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My current character is in a situation where she has to learn to fight well enough to bring down gangsters very, very fast. A friend said she could learn the basics (character has a friend who teaches self defense) and then do the rest on instinct. It was also suggested that since she has no qualms about honor, she can fight dirty; hair-pulling, sand in the eyes, etc. My question is, is this realistic? (Character can also travel almost instantaneously through shadows, if that helps)

Not really.

Self-defense is one of those justifications that don’t work, because the one day to three work self-defense courses aren’t about teaching someone how to lay on a beat down. They don’t teach you how to fight, they teach you how to get away. What self-defense is most useful for is teaching you how to respond to bad situations and how to extricate yourself from them. It doesn’t usually come with a solid technical base and if you don’t practice, you’ll rapidly lose the skills. Self-defense is fantastic for teaching you new ways to look at your environment to locate threats and, most importantly, learning how to spot incoming trouble. It will also teach you how to avoid looking like a target. With self-defense, the preventative measures that are easily adopted and learning about the way a predator thinks are more useful than the technical. Self-defense does work, but it’s not a replacement for combat training. Much in the same way recreational martial arts are not a replacement for military or police hand to hand.

Instinct is usually the cheat by the lazy author who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Your actual, native instincts are far more likely to get you killed in combat because those are the first aspects of human nature combat training exploits. A character who has been training since the age of five to kill people can probably rely on their instincts in combat (they are unlikely to, but they can) because their instincts have been completely retrained and they’ve learned how to avoid the more exploitative ones. Half of combat training (and this is six month to many years of training) is about taking your shitty instincts and rebuilding them into new and better ones. Ones that are less easily exploited and preparing the mind to deal with the general horror of combat. (The first time always goes wrong anyway, the preparation is to get you into a place where you can survive it and then learn from the experience.)

There will be plenty of times in your life when trusting your instincts is a good idea, often even leading up to the moment that first punch is thrown. If something around you feels off, it often is. Your intuition may pick up on things that your brain hasn’t caught up to yet, I know mine does.

In combat, though, no. Basic human instinct will be exploited, it is predictable and any practiced combatant will prey on it. The sleeping warrior inside a person is their own determination and willpower, not the ability to automatically kick ass once they’ve spent five minutes introduced to the proper tools.

Also, gangsters and other criminals are excellent at exploiting human nature. These guys may not have any traditional training, either. What they do have though is an outlook and a “kill or be killed” mentality. They also have experience and that experience is probably about 200x more vicious than anything this character has gone through. I actually recommend sitting down and going through the historical backlog for gangsters and gangster films because they often have a very specific mentality, also a tendency for some extreme brutality. (This is gangsters across the board, no matter the historical period or racial identity.)

The gangster is the guy who takes a tire iron or a nine iron out of his trunk and proceeds to break their legs, then their arms, then continue to beat them until they’re nothing more than chunky salsa on the sidewalk. They may have some version of “honor” or personal code that they hold to, but trust me when I say that version is not the one you’re thinking of. Their strongest loyalty will be to the “Brotherhood” i.e. the other gangsters, particularly their gang, the outlook is very much “us against the world”. After all, gangs specifically have their roots in marginalized groups that go unprotected by the larger society. While the gang itself may eventually evolve to the point of terrorizing or oppressing their neighborhood, they did begin as a form of protection. They provide or say they are providing the community with goods and protection services not provided by the outside majority.

You also can’t expect them to pull their punches or give her leeway because she’s a girl. Their social and gender politics will be based on whichever culture they come from, but if she’s not a member of the same cultural group then their norms won’t protect her and if she is then it gives them a different kind of license for rejecting their authority. Just in general, it’s a bad idea to assume one’s gender or cultural will protect them from any kind of retaliatory action. This is especially true to those who reject standard cultural norms or values. And honestly, any plan that relies on your character’s opponents being either stupid or better/honorable people is a bad plan. (It’s also not feminism. Any story where the author looks at the camera and tells the audience “don’t worry, they won’t hurt her as badly because she’s a girl” is pure sexism.)

Petty street level criminals don’t have the luxury of letting someone go and they really don’t have it when they exist in a culture of toxic masculinity that has been supercharged. Gang members walk a pretty fine line the vast majority of the time. Their toughness is always in question and if they’re seen as being “weak” then it can have deadly consequences for them. The younger they are, the worse it’ll be. Mad Max: Fury Road is probably a decent example of this kind of masculinity.

The one thing you must never do with gangsters is assume that they’re stupid. Uneducated? Maybe. Never stupid. You don’t survive in the world they live in by being stupid. To quote Capote, “The problem with living outside the law is that you no longer have it’s protection.”

A stupid gangster is a dead gangster and even the smart ones have no guarantee they’ll live very long. This is before we get to the ones that have been to prison and back or are ex-military. Whatever your character does, they’re going to figure it out and start to counter.

This is a good thing for you as a writer because it’ll keep your character from turning into a one trick pony and work as a means to keep the tension high.

Some alternate solutions:

This character needs to rely on their brain and their observational skills primarily, not on the idea that they can brute force their way to success. Besides that, not every character needs to be Black Widow to be awesome. Your character has the background that will make her a scrappy fighter at best and that’s okay. This gives you more room to focus on survivalist tendencies and adaptation than kick ass fighting skills. The scrappy, driven, but fragile survivalist pushing forward on their own willpower is a great character.

