Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Battles in Fantasy Books

I'm using the cover of book three of King Rolen's Kin to talk about how violence is portrayed in fantasy books. Most often the character has some special skill, or is trained to have that skill and they get through encounters because of their ability.

Wanting to get the battles, big and small, right (or as much as possible) I spent 5 years each learning three different martial arts, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido and Iaido, the art of the Samurai sword.

I also bought books, Machiavelli's The Prince, a book on the Roman cavalry training techniques, books on castles and the development of their defences plus several books on great battles through the ages. One was from the West Point Academy and analysed the strategy of pivotal battles going right back to Caesar.

So I've tried to make my battles, large and small, as realistic as possible while still maintaining the thrill of the fantasy world. (I'm not going to mention the problems of lice, festering wounds or rotting teeth except where they are pertinent to the plot).

I thought I was doing OK, but yesterday my 15 year old son was attacked, bashed and had his bag stolen. (Him and two friends - attacked by 7 kids). He's alright. Just some bruising to the side of his face and the back of his head. (I took the opportunity to warn all my kids about the dangers out there. They think they're bullet proof and ten feet tall in their teens and early 20s).

Going with my son to file a police report of the incident I listened to the officer question him. Could he remember what the guy wore? Not really. Did he know how many times he was punched in the face? No, he thinks it might have been 4 or 5 times.

He was 'king hit' as we call it in Australia - hit in the head without warning. We know he was punched in the left side of his face because that is where the bruising is. He remembers turning his back towards his attacker to protect his face and he thinks he was hit again, because he has a lump on the back of his head. But the whole thing is pretty fuzzy for him. Twenty four hours later, he is still feeling a bit nauseous.

All this is leading up to how we write about violence. There's no point in going into technical terms about kicks and blows and sword strokes. Your average reader won't know them. So I've always tried to make my descriptions accessible to everyone.

But if I were really going to be accurate, I'd probably have to say something like - One minute he was on his feet, the next he was on the floor with no idea how he'd gotten there. But if I did that, I think the reader would feel cheated.

I must admit I liked the way Joe Abercrombie wrote his fight scenes. A flurry of action and then the character's relief to still be alive.

How do you feel about fight scenes and battles? How realistic do they need to be? How unrealistic do they need to be for the character and the reader to make sense of them? Who writes good battle scenes, large and small?


Scott said...

I think realism would be wasted on most readers. And it isn't really the point on most occasions and would detract from the story.

Someone who does them well is KJ Parker, on all levels.

Brendan said...

Probably the reason you don't hear the perspective of your son's in battle scenes is that by the time someone gets in his condition she is as good as dead.

It sounds like he might have had a chance of recovering(at least from a single opponent) after the first hit and this is where rigorous training in self defence can pay off, almost automatic responses giving the victim a chance to regain his balance. I hope your son recovers well. Head injuries can be very tricky.

I always liked Katharine Kerr's battles in her Deverry cycle novels.

Dave Freer said...

I hope the boy is OK, and it's high time you moved to Tassie. I hope they catch the perps - transportation - perhaps to South Africa, seems a good punishment.

I was one of those brats who was in a lot of fights as a school-kid. (testosterone and short with serious attitude problems) and for the life of me I can't remember what happened in detail in those fights either.

The one thing not to do is one of my Co-author's weaknessess - stop anf get introspective mid fight.

Brendan said...

I just thought of another thing that never seems to get mentioned in books where the protag get knocked out. Recovering from sever brain trauma can be an extremely lengthy business(My Dad was knocked out in a boating accident so I saw this first hand).

Side effects like reduced inhibitions, erratic behaviour, memory loss and prolonged drowsiness can still effect someone for days after the incident. And these days they won't let you behind the wheel of a car for three months after the trauma because of concerns about delayed reaction times and an ongoing inability to focus(at least at my Dad's age).

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Brendan, the funny thing was I'd just done a heap of research that afternoon into concussion for a scene I was writing in my current WIP, where the character gets a head trauma.

Luckily, my son was OK and doesn't have concussion.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Scott, you need a certain amount of realism to give verisimilitude to the story.

The question is how much realism. And this depends on the tone of the story.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave, I could just see you getting up to mischief as a boy!

C Kelsey said...

Rowena, I'm glad your son is okay. Group fights like that are tricky. About the only thing you can do in a situation like that is get enough distance between yourself and the group that you can get the heck out of there. Fighting back when you're unarmed isn't usually a good option. I spent hours in college sparring and fighting with friends for fun in the middle of the night. Don't look at me that way, it *was* fun. I count the broken wrist, the deep muscle bruises, the memories... all are treasure mementos. Of course, I'd probably have been beat to death if it hadn't been for the Aikido training...

