Savvy Saturday – Fantastic Combat

Question: How do you write good combat in fantasy?

Whenever I’ve spoken with fantasy lovers, I’ve noticed that we have things in common. We all love stories of epic battles, of life or death struggles, of fierce and heroic combat between the protagonist and his or her mortal enemy. We remember and replay in our heads the moments where heroes and villains come face to face and confront each other with steel, with magic, and with wits. We cheer as Eowyn battles the Witch King of Angmar (Tolkien), we hold our breath as Prince Kelson duels with magic against the witch Charissa (Kurtz), and we turn pages so quickly that they could fan us on a summer’s day as we read the final battle of Hogwarts (Rowling).

But how as an author do you write a battle or a duel that grips readers and keeps them glued to the book, unable to hear or see anything but the world that the words on the page are creating for them? That depends on a few things:

  1. The realism of the scene,
  2. The clarity of the writing, and
  3. The personal investment that readers have with characters.

Whenever an author charges into battle (scenes), he or she needs above all else to know what he or she is talking about. If I were to write about a character wielding a great-sword in each hand, charging into battle on foot, and slashing through enemies’ plate armor and shields, I would immediately lose the respect of every reader who had ever studied medieval history or weapons in general. A great-sword, such as the Sword of Kings that Alaric is given at the beginning of The Quest of the Unaligned, is a two-handed weapon and quite heavy. Even so, it wouldn’t be able to slash through armor; swords of that type were primarily used for slashing at places unprotected by armor, or for stabbing through where armor pieces joined. (Fire-spiders, fortunately, don’t wear armor, and so were quite susceptible to Alaric’s attacks.)

It’s relatively straightforward, if time-consuming, to research and accurately portray various types of historical combat. It’s far more difficult to realistically portray combat with magic. That is, it’s far more difficult to portray a viable world that allows combat with magic. If magic is a catch-all solution for any problem, then how would a mage combat magic that’s used against him? This is where careful world-building must come into play. As an author, I have to know what my magical characters can and can’t do with their powers before I can figure out what they will attempt to do, and what will actually happen.

For example, the character Naruahn in The Quest of the Unaligned is a ruahk, or air-mage. He can “pop” (teleport) to any location that he can see, or to which he has been, or which another ruahk can describe for him in sufficient detail. He also can generate winds of his own, which can slow or stop projectiles. This is a great advantage in combat, as he can appear and disappear at will. However, it also means that one might pop oneself into a trap. In addition, while air-magic is quite good at transportation, it’s not as good at direct attack. A ruahk can find himself in a great deal of trouble if he is placed in a confined location (such as a dueling circle) and another mage attacks with a more offense-based weapon (e.g. a wall of fire).

Next, writing must be clear. I’ll give you an example.

Roland the Great strode into the arena. His armor glistened, and his sword shone in the light of a thousand torches. All around the arena, spectators in the stands cheered his name. He saluted them, and then his emperor, then turned toward the gate in the far side of the arena. It rattled open. Less than a breath later, a tiger sprang through the opening. With a growl, he sprinted toward him, launched himself at his face, his ten claws each as sharp as his sword. He leaped backward, raising his sword to shield himself from the beast. He yowled as the blade bit deep into his paws; his blood dripped to the sand below.

Since “Roland the Great” and “the tiger” are both “him/he” in this scene, it quickly becomes difficult to tell who is performing which action to whom. Especially in battle scenes, where multiple characters may be swinging swords, blocking with shields, sidestepping, throwing bolts of lightning from their fingertips,  etc., it’s vital to specify who is who. In this example, changing the nouns just slightly yields…

With a growl, the beast sprinted toward him, launched itself at his face, the tiger’s ten claws each as sharp as his sword. Roland leaped backward, raising his sword to shield himself from his foe. The tiger yowled as the blade bit deep into his paws; feline blood dripped to the sand below.

Clarity is a big reason why an author needs beta readers. Something that makes perfect sense in my head is occasionally (all right, often) confusing for people who aren’t me.

The last crucial element in gripping readers during a battle scene is to make them have a high level of personal investment in the scene. This means, typically, that you have to be writing about people that they care about, when there is an element of uncertainty about how an event is going to unfold, and that the consequences are real. Readers may care that the left flank of the Good-Guy Army broke over the hill, as the tiny right flank fought the Evil Enemy from the valley, thus gripping the Evil Enemy between them with a pincer movement. But they probably won’t care for more than a few sentences, unless Our Hero happened to be on the front lines of the right flank, overwhelmed by the enemy, and hoping that the left flank will draw the enemy’s attention or else his small force won’t last another half hour.

Alternatively, if Our Hero is back in the castle for some reason, it would also be possible to focus in on Johnny No-Name, a common soldier in the ranks who the audience has never seen before, and experience through his almost-anonymous eyes the terror of combat, the loyalty that his commanding officers engender, the despicable evil that the Good-Guy Army faces as personified in a single soldier who Johnny battles, and either the thrill of victory and power as the life leaves the enemy’s eyes, or the revulsion and horror that Johnny experiences in killing, or perhaps even the shock and pain of Johnny’s own death.

This necessary personalization of combat is part of the reason that I have (thus far) tended to write duels rather than large-scale warfare. Alaric versus a dragon. Ruahkini versus Gaithim. Swords, magic, all of the above. Any option can – and has – made for good stories over the years, as long as it follows the three rules above. Simply put,

Realism + Clarity + Personal investment = Victory.

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