Writing Fight Scenes: Who?
[This is a post in my series on how to write fight scenes. Other installments may be found under the tag.]
The short story is DEAD AT LAST — or at least written, revised, and sent off to someone who can check it for howling factual errors — and so it’s time for the triumphant return of How to Write a Fight Scene!
So: who’s fighting?
I said last time that the most important question to ask yourself is, what is the purpose of this fight? Only slightly less important is this: who is involved in the fight? This both arises from and feeds back into purpose, of course, so you generally end up asking them both at the same time, but they’re both major enough issues that I split them apart for the purpose of discussion.
The answer to this is, in its simplest form, very short: a minimum of two people (or one person and some kind of opponent, anyway). But it isn’t enough to have their names. There are a lot of details packed into the question of who, and those details can have a strong effect on how the fight goes. So let’s take a moment to unpack them.
Physical details first:
- Age. I believe the natural physical peak for humans is somewhere around our early to mid-twenties? Speaking just on the point of physical conditioning — we’ll talk about confounding factors later — younger tends to be better, in terms of speed, strength, and general haleness, at least while talking about adults.
- Height. Taller means more reach; I’m ten inches shorter than my husband, and can’t get near him sparring in karate. He can hit me when I’m nowhere near hitting him. Also, it depends on where the height is distributed; does the combatant have long legs (covers more ground) or short ones (lower center of gravity, and therefore more stability)?
- Build. I find this a more useful term for fight purposes than “weight,” because the composition matters more than the raw number. Is the combatant skinny, flabby, built like a brick wall? Tactics will vary.
- Strength. How much this matters depends on the type of fight. Gunfight? Not terribly relevant, unless we’re talking about the kind of gun Vasquez was carrying in Aliens. Two-handed broadswords? A weak character will barely be able to swing one.
- Speed. This can be both reflexes and ability to run, depending on what’s going on. For lighter weapons, like rapiers or knives, speed is more useful than strength — especially since, as a generalization, bigger and stronger people tend to be slower. There are exceptions (my husband being one of them — totally unfair), but the more mass you’re flinging around, the slower it’s likely to be.
- Balance. Especially if the characters are fighting on an unsteady rope bridge or other exciting terrain.
- Endurance. We’ll talk later about how real fights tend to be very short, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t exhausting. And if there’s a chase involved, victory may go to the character in better cardiovascular condition.
- Flexibility. Much to my regret, this isn’t as useful in a fight as I would like; if flexibility ruled the day, I would kick ass at karate. (All that ballet training.) But it can be useful in grappling scenarios, or that last-ditch over-extended lunge to spit the enemy.
- Injuries. Either recent or old. Inigo Montoya fighting with three holes in him, or Ye Olde Grizzled Swordmaster with the knee that aches when it rains. Ask a middle-aged former Olympian how they feel: even barring major problems like a torn rotator cuff, that kind of activity takes its toll.
- Hair. Oh, how I wish it really were possible to use a long braid as a weapon! All it does is wrap around my throat when I turn quickly in karate, or occasionally thwap somebody in the face. Long hair is generally a liability in a fight; it can get in your eyes or provide the enemy with a convenient handhold. If you want your expert swordswoman to have beautiful long hair, she’d better keep it in a crown braid whenever there’s trouble in the offing.
- Physical quirks. A catch-all category for those odd little things that mark an individual out. One friend of mine has elbows so double-jointed, they go a good twenty degrees past the horizontal. My ankles can’t dorsiflex worth a damn. Six fingers on your right hand will mean most sword hilts are too cramped for you. Etc.
- Clothing. Yes, clothing; we might as well group that in with physical characteristics. Ideally, should be loose or stretchy enough not to impair movement; deviations from this can be narratively fun. Footwear will affect stability; contrary to what comic books tell you, high heels are not practical in combat. Also, depending on the weather, clothing will determine whether the character is freezing or about to die of heat exhaustion.
- Sex. I left this one until last because its relevance mostly lies in the points above. For example, men tend to have more upper-body strength than women, but not all men have the advantage over all women; you’re better off starting with “how buff is my protagonist?” than chromosomal makeup. Having said that: yes, men tend to be stronger in the upper body, women generally have lower centers of gravity than men of equal height, men tend to be taller and have more reach, women (being smaller) may be faster. Etc.
. . . there’s probably more, but that’s enough for now. Feel free to suggest more in the comments. Onward to mental/social/etc:
- Training. Is this an innocent farmgirl dragging down the sword above the fireplace, or a recent graduate of the Ninja Assassination Academy? Is the combatant trained in one specific weapon, or familiar with a wide range? Has their training led them to expect particular conditions and behaviors, that may or may not be what they’re facing right now?
- Experience. Not the same thing as training. rachelmanija has been doing a great series of posts on real-life experience with fighting, which is something I don’t really have; I may know how to hold and use a rapier, but that wouldn’t do me much good at all if somebody came at me with a sharpened blade and the intent to kill me.
- Wits. Okay, yes, I’ve borrowed this term from White Wolf’s RPG character sheets — but that’s because it works. Wits and intelligence aren’t the same thing; someone can be illiterate and uneducated and incapable of remembering the most basic facts about history, but quick as a snake when it comes to a fight. The ability to adapt on the fly is very, very useful in a fight, where you rarely have the time or opportunity to plan what your next move should be.
- Ruthlessness. That’s as good a term as any for the willingness to cause harm to another living creature. Most of the moves taught in a self-defense class are very simple and very brutal: Gouge the eyes. Strike the throat. Kick the knee sideways. Anything to incapacitate your attacker enough for you to get away. Some people have the mentality to do this; others freeze.
- Code of honor. Related, but not the same. A knight who will cut down her opponent without hesitation in a duel may refuse to stab an unsuspecting target in the back. Like ruthlessness, and the purpose question from before, this determines what the character will and will not do.
- Social expectations. Especially if there’s an audience for the fight. A young man not wanting onlookers to think he’s craven will behave differently than his natural inclination; so will a young woman not wanting them to think she’s unladylike.
I’m probably missing some there, too, but we’ll stop there, because by now some of the readers of this post are crouched in the corner making wibbling noises and wondering if they have to fill out full medical information and Myers-Briggs tests for the characters before they can write the scene. The answer, of course, is no: you don’t have to sit down and consciously figure out the answers to all of these questions. But by the time you get to the scene — so long as it isn’t the first thing in the book — you probably know a lot of it already; you have a mental image of your tall, bookish, asthmatic librarian who had some fencing lessons as a kid, or your stocky, street-veteran thief missing three fingers on her left hand. The important thing is to keep those details in mind when you put them into combat, and make use of them as the opportunity arises. Don’t let the fight become generic, as if the participants were two armed automata smacking away at each other in textbook fashion. Like any other scene in a book — you may have noticed this is something of a mantra — it should reflect who the characters are, in the most interesting way possible.
With the holidays behind us, I hope to maintain a more regular pace. Keep an eye on this space for the next exciting installment, in which we actually give our characters weapons!