Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Art of War

Writers of high (or epic) fantasy will inevitably find their stories leading to a climatic battle at some point. Depicting war within a fantasy world should lend itself to a few principles of reality, but it shouldn’t become so engrossed with details so as to lose the pace of a military conflict. I offer a few ideas for crafting war into fantasy tales.

I never liked hearing this as a young writer, but this is true even of fantasy writing: you can’t effectively write what you don’t know. I’m not by any means suggesting that in order to write battles a writer must experience one first-hand. I do believe, however, that a writer must know about war and battles in order to best tell a story involving them. A parallel thought is this: a male writer could use a female protagonist effectively even though he has never been female, but he certainly won’t create a believable character if he doesn’t know any women.

Since fiction is not true, we cannot rely upon other stories for background information. I believe other stories can teach us how to write, but they should not be our sources for subject matter expertise. One of the main problems in relying upon fictional material is that it may have no factual basis for its military sequences either, so your own credibility gets washed away with theirs.

History is a great source for military knowledge, but by no means should we study medieval warfare alone. The fact that modern wars have been fought in different ways ought to aid us within the fantasy world. For example, suppose you have an army that utilizes gigantic tortoises to push through enemy barricades. Reading articles or books about tanks could give you the necessary understanding about the kinds of strategies and techniques favorable to your hard-shelled reptiles. Other things to watch for in classic battles: terrain, weather and battle formations.

If you can find someone with personal experience, that works even better. Before I wrote “From Drì Anem To Dervinâss,” I spoke with a friend of mine who participates in Civil War battle reenactments. Not only did he have the first-hand experience of what it was like to be in a battle (if only a mock battle) with the number of troops relative to what I was writing, but he also had an extensive knowledge of some realties of actual battle in that time period that I hadn’t considered. If possible, find local veterans and spend some time with them; they might be more than willing to share a few tales of their own.

A final point I would like to make is one of logistics. Research the rates of travel for armies of the type in your story. Also consider what it would take to feed and supply the army. One thing some people may not consider is how widespread an army can become while traveling. If an army of ten thousand foot soldiers is broken into ranks of ten, your army has a thousand ranks. Give each rank some breathing room, and the army easily spans over a mile in length. From being in marching band, I’ve found that even a group as small as four hundred, while marching, will stretch several blocks while moving. Ten thousand foot soldiers will likely stretch to several miles in length while moving, and they won’t all get to their destination at the same time.

I used to take fantasy writing lightly, substituting facts for my own thoughts on how things could work. It’s a trap to think that since we’re writing fantasy, especially high fantasy, that we can neglect certain principles of reality (such as armies traveling three hundred miles a day on foot without rest or food). Use nuggets of plausible facts to build credibility and establish trust with readers. Oh, and you’re welcome to use the tortoise idea if you like, but please don’t describe them as living off sunshine and happiness.

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