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Writing Martial Arts, Part 2: Philosophies

One of the things that I have learned about being pregnant is that nothing happens quite as you expect. For instance, this post, which was supposed to come out two weeks ago, got delayed due to some scary moments with the baby, a car accident, and plain old preggie-brain.

So, at last we come to Part 2: Martial Arts Philosophies! If you haven’t yet read Part 1, check it out here.

When it comes to the philosophies of martial arts, the first thing that you need to understand is that martial arts are a way of life. True martial artists–particularly true masters–dedicate their lives to the study of their art. It surpasses the physical skills. As my master so often tells me, a true martial artist develops her mind, body and spirit into one great whole.

When you are approaching martial arts in your writing, you must develop the philosophy of your character(s). Without these foundations, your martial art (and your character) will feel incomplete and shallow. To that end, I would encourage you to ask the following questions.

1) What are the tenets of my character’s martial art?

Tenets are the core beliefs of a given philosophy, or in this case, martial art. For instance, the Five Tenets of Taekwondo are Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self Control and Indomitable Spirit. Though there may be small differences in different areas (I’ve seen Respect plugged in), most Taekwondo schools teach these tenets. Most have them displayed prominently in the dojang. The tenets provide an easy-to-reference guide for what the style believes and practices.

2) How does the fighting style relate to the philosophy?


Have you watched the Karate Kid recently? Both the classic and the new movie are good examples; let’s refer to the new one. Obviously Mr. Han has a different fighting style than Master Li. The fighting style relates directly to what these schools believe. Mr. Han, who teaches the mental and spiritual aspects as much as the physical, emphasizes serenity and maturity. Master Li, whose fighting is brutal and merciless, teaches that nothing must stand in the way of victory. “No mercy!” In order to present a realistic martial art, the way your character fights must match what he believes.

3) What mental/spiritual training does my character practice? How does it relate to the physical training?

Meditation is almost intrinsically linked with martial arts. Every class I teach and attend has a period of meditation, where we practice clearing and focusing our minds. This is the most obvious mental training, but there are moments throughout martial arts training where the mental and spiritual are practiced hand-in-hand with the physical.

When my students are breaking boards, it is perfectly obvious to me when they believe that they can be successful, versus when they doubt or don’t believe. When they believe in themselves, they break. When they doubt, they often struggle or fail. Injury often results. It is part of my task to teach them mental control–sometimes, as simple as this belief in self.

As you approach writing your martial art, think through what kind of mental and spiritual training your character practices. Do they meditate? Do they pray? Do they practice ritual breathing? Do they listen to music prior to fighting? Do they write in a journal after fighting, to process their experience? Do they practice visualizations? Do they have a mantra? Choose what works best for your character, and commit to it.

4) What are the foundations of my martial art?

Where did it come from? If you are writing contemporary fiction, you should determine a country of origin for your martial art, fictional or otherwise. Taekwondo comes from Korea. Karate and Ju-jitsu in their traditional forms are from Japan. Kung Fu from China. Muay Thai from Thailand. Arnis and the other Filipino martial arts. These nations have rich histories, which directly influence these martial arts, their philosophies and their fighting styles. Even if you’re making up a martial art, if you are writing in the real world, you still should determine where it has come from, who founded it, what the history is, and how that nation’s history and personality has influenced the martial art.

If you are writing fantastical fiction, you may have less research to do, but you still need to ask yourself these questions. Your martial art, coming from a fictional country, can end up being anything you want. But in order to depict it in a believable fashion, you still need to have these foundations. How has your martial art developed over time? How has the history of your fictional world influenced your martial art? How is your martial art perceived by people in your world, practitioners and outsiders alike? In order for your martial art to feel real, it needs to have a believable and fleshed-out history, even if you never write about it in the prose. Your readers will sense the difference.

5) What does my character believe?

Keep in mind, every martial artist is different. Sam and I have studied different martial arts, and our philosophies are quite different. But even my husband and I, who earned our black belts at the same school, are quite different in several aspects. (Don’t get us talking about guns!) What is essential for you as a writer is to determine what your character believes, and make sure it is in line with what your martial art teaches–or if not, set it up as a source of conflict, either with the masters of that martial art, or within the character himself.

In summary, the belief system of your martial art is just as essential to develop as the fighting style. Martial arts are a whole package, and if you want to write a believable martial art, you need to think through the philosophy, and determine your character’s relationship with it. Readers, whether they are martial artists or not, will connect with this kind of depth.

In Part 3, we will be getting into the nitty-gritty of how to effectively present your martial art in your prose. Look forward to the next part in our series!

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