Realism in Fiction

Tanto Blade - 50mm, 1/60, f/8

Tanto Blade – 50mm, 1/60, f/8

I went to a local writers’ group meeting. The idea was, you bring copies of a section of your writing, read for the group, and they give feedback either verbally or in the form of notes written on their copy, which they handed back to you.  I think this is helpful because other writers can spot problems you might have missed.

My novel is based on history, so one would expect it to be true to the time and fairly realistic. It’s not fantasy or science fiction.  In the section I read, a ten-year-old boy makes an incredible shot with an arrow, trying to save his mother’s life.  A couple of men in the group thought this was far fetched, and that a boy that young could not possibly pull the bow with that much force and accuracy.  In a group like this, if you defend every criticism, people will stop giving you feedback.  So the best thing is to listen and nod, or ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand their meaning.  So that’s what I did.

But here’s the problem:  I studied this period in Japanese history for three years while writing the book. It was a time when people like Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi led cavalry charges into battle at fourteen years of age. I have also trained for years in Japanese, as well as other, martial arts.  I have seen many students make incredible transformations from being clumsy and slow, to confident and precise with their technique.  But these are people who come to class twice a week for an hour or two.

In 1600’s Japan, little boys didn’t have Xboxes or Playstations.  They had wooden swords.  So if we lazy Americans can improve as much as I’ve seen people build skill in a few months of 3 or 4 hours a week, what if you had no modern media distractions and put in 20 hours of hard, focused practice per week… for years?  Japanese people had a capacity to focus on one thing until they perfected it that our short attention spans simply can’t comprehend.

However, my average reader will probably not be aware of all this.  Does that mean I change the story to be more “plausible”?  My goal in writing the story is to entertain and educate, but it is fiction, so I don’t know how important it is that readers think what they are reading is possible in the real world.  I have read some pretty ridiculous things in novels, but I still enjoyed the story. Hey, maybe there’s something I don’t understand myself, right?  My inclination is to focus on things like the note someone wrote “watch your adverbs” (because there was a section with too many of them ending in “ly”), and not worry about the fact that most readers will not have the same understanding I do from my studies.


Borrowed Force

“Borrowed force” is the term American Kenpo Karate uses to refer to a martial arts principle (other martial arts use it but might call it something else). So what does it mean? In short, just what it says: It is power that doesn’t belong to me, but I can use it. The catch is: I can use it IF I am quick enough and my timing is right. This is a tricky thing to explain in words without being able to show someone, but I’ll give it a shot.
I can think of several Kenpo techniques right now from lower belt ranks that use this principle. I should say, the technique provides an opportunity to take advantage of borrowed force. The technique still works if you miss this opportunity, but it is less devastatingly effective. If a standard defense and counter-attack are timed as “one, two” in beats, then taking advantage of borrowed force usually means counter attacking on the half- or even quarter-beat. Borrowed force takes advantage of the attacker’s momentum. It’s usually forward momentum (toward you), but it could be sideways, up or down…
Let me use this example: Your strike meets their bodily momentum like two cars crashing at 60 mph each and causing a 120 mph impact. If you’re going 60 and they are only going 30, then you have a 90 mph impact. But the real point is: If you’re going 60 mph, and they have stopped moving, then there is no borrowed force to take advantage of. This is why getting the counter-attack in on the half- or quarter-beat is important. This is easier with hands than feet. Arms are simply lighter and more coordinated than legs, so it’s easier to move them more quickly and precisely. But techniques like Thrusting Salute and Intellectual Departure do use borrowed force with kicks.
Let’s take Attacking Mace as an example. The attacker throws a right straight punch. You deflect the punch with a left thrusting block, crossing diagonally. Bonus if your left knuckles meet his face, but that may or may not work out. A fraction of a second later, your right fist smashes into the attacker’s ribs under his right armpit like a battering ram. A fraction of a second because you want to catch him while he is still moving forward and has not settled his weight yet.
I can tell you from personal experience that it’s very painful to get punched in the armpit, where all those nerves are. In fact, just pressing my own fingertips into my top ribs right under the armpit is downright uncomfortable. Now, if all the bones from the shoulder joint to the elbow to the wrist to the first knuckles are lined up, then you have backup mass and structural reinforcement. If you drop your weight slightly at the right time, you get “marriage of gravity” (a topic for another post). If you rotate your right hip forward, you get extra power from torque without moving your feet or your center much. Now take all that power generated by proper techique and add the force of the attacker running into your battering ram.
The rest of Attacking Mace calls for hyperextending the attacker’s elbow with an upward left palm strike, a right kick to the stomach or groin (take what you can get), a right leg check to prevent a successful counter-attack, and a left punch to the lower, back ribs. But I think you’d probably only need all that if you missed that first blast to the underarm ribs. Done right, it could literally knock someone off their feet. I noticed that many Kenpo techniques include devastating and highly effective moves at their beginnings, and all the moves in the sequence after seem like overkill. But my instructor said that it’s NOT “overkill”, it’s “over skill”, and that Kenpo does not take anything for granted.