As for who writes good fight scenes. Tom Kratman comes to mind for large battles. John Rino does large and small well. Mike Williamson is excellent at the small to intimate fights and the running, gunning action of urban combat.

MataPam said...

Glad your son is all right.

And a bit off topic:

Probably the silliest sword trope around, and who could resist? I now suffer from sword envy.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear everyone survived the incident in good order. Those things suck.

Fighting techniques aren't a point of interest for me, so I don't relish the thought of reading pages of fighting scenes. I don't mind wading through some of it, the big things, the things that make a difference to the outcome. I don't enjoy and will often skip the details in a fight.

I would suspect that I'm not a good writer of such since I'm not interested. I've co-written one detailed fight scene between two women and a dragon. I let my husband, the other co-writer (also with a martial arts background), write the fight scene. He just put down what happened, and I prettied it up. We managed to sell that story for semi-pro rates, so I was proud of the effort, but it never would've been as good with only me as the writer.

I've noticed Jim Butler does detailed fight scenes, but he also has a martial arts background. I like the way Kim Harrison handles violence with her Hollows series. She handles the big stuff but doesn't prolong the violence too much for those of us who don't care. That's the way I prefer it.


Chris McMahon said...

I hope your son is OK, Rowena.

I have always loved battle scenes. I like the strategy to be clear, but not overwhleming as backstory. As a reader of heroic fantasy, I do enjoy a blow-by-blow, but only for the centre of the action - not for every single combat. I definitely think there is a place for the Joe Abercrombie style of confused combat, but going to far with character 'realism' ruins the fun. You can't take the Hero out of heroic fiction. Make them complex, flawed - absolutely - but they need courage as well.

Chris McMahon said...

I agree with Brendan on the self-defence. A lot of schools don't do any full contact sparring. No matter what the style, this is crucial. It's only after you have taken some hits and beeen able to recover - with a clear head - that you really learn something.

C Kelsey said...


Sometimes the more valuable lesson is to take a few hits and then having it take a while for the clear head to return... :)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. I'm talking also about emotional reactions. Most men, when they are hit, see red and charge. Most women go into shock and withdraw. It's being able to get past this and continue in the flow of combat with adequate attention to both attack and defence.

C Kelsey said...

I think you're generally correct, Chris. I can't really speak for women, since I've never seen them in a real fight. I will say that the problem with the "when a guy gets hit he sees red an charges" concept is that if a guy gets hit before seeing red, he's usually already lost the fight. Fights are hard. The psychology that goes into them is even harder than the physical aspects. There is probably a very good case for mental preparation for a scenario possibly being more important (as important?) as physical preparation. But I'm babbling. Generally, whether you're a real person or a fictional character, being mentally prepared for a fight and then avoiding it is probably your best strategy. :)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

C Kelsey,

The fighting for fun must be a guy thing. I did the martial arts, but for me it was the craft of the martial art.

Thanks for the tips on those writers.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, what a wonderful story about Terry Pratchett, digging the metal then smelting it to forge his own sword.

There should be more of that.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


A fight scene like a sex scene can't be gratuitous. It has to drive the plot forward or reveal something about character, and hopefully do both!

Darwin said...

The term "situational awareness" came out of combat. A great deal of training and experience is required for people to actually develop a functional awareness of what's going on around them in a melee. Without that, you end up with maelstroms of action that leave little to no impression upon the participants other than a feeling of post-conflict daze and a sense of having come out of something very dangerous.

Experienced fighters are the ones who can keep their heads and will thus have the clearest thought trains during the combat. That doesn't mean they can't be thrown off balance, though. When things go awry, it becomes a series of action-reaction with little conscious direction (pursuant to the comment about training made earlier.) Given that, there's precious little to "remember" afterward.

In the case of what happened to your son, he's certainly at no fault for being unable to remember any details. Odds are, the first strike to the head scrambled things to the point that he was only able to marginally defend himself. Thankfully the blow wasn't fatal.

What I try to capture during any "combat" sequences are the impressions, not the specifics. There are exceptions to this, of course (for example when I purposely show a character trying to move from a training world to the real world in terms of fighting.) Still, getting bogged in details during what should be an active and exciting scene strikes me as delusional.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris Mc,

I love that quote - You can't take the hero out of heroic fiction!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris Mc and C Kelsey,

In our house we don't even shout. there are no fights. So getting hit out of the blue was really shocking for my son. He just tried to protect this head.

