Creating Worlds, Choosing Words—Why My Characters Don’t “Box”

Recently a reader asked me why I didn’t call a roundhouse kick a roundhouse kick in the Venture series. The question sparked a great conversation about word choice and world-building.

In the Venture books, I wanted the feel of mixed martial arts in a world that might have existed in another time in history. It was so much fun to blend elements influenced by Eastern martial arts, such as buildings dedicated to practicing the fighting arts, with straw mats on the floor and peg boards on the wall—with a society that has a more western feel. Readers have told me the world of Richland reminds them of everything from the pre-Civil War U.S. (without the guns) to Feudal Japan.

As I built that world, word choices were a big—and sometimes difficult—part of my decision-making. I wanted those with no martial arts knowledge at all to be able to enjoy the story and understand what was going on. But I also wanted people with different combat sports backgrounds to be able to appreciate it, and I wanted the world of Richland to be its own.

When creating the world of Richland, I avoided terms that were too sport-specific or too characteristic of a particular culture. But I discovered that inventing new terminology doesn’t always work. There are some terms like backfist that just can’t be stated any better. So my fighters are still called fighters, but they train in fighting centers rather than gyms or dojos. They practice striking techniques, but never box. They do practice takedowns (a term used in modern wrestling) and throws (judo) but never the more specific double-leg or uchimata.

When I found myself searching too hard for a different term—one that would also be clear and concise—I just shrugged and went with it. If it’s a simple term that might have been made up by any culture, if makes sense, why not use it? With fight scenes in particular, I realized it wasn’t helpful to make up complicated terms that muddled the action and bogged down the pacing.

Here’s an example of this kind of scene, from Venture Untamed. Young Venture has just begun training to be a fighter at Beamer’s Center. But Border, a wealthy classmate, despises Venture for his bonded status and has plans to drive him out:

When the whistle blew, Venture tried everything he’d seen, everything he’d just learned. He put everything he had into the round, but his hands slipped off whatever he reached for, and all he could do was scramble like an overturned crab to push Border away and to keep off his back.

He pulled his arms in tight, on his knees, and tried to think of something he could do that Border wouldn’t have an answer for. Border’s hands dug mercilessly under his chin in search of an opening for a choke, and Venture fought them. Then—too late—he sensed himself tipping over. Venture hustled to get back up, but Border scooped one arm under the back of his neck, the other under one of Venture’s legs. He knelt at his side, leaning all his weight toward Venture’s head and chest.

Border had him pinned. With his cheek pressed against the side of Venture’s face, he exhaled a low laugh, which Venture felt and smelled more than heard. Sweat dripped from Border’s hair into Venture’s eyes, and when Venture moved, Border rammed his shoulder into his chin and smothered his face with his chest instead. Venture threw all his energy into trying to turn away before he remembered that Lance had said to turn the opposite way, toward his opponent.

Venture switched direction, but now the hold was so secure, no matter how he pushed against Border, he couldn’t escape. Border, blasted Border, was in total control. If he were allowed to punch right now, maybe he could fight his way out, but Beamer had been clear about the rules for this exercise—grappling only.

Border lifted his head and grinned his too-big grin. With a quick glance at Earnest, who had his back to them, he brought his fist back and slammed it into Venture’s ribs. Venture froze as the trauma to his newly healed injuries sent bolts of fresh pain shooting through his chest.


About R. Russell

Author of the Unicorns of the Mist series and the Venture series.

Posted on November 25, 2013, in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Interesting post! An added bonus: For nonexperts on fighting terminology, your descriptions were more accessible. I don’t know what uchimata is, but I always understood your fight scenes.

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