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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Demure and Dangerous: Writing Female Self-Defence Scenes with Rayne Hall

When Rayne asked to do another post about writing fight scenes, I jumped at the chance to hostess. And it couldn't have come at a better time since I'm at the point with Boulevard of Bad Spells and Broken Dreams where Kira needs to kick some ass--and she still has no idea how dangerous she can be. The villains are counting on her not realizing her potential, but things are about to change.

Rayne's last post on Writing Fight Scenes engendered lots of lively discussion, and I suspect this one will as well. For those of you who don't know, Rayne's classes (and I've taken many of them) on fight scenes, magic, and magical weapons are a must for any fantasy writer. Her bio and links to register for her upcoming class is at the end of the post.

Without further ado, I give you Rayne Hall who, if you haven't noticed the Queen's English, hails from England.

Today's readers expect the heroine to fight her own way out of trouble. Screaming, swooning, and waiting for the hero to come to the rescue is no longer enough.

If your heroine is trained in martial arts, she has a whole range of techniques at her disposal. Half a year of martial arts training can be sufficient for a spirited defence.

For inspiration, watch self-defence demonstrations on YouTube until you find a maneuvre you can adapt for your scene. Here are some links to get you started:

For further YouTube clips, use the keyword 'self-defence' (or 'self-defense').

But not every woman is a skilled martial artist, or trained to wield a weapon, or drilled in self-defence. A novice can't disable a thug with a roundhouse kick, and a Victorian damsel won't fell her attacker with an uppercut. Fear may lend strength and courage, but it doesn't grant implausible skills.

Here's the solution: the heroine performs a self-defence move which doesn't require prior training. Although it won't defeat the villain, it will buy her precious seconds during which she can escape from his clutches.

Choose one of these six techniques:

1. She uses her feet. Attackers expect their victims to defend themselves with their hands, so they hold the victim in a way which prevents her from moving her arms. However, your heroine is clever: she stomps her heel down on his foot. This works especially well if she's wearing high heels. The pain makes him relax his grip, though only for a moment, so she may follow this with #2.

2. She kicks him in the leg. This makes him stagger and loosen his grip for a moment. Depending on how he holds her, she can kick forwards, backwards or sidewards. She can kick his shin, his calf, his knee, his thigh, or his crotch, as long as she kicks hard. Her kick has more power if she first bends her leg and pulls her knee towards her torso and kicks from this position. (In martial arts lingo: she chambers her leg.) This allows her to kick stronger and higher, but it needs to be done quickly.

3. If she's shorter than her attacker, she sags against him as if in defeat, then suddenly straightens, ramming her head under his chin. This hurts her head, but it hurts his jaw a lot more. As he loosens his grip in pain and surprise, she breaks free.

4. If she has a hand free, she spreads the first and middle fingers and stabs them into his eyes. This blinds him temporarily, giving her time to escape. It doesn't work if he wears glasses. The violence of this method makes it unsuitable for gentle forms of fiction, and the heroine should use it only against a bad guy, not against an honourable enemy or innocent prison guard.

5. She can go for his balls. Every woman knows that a man's privates are vulnerable, and if she can punch or squeeze him there, he'll probably be out of action long enough for her to make her escape. However, men are aware of their vulnerability. Only a very stupid attacker would allow a female victim to grab his bits. Besides, this method is so over-used in fiction that it has become a predictable cliche. You could make it less predictable by letting the heroine use her elbow or her knee.

6. She can use a skill from a different context, for example, from her hobby or her job, and adapt it as a self-defence maneuvre. If her hobby is yoga, she can use her flexibility to slip out of her attacker's grasp. If she's a ballet dancer, she can fell him with a fouette. She can also use a tool of her trade as a weapon: the archaeologist may do something nifty with a trowel, the hair stylist with the curling iron, the gardener with the spade. In real life, these would probably not work - but they feel realistic, because the heroine's special skill has been established.

Since the aim of self-defense is to escape the danger, rather than to defeat an opponent, self-defence scenes tend to be very short. Often, they are just a paragraph within a larger scene.

Readers love self-defence scenes, especially if it's a woman defending herself against a man. You may want to insert a self-defence scene - or even a single self-defence paragraph - in your novel. Perhaps the heroine puts up a spirited fight before the kidnappers overpower her. Perhaps she has to fight the prison guard who tries to stop her escape. Maybe she wards off a lecher's forceful advances. In romance novels, the heroine may even fight off the hero - of course only at the beginning of the novel, before they've become allies. Near the end of the book, she's more likely to fight at the hero's side against the forces of evil.

If you have questions about writing fight scenes, feel free to ask. I'll be around for a week and will respond.

Rayne Hall writes dark fantasy and horror. She has published more than twenty books under different pen names in different genres, and her stories have earned Honorable Mentions in 'The Years' Best Fantasy and Horror'. She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing, and teaches online classes.

Even if you've never wielded a weapon, you can write an exciting fight scene. Rayne will show you how in her workshop on 'Writing Fight Scenes', which starts on 1 June 2011:


  1. This is a great post, thanks for sharing! It seems like it would be applicable to kids fighting adults, too, which may just come in handy for the piece I'm working on...

