Characterization Lessons from Women’s Fencing


I’m spending a lot of time watching the Olympics this month. Maybe some people would think it a frivolous waste of time, but I’m just fascinated by the human aspect to everything.

It really shows me a lot about characterization, motivation and subtext. About how everybody thinks they’re the hero, even when they might be dead wrong.

Take the woman’s eppee controversy. I really felt sorry for Shin A Lam from South Korea, but at the same time, I felt horrified.

Still do. And to be honest, the horror by far outstrips the sympathy.

Okay, since a lot of people aren’t all that interested in fencing and therefore might not have heard about the controversy, I’ll quickly set the scene…

We’re in the semi-final. The winner goes on to compete for the gold medal. The loser for the bronze. After nine minutes of fighting (I.E. after the full allotted time), the score was 5-5 between Shin and her opponent (Britta Heidemann). Shin had priority, so if she managed to get through the one minute sudden death round evens with Heidemann, she would go through to the finals and potential glory.

59 seconds pass and Shin doesn’t concede a point. And after a last second infringement by Shin, the president (fancy fencer name for ref) resets the clock at 1 second and continues the bout. Heidemann launches a lightning fast attack, but Shin hits at exactly the same time. No points. Time left: one second.

Another attack by Heidemann and another simultaneous hit. Time left: one second.

And another. Time left: one second.

Heidemann attacks yet again, but this time she scores a valid hit. The president stops the bout and the second ticks away. South Korea’s coach is furious. Because how long could one second take? Shin refuses to leave the piste. The president and technical staff confer. The point holds.

More tantrums follow and another meeting happens, this time with officials from the FIE (the International Fencing Federation). After a total of 70 minutes, the president confers the win to Heidemann.

But it doesn’t end there, because Shin refuses to leave the piste, staring off into the distance when FIE officials break the news. Her coach is escorted from the building. Shin gets a yellow card for unsportsmanlike conduct. She breaks down into tears as she’s half  helped, half dragged from the piste.

So yes. Drama. Lots of it. And let me get this out of the way. She lost the chance at the gold medal in a total of one second. And yes, as someone who was timekeeper at fencing competitions, I can say this much. It’s very feasible that the fencers could score three or four hits in the space of one second. I felt sorry for her.

But her conduct and especially that of her coach absolutely repulsed me as a fencer. From the day I started fencing, I was taught the importance of our (even if it is unwritten) code of honor. We are the descendants of duellists. Ungentlemalike conduct is not an option.

And the actions of her coach and Shin herself… well, that’s probably the worst conduct I’ve ever seen or heard of in a fencer. And I’ve seen some. Heard of even worse.

So while I felt bad for her as a person, I couldn’t help but think that she got off lightly. Yellow cards go to fencers who aim to bruise opponents on purpose. Or who brought malfunctioning weapons onto the piste. Disrespecting officials and other fencers get red cards. Continuing to disrespect them results in being black carded. In other words: a ban from competing.

She got a yellow card. And a loss of the gold or silver medal. As a result of all this shit happening, a lot of people are paying attention to Fencing, but not because it’s a wonderful sport, but because one fencer didn’t know how to behave.

Where does this come in with characterization and subtext? Well. She thought (and probably still does) she was in the rights. A lot of people who never had any exposure to fencing probably agree with her. But my background as a fencer completely colored the way I looked at the main actor in this drama (Shin).

If most other people wrote this situation in a story, Shin would probably have been a tragic but sympathetic character. If I wrote it, she wouldn’t have been. Because I would have included all the cultural background involved with being a fencer. Things that non-fencers just wouldn’t understand unless a fencer took the time to explain.

And that really got me thinking. Writers could make any character sympathetic or unsympathetic, depending on the subtext and background they work into the story. Look at heist movies. Thieves shouldn’t be heroes, but give them a sympathetic cause and everyone roots for them. So I guess the lesson here is: write a character as bad as you want. Just make sure you have justification. The worse the bevaviour, the better the justification.

Have you ever written an unlikable character as your story’s hero?

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32 thoughts on “Characterization Lessons from Women’s Fencing

  1. Bad behaviour is never acceptable, especially in those we look to as role models: politicians, police, teachers, religious leaders, athletes, celebrities or your everyday Joe or Jane.

    Venting your bad manners on international TV shows very poor judgment. Ego gets in the way of good sense.

  2. How did I miss this?! We watch the women's foil competition and missed the epee.

    As someone who sat through lots of fencing lessons and whose son now teaches fencing, I'm saddened. Fencing is supposed to be a sport of honor. She should haven gotten much worse than a yellow card.

