Cullen’s Tough Guide to Fight Scenes: Sorting Our Collective Baggage

For anyone wondering whether that title is a tribute to Dianna Wynne Jones and her Tough Guide to Fantasyland: you’re goddamn right it is. And if you haven’t read that, go do so and enjoy the sensation of creeping horror that so much of it is still so accurate!

So, here we are, the opening wave in my grand assault on the state of fantasy fight scenes! Will it be my Barbarossa or my Market Garden?

Trick question, those are both terrible outcomes. We want this to go more like Operation Cobra, the decisive offensive in which the Allied Expeditionary Force finally broke out of the French bocage and retook France. It may seem weird to you that I’m harking back to WWII in a series which will focus initially on fantasy, but I have my reasons. Namely:

Operation Cobra ended the miserable “Hedgerow Siege” warfare which bogged down the Allies immediately after the D-Day landings. A word on the difference between English and Norman hedgerows: they are both what their name says. They are rows of hedges, usually planted in earthen ridges. An English hedgerow, at least in 1944, was a pretty standard hedge. I have no reason to believe this is changed, but I’m not going to make blind assumptions about hedgerows while telling you the dangers of blind assumptions about hedgerows.

A Norman hedgerow in 1944 was an overgrown, dogged behemoth several feet thick and thirty feet tall dating back to the Romans. Since that time, they’d been used to separate farm fields, and sometimes the paths between them were no more than overgrown green tunnels barely tall enough for a human to walk through. Their beds were ancient, compacted soil so overgrown even tanks couldn’t push through without specialized equipment. Allied Intelligence, of course, just assumed the Norman hedgerows were like the English ones.

And so, absolutely none of the American or Commonwealth troops were prepared to attack the floral fortresses which the Germans had built up, trained in, and locked down months or even years in advance of the landings. Oops.

Imagine launching an offensive in this! Oh, and see how it bends to the left up ahead? Odds are good there’s a German machine gun nest sited so you can’t QUITE see them yet. And when you do… well, when you do it’ll be too late.

Fantasy writers are Allied Intelligence in this analogy. We come swaggering in to write fight scenes, so cocksure, so impetuous. We think, because we’ve seen Game of Thrones and read some other people’s books, that we know what we’re dealing with.

Readers mine, welcome to the hedgerows. Today, I will be playing the dour Hauptmann, and overseeing the merciless butchery of all your mistaken notions. Later on I get to switch sides and bring in tools to deal with all the problems I’m about to cause, but for now it’s Day 1 of the Sieges and time to dig some graves! Let’s begin with the most basic:

The entire Fantasy genre, never mind its fight scenes, is used to oddball workarounds and spotty logic. You don’t like reading it, I don’t like writing it, but the fact remains it’s true. Not a single one of you will be able to make use of my fight-scene doctrine until we grind our way through this. Deep breaths; let’s clear that chaff now.

Too much of fantasy revolves around worlds that feel barren of actors outside from the main cast. Who’s most important? Whoever’s just been introduced in relation to the main cast. How do we measure how well somebody fights? In comparison to the main cast (unfavorably). Who’s the best fighter in the world? It’s this tall, dark, mysterious swordsman. How the hell do we know he’s the best? Because the author said so.

Now, this is a problem on every front because the world never feels like it existed before the protagonists. It’s a stage briefly established for their play, and like a stage it’s barren of other players. When was the last time you read a fantasy story where someone else solved the problem before the party, but didn’t immediately turn out to be a villain? Fantasy rarely includes the kinds of unpredictable, unforetold setbacks the real world is full of, and when it does they’re immediately shackled to the main plot. We rarely get the sense that there are whole other stories out there, with their own main casts who sometimes stumble into our heroes.

This problem worsens for fight scenes, because it means we never do the kind of worldbuilding needed to write them to their fullest. Fundamentally, a fight is a contest between two characters (a main character and the antagonist, usually) over which of them gets to continue their story. That’s how we should write these, with the other warrior just as inventive, desperate and stubborn as the hero. Instead, we’ve generally written enemies as animate, sword-wielding obstacles.

You don’t need to fully develop every combatant before they even enter the story, but you do need to start thinking about how violence works in your world on a much deeper level. We’ll get into this next time, but the initial part of this “deeper level…” let’s just say it’s not as deep as it should be.

So: being born into a warrior aristocracy is a decisive life advantage. You might have thought otherwise since so few fantasy protagonists ever train for the wars they end up fighting, and so many of them are from Humble Origins(TM). There’s also an implied assumption here that a fantasy world is supposed to be balanced; this underlies a lot of our fight-scene problems.

The most effective martial arts were mainly confined to warrior aristocracies, and each school carefully guarded the specifics of its techniques. Not only would a knight have armor, real, working armor that could only be pierced with polearm spikes or crossbows, he would know a comprehensive array of techniques spanning every class of weapon, letting him deal with absolutely everything a peasant might try in the most brutally efficient manner possible. A fantasy knight usually exists so the protagonists can humble him; a historical knight was a terrifying human weapon bred, trained and conditioned for battle from birth.

