Battle Scenes in Fantasy

One of the biggest challenges in writing fantasy is the battle scene.  It presents an opporutinity for engaging drama, but how do you deal with it without turning it into a boring ‘blow by blow’ account (literally!)?

I’ve just finished reading the historical fiction novel Battle Flag by Bernard Cornwell, and I’ve learnt a lot about handling a battle scene.  Set in the American Civil War, this book is the third in Cornwell’s Starbuck Chronicles. 

Cornwell has a nice balance of factual info (eg guns, weapons and strategy) that is strongly grounded in the character’s experience.  This is the secret, I think.  Good research, sure, but a character centred perspective so that the reader really cares about what’s happening.  Cornwell might begin with a personal perspective of one of his characters, then move into the bigger picture of a large scale battle, yet he still manages to deal with this large scale on a personal level.  We see the expressions on a character’s face, or we hear the dying words of someone the hero happens to pass.  The emotional content is maintained even in the midst of action that could so easily be just a textbook rendition.

This is not to say I want a battle scene to descend into melodrama, with the hero overcome with grief.  The opposite approach could be the most appropriate.  Awful things happen in battle, and shock sets in.  The characters directly involved will be experiencing that shock, and it will show in their thought processes and actions.  They’re not going to be rational and logical all the time, but at the same time, they might not be feeling anything that can be easily identified.  If anything, they’re going to be terrified, and will be dealing with that fear in ways that may not always be consistent.  And they’re not going to walk away the same people they were before. 

As always, balance seems to be the key.  Do my research, then write it through the personal perspective of my character/s.  Think about where the story is, with whom I’m journeying, and stay true to them.  And ultimately, it’s the emotional experience of the character that’s paramount, and I might not need a lot of detail anyway.

Fantasy tends to be about ‘good vs evil’ on some level, and will inevitably involve a major fight between the two sides, even if the fight isn’t physical.  Handle it well, and it can be the pivotal point in my book, the scene that people will remember long after they’ve put it down. 

No pressure. 😉

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