Two things about writing battles. First, I am by no means an expert on this matter – I am not a soldier, I have not fought in wars. Secondly, wars are not pleasant. That said, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve found useful having written a couple of fantasy battles.
Wars are fought all the time, in various parts of the world, and for a whole host of reasons that I won’t go into here; but it makes sense that if you’re writing some kind of realistic secondary world saga, there will be blood spilled in your world. There will probably come a point where you’re required to write about some kind of battle, or that one will need to be be referenced in your novel. Whether or not you’re looking to create something from scratch or that riffs on historic events, I’d say that writing battles requires a lot of preparation beforehand.
I’ve got a couple under my belt, but are a few things I’ve learned from those – things I know I should think about when writing any future battle (keeping in mind all the other stuff you have to do with writing a novel):
1) Research – more than ever, I’d say it’s important to study real events if writing battles for realism is what you’re after. Read up on your history, read eyewitness accounts of battles. For the most minute detail, the internet is your friend. Build up a picture of what it’s actually like.
2) Tactics – you probably don’t have to be a military historian or a genius table-top gamer to have some useful tactics in hand for writing fantasy battles. Do a bit of research and get the basics lined up. Most battles don’t just happen spontaneously (skirmishes may, of course). From there you can work out a few formations etc. You probably don’t even have to spend that much detail writing about them, but it might be useful for you to know the progress of the battle yourself, since you might be able to riff on it for the plot.
3) Resources – how are people doing to eat? Are people going to fight with new weapons? Where is the money coming from to pay for soldiers and swords? Will arms dealers make a profit? (The answer to that is: always.) Will these events alter the plot or character threads in any way?
4) Read the fiction – get a flavour for writers who know how to write these things and have earned themselves a good reputation. From Steven Erikson, Paul Kearney, that man Abercrombie, all the way through to mainstream writers such as Bernard Cornwell, there’s a lot you can learn from those who have done this many times over.
5) What’s happening on the home front? Or, what message is the government giving its own people? Does this message differ in any way from the reality, or is it an excuse to control people or resources?
For me, when it came to writing the actual fighting itself, I tried to keep a few things in mind:
1) The person on the ground cannot possibly see any grand tactical vision. It’s probably going to be messy, loud and confusing from the front. They’re not going to hear something said ten feet away, they’re probably only going to know their immediate surroundings with a few simple orders in mind.
2) It probably isn’t going to be glorified either. This is not a shiny propaganda poster. It’s going to be full of gore, which will make people cringe and despair.
3) Seeing said gore is probably going to hurt the characters mentally. Just read a few news articles on soldiers coping with the trauma and you’d get the picture. Your characters aren’t going to skip away happily afterwards and have a party.
4) Things won’t be the same after the battle – if it’s in a city, that city will be wrecked. If it’s on a battlefield, even, then the wider political picture of your world will change. A battle probably should just happen and everyone packs away their toys and goes home.
5) Don’t enjoy it. This is not something you should really feel good about writing, since you might end up glorifying something that’s horrendous. Don’t fall into the trap of war porn.
There’s a lot more of refining, tweaking, research etc – as ever, there is always more you can do. If I had the opportunity, I would have loved to have spoken to someone who’s fought on the frontline, to get a pure unfiltered view of the unreported nastinesses.
Oh, one final thing – if a POV character dies, then stop writing the paragraph and start a new one from a different perspective (unless he or she is a sentient zombie).
As I was saying on Twitter, the most important thing to think of in a battle is focus, and focus is driven by character.
To a seasoned general atop a hill, tactics are important. He might be staring out over the field and see nothing more than pawns: men with faces he’s tried not to see, propaganda he’s tried to convince himself of,
To a recruit fresh in the mud, he’s going to see only the blood: the bright punctuations of color across a gray and dismal sea of mud and flesh, the twisted O of a man’s mouth in a scream.
To a battle-hardened veteran, he’s going to see the faces and try his best to ignore the fact that they look like men he’s once seen.
To a crazed berserker, he’s going to hear himself and only himself as he laughs and rampages through a sea of people without names and people who don’t matter.
The blog post is great, of course, for general information. But it’s important to think about what you’re trying to convey through each battle. And if you’re trying to convey something OTHER than what’s happening to the character and how it affects him, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Yo Sam – yeah, in my second list of points I say: “The person on the ground cannot possibly see any grand tactical vision. It’s probably going to be messy, loud and confusing from the front.” but you’re right to expand that to different focus characters with different levels of experience.
I’d disagree with that last point quite strongly – by presenting different characters, perspectives, and littering subtle evidence throughout the narrative, you can display a meta-picture or what’s going on which might be the theme you’re trying to convey. For example: you can show how people might be being manipulated at a population level for a cause they would not believe in – and you can do this by being skilful with your range of characters and what each of them might see or hear – ultimately leaving it for the reader to make up his or her own mind as to what’s going on.
