This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…”.
The purpose of this series is to give detailed information on skills and occupations that writers can use when creating characters.
Check out this article by writer Eli Hinze on the topic of Martial Arts.
by Eli Hinze
So, I initially wrote a big long article on martial arts hierarchies, etiquette when in a martial arts studio, what the average lesson consists of, and so on… and then scrapped it.
Why? Because the answer for all of them essentially boiled down to “it varies”. So no, what you find below will not be a comprehensive list of all martial arts knowledge ever by any means.
It will be correct, however, as it is the most stripped down, basic information I have to offer. For anything more specific, you’ll need to pick a specific art and then do your own research from there.
If you’re reading this article, it’s safe to assume you’re here to learn something about martial arts.
Here’s what I’ll be covering: the types of martial arts, some basic etiquette, misconceptions, what a formal sparring match is like, and what you’ll need to know if you’re writing a fight scene.
So, let’s jump right into it.
A Note on Martial Arts
Something I want to get this out of the way first and foremost is that martial arts aren’t exclusive to Asia.
In fact, they show up in every populated area on earth. Martial arts is simply any codified system of combat. Thus, there’s no sole origin point for its history.
So no matter what time and place you’re writing in, there’s probably at least a few systems of martial arts. The Maori have it, the Israelis have it, heck, even Alexander the Great studied martial arts!
There are some arts that are aimed primarily at self-defense, some aimed towards improving one’s health, and some for spiritual development. So if you are writing about a martial art, choose a specific one.
Just as there’s no one style, there’s no one type of ‘karate’ or ‘wushu’. Those are general terms. (Unless you’re referring to the specifically Ryukyuan style of karate, which wasn’t even imported into Japan until the late 19th century. In that case, carry on!) So, it’s time to get more specific.
Types of Martial Arts
Like I said above, it’s impossible to count all of the styles of martial arts. They’re from all over the world, at every point in history, and many have already been forgotten. That being said, I’ll detail the most basic categories of them here.
Type #1 — Striking Arts
- These disciplines focus on, you guessed it, striking! Strikes are punches, kicks, elbows, and knees. A variety of blocks are used as well. These arts rarely place a weapon in the hand, though they can for specialized circumstances. Primarily, however, their goal is to teach you how to fight empty-handed.
- If you’ve ever seen a martial arts movie, you’ve seen a striking art.
- Some martial arts that fall into this category are Tang Soo Do, Tae Kwan Do, Aikido, Muy Thai, and Wing Chun.
Type #2 — Grappling
- Grappling, my sweetest love. When you heard ‘grappling’ think ‘wrestling’ because the two are very similar. (Not the WWE style, though!) These arts often incorporate leg sweeps, joint locks, chokes, throws, submission holds, pins, and so on.
- For the uninitiated, a grappling art is often harder to picture, so here is a video that does a good job of showing off some of the techniques. (Just mute the awful music.)
- Some martial arts that fall into this category are Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Sumo.
Type #3 — Weapons
- This type is less commonly thought of but is very much a form of martial arts nonetheless. These arts employ the use of bo staffs, swords, sticks, machetes, and so on. However, many styles will employ techniques from a striking art, practice it empty-handed, and then go on to later add a weapon. This ensures that, armed or not, the technique is consistent and the individual will be able to defend themselves with or without weaponry.
- Some martial arts that fall into this category are Kendo, Kali, and Bojutsu.
In a martial arts studio, there exists a hierarchy. While everyone down to the lowest rank should be treated with respect, one should show particular deference towards anyone ranking above them, with the greatest respect shown to one’s teacher.
(Should you ever meet your teacher’s teacher, then consider yourself extremely lucky, and be sure to show nothing but the utmost respect and manners.)
Do NOT walk in front of a teacher in a formal setting. Walk behind them!
When in class or standing before an important person, stand at attention. This entails having your feet together with arms at your sides, or alternatively, having your feet shoulder width apart and with hands in loose fists above your thighs.
“Fights take a long time.”
Wrong! Fights should be as quick as you can make them. The average samurai fight lasted about three seconds. Be quick, be efficient, and get out of there.
The longer you’re in one, the greater the chance you have of getting hurt or worse.
“Anyone can use a weapon.”
In fact, using a weapon that you’re not trained on is a sure-fire way to get hurt. When people see me carry a knife, they ask if I would recommend it.
For general day-to-day use? Opening packages, cutting bottle rings so that they won’t hurt wildlife, etc? Sure. For self-defense?
Unless you’re trained on it, the answer will always be no. That’s nothing more than an easy way for you to either hurt yourself or have your own weapon turned against you when you don’t know what you’re doing.
This goes for nunchaku, bo staffs, guns, etc. If your character sees a weapon but doesn’t know how to use it, don’t make them pick it up only to be a Super Special Talented Prodigy at it. (Get pepper spray instead. Little to no training needed!)
“If you’re robbed or jumped, you can just kick butt and defend yourself.”
Defend yourself? Yes. By kicking butt? No.
The best way to prevent getting into an even worse scenario is by employing the very first, most prized martial arts skill of all time: running away.
