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Choosing (and writing) Your Battles

If I have one weakness when it comes to writing fantasy or historical fiction, it would be my absolute reluctance to write battle scenes. My reluctance is something I come by naturally — I’m no fighter myself, and I’m fairly conflict averse. Despite being married to a guy who is a total military buff, I have never really much cared for the nitty gritty of war. Action movies aren’t really my style, and when I read battle scenes on the page, I often skim. Nothing bores me faster than reading drawn out battle choreography.

This poses a problem for me, considering I write fantasy, and battles are a fairly well established fantasy tradition. Even books that focus more on political intrigue often feature an epic battle or two. So how does an avowed battle-hater handle battles, aside from avoiding them altogether?

Well, first of all, lots of fantasy writers don’t realize this, but avoiding battles is in fact a viable strategy. Think of conflicts that could take the place of the final battle. Daniel Abraham, for instance, has a financial audit as his final showdown in the first book The Dagger and the Coin series. Last year’s YA fantasy by Elizabeth Lim, Spin the Dawn, has a dressmaking competition, sort of like Project Runway, as its main conflict.  Political intrigue — think assassination, poisonings, coups — can also be just as thrilling as a good battle. The main conflicts in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series, for instance, revolve around the political schemes of the main character Jude, who must outwit the faeries of Elfhame in order to secure her status. In Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, the mode of conflict is the enchantment of coins rather than a battle to the death. Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, the first book in the Sevenwaters series, has the main character spinning shirts made out of nettles in order to remove a curse. All of these represent instances where writers chose ways to escalate and resolve conflicts without the resorting to the epic battle cliche.

Furthermore, recently I have seen quite a few agents and editors recently putting what they call “quiet fantasy” on their wishlists. “Quiet fantasy,” or “cozy fantasy” (close kin to “cozy mystery”) is fantasy with relatively lower stakes, that might revolve around issues of a rather more personal nature. These books are the opposite of grimdark, in that they tend to involve less killing, fewer gory battles, end on a more hopeful note. Marie Lu’s The Kingdom of Back, for instance, revolves around one young girl’s quest to be remembered. If your manuscript is relatively more character driven, and involves close, personal stakes, then consider that trying to shoehorn in an epic battle might just be completely out of place.

But what if you need a battle? You’ve avoided it as long as you can, but there’s no avoiding it any longer. What can a battle hater do? First of all, let go of the idea that yo must include detailed battle choreography. While some people do battle choreography very well, not everyone can, or should. If you’re not a fighter yourself, have never seen battle, and are not dedicated to watching hours upon hours of videos studying the techniques of the fight, then you’re better off taking a different approach. One of my favorite passages about battle comes from Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. While Cornwell often does describe battles in vivid detail, in this particular passage he uses telling, rather than showing, to great effect:

“What is there to say of the battle that the West Saxons said happened at a place called Aesc’s Hill? … The poets could fill a thousand lines telling what happened, but battle is battle. Men die. In the shield wall it is sweat, terror, cramps, half blows, full bows, screaming and cruel death.”

Moreso than all of the detailed battle choreography, this passage stuck with me. Why? Because it describes so perfectly the utter mundanity and ultimate sameness of war. When it comes down to it, killing people in a brutal way is not a glorious business, and in a lot of ways one battle is only different from another battle insofar as who lives and who dies.

It might come as a surprise that my favorite book is The Things They Carried, considering how much I hate battles, but like Cornwell above, Tim O’Brien avoids battle choreography. O’Brien focuses on the emotions of the battle, namely terror.

“For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die.”

This passage is raw and real and more so than any detailed description of whose sword went where, shows the sheer horror of battle. O’Brien, himself a Vietnam War veteran, knows that battle is terrifying, and he brings us there right along with him, to that place of terror. While detailed battle choreography is often bloody and brutal, it often lacks emotional impact.

I would argue that choreographed battle scenes are in fact, less impactful than a masterful depiction of a battle without writing a single battle “move.” Someone like me, who hates battles, can still write a great battle scene by zeroing in on the emotions — fear, rage, sorrow — that should naturally follow when writing about war and death.

I challenge writers, both battle averse as well as battle lovers, to look at conflict in fantasy from different angles. The epic fight pitting good against evil with armies tens of thousands strong is in a lot of ways by now a fantasy cliche. I challenge you to find new and inventive ways of resolving conflicts on the page. If you do need to write violent conflicts, I challenge you to think about battles, really think about them. Speak with veterans, people who have seen war, and ask them about the emotions they feel. Ask them what they remember. If you can’t speak with veterans, read first hand accounts. Fighting is about much more than cool moves, it is complex and emotional, and the skilled writer will be able to convey that to the reader.

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