For a character that fights, this is the most important question that they will ever answer and one each has to answer for themselves. It comes in before “what we’re fighting for”, it comes in before “who we’re fighting”, it comes in before all other questions pertaining to the individual. It’s true that it’s a philosophical question, but at some point every person must face their own existential dilemma and come to grips with what they can do versus what they are willing to do. They must realize in themselves their own capacity for violence and ultimately, for many fighters, decide what they’re willing to kill for and what or who they’re willing to die for.
How far are you willing to go?
When do you stop?
Why are you still here?
What are you living for?
It is a question that seems simple on it’s surface but is complex in the depths it pierces into a character’s soul and psyche. Before you do anything else and muddle about in the details of your character, you’re going to have to figure out for yourself why they fight. It is also, always, worth remembering that the reasons a character gives upfront may not be the real reason, it may be the reason that they give to themselves much in the same way a real human being does when avoiding an uncomfortable truth. As the author, it’s up to you to find that truth and press the character in your story until we get to the heart of it. Violence does not work without the human component, violence without meaning is just violence and meaningless violence that fails to affect the narrative is ultimately a disservice to the story.
Violence is about ugly truths, it involves both the greatness and travesties we can rise to in the face of extreme adversity. Why we choose to stand is as important to a narrative as the act of standing itself. A character who continues to stand even when they have every reason not to, to keep fighting even if they have no tangible gain, even when they know there will be no reward waiting for them at the end, these are characters we all want to cheer for. But, you can only get there by figuring out what your character is willing to die for, what their motivation is, and why they have chosen to fight.
Yes, fighting back is a choice. Yes, the act of making a choice is an act by your character (or you) of taking control and power over their life. There is a certain kind of power in decision making, just as there is for choosing to carry the blame even when those acts are mistakes. It may not be a choice they want to make and it may not be a morally good choice, it may simply be choosing to act to save their life or of not acting when they are in the heat of the moment. “I did what I had to.” “I couldn’t move.” I often don’t know how a new character will jump until I put the screws to them and back them into a corner.
It’s okay if the reason is ugly. A character that fights because they enjoy it is authentic. A person who enjoys that act of hurting other people is authentic. Sometimes, those people are hidden behind kind and helpful faces. It’s okay to be wrong.
It’s okay if your protagonist is not noble. It is okay if they are not as noble as they’d like to be. It’s okay if you find ugly and uncomfortable truths within yourself. It does not make you a bad person, it just makes you human.
The most useful advice I will ever give on this blog is to tell you to find and not shy away from the human component of violence. Look at people as they are and bring that authenticity to your work, to your characters, and let them be real people telling real stories. When we substitute a more pleasant reality for the complex, dark, and difficult world we live in, we cut out the heart of what makes a story genuine. Look at the world, look at people, ask why they fight, and accept that the answer may not be pleasant or comfortable. Explore the parts of yourself that make you uncomfortable, try to understand them, and try to make peace with them.
Why do we fight? Everyone’s answer is different.