Whether you write fantasy with sword fights, historical fiction, domestic noir, or thrillers, chances are you will construct a fight scene at some point in your author career. In today's interview, martial artist Aiki Flinthart gives some ideas for writing fight scenes with female characters, whether they are trained fighters or in an unprepared situation.
In the intro, I talk about the new Custom Google Search bar for this site which you can find on Start Here and the home page. I've been answering questions about writing, publishing, book marketing and making money as a writer since 2008, so if you have a question, try searching first!
I also mention the issue of self-doubt and a question that one person asked in my recent survey, “Is it ok to be mediocre? Should I give up due to not being an amazing writer?” Plus, tips on how to get back into writing a book if you left it unfinished at a previous point. [I left Map of the Impossible at 15K words back in November in order to write Audio for Authors!]
Do you need help with marketing, publicity or advertising? Find a curated list of vetted professionals at the Reedsy marketplace, along with free training on writing, self-publishing and book marketing. Check it out at: www.TheCreativePenn.com/reedsy
Aiki Flinthart is an award-nominated Australian author of 12 novels and a martial artist. Her latest nonfiction book is Fight Like a Girl: Writing Fight Scenes for Female Characters.
[Please note: We talk about violence by, between and against women in this episode. In an empowering manner, for sure, but be clear that this interview is about physical violence.]
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- What fight scenes add to books in terms of conflict
- How fight scenes can be a metaphor
- Remembering that characters must be changed by both internal and external conflict
- How and why women fight differently than men. We also mention the episode with Alan Baxter on writing fight scenes — and if you'd like to know more about sword fighting, check out this interview with Guy Windsor.
- How women and men are socialized differently around violence
- Using setting to help write a good fight scene
- How posture and presence affect how we are perceived — don't be a victim.
- Tips for different types of self-defense
You can find Aiki Flinthart at AikiFlinthart.com and on Twitter @AikiFlinthart
Transcript of Interview with Aiki Flinthart
Joanna: Aiki Flinthart is an award-nominated Australian author of 12 novels and a martial artist. Her latest nonfiction book is Fight Like a Girl: Writing Fight Scenes for Female Characters. Welcome to the show Aiki.
Aiki: Thank you.
Joanna: It's great to have you here.
First up, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and also what part fighting plays in your life.
Aiki: I've always loved writing. I think I've always written stories, although they're probably not as good then as they are now.
And fighting, I've loved doing for about 20 years now. I've been a martial artist for about 20 years and I enjoy it because there's something that's quite enjoyable about throwing a six foot guy around the floor and having him hit the mat.
Joanna: What types of fighting do you do?
Aiki: The main martial art I studied is Aikido, which is a Japanese martial art based on the old samurai sword fighting techniques but with an empty hand. There's a lot of wrist locks and armlocks and throws.
Apart from that, we do also study quite a bit of sword work using the Japanese Katana and a lot of stick work using the long sticks, the Jos.
I also took up archery a couple of years ago because one of my heroines was an archer and I thought, ‘Well if she knows how to do this, I need to know how to do it.' And then I also took up knife throwing for the same reason. My heroine can throw knives then I need to throw knives.
Joanna: That is a great reason. I love that research.
Why are fight scenes great to have in books? And maybe give us some examples.
Aiki: Fight scenes help definitely to move a plot along quite quickly. You don't want them to be gratuitous. But if you've reached a slow part in your story, a fight scene can help move things along a little bit faster.
Fights are about conflict and our stories always center around conflict. So, a good conflict is important to a story, which means a good fight scene helps to gel a story and helps the reader to engage with the conflict.
Sometimes it's the external conflict but often it's the internal conflict as well, that's important. So a fight scene can be a reflection of both.
Joanna: Give us some examples of external and internal conflict in a fight scene.
Aiki: The external conflict might be the protagonist actually physically fighting the antagonist to try and win a battle or succeed in his goal.
But the internal conflict could be the protagonist trying to achieve the plot goal for the story and the only way you can do it is to get through this fight scene psychologically and emotionally.
That's the internal conflict that gets revealed by the fight scene and reflected by the external conflict of the actual scene itself.
Joanna: I wonder, part of the character development of books and films that include fighting is often somebody loses something at the beginning and then they want to try and transition across the journey of the book into someone who can win and triumph. So that is a hero's journey.
Is that kind of journey or something you've seen in your own development around fighting?
Is that something that you've written about in your books?
Aiki: It is definitely because if your character is not changed by the external conflict, by a fight of some sort, then it's not true to real life.
In real life, if real people are in physical conflict with each other, they are psychologically and emotionally changed by it. If they're not, then it's not real and your character will come across as flat and boring.
