Arena fight stories are nothing new. These storylines are common in martial arts movies, cartoons, and early every superhero comic has some sort of arena fight arc.
The basics of an arena plot are simple; people are put into a fight against each other in front of an audience and there can only be one winner(or occasionally one winning team).
Although many places around the world historically have variations on this, the most common source inspiration for writers seems to be the gladiator games.
Being a good gladiator made you a hero to the people, so combatants were comprised of criminals, slaves, citizens, and even high ranking people.
Both men and women could be gladiators, and there were even gladiator schools. If you were talented, you could get sponsorship, property, and even promoted to be a guard.
If things got boring, traps, such as with wild animals, could be included.
Starting to sound familiar?
In fantasy novels, the most common plot is that a king is holding a competition. It is normally a Colosseum sized arena but can be a maze.
For SciFi sci-fi, is is normally a way to show the darker side of people. This arena can be as large as an island, and the most common theme is using cameras so spectators can watch from home.
I think arena fight plots can be interesting, but only when done right.
I recently read a book where the majority of it was preparing for games, then there were the games themselves….which bored me beyond belief. Why? The only thing at stake was money. Competitors could drop out or lose without a single meaningful consequence. Basically, they could have been playing football. Yes, the book mentioned that “occasionally people die” but certainly not in this book.
I’m not competitive. At all. If you challenge me to a soccer game, I’ll likely lose interest in minutes. So what can you do to catch my interest for arena fights? Add in stakes.
It does not have to be “only one can live” for motivation. You could have a world where there is a ritual where characters have to win the competition in order to be gifted with magic, you could have a prison where characters are fighting to win freedom, and so on!
Many writers say what characters will win, but very few writers mention what will happen if the characters loses.