Yes, you read that correctly. If you are ever in a dangerous situation, you should immediately run away.
A big part of martial arts is letting go of your ego, and running from a fight might hurt your sense of pride. I don’t care.
Even the most seasoned martial artists will run because if someone is unstable enough to attack you, you don’t know what they’re capable of. They are prepared to attack someone. They could have a weapon. They already have the element of surprise.
If you can’t run away either because you’re with family, exits are blocked, or something of that nature, then that is when you fight. But escape should always be your prime objective.
“Your mind becomes hyper-focused in a fight.”
I see this all the time in books, and it makes me laugh to no end. When you’re thrown into a fight—heck, even a fight that you’re expecting!— there are so much adrenaline and cortisol pumping through you that you feel borderline intoxicated.
You can’t think. You feel drunk, but also like you’ve had 10 espressos. You shake and sweat and it’s hard to move.
You won’t remember that cool technique you learned yesterday, and you won’t be thinking about little technical details.
What you will remember are the things that you’ve drilled a hundred times, and you will use the form that you’ve trained your muscles to remember. One of my favorite quotes about martial arts is relevant here and speaks on exactly this.
Bruce Lee famously said, “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks, but the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.”
“All martial arts use a belt system.”
This is inaccurate.
In the West, an unfortunate number of martial arts studios are ‘belt factories’, where parents will chuck their kids after school, pay for lessons, and, in return, expect their kids to advance to the next belt when the next testing period comes around—regardless of whether or not they’re actually deserving of said belt.
As such, there’s a big emphasis on the many different belts, because hey, the more belts, the longer they’re in the system, and the more money you can make.
That being said, there is some historical basis for using belts. Colored belts were introduced in the late 1800s so that one could see who ranked where on the hierarchy. Belt colors vary from art to art, but it’s pretty universally understood that a white belt is a beginner, a clean slate.
The opposite end of the spectrum is a black belt, though it’s worth noting that many martial arts’ ‘black belts’ are actually a very dark blue, representing that one is never truly done learning, and hence never fully ‘solid’.
Most martial arts outside of Northeast Asia don’t use belts, such as Kali, Muay Thai, MMA, and even a few in NE Asia, like Aikido.
“Yelling when you strike is pointless.”
I am very passionate about this and for good reason. Yelling (otherwise called a ‘kipah’ or a ‘kiai’) is important.
Why? It contracts your diaphragm, which means you’ll take a hit better and with less pain. It tightens your muscles, which gives your strikes extra power and speed. It helps you focus.
It ensures you’re breathing properly. (It’s very easy to get light-headed in a fight!) Also, it often startles your opponent. If you’re fighting against a non-martial arts practitioner and you drop back and let out a kihap, they may just leave and you can avoid a fight altogether.
- These fighting matches usually take place in one of two places: either at a tournament (usually for a medal or recognition) or at a training studio (usually for practice).
- Before a fight begins, once both parties are on the mat they will either touch one another’s gloves, sort of like a fist bump (if a striking art, that is) or bow to one another.
- Most matches are divided into categories based on age. However, if grappling is involved, then it’s classed by weight. Matches are almost always segregated by biological sex. So, for a striking art tournament, classifications would read like “Girls Age 10-13”. For a grappling tournament, it would be “Girls 50-60kg”.
- Each art varies widely on their tournament etiquette. For some, you must wear full protective gear, are not allowed to strike certain areas of the body (such as the kidneys or knees), and must not hit hard enough to bruise. If any of these rules are broken, you risk immediate ejection from the ring, or a one-time warning, depending upon the judges’ discretion. For other arts, only a mouthguard is required, no moves are forbidden, and you can quite literally knock someone out if they choose to not tap out*.
- * Tapping out is when one ‘taps’ the mat or their opponent to signal that they concede defeat. In some arts, such as Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the only ways to end a match are by making your opponent tap out, knocking them out, or by getting enough points/holding them down long enough to secure a judge-determined victory.
- If you’re a guy and you’re going to go into the ring, wear a cup and a mouthguard. If you’re a girl, wear a mouthguard. If you have long hair, either braid it back or put it in a tight bun. (While it’s not legal in most fights to grab someone’s hair, it can still obscure your vision and get in the way.) Also, ensure your fingernails and toenails are filed. It’s easy to cut someone if you’re throwing a kick with talons on your feet.
- For a better idea of the martial art, you’re looking to write about, YouTube is a treasure trove of visual references and sparring videos. I would highly recommend searching there for additional insight.
The Practical Parts
Like I mentioned before, if you want to focus your story around an art, you’ll need to do a great deal of research. That being said, there are some practical tips that apply to anyone who needs to write their characters in a fight scene.
- Fighting in heels is hard. It’s dangerous. Do not make your characters fight in heels. Just let them kick their dang shoes off. If you absolutely need your character to fight in heels, go with a thick heel. They are significantly easier to fight in, whereas stilettos will lead to a broken ankle.
- It is hard to punch with long nails. Nails any longer than those in the picture below will make it almost impossible to form a tight punch. Anything other than a tight punch will lead to you breaking your hand.
