7 Simple Rules for Writing Realistic Combat
Even when reading books in the fantasy genre, few things take me out of a story like a lack of realism. The magic can be fantastical but it has to make sense in context, the characters may be superhuman but they have to be consistent, and no matter how otherworldly the back-story is, if it contradicts itself it ruins my immersion in the story. This article is about putting realism into your action scenes, specifically those involving unarmed combat. Now you may say; ‘my guy has the strength of ten men because of XYZ’, which is all well and good, but unless he’s always fighting weaker opponents, which hopefully he isn’t, then a solid grasp of realistic combat is still a thing worth knowing.
I’ve been practicing martial arts my whole adult life and have learned (sometimes in unpleasant ways!) some useful things about fighting. Here are 7 simple rules to keep in mind while writing realistic combat.
Rule 1: Be consistent.
Unless your character is ‘levelling up’ through training or plot gifts, their fighting skill should not magically improve for no good reason. It’s true that mentality and motivation are definite factors in a fight, but they don’t make you stronger or faster, and they don’t teach you new techniques. The believable hero doesn’t go from dominated to indestructible in a heartbeat just because he’s angry.
Keep an eye on your character’s skills/progression and avoid them suddenly becoming super-powered just because the plot needs it. If they’ve made gains, there MUST be a reason.
Rule 2: Unless they are super-powered, most women are physically weaker than most men.
If a woman is fighting a strong man toe to toe then she MUST have superior technique/experience or some other advantageous element if she is to win. Several of my female characters are capable warriors and fight and defeat stronger men, but their skill is made clear in the books through their training and experience, and even they still have to fight smart and not match strength with strength.
Have your female characters work on technique, observation, fight psychology, and pinpoint timing.
Rule 3: Big does not equal slow.
On the subject of strength, I am sick of the notion that big men are slow. I have fought many men larger than me who moved with equal speed because big muscles do NOT mean slow muscles. Yes, some beefy guys are lazy and sluggish, but a man who has built up his strength for combat will have trained for speed as well. Big does not equal slow.
A more realistic way of writing that giant thug your hero defeats is: ‘big means overconfident’.
Rule 4: ‘Kicking someone in the head is like punching them in the foot’.
Unless your character really likes to show off, a standing boot-to-the-head is unnecessary. Head kicks can and do work beautifully when timed just right, but they are hugely risky, especially since the higher you kick, the longer the groin is exposed and the longer the balance is at risk.
Keep kicks to the belly or lower; the inner hip and knee joint are both lovely targets. If you want to hit his head, use your upper limbs.
Rule 5: Head shots
On that note, punching the head with a closed fist HURTS. Most of the skull is a dense helmet of bone, and unless you’re hitting the nice soft bit at the front, your knuckles/wrist will not enjoy striking it. Bare-knuckle boxers focused heavily on body blows for this very reason (ring-deaths from brain haemorrhage increased when gloves came in because suddenly boxers could strike the head without fear of self-injury).
To strike the head, use knife-hand and palm-heel strikes – ridge-hand if you’re feeling fancy. Better yet; use elbows!
Rule 6: In the real world, the Cobra-Kai always win.
A montage of training forms on a mountain-top will NOT build a competent fighter. Forms are valuable as methods of building technique, body control and mental focus, but without an opponent (who is actively fighting back), the student will not learn the vital principles of distance and timing.
We all love a bit of Shaolin-style solo-training, but those guys fight each other as well, and so should your character. (In the real world, the Cobra-Kai always win!)
Rule 7: A kick in the groin will NOT incapacitate a determined attacker.
This is a particular pet peeve of mine, when written or when someone brings it up in the dojo. Any man who’s taken such a strike knows that the pain is quite horrible, but I speak from years of (bitter) experience when I tell you that if the man’s blood is up, a solid kick to the groin will slow him down but it will not stop him outright.
Use this strike as a setup for a more devastating blow, like a side kick through the knee or a punch to the throat.
(I know I mention groin attacks in my high kick rule, but even though they’re not a game-over move, I’d still avoid being hit there!)
To conclude, I do not say for one moment that your fantasy characters cannot bend or break some of these rules because of XYZ, but they are important to keep in mind. Context and consistency are vital no matter what world you are writing in, and even if you have to adapt these principles to fit in with your own story, an understanding of them can only improve the realism of your action scene and keep your reader immersed.
I hope you’ve found this useful. Do let me know of any questions or comments!