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Writing Kick-Butt Warrior Women

marycatelli posted a few thoughts and links on the warrior woman in fantasy, including a blog entry Against Tiny Kung Fu Women and a response by Judith Berman in Black Gate.

Given what I'm writing these days, I found these articles interesting. Berman makes a good point that your believable woman warrior will probably look more like Laila Ali than Buffy (though Buffy had magic backing her up). She's apparently spent a fair amount of time debating "whether women really could go up against men in combat and win before the invention of that great equalizer, the gun. [Her] position is yes, provisionally."

The Tiny Kung Fu Woman post also focuses on the muscle mass necessary to win a fight, and states that "every competent fighter in the world has muscular limbs."

ETA: I misattributed a quote. It's Braak (Tiny Kung Fu Women) who said, "I am, in fact, 100% in favor of more women warriors. I’m just opposed to the implausibility of tiny, skinny women being put into the role of a woman warrior without consideration for the practical demands of such a role." My apologies to Berman and Braak both. I've edited the opening paragraphs to fix this mistake.

First, the disclaimer: I'm no expert. I earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do as a teenager, but I'm 20 years out of practice. I've taken a few other martial arts classes over the years, but not as seriously. And my first-hand experience as a warrior is pretty much limited to rolling d20s.

Muscle can be important. So is size. All things being equal, a big strong guy is probably going to have the advantage over the little, not-so-strong guy. (I say this with a lifetime of experience being the little guy.) On the other hand, the Aikido instructor I had back in undergrad liked to demonstrate techniques on the football players. The instructor was fairly small, probably in his 60s or so, with a bit of a belly. He'd pin guys twice his size and hold them flat with one hand on the wrist and pressure from the pinky of his other hand applied to the back of the elbow. As much as muscle and size can help, I'd still put experience and training over bulk any day.

When I write Talia's character, she has magic giving her speed and coordination, but she also knows where to hit and how to fight. There are places on the body where all the muscle in the world won't protect you. Throat, eyes, ears, groin, and joints, to name a few. The female fighter might have a weaker strike, but a hit in the right spot doesn't need that much force. Anyone who's roughhoused with a little kid and had them land a lucky blow knows how much damage a tiny opponent can do.

The style of fighting is important too. Wrestling will give more importance to strength and mass. Hand those same two combatants rapiers, and suddenly speed and control are more important, and size means greater reach but also a larger target area.

In the end, when you're writing a warrior woman character, not everyone is going to buy it. From the comments at Black Gate, "I can confidently state that even expert female fighters have absolutely no chance against half-trained male fighters." Fair enough. There are plenty of Conan novels for him to go read. But for the rest of the readers, I think one of the most important things to take from the discussion isn't that "Good fighters must be this strong and this big," but that the writer needs to figure out how the character fights, and think it through. In book two, Talia gets into a struggle with a male prince, trying to shove him off of the deck. When he resists, she doesn't try to overpower him. Nor would readers believe it if she did. Instead, she sidesteps, allowing him to overbalance while pushing him in the direction he was already going.

Like everything else, you have to think it through. The sword-wielding, armor-wearing mercenary will build up muscle, male or female. The assassin who relies on stealth, speed, and a knife in the back might not do well in a face-to-face brawl ... but of course she also knows better than to let herself be drawn into one. Part of winning the fight is controlling how it will be fought.

And very few practicing fighters are going to look like an anorexic Hollywood supermodel, regardless of their fighting style.

What do you think? What makes you believe a woman fighter can kill you as easily as look at you, and when do you lose your suspension of disbelief? For those of you who've read Stepsister, I'd also be curious to know whether you found Talia a believable fighter.



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Feb. 12th, 2009 02:51 pm (UTC)
Berman's article touches on the naginata as well.

It would be interesting to also look at what in the cultural context allowed for more women warriors. marycatelli made a good point in her post that in medieval times, the childbearning/rearing responsibilities would tend to keep more women out of combat. But every culture is different, and individuals within a culture vary as well. What was going on during that period in Japanese history, I wonder...
(no subject) - marycatelli - Feb. 13th, 2009 01:23 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 12th, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
I think it's important not to default to every heroine being thin. Period. Whether it's written or filmed fiction, having a default of the current standard of bodily perfection, where arm and leg muscles are often airbrushed out of pictures of actresses, is just not a good idea. It's as dumb as deciding that the hero always has to have green eyes or something like that: if one person does it, it's a little personal quirk; if an entire industry does it, it's a little psychotic.

