I’d been planning to write something anyway since PCS members are required to write four articles for the blog each year, but Christopher Wright’s article on writing combat made me think I had something to add.
First off, I should mention that despite Chris’ caveats about how the way he writes combat does not necessarily apply to you, I found it accurate. That said, violence is more than simply how it works in a story.
When I was in college, I became interested in the martial arts, staying involved in them for roughly five years, and stopping just short of a black belt. It was enormously fun. I recommend it to anyone–including my daughters, one of whom received her black belt in Tae Kwon Do a couple years ago.
While the martial arts are intense exercise, there are many different styles, and you’re likely to find one that fits your physical limitations.
With regards to writing though, it also improves how you write combat. This shouldn’t be surprising. Anything that you’ve got direct experience in is something that you’ll be able to write with a greater confidence. Now, martial arts won’t directly help you in writing military engagements, but the style of thinking (in terms of strategy and tactics) will give you a leg up.
All that said, here’s how martial arts changed me and by extension how I write combat:
Attitude Toward Violence
Most martial arts instructors try to instill a certain attitude toward violence. It could be summarized as “avoid it.” This is partially practical. If martial arts classes produce people who beat people up for fun, the instructors and students are likely to end up in jail.
It’s more than simply practical though. Many martial arts carry a little bit of Eastern spirituality along with them. The most typical example is the Shaolin Creed:
Learn the ways to preserve, rather than destroy
Avoid rather than harm
Harm rather than hurt
Hurt rather than maim
Maim rather than kill
Kill rather than be killed
For life is precious and can never be replaced
Now I’ll grant you that they then teach you how to hurt, maim, and kill people as efficiently as possible, but with the background assumption that using your skills to do this is not a good thing.
When I was training, my instructor made a point of asking people to think about what kind of damage you can live with doing to people. Does the idea of blinding someone bother you? Don’t practice techniques that blind people. Practice techniques that do damage that you can do without feeling guilty for the rest of your life.
We were also made very aware of the potential damage we could cause by using even basic techniques to defend ourselves. Kicking somebody in the knee gives you a great chance to run away. It also carries the potential of maiming the attacker for life. Punching someone in the solar plexus can knock the air out of them. It can also rupture their abdomen, causing them to be unable to breathe.
Punching someone in the head might knock someone out. It also might give them permanent brain damage.
Real Violence vs. Story Violence
With that in mind, what you’re doing every time you enter a fight is enormous. Even with the earliest moves you were taught (and thus the moves you know best), you have the potential to kill.
Think about what that means… You have a person. He’s decided for whatever reason to rob a liquor store. He’s threatening people, and it really looks like he’s trying to kill them. You step in. With a punch to the back of his head or maybe with a baseball bat, you attack and you take him down.
Maybe he’s got a broken arm or leg and has to heal for months. Maybe he dies.
With his death goes all the work that was put into raising that person. Beyond that, the person’s hopes and dreams, the years in school, the years before school learning to walk and talk, and even the midnight feedings and diaper changes that person’s parents did. They’re all for nothing.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had anything go spectacularly wrong out of nowhere in your life, but when you do, there’s the moment before it happened, and the moment after where everything is different. If the fight goes in your favor, it’s possible that you will be that thing for them or their family. You’re the car accident. You’re the plane crash. You’re the disease or you’re the bankruptcy.
Again, that’s if you do it right. It’s also true that it might go the other way, and then you’re the one in the hospital. Or you’re dead.
It’s also easily possible that you’ll “win,” but both of you will end up badly hurt.
Compare this to your average summer blockbuster, or your average TV show. Certainly some of them will take violence seriously, but it’s not uncommon to find people entering a fight with enthusiasm. They’re actually expecting to have a good time.
They shrug off wounds that should put them in the hospital, and the deaths of the people they kill are no big deal, or even played for laughs.
It should be obvious by now that I don’t like that very much. One of the things that I’ve hoped to do within my own stories is take violence seriously. It should be something that the characters train to be as good as possible at, but want to avoid if they can.
