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War and battle

I know this is an element I could probably leave out, but have so far thought up two characters joining a legion, and then being reintroduced later on when war has broken out. Problem is I have minimal knowledge of battles and war, or weaponry. One of the characters is a potential love interest, the other an anti-villain, and the separation of war and potential loss also creates suspense to a story, and also maybe adds to the romance.

A battle or series of battles would allow the story to climax in some ways that would result in a crucial shift to the plot, but I want them to sound and feel believable, or as believable as fantasy battles are.

Do you think it’s one of the necessary elements of any series of fantasy novels to include a looming war and culminating battle? Or is it something you enjoy reading/watching/playing? Do you like it described or do you prefer it to be in the background.
 

BearBear

Inkling
I would read exerpts from novels that had war in them in the same technology as yours and see what they did, then plan out the battle you might cast the scene in and watch war documentaries that may help get you into the feeling of a war scene.

You can literally skip all that by having the scene in a bunker or other location off the front line.
 

Queshire

Auror
I don't think a fantasy story needs a war, but there's certainly nothing wrong with including one.

There's a few things you need to keep in mind however. Wars aren't won by a single person or even a small ragtag band of misfits. Soldiers also have to, ya know, follow orders. This can make it difficult to make it feel like the protagonists are making a difference while remaining realistic and limit the character's agency.
 

pmmg

Vala
Necessary...no, Common...yes.

Stories are about conflict and conflict is often well on display when there is a war. In Epic fantasy, war is almost a given.

I don't have a short answer to the rest, but I will try.

I do think its important to have some knowledge of war items. I am not sure your time period, but if it is Swords and shields, it might be useful to know items, like sword, mace, axe and flail, but maybe not the difference between a glaive and a guisarme (However, if you did know the difference, it would not hurt). Some knowledge of how a battle might be fought, both as an individual with a type of weapon, and as a group might fight.

But, the actual blow by blow of a battle does not matter. If I say so and so whacked so and so through the head, or pierced them through the heart its likely to make little difference to the story. The end effect is the same, some baddie is dead.

Generally, when I write battles, I try to write from the POV of someone in the battle, and that is no easy feat. Cause, while they are running around killing or being killed, I still have to give a feel for how the battle as a whole is going, and this sometimes gets creative, but mostly it means, they stop and look around and have a vantage to know.

While writing battles, I try less to have swashbuckling blow by blow accounts, but focus on what the battle is saying about the characters. Usually you can tell by my writing who is better than who in the battle, and often what the twists and turns of the battle mean to the combatants. Is one afraid and the other confident, was one surprised...and all that. Oft times I can get away with just saying generic things like, 'they each swung their swords and the clang of metal rang out.' Its actiony, but it does not say if those blows were high or low or on target or not. Sometimes I get very specific. If its a group, and one is winning, I try to show why they are winning--usually from better organization and tactics.

As the story moves along, and the characters have established themselves as good warriors or bad, I find I become more free to skip battle detail. I can do this because the reader already knows who should win, and the detail can be inferred. 'Six goons rushed through rubble with crowbars and knives. Superman smiled, and his eyes glowed with red heat. A moment more and he stepped over the smoking heaps of goon bodies'. No blow by blow, no battle, just inferred outcome cause no other outcome was likely.

Ultimately, I find it easy to write thing I know nothing about, I just have to start and stuff starts to fill in. Its always scarier from the outside looking in, but its never really difficult.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>A battle or series of battles would allow the story to climax in some ways
This is the crux. The story drives everything. So, will the experience of battle bring two people together and start them on a relationship path? Or change that path profoundly? Then it's the experiences that matter, not the tech. Put them through the paces; only then will you know which battle details you need to research.

Others will say you have to master, or at least thoroughly learn, about arms and armor before you can write a believable scene. I'm not one of those. To me, the scene must be believable first and foremost in terms of the characters involved. Get that right or else the rest of it won't matter.

Once you do have it right, then you can work on specifics. For example, maybe in the course of a battle, a character is injured or experiences something that changes them forever. First figure out the trauma. I have a character who stands around waiting for a story for him, in which he's a warrior who gets injured. Now he can't raise his arm above his shoulder without serious pain. He has trouble accepting that and gets himself and others into serious trouble before he comes to terms with it.