That said, my grandmother has knocked male Marines cold, and did so when she was a slim young woman as well as when she was in her sturdier middle age, so I am an easy sell on this stuff. My suspension of disbelief is waaaaaay over compared to some people's, because my real life experience of women is not even second cousins with physically helpless.
Feb. 12th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
"I think it's important not to default to every heroine being thin."


Also, your grandmother sounds way cool.
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Feb. 12th, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC)
my .02 while I procrastinate the writing I should be doing....
Coming to this from the POV of a medium-boned, relatively short female who has fenced and roughhoused and done some basic fight-practice, and written all sorts of fight scenes....

Assuming you're not talking about a basic medieval hack-and-thrash battle of armored sowrdsmen, style, speed and smarts are, IMO and E, more important in winning a fight than pure mass, muscle or otherwise.

Style: the weapon determines the winner. Someone who is trying to silently choke an opponent will fight one way, the head-on clash of swordsmen is fought another way. And the fighter who has a poisoned dagger or lethal syringe needs to get in close and get out fast. Likewise, a mounted fighter needs control of their weapon and their mount more than they need brute strength. Conan would have been a crap polo player (if you don't think polo mallets are a deadly weapon, you've never seen the game played).

Speed: Hulk strong. Flash faster. Who do you think would land the first blow? And if the first blow is well-placed, there is no second blow.

Smarts: ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Man in Black, from The Princess Bride. Also, as my self-defense instructor taught us: in life-or-death matters there is no such thing as "fighting dirty." You fight to survive.

A character who has smarts and uses them to choose the style that best suits him/her (as opposed to just picking up the nearest sword and trying to thwack with it) will allow me to believe that s/he can win his/her battles. Studying the enemy = a believable warrior. Training and practice and understanding the theory of how they do what they do = a believable fighter, no matter what the weapon or the body type. Buffy worked not only because she had magic, but because we saw her training, day in and day out, and improvising/using what was to-hand when she had to fight dirty.

So, um, pretty much what you said already, i think. *grins*
Feb. 12th, 2009 03:22 pm (UTC)
Re: my .02 while I procrastinate the writing I should be doing....
I always thought Kendra the Vampire Slayer seemed a little more realistic. She wasn't heavily muscled, but she looked strong.
Feb. 12th, 2009 03:13 pm (UTC)
I'm trying to remember if the source of this was an article published somewhere or just a commentary on one of the Buffy episodes, but I do recall there being some mention of there often being a problem with Sarah Michelle Gellar not matching her stunt-doubles as much as one would like because in order to actually accomplish many of Buffy's physical feats the stuntwomen needed to be a good deal more muscular than Gellar actually is. So in terms of folks making a television show with one of the most famous female warriors of modern times, technically speaking, Buffy wasn't buff enough. ;)
Feb. 12th, 2009 05:39 pm (UTC)
From a mythos point of view, Buffy had magical speed and strength, so it doesn't work quite the same.

That said, I know a professional stunt woman who's about 5"2", and slender but strong and solid. (She's NYC-based, though, so I guess they didn't know about her for BTVS. She would have been a good match.)
Feb. 12th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
Talia worked fine. She had magic, sure, but she also had training, drive, and more muscle mass than her companions (Danielle remarked on her being bigger, if I remember correctly?).

After Xena, the kick-butt heroine became ubiquitous, and sadly less and less logical, at least in visual media. I think the most egregious example I personally saw was in the follow-up to Zorro a few years back, when a tiny little Random Extra woman left her baby in an exploding barn (not to mention there was really no reason the barn should have been exploding in the first place) to go and pummel four bad guys, with no hint or clue or reason given at all that she should have been able to do that. (And I think I would be equally skeptical had it been a same-sized man doing that. She was TINY.)

