. It looks bad when your fifteen year Special Forces/Mercenary badass protagonist is beating the village bully boys into the ground. Even if they are bullies, in a narrative context there’s no reason for your character to become a bully by bullying bullies unless that’s what you want them to be doing. It’s not okay for a stronger character to bully a bully, even when that bully bullied them when they were small and weak. If a hero is what you want, then you can’t have them taking revenge or beating up characters that the audience knows are weaker than they are. It looks bad and it sends the wrong message. Figure something else out, force on force just creates more force and more bad blood. What your character does will ripple outwards beyond just the fight and their negative attitudes can have negative effects on their circumstances.

Remember, the message you’re putting out matters. So, be careful.

The Principles of Blocking:

Blocking is how to take and redirect hits so that the fighter doesn’t die. On a strategic level, blocks create openings in the opponent’s guard by foiling the attack they committed to. So let’s talk about the places on the body where the kinetic force of a strike can be fairly easily disrupted.

The goal of a block is either to redirect the force away from the body, disperse it over a wider area, or take it in a place that will matter less to your fighting ability and let you keep going. Different strikes require different blocks and there are a multitude of different blocks that can be applied to different strikes. If that sounds confusing then congratulations, you’re halfway there.

So, you don’t want to take the force that’s being applied, but to disrupt it. This means that catching the fist or taking the fist with your hand directly is pretty much out. This is the sort of thing that looks cool in the movies, but is actually pretty idiotic. Your character doesn’t have time to deal with the resulting bruise on their hand or broken bones. They’re going to need that hand for punching and blocking.

The goal of a block is to identify the point of power in the strike such as in the hand or the ball of the foot and stop it by moving further up the body to the vulnerable places. Some of these places are:

The wrist

The forearm

The elbow

The shoulder

The ankle

The shin

The knee

Common Blocks:

Cross-Block: The cross-block is basically where you use the opposite side hand (matching your right to their left) to either catch or redirect the strike away from you. This is commonly taught to beginners and young children because it’s easy to learn and doesn’t go against natural instinct. Remember, your brain is cross wired to opposing sides. It’s more natural to block a right side strike with your left side than it is with the same side. If your character is self-taught and they block at all, these are the ones they’re most likely to use.  Cross-blocks are more difficult to use against kicks.

Same-Side Block: This is when your fighter blocks a hit in mirror to their opponent, a left is met with a left and a right with a right. These blocks are commonly seen in boxing to take incoming straight strikes by pushing the hands downwards and away from the face. The hand can also drop to defend against kicks by catching the shin or hooking the arm under the knee. A same-side block is trained and it takes less time to execute than a cross-block. However, it takes time to replace the body’s natural protection instinct and difficult to mimic without a lot of practice.

Knee Blocks: This is a common block against kicks like the roundhouse, less useful against the side kick or the front kick. The knee comes up and pushes out against the force of the other kick, usually at the shin or the opponent’s knee.

Elbow Guard: The elbow guard is when you tuck your elbow up into a triangle shape and press the inside of your arm against your head. This is another block from boxing used to protect the head against curving strikes like the roundhouse punch, hooks, and haymakers. The fighter will usually also tuck their shoulders up and tighten against the blow by exhaling outwards.

Blocking with the shin and the forearm: In traditional martial arts forms like Shotokan Karate and some of the others, it’s common to have students block strikes with their forearms or their shins.  However, it takes a long time to build up the bone density to be able to take those strikes and because the bone is so close the surface of the skin (unprotected by muscles) it can hurt to take strikes there, students who do often develop a habit of flinching before the hit lands, which is an opening that a clever enemy can exploit. So, the forearm is a great place to take hits, so long as it’s not bone on bone contact or it’s something they’ve gotten used to in their own training. If it is, then make sure you say so somewhere in the text.

Blocks and Counters: It may surprise you to learn that most martial arts have as many blocks as they do attacks, in fact most of the early technique chains that are taught involve blocks and the follow-up counters. They train the students to think about not just what they are doing in the moment, but what comes after. In the second form taught in Taekwondo (or at least the second one we taught in our curriculum), the base technique chain that held the form together was upper defense, front kick, punch. The upper defense used the forearm to block downwards strikes like a knife hand or a hammer fist to protect the head, then a front kick to the chest in retaliation, followed by a punch landing in a front stance to the stomach as the finisher, then you turn and do the same for the other side.

An untrained or self-trained character may be able to block, but it’ll take them a lot more time to counter. They, like most of the population, will be more likely to believe in force on force as opposed to defend and counter. It’s actually one of those all-important distinguishing traits between trained and untrained. Remember, just because your character blocked their hit the first time doesn’t mean they won’t try to hit your protagonist again if your protagonist gives them the crucial few seconds of recovery.

