Writing Warfare in Fantasy: A Guide to the Battle Scene

battlefieldFew words are as synonymous with mankind as War. As writers, war often influences the stories that we tell. People remember wars, people remember battles, and often these moments are when characters shine, plots reach the point of climax, and readers are drawn into a visceral experience that they won’t forget.

To write about war, to describe battle and it’s horrors, we must first have a basic grasp of this human creation. War is not a jaunt through a field of roses that leaves you smelling fresh on the other side, and should not be depicted as such. Understand war’s meaning first, and then write.

The definition of war that I teach is that war is conflict given violent form. This violent form is like a duel, a contest of wills, using physical power to force an opponent to submit and remove continued resistance. Armed by the strength of flesh, science, and the will of men, war is ultimately the greatest and deadliest form of all human thought. No other creation of our species uses every scrap of human ingenuity to achieve a single, ultimate goal: the violent compulsion to break another human’s will to fight and resist.

The Purpose of War

War must always be given purpose for being. What that purpose is, is up to you. It can be a multitude of causes, which are almost always political. Morality, religion, resources, land, theft, love, and plain old bad blood are all things that men fight over. What we must realize as writers is that there must be a strong enough reason for men to go to war, for battles to be fought, for a great deal of misery to occur. Most importantly, we must avoid writing a battle for battle’s sake.

These issues can and should drive our story. A war should not be happening because we think it will be fun to write. War effects everybody, high and low. Our characters are not immune to war and its cost. If our characters are placed in charge of conducting war, or put onto the field of battle, then we must show them as being changed by the end. Glory may be what they seek, but terror is what they will find.

Pitched Battle or Siege

Once you understand the reason for this armed conflict, then you can move forward. Interspersed throughout this war will be your iconic scenes, the battle and the siege. One thing to remember: Open battles are not nearly as common as believed. The siege, on the other hand, is.

The reason? Battles are extremely costly, and going into one, each side must agree on that cost, which is the lives of their men. One side, regardless if it is a draw, will lose. Confusing? Yes. Both armies may fall back and decide that another charge would be pointless, but the damage is done regardless. Hundreds, if not thousands, will be dead, and many more will be injured. The side that can accept these losses will actually win the draw.

What occurs more often is the siege. One force, knowing it is outnumbered and outgunned, will fall back to a stronghold and prepare for siege, where it’s disadvantage of numbers is reduced. The more powerful army will then roll up and prepare to besiege the stronghold. Again, the assault is also rare. Many armies will gladly pick away at the defenders, trying to force them to submit by starvation or disease. Assault is used when haste is needed or an exploitable weakness is found. Perhaps winter will soon be upon you, so either you assault and take the town at the cost of lives, or withdraw and wait for a more opportune time that may never come.

Setting the Scene

Whether you are writing a siege or an open battle, the next step is to set the scene. In doing so, try to establish the scope of what you are about to create. Give your readers a simple visual of the land, the weather, and the two forces. Who is the aggressor? Which army forced this confrontation, and why did the other side allow themselves to be drawn into battle?

A poor job on this step can ruin the rest of the scene, because the readers will have no visuals playing in their heads, only a blob of men preparing to charge across barren land to kill one another

This step is also crucial for the mood. Your characters will definitely have thoughts about what is transpiring. Perhaps they are scared, excited, or both. Perhaps they confide in each other, building comradeship and creating tension.

Chaos, Cohesion, and Clarity

As you write the battle, use what I call chaos, cohesion, and clarity.

Battles, even skirmishes, are extremely chaotic and confusing. There should be a sense of this for your characters, but not so much for the reader. The best laid plans will inevitably go awry in nearly any battlefield scenario. Humans are tenacious creatures, but imperfect, and on the battlefield our flaws can become instantly apparent. Adrenaline is coursing through the blood stream, fear clenches the heart and sets fire to the brain. The noise and intensity of every action and counter action can be deafening, even in an age without gunpowder. Men are often just trying to make it out alive as much as trying to achieve a cohesive goal. Add injury to the tumult and you have increased levels of stress.

When writing the battle, make it feel chaotic and horrible, and most importantly be sure that your characters have and show emotion.

Cohesion is crucial. This is the aspect of writing that you hopefully put together before sitting down to write the battle. While it can be fun to make it up as you go along, you still need to lay out certain key points that transpire during the battle. The charge and clash of steel on steel is only one part. You need to be able to guide the characters to the end while everything else is revolving around them.

