Q&A

How Do You Bring an Inexperienced Hero to a Fight?

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Your article on how to bring swords to a gunfight was very interesting, and I’m dealing with a (somewhat) similar idea except that it involves characters. The plot’s picking up speed. Things are getting serious. Your protagonist is in over their head. They don’t know what’s going on and suddenly they’re smack in the middle of a punching match / firefight / laser battle / duel / car chase / some combination of the above. Oh, noes! You want your character to be super awesome and have a super awesome throw down, or at least survive the encounter, but they’re just your average protagonist with no fighting expertise! What should you do? Basically, my question is: how do you bring an inexperienced protagonist to a firefight?

This can also be a problem with groups of protagonists, where maybe only one has real fighting expertise or training and the others are suddenly deadweight as soon as the fight starts. And if you’re writing, say, a thriller, your character probably wouldn’t realistically survive their first elbow brush with the baddies, much less learn how to fight over the relatively short time span that most novels take place in. Is the only solution to this problem to give characters fighting backgrounds? Is there a way to bring an inexperienced protagonist to the top in a fight without snapping believability? What’re your thoughts?

Thanks!
Bunny

Hey Bunny, nice to hear from you again!

I’ve seen the problem you’re describing in a lot of manuscripts. I’ve even started calling it the Frodo-Aragorn Problem: authors not only want their protagonist to be a sympathetic underdog, like Frodo, but also want them to be a super badass, like Aragorn, for all their cool battle sequences. Fortunately, there are a few solutions, though I wouldn’t call any of them quick fixes.

1. Make Your Character a Badass

If your story has a lot of fight scenes, it’s okay to revise the protagonist’s backstory so they’re good at fighting. This is usually easy to insert into their backstory, though the exact method will depend on your story’s setting. Perhaps the character has a military background, or perhaps they grew up fighting street battles with rival gangs. Even a background in sports like judo or boxing can go a long way in giving your character fighting skills.

The protagonist won’t have Frodo’s underdog sympathy, but that’s okay; there are other ways to make them sympathetic.

2. Avoid Fight Scenes

If your story is about a character who can’t fight, it’s okay not to have fight scenes. That way you don’t need to explain how a complete neophyte bests or escapes from a seasoned warrior. Some storytellers think they need action sequences to make their stories exciting, but they don’t. Action sequences are just one way to create conflict and tension. Your story can be about a small town’s political struggle to tear down an old building as long as you show how these stakes are compelling to the characters.

3. Focus on the Underdog’s Experience

Okay, if you’re set on fight scenes with a protagonist who isn’t good at fighting, you can still do that, but it’s tricky. When a fight scene starts, you have to focus on how the protagonist avoids danger, using what skills they have to make up for the skills they don’t. Returning to Lord of the Rings, when Frodo is in a fight, the story focuses on how he scrambles away from stronger enemies and hides in tiny crevices or uses his intelligence to outwit them. Your character might not have the skills necessary for a high-speed car chase, but they might know that they can take a shortcut through a local parking garage that never locks their gate.

There are limits to this method though. If the power between hero and villain is too skewed in the villain’s favor, it simply won’t be believable for the hero to escape. To address this, it can be helpful to include other characters who are better at fighting, the way LotR includes the rest of the fellowship. We don’t usually focus on Aragorn, especially early on; we just know he’s being a badass ranger while the hobbits are hiding. Tolkien makes this a little easier on himself by using an omniscient narration, but you can do it in limited as well. Just make sure the more fighty characters don’t overshadow the protagonist.

When using unconventional skills to get a protagonist out of trouble, it’s extra important to establish them ahead of time, since you’re asking the audience to accept that these skills will compensate for a serious power imbalance. If your hero is going to use their knowledge of the city to escape a car chase, the audience needs to know about that ahead of time.

4. Train the Underdog

If you’re going with option three, it can also be helpful to show the hero gaining combat skills as the story goes on. This works best in longer stories since it’ll seem painfully unrealistic if the hero suddenly acquires a black belt between scenes. Rather than a sudden change, you can show the character getting slowly better after each encounter as well as the occasional training sequence. That way your hero can start off not knowing which end of the sword to hold and end the story by defeating the villain in a duel.