And for me, that makes it far more realistic.
I would argue that you could, and probably should, show these things through the character.
To use your example, perhaps a recruit who’s believed the propaganda all his life and never once questioned the government who espouses it would suddenly find just how meaningless it was once in the pitch of battle. Perhaps the enemy, as he lay crying out for his mother, is not the soulless monster the posters called him to be. Perhaps the army, torn apart before the onslaught of the enemy, is not as invincible as the government suggested. Perhaps the cause, the same cause that demands no quarter and that the screaming enemy need be left to scream and bleed out miserably, is not as pure as he thinks it is.
Don’t get me wrong, all of what I’ve said IS done through character.
The beauty of multi-POV, in fact, is showing all these experiences, and all of them are acceptable stories, of course, in their own right. But the more I think about it, multi-POV is excellent for showing all the underhand stuff that goes on. It’s about layering, subtleties, a cheeky unreliableness about the overall picture.
Take any real historical event – it’s about piecing together different accounts to build up an overall picture, which is influenced by one’s own viewpoint. Presenting lots of different viewpoints that seemingly contradict each other would create quite an interesting effect, forcing the reader to come to their own conclusions.
I get what you’re saying, yeah, and I agree.
I guess I’m just suggesting that there are no real hard and fast rules for writing battles. Eventually, it’s all going to come down to character and how it affects them.
Oh yeah, that’s certainly true. Something I would quite like to try with a first-person narrative at some point in future. I think with the one key focus, you can make things seem exceptionally personal, and perhaps deliver more of a powerful punch to the reader.
Right, and there’s nothing saying you have to keep on that key point of focus throughout the scene. I’d say that switching focus is probably more effective at delivering that punch; dwelling on the same corpse, no matter how dramatic the death might have been, will eventually lead to someone saying “get on with it.”
If we think of it like movies, I’d say that it’s never the deaths you see coming, the slow-motion reels capturing each twitch of the eyelid and each rasping, final breath that are the most effective. It’s the ones where the character is there and smiling in one moment and then dead the next.
See: Ned Stark.
This is all solid advice, but I’d argue that blood being spilt somehow makes a secondary world fantasy more realistic. I just read the 1st 2 books of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet and I was astonished how little blood actually was spilt. War, politics and intrigue abound but it was great for once to read about fantasy characters who weren’t soldiers.
After all – how often was London sacked in it’s nearly 2,000 years of history? People there were affected by war, but may never have been actually fighting in it (with notable exceptions).
Hi Nick – good point, and I do agree with your sentiment, though the focus of this piece was on battles – hence it requiring a drop of blood!
I’ve argued elsewhere that blood and guts doesn’t make a book realistic or necessarily mature – and the example you use is a good one.
The other thing is your comment on war porn and enjoying writing battle scenes. I don’t know Steven Erikson, Paul Kearney, of Joe Abercrombie but I’d be willing to be that they often enjoy the writing of those scenes in the same way that the highlight of a D&D session is often the fighting. But that might be stepping away from the ‘realistic’ tag too much…
That said, it’s certainly a good point that the activity that often takes up so much of these books – fighting – is often the thing the authors have next to no experience of. After all, we’ve all eaten stew!
There’s enjoyment and there’s enjoyment, I suspect! There’s the enjoyment of the art of the narrative, of choreographing something epic – but ultimately enjoying writing about killing people on a large scale… well… I don’t know. I could open a can of worms here!
I’ve fired a crossbow, an arrow (at targets, but not people); I’ve not done much with a sword other than comment how bloody heavy they are, but my experiences are next to none. The psychology of this sort of thing wouldn’t be close to the reality of being in a warzone!
Hemingway, I am not.
One of the things I find people often forget in battles is how hard it actually is. Wielding any kind of weapon for a longish time is tiring; in longer battles, people will get exhausted.
As for the amount of battling and/or blodletting that’s realistic, it largely depends on the world. My grandfather changed six states without moving house once, and my husband’s currently on his third (I’m three years too young, so only on my second). Those things don’t happen bloodlessly.
Very interesting post indeed. Although one thing I’ve always wondered about and questioned is the whole ‘psychology’ angle. Go back just over a hundred years and ‘psychology’ didn’t exist as a science, never mind a buzz-word. And the first written use of the root-word ‘Psychologia’, meaning the study of the soul, giving it more of a religious element was – according to Chambers Etymology – as late as 1597. Whereas warfare and warriors have of course been around for an awful lot longer than that…
Which is why, personally, I think if you really get into the war-time / battle-scene mind-set of a character who’s rooted in a quasi-medieval secondary world, you have to put aside as much modern psychology as you can and focus in on core concepts like duty, honour, courage (all to be strongly desired from a military point of view) and their flip-sides: betrayal, shame, cowardice (to be avoided at all costs).