I love my kick-butt heroines (I have the sneaking suspicion that Xena might have had a formative influence on my morality. I don't know what that says about me, actually), but I don't like this idea gaining too much currency in society that women are "as tough" as men with no caveats and no explained circumstances. I am quite tall/large, but I am not tough, I am not trained, and I am not aggressive, and in the portion of society I personally inhabit, I don't need any of the men thinking they can come and knock me around like a physical equal. (Too many people -- women and men both! -- out there RIGHT NOW talking about 'Rihanna had it coming' 'she must have made him do it' 'some of these women are tough!' and similar garbage.)
Feb. 12th, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC)
I think I've blocked out most of Zorro 2 from my memory...

I'm not sure how much the idea of women being "as tough" is influencing domestic violence issues. Abuse and victim blaming has been going on for a long, long time, and I don't think I've ever come across "She's tough, so she can take it" being used as an excuse.

Regardless, any excuse that puts the blame on the victim instead of the abuser is bullshit, to put it mildly.
(no subject) - tsubaki_ny - Feb. 12th, 2009 09:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Feb. 12th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)
Many years ago, I took Tang Soo Do. Being a girl and also a shrimp (at that time), I never had anyone my size to spar with. That being said, I won every competition I entered except for the one I was disqualified from. It had nothing to do with strength. Believe me, I had no upper body strength at all. It was a matter of learning how to use the other person's body against them.

H. Jackson Brown, Jr. said it best: "In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins - not through strength but by perseverance."

I found Talia to be a believable fighter. You did not make her invincible; You made her quick, crafty, resourceful... but not invincible. I really liked her character. I think where my belief stops is when a character is perfect or too close it. They never get nicked in a battle... they never take a misstep giving their opponent an advantage... they always know the perfect way to proceed and they are never wrong, they never question themselves. In my opinion, perfect should not exist even in fiction unless the character is somehow divine. Even then, a flawed divine character is always more entertaining.

Shutting up now :)

Edited at 2009-02-12 03:17 pm (UTC)
Feb. 12th, 2009 06:44 pm (UTC)
No need to shut up. This is exactly the sort of discussion I love, even though I never have time to respond to everyone in as much depth as I'd like.

I think you hit on a really important point, that the character with flaws and weaknesses as well as strengths is a much more engaging character to read about.
Feb. 12th, 2009 03:22 pm (UTC)
Hmm. Well, I'm not an expert at a lot of things, but here I might be able to help. I have more-than-average experience with both Martial Arts and sword-combat: I've won well over twenty medals in international Kung Fu competition, and my buddies and I have won 5/9 Banner Wars, a competition of 14-person teams that attracts entrants from across the nation.

My wife and several other women are on the Banner Wars team, and what I can say about highly skilled fighting women is this: They are smarter than most guys, they are typically short (there are exceptions), they usually have biceps almost as big as mine, and they each specialize with a different form of combat (my wife is an astounding archer, her best friend is a short, stout girl with a huge shield who will bowl you over, one of our leaders is a tiny girl who is incredibly quick and clever with a sword-and-shield, another girl I know is a sprinter and is amazing with two swords, yet another is a pole-arm expert).

In traditional martial arts there are plenty of examples of high-quality women fighters.

There are many fewer of them than the men, but they do exist.

As for the traditional argument that men have higher muscle density and higher maxiumum run speeds, etc -- speed and fitness do come into play. Exceptionally fit individuals do have an advantage. But SPEED does not win the fight. TIMING does.

When the opening comes, if you know how to take advantage of it and you have the minimum speed and power necessary, then you will win. And if know HOW to make that opening happen, then you will take a less-expert fighter down the majority of the time.

My 2 cents.
Feb. 12th, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
Well. I am 5'4" - not incredibly short, but not imposing. Rather on the slightly-built skeletal style. Also, at the time I'm writing about, I was 135 tops and worked a desk job without any form of martial training besides reading a few Judo books. I was and am not well-muscled.

My abusive husband was 6'0", weighed easily a hundred pounds more than I and he would usually strike by surprise by doing things like... pushing me down a flight of stairs, hitting my lower kidneys full-force, things like that. He would never hit me from the front, and always pretended such blows were accidental. I always escaped serious injury (ever do a flying flip down a stairway, land on the soles of your feet, tobaggan that way down the remainder, then do a perfect breakfall on the bottom landing to save your skull conking the bottom riser? And I've never considered myself athletic). The one time he caught me truly unawares, I put him down on the floor with quite a bit of hurt on him. Slammed his head into the tile and then double-fisted his back as he fell into the bath tub. Re-enacting the Psycho scene on a woman who isn't in on the joke? Not funny.

