Top 5 Rules for Writing Realistic Combat

I gave a presentation a few years ago at the Local Authors and You event in West Jordan, UT. I was pulled in at the last moment and told to speak on something. I went with Writing Realistic Combat.

In that little workshop, I was asked what my top three rules were for writing combat. The top three rules are still at the top, but I’ve added two more and expanded on them a bit.

It’s taken a while to post this, and it’s a good thing. Between when I first gave my presentation and now, I’ve learned quite a few things. I learned that writing about character’s pain, in a realistic way, helps give them a little more depth. Makes them a little more real to some readers. I’ll cram what I can into this list.
So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Rules for Writing Realistic Combat:
 

1. No Immortal/OP characters can swoop in from the wings to save your main character from a fight they’re in. You’ve got to get them out on your own.
 
2. Main character(s) must never walk away from a fight/battle unscathed. Not all wounds are physical.
 
3. No fighting for fighting sake. All combat must advance the story. If not, avoid it.
 
4. The main character must not rely on mystic powers, swords of destiny, or their own strength. They need to find alternate ways to get out of trouble. Intelligence and wit are there for a reason. Use them.
 
5. In a conflict, the main character isn’t always fighting for the good guys, or the winning side. Whatever choice is made, there must be repercussions. This makes for some interesting storytelling.

So that’s the list. A bit on the extreme, isn’t it? Let’s dig a little deeper into these.

1. No Immortal/OP characters can swoop in from the wings to save your main character from a fight they’re in. You’ve got to get them out on your own.

This rule is a guard against Deus Ex Machina, something every writer has to be aware of. There are times that we write ourselves into corners. Especially when we’re writing fight scenes. In those times, we want something to come and rescue us, (and our characters), from our mistake.
Not the best way to write a story.
We’ll write our Main Character, or M.C., fighting against incredible odds. Then they’ll have their backs to a wall with nowhere to turn. Or they’ll be staring down hoards that are ready to push them off a cliff.
Times like these, it seems like a great idea to have an OP, (over powered), character in reserve to ride to the rescue. Someone who’ll come smashing through the antagonist’s forces in the nick of time. Saving our M.C., helping them complete their epic quest and thus completing their story.
It is a good idea. Used very sparingly. Sometimes Gandalf needs to ride to the rescue of Theodin and Aragorn. The Klingons need to show up in the nick of time to help Sisko push through to Cardassia. Or Wyatt Earp needs to walk into a hailstorm of point blank gunshots to kill Curly Bill. (Which actually happened, so I guess that doesn’t count. Never mind).
When the Immortal/OP character swoops in for every little problem, it’s just lazy writing.
Keep in mind. Whilst I’m pointing this out, I have three fingers pointing out the same damn thing in my own writing. (LAZY Thompson! LAZY, LAZY, LAZY!!).
Sometimes our mentality is, ‘how is my M.C. gonna win this one?’ We’d be better off thinking, ‘how much punishment can my M.C. going to take before dying? Does the Antagonist want the Protagonist dead or out of the way? Is there a way my M.C. can escape before they’re pummeled/magicked/tribbled to death?’ etc., etc., and so forth.
This needs to happen. Our M.C.’s world needs to be flipped, so everything can be set right. The M.C.’s attitude and outlook foremost.
Greek plays have a term for this called ‘peripeteia’. A sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances or situation. Typically peripeteia occurs via our M.C. getting the ever living dog-water kicked outta them. Sometimes, the revelatory moment comes through the M.C.’s pain. Sometimes, more tragically, through the death of a comrade.

Think Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy when he fails to defeat Ronan the Accuser. Also Kirk after Spock’s death in Wrath of Kahn.

These situations are horrible for your character. However, it’s going to lead to interesting, and terrific writing opportunities.
Our M.C. will beat themselves up for being so reckless. Jeopardizing the quest/case/job/lives/banana stand. They’ll wonder how things went so wrong. They will ponder the what might have beens. Even wonder what their departed friend might have said. They may even do a little soul searching, make new strategies, and so forth.
Situations like these expand our character’s depth. Help them learn and grow. In many cases, the character will be changed for the better because of this.
They can do all of this without the help of an OP, Immortal friend.
Don’t get me wrong. The over powered and the immortal are great to write, and I’m not telling you to exclude them. What I’m saying is they aren’t the solution to everything.
 