Feints: Your character’s block can also create openings in their guard if they move to block against feint, such as the Taekwondo combination of a backhand and right punch. It’s not common for characters who don’t know what they’re doing to use feints.

Untrained Blocking:

I’ll be honest, blocking relies a lot on timing and while there are natural reactions the body exhibits to being struck or threatened, most of those aren’t actively useful without a lot of guiding, shaping, and practice with partners. The tenents are fairly easy to grasp on a conceptual level, but are difficult in actual practice. Until then, your character is pretty much flailing at whatever object managed to get caught in their peripheral vision.

How to Implement Blocks in Your Fight Scenes:

For a character who is trained, blocking is going to be second nature. Their body will be prepping before the strike starts (Michi Note: Refer to our FightWrite: Watch the Whole Body post) and their body may actually start reacting to just about any movement that comes towards them, including someone coming in to pat their head, stroke their cheek, or hug them from behind. Their brain may not catch their body before it has time to catch up or may stop halfway, if you’re looking for humor. Blocking for them has been trained as an instinctual reaction, one that replaced some of their old untrained instincts. So, don’t worry if your character seems uncool if they start the fight on the defense, that’s pretty normal for someone being attacked.

Try to think about your character’s bodies and the strikes you’re having them perform, try to visualize the attacks in your mind before you put it on the page, if it helps sketch it out in an outline format first of what you want to have happen and then try to implement it in your story. Don’t worry about it coming out perfect the first time, everyone edits and rewrites. If writing fight scenes is new to you and you don’t have any real background in combat, it may be hard in the beginning. That’s okay, you’re just learning a new skill and everybody falls on their face the first few times. Track your progress and celebrate when you improve.

Some things to keep in mind:

Dodging is easier to write, because it doesn’t disrupt the flow of combat as much and is easier to visualize. However, dodging is tiring. Fighting is also tiring, your character has a limited amount of stamina, so only have them dodge once or twice, this is why blocking is important.

Blocking is pretty much always reactive. Your character is reacting to another characters action. Then, they take action themselves by attacking. It’s easier to write a block if you know what your other character is planning to attack with, this will also give you the opportunity to think about and work with your protagonist’s opponent. If you get to know who they’re fighting and what that character favors in their style then writing the fight scene is actually lot easier.

Start thinking about the mechanics of your own body and how it all functions together. If you can break apart how the body works then it’s much easier to break apart a strike in your mind and to write it as part of the scene.

Other helpful articles on this blog: FightWrite: Watch the Whole Body and FightWrite: The Art of Stepping

-Michi

Weapon Primer: The Sword (Europe)

The sword is one of the most iconic weapons you can give your character. Unfortunately, this also means swords are very contextual; depending on your setting, your sword will say a lot about the character you give it to, regardless of your intent.

This post’s going to be a little different from our normal fare. Usually, when we’re doing a write-up of a style or weapon, we just talk about how you use it in combat, and how it behaves; with swords, we’re going to also need to talk about what they mean for your settings and cover some of their history.

That said, you should not be citing this for historical accuracy. I’m going to be condensing thousands of years of history into a very short primer. What this means is, I’m glossing over some historical idiosyncrasies. If you’re using an actual historical setting, and not an amalgam of an era, then you’re going to need to do more research on the people and weapons of that time.

The Shortsword:

Shortswords are among the earliest examples of the weapon, dating back to the Bronze Age. These started out as simple blades between 12 and 24 inches in length. The length of a shortsword was limited by the available forging technology. Early Iron Age shortswords were single bladed, while later ones, such as the Roman Gladius were double edged.

The shortsword itself lacks a lot of the subtlety and grace that we usually associate with swords. The characters were likely trained to use the weapon in tight formations with other soldiers, with a focus on chopping strikes. Duels between character wielding shortswords are more like writing knife fighting.

The Greeks, ancient Egyptians, and Romans all used shortswords as standard military weapons, supplemented with spears. If your setting is patterned off any ancient Mediterranean culture, the shortsword will probably be viewed as the weapon of a soldier or a veteran. There is a catch here, single bladed shortswords doubled as machetes in climates where they were needed, so depending on your setting there may be a distinction between shortswords that are tools and those that are weapons.

The Longsword:

Longswords are dependent on more advanced forging techniques. The first longswords emerged late in the first millennium AD. By the 1100s they had evolved into the European longsword we’re familiar with. Unlike the shortsword, the longsword was, for the most part, rare and expensive in Europe during the medieval era.

