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!

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: Who?”

  1. leatherdykeuk

    What an excellent post. Thank you.

  2. la_marquise_de_

    Congratulations on nailing the story.

  3. unforth

    Very, very helpful. Also, for gender, I’d add – men and women have different sensitive bits, and this can also impact their performance. Also, before making a babilicious comic book style heroine it can’t hurt to consider how her chest might impact her abilities (not in terms of preventing her, but I know, for example, that my busty friends have problems jogging because it’s hard to find clothes with enough support). Just sayin’. 🙂

    Also, given that we are talking fantasy in part, I’d add two to your list of mental/social:

    1. Naturally gifted: if the character is the unknown heir of a long line of master swordsmen, even if they’ve never held a sword before, this might show and influence.
    2. Magic! Is it a magic sword/gun/pike/shield/nunchuk/etc.? What does it’s magic do? How does it’s magic work? Depending on the style of magic weapon, it might not hurt to sketch out it’s OWN character traits based on the above list, especially those relating to personality.

    Hmm…and a third that I think is going to impact me in the kind of fights I’ll be writing:
    1. Setting: This is also related to a lot of those others (ie, the knight in a fight vs. the knight stabbing someone in a back alley) but isn’t quite the same. A knight in one-on-one combat will act differently than a knight on a battlefield will – different rules of morality/combat ethics/code of honor often apply in small-scene fights as opposed to mass melees. In a setting where the combatants are more or less anonymous, a lot of people will do things they might not have in one-on-one fights (ie, a street tough might be a coward before a charge; a coward might be the type to jump on a battlement and get himself the first stabbed; a knight might kill more indiscriminately – such as combat with a commoner – than he would consider one-on-one).

    • unforth

      (but, just to add – this really is super helpful. Like, I’ve added it to my list of sources. Thanks!!!)

    • alecaustin

      Setting provides all kinds of other complications, though (length of weapons vs. room to use them, props & stunts, etc.) so it’s probably fair not to roll the fullness of setting into this post.

      How a character’s personal traits interact with the setting is fair game, of course.

      • unforth

        You’re definitely right, and I did mean to imply the more personality-related aspect of this, as in the fact that the way a person fights one-on-one may be different from the way he fights his gang is behind him may be different from the way fights in the army, and this will depend on his personality. 🙂

        (it’s just on my mind because I’m in the early days of writing a book about characters who are in an army, the main character of whom is more used to one-on-one fights or small group actions, and I’ve been trying to decide how I think he’ll respond to being in a mass melee based on his personality and experience – because I’m only a few days from having to write my first major combat scene…)

        • unforth

          Oh! And something someone else said reminds me – I think peak physical may depend in some part on what the person is doing; I’ve heard that in MMA peak physical condition is generally considered to be hit right around 28 – 32, and that for some long distance sports it can even be a little older, whereas a gymnist is well past prime by that age.

          • Marie Brennan

            True, it does vary based on what you’re doing.

          • outofi

            I’m with you on this – I think for fencing (as a sport, so not necessarily the same as an actual fight) the peak is also regarded as being around 30ish. Though I think that’s closely related to experience rather than physical condition, given the importance of technical and tactical expertise for the sport.

      • Marie Brennan

        Yeah, setting is most definitely going to get its own post. Especially since I think overlooking it is a common failing with fight scenes.

    • Marie Brennan

      Naturally gifted

      Heck, you don’t even need to bring in fantasy-level gifts; some people really do just have a knack. Bob Anderson (sword master for the LotR films) said Viggo Mortensen was one of the best natural swordsmen he’d ever trained.


      Heh. Yes, that too, though it’s such a wild card I don’t know that I’ll always remember to bring it up everywhere that it might be relevant. I’ll try to include it when we talk about weapons, though.

      • thatwordgrrl

        It was generally acknowledged at the time that Basil Rathbone was a good enough fencer to have been on the Olympic team.

        Sadly, since he usually played “the heavy,” his job was to make the other guy look good.

        As a sidenote (and a nod to your icon), Anderson also trained Cary Elwes and Mandy Pantinkin in Princess Bride.

