Saturday, July 14, 2012

Writing the Fight Scene: "Can a Woman Take on a Man in a Fight and Win?"

As I wrote on July 3rd, I have changed this month's writing the fight scene topic to answer a question posed by one of my readers. The reader wrote on June 19, 2012, "Hi David. I wondered if you might have any insight regarding hand-to-hand combat with a female protagonist.

"I recently read somewhere that a woman cannot "take on" a man, period. No way, no how.

"I know that upper body strength is an obvious issue, but wonder if there are certain things she can optimize, use to her advantage, or take advantage of in a male opponent, etc. And I don't mean basic self-defense either. I'm thinking equivalent to a trained, female soldier.

"Appreciate any thoughts."

After I wrote the first draft of my response to this, I found I was over ten pages single spaced on Microsoft Word.  Most blog readers don't want to read something long, so I have decided to split the answer into two blogs. This is the first.

Before I begin, I must warn you of three things:
  • It will still be lengthy;
  • It will be answered frankly and honestly as this Sandan (3rd Degree Black Belt) in Chinese (or Tracy's or Original) Kenpo sees it based on both personal experience and those he has had the honor of calling sisters in the brotherhood of black belts; and
  • If you harbor a false male ego that men are superior fighters because they are physically stronger, your ego will be shattered like a porcelain doll---a very girly porcelain doll. (I think I hear some shattering already.  Oh well. "Clean up in aisle 6! Clean up in aisle 6!")

Obviously, the answer to question if a woman can defeat a man is yes. Before I explain why it is, and at the risk of sounding like I am providing a mathematical proof, let me lay down a few things to be sure you and I are on the same page.
  1. I am assuming that neither the man nor the woman have any injuries, illnesses, mental problems, or so that would limit them.
  2. I am also assuming that these people do not have special abilities or magical powers, and so forth. If they do, this would still be true—as long as your world is treating them equally in the sense that they would otherwise be normal people.

I write the following with both the Kenpo Code and the Oath in mind. I have taken this oath since I was ten and done my best to live by the oath and the code.

The code is:
  • I come to you with only open hands, other weapons, I have not. But should Right or Honor require it my hands will bear me out.
 My oath is:
  • I solemnly pledge that I will use the art of Karate solely for the purposes of defense, never for purposes of aggression.
  • I will treat with respect both my teachers and fellow students.  
  •  I will strive to impart an attitude of respect and appreciation for the teachings of Karate, and an understanding of the responsibility that a knowledge of Karate entails.
  • I will never sanction the use of Karate for destructive or harmful ends.  I make these promises solemnly and on my honor.
Let’s begin by defining the word "fight". If we are looking at a ruled completion (as in a ring match) where there are certain things that are either required or disqualified, then either person may be over matched. I know rules are meant to make a competition fight fair, but they usually lean towards one style or ability (such as strength) over others.  Unless you are writing the next Rocky or Karate Kid tournament novel, rules will not apply to what you are writing.

(Sidebar: Police officers do have to follow certain rules on the street. Contact your local police department on what those are.)

This leaves us with either with hand-to-hand combat or a street fight. In either case, I personally follow these philosophies:

  1. (To borrow from Joss Whedon who said it best with his Character Mal Reynolds in Firefly)Someone ever tries to kill you, you try to kill 'em right back! (Sidebar: Just because you are defending yourself doesn’t mean you may not be arrested. However, a good lawyer can get you out of a jury of twelve. He can’t get you out of a box carried by six.)
  1. There is no such thing as the undefeatable opponent. Everyone and everything has a weakness. The trick is finding and exploiting it.
  2. There is an old Asian (I think Japanese) saying I heard as a twelve-year old boy that has stuck with me and I have passed it along to all those who I have taught any self-defense to: “A butterfly could knock down a man if it only knew where to place its wings.”

I will show you those weak points and how to exploit them below under “Butterfly Wing Techniques.” (next month's blog)

Let’s walk before we run.  

Everything from here on assumes the combatants are unarmed. This is a misnomer. If your character (or if it is you in real life) have clothing on, you are armed. You read that correctly. Unless you are naked and the ground you are fighting on is completely sterile and empty and your hands are empty, you can always have a weapon--even if that weapon is a stick of chewing gum. I will make that a separate blog subject in the future (September 8th).

(Sidebar: I once gave a student of mine a “homework assignment.” I asked him to think of anything that could not be a weapon. He came back and mentioned a few things. I showed him how they could be used as a weapon. I explained as I did so the real definition of what a weapon is. I had him do it again. He came back and explained about the various things he thought about (and I had to give him credit, he was quite inventive on showing how things could be used as a weapon) and concluded everything could be a weapon. He was right.)

How does a woman defeat a man? The same way any weaker opponent defeats a stronger one: by using their brains and their (dis)advantages to the best of their ability. A fighter is never brainless (unless you are writing zombies or berserkers). The stronger opponent doesn’t want you to think. He wants you to fear. The weaker opponent must think and use their fear to their advantage.

