10 May, 2010

Usually, An Irresistable Force Should Squish a Soft Object

A reader asked me about a situation in her novel that comes up very, very, often in fiction. The heroine--athletic, well-trained, small--is up against a big goon. What happens?

Well, what usually happens in fiction is that the little girl wins. She executes kick after flawless kick to the big guy until he goes down hard. It's almost a reverse lock: in an action movie you can sometimes assume that the smaller and prettier the heroine, the more ass she will kick. And then there's Figure 1.

Figure 1: Shenanigans, Lucas!

The sad truth of the matter is that a big, fast, well-trained person is going to beat a small, fast, well-trained person most of the time. Seeing as I weighed in at 70 1/2 kg today in the gym, I wish this weren't true but it is. That's why there are weight classes.

Of course in a work of fiction anything can happen, right? Well no, not really. In fantasy anythign can happen. In fiction we at least ask for plausibility. So we've discussed writing the fight in two posts-- one on character and one on outcome. We haven't even gotten to techniques yet. So, suppose your character is a 50 kg firecracker in a skimpy bodice and she needs to defeat a twenty-stone (I know I'm mixing units.) deviant psycho. How are you going to write your way out of this one?

I know what you're all thinking.

Fig. 2 -- What You're All Thinking

But is that really going to work? I think usually, no. Otherwise guys would kick each other in the nuts all the time. There would be entire martial arts with thousand-year histories devoted to the art of kicking another man in the balls. Don't think we don't do it because of some sense of honor. That's ridiculous. We don't do it because it's a low-probability strike and it doesn't do quite as much damage as you'd think. Yet in fiction, it's presented as the One Weakness that can bring down any big goon, just as long as the person trying it is sufficiently small and weak-looking enough to be allowed to stoop so low.

Come to think of it, the Kick in the Balls is kind of like the thermal exhaust port (just below the main port) on the Death Star. It's an instant win, and it can only be accomplished by cute little bitty starfighters.

But I still haven't told you how to get your 50kg lovely away from the goon. Look, all of the obvious things really can work. You just have to avoid making them cliche.

I Know Kung Fu -- Superior training can do a lot, but it should help equalize a disparity in size rather than make your tiny ninja completely invincible (unless you're writing fantasy) Why not,

  • Actually let small size be a disadvantage! You know, let her get grabbed, even picked up off the ground. The goon's arms are longer--let him hit her a couple of times. It's not fair, it's frustrating, but it might be good fiction.
  • Let the overdogs win sometimes. That builds credibility. At least in Episode IV the stormtroopers managed to slaughter some Alderanian marines and the Jawas.

A Weapon -- It can be lethal or not, intended or improvised. Even fingernails, keys, etc.

Cliches to avoid:

  • "The goon is ALWAYS surprised by the weapon and goes down with one shot." Let the weapon equalize the fight but not end it. A weak arm swinging a baseball bat is still a weak arm.

  • "Every action hero or heroine is an expert in every stinking weapon." I'd like to see some unfamiliarity--like a sword expert forced to adapt her techniques when all she's got is a lawn chair.

An Ally -- The cavalry to the rescue! This one is pretty straightforward.

The classic cliche:

  • In the Nick of Time" Well, of course they have to be in time. Just please, no ridiculous delays. If the audience is yelling "why doesn't he just shoot her already?" then you've missed your mark.

Go for a Soft Spot! -- The eyes, face and yes the infamous Ball Kick

Cliches to avoid:

  • "A direct hit starts a chain reaction that destroys..." Why not have that ball kick miss, or just not be effective, and the heroine has to try something else?

  • "The bad guy is never expecting it" Why not have her set up the Soft Spot hit rather than go straight for it? Flail around at his head with that lawn chair and THEN go for the nuts. Please, just ANYTHING but the Unstoppable Lethal Ball Kick.
Didn't Bring the 'A' Game (thanks to Jessica--I added this after her comment)

Right--so, what if the Goon isn't trying as hard as the teensy hero?

The classic cliche:

  • Fatal Overconfidence: "Ha! I could just shoot you with my bazooka, but that wouldn't be sporting! Instead I will tie one hand behind my back and give you this spear." In my opinion this sort of thing is moustache-twirling on a grand scale, an Evil Overlord level blunder. If it's a fight with lethal consequences then the bad guy should "just shoot her" unless there's a good reason not to.

Better Ideas: Both of these fall under the heading of "Differing Goals", which we established in "Settings"

  • I didn't know you were serious about this!: Goon only wants to teach the little girl a lesson, and doesn't think he needs to hurt her to do it. But little girl puts all 50kg on the goon's kneecap, and breaks it. This reminds me of one of my favorite Heinlein quotes: "Never frighten a small man. He'll kill you."
  • "There's one! Set for stun!" The goons need to capture the Princess alive, but she has no
    qualms about whacking a few Stormtroopers before they do.


  1. Could it also be that the gigantic goon isn't playing his A-game? I mean, he's not facing who he sees as an equal opponent. Why use all his effort? Or does this also dally in cliches?

  2. Thanks LM, but I guess I didn't 'nail them all' because Jessica is right! I'm going to add a section to the post.

  3. Hm, another option, quite possibly classified under cliche - princess tries to seduce goon. See Bristow, Sydney. Or play possum. There's the old 'live to fight another day' angle, if goon isn't actually trying to kill her in the moment. Not that I've ever taken a self defense course, but I vaguely remember reader something about the 'SING' method - solar plexus, instep, nose, groin - the idea being that going for the balls is expected and not terribly effective, but if you can manage to get a rapid succession of soft spots, you might be able to get away. (although I suspect, you're more likely to just have a wheezing, pissed off bad guy.)

    This is a great breakout of what can go wrong in an unmatched fight, both from the character's POV and the authors's :)

    Oh, and that picture is just *painful*