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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

GUEST POST: "Writerly Problems – Real Combat Vs Fantasy Combat" by Rob J Hayes


This is a topic that's near and dear to my own heart. I write fantasy (mostly). My stories have magic and dragons, heroes and villains (though the two are often indistinguishable), epic battles and straight-up cold blooded murders.

In terms of combat I've always tried to keep at least a slight sense of realism in my writing. Characters who take a blow to the head often find themselves disorientated, dizzy, throwing up. A character facing five opponents at once is unlikely to come out of the scrap without a scrape or two. But you kind of need your heroes to be a bit above the curve. They need to face the shittiest of odds and come out the other side alive at the very least.

So here's the problem. Sometime after writing The Ties that Bind trilogy and before writing Best Laid Plans, I took up viking re-enactment. What this means is I dress up in colourful, itchy clothing, done a shield and an axe, and try not to get stabbed by spears. Well that's the combat side of it at least, in reality there's far more socialising and teaching the public about how things were way back when. But for the purposes of this post it's all about combat.


(That's me on the right. One day soon I hope to have some chainmail.)

Now I'm not saying there aren't moments in re-enactment when folk activate their hero mode and do something incredible. There are. I've done it once or twice. It was amazing. You should have been there. What I'm saying is that the majority of combat is not fantastical manoeuvres with a sword, cutting four folk in half before flipping over the fifth, and throwing your broadsword thousand feet into the chest of the evil Orc Warlord. The majority of combat is hiding behind a shield, fending off spears, and hoping your side takes significantly less casualties. Or charging someone down, grabbing holding of their weapons, wrestling with them on the ground, and screaming for your comrades to come and stab the bastard while you've got them all sorts of tied up.

Combat, at least for those of us who aren't kung-fu masters (and most of us really aren't), is a lot of screaming, grunting, stabbing, getting stabbed, bleeding, pushing, crying, and not seeing the blow that kills you. It's loud, it's messy, and it hurts.

So what does this mean for me? For my writing? For the way I write combat? Well it means a lot of things have changed in Best Laid Plans. There are still hero moments for sure. I still have an Arbiter taking on dozens of soldiers and mixing combat and magic into a glorious dance of blood and death. I still have a legendary swordsman wreaking havoc all around him while turning aside every blow. But more than that, I now have characters fighting side by side, protecting each other as much as trying to kill their enemies.


Where Loyalties Lie, the first book in the Best Laid Plans duology, features no less than two shield-wall scenes. There's a lot of ship-board combat and that means a fair dose of swashbuckling, but there's also characters facing off against very surmountable odds and struggling because a guy with a shield is always a problem. Characters take injuries. In fact there's rarely a fight in Best Laid Plans where anyone comes out unscathed. At least one character breaks down mid-combat because he's just seen too much. People facing off against spears spend as much time shouting insults as they do actually fighting because anyone, even the lowliest of the good folk, with a spear is a serious danger.

That's what this all boils down to. Fantasy combat is fun, and it's needed. We all love it when Aragorn chops down eighteen orcs and then finally considers breaking a sweat, but in reality we all know he'd be dead. In Best Laid Plans I try to marry the two. There's true fantasy combat and there's real combat. And I think when used together, they make for pretty compelling storytelling.



Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of It Takes A Thief To Catch A Sunrise
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Heresy Within
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Colour Of Vengeance
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Price Of Faith
Read Fantasy Book Critic's first interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read Fantasy Book Critic's second interview with Rob J. Hayes
Read A Game of ̶T̶h̶r̶o̶n̶e̶s̶ Death by Rob J. Hayes (guest post)

Guest Author Information: Rob J. Hayes was born and brought up in Basingstoke, UK. As a child he was fascinated with Lego, Star Wars and Transformers that fueled his imagination and he spent quite a bit of his growing up years playing around with such. He began writing at the age of fourteen however soon discovered the fallacies of his work. After four years at University studying Zoology and three years working for a string of high street banks as a desk jockey/keyboard monkey. Rob lived on a desert island in Fiji for three months. It was there he re-discovered his love of writing and, more specifically, of writing fantasy.

5 comments:

Martin Easterbrook said...

Reenactment societies can often provide interesting insights. I remember once when our group was acting as extras in an historical documentary and we put together a formation of 1,500 people. It was enormously difficult to create a straight front to this formation let alone manoeuvre properly.. Even the off battlefield things like how an army slowly comes together from a group of bleary eyed and hung over individuals crawling out of their tents can be fascinating.

For some good insights into more personal violence I'd recommend this this after training with the author, who has done things like working in a maximum security prison's rapid response team.

Terry W. Ervin II said...

Yes, a balance between heroics and realism, and the effects of combat on individuals is a balance that is important to strike in a work of fantasy or SF.

Steve Vera said...

Great post!

There's nothing like actually holding a sword or feeling the weight of actual armor to insert a touch of realism in a combat scene--kudos to you for jumping in the arena...literally!

Thanks for sharing.

C.T. Phipps said...

Excellent article Rob.

M. R. Mathias said...

Speaking of reality vs fantasy in combat.... Did you know the garlic/vampire legends stemmed from swordsmen rubbing down their blades with garlic before battle. Why? Because even if a small sword wound was tended to perfectly, the garlic caused gangrene to set in.

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