It took me a long time to wise up that if it was an accident, it should't happen so often. To me, having been in real fights where I was technically quite overmatched, it doesn't matter much on the size. Now, if you're up against someone huge, not getting grappled is important. However, this isn't wrestling, and dirty breakholds are Just Fine and Dandy when you're doing your damnedest to lay on hurt instead of take it.

You know, Bruce Lee was about my height, if a little heavier... and faster than any other human being I've ever seen. I don't get the whole females are helpless because they're not as strong myth. Gorillas are stronger than human males - that's why humans use guns. If strength always won in survival, wolverines or bears would rule the Earth.

It matters muchly on the smarts you use, and the degree to which you're willing to take pain to inflict it. Also, your willingness to make sure you've not only put your attacker down, but down AND completely out of fighting ability long enough you can get away safely. The only injury I ever took was a blue belt doing a take-down on me when I was in white that I totally did NOT know how to break the fall on properly. He was out of line doing that to punish me because I'd broken his guard four times in as many minutes in the hands-sparring. Of course, I also have the Viking berserker tendency, with the reddened vision and total lack of normal inhibition (e.g. sanity) except for all my cunning remains towards dealing out hurt - the more hurt, the more better - when I really get my dander up. Or after I take a couple of solid blows and the old lizard brain starts to conclude I'm actually in danger. That is the real reason I went for martial arts training. I wanted the discipline so I wouldn't have to kill someone to stop the fight.

Now that kidnapping women out of shopping lots to steal their ATM money and they never being seen again seems to be the latest local crime spree, however, I am planning to take the Concealed Carry course. I am a damn fine shot despite poor eyesight, even if the cop who gave my first handling course said if you shoot someone, you've just blown $50,000 in legal fees even for a self-defense shoot. I'd rather be poor than dead. Although I do hope I never am in danger, I do want to be able to save my life if it happens that I must. I already commonly carry a cane - sometimes because I need it for the knee, most times so I have a Big Stick. Wearing my "PENTAGON" sweatshirt also seems to REALLY reduce the catcalls, whistles, and other hassle I encounter sometimes walking around the neighborhood, as well.

Edited at 2009-02-12 03:37 pm (UTC)
Feb. 12th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
I also find myself giving a lot of thought to the specific school of combat. When I'm writing Verity (from Discount Armageddon), I'm listening to loud club music for back-beats, and watching videos of Capoeira and ballroom dance. If Very managed to get herself grabbed, she'd probably be summarily snapped in two, but as long as she's faster than her opponents, kicking higher than their heads, and heavily armed, it doesn't really matter all that much that she's 5'2".
Feb. 12th, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC)
Kicking higher than their heads? Wouldn't that mean she missed? ;-)

What she wants is the good old fashioned "Boot to the head" technique.
(no subject) - seanan_mcguire - Feb. 12th, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Feb. 12th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
So, I've still got a quarter of *Stepsister* to go. (Absolutely loving it, btw.) Thus far though, I do believe Talia. Much of that does have to do with the fact that your world-building has kept anything from existing in a vacuum. I'm pretty firmly convinced, and have been since the end of the first chapter, that there were all sorts of things going on in the background that I just hadn't seen yet. That depth of world-building/character-development encourages much willing suspension of disbelief for me as a reader.

It's also interesting though, aside from the cover of the book, there has been very little description of Talia's physicality. I mean, when we first meet her, Danielle does talk/think about her as certainly lithe, beautiful, and exotic looking. But particularly when Danielle compares herself so much to Snow, who is so not what I would picture as a warrior body-type but fights primarily with magic anyway, whether Talia may or may not be built like a believable warrior hasn't really come up while I've been reading. That de-emphasis of body-type has really worked in favor of my suspension of disbelief.

More generally, I believe women warriors like I believe most interesting characters who are, as you say, well thought through. I read in some how-to-write-fiction book or other that certain cultural perceptions of 'good guy' can be violated as long as they're quite well compensated for. The examples (which were from novels I hadn't read) had to do with a detective protagonist who loved and recited poetry; the how-to-write author said that for the audience to continue to believe this protag was tough enough to be a detective, the reader had to see the protag doing twice as many crunches, benching twice as many reps, and whatever other things the audience would expect such a character to have to do in order to be tough than they would need to see a character who didn't have soft-making (my paraphrase) characteristics. I think the same thing goes for female fighters. I have to read about training much more to believe a sword-wielding woman than I do for a sword-wielding man.

