These are my companion pieces to Marie Brennan’s ongoing series on writing fight scenes
. Check them out!Fight! Part I: What Freeze/Flight/Fight Feels Like
Don't miss the comments, which have many more examples of people's experiences.
If you ask most people if they’ve ever been in a fight, unless they’ve had some sort of occupation which makes that likely, they’ll say, “No. Well, not real fights, just kid stuff.” I too did most of my fighting before I was fourteen. But my neighborhood was like Ender’s Game
without the zero-g – no guns, but lots of rocks and razor blades, plus the occasional knife. For a period of about five years, I got involved in some sort of violent encounter, from comparatively minor ones to ones which ended with someone in the hospital, at least a couple times a week. So it felt genuinely dangerous to me, and I took it seriously.
I described the icy calm I feel right before the action starts. I felt it back then, too. But it wasn’t that beautiful, perfect clarity, but a flat, numbed sense of, “Okay. Here goes.” I only fought when I was (often literally) backed into a corner, not by choice, so though I wasn’t helpless in the sense of being unable to fight back, I was helpless to avoid fighting at all. And there was nothing good waiting for me at the end of the fight – no life saved, no respect to be won, no revelations about myself. The context sucked out any exhilaration I might otherwise have felt…
…mostly. Somewhere in between the first blow and a little way into the fight, I’d shift from that absolute calm into something halfway between animal rage and a pure sense of wordless purpose. I didn’t care if I got hurt. I couldn’t feel if I got hurt. I didn’t try to block or dodge. I ignored the blows – I could barely even feel the blows as impacts, let alone as pain.
I had nothing in my mind other than the wordless intent to close with them, take them down, hit them as hard as I could, and keep hitting them until someone else stopped me. The whole thing happened in a blur of motion and intention. I had no idea what was going on around me, or even more than a vague sense of what my opponent was doing. That part did feel kind of satisfying, though not enough for me to seek it out.
This wouldn’t be quite how I’d want to fight now. It was effective then because even though everyone was bigger than me, they weren’t that
much bigger. Now, I wouldn’t deliberately try to get in and stay close. But to this day, when I’m in a potentially violent situation, I find myself thinking, putting words to the intention I had back then, “Fight and keep fighting. If he takes you down, rip out his throat with your teeth.”
(The latter, of course, is only a signifier of being willing to do absolutely anything to survive. Just that willingness, by itself, can sometimes be perceived by others and make them back off. Unfortunately, it only works for me if I really mean it, so I am sadly unable to intimidate, say, annoying co-workers. I expect a better actor could make more use of it.)
I didn’t always go into that sort of berserker mode when I was threatened, only if it came to an exchange of blows. If I punched someone and they didn’t fight back, I’d stop. If fighting seemed too dangerous, I’d hang back, consciously gauge the situation, and strategize.
For instance, a boy once backed me up against a wall and threatened me with a switchblade. I was pretty sure he was only trying to scare me, but I worried that he might cut me by accident, the way he was waving the knife around. (I remember thinking, He doesn’t scare me, but his knife scares me.
) I made a move with my right hand as if I was going to grab it. He pulled it away, looking at my right hand, and I snatched it with my left hand and tossed it over the wall. In that state of absolute calm, I knew I could do it, and I was right. I don’t know how to square that with the usual loss of manual dexterity. Maybe I was in the sweet spot where mental effects had kicked in but physical ones hadn’t yet.
Years later, in high school, I briefly studied fencing with foils. If I were a character who had previously been fighting with swords, that might have felt a bit like the real thing. Since I wasn't, it felt like a sport. A sport at which I sucked. The mask was cumbersome and distracting, and I was aggressive but not fast, a horrible combination which meant that I was perpetually lunging onto my opponent’s foil and getting huge bruises on my chest.
Years after that, I began studying Shotokan karate. I never felt that I was in danger, so I couldn’t access the speed and clarity that I had hoped would kick in (in a non-crazy, non-berserk way), making me a brilliant fighter. I never got to be more than a so-so fighter, because I could rarely tap into the flow state while sparring that skilled martial artists can access. I did occasionally, if I sparred with people I was on a good sparring wavelength with, we’d move like musicians jamming, reading each other’s minds, more cooperative than competitive. But I never lost touch with reality, and could easily follow the action and plan my moves. My problem was that more skilled people could plan better and faster.
To me, fighting isn't about the moves, it's about the internal state. Punching someone because they attacked you doesn't feel like punching someone because you're training together. Sparring, when it was good, felt like playing. Sparring, when it was bad, felt like a test I was failing. It never felt like fighting, even though many of the movements were similar. Fighting feels like fighting. Sparring feels like sparring.
That being said, I have mostly fought defensively. When I write characters who are the ones to start the fight, for whatever reason, I draw more on my knowledge of how it feels to spar, because I imagine that it feels more similar in that you are choosing to fight of your own free will, and skip the "OMG this is happening" state entirely. The few times in my life when I've lost my temper and punched someone who hadn't hit me first (NOT SINCE HIGH SCHOOL) I wasn't in the "fight" state of freeze/fight/flight - I was just angry. I knew exactly what was going on, there was no sense of heightened or altered reality, and I could track what was happening just as I can when I'm sparring.
For fictional purposes, I would draw more on my experience of dangerous situations in general if I'm writing about an inexperienced or defensive fighter, and more from my knowledge of martial arts if I'm writing an experienced or aggressive fighter. Though, of course, every character and situation requires its own unique approach.
If you've never fought at all, for real or in training, here's my experience of how some of the physicality feels like.
Contact in my style is light (to the body) and just short of touching (to the head.) “Light” means just a tap: you focus the power of the blow on the cloth of the uniform. But accidents happen. (I trained maniacally for six years, went to tournaments, did all-day camps, etc, so there really weren’t very many accidents considering the time frame.)
I tend not to feel pain, or much pain, when I’ve been hit – it’s pure impact, as if there was a burst of light or a blast of sound made physical. You can get hit fairly hard and not let it phase you for more than a second or two. A harder blow to the head can make you feel odd and wobbly, and be unable to pay attention for the next few minutes. But you could still fight if you had to. You can quite easily keep fighting if you've broken small bones like toes or fingers, though you will probably notice because those hurt a lot.
Knocking people unconscious is difficult. I never saw it happen in the entire time I trained, not even at tournaments. I only once saw someone dropped with one blow and be unable to get up, rather than deciding that it would be better to sit out, or someone telling them to sit out. He'd gotten kicked in the side and cracked three ribs. If you hit someone hard enough to knock them unconscious, you've potentially hit them hard enough to kill them. A character who fights a lot would probably know that.
Contrary to what you may have heard, I never found that it hurt my hand to punch someone hard in the face, hard enough to blacken their eye or split their lip. It might knock some skin off your knuckles. Punching a wall, on the other hand, hurts like hell. So does breaking a toe, or cracking your toenail in half. But you can keep fighting. I twice broke a toe during a belt test, so I was pretty motivated then to not stop. The first time no one else noticed. The second time I screamed, then added, "I'm fine! Keep going!" Once you get back to what you're doing, you stop noticing the pain.
One thing that serious training will demonstrate is that pain doesn’t stop people – all else aside, they may not even feel it. If you want to be certain that you’re going to stop someone, you will have to cause some level of structural injury that makes it impossible for them to keep fighting.
The concluding part of this series will be on integrating martial arts into real life situations – both in life and in fiction.
As always, please feel free to comment with your own experiences, or anything else you'd like to add.