Training Your Fictional Characters in the Martial Arts

“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger

Training scenes can be told in myriad of ways. The best ones, however, are not dictated by a single method, but rather exist to press the story onward, resolve an issue, and/or reveal something about the characters themselves. As a martial artist, here are some tips I’ve learned from sparring and training alongside several instructors.

Disclaimer: Do not use any of these tips on other people. This is for writing purposes only.

1. For Personal Matters Only

New students come into martial arts for multiple reasons, one big one is self-defense. For example, they were bullied in school and want to be able to defend themselves. If there is no reason to train, students will make excuses to not show up. And if they think they’ve achieved their goal in the middle of their training, they‘ll often quit. The best students, however, are the ones who find a new reason to keep moving forward, because no one is ever done training. There’s always something new to learn, and for me, growing in self-confidence is my constant motivation.

In the case of a novel, characters who train to fight for no reason will only confuse the reader. Why are they training? What’s their motivation? For good or bad reasons, the M.C. may want to train in order to:

  • Get revenge
  • Feel “in control”
  • Gain acceptance (into an organization, group, circle, etc…)
  • Lose weight/become strong
  • Gain honorable attributes (confidence, patience, integrity, self-control, etc…)
  • Feel accomplished at something
  • Defeat a stronger opponent
  • Gain control of a newly-discovered power

Have a unique motivation? Great! Write about that and keep reminding your character of that purpose throughout their journey. And if it suddenly or gradually changes as the character discovers a new path in life? Write about that transition. Write about the struggles they go through in order to focus on this new motivation. Remember, your training never stops, and neither should your character’s.

2. Incorporate Training Throughout The Story

Training montages are great…unless your audience actually wants to see the buildup to the final epic moment and root for the main characters during the climax. No one likes a cocky newbie coming into the gym and challenging everyone to fight because they think they’re better than everyone else. It’s not that they didn’t have training before, but the thing they lack is humility and courtesy for others. We as readers want to see their physical gains as well as their mental gains. For your writing, outline the basic stages of development—what they gain, what they lose. And this doesn’t have to be plainly stated in the novel. Show their achievements through their actions. For example:

DON’T write: “Susan felt confident.“

DO write: “Susan clenched her fists and marched up to Luke with a steely gaze. “I’m not afraid of you.” She said.

Martial arts is quite known for its teaching of principles to sharpen the mind as well as the body. In Tae Kwon Do, for example, the five tenets are Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control, and Indomitable Spirit. These tenets not only prepare the student for a fighting scenario, but for everyday life. We as humans are all faced with challenges big and small and so we must have control of ourselves if we wish to overcome them. Allow your character to experience hardship, make mistakes, then face a similar situation before attempting a different approach after being taught by their mentors.

3. “Enough talk, let’s fight.”

Fight scenes save little to no room for chitchat. Take it from a girl who got kicked in the head for telling her partner to “take it easy” during a sparring match. (I should’ve focused on blocking those attacks, rather than trying to make it easy for myself).

The exception to this rule of “no talking” is during some training scenes where the instructor/mentor character pauses to give advice to their student. Note the “pause” part of that sentence. When you talk, you exert energy. That energy is better spent on breathing properly, remaining calm, and executing techniques. I don’t give a flying magical dagger if your character is fighting with her fists, feet, a sword, a frying pan, or a rubber chicken. Each and every second counts. Whether or not your mentor character stops to give advice is entirely up to you and your writing style, as well as the personalities of the characters themselves.

If they are going to talk, after exerting quite a bit of energy, they’ll most like be out of breath and huffing quite a bit. Trust me, I know the feeling. It’s exceedingly hard to talk in straight sentences without panting for air after a heavy workout/training session.

4. Know the Style and Its Origins

Each style is unique. Each style has its benefits and drawbacks. And each style has its special techniques. Here are a few styles with a basic overview of each:

