The Good Folk at Orbit invited me to write another post for the site here, and my editor suggested I might touch on my experience as a student – and occasional instructor – of martial arts, and how that study has influenced my work, especially in the Acts of Caine.
People who enjoy my work often speak of how much they like the way my books depict personal combat – one prominent blogger memorably commented that “All of Stover’s heroic fantasies offer fight scenes of such crippling power that they risk hospitalizing incautious readers” – and many fans and reviewers attribute this to my (presumed) martial arts expertise. Which is true to a degree, though somewhat misleading. It does help – but perhaps not in the way you might expect.
For example, the arrow of causation points mostly in the other direction. I don’t do fight scenes because I love martial arts, I do martial arts because I love fight scenes.
And let’s be clear: what makes a fight scene good has very little to do with choreography. A good fight scene does everything a good scene of any type does: engages imagination, reveals character, advances plot and illuminates theme. There are, in my novels, a lot of fight scenes (‘cuz like I said, I love ‘em) and many of them do not involve characters most readers would recognize as highly-trained martial artists. Caine is one, yes, as are Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Mace Windu . . . but most of the rest involve characters with varying degrees of experience and natural aptitude trying like hell to get out of dire situations without getting killed.
I like hitting people. I also like kicking people, kneeing them, doing (potentially) crippling things to their joints as well as occasionally throwing them across a room, not to mention stabbing them with (rubber) knives and slashing them with (rattan stick) swords. This is not, it should be noted, actual combat. It’s recreation. All in good fun, and when it’s done properly, no serious injuries occur.
I often write about people who like these things I like, except many of these people are missing an essential circuit-breaker in their brains. These are people who are bored by the merely recreational. Who only take it seriously if someone’s life is on the line. Who have made violence not only their profession, but their lifestyle. Some are mercenaries, some are jihadists, some are psychopaths. At least one is a performance artist. None of these categories are, you will note, mutually exclusive.
(I stole one of Caine’s more famous observations about personal violence by paraphrasing a retired United States Army Ranger in whose company I formerly studied judo and aikido: “If you kill for money, you’re a soldier. If you kill for fun, you’re a psycho. If you kill for money and for fun, you’re a Ranger.”)
I am not one of the people I write about. I just happen to know how to do many of the things they do. I began my formal study of martial arts when I was seventeen. In the (mumblemumble) years since then, I have learned how to kill people in nine languages – English, French, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, Thai and Filipino. I can hurt people in Russian and Hebrew. In a pinch, I might even manage to muss up someone’s hair in Portuguese. But most of what I’ve learned boils down to this:
I don’t mind being punched in the face.
(This fact, however, is not to be mistaken for a challenge, nor for an invitation; some who have made that mistake have found I hit back harder, and more often, than they had presumably hoped. As my old friend Caine likes to say: “Anyone worth hitting is worth hitting twice. Or, y’know, seven or eight times – however many it takes until the f****r stops moving.”)
I don’t like being punched in the face, you understand. I have always done my best to avoid it. But the only way to reliably avoid it is to never fight. If you love to fight, you have to accept that face-punches will happen to you, and you have to find a way to be okay with that.
Being punched in the face does take some getting used to. First, it can be surprisingly loud, not only the impact itself but also the sudden acceleration imparted to your inner ear when your head snaps back. Second, it often hurts, though usually less than one might expect (the exception being a shot square to the nose, which can sting like a bastard). Third, if the punch catches you shifting your weight in the wrong direction, there are fireworks in your head, sudden dizziness, weakness in the knees, the possibility of concussion and all that bad stuff. But those effects are merely physical.
The toughest thing to get past is that it’s embarrassing. The first few times, it can trigger an impulse to cower like a puppy smacked on the nose (you can often see inexperienced fighters trying to punch or kick while looking away from their opponent – just to avoid getting another smack on the nose). Once you get past that, you can start to develop real skills – and then some chump who should never have been allowed in the same room with you, much less the same ring, tags you once or twice, and you feel like an idiot. Like the whole world is laughing at you for being a self-deluded loser who ought to pack up his gear and go home before he makes an even bigger fool of himself. Losing a well-fought match is disappointing; coming off as a clown is crushing. Don’t believe me? Check out Clay(Ali)/Liston 1 – Sonny Liston, universally considered to be the most dangerous boxer of his time, refuses to answer the bell for the seventh round . . . because the young Muhammad Ali has made him feel like a joke.
Overcoming that fear – the fear of humiliation – sets you free.
A small part of what the study of martial arts did for me as a writer is help me to imaginatively comprehend how it feels to try to knock someone’s head off while that someone is busily trying to do the same to me. I could have gained this comprehension in a more direct way – by, say, getting in a lot of real fights – but the downside of real fights is that in the process of gaining experience, you get your ass kicked. And if you get in a real fight with the wrong person, you can get killed, which kind of defeats the purpose of the whole “gaining experience” thing.
The big part – the only actually important part – of what martial arts did for me is get me past that last big fear. For writers, fear of humiliation may be even more crippling than it is for fighters. Martial arts doesn’t help me write fights, it helps me write. Period.
The trick is to not mind getting punched in the face.
All four books in the Acts of Caine series are available to buy now digitally in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Buy HEROES DIE now for a special introductory price.