Q&A: Distinctive Martial Arts
Hi, i’m giving my MC a dinstictive combat style. Is there any inherent advantage/drawback in a fighting style focusing on elbow/knee strikes over just punching and kicking?
I’m going to say something, and it’s going to sound very mean, but the problem with authors trying to make their own distinctive martial arts is often they don’t know anything about martial arts or the process in how martial arts are developed.
As an example, this is basically like saying Kenshin’s Hiten Mitsurugi style is special because he uses a katana, not the way he uses a katana and the specific approach he chooses to take to combat. In the course of the manga, he would also never fight another character using a katana during the Revolution even though they were common. That’s basically what the elbows and knees suggestion sounds like.
If that seems a bit silly to you, it should, because it is. This is a beginner problem. If you don’t understand the basics, you’re not going to be able to advocate for anything unique or different.
(For reference: Kenshin using a reverse blade wasn’t just because he wanted to avoid killing. The Hiten-Mitsurugi style was based on the fundamentals used in Iaido, and specialized in the fast draw for the katana which is a very fragile weapon. The blunt blade hindered the speed at which he could draw his blade, reducing both its power on the attack and the speed at which it struck. He essentially gave himself a personal handicap. The reverse blade is an iaito or a practice blade.)
When you’re setting out to create a martial art for your character, it’s a very good idea to go read up on a lot of different martial arts and specifically the autobiographies written by martial arts masters. Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings is one of the quintessential recommendations for martial artists, but Sun Tzu’s Art of War, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee, Small Circle Jujitsu by Wally Jay, Kadokan Judo: The Essential Guide to Judo by Its Founder Jigoro Kano by Jigoro Kano, and many others are an excellent place to start.
Reading these books will give you insight into the minds of martial arts masters and their explanations of what they noticed was missing in the martial arts world around them, and how they developed their martial art. They’ll also help you better grasp the concept of techniques and what makes those techniques distinctive or unique. The major flaw most authors in the written medium have in giving their character a “distinctive” martial art comes straight out of an important trope in Shounen anime. When one character has a special/unique martial art… so does everyone else of any importance. This is true to life, everyone is developing their own unique takes on their martial art, modifying those skills to what works best for them, and moving forward. Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, Bleach, and most major martial arts based manga will showcase this with both the heroes and the villains, ultimately making their setting stronger as a result. The idea never occurs to just one person, the difference is in what they do with it.
Everyone uses elbows and knees, and no one does “just punching and kicking” unless those elbows and knees are banned like in some competitive sports. You need your elbows and knees, they’re primarily functional at distances where you can’t generate force for a punch like when you’ve been grabbed or you’re standing nose to nose with someone else. However, if your character over focuses on elbows and knees they’ll be at a distinct disadvantage always against the punchers and (especially) the ones who kick. They’ll have difficulty creating the openings they need to bring the knees and elbows into play. Which is done through… yes, punches and kicks.
Knees and elbows are one of the most obvious, easiest, and effective defensive tactics for someone who knows nothing. They are also among the easiest to block. For reference, the idea that other characters in your setting wouldn’t come up with the idea of using their elbows and knees puts the concept in the range of “my character invented menstruation.” (Which yes, did happen in a rather infamous book series.)
Like everything else, elbows and knees are distance based strikes and actually less powerful than their fist and foot counterparts. You’re only using half the leg or arm to generate force. What makes them strong is the soft parts of the body they aim for, rather than them as techniques themselves.
You can figure out how close you need to be in order to use an elbow by making an elbow. Hold your hand out before your face with your arm completely stretched out and then bend it into an elbow. That’s how close your opponent will be to you.
Here’s the easy breakdown on martial styles.
1) Every martial arts style is actually distinctive. They’re all unique.
I know it sounds like “everyone’s unique in their own special ways” but this is true. The only way you’re going to develop really distinctive martial arts for your setting is to start fanboying or girling over every single prominent practitioner like you get out of a Japanese shounen anime like Rurouni Kenshin. There’s a reason for this, and that reason is: every martial art style is unique, and every person who practices a martial art has a unique and individual style. Everyone’s body is just a little bit different. Everyone will have techniques that appeal to them more than others. Those differences can lead to some massive changes, including the evolution of new martial arts.
The Japanese are a little weird, but the full celebrating of characters with these highly specialized techniques is somewhat close to real life. They just hyper-focus on single action, which is cultural. (It also cuts down work for the artist and animators.) However, to understand the importance of Kenshin’s draw or Saito’s, you’d need to understand iajutsu/iado, kenjutsu/kendo. The answer for the katana is that it’s an exceedingly fragile weapon, so you need to win on one strike.
2) What makes a martial art distinct is combat philosophy and the way techniques are used/modified.
Often, you’re looking at minute differences in chambers or footwork or turnover to divide one martial art’s technique from another. The difference in how these techniques get used, how they’re combined into combinations, or the parts of the body they target.
The trick to understanding what makes Muay Thai special isn’t the fact it’s hyper aggressive. It is, but only for sport martial arts. The unique aspect of Muay Thai is in its ability to utilize it’s powerful kicks within hand striking distance without losing speed or power. This is what primarily makes the martial art distinct from other kickboxing martial arts. However, that doesn’t mean these other martial arts like savate don’t come with their own advantages.
Krav Maga’s distinct technique is called “bursting” which is when you strike with two hands instead of one. The drawback being, of course, that you give up all defense. This fits Krav Maga and Israel’s hyper-aggressive military combat doctrine. However, Krav Maga isn’t the only martial art to strike with two hands simultaneously.
3) The environment and enemy are what make us special.
Martial arts aren’t developed in isolation, they’re developed via consistent challenge and like any weapon are meant to deal with very specific threats within an environment.
