Fighting the Good (or at least believable) Fight

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Image Credit: campaignlive.co.uk

This morning, I was reading aloud (to my spouse and younger daughter) a hilarious article in my favorite magazine, Backpacker, where readers described the craziest things they or someone else took into the backcountry. When I got to the piece de resistance, somebody lugging a broadsword on the Pacific Crest Trail (they didn’t mention if the bearer was also dressed in period costume), my spouse stopped laughing. The writer presumed the sword weighed in between 40 and 50 pounds. “No way,” Seth said. “That sword would be ten pounds, tops.”

Seth is an antique-sword aficionado and has hefted his share of blades at Renaissance fairs and science-fiction conventions, but just to be sure, I inquired of the Internet Oracle how much a broadsword weighed. Not only was Seth correct when it comes to this persistent myth about unwieldy old swords, but the swords proved even lighter than he’d estimated. According to experts (a museum professional, a sword-maker, a fight choreographer, and a historian) cited by the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, even outsized weapons like broadswords tipped the scales between 3 and 6 pounds. Ceremonial blades might weigh more–up to 8 pounds–but they weren’t intended for wielding in battle (J. Clements, “What Did Historical Swords Weigh?”, The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, accessed online on April 8, 2019: http://www.thearma.org/essays/weights.htm#.XKvDOJhKjIU).

While I agree with that Backpacker reader that reproduction swords aren’t ideal weight- and space-saving items for a backpacking trip (not to mention that I’d prefer not to go armed into the wilderness), but my pack is still many times heavier.

Fight scenes occur in many genres, but I’ll focus here on mine, fantasy (for which they are a staple) and science fiction. Although an implausible fight scene may not make or break your book’s chances of being published, it will surely cause knowledgeable readers to howl and will draw them out of the story.

Back in my twenties, I studied Ninja Taijutsu, including Kendo (sword form). While I remain a novice hobbyist, my years practicing martial arts have provided me with knowledge that makes it hard for me to endure certain (erroneous) conventions when it comes to swords-and-sorcery combat scenes. While my focus will be on common mistakes in scenes where sword-fighting or unarmed combat occur, I hope my advice can translate to other types of fight scenes you might include in your book.

So here they are, my top five combat mistakes appearing in fantasy novels:

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Image credit: historicalnovelsociety.org

The swashbuckling conversation:

I took part in a critique session at a writer’s conference two years ago where everyone in the group reviewed and made suggestions about the first page of one another’s novels. One writer began her fantasy novel with a sparring scene. The dialog sparkled; the character dynamics flashed; the pace clipped along; the central conflict was nested in the interactions rather than in tendentious exposition. There was one one problem. The two characters–sparring partners, friends, and potential love interests–conversed while engaged in sword practice, without sweating, breathing hard, missing a conversational beat, or getting distracted enough to trip or fail to avoid a whack to the side.

A variation on this theme is the climactic sword fight (or boxing match) where the protagonist and the antagonist fence with both words and swords and manage to excel at both. A sword may not weigh 50 pounds, but wielding one is still effortful. Renaissance fighting-arts experts I’ve met admit that they can keep up this kind of maximal effort for maybe ten to fifteen minutes, less in armor.

The bottom line: feel free to intersperse your fight scene with dialog, but make sure to show the physical toll the fight takes on the opponents: breathing hard, sweating, damp hair getting into eyes, wounds stinging at the very least…and the words should come in bursts, not fluid paragraphs.

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Image credit: listverse.com

Taking on multiple opponents:

Another problem I come across, both in published books and in books I’ve been asked to critique before the writer goes in search of an agent, is that iconic scene where a character holds off three or more opponents who come at them at the same time. It’s a chance for the protagonist to showcase their awesome skills–and it’s not believable. As one martial-arts teacher I know put it, “If more than one person threatens to attack you, the best thing to do is run away.”

A chase scene could prove to be cool in its own right, and it could advance the plot in unanticipated ways (the character stumbles into a new place that turns out to be important, an unexpected ally appears, etc.) But if you don’t want the character to run away, here are a couple of ways to even the odds more realistically when one goes up against an angry crowd.

Use the terrain. One of the most famous battles of classical times occurred at Thermopylae, where the ancient Greeks held a narrow area between a steep slope and the ocean, forcing their adversaries from Persia to come through in small numbers. Although the Persians outnumbered the Greeks, that tight squeeze effectively reversed this advantage. Similarly, a wily protagonist can lure the attackers toward a spot they can guard, where the multiple adversaries must approach one at a time, thus eliminating the advantage of numbers.

Alternatively, put obstacles between the protagonist and the attacking horde. If the area doesn’t offer a hiding spot, the protagonist can still delay the attackers by getting large objects between them: machines, transports, etc. They can also hurl things at the attackers to divide their forces, inflict injury at a distance, and such, keeping the pack from closing in.

This brings me to the importance of choreography. Whether it’s a battle scene, a pursuit, or just a meeting, it helps to set up your scene physically. You’ll know where everyone is in relationship to one another, the setting, and important objects, as well as if a character has the time and space to perform an action you’re describing. Don’t hesitate to act it out and make sure it works. (Never mind that it’s fun too!)

