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Three Things Fantasy Can’t Get Right with Combat

harry_dresden_and_sue__the_t_rex_by_dsillustration-d5tz0e6This may come as a shock, but I don’t think any of us read fantasy for realism. In fact, we usually read it to escape from the real world and thus are very willing to let a whole lot of crazy stuff pass so long as it is cool and adds something to the story. Bilbo’s sword starts to glow when goblins and orcs are nearby? Won’t question it. Living luggage that follows a guy around and occasionally eats people? We can dig it. Heck, put a wizard on a zombie T-Rex running through Chicago and I will proclaim it the best urban fantasy series out there.

But there is an area where fantasy novels could stand to be far more realistic. In fact, it is an area that is so central to so many novels that it is amazing that they can base so much of their work on such blatant misinformation. I am talking, of course, about combat. Specifically, the “sword” part of “sword and sorcery” type fantasy.

Hold on tight, folks. I’m about to go full sword-nerd on you.

EragonLearning to Fight

Our hero, Chet MacGuffin, peasant farmboy extraordinaire, has just learned a shocking truth about himself. He is not just a poor boy from a poor family. He is in fact the Chosen One, described by Prophesy and ordained by Destiny along with other things that require capital letters in this case. As such, he must lead the rebellion against the evil king/wizard/his long lost father. To do that, he must learn to fight, something his time on the farm has done very little to prepare him for. Good thing that he has Wise Oldman to guide him. The next few weeks see him go from scrawny weakling to skilled combatant due to the careful advice of his mentor and a little luck because this is western fantasy and training is something that can take place over the course of a long holiday.

The Truth

sword_training_by_doubleleafLook, I know why authors brush over training in their stories. It’s the same reason that training montages are so prevalent in films. They are boring as heck to watch/read. I get that, but they have created this idea that fighting with a sword is a simple affair when it really couldn’t be further from the truth. People studied their whole lives to master these weapons. Not just swords. Spears. Daggers. Poleaxes. Quarterstaffs.

In fact, go do a quick google of a site called Wicktenheur at some point and be amazed at how many people wrote book after book about how to fight with European weapons. People still do it today because fantasy fans are nothing if not eager to learn to fight each other with swords. The point is that this is as much a martial art as anything from a kung fu movie and poor Chet, without proper training and the time needed to let that training become second nature to him, is going to be a very short lived Chosen One. Even with the capital letters.

Spears

spear_versus_sword_and_shieldChet, his magical sword in hand, has come across a servant of the Enemy. They stand in his path and threaten to halt him in his quest to overthrow the tyrant. And this masked man (because they are always masked) is wielding a spear and blocking the way toward the villain’s lair. The weapon’s reach causes problems for Chet, but using his sword to block the initial thrust, he manages to slip inside the spear’s reach, rendering it useless. It becomes the evil slave’s undoing and Chet manages to cut him down in mere moments. The unlikely band of adventurers can continue on their way!

The Truth

Orc_Fighter_Polearm_2_(FFXI)I want you to do me a favour. Punch at the air three feet away from you. Now punch at something one foot away from you. Notice how you were able to do that, despite the fact that your arm is longer than one foot? Yeah, you can do that with a weapon too. With swords, we call it half-swording (because martial artists are not always creative with naming) but you can do it with any weapon if you end up too close to your enemy. In this case, you would call it half-spearing, and it works remarkably well against someone who is charging at you with a sword, but it isn’t even the most effective defense against an attack like this.

The best thing to do is just to hit someone with the big chuck of wood that makes up most of a spear. You can cut as well as thrust with a polearm, partly because the edges of the blade at the end are very sharp but also because getting hit by a big stick is still very painful.

So yeah. This one doesn’t end well for Chet either.

Armour

armour_concepChet MacGuffin comes face to face with his mortal enemy/the evil wizard/his long lost father and sees that he has one more obstacle to overcome before saving the world: a hulking figure in heavy armour. His initial attacks do nothing. The blows bounce off the steel no matter how much power he puts into it and Chet, for a moment, despairs. However, he soon realises that his lack of armour gives him an advantage! Speed and quickness will win most any fight, after all, and Chet, in his battle against the villain he has been chasing his whole life, uses this to avoid the slow, broadcasted strikes of the evil tyrant and manages to find the one weak point in the insurmountable defences, ridding the land of evil and fulfilling his destiny as a MacGuffin at last!