Fine. That works. But for the injury to be right, I need to know. Was it an arrow? A blow from a mace? Bad case of arthritis? No matter the cause, now I have the research task clear before me. I need to learn the details of the injury and what could cause it. Then I look to how to work such an injury into a fight. Is it one-on-one? Is it a blow out of the blue? What works best, not only in practical terms but in story terms?

Now, if I set the story in the early days of gunpowder, I have some particular constraints. Heck, maybe it's none of that and it was magic that caused the injury. In any case, I don't need to learn everything there is to know about 17thc warfare in order to write the scene. But I definitely need to know something about shoulder injuries. I even need to be prepared to abandon the shoulder angle, if it turns out there's not a good, believable injury I can use there.

I dunno. Maybe it was a leg. <g>
 
War is arguably the most dramatic event there is in human experience, whether imagined or real, so it can lend that value to a story. How much do you need to know? Not much more than you'd learn by watching a good movie. The basic grunt soldier/warrior didn't know the tactics behind their leaders having them march here or charge there, so unless your character is in charge of the army, not too much to worry about. The other ideal in writing fiction is that we, in essence, fight "straw man" battles. The battle is set up to go the way we want. The Great Detective will prove himself a genius and catch the murderer because we wrote the damned clues! The tactics will be good or bad because the writer said so, heh heh. Of course, you don't want them to win by doing something stupid that would never work but apply some logic and a touch of historical study and you can come up with something. But then again, when it comes to losing, more battles have probably been lost because of something stupid than have been won because of genius, heh heh. History is replete with tactical errors and other stuff that seems difficult to believe, and some that resulted in no battle at all as two armies march right past each other without ever knowing the other was there, heh heh.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
Writing this as a (now retired) professional soldier. It's very interesting to compare how those authors with personal experience of war (eg Tolkien and CS Lewis) describe battles compared to authors with no experience.

It's also worth pointing out that before modern command methods (read military staff) and modern communications came in, you couldn't command more than you could see. This restricted both how you deployed your forces on the battlefield and how big your force could be. Essentially, your force was deployed in a smaller area, and any battles you fought tended to be more concentrated and usually shorter than they would be now. The soldiers would see far more of the enemy, and the fighting would be more intense and at much closer quarters. So you have to consider what sort of technology you have in your setting.

The problem with being in a battle as a soldier is how intense it is. You lose track of time, you have no idea of the wider picture. You get a lull, so you tend the wounded, rest, eat, drink water and take a p*** or have a s***. You might even have a quick nap. It's an old soldiers adage: eat when you can, sleep when you can. Then the next load of enemies turn up and it all starts again. And eventually, you find out that it's all over, and you breathe a sigh of relief that you made it. Then you bury your dead, if you can. And if you have to retreat, you never, ever, leave anyone behind.

As a commander, you're standing there (and yes, you usually stand, you're too tense to sit down for any length of time) wondering whats actually happening out there, hoping your plan was good enough, hoping you haven't missed anything or misjudged what the enemy was going to do. Trying to stay calm whilst you watch your forces manouever and fight (or watch as symbols move on a map), reading or listening to the reports, trying to work out what the enemy is aiming to do. Issuing new orders, and hoping above all else that you won't have to pull back in the middle of a running fight.

There's no way you can ever capture this in text, or even on film. There's no way of conveying any of this, that tension, intensity, worry and joy when it all goes to plan. Or that numbness you get when it all goes to rats. All we as authors can ever do is capture a bit of it.

So how should we as authors describe battles? I don't, for personal reasons spelt PTSD. I also don't think it necessary for developing a story. That's probably because I'm more interested in people and the reasons they act the way they do, so I focus on what happens to people after they've been in a war.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>no battle at all as two armies march right past each other without ever knowing the other was there
This happened more often than one might guess in the Middle Ages. There's a passage in Froissart about King Edward campaigning against the Scots. He can't find them, and he's reduced to asking the locals if they maybe have seen an army marching around any time recent. <g>
 
I love stories like that. The one I was thinking of was in the Civil War, though I can't recall the generals involved. It was two major armies, too, not like a couple of squads bypassing one another. But, when you get forests and mountains and... oh man, strange things happen. Dumb luck is an important factor in so many things, LOL.