So if your character is in a fight and injured or even if they're not injured, and they come out of it psychologically and emotionally unchanged, then you're not writing true to reality.
It's important that your character grows and learns from whatever they do.
Joanna: It's interesting while you were talking there, you actually said ‘his' and ‘he,' whereas your book is about how to fight like a girl for a female character. This is a really interesting topic with this sort of gender awareness that's going on in the world right now, and I've had Alan Baxter on fore to talk about fight scenes. He is a man and he's written from the male point of view. He has female fighters in his books as well. But let's tackle the gendered title.
Why is fighting different for women than for men?
Aiki: It is significantly different, and Allen is an excellent fighter and an excellent writer.
Women do fight differently to men, and anyone who says they don't is making stuff up because women are physiologically, psychologically, emotionally and biologically different from men, and to pretend they aren't is ridiculous.
Equal? Yes. Different? Definitely. They move differently. They think differently. They react and feel differently.
The most obvious differences are, of course, that men are generally physically stronger than women. It doesn't mean they're better fighters, it just means they are physically stronger.
If a female is going to win a fight, she has to have some sort of other advantages that she can play on, be it experience, or a mental attitude of some sort that is different from the man's. It's important that as a writer you know what her strengths are and how they compare to any other male characters and what their strengths are.
Joanna: And you mentioned emotional, for example.
What are some of the different ways that a woman might approach things?
Aiki: One of the biggest challenges that women have in Western society is that we are socialized differently to men. We're socialized to be less forthcoming, less dominant, less strong-minded and opinionated.
This means in any sort of fight, a woman will behave differently, she'll react differently, she'll respond differently to stimuli. And it means that she'll feel differently about things afterward because she's, men are, you know, don't cry, that sort of stuff, whereas for women, it's supposedly okay to be upset and cry, and for men, it's not quite so okay.
Joanna: I guess there are a lot of cultural differences. And of course, it's very hard to talk about this without sounding stereotypical in many ways.
In the book, you do go into a lot of nuance, which I find interesting. I do think this idea of socialization of fighting is interesting because you talk about men and boys being brought up with rough and tumble and they're quite used to sort of rolling around fighting when they're smaller.
Whereas girls, I know I remember this, I wasn't rolling around with my brother on the ground. So if you're hit as a woman that can be a lot more shocking than as a man.
What difference do you think that makes in terms of the shock that can impact women more than men?
Aiki: Men tend to grow up in Western society with a level of friendly violence they call it where a couple of guys, when they meet up with each other, they'll whack each other on the back and give each other a hug, but they'll give each other a smack on the shoulder as well.
Whereas women it's unthinkable to do that. We'll air kiss and hug each other, but there's none of that friendly violence that is built into how women are brought up. So it makes it more difficult for women to adjust to a situation where the violence is no longer friendly.
Joanna: And you mentioned there about having training can be one of the things that help the women in our book. In my ARKANE thrillers, Morgan Sierra is ex-Israeli Defense Force, so she knows Krav Maga, so I have that background in my character.
I love in the book you also say you don't have to have a kick-ass super agent to write fight scenes. What are the other types of characters that people might write about?
Aiki: It definitely helps if your female character has a decent amount of training under her belt, because that will affect how she responds and what action she takes in any given fight circumstance, what she's capable of doing quite honestly, and what she will think about doing as opposed to what she believes she ought to do.
Most female fighters these days tend to be written as trained fighters; MMA, mixed martial artists, that sort of thing. And they are the easiest ones to write because they do have experience and training, and it means there is a well of technique and skill that an author can actually draw on to describe what's happening, how punches work, how strikes work, how throws work.
Joanna: What are some of the bad stereotypes when women are fighting other women and some tips for writing these better?
Aiki: It really annoys me when you watch a movie and you get two women fighting each other because they're the only ones available to fight each other. It seems to be always that Hollywood does this women can only fight women thing, whereas in reality, they will also fight men.
Joanna: What are some tips for writing those in a better way?
Aiki: If you're writing two women fighting each other, then it's important to establish what their level of training is and experience is before they get into the fight. But to be honest, that's the same for any fight scene.
You need to know what level of training and experience a character has before she gets into the fight, whether she's just fighting against the guy or a girl It doesn't matter.
Joanna: I watch a lot of movies, and read a lot of thrillers, and I like the fight scene in ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith' with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Do you know that scene?
Aiki: That is a lot of fun that scene. That is great fun.
Joanna: One of the interesting things there is the use of setting.
If people don't know the scene, it's definitely worth watching. They start at the dinner table where there are lots of weapons, knives, well, poison is the start and then knives and then they use a lot of the things around them.
What are the ways that we can use setting to help us write a good fight scene?
Aiki: Setting is fantastic. You can use setting, and weather, and time of day as a metaphor for increasing difficulty of the fight and for how people feel about things during the fight.
Storms are often used as a metaphor for people feeling awful and bad things happening in the fight scene.
The setting ought to get more difficult as the fight progresses. You should get more obstacles in the place and more weird things that they can use as weapons. One of the early ‘Bourne' movies where he, I think, strangled somebody with the cord of a toaster and puts his head through a whole set of blinds and things.
Anytime you can use the setting to make the fight more difficult for your characters, it's an excellent plan. And use everyday things as weapons, so water bottles make a weapon. You know, like ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith,' the dinner plates, the things, the forks and knives, the couch, anything.
Your normal ordinary housewife, woman, mother, there's Lego on the floor. Everybody who's got small children knows how painful that stuff is. Squeaky toys make great distractions for when bad guys are coming. The bad guy's coming because he stepped on your dog toy.
Reflective surfaces like windows and mirrors help your character to see when bad guys are coming up behind them. Glasses and wine bottles are my great weapons. Kitchen implements, frying pans, tea kettle.
Joanna: Your house sounds very violent!
Aiki: To be honest, I have a very large weapons collection in my house. Several different kinds of swords as well as several different kinds of bows and daggers and knives. But yes, anything can be used as a weapon. You can use a book as a weapon. You can use a statue, a coffee cup. Anything can be weaponized.
Joanna: Yes, and to be fair in one of my books, I've beaten someone to death with a Bible. It's always a good weapon.
Aiki: Excellent. And to be fun as an author, it is a lot of fun to find weird and unusual weapons in my '80AD' series, one of my characters uses an Indian weapon called an Urumi, which is a flexible metal links that can be wrapped around the hips like a belt and used as a sort of a whippy sword.
And then my ‘Shadows' series, my heroine uses what's called a Karambit which is an Asian claw-shaped knife. And she uses it as the underwire for her bra. So every time she slides it out of her bra, she's basically in a position to slice somebody's throat with this fabulous claw weapon.
Joanna: That's brilliant. I love that.
This brings into play the idea of talking about using domestic objects in a fight scene, which is kind of when you're not prepared. Versus a fighter-type character who might be carrying a sword in, say, a fantasy book or a historical book. So these are two very different types of situations for fighting against being prepared.
Aiki: Yes, definitely.
Joanna: What is the difference psychologically when you're prepared to when you're unprepared?
Aiki: There's a huge difference, and one of the biggest things that a trained fighter needs to do is be able to think ahead and psychologically prepare, both what they're able to use and both what they're willing to do with that weapon. Because if you haven't thought ahead, then when you're faced with a terrible situation, you will freeze and make a poor decision and make the wrong choice.
Is your character prepared to gouge eyes or not? Because that's a really gruesome and revolting thing to do. Is your character prepared to break arms or not?
They have to psychologically be ready to make those choices when the time comes, otherwise, they won't make the choice and the bad guy will win because the good guy is not prepared to do what needs to be done.
Joanna: And good guys don't always win in a fight, that's for sure.
How has your fighting practice changed your readiness and confidence?
Aiki: It's definitely increased my confidence and my awareness. When I walk through shopping centers, I'm constantly scanning people up and down assessing their threat level, which is probably zero in 90% of cases. But you can't help it.
As a trained martial artist you can't help it. You walk around and you see people walking funny or touching what is probably a concealed weapon tucked into their belt and you notice it. When I go to different places you behave differently when you're aware of how other people are a possible threat.
Joanna: I think that's something that is often missed in books. In films, you're not inside the character's head so you can't do it. But in books, you can write that awareness.
Anyone who's trained in fighting, as you are, would almost see violence coming, wouldn't you?
Aiki: Definitely. You see how people move, you see where they move, you see what they're paying attention to. And the ones who are a threat, you move to avoid and get away from.
Joanna: That awareness is great.
I have tried a few martial arts myself. When I said, ‘Oh, my character does Krav Maga.' I went to a Krav Maga class and I basically ended up crying on the floor because it really, really hurt. I said to my husband, ‘I'm never going back to that.' I do weight training and things but I don't like being hit and kicked and smacked.
Aiki: Fair enough.
Joanna: But it's interesting, because when I was a kid, my mom took us to martial arts, and one of the things we were taught was to walk like a panther or walk like a tiger so that the predators pick on someone else, and that was avoidance. And you say in the book ‘Avoid the falling rock.'
What are your thoughts on that?
Aiki: There's actually an old Aikido saying, an old Budo sword work saying, ‘Avoid the falling rock.' It means don't be there. Don't put yourself into stupid situations where you're likely to get hurt. Just avoid it altogether if you possibly can.
