So you are about to write a fight scene in your story, but you don’t know anything about fighting? Do not worry friend, because The General is here to help you along. So let’s begin with the basics. You have a character that is about the enter a life or death combat situation, and one of the first things you should take into consideration is how the human body reacts when faced with this type of situation. One of the main things that happens is that the body releases Adrenaline and this in turn gives the person an enormous energy boost. So much so that the body’s appendages (hands, arms, legs) can and will start to shake due to the amount of excess energy that is flowing through the person’s veins.

Next, blood is withdrawn automatically from the less vital areas, like the face which causes it to turn white, so it can be used to overcharge more vital areas. Like the arms and the legs. And the body then tends to stiffen up. This is a natural response that we inherited from our ancestors and was originally used to resist puncture wounds that were made by the claws of predators. Unfortunately, this is a major disadvantage-as any martial artist will tell you-when dealing with a human opponent. They have to work to keep their body relaxed for the simple reason that a relaxed body is a looser body which in turn is a body that can react faster then one that is tense. Bear in mind that during sword and knife fights, the natural response is still in effect and the muscles around an area a blade has penetrated will go stiff automatically.

When injured in a fight, many people feel a numbness in the injured area. This is the body’s attempt to keep the person in the fight so that their opponent does not injure them any further. Though this does not always happen as sometimes the injury is so severe that the pain is instantaneous and also sometimes the nerve endings in the affected ending are so damaged that the person won’t feel any pain. Which can be a real problem, people have been know to have one of their arms blown off and not notice it for minutes afterwards.

I can now hear some people asking how can that be. Well, I have already explained about the part concerning the nerve endings and now I think I need to touch on the topic of tunnel vision. When confronted a major threat, a person’s field of vision will narrow and will focus completely on the threat. This is a major problem for two reasons. First, they are not likely to notice injuries as the ones I have just described. Second, they are not likely to notice other, less obvious threats; which is why soldiers are trained to check out their sides and rear in a fight. Sometimes they will forget, especially if the battle is intense enough or the first opponent is fearsome enough. It would be kind of funny if the heroes of a fantasy story die because they were focusing on the big dragon in front of them and failed to notice the itty, bitty little goblin about to shove a dagger in their back. (And now you know why people don’t like me to run their role-playing games.)

Now let’s talk about fear in a fight. It can be powerful motivator and offers some unique advantages when fighting. It can and will increase a person’s strength, reflexes, and their desire to survive. Not to mention it is a natural response like the body stiffening; a person that has no fear in a life or death struggle is either a) an idiot or b) has severely underestimated the situation he/she is in and its implications. No exceptions here. So please don’t make your heroes feel no fear because it is unrealistic, not to mention stupid. Oh, I need to add that sometimes fear can cause a person-especially if they weren’t trained or prepared for the situation beforehand-to become paralyzed and it can even kill them by inducing a heart attack.

You want an example? Okay,let’s say you are writing a horror story and let’s make it a werewolf story since Halloween just happened. Furthermore, let’s make your main character not so much a skeptic (which is a neutral position, the person doesn’t know whither or not werewolves exist and can be persuaded to change his tune) on the subject of werewolves, but a pseudo-skeptic (someone who has already made up their mind that werewolves do not exist and will not consider the alternative no matter what evidence comes to light while still calling himself a skeptic). Now in real life there are people who will take an idea-any idea, be it political, economic, religious, or even which sports team is the best-and make it so much a part of their world view and thought process that if you ask them to question it, it is like you are asking them to question their very existence.

And then at the climax of the story, the character sees a person change into a nine foot tall, furry death machine and rip into a bunch of people like a buzzsaw. He is much more likely to be paralyzed or drop dead of a heart attack here rather then benefit from his fear because his entire world view-everything he believed and took for granted-has just taken a torpedo hit below the waterline. He is having to deal with both one of his most cherished and secure beliefs being demolished in the most brutal way possible and the life or death situation posed by our berserker werewolf st the same time.

