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Your heroine, I’ll call her Danielle, pulled a screaming woman named Sarah out of a serial killer’s panel van. Danielle looked him full in the face before he decided to cut his losses and drive away, doors flapping behind. Our heroine has been interviewed by the homicide detective, who knows that this case is related to the 13 other women pulled off local streets in the early morning hours by an unknown white male driving a white panel truck. He has pulled some women out of their own driveway.
Danielle has just left the police department and she is in the parking lot walking toward her car. She had accurately described the serial killer as a squat man with a crew cut and dead eyes. The serial killer wants to make sure that there are no witnesses. And that man is now stalking her.
In the 1970s or 1980s, you could get away with her walking straight ahead, blindly getting into her unlocked car, putting the key in the ignition, and getting attacked from the back seat. And she would have been rescued by said homicide detective. Your readers will hate her if she does this today.
But it is 2023 at the time of this writing, so Danielle is not only not going to be a helpless victim, but she is about to get into a street fight with the serial killer, who has brought his accomplice with him. (Yes, they do. Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka; Hillside Stranglers Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono; Leonard Lake and Charles Ng; and Dean Arnold Corll, David Owen Brooks, and Elmer Wayne Henley for starters.)
None of the information contained in my entire website is legal advice and you and I do not have an attorney-client relationship. Nor is it advice about whether a character should fight, how much force they should use, or when they should disengage. All of these things are determined by the totality of the circumstances. Anyone in any fight is likely to have to deal with local laws, no matter what city, county, state, or country they’re in. If you’re writing science fiction and you’re going for gritty realism, you can make this an issue for your characters in your science fiction universe. On the other hand, if your alien ship’s captain puts a character on trial, you should hire an expert like me to help you get the anatomy of an investigation and trial right. Those kinds of issues are why I can’t bear to watch Star Trek: DS9 and a large swath of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
How Not to Do It
There are several ways to write a fight scene badly. Today, you can see fights on YouTube, so people know that most fights don’t involve heroes in crane stances fighting multiple opponents one at a time, each opponent helpfully waiting his turn until the bad guy ahead of him is defeated. In cheesy fight scenes, the protagonist is never surrounded and attacked at once, there’s a ton of round-kicking and not a lot of punching, and no one ends up on the ground. The protagonist is knocked unconscious and wakes up the next morning with a headache, gradually works loose his bonds, and escapes out of a window. Then there is the recipe method:
Jack was waiting for me at the bottom of the courthouse steps. “You lost my case for me, Al! She got the kids!” He threw a punch at me, and I blocked it with my forearm using a standard technique. “Damn it!” he shouted and punched at me again. This one connected, so I crouched and we circled each other cautiously. “I’m going to fuck you up, Al,” he said with a laugh. The courthouse steps were behind us. The sidewalk was hot, and to the left of us was a planter. He was dressed in blue jeans and a shirt that said Coed Naked Fishing, and it had stains. “You’re going to have to try, Jack.” “Don’t be so sure, Al.” Jack kicked at me and I ducked, then stepped deftly in, and turned to his right side. I punched out. I moved another 90 degrees. Then I kicked him hard using a snap kick. He stumbled forward and I dropped my briefcase. He grabbed for my head and I gave him a front kick, then spun around and caught him on the jaw.
How does a trained fighter let an angry person get close enough to punch him? Plus, he would have dropped the stupid briefcase or used it as an improvised club. If Al has just punched him (intermediate distance), how is he far away enough to kick him (kicking distance)? And how is Jack close enough to grab his head (close fighting)? What is Al doing with his hands? Oh, right, the stupid briefcase. If Jack is close enough to grab his head (close fighting), how does Jack have room to kick him (kicking distance)? As a bonus, for a moment you think that the “he” wearing the Coed Naked Fishing shirt is the planter. You want to analyze your own fight scenes like this. And all that talking! His client wants to beat the shit out of him. Jack is seeing red, and Al is hoping that deputies involve themselves.
