Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
June 18, 2012

Do Your Characters Fight in a Way That Advances Your Story?


by Jenny Hansen

Today we’re going to open a discussion here at WITS about how your characters fight.

Some of my posse from More Cowbell, who also hang out here, have heard the terms "dirty" and "clean" fighting.

Those of you who are new to the concept are likely scratching your heads wondering, "What is all this Dirty/Clean Fighting business, and why do I want to know about it?"

Answer: It's an easy plausible technique to help you send the character conflict in your fiction sky-high. Being deliberate in HOW you have your characters fight helps dialogue magic happen.

Dirty Fighting isn’t  some how-to guide on Jujitsu or Street Fighting. Nope, it’s actually a list of twenty-three dysfunctional communication techniques that nearly everyone engages in (including your characters).

I originally found out about these techniques when my pre-marital counselor gave my hubby and I a Dirty Fighting pop quiz (which we failed).

This rockstar counselor proceeded to teach my husband and I the difference between the Dirty Fighting Techniques practiced by most people and the clean-as-a-whistle fighting he wanted us to strive for.

Before we get into Dirty Fighting, let's make sure we define it's opposite: Clean Fighting. Think about this in terms of a real life conflict you had with your spouse, sibling or best friend. Imagining a real-life scenario first will help you extrapolate these skills to your characters.

Clean Fighting:

  • Take responsibility for your own stuff. Also known as “cleaning up your own side of the street.” I know it sucks when you’re mad and you clean up your side of things while the other person leaves their big cow patties steaming, but lead by example on this one. It helps when someone steps up to be the bigger person.
  • Leave the other person an “out with dignity.” This is most often achieved by understanding that there might be facts you don’t know.
  • “I” statements are always going to work better when you’re pissed off than “you” statements. And don’t be trying to cheat with stuff like, “I understand that you’re a selfish bastard.”
  • Talk about the behavior  in those “I” statements, not any personality disorders you think the other person should address.
  • Stick to the point. Resist throwing in the kitchen sink of laments spanning back over months of why they’re a (fill in the blank).
  • Deliberately pushing buttons is REALLY dirty. The weak underbelly is to be avoided, even if you’re thinking your partner is lower than a yellow-bellied toad for siding with your mother-in-law over you.

Here is a clean fight summed up in 4 easy steps:

  1. How you feel (use an “I” statement for this)
  2. The behavior that prompted that feeling
  3. Why it’s important/the background (i.e. what button did they push)
  4. What would you want them to do differently next time

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Go try it. It’s really hard to do when you’re mad. Most people who are angry fight dirty. Clean fighting takes some rigorous training.

Now let me ask you something. Do you really think your characters will have had any
of this sort of training? *clutches sides laughing*  Not likely.

Unless you’re writing about a psychologist, it’s much more likely that your character will be flawed like the rest of us.

What Makes Great Fiction?

  • Great books are filled with conflict.
  • And great characters (who learn important lessons).
  • Great fiction rips emotion out of us readers.
  • Oftentimes a great book will make you see yourself inside its pages.

Understanding the difference between clean and dirty fighting will give you a TON of mileage in your own stories. If you need plausible arguments and dialog, Dirty Fighting Techniques will help you achieve this.

The nice part (for you) is that these techniques can be applied with a friend, family member OR a character in your books…it doesn’t really matter. It's about having more tools in your personal toolbox.


  1. Go through your your current work in progress and look at the resolution/make-up scenes.
  2. Examine whether or not your characters are fighting cleanly or not, based on what I outlined above about clean fighting.
  3. If they're engaging in dysfunctional fighting, think about changing the conversation in the resolution scene to something cleaner and moving the "dirty" dialogue to a place in the book that gives you more tension.

Since gratuitous fighting in a story is like gratuitous sex (kinda boring if there’s no real connection or reason for it), the author needs to find a great reason for the fight. How do you do that?

I think the easiest way to pave the road to this amazing fight is to discover what your characters really want. Then dig down for what they really, really want.

DON’T give it to them. Or at least, don’t give it too soon.

Then flake away more layers to uncover what your character really fears. Then what they really, really fear. DO give it to them!