>no battle at all as two armies march right past each other without ever knowing the other was there
This happened more often than one might guess in the Middle Ages. There's a passage in Froissart about King Edward campaigning against the Scots. He can't find them, and he's reduced to asking the locals if they maybe have seen an army marching around any time recent. <g>
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Tolstoy made a point of showing how the great general (Napoleon) didn't actually know much of what was happening on the ground. But he also was pleading a special case and setting certain themes for his novel. Commanders prior to rapid communications and movement did indeed make plans and some were better at it than others. I think here of Alexander, not just at Gaugamela but Tyre and elsewhere. Hannibal is another example (and Scipio Africanus). They made plans, the soldiers executed them, and won because of it.

Command happened elsewhere besides the general's tent. One example is during the Seventh Crusade when King Louis gave very clear instructions to his commanders. But when his brother, Robert, saw the enemy in full retreat, he couldn't restrain himself. He charged after, got trapped in a town, and suffered the loss of nearly all his men. Random events like that, by commanders in the field, could easily change the course of battle.

There's much to be gained from reading accounts of battles; in particular of battles that happen in the setting and with the level of tech your world is using.
 

pmmg

Vala
Similar event in Gettysburg. The North had made a solid line, but one commander (Sickles, I think his name was), thought he saw an opportunity and on his own tried to claim better ground, which hurt his own line and left him open to attack from multiple sides. The General who told him where to position did not like it at all. Hard to account for the actions of people with their own ideas ;)
 
Writing this as a (now retired) professional soldier. It's very interesting to compare how those authors with personal experience of war (eg Tolkien and CS Lewis) describe battles compared to authors with no experience.

It's also worth pointing out that before modern command methods (read military staff) and modern communications came in, you couldn't command more than you could see. This restricted both how you deployed your forces on the battlefield and how big your force could be. Essentially, your force was deployed in a smaller area, and any battles you fought tended to be more concentrated and usually shorter than they would be now. The soldiers would see far more of the enemy, and the fighting would be more intense and at much closer quarters. So you have to consider what sort of technology you have in your setting.

The problem with being in a battle as a soldier is how intense it is. You lose track of time, you have no idea of the wider picture. You get a lull, so you tend the wounded, rest, eat, drink water and take a p*** or have a s***. You might even have a quick nap. It's an old soldiers adage: eat when you can, sleep when you can. Then the next load of enemies turn up and it all starts again. And eventually, you find out that it's all over, and you breathe a sigh of relief that you made it. Then you bury your dead, if you can. And if you have to retreat, you never, ever, leave anyone behind.

As a commander, you're standing there (and yes, you usually stand, you're too tense to sit down for any length of time) wondering whats actually happening out there, hoping your plan was good enough, hoping you haven't missed anything or misjudged what the enemy was going to do. Trying to stay calm whilst you watch your forces manouever and fight (or watch as symbols move on a map), reading or listening to the reports, trying to work out what the enemy is aiming to do. Issuing new orders, and hoping above all else that you won't have to pull back in the middle of a running fight.

There's no way you can ever capture this in text, or even on film. There's no way of conveying any of this, that tension, intensity, worry and joy when it all goes to plan. Or that numbness you get when it all goes to rats. All we as authors can ever do is capture a bit of it.

So how should we as authors describe battles? I don't, for personal reasons spelt PTSD. I also don't think it necessary for developing a story. That's probably because I'm more interested in people and the reasons they act the way they do, so I focus on what happens to people after they've been in a war.
Super helpful thanks Mad Swede, the descriptions from a real POV are what I obviously lack and can’t ever reproduce, but you’ve touched on a point there where you talk about the aftermath. For my two characters who join the legions, I’ve already thought mostly about how they cope with the demanding nature of basic training, and then being sent to war, and the how those events change them as people. They go in as young men lost in life and come out wholly changed, and then it’s about how they might integrate themselves back into their old lives after the war has ended.

Time period is probably early modern so 1600’s but it’s also a fantasy world where it’s all a bit different, but it would be old technology. I read once about the ‘violence paradox’ and how we’ve become ‘less violent’ in recent years, and when I think about it, there must have always been a constant threat to life thrumming in the background all the time compared to now - did people ‘cope’ with that better or were they all going around with essentially undiagnosed PTSD. It’s also probably about getting into the mindset of someone from that time period in that respect too.
 
