Tag Archives: women and combat

Misconceptions of the Rapier (Women do the Thing)

I don’t know if you’ve answered this before, but I’ve read that a rapier is actually harder to learn to use, then another sword (i think the longsword was the other comparison) if that’s true, how easily would a woman be able to wield it, with the proper training and teaching?

I’ll link Matt Easton’s video about misconceptions with the rapier.  It talks about what the rapier is in comparison to the longsword and what it isn’t, which is lighter and faster like a smallsword.

The question about women is irrelevant, swords literally weigh two and a half pounds. How easily would a woman be able to wield it? The same as it would be for a man.

I know the man versus woman debate is the initial knee jerk for most everybody, so the question on its own is not your fault. However, now is the time to start ridding yourself of it. When you’re looking to write action heroines that question is going to debilitate you far more than help. Cling to “can a woman do it?”, and you’ll never find the action hero’s mindset.  That question is valuable when looking at lens or perceptions through which others might judge the character, the questions the character asks themselves, or their own internal struggles against enforced gender norms, but has nothing to do with actual physical ability.

Skill in martial combat is a matter of training and experience. Patience, dedication, a willingness to try, and a teacher are all one needs. Arguments over sex and gender have even less value when it comes to weapons than they do when looking at hand to hand. Weapons are the great equalizers, they are designed to overcome the body’s advantages. The playing field is never level, not for anyone. However, writing female action heroes begins with the understanding that the challenges women face are social rather than physical. Just because society at large says, “not for you” doesn’t mean it’s true and that goes for everyone.

As for swords? Swords are designed to suit difference purposes. The rapier is a long sword (not a longsword), and primarily designed for its reach advantage rather than a speed advantage. It is longer than the longsword, which means it is more likely to hit first in a standard duel.

As for training? Asking about the difficulty in learning a basic subject is pointless, because your character is simply not going to have many choices when it comes to learning. The weapon you choose locks you more or less into the time period where the weapon comes from, and further limits the available choices. Weapons are designed to deal with the dangers of the times they exist in, they’re specific design choices rather than arbitrary. In this case, your needs against the opponents you’re facing are as important as your desires. An easy way to decide a character’s weaponry is this:

Time Period > Education Level/Income Bracket/Social Status > Available Training > Weapon.

Now, the rapier like many variants of swords was available for all levels and the skill level varied.  So, this is more a question of research ergo: “my character is an English peasant living circa 1568 AD” or “I’m basing my fantasy setting on the War of the Roses, my character is a noble…” etc.

Or we do our research in reverse:

Desire > Weapon > Time Period > Education Level/Income Bracket/Social Status > Available Training

Your character begins with a desire, “I saw X in a duel when I was five and decided I wanted to learn to wield a rapier like him!” then goes out to find a teacher, convinces teacher to teach them, learns weapon, then fights with weapon.

This is the evolution of how humans choose to pursue the combat arts. Inspiration creates a Desire, the desire then becomes a Goal, the goal leads them to Pursuit of Action, and that is their origin story.

We become good at a thing based on our enthusiasm for the thing, and that applies as much to martial training. The only time this rule doesn’t apply is when your character is a Chosen One, which yes, they have to do the thing regardless of whether they want to or not.

The world your character exists in decides which weapons they use. Weapons that no longer suit the field of combat are discarded, and new weapons are created. Those new weapons are not necessarily better than the old ones, they simply change based on survival needs. Weapon advantages and disadvantages aren’t universal either, so it’s best not to try and munchkin our way to victory in the stat pools.

If you were in a HEMA club and trying to decide which sword style you wanted to study first then a question of difficulty would be relevant. (Though the answer about difficulty will differ depending on who you ask, so its usually better to go with what interests you.)

There are women throughout history who wielded all sorts of weapons in combat. You just won’t hear about them if you don’t go looking for them.

There are tons of women who do HEMA.

The question as to whether or not a woman can fight with a rapier is dependent on a single question:

How much time has she dedicated to becoming proficient?

