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Describing arms and armor:

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by ChasingSuns, Jan 30, 2016.

  1. ChasingSuns

    ChasingSuns Sage

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    Hello everyone. Tonight come to you with a question that has been nagging at my mind for some time. Do you think that it is better to describe the kind of armor or weapons that a character is wearing/wielding, or to just say what kind it is? For example, would it be better to use terms like gambeson, cuirass, falchion, swordbreaker, etc, or would it be better to just describe such things and not name them? Is it safe to assume that the reader has enough knowledge of such things, or would it be off-putting to someone who doesn't know about arms and armor? Any advice would be amazing, this has had my head spinning for a while now.
     
  2. Philster401

    Philster401 Maester

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    This is ironic I was just wondering about this yesterday. I have read books that talk about armor in-depth but probably understood only a little about it but I didn't find it off-putting. Although a little section near the beginning explaining a few of the more important terms to your story might help. Another thing you could do is have an ignorant character explain the terms tge reader needs to know.

    Hope this might help at least a little.
     
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  3. Philster401

    Philster401 Maester

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    Another thing you could do is an appraisal of weapons with a blacksmith who talks about each weapons pro's, con's, and craftsmanship.
     
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  4. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    here's my take on it. It depends on POV. If you're writing a soldier character, he will think about his equipment in reference to how well protected he feels, how proud he is of it, etc. He may think something like: "Cedrick patted his tatty gambeson, dislodging the road dust outside before entering the barracks."

    He would use the right term because he knows what the garment is and it wouldn't make sense to have him describe it in explanatory terms.

    Similarly, a person unfamiliar with terms would refer to it differently. "A massive shadow on the ground drew Aylteth's attention. A unicorn? She looked up, startled. No, not a unicorn, but a black war horse. It stood taller than her head, at the shoulder, and wore a gleaming metal face mask that sported a horn, transforming the knight's steed into a likeness of a mythical creature."

    She wouldn't know what the particular piece of armor is called, so it would not make sense for her to call it a chanfron unless she was familiar with horse barding enough to properly name it. But she could still describe it.

    Characters must interpret what they see. It leads to deeper understanding of the character, what terms they use. It tells the reader who the person is and how they view things, and what they know and don't know.


    I do the same thing with clothing, food, buildings, everything. I let the character be the filter for whether description or terminology is the way to go on every individual decision.

    Now, in the case of my swordsman, I made both decisions. In one scene, he "handed over his ticket to the doorman, to reclaim his weapon." In another, he, "welcomed the opportunity to test his new mortuary hilt rapier against an opponent." He also, "Brought his blade level, sliding his guard against his opponent's buckler."

    Perspective is the single most important consideration to me, as a writer. Does the character know the object intimately? Does he use the term to describe the object, indicating he's experienced and the terminology is how he thinks of the item? Is it something new he's never seen before? How does he feel about the thing he's viewing?

    This is one of the ways I think writers show how good they are at spinning their tales. It can show so much more than just the object. It tells volumes about the character whose head we're in.

    When I'm talking to people about sewing, I imagine most people know what a needle and thread are, a seam ripper is, what I'm meant to be doing with a chalk pencil, etc. When I speak about the more obscure items, I tend to describe them for the benefit of people who aren't as familiar with the sewing novelties I'm using. Same thing with weapons, clothing, etc.

    If I have a male character see a woman at a party in a dress, I might describe it as, "She wore a gown of pink satin, cut low to frame her bosom in delicate ruffles." If a woman viewed the same thing, I might say, "She wore a gown made of silk satin, the same alluring shade of pink as spring carnations. French lace adorned the neckline of her chemise, and judging by the delicate hand wrought trim, the woman's underwear cost more than my whole gown."

    You can use descriptions to show a POV character is jealous, dismissive, judgmental, in awe, etc. I think that is the most fun thing to play with as I use either terms or descriptions to describe things my characters see. Same thing when a character mentions their own stuff.

    Best wishes.
     
  5. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

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    Well, a few things come to mind. First, make sure the terms you are using make sense. Caged Maiden touched on this - characters should call things by names that are logical. To further piggy-back off her post, a soldier should call a gambeson a gambeson because that's what he would know the garment as. Similarly, setting matters. Calling something "French lace" makes sense in a real-world setting. It would not make sense for a character from a fantasy world where there is no such place as France to be using the term "French lace".

    Second, readers are not stupid. Give a reader some context clues and they will figure out what you are talking about even if they have never seen that word before. For example, if you have a knight raising the visor of his sallet and most people will realise that a sallet is a kind of helmet. Or if your character draws his falchion just before engaging in a sword fight, readers will deduce that a falchion is a kind of sword.

    And this leads me to my last point, which is that actions are very good for describing things without resorting to an info-dump. Taking the falchion example, you can have your character half-sword with it and you could say "Joe put his other hand on the blunt backside of his falchion" and that would let people know that it's a single-edged sword. You could also in another part of the fight say "The curved edge of Joe's falchion clanged against his foe's swordbreaker. Joe was very lucky that his blade did not get caught in the teeth of his enemy's weapon, as that could have resulted in the loss of his own sword."
     