Karate being the martial art of preemptive interruption doesn’t sound all that impressive in a modern sense, until you remember it was developed in large part to deal with the Samurai. The defensive blocks of karate can preemptively halt a samurai from drawing his katana via wrist to wrist. If you can’t get to your weapon then you can’t fight, then you followup with a strike. Not unlike grabbing the wrist of someone about to draw their pistol and shoving down.
Krav Maga’s bursting is usually what comes to mind first about Krav Maga being distinct, but another major part of what makes Krav Maga unique is the way its techniques have been adapted from other martial arts to suit fighting in tight urban environments like a marketplace in Jerusalem. The chambers on all Krav Maga techniques are compressed, allowing a practitioner to use techniques like the sidekick in very tight urban quarters which you’d normally need more space for.
Or Sambo’s combination where they grab an incoming fist and then perform the sidekick. Ensuring the enemy has nowhere to go, and takes the full force of the blow. (This isn’t unique to the Russians either.)
This is about adaptation. Techniques are developed to deal with something, to create some advantage over their enemy, and to exploit an opening in general combat. How a martial art uses their elbows or develops those techniques in conjunction with others in the repertoire might make it distinctive whereas just using elbows will make it like everyone else. I do mean everyone too.
Intent, need, and environment are what creates distinct individual approaches. A martial art developed on the docks of France is going to be different than one created in the jungles of the Philippines. A martial art developed for military use is going to be different than one created for law enforcement, self-defense, or spiritual enlightenment.
However, if you don’t understand any of the above, you’ll find yourself running face first into a wall. As a beginner, you will invariably come up with ideas that sound unique to you but silly to anyone who understands the subject. This is part of being a beginner, and its a drawback you won’t be able to escape without putting your nose to the grindstone.
4) Approach mingles with character and this is Important.
Another martial art that makes heavy use of elbows and knees is Judo. This is because elbows and knees work best in tight quarters and at close range, but what Judo uses their elbows for differs from Muay Thai. Again, how one uses a body part is the distinctive aspect rather than using them at all. However, what these martial arts share is their close quarters approach to violence or, in the case of Judo, the ground fighting which is what lends them to making heavy use of their elbows both as attacks and as joint breaks.
How your character fights is an important representation of their personality because this is how they’ve decided to solve their problem with violence. There are an array of options, but this is their preference. In this case, you’ve got a character who likes to fight up close and personal. They’re going to be specializing in either boxing, throws, ground-fighting, or a combination of the above. They’re visceral, and are probably pretty free with the headbutts.
There’s no separation between the martial art and the character except in how they use it, and with a distinctive martial art you’re beholden to the combat approach because this is the direction the character has purposefully developed for themselves.
5) Every style comes with its drawbacks.
No martial style is invincible, every approach has its drawbacks. Like I said earlier, the draw back of the elbow is you must be very close to use it and for all its power it is exceedingly limited in use. The same goes for the knee, even the flying knee. Both can be blocked, and blocked fairly easily if the opponent sees them coming. Outside a surprise attack (like being grabbed from behind and driving the elbow into the stomach), both rely on strong setups from the martial artist utilizing other techniques.
A character who specializes at fighting in close quarters means they must get into close quarters, which is easier said than done and much harder against another martial artist who specializes in keeping their opponents at specific ranges.
6) You need to be more than a one hit wonder.
Martial arts are collections of techniques which work together in order to achieve specific goals.
7) Learn How Things Work before you start breaking them.
The biggest mistake a writer can make is trying to skip the end before they’ve got their feet on the ground for the beginning. If you don’t know how something works then do research to learn, there are a lot of materials easily available including fictional where they got it right.
A great example of magical martial arts setting building is still, in my opinion, Naruto. (Yu Yu Hakusho is a great example of how to tie your character’s emotional development to their combat progression.) Naruto goes out of its way early to explain how the setting rules function in terms of the Jutsu by breaking them into three categories so the audience better understands specialties, by locking down the hand signs used for casting to differentiate those techniques from the special kekkai genkai, and explaining the use of energy. Sometimes, Naruto can be exposition heavy but it is very clear on its rules even when it proceeds to break them.
You’ll notice like with all great shounen anime the breakdown covers where the inspiration for the technique came from, its background, history, why it got made, and what it is used for. Heroes often use a set collection of techniques that they build off of their special one in new ways for new situations. Spirit gun, spirit palm, and spirit bomb are all slightly different versions of the same technique. Your character being able to summon one skeleton and working their way up to three skeletons is both a progression and possibly the creation of a new technique.
Another good example is the lightsaber forms from Star Wars, they’re silly in some cases, but they’ll point out the specific uses for the form and what it is known for. The lightsaber form focused on the deflection of foreign projectiles is different from the one that’s highly acrobatic and aggressive.
This will help you in understanding what “distinct” means in terms of martial arts when you’re ready to go back to your character’s own style, and ultimately aid you in creating one that truly is distinct without seeming silly.
8) Focus on World Building first.
It can be tempting to figure out how your character is special and different when you first start out, but unless you know how combat works within your setting it will end poorly. You’ve got to figure out the general rules first, then accept other major characters will have specialties too, and if your character’s fighting style is well known enough to be recognized then it must be for a reason. By hammering out your setting, the environment, and the dangers, you’ll have an easier to time figuring out how combat works within it.
While violence is often active, it is primarily reactive and reliant on the world it exists in. Your character is using violence to solve their problems, this means figuring out what the problem is, how they got there, and the systems others before them used.
Going over the works of martial arts masters will help you in understanding what the general expectations are for martial artists, which will also help you write the general combat in your setting better.
Start at the beginning and work your way up.
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Q&A: Distinctive Martial Arts was originally published on How to Fight Write.