She’s tackling enemies that are more than likely much too big for her. She’s the underdog and, even with her powers, she always will be. That’s fine. What this character needs is going to be courage, brains, and guts with a will to walk into fire when there’s zero chance of walking back out again.

This is what the classic action heroes are built on.

You don’t always get to see it with female protagonists, but there are a few.

Sarah Connor from Terminator 1 and 2. Ripley from Alien and Aliens. Possibly Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road as I haven’t seen the movie. You’re looking for plots about normal women pushed to extraordinary measures by circumstance.

She’ll probably be heavily reliant on that superpower, just a heads up. It is her only means of evening the playing field and may keep her alive long enough to adapt.

This character is not a head to head fighter. She doesn’t have the ability or the time to be, so play to her strengths. Ambush. Ambush. Ambush. In the shadows and out to BAM, then back into the shadows. Run and hide. Try to lure them into places with low or bad lighting. (They’re going to figure this out, so it won’t work for the long term but in the beginning then yes.)

Worth noting that ambushing takes work and forethought, it also requires brains and observational skills. It can be very exciting due to burst and release tension, so long as you make the consequences of failure clear. This is high risk, high reward combat. You take them down fast and silent (silently as possible, she’ll bungle this a few times) or not at all. Run and hide may eventually transform to run and gun over the course of the story, but this is a character who needs to keep moving in order to maintain her advantage.

If she has to kill them fast, then the answer is not hand to hand. It’s weapons. It could be a gun, but more likely it’ll be something she can swing while ducking in and out of the shadows. Crowbar or tire iron across the back of the head, then back into the shadows. She doesn’t have the time or skill to be fancy here, but you don’t need either of those to be effective.

Honor has no place here, it’s something she can moralize about or feel guilty over but discard it. It won’t help. Have her prioritize turning off the lights.

Start developing that power over the course of the story. What else can it do? What new ways can she make it work for her that she hasn’t thought of before? Can she start to perform new techniques with it. I suggest looking at Obtenebration from Vampire the Masquerade. You can also check out the Darkness, though I don’t know how helpful it’ll be.

Gangsters usually like to work in groups, so she’s got to split the group up to be able to tackle them one at a time. Fighting groups as a group is not recommended because they are many and she is one. They are used to working together, they will circle up, and one will distract while the others nail her.

Treat her as fragile when you write, any combat screw up is going to hurt. She’s going to get hurt. This will be a war of attrition and she’ll come to the end bloody. There’s absolutely no way to avoid injury.

Remember, combat situations are mostly about problem solving. A character can only solve the situation with the skills they have. Half of writing and character building is learning how to bring what you want and what you have together to create something satisfying. Three weeks of training or a single self-defense session is not going to give a character the ability to take on five guys in one on one.

So, don’t try.

Do something else. Get creative. You are creative. Come up with alternate solutions to the problem. So what if your character doesn’t actually know how to fight, it doesn’t mean she can’t still be awesome.

Some Things to Remember:

1) The first time out always sucks.

If your character has never killed anyone before or been in a fight before, then she’s going to screw up her first time. In that event, coming out alive is a victory. This isn’t a sign of weakness or a failing, it happens to everyone. Combat is hard. Violence is scary. Things will probably go screwy, get a little haphazard, and she may fail instead of succeed. That’s okay.

2) Don’t forget the emotional consequences.

Your character is not a robot. Anger. Guilt. Fear. Sadness. Worry. These are all natural. You might want to familiarize yourself with the seven stages of grief as a reference point. Both the act of inflicting and receiving violence is traumatizing, especially when asked to go from 0 to Kill. Getting upset, guilty and feeling bad are normal. Try not to let it degenerate into angst/wangst. Still, she’s human. Emotions are not a sign of weakness. They’re natural.

3) Learn from experience, not instinct.

I talked above about how instinct is the solution of the lazy writer. Experience, on the other hand, is the solution of a good one. Grade A Bad Ass is not something a character is, it’s a state they work towards and earn over the course of the story. One of the best ways to keep your fight sequences fresh is to have the character learn from their successes and failures, then apply those lessons to their next fight. They reflect on what didn’t work and on the ideas that nearly got them killed, they think about their enemy, they come up with new solutions. Whether that’s upgrading or adding additional weapons, missing less often when they nail a bad guy across the back of the head, or stopping to survey their surroundings before going in, this leads to the writer constantly showing their character’s evolution and makes that arc part of the story.

The character goes from passive to active, their combat style becomes a part of their character arc, and you guarantee that every fight is different because you’re figuring it out with them.

References and Resources:

Die Hard, the ultimate war of attrition and willpower. Your character is obviously not a cop, but if you’ve never seen this movie then watch it. It’s one guy versus a group of criminals, trapped in a tower with limited ammunition and no shoes. While not realistic per say, Die Hard busted on the action scene with a real willingness to make it’s protagonist pay and show them taking damage throughout the film.

16 Blocks This is another Bruce Willis action movie, but I like it. A broken down NYC detective is set to escort a petty criminal to the courthouse. Works well until the other cops want the criminal dead. It’s an intense run for your life scenario and a fun one. It could give you ideas.

Home Alone This one may seem like a weird choice, but it actually isn’t. A small child has no chance in one on one with two adults, so he’s making use of what he has: knowledge of his environment and his excellent pranking skills. He’s successful because he starts thinking outside the box and finds a means to fight that plays to his strengths. Your character doesn’t need to build elaborate traps, but it’s worth figuring out where the box is and how to get outside of it.

Hope that helps!