Set markers for yourself. Perhaps a particular thing needs to occur, such as a beloved friend dies, your hero takes an arrow to the knee, or a challenge is accepted between two characters (though this did not happen often in recorded military history). These small occurrences inside the larger event keep the suspense building, and if done right will keep your reader glued to the page.

Your battle may be hell on earth, but your reader needs to be able to follow events as they unfold. At this point evaluate the clarity of your writing. Is the scene easy to read and follow along with, or is your writing muggy and muddled?

I am always hard on myself at this stage. The scene should be packed with action and tension, yet all the pieces need to flow clearly and concisely. A lapse in this area can leave readers confused as to what just happened. Clarity is key, and while for the character the battle may never be clear, your reader should be able to understand how things unfold.

Never Forget the Senses

At this stage I also make sure that all of the senses are engaged. Here is an example.

Sweat stung the eyes like tiny vipers, dripping down from a gore sprayed face. All around was nothing but a whirlwind of disorder and violence, a blur of color and vicious motion. The parched, panting tongue collected the dust choked air which intermixed with the bitterness of iron. Deafening, blood pounded in the ears, drumming to a ferocious beat inside the helmet. The sound was barely enough to obscure the cries of men, the screams of injured beasts, and the thunder of steel striking steel. Pain from a dozen wounds barely registered, being drowned out by the heightened, throbbing ache from the shattered hand which hung trembling on the right side. Above the lower scent of sweat was the acidic smell of all pervasive fear, carried aloft from clashing bodies that howled amidst a sea of scarlet liquid which drained from friend and foe alike, to soak a once vibrant field of yellow flowers.

While it is preferable to engage the different senses throughout the length of the scene, you get the drift and you are the wordsmith. The dirtier the appearance of battle, the more real it will feel. Just try not to go overboard and lose your audience in a sea of description.

Some Battlefield Common Sense

All that remains is to have some battlefield common sense. Here are a few important considerations that many writers gloss over:

  1. Horses do not like to charge a wall of sharp pointy things. Horsemen keep moving; they rarely sit and engage in melee unless cornered. Speed is their greatest ally, and a stationary horse and rider are amazingly easy targets for melee or missile infantry.
  2. Depending on culture, fighting is either engaged by whole units or individually. Warrior oriented societies that value single fighting prowess will often have melee devolve quickly into a tangled brawl. Usually those societies we coin as more “civilized” will have a much more strict unit cohesion, where men fight together in groups like a well oiled machine.
  3. Armor is heavy and taxing. Taking into account whether there was a forced march prior to battle, men who dedicate their lives to combat will still experience fatigue. This is not to mention weather conditions. Heat can sap strength as much as a field that just received a night’s rain and stands ready to consume marching feet. Add to this the rigors of melee and you find why battles rarely last long.
  4. Rare are battles that last all day, let alone days. Think minutes or an hour or two max. The only time this changes is when a battle takes place over a mass expanse of land and involves multiple armies clashing. One set may take the field in the morning, only to have enemy and ally reinforcements arrive as the battle rages. Ancient and medieval battles were short. When gunpowder arose battles did get dragged out, using multiple charges, and long bouts of constant fire. If you want an example of a long battle pull up the Battle of Vienna in 1683. It lasted just above twenty hours with multiple armies crashing down against the Ottomans.
  5. Generals and kings rarely take the field and fight. We love to see instances of this in movies, but in reality these individuals are far too valuable to risk getting speared through by a simple soldier or shot by a stray crossbow bolt. Instead, they stay where they are visible to their men to inspire and rally retreating soldiers. From this point they direct the flow of battle as best as possible, and defer battlefield heroics to commanders that they trust. Besides, if the battle is won who is remembered? The soldier or the leader? Who really gains the glory?

Also, it is important to remember that momentum and morale are essential to victory. Men who believe in their victory have that extra kick of espresso to motivate them to finish the fight. Generals constantly try to keep their men moving forward, pressing the enemy and hammering at them until they break. Morale feeds momentum as air feeds fire. Led by charismatic men, others will follow and charge into that breach. Yet, the same thing applies if that charismatic man falls. Morale will falter and momentum will grind to a halt. Have several men set aside to pick up the fallen standard and get those iron clad souls going again.

With that, the rest is up to you. So turn on some metal, pick up your pen or tap those keys and write something memorable. Place your characters in hell and give them a glorious exit that everyone wants to read.

For Further Thought:

What are some of the best fantasy battle scenes in literature or film? What makes these scenes memorable?

