With hundreds upon hundreds of martial arts styles in existence, why do writers, game designers and filmmakers constantly invent new ones?
After all, some that sound made up already exist in the real world. Take, for instance, drunken monkey kung fu where the aim is to emulate the stumblings of a legendary monkey god after he stole a lot of magical wine.
Or consider bartitsu. Dating from the turn of the 19th Century, it is the art of fighting with walking sticks and umbrellas. While the founder had a fairly lethal looking moustache, he also recommended tactics such as flinging your riding cape at an assailant.
So, with such a rich trove of source material, why do storytellers keep inventing new ones?
Made up martial arts give creative freedom
In a real-life fight, events are sudden and unpredictable. In the rare circumstances when people come to blows, the motive is usually a sudden burst of anger following some extreme aggravation.
It’s not honourable and there aren’t really any baddies. It’s unpleasant for everyone involved and the participants usually prefer not to revisit the memory. None of this makes for a good story.
In the realm of imagination though, fighting does make for excellent stories. All you have to do is sweep aside all that messy reality. Part of the messy reality you’re getting rid of is the fact that martial arts developed solely for effectiveness, such as krav maga, are all about pragmatism – preventing or intercepting an attack, disabling your attacker and then running away.
Meanwhile, the martial arts that look amazing in displays, such as the moves displayed on stage by troupes of Shaolin Monks – e.g. punching through a carefully arranged stack of paving stones – aren’t really useful when a testy bloke in the pub takes a clumsy swing at you for looking in the general direction of his recent ex-girlfriend.
Made up martial arts can be funny
Many invented martial arts exist purely for laughs. From the Kung Pow style in the movie of the same name, which is especially useful against angry dairy cows, through to Deju Fu from the Discworld novels, which is described as the funny feeling that you’ve been beaten before, it’s easy to make fun of fighting.
In one bizarre real-life case, one of these funny fictional martial arts actually turned out to be deadly after all. The style Ecky Thump, allegedly originating in rural England whose main technique is hitting people with sausages, featured on the 1970s comedy TV show The Goodies.
One viewer laughed so hard at the ensuing smallgoods silliness that he had a sudden heart attack and died. His widow later thanked the show for making her husband’s last moments so pleasant.
Made up martial arts are spectacular
In the real world, martial arts are pretty much only amazing to watch in staged demonstrations (okay, yes, sometimes in official bouts too )
Outside the dojo or ring, however, actual fights are rare. Any trained people involved always try to de-escalate or quickly neutralize the situation – that is, most fights either don’t even start and end very quickly if they do.
This would be pretty boring in a movie where the point of fighting is excitement and spectacle. For example, look at the Jedi vs. Sith duel at the end of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. It is the best scene in a pretty average movie and plays out across nearly 5 minutes.
However, several online videos (LINK https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TS3atbH5hfg) break the fight down to show that each combatant had many openings for a free shot at their opponent. Yet, instead of attacking, they just swung their laser blades around because it looks cool.
Made up martial arts are fun and so are real ones
All of the above is only the first knuckle of the full fist. There are probably as many reasons to invent a fictional martial art as there are fictional martial arts. Yet in all of the above cases the same overarching reason holds: the people who make up martial arts for books, movies, games and comics do so to make things more exciting.
In the real world, people practice martial arts mainly for fun and fitness. Learning a real martial art can give you confidence and self-discipline, you’ll make great friends and you’ll understand that, really, it’s not really about fighting.
And, if you are learning a martial art for real world use (perhaps for work in the security industry) your objective is to make things as unexciting and safe as possible – even if your attacker has an umbrella and a gigantic moustache or is drunk monkey wielding sausages.