So You Want to Have a War?

By Django Wexler

I am, I have to admit, a war buff. I read military histories for fun, the kind with fold-out maps covered in little colored arrows and notations like “Kollowrath (40,000)”. As I am also a fantasy novelist, the nature of war in fantasy fiction has always been fascinating to me.

And there is a lot of war in fantasy. Starting with Tolkien, it’s become practically obligatory that the epic fantasy saga, somewhere around the middle of book three, feature an Epic Confrontation Between Good and Evil with a Cast of Thousands. Various allies, painfully recruited over the course of the hero’s journey, turn up to lend a hand at the Final Battle. Various villains are dispatched, hapless orcs or equivalent humanoids are mowed down by the score, and just when things seem bleakest Evil is defeated forever. A beloved secondary character or two bites the dust, and someone gets to make a Heroic Sacrifice. Afterward, we may be treated to a scene where the hero roams a battlefield strewn with corpses, or visits the injured to bring home the horrors of combat. You know, war, right?

Back before I wrote fantasy myself, my wargamer friends and I used to snicker a bit at this. Most of the fantasy authors wouldn’t know a halberd from a half-pike, and their descriptions of battles were usually heavy on bold strokes and dramatic confrontations and light on tactics and the important of proper reconnaissance. I wouldn’t want to be a poor foot-slogger in either army, given the rate at which they tend to be chewed up by either the hero and his friends or some villain demonstrating the full extent of his power.

(To get roughly the same effect, find some friends who are computer professionals and take them to see any Hollywood movie featuring “hacking” and explosions.)

Now that I’ve taken up the pen myself, I have a better understanding of how strict realism sometimes has to give way to dramatic necessity, and that the reading public probably isn’t interested in the details of orc logistical and latrine arrangements. But I still found that a lot of the fantasy wars were still … well … bad. Bad from a realism point of view, certainly, but also from a dramatic or a story point of view. I found myself flipping past battle scenes to get back to the good stuff. But this wasn’t always true — some authors can write a battle that will knock your socks (or padded leather greaves) off — so I sat down to think about why.

Read the full article at A Dribble of Ink.

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