I’ve been out of commission for a few days due to career concerns, but now I’ve returned with this article about my two favorite (sorry, most despised) combative character archetypes. One is smooth-talking, light on his feet, deft as a stooping hawk and fragile as a stained-glass window. Doesn’t matter, he never gets hit! Sometimes his friend, sometimes his foe: a swarthy behemoth with the lumbering poise of a beached whale and none of the tragic dignity. One is a fighter’s fighter and the other’s an idiot who just happens to be made of muscles strong as steel.
Both of these characters are myths conjured by writers with good intentions but a sad lack of nuance.
Examples? Oh, Gods, there are so many. Inigo and Wesley compared with Fezzik, Elves versus Orcs, roughly half your potential party members in any 90s or early 2000s Fantasy RPG, Oberyn versus the Mountain in Game of Thrones, and pretty much any other Avenger compared with the Hulk. And yes, David and Goliath. You didn’t really think I’d forget that one, did you? I didn’t even need to provide those examples, you guys have already thought of your own! I don’t know how much detail I really need to go into explaining these two, so let’s get straight to the deconstruction.
The Nimble has its roots as a character in the incredibly ancient idea that it’s better to be fast and clever than big and dumb. This is already an idiotic analogy because only an idiot would need to have the merits of being intelligent explained to him. Replace “big” with any other adjective and dumb doesn’t suddenly become better, it’s just that it might be mitigated a bit if you replace big with, for example, “rich” or “insanely attractive,” or “chiseled like the very deity of musculoskeletal perfection.” Granted, the last two are an adverb-adjective paring and more of a phrase, but it’s appropriate for me to cheat because we’re talking about The Nimble.
The Nimble is very often implied to be cheating in some way, usually in the sense that he doesn’t just stand in place to absorb the lumbering swings of the Brute. You’ll note I specifically said “he” to describe the Nimble. That’s because women all too often have their own fighting archetype, which I may discuss later.
Anyway, the Nimble doesn’t stand in place to be hit, in direct conflict with the renowned advice of German fencing master Johannes Liechtenauer. When translated, it reads: “Seeing that your foe means to strike at you with all his might, stand there and take it like a man you sissy bitch.”
You’re absolutely right, Liechtenauer said no such thing. That would’be been a very dumb thing for him to say. Like most master swordsmen, Liechtenauer advocated moving the body out of the way if that was the best way to win. Blocking and parrying weren’t just for defense, but taught so as to create an opening for a counterattack in the same instance.
In this way “The Nimble” is basically like any well-trained fighter, except that he doesn’t have a damn clue how to dodge without darting five feet out of distance and half the time he forgets how useful it can be to manipulate his enemy’s blade with his own as opposed to just waving the tips around each other. Yes, that was a phallic sword joke. I’ve come to the realization that they’re fine by me because pretty much anything is a dick joke if you thrust it home enough (see?)
The Nimble often has a ridiculously elaborate fighting style, because choreographers are infuriatingly unoriginal and don’t know how to show that someone has superior speed or skill other than having him spin 300 times while his opponent watches as if he’s simply too fast to be defeated. He twirls his weapons and does big ballet-like leaps and generally looks more like a dancer than a fighter. If it doesn’t look like there’s killing power in a movement, that’s probably because there isn’t.
With very few exceptions, The Nimble is always the better fighter. Even Oberyn defeats the Mountain in a technical sense, it’s just that the Mountain tricks him and is able to bring his sheer strength into play to reverse things (and invert Oberyn’s cranium, for that matter). I will say that having the Brute in that scene turn out to be arguably more clever than the small, fast fellow is a neat touch. That’s the part that messes with this trope a bit, more so than the fact that Oberyn doesn’t ultimately win.
There’s not much to deconstruct about the Brute because there’s just not much there. He’s hulking and slow and usually a scumbag (see previous example). He’s implied to be immovable, but not in the same way that a character like Darth Vader is (The Man Who Ran Out of Fucks is yet another archetype for its own article). He’s generally a terrible fighter even by film standards, it’s just that he’s so massive it doesn’t matter.
Here’s where we start running into a problem. Now, yes, it’s entirely possible for someone to develop an immense amount of physical strength that only applies to slow, intense weight-lifting. However, they’d only achieve that kind of strength by an exclusive focus on slow, intense weightlifting. If the Brute carriers a weapon, it’ll be one suited to his size. Something like, say, a two-handed sword.
Look, swords are expensive, and they often get exponentially more so as they get larger because it gets increasingly difficult to forge and temper a longer blade. You don’t give a two-handed sword to a talentless idiot, and I can prove that’s true because there are fucking treatises on it. Actual master swordsmen handed down codified, often highly-technical instructions for using the two-handed sword. De Grassi, an Italian master of the 16th century, specifically emphasized that a greatsword must be wielded with “exceeding swiftness” for it to be a useful weapon in the hands of one man against many.
He did not at any point suggest that the greatsword might be a thuggish or unwieldy weapon, and he emphasized that it should be issued only to the strongest, largest men in the same section of the treatise where he emphasizes how quickly it must be wielded. Marozzo, a Bolognese master, went so far as to elaborate an entire style of surprisingly intricate and graceful techniques with the two-hander.
What I’m getting at with all this is that even the Brute’s core attributes (incredibly strong, glacially slow) are not mutually supportive. My ultimate proof? Physics. If you want something to move faster, you need to put more power into it. If you want to generate more power, you need to be physically stronger. Strength and speed, trained properly, are not only compatible but synonymous.
The sheer prevalence of the Brute character is predicated on false assumptions about physical ability, as in fact is that of the Nimble. I weigh 230 pounds even after years of exercise, and one of the first things I was complimented on in sparring was my speed. I still lost frequently because I hadn’t developed skill and needed to train up my reflexes after 20 years of laziness, but I was fast.
That gets me to an even more basic aspect of this whole mess: the Nimble is assumed to be skilled because he’s fast, and the Brute is assumed to be unskilled because he’s slow. Skill in fencing encompasses the ability to do the correct actions in the right way at the right time. Now, doing an action faster is more difficult, so to some extent it’s true that being able to fight more quickly is part of being skillful. But that only works in a situation where correct technique exists to begin with, and we all know how I feel about that one so I won’t go there again. At least, not right now.
As for how you can avoid the pitfalls of these archetypes in your own writing, that’s pretty simple: remember that excellent fighters can be heavyweights (in fact, a lot of the best on record are), and that sometimes a scrawny guy is just plain scrawny. On the flip side, muscle mass and muscle strength are not the same thing, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a smaller man could be physically stronger than a larger one.
Best of all, just don’t reach straight for the biggest cliche in all of fighting literature. Have big people, have littler people, just don’t instantly mash them together. That trope’s actually older than the Bible. In fact, it’s probably older than the Torah because I guarantee you David and Goliath wasn’t even the first story to do this.
That said, children haven’t developed fully enough for heavy-duty weights, so your buddy’s fan-fic where David wins by bench-pressing Hittites might be in trouble.