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Uneven Balance is a Tension Killer

4 November 2017

From How to Fight Write:

I have a scene in my book where the two main characters fight soon after meeting one another, in an area where no one else gets in their way and they have a lot of flat empty space. Both are very skilled, but only one of them has weapons. It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such. The character that isn’t armed needs to win, and I’m not entirely sure how, realistically, he would.

I’d ask what two highly skilled characters are doing getting into such a silly situation when they know better, especially the one caught without their weapons. However, real people do stupid things too.  For all I know, they might of been drinking. Just know, the higher the level of training then the less likely it is for two characters to fight when they don’t absolutely have to.  Justification is good. Make sure you’ve got a reason for them to fight that feels natural for both characters beyond needing them to fight for the plot. I don’t know why they’re fighting, for all I know it could’ve started off a drunken row with one yelling, “Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you!”

These characters don’t actually exist, but it’s important to get yourself in the habit of thinking they could die. I could die is one of the major thoughts that will occur in the mind of anyone who is highly skilled, and more likely to occur than it is with someone who isn’t sufficiently trained.

. . . .

The soldier understands that violence is unpredictable, that death is sudden, and no form of combat is ever truly safe. One mistake is the difference between life and death. Characters who are skilled will avoid violence because they understand its costs. They have nothing to prove. Remember, a knife is one of those “hell no” weapons. No one wants to be anywhere near a knife when they’re armed with one of their own, much less unarmed.

I could die. Is this worth it? I don’t want to die. Is this worth my life?

Often in well-written fiction when you’ve got an incredibly skilled character jumping into fights all the time for no real reason, it’s because they have a death wish. When someone does want to die, simply doesn’t care about living any longer, or sees themselves as already dead then that changes the stakes. There’s also, “I like to fight” which often translates into “I like to kill” in regards to unrestrained violence. Unless there’s a rules set down, two highly skilled characters have an excellent chance of killing each other. The weapons one of these characters has brought to this fight, say, “yes, I do intend kill you. I will make you very dead.”

Link to the rest at How to Fight Write and thanks to Elizabeth for the tip.

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17 Comments to “Uneven Balance is a Tension Killer”

  1. interesting questions to himself about characters.

    lots of assumptions about ‘soldiers’

    there are as many ways of being soldier as there are soldiers; boot camp is only one layer. Seasoned, unseasoned soldiers, are not the same. Plenty of soldiers without discipline who nonetheless manage to stay alive. All manner of dramas and ways and means.

    • Also, ‘soldier’ meant something entirely else back in medieval times. They could be anything from a conscripted farmer to a mercenary to a standing army man. All with different levels of skill.

      • very good point Jeff, many many forced to fight for the landowner/leige, who were knife and pole farmers and fisher people… all the way up into the 20th century in the euro farmlands and isolated villages… likely yet today as many are still sharecroppers despite soviet collectivization in e eu.

  2. Both are very skilled, but only one of them has weapons. It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such. The character that isn’t armed needs to win, and I’m not entirely sure how, realistically, he would.

    I have a problem with these sentences because they contradict one another. What this tells me? The author hasn’t thought this through at all.

    “Only one has weapons.”

    “they have daggers and such.”

    Which is it? What does ‘and such’ mean?

    “The character that isn’t armed needs to win.”

    (sigh) I can see a long fight scene coming, one where the unarmed guy does a lot of jumping around and is suddenly saved by a passing minor character, likely female, who becomes the ‘plucky side-kick’ or worse yet ‘cardboard plucky love-interest’ who never does a single interesting thing again, and forgets how they saved ‘the hero’s bacon’ and never does more than crack jokes and hide behind the hero for the next 12 books.

    It would be a whole lot more interesting to have the two main characters walk stiff-legged, hackles up around each other and conduct a game of bluff and bluster instead of having the fight and struggling to make the result look less contrived than it is.

    It all depends on one factor – does the writer have the skill needed to write the dialog of bluff and bluster?

    It’s a whole lot easier to write the fight scene.

    • It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such.

      I have a problem with these sentences because they contradict one another. What this tells me? The author hasn’t thought this through at all.

      The author was certainly imprecise, but I took the phrase to mean that because the story is set in medieval times, the options available are only those weapons that existed in medieval times. The armed character might have a dagger or a sword or a quarterstaff, etc. The unarmed character would have nothing at all. Although…that gives me pause. Since knives were the primary implement for eating, even an unarmed character might well have a knife.