Now, it is incredibly unfair that a potentially-talented lowborn protagonist could be predestined to lose by birth. Work with that! That story is so, so much stronger than having them win because of… I dunno, peasant vigor or whatever the reason is? When your peasant claws his way up the ranks, becomes a man-at-arms, and finally fights that knight to a stand-still, that’s going to be the best fight in the entire book. Your protagonist doesn’t even have to win, just going toe-to-toe with this son-of-a-bitch and breaking even will be glorious!

Coming from the other perspective: a story in a which a likable, moral knight is forced to confront how few of her advantages she’s really earned. Again: not a fun life experience, but what a great freaking story! All we had to do to get here is toss out a single fantasy trope–can you imagine where we’ll be once we gun down the rest?

Here’s another: if something in fantasy suggests that a bunch of people whose whole existence revolves around training and warfare would be ignorant of something really simple, be suspicious. Probably the single best example is the recurring fantasy theme of, “Oohhh, those dumb haughty knights with their armor hate practical fighting methods! Like, just to use a totally random example with absolutely no parallels in other fantasy writing, they’d never stoop to training with a quarterstaff, so they’d have no idea how effective staves are!”

Except that in Europe, as in just about every culture that had them, the aristocracy did train with staves. They were the foundation weapon for using everything from spears to polehammers. Because, y’know: a polearm is fundamentally a staff with extra hurty bits made from steel. It wasn’t until gunpowder and military changes made knights obsolescent that this started to change.

This is from a HEMA manuscript. As in, a European martial arts treatise. This is a knight stabbing another knight in the dick because, hey, that’s where the armor’s weak point is! But yeah, sure, knights were a bunch of hyper-prissy fops who had no idea how to function in a Real Fight(TM)

In fact, let me just come right out and gut-punch you: Earth peasants had one advantage over knights and that was numbers. Otherwise, knights could afford specialized training equipment as well as lethal weapons and armor, were by definition part of a fraternity that trained together in techniques deliberately restricted from the commonfolk, and above all had the luxury of time and hearty diet needed to benefit from all these things. Earth peasants didn’t get any of that stuff, and these are only some of the reasons why peasant revolts throughout the Feudal period were hilariously lopsided massacres.

Of course, European nobility did fudge history a good bit. The numbers are likely skewed something fierce, but if those peasant revolts succeeded they’d be skewed the other way.

Meanwhile, fantasy peasants are all a bunch of honest, rough and tumble farm-folk aside from the one scumbag family every village must have, who routinely trounce knights in street fights and only lose when those mean, mean cheaters pull out their swords and call in twenty friends and… are you guys starting to realize how puerile this sounds? This is the worst possible meaning of fantasy. It’s a story a child concocts to explain why they got their ass handed to them in a fight they started. “Well, uh, he was rich… and… and he cheated… and… and he had all his friends with him!”

Did you know that grappling and dagger-fighting, which we now think of as gritty street-fighting, were highly prized among knighthood? They were! They were considered noble and exceptionally manly things to train in. Care to guess why? Because grappling and dagger-fighting were one of the best ways to overcome an armored opponent, either forcing him to yield by incapacitating him or killing him outright. Of course, if you just want to murder that rotten bastard De Moliere because he insulted your cousin’s horsesmanship, a polehammer spike to his helm should do the trick!

Medieval Europe was pretty violent, and a lot of knights got pretty good at being violent. There’s a caveat to this we’ll get into at some point, but not today. Meanwhile, in fantasy (or at least American fantasy), “knight” could reliably be replaced with “blowhard” in many contemporary stories and you wouldn’t lose much.

I’ve been using the knight-peasant paradigm as a primary example here since it’s clearly related, but the true core problem here is this: a huge number of fantasy writers are perpetuating tropes created to make heavy-handed moral statements at the expense of worldbuilding and characters.

When you try to make heavy-handed moral statements in a fight, you inevitably end up falling back on tropey nonsense. Of course the evil knight isn’t really as skilled as the hero, but he waited for all his cronies to tire the hero out first. Everyone knows that bad guys can’t be skilled fighters! Of course the evil knight stoops to dirty tricks like… uh… pocket sand! Yeah! Pocket sand is so underhanded and would totally work!

Pocket sand would not work. Sand irritates your eyes in your daily life because no one’s trying to kill you in your daily life (I hope). If adrenaline lets a man shot in the heart run for over a minute before dying at last, you think some sand in the eye is going to stop someone in a lethal fight from continuing their strike? We’ll come back to this later.

Fantasy has a long-standing and really unfortunate tradition of assigning capability by morals instead of because characters have lived and studied to be capable. This wouldn’t be as big a problem except that, in the same quest to make heavy-handed moral statements, fantasy tends to be incredibly black and white. It’s so bad that a lot of people refer to A Song of Ice and Fire as morally grey when… it really isn’t. Cersei is still a sad excuse for a human being, Joffrey is a terrible one, and the Boltons are actual monsters. The language Martin uses and the ways he depicts these characters makes it clear they’re evil.

