Guest post: Kameron Hurley on combat in fiction
This week I’m delighted to host an article by award-winning author Kameron Hurley, whose Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy is at last being published in the UK. Kameron and I first met in 2012 at Chicon 7, where she was giving away books if you ate a bug (dried mealworms and crickets, designed for human consumption, I would add!); I ate several bugs but did not take a book, for the sake of my luggage allowance, but would heartily recommend her work if you’re into SF with tough female characters.
Inside the Ring: Crafting Believable Combat in Fiction
Once upon a time, I took boxing and mixed martial arts classes. For the first time in my life, I learned to appreciate the power my body was capable of generating.
One fist. One punch. Power.
Boxing classes taught me the physicality of close combat. I’ll never know what it’s like to fight in a war (let’s hope) or to kill someone (let’s hope), but what I did have was the ability to learn how to throw and take a punch. What I couldn’t get a feel for in the ring, I could pick up by talking to others and through extensive research.
It wasn’t a huge surprise, then, that when I was trying to come up with a fighting style for the folks in my novel, God’s War, I leaned heavily on my knowledge of boxing, kickboxing, and Krav Maga. I liked the rawness and physical brutality of these styles. It wasn’t about being pretty. It was about getting results.
What I didn’t realize before I started taking classes was that there was also a lot more to stepping in the ring than just hitting hard. Anybody can throw one great punch. The trick was to be able to keep on throwing them – and taking them – for long periods of time. Fighters needed endurance. I found myself jogging three miles, twice a week, on the Chicago waterfront in blistering cold, just so I could keep up with the punching drills in class. If someone would have told me that being better at boxing meant cardio, I would have quit before I started.
But it did give me good details for the worlds I created. The better fighters, like better zombie evaders, kept up on their cardio.
Even now, years after taking classes, I can still close my eyes and work myself into a situation similar to my characters’. I can block it out. Imagine their footwork. Don’t ever ask me to dance, because I’m terrible at it, but I’ve gotten pretty good at blocking out a fight scene.
If you can’t rely on personal experience of some kind – or, even if you have some passing experience taking a martial art – your details are only going to be richer if you do your homework. Watch boxing matches. Watch MMA fights. Read about medieval combat. Scour books for firsthand accounts. Talk to friends with military training. Not long after graduating high school, a number of my friends became Marines, and were delighted to show me all the different ways they’d learned to kill people. It’s an unsettling thing to realize your friends have become trained killers, but it should feel surreal. Because if you’re writing fight scenes in a world that’s incredibly violent, like the one in my novels, people are going to be pretty different. It should feel that way.
Here are some things to keep in mind when writing fight scenes:
Blocking. Where are the combatants located? I’m pretty good at mapping things out in my head at this point, but when you have complicated battles, or those involving armies on a grand scale, it might be worth hauling out a pen and paper or some D&D minis and figuring out where everybody is and where they’re going. My theater training also came in handy here, believe it or not. When I’d memorize my lines for a show, I’d also memorize my blocking, my movements with each line, so I got used to mapping out virtual situations in my head. Having a second person read what you’ve written helps, too. I had a reader once email me to note that the left uppercut my character threw was actually a set up for a right hook, not a left hook (I’d written left. So they’re punching up with the left, pulling back, and punching around again with the same arm, which is a wasted movement, and counterintuitive. Just try standing up and trying to throw those punches – two lefts or a left, then right. Pretty clear which is the winner). But sometimes this stuff gets through when you’re writing quickly. When in doubt, stand up and block it out with a friend. Nicely.
Weapons. Do your fighters have weapons, or bare fists? If weapons, you’ll need to know the potential reach and damage of those weapons. I made up a lot of different types of fantasy/science fictional weapons for the God’s War universe, from scatterguns to acid rifles to organic pistols. I needed to figure out how many shots each had, at what distance they were accurate (more or less, depending on the skill of the user), how heavy they were, where my characters stored them (at the hip? Strapped to the thigh? Across the back? Over the shoulder?) and of course the shape – which is important for when they’re out of ammo and hitting people with them. Large differences in the height/reach of your characters are also going to matter. My spouse likes to tell a story of when a bully with a shorter reach once challenged him to a fight. My spouse is nearly 6’4”, and was able to snap out and hit the guy easily without ever being within the other guy’s shorter reach. Fight over.
Skill of combatants. Is you protagonist a good shot? Have they been formally trained on how to throw a punch? Is this their first fight, or their 50th? Have they fought for a living? Are they war veterans, or do they have military training? The way a character thinks about and approaches a fight is going to vary based on their training. Good, decent people with training actually try hard to avoid a fight with a less skilled opponent. This is because if you’ve been trained to kill people, getting into a fight with a screaming frat boy or blustering sorority sister is a life-or-death match that the better trained fighter knows the other isn’t ready for. Fighters with training will always beat fighters without, often with a single blow. The fights that stretch out are blustering-drunk-fights among the unskilled or fights between equally skilled opponents. It’s often shocking to realize how fast most fights are over. It’s not all thirty minutes of KungFu drama. Even boxers are quickly shuffled off the circuit if they can’t give the audience “a good show.” Which means sticking it out for several rounds. Nobody likes a one-hit wonder match.
Number of combatants. This is related to blocking, as it’s important to know exactly how many folks you have in motion at any one time. For massive campaigns involving hordes of troops, the best resources are historical ones. I have a great book called 100 Battles that Shaped the World that gives me historical overviews and troop movement maps for great battles from antiquity to the modern day. My research assistant found some strong resources, too, including this interactive timeline for the battle of Gettysburg. For small-scale combat, writing scenes where one person takes on a group are… well, they are Hollywood at best. In real life, you’d need to create a crazy Conan-type character or a single character with superior weaponry to successfully take on a group (which, yes, I do quite a lot because I love Conan). Again, when you have, say, three people of equal fighting ability and it’s two on one, the person who’s fighting on their own is pretty much fucked unless they are incredibly smart about using their environment to get away – running, dodging, leaping. Running, basically. I had a martial arts instructor tell me that once I moved into a fighting stance in response to an attacker instead of running, I’d chosen to fight. So I needed to be seriously sure I was ready to start a fight before committing to that stance. It’s a commitment I have my characters very aware of making as they slip into it instead of running. There’s always a choice. What your character chooses to do is interesting in and of itself.
Women have always fought. Everything I’ve said here goes for combatants of every type. When building fictional worlds, remember that it’s a good time to challenge your own expectations for who fights, and why. Women have of course fought in regular armies, revolutionary armies, and in individual combat forever. It’s something folks sometimes forget when they put together their armies, militias, patrols, and bar fights. Writing my God’s War trilogy forced me to interrogate my default assumptions for secondary characters of all types. With all men drafted at the front, every spear carrier – from the bartender to the boxing ticket manager to the security personnel outside the bounty hunting reclamation office – were default female.
I don’t take any fighting classes these days, because of jobs and mortgages and dogs and commutes. But when I sit down at my desk I can still close my eyes and go back there. In truth, I’m there every day, stepping into the ring with my characters, letting them take the blows meant for me.
Sometimes they’re pissed at me. I tell them it builds character.
ABOUT Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.