Danielle drives home. She did not note that she had been followed by an old green Subaru. She was hypervigilant about white panel trucks, but green Subarus were not on her radar screen. The two killers decide to abduct Danielle, but not in her driveway. They want her off guard.
Danielle finally found a spot in the relatively empty parking lot. She took a moment, wondered how Sarah was doing, and resolved to buy something nice for her. Then she sighed and stepped out of the car into the heat. Her head jerked backward and she involuntarily took two steps back. My ponytail. And then she moved with her assailant, turned around until she was almost on top of him and punched him in the face once, twice—he let go. She elbowed him in the face, and he dropped to his knees, cradling his nose, yelling curses, and spitting blood and teeth. Someone bear-hugged her from behind. She dropped into a crouch to make herself less portable, shifted her hip, and pounded him in the testicles to make him let go, which he did—roaring—and then vomiting. She whirled and grabbed him by his left shoulder, her forearm grinding into his greasy jaw, face too close to his greasy blonde forelock, one hand on his damp bicep, and swung him around so she had a look at Crew-Cut, who was now trying to get around him to get at her. She could smell cologne, sweat, and vomit. Crew-Cut’s face was covered with gore and so was his shirt.
He was the serial killer. He was standing in the doorway of the open panel truck.
Her veins filled with ice. He was reaching into his belt, and she realized that she had been screaming “Call 911!” since she’d elbowed the man in the face and this switched to “DON’T SHOOT!” Then she thought, He’ll shoot us both. She kneed Forelock in the face. Hard. And again. And he dropped. In her peripheral vision, she saw people holding up cell phones. Crew-Cut had a gun in her face, screaming “GET IN!” and yelled at the bystanders, “She’s my wife!” but she had grabbed and redirected the barrel of Crew-Cut’s Glock and it was now inches from his body. She cupped the grip with her other hand and kicked him and kicked him in the groin so hard it made her teeth rattle. He’s wearing a cup. He still grunted. She flipped the gun’s grip toward him, then jerked it back, and his fingerbone cracked as she took the gun away. Tapping and racking the gun, she push-kicked him backward and he fell into the open panel truck. The sound was his screaming.
Forelock grabbed her again around her middle. She felt her shoulder get wet and the odor of blood and vomit rose in a cloud. He was lifting her up and pushing her toward the panel truck while Crew-Cut grabbed her feet. She wrenched a leg free and ax-kicked Crew-Cut’s hand, twisting to elbow Forelock in the head. Then again. He dropped her. Her foot was in the line of fire. The gawkers were in her line of fire. When she landed, she kicked out at Crew-Cut, who was bending over her, and got him in the face. It was like stepping on ham and mayonnaise.
She stood up as fast as she could. She backed into the parking lot traffic lane. She was no longer between them. She tapped the magazine and racked the gun. “GET OUT OF THE WAY!” she shouted at the videographers, but they had already scrambled out of the line of fire. “DOWN ON YOUR KNEES!” she called to both attackers, steadying her voice. “HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!”
Two seventysomethings shook their heads at Danielle, yelling, “Go home!” and she shouted, “Help!” but they were already walking toward the store, disgusted with her. As an afterthought, one turned and shouted, “Sober up!” at her. In the background, she heard sirens. Both men staggered to their feet.
There were police cars in the parking lot. She almost fainted with relief. There were a lot of police cars, and she realized that she was the one with the gun. Crew-Cut was at it again: “That’s my WIFE! And I want to prosecute!” Danielle dropped the Glock. There were the oldsters: “That’s his wife! And she’s on drugs!” A Trader Joe’s employee in his Hawaiian shirt was standing beside her with his phone. “Naww, man! He grabbed her by her hair! I saw the whole thing!” He was the one who called the police. She wondered who he was talking to. But a police officer was somehow standing next to her and said, “You okay? We saw some of that.” The two killers were gone. “Sarah—” she said.