2. Main character(s) must never walk away from a fight/battle unscathed. Not all wounds are physical.
When people fight, it isn’t a simple *SMACK* *BAP* *POW* Tune in next week for our next adventure, same Bat-Time…
When you write fights, know that combat – whatever the setting – is going to affect our M.C.. We’re going to deal with physical and mental injury here.
Let’s talk about both sides of trauma. What happens to a person when they suffer an injury?
On the physical side you’ve got the usual suspects. Fatigue, broken bones, blood loss, etc.
Let’s look at some of those. (Links to more in depth websites below).
  • Fatigue: When you write about exhaustion, remember that human beings don’t just get tired. There’s so much more. After missing a couple of nights of decent sleep, our cognitive abilities take a big hit. Reflexes slow down, and our comprehension dulls. Any more deprivation and you might experience hallucinations and/or seizures.
  • Broken Bones: Unless you’re writing high fantasy, complete with mystic healers, it’s gonna take some time to heal broken bones properly. Outside of magical forces, the body is great at repairing itself. But one needs to allow it to do it’s job. It may take as long as 6-10 weeks for the bone to knit properly. Depending on which bone gets broken, the type of break, and your M.C.’s access to medical facilities. Keep in mind that your M.C.’s mobility may also be limited. For quite some time afterwards.
  • Blood LossIf you really want to write realistic injury, and avoid the pleasantness of broken bones.  Because anyone can break an arm. Go ahead and Google hypovolemic, or hemorrhagic shock. That’s what happens when you lose more than 20% or 1/5th of your body’s blood. Keep in mind, donating a pint of blood makes some people faint. Others feel alright. Losing more than that in one sitting? Your M.C. is in trouble.
Beyond physical damage to our M.C., there is the mental or emotional stress fighting can have on a person.
Deciding to rough up someone for revenge, or drawing a blade to face off against galloping hordes. Even pointing a gun at others. There is always going to be a mental toll exerted. Even if your character has a thing for inflicting pain. If they’ve created a place in their mind where they can go to escape the strain to harming others. The M.C. will reach a breaking point.
That point, whoever your character is, will eventually come. When it is I urge you to do a few things with your writing.
  • Make sure you do your research. Read scholarly articles and survivor’s stories. Don’t just Google mental trauma. Spend some time in a library, or talking with people who have experienced this kind of trauma.
  • Be as sensitive as you can. These types of trauma affect so many. Treat the trauma, and your M.C.’s journey through it, with dignity.
  • Cite and acknowledge. When you read scholarly articles about trauma, it’s always a good idea to cite the article and it’s authors. When reading and/or talking to people, acknowledge them. Note: always gain their permission to acknowledge them, by name, first.
3. No fighting for fighting sake. All combat must advance the story. If not, avoid it.
If you’ve played D&D, or any other RPG, you’re probably familiar with random encounters. (If you haven’t played D&D, and you write, it’s worth your time to remedy that). Random encounters throw randomly placed fights in the way of the party. They give party members some much needed experience points. All necessary before they face off against stronger enemies later in game play.
 When writing, your characters can face random encounters also. Like a D&D campaign, random encounters will serve a real life purpose. Like in D&D, they’ll keep the reader engaged.
That being said, you cannot throw in a random orc fight/drive by/mean girl  smackdown just to change things up.
All action on the page must feel random, but needs to have a purpose behind it. If  the M.C. is victorious, or suffers a defeat, and it does nothing for the plot? Congratulations, you’ve lost your audience.
Not to worry, though. Random fights can teach you all kinds of things. It can tell your audience if anyone close to the M.C. has hidden motives, if the antagonists has henchmen ‘henching’ nearby, it could even reveal key pieces of the story that the M.C. won’t even realize until later.
Point is this. Random action is good. Just make sure it moves the story along.
4. The main character must not rely on mystic powers, swords of destiny, or their own strength. They need to find alternate ways to get out of trouble. Intelligence and wit are there for a reason. Use them.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
‘The all-powerful (INSERT ALL POWERFUL VILLAIN’S NAME HERE) can only be defeated by he/she who wields (INSERT NAME OF POWER, SWORD, BEEFY ARM…you get the point). The hero risks all, and confronts his foe. He points his mystic sword at the villain and shouts something melodramatic, challenging the villain.

