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Tactical vs. Tactile: Writing Fantasy Battles

the Stand by donovanvaldesLike many people who read fantasy novels, one of the reasons I love the genre is because it contains epic battles with vast armies fighting it out. Whether it’s more realistic with waves of knights crashing into enemy lines, or more fantastical like a ragged group of elves fending off hordes of undead, the grand battles in fantasy are a firm staple of the genre.

How authors approach the writing of these great conflicts varies. It can be hard enough to keep track of a small group of characters while you’re writing, let alone armies comprising thousands of men. The author must work to ensure clarity in the writing, while maintaining the excitement and scale of the conflict. It can be a challenge to convey all this information to the reader, a number of factors like the point of view the book is written from, and what narrative information the author wants to impart can affect how they write the battle.

I divide battle writing into two categories which I call Tactical and Tactile. Tactical refers to the big picture, the one that tells the reader who is winning the battle, how the armies manoeuvre and engage, with more focus on overall strategy and results. Tactile is more about the close up fighting, the description of combat in detail on a more personal level. A writer may focus on one of these categories or blend both together to create an effective battle scene. Focusing on the combat can be a way to create a fast paced and exciting scene, while talking about the Tactical side could add an element of tension as the forces stack up against the characters and the chances of victory diminish.

Confrontation by juliedillonThe writer must think about what they want for the scene, what it needs to accomplish as well as how it looks for the reader. Perspective is massively important when writing large battles; if the book has an omniscient narrator then it will be easier to write Tactical battles where the reader can be directed to any part of the battlefield.

If the book is written in the closer third person style then Tactile might be more appropriate as they get to grips with the enemy in a more visceral way. Not that I’m saying you can’t use Tactile writing as an omniscient narrator or Tactical as a third person character. There are authors who have done so successfully with a few tricks that are easy to implement.

Take Joe Abercrombie, his work is very character driven – very grounded in the protagonist. This may make it hard to get the big picture of the battle while the reader is stuck dodging the whistling blade of an axe right along with the character.

The Gyntal Ridge by korboxThe trick here is “the Lull.” Any veteran fantasy reader can think of a time in a battle where there was a brief pause, possibly after the character has slain a score of foes and is catching his breath. This is the perfect opportunity to take stock and have the character scan the battlefield so you can reveal how the wider conflict is going. It’s perfectly justified in terms of the narrative – of course the character will want to know how the battle is going, and the author has free reign to detail the wider Tactical moments of the armies through your POV character’s eyes. Bonus points if you set them on a hill or other elevated place where they can see clearly over the battlefield.

The Dogman pulled his knife free and Grim let him fall.

They’d got the best of it up on the tower, at least for now. There was just one Thrall left on his feet, and while the Dogman watched a couple of his lads herded him up to the parapet and poked him off with spears. There were corpses scattered all about the place. – Joe Abercrombie

Another way to do it is to use an observer character, a general for example. A writer can use the general’s POV to detail the battlefield events, while still staying grounded in the character. One writer very good at this is Steven Erikson in his The Malazan Book of the Fallen series. There are countless battles, skirmishes and duels of all shapes and sizes in his epic, you go from complex strategic manoeuvres on wide plains, to close cut city fighting at squad level as they fight through the streets. Erikson even manages to get the real character of his protagonist to come across in some of his battle scenes, rather than just being a passive observer, the reader sees the fight as a battle of wills between the general and his enemy.
warlord ccg by p0p5

Armoured bodies cartwheeled above the press as the entire saw-tooth formation was torn apart – and now the bare-chested fanatics riding those wagons launched themselves out to all sides, screaming like demons.

The three wedges facing the heavy infantry then thrust into the chaotic wake, delivering frenzied slaughter.

‘Quiet! Do you think the Edur cannot deal with that?’ She prayed Brohl Handar could. Without supplies this campaign was over. Without supplies, we’ll never make it back to Drene. Errant fend, I have been outwitted at every turn. – Steven Erikson

Now a writer would do well to balance the Tactical side of the description with some more combat based imagery to avoid what can become stale details about troop movements. To bring the battles to life there must be vivid details of the fighting, the crash of units ploughing into one another, visual details that the reader can use to fuel their imagination:

The Baenre turned their full attention on the Agrach Dyrr who barred escape back down the path of the march. Quarrels, javelins, and deadly spells flew thick and fast as the two houses battled furiously. While the Baenre outnumbered the treacherous Agrach Dyrr more than two to one, the warriors of the First House were obliged to defend themselves against attacks on all sides while they tried to cut their way through to escape. – Richard Baker

This description doesn’t even have to be as detailed as the close up battles of your characters, but enough to paint a picture for the reader and emphasize the violence of the battle – all for the entertainment of us bloodthirsty readers.

Invasion by ManiakSThere are occasions where the writer may want to instil a sense of confusion and chaos in the reader. They may wish to devote more to the Tactile side, sinking into the character as they respond to events and struggle to get out alive. The focus will be on the character’s movements, every parry and strike as they fight through the melee. Keep the pacing fast; keep the threats coming so that the reader races along with the character through the danger. You can use the concept of abeyance where questions are held in reserve until the character/author has time to answer them. In the middle of a fight someone won’t stop to explain, the writing will be all about the combat. Again, it goes back to the intentions of the author, they may want the characters to stagger out of the fight, unsure who won the greater battle but happy to be alive.

Battles in fantasy fiction are one of the selling points of the genre. The writer should put a lot of work into them. Do you want to show the reader wide views of sweeping armies clashing? Do you want the reader in the thick of it, able to feel the sweat on their brow and taste the blood in the air? Should your POV character be in a position to change the battle or just another combatant? What can your character see from where they are, and how does that affect what you as the author can describe? These are the things to consider when writing battle scenes. To write them well is as great a challenge as a real battle. So writers, ready yourselves for war. Gather your pens. Charge!

Title image by ManiakS.

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4 Comments

  1. Randy says:

    Stumbled on this while @ joeabercrombie.com Great Article! I will check out those other authors stuff also! Thanks for the insight!

  2. I like the division of tactical vs. tactile. Combat scenes are a challenge for me, but I do love having fight scenes in stories, so it’s a challenge I continue to butt heads with. Thanks for this very useful post.

    Love Abercrombie’s work 🙂

  3. Tim Moon says:

    I like your idea of breaking down a battle into the two components. If you’ve read Thomas A. Knight’s Time Weaver books, he does a good job of switching perspective like that too.

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