This is where things get interesting. You now have characters who are upset, which shows their true colors. Plus, you’ve now found a problem/conflict that slides both your reader and your character deeper into your story.

Still struggling with this? Try asking your character questions.

Perhaps you’ll use the 9 questions I discussed in my January post on Character
or new ones that are all your own. Below are some of mine to help you get started.

  1. What matters most to this character? (What is he or she most afraid to lose?)
  2. Who matters most? (This is usually the person  they are most afraid to lose.)
  3. How did the character’s parents fight?
  4. How did the character’s parents interact with him or her?
  5. What does this character wish  he or she had gotten in childhood?
  6. What does my character want to be when they grow up?

All of these questions can provide you with cues about where your character is “broken” and give you ideas about fixing the broken part (i.e. Fix = Lesson).

Because this post is already long enough, I'm going to save the actual Dirty Fighting techniques for Wednesday's post. The clean fighting techniques are enough to get you started.

What do you think? Do your characters fight "clean" or "dirty" (and are you being deliberate about it)? What are some ways you could use a good fight to help your
character(s) grow or advance your story?


Jenny Hansen, Writers In The StormJenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after her toddler Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing. In addition to being a founding member here at WITS, Jenny also hangs out on Twitter at jhansenwrites and at her other blog, More Cowbell.

0 comments on “Do Your Characters Fight in a Way That Advances Your Story?”

  1. The good news: If you are a dirty fighter, what hurts you deep will touch your readers deep. Use the brokeness within yourself and the people around you, then mix it up in your characters.

  2. Love your Dirty Fighting techniques, Jenny! I'm stealing them for scenes in both books I'm writing! So fun! SO glad I'm past this in real life!

  3. Great post. The one thing I'd add is an exercise to put your two characters together and have them talk without talking to the point--everyone manipulates in a conversation and that's what makes it fun. When you have folks talking about one thing, but the real topic is all in the subtext, you get exciting dialogue.

    1. It IS a big deal, Ella...I agree with you. We have these same dynamics with couples. My husband used to just leave. No discussion, no overt fighting...he'd just disappear. "Leaving" is some SERIOUSLY dirty fighting. 🙂

  4. Excellent post; it really has me thinking. I believe most of my characters are dirty fighters. I'll definitely keep my eye on this when I revise!

    1. Fantastic, Katie. It will be interesting to see if your revision turns up the need to get more out of the fights your characters have.

  5. GREAT post, Jenny!

    As it happens, my protagonists are a ninja (the ultimate in dirty fighters) and a Jesuit priest (clean fighting all the way) so not only do I get to use both techniques, but I get to use them against each other. Fun, fun, fun!

    These are great questions to ask, too - I'm going to keep them in mind!

    1. Thanks, Susan! One thing to think about. Dirty and clean fighting isn't a physical thing at all. You might get more character growth if you make the mental fighting of each of one of them (ninjas and priests) the opposite of what would be expected.

      Like Ninjas who street fight BUT they are emotionally clean and accommodating.
      Priests who never raise a hand to anyone but when they get into a discussion, they're manipulators.

      Something to think about. 🙂

      p.s. I LOVE the dichotomy of ninjas and priests!

      1. Funny you mention this - it's a tactic I used extensively in the series and one of the things reviewers have commented on very positively. Although he's a ninja, Hiro has a highly developed sense of honor which impacts his actions, physical and mental - and yep, you're dead on that the priest can also be startlingly manipulative when he chooses to be. He does it in the service of good, but that doesn't mean he's unable to lie, either...

        And thanks - I love the contrast too - it's been really fun to write.

  6. Hey Jenny, this got me thinking. I've been letting my characters fight way too cleanly. "Stop trying to save them!!" I need that line tattooed on my forehead 🙂

  7. I love a dirty fight in fiction. When I read or write, I want to get riled up. In reality, I tend to avoid conflict - it's probably why I seek it for my characters.

    1. I agree, Deb - I don't want to see some sanitized "disagreement." I want to see them duke it out in a way that I probably wouldn't do in real life.

  8. Your teaching on Clean/Dirty Fighting really informed my writing of the climax in my WIP. Let's just say, "Everybody was dirty fighting. Their words were fast as lightning." I like how it turned out. Thanks!

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved