The Fighting-Man of a Hundred Faces

in writing •  last year


The fighting-man is the quintessential pulp hero. He has graced pages and screens since the dawn of the pulp age, driving stories through relentless action and raw vitality. He is an enduring archetype, and for good reason. As Bradford Walker discusses:

To succeed as a fighting-man, you have to have the very qualities of character that define a heroic protagonist: a desire for action, skill at combat, and a combination of excellence and determination to see through to the end. From the earliest heroic epics to today's pulp fiction, unless it's specified otherwise you can count on that protagonist being a clean-limbed, strong-armed, action-ready fighting-man.

The fighting-man is an enduring archetype -- but he is just that: an archetype, a template with which to build a compelling character. If all you have is a guy who runs around beating people up, you have little more than a faceless goon. To transform the fighting-man into a protagonist who stands out above all other protagonists, you need to go one step further by making him a living, breathing human. To do this, let's study the works of Robert E Howard.

Conan the Cimmerian is easily Howard's most beloved character. A wandering swordsman from the Hyborean Age, he walks the world in pursuit of adventure and treasure. Fighting foes both human and beast, he counts on his raw strength and animal savagery to win the day. Strong and cheerful and cunning, he is the perfect embodiment of masculinity, and almost always gets the girl.

Conan is clearly based on the fighting-man archetype, but's more than just a sellsword. He has the gift of languages and is able to communicate with just about everybody anywhere he goes. He is a natural-born leader, having commanded pirates, cossacks and mercenaries, and later seizes a throne. He is a cheerful extrovert who wishes nothing more than to live his life to the fullest. His fighting style relies on brute force and overwhelming aggression, and many times he demonstrates honed reflexes sharper and faster than civilized men. Conan is the embodiment of the gentleman barbarian.

Solomon Kane is also a fighting-man, but he dwells in the late 16th to early 17th centuries. His weapons of choice are not broadsword and axe, but rapier and pistol. He is a Puritan, not a pagan, driven not by hedonism but by an all-consuming desire to destroy evil wherever he sees it. He cares little for money or affairs of the heart, only for his never-ending war. His sword technique is described as cold and calculating, driven by rational thought instead of animal impulse. While raised in civilised England, he will quest into the dark corners of the world to stalk his quarry--and will do so for years if he must, to see his mission through to the end.

When placed side-by-side, Conan and Kane stand in sharp contrast. You cannot mistake Conan for Kane and vice versa: their weapons, motivations, fighting styles, mindsets, and skills are vastly different. Yet they are both indubitably fighting-men. While he has appeared in far fewer stories than Conan, Kane's legacy endures because of his force of character.

Francis Xavier Gordon, better known as El Borak, is a fighting-man of the late 20th century. Formerly a gunfighter from Texas, he has settled in Afghanistan and is famous throughout Asia for his exploits. He has the raw strength, leadership and language abilities of Conan; but also the calculating nature and duty-bound nature of Kane. Like Conan his blood marks him as an outsider, yet his knowledge of languages and customs wins respect from the local tribes; like Kane he is ruthless and implacable, and is equally skilled with gun and sword. El Borak isn't on a crusade to destroy evil, steal treasure or seduce women, but he will avenge every wrong done to him or his friends. Unlike Conan and Kane, he lives in a mundane world without a hint of the supernatural, yet his adventures offer tantalising hints of ages and civilisations long turned to dust. Conan has the ferocity of a wolf and Kane is cold as ice, but El Borak is named for his unparalleled swiftness -- both physical and mental. Where Conan's and Kane's stories are straightforward adventure tales, El Borak's tales prominently feature deception, betrayal and military tactics, demanding a far different kind of character.

All three men are fighting-men -- yet they are different expressions of the same archetype. If you look hard enough, you can see traces of each man in the other, and indeed Conan came after Solomon Kane, and El Borak appeared after Conan. While cut from the same cloth, the three men are unique and memorable individuals. They are products of the worlds and times they inhabit, their sheer force of personality impresses the reader, and they have unique skills that suit their adventures.

Herein lies the power of the fighting-man archetype: it gives you the foundation for a hero, giving you his essential qualities of skill at arms, relentless forward action, and determination. With the skeleton of the protagonist in place, you can quickly and easily build the rest of him upon these foundations.

When crafting your own fighting-men, be sure to answer the following questions:

  • Is the story world mundane, fantastic, technological, or a mix? How would someone living in such a world think, live, and work?
  • What weapons, armor and martial arts are extant in the story setting? What is your fighting-man's preferred fighting tactics and equipment, and how do they fit in the setting?
  • Is the story set in an exotic location? If so, is your fighting-man a local or an outsider? And if the latter, does he speak the local language?
  • What motivates him? Why is he embarking on this adventure?
  • What is his personality like? What are his flaws and strengths? How are they expressed when interacting with people and when fighting enemies?
  • How skilled is he with social niceties? Is he a club-swinging caveman who must contend with civilisation, or is he equally comfortable in court and in the wild?
  • How do friends and enemies see him? How does he see them? Is he capable of recruiting allies, or is he a natural loner?
  • What is his signature trait, skill, tactic or gear?

The archetype of the fighting-man is an excellent foundation to build a hero. There's no need to ponder intricate magic systems or the implications of stupendous technology, if he is an outsider you can have him learning about the world alongside your reader, and if your hero run into plot snags they can be easily resolved with relentless forward action. But the fighting-man is a man first, and to do justice to him, you must look beyond the awesome fights and portray the soul of the man in every line.


Cheah Git San Calligraphy.jpg

If you'd like a story of fighting-men facing down demons and a fallen angel, check out my latest novel Hammer of the Witches.

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This adoption of the last story does "a great job of balancing action with the creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere of the original story". Great read! Thanks for bringing such an interesting subject in light.



Great explication of the hero archetype. I first read Conan when I was maybe 11 and together with the comics he is one of the classic characters of American fiction. The supernatural elements that Howard wove into the stories and the whole Cimmerian/ Hyperborean world is another important aspect of the work. Landscape and setting, inspired by the badlands of Texas.
I didnt know much about Robert E. Howard until more recently when I saw the excellent biopic The Whole Wide World. His biography is fascinating in his correspondence with Lovecraft, his social isolation and his relationship with his mother. The man behind Conan .. I find that fascinating.


Thanks! The supernatural aspect definitely set him apart from his contemporaries. With Conan he created the major tropes of Sword & Sorcery, and created a world filled with opulence, the decadence of civilisation, the inevitable fall of empires, and unseen evils lurking in the dark.

Cool photo but he is holding an AXE not a SWORD hahahaha
Plus Arnold was WAY cooler than this guy....


Covers always lie.

And Conan is a man amongst men, against whom even Arnold Schwarzenegger shall be found wanting.


Well, except in that one scene, in the movie, which shows him as an orphan led to the prison work camp. He walks in circles pushing that giant wheel along with other prisoners, who fall away one by one as Conan grows in age and size and power... until (camera zoomed out) one figure is silhouetted, turning that wheel... zoom gradually to those calf muscles, up to the torso, the arms, the lowered head. Then... his head lifts... we look into his eyes.... THOSE EYES
Aside from that, you get no argument from me about Conan and how even Arnold "shall be found wanting."


Sorry man, no way, the original Conan is the archetype, Arnold just played him in a movie ...