  3. I missed that! Sad when things like that tarnish the Olympics. Hope her attitude improves or she won't get the bronze, either. (If I read that correctly?)
    My main character was unlikeable, and it took a lot to make him likeable. Most of that had to do with revealing his background and why he acted the way he did.

  4. Fencing and weightlifting are probably the only two sports I haven't seen anything of. I even watched some of the horsey things today, which is very unlike me! I love your description – it gave me hope that I might actually understand it if I watched it!

    But no, I don't think I've ever written an unlikeable hero, but it sounds like an interesting challenge one day.

  5. I didn't hear about the incident; I've never paid a whole lot of attention to the Olympics.

    I have written about unlikable characters. Several of my MCs aren't nice and would do whatever they had to in the name of reaching a goal.

  6. How you lose can demonstrate your true character even better than how you win. I've written one or two “bad” characters, and while I'll try and supply motive and even the character's justification, I don't want the reader to sympathize or applaud – just understand.

  7. I understand what your saying about fencing culture but you can't ignore her Korean culture either. My sister is there at the moment teaching English. She told me of a figure skater who was booed by her class of four year olds for not winning an event.
    Athletes there are put up on pedestals and, if they fail, hit the ground pretty hard. Look at this video where the coach says they will be treated as 'traitors' if they don't get gold medals.
    http://uk.reuters.com/video/2012/05/23/south-korean-taekwondo-athletes-under-pr?videoId=235513677

  8. That is a very interesting take on it, Misha. I still think, laying aside any unwritten code of fencing conduct, the decision to award the German the victory was scandalous and an absolute travesty. The Korean wasn't being a bad loser – sge was cheated! I was more shocked with the judges behaviour.

  9. Very true. And even if she did vent on t.v. I would have understood.

    I have been upset with certain presidents MANY times because they didn't give me points I felt I deserved. And this is the Olympic Games. Still, she crossed a line this time.

  10. Okay that I understand completely. See I ignored her Korean culture because I don't know much about it. Now that you told me about how the treat their athletes, it colors my view about it yet again.

  11. She really wasn't cheated. I didn't see the rest of the match, but eppee is actually a frighteningly easy sport to learn. If one person hits her opponent anywhere on the body and the opponent doesn't do the same, she wins the point.

    Shin made the mistake of going on the defensive, since she would win even if the score was a draw. Heideman kept attacking even when there was less than a second left and it paid off for her. Her light lit up. The time ran out and it was over.

    Honestly, if they annulled that point (which was completely valid, btw) to give her the win, I'd be even more horrified.

    And let's face it. If Shin had managed a simultaneous hit when the time ran out, no one would have complained.

  12. As a martial arts nerd, I'm always disappointed that the various combat sports tend to take a backseat when the summer Olympics come around, forcing me to look for live streams online devoid of commentary or network-style presentation (thank heavens for the age we're in, or I wouldn't even have that option). So when the great lidless eye of the media finally does turn toward one of them and it's all because of something controversial and unbecoming like this incident, it makes the sour taste in my mouth that much more unpleasant.

    It's a real shame things went down the way they did. The summer games only comes every four years, and while that certainly increases the pressure on these athletes, I'd hope that most of them also realize that means it's their one chance to represent their sport to the world in an honorable and inspiring way. It's unfortunate when that doesn't happen, regardless of the circumstance. I agree, she got off pretty easy, all things considered. I expected at least a red card.

    Anyway, so yeah . . . my opinion is colored too. 😉 Great post.

  13. It's all what you, as a writer, leave in, or leave out, skim over or emphasize that forms the characters in a story, and how readers view them.

    Subtle use of indirect charactgerization, spiced with direct chracterization can impact a reader's perception, but not dominate it. Because, as explained, they bring their own life experiences along when they read a story.

  14. ahhhhh… I am watching more of the cat-olymics than I am the london olympics… that being said.

    I'm visiting from the IWSG even though the tossed me out. drama!!!

    and before they (alex) tossed me out he NEVER commented on anything I wrote or commented on… (more drama)

    ohhhh but there are rules, just as there are in the Olympics (do you like how I tied that in?) and so.. I post on this first Wed of the month.

    okay… back to you. nice too meet you (I sound crazy, but I blame the moon)

  15. I know you didn't refer to it – but this made me think of all the times that authors have received bad press for weighing in and commenting on bad reviews of their books.

    I definitely learned something from this post – and the comments!

  16. There are prima donnas in every sport, but that doesn't mean they should behave badly with unsportsmanlike behavior. They are role models, as you said. They should be setting a better example to our young people.

    I also love the way you related that to characterization. Nice! 🙂

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