As with most weapons, how your character has been trained will massively influence the way they wield a longsword. Most longsword combat you see in films is built off of dueling schools; which differs from most sword combat in the use of parries. Blade on blade parrying is very destructive to a sword. While this isn’t an issue for an aristocrat who won’t be fighting another duel this month (or was using a rapier), for a soldier or knight, it is a critical issue. Their training was to evade incoming attacks, rather than to block with the sword.

Most longswords are double bladed, allowing the combatant to rapidly reverse a hew (slash); this allows for rapid flurries of multiple strikes. Most combat with the weapon focuses on quick strikes, with as much efficiency of motion as possible. Wide heavy strikes have a limited place in combat, while spinning strikes (what you see from Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films) is almost exclusively an exposition technique.

Depending on your setting, a longsword can say a lot about who your character is. If your setting is patterned off of a Viking or Celtic themed era, then the longsword is a fairly normal weapon for raiders and warriors.

If you’re using a realistic medieval setting, then swords are very rare, and the purview of nobles, their knights, and the rare elite mercenary. If you’re using a variant of the standard medieval fantasy world, then the longsword becomes a sign of nobility. Giving a peasant a sword to subtly hint that they’re really the long lost true heir to the kingdom is, well, cliché. Even Star Wars does this, accidentally.

Fencing Swords:

Unlike other swords, fencing blades began as civilian weapons. They doubled as a sixteenth and seventeenth century fashion statement, and a weapon for dueling.

Fencing weapons are one of the easiest to study, if you have an interest, the foil, epee, and saber are have all been preserved as sport styles. With a very important caveat: unlike most sport martial arts, fencing reduces its lethality by blunting the weapon, and armoring the combatants; the underlying style is still incredibly lethal. Remove the armor and the blade caps, and a fencer’s training is as dangerous as a practical martial style.

Fencing is where we get most of the blade on blade parrying from. Rapiers are, in general, much more focused on stabbing, rather than slashing, so the blade is, somewhat less critical than the tip.

Fencing is also (probably) where we get the concept of dual wielding swords. As early as the sixteenth century, it was fairly common to pair a rapier with a shortsword or buckler. The shortsword was used to parry incoming attacks, rather than as an offensive weapon.

Fencing blades are one of the easiest weapons to justify training in, for a modern character. Fencing schools still exist throughout Europe and America. It’s viewed as an elitist sport and is usually in the domain of the rich, much like horseback riding in urban and suburban areas. It’s a very expensive hobby. (Michi Note: I looked into fencing once when I was younger, Stanford ran three to four week summer courses. For reference: it cost 400 dollars, this was in the late 1990s and didn’t cover the cost of the equipment. My martial arts lessons cost less than that to pay up for the whole year.) Part of this is because fencing is a very difficult sport to spectate; matches are fast, and the scoring is very complex. Most modern fencers are trained in styles that originated in the nineteenth century.

They’re also one of the easiest weapons to see some actual sword work with. A lot of old Hollywood films, used fencing coaches for all of their sword fights, so, there’s a large body of work out there. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good starting place. (Michi Note: the old swashbuckling films, particularly the Errol Flynn films that star Basil Rathbone such as Captain Blood or the Adventures of Robin Hood and the old Zorro movies are pretty great. But really, any of the old Hollywood swashbuckler films from the 1920s to the early 1950s.)

If you’re using a renaissance era setting, and your character’s family is wealthy (either because of nobility, or as a merchant or artisan), the Rapier, Foil, or Epee is a reasonable choice. It doesn’t carry as much baggage as a normal longsword would. This is the weapon of a fop who wants to pretend they’re a warrior, the weapon of a noble who wants the world to see his status, the weapon of an actual professional duelist, or some combination of the above.

Cavalry Swords:

Cavalry swords, like the scimitar and saber are long thin curved blades designed to be used from horseback. These are primarily slashing weapons. The blade is curved to avoid getting caught in an opponent while rushing past them on horseback. The crossguard is contoured with the same goal. These started filtering into Europe from the Middle East around 1200, about the same time the first firearms made their way into European warfare.

As European powers transitioned to using firearms as their favored weapon of war (roughly the 1400s to the 1700s), the sword, along with other melee weapons started to fall out of favor.

Probably because of the difficulty of reloading on the move, cavalry kept their swords. As with other combatants they would start with a volley of gunfire, but then switch over to swords during the charge. This disrupted enemy infantry, who were trying to reload.