You're writing of Talia has done that quite successfully.
Feb. 12th, 2009 03:47 pm (UTC)
I fence competitively and while it's true that the #1 seed men could probably take out the #1 seed woman, there are exceptions.

One of the stories I've heard from other fencers is that Ed Korfanty http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ed_Korfanty encountered another fencing coach who subscribed to the viewpoint proposed and Ed suggested that his best male fencers compete against Rebecca Ward. [For a picture of Rebecca Ward, check this link: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/2008/writers/brian_cazeneuve/06/25/fencing/rebecca.ward.jpg ]

Rebecca defeated each and every one of them. I don't know if she was 13 or 15 at that time.

IMHO, a female warrior's form needs only be consistent with what she does and how she does it.

Feb. 12th, 2009 04:07 pm (UTC)
An example of a believable woman warrior? Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. She was buff!

I am only halfway through Stepsister, but I believe in Talia's abilities. From what I've read so far, she does not hesitate. She often gets the first strike, before the opponent even knows what's happening. That is a huge, huge, huge advantage.
Feb. 12th, 2009 06:47 pm (UTC)
I was talking about Sarah Connor in another discussion of female heroines, actually. I thought she was great. If you saw the first movie, you got to see why she evolved into this kick-butt heroine. And you also saw the cost -- she's tough, but she also pushes herself past the breaking point, and it shows. It keeps her *human*.
Feb. 12th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
I think sometimes it has to do with world building and the reality of the universe, so to speak. There are some books and novels where there are things far more important to the story than 'dude, is that chick fighting? No way!' I see a lot of post apocalyptic or Sci Fi stories do this well. People are just tougher, and so of course women are as well. (Really, whose going to tell Zoey in Firefly she's not realistically tough and will loose to an averagely strong man?)

I also have to wonder if women in combat roles in writing has a lot more to do with the skill of the writer to give the details (style and speed) that make a fight believable. Maybe in the Conan school of sexist bullcocky much of the focus is on swinging the same damn sword into the entrails of any and all villains-- yeah... That style isn't going to lend well to finesse based fighters. I guess what I'm saying is, hack writers can't hack strong females because it requires too much attention to detail.

That said, I hate skinny women on principal, and the idea of tiny warriors makes me gag. The one exception I can think of? Sara Conner from the second Terminator movie. She rocked hard and I believed her able to take down a small army on her own. Still, you want an example of hot and built? What about Tara from True Blood? Have you seen her arms? She looks like she could rip a man in half and make him like it. (She's a personal hero of mine.) http://cyncity.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341c9e5b53ef01053619d63d970c-800wi
Feb. 12th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
Women do not have as much testosterone as men, they can lift as much weights as they want, they will not look like bulky body builders, although yes they will have visible smaller muscles. The husband had a two handed sword for our wedding. Sure my sis could wield it as well as him, but that's because in her smaller 5'2" 125 lbs. body she's all muscle, not just arms but legs and core muscles.

If you can't make as much muscle as a man you have to use the ones you have more efficiently. Look at most anything a woman does that is physical and you see this. A woman punches with her hips more than her arms. She rows a boat with her back and legs more than her arms. She saws a log downward using her weight, not parallel to the ground with strength only. A woman is likely to be a smarter fighter not a stronger one. As long as the style of fighting reflects that I'd find it believable. A woman being flat out stronger than a man her size I'd have more issues with.
Feb. 12th, 2009 04:46 pm (UTC)
Two comments on this:

First, my sister is 5'0" and I'd put my money on her almost every time. She's been in her share of fights having lived in some tough neighborhoods and she learned what a smaller opponent has to do to survive and win.

Second, I studied Aikido when I was younger and size and strength had nothing to do with it. I saw small thin women wipe the floor with very large men. It was all about skill and technique. That said, even the diminutive women who practiced Aikido every day developed a level of strength that wasn't apparent at first sight.

Feb. 12th, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC)
Janet Kagan once wrote, "Never underestimate the small things. They have to be fiercer than the large to survive." (Quoting from memory, so that may not be 100% accurate.)
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