There was actually a really interesting study done in the UK a few years ago where they took a bunch of mugging victims and they walked them around the room with motion capture sensors on them, so they turned the bodies into basically stick figures and assessed how they walked.
Then they got a bunch of bouncers and muggers to watch those videos and decide who they would mug if they had to. And every single time in that study, the muggers and bouncers picked the people who had already been mugged at some point in their life.
So basically what it was saying is that they already walked like a victim. And it was visible to people who knew what to look for.
Joanna: To be honest, I think that's the biggest, taking things to the practical life situation when most people are not going to be fighting with swords or anything. That's probably the best way to start, isn't it? I know that you advocate for women doing this type of thing.
If people are interested in even just that first step in self-defense, what would you recommend?
Aiki: I would definitely find a martial art that you enjoy. It's usually a matter of finding a good dojo or a good center where the people there have the right mental attitude towards each other and are good to each other. Even if they're learning to beat the crap off of each other they're nice to each other while they're doing it, because you quite tend to like the people you're training with.
Krav Maga is a good martial art because it draws from a whole bunch of different sources so you learn several types of techniques like punches, and kicks, and locks, and throws. And jujitsu is quite similar in that regard, but there are other arts that are a bit more narrowly focused and may not be the best place to start.
Joanna: I still like I fantasize about going back to Krav Maga at some point, and being a bit harder.
Aiki: You should.
Joanna: I think I should at some point. But there's a difference between Krav Maga, which is much more street fighting-y, versus the very like you mentioned with sword work and Aikido has some quite ritualistic aspects? And so there are these different types aren't there. The ritualistic aspect might not help you in a street fight, for example?
Aiki: Very much, you're right.
Joanna: You have to choose what you want to do it for. But I think all these things play into the potential books that people might write. One of the big things in the UK, which is kind of annoying, is the domestic crime novels where a lot of women seem to get murdered in their homes. I like the empowerment of having those things that you can have in the home to defend yourself with.
I would like to see more stuff written where women are not necessarily just doing ritualistic sword fights, but actually fighting in a much more domestic setting.
Aiki: Yes. There's a good Australian TV series called ‘Hard Sun', which has some really great fight scenes set in a woman's house where she's using some cool implements, like frying pans and things.
Joanna: That sounds cool.
I also wanted to ask about injuries. Again, one of the things that, I'm on Book 11, now of my ARKANE series, and, of course, in every book Morgan Sierra gets into some kind of fight and she has been injured quite a lot.
I have to remember those injuries and have different timeframes for recovery. And this could all be quite difficult.
What are the issues to think about around recovery?
Aiki: One of the biggest things that a lot of authors do, myself included, is write urban fantasy that includes some sort of healing powers so that even if they do get injured, they can recover quickly because they've got magic. Magic is always helpful in a fight scene.
Joanna: If someone's in a fight where there are no weapons involved, so there's no serious harm, but there's been some good beating up going on, what is the recovery period?
If we don't have magic, how long a recovery period are we talking about?
Aiki: It will depend on the type of injury and where she's gone for treatment. But it is important to understand how blood loss affects thinking and abilities.
And it is important to understand that bruising and breaks do have a long term effect on the body and what people are capable of doing.
Joanna: I will put a trigger warning at the front of this interview because this talking about this type of thing can be difficult for some people.
Joanna: Some people would say, we just have to avoid everything, you know, we should just keep everybody safe and happy and that would be fine.
What are your thoughts on facing these things that might challenge us?
Aiki: Psychologically, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. But it is difficult, and both you as the author and your character need to be able to grow and learn from whatever they've done, whatever mistakes they've made and whatever injuries they've sustained.
Joanna: So if someone has been in a situation, I think you wrote about this in your book.
Is it cathartic to write about things where you can almost change the situation in the outcome of the book, whereas in real life, it might have been a lot worse?
Aiki: Oh, it definitely helps, especially if you need to talk to a psychologist, to write about things that you maybe couldn't change in real life. But in your book, yep, absolutely go for it, change it, fix it, make the world a better place.
Joanna: And kill the bad guy. That's what I do.
Aiki: Yes, definitely.
Joanna: I think that's why I enjoy writing thrillers and, to some extent, horror so that the good guys can triumph over the bad guys and they meet a sticky end. I do enjoy writing these things.
Aiki: It is nice, isn't it?
Joanna: Yes. Excellent. Where can people find you and your books online?
Aiki: I've got a website, that's aikiflinthart.com, and all of my books are there, but also they're on Amazon and iBooks and all of the standard Barnes and Noble-type book retailers both in eBook and in print.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Aiki. That was great.
Aiki: Yeah, it's fun.