Tolstoy made a point of showing how the great general (Napoleon) didn't actually know much of what was happening on the ground. But he also was pleading a special case and setting certain themes for his novel. Commanders prior to rapid communications and movement did indeed make plans and some were better at it than others. I think here of Alexander, not just at Gaugamela but Tyre and elsewhere. Hannibal is another example (and Scipio Africanus). They made plans, the soldiers executed them, and won because of it.

Command happened elsewhere besides the general's tent. One example is during the Seventh Crusade when King Louis gave very clear instructions to his commanders. But when his brother, Robert, saw the enemy in full retreat, he couldn't restrain himself. He charged after, got trapped in a town, and suffered the loss of nearly all his men. Random events like that, by commanders in the field, could easily change the course of battle.

There's much to be gained from reading accounts of battles; in particular of battles that happen in the setting and with the level of tech your world is using.
I’ve read quite a few books on WWII, and the Cold War, because as well as fantasy I also have a penchant for a good spy novel - but they don’t ever really have detailed descriptions of what happens on the ground unless someone gets shot or whatever, and really maybe I’m just not attracted to reading that sort of thing. I’m sure plenty of women do read that kind of thing, but I suppose I’m a typical girl and not drawn to reading about warfare in all the gory details, but for the sake of my world and my story I’d like to include a war as it feels appropriate. I suppose it’s the strategy thing that stops me in my tracks, and I think I need to know all about warfare strategies when I probably don’t.
 
I will bow to others' knowledge of PTSD, but to my understanding, there are a few factors as to who suffers from it and who won't. The younger someone experiences severe trauma in combat is one factor—apparently, old codgers are less likely to suffer PTSD—as well as other pre-combat factors.
 

Nighty_Knight

Troubadour
I’ve read quite a few books on WWII, and the Cold War, because as well as fantasy I also have a penchant for a good spy novel - but they don’t ever really have detailed descriptions of what happens on the ground unless someone gets shot or whatever, and really maybe I’m just not attracted to reading that sort of thing. I’m sure plenty of women do read that kind of thing, but I suppose I’m a typical girl and not drawn to reading about warfare in all the gory details, but for the sake of my world and my story I’d like to include a war as it feels appropriate. I suppose it’s the strategy thing that stops me in my tracks, and I think I need to know all about warfare strategies when I probably don’t.
Makes me think I really do need to write a book on my fun time in the Marines. It was only 4 years but I was deployed 4 times. The more I think about it the more I really should write about all the stuff that happened, especially the stuff that usually isn’t covered.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
I know this is an element I could probably leave out, but have so far thought up two characters joining a legion, and then being reintroduced later on when war has broken out. Problem is I have minimal knowledge of battles and war, or weaponry. One of the characters is a potential love interest, the other an anti-villain, and the separation of war and potential loss also creates suspense to a story, and also maybe adds to the romance.

A battle or series of battles would allow the story to climax in some ways that would result in a crucial shift to the plot, but I want them to sound and feel believable, or as believable as fantasy battles are.

Do you think it’s one of the necessary elements of any series of fantasy novels to include a looming war and culminating battle? Or is it something you enjoy reading/watching/playing? Do you like it described or do you prefer it to be in the background.
First off, are your characters professional soldiers or raw recruits who never held a sword before?

Second, situation depending, most of their experience is going to consist of manual labor, brutal training, and lots of walking. If raw recruits, most of the actual weapon training, at least to start with, will likely involve bashing each other with staffs and being able to walk in formation. Then, if deemed capable, they'll be given spears. Swords...swords come later. Army depending, they may get in a stint or two at archery practice. The rest of the training will be obstacle course type stuff - running, jumping, climbing, that sort of thing, possibly while lugging a pack. Lots of crude humor.

Third, the actual battles are going to be chaotic - your characters are highly unlikely to be in a position to tell what is taking place on the battlefield.
 
First off, are your characters professional soldiers or raw recruits who never held a sword before?

Second, situation depending, most of their experience is going to consist of manual labor, brutal training, and lots of walking. If raw recruits, most of the actual weapon training, at least to start with, will likely involve bashing each other with staffs and being able to walk in formation. Then, if deemed capable, they'll be given spears. Swords...swords come later. Army depending, they may get in a stint or two at archery practice. The rest of the training will be obstacle course type stuff - running, jumping, climbing, that sort of thing, possibly while lugging a pack. Lots of crude humor.