Why I love American Kenpo Karate

I’ll be brief with the history, but American Kenpo was organized as a martial arts system by former Hawaiian street fighter Edmund Parker.  After moving to southern California, Ed Parker trained many celebrities, including Elvis Presley. He was a student of Chinese kung fu and Japanese karate, and I can clearly see both in the techniques and forms of American Kenpo. You can see the fluidity and economy of motion from kung fu, and the raw power and solid stances from karate. Mr. Parker died in 1990, but his legacy lives on in Kenpo schools all over the world.

American Kenpo Karate refers specifically to Ed Parker’s system. There are many other forms of Kenpo or Kempo out there. I was taught that “Kenpo” is translated one way to mean “law of the fist”.  This makes sense to me because Kenpo takes into account many laws of physics, particularly “cause and effect”. If I do this, how is my opponent going to react and what will his body do?

There are a multitude of concepts and principles in Kenpo (many of which I have yet to learn) that deal with manipulating the opponent’s body. Kenpo does this differently from, say, jujitsu where the object is to latch onto the opponent and restrict his movement (and his air and blood flow). Kenpo tries to avoid getting wrapped up with the opponent for one very good reason. Ed Parker knew very well that if you get in a street fight with someone, he is likely to have friends nearby. So Kenpo always keeps in mind the possibility that you may have to handle multiple opponents. You may have to transition between several people very quickly, and you can’t do that if you are wrapped up with the first guy.  I have seen karate and aikido practitioners use one opponent as a shield against two or three others, but this is a very risky and short-lived solution, which requires both great skill and luck, and doesn’t take care of your problems immediately.

When I first started training formally in American Kenpo (I had been trying to learn from books for years) I felt like I was thrown into the deep end of the pool. I had previously studied jujitsu, tae kwon do, and traditional karate, but none of them started off with such complex moves and so much to learn! The form of tae kwon do I studied had something called “one-steps” which included three or four moves, like blocks, kicks, and punches, in a sequence. But from my own personal impression, the first Kenpo self defense techniques had far more going on. What you do with your feet compliments what you do with your hands. This is true for any martial art, but my Kenpo instructor stresses precise footwork to his new students. “It will make everything else you do better.” And in Kenpo, when one hand is striking or blocking, if the other is not striking or checking at the same time, it is busy covering your vital areas. Chambering is only used in long forms to develop punching power and a proper path of travel. There are times when you have one foot planted firmly on the ground while your hands and other foot are busy attacking or defending. Typical self defense techniques south of black belt have five to seven steps, and any of these steps may include simultaneous moves with two or more limbs. So Kenpo is not an art that will make you attack proof overnight, but I have great respect for anyone who sticks with it long enough to learn what it has to offer, because one could become quite deadly.

Yes, Kenpo has fancy moves, but the fancy moves work.  When you begin to understand pieces that are not so obvious to a casual observer, it becomes clear that someone has obviously thought this stuff through. Every little move compliments then next one.  For example: a kick or strike to a lower region like the groin or stomach brings the head forward into the next strike.  And in between the major blows of a technique are minor moves like checks that utilize “frictional pull” and covers that protect your vulnerable spots.

I knew that a major concept in Kenpo was manipulating the opponent, but I was thinking mostly about faking, feinting, and otherwise fooling the opponent with your moves. While this does play a part, Kenpo does not take for granted that these tricks will work. Once again, I’m no expert, but I think feinting and faking probably work better with a cautious person in a sparring match, and not so much with a charging mugger or enraged bully. The way Kenpo manipulates the opponent’s body with brief physical contact which often results in a huge payoff.

By way of example: One of the first techniques I learned is called “Deflecting Hammer”, which directs the attacker’s front kick to step down forward using a diagonal outward downward block. The attacker is almost stumbling into you. The second move is a sliding check with your inverted left palm which pins the attacker’s right elbow to his ribs and jerks down into the elbow pocket. This little move accomplishes quite a bit that you might not think about. A: It pins the right arm to prevent it from striking. B: It allows you to control the opponent’s body from spinning too far clockwise or counter-clockwise (your block should have planted the kicking foot without spinning the opponent, but Kenpo takes nothing for granted). C: The downward jerk into the elbow pocket grounds the front leg, preventing it from kicking again. D: Since the opponent cannot spin back toward you for half a second, it effectively neutralizes the left arm as well, so it can’t reach you. E: Because of the sideways position of the attacker in relation to you, his own body is in the way, preventing the rear leg from kicking effectively. And best of all, F: The downward jerking motion pulls the shoulders and head forward into a devastating elbow strike! Of course, a lot of other things contribute to making it work, like proper footwork and hip rotation, precise timing, and enough speed to take advantage of “borrowed force” (the attacker’s momentum toward you only adds to the force of any counter-attack you execute)  and an off-balance attacker.

