Battles and the Fantasy Author, or ‘How I Made Battles Work For Me’

The first time I tried to write a battle scene I really had no idea what I was doing.

That scene, unfinished and unfocused, was supposed to be a small bit of back-story for what would eventually become Betrayal’s Shadow, and followed a general and his troops on their last fruitless charge.

It was fuckin’ glorious. Useless, but glorious. Blaze of … erm, glory, and all that. Swords raised and “Charrrrgge!” and hooves thundering into the rising dust cloud and echoing screams… Glorious but useless.

Why? I had no idea about tactics. There was no reason for the battle. It wasn’t personal. And I was trying to open a story with a battle. In short, I’d seen a couple of cool battles on the big screen, and wanted to write what I had seen and make it Fantasy.  Gimme a lollipop. Please? I tried. 🙂

And that scene (hand-written, I might add) is still shoved in somewhere among all the other scenes and bits of stories I’ve written and not used. I realised, too, that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. And so I embarked on The Quest to Learn How To Write Battles.

Helluva interesting and useful quest, let me tell you.

I read up on the Roman legions and how they fought, the different kinds of battles they fought, how their forces were divided up, which units were employed for quick, hard strikes and which units could take masses of punishment. I read books about ancient battles, the commanders on the field, the tactics they employed. I read up on castles (the different kinds) and forts and trench warfare. I played games like Rome: Total War (the first game). And I was trying to fit in everything I was learning to what I was writing.

Didn’t work. Doesn’t work that way.

Why? Because what I realised (and it should have been obvious, like punch-to-the-head obvious) was that I was writing Fantasy and that I was trying to write a battle, in a secondary world, between two factions which don’t exist (the one being non-human and having no use for armour or weapons), using real-world or historical methods of warfare.

What I came to realise is that my world and the battles taking place in my world have to make sense to my world, the characters inhabiting it, and their abilities and equipment. For example, I couldn’t have soldiers standing in a phalanx (no matter how much I wanted them to stand in a phalanx and how cool that imagery would be) because my soldiers and their enemies don’t use shields, for one. (why they don’t use shields ties into the world-building and the specific cultures). So, no phalanxes.

There were a couple of other things I wanted to use and never did – I did use siege warfare (in Betrayal’s Shadow, for a specific plot-important purpose) and I haven’t yet written a full-scale battle (because I’m keeping that back for the third book), but there have been a couple of fights and skirmishes throughout the first two books. And in those battles / skirmishes, I wrote them to suit what was happening in the world.

For example, undead hordes charge knights, and the knights are used to melee combat, so a quite a few die or are bitten before they figure out that it would be inadvisable to try hand-to-hand or melee combat against the things – and then they learn to use crossbows and fire.

Or knights up against creatures twice their size, ferocious and blazingly fast – no hand-to-hand there, either, and even stepping up to meet such a creature with a sword will practically guarantee  a brutal, painful death.

What I’m getting at is that the storyteller needs to remember to tailor the battles to the story, and not tailor the story to a battle you really want to write.

The next lesson came easily enough: make it personal. I wasn’t playing Rome: Total War – I wasn’t directing soldiers on a screen. I was writing a battle scene, with characters I knew and had created, to tell a story. Writing a battle scene from the Rome: Total War viewpoint might be good to showcase tactics, but it’s useless for characters.

So I went into the battle and tried to remember that the guy trying to survive has no idea what’s happening around him; he just knows that he’s fighting, that he doesn’t want to die, and that if he stops to think about what’s happening to his friends, he’ll die.

It’s personal, and earn-numbingly loud, and dirty, and terrifying. At least, it was for my characters. It had to be. Because if it wasn’t, I realised, what was the use? Why have battles? Well, I’ve yet to encounter High, Heroic or Epic Fantasy which doesn’t have battles, but the point is that a battle has to matter, it has to have significance, and it has to have costs.

Now, I don’t pretend to know anything about writing battles. I won’t even pretend that the battles I’ve written are particularly good, or cool, or whatever, so don’t read this post as advice. You’ll learn what battles mean to your story in your own way, in your own time. You’ll learn how to suit battles to the story you are telling, and you’ll learn why those specific battles are necessary to your story. Allow yourself to be open to that process, to let it happen, and not to force it.

Enjoy writing your battles, and remember to keep them personal for your characters, and the folks who enjoy your tales will enjoy your battles. 🙂

And Be EPIC!