Also, early firearms weren’t accurate; rifling wasn’t invented until the 1700s, before that it was incredibly difficult to hit specific targets, as the bullet would tumble randomly once it left the barrel.

This led to another significant change on who would be carrying a sword. If your setting is based on the Napoleonic era onward, the saber was the badge of office for a military officer, or cavalryman (or cavalrywoman). For that matter, the saber actually still exists as an optional part of an officer’s dress uniform in a number of martial services, and was a common as an officer’s badge of commission up into the First World War.

If your setting is an Age of Sail style world, then you’re looking at a variant; the Cutlass. It grew out of officers being given swords to indicate their rank, and wandered off on its own. It isn’t completely historically accurate to give all your pirates and sailors swords, but, because of the nature of boarding a ship at sea, cutlasses and pistols were common weapon choices. At this point, I’d say, you’re within the expectations of the genre, and have fun.

Idiosyncrasies:

I’m going to point out a couple of those idiosyncrasies I skimmed over, before anyone asks. The longsword didn’t get more expensive in the dark ages, the economy of Europe changed, and the sword became comparatively more expensive. I’m not going to do a full write up on medieval European economics, I’m sorry. (There is a very good write up on D&D economics here: http://forum.candlekeep.com/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=10821 which can be applied to most medieval fantasy settings.)

The saber is, historically, both a fencing blade and a cavalry blade. Actually the introduction of the scimitar into Europe might be part of where the fencing blades originated from, I’m unsure.

Finally, there were longswords before the Vikings; they date back to the seventeenth century BC. They also were a vastly different weapon in combat from the longsword that evolved from the Viking Sword.

-Starke

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9rtmxJrKwc

John Cleese on Creativity (by bedroomstudiotube)

This lecture by John Clesse has some very important implications both for you as a writer but also for your characters, with wider implications for what they can get away with in their behavior in combat situations.(Though he doesn’t discuss that in the video.)

The idea is this: combat happens when your characters in the Closed mode, it’s a high pressure environment where your characters need to make decisions immediately and decisively with no room for error or doubt. Humor in those situations is a luxury. It pushes the character into a more contemplative mode, the Open mode. It gets them thinking when they don’t have the time to be thinking( a distraction) in a fight.

Trash talking, joking, and one liners can happen before and after a fight, but not during. The only sort of trash talk that can occur during is the sort where your character doesn’t have to stop and think about it, but even then, remember that talking is not a free action. It requires breath, takes oxygen that should be going to your character’s muscles, while both loosening and relaxing the jaw which leaves your character more open to a knockout blow or biting their own tongue when they get hit.

Always dedicate points in your story for the times when your characters are capable of cracking jokes to release the tension (before and after) and when they need to buckle down for work (the fight itself).

So, watch the video, it’s useful and informative plus it’s John Cleese. It’s hilarious.

Focused Impact Volume 1: A Practical Course In Self-Defense With Tactical Pens (by StaySafeMedia)

We haven’t had a lot of time to come up with anything new. (Moving sucks!) Anyway, I’m leaving this here for you guys. In this video, Michael Janich (a self-defense expert) talks about using a tactical pen (any metal pen will work) as an alternate form of self-defense.

We’re still planning on doing a write up on improvised weapons, but I thought this would be good to get some of you thinking about what sort of weapons a character can carry that won’t be immediately identified.

If you can, watch the video a few times to get an idea, not just on how to fight with a pen, but how to control an attacker.

Notice: when he grabs, he grabs to the upper arm, this greatly limits the possibility of movement by the assailant by eliminating their ability to use their elbow. While the shoulder can be dangerous without the rest of the arm, it’s difficult, especially if you take out the legs. The upper arm also has a pressure point half-way up the inside where the bicep and the triceps connect. This is also why he suggests striking to the inside of the thigh half-way up the upper leg, again, to a pressure point. Also, when he traps the foot while attacking.

These are all ways a smaller, weaker fighter (any fighter really) can nullify the strength advantage and control their opponent’s movements to limit their avenues of attack.

Warning: Please, do not go searching for your pressure points if it’s your first time. The pressure points connect to your nervous system, messing around with them can be highly dangerous to the continual functionality of your body. If you insist, never cross-grab (search for two pressure points on different sides of your body), pick the left or the right, never both. With a cross-grab you’ll send two different signals through your heart, which can get crossways and damage it. So, don’t. Write it only or take a class. This stuff is very dangerous, so always practice under the eye of a trained professional.

