Characterization in Action

I’m not very good at writing fight scenes. Between my limited understanding of different fighting styles and my desire to keep descriptions fast and simple, all of my fight scenes end up reading almost the same way every time.

Another problem I often have with action-heavy scenes is a loss of characterization. When punches are flying and swords are gleaming, my writing often gets so clogged with generic fighting terms that every fighter has the same flurry of movements. Everyone sounds the same. Even I start to  lose track of who is fighting whom.

Luckily, with the amount of anime my husband enjoys watching, I’ve been exposed to a lot more action scenes of late. One in particular stood out to me not only as a budget-busting, beautifully animated sequence, but a stellar example of bringing a touch of characterization into an action-heavy scene.


The Sword of the Stranger is your classic action-driven anime. Pursued by a nefarious group of warriors who are into some wicked blood magic, a scrappy young boy and his adorable dog team up with a loner samurai to stay alive. As the stoy goes on, we learn the samurai, called Nanashi, is a loner because he is a foreigner–in 1500s(ish) Japan, he has red hair. He’s been dying it black to blend into normal society for years. He learned how to make the dye from the oils from boiled nuts. Because he has to reapply the dye often, he always carries a bag of nuts with him.

With that information, let’s skip to that fight scene I was talking about. Scrappy young boy has been captured by nefarious group of warriors, and adorable dog and loner samurai have come to the boy’s rescue. Nanashi is disarmed, and for a moment it looks like he’s about to be sliced open, leaving scrappy boy unsaved.

How can he defend himself? Not with his sword–he made a vow never to draw that sword again, and the moment is so not cool enough to break his vow just yet. What else does he always have on him?

The bag of nuts.

So Nanashi throws the bag at his enemy, deflecting the blow. There’s even a nice shot of the fabric hitting the ground, nuts tumbling over the snow, giving the viewer a moment to recognize the thrown object before the battle resumes.

That is characterization in action!

Because of the earlier scenes, we know the significance of the bag of nuts (to make the dye that makes Nanashi acceptable to normal society). We don’t need a flashback to remind us, so no flashback interrupts the fight sequence. We don’t need a lengthy internal monologue where Nanashi debates whether it’s worth throwing the bag that allows him to roam the world un-persecuted, whether the situation is that desperate–it is, he throws it, and we get the picture.

The Sword and the Stranger stands as a great reminder that as long as I’ve set up such characterizing details earlier in a story, it doesn’t take much to sprinkle them over intense scenes in a way that doesn’t bog them down. Distinguishing the fighters in a fight scene can be as easy as having one of them throw a bag of nuts.


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