Speaking of this, when a raw recruit is confronted with a combat situation for the first time, the reaction that is most common is disbelief. “Is somebody shooting? Wait a minute, they’re shooting at me! They’re trying to kill me! There has to be some mistake here!” This goes double for newbie infantry troops under artillery bombardment. “They’re trying to kill me and I can’t even shoot back at them!” It is not at all uncommon to see green troops standing in the open looking confused for a few seconds as the enemy artillery starts to pound their position. Then the training will kick in and they will dive for cover. Or one of the veterans will pull them down into cover. Or they will die in the opening salvo of the bombardment.

To help counter this problem, military forces stress aggressive training. They will teach their soldiers that they are better then the other nation’s soldiers and that you don’t run from your inferiors. Instead you beat them into the ground and teach them a lesson for their insolence in attacking you. Note that aggressive here does not mean chagrining into the enemy ranks singing a song like the March of Cambreadth while swinging a sword above your head; its more like “How dare that bastard shoot at me, I am going to fix his little red wagon!” (I am keeping this at PG rated levels to comply with the article submission guidelines, just so you know.)

Another way for soldiers to overcome fear in combat is the Esprit de Corps, which is the knowledge that your fellow soldiers need you and you need them. That if you don’t fight they may be killed and vice versa. And if the unit is tight, as all good units are, it gives the troops a powerful leverage over their fear and is a great motivation force as well. Which is why you will get incidents like the Charge of the Light Brigade and not single soldier breaks ranks during it. Note that the average civilian character in your stories is not going to know about this concept and it may very well be an alien mindset to them when they first encounter it.

Also, as I have noted in one of my Eragon articles, the military mindset is very authoritarian. During peace time, soldiers are conditioned to obey orders from their officers and noncommissioned officers (Corporals, Sergeants; they are commonly referred to as noncoms or NCOs for convenience sake) without question. They will get used to it and this makes them much more suspect to this type of persuasion when they are scared because it is a learned habit. For this reason, boot camps are extremely tough on new recruits. The drill instructors will do their best to intimidate, demean, and scare the new troops. Not because they’re mean, but so the troops can get used to fear and pressure along with the idea of taking and carrying out orders from their officers/noncoms when they are scared and under intense pressure. Tough training makes for easy battles is the motto of all competent fighting forces in the world.

Now I want to touch upon the subject of bullies and people that have been bullied and how that relates to combat. This may come as surprise to you, but bullies are much more likely to panic under combat situations then the people they push around. You see, bullies are used to being the top dogs of the pack, the apex predator in their area, the…you get the idea. They are not used to the idea that there are bigger, tougher, nastier people out that can stomp them into the ground with ease. Or, as in the case of my artillery strike example a couple of paragraphs up, kill them with them without them even being able to fight back. They tend to react…poorly when confronted by this knowledge. The people they push around, however, have long been used to the idea and have an easier time adjusting to the new circumstances.

Now which troops do you think are the most aggressive and bloodthirsty? If you thought marines or special forces troops, you’re wrong. It is naval and air force personnel. Why? Because they never see the faces of the people they are killing or the bodies afterwards. They don’t even think about it most of the time because in their mind they refer to their actions as ‘sinking enemy ships’ or ‘shooting down enemy aircraft.’ They think in terms destroying objects, not killing people, as way to cope with how much blood they have on their hands. A submarine crew is cheering when they torpedo an enemy aircraft carrier because they have just sunk one hell of a prize. The fact that an aircraft carrier has a crew that can number in the thousands is not dwelt upon. The same principle applies to a fighter pilot who shoots down a transport plane loaded with a couple of hundred paratroopers. When they do dwell upon it, they usually develop physiological problems or suffer a nervous breakdown.

Now this is just a brief, a very brief, overview of how people react in combat to get you started on the right track. People can and have wrote entire books on the subject, Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society is an excellent one that I recommend you pick up and read for a more in depth look on the subject. Anyway, I hope this helps you and good luck in your story.


  1. Carbon Copy on 1 November 2008, 12:08 said:

    The General’s articles are excellent, and give lots of good advice for adding realism to your story. However, while I think realism is important, it is not the only consideration for an author. You have to consider the story you are trying to tell, the audience you are telling it to, and the characters that are involved.