If she’s not practicing or isn’t consistent with her practice, then the answer is no. She isn’t.

If she is then the answer is probably.


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hi, so two of my characters are going to fight, they are both female, highly trained and genetically engineered so they are faster stronger etc and one of them is much more malicious than the other and has years more experience so I was wondering if you had any suggestions for dirty/brutal fighting/tricks. I can’t think of anything other than like those knives that come out of peoples shoes in mobster movies.

You know,  a character can be brutal and malicious in their combat style without resorting to dirty tricks. It’s worse here because you’re writing women and the common sense assumption is that if a woman is good at combat (especially if she’s evil), she must be cheating.

Besides, a dirty trick in combat is a knee to the groin or throwing sand in your opponent’s eyes. Essentially, dirty tricks are just all the things you can do to someone to debilitate someone and take them out of the fight before they can fight back. And, as anyone who’s been in a real fight will tell you, fairness is relative. After all, The Only Unfair Fight is the One You Lose, Brutally.

Skill in Combat Can’t Be Faked

Now, there’s some sheer terror involved in having an antagonist who is simply flat out better than the protagonist and for the scene to have tension, this character has got to be able to hack it.

When most non-practitioners think about cheating, they’re thinking about it the context of “I pulled the paper down off the internet”. “I’m cheating because I’m too lazy to do the work”, “I’m incapable of doing it on my own”. The difference is that a fighter has to actually be able to execute the illegal technique and they have to be able to do so (and do it well enough to get away with it) under the supervision of people who know what they’re looking for.

“Accidentally” hurting your opponent will not be treated as an accident. The supervisors know what they’re looking for and if this character “accidentally” hurting their opponents is a continuous habit then they’ll bear the cost for it. It’s also worth noting that accidentally wounding your opponent in traditional martial arts and in most sparring matches where the point is emphasis on skill and precision is the practitioner lacking in skill. A truly skilled cheater will make their opponent look like they fucked up and in a situation with multiple eyes on you, all of whom know what they’re looking for, that’s not easy.

If they can get away with it, especially multiple times, then they’re really damn proficient. Cheating in a martial arts context is about using techniques that endanger the health and safety of the practitioners in the sparring match. It’s only valuable if the emphasis on skill is not hurting your opponent (because you’re not allowed to kill them anymore).

These two characters are probably military, right? You can’t adhere to martial arts tournament rules because the focus of the training is different and thus what constitutes cheating and bad behavior will be different. Beating each other to a bloody pulp may be an attitude expected of the top recruits. Depending on your setting, the degree of injuries allowed to be inflicted will be significantly higher and injuries will be more common. They’re trained to hurt and kill, hurting each other in training is to be expected.

And, believe it or not, your villain/antagonist is not the first person in their setting who has thought: “I can gain an advantage by doing something I’m not supposed to”. Why does this character believe they can get away with this? If it’s easy to do, why isn’t everyone doing it? (And no, don’t say it’s because they’re evil. That’s not a legitimate answer.)

The rest is below the cut.


Cheating is in the Eye of the Beholder

When we talk about martial arts and cheating, we’re talking about characters using techniques outlawed in a controlled environment/friendly competition like a tournament. The techniques are outlawed because a tournament is not a real combat situation, it’s essentially a practice match for money and is done with the understanding that everyone is going home healthy. This story is set in the future (probably) or in some fantasy setting with magic science, if this character is actually cheating then they’re breaking rules meant to ensure the safety of both people participating in the bout. What counts as cheating will depend on your setting’s rules and the rules that govern this match. Again, if these are genetically enhanced killing machines, then you can’t really expect them to do anything other than what they’ve been trained to do. (Brutally murder.)

What is honorable combat?

