You’ve seen the blood spray through the air, you’ve felt the crash judder through your arm as the enemy hits your lines, but have you ever thought about the big picture? Have you ever thought about the mechanics of a battle, the interplay of different units that determines the outcome, whether the cavalry should ride around for a flank attack or charge to support the infantry engaged with pikemen? The more you know about military tactics and the way an army works, the better your battle writing will be. And in case you were wondering – the cavalry should flank them, obviously.
For starters, let’s look at the basic elements of an army, the soldiers. Most fantasy novels feature armies from anywhere up to the Middle Ages; they’re usually composed of three elements including infantry, cavalry, and ranged fighters. Now as anyone familiar with Real Time Strategy (RTS) games knows, there’s something of a rock/paper/scissors relationship here, depending on the range you’re working at. Archers beat infantry, but cavalry beat archers. When it comes to cavalry vs. infantry it gets tricky, yes a charge of heavy horse can ride men down like wheat, but remember what happened in Braveheart? That’s why you don’t charge pikemen – that’s tactics!
Now things can get a lot more complicated than that. The elements I’ve mentioned can be broken down further into things like light and heavy cavalry, swordsmen and spearmen, and they have different functions in a battle. As we’ve established, men with spears can be effective against cavalry, but against swordsmen they’ll be less useful. The writer must think through events and create realistic responses to the actions on the field; it will give the writing a much more logical and coherent feel and make for a better battle scene.
One need only look at the epic battles throughout history to study a range of different strategies and methods of waging war. Look at records of clashes in the real world to see how armies respond. Read up on the great generals of the past to see how they defeated their foes, learn what techniques they used and how they planned and fought their battles. You could follow the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s string of successes that almost defeated the Roman Empire, or learn from the tactics of the Normans at the battle of Hastings where they broke Harold’s shield wall.
As your knowledge grows, you can bring it into your writing to give it a sense of proficiency. When you set up your fantasy general’s battle line, you’ll know that the archers are on the flanks to give them the best line of sight and lessen the chance of hitting their allies. That kind of background knowledge will give the writing more confidence and the reader will find it easier to immerse themselves in the story.
When thinking about the kind of armies you can field, the author may want to look back at the world they’ve established in order to keep things plausible. An army can only be so large, and it’s based on factors like the population density of a country, the organisational structure and the culture of the civilisation. When thinking about the arms and armament of the soldiers, you must consider whether the industrial capacity of the world you’ve created could support such things. To produce swords and armour in large quantities required considerable manufacturing capabilities. The majority of soldiers in medieval times were recruited form peasant villages and armed with cheap polearms, axes and clubs, rather than the expensive swords that are popular in fantasy fiction – which actually require a lot more training to use effectively.
It’s also important to note the technology level of your world and the way that military inventions changed warfare. The armour penetration of the medieval crossbow virtually rendered knights obsolete, as a peasant with a few hours training could kill an armoured knight who’d spent his whole life at war. The advent of gunpowder and cannons brought an end to the age when you could just hide in your castle and laugh after war broke out. The author needs to think about what kind of world and state of warfare they want when deciding how advanced to make the weaponry.
The terrain an army fights on can mean the difference between victory and defeat. There’s a reason generals rushed to march their men to battle – so they could pick the best ground to fight from. Now provided you’ve given sufficient detail about the surroundings, you can use terrain to firmly ground your world into the reader’s mind and make it easier for them to understand the events that take place. The circumstances will change depending on the setting, but some general rules will apply across any battle situation. For example, an army will want to take the high ground whenever possible, it will mean the archers will have the best view, the enemy will have a tougher time closing in, and make it harder for someone to surprise them.
Tactics for terrain can be as varied as the land itself, if your battleground has a bog or marshy area, then a general might place a unit of archers on the outskirts to fire on the enemy as they’re slowed down. It’s difficult to use cavalry effectively in dense forests, the same goes for archers as they can’t target effectively. Light infantry are most useful as they can move through the undergrowth and fight in small units. Or if you’re in desert terrain, think about the ground underfoot. It’s actually very difficult to run or ride on pure sand that slides underfoot, unless there’s a rocky surface it’s hard to pick up speed. And then there’s the heat to consider, desert battles typically don’t last long, and it’s not likely they’ll be a lot of long charges over wide distances. The author must think about the practical concerns, visualising the soldiers and their situation in realistic terms in order to keep the writing accurate.
The Chain of Dogs story arc in Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates has some excellent examples of tactics and terrain as the 7th army protects a convoy of refugees and desperately fends off attacks using a variety of cunning stratagems. Admittedly Erikson adds some magic and munitions to the tactical mix, so it’s not pure strategy, though it does bring me to my next point.
The fantasy genre may introduce a number of new elements that can tip the balance of war, powerful monsters, horrific weapons and devastating spells can turn the tide of a battle. If a writer introduces any new element to the battle, they must think about the logical consequences, how will it affect the way wars are waged in a world where your support units might have to fend off an assault by javelin throwers mounted on giant eagles. Battles can be complicated enough without adding in new elements, but as necessity is the mother of invention, don’t think the generals won’t have thought about how to combat that scenario.
Each writer will ultimately have to develop their own strategies based on the unique elements in their novels. It may be useful to look at other fantasy works for inspiration – again, Erikson is a good bet, he skilfully weaves his fantasy elements and military aspects together. The important thing is to ensure a balance, otherwise the battle may fall into the trap of Deus ex Machina where a fantasy element suddenly saves the day and ruins the coherency of the piece.
The scope of military strategy is so vast that this article can barely scratch the surface. Hopefully it will have provided a glimpse into the world of tactics, and prompt the author to think more about their battles and improve the quality of their conflicts. So grab your copy of The Art of War and when it comes to writing battles you’ll be able to say veni, vidi, vici.