- On the punching note, let’s review the right way to form a fist. Yes, almost everyone knows how to make a sort-of fist, but here are some tips on making a proper
- The wrist must ALWAYS stay straight, from forming the fist until you hit the person. Otherwise, your punch will not be as strong, and you’re likely to break your wrist.
- Never tuck the thumb. It should always be outside of your curls fingers.
- When punching, you shouldn’t be swinging at them from your shoulder. You ought to begin the punch from your hip, twist, and, as you do so, drive your fist through as you rotate, pivoting your back foot off the ground as you do so. Swinging from your hips, close to your center of gravity, ensures that you’re throwing your full body weight behind your punch.
- The first thing to make contact with your target should be the knuckles of the index and middle finger. These are your first points of contact, and focusing most of your strike into two centralized points ensures that you’re delivering maximum force.
- For a visual representation of what I’m talking about, here is a great video
- Need to choke someone? There are two ways to do that. You can go for their windpipe, or go for their carotid artery. The carotid artery choke is the one most martial artists go for. Why?
- Choking someone via the windpipe can lead to long-term throat damage, such as injury of the voice box, the breaking of the hyoid bone, and it also takes a really, really long time. Upwards of 30 seconds to a minute— which in a fight, feels like an eternity.
- Choking someone via their carotid artery, however (sometimes called a ‘blood choke’, which sounds totally metal), is very fast. Usually, they’re out in 3 to 5 seconds. A blood choke is often painful, and usually, a person will tap out of a fight before they pass out. Doing this incorrectly can lead to death, stroke, or the breaking of the hyoid bone.
- Passing out, especially from a blood choke, hurts. You will feel like you have the worst hangover of your life and will be dizzy for the rest of the day. Chokes applied for a long period of time are mostly illegal in fights, as the oxygen-deprivation can lead to long term brain damage.
- Does someone have your character pinned and on the ground?
- Strike with the elbows. They’re hard to grab onto, and with the weight of an entire person behind them, elbow strikes hurt.
- If someone is totally pinned, the best way to get out is by shrimping. Shrimping is when you curl up onto one side and use your legs to push away. It’s wrestling 101, and probably the most important thing you’ll ever learn in regards to escapes.
- Again, here’s a video reference
- While spinning kicks and jumping kicks and all of that looks cool, it has no place in a real fight. None. In a real fight, never expose your back to your opponent. Stay as close to the ground as possible, because otherwise, you’re way easier to trip or knock over. Leave the flashy stuff for the movies.
- Another of the most important fighting skills? Falling! Wait— falling? Yes, you read that right. If you get thrown or tripped or hit so hard that you’re knocked over, falling safely will ensure that you can get back up and carry on. Falling wrong can kill
- Proper falling technique is this: tuck your chin; close your mouth (or risk biting your tongue off otherwise!); yell as you fall, because this tightens your muscles and diaphragm, which makes you less likely to have the wind knocked out of you and you’re less likely to be hurt; slap the ground with one or both hands as you fall, which helps transfer some of the energy away from your body, lessening the impact of your fall.
- If you’re falling forward, try to twist to fall onto your back (again rucking your chin, closing your mouth, etc.). Do NOT throw your hands out in an attempt to catch yourself. You can and will break your wrists, and possibly other parts of your arm too.
- If your character isn’t an experienced fighter, there are some things you can do to have them get away safely.
- If they can’t run, palm strikes are effective and easy. Aim for the jaw, nose, chin, clavicle, throat, and abdomen. If they have a pen, keys, or even a stick nearby, go for soft tissues such as the eyes, throat, groin, and my personal favorite, the temple. Below is what a palm strike looks like.
- Have them keep their hands up so as to protect their face, with their arms bent at a 90-degree angle. Otherwise, your arms can be pushed back and pinned onto you.
- If someone is trying to choke them, tuck your chin as far back as possible. This will limit their access to the throat. Then, if they can turn to the side to break their contact with the throat.
All in all, martial arts vary widely from one discipline to the next. The above should be considered a primer at best, and if you want any of your characters to be an expert in a certain discipline, you should contact a practitioner and enroll in a few classes.
There are martial arts that specialize in breaking through armor, that specialize in guerilla warfare, that specialize in turning your opponent’s momentum and weight against himself, and so on.
There are arts that can teach you how to wield a fan, a sash, a shield, etc. It’s a big world out there.
That being said, I hope this has been helpful to dispel some myths, give you an idea of certain techniques, and get you excited to explore the vast world of martial arts.
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About Eli Hinze
Eli Hinze is a writer with a particular interest in underrepresented eras, peoples, and mythologies.
When not writing, she studies everything she can get her hands on, watches scary movies, and forces cats to snuggle with her.
Eli Hinze is the author of the ancient Middle Eastern fantasy novellas Stolen Sun and the upcoming Queen of Irkalla series, as well as the upcoming YA urban fantasy novel Death of an Immortal.
I hope you liked this article and if you have any questions for Eli, please drop them in the comments below. Check out all the current “A Writer’s Guide” articles on their new page for easy access.
Do you have knowledge of a skill or occupation you could write about?
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