Fantasy Warfare Part 1: Capturing realism when you’ve (hopefully) never personally stabbed someone with a sword

I had this series simmering in the back of my mind for a while, but after I watched this recent hilarious video from College Humor, I decided it would be the perfect lead-in. So take a few seconds and watch this. I’ll wait.

Charge! (with Rhys Darby)

You’re welcome.

“You want a SLURPEE? Oh…RETREAT. Okay”

There are so many aspects to warfare that it may be intimidating for a modern writer of fantasy to try and capture something of the danger and brutality (assuming here that the writer wants to capture it). As in the video, the ability to command large forces in an era that predates tactical radios is one of those aspects. There’s also geography, weather, the actual equipment being used by the opposing forces, situational awareness (in the heat of combat, should the hero be able to hear their romantic interest yell for help?), siege weapons (real and fantastic), etc.

The bottom line is, warfare is always chaotic. The side that wins typically is the one that can keep their wits through the fog and friction of war long enough to pummel the enemy. That’s where discipline comes in. But how in the world can the lone soldier, amassed in a force with 10,000 other guys, hear a command?

There’s any number of ways to handle this:

1. Ignore the problem. This can actually work. When you’re telling a story, and telling it well, if your primary intent isn’t to paint a gritty combat scene, your readers may forgive you when you have the hero give a rousing speech to those 10,000 soldiers. Even though two thirds of them, in this world, probably wouldn’t be able to hear him.

2. Magic. I suppose, if artfully done, this could work. But if done wrong, it can come across as a cop out. As in, “this author ran out of ideas, so magicked the problem away.”

3. Incorporate elements of realism that suggest just how much is going on. This can be tricky, especially if you’ve never, personally, been in a situation close to combat. But luckily you’re writing fantasy and not military history. Bring in what you know…if you’ve played football, you have a sense of how two sets of opposing forces strive against each other, while following their own strategies.

In my novella, The Prince of Graves, command and control of the defenders of the nation of Valeot use horns and colored flags. The idea is that an order is given, simple coded notes are issued from the horn, then the officers of the smaller units are responsible for looking for the command flags, which they then relay to their lieutenants and troops. I’d like to say that I was just being creative, but the idea comes straight from Sun Tzu, in The Art of War:

“Now when masses of troops are employed, certainly they are separated, and ears are not able to hear acutely or eyes to see clearly. Therefore officers and men are ordered to advance or retreat by observing the flags and banners to move or stop by signals of bells and drums. Thus the valiant shall not advance alone, nor shall the coward flee.” (The Art of War, Oxford Paperbacks, pp 90-91, pub 1971).

Warfare isn’t usually fought in a stadium, though.  Combatants have to deal with ground of varying grades and consistency. Weather and darkness are also tricky elements to consider. And don’t forget fatigue. Your hero may be quite a stud, but will s/he really swing a sword all day, fighting for his/her life, and then come home and bed their romance interest? Maybe, but you’ll have lost me at that point.

I’m not at all suggesting that you have to paint a Saving Private Ryan-style combat scene in all its intensity and gore. You’re the author of your book, and you know what kind of story you want to tell. This is simply a discussion on aspects of combat to consider if you want to try and bring elements of realism to your fantasy warfare. I hope you found it useful. I’d love to know what your favorite fantasy warfare scenes are. Please comment below!


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4 Responses to Fantasy Warfare Part 1: Capturing realism when you’ve (hopefully) never personally stabbed someone with a sword

  1. E. A. Hughes says:

    I’ve not yet gotten to any big battle scenes. I think I’m avoiding that scenario on purpose. To be honest, I get the feeling I’m just going to be stealing a lot from Bernard Cornwell …

    • W.E. Linde says:

      I was doing a little reading before writing this article, and I reread some of the combat described by writers from the Civil War from Battle at Bull Run, by William Davis. I need to borrow some of that for my next piece. Thanks for the comment!

  2. worldsbeforethedoor says:

    Cornwell is one of the best. I often find you can tell an writer either has military experience or an interest in military history by the way they tackle combat or avoid it. I thought you did very well in your battles. In fact, it was the point I became really interested in your story. Since I write Urban Fantasy I have yet to deal with the epic battle moment, but have had to deal with small fire fights. I just do lots of research. Thankfully self-defense is a minor hobby in my family, so I have good sources to pull from.
    Realism/experience on some level is the mark of a good writer, even when you are writing fantasy.

  3. Pingback: Fantasy Warfare Part 2: The Lay of the Land | The Weathered Journal

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