Elements You Have to Get Right
I train with students who are active military and law enforcement, who say that the techniques being taught are not only effective but that they can’t get this training anywhere else. In contrast, I walked out of the taekwondo dojang after my third-degree black belt test absolutely aware that none of us, even those who earned belts higher than mine, were prepared to defend ourselves from a real attack.
Where I train now, before some of our outdoor exercises, the fight school has to notify the local police department in advance, because in the past, those training moments looked real enough that passersby have actually called the police.
So I’m here to tell you that one of the biggest things you will have to get right is the effect on your character of a life-threatening emergency, even if that character gets away without a scratch.
Characters Behave Differently Under Stress
When a human being confronts a life-threatening event, their reasoning, physical abilities, and judgment change, and not always in a good way, unless they have the impassivity under stress of a trained astronaut. But maybe not even then. Those of us who don’t panic in emergencies still experience the adrenaline crash. So will your human characters, some of whom will act like Wendy Torrance from The Shining, some of whom will act like William Mandella in The Forever War. And if your characters are exposed to life-threatening events regularly, it’s going to take its toll somehow.
What does all of this have to do with your book and your characters? Well, if you get this wrong, you’ll put those in your audience who know better off their food.
Stress affects pain tolerance. When we are training, sometimes they put an electric belt around our waists, and in the middle of things, they shock us to mimic a gunshot wound. At the end of it, they will shock us again at the same voltage. During the fight, most of us don’t feel a thing, or we feel a twinge. At the end, when we get shocked, it’s excruciating, and I usually drop to the ground and shout “FUCK!” This is not particularly elegant, but it is adaptive, because strong language increases your pain tolerance by 30 percent.
Similarly, an attacker might be on something that anesthetizes their system. Even if an attacker is shot through the heart, it takes ten seconds or so for them to die, and they can shoot or stab a victim a lot until that happens. Or throttle them. Or shove them out the window. Your character might not know they have been shot. They might think they were punched when they were really stabbed.
Stress affects fighting. Your characters will do best if they’re trained and can rely on muscle memory. You’ll note in my example, Danielle taps and racks the gun twice. That wasn’t my mistake. She did it twice because she was under stress. It’s not her gun, maybe she doesn’t even own a firearm, but she has trained that when she takes a gun, she taps and racks it. It’s automatic, and in the stress of the fight, she doesn’t remember that she already did it.
As an aside, the reason you tap and rack a gun under these circumstances is because, in the course of the fight, it might otherwise malfunction. Don’t have a character in possession of their own weapon do this, because at best, it’s a waste of a round. At worst, it’s a waste of precious seconds.
What you train to do flies out of you under stress. And, in fact, Danielle might not even be able to tell the police what techniques she even used.
Stress affects fine motor coordination. Your character will have a harder time unlocking doors or pulling a gun out of a gun safe and using it. Their aim will get worse.
Stress affects judgment. A bit of research on what really happened to the Donner party bears this out. The outcome wasn’t the result of bad luck, it was the result of a series of bad choices by a group under stress.
You Can’t Always Tell Who the Bad Guy Is
The oldsters think domestic violence is just dandy. There are still too many people who think this way. What’s more, in a situation like this, misogyny shows its face. So any woman who even raises her voice risks being seen as unhinged, hysterical, and inherently incredible. This means that there are plenty of witnesses ready to believe that Danielle is the perpetrator. If she tells any medical personnel in the ER what happened, they are likely to disbelieve her and bring in psych, or to give her a drug test, or just quietly think she’s delusional and act accordingly, or some or all of these. Your characters are going to have to cope with that, and you may need a sentence or two addressing it. At least in a book that takes place in the 2020s or earlier.
And then remember that when the police pull up to the scene, Danielle has the gun. In fact, if the serial killers did get down on their knees and put their hands on their heads and she shot them, she’s a murderer twice over. If your protagonist is standing over the villain, who is on the ground decerebrate posturing and bleeding into his brain, the protagonist will need to be prepared to be handcuffed, taken down to the police station, and questioned even if they are ultimately released.
