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Writing Martial Arts, Part 1: MA Basics

One of the topics that we have thoroughly enjoyed speaking on, at LTUE and elsewhere, is how to create and write martial arts in fiction. Being that we are both martial artists ourselves, we have a great deal of personal experience to draw upon for inspiration. This series of posts is designed for both experienced martial artists and those with no exposure at all, but who all desire to write about martial arts in their fiction.

Part 1: Martial Arts Basics

First, you have to accept that no one post, or series of posts, can expose you to everything you need to know. We just can’t cover it all. You MUST research.

Of course, you could just go out and write. But trust me when I tell you, that when reading fiction that contains martial arts, I can tell the difference between a writer with experience and research, and someone just flying off the cuff. As a martial artist, some of the stuff out there makes me cringe. I’m sure that you don’t want to do that to me.

So, where to start?

I’ve heard the recommendation to take a martial arts class, and I’ve heard that recommendation debunked. Here’s a few pros and cons of this approach.

PROS Hands-on experience Meet martial artists who can become a resource Realistic understanding of how a MA school runs Hopefully gain some useful skills while you’re there

CONS Every martial art is different, so studying at one school is very limited exposure Takes a long time to actually become proficient and/or learn what you need to know for your story Cost

Here’s my thought: no amount of research can really show you what it’s like to study martial arts. However, you may not need to go through the bruises, the repetition, the nerves, and all else in order to effectively write martial arts. So would I encourage you to take classes? Yes I would, but mostly for PRO #4. I’m a martial arts instructor, and I believe that everyone needs self defense skills. But I can also show you some ways to write martial arts that won’t require you to get a black belt first.

Understand what is actually possible. I saw a Mythbusters episode where they had a “ninja” come and try to catch arrows. Was it possible? Yes–with the right equipment, in the right position, and only once in about 14 tries…and this guy was FAST.

This is where your research comes in. Before you include that super-cool move that you’ve seen on TV a hundred times, find out if it’s something that real people are actually able to do. And then find out if those real people are only the super-skilled-master type, or if not, find out what level of training was required for them to be able to do it. You want to ensure that your character’s abilities match his/her level of training.

Next, study up on some of the different styles of martial arts. You need to understand different styles of fighting, so you can choose one for your character, then accurately represent it in your prose. Is your martial art hard (striking) or soft (deflecting)? Does your character fight with weapons, or open hand? Is your character trained to fight groups, or one-on-one, or both? Does your character fight upright, crouched, on the ground? Does your character prefer to fight at a distance or in close? Most important of all, what is your character’s martial arts’ philosophy? (More on this in Part 2.) In your character’s martial art, what does it take to become a master? What kind of time, dedication and skill does it take to reach “mastery” and where is your character on that journey?

Now, understand this: short fights are the most realistic, particularly one-on-one. When you watch a movie or read in a book that a fight lasted for hours, or days, you are reading nothing but fiction. Skilled martial artists are trained in finishing techniques, or one-hit finishes. Even if you have two masters, there may be a brief exchange of strikes and counters, but it will not be long before someone lands a blow, and most of the time, that blow signals the end of the fight. So in your fiction, you must balance the drama of a drawn-out fight with the realism of the one-hit finish.

Furthermore, keep in mind that no one walks away from a fight unscathed. If you have two competent fighters, there are going to be injuries, some of them devastating. I heard it put very succinctly at LTUE. The winner is the guy who leaves the hospital first. If you have a character who fights without being injured, it’s time to rewrite.

There is a world of resources available for you to begin your martial arts research. Here are just a few of our favorites:

The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi Codex Wallerstein or other of the German Renaissance combat manuals The Art of War by Sun Tzu

In Part 2 we will be covering Martial Arts Philosophies, touching on some of the real-world foundations and how you can build on them for your fiction. Part 2 is available here.

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