      • YOu made me smile JM NG, in our family all the men eat with knives only, except for soup. WHich, look away! We tilt the bowl and drink and slurp.

        Lol, it makes for a very musical meal sometimes, lol

      • Exactly – skilled medieval warrior who doesn’t have a dagger?

        Didn’t think it through.

        • …skilled medieval warrior who doesn’t have a dagger?

          Another good point. How would a skilled medieval warrior come to possess no weapon at all?

          Of course, a dagger is a very different affair from an eating knife. The thing is, an eating knife is still a knife, plenty dangerous if wielded with intent. And most people carried them back then. You didn’t arrive at the dining board expecting it to be set out with all the cutlery (or any) that modern tables possess. You arrived and pulled out your own blade.

  3. I love writing fight scenes, but so many times when I get ready to do it, it really becomes a case of no sane person would go into this fight. Better to get the hell away and live to fight another day. Since the action is what I like as a reader and a writer, I have to dig deep to come up with reasons why it’s very necessary that my character not choose the smarter path. But that’s half the fun of writing, coming up with scenarios where choosing to headbutt the bull is the only sane choice.

  4. Make sure you’ve got a reason for them to fight that feels natural for both characters beyond needing them to fight for the plot.

    I’m glad she said this. In my critique group someone had a story where the character, I’ll call her “Buffy” (there are monsters in the story), gets into a pointless fight with a random guy who insulted her.

    One guy in our group has studied martial arts, and he wondered how smart this girl was supposed to be if she’s getting into fights with a guy twice her size over a lame insult. I asked why she just couldn’t use her words. Toss off a snappy comeback and go on with her day. The writer wanted us to think “Buffy” was tough and skilled as a fighter, instead we thought she was too dumb and reckless to live.

    It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such.

    Swords, halberds, and staves weren’t an option in the Middle Ages? 😉 I wonder what class these men are, otherwise, why not sickles and flails, too? Isolated location makes me think they’re in the country.

    I’m hazy on the medieval era myself, so I’m curious if people could afford to wreck their clothes in knife fights. I know the Romans saw clothes as enough of a big deal that they’d call upon the gods to curse anyone who stole their clothes … and also, that there were people who stole clothes. This fight could potentially be lot of fun if instead of “Not the face!” they instead say, “Not the shirt! I just got it back from the fullers.”

  5. If the unarmed guy really is very skilled, and he is in the middle of a big field, it’s pretty easy. He runs.

    If you want that kind of fight, stick them in a confined space where the unarmed guy can’t escape. In a confined space, he’s fighting for his life. In a big field, I don’t know what he is fighting for. He knows better.

    And clothes? I suspect that if they get wrecked, they won’t be needed anymore.

  6. Having worked ‘the knife and gun club’ many years ago [the ER of city hospital] I would say that sanity is not a part of many fights that cause grave injury and death. The psychology of what makes a man or woman leap into a bloody screaming snarl, cant be left out.

    Also, sanity can include as in the many many holocaust witness stories, leaping to protect, to fight, literally to the death, to protect the vulnerables.

    Like Weisel said, the best perished in the camps … the best being those who fought to protect children, elders, spouses, friends, holy people…. The superior weaponry of the Nazi guards against the unarmed was no match. Rage is indeed a weapon to intimidate, but only if the other has no weapon at ready.

    When I went back to Auschwitz with a group of persons freed from the camps by the russians and the GIs, the stories were so painful to hear that i felt we all could barely live past the sad, beyond cruel, endings of so many brave souls who tried to protect– who were slaughtered as they fought to protect pregnant mothers, fathers of many children, beautiful young men and women, little children, babes in arms.

    THere are reasons to fight that are sane, and not all of them are freeze, flight or other.

    • Read the tale of a Jewish dancer a few days ago. On arriving at the camp, she distracted the guards by dancing a very sexy strip tease – then grabbed one of their guns and took out several of them. (Of course, all of the women in her group that joined in ended up dead – but not meekly asphyxiating in the “showers.”)

      She must have been one heck of a shot, too – the first one, the worst sadist, she castrated. Not an easy snap shot, not at all.

  7. For most fight scenes in books and movies, it is evident to me that the writer has never been in a fight. The fight scenes in the movie Bull Durham are accurate: a lot of bluster and one punch. Once the violence begins, the fight will be over in two seconds.

  8. Most unarmed fights are a swing or two and then the rolling around on the ground between the combatants commences.
    If blades are used, there is this old saying, “The loser of a knife fight dies at the scene, the winner dies in the hospital.”.

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