Fight! Part I: What Freeze/Flight/Fight Feels Like.

Fight! Part II: What Fighting Feels Like.

On to an actual fight scene!

Just kidding. This got too long for that. Next time. Seriously.

A little-discussed but equally dramatic element of fighting is not fighting. When you hit a point in the plot in which it would make sense to have a fight take place, it can be worth considering what would happen if it doesn’t, or if it’s preceded by an attempt to avert it. You can get an enormous amount of comic, suspense, or emotional mileage out of a scene in which a character desperately tries to avoid a fight.

There’s a lot of reasons why a character might not want to fight. Maybe they don’t know how or know they’re outmatched, and don’t want to get beat-down or killed. Maybe they have a disability or condition that makes fighting very dangerous. (There are a number of scenes in the Vorkosigan books in which Miles tries not to get his brittle bones broken.) Maybe they’re a great fighter, but are masquerading as someone who isn’t and know that they instant they start fighting, their reflexes will give them away and blow their cover. Maybe they’re morally opposed to violence. (There’s a great scene in the movie Witness in which an Amish man, played by an extremely young Viggo Mortensen, lets a bully shove ice cream into his face.) Maybe they don’t want to hurt or kill their opponent, because they’re being forced to fight or their opponent is someone they care for or their opponent is not up to their level. (See much of The Hunger Games.)

All these motives, however noble, may lead your character to look or at least feel like a coward or a tool. That’s half the fun of those scenes, if they’re played from that character’s POV. It’s also fun to not do that, and maybe have other characters make snap judgments that they later realize were wrong. (Some good examples of this in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief series.)

Unless you’re dealing with career criminals, it’s often though not always the case that the more violence a person has experienced, the more reluctant they are to get into a fight. On the other hand, some types of past experiences with violence teach you that backing down, apologizing, or running will only make things worse. People with those sorts of experiences might try to bluff or threaten their way out of situations, though.

Whatever the reasons, you can avoid, or try to avoid a fight, by refusing to take a challenge, making threats, fleeing the scene, summoning help, talking your way out of it, or even maintaining a physical distance between you and the person trying to fight you until your opponent gives up.

I’ve used all those techniques at some point or another, but I’ll use the last one as a walk-through. It also comes closest to giving a sample of how it feels to fight when you’ve had some training, as the run-up to a fight is an important part of the fight itself.

(I can’t give you an example of an actual post-training fight, because I’ve never been in one. The other time I came close was when one guy accosted me, and while I was distracted, his two buddies stepped out of a dark alley and flanked me. I side-stepped the one on my left and ran like hell.)

I forget how long I’d been training at that point, but long enough to have a good grasp on the concept of distance.

In fighting terms, this means perceiving and maintaining various distances between you and your opponent. There is the distance at which you can kick, the distance at which you can punch, etc, and the distance at which they can kick or punch you. There’s the distance at which they would have to take more than a single step or slide in to reach you. There’s the distance at which you can hit them with some kind of close-in techniques, like an elbow strike, but if they have longer limbs, they’re too close to effectively hit you. Etc. These seem like simple concepts, but it takes a fairly long time for most people to internalize and effectively use them, especially as distance is constantly shifting.

So there I was, walking along the sidewalk in broad daylight and minding my own business, when a homeless-looking man started to pass me, walking in the opposite direction. As we were momentarily beside each other, I saw a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye, and leaped away from it.

Next thing I knew, the man was swearing at the top of his lungs and approaching me in a menacing manner.

I didn’t go into any major sort of fight mode, or maybe just enough to get a bit of cool clarity without any sense of time slowing. What I did go into was sparring mode: evaluate, plan, react; stay in your body, observe your opponent, read their intentions.

I backed off, fists up, keeping enough distance between us that he’d have to take more than one step to reach me. As I backed off, he approached, so we began circling around on the sidewalk, with me maintaining a constant distance between us. He was yelling and making angry gestures; I was watching for signals that he was about to either charge me or reach for a concealed weapon.

