I was reading a book the other day, and was amused (and bemused) by the number of things the hero noticed during an intense fight.
Greece has a conscription service, and I spent 23 months in the Navy, namely at a Navy helicopter base. During that time, I met a lot of pilots undergoing their training. One of them told me how instructors knew when the trainees had reached their maximum capacity for learning. It was when they could not answer a simple question: “What’s your name?”
I have been lucky enough to have participated in only one fistfight as a grownup. One thing I remember is that I experienced tunnel vision big time. Fighting is no different than that.
I believe that my experience ties in nicely with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who came up in 1943 with a theory to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through. He used the terms Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence needs to describe this.
According to Maslow, people will need to cover their more basic needs before progressing to higher ones. For example, physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met, the human body cannot function properly and will ultimately fail. Therefore, these are considered most important and should be met first.
What does this mean in practice? Simple: if your character is scared, it’s unlikely they will worry about philosophy. When fighting, they probably won’t engage in abstract dialogue. And when exhausted, they might not care for sex.
These are not meant to be written in stone, of course. We all have parallel needs running through our heads, and will act accordingly. As a rule, however, it is more believable if we respect the hierarchy when deciding what our characters will do next: more basic needs will usually take precedence.
There are certain genres that call for the characters to ignore this hierarchy. A wonderful example is Indigo’s fight against Westley in the Princess Bride:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another example of snappy one-liners interjected in fights, to great effect. In other, less cheeky genres, however, this is not advised.
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Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.
I think this is especially true in present tense, but maybe can be more lenient in past. You’re taking it all in as it’s happening, but might not process it until later. I’ve never been in a fistfight. I’ll have to see if I can start one so I can experience it for myself. 😉
Erm, you’re a “method” fan, I see! 😀
Goes to show there’s a lot to think of when writing! 😀 Great post!
At some point, it all becomes second nature. Or at least I hope so! 😀
Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
While at university studying teaching we had units in psychology and remember learning Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. His theory on human needs was something I’ve never forgotten. Nice to read it here too 😀
I’ve only taken a course in Counselling back in my student days, so I only recently found out about it. 🙂
Another great post, Nicholas. Maslow was ahead of his time.
I’ve written a few battle scenes and thankfully have a couple combat veterans who keep me honest. The officers or spectators on the sidelines get the big picture view which is totally different than the tunnel vision of the man or woman fighting for survival. Some characters will move from sidelines into combat which entails a shift in focus. I don’t mind writing a scene from either pov, but often find the individual fight easier (less to think about). The overall chaos can be depicted by the bodies falling in the character’s way, the unexpected shoves, and the brief refocusing as one opponent goes down and the hero scans for the next.
My buddies tell me that bantering often happens between seasoned soldiers prior to a fight, but rarely during times of danger when staying alive and keeping your fellow soldiers alive is serious business. At the same time, as many have pointed out, there are stories where the style and tone calls for banter between opponents. I like witty repartee, but have to admit I groan when it occurs in a serious book.
Thank you so much, I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Using veterans for authenticity check – wow! No wonder your battle scenes are so amazingly convincing!
For those who don’t know the references, the fight scene you posted is all about the prescribed moves and poses from the great sword masters.
A copy can be purchased from amazon under the title of “Old Swordplay techniques”
I once made a blog post about the trouble of writing 16 different sword fights all in a row and while the steps are there along with timing, I actually had to use a real sword to get the moves and feeling but the biggest point about sword fights is that in a real fight, plans and prescribed moves all go out the window.
BTW very good article and that infographic is very good.
Thanks! That’s a wonderful resource, thank you so much for the tip! For anyone wishing to check it out, it’s on: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00A3IV6XY Also, I did manage to find a number of posts on sword fighting on your blog, using Google to search it. I’m including them here in case anyone wants to read them: https://purbry.wordpress.com/category/sword-fighting/ and https://purbry.wordpress.com/tag/sword-fighting-2/
I’m glad that they’re of use!
I like Maslow, and I think I even wrote a similar article long ago. But I especially like that you included the parallel thoughts and that sometimes (or often!) we act out of sync with his hierarchy – something I do in my life and my characters do in my stories, but that I hadn’t thought of in such succinct terms before. Thanks!
Great minds think alike, right? 😀
Thanks for the kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed the post – and welcome! 🙂
Ah yes, Maslow’s pyramid. I remember it well! 🙂 What he says is true although sometimes the characters don’t play fair, especially the antagonists. Great reminder, Nicholas, plus references to both The Princess Bride and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 🙂
Well, I’m just dating myself of course, but I love the classics! 😀
You’re right, I was making a comment on how I like to pepper my manuscript with random acts that don’t follow Maslow’s rules.
True words! The other day, I, too, was bemused by a scene, written supposedly in deep PoV, where the depressed heroine hangs her head and won’t look up, and yet we learn what shades the sky was painted in, the types of birds that flew above, the sound of their chirping… who had the heart to notice all that? We’re supposed to be mourning! LOL!
Great post, Nicholas!
Ah, the infamous deep vs shallow PoV question. I’ve actually scheduled a post on that for November 8th. 🙂
Ew Maslow! Love him for character charting! Him and his handy little pyramid!
Lol – why “ew”? 😀
Ew, as in……..Ew! I know that one! I know what he’s talking about!
Mom was a less than scholarly type in school 🙂
Oh, right! I read it as in “ew, who left this in the sink”? 😀
Reblogged this on Cate Russell-Cole: CommuniCATE and commented:
I have been meaning to blog on this for two years! I’m glad you got to it first. The only problem with Maslow’s theory is people can skip up to compensate for unmet needs. Other than that, it’s a golden writer’s tool.
