02 May, 2010

Writing the Fight -- Characters

Designing a fight has to begin with an understanding of the combatants. One good reason is so that the actions in the fight fit the characters, but that's not the best reason--the best reason is that a GOOD fight helps DEFINE your characters.

"You never truly know a man until you fight him"

-- that kung fu guy, Matrix Reloaded

Rrrrighht. So let's begin with some of the things you need to know about your characters before you start having them beat on each other. By the way, this kind of understanding of the characters is important whether they're the fight designer's creation or not. The fight designer does NOT have control over the characters if he's creating a fight for a play or film (the director and actors have that responsibility) and the fight designer has limited authority over character if he's dealing with a historical figure.

For this example I'll use a fight I designed for a bedtime story for my son. The combatants are,

President Theodore Roosevelt and Batman


The Joker and Some Goons

This fight occured when Batman traveled back in time to help the President end the Russo-Japanese War, which started because the Joker planted a whoopee cushion in the Tsar's chair and blamed the Japanese ambassador for it. (That's not important right now, but it's funny.) We'll concentrate on T.R. since this is after all a historical fiction blog.

President Theodore Roosevelt (1905)

Describe the fighter's physical characteristics: The President is a big man, probably a bit over 200 pounds at this point and in decent physical shape but not optimum. He has a desk job but he works out when he can. He is very nearsighted and must wear spectacles to have any chance at ranged combat.

What training does the fighter have? T.R. is an experienced amateur wrestler and boxer who has taken a few judo lessons. His abilities with edged weapons are limited to pointing a saber in the direction of the enemy, or skinning a deer with a Bowie knife. He is a good shot with small arms and can handle large-bore rifles with no trouble. Superb horseman.

How tough is the fighter? Once finished a speech with a bullet lodged in his chest. 'Nuff said.

Before the Fight: Belligerence and Aggression:
Is this character accustomed to using violence or the threat of violence to achieve his goals? How does he react when threatened?
T.R. made implications of violence ("the big stick") a centerpiece of American diplomacy. On a personal level, I think he would make it clear he is willing to fight but not do anything unseemly like put up his fists unless the other fellow already has. If confronted with a belligerent he believes honorable, T.R. would most likely "call him out" for a fair and non-lethal contest, for example a fistfight. As a younger man (and not a sitting President) he could have gotten himself into a pistol duel under the right conditions.

Winning the Fight -- Ruthlessness and Limits:
Will he go all-out? Can he finish the job? If T.R. gains an advantage he will likely continue to attack until he incapacitates his opponent: he will not, however, continue to punish a defeated enemy. He will shoot to kill in a gunfight, and will try to knock an opponent out or force him to submit in hand-to-hand combat. He knows at least a few ways to do this with his hands (punchout, wrestling holds and throws, possibly a chokeout)

Losing the Fight:
Is Surrender an Option? Being more concerned with his legacy than his personal safety, T.R. will put on a 'bully good show' until the bitter end if he thinks his death will have some value. However, I think he would surrender to an honorable enemy if necessary, or especially if it would save the lives of troops he commands.

Situational Questions:
There are too many to answer here or even list them all, but some good ones are: How does he react if surprised? Cornered? Wounded? What tricks does he know? Does he have reasons to fight or not fight that aren't related to the battle at hand? Will he try to use an improvised weapon if he's unarmed? What sort of fight is 'in his element', and what will he do if it's not his kind of fight?

I recommend answering as many of these situational questions as you can think of. It's not about whether or not the character will encounter this situation in the fight you're writing--it's about understanding how your character will react in combat, which not only helps to design a good fight but will give you insight on his overall nature. Remember, "You never truly know a man until you fight him."


  1. Great way to ponder through the character's actions in any conflict, not just a physical altercation - you've quite neatly summed up TR's inflection points when dealing with an opponent :)

  2. Thanks... would love to see JT Brockmole lay this out for her famous fight scene of Evan versus A Roomful of Victorian Underthings!

    By the way, when I posted this today and explained what I was doing, my son immediately put on his Batman costume and attacked me. I had to pretend I was T.R. and defend myself accordingly. Lots of half-nelsons and the occasional shoulder throw. Bolster pillow served as a 'big stick' once he pulled the Batarang on me.

  3. That sounds like a challenge I might be willing to take up....

    The Underthings are such an unpredictable opponent, though. Are they starched or not? Buttons or those nasty little hooks? Whalebone or metal? I'm not convinced that Surrender is ever an Option when it comes to underthings.

    I do agree with Becky, that this could be a very useful way of getting inside a difficult character's head, even outside a physical fight. To know whether or not your character is willing to give ground on even the most pedestrian of issues is important.

    Honestly, I think I'll run through this when looking back through my Thrilling Climax. Above all, it's a clash of wills. I'm curious to know now if I've set it up for a believable outcome.

  4. I dunno, I surrender to underthings all the time.