The Truth

Armour is a funny one. It is true that it is heavy as all hell and certainly if you tried to carry it you would find it very difficult, but there are two points you need to remember. The first is that, should you be wealthy enough to own a suit of armour, the weight of it would be distributed across your entire body, making it seem far lighter than it actually is. This is the same principle that means that your heavy coat might be weighty when you try to pick it up but is actually very warm and snuggly when you put it on. Distribution of weight is key here. The second thing to remember, and this is key, is that every suit of armour would be made for that specific person in mind. It’s the difference between a personally tailored suit and something off the shelf. They might weigh the same but I promise you will move a lot easier in one than in the other. In fact, there are plenty of videos online of people doing cartwheels and jumping jacks in full plate mail because these things were designed to allow people to fight in them.Death

So yeah. Poor Chet, with his lack of training, poor understanding of the principles of reach, and a general lack of awareness of how armour works, is going to be the worst Chosen One ever. He will get killed over and over and over again because prophesy is great and all but it is probably better that you get a proper hero to save the world next time.

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Three Things Fantasy Can't Get Right with Combat, 9.0 out of 10 based on 47 ratings
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26 Comments

  1. Josh Melican says:

    All excellent points.
    If I could add a fourth, I’d say ‘injury’.
    In the short term (that sharp blade cutting into your shoulder muscle is not something for you to grit your teeth and ignore), the medium term (good luck keeping that wound infection free in an age without antibiotics), and in the long term (loss of range of movement, scar-tissue impingement, recurring dislocations, arthritic joints, and various other effects of combat would make the latter years of a warriors life quite crippling).

    • Yora says:

      And in fiction, a single arrow is always instantly fatal.

      Which in reality it is not. Unless you hit the heart death might come within a matter of hours or days, but also maybe weeks or months. Even a hit in the lung won’t kill in less than at least a few minutes in most situations.

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen any fiction where a characters injuries are not completely healed within 30 seconds. Instead of a more plausible 30 weeks for some of the nastier ones.

  2. Jo says:

    Great article! Adding to the spear thing, I’d say that clouting someone upside the head with the pommel of a sword can do just as much damage as sticking them with the pointy end. Weapons can be used in all sorts of ways, and when Chet Maguffin is fighting for his life, good manners and proper forms are likely to go right out of the window….

  3. Tim says:

    It always makes me cringe when Joe Protag steps up to a crowd of enemies, then effortlessly hacks them all apart because they take turns. One quick slash — against the armoured enemies — is enough to put them out of the fight, after all.

    *sigh*.

    I don’t care how good you are. If you’re faced with a dozen people who are even vaguely competent with their melee weapons, and you engage solo — without actual magic or a machine gun — you are going to die.

    • Xen says:

      This bothers me too, however, depending on the weapon I don’t think everyone would necessarily attack all at once. Look what happened to Cesar’s assassins. They ended up stabbing (not fatally) each other.

    • Lord Greatsword says:

      Excellent point about cutting through armor with a single quick slash. I cringe every time I’m playing a game or watching a movie only to see the protagonist effortlessly stab his sword through an armored warrior’s gut.

      If anyone has ever read the Inheritance cycle, in the fourth and final book the protagonist Eragon has temporarily lost his enchanted sword. His rescuer gives him a replacement sword known to be one of the sharpest things in existance (made without the use of magic). This sword allows Eragon to, realistically, cut down armored foes. Whether or not it’s possible to sharpen a weapon to that extent without actually grinding it to dust is up for debate.

      It could be forgiven under certain circumstances (adrenaline, battered armor, etc) but it’s simply not likely.

  4. Another point about how armor feels less weighty when worn is that the vast bulk of its weight is being carried by the largest muscles in the human body. What is heavy for a hand to pick up is barely felt by the buttocks and thighs.

  5. Jennette says:

    Yes! This is a great article, and I totally agree. As a reader, we might not know these things, so it is easier to be swept away into believing them. Similar to that of riding and working with horses, when the author hasn’t had any experience.

  6. Rae Elliott says:

    This article is sheer brilliance. Magic is a tool that is necessary in doses, especially in fantasy or science fiction novels/movies. But for readers to understand exactly what goes into fighting, training, and wielding a weapon- truth needs to be revealed! I feel there’s so much more respect for the ‘battle scene’ when readers/writers understand the reality versus the fantasy. I really appreciated this article, great stuff!

  7. Branden says:

    I enjoyed this article.

    In my experience, a decent trainer can take a complete novice and make them pretty dangerous against riff raff in a few days. But, becoming a skilled combatant- one that can challenge veteran fighters with a reasonable shot at victory takes months and longer. There is always more to learn. You’re never done training.

    I fight with weapons a lot. Inside the rather small business end on a spear, the swordsman DOES have quite an advantage provided he has the footspeed to close. I’ve seen fast spearmen backpedal faster than slow swordsmen…

    Anyway, I fight spear quite a bit, and generally, if your weapon is tied up blocking my spear as you close with me, it means your sword is also tied up with my spear. I tend to either crosscheck or step into the rush and grab for the weapon arm or the weapon itself. It beats hoping I can adjust my grip for another poke.

    The armor bit is true. Good armor is meant to be fought in.