    For example, if you have a big battle scene, it is well worth considering the logistics of how your army is equipped and how provisions are transported, but if you are writing a book for 12 year olds, you have to understand that a good chunk of your audience is not going to give a damn. Think about it, but only use the information if it is important – if soldiers are attacking supply lines, for example.

    Just think, would we really have wanted Eldest to be padded out with 50 pages telling us how the Varden get food to the front line? When Paolini can give us 16 pages on forging a sword, the last thing I want from him is MORE detail. It’s a blessed relief when I am left to figure something out by myself.

    Of course, sometimes realism just isn’t a factor. If your evil wizard can summon golems to fight for him, things like food and draft dodging is not applicable.

    I always express the horror of battle, the trauma of death, and the despair of loss. I think those things are important, and that’s why I write stories that deal with those subjects. However, each story, and each character, has to be dealt with on a case by case basis.

    Imagine if Conan the Barbarian had a panic attack before every fight, and spewed his guts every time he killed someone… That just doesn’t fit, even if it is how real people might act. Sometimes, you just have to go with what feels right for your characters.

    If you have designed your characters well enough, they will tell YOU how they will react, rather than you tellimg THEM.

    Love the articles, G. Keep them coming.

  2. Artimaeus on 1 November 2008, 21:48 said:

    Great article. There are usually things in stories that the author needs to know, even if it isn’t explicitly explained in the book. While it doesn’t need explained in Eldest how exactly the Varden/Empire’s soldiers are fed, Paolini could easily have made his campaigns more interesting had thought about it more (which he clearly didn’t). It’s always a good thing to think about.

    But I agree with carbon copy that there are times when you shouldn’t be a complete realist. I enjoyed Lord of the Rings, even though Tolkien never really explains ow Sauron can feed his uncountable army of orcs (remember, Mordor probably isn’t the best farmland).

    The best military realism I’ve read was written by Orson Scott Card. Ender’s Game does a lot with the psychological baggage that comes along with killing, and the Shadow series (Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, ect…) deals with the logistics of military campaigns better than any other fiction I’ve read. I strongly recommend these book, but I’d like to know General’s opinion, assuming he’s familiar with them.

  3. GC on 2 November 2008, 18:45 said:

    Awesome articles. Kudos. But didn’t Sgt. Bravo write something similar a long time ago? I could’ve swore ‘twas on A-S, but it isn’t…

  4. inky13112 on 3 November 2008, 19:42 said:

    “But I agree with carbon copy that there are times when you shouldn’t be a complete realist. I enjoyed Lord of the Rings, even though Tolkien never really explains ow Sauron can feed his uncountable army of orcs (remember, Mordor probably isn’t the best farmland).”

    It is actually mentioned in the books (Two Towers I believe) that he gets much of his food and supplies from tribute by nations to the south.

    Also, fantastic article, I’m probably going to apply alot of this to the next time I roleplay. Thanks.

  5. Rand on 11 November 2008, 20:21 said:

    They resorted to cannabalism (two orcs feed one battalion) and, yes, probably the South.

  6. Robert on 12 November 2008, 01:32 said:

    I am a martial artist and a military history major. And I approve of this article.

  7. Rhaego on 18 November 2008, 16:01 said:

    I think these articles sound like the Epistler, in terms of proffesionality (spelling/word fail?). They have helped me a lot in my fights and large battle scenes.

    I have one question though. If normal, everyday humans were aware that supernatural beings existed, but until now had never seen them actually fight, would they go into shock/fear paralysis?

    I realize that’s a little out there, but I thought it pertained to the whole werewolf/worldview thing…

  8. Andrew on 19 November 2008, 21:50 said:

    Actually, inky13112, not only is tribute from more fertile farmlands mentioned in that book, but read closely and Tolkien will mention the (scientifically plausible!) idea that there is land within Mordor some distance from Mount Doom is extraordinary fertile due to the cooled volcanic soil.

    That doesn’t change the fact that the legion of inferior writers in Tolkien’s wake failed to explain this glaring supply problem, but it is something.