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Writing Fantasy Battles – A Look At Strategy

Invasion by ManiakSYou’ve seen the blood spray through the air, you’ve felt the crash judder through your arm as the enemy hits your lines, but have you ever thought about the big picture? Have you ever thought about the mechanics of a battle, the interplay of different units that determines the outcome, whether the cavalry should ride around for a flank attack or charge to support the infantry engaged with pikemen? The more you know about military tactics and the way an army works, the better your battle writing will be. And in case you were wondering – the cavalry should flank them, obviously.

For starters, let’s look at the basic elements of an army, the soldiers. Most fantasy novels feature armies from anywhere up to the Middle Ages; they’re usually composed of three elements including infantry, cavalry, and ranged fighters. Now as anyone familiar with Real Time Strategy (RTS) games knows, there’s something of a rock/paper/scissors relationship here, depending on the range you’re working at. Archers beat infantry, but cavalry beat archers. When it comes to cavalry vs. infantry it gets tricky, yes a charge of heavy horse can ride men down like wheat, but remember what happened in Braveheart? That’s why you don’t charge pikemen – that’s tactics!

Now things can get a lot more complicated than that. The elements I’ve mentioned can be broken down further into things like light and heavy cavalry, swordsmen and spearmen, and they have different functions in a battle. Dale units vs. Rhun by MerlkirAs we’ve established, men with spears can be effective against cavalry, but against swordsmen they’ll be less useful. The writer must think through events and create realistic responses to the actions on the field; it will give the writing a much more logical and coherent feel and make for a better battle scene.

One need only look at the epic battles throughout history to study a range of different strategies and methods of waging war. Look at records of clashes in the real world to see how armies respond. Read up on the great generals of the past to see how they defeated their foes, learn what techniques they used and how they planned and fought their battles. You could follow the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s string of successes that almost defeated the Roman Empire, or learn from the tactics of the Normans at the battle of Hastings where they broke Harold’s shield wall.

As your knowledge grows, you can bring it into your writing to give it a sense of proficiency. When you set up your fantasy general’s battle line, you’ll know that the archers are on the flanks to give them the best line of sight and lessen the chance of hitting their allies. That kind of background knowledge will give the writing more confidence and the reader will find it easier to immerse themselves in the story.

battle by gabahadattaWhen thinking about the kind of armies you can field, the author may want to look back at the world they’ve established in order to keep things plausible. An army can only be so large, and it’s based on factors like the population density of a country, the organisational structure and the culture of the civilisation. When thinking about the arms and armament of the soldiers, you must consider whether the industrial capacity of the world you’ve created could support such things. To produce swords and armour in large quantities required considerable manufacturing capabilities. The majority of soldiers in medieval times were recruited form peasant villages and armed with cheap polearms, axes and clubs, rather than the expensive swords that are popular in fantasy fiction – which actually require a lot more training to use effectively.

It’s also important to note the technology level of your world and the way that military inventions changed warfare. The armour penetration of the medieval crossbow virtually rendered knights obsolete, as a peasant with a few hours training could kill an armoured knight who’d spent his whole life at war. Battle by RaymondMinnaarThe advent of gunpowder and cannons brought an end to the age when you could just hide in your castle and laugh after war broke out. The author needs to think about what kind of world and state of warfare they want when deciding how advanced to make the weaponry.

The terrain an army fights on can mean the difference between victory and defeat. There’s a reason generals rushed to march their men to battle – so they could pick the best ground to fight from. Now provided you’ve given sufficient detail about the surroundings, you can use terrain to firmly ground your world into the reader’s mind and make it easier for them to understand the events that take place. The circumstances will change depending on the setting, but some general rules will apply across any battle situation. For example, an army will want to take the high ground whenever possible, it will mean the archers will have the best view, the enemy will have a tougher time closing in, and make it harder for someone to surprise them.

Elf Attack by Michael Zimmerman

Tactics for terrain can be as varied as the land itself, if your battleground has a bog or marshy area, then a general might place a unit of archers on the outskirts to fire on the enemy as they’re slowed down. It’s difficult to use cavalry effectively in dense forests, the same goes for archers as they can’t target effectively. Light infantry are most useful as they can move through the undergrowth and fight in small units. Or if you’re in desert terrain, think about the ground underfoot. It’s actually very difficult to run or ride on pure sand that slides underfoot, unless there’s a rocky surface it’s hard to pick up speed. And then there’s the heat to consider, desert battles typically don’t last long, and it’s not likely they’ll be a lot of long charges over wide distances. The author must think about the practical concerns, visualising the soldiers and their situation in realistic terms in order to keep the writing accurate.

Deadhouse Gates (cover)The Chain of Dogs story arc in Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates has some excellent examples of tactics and terrain as the 7th army protects a convoy of refugees and desperately fends off attacks using a variety of cunning stratagems. Admittedly Erikson adds some magic and munitions to the tactical mix, so it’s not pure strategy, though it does bring me to my next point.

