Fictional Combat Based in Reality
Today I’m going to discuss writing combat. I’m no expert. There is always room to improve which is why I have been researching. When reading a fight scene in fantasy or sci-fi, one of two things happens. I either believe it, or I don’t. I’m not talking about realism. A realistic fight would most likely be boring. Believability is measured by whether or not something could or would happen given the circumstance. A realistic swordfight would look much like a modern-day historical martial arts match. Something like this may only appeal to those interested in HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) to watch and even they wouldn’t want to read it in their fantasy. This being said, there are some things that could ruin the scene that we often read. Things that would never or could never happen. I’ll share with you exactly the things I try to employ in my fight scenes and the things we should all avoid.
Details: The level of detail really depends on you as the writer and who you are writing for. I will say, however, if every one of your fights is broken down to each strike, counter, parry, thrust in extreme detail, it will be boring for most readers. A writer should trust the reader to generate much of the detail in their own mind. Do not be specific unless you know you are correct. To a reader who knows better, a very specific inaccuracy is painful. Some people don’t like reading fight scenes so try to focus on your characters rather than the blades, blood, and bullets. This brings me to my next point.
Emotions: Get in your fighter’s head. What is he/she feeling? Afraid? Angry? Do they regret a mistake that could lose them the fight? Emotions bring all readers into the fight, even the ones who don’t like fight scenes.
Avoid superman characters: One of my biggest concerns when designing a protagonist is accidentally writing a superman. A battle isn’t won by one man. Tactics are a huge deal, and I'm certain luck plays a big part too. Research heroes like Gilgamesh, Arthur, Maximillian, Beowulf, Zulu, Alexander, Leonidas, Sun Tzu, and a bunch of others. Their legends stem from believable tactical decisions. The stories and songs blew those acts all out of proportion. This is how we got fantastic tales of heroes wiping out an army by themselves or killing a dragon (probably a big lizard that had been eating goats).
Training: A warrior doesn’t fall asleep as a welp and then wakes up one day as a bearded slayer of evil. They have to train to get that way. Not to grow a beard. To fight. Conditioning is difficult and tedious. Any 80s movie style training montage will show you that nothing comes easy at first. Show your character go through the tough stuff to become the hero. The chosen one who learns kung fu via download is believable in The Matrix because the whole matrix is a program. Neo didn't know kung fu in the real world because his body wasn’t conditioned like his brain was. Learning to use the equipment effectively, being able to predict moves to block and counter, shooting accurately under duress, training muscles to react quickly. All of these things are what real warriors had to and still have to consider during training. It has been generally the same throughout history and it will not change any time soon.
Equipment: Know the limitations of the equipment involved. Know the strengths. Know the weaknesses. A rapier cannot sever someone’s head. A suit of full plate armor does not make someone invincible. Modern body armor is not bulletproof. Firearms are prone to malfunctions if they are dirty. Weapons and armor deteriorate with hard use. A suit of plate armor was designed to deflect cutting strikes, so don’t have a sword cut through the plates or even chainmail. Have your character defeat plate armor by using the half-sword technique (linked below) to guide the tip of his blade between the gaps in the enemy’s armor. This is how it was done historically. Also, a person cannot use just one weapon for every occasion. Different weapons do different things and are used for different purposes. Put both hands in the fight. You have two hands, let your character use both of them, even if it means using a cloak to distract an enemy from a knife strike. On that note, a knife is not a good match for a long sword. I think most people would run away from that situation rather than going toe to toe with a better-armed opponent. I wouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight either. Another thing to bear in mind is the logistical aspect of gear and equipment. If a soldier or knight is camped right on a supply line and then goes to a battle relatively close by, he/she could carry all the equipment they wanted into battle. If the fight is at the top of a mountain and the hero has to walk there, he/she would not be wearing a full suit of armor or carrying thousands of rounds of ammunition. That stuff is heavy. Also, soldiers, knights and all other flavors of warriors customized their gear to fit their needs.
Kills: Throwing knives don’t instantly kill no matter what video games tell you. Bullet wounds don’t throw people to the ground. A person rarely drops immediately after being shot. Sometimes adrenaline doesn’t let them know they have been injured until after the fight. Another historical fact that we rarely see in fantasy is that the victor often died from wounds sustained in battle. That being said, the deaths might be longer than they are generally portrayed but the fights are generally much shorter. A battle is usually decided shortly after things get crazy.