-Michi

Fight Write: Watch the Whole Body

The way a trained combatant watches someone, whether it’s a potential attacker or just a friend at the bar is different from how an untrained person does. This is to be expected, when the writer is a practitioner who knows what they’re doing. But I’ve seen it skipped over often by other writers. I do understand why, of course, this is actually a very difficult thing to do if you haven’t been trained to do it, told what to look for, or spent a significant amount of time in the sparring arena. So, let’s talk about a trained fighter’s ability to track movement, tells the body exhibits before a strike, and what your character will notice before they’re even in the thick of it.

Watch the Chest: You can see the muscles moving in the chest, beneath even a heavy coat, before they ever reach the shoulders or the arms. It’s a much better method of identifying which hand the attacker is going to lead with than just watching their hands or their shoulders. The muscles in the chest provide a clear view of the torso, straight down to the hips, which is where the lead in for a kick always begins. When you know what they’re going to do, it becomes easy to avoid it. Over time, a character will check for this automatically without even thinking about it.

Watch the Eyes: The eyes telegraph, they telegraph a lot about what a person is thinking or feeling before they even begin to think about attacking. You’ll see a lot of trained fighters scanning an area as they walk to the car or enter into a busy bar, getting a layout of their surroundings, and checking out and noting each of the faces, how long they hold their gaze, etc. Humans are also animals and what the eyes say about dominance and submission will often tell a lot about the way an individual will react. Staring into someone else’s eyes for a length of time can be a sign of dominance, dropping your gaze quickly can be a sign of submission. Staring into someone else’s eyes for any length of time during a fight can have a somewhat hypnotic, uncomfortable effect on the opposing individual.

In a fight, the eyes often drop to the strike zone the attacker is intending to hit. This can be faked of course, but that’s unusual. The split second where someone is trying to remember where they put their weapon, be it on their belt is an opening. If they aren’t watching you, this gives you an opening to attack. I was once told by a woman, who heard it from a cop, that there’s a disturbing trend among young women who consider it rude to say no when someone asks them the time. Stop and think about this:

A man comes up and asks “Excuse me, do you know what time it is?”, the woman like so many now a days, doesn’t wear a watch and her phone is in her purse. She says, “sure, just one second” and reaches into her purse or pocket to get her phone, her eyes leave the man, he clocks her over the head and drags her off into the bushes.

It can happen that fast.

Wide Peripheral Vision: Martial artists have a habit of having very wide peripheral vision, this is also true of soldiers. They are trained that way and are used to blocking strikes that come from outside their field of vision.

Training Means You React Faster: Someone who is trained will react faster than someone who is not, they will react along the lines of how they’ve been trained. They see the shoulder in the beginnings of a punch, they will react with a block, the vector of the strike and their training will determine what kind of block it is. After the block, there will be some sort of counter.

We’re talking the time it takes for your brain to realize something is wrong, that information to reach your hand or leg and for the muscles to react. For a trained combatant this will be a matter of .5 seconds as opposed to a full 2 to 5 seconds. It’s important to note that some variations of Martial Arts training like Krav Maga specifically work to bring the speed of reaction down to around .25 seconds through drills and widening the student’s field of peripheral vision.

So, how does this translate into your writing?

When your character is out and about, even if they’re filled with concerns about their own life or in the midst of an intense conversation, throw in a sentence about what they notice in the world around them. They may not even really notice that they’re doing it, but for the audience it will be a tell.

It’ll go something like: ‘Thought’, the guy over there has his hands on his hips, could be a knife. ‘Thought’, the girl he’s with is too invested in her book to notice. ‘Self-absorbed thought’, rain on the ground makes it muddy, finding my footing will be difficult, should I go over there? ‘And so on.’

Description + choice= action. Always remember that when a character takes action, they are also taking the responsibility for that action onto themselves.

Before the first punch or kick is even thrown, have them notice the movement in the chest and torso, notice where another character’s eyes are looking, or even just have them be aware of the posture of the other character’s in the room. This doesn’t require lengthy description of every little detail, just a throwaway line about how someone else is standing, where their feet are, where the weapon is, and where their hands are in position to their face and to the character before the fight happens. You can bury it in a paragraph way on top of the page or on a different page in the buildup. When a fight starts, it should be immediate.

Example:

His chest and shoulder pulled back. Then, he swung. But Alice’s left hand was already moving as she caught his roundhouse with her wrist and drove her right fist into his throat.

-Michi

Fight Write: Some Thoughts on Height and Weight

“She’s taller than me, heavier too. She’s got the height and weight advantage.”