Yes, a character in the midst of battle would feel fear, terror, disgust, but they’d be motivated to conquer those fears by a desire to avoid being thought a coward or betraying their comrades by not fighting alongside them. And if the character in question was a full-time soldier or a member of the aristocratic warrior-classes then I’m not sure the urge towards self-examination would even cross their minds. This is just what they do. It’s how they live their lives. After all, what else is there, beyond the next battle, the next struggle for survival, the next chance to gain glory and prestige through a feat of arms?
I think that shift in attitude – that putting-off of modern values and preconceptions – is something the best battle-scene writers convey extremely well (and I’d definitely agree with Nick that Erikson, Kearney and Abercrombie are right up there at the top of the heap, with David Gemmell and George RR Martin thrown in for good measure.) And I think that shift in attitude – so different from modern ‘values’ – is one of the key emotional responses that fantasy readers look and enjoy experiencing, especially if they’re a fan of the ‘grittier’, ‘darker’ stories.
Just my 4p-worth, of course.
Long time lurker here.
Darren T makes a very good point.
I just finished a good book by military historian John Keegan called ‘The Face of Battle’, in which three major actions (Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme) are studied through the eyes of the combatants. A major point of concern in the book is what the author terms ‘the will to combat’, or what specific factors actually compel the ordinary soldier to engage in horrific, bloody violence and keep them there in the thick of it. In a lot of secondary world fantasy, I reckon the ‘will to combat’ is poorly, if ever, explored.
Keegan does a good job of describing how, for want of a better word, ‘alien’ the mindset of the medieval combatant would have been to a participant in Waterloo or the Somme.
Knights, for example, would likely have been very eager to get to grips with their opposite number in single combat – the place where greatest glory is obtained before God and king. Similarly, honour and the presence of thousands of similarly-minded peers would have been strong wards against cowardice.
Peasants, though their ‘will to combat’ would largely have been induced through compulsion (a powerful factor in any age – shirkers and deserters being executed for example) would have thrilled at the thought of taking a noble prisoner whose ransom could bring them riches. The looting of knightly corpses would also have been a powerful motivation. To paraphrase Keegan, there simply was no other way for a medieval peasant to become instantly rich and transcend his life of hardship.
Anyway, this is fantasy we’re talking about, but Mark is right on about the research part and in the authors he mentions. I feel that battles are perhaps the one area of secondary world fantasy that could benefit from a historical fiction-like approach.
Apologies for the long-winded post.
Thanks for the advice! I’m finding that battle scenes, for me, are the most difficult of all to write. You have to approach them with a kind of grim honesty that’s hard to position yourself in, especially when you’ve never “been there” before. It’s also hard to write them and not sound cheesy. (And that goes for intimate moments, too.)
To be honest, I find myself rewriting a lot of my battle scenes at least a few times because I really don’t want them to come across as glib or “fun.” It may be fun to portray characters with supranatural abilities, of course, but as you say, Mark, you shouldn’t really enjoy writing battle scenes.
You also have to write dialogue during battles a little differently than you do with other types of scenes. It tends to get clipped, and it can be tempting to make it over-sentimental or informational. Sometimes it’s better if characters just don’t say anything at all.
You know when you’re watching action movies where characters feel the need to suddenly express their love for one another, or the villain, or even the hero, has to throw in some cliché or would-be witty line for dramatic effect—or worse, monologue—in the middle of it all? I hate when that kind of stuff happens. It’s like just shut up and fight already!
Darren – excellent point re: psychology. Perhaps there was something in religions through the ages with regards to philosophies, morals, ethics and the like – those who liked to question things and examine their value, though this was something that is likely to have been limited to academics and scholars over your typical foot soldier.
And what about things like the Iliad? Such tales are full of drama, philosophy and things that we might now label as psychology.
Jonni – thanks for stopping by, and for sharing that information – I might have to investigate that book myself! Those are some really good points regarding the different classes and their attitudes, too.
Tiyana – that’s an interesting observation on dialogue in battles… I tend to write very little dialogue and much, much more description of the events that are going on. Dialogue can come in before or after to place some more context, personal things, explanations and whatnot, but as for the action – yeah, too much dialogue can seem out of place.
Do authors have a responsibility to make their battles/war scenes/moments of conflict meaningful beyond the question of just realism and moving the plot along?
I find a lot of the violence and by extension the battles in most of the big-name fantasy imprints to be not much different from just a collection of fight-porn, and the equivalent of the brainless action sequences which provide fiber in Hollywood’s justifiably maligned “blockbusters” which are universally steaming piles of dung.