No, really. Honorable combat is just a code meant to govern social behavior, to protect society and, more importantly, maintain the current power structure. Who the code protects is often limited and in the words of Captain Barbossa “they’re more like guidelines than actual rules”. You follow the rules because they keep order and support the rules because the rules protect you. In a place like a training facility and any other controlled environment where the rules are easily enforced, it’s easy to color inside the lines. When you leave the safe confines of the world you know and travel more dangerous territory, the lines begin to blur. See: Spec Ops: The Line, Apocalypse Now, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

After all, when you’re used to fighting for your life: the only unfair fight is the one you lose.

There’s No Better Weapon Than Experience

The experienced combatant is the most dangerous combatant.

Not speed, not power, not strength, not talent, not even skill. Experience, they’ve been through it and they’ve come out the other side. They more they’ve seen, the more prepared they are to face unexpected challenges. You can’t quantify it on a stat chart, so it’s a difficult one to understand.

We are shaped and changed by our experiences. Through them, we learn and grow. Practical experience in the real world is better than a thousand test scenarios run in safety, where the variables are controlled. It’s difficult to take experienced combatants by surprise. Experience can build confidence through victory and erode it through defeat. They’ve survived their losses and triumphed. If they have a reputation, it’s probably earned.

Obviously, they’re not invincible but one character having more experience than the other is a wide gap. The mind drives the body. The more confident and experienced the warrior, the more likely the victory.

A Character Who Is Confident and Comfortable With Their Skill Level Will Not Feel the Need to Cheat

Especially not against a character who is less experienced than they are/who they do not regard as a legitimate threat. Cheating and underhanded tactics are the province of characters who cannot win or who do not believe they could if they tried.

What is the character gaining by cheating? Other than it being the evil option, what exactly do they get out of it?

Honor, glory, respect, and reputation aren’t really answers unless the character is an idiot. Proving their mettle and showing their skill in combat will earn them more dangerous assignments, not less. It increases the likelihood of their deception being exposed. They can fake it until they make it, but to achieve success they do actually have to make it.

“I Don’t Like Them/I Don’t Like Their Methods” Does Not Mean Bad At Their Job

Don’t let your protagonist’s personal feelings about this character govern how you (the writer) and the greater narrative perceives that character. Whether this character is famous or infamous, they get the assignments they do because they get the job done. Or someone in command.

Viciousness and brutality are combat choices, they’re not cheating. An example of this is the fan produced Punisher short film (tw: graphic violence, violence against women, violence against children, implied rape) Dirty Laundry with Thomas Jane (starred in the 2004 film) and Ron Perlman. Or this sequence from Spartan with Val Kilmer (tw: graphic violence). Or this (slightly over the top) scene with Angelina Jolie in Salt.

Antagonist and evil are not synonymous with incompetent. If they’re doing well, it means someone with power in this organization likes their work. It has to be more than a few someone’s too, so not just the bad guys. If they’re known, they’re known for having done something. Which brings us to:

Reputations Are Earned, Not Given

We get places by being competent. If someone has a reputation, it’s not going to be just because. They’ve been out there doing stuff. That stuff may have been dirty, but it likely didn’t involve any tricks.

Cheating Is An Easy Out

I don’t mean for the villain. I mean for you, as the writer, it’s the easy way out. If the character cheats, then the protagonist can place the blame on outside forces. “I failed because she broke the rules”, “I failed because she cheated”, “I failed because…”, but never have to wrestle with the question “Did I fail because I wasn’t good enough? Wasn’t strong enough?” and more importantly has to ask “is that really what it takes to win?”.

This is having your cake and eating it. The protagonist loses (oh no!) but it wasn’t through any failing of their own (don’t worry, reader), if only that dastardly antagonist had played fair then they’d have gotten their ass handed to them (next time!). By not having them face an opponent who is legitimately better, you’re cheating your protagonist out of their character growth. They never have to really question themselves, question their beliefs, or question their understanding of how the world should work. What they take from those lessons is up to you, but it’s important for your character at least ask them.