This sounds good, doesn’t it? It sounds right and reasonable, like the character knows what they’re talking about. Except, they don’t. Assume for a second that the character who says this is maybe five foot six and the girl who says this is maybe five foot two, and that seems like a big difference. It certainly is visually, but the two have a difference of maybe twenty to forty pounds between them. That’s not actually a lot, even if one was to knock the other over. So, when does weight matter? When is height important? The answer is not often and not a lot, depending on training. An untrained fighter is mostly at the mercy of their opponent’s brute strength, so height and weight start to become very important. But what about for the trained fighter? The approach varies, depending on the style and the size of fighter.

With the exception of a few, pertinent points, height and weight actually matter a lot less than you might think they do. So, let’s talk about the advantages and the disadvantages of these two. Maybe, we’ll even debunk a few preconceptions along the way.

Small versus Tall:

It’s important to say when I talk about height and “short” on this blog, that we say short as the descriptor for anyone under 5”10 or around 6”. This may sound strange for some of you, because that relegates most women to the position of “short” even when they’ve been considered “tall” their whole lives. I could say this has to do with a median of male heights and most fighters in America being around six feet, but the truth is it has nothing to do with a person’s actual height at all. The difference is a mental one and small versus tall is reoriented into “advantaged” versus “disadvantaged” fighters. This is where the male versus female outlooks become relevant. Male versus female is not so much a difference in body type as much as a difference in how they see the world around them and shift their combat style accordingly. Tall, male versus short, female is usually how many martial artists break it down. However, because these are learned skills that doesn’t mean that the outlook cannot be adopted by a student of either gender, regardless of how physically tall or short they are.

This is where things get complicated. Most of the common wisdom about fighting that gets spread in society has zero basis in reality, the mind, how it sees the world, and what it’s been prepared for is actually much more important than a character’s physiology or their body type.

Remember, like any weapon, it’s the mind that wields the body, not the other way around. How someone sees themselves is more relevant to how they fight than what shape their body is.

There are only two questions you should really ask when your character is facing a taller or shorter opponent (someone who is taller or shorter than they are): what has my character been trained to do? Have they been trained to deal with opponents who are taller or shorter than themselves?

Most fighters who have trained to think of themselves as “tall” will discount a shorter opponent if they have no experience fighting them. A character with a “short” outlook will tend not to discount anyone on the basis that they’re used to being the smallest, weakest thing in the room and they have to fight harder to prove themselves.

On the physical side:

A character who is lower to the ground will have a lower center of gravity, this means that they won’t have to bend their legs as far to reach a stable stance to keep themselves from being knocked over. This also means that when dealing with a heavier opponent (while standing), they have more time to adjust for the weight before they drop so low that their knees can’t support them anymore. They will also have a better sense of balance, if they’ve been trained for that.

On the whole when we’re talking about women (in the physical sense only), the female body is more compact than the male one. Everything is just a little tighter and more evenly proportioned. This doesn’t mean women can’t be lanky, but they are usually less so than men. This affects their sense of balance and their ability to adjust under the weight of a heavier opponent, it’s true that a woman usually will be unable to develop the brawn of a man but they counter that by having better coordination and control overall.

Weight:

There’s some confusion about weight and fighting, for this I blame Hollywood and our “health” culture. It’s important to keep in mind that being on the heavier side, particularly for women, isn’t necessarily a sign of being unhealthy. On average, most fighters are ten to twenty pounds heavier than someone who works out primarily as a weight loss system. It’s rare to find a female fighter who is under 125 pounds. Even the thinnest female fighters have a habit of averaging out to about 130 to 145, even up to 150-160, without any significant difference in what they look like visually, this is because muscles are heavy. In fact, they are much heavier than fat, though they take up less space.

Then, some people are just built more heavily than others and no matter what they do, will just be heavy. If combat was something only skinny people could do, the world would probably have been at peace a long time ago and the Viking tribes of Northern Europe wouldn’t have conquered half the globe. Sometimes, weight just happens as we get older. So, it’s important to remember that muscle can be built up underneath fat, it can exist under fat, and if the person in question (male or female) is heavier than others in the class this isn’t an immediate detriment to their speed, flexibility, or power. It can be if they don’t have the muscles to support their body or if they’ve just started building those muscles.

I doubt anyone in their right mind would tell me that Sammo Hung, an old friend of Jackie Chan cannot fight.

Heavy Fighters: It’s important to remember that though heavier or even overweight fighters are not necessarily impeded by their weight, that there are some things they have to adjust for. But they have their own advantages too.