Having a martial arts background and having been attacked twice and fought off attackers, gives me a different perspective.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

C Kelsey,

Warning - a lot of generalisation here.

In real life an attacker tends to front up to another male (unless he feels the odds are on his side) and use bluff first, to see if the other guy will back down. So the guy who is being attacked has the chance to be mentally prepared.

When an attacker goes after a woman, he knows he is stronger than her. He just grabs her. He is already inside her kicking zone, so the martial arts that rely on kicking are useless. You need a martial art like aikido or ju jitsu. And you need to overcome that initial shock of 'I can't beleive this is happening'.

C Kelsey said...

Rowena, I have an unusual benefit when it comes to expecting attacks in real life. In what we call middle school here (I was roughly 12), I was stabbed in the back. It was a pencil, but it still went in several inches. The attacker was female, and women don't front up to men before they attack. They tend to (literally in my case) stab you in the back.

You are, of course, pretty much correct with your generalizations. The psychology of fighting is strange and totally dependent on scenario. I'm a firm believer in Aikido, but I've seen it fail as well. Sometimes Aikido's passiveness is less useful than the insane aggression of an art like Hopkido. It's not a subject that can really be adequately discussed on a blog. I think you have the right of it though, and you especially have the benefit of a perspective that I'll never have.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris & Rowena. I think we could talk all day about the martial arts.

I think experience in contact sparring will improve anyone's chances of recovering for an unexpected attack - but it depends on the blow. Obviously a heavyweight punch and its all over.

Rowena, most martial arts will try to 'fill in the blanks'. I do Tae Know Do, which is a kicking art mostly, but we also learn Hapkido throws & how to break holds and throw. If you are talking multiple attackers, anything in the ju-jitsu or aikido family is not going to help too much - you need motion and space. Kicks are also seven times more powerful than punches on average (even though they are slower).

C Kelsey said...


Minor quibble,

My Aikido Sense focused on dealing with group attacks with Aikido. You can make space, and when you're in the zone it tends to be an incredible art to use.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. I was talking about grappling. If you are throwing and circling away then the same comment doesn't apply.

C Kelsey said...


Yeah, grappling is totally different. I'm, uh, against grappling. It's too grappling-ish. :)

Stephen Simmons said...

Yikes! Glad to hear kid is ok!

While I gravitate heavily toward Weber, Drake, Ringo and Pournelle for my military fiction, my two absolute favorite combat descriptions both come from Heinlein: the fight against the "horned ghosts" in "Glory Road" and the opening sequence (against the "skinnies") in "Starship Troopers". In GR, Oscar describes that fight as "moving fast and staying busy", and Her Wisdom later details how he killed close to two dozen of the monsters. In SST, Johnny Rico does a great job of portraying the fog of confusion that is inherent in combat.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


'Situational awareness' that's a great term.

Just like we writers don't recreate real life dialogue. It would be boring and repetitive. In our battle scenes we have to write in such a way that it seems realistic, and exciting.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

C Kelsey, being stabbed in the back at the age of twelve (even though it was a pencil the effect was the same as a knife - unexpected attack), this must have coloured your teenage years.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Kicks are great if you have the space to kick.

I broke boards and tiles with my kicks, but when I was attacked there wasn't room to swing a kick.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I'll have to look out for those. Starship Troupers was one Heinlein I didn't read when I discovered him.

Synova said...

Did anyone see that Onion piece about a new "ultra-realistic modern warfare game?"

It included things like "waiting for orders" and the controller was the weight of an M16 and you couldn't fire it without permission.

One clip had a girl explaining that she was guarding a road or something and nothing at all happens and nothing happens and then the kill screen pops up and she sighs... "I think a sniper just got me."

Brendan said...


You don't have a link do you?

Synova said...

Chris, the karate school I attended didn't do full contact and avoided hitting anyone. We did do sparring (and we did occasionally get knocked up a little) and even that was supposed to be... simulated.

I think that it's probably true that knowing what it's like to get hit helps recovery and reactions, but we were training to *hurt* people, and you can't do that for training. I have to take on faith that the training I was doing was effective, but I do think that the philosophy of it was sound. A large person can do some non-lethal toe-to-toe. I'm not large. If I'm attacked I've pretty much (I figure) got one chance to use the element of surprise to hurt my assailant enough to allow me to flee. That means (hopefully) hitting some target spots, throat or knee or something, that will take a large man down instead of just make him mad.

Can't do that sparring.

Synova said...


Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Did it also have a bit where you're killed by friendly fire?

Synova said...

At the end, you went back home and went to school you had to deal with hippie college students asking if you'd killed anyone.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, Synova.