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Image credit: “Arm Wrestling Kitten,” flickr.com

Sudden skill:

Picture this scene: Jeff, a big, placid son of a farmer and the protagonist of your story, is hanging out in the local tavern when a stranger starts harassing his friend Chella the bar maid. She turns down the stranger’s overtures and he grabs her arm. Enraged on his friend’s behalf, Jeff, who’s never been a fighter, launches himself at the nasty dude and fisticuffs ensue. To his amazement, Jeff discovers he’s a natural fighter and overcomes the vile stranger (a seasoned street brawler), to the applause of everyone in the tavern.

As satisfying as this situation might be to both Jeff and the reader, it’s not believable for someone who’s never studied unarmed combat to discover cool moves on the fly and best an opponent. I asked some martial-arts teachers about whether they’d ever had to apply their training to a real-life altercation, and those who had inevitably revealed, with some chagrin, how easily all that practicing vanishes from one’s head when flooded with real fear. That’s why everyone from martial artists to emergency responders drill their skills so often, in the hopes that it’ll come as second nature in an emergency. Yet, if someone who’s studied martial arts for years can panic and forget everything they’ve learned in a moment of terror, how much harder it would be for a neophyte to turn into a fighting machine with no prior preparation.

More realistically, you could send Jeff help in the form of a few tavern patrons and Chella herself, and perhaps he can get in the decisive blow that sends the horrible stranger skidding across the bar on his back. You can also make use of advantages Jeff does have–such as his greater size and strength–and make him come out a hero without having to channel Inigo Montoya.

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Image credit: “Dodge Arrows Fabulously,” Amino Apps

Only the antagonists are bad shots: 

Anywhere distance weaponry appears (bows and arrows, laser pistols, cannons, throwing knives, etc.), you can find this goof. Movies are particular offenders: the good guys/gals run the gauntlet past enemy soldiers, yet while arrows or laser blasts rain down around them, they never connect with their targets. Either the heroes are amazing at dodging or the baddies are chosen for their abysmal marksmanship. The protagonist, however, manages to squeeze off a casual shot that ricochets off a wall and knocks a sniper into a chasm. What’s the deal? Did all those bad guys/gals graduate from the same ineffective boot camp, or is their poor aim a form of deus ex machina?

It’s understandable that the writer intends to get their heroes through the book (or movie) alive, but too much good luck ceases to be believable. Somebody needs to experience a narrow escape, a wound, and where the stakes are highest, the story may necessitate a sacrifice, where a beloved character dies, and no, not the red shirt–that’s cheating. The character needs to be important enough, and sympathetic enough, that the reader laments their passing. You don’t want to go too far the other way and make the character’s death gratuitous either. Real life abounds in senseless outcomes, but in stories, readers expect painful situations to be meaningful, to accomplish a worthwhile goal, even at great cost.

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Image credit: “Apollo Gets Swallowed Up By Black Hole,” maddlyodd.com

Rising up to fight again:

This last fictional fighting flub irks me as a physician, not just a perpetual beginner with martial arts. In both books and movies, characters survive injuries that would either disable or kill them in real life. Severe concussions, a kick to the kidneys, a strike to the spleen, getting shot in vital spots–sure, when adrenaline takes over, you might not feel that laceration right away, but at the very least, the blood dripping into your eyes should compromise your ability to judge and respond to what’s coming at you next.

Whether it’s a penetrating wound such as a spear thrust or impalement with an arrow, or a slash from a sword or other edged weapon, injuries compromise muscle, nerve, and blood vessel function. If you’ve got an arrow sticking out of your shoulder, it’s likely severed nerves and you can’t move that arm. With sufficient blood loss, the character goes into shock and may die. If medical technology in your world predates antibiotics and aseptic technique in surgery, infection may finish off the character when the battle does not. Think back to that arrow: it’s likely driven material from their clothing into the wound, a perfect breeding site for bacterial contamination. If a character suffers from a maiming wound, you need to show the effects–they’re not going to toss their sword from their hurt right hand to their uninjured left and keep on swashbuckling (and making snarky quips). Magical intervention may rescue the character in time, but you still need to provide anatomically and physiologically realistic consequences for the injury.

Assuming your character survives the injury, it’s likely to cause weakness, pain, and debility for the rest of their life. You can add conflict, empathy, and verisimilitude to your story if your middle-aged knight suffers from stiffness, lameness, or other long-term sequelae of having gotten banged up on the battlefield.

While we’re discussing battle wounds, here’s a fantasy trope that makes me ballistic: when somebody takes an oath and seals it by slashing their palm with a dagger. Argh! It’s not cool and dramatic–it’s insane. Such a move wouldn’t just cut through skin. You’d sever tendons in your hand and never use that hand again. If that wasn’t bad enough, a laceration that deep invites infection and guess what? You’d lose your hand. Sure, pricking your finger doesn’t seem as dramatic, but you’d still draw blood without crippling yourself, a no-no for warriors and everybody else.

My favorite prevention tip for any situation (not just a fight scene) where you’re not sure about your facts? Research! Talk to martial-arts teachers and fight choreographers (not to mention emergency-room physicians); observe a combat arts class using weapons and techniques from the period that inspires your alternate world. Read about period weapons, strategy and tactics, even armor. Armed with all this knowledge, you’ll find that you can create plenty of drama with your fight scenes without relying on inauthentic, implausible cliches.

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