Violence Is Sudden
Even if two people are in a verbal altercation, someone’s going to suddenly throw a punch. And nobody’s talking to each other. I’ve had countless crime victims on the stand, and the defense attorney inevitably asks, “What did he say to you?” and the usual response is “Nothing.” The only time that was different was in a home-invasion drug murder I second-chaired, and the victims were all face-down on the carpet, and one of the killers said to one of them, “I should kill you,” and then said to the second one, “You’re dead,” and then shot him. There might be “give me your money,” or “get in the car,” but this is intimidation, not physical violence. Most of the time, people who are willing to use violence don’t telegraph their intentions.
Violence is Chaotic
As far as third-party defense goes, if someone witnesses an attack, they may not know who is attacker and who is victim (unless the witness saw the whole thing from the very start), and if the witness decides to intervene with a firearm, they are likely to miss the bad guy and shoot the victim (or bystanders) by mistake. If it’s a domestic violence incident, and a witness tries to go in to try to save the victim, the victim may join the attacker in attacking the witness, to the point that domestic violence incidents are appallingly risky for law enforcement. Fistfights may start with arguments or posturing, but even then, no one announces their intentions. All of a sudden people start throwing punches. Often, fights start when someone throws a sucker-punch or tackles someone from behind. Taebaek this is not.
Fights Are Short
Most fights don’t last but a few minutes. We train to fistfight, although we use boxing gloves and not MMA gloves or bare fists, and it is stunning how hard you’re breathing after two minutes even if you are conditioned and trained. Most people aren’t professionals and they are going to get tired. Under normal circumstances, a ten-minute fight is a long, long fight.
Opponents Don’t Take Turns
Don’t make attackers stand in line. Fights happen in a circle. They want to injure or kill the victim and they’re not taking turns. The more opponents, the more it looks like a mob, and with enough opponents, the victim is going to get beaten to death. If your protagonist can defeat more than two or three opponents and walk away from the fight, you need the reader to know that the protagonist isn’t a ninja, they are a superhero. If enough people are present, the more likely the protagonist is to be tackled to the ground, and that’s when the kicking starts, if someone doesn’t have a weapon or just start bashing the protagonist in the head with a rock.
To get a rough idea of how a street fight would play out, go on YouTube and search for “Thai Girls Fight Foreigner man on Pattaya Walking Street.” The man grabbed a woman walking down the street and found himself attacked by not only the woman, but two of her friends. It did not go well for him.
Fights Go to the Ground
People who are unaccustomed to violence assume that everyone fights standing up. But people get punched in the face, they get stunned, they drop to one knee. They trip. They’re tackled. And make no mistake, everyone in a fistfight gets hit. The fighters can keep their heads down and cover their face between punches to minimize the risks. But your character should take a punch somehow.
Punches Can Kill
It doesn’t matter if a fighter is built like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime and is the best-trained martial artist there is. One person’s skull is the same thickness as as any other’s, and the human brain is still a 3-pound blob of Jell-O floating around in 5 ounces of cerebrospinal fluid, and the laws of physics are the laws of physics. If someone gets hit in the head hard enough, the brain will slosh around in the skull, causing a concussion. As an aside, someone did a big-ass MRI study and found that women’s skulls are thicker than men’s, but who cares? It’s too bad our cerebrospinal fluid isn’t viscous.
If a person is punched, the impact might have no effect, or the person can be stunned, or the person can get knocked out, and if a person gets knocked out, they can stand up moments later or they can die. And all of this depends on the strength of the punch, the length of time unconscious, and the location of the blow. And don’t forget that a second, mild concussion that takes place before healing from the first one can be deadly.
