How a character fights can reveal as much as why.

As I mentioned previously (, combat should advance the story. It should also tell you more about the characters, not just because of why they fight, but how.

The clearest examples of this come from Asian sources, especially Wuxia films and shonen manga/anime. However, some westerns (especially The Magnificent Seven, which is just a Kurosawa film with guns) also embrace the idea. In western literature, fantasy novels will often use choice of weaponry and fighting style to denote character archetype rather than personality. Drizzt Do’Urden, third son of House Daermon N’a’shezbaernon, former eighth house of Menzoberranzan (R.A. Salvatore made that whole thing up in an instant when pressed for a new character) was originally conceived of as a sidekick character, and it shows in his unorthodox weapons (for a hero). The scimitar is generally the weapon of a sneaky, conniving character, TWO scimitars are positively bloodthirsty and devious. Perfect for a Kato to the hammer-wielding Conan knockoff’s Green Hornet, less so when the lead role is flipped. It takes an origin story trilogy to really explain how a dark elf who fights like a bandit is actually a good guy.

Or take the Highlander TV series. Why does Duncan, a Scot, use a katana? Well, see, it was the 90s, and he already had a ponytail and trenchcoat, and… look, it was a phase, ok? But seriously, the style is different, and before the renaissance in traditional European martial arts, a katana conveyed a much more seasoned and developed fighting style than a bastard sword. We now know that the fighting style of European knights was every bit as systematic and developed as that of the samurai, but the truth mattered less than the viewer’s impression of skill and study.

For barehanded style, the classic great bad movie The One straight up explains why the two versions of Jet Li fight differently (it actually oversimplifies the two styles to make the point, but it’s a bad movie). Two different, conflicting philosophies go head to head. It isn’t just about how they were trained, but about how they see the world. Indeed, we briefly see circular-style baguazhang Jet Li attempt direct attacks, meeting his straight-style xing yi quan self head on, and getting beat down. It is only when he embraces his own technique that he begins to win the fight. The direct attacker is alone, but (as was explained) the circular style has a center, a reason for being to anchor him and give him purpose.

This principle need not be limited to martial arts and westerns. Is your character a sniper? He’s probably calculating, careful, and in the eyes of the audience a more than a little ruthless. In spite of recent films like Shooter and American Sniper, taking an enemy unseen is perceived as unsportsmanlike. Indeed, it is, and that’s the point. A revolver is seen as more of a “good guy” weapon, the stuff of cowboys and detectives, while a semi auto pistol is neutral to sinister depending on the age of the reader and how it is described. Younger audiences have grown up with police carrying Glocks their entire lives, older ones may still associate them with “that porcelain gun that won’t set off metal detectors and costs more than you make in a month” nonsense. The machine gun is the weapon of the heavy. No matter how it is used in the real world, your reader will likely at least briefly imagine a Rambo-style M-60 hip fire escapade. Hand to hand in a modern or future context comes across as especially brutal and/or desperate. Knives are backup weapons or assasin’s tools. An axe is for firefighters, lumberjacks, or a giant dude crunching skulls. Bats and other clubs are, again, improvised or malicious (see, for example, The Walking Dead). Bare hands are a last ditch effort, suicidal charge, weird monk character, or exceptionally skilled assassin silently taking care of guards.

I strive to have my characters fight differently from one another, and in ways that comport with their personalities. Some of it is subtle, some is blatant. Ideally, all of it will be enjoyable.

It’s in our nature to destroy ourselves
It’s in our nature to kill ourselves
It’s in our nature to kill each other
It’s in our nature to kill, kill, kill

– Papa Roach, Blood Brothers

One thought on “Fighting Style and Character

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s