Before I go into how to see your or your characters advantages, let me tell you a story about someone who should not have been able to defeat stronger opponents. But, he did . . . quite often and it was fun to watch.

A late instructor of mine, Steve Leventhal was a great fighter. He was short, around five foot two to five foot four. His height did not prevent him from competing in martial art fighting competitions nor did it prevent him from walking home with the trophies from them. With his foot on the ground, he could kick a man over six feet tall in the head.

No, I’m not making this up. While I have always believed from my earliest days of Martial Art training that there was no such thing as an undefeatable opponent, watching Steve was watching the philosophy come to life every time he stepped in to the ring.

It is with great sadness that I must end this example by saying Steve passed away at the age of 27 from unknown causes in 2006. He was the same rank I am now when he passed away. His storytelling and his teaching is missed very much. Yet, his living lesson continues on in all those who watched him and learned from him—including me.

How did Steve do it? Simple! He used his brains, experience, and timing to get inside of the taller opponent’s reach. Once he was too close for the opponent to punch or kick, the opponent had to withdraw to a more comfortable distance. There was no way he was going to let the opponent do that. Instead he stayed on top and struck from his punching or kicking range.

If the opponent is stronger, use his strength against him.
If the opponent has more experience, use it against him. (It is quite common for Black Belts to be surprised by White Belts because the White Belts don’t know that they can’t do something.)
If the opponent is faster, use his speed to his disadvantage.
If your opponent is scary, use the adrenaline pumping in your veins to make yourself terrifying.

Do you get the idea? What are your or your characters disadvantages are, from there you can discover your advantages. No one is undefeatable. (Tougher than hell, but not undefeatable!)

As I wrote above, we will continue this discussion next month on August 11, 2012 with a blog titled "Butterfly Wing Techniques" that will go through all of the points where any man (as the saying goes, "be it ape, man, angel or demon") is weak.

Thank you for reading and please visit and You can also follow me on twitter @Owlkenpowriter and the Writer’s Lens @TheWritersLens. Fiction is the world where the philosopher is the most free in our society to explore the human condition as he chooses.


  1. I've been following this fight scene series loyally, but this is my first time commenting. Your example of how Steve got in close and was thus at a range where the larger man was unable to strike him is also one of the guiding principles of Wing Chun, a martial art form that was, accordingly to legend, created by a woman. Great series and I look forward to next month's installment.

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  3. Absolutely, David, and a great blog, by the way. The main disadvantage of untrained women is their own belief that they are incapable of defending themselves against a man. They've actually come to believe the macho hype and that's what renders them "the weaker sex".
    I'm glad to hear you say that it's the same principle as that of a weaker man's being fully capable of beating a larger, stronger opponent if he simply uses his head and the resources available to him. In the boxing ring, it would be a one in a million fluke for a featherweight to beat a heavyweight, but in the street, with no holds barred, brains will usually win out over brawn. I'm a big guy. When I was a boy, my uncle, a little guy, a former Golden Gloves fighter and a pioneer member of the Navy SEALs taught me a little about self-defense. One of his first lessons was, "Street-fighting isn't boxing. And if you ever have to fight a little guy, don't show him any mercy just because you're big. If he gets the jump on you, you'll be dead. Hit him first and hit him hard."
    Then later, I did Basic Combat Training for the Army in the Vietnam era at Ft. Bragg, NC, home of the 82nd Airborne (and Rambo). Our instructor for hand-to-hand combat was five feet six in his jump boots and campaign hat and probably didn't weigh 140. There wasn't a single man in the unit who could out-maneuver him and his hands and feet were absolutely lethal. The most useful lesson we learned from him was that four pounds of pressure could crush a man's larynx, that a sharp blow with the heal of you hand could drive the bridge of a man's nose into his skull, that a great advantage could be gained by breaking an opponents eardrums or plucking out one of his eyes, that no amount of exercise could toughen up testicles or solar plexus and that in hand-to-hand the main rule of thumb was, once your opponent's on the ground, make sure he stays there. That didn't signify pinning him as in catch-as-catch-can wrestling, but doing something more permanent, like standing on his throat or jumping in the middle of his chest with all you might.
    If I had a daughter, I'd want her to know these things, and I'd want her to learn she was capable, should the circumstances so require, of making use of that knowledge, and using it preemptively, rather than allowing her male opponent to utilize that extra upper body strength everybody seems so impressed with. I'd also want her to know how to use, say, a rolled up newspaper, an umbrella or high heels for something besides keeping up-to-date, keeping dry or making a fashion statement.

  4. “If the opponent is stronger, use his strength against him.” I totally agree with this statement. It’s all in the strategy, and how you think fast when under pressure. Men are generally stronger than women, but there are ways to outsmart a stronger opponent, and use his strength to defeat him.

  5. Some people might have less chances of winning a physical fight against a mugger or an attacker if they are much stronger, but, with proper training, I think it’s totally possible to defeat an opponent twice your size.

  6. I ran nightclubs for many years. I've seen women pull off some moves that.. I.. I... wow. I believe that many of the women took advantage of the preconceived notion that men are stronger. I think they used that in their surprise tactics.

    And it worked!