The villain…shoots the hero.

“Wait, what?” You say, flabbergasted. “That’s not how it’s supposed to go.”

No, not typically. However, this villain is different. This villain has read the Evil Overlord’s Handbook.

 Haven’t heard that one? Now you have. I’ve read the Evil Overlord’s Handbook too.

Ok, seriously.

All too often we read that the M.C. is “THE CHOSEN ONE”, or “HE/SHE OF THE PROPHECY”.

Ok. But take away the sword, the powers, the destiny written in the stars. Would the hero still fight against all odds? If the answer is yes, then you’ve got no problem. If the answer is no. Then there’s something about this set up that you need to work on.

Part of the hero’s journey is that the hero will stumble and fall. That fall is a hard one. Often they lose the powers they have, the mystic sword is taken from them, and the strength they once had is no longer.
Typically the hero founders at this point. They wallow and do not have the wherewithal to rally.
Some heroes even wail that they can’t go on. That they can’t fight the odds as a vanilla mortal.
Thing is, all heroes are vanilla mortals.
Powers don’t make a hero. THE SWORD OF FREAKING AWESOME POWER TM., while awesome, does not a victory guarantee. It’s the drive inside them to achieve victory. It’s the courage they have, especially when they’re afraid, to do what’s right. Knowing that they’ll die. It’s knowing if they don’t take a stand, no one else will.
5. In a conflict, the main character isn’t always fighting for the good guys, or the winning side. Whatever choice is made, there must be repercussions. This makes for some interesting storytelling.
Probably the longest guideline on the list.
 A certain point of view.
That’s all it takes to alter a heroic cause into a despicable one. Change the Right side into the Wrong side. Make heroes into villains. Or vice versa.
For your M.C., that perspective change – whether it’s correct or not – will be a game changer.
For example:
We’ve all heard this story. A young woman murders an elderly woman, and steals her shoes. She takes a hit order, by The Man, to brutally kill her sister. After carrying out the order the young woman swipes the woman’s car.
No? Howsabout this?
Dorthy Gale accidentally kills the Wicked Witch of the East. The silver slippers are bestowed upon her. She is sent by the Wizard to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Bringing her broomstick back as proof of her demise.
In writing fight scenarios for your M.C., it’s the same. They may take a job that they don’t fully understand. Then as more and more of the story is revealed. The choices they make will inform them of their situation and influence their decision making.
It may be something as simple as seeing the consequences of a battle. Destroyed homes, dead innocents, soldiers looting, the list goes on.

When confronted with the realization that “Maybe we’re the bad guys.” your M.C. will have a choice to make. Do something drastic about their situation, or simply get paid and move on to the next job.

Whatever choice your M.C. makes, they’ll be marked. One side or the other will consider them an enemy. There may be times that your M.C. will be fighting off armies.

Playing with perspective like this adds to the story and gives it depth. Be certain though that the audience knows where your M.C.’s loyalties lie…unless you want to pull the wool over their eyes. If that’s the case, do it! So long as you know where  your M.C.’s loyalties lie.

Conclusion.
This list, like any other, is what I have found useful in writing. You may find it useful also. You might also find my reasoning flawed and this list bogus.  It’s possible you might have your own guidelines.

My point is this. If these help in anyway, or give you something to build on, wonderful. It you disagree, or think this sucks. Fine by me.

Let me know what you think.

Cheers!

Bonus Material.

I’m a sucker for good bonus material on Blu-Ray. So I thought I’d hook you up with some things I’ve found in the course of my research. Cheers…again!

Doctors diagnose injuries in Home Alone and Home Alone: Lost in New York
Ted-ed about sleep deprivation.

National Institute on Mental Health PTSD
A Soldier talks about his PTSD
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