You may have guessed by now, but this is what Lord of the Rings does. Frodo never reaches Aragorn’s level of badassery, but he and the other hobbits get noticeably better as the trilogy goes on, culminating in the Scouring of the Shire, where they lead the other hobbits in a battle to oust Saruman and his cronies. When done properly, this kind of slow transformation is incredibly satisfying.

Finally,  a few articles that touch on the subjects mentioned above.

Hope that answers your question!

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Comments

  1. Michael Campbell

    Also:-

    5) Fight Dirty
    Does the stand-over merchant’s newly hired flunky want to prove he deserves the job “full time” by belting someone up, at a bar, one night. A broken beer bottle might put a stop to that. Maybe even a manhole cover from a New York city street, if he takes up the issue; outside.

    6) Make it about the equipment
    Oh, you brought a revolver to a gun fight!?! I brought an Uzi.
    Oh, you’re the finest swordsman in all the land. Mr Blunderbuss would like to make your acquaintance.

    7) Send in the cavalry
    “Yeah, I know you want to shoot me but before you do; just be aware, I gained access to a police cruiser and radioed ‘Officer down’ at this address.
    So you need to choose, right now.
    Be arrested as a murderer? Or merely for possessing an illegal firearm?
    You can already hear the sirens, can’t you!?!”

    Let the hero get lucky
    Oh, look at that, our high speed car chase just ending in the middle of a well staffed fire-station. Embarrassing yes, but Mr Chase seems to have gone to “drive casual” mode.

  2. Asyles

    Hi!

    I’d like to present another underdog-level protagonist: Vasher from Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. He is a powerful magic user, an Awakener, who can animate clothes, ropes, even straw puppets. Also has a dangerously overpowered, but hilarious intelligent sword. But the thing is, Vasher actually sucks at swordfights. Against skilled fencers with conventional weapons only, he has poor chances to win. And yet, he has the reputation to have defeated one of the greatest fighters in his universe. How? Because he has a cool one-shot trick, that can give him the upper hand in a fight for a short time. It’s important to say, that Sanderson actually had revealed his secret way before he used it… but it was a so well constructed scene and it was an organic part of the whole setting, that the reader didn’t realised it. Until it was too late.

    What I’m trying to say, you can always make your protagonist know some fancy trick. It doesn’t have to be some overpowered combat move or super attack. It can be an energency short range teleport or a “Handy Charm of Please Let Me Escape. The important thing is, drop some hints about it through the story.

    • Dave L

      Sanderson also wrote Steelheart, where rebels fight against a guy who had powers like Superman, and a couple of others besides

      Which brings up another method: Use the villain’s weakness against them. This could be Kryptonite or a silver bullet or whatever. Or, for a less fantastic villain, distracted by a beautiful face, or afraid of clowns

      In fact, Steelheart is basically about the hunt for Steelheart’s weakness. The rebels know they stand no chance w/out it. So naturally, they have to fight him w/ only a few vague ideas of what it could be

      • Asyles

        So he basically used the main plot of Mistborn in Steelheart again. Regardless, thanks for the tip. I put it on my to-read-list.

  3. Cay Reet

    All four suggestions are great.

    The first thing you need to do when you start a new story is think about what kind of character you want and what kind of character you need. If you want an underdog, but your story will be full of perilious fights, you need to either change the story or the character, because they won’t go together otherwise. Or you give the character a good fighter as a friend. Or you give them a skill which gets them out of fights without fighting (charisma or speed will usually be best – either they talk people out of the fight or they just run very, very fast).

    One of my regular characters is a thief who can’t and won’t fight. But she doesn’t have to – her stories are built around break-ins and heists, if she gets attacked, she runs away.

    Another of my regular characters is more investigator than fighter, but he can hold himself in a regular fight and he has a friend/colleague who is very good at fighting – and no problems with having someone save his hide in a fight.