Third, the actual battles are going to be chaotic - your characters are highly unlikely to be in a position to tell what is taking place on the battlefield.
One of my characters is used to lots of manual labour, sleeping outside, fending for himself in the wilderness, streetwise etc and I have him in line to become a talented warrior - the other is a pampered rich man’s son who fails at his schooling and so joins the legions on a whim with only fencing and archery experience in his arsenal, who might be destined to become a good soldier in the end but I might kill him off just when he’s redeemed himself, haven’t decided yet. But I’d like to write about how they both get on with their basic training, and then later on when they’re deployed to the battlefield. But as history has it, armed forces like to send young inexperienced soldiers to the front line don’t they.
 
One thing to keep in mind with any kind of action scene, and it definitely goes for battles, is that in a novel action scenes can get boring quickly. It's a big difference with movies. Take a Jackie Chan movie. It's perfectly fine to have him punch people for 15 minutes in a ridiculous chase scene. But try writing that out and it becomes dull and repetitive. Either focus on the broad strokes of a battle, or the details for a single person and what they mean for that person. It's about emotions, plans and actions, not about hitting people over and over again, since that's just boring.

And yes, a grunt in the front-line can't make big plans or have a huge impact on the battle usually. Though it's possible of course. Being the first to run away could trigger a chain reaction losing your side the battle and vice-versa. But even without that, everyone will have a plan of some kind. Usually "don't die" is part of it. But it can be stuff like "stick close to my friend", "stay in line", "I pray we don't run into that mean looking unit over there". That's what matters to the character, and thus what should be the focus.

One of my characters is used to lots of manual labour, sleeping outside, fending for himself in the wilderness, streetwise etc and I have him in line to become a talented warrior - the other is a pampered rich man’s son who fails at his schooling and so joins the legions on a whim with only fencing and archery experience in his arsenal, who might be destined to become a good soldier in the end but I might kill him off just when he’s redeemed himself, haven’t decided yet.
I would think both of these characters would have a very different experience. Historically I would expect the rich man's son to start much higher in the chain of command, and generally have an easier time of it. Because of connections. It matters who your father is. But also because having skills like being able to write and have some weapon's experience put's you above the others around you.
 
One thing to keep in mind with any kind of action scene, and it definitely goes for battles, is that in a novel action scenes can get boring quickly. It's a big difference with movies. Take a Jackie Chan movie. It's perfectly fine to have him punch people for 15 minutes in a ridiculous chase scene. But try writing that out and it becomes dull and repetitive. Either focus on the broad strokes of a battle, or the details for a single person and what they mean for that person. It's about emotions, plans and actions, not about hitting people over and over again, since that's just boring.

And yes, a grunt in the front-line can't make big plans or have a huge impact on the battle usually. Though it's possible of course. Being the first to run away could trigger a chain reaction losing your side the battle and vice-versa. But even without that, everyone will have a plan of some kind. Usually "don't die" is part of it. But it can be stuff like "stick close to my friend", "stay in line", "I pray we don't run into that mean looking unit over there". That's what matters to the character, and thus what should be the focus.


I would think both of these characters would have a very different experience. Historically I would expect the rich man's son to start much higher in the chain of command, and generally have an easier time of it. Because of connections. It matters who your father is. But also because having skills like being able to write and have some weapon's experience put's you above the others around you.
I have considered that my character from the privileged background may go straight into general/commander training only to then fail at this too, and therefore be placed at the bottom of the pecking order for various reasons, where he bumps into my other character, where without going into it, there is a role reversal of sorts, and a power shift.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>as history has it, armed forces like to send young inexperienced soldiers to the front line don’t they.
Not really. You don't get that until you get conscription. In most times and places, soldiers came onto the field of battle with varied backgrounds and experience.

As for officer training, that too is a fairly recent development (17thc, but really not until 18thc). So much will depend on what era you're trying to emulate. Similarly, btw, with training for regular troops. This varied wildly by time and place. In ancient Sparta, training started at age 7. In the Middle Ages--let's say 12thc Germany or France--there was no training at all. Knights "trained" by hunting and participating in tourneys (which were more melee than joust). The latter almost never involved much above the individual level in terms of battlefield tactics. Then modern times and "marching up and down" (see Monty Python).
 
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