Why Would You Kick The Sh!t Out Of Your Characters?

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, where there’s advice, giveaways, or cool things every day.

It’s time for another Friday writing post! I promised I’d talk about fight scenes, didn’t I. Well…it turns out I have more to say about action scenes than I thought, so I’m going to break it up over a couple Fridays. Today I’ll be talking about why you would possibly want to beat the shit out of your characters.

*pause, evil smile*

It’s not just because it’s fun. Or because one is sadistic. (Although those are considerations.) There are several reasons why you might possibly have to write a fight scene.

* Raising the stakes. There’s nothing quite like fisticuffs or a blaster battle to tell the reader that things are Getting Real, or Getting Desperate. There’s nothing like a surprise attack for making two characters who might loathe each other realize they have common cause. Pacing and tension pull a reader through a story, and several little crises along the arc of tension keep a reader interested. If you are not raising the stakes throughout your story, how are you planning on holding the reader’s interest? Sure, raising the stakes can be done in other ways…but a good fight is sometimes the best way.

* Breaking a character. When I set out to write a Jill Kismet book, part of the process is figuring out just how to break her. How physically tired and miserable I can make her, how far I can push her, and what a person’s mind and body does under that sort of strain. I’ve written before about how fascinated I am with the mechanisms of the human mind and body and how they react to extraordinary situations, how the mind breaks down or is reinforced by training. (If you’re interested, a good place to start researching might be Grossman’s On Combat.) I don’t think you really know a character until you break them, and I am perennially fascinated by the question of endurance and why and how some people endure.

Without risk, no reward, for the character or the reader. Pushing a character toward (or over) the edge, especially when that character is the reader’s point of entry into the story, makes the risk higher and the reward, when it comes, that much sweeter.

* Because life isn’t fair. Life is not all rainbows and ponies and butterflies. Bad things happen. Every human being knows that sometimes, shit just happens. It’s not fair, it’s not right, but it’s the way it is. Art is a way of transforming the world, and a lot of the impetus for art, for that transformation, is the fact that the world is messed-up and sometimes shit happens. Being relatively honest about this fact will give your story depths it might not otherwise possess. If there is no real risk, if you create a world on the page where everything is fair and there are no real consequences…well, you can write that story, you have a perfect right to, but I prefer not to. Writing that sort of story doesn’t feel real to me, and reading that sort of story doesn’t generally set me on fire.

* Unresolved issues. This is a tricky subject to talk about gracefully. Sometimes, writing a combat scene can help a writer process a trauma. For example, a few Decembers ago I was in a car accident (twisty road, dark and rainy, a deer with a death wish, voila) and it gave me fuel for nightmares (never a huge trick) until I wrote a car-crash scene or two. Something about writing that helped my brain and heart say, okay, that was awful, but it’s over and we can put it on this shelf now.

I’ve had some dreadful experiences, and writing has been a chain to pull me through the soup of nasty lingering trauma plenty of times. Exorcising my demons on the page hasn’t always been fun, but it works. And afterward, those experiences became much less scary for me to think about, because (this is my personal theory, YMMV) I had exercised control over them through transmuting them into words, and I had found a meaning in them. (Thank you, Viktor Frankl.)

* Pacing and practice. You may need to speed a story up, get its heartrate revving and build momentum for the big finish. Alternatively, you may want to trip your character and send them sprawling so you can get a word in edgewise and slow things down. Both are things a fight scene can do. Fiddling with a book’s pacing is largely a matter of practice, and combat scenes are great practice for both for intra- and interscene pacing, as well as overall.

There are other reasons you might want to kick the everloving hell out of your characters. But only one more bears mentioning, and it is the single most compelling reason. All the other reasons are in addition to this precondition, without which there is no combat scene:

* The story requires it. It’s nice to have combat scenes and they’re fun to write. But, just like sex scenes (which, I suppose, a lot of the same skill set for writing combat could be used for), they must be germane to the plot.

Here is an Ideal Law of Writing Well: every piece of dialogue/sentence/paragraph/chapter/section/book must ideally do three things: build character, give the reader a sensory cue, and move the plot along. I call this an “ideal” law because it’s something to aim for even though we live in an imperfect world and are working with imperfect tools. (If you can manage to do at least two of the three necessary things consistently at the sentence level and above, you’re a frickin’ genius and you don’t need any bloody advice from me. I’ll probably read your books and weep with grinding envy.) It will not always be possible to do this, but (especially when you are revising) this is a wonderful clarifying concept to keep in mind.

A combat scene is no different. It must give the reader sensory cues, it must show us something about the characters, and it must also move the plot along. If it’s just thrown in for the hell of it, or thrown in the wrong place, or shoehorned in because “all these types of books have to have a combat scene”, the scene (no matter how beautifully written) has a virtual certainty of failing for the reader. We don’t want that. We want to maximize the reader’s chances at every turn. So first, critically and crucially, before you write that combat scene, take a second to think about if it’s necessary and what kind of pacing you’re trying to accomplish.

You are the best judge of this while you’re writing. If you’re going hot and heavy and a fight scene falls out of your head, don’t sweat it. Take it as a gift and move along. If you decide you need a combat scene but haven’t the faintest idea of where to begin, don’t lose hope. Next week we’re going to talk a little bit about what a good combat scene consists of.

Can’t wait. Over and out.

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