War and the Military in Fantasy: Part 2

Herein reside a few scattered thoughts on war and the military in fantasy. For part 1 of this, see here.
I think I tend to be just a little pickier about how war/battle/military matters are presented in fantasy novels. Honestly, I’m a bit of a stick in the mud.
“That doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t work like that.”
“That would never happen. Unless all the commanders were idiots.”
“That is a terrible training principle. You would never get a good army that way. Way to kill off all your good people for absolutely no reason.”
“It’s clear this author has never been closer to anything military than youtube videos and wikipedia pages.”
And so on…you get the idea. Of course, much of this is tricky. First of all, even my own military experience is just one type of experience (modern military, USMC, Iraq-specific, linguist) and also, well, this is just fantasy, right? Asking it to be realistic is kinda silly, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. Certainly, it depends on the kind of fantasy, and other various factors. But some things have to be coherent. Some things have to make sense. It has to work meaningfully in-world, and it has to have some resonance for the real world. If you’re talking war and violence, and it provides a mere video game feeling for the reader, then it’s coming up quite short. Especially for a reader like me, or anyone else with any range of military/combat experience.
So I’m going to throw out a few styles and categories of fantasy fighting, and then–grain–of-salt-alert!–I’m going to give my own two cents on what I think works good, better, best.
The Magical Spectrum
There are a lot of different ways authors include magic in their combat. Here are a few very broad-stroke types:
All Magic: (Harry Potter, X-men, Mistborn) All fighting is magic, therefore combat is totally dependent upon the magic system. Throwing a punch or using a gun would be out of the norm, or pointless. Magic is inextricable from essentially ALL major events.
Half-Magic: Some heroes have a form of magic/power, but it is not always the main way to achieve their goals. Hand-to-hand, sword-to-sword is sometimes the only way out of a situation, and a magical showdown usually only happens between the good guy and the “big bad.” (Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and the Hero and the Crown, NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season…sort of.) This category can sometimes bleed into the next one.
Atmospheric Magic: The world has real magic and there are great supernatural powers influencing events, but the actual army-to-army battles are usually taking place between regular (un-magic) soldiers. (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and, again, The Blue Sword)
Garnish Magic: There are some vague supernatural elements, but they are so subtle they barely grace the page, and are not engaged with, day-to-day, by either heroes or secondary characters. (Guy Gavriel Kaye’s The Lions of Al-Rassan)
No Magic: Low fantasy, where the world is invented–is not our world at all–but physics, capabilities et. al. follow Earth standard: The Winner’s Kiss series, Tales of the Kingdom series,*.
Each of these–and all sundry permutations–will require a slightly different approach to the way magic affects combat, if it does so at all. But there are some things that are usually going to work well or poorly regardless of the quantity or pervasiveness of supernatural elements.
What I don’t Like:
If combat is described to look like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon but without any in-story justification, this bothers me immensely. A character is non-magic, but is hopping up and kicking people in the neck like a video game character? Unless they are literally Jackie Chan or Gina Carano–even then!–there has to be some realism to the fight. No one is jumping five feet into the air, and doing a million fancy whirls and twirls unless it’s straight up wuxia, the Matrix, or there is a magical explanation. And, mind you, if there is a magical explanation that can make the combat action a little dull. If everyone can do everything, where’s the stakes? Where’s the danger?
-If there is a Deus Ex Machina, though I’m sure that goes without saying. It’s used a lot more often that you’d think, considering that it’s broadly viewed as kind of a cheat. Bad guys having a slight change of heart at the last second. The character nobody liked anyway sacrificing themselves so that no main characters die. Hyper-convenient interruptions/interventions when, otherwise all would have fallen to disrepair. The perfect heretofore unmentioned spell that fixes everything. A sudden discovery of unique powers at just the right moment. Ironically, the only time I actually like the Deus Ex Machina is if it’s been well and meticulously foreshadowed (in which case it barely qualifies for the title) OR if it is a literal Deus situation, i.e. there is a deity who actually interacts meaningfully in the story. Even then, it’s gotta be done just right.
-This one drives me bonkers: the Captain/Leader who has to do everything himself (aka Kirk and Spock). Narratives that follow exclusively one character fall prey to this especially (I’m looking at you Harry Potter) because they kinda can’t help it. They have to involve the main character in every little detail.
This is exactly the opposite of how this works in real life. Indeed the Captain often has to stay back, or at least keep to a location where communication is possible with all elements of the team/group/army. Leaders have to oversee. They have to maintain continuity of the mission, not get bogged down in every detail–even when that detail is the combat action. A Captain who does everything himself isn’t humble, he’s a control freak. A Captain who can’t let subordinates take charge of the action is a micro-manager and that is the worst kind of leader. Nothing will ever get done.