I have been meaning to blog on this for two years! I’m glad you got to it first. The only problem with Maslow’s theory is people can skip up to compensate for unmet needs. Other than that, it’s a golden writer’s tool. Thanks for a great post.
Great minds think alike, right? 😀
Thanks for reading and special thanks for the reblog! 🙂
Most fight scenes, like sex scenes, are depicted with many more flattering and successful components and outcomes (pun intended), especially for the male “heroes,” than what usually transpires. Enough said.
If you think it’s male characters who are flattered, you mustn’t have read any fantasy comics or played any fantasy games! The way female warriors can fight an orc with nothing but a dagger, while dressed in a skimpy neglige always cracks me up… 😀
You’re right. I don’t read those types of books or comics, but I do know what you mean. I stand corrected: ALL characters are depicted in inflated ways. LOL
Lol – extra points for the use of “inflated”… 😀
Interesting that you mention one-liners in fights. I read a ton of Spider-Man comics when I was a kid and that’s a big thing with him. I once heard two reasons for him doing it instead of the writer’s simply wanting him to be funny:
1. Distracts and possibly angers his opponent.
2. Masks his own fear and puts him at ease.
That second one always struck me as oddly true because there are people who react to negative emotions with laughter. Like that person who breaks into chuckles at a funeral and can’t explain why. Battling fear with humor is a very common thing in fiction and real life from what I can tell. Yet so many readers see battle banter as pointless and wasteful of space. Again, it’s surprising how often a real world thing can be seen as unrealistic when put into fiction.
You’re right, I, too, remember that from Spider-Man. Of course, comics have different
rules to prose.
As I was just telling Philippa, Rayne Hall has a great book called Writing Fight Scenes (https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Fight-Scenes-Writers-Craft-ebook/dp/B005MJFVS0). Interestingly enough, a large part of the book is dedicated to pacing, not fighting.
In books, the hero won’t notice the intricate design on the sword’s hilt during the actual battle, as they’ll be focused on avoiding its blade. The sentences should be short and simple, to convey urgency. No detail should be offered.
Right before or after the battle, however, it’s fine to include snappy dialogue. The slow buildup will make the subsequent burst of action even more dramatic. So, I don;t see it as idle banter. However, even Indigo and Wesley say nothing to each other during the actual thrusts. 🙂
I kind of take the Inigo and Westley tactic. I have detailed fight paragraphs and then some banter when the combatants stop to size each other up. It’s always weird to me when a fight keeps going and going, but nobody drops the pace to try something other than counters and blocks. That’s just me though. I don’t seem to be in the majority of how fight scenes go.
There are some ‘fights’ that you can put banter in during the action. Friendly sparring matches, training, and moments where the fighters are feeling each other out. Kind of like they’re trying to see how easy it is to distract the other.
This is also a good way to indirectly indicate the character’s perceived level of danger.
For example, the career criminals from “The Usual Suspects” are able to laugh and joke through situations that would terrify most people because they have experience and confidence. They are tough guys, and playing to the tough guy trope. On their last job they know that they are going to their deaths, and the joking stops. It’s a subtle way for Singer to build tension.
An excellent point and a great example! Thanks! 🙂
The application of this in writing scenes of violence should be imaginatively instinctive. Sometimes the violence is so sudden that the observation of it only happens after it is over. Yet how to make allowance for the reader, reading linearly what you, as writer, already have foreseen?
I recently had a beta reader complain about a (mixed) metaphor of this kind, and cannot decide whether it lay in my failure as a writer or hers to accept the sensory confusion that happens when you are left with something you never saw until it was over.
I always find over precise descriptions of fights, or battles, or even arguments unrealistic because the physical instincts are wordless.
Rayne Hall has a great book called Writing Fight Scenes (https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Fight-Scenes-Writers-Craft-ebook/dp/B005MJFVS0). Interestingly enough, a large part of the book is dedicated to pacing, not fighting.
I think what you’re referring to here is a pacing fail. In the heat of the battle, the hero won’t notice the intricate design on the sword’s hilt, as they’ll be focused on avoiding its blade. The sentences should be short and simple, to convey urgency. No detail should be offered.
However, right before the battle, when the pupils are dilated and adrenaline is pumped into the blood stream, the hero will take everything in, including said design on the hilt. The slow buildup will make the subsequent burst of action even more dramatic.
The graphic is a great reminder of the order of human needs. As a writer I would be foolish to ignore it. The Princess Bride is a perfect illustration–AND one of my favorite movies!
I agree. It’s great for plotting your story, although I’d personally pepper my manuscript with random acts that seem to fly against Maslow. Real life is never as neat as a diagram! 😀
True, but it’s a great place to start. You’re right, though. Some things don’t follow the rules, like the parent who’s willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary to save their child–or their spouse. No one drags out the diagram to find out what to do next. We simply react to the need. I guess that’s what makes writing stories and reading stories so wonderful. Human nature is utterly unpredictable.
A great example, and an excellent point! That’s the beauty of the human experience…
This was both amusing and informative. 🙂 — Suzanne
Thanks, I’m glad you thought so! 🙂
Excellent post. I adhere to Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs….and agree with your analogy. Have a lovely Monday and week ahead. janet
Thanks, you too! 🙂
The only problem with Maslow is that in real life we may jump back and forth on occasion, one of the higher needs for some reason seeming more important to you. So, you may quit your day job to become a writer (ahem, random example, you realise) even though it makes little financial sense.
yes, this is very interesting and great formula!