And yet, violence, the brutality and arbitrary nature of war, the power of greed, hate, crime, rape, and cruelty – are worth talking about and they can be used to tell a great story at times.
But philosophically, I believe that war only tends to beget war and more suffering, death uncrowns all, nobility is often one of the first casualties, there are no worthy causes – worth killing others for, and casual violence deadens us into accepting its omnipresence in our lives.
With that in mind, do you (or Sam, but I’m more interested in your opinion), feel that you have a responsibility when it comes to writing to show something more meaningful than just well researched realism/excitement/exposition in your battles?
And I did note the comments about phycology and philosophy in the entry and comments, but I’m hoping for more clarification on the subject than so far has been provided.
An interesting point, Eric. In City of Ruin, I tried to set myself the challenge – is there a point where large-scale combat is justified? Not so much in the liberal intervention sense, but in the sense of the noble defence. I like to think that it’s a nasty business even before the fighting stage: the politics, the financing of arms, religious motivations, that sort of thing. To make things more interesting, I tried to create a horrendously corrupt city, that it was barely worth saving in the first place. Is it about defending people’s lives or saving Imperial property? Those sorts of questions.
It was all about creating a very muddied context, and hopefully the reader can draw their own conclusions. There certainly isn’t any glory – that much I do try to make clear. Each of the surviving characters is disgusted at the horrors of war. I believe you can also make statements about such things by removing characters matter-of-factly, rather than a slow-motion glory-death. Because war probably isn’t that kind.
So I think, in short, yes – I think there’s a responsibility to raise some questions, but I feel it would have been a mistake for it to have become simple agitprop.
Ha, ha – spellchecker jollity: that should of course read “psychology” not phycology.
the branch of botany concerned with seaweeds and other algae.
Thanks. I know you think about these things, but it is always help to actually hear your articulation of the process. It is helpful as it has been on my mind much this past year.
This is a great, useful essay. More people should zero in on a specific area of writing advice, rather than just writing the same old techniques about “how to conquer writer’s block” or “how to enlarge your online presence”.
I would like to contribute, if I may, by mentioning something about pace. Your article focused primarily on large-scale encounters. I thought it would be worthwhile to add that, in one and one encounters, or any fight scenes really, the pacing is more crucial than ever. Keep the action moving, but avoid “listing”. It needs to flow in a “then this happened, then this, then THIS, then THIS!!!” but it cannot read that way. It’s a tricky balance, but with 75 or so re-writes, it shouldn’t be a problem.
I hope I explained by thought clearly enough. Keep up the good work, Mark!
Thanks, Michael. Yep, that’s certainly something to keep in mind if you’re in the thick of the action – and indeed, it’s a very fine line. You tend to get it right on the 76th attempt, though. 🙂
Fantastic article, but I have a minor nitpick over your use of ‘glorifying’. Although the actual fighting, the battle itself, may – or indeed, will – be horrific, based on the notion of the cause you described above, I think glorification of what is achieved is sometimes acceptable – not the fighting itself, but what is fought for. This kind of distinction is well embodied in some of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, I think: while the events are tragic (it’s called the book of the Fallen for a reason), what the Malazan 14th Army end up doing unwitnessed is glorified well in the Crippled god, without becoming praise for the combat itself. Just my opinion, though – other than the minor nitpick, I totally agree, and very much enjoyed reading Nights of Villjamur last week. I’m looking forward to picking up City of Ruin soon!
Hi Jacob – thanks for stopping by. Yes, I can see what you’re saying, but I would argue perhaps that it isn’t really glorification. It’s a satisfaction that something necessary had to be done, maybe? Though I’m sure there could be glory in a noble death. What I was really on about was not enjoying the writing about killing since that could make it seem like the act itself was glorious. Glad you enjoyed Nights of Villjamur – am intrigued as to what you’ll make of the battle in book two!
Totally agree – I was mainly being a little pedantic about terminology. But yes, satisfaction in accomplishing something necessary, or at least attempting it would probably be a better description, and I would agree that glorification of the act itself is to be avoided. Though I think some of it was a bit of a trend towards ‘numbers’ fantasy, in which battles in the genre pretty much competed for sheer scale, and in the end, the numbers got so large that in some books the horror of the actual experience and any empathy for the combatants was entirely missing – you were only getting the overview, rather than the action. Actually, I think David Farland avoided that very well in his earlier books of the Runelords series: the protagonist might be directing some of these battles on a grand scale, but he’s got an empathic bond to each of his soldiers, so the reader does end up indirectly feeling the situation.
Forgot to add – I’ll be very much looking forward to the battle you mentioned, then. I’ll be getting my review of the first book up sometime next week, too. Thanks for the response!
I’m imsprseed! You’ve managed the almost impossible.