  2. Hi Acwise,
    Yes, I'm sure you can adapt some of these ideas for kids fighting adults. How old are the kids? How tall? A small strong kid can target the adult's legs to make the adult topple.
    Another idea, which works well if the kid is much smaller than the adult: The adult lifts the kid up so her face is level with his, encases her torso and arms in a bear hug, and utters terrible threats into her face. This position leaves her legs absolutely free. Depending on how tall she is, she can use her legs, knees or feet to hit, slam, ram, kick him in the stomach, groin, thighs, back of knees. If she hits hard enough to hurt him, he's bound to drop her, and she can get away.
    Do you think this could work for your story?

    If the adult lifts the kid up in order to encase them in a bear hug (a likely scenario if the kid is small), the kid has her legs free and, depending on her size,

  3. Oops. That last paragraph in my post was an orphan from my draft. Ignore it.

  4. Thanks Rayne; that's given me some help. My heroines tend not to be skilled at fighting or have weapons to hand, and I can already see them using one or two of your suggestions.

    (But not #5 which is too below the belt.)

  5. Hi again, Andrew (It was you last time, wasn't it? We discussed trying out historical replica weapons and reenactment events).
    Yes, if your heroines aren't skilled at fighting, they need to do something which shows spunk but doesn't require fighting experience or knowledge.

    I agree about #5: it's not my favourite either. While I would use it without hesitation against a real-life attacker, I'd avoid it in fiction. It's been used so often in fiction that it's become a predictable cliche. Admittedly, the writers who use it are almost always female. I wonder why? ;-)

    Which of my suggestions do you think will work best in your novels?



  6. Great post. I really had never thought of watching videos to see how fight scenes work or in this case, self defense moves, but it really is helpful!!

  7. Hello Rayne. Yes, we met here before. As a bloke using female viewpoint I need to keep reminding myself that my heroines differ from me in more than shape. Because of that I'd be tempted to go for the go for specifically female things like the high heels in #1.

    In a soon to be released novella my heroine defends herself with a sharp, broken key ring.

  8. Hi Andrew,

    Women - more then men - instinctively grab a something to use as a weapon, so your plan is spot-on.

    High heels are great, if your heroine wears those. I know several women who actually used high heels! Admittedly, those weren't exciting fight situations of the kind which make thrilling reading. Some were quite unglamorous.

    One female friend was using a public toilet. She was sitting on the bowl, with her handbag before her on the floor, when she saw a hand reach from under the cubicle partition to snatch the bag.

    She stomped down hard on that hand. The wannabe thief screamed and howled, then came the sound of running footsteps towards the exit.

    My friend didn't pursue the thief - she had to finish her business, and pull her trousers back up - but her bag was safe, and she reckons that thief had gained a painful lesson. :-)

    Personally, I tend to wear flats, so I couldn't use heels as weapons. But then, I'm pretty good at roundhouse kicks. :-)


  9. Hi Vanessa,
    We're fortunate to live in an age when we have access to self defence DVDs and youtube clips, so we can watch plausible movement sequences and write them. Some include useful commentary as well.

  10. A great discussion going here, just like the last time. I see a few folks hopped over from LJ where I cross posted. Welcome!

    Rayne, my heroine is a bumbling witch so she is using some magick as self defense. But I think I need to have her try some physical moves as well.

    Fortunately, my sons are black belts in Tae Kwon Do and I watched enough competitions and lessons to learn a bit. I took some karate and learned some simple moves myself, like pulling away until the attacker pulls back harder, then stepping forward to throw him off balance and whacking him behind the neck or behind the knees. I also learned this really cool maneuver where you grab the oppponent's elbow and turn your own arm, even if you have to rotate your body to do it. It causes a lot of pain in the opponent and I took a guy down in one second even though he was expecting it.

    I will watch those videos for more ideas.

    Thanks for being here this week.

  11. Hi Carole,

    I've been thinking about your bumbling witch a bit. Maybe some of my thoughts are useful for your story.

    It's possible to combine magic and physical fighting. However, I don't think your bumbling witch will use magic for self-defence. Magic requires preparation, concentration, altering consciousness, power-raising, direction energy etc. - all of which take time and are difficult to achieve when facing an unexpected attack! It's nearly impossible to concentrate on the magic spell while being beaten up by a thug. A highly experienced master magician can do it - but not a bumbling novice.

    So, I think she'll use physical moves, rather than magic, to defend herself. This works best if she has some martial arts training or at least attended self-defence workshops where she can have learnt how to grab the opponent's elbow and pull his arm etc. Maybe she's been doing karate or tae kwon do for some years: then this is very plausible.

    If you want her to use magic for self-defence, the most plausible scenario is a preventative spell. She performs a spell which will deflect certain kinds of harm, blocks certain kinds of aggressions, etc. This is something she can do in the safety of her home, perhaps with the support of a tutor or experienced magician. She'll do it before venturing into a dangerous situation. The spell is a bit like specialist armour, likely to block or ease only specific kinds of attacks. It could be fun if she armoured herself magically against an expected kind of attack... and then the attack happens and it's something completely different, so her spell is useless.