If your protagonist is knocked out for more than a few moments, they have a moderate traumatic brain injury that will affect their functioning, perhaps for years, perhaps permanently. If they are out more than a few minutes, it will affect their speech, emotional regulation, and judgment. Some people come back from that. Some people are left with permanent disability. If they are unconscious for 24 hours, they might not be able to dress themselves, talk, reason, or move properly. Recovery of any lost functioning would be a long, painstaking process. More and more people are surviving TBI and so if your character gets knocked out by the bad guy at dinner and wakes up in a cell the next morning, escapes, hails a cab, and makes it on the plane to save the scientist in London, your reader will need to understand that your protagonist is a superhero, or they will find your book cheesy.
And there is nothing quite like a punch to the liver or kidneys. The victim may drop like a rock and be completely incapacitated, at least until that agony passes. The pain might cause them to pass out. Even then, the victim needs a trip to the ER to evaluate for internal bleeding.
People Don’t Know Their Own Strength
But people underestimate how much strength you need. That story about the mother who lifted the car off her kid? Do we really think she was suddenly able to literally deadlift a ton? No, the car was probably balanced like a seesaw. Still, it’s easier than you think to break out of zip ties. You don’t have to hit someone with the force of a runaway bus to knock them out. If you elbow someone in the face, they’re likely to swallow some teeth, if you don’t knock them out. Our buddy Wendy Torrance just needed to choke up on that bat or rip Jack Torrance’s eyeballs out during his “Here’s Johnny!” moment. (By the way, The Shining is one of those very rare books where the movie is better. I digress.)
Some Injuries are Invisible
If a person gets punched or kicked hard enough, they can break a rib that can puncture a blood vessel or lung. The liver and spleen bleed like crazy, and a person can walk away from a fight without a scratch on them only to drop dead from internal bleeding. They could also rupture a bowel, spilling its contents into the abdominal cavity, and die of peritonitis. A person can take a terrible hit to the head, walk around having a conversation, and be dead after a matter of hours.
There Can Be Civil Suits or Criminal Cases
The decision to use violence is usually a split-second one, because most attacks are ambushes. But if a character doesn’t stop fighting as soon as they’re out of danger, the character is the perpetrator, even if they didn’t start out that way. If a character is fighting multiple opponents, be prepared for them to coordinate their stories and paint the victim as the person who initiated the attack. More and more places have surveillance video, which some see as sinister but I see as an opportunity to protect the innocent.
Remember, you can blindside a character with an apparent disengagement. Is the attacker withdrawing or just going to get a nearby rock? Are they running to their car to get a gun, fleeing, or merely stunned and then will fight again in a moment? Does a character dare leave them conscious or do they still pose a danger? All of these are judgment calls. A character will need to be prepared to articulate to law enforcement—and possibly a civil or criminal jury—why they did what they did.
If a character is built like Schwarzenegger at his prime, not only is he more likely to protect himself, but ironically, he may have to use less force. If a character is built like me—a slim woman of average height, fiftysomething, and with a mean case of osteoarthritis—the character is going to have to make doubly sure that the attacker is stopped, because at any minute their hip or back could seize up. A character can’t stop and say, “Dude, have you finished trying to kill me or are you just taking a breather?” Further, for a trained woman, the advantage is in explosive speed and surprise.
Men really are stronger than women, a lot stronger, even if a woman is in prime condition and maybe even if the man is elderly. A woman’s opponent may have the muscular body of a long-term prison inmate with years of prison fights under his belt or he could just be your run-of-the-mill serial killer, who may or may not be trained and who likely has never even spent the night in county lockup. There is almost certainly a strength disparity no matter how much of a blob he is. If the character is a woman, the man attacking her is stronger than she is unless she is a competitive powerlifter. A character doesn’t know whether she’s tired him out enough for her to run away—and don’t ever turn your back on an assailant if the attack is still on—or if he is going to renew the attack.
