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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More about me.

Morning all! Just remember to shoot with any questions you feel like asking me this week. 🙂

Also, I’ve won another award! Unfortunately I won’t be able to pass it on just yet. (I have a major project due in the near future.) I will, however, do so as soon as I can.

OK… On to the post. 🙂

Today I’ll answer a few more me-related questions.

Nancy asked:

Do you have a major in school or are you just getting some required classes done?

And The Golden Eagle Asked:

When did you really start to write and consider yourself a writer?

What do you enjoy most about fencing?
What do you think is a defining characteristic about yourself?
Do you enjoy meeting new people?

Thanks so much for asking these questions, guys.

Do I have a major?

Technically I’m majoring in Investment Management, although I’m currently more concerned with finishing the subjects and getting the credits. I realized last year already that I would never enjoy working as an Investment Manager. 

The hours are much too long, given that I won’t be able to see the job as the passion of my life. Plus I’ve heard about too many Investment Managers that got stroked at or just before the age of forty due to the endless stress of trying to predict the Stock Markets, when any good stock market’s motions are essentially chaotic. 

When did you really start to write and consider yourself a writer? 

Well… I can’t really remember exactly when I started. See, my Grandmother is a published writer and has been in the business for almost forty years. So I’ve seen writing as a possible thing for me to do since I became aware of what she does for a living. 

I think I was nine when I wrote my first poem. I wanted to finish an anthology at that time (nothing wrong with my ambition, eh?), but got distracted by dolls and playing with my cousin. For some reason, I didn’t do well with writing essays for school. 

Still, when I was about eleven, it occurred to me to ask my Gran how to write. I got my first distinction for an essay and never looked back. In fact, I started to complain to my Gran that the word limits given for the essays were much too short. I’d done this quite a few day, until my Gran suggested that I should maybe write a book. 

I blew the idea off, but in December 2001, about two weeks before my thirteenth birthday, my first character walked into my head and wouldn’t go away. So I started a novel about her instead. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I let it go. But by then I considered myself a writer and I was waiting for my next inspiration to strike. 

What do I really enjoy about Fencing? 

Oh many things. Number one would be the history associated with it. Fencing goes back to young nobles training for duels. Contrary to common belief, people didn’t actually use fencing to duel – fencing was MUCH too regulated. Yes, there are rules to duels, but the fighting was allowed to be quite dirty – especially if the
duels were to the death. Anyway, sparring with rapiers and sabres were considered martial arts. 

Fencing, on the other hand, was considered one of the Arts along with music, dancing and (I think) sculpture.

Even in modern times, fencing is steeped in old traditions. For example, if you lose without honor and throw a tantrum, you can be banned from the rest of the competition. Same goes for failing to salute your opponent, or saluting your opponent with your mask on. When we finish fencing, we shake hands with our opponents, but always with the non-weapon hand. It goes back to duelling (in this case to first blood), when shaking the free hand with your own was considered a sign of goodwill. Of course, it also freed up the weapons hand to slaughter the beast if he tries to hurt you.

The other thing I love about fencing (it came a close second) is the fact that my adrenaline starts pumping the moment the mask covers my face. I get to change who I am from a cultured normal(ish) person to a cultured but lethal person. Just like in my writing, I get into a zone. It doesn’t happen often, but the zone is where I can hit the opponent the moment s/he makes a move that opens up a target – purely on reflex.

Needless to say, fencing is a great stress and anger relief. There is something incredibly calming about hitting something (or someone) while only doing it with a percentage of the force you could have used. (You can get red cards for brutality if you injure your opponent).

There are many things I love about fencing, but I’ll move to the next question before I start waxing lyrical about it.

What is the defining characteristic of myself?

Oooh… this is a tricky one. I have many characteristics that take turns as needed to define who I am in a given situation. 

Currently, though, the characteristic that takes up a large part of who I am is the fact that I’m permanently in a state of motion. If I’m not, I am incredibly frustrated with where I am and what I’m doing. 

I always want to learn more and do something new and different. I can only settle in a given place for a few years. Stellenbosch is a wonderful place, but half way through last, my wanderlust came back to stay. It might or might not have triggered my I-DON’T-WANT-TO-DO-THIS!!! phase. After all, there’s nothing that reminds one that you’re doing the wrong thing as realizing that you’re in the wrong place. 

But you can imagine how I’m feeling eighteen months later. I’m fighting really hard not to count down the days to the end of my studies. That’s also a big reason I want the job at Qatar. I want so badly to go somewhere new.

Do I enjoy meeting new people? 

Oh yes I love it. Can’t really explain why, though. I guess it’s because I’m largely an extrovert. I can talk to people about almost anything, and I love hearing their thoughts and feelings about things. 

I do, however, have very high defenses. So although I meet a lot of people that I will easily go out with, or enjoy meals with etc. and who remember me enough to greet me when we bump into each other, I have precisely four close friends. I basically stack people I know/meet into a hierarchy e.g. Close friends, Friends, Friendly Acquaintances and Acquaintances. So I’m friendly with everyone, but I’m friends with just a few. I just think that it’s a lot better to maintain a few close friendships that are worth it rather than to waste time on shallow ties.

That’s it from me today, but those were my last questions, so please feel free to add some more. They can literally be about anything. Have a great day all!