We don’t always need war to drive the conflicts of our stories. If you chose to include war in your own writing, why did you do so?

How should war change the characters that are involved in the fighting? Do these changes effect the rest of the story in a noticeable way, or is it shown once and then forgotten?

Aaron Prince is currently writing a series set in his own world of high magic and almost perpetual war with one novel completed and several short stories. He has a great love of dwarfs, language and characters that break the mold.

19 Responses to Writing Warfare in Fantasy: A Guide to the Battle Scene

  1. A really comprehensive and insightful piece, Aaron. I can’t find fault with any of your well-reasoned advice. Anyone serious about writing compelling, convincing heroic fantasy will take these cogent concepts to heart, if their own research and planning haven’t already led them to intuit much of it.

    Back in the ’80s, when I wrote the extant books in my GONJI Series (now in re-issue from Borgo Press—sorry for the self-serving plug), I decided to begin the series with a massive epic chronicling the title character’s pivotal conflict, setting the tone for the background narrative.

    (And there was, of course, the ever-lurking possibility that there would be no more demand for the character—so leave ’em with colossal flourish!)

    This would involve a massive clash that spiraled, inside-out, from an armed revolt/evacuation, to numerous scenes of small-unit battles, many with unique parameters (monsters and magic were involved, after all), that would ultimately spiral into a series of payoff climaxes, culminating in a “commando” assault on a victorious, complacent, celebrating force in their castle.

    A mix-‘n’-match of your conflict “types”—not a bad idea to consider, in the interest of keeping it fresh.

    But there was no ready formula to follow on this effort (again, not a bad thing). So I was going to have to plan meticulously.

    I spent particular effort on investing the reader’s emotions in many, many characters (nearly every reader reports being more anxious about some other character’s ultimate fate than Gonji’s—so in this I seem to have oddly succeeded). But what ensued was a first tale in the series that would run to something like 1500 pp. of ms., and would eventually be divided into a trilogy (“The Deathwind Trilogy”) by original publisher Zebra Books.

    So the potential author of a fantasy battlefield epic should be advised not to be surprised at what lengths these efforts might carry them to, in terms of ms. length! Details—sensory and kinetic and expository—have a tendency to carry some word-length heft, once they begin to accrue around a truly broad, lived-in cast of characters, all with specific takes on what these out-of-control events might have on those little lives most of them simply want to preserve. (A civilian militia provides lots of scope for battle-shocked psychology.)

    So yes, as you keenly observe, this matter of realistic battlefields, rife with valor, and cowardice, and bewilderment, and mindless panic, and survival-at-all-costs amidst unthinkable carnage and bloodshed, can’t be tossed off with a dashing flourish of the author’s pen.

    One cannot just spew out—as I saw too often, in what I thought to be hollow, inauthentic heroic-fantasy scenes—“thousands fell on his left, and on his right” and expect to elicit anything more than an epic yawn, an the rubbing of jaded eyes, from even the most sympathetic reader. (Better that “dozens” fall, and that that section’s narrator knew every one of them, down to the malice she bore him over some slight that was now superfluous.)

    Did I myself succeed, in the series-opening Deathwind Trilogy”? Well, I got the “length” thing down, for whatever that’s worth: The escalating “Battle of Vedun,” as some fans have come to call it, rages on for more than 250 pages, in the new Borgo Press edition. (I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a longer single engagement in heroic fantasy that wasn’t part of a “slice-of-life” of an ongoing war, as you yourself seem to intimate about your work-in-progress, Aaron.)

    Readers do vindicate certain of these specific efforts that echo many of your teaching points. And, as commentator Woelf Dietrich has name-checked David Gemmell above, I’m compelled to note that after the untimely passing of that wonderful fantasy author, the Gonji Series was selected to take Gemmell’s place on German publisher Bastei Lubbe’s list.

    But all this self-serving claptrap is over-illustrating the lucid and extremely vital points you make in your article. All of these deftly elaborated power points of yours might well be printed out and pinned above the work space of any aspiring writer of epic historical combat, whether heroic-fantasy or mainstream in framework.

    Thanks for this. It’s rare anymore that this old war-dog reads a how-to piece and is compelled to comment on the vitality of its substance.

  2. Warfare is more of a wait and see approach if we’re talking about other civilisation apart from the Medieval Europe.

    For instance, the Chinese would never resort to siege warfare unless left with no choice. Likewise, nomadic tribes like the Mongolians and Huns were never known to stage frontal assault unless there’s an absolute chance of victory with minimal losses.

