5 min read

For Authors: How did your characters learn to fight?

Four people sparring on a hardwood floor, blurred in motion
Unarmed sparring in 2014

Last post, we talked about how a fantasy-hero might go about learning to use a weapon. How long it took, and what level of competence they might have at that time, was the focus of that post. Today I'm going to talk about something different. Fantasy novels rely strongly on violence as an element of plot. And violence is one of the most misunderstood areas of fiction. So let's talk a bit about how someone might become the kind of person who can use violence intentionally.

We need to define violence for this discussion. In this case, we are talking about using physical force to impose your will on another person. This might mean shoving someone aside, punching a bad guy in the jaw, or sword fighting the big bad in the ultimate climax. We're not talking about criminal violence, or organized/organization violence/warfare. Different beast, that.

Strange thing about all of this is that for most people, this kind of violence is really hard to do. Books and movies will tell you different, but I think for most people there is a wall between them and willful violence. You might think of a time when you've wished you could just shove someone aside, or really thought that someone needed a punch in the face. Most likely you just kind of stewed about it, or settled for imagining the results. If you've been really unlucky, you might have hovered on the precipice of taking action, maybe to defend yourself or someone else from bullying. If you have, you know it feels like a wall...or maybe more like a cliff that you are about to jump off.

Some people don't feel that. Or if they did, it was so far back in their past that they don't remember. If someone needs to be moved, they just move them. Or at least try. Someone needs a punching? Fights on. I don't mean this in the bullying way, but in that easy confidence that we associate with heroic action. How does one get them from the more usual start?

Learning to interact with another body confidently is a difficult thing. There are many taboos and cultural imprints that affect how this can happen. In modern western culture, the best way to learn to do this is through childhood sports...we don't really allow many other ways of contacting other humans, especially not in conflict. It's not surprising that the stereotype of the bully is the jock. It's not that sport creates bullies, but rather that sports create a level of comfort in moving other bodies around, which coincidently happens to be a tool for bullies to use.

If your character has any kind of background in sports that involve body contact, they are going to have fewer problems with the learning to fight. Some mental obstacles will have already been removed. Interesting enough, studying martial arts can actually make it harder to use the skills learned in class, because many martial arts schools introduce very rigid rules around correct body contact. This can add an extra layer of muck to overcome when it comes time to fight.

The more contact a sport has, the more easily it will translate to willingness to act against another person. Wrestling is great for this, because it focuses on prolonged body contact in struggle. Boxing is also good (please note that boxing before the 20th century could include kicks, knees and elbows), because it teaches more about moving around another person, and about how to hurt, and expect hurt, from unexpected directions.

And hurt is an important part of fighting. Much of what we think of combat is the forcing of will on another person. You want them to do something (stop being evil) so you force your will on them by punching them in the jaw. Hurting someone intentionally is a different beast. There are lots of ways to phrase this, but the change comes when, in order to succeed at a goal, you can no longer use plain force. It becomes necessary to prevent the other person from functioning. This is where you reach the area of causing incapacitating pain or injury.

To be clear, tossing someone around or punching them doesn't tend to cause injury or pain. Not in the middle of a fight. It's rather more like the imposition of will. That's not to say it is any way, shape or form comfortable...but it is not the same as breaking someone's arm, or driving a thumb into an eye.

For fiction outside of the dark and gritty, this is usually where weapons come into play. It's easier (still not easy!) for humans to injure or cause harm when the other person is an arm's length away, and there is an object between them and us.

Hurting someone else is a hard thing to do. Your sport-loving, roustabout hero might be okay tackling the bad guy, but if they actually have to hurt them, or chop their head off during a climatic final battle? That's a different mindset. It has complex ways of developing, and complex fallouts because of that development. It's not something a normal person can do, nor can they do it and go back to a normal life afterwards.

It's something that requires very specific training or exposure. If the exposure hasn't been intentional and careful, trauma will be part and parcel of the experience. Growing up around farms was my introduction to this, and yup...that left some scars.

Response to trauma is out of scope for a blog post. Recommend you do some research into it. If you are going to have characters that experience violence, or have to become good at it, trauma is part of the process. If they are taught and guided by a good and wise hand, they will get through it fine. If they have to muddle through on their own, they will not.

Going back to our character learning to fight? How might that look in your fiction?

A good process will see them start out playing and roughhousing from a young age. Then they will grow more specific in the application of skill, working from roughhousing and play to more specific martial games. From there to finding a place where it is appropriate to applying those skills, something along the lines of keeping order amongst the community in some fashion. From there, it's a process of learning more active combat skills, and then applying them in limited engagements.

A bad process will see them thrown into combat with little or no preparation, and surviving by luck or providence. And then having that happen again, and again, until they start to assemble some reactions and attitudes that let them survive that, and start to become prepared for the next round. This is a staple of learning swordplay in most fantasy fiction and is the best possible way to create a fragile and broken human who will have to struggle to be fit for the company of others.

Those are extremes. Humans are resilient, and sometimes that resilience doesn't break us. Sometimes it creates something new and interesting. Telling stories of violence is one of the better ways of exploring human nature, but we as writers serve our readers better if we explore not just the impact of violence on our characters, but the impact of learning to be violent on them as well.