Friday, February 5, 2021

Writing Character Focused Fight Scenes

by A.C. Williams @Free2BFearless

If you write stories with action scenes, it’s important to know how to communicate action in a way that doesn’t make your readers zone out. The world is full of distractions—now more than ever—and we are competing against media giants like YouTube and Netflix for the waning attention spans of the general public.

Over the years I’ve worked with young writers, one craft issue that continually rears its head is writing fight scenes. Many of my students try to write a fight scene as though the fight had been choreographed for a movie. To be honest, that’s not a horrible place to begin, but you can’t leave it there. Why? 

Fight scenes for movies and television are created for visual media, so they are designed specifically to appeal to the eye. Fight scenes in novels must be written to appeal to the emotions, because all you have to communicate the intensity of your scene is the words you use to describe it. Your readers must be able to share what your character is experiencing in order to connect with the action, otherwise the scene will fall flat.

Whenever I write fight scenes or action scenes, I always try to focus first on what my characters are feeling. What is the emotion that the conflict or the encounter is creating in them. Are they scared? Are they nervous? Are they calm and confident? Are they angry? How you portray your character in a fight scene depends greatly on their own emotional state at the time of the scene. It also depends on why they’re fighting. You must understand their motivation.

It sounds elementary, but I’ve discovered that the most important step of crafting an engaging, believable fight scene is knowing your characters. You must have realistic, captivating characters to start with, or no one will really care about whether or not they win a fight. 

You want your readers to cringe when your hero breaks a finger or to gasp when your hero gets stabbed. You want your readers to cheer when the unbeatable villain finally goes down. And you can’t make that happen unless you connect with your readers on an emotional level. 

Emotional connection begins with character development. 

Physicality and cultural background plays a role as well, obviously. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger fights differently than Jackie Chan. A Marine will fight differently than a street-smart kid from Brooklyn. But all of those differences stem from character.

Currently, I’m in the throes of last-minute reviews on a manuscript that’s going to my editor next week. (Yes, my eyes are crossing, and I’ve killed three red pens. Please take pity on me.) As I tweak this monstrous fantasy novel full of Centaurs and Vulcan-Jedi-type people, I’m having to remember that my perspective characters experience fights in different ways, and since I write ensemble casts, I can’t just tell my readers what’s happening in a fight scene. I have to show them through the eyes of the characters themselves. I have to make it possible for my readers to experience the mind-numbing fear, the heart-stopping anxiety, the pulse-pounding anticipation, and the sweaty palms of that moment right before you charge into battle without looking back.

Let’s say you’re crafting a fight scene in an open-air market in Guatemala. Why not? Then, let’s say we have two combatants: A tourist who just wanted a papaya smoothie and a kid who wants the tourist’s wallet.

The height will be different. The level of physical ability will probably be different. And, since they are also from two completely different cultures, their points of view and motivations will be different. 

If you write the struggle from the tourist’s point of view, he will be off kilter, on the defensive, uncertain of where he is or who to ask for help. He won’t know the local names for the fruits and vegetables in the market, if he happens to use them as projectiles. He’ll be protective of his cash, sure but what he’ll be the most terrified of losing is his passport and travel papers. 

If you write the struggle from the pickpocket’s point of view, it’ll turn the whole scene on its head. The kid has done this before. He knows how to manage crazy American tourists. The kid doesn’t want the guy’s passport; he wants a few quetzales to buy some bread so his little sister won’t starve. The kid will know the streets, he’ll know the market, he’ll know the vendors, he’ll know where to run, and he’ll know how fast he needs to get away.

Both are motivated by fear. One is afraid of being stranded. The other is afraid of losing his sister.

Sure, they can slap each other up and down the street. They can wrestle and flail in the piles of fresh mangoes and fling plantains at each other like boomerangs. But if you don’t establish why we should care about either of them, your readers will check out.

When you’re writing fight scenes, don’t forget character. 

Also, if you’re looking for a tremendous resource on writing fight scenes, my (scary, terrifying) friend Carla Hoch is the place to look. She’s got a brilliant book called Fight Write  that helps authors make fight scenes more realistic.


A.C. Williams is a coffee-drinking, sushi-eating, story-telling nerd who loves cats, country living, and all things Japanese. She’d rather be barefoot, and if isn’t, her socks will never match. She likes her road trips with rock music, her superheroes with snark, and her blankets extra fuzzy, but her first love is stories and the authors who are passionate about telling them. Learn more about her book coaching services and follow her adventures on social media @free2bfearless.


  1. And, if I may add, a few lessons in hand to hand combat won’t make you a pro, but you will start to get a feeling for what it takes to over come someone bigger, stronger, smarter; or smaller, quicker, and maybe smarter as your example points out.

  2. Wow, lots of things to think about and, as your example pointed out, to see things from each perpetrator's POV.