Well, after last Fridays’ post, I’m ready to get back into the realm of battles, how about you?
Yes, yes, I know you’re excited.
As a quick refresher: three weeks ago, I introduced this series, and talked about why battles (and external conflict in general) can and should be used to create powerful conflict and compelling scenes in your novels, and why those of you who don’t tend to write that kind of story should still care about this topic.
Two weeks ago, I talked about how misrepresented battles are in literature, gave examples of well-written and portrayed battles, and talked about the truth of the ugliness of real wars.
Today, I’d like to step away from the broad, thematic elements of battles in writing and dig a little deeper into what it means to write a battle.
Putting Aside the Two Clichés
What do you think of when you hear the word “battle”?
I’ve found there are two basic clichés found in people’s heads when they hear this word. While there are other clichés that can be found, these are by far the two most common I’ve seen.
--- First, there is the cliché of the medieval fantasy battle. This is probably the first thing people think of. They think of a few thousand soldiers in full plate armor charging on foot or horseback at each other, clashing, and everything turns into a mass of shining armor, lots of ringing noises, and our valiant hero still having enough room to duel the villain the middle of the battle without ever being attacked from behind by some other enemy.
--- Second is the cliché of the superhero showdown. This cliché is becoming more and more prevalent as movies are made about characters who just can’t die. Whether they’re actual superheroes like Captain America or The Flash or Batman, or even if they’re just regular dudes who are wounded dozens of times without any obvious repercussions (John Wick comes to mind), these characters are seemingly invincible.
What’s wrong with these clichés?
Well, the first one has obvious holes: most soldiers in medieval times didn’t wear full plate, only knights did, most soldiers were on foot, only knights had horses, and there’s no way that the hero will have room in the middle of a battlefield to go full-on duel with the villain (not to mention the odds of them actually finding the villain the middle of the battle are basically null).
This sort of cliché is dangerous because it puts us in that “war is glorious” mindset. It’s also dangerous because it ignores historical accuracy and realistic physics.
The second cliché can take a bit more time to decipher. It turns out, however, that this one is riddled just as much as the first: the idea of invincible heroes and villains is nice until you take it to such extremes that your audience is no longer willing to suspend reality for you.
Your physics only works as long as we’re willing to believe you and go along with it.
If you look, there are really only three things wrong with your average battle scene.
Yup, only three.
However, they’re also the hardest three things to overcome. Today, I’d like to look at one of them: consistent reality.
Battle By Genre
Now I may be oversimplifying it when I say only three, because the one part I’m talking about today has several sub-parts. First, let’s consider what battles look like in different genres. I’m going to take four genres, and speak briefly about what a battle in that genre might look like.
1. Science Fiction – let’s look here a moment. How can you tell a battle is set in science fiction? Usually, it’s because of the technology. Wars in science fiction are fought with weapons far advanced from our own time. Whether this is a space battle or just advanced infantry combat, science fiction stands out because of the science. The dangers to avoid here include: distance from the POV’s state of mind, the underdog wins because of some tiny flaw in the enemy’s technology, the enemy soldiers are all connected to the “mothership” and all die when it is destroyed, and never ending supply of ammunition.
2. Contemporary Fiction – this one can be easier to spot, but harder to fix. These battles stand out because they’re in modern times using modern weapons and fighting techniques. You can find good examples of this type of battle mostly in movies like The Bourne Trilogy, American Sniper, The Dark Knight, and Looper as well as books such as Blue Lily, Lily Blue, The Bourne Trilogy/Series, and Fallen Angels. (As a note: several of the movies I just suggested are quite violent or profane, so actually watching these for the good examples is up to you and so forth.) The dangers to avoid in this genre include: vague descriptions, blurred action, slow pacing, TOO MANY BULLETS FOR THAT TYPE OF GUN, henchmen who can’t shoot a gun straight, and main characters who learn how to fight way too quickly.
3. Fantasy – here we find the most cliché sort of fighting of all cliché types of fighting. Fantasy novels are so riddle with battles that so few of them write well. It seems like the fantasy genre has just become a place where characters can fight full-scale wars over trivial things and follow the same cliché motivations over and over and over. Rather than being the beautiful and powerful genre that it can be (examples including Brandon Sanderson’s works as a whole, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, Harry Potter and more), it’s often reduced to a sad lump of external conflict written poorly and internal angst masquerading as emotion and theme. There are good examples out there (as I gave) of battles in fantasy done right, but there are so many things to watch out for: Historical inaccuracy (at least in the realm of medieval fantasy), magic without boundaries, Dues ex Machina, newcomers to fighting defeating masters of the craft, main characters who learn how to fight too quickly, rebels somehow winning, the underdog taking out the villain, battles that do no damage to the countryside or the inhabitants thereof, and so many more, but I should really stop.
4. Historical Fiction – this one’s pretty simple, but I’ll go over it anyway. Historical fiction often take place during period of wartime, because those are the easiest places to find conflict for a plot. World War One or Two, the American Civil War, or medieval Europe are classic places to set your historical fiction in (for suggestions on actually writing historical fiction, I know I’ve got a blog post around here somewhere related to it). Then you’ve got to have characters in actual battles, which leads to both fantastic stories and horrid stories, depending on how it’s written. Good examples include Fallen Angels, Gods and Generals, Hacksaw Ridge, Saving Private Ryan, and more. Things to watch out for include: Historically inaccurate weapons, setting of battles, commanders, and other historical inaccuracies, bias toward one side of the fight because of worldview or education, characters who are forced to fight against their will but are still somehow good at it, and more.
The Part About Physics
It’s been about a year since I wrote a blog post on Physics in Fiction, so it’s about time that I briefly revisited the subject. In short, battles are the most common place where fiction lets the reality of physics go. This is unfortunate, because it should be the place where our physics are the most accurate. Here’s the deal: physics creates the realistic feel of battles in the way that mere descriptions cannot. When your battle feels real, your reader will have stronger emotional reactions toward it.
You don’t have to have perfect physics in your novel, but you do have to create in your reader a suspension of reality so that they’ll go with you in those moments of stretching reality. How do you do that? You build up their trust by proving you understand how the physical world works in these sorts of situations.
Keeping reality in your novel isn’t just about writing in accordance with your genre, it’s also about writing in accordance with your world.
Real Battles in Real Times in Real Worlds
All of this long post comes down to this: we should want our battles to be real.
We should want our books to portray reality in everything we write, especially in battles.
When you combine awareness of your genre and its standards and clichés with a powerful knowledge of history or worldbuilding and an acknowledgment of the physical reality, you’re on your way to writing a powerful battle scene. Not all the way, not just yet, but you’ve got a good start.