A Character Could Get Choked
There are techniques to defend against chokes if someone isn’t already incapacitated. There’s the choke that crushes the windpipe, and the victim might suffocate. There is also the carotid choke. We learn how to put each other in carotid chokes, and then we learn how to avoid getting into them. It takes only a few seconds before the field of vision starts to go dark. Yes, I said seconds. This is serious, and it’s one reason why a size or strength disparity is so dangerous. Paradoxically, if a character is smaller or weaker than their opponent, the character may have to use more force to make doubly sure that the fight is over, because if a character is caught in a carotid choke and can’t get out of it, whether because they aren’t trained or they’re already stunned, then if the opponent means to kill the character, it won’t take that long.
Fighters get sweaty, wounds to the head and face bleed like crazy, and the smell of blood is strong and repellent. Sometimes people lose control of their bladder or bowels. There may be snot. If someone gets an open skull fracture, cerebrospinal fluid could leak out of their ears and nose. People throw up—either in pain or from a concussion. Real violence is ugly, shocking, and smells bad.
It Sounds Gross
Imagine bones breaking, squishy flesh on bone, and people emptying their bowels. Spraying and falling blood make sounds; people scream; and really injured people start gurgling, or there is agonal breathing. To be fair, a person in a fight might not hear anything until the end or even remember the techniques they had to use.
There’s Blood Everywhere
Bone on soft tissue causes lacerations. Lacerations can bleed like crazy. A person can get hit over the head with a bottle at a bar and get a mild concussion and bleed to death. There are four arteries in the scalp and a person can lose two to three liters of blood through a scalp laceration. If a character is fighting on asphalt or gravel and falls, they can get road rash or land on a piece of glass or other sharp surface and get cut. This is true even if a person does a perfect break-fall. Danielle is going to be bleeding because she dropped onto parking lot and landed on sharp pebbles, but she won’t notice until after the adrenaline crash. The protagonist can shove someone into a sliding glass door. Arterial blood can spray on the walls and ceiling. Pulling glass out sprays blood everywhere, people slip on blood, and blood makes things slippery. Nosebleeds and lacerations can bleed so much a person might have to wring their shirt out.
The Aftermath Can Be Awful Too
A fight involves an adrenaline dump. A character has to hope that in actual combat, they don’t freeze. If a character has had adrenaline training, they have a better sense of how they will behave. After it’s all over, there’s a physiological crash. Post-incident, many people won’t be able to follow multistep instructions. They might not be able to make a coherent 911 call. They might be shaking all over. They might get sick. They may be strangely impassive.
And then there’s this: killing someone else can cause PTSD. Most police officers (although clearly not all of them) experience trauma as a result of killing someone, even in justified shootings where their act of killing a civilian results in saving many lives. So do many soldiers. Characters who defend themselves or others might feel trauma as a result.
Characters Can Turn Stupid
Don’t make a character deliberately stupid temporarily to further the plot. This trope is especially common when a strong woman is suddenly helpless so as to need rescuing by a man. We have all seen permutations of this in books of all sorts in characters of all ages, sexes, and species. I forget who called this “the stupidity football,” but it frequently gets passed around when a character needs to be put in danger to further the plot and the author doesn’t want to try very hard. Don’t be that author.
To assist you in crafting a character who has convincing survival skills, buy Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. He talks about how criminals “interview” their victims and how to recognize and trust intuition. This book can also give you a primer on how some criminals behave to get close to their victims.
Your protagonist will be a lot more credible (and sympathetic) if they are very good at assessing threats and avoiding danger only to be forced into a fight anyway. Better that than having your protagonist, say, blindly walk into their dark apartment.
Writing fight scenes is not as easy as it looks. Just imagine Kirk v. The Gorn. Do not do this to your readers unless you are writing a deliberately bad book designed to be funny, like Atlanta Nights. If your protagonist breaks laws of physics and anatomy, your readers will need to know the protagonist literally has superpowers. Finally, I wrote these scenes. If you hire me, I will never use your work as an example. If you are gutsy enough to submit your work for editing, you have the right to expect your editor to keep your work confidential. Now, go write your fighter!