I do understand the temptation. Especially when working female combatants, there’s a certain knee jerk reaction to the idea of them being weak, of failing, and so the narrative works to find excuses for why they did. But, failing is a part of being human. It’s a part of learning. The first failure is what gives the reader their sense of satisfaction when the protagonist comes back to win. It’s a justification of their struggle, their questions, and their hard work to better themselves.

Sure, both The Karate Kid and the remake with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith involved the hero overcoming injuries dealt him by his opponent via cheating (though this is treated as a black mark against the movie’s real villain, the rival Instructor) and his returning to the ring injured to face his tormentor in a head to head is incredibly moving. But it’s the first failure and all both Dre and Daniel’s hard work leading to that point and discovering the true meaning behind martial arts which give the moment so much meaning. (It’s also worth noting that the kid who hurts Dre and Daniel is a sacrificial lamb and is disqualified from the competition. The rival Instructor knew he was harming his student’s future competitive career by doing so and, in this context, his willingness to do whatever it took to win is what made him evil.)

Through the Mirror Darkly

Step away from your protagonist for a moment and think about this second character. Don’t think of the protagonist or what you want from the fight when you think about them. Look at their past and their experiences. People don’t start bad. They have reasons, often compelling ones (beyond traumatic pasts) for why they behave the way they do. Sometimes, they’re driven to it. More often, they choose it. Why they chose their path and their methods is important because your antagonist, especially the older, more experienced fallen warrior is the mirror of your protagonist.

The threat of Vader is that he is Luke or that Luke is him. Luke cannot shake off the fear that he is going to become Vader, even though he initially scoffs at the idea. As he progresses through the trilogy, every test and interaction he faces forces him to question himself.

“You will be me” is the central threat and what defines the protagonist is how the choices they make are different from their predecessor, mentor, rival. The difference between Luke and Vader is not that Luke is a better fighter really, it’s just that Vader cheats. It’s Luke knows when to stop fighting and accept he cannot win through force alone or control the actions of others. This is the central theme of his journey and the Lightside/Darkside conflict. Likewise, Vader’s unwillingness to give up control of events is what ultimately doomed him.

Some other good match ups: Buffy versus Faith,  Captain America versus The Winter Soldier,

Are They Dangerous or Not? What Kind of Dangerous Do You Want Them to Be?

The implication with cheating is that their skill is all smoke and mirrors. If they were fighting by the rules, they’d lose. Remove the extraneous weapons and advantages they rely on and they’re easy to take down. Pick a Saturday morning cartoon or goofy Stargate episode and you’ll find this trope all over the map. This doesn’t mean you can’t make it compelling, it’s just worth noting this is the first check in the Cartoon villainy handbook.

On the other hand.

This character is vicious, they’re brutal, and they’re not above hurting (possibly even crippling) one of their own in order to establish their superiority. When they walk into a room, they radiate power and authority. They’re good, they know it, and they’re not afraid to use it to their advantage. Someone who is willing to use excessive force to get what they want and protect what is theirs. Basically this guy, (tw: bullying, preteen violence). Picture that happening between two girls or two grown women and you’ll be well on your way to the kind of attitude you need. (Seriously, this makes the above so much more awesome.)

Reference, because this list is mostly full of boys, Emma Teo, 13 and under Girls, CMX Forms, US Capitol Classics and China Open, Noell Jellison, 13 and Under ISKA World Championship Open, Haley Glass, 13 and Under Girls CMX Forms, US Capitol Classics,Dayna Huor, US Capital Classic’s Forms Grands, Sammy Smith, 14-17 Girls CMX Weapon’s Forms Grands, etc. (These are all exhibition performances, not combat, still watch the attitude.)

Other things you might want to keep in mind Archetypes of Female Martial Artists, Child Martial Artists training (Shaolin Tagou Wushu School).

What sort of sword would you recommend for a female fighter? I have also heard that the sword was a secondary weapon, but the time period is pre – guns and I have no a clue how much muscle is needed to fire a crossbow vs a long/short bow? Which one?