The Captain is a rebellious hot-head: I mean, this is allowed. It happens. Some people are rebellious hot-heads in real life. But when the narrative treats this as a good quality, as if ignoring superiors and tactical planning is somehow an asset? Not great. There are times and places for that, but they are not manifold. The ability to listen to others, to act calmly, and to stick to a plan…this is all usually the good stuff. Rebelliousness is only rarely useful, believe it or not. It’s not great for team-work, or general efficacy. We think “rebellious” and somehow think that means “good guys” but the most successful resistance movements were organized, disciplined, and you better believe that they listened to the plan and stuck to it, because it was life or death not to.
Rank is irrelevant or mocked. No. Rank matters. I get it, though. It grates against our love for equality. Who says that the General over there is worth listening to? Who says that the Sergeant gets to choose? Why can’t I just yell at the Captain in charge of me when she says something stupid (aka something I don’t like)? Doesn’t it make my character awesome and tough to ignore rank structure?
Military rank structure, despite some of its origins, is not the same thing as aristocratic rank structure. Yeah, it’s not perfect, and sometimes idiots get put in charge just because they’ve managed to achieve a certain rank, but rank isn’t always a meaningless hierarchy and it usually isn’t heroic to ignore it.
The point of rank is not to say some people have more or less value, but that each person has a different and distinct responsibility. In modern militaries, rank is achieved–in varying degrees–by such factors as education, time in grade, physical fitness, proficiency in your particular job field, and your general performance in any and all assigned tasks. It’s a flawed system, but that doesn’t make it meaningless. Your civilians can chafe against a rigid structure all they like, but military people are going to be a little bit more accepting of such structure because it (usually) serves a purpose.
-When you can tell it looks great in the mind’s eye, but just doesn’t translate to the page. This kind of goes back to all the whirling and twirling and high-kicks mentioned above. If I were to describe a Jackie Chan action scene move-for-move (Yes, I really like Jackie Chan) it would be unlikely, if not impossible, for me to take all that complex kinetic energy and make it as heart-pounding and clever on the page. Not because this kind of action is bad–I love this kind of action–but because it begs to be seen, not described. Prolonged, complicated move-by-move action scenes usually result in a blurred understanding of the given battle. This can apply on the large scale as well. Tactics are important, but you can get lost in the weeds.
What I do like:
When pain is actually present, influential and (painfully) communicated on the page. Whether there is magic or not, if the character has taken quite a few hits, but they go on with only passing mention of “aches and bruises” then I don’t believe it. But if I’m sucking breath in through my teeth when you describe their wound, and I can feel their absolute, utter exhaustion as they try to carry on, that’s awesome. I love that. It gives the battle meaning.
When logistics are taken into account. Watering and victualing large armies is NOT easy. Even a small band is going to have a tough time feeding themselves short of extorting goods out of on innocent villagers (which, by the way, is what almost all armies used to do back in the day). Good guys, bad guys, or grey guys, the stuff has to come from somewhere. And most likely, even if the characters are angels, its going to come at someone’s expense. Sometimes the hardest part of war is food and weather.
Je ne se quoi of action: I know that it’s not helpful to say that, but sometimes the action just flows, gets the heart beating. It can be magical or non-magical, but it has to make you just a bit nervous. If it’s just “kick, punch, fly though the air, ball of fire, magical lightning, punch, punch, blood, guts”…my eyes glaze. There is a way, and I myself am trying to put my finger on it. I can see it when I write it, and I can tell when it’s missing from my writing. It’s that feeling that you really don’t know how the fight is going to end. So, every move matters. Every breath matters. Or it’s not that you don’t know how the fight will end, but that you don’t know at what cost. Or it’s just a really clever, visceral, I’ve-actually-experienced-this way of describing the action. I’m not sure. Hence, je ne se quoi.
(For instance, I was reading the book Unbroken, which is a true story, and where you know from the first word that the man (a POW during WWII) does indeed survive. Yet every little move mattered. Yes, mostly because it was a true story, but also because it depicted that survival so painfully and vividly.)
When magic is treated like any other weapon of battle, not a solve-all, but a tool with distinct advantages and disadvantages. I like it when the magic has weaknesses and consequences. The more of them, the better. For instance, when it weakens the user to the point of incapacitation, and they can’t even defend themselves against natural dangers (knives, swords, arrows). Or where you have to give up something you deeply value in order for the magic to be effective. Or, if the magic is used wrongly, it comes back on the user’s head in a dangerous way.
-Shows or even concentrates on the civilian side of things. I mean, what are you even fighting for? If you only ever show the fight, then it’s often just spectacle. What on earth are you fighting for? The country? A belief? A family? A ruler? And not just what are you fighting against, because that part is usually easier to depict. It’s the “for” that’s challenging. I rarely see it done well, because it can distract so much from the action. But, sometimes, that’s a good thing. There can’t just be an against. Showing the thing that’s worth saving–and not just for two seconds–can make all the difference in whether anyone cares who wins. It doesn’t even have to be something angelic and perfect, but it has to be something we can understand.




*Originally I had the Queen’s Thief series in the Low Fantasy category, but that was my misperception. I am reading the first book currently, and it seemed low fantasy to me at first, but turns out it’s not quite that.





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