    For the Romans and Greeks, I find it quite interesting that the rank and file tactics were verily well-refined. When we say attrition, it’s not just about fighting pitched battles. We have standoffs where defensive ground was always the source of land grab. In particular, the Hoplites were renowned as skirmishers.

    And talking about skirmishes, I think this is what separates the mediocre from the maestro. The former will always focus on attrition while the real players in the business recognise the importance of reconnaissance and disruption. Additionally, skirmishers were also capable of launching raids and assaults due to light equipment and fighting within favourable terrain.

    Then we have logistics. You don’t win a war by just sending your best men to kill and pillage. Resources are meant to be maintained before being used. Manpower, mounts, weapons, food and building supplies… you’d need that to maintain your forces in tip top condition.

    Ultimately, war is more than just blood and glory in 60 minutes. There’s logisitcs preparation, understanding the terrain, securing vital advantage via skirmishes, and preparing for the worst circumstances 5 steps ahead (something which the Romans were known for via trench warfare).

    My take is very simple: Do not let yourself be tide down by just one civilisation when it comes to choreography unless your plan is to create a world 100% in the image of said civilisation.

  3. I recently realized I needed a war in my WIP. I’ve never much enjoyed battle scenes, so I found the idea daunting. Your article has given me hope that I can do this. Thanks for all the practical advice!

  4. This was a great find! Thanks for getting me to think about a few things I’d never thought of when it comes to battles and war. Helps to spur the mind a little 🙂

  5. These are all excellent guidelines for battles though rarely discussed. Most everyone thinks they have a handle on it until they write it – much like actually being in one.

    • The senses are the most commonly forgotten part of the battle that is left out, leaving everything feeling numb. We must never forget it.

  6. This is a great post thanks. David Gemmell wrote fantastic battle scenes, in my opinion. I’ve recently started reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles, and though his books are historic fiction, his battle scenes, specially his ability to depict fighting within a shield wall, is epic. The man is a beast.

    We sometimes forget how ugly a bladed weapon can be in terms of damage to the body, or how heavy a sword or axe is and how tough and conditioned these warriors had to be to wield them for hours at a time.

    Anyway, awesome post with some nice ideas there to consider.

  7. There’s also an element of randomness to the battlefield that can be difficult to capture without the reader feeling like it’s a purely scripted event. Sometimes it’s a bit of luck, as in Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River (i.e. the river wasn’t completely frozen). Whether it’s a random event that happens at the individual level or is something that affects the entire army is up to the writer. But there’s a reason for the saying that “the best laid plans rarely survive contact with the enemy.” Maybe a scout was in the right place at the wrong time, throwing off the element of surprise. Maybe the army’s food stores went bad and went undiscovered until half of the infantry was struck down with food poisoning.

    • It is often said that the commander that can better adapt to the unexpected and exploit the random luck of the draw will succeed in winning the day. Some of the best commanders in history had this talent and led their men to victory time and again.

  8. Since my Ki’shto’ba series retells myths and legends in the context of an intelligent termite culture, there are a lot of battle scenes. I interpret the Trojan War and the Song of Roland in particular. For some reason the scenes just seemed to write themselves, based on the original texts and the characters that I drew from them. Here’s an example from The War of the Stolen Mother, showing the beginning of the battle after the walls of Thel’or’ei (Troy) are breached:

    All the shbu’cha’zei| were out of the false Mother and fighting for their lives. Ki’shto’ba had killed three foes already and was grinding its way toward the fortress, still scenting for the Bucket Face and calling the Challenge upon it. Zi’shpai’a fought possessed, bellowing curses, plowing through the ranks of thel’or’ei’zei| like a flood coursing through a dry gorge. The Greater and the Lesser Ki’akh’a were fighting cerci to cerci and had taken down a dozen Warriors. As they turned, their jaws swept like scythes, clearing a circle around them. Old Ziv’ga’pai had rediscovered its youth and fought with the guile of experience, crying continually, “an| ma’na’ta| no’bu’cha’mik|>|| Pay for your crime upon the Mother of my fortress!”

  9. What a useful post. I struggle with battle scenes. So much happens in a short space of time and it needs to be real. War is dangerous, frightening and chaotic. People die, are wounded and exhausted and fate/nature/weather/gods often have plans not expected.

    • I am glad you found the article useful. As long as one person got something out of it that they can use, I consider it a win.
      Cheers

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