  • Boxing – Boxing usually involves a ring and LOTS AND LOTS of punching and twisting the hips to obtain maximum power when striking. Shoulders are hunched, fists to the eyebrows, chin tucked to prevent getting clocked in the chin. That sharp sudden spin of the neck from a hook punch guarantees a K.O. Also, don’t cross your feet. You need a steady stance to prevent losing your balance. Boxing‘s origins are said to be in Ancient Greece. Here is a website on some basic information discussing boxing techniques and stances.
  • Kickboxing – It’s boxing, but with KICKS. Technical language like ”front snap kick,” “side kick,” and “crescent kick” might excite your martial arts audience, but to normal people they probably won’t understand the terminology and have absolutely no idea what the character is doing when they do that sweet “roundhouse kick to the temple.” Know what that move is and only have the character execute it if they’re familiar with the style, just make sure to tell your readers in plain terms what’s going on. There is a difference between the “fitness cardio kickboxing style” and the “professional kickboxing” found in the ring, so be aware of the difference. Muay Thai is often interchanged with hardcore “octagon” kickboxing, although there are several differences, as explained here.
  • Tae Kwon Do – Tae Kwon Do literally translates to “The Way of the Hand and Foot” or “The Way of the Fists and Feet.” It originates from Korea and involves plenty of agility and kicking. They can be flashy at times, especially at demonstrations, but there’s plenty of power in their techniques, which involves deep breathing and Kihaps, or shouts (those short bursts of “hiyah!” Or “ha!’ that you often hear in martial arts movies). These guys have some of the fastest kicks. Here’s a basic overview of their principles. And here’s a video demonstrating some techniques during various sparring tournaments. (Try to count how many times they launch a kick at someone’s face).
  • Kung Fu – Kung Fu is a “catch-all” term that basically denotes all Chinese martial arts. It’s very old and stems from the original Chinese Shaolin Temple, where it branched out to other places and morphed slowly into separate arts. Here’s a website that might explain it a little better. (Also, if you haven’t watched Kung Fu Panda…that’s your homework for this one). Here’s a website detailing the history and animals associated with this ancient style.
  • Judo – Judo involves plenty of throws. To do this you’ll need leverage. And plenty of it if the opponent is much bigger in mass and weight. Personally my favorite throw is the “tomoe nage“ (toh-moh nah-gay). Here is an educational video on that for all you enthusiasts!
  • Hapkido – Hapkido means “The Way of Redirecting Energy.” It’s considered Korean in origin. A hodgepodge of styles, Hapkido is a mix of punches, kicks, throws, grappling, and wrist/arm locks. The big focus is using an opponent’s energy against them with circular motions to redirect whatever the enemy throws at you. Here’s a basic breakdown.
  • Karate – Karate is pretty popular. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of it somewhere before (*cough* Spongebob *cough*), but what’s unique about this style is that it’s from Japan, specifically from the island of Okinawa. It was once common practice to break the middle fingers to make one’s punches more deadly, since broken bones (when mended correctly) were thought to become stronger (this is highly debated, but hey, if your M.C. Is a magical karate-fighting centaur I won’t argue if he decides to break a leg and come back with reinforced steel for a limb). How Stuff Works is a good website for information on Karate.
  • Brazilian Ju Jujitsu (BJJ) – Ah yes, the martial art that your random cousin tells you is “#1 best style ever in the whole freaking world.” I’m joking, but there’s a lot of ground defense with this one and I can see the appeal. Plenty of grappling in this style. Here’s a comprehensive website on the matter.
  • MMA – Mixed Martial Arts. MMA likes to tout itself as taking only the best techniques from multiple martial arts and using it in the ring as well as in the streets. One thing to keep in mind is that they tend to follow certain rules geared toward sparring in a ring and evolve their combinations within those set of rules. Straying from them means penalties. Not to say it’s not effective in the street, however, since facing opponents in a high-stakes sparring match tends to really help you prepare to fight impromptu.

There are—of course—many, many more styles to chose from such as Wrestling, Aikido, Muay Thai, Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Kalaripayattu, and Jeet Kun Do, just to name a few. Don’t be afraid to study them if you’re going to have a character learn how to fight, and if they’re in a fantasy, making up your own style using some of these techniques is perfectly fine—not to mention quite fun! (Just make it effective to whatever the M.C. is facing up against).

For instance, in my novel, I’m designing my own martial art based on the way sand moves because the setting is based in a desert landscape.

5. The End Results 

When I started martial arts, I’ll admit I was the shyest creature in the gym. I was a bundle of nerves and kept blushing at the thought of performing any technique, touching anybody, or even talking to anyone. In this atmosphere, however, I soon became accustomed to leading an entire class, helping others out, and presenting in front of an entire audience of judges and spectators. Sure, I still have the jitters, but I’ve come so far and therefore developed a sense of internal pride at my persistence. Basically I went from a shy and unconfident girl to someone with better self-worth and more confidence in herself. 

So my question for you is: What does your character start out as and what do they become?

For example: Were they arrogant but after training they became more compassionate towards others? What obstacles can you put in their way to make sure they achieve this end result and have it make sense? 

For me, the biggest challenge I ever faced was instructing a class on how to do a side kick. My instructor saw this and deliberately had me lead the class through morning workouts for several weeks straight. (I was angry at him for a while, but looking back I’m so glad he did that to me). Repetition leads to mastery. (I’m no master, but ask me how to do a side kick and I won’t hesitate).  

A suggestion for the arrogant individual would be to expose them to tasks that would force them to act kindly towards others to reach the end goal. Depending on the scenario, you decide what that’s going to look like. 

6. Bringing it All Together

They didn’t train for nothing after all! It has to all mean something and come to a satisfying conclusion where “all this training has prepared them for this moment.”

Are they preparing for a final obstacle course? Are they fighting an entire army of buffalo men? Are they facing their own father? (Looking at you Zuko). Depending on their level of training, your character may fail more times than they can count, or they may defeat their opponent in a one punch knock out. I’m not here to dictate exactly what you should or shouldn’t do, but regardless I hope this provides a blueprint on the basics for creating martial arts training scenes for your character.

If you want more information on these martial arts styles just let me know in the comments or contact me via email!

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5 Replies to “Training Your Fictional Characters in the Martial Arts”

  1. Nice job, Joanna! I have loved watching you grow through your training. You got guts, strength, and determination.

  2. Heya, cousin! Brilliant blog post. It makes me so happy and inspired to know that we’re both on parallel trajectories with our writing. I truly hope to read something from you soon! Also, I’d love to send you some crude drafts I’m working on to get your perspective if you ever have the time. I know you must be very busy, though. Your perspectives would be worth more than gold to me. Wishing you the best and hope to hear from you soon~

    p.s. Do you have a Goodreads account? Would love to add you on there if you do!

  3. Awesome blog! I loved reading it. I’m amazed in seeing so much details about various styles of martial arts. I can surely tell, you have done an intensive research before writing it. Wonderful job on the first one and I’ll be waiting to read more and more from you. My best wishes, Great work!

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