Grappling: In the Army, during our hand to hand combat course, we were told that if the fight became hand to hand, it often went to the ground. A man with a dagger could defeat a knight in armor by tackling him and then stabbing him between the gaps in his armor. This would be risky and dangerous, but it could be done. Once on the ground, it would be difficult for the armored man to utilize his weapon effectively. Soldiers and knights throughout history learned unarmed combat techniques for this reason. Another thing that commonly happens is a third party gets involved in the fight. Say two guys are rolling around in the mud trying to kill each other and one of their buddies shows up. It's really easy to stab, shoot, kick, kill an enemy while he rolls around with a comrade.
Keep the chatter down: Sometimes fighters might swear or insult each other, but they won’t have two or three lines of well-structured dialog in between each strike or gunshot. The bad guy doesn’t hold the good guy at gunpoint and tells him his whole plan unless he wants the good guy to escape and stop his evil plot. Also, the battle doesn’t part like the red sea for the protagonist to challenge the antagonist in the middle of a mele. Historically, there was no talking during a duel. The dueler’s seconds arranged everything and decided the rules on behalf of their fighter. They were also there, sword in hand, to enforce the rules of the duel and often ended up fighting each other.
1 on 1. 100 on 100. 25 on 100. 1 on 2. 1 on 3. A single person fighting to the death against several enemies is foolish and dangerous. Running away is a good option in this case. You will rarely see a single person come out on top against two or three opponents. If your character finds themselves in this situation, however, you could employ some dirty tricks to make it feel more believable. Have them step on a sword, kick someone in the balls, head butt, spit in their eye or throw dirt in their face. The training level is another factor that could come into play. Is your character highly trained and faces off against three malnourished, clumsy, uncoordinated thieves? Your character could use fancy footwork to keep the thieves tripping on themselves and getting in each other’s way. On a larger scale, an ambush followed by a swift retreat is a good option for a small, less equipped force vs. a large, well-equipped force. Utilize choke points like bridges or a mountain pass. In the Army, doorways are known as fatal funnels because only one person can walk through at a time and anyone on the inside could have a weapon pointed at it. It would take a very specific circumstance for an extremely unbalanced fight to go to the underdog.
Acrobatics: Swordsmen don’t flip, jump, roll or slide. They don’t even spin unless they have to. These things may be unrealistic, but they make for an interesting fight both on-screen and on the page. Be cautious when using acrobatics in a fight though. Make sure there is a need being fulfilled with the fancy motion. A soldier might jump to get out of the way of a falling tree. It can make the fight interesting but should not be abused.
Cardio: Fighters get tired. Big fighters generally tire faster than small ones but not always. Size matters in a close fight. This is why there are weight classes in boxing, wrestling, and UFC. Size isn’t everything though. That’s where cardio comes in. If you write a small character who survives an attack from a much larger opponent long enough to tire them out, I could see them winning in real life. Make it difficult though. Not all big people are slow and the big guy could catch on to the little guy’s plan.
Horses die. Dogs die: I’m sorry but they do. Often. Whenever animals are involved in a fight, they are just as mortal as anyone else. Mounted troops were often dismounted when their horses were cut from under them. Attack dogs are vicious and terrifying, but they can be killed. Do not fill your story with invincible animals because you can’t stand the thought of them dying. You write fiction. None of this happened or is happening. You didn’t kill a dog because you wrote a dog's death.
Psychological effects: A knight in full plate on an armored horse is terrifying for infantrymen in chainmail with a sword. A line of spears or pikes is terrifying for a cavalryman at full gallop. RPGs are scary for a soldier in a gun truck. Gun trucks are scary for an insurgent who took a couple of potshots at a marine foot patrol. I know from experience how much an enemy fears an A-10 Warthog or an Apache helicopter. Fear plays a big part in a fight. Make sure you relay that to your readers through your characters.
Mix things up: All of everything mentioned above could be used by the antagonist against your protagonist. Sometimes writers fall into this mindset of saving all the crafty stuff for their main character. Don't do that. The bad guys are just as capable.
I’m sure I have missed a bunch to consider either by ignorance or accidental omission, but I hope this at least gets you thinking about how you write a fight. Fight scenes can make or break a sci-fi/fantasy story. Thanks for reading. I would also like to thank everyone who participated in my thread on r/wma (Linked below). Your input made this blog post possible and I hope the info I relay can help other writers improve their combat scenes. Please leave a comment below if I missed something or you have something to add.