    I’d advise a writer to attend Aikido, Iaido, and HEMA classes, along with SCA, ACL, and/or even some of the more physical larp/foam fighting events to get an idea of what battles can look like. It would at least help with understanding and illustrating things like timing and the efficacy of various weapons and styles.

    • Derik says:

      All good advice. If people fought like they do in video games they’d all be killed by a halfway competent swordsman.

      It’s good to have a realistic base so you can spice things up later.

      Most people aren’t going to want to read through a list of sword-fighting nomenclature, but it doesn’t hurt to have a basic understanding of what’s going on when people are fighting.

      Though I’m sure the “two-handed swords worn on the back” crowd will grumble over it’s impracticality. 🙂

  8. Yora says:

    Write about what you know. And if possible, what you’re readers probably don’t know.

    When it’s the other way around, it usually leads to pretty bad result.

    I think it was Poul Anderson who wrote about all this in “Thud and Blunder” back in the 80s or 70s. Pretty much all of the complaints still apply today.

  9. Brandie Mcnemar says:

    I totally agree with you on this. Perfect. I surely don’t read fantasy for the reality, I live it reality that is why I read fantasy. Now I like to think there is some way a few things I read can actually happen, but mostly I want to get away when I read. I am reading Fields of Rust which is the first book in the Suns of the End series by Robert Gryn. He’d got exactly this, just enough to make it seem like it could be real, but you get so wrapped up in the fact that it’s something that we just will never see. LOVE IT!!

  10. Overlord says:

    We should add that we are aware that there are some fine authors writing fine combat (some of them Martial Artists themselves). It is just sometimes fun to lightheartedly poke fun at those taking short cuts 😉 I’d recommend checking out Douglas Hulick (Among Thieves), K.J. Parker (Sharps), Sebastien De Castell (Traitor’s Blade) and Miles Cameron (Red Knight) for some good, realistic combat 🙂

  11. Totally agree, with the added caveat that it is not just that training is boring but that many authors, whilst being very talented and verbose, simply do not know how to actually fight. Too much vaguery and Hollywood has made things too nebulous, and I sometimes find myself thinking how impossible certain things are. I’ve spent 20 years plus doing various martial arts, some quite brutal, and even then I totally cock things up and put down something a human just can’t do.

    When I write my fights (in The Serpent Calls, for eg) they are as brutal, realistic and shocking as I can make them, because I want people to believe it and see the true side to fighting. Not tye Fabtasy Glory but the hard work and brutality.

    Great article. 🙂

  12. Leo Danger says:

    Of course there are irritating things about many combat sequences in all forms of fiction. The point about wounds is well made, and the one I tend to pick up on. On the other hand, we are talking about fiction and fantasy, and an overdose of reality and detail would probably be tedious to both read and write for anyone but an obsessive. I don’t really need to know exactly how someone fights, or how someone dies. I’m not watching a film. On the whole, character and story are more important to me than technical accuracy.

    • Overlord says:

      I think you are right. If novels started including 500 pages of training we’d probably all be asking authors to give it a break and skim the training part 😉

  13. Clare says:

    Try Tamora Pierce and John Flanagan. They’re big on the training part.

  14. Justin says:

    I have to disagree with the training sessions being boring. Yes, they are if the author doesn’t know how to write them. The Bridge Four training sessions from Stormlight are a perfect example of how training can be made interesting.

  15. Erica says:

    Training scenes can be interesting if there’s character development or plot-advancing stuff happening during them. It really depends on the story and what it’s about. I personally dislike it when authors who do know a lot about combat feel the need to spend vast amounts of time on the technical details just because they can. There’s a fine line between keeping a scene realistic and bogging it down so it’s no longer fast and fun to read, imo.

    If I feel like I need to get little action figures out to block the scene I’m reading out so I can understand what they’re doing (she’s taken how many steps now, and which opponent was on her left again), the author has knocked me out of the story. It’s not just in combat either. I was just reading a scene where a rogue type character was breaking into a house by climbing down into it from the attic, and I got completely lost .

    One thing to consider is that not all readers are equally interested in combat or battles as the major plot advancement mechanism in fantasy either.

  16. […] A few weeks ago I told you the story of Chet MacGuffin, a young man chosen by destiny to overthrow the evil that has oppressed the kingdom for years now and how, if you think about it, he tends to be a really, really bad Chosen One. You might think there could be nothing else that fantasy has managed to screw up about something so integral to the genre. Unless, of course, you’ve read the title for this article, in which case sorry for the spoilers. As compensation, here are three more ways that so many fantasy writers mess up when it comes to understanding combat. […]

  17. Love this!

    I often shake my head over the “scrawny farmboy” notion–not because farmboys can’t learn to fight, but because they are rarely “scrawny” in the way most readers/writers assume. Most farmboys will already have the strength, range of motion, balance, and situational awareness trainers would love to mold.

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