“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu
There’s plenty of advice out there on what guarantees a victorious celebration and—conversely—what would most likely result in a faceplant on cement or stab to the kidney. But in fiction, you have a little more liberty to forge an otherworldly fight scene, brandishing it with magical shields, immortal zombie mermaids, swords that are bigger than the character’s bodies, and ever popular usage of the “four elements” (sometimes the “five elements,” or “six elements” if you include abstract things like space and time). Unless, of course, you’re the chemistry buff and it’s “118 elements.”
And yet, what draws a reader in is the fact that a fight is at least somewhat realistic. I remember the backlash when Avengers: Endgame came out and critics focused on Thanos’ terribly designed sword. (I mean, with that design you definitely wouldn’t be able to spin it like that, come on). That’s why I love to get advice on how to utilize physics and the physiology of the human mind to help paint the fight scene as “realistic” within its own atmosphere, regardless if that setting is fantastical or based on a true story.
Disclaimer: Do NOT use these tips in real life unless you are professionally trained. This is for writing purposes only.
1. Utilize the Atmosphere
What I mean is — where are they? Are they in a tiny, claustrophobic jail cell? Are they in a room full of random objects? Are they out in the open field or in a forest? Space???
A lot of the time the scenery creates the type of fight. It’s quite difficult to have an honorable battle with longswords in a cramped hotel room. It’s a lot easier to hide in a forest than in an open grassy field, but it’s easier to run in that field than in dense vegetation.
As a martial arts student, I was taught something called “Hapkido weapon‘s concepts.” The idea is that you can—and should—use any object as a weapon at your disposal, even if it’s not the intended purpose of the item in question. A clever character might use their surroundings to their advantage when facing a antagonist that is stronger than them.
A few examples of objects as impromptu weapons could be:
- A magazine
- Dirt (thrown into the eyes to blind the opponent)
- A thorn bush
- Hot coffee
- A tree branch
- A steel pipe, piece of glass, or broken bottle if they’re in an alleyway
- A stray cat
- A heavy book or any heavy object for that matter, like home appliances
- A car if your character has super strength. (Or a driver’s license)
2. Know Their Strengths and Weaknesses
Know your character well, enough to know for certain whether or not you’d want to marry them. Are they smart or dumb? Are they quick to start an argument or steely calm in a fight? Are they a scrawny person with no muscle whatsoever? Even with all the confidence in the world, they might have quite the challenge ahead of them if they’re facing off against a giant with huge pecs and jaw that could crush bone. Do they have a super power? What are the limitations of that power? For me, it’s a struggle to have stamina, so perhaps your character is similar. If they use their superpower, they’re drained of their own life force. Or they just need to eat more of a certain type of fruit to reverse the effect. Strengths are not always physical, but mental as well. Perhaps this character is cunning and can trick people very easily with their words.
One thing to consider is the person or thing they’re fighting against. To make it more intense, their opponent could be the direct opposite of them. Like fire and water, earth and air, light and dark. This allows for the highlighting of distinct characteristics. In literary terms, this is called a foil.
3. Know the Levels of Awareness
This might come off as simple, but when applied, really allows you to understand the dynamics of a situation. From an author’s perspective, knowing when to apply the right level of foreshadowing can be essential to a suspenseful lead up to the big boss fight, or it can be subtle and shy, just peeking around the corner, lying in wait for just the right moment to strike. Knowing what state your character is in can help determine all their options, notice the small things, and either make the right choices, or the gravest of mistakes. Generally, there are five basic levels of awareness.
- Code White — The person is completely unaware of their surroundings. They’re hunched over looking at their phones, listening to music, and just not focusing on what’s around them. Code White can also mean unconscious. In this case, your character will “never see it coming” if they’re being kidnapped. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned here.
- Code Yellow — The person is aware of their surroundings, and everything is peachy. Your character is fully taking in the scenery, smelling the flowers, noticing the details; where the streets diverge into alleyways, where shadows loom, where leaves shimmer against the light of day. If your character is in Code Yellow, describing their surroundings using the five senses can really add suspense, but ONLY FOR YOUR READERS. The character, in this level, is not afraid, nor aware of the danger just yet. To add suspense without making it seem threatening to the character, create a symbol that denotes some sort of fight to come, but that isn’t familiar with the character yet. For example, a character walks by a building with the symbol of a cobra on it, then later passes by a mysterious woman with a cobra on her sleeve.
