I’m a huge fan of a particular sort of scenes in stories—the scenes where the hero gets into shape.

I was reminded of this recently, after reading Greg Rucka’s Critical Space, a thriller I read after it was mentioned by Marissa in a recent post, which has an excellent instance of this sort of scene. The getting-in-shape sequence in this book takes the form of a montage (much as you might see in a movie with such a sequence) written in second person. You swim. You run. You do yoga and ballet. You take supplements and you eat lots of fruit. You lift weights. You see the changes in your body. You learn to be an assassin.

I have long been a fan of these scenes, both in books and movies. They’re a key part of the original Rocky movie, of course, and are practically all there is in Rocky III. I’m especially fond of the getting-in-shape sequence in the book Man on Fire by A. J. Quinnell, and I’m still bitter that the movie completely omitted the sequence. (Easily the best part of the book.)

A lot of sf and fantasy stories have versions of these. For example, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee’s Liad books often have characters learning a martial art. In these, as in a lot of fantasy stories, the hero or heroine often turns out to have an especially high level of natural talent for the art. I view this as a negative—it’s more interesting to me when the hero lacks any extraordinary skill, but manages to excel through hard work. Patrick Rothfuss’s Wise Man’s Fear does a particularly good job in the scenes where the hero learns a taiji-like martial art. Instead of the hero having preternatural talents in the area, his success comes from seizing an opportunity (and, of course, having preternatural talents in other areas).

A whole genre of its own is the boot camp story, where the heroes not only become fit and learn a lethal skill, but also learn something about teamwork and camaraderie.

Anybody out there like these sequences as much as I do? Can anybody point to books or movies with particularly good instances?

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3 thoughts on “Fictional characters getting in shape

  1. These were always a staple of the Travis McGee books. I always particularly liked those because they emphasized the notion of getting back into shape after having spent time in months of idle sloth. I was always more interested in the notion that one’s sloth could be expiated than I was in the gaining of fitness.

  2. I almost mentioned the Travis McGee books, but it has been so long since I read them, I can’t remember whether they all have fitness sections or if it’s just a couple of them.

    In one of the last books, Travis had learned tai chi. John D. MacDonald has him briefly wax eloquent about the virtues of tai chi and how it will let him stay in shape into his old age, unlike the boxing and such that had been his fitness (and fighting) styles up to that point, which were a young man’s game.

  3. Just found your site searching Travis McGee.
    I agree with your post on the Hero’s journey to fitness. It is a favorite part of the story.
    Travis McGee is the first I know to go into such detail but you asked if anyone knew of others.
    Might I suggest the Elvis Cole series. Workout sequence is yoga and MA kata based. There is also Doc Ford. The standard weights and running. Then the Eragon series. Part of being a dragon rider, Eragon learn the exercises of the Elves, which sounds a lot like yoga. His cousin the warrior lifts rocks for weights.
    If you have found any others please feel free to share.
    I just bought “Man on Fire” based on your post.

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