In an ideal world, I’d like my violent scenes to hint at that knife edge difference between when things go right or wrong, or both at the same time. I know it’s not something that completely fits with the tone of my serial, but I try to go as close as I can.
There are people that do it right. I like the way Marion Harmon handles violence in his Wearing the Cape series as well as how Chris handles it in Curveball.
Harlan Ellison* has an example in an essay called “The Three Most Important things in Life.” In the section on violence, he tells about a person he saw get pitched from a balcony in a movie theater simply because he was talking loudly.
I don’t have anything to add to that.
A Few Random Thoughts
Now, this blog post would probably be stronger if I had stopped a few sentences ago, but I don’t have that kind of good judgement. I’m going to mention a few other areas where my mindset has been changed about violence by being involved in the martial arts.
I Respect Research
Just this past week I was reading a story and was relieved to find that the author had bothered to learn how to correctly choke someone to death. For the record, if you put one arm in front of someone’s neck and pull them in, it’s very easy for them to put their chin in the crook of your arm, and flip you over their head.
I’ve been flipped over someone’s head. It’s entertaining to watch, but the landing sucks.
By contrast, if you put your other arm behind the person’s neck, and make sure the crook of your arm is under their chin, you have a good chance of successfully choking them.
Sometimes Batman Disappoints You
Batman’s supposed to be a consummate martial artist. When Tim Burton’s first Batman film came out, it was obvious to me that I’d spent more time training than Michael Keaton had. It wasn’t that he was terrible, but he had a very limited range of punches and kicks.
It didn’t ruin the movie for me, but it certainly didn’t help it.
Even though he wasn’t teaching at Hogwarts, my instructor made a big point of training us to always be examining our surroundings and thinking about where it would be possible to hide. He also emphasized training ourselves to be regularly checking what’s behind us.
Check Your Terrain
We had an exercise where we fought with items all over the floor that we weren’t supposed to touch. In real life, you can back people into rocky terrain, on to ice, backwards down a hill or stairway… The sky’s the limit, or, more likely, the ground.
Tournament Fighters Die in Parking Lots
It’s impressive to watch professional athletes of any kind, whether they’re boxers, MMA fighters, wrestlers, kickboxers, or tournament fighters who only fight people in their own style. The problem with assuming that these people would be good in an actual fight is that they’re trained to win within the rules of the game they play.
In tournament fighting, you can earn points for moves that could lose the fight in real life. For example, a kick to the head is extremely slow and doesn’t do much damage relative to a kick to the knee. In a tournament, a non-damaging kick to the head can get you a point. A kick to the knee can get you kicked out (because it might hurt somebody).
In a real fight, a kick to the knee can end the fight. By contrast, a kick to the head can result in your leg being grabbed by your opponent.
It’s Better to Be Strong
When people are equal physically, it’s best to be the well trained person. When people are different sizes, you’re better off being the bigger person even if your opponent is well trained. Longer reach and more strength count for a lot–especially if your opponent turns it into a wrestling match.
Martial Arts Are Not a Superpower
All the martial arts I’ve encountered assume a certain range of toughness and strength. Once past that (by being able to lift tons or fly), a lot of moves become irrelevant. Many throws assume that gravity exists. If someone can fly, they won’t work.
This should be obvious, but I’ve seen comics where martial arts make a character a threat to Superman.
If superpowers were real, they’d have to adjust a lot. Alternately, they’d have to take the same attitude to superpowered individuals that I was taught to use with people carrying guns–give them your money.
There are ways to take out people with guns or knives, but you have to be perfect whereas they only have to be lucky.
In addition to questions of whether a given combat scene moves the character or the plot forward, the guidelines above are what I’m thinking of while writing a fight. Some of them are personal observations either by me or my teachers, but I think they’re worth consideration.
*Warning: Exposure to Harlan Ellison in any form may cause anger. Please direct it at him, and not me.