If you’re here looking for a guide on how to write a fight scene, I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place. There are approximately 59,900 results on google about descriptive verbs and pacing, which are useful, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. Today we’re talking about characterization.
Everyone loves a fighter. They’re compelling by nature – someone who’s willing to put their life and safety on the line for something they believe in or a person they care about is someone the audience will root for. But how does this archetype act when they’re not in combat? How might a trained character approach a battle differently from your average Joe? I think the mindset of a fighter is interesting to explore in slice of life scenes, and this article will break down some ways to think about your OCs in a different context.
What are my credentials to talk about this? I did Shotokan Karate for 9 years, fencing for 3 semesters (started with Epee and switched to Sabre recently, if you’re curious), and just started taking Tae Kwon Do on my college campus. I am not a sharpshooter, but I have some experience with both firearms and bows as well. This article won’t get into details of different weapons or fighting styles, but the advice will apply to a broad range of contexts and genres. So, shall we begin?
Fighters don’t want a fight. This should probably go without saying, but fighting is exhausting, dangerous, and unpredictable. The first thing anyone learns when joining a self-defense class is conflict-avoidance and de-escalation. Your character should be as much a diplomat as a brawler.
Training teaches self discipline. This is true for any sport where you have to drag yourself to practice and put in the effort to improve, but it’s especially true for martial arts, because if you don’t have self discipline, people can get hurt. The intensity of the moves means that you have to keep complete focus. No matter if you’re angry or frustrated, put your emotions aside so you can train with a clear mind. Getting upset (or cocky) means getting sloppy, which means getting hit. Even if the character is emotionally invested in the conflict, they should also be able to maintain some level of detachment to keep their wits about them. Dispatching their enemy with chill efficiency is a great narrative shorthand to show that a character is in control of themselves and the situation, and the drama of a cool character losing their temper is always epic. Outside of a fight, they should (usually) be able to put their feelings into context and choose a course of action without acting on first-impulse.
This self discipline goes beyond just emotions. If there’s a herculean task to be accomplished, or a situation that requires the patience of a saint, a fighter can draw on their training to muster up the will to see it through. Especially if they went through a training style with grueling examinations, be it belt tests, or a competency exam for a guild, or if they’ve been through a traumatic backstory. Whatever it is their facing, they can say, “I survived that, I can get through this.“
Fighters watch their surroundings. If you train with a weapon, the first thing you learn is to watch where you’re pointing that thing (and to keep your finger off the trigger *ahem* hollywood *ahem*). If you spar in hand to hand combat, you might be one of several pairs fighting in the same room, so as you pivot and dodge, you need to watch out of your peripheral vision to make sure you don’t run into the others. You also never want to be caught off your guard. In public spaces, trained fighters will scan over their shoulders to make sure no one is sneaking up on them, and may sit with their back to a wall, watching the entrances and exits for threats. If they travel with a group, they’ll also be watching their friend’s group, and may take their place at the back or front of the group to protect the people in the middle. If they’re traveling with another fighter, they’ll watch each other’s 6s, or each other.
Training takes time. A lot of time. In my Shotokan dojo, we had class three times a week, for an hour and a half each session. Fencing practice is two hours twice a week. Tae Kwon Do has hour long classes four nights a week (though attendance varies based on people’s schedules). Instructors often expect their students to practice outside of class – my sensei would tell us to watch TV, or work on the computer standing in horse stance. Not even to mention the pushups. And I’m a civilian doing this for fun. There’s a reason most movies cover this time in a snappy montage, but don’t underestimate the power of using these scenes for character development.
Fighters are weirdly intense about injuries. Most athletes are used to pain – sore muscles after exertion are a normal part of getting stronger. Most athletes also know when to stop pushing themselves to avoid a serious injury, and take time to recover so they can reach peak performance. We measure performance in other sports by points scored or by the time to finish. While this is true for sparring tournaments, self defense is a different story. The fight only ends when the attacker is down, and there’s no such thing as calling a break if you trip or hyper-extend a joint. Fighters learn to take hits, and keep putting together combinations, even if they’re beyond the point of exhaustion, because the only other choice is to give up and get pummeled.
In a contained setting – like sparring – a bruise or good knock is equal parts embarrassing, (because it’s a competition and the point is to avoid getting hit) and a mark of pride (because the hit didn’t take you out of the fight). They might brag about the shiner later, or congratulate their partner for scoring. A controlled dojo will let you stop the match for a serious injury like dislocating a shoulder or twisting an ankle, but it isn’t uncommon for students to push themselves too far and keep sparring, because they’re stubborn and want to show that they could “make it” in a real fight. Instructors and drill Sargents also put on a tough “you can do better than that” act to encourage students to push themselves farther than they think they could, which might backfire if the student knows their limitations already.
If your character is actually fighting for their life, they will almost certainly be fighting with some kind of chronic or current injury that could not heal before they needed to use that arm again. It’s also not smart to broadcast your injuries dealing with genuine threats, because enemies are more likely to fight dirty and target the limp. They might ignore the pain and act like they’re totally fine to avoid that dangerous situation, but in private, they could likely treat their own wounds with a combination of first-aid and sports medicine.
Dojo-mates are great friends. When you train with someone for years, you chat a lot before and after class, and need to trust each other enough to throw hard hits at their face. The people your character trained with will be some of the most ride-or-die folks they know, and often behave like siblings, if they aren’t already related. Also, a lot of families do martial arts together because siblings will jump at the chance to spar with each other. (If you want to learn how to write siblings, I have a post here). They would learn the ins and outs of their fighting styles – even if you all take the same type of martial arts, each person naturally gravitates to a certain rhythm that you can exploit to win. It can be competitive but it’s also constructive, because you want to see each other improve. Fighters are also some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. It takes a certain type of weirdo to volunteer for this, and like-minded people click in really entertaining ways, even outside of the shared activity. Maybe I’m just biased, but anyone who can quote The Princess Bride backwards is alright in my book 😉
Thanks for reading! I hope this was a useful reference for you to develop the mindset of your fighter characters. Would you be interested in more detailed breakdowns on different fighting styles, or my take on how to write a fight scene? Let me know if you have any recommendations, and happy writing!