The fantasy genre may introduce a number of new elements that can tip the balance of war, powerful monsters, horrific weapons and devastating spells can turn the tide of a battle. If a writer introduces any new element to the battle, they must think about the logical consequences, how will it affect the way wars are waged in a world where your support units might have to fend off an assault by javelin throwers mounted on giant eagles. Battle Mage by David PalumboBattles can be complicated enough without adding in new elements, but as necessity is the mother of invention, don’t think the generals won’t have thought about how to combat that scenario.

Each writer will ultimately have to develop their own strategies based on the unique elements in their novels. It may be useful to look at other fantasy works for inspiration – again, Erikson is a good bet, he skilfully weaves his fantasy elements and military aspects together. The important thing is to ensure a balance, otherwise the battle may fall into the trap of Deus ex Machina where a fantasy element suddenly saves the day and ruins the coherency of the piece.

The scope of military strategy is so vast that this article can barely scratch the surface. Hopefully it will have provided a glimpse into the world of tactics, and prompt the author to think more about their battles and improve the quality of their conflicts. So grab your copy of The Art of War and when it comes to writing battles you’ll be able to say veni, vidi, vici.

This article was originally posted on August 12, 2013.

Title image by gabahadatta.

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7 Comments

  1. An excellent article. One point I’d make is following on from your point about the size of armies. Many fantasy writers with a partial grasp of history think all “old times” were like the mediaeval period, but there’s an enormous range of pre-modern history. Certainly mediaeval armies were relatively small (like mediaeval cities) but neither was true of many other cultures. The Battle of Raphia in 217BC, between the Ptolemies and Seleucids, was fairly typical of a major battle of the period – the combined armies numbered over 120,000 men. There have been much bigger armies in history.

    Speaking of Raphia, that featured a slightly different combination from usual, with units of infantry, cavalry and elephants and both sides. Elephants are often ignored in fantasy warfare, but have often been used in history. They can be highly effective, whether they’re of the African, Indian or giant olifant variety.

  2. William Laws says:

    Thanks for this! Well thought out, very infomative, and fun. Bookmarked for later reference. Thank you.

  3. A.E. Marling says:

    A fine introduction to the tactics of medieval warfare. If the protagonist is a general, such stratagems will be his ace. I will mention, though, that what makes a battle scene scream in intensity is the sensations, confusion, and fright as experienced by the protagonist. The personal involvement is key, rather than the distant moving of chess pieces.

  4. Andrew says:

    I would suggest Warhost of Vastmark by Janny Wurts as well. Actually the whole series, but that book in particular is based around a battle. She weaves in the magic nicely as well as the environment. There is a lot of space dedicated to the preparation.
    The counter arguement to this post is to not let the knowledge of warfare overwhelm the book. Decide if the story needs such a detailed description of the battle. Sure if your character is a general it makes sense, but if the battle is an interesting incident in the whole story, devolving into a detailed description of tactics is going to weigh down the story.
    Anyway, nice look at the subject.

  5. George Dover says:

    Brilliant idea for an article. i must recommend Harry turtledove’s The Videssos Cycle. It really exmplifies the differences between Heavy and light , both in Infantry and Cavalry. Again brilliant !

  6. Don’t forget to be clever. No reader is especially impressed when one force meets another, attacks it directly, and wins. It does happen and it may advance your plot but, aside from the personal aspect to the characters involved, those are all it will tend to do. To be entertaining, at least one side (hopefully the winning side) needs to be darn sneaky. This is far more satisfying to the reader. B.H. Liddell Hart, in his classic work Strategy, uses a huge number of examples, some of which may or may not have been stretched to serve his purposes, to argue that nearly every decisive battle in history relied on elements of the indirect approach–the emphasis being on the word decisive. The book is a rather long one but worth it, imho, to a writer who wants to write intriguing battles. Certainly fantasy elements can add additional opportunities for one side to employ an indirect approach (such as having a company of shape-shifters) or can create a requirement to use an indirect approach (e.g. by the other side having an army of ogres, or a wizard capable of blasting your formations apart). Being clever is only one requirement of course, you still have to do the research. Sun Tzu may be a good start but its a very light read and won’t really help you on getting the particulars rights to be convincing–of foremost import even in a fantasy army. One of the best examples in fantasy that I can think of for everything I’ve mentioned has to be Glen Cook’s Black Company series. All of them but perhaps with additional emphasis on the books of the South in the latter part of the series.

  7. “The armour penetration of the medieval crossbow virtually rendered knights obsolete.” I think this is over-stating it a bit, because despite having crossbows for the entirety of the medieval period, there were still “obsolete” knights the entire time as well. Other changes in warfare (including firearms) rendered knights (armoured heavy cavalry) obsolete, and even then there were Cuirassiers at Waterloo and even the opening stages of WW1. Somehow, despite its effectiveness, armies never managed to use the crossbow to cause devastation the same way the English army employed the longbow to achieve battlefield superiority for 75 years. Modern cinema also likes to overplay the effectiveness of archery, but that’s another story…

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