Jonah Knight is a personal trainer, nutrition coach, five time musical guest of honor, and co-founder of AntimatterPress.com. As a science fan, when he decided to improve his own health he ignored anecdotal advice and began reading clinical studies. As an SF/F reader, he often pretends to be the personal trainer of fictional characters, reverse engineering fitness and skills to learn more about their personality. On his blog, eatingmovingliving.com, he writes about nutrition and movement, often with a healthy dose of profanity.
by Jonah Knight
As an avid SF/F reader and a personal trainer, I’ve been noticing common mistakes in some of my favorite books regarding how the human body works. This is a series of articles discussing how authors can train their human characters.
Part 1: How to train your characters for elite performance
A common misunderstanding among non-athletes in the modern era is how exercise affects the human body. The myth that the effectiveness of exercise is measured by calories burned has led to real-world health problems and implausible characters in fiction.
When I began my college coursework to become a personal trainer, one of the first concepts that was hammered through me was The Principle of Specificity.
It simply states that specific training generates a specific result. For example, if you wanted to become a better mountain biker, you wouldn’t train by walking on your hands. It sounds like a silly example, but misunderstanding this concept has led to characters performing physical feats that they should be incapable of.
For those of us who don’t run or who do so casually, it is easy to look at a body in motion and assume that one size fits all. In the world of running, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Let’s say that your protagonist lives in a world of danger and the need to escape, to run away from the big bad (a.k.a. sprinting), is a skill that she greatly values. It is such a priority for her that she actively trains to run faster and faster. You have a scene in which you want to describe her training session (as well as progress the plot, develop her character, and describe the environment, because you are a good writer). Perhaps your first thought is to have your protagonist jogging with another character so that they can have a conversation. That might make sense as a writer, but that is not how sprinters train.
Specific training generates a specific result. If she wants to run fast, your protagonist must train by running fast. Really fast. So fast that she is too out of breath to hold a conversation. Which is fantastic news for you, because that guy who wants to interrupt her training to perform an exposition dump now has someone to interact with in an interesting physical state.
The opposite condition is true as well. Let’s say your protagonist is a messenger running cross-country between feudal city-states. In training for that job, she has learned that she must fall into a steady rhythm and not go for speed. Marathon runners can compete for speed in their own clique, but that is altogether different from a distance runner competing with a sprinter. If your cross-country protagonist has to escape a merchant who sits on his butt all day, of course she can summon the speed to get away, but will she automatically win in a short-distance foot race through the town square? She will not.
Pushing and Pulling
You’ve now founded a military SF training center for your elite squadron of mercenaries. These three guys are super jacked and what better way to prepare your constant reader than to write a badass scene with them lifting weight, or resistance training.
Much like the way that distance requires a different training program than speed, the way your character can use her increased strength is specific to her method of training.
A human can push and pull in three directions: overhead, in front, and below. While there is some overlap, different muscle groups are recruited for each direction. And this is great news, because it gives you, the author, a new area to explore.
For example, one member of your elite squad is all about the bench press. She pushes and pushes and pushes more and more weight. Damn, can she push (and punch). But being able to bench press does not mean that she will be able to lift a big rock that has pinned the leg of a squad-mate. Pulling a heavy load up from the ground requires strong legs and posture and torque and range of motion, none of which will she gain by training for maximal strength in the bench press.
The Principle of Specificity
A fit all-around athlete will lose every time to a specialized opponent. In a quick draw standoff with pistols, the awesome sniper might be at a disadvantage when up against a casual collector of revolvers. A top-scoring professional soccer player does not hold an advantage over a retired 70-year-old high school basketball coach in a free-throw contest.
Train your characters generically for generic results. Train your characters specifically for specific results.