Whether your protagonist is the prophesied chosen one destined to save the world or a lowly street rat who gets taken in by the empire's local assassin's guild to be trained in the deadliest arts, or perhaps the heir to the throne of an ancient kingdom, chances are your fantasy world has some form of hand-to-hand combat.
The Basis of Your Fictional Martial Art
Martial arts is an extremely broad term. There are hundreds of different styles, from Karate to Kung Fu, from Aikido to Tai Chi, kickboxing, fencing, Ju Jitsu, Tae Kwon Do, to mixed martial arts that combine dozens of styles into one. All of these styles are full of rich cultural context, drawing from the culture and history of the people who practice them, and all of them are distinct and different.
Whatever martial art style you create for your fantasy world will be similarly unique, and built into the foundation of the world it comes from. How old is it? Who was the first group to practice? Does it follow any aspect of your world's religion? What is its core philosophy? What are some of its main techniques? What is it best for, and what are some of its weaknesses? Who can practice it? Who is forbidden from practicing it? Who are its greatest teachers?
But how to start answering all of these questions?
I found two ways to begin:
1. Choose a real-world martial art to base yours on.
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
Can't talk about amazing magic systems without mentioning something by Sanderson. In Elantris, which was his first published book, one aspect of his magic system is expressed directly through a martial art, called the ChayShan, a meditative practice where the forms they use grant access to the magical force, the Dor.
Codex Alera by Jim Butcher
I won't get into the specifics of the fighting style, mainly because it's been a long time and I don't remember a lot of the details. But I do remember that the style was heavily inspired by the legions of Ancient Rome, and that everything from the command structure to the battle tactics followed those of the Romans. For that reason, this series is a good example of basing a fighting style on an already existing style and culture, and then making it your own. Because in addition to the Roman legions, Codex Alera also has elemental bonding magic and some truly awesome unique worldbuilding.
Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn
In this series, the thing I found most interesting was how people treated those who had magic (called mystics). Rather than looking at them with awe, and admiring their gifts as a skill or a way to enhance their fighting, mystics are looked down on and shunned. Especially by those who are trained in the fighting arts, because, rather than being seen as an advantage in a fight (even though it most assuredly can be) magic is seen to be a cheat, or a way to slack off in training.
Avatar the Last Airbender
In the show, each style of bending is accompanied by a specific style of fighting. The Fire Nation's bending is based on Northern Shaolin, Air Nomads use something similar to Ba Gua, the Water Tribe's bending is like Tai Chi, and Earth Nation bending is based on Hung Gar. You can see the differences in their unique styles of fighting, and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses (the Airbending style works great against multiple attackers, moving through and around a fight, while an Earthbender can stand strong and stop an attack head-on.)
Now You Have Your Martial Art
This post was a little all over the place, but I hope it at least gave you some good ideas for getting your martial art started. I've always found action scenes and fights to be one of the hardest parts of a story, and having a clearly defined martial art has definitely helped me in writing the action accurately (at least I think it has).
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