Sandra Hutchison interviews author A.C. Spahn, a martial artist, about writing good fight scenes.
Amy C. Spahn has been giving useful feedback on fight scenes to a number of fellow Awesome Indies authors recently, including me. While I used to write plenty of fights and the occasional battle in my fanfic days, I was a little surprised to realize there are also fights in my women’s fiction novels. But since conflict drives any plot forward, it makes sense that a good fight scene can be important to your success in almost any genre.
I’m also fascinated by what Amy says about the critical reception to just about any female character who fights.
Amy, why are fight scenes an important part of reading and writing?
Fight scenes are peerless tools for putting a character under pressure. When someone’s punching you, your reactions are completely real, completely unfiltered. You see the real character during a fight.
The circumstances leading up to a fight are also excellent character-building tools. What motivates a character to turn to physical violence tells you a lot about who they are as a person. I believe you don’t really know a character until you know what would provoke them to throw a punch, draw a weapon, and/or end a fight by lethal action.
What drew you to martial arts originally?
I’m not the sort of person who can just go to a gym and work out. I start looking out the window, counting ceiling tiles, etc. I need mental stimulation with my exercise. Martial arts training provides it.
When you throw a punch, you’ve got to think about a dozen little details: how high to aim, the shape and tightness of the fist, the torque in your hips, exhaling at the right time, etc. It’s a very mental game, especially when you string dozens of moves together in forms.
It’s also good for the soul. Since I started training, I’ve discovered a greater sense of inner peace. Even rejection letters on my writing have become easier to handle, because I’m used to pushing myself past my limits. This has been especially true since I passed my black belt test last February – a grueling four-hour ordeal where the final half was as much about psyching up for more punishment as it was the actual physical fitness. Once you’ve handled that, submitting a story to a magazine seems a lot less dangerous in contrast.
What’s your biggest pet peeve when reading fight scenes?
Fights that expect the reader to be invested, but give no thought to the details of the action. This generally takes the form of “Hero and Villain traded punches/sword strikes until one of them lost.” In these cases, the author wanted the reader to worry for the hero’s safety, but didn’t have anything particular in mind for how to make that occur. You might as well replace these scenes with the Shakespearean stage direction: “They fight.” This type of scene expects the reader to invent the drama for themselves, and it almost never works.
These scenes also annoy me because, while real fights only last seconds or minutes, particularly if weapons are involved, in perceived time they seem to last hours. When a fight happens in a book and is over in two sentences, it leaves no impression. It blows past like a light breeze, where it should have hit you like a dump truck. A good fight uses visceral words and well-placed sensory details to leave the reader as adrenaline-high as the characters. I want to smell the sweat and feel the blows, not assume they happened and move on.
How is fighting different for women than it is for men? What advantages does being female bring?
Like it or not, there’s a psychological difference between men and women in combat. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but in general men have an easier time being aggressive than women. Go to a first-time sparring class and you’ll see the men shrug and start hitting each other without much hesitation. In contrast, the women will apologize after every good shot they land. (Five years after starting to train, I still do this. My instructor says I’m allowed to say sorry as long as I hit the opponent again immediately afterward.) So we have a larger psychological barrier to overcome in order to get in the right head space for violence.
However, once that’s happened, I think the psychological power balance shifts. Most men feel a little funny about hitting a woman. It takes some time for them to decide it’s okay to strike back with their full power. That time is a perfect opportunity for the female combatant to deal some serious damage.
Physically, women tend to be smaller and suffer from height and weight disadvantages. I’m on the short side, so I have to get inside a taller person’s range in order to land any strikes. This is tough to do, but once I get there, they have a harder time landing power strikes, while I can still make full use of my range.
In short, the same things that are initial disadvantages can turn into advantages if you know how to use them.
What’s the hardest thing about writing female characters who can fight?
The same thing that’s hard about writing female characters in general. People will judge a female character as a representation of all women, everywhere, forever.
You write a fight where a woman loses, and you get one side going, “What, are you saying women can’t fight? That’s sexist!” You write a fight where she wins, and you get another side going, “Where’s her femininity? That’s sexist!” You have her win with no difficulty and people scream “Mary Sue!” You have her struggle and take a lot of good hits on the road to victory, and the same people howl about how you’re depicting violence against women.
At some point, you just have to accept that somebody will be offended by your female character in a fight scene and write her there anyway.
What do you think of the “warrior woman” character trope? Is this a step forward for women?
It really depends on how the trope is used. While I’m all for female characters who kick butt and save the men, sometimes writers use a woman with a gun or a sword as a substitute for a woman with a personality. She needs both.
There’s also a weird backlash against “warrior woman” characters who show their emotions. People act as if allowing a strong woman to break down is a disgrace to her inner strength and an attempt to weaken her for the audience.
I see it as evidence of the character having enough emotional fortitude to accept her feelings, or as a way to show the difficulty of the situation. When something makes the warrior break down, you know it’s serious. I think until we can treat male and female characters equally in this respect, the warrior woman trope will be a bit incomplete.
We first met when you volunteered to analyze other writers’ fight scenes and I offered one of mine — what inspired that initiative, and how’s it working out for you?
I love fight scenes – reading them, writing them, choreographing them. I’ve noticed that writers often struggle with fight scenes and default to the “hit each other over and over” trope I described above, so I thought other authors might appreciate having somewhere to go to ask questions when creating scenes of violence.
The reception so far has been positive. I received a bunch of submissions right up front, and while that has now tapered off, I’m leaving a submission form open on my site so people can submit more in the future: http://acspahn.com/fightsubs/
Tell us about your latest work, “Preferred Dead,” and how fight scenes play a key role in it.
The book features a “warrior woman” in the character of Areva Praphasat. She’s the security chief of the UELE Endurance and has a background in undercover operations. However, she’s decided she doesn’t want to be the last thing someone sees before they die, so now she’ll only shoot at people who can’t see her coming. The other characters all have odd traits like that, and so United Earth Law Enforcement put them on the same ship to try to keep them out of the way, but their inadvertent brilliance keeps landing them in the middle of things.
“Preferred Dead” is the fourth novella in the series, though readers should be able to jump right in and follow what’s going on. The Endurance finds a planet that has been completely overrun by zombies, and the crew has to determine what caused the infection while simultaneously struggling to pass a performance evaluation.
The fights carry the story forward and illustrate various aspects of the zombies’ capabilities, which in turn help the crew figure out what happened to them. A fight late in the story also serves as a catalyst for conversation between Areva and her love interest, the trigger-happy first officer. While Areva isn’t a point-of-view character in this installment, there should be plenty of fun action for fight scene aficionados.