- Code Orange — The person is aware, and something feels…off. The character now sees their potential woes and their skin tingles with unease, goosebumps dot their arms, and their eyes shift nervously. Do they know what’s about to happen? Are they getting prepared to ambush a secret ninja base, but there’s a strange shift in the wind? What’s with that weird looking shadow behind the dumpster?
- Code Red — There’s a fight in the distance! It’s not the character, but someone else. A scuffle. The distant drone of shouts and screams from a rogue army of robots verses the bad-a group of Shaolin Monks as you watch from a floating tree. It could be that two drunk friends are fighting over who gets to pet the neighbors dog as the M.C. lazily shoves popcorn into their mouth while slouched over the recliner. (Okay so maybe that’s not as threatening, but a fight none-the-less. I will discuss the levels of retaliation next).
- Code Black— Okay, so now that fight is happening to the main character. No turning back now. It’s showtime. Are your characters prepared? Or are they wholly surprised? What tactics are required? What level of threat are they giving your character? And in return, is your character going to react accordingly, or is their personality/attitude going to get in their own way when making decisions? For example, is their timidity going to make them freeze up in a very bad situation? Or is their anger going to make a mild confrontation worse? All important questions to ask when forming the scene.
4. Know the Levels of Retaliation
In Hapkido, we’re taught that there exist several stages to a fight. What makes this useful to a story? The concept of fighting escalation is very important in a story because the dynamics between characters can really be determined by what level they reach, as well as if they decide to back down, and the damage that’s been done at that level. Here, there are four stages:
- Disengage — This is where someone is a threat, but you are the saint in this scenario and simply ignore them and walk away as if to say “I mean you no harm.” Gotta love the monk character who always wishes peace upon their enemies.
- Engage — Essentially a ”warning shot.” A “you want more where that came from punk?” Sorta vibe. Here the character is taking a big risk by potentially raising the anger, raising the stakes, and raising the chances of them getting punched back. Imagine two best friend characters who suddenly get into an argument after one of them betrayed the other. Here, some sort of engagement is likely going to occur because hello, draaaamaaa!” But for it to get to the point where one permanently injures their best friend would also escalate to a point of consequence not likely to completely return to normal.
- Incapacitate — This means to render the person incapable of moving. It also means to prevent someone from functioning normally. Knock outs, bone breaks, arm bars, and other severe injuries that don’t cause immediate death fall into this category.
- Terminate — This is pretty obvious so I’m not going to go to great lengths to discuss it. In your fantasy world, you make the rules, but make sure there are still consequences to the actions your character makes. This can also mean emotional consequences. I will get to that in the next section.
5. Understand the Outcomes of a Fight
- Legal Implications:
This is were you gotta do some research in law and order. DUNDUN. If you‘re setting is based on real countries, doing some basic background research on what constitutes as jail time is essential to knowing the consequences if a character gets into a brawl. If it’s a fantasy, you’ll have to make the rules, and they can be as bizarre as you want! (for example, ”fighting is illegal except if the person is formally challenged to a duel with a bouquet of thorny roses”). Basing those rules off of other countries is a way to start if you’re just learning the legal implications. And if it’s total anarchy, well, more power to you.
- Physical Impact:
A second area of research is the physical aspects of a fight. A jab to the eye is going to cause a different sort of pain than a punch to the gut, as well as different outcomes. In some cases, just pushing a normal human being to the ground can cause major physical injuries. A head hitting the cement is especially in danger of a fracture and a concussion.
- Emotional Impact:
Fighting can take a toll. There’s verbal fighting and physical fighting as well to consider. A harsh voice is enough to cause disorder, so be aware of your character’s personality, whether they’re sensitive or headstrong. There’s a different emotional impact if you already know the person you’re fighting, as well as if you’re directly involved verses just watching a fight. It goes much deeper and last much longer. If you’re fighting for a cause, it might feel different than fighting for self-defense, but the idea that you hurt another human being can take its toll for a long time. I’m no expert on this topic and experiences can vary greatly between person to person. Research how people with different personalities react to certain stimuli. This might help you flesh our your character when deciding how they will react to a fight, as well as how they cope with the aftermath.
I hope this is helpful to you. It’s important to understand that there is rarely a simple black and white case for why people fight. Having nuances to your story will certainly add a layer of depth that readers can contemplate on. Reality, after all, is never that simple.