Balance: a heavier fighter is carrying around more mass than a light weight one, that’s not necessarily more power that they can generate, but they can build up more momentum once they get going. Again, strength in combat is related to speed more than physical strength. A heavier fighter can be like a freight train and you don’t want to be in their way once they start moving. Still, as in physics: the faster you go, the harder it is to stop. If a heavier fighter misses, it’s going to be slightly more difficult for them to readjust and reorient, so they have to moderate their speed. A heavier fighter’s kicks will still be very effective, but they may find their mass getting in the way if they try to kick above the waist. More weight also means more strain on the knees, so a heavy fighter will have to spend a lot of time learning to adjust their stances and footwork to compensate for their bulk. But the differences between “thin” versus “fat” fighting styles are so minimal that I usually forget to mention them. This isn’t to be exclusionary, it’s more that on a basic level it doesn’t matter and when it does, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Natural Armor: Fat provides the body with natural armor. It covers the muscles and provides some small measure of padding for the fall. Armies don’t want their soldiers weighing in at 300 pounds, but martial artists aren’t normally army. Fat also has a nice side effect of covering up the body’s pressure points and keeping them from being visible. On a physical level women have a natural coat of fat that covers the muscles and keeps the definition from showing (except in certain circumstances of muscle development), this is why it’s difficult for women to learn pressure points when they practice with each other. An overly muscled individual provides nice targets on their arms, chest, and legs.

When fat absorbs some the impact, it can be more difficult to damage a heavy opponent.

On the Ground: On soft areas like in muddy rivers or on the ground weight is king, especially if the fighter is used to adjusting for their weight. When lying flat on the ground or even just kneeling, the natural advantages of a shorter fighter are nullified. This is because it’s harder to adjust for the weight of a heavier person without the use of your legs, relying only on your arms, hips, and your ability to disrupt their position. Fighting is hard for women on the ground, because against men, they are usually dealing with an opponent who has at least forty pounds on them, while this difference is negligible while standing, the ground is an entirely different story. Greater weight + gravity = killer.

When Does Weight Matter? From the standing position it only starts to really matter when you’re facing an opponent that has between eighty to hundred pounds on your character. This isn’t a killing blow, it’s just important to note, especially if they get themselves into a situation where they are putting all their weight on top of the smaller person. You can adjust to handle the weight, of course, but there’s always the possibility that they will sink down far enough that your character’s knees will bend too far. The added momentum only helps them if your character is unable to block or they connect solidly, but it’s not going to be that much worse than if they were hit by someone of equal size and weight.

It’s also important to remember that even a tall, heavy character with a good stance can be difficult to bring down if your characters try to fight them like they would anyone else. The answer? Don’t fight them like you would anyone else. Start low and work your way up.

The exception to this rule, of course, is street fighting. Street fighters don’t really know what they are doing and so the weight and size of another fighter really start to matter there. All this advice is for a character who already knows how to fight.

Greater Reach:

I’ll be honest, greater reach only really matters in two places: when you’re on the defensive and when you’re working with a longarm such as a staff or a sword. The theory for greater reach is this: it will be harder for your opponent to hit you, while it’s easier for you to hit them because you don’t have as far to go.

This isn’t going to matter when there’s only a difference of a few inches. This isn’t even really going to matter if the smaller individual has been trained to fight against larger opponents. And it’s really, really, not going to matter if it’s just hand to hand with no kicks involved. The reason is that legs are longer than the arms and kicking involves leaning backwards instead of forwards with the punch.

The only time in my life I ever remember being really frustrated with a height difference was when I was five or six years old as a yellow belt out on my first sparring experience against our much taller second-degree black belt African-American Instructor, Alan. Alan was in his early twenties, well over six feet, and had very, very long legs. I was four foot nothing and my tiny legs could not reach him, while his were excellent at hitting me. It was very frustrating, especially since I had no clue what I was doing. (He did let me hit him a few times, but my little legs could only reach mid-way up his thigh.)

Speed is actually much more important than reach, being able to get in and out fast while taking minimal damage is when things start getting impressive. Outside of that, it’s not really a big deal.

Professional Fighting:

This is where you really hear the terms height and weight bandied about and they say it exactly like that, on repeat, over and over. Why? It sounds good. An announcer’s job is to drum up the excitement of the crowd, to get people yelling, to get them betting. The height and weight advantage can create a very clear picture in the eyes of the audience for who has the longest odds (if that’s the case). The goal is to convince the audience and the compulsive gamblers to bet on the loser, creating the ideal of the tough, scrappy underdog that people want to succeed. Not because they will, no, in the eyes of the tournament, they don’t have a chance. But they will have succeeded in taking the audience’s money by convincing them that the longshot might very well just be a sure thing. Or, alternately, it makes for a good show. Remember, professional fighting is as much about showmanship as it is about sportsmanship.