My best recommendation is to stop thinking about this character as a girl first and fighter second. You’re trying to come up with ways to make the fighting possible for her, instead of accepting that combat is a skill that can be developed by anyone given the proper amount of training and dedication. What weapon would you give this character if they were male?

That’s your answer.

As for picking weapons, I tend to pick weapons as a part of character creation and developing backstory (that blows up a little if the character is already established). I have a habit of doing this the same way I would write a crime: Motive. Method. Opportunity.

Motive: Why did this character want to learn to fight? What reason did they have to seek out training?

Most times, even in a family of established fighters, a character has to make the decision to train and to fight. This decision is a personal one and it can be anything from a desire for self protection to dreaming of being a knight in ballad. If you are working with a setting where female warriors are uncommon, then the character’s motivation for going against societal norms becomes that much more important.

Learning to fight is hard work and depending on that character’s background may well ruin any chance at conventional beauty/traditional womanhood/marriage opportunities that will better the standing of their families. It’s more than just an unusual choice, depending on the setting and gender constraints it could very well be an incredibly selfish one.

So, it’s important to establish that as part of the character.

Method: Who taught them? The good combatants have a teacher and the sword is a weapon that requires instruction, both in the manner of caring for the weapon and how to use it against other opponents. The character is going to need a teacher who can teach them to use that specific version of the weapon.

Did they have an in house tutor like Brienne of Tarth or Arya Starke? Did they receive their training when they joined the local military or militia? Did they have a parent train them? Were they carrying a blade that was common amongst peasants of their time like the arming sword or a weapon that was more regularly associated with the nobility like the long sword?

Opportunity: And what is a method if the character has no opportunity to take it? Think about your character’s background and social constraints, then pick a path that makes the most sense for them and was common for the people of their time (or the time/culture you’re basing it off of). The method they use will inevitably lead them to the right weapon.

This is where research is your friend, by narrowing down your path to profession and time period, you can better establish what your options are.

Remember: any weapon will work. Combat is a skill that can be learned and the only real physical barrier to entry is how hard you’re willing to work to learn it and the opportunities given to learn.

I didn’t pick taekwondo because it was the best suited to my size and body type, I picked the Ernie Reyes organization because they put on a performance at my elementary school that I really enjoyed. I saw it, said “I want to be able to do that”, took home the flier, and my parents signed me up.

I knew a lot of other kids (both boys and girls) who got into martial arts because they loved Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.

The longbow versus crossbow question is actually fairly easy, both require a fair amount of strength to wield, but the truth is that care for the weapon is the most important point to maintain ease of drawing. Both require regular oiling and careful, specialized handling to ensure that they remain in a ready state of use.

The longbow is for characters like hunters, scouts, and nobles. Someone who grew up learning to or needing to hunt as a means for providing for their families. It can fire more rapidly than a crossbow, but requires more time to learn, more practice, and more training to be used effectively. In mass combat, archers were used in the same manner modern artillery is used today. The crossbow surpassed the longbow for the same reason that the gun surpassed the crossbow: it took a shorter amount of time to become as or more deadly than the other weapon, thus cheaper to replace when your troops fell. A lost archer is one to two to ten years of experience, compared to a lost crossbowman or gunman which is “point that way and fire”.

The crossbow is probably for a character who was trained via the military. A military trained character, depending on the time frame, will also be proficient in the use of anti cavalry tactics and pole arms. A female military conscript could easily just be a peasant girl whose mother dressed her up as a boy to either hide her from the men or hide a more valuable male sibling from the soldiers looking for recruits. It was not uncommon for peasants in the medieval period to be called up as levies to support their lord on the battlefield. They were usually just handed a spear and sent off to die, but there might be some workable ideas in there.

Training molds the body into a more suitable shape for the physical activity. So, if your fighter is a noblewoman, don’t expect her to keep the secret  for long. Also, servants talk. People are observant. They will know.

Some things to think about.