I choose fighting styles for my characters primarily in three different ways, these variables allow me to narrow down my search so that I understand what it is I’m looking for. They are:
I know, probably not what you were expecting. Most of the time, I’ve seen askers on our blog get too hung up on “the best” for their character. As if a certain style might suit them better if they are X centimeters high, weigh such and such, and are gender X or Y. Choosing a martial art isn’t picking stats in an attempt to game the system. Your story isn’t a video game and it’s not a tabletop RPG. Just like you, your character is going to be at the mercy of forces outside of their control i.e. where they live, what they for work, and their social class. So, your middle class sixteen year old Caucasian girl in 2014 New York learns shotokan karate instead of taekwondo. Does it matter? Probably not.
However, your middle class sixteen year old Caucasian girl in 1800s New York practicing taekwondo and fighting in the underground boxing arena on the side might look a little strange since the martial art only officially came into existence around 1960 (though it’s roots date back much further). While karate is much older, it was a secret carefully guarded from foreigners until US soldiers returned after World War II. Even then, it didn’t achieve popularity in the United States until 1950. Like the other Japanese martial arts, it’s roots date back much further in the US but was carefully guarded and taught only to other members of the immigrant community.
What would this character be fighting with then? The obvious remaining alternative: western boxing (1800s boxing, not modern boxing).
So, let’s break it down.
Setting is, well, your setting. Say you’ve chosen to set your tale in China during the ancient Qin Dynasty from 221 to 206 BCE. Maybe it’s historical, maybe it’s fantasy, either way you now have a starting point from which to launch your research. Though you the author get to sit up in the sky making choices for your character, from back story to the future, the character themselves doesn’t have that option. They have to work within the limits of what their setting allows. Regardless of how perfect it may be on a character level, you can’t just plop Western boxing into a setting based in 206 BCE China. It would be anachronistic and wouldn’t make any sense.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of martial arts in existence all over the world. If you try to look at them all, all at once, without putting value on where they’re from, what they do, and who they were developed to fight, you lose the subtle but key parts of what makes that specific martial art function.
Always start with the setting. Research the martial history of the period, even if it’s modern day. Look at your available options. If you set your story in Chicago, research the history of martial arts communities in Chicago. Look up martial arts schools online, find out what’s popular, or what groups work in the parts of the city where your story is set. Depending on the different places where major immigrant communities settled, you’ll find a different spread of available martial arts and a wide variety of teaching styles.
Martial arts don’t just pop out of nowhere. They have a history and the opportunities to learn them are based on their availability to your character. It’s also a great place to start figuring out if the story you want to write is going to mesh with the reality of what you have to work with.
It’s the fastest, simplest, and easiest way to start thinking about and generating internal consistency and make a decent stab at the beginning stages of avoiding cultural appropriation.
Narrowing your field of research is always the first step.
A soldier learns a different way of fighting from a police officer. A teenager engaging in recreational martial arts as an after school curricular isn’t going to fight like a spy. That much is obvious, right? But after you choose your character’s profession, you have to couple that with your setting. A cop in 1990s New York is going to learn different things from a cop in modern day South Korea or England. Whether or not they even carry a gun is going to be questionable. Their police work, manner in which they deal with criminals, and style of combat will be based around their different laws, gun regulations, martial history, and a thousand other variables. Even the differences in gender norms will govern a significant part of the character’s profession and how they are perceived (or even allowed) for doing what they do. Even within precincts in a single city, the firearms issued to servicemen can be different.
You may assume all cops carry Glock 17s, but that isn’t actually true.
By choosing your setting first and profession second, you narrow the scope of your search even further because you’re eliminating excess variables. You can say: my character is going to be X, what does X learn?
You may be wondering: but my character is a teenager. Well, what that means is going to depend on their setting. If it’s modern day middle class US, then their occupation is: student. Meaning you have to limit your search to martial arts which allow students under the age eighteen while also factoring in their school schedule, social life, etc. It’s important to remember there are only a certain number of hours in the day, they have to balance this extra portion of their life against the stuff they already have to do (school, family obligations, possibly a job). It’ll help keep your head in the real world and not pile on too many conflicting traits.
This is what your character has access to. A character who is a noble will have access to types of training your peasant, commoner, or merchant’s son will not. A character in metropolitan San Francisco may have their pick of martial arts styles from all over the world. A character in San Francisco during the Gold Rush? Not so much.
Access determines what your character can learn to do. From your previous setting research, you’ll have a good idea of what those things are.
Some things it’s important to remember:
Martial arts classes cost time and money. If a family is under financial stress, those things deemed “unnecessary extras” are often the first to go. Your character has to have the luxury of time to learn, the access to the particular skill set you want them to learn (which means you have to figure out how they got it), and the money to pay someone to teach them or barter something else away to earn it.
Overburdened with hungry children, your character’s parents sold him into the service of a passing knight so that he might become his page/squire/servant ala a less pleasant version of A Knight’s Tale. While this may not have given Will the training, it did give him access to what he needed when the time came to fulfill his dream. If he’d stayed in England, he’d never have become a knight. Instead, he would have most likely become a thatcher.
It’s not enough to just want more. You have to find a way to get it.
Using these three, you’ll not only be able to choose a martial art but also build that martial art seamlessly into your character’s backstory and also help you work on your setting at the same time. It interconnects all those things so that by the time you’re done, you’ve already laid the groundwork you need to begin writing. You’ve also eliminated the parts of your story which don’t make sense because you’ve grounded your mind and your character in your setting. Your character and their fighting style reflect the world they live in. The way they fight will be a direct response to the dangers they face. After all, each of us is the sum total of our experiences.
All those birds downed with a single stone.
Or you could reference this post: Fight Write: Choosing Your Martial Art and this post: Fight Write: Art, Sport, Subdual, and Lethality