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  6. ChasingSuns

    ChasingSuns Sage

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    Thank you everyone for the responses, they have been super helpful! I was using the POV strategy, but not consciously. I'm glad to know that my brain was going in the right direction :p I'm not sure how well I'm doing at using context clues, so that is definitely something that I will go back and look at.
     
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  7. MiguelDHorcrux

    MiguelDHorcrux Minstrel

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    One tip: Never ever ever ever do it like George R. R. Martin did in his A Song of Ice and Fire hit. Just never. He spends waaaaay too much time describing armors and cloaks and all those boring stuffs.
     
  8. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    I heartily endorse CM's analysis and would add one more factor you might want to consider.

    Role playing games have messed up the use of nomenclature of weapons quite badly. Many of your potential readers might have there perceptions of a "longsword" or "broadsword" from that background, which would be quite different from the impression that a historian or HEMA practitioner might get from the same word.

    So, if it matters what the weapon looks like, I think you are better off with some description to avoid potential misunderstandings in your reader.
     
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  9. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Yeah, and if you say arming sword you might just confuse folks, but so long as they know it's a sword...LOL. Which is why I use the term, of course, seeking to make people look something up.

    And the biggest no-no, never say chain mail! Unless you're telling someone not to say chain mail. heh heh.

    But I think Caged Maiden had the right of it, keep it in character, but at the same time, keeping in mind that the nomenclature could be relatively well known by common folk depending on the world. And even the greatest sword fighter probably doesn't know the alloy of his sword or much else about its manufacture.

    Now the interesting point with something like the mortuary hilt would, historically, be whether anybody actually called it that in its period of use, or if it came later from collectors... which is probably the source of a great many different names we now have for swords and their designs. Of course it doesn't matter much to fantasy writers, but it does pose an interesting question when exploring word choice philosophy in historical fiction.
     
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  10. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    Hm, that's true. I find the hardest thing is in deciding whether I should use a historical word, or use a modern word that describes an item that was once in use, but probably had a different name. I struggle with that regularly.

    Okay, so if you have an item to describe, but it had no historical name, or one no one would recognize, what do you do then? Ooh, that's a great question, because I'm a history buff and I totally know how much this can grate. Well, I forego a lot of "historical" language, for the sake of clarity. But I try to get as close as I can, while admitting to myself that if I genuinely wrote in a period style, my stories would be dull, confusing, and horrible. Not deep and colorful and interesting. I need to remember that first and foremost, I'm writing fictional stories meant to connect with modern readers, and most people aren't impressed if a history buff indulges in their own interests so far they alienate the audience.

    I think each case needs to be sort of its own thing. In my fantasy, I tend to use modern concepts and terminology, but retain a few really historical-feeling elements. I try not to belabor dialogue by forcing it into a historical mold, but I do try to utilize words whose origins are 1700 or earlier. I also try to be rather vague in most of my descriptions, calling it a "gown" or a "coach" without going into too much detail about what exact time period the gown or coach might be from. All that's important, usually, is that she's not wearing a plain dress, but a satin gown, and they just got into a coach, not a wagon, not a sleigh. :)

    Basically, I have to decide whether (and I'll use the mortuary hilt as a fine example) the description I used is accurate enough to tell a modern reader what it is (either off the top of their head, or with a little google search). Well, in that case, not many people probably already know what a mortuary hilt is, but the thing I'm describing is a very specific kind of sword, so I want them to know what it looks like. I think it's important to know what kind of swordsman gets rid of his old swept hilt and commissions a mortuary hilt. It's indicative of his personal change during the story. So...then I have to admit I chose that description because the sword he uses is part of his personality. Which I think we all do in a way. Sure, I call it "my sewing machine", but I'm acutely aware that it's a mid 80s New Home. I cannot ever mistake it for an early century Singer or a brand new Brother. Those things are not all equal, and they each have a different purpose, and the thing I have is what I need. I think SO MUCH, that how we allow characters to describe things is the true gold in the pan that is the story. If you can put in a lot of crisp, sharp descriptions that taunt and tempt your reader and make them guess things and see things with an emotional slant, your pan is shimmering with gold flecks. If you use belabored, overwrought descriptions and brief, generic ones, you're panning sand, son. Same if you can't decide what to describe. Readers quickly feel pulled this way and that when we over-describe things that shouldn't even be mentioned.

    I have some personal rules on the subject, but I've never really jotted them down. I wonder whether we could do a thread on descriptions. That might be a really good one!

    I love this topic. I think about word choice a ton. Probably more than is warranted... or healthy ;)
     
  11. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Caged Maiden,

    I totally agree, think too much on this and it would drive a person crazy, LOL. Because I am not writing historical fiction, I will happily call a mortuary hilt a mortuary hilt... although it also has connotations to a specific dead guy... drawing a blank on who... but anyhow... yeah, can't overthink this stuff sometimes, just have to roll with it or I'd develop a twitch in my cheek, LOL.

    I agonize enough over being able to say one thing 10 different ways without worrying too much about such specificity with sword hilts... but I still love them sword hilts, heh heh.

    And the books on medieval sailing ships I ordered the other day... yeah, it's all a sickness.
     
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