The Art of the Battle Scene




WHETHER you are a lover or hater of the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin, there’s one thing almost everyone has to admit: the gritty, appalling realism of his writing strikes a chord. As the sixth book, Winds of Winter, looms on the not so distant horizon, it’s a good time to reflect on how fantasy these days does or does not reflect reality.

There is one key way I see fantasy sometimes either spectacularly fail or offer a surprising dose of realism. Let’s take a look at battle sequences. Every fantasy novel worth its salt which involves one nation or group fighting another will usually include a reasonably impressive battle scene. But how often are battles depicted realistically? Or, perhaps an even better question – how often do battles in fantasy novels become glorious tales to be recounted with nostalgic reverence rather than the brutal, vicious, unavoidably tragic and triumphant events which they really are?

Recently I signed up for an online course to learn more about the brutal battles during the Wars of the Roses. Since I enjoy writing medieval-style fantasy, I jumped at this idea because I think every writer needs to research to better their craft.

Too many fantasy novels portray the concept of battle as this glorious, climactic moment. For some authors, and I don’t want to name names here, battles are nothing more than opportunities for heroes to excel. It’s the backdrop for which their protagonist can show their mettle and become a legend. Huzzah huzzah! But that falls far short of reality, and if it’s one thing that fantasy authors the likes of George R. R. Martin have proven, it’s that people crave gritty realism in their fantasy every bit as much as the legendary mythology some authors like to use with it.

In my upcoming fantasy novel, The Princess Who Defied Kings, (to be released in July 2014), one of my main goals was to portray battle NOT as a glorious hero-worship fest. I have a few ideas for fantasy fans on what gives a battle that more immediate, visceral feel. Here are three rules for what makes a battle add to a good story:

1)      Let chaos reign. Although armies often carry out complex formations, the truth is that once battle is joined all plans go out the window. As a reader, if your author is showing you this perfectly choreographed battle, something’s not right. In my battle sequences I try to emphasis the mayhem. Opponents are constantly responding to each other, sometimes in the most unpredictable ways. Also, even when the overall battle may seem organized, when you see it from the perspective of a single person in the midst of all that blood and death, their thoughts should be jumbled and raw. If the protagonist in the book you’re reading has a completely calm and level head in the midst of battle, something’s missing. The chaos isn’t there.

2)      There’s no such thing as ‘Glory.’ At least not in the moment. Although I’m as big a Lord of the Rings fan as anyone, even I’ll admit that sometimes it almost borders on the edge of glory-worship when it comes to battles. Tolkien handles it deftly enough, balancing the historic side of things with the losses. But too many books use the battle primarily, as I mentioned earlier, as a glory-seeking achievement showcase for their protagonist. A good battle develops the hero or heroine’s personality or shows you a new side to that person regardless of who wins or loses. Sometimes the best battle sequence in the world might involve your hero losing the fight, but the outcome isn’t what makes the battle worth reading about. It’s the character’s actions in this intense trial by fire surrounded by chaos that makes things so compelling.

3)      Battles do not always = Final Climax. Point 2 brings me to Point 3, and they’re closely related. Some people have the tendency to only depict battles in which their hero/heroine wins, and never any other time, and here’s why: Battles are a great crutch for an author or reader who wants a satisfying climax. The problem with that is that it makes battles so predictable. If the reader is already 100% sure of the outcome, it undercuts the very drama battles are supposed to be about! Have you ever read a battle and been totally unsure of who was going to come out on top? Take a look at the fantasy books of Scott R. Bakker (The Darkness That Comes Before) and you’ll know what I’m talking about. There’s nothing better than that pure adrenaline rush when you’re reading a battle and every moment is like looking out in a million different directions, not knowing what will happen next.

In a nutshell, if you enjoy fantasy and if you enjoy the battles that make them so entertaining, I’d highly recommend venturing out there to read books that go beyond the more tired stereotype of the glory-filled battle scene. You’ll find your reading experience not just enriched by it. It will be a heart-pounding read and that much more memorable.

What books would you recommend as fantasy books with excellent battle scenes? Are there any that disappointed you? Let me know. I’m curious and always looking to expand my horizons, especially as a reader.

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