FIGHT SCENES: BUILDING MUSCLES BUILDS CHARACTER
USING FIGHT SCENES TO DEVELOP YOUR CHARACTERS
Part One of Four: Overview
The best actors are the ones that can completely transform not only how they speak but how they move as well. We receive so much information from visual cues in a person's body, not just their face, but their posture and their gait. Is their back straight? Is it hunched? Shoulders tight with stress? Are they tensing to attack? Are they totally relaxed? The body is a master of silent communication. As writers it is our job to help our readers visualize everything about our character and use one dimensional text to relay a three dimensional image. Nowhere is this more complicated than a fight scene.
I love writing fight scenes but how does one use combat as a way to relay things about their character? Think of the difference in styles between Jason Bourne and Bruce Lee, or Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider vs Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Take a minute, look up scenes from the shows. Matt Damon has mentioned that he trained with a boxer for the Bourne movies because the director liked the economy of movement in how boxers walk and move. Jason Bourne is an assassin, plain and simple, his entire existence is get in, kill, get out. As a result there is no hesitation, no flair, no fancy movies just fast, efficient violence. When he finishes his fights there is no looking back, no moments of wondering about a larger philosophy; he makes the fastest exit possible and disappears into the crowd. Compare that to Bruce Lee and the later movies that he became known for. The fight scenes are amazing, but not about quick kills and removing targets like Jason Bourne. They are two completely different characters, and their styles of fighting alone let you know about their frame of mind. As a writer you would describe their movements in completely different fashions, even if you were describing the same spinning back kick. Bourne's would flow and move much differently than Lee's.
What makes a good fight scene in a book, a movie or a film? On some level it depends on the genre, but there are certain things that have to be there no matter what. Even in crazy kung fu films, or shows with effects like the Matrix had, there still need to be a certain realism and flow to the movements. In movies the actors, even if they are on wires, still need to look like they are jumping and fighting. Some of my favorite scenes are Jackie Chan films, the Gun Kata fight in Equilibrium, the sword work in Kill Bill, and for sheer efficiency Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock in the movies. So, how do we translate a three dimensional fight description into text and make it flow and suck the readers in while building character?
First, it helps to have friends that spar and to have sparred a little on your own. I have been lucky that I have spent a decent amount of time around martial arts experts and former military and have sparred myself so I know the logical flow of moves. Failing that knowledge I would say that you, as a writer, need to decide what type of fighting knowledge your character has. Are they a street brawler? A martial arts expert? A weapons expert? All these different styles will look completely different on screen and need to be described in different fashions. Street brawlers are less likely to chain complex moves together, they'll punch, kick and tackle. They won't be doing wrist locks, side steps or flowing jumps, nor will they be double-tapping someone in the head like a weapons expert will. How do they handle themselves? What triggers their instincts that a fight is about to start? How are they viewing the fight? Is it something they've been forced into, something they looked for or something that they revel in? If you want to see the same character portrayed in different fashions using physicality alone, watch the most recent James Bond movies with Daniel Craig, then watch the ones with Roger Moore or Sean Connery. The actors don't need to say a word but you immediately know that the Daniel Craig Bond is a killer, the other two you perceive as suave charmers who'd prefer a martini over mortal combat any day.
Once you get an idea of how your character fights and moves, watch movies or TV shows that feature those types of fighters on Netflix, DVD or youtube. Then play the fight scenes over and over and transcribe it. Which way do the characters shift? How do they move their feet? Their arms? Describe the movement of the weapons. Then get up and move the way the characters are. Get a feel for the movement, get it into your mind. Once you have done that, you should be able to visualize it in your head enough to describe it. What makes fight scenes a challenge is writing them in an order that makes sense and that people can follow. When your fight scene is done, someone should be able to read just that scene and know exactly what makes your character tick.
I think fight scenes are overlooked in writing by a lot of people, but if you have physical combat just stating. “He punched him in the stomach, then kicked him,” you're missing an immense opportunity to captivate your reader. It's my experience, from the feedback I have received that realistically describing a combat situation -- even if it is a quick one -- can bring quite a lot to a story, and show another level of the character that may not have been evident before. Fight scenes can also be a great equalizer between genders in your stories as well. A kick-ass fighter is a kick-ass fighter, no matter if they are male or female, and you should write them in similar fashions. My Honor Bound series has six characters, three of which are trained fighters, and one of those is a woman. The other three characters are strong females as well, who throw a few punches when need be but they are not trained to fight, per se. If you haven't read the Mercedes Thompson Series by Patricia Briggs you should take a look at it. Mercy, the MC is put in quite a few combat situations and she handles herself well even though she is physically the weakest character, as she is neither a werewolf or a vampire. A well-handled fight scene becomes gender neutral, especially when weapons are involved, and a woman can handle a knife or gun just as well as a man can.
This part was a general overview to give you some ideas on why you should take time when writing an action or fight scene and the different ways they can be used to build your character or change the pace of your story. The next section is going to have some examples of scenes I have written to show just how much you can explore a character through a fight scene. The third part will be more detailed on how to write a scene and visualize it and the fourth part will be discussion on different styles of fighting and how to match style with character. I hope you enjoy them.