MMA fighters, boxers, and kickboxers are all broken up into separate class distribution based on weight. With these guys, we’re talking a difference of five to forty pounds (maybe, but usually not). That’s not actually a very big difference.

-Michi

Fight Write: “Learn To Fight Like A Woman”

When most martial artists utter this phrase, they don’t mean it as an insult. That may surprise some of you, but in most of the martial arts community (at least, the part of it I grew up in) women are actually well-respected. A smart male martial artist knows that women martial artists bring a different perspective to the table and that it’s one that cannot be discounted. Some of this is what I came up with while working on a post talking about height and weight, but since I might not be able to get that up today, I thought I’d leave you with this.

I’m going to break this down into two aspects: mental and physical. The mental aspects work across the board, some may see the physical part as exclusionary. But when talking about martial arts, we have to discuss both the body and the mind in equal measure. The body cannot function without the mind and the mind cannot fight without the body, both are important. This is going to be general information, this is because fighting is subjective based on the individual practitioner. Everyone fights differently and how they fight has more to do with who their instructor was, what they were trained to do, and how they see the world around them than it does with gender or body type. Your character will learn to make use of what they have, because they won’t really have the option of anything else.

Mental:

It’s important to note that many smaller male martial artists I’ve known have talked about the advantages of having a female instructor. This is because women, on the whole, learn to fight from a disadvantaged position. The vast majority of women will almost always be faced with a larger, usually male, attacker and they have trained themselves to fight with that knowledge. So, they’ve learned to make use of what they have. This begins with the way they see the world.

It’s important to remember that when I say “larger attacker” we’re usually talking about a difference between eighty to a hundred pounds and a height difference of several inches. From a mental standpoint, facing someone larger and taller than yourself can be intimidating. It’s easy to become afraid and petrified by that fear. “He’s bigger than me, he’s larger than me, he’s going to hurt me, and there’s nothing I can do because he’s stronger”. In America we’ve been conditioned to believe that bigger is better, more over less, and the largest opponent always wins.

Women have to actively work at getting over all the social programming that tells them how they should behave and how they should see themselves in relation to the men around them. Female characters who start training between the ages of four and seven will be less prone to this, but the intimidation level is still a hurdle they have to master. It requires an active approach to problem solving, learning how to get in first and fast, and overcome the fear of facing a larger opponent or a male opponent even when the physical differences have little bearing on reality.

The way we see the world is the way we approach it and in a world that seeks to actively strip women of both their power and their confidence, developing a solid base to work from is much harder than it sounds. But for a female fighter to be successful, she must first prove to herself that she can do it and then, she has to fight hard in her training to make it a reality.

It’s important to remember, then, for your own characters that a female fighter or “action hero” is never a passive player. If they trained from a young age, then they’ve already fought against all the reasons why they shouldn’t be doing this and if they still are, then they won. Even if they are insecure about some aspects of social life, they will have a strong basis in who they are and the skills that got them here.

After all, to fight like a woman is to fight like an underdog and all those battles are hard fought and hard won. There’s nothing like adversity to build character.

Physical:

There are a lot of different body types out there in the world and there’s no way we can cover all of them. Women lack a man’s capacity for brawn in the upper arms and shoulders, but they come with a different set of advantages. We already talked about hips and power in the “Women Are Not Weaker Than Men” post, so I’m going to skip over that.

On the whole women have a lower center of gravity, better coordination, more natural flexibility, and better balance than men because their bodies are more compact. Women tend to have shorter torsos, shorter legs and shorter arms than men. This doesn’t mean they are more in tune with their bodies, that comes from training. But it does mean they can combine their lower center of gravity with their better sense of balance and coordination to be more precise in their attacks. While they lack the ability to brute force their way through situations, this actually makes them better and more adaptable fighters. When male martial artists say: “fight like a woman”, they mean: don’t rely on your brawn, learn to understand your body, and learn to let gravity do the work for you.

Women have more to lose from having sloppy technique, so they tend to spend more time investing in the study of body mechanics and gravity, over just developing their muscle strength. Speed is important yes, but it’s the precision that’s the killer. Knowing where you want to go and where to put your body to make it happen, where the human body is vulnerable and the places people don’t think it’s vulnerable (but really is) are all important.

Women tend to be quicker about dispatching their opponents and they spend less time playing around. They’re also, on the whole, more serious and more devoted to their studies. Any good female fighter knows that she won’t get far by coasting on natural talent and that she has more to lose in a real life situation if she does.

Just some things to think about.

-Michi