    Another of my regular characters is a secret agent/former criminal (depending on the two versions of her world I write) and she naturally can fight, it was never a question with her. She gets most action scenes I write and why not? She’s trained for it and has the experience. But she’s no underdog and never pretends to be.

  4. SunlessNick

    Related to fight dirty is sabotage the villain. The hero might find a way to do this beforehand, or it might be a factor of circumstance – eg when Rey takes on Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, he’s both losing it from killing Han and wounded by Chewie’s bowcaster.

    Use the ground. You might not be the equal of the other fighter, but if you know where the weak spots in the floor are and they don’t…

  5. Greg

    Another technique would be to impose some limitation on the villain. For example, maybe your villain is a super badass assassin, but for some reason our unskilled protagonist needs to be captured alive and relatively unharmed.

    Or maybe our badass antagonist is conflicted in some way and keeps hesitating or fumbling at key moments.

    Or maybe there are two antagonistic badasses after our hero, and they keep interfering with each other’s attempts to capture/kill the good guy. A further development could be that our hero plays each of the badass villains against one another. Or maybe it’s a misunderstanding and one of the two villains is actually an ally who’s been helping the hero behind the scenes.

    • Cay Reet

      I like the third possibility best, to be honest. One and two are a bit clichéd already. I mean, they’re even on the Evil Overlord list, I think (I’m sure about the first one, not quite sure about the second). Two enemies after the same person can really interfere with each other’s plan and it would give the protagonist a weapon which has nothing to do with being a badass fighter, but with a quick thinker or someone used to intrigues and manipulation.

  6. Recursive Rabbit

    Some suggestions of my own I’d like to add for early scenes:

    The protagonist isn’t the main target. Maybe they start out as a bystander and get involved. The villain might be surprised since they weren’t expecting heroic intervention, or they only took a ‘bigger’ hero into account.

    Maybe the villain’s commanding a lot of mooks, and the protagonist only has to deal with a few of them at first. Luke started out on stormtroopers and TIE fighter pilots, not Darth Vader.

    The protagonist is an unknown, or greatly deviates from the villains expectations. Maybe the villain expects a disciplined soldier when the protagonist is a reckless inventor, playful hacker, or secretly a mage, and uses those talents while the enemy’s assumptions leave them open to unconventional forms of attack. More simply: The hero is playing a entirely different game than the villain, and because of surprise and/or current circumstances, that works in the hero’s favor.

  7. Rose Embolism

    There’s the method that Foz Meadows used in An Accident of Stars, which was- put them in a fight, and hurt them. Have them go down. Leave them needing medical treatment and with scars. Have their friends around them also get badly hurt and scarred. Make it clear that they survived, but only because the battle was a chaotic mess, and nobody has dramatic immunity.

    Or the April Daniels method in Nemesis where the heroine gets hurt in fights, even with massive durability and healing. Where the brutal pain of taking blows, of the injuries received isn’t glossed over. Where even superhumans run a real risk of death or crippling injuries.

    Both stiories emphasize the real cost of combat and up the dramatic stakes immensely. Then again, I may be saying this because i just wrote a story where one of the leads got in over her head- and she lost an arm. So I’m biased.

    • Cay Reet

      It depends a lot on the tone of a story, I think. In most stories, you will not want such severe consequences for your character stumbling into their first fight, but if it fits your plans for plot development and the overall tone of the story and the world, it’s, of course, a possibility.

      I liked the way the ‘Brian Helsing’ series handles it. In the first book, when Brian becomes the new Helsing (read: monster hunter for life – how long that might be), he’s sent out to deal with a Banshee first – and that means dodging her attacks and talking to her until she calms down and passes into the afterlife. Not much of a fight. In addition, there’s the ring all Helsings wear which has accumulated their skills, lending them to the current wearer, if necessary. Throughout the series, though, Brian is regularly training with the Master of Combat (Gertie, short for Gertrude) to get better. The Brian who takes on three immensely powerful vampires in the seventh book is not the Brian who gets the ring in the first one. Getting better at fighting is a very long-time topic of the series.

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