One problem with writing fantasy novels in which heroes and heroines wield swords, shields and sundry other objets d’mayhem, is that most of us have no idea what using those things is actually like. Luckily, it’s almost a moot point–most of our readers have little experience in this area as well, and so don’t know when we get it wrong. Still, when trying to bring realism to one of the more unrealistic genres, it’s important to get it as right as we can. That’s part of our job.
There are several ways to learn how it felt to be a warrior in the days of iron and steel. First and simplest is book research: historians have created mountains of reference material for this sort of thing, and if you’re recreating an actual time period, there’s no excuse for not doing the homework. If you’re working in what’s known as secondary-world fantasy (created worlds that mimic aspects of real history), you have a bit more leeway, but you still need to understand how the weapons you choose are wielded, how they damage opponents and in what situations they’re most useful. My personal bugbear is that I tend to have people drawing swords indoors, often in small rooms; I try very hard to catch myself before something like that makes it to the final draft.
But book-learning will only take you so far; sometimes you just have to do it to understand it. Re-enactment and live action role-playing (LARP) groups use varying styles of weaponry, from actual reproductions to padded sticks masquerading as swords and lances. In them, you can experience a hint of what it felt like to be in the thick of battle. The problem with this is that it can often lead to what I call “gamer’s thinking,” in which your story begins to take second place to the details of your world. Yes, it can be useful to know what all the coinage and monetary systems are in your made-up world, but if your story only needs a mention of “money,” then you’ve overthought it.
One of my most useful experiences was a six-week fencing class. None of my heroes use rapiers or foils, but I learned a tremendous amount just from getting in there and handling a weapon. The most interesting things? Most sword fights are over very quickly, and the one who attacks usually wins. It’s something I applied to my Eddie LaCrosse novel, Dark Jenny, and will no doubt figure in all my subsequent ones.
So when you’re writing fantasy or science fiction and putting weapons in your character’s hands, pause a moment and think about it. How much does it weigh? What muscles does it affect when your character holds it? How long can your character use this weapon before growing tired? What damage does the weapon do to an opponent? Because it’s these details that draw your readers into the fray to fight alongside your characters.
Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (birthplace of Tina Turner). He’s been a reporter, editor, photographer and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.
He now lives in a Wisconsin town famous for trolls, writes before six in the morning and tries to teach his three kids to act like they’ve been to town before.
Great advice, Alex. Getting the feel is so important. I loved fencing when I took it in high school and would love to take it again someday. Looking forward to the arrival of Dark Jenny! That is a wonderful title.
Great article. I’m not likely to take up fencing any time soon, but I did take a self-defense class in High School which has come in handy when writing hand-to-hand fighting scenes. (And not just because our little, slightly-deranged female teacher would end every session by saying, “And if that doesn’t work–kick ’em in the balls!”)
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Thanks for the tips, Alex! I knew that real sword-fights are usually very short (I have a very good book on Renaissance swordsmanship and have read some primary sources as well), but I didn’t know about the attacker tending to win. I will have to bear that in mind on my next edit pass.
And yes, rapiers are definitely not suited to drawing – or even wearing – in pokey little attic rooms, as my hero’s friend discovers!
Wicked cool post, Alex.
As a lifelong ordnance enthusiast, I am often put out by sloppy or inaccurate wielding of firearms both on screen and in writing. It really kills the mood for me and reminds me to be a thorough researcher, because someone is bound to know if I cut corners. (En guarde!)
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