When I was ten years old, my father enrolled my brother and me into martial arts classes given at the local YMCA. It was a two-class session, starting with tae kwon do and then switching to judo for the second hour. It was my first real experience with physical training outside of school gym class. I was hooked right away.
At first, I really preferred the tae kwon do with its blocks and punches and kicks that somewhat resembled what my brother and I watched on Black Belt Theater on Saturday afternoons. The judo, on the other hand, was a lot more work. The instructor spent half the class running us through fairly rigorous calisthenics, followed by grappling and throws.
Now, by the time we began these lessons, I was already a fantasy- and scifi-loving geek. I was into Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, Conan, and superheroes. For me, martial arts were a real-life connection to the heroic feats that permeated those works. Bruce Lee was one of my earliest personal icons. As I got older and went college, I added bodybuilding to my repertoire. After graduating, I worked for fourteen years as a guard at a maximum-security juvenile detention center, where my training was put to practical use.
It doesn’t require a Ph.D. in psychology to realize I was undergoing a transformation in all this. Studying these arts and working out allowed me to model the attributes of my childhood heroes. Yet, in aping these heroic qualities, I was also feeding my inner fantasy life. It helped me to make the decision to pursue fantasy writing as a career, as if it were a natural step on my personal journey.
Since then, there have been times when I felt out of place in the writing community. I’m sure it’s no surprise that most novelists tend to be intellectuals, more inclined to spend their time researching and writing rather than pushing around stacks of iron, and there have been times when I’ve wondered if my career wouldn’t have been better served if all those hours in the gym and dojo had been spent writing instead.
I also try to see the benefits of my life choices. Working out has taught me about strength and leverage. Studying various martial arts provided me with some insight into the nature of combat and personal development. At my previous employment I was involved in hundreds of physical confrontations, instances of hand-to-hand fighting in real-time without the safety net of protective equipment or a friendly sparring partner. These experiences come in handy when I’m writing fight scenes.
They are also important in the ways I present my characters’ personalities. People change, as do characters, but the process through which someone goes, for instance, from an emotional punching bag to a self-respecting individual is not easily portrayed. Stories tend to use big events to signal these changes — a death in the family, moving to a new city, losing a relationship, and so on — but the truth is that people change all the time through personal development. Knowing how I’ve changed over the course of my adult life, seeing those changes take place, has opened my eyes to the modifications my characters can make in themselves. Or not. A character that purposely does not change is just as powerful a portrayal, albeit in a different direction.
This is not a call-to-arms encouraging everyone to get into the gym and the dojo and become superheroes. (Although, it would be cool if it worked that way.) It’s a reminder that everything we do and experience becomes part of us. For my fellow writers, your other interests are probably already reflected in your writing, though they may be hiding in the background. Polish them and bring them to the surface, like shiny jewels. It’s just one more way your writing can be completely unique to you.