  4. lindenfoxcub

    Just wanted to say these posts have been awesome and really helpful for me. Even after the first post, it dramatically changed how I approach fight scenes, and action scenes in general. They used to be something that was like pulling teeth for me, but after that first post, something clicked, and I went into nanowrimo and the fight scenes started pouring out. Though, most of mine for this particular novel have been dogfights (airplanes, not canines) the concepts have translated over easily.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m so glad to hear that! My experience with, erm, vehicular combat is more or less nonexistent — I don’t know enough about the technological capabilities to do it justice — but you’re right that the basic principles don’t really change. Not so long as there are people controlling the vehicles.

  5. mq_musings

    Just wanted to say a) congrats on finishing the story, and b) I’m glad to see another post in this series. I’ve been enjoying them immensely.

  6. greybar

    Great list to think over.

    Brief random notes, mostly with thoughts from my own karate:
    * The (young) women black belts at my studio can do things (with round kicks, for instance) that the men just plain can’t do. The men’s hips can’t open up as easily to put a foot at round kick position to a target several inches above their own head without a jump-kick.
    * Strength – Professional baseball players talk about getting their “man muscles” at 30. I think this might only apply to the exceptional case of an individual leading a life that is dedicated to physical perfection, and perhaps also requires modern levels of medicine and nutrition. However, I like to keep this in my mind’s eye for the grizzled veteran heavy infantry sergeant of 30 years when comparing to the challenging young upstart of 17 summers.
    * Endurance – I’m looking forward to you speaking more on this. I’m sure the SCA heavy list people who read your LJ can fill in more on exactly how long even the young and fit are willing to fight in midsummer heat in full armor. For an old guy like me, it’s enough to just think about how heavy my legs start to feel after 5-10 minutes of karate sparring.
    * Ruthlessness – This is a great one for bringing out more in a character. It’s a tough question for anyone defending themselves – has the situation devolved to the point that you’re willing to do something that will permanently maim or kill your opponent? One of the first things I would try in a real fight would be to knock out my opponent’s knee – then I can walk away. But at what point am I really willing to try a shot to the eyes, knowing how they’re likely to escalate if I do?
    * Pain tolerance – this comes from experience a lot. How is the character going to react when he feels steel cut open your flesh? Will he fold and call for mercy, be blinded by it, or just make them all the more fierce or blood-blind?

    • Marie Brennan

      The (young) women black belts at my studio — ah, I meant to mention hip structure; thanks for reminding me. Yes, that’s another base difference that is occasionally relevant. (Though really, without some fantasy trick making the fighter super-fast, roundhouse-kicking several inches above your own head is almost always a tactically bad move.)

      Strength: the grizzled veteran will almost certainly be stronger, but he also almost certainly will have taken a beating over the intervening years that slows him down and stiffens him up compared to the upstart. But he’s also going to be more experienced; Shihan (owner of our dojo) may be literally twice my age, but he could kick my ass with both hands tied behind his back, in his sleep. It’s all a question of how those factors balance out.

      Endurance: I’ll probably be doing a post just on the topic of how long fights last.

      Ruthlessness: yeah, my first move in a real fight would be to try and kick the knee out. I don’t run very fast, so if I’m going to get away, I need to slow my attacker down. And that’s a place where you can do enough real structural damage that adrenaline won’t be enough to keep the target going.

      Good call on the pain tolerance; that should definitely go in the list above. I have a friend whose nerves are literally not as sensitive as most people’s; it takes a lot more pain to give him pause. (But that is a very mixed blessing: pain can be a sign that you’re about to injure yourself. If you don’t get that sign, you might do something you really shouldn’t, without realizing.)

  7. marycatelli

    Endurance is also important if you didn’t start the fight fresh.

  8. marycatelli

    you’re better off starting with “how buff is my protagonist?” than chromosomal makeup.

    hmm. . . . wouldn’t that just tell you muscle definition? It is possible to be grotesquely fat and quite strong, because having fat over your muscles doesn’t mean the muscles vanish.

  9. edgyauthor

    Wow, what a thorough–and overall awesome!–post. I had been aware of some of this, but not in so much detail. You’ve given me a lot to think about the next time I write a fight scene!

  10. baka_kit

    (Here via metafandom, btw.)

  11. mab_browne

    Here via Metafandom

    I’ve memoried this very useful post and noted your tags that go with it for future browsing. Thank you. 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      Welcome! There will probably be at least half a dozen more, plus all the previous posts, so hopefully there will be plenty for you to chew on.

  12. Marie Brennan

    Yeah, me too — though I’m usually thrown out faster by a boring fight than a non-realistic one.

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