Now at my level, smack in the middle of the colored belts, I consider some Kenpo techniques too tricky and complicated for me to pull off in a real fight. I’m not at that level yet. As Client Eastwood said, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” But this “Deflecting Hammer” I just described is both simple to execute and very effective. It basically neutralizes an incoming kick and sucks the attacker into your elbow strike. This is so easy to pull off that I found it tricky NOT to hurt practice partners when working on a live body at close to full speed.

Kenpo still retains much of the structure, discipline, and etiquette of a traditional martial art, but it’s also a modernized and practical style with enough complexity and cool moves to keep someone like me engaged.

Violence in fiction

When I started writing my historical novel, I wanted to be a little different from the style I saw in the historical novels I had read. That style, from my personal perception, was slow moving, full of long and detailed descriptions, and much more drama than action. I wanted to create an adventurous and exciting story that would also educate readers on historical events few people know about.

I am a martial arts enthusiast (I’d never call myself an expert) and part of my training requirements in the past have been to document and describe, in my own words, the concepts and techniques I was being trained in. Calling on this experience, I wanted to describe fight scenes and action sequences in my story in more detail than most other books I had read. I wanted the reader to be able to visualize what the hero and his opponents were doing physically.

When I gave some of my first writing samples to a couple of my friends, they encouraged me to be more graphic. I wasn’t showing enough blood spray and spilling entrails. But while we see these things in movies, I noticed that most of the novels I had read didn’t go into such graphic detail. They let you know the guy got his throat slit, but they don’t describe every gory detail. The books I saw that did describe violence in bloody detail were certainly not New York Times Bestsellers. I find this interesting, and the lesson I take is that books appealing to wider audiences can have violent action, but graphic description is limited to a certain extent.

Personally, I don’t study martial arts because I like violence. I do it because I am fascinated with how the mind and body can be trained and conditioned, and the physical ability and power that comes from it. I do it because it’s great exercise. I do it because I like the art of physical expression through techniques and forms. I am more drawn to traditional Asian martial arts than MMA, cage fighting, or street fighting styles. So my writing emphasizes the art and technique rather than the damage to the body that results.

When one of my friends suggested one of my fight scenes was too tame, especially since the hero left his enemies alive, I experimented by re-writing the scene with much bloodier, bone-snapping description. I also killed all the “bad guys”. Comparing the two, I decided I preferred and admired a hero who could take out all his foes without killing them, which requires much more skill. I decided I preferred the art and efficiency of the techniques to the brutal, cruel, and savage style of the re-write. I am capable of writing that way, but that’s not the kind of story I want to write. Anybody can bend an elbow backwards or stab a knife in someone’s eye socket, but to protect yourself AND your attacker while incapacitating them requires a much higher level of skill, which should be respected. Especially my jujitsu and karate training taught me that making a technique work is much easier than making it work “just enough”. And making it work “just enough” in a real combat situation… that requires an unbelievable level of control and skill!

Another point I want to make is this: If I am reading a really good story, where the characters are interesting and the plot keeps me engaged, I don’t need graphic violence to hold my attention. In fact, I have left darker and more gruesome books unfinished, simply because I felt the main character and his/her ambition or goals were flat and uninteresting. Violence is part of the good stopping the bad, but it doesn’t have to be gruesome or gratuitous to tell a good story.

My book has a lot of violent action scenes (hey, it’s full of old-school samurai and ninja, what else could we expect?) but I have tried to find that balance between portraying a hero fighting his enemies and protecting the innocent, and just going for shock value. There were some things that actually happened, according to historical record, in the time and place of my story that I chose not to describe in detail. For example: people were bound tightly and hung upside down in a pit, over burning human excrement, with only one arm free to signal that they would agree to the government’s terms. The pressure of the blood in the skull created by gravity was unbearable. Guards would actually slit open the forehead to let out some blood and relieve some of the pressure, just to keep the captive conscious and in excruciating pain. Some people had enough courage, strength, and above all, conviction to endure over two weeks of this.

Another thing I try to do is describe things that happen quickly – well, quickly. You’ve been in situations where things happened so fast you didn’t have time to think. It is impossible to describe lighting fast action on paper at the same speed it happens. On the other hand, going on for a page and a half about how a guy draws his sword or what he is thinking in the middle of fast action seems ridiculous to me. The reader simply won’t get that sense of breathless speed with which these things happen. Shorter sentences and carefully chosen words can do a better job.

I also thing it’s important to spend time establishing WHY the hero must fight, what his cause is, and what he hopes to accomplish. If you have violence without cause or reason… well there’s just no point and the story looses its value and appeal.

Violence can make a story more exciting, but there must be a balance. You need conversations, description of settings and people, and non-violent action in between. Even exciting action gets old if it goes on for too long.