Without taking my eyes off him, I evaluated the situation. I was squared off with a very angry and probably mentally ill person. He had no visible weapons, but he was wearing a jacket over baggy clothes and could easily be concealing one. I was on a broad sidewalk with a low wall on one side, and a busy street on the other. I couldn’t cross the street without risking getting hit by a car, and I couldn’t get over the wall without putting both my hands on it. If I turned and ran, I’d be turning my back on him.

Was he dangerous? Well, he was certainly pissed off. It seemed wisest to treat him as dangerous. Could I fight him? I thought so. No visible weapons. He wasn’t that big. He didn’t move like he knew how to fight, and he looked in his late forties/early fifties and not in the greatest of shape. But if he had a weapon and I engaged with him, one teeny error on my part could get me killed. If he wasn’t armed, I was pretty sure I could take him. But then I’d have beaten up some old, mentally ill, homeless guy. That didn’t seem like anything to be proud of.

I decided that I’d fight him if he charged me or went for a weapon, but not otherwise. I had a couple ideas floating around for specific things I could do depending on specific things he might do, but generally intended to react in the moment.

I stomped on my pride and apologized. “Sir, I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you, and I apologize.”

“Then why are you backing off?” he yelled. “Fucking bitch!!”

Leaving out the swearing and incoherence, he basically said that I’d insulted him by jumping away from him, and was now insulting him by continuing to act like he was dangerous. If I was really sorry, he said, I’d stop backing away. He assured me that he wouldn’t touch me. (“I’m not gonna lay my hands on you, you fucking stuck-up coward bitch!”)

“I’m sorry I insulted you,” I repeated. “I was startled, that’s all. But I’m not going to stop backing off. I want YOU to back away from ME!”

This provoked another flood of abuse. We continued to circle around the same patch of sidewalk, alternating “You stop backing off!” with “No, YOU back away from ME.”

Keeping my mouth and body on auto-pilot – that is, still watching him for threatening movements - I considered ways to break the pattern. I didn’t have a cell phone, or I might have threatened to call the cops. In retrospect, I could have started screaming, “HELP! HELP! SOMEONE CALL THE COPS!” But none of my instincts, as molded by my childhood, are to call for help, and that never even occurred to me. And for whatever reason, the guy seemed to be unwilling or unable to close the distance between us, instead relying on trying to get me to stop creating that distance. I decided that I was probably more patient than him (I’m more patient than most people) and that I’d keep circling and telling him to back off until the cows came home, or someone else intervened, or he gave up.

That is exactly what happened, though I felt supremely ridiculous doing it. Especially since he kept calling me a coward and saying that he wasn’t dangerous and I was an idiot and proving that I was terrified of harmless old him, etc. I thought, At the very least, you are way too eager to get within touching distance of me. I thought, I am making a fool of myself. He’s probably just a harmless… furious raving guy, never mind. Though everything I was doing was based on the idea that he might try to kill or seriously harm me, I didn’t feel fear in the visceral sense. The emotions I recall were mainly annoyance, the feeling that I was making a fool of myself in public, and an adrenalized sense of readiness.

After what I think must have been at least five minutes, which is a very long time to do that sort of thing, he stomped off.

To this day, I have no idea what that was about. Had his first move toward me been an attempt to cop a feel, to punch me as a symbol of every woman who’d ever insulted him, to snatch my purse, or an innocent request for spare change? Had he not intended anything at all, except that my hair-trigger reflexes happened to set off his hair-trigger resentments? What would he have done if I’d let him approach me? I’ll never know, but I got what I wanted and he didn’t get what he wanted – and God only knows what he wanted. In that sense, I won that engagement without a single blow being exchanged.

That was one way it can feel like not to fight; had he charged me, that’s one way it would have felt like the moment before the fight began.
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