That’s not to say A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t morally nuanced, but it’s morally nuanced in a much more interesting way: good and evil exist, but are intermixed and so difficult to identify. We usually know what the moral result is, sure, but how the hell do we get there? Just because someone’s fighting you doesn’t mean they’re evil, or that you’re good.

Let’s repeat that last one: “Just because someone’s fighting you doesn’t mean they’re evil, or that you’re good.” It’s so, so incredibly rare to have fantasy antagonists who aren’t also villains. This has brought us to the point that a character attacking the protagonist usually means they’re evil, unless of course they’re from the infallible infinitely wise archetypal fantasy nomads. Let’s review the definition of antagonist really quick:
“a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.” Nothing in that definition says “villain.” In order to have conflict, a story usually needs some kind of antagonist, but that doesn’t mean the antagonist has to be evil. It’s just human emotion that makes us inclined to write that way. This makes it way harder to write fight scenes where the reader wants to root for both characters, knowing deep down that only one can win.

Done correctly, this is known as “the good hurt.”

Let’s also take a moment to consider how dangerous it is that fantasy writers–fantasy, a genre based entirely on glamorizing exotic worlds and cultures!–so constantly play into this paradigm. And once you tell yourself that a character must be in the wrong if they’re fighting your MCs, it starts affecting the way you write about them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, while his execution goes against the suggestions I’ll be offering, the concept, tone and internal realism of Martin’s fight scenes are the best in fantasy at the moment.

Shifting gears: have you ever considered just how many factors would have to line up to make two warriors who are perfectly equal?

I’m going to go through and list out a goodly number of the variables influencing the skill and abilities of two knights who clash at a tournament in Alsace, Ca. 1400. This anecdote isn’t even close to comprehensive, so don’t think you get to use this as a checklist in your own work.

Let’s say I have two young pages, Wilhelm and Francois. Wilhelm starts as a page in the Rhine river valley, and ultimately squires for a knight of no particular renown. Francois starts as a page in Normandy, and ultimately squires for a Count. Now, in reality it would be obvious that Wilhelm and Francois will already be differentiated by regional diet, culture, family history, and all the other things that shape human bodies and activities so that we get so many variations from the same genetic template.

Just for the sake of this scenario, let’s say that both are physical and mental equals when their training begins. However, Wilhelm’s teacher, though skilled and not unkind, has only average resources. When times are tough Wilhelm often has too little to eat, which mean’s he’s more frequently sick, his growth is sometimes stunted, and he has less energy to train even when he’s healthy enough to do so. Even though he and Francois started at exactly the same level, Wilhelm inevitably starts falling behind his French counterpart.

Over time, these things compound. Francois becomes more known as a squire, increasing the advantage he already had by squiring for a Count. He has easier access to training partners, additional instruction, better equipment–it doesn’t really matter whether the Count gives a damn about Francois as a person. Francois is the Count’s squire, Francois thus reflects on the Count, and the Count will ensure he’s up to par even if he feels nothing for the boy.

Wilhelm and his teacher are ambushed while traveling through the countryside, and Wilhelm’s teacher is killed. Wilhelm barely escapes and returns to his family. When he finally becomes a knight, his training has been beset by setbacks at every level. Francois, meanwhile, is seen as a rising star from the moment he’s knighted.

By chance, the two of them square off at a tournament in Alsace. Wilhelm puts up a better fight than expected, but Francois defeats him handily in the end. If this were a fantasy novel, this would be the moment where Francois sneers down at him and establishes himself as the villain of this story. And maybe he still does: shitty people exist, and the one thing fantasy gets right is that many knights were shitty people.

And yet, it takes a certain degree of respect for the opponent to attain a high level in any martial art. That doesn’t necessarily mean humility, but it makes it much harder for people to become skilled fighters without at least tempering their more asinine impulses. This is probably where the whole idea of “morals equal skill” comes from to begin with, but keep in mind I say tempering, not “eliminating.” More than a few skilled historical fighters were still awful people. Wilhelm is also a foreigner–worse, he’s a German! France and Germany have had problems for as long as France and England.

Francois is thinking, right now, of everything that’s gone on between French and Germans throughout time. This goes back before the Romans overthrew the Gauls, back into the primordial murk of unrecorded history. His opponent fought well, but a lack of fighting skill has never been the problem with Germans.

So, what does Francois do? I don’t know; this could go either way. In fact, let’s back up a few minutes to the instant when Francois unhorses Wilhelm and dismounts to continue their contest afoot. Everything I said about Francois’s advantages over Wilhelm remains true–and yet, his victory isn’t guaranteed. He might be overconfident because of his initial success, or it might even be that though he surpasses Wilhelm in speed, strength and endurance, Wilhelm is the better fighter. It might be that, as squire to a Count, Francois became used to opponents who give a little less than their full elan against him. No one wanted to deal with the fallout if things got too serious, you see!

Nobody ever went easy on Wilhelm. He was forced to fight for his life the day his guardian, Sir von Hening, was killed. Wilhelm may not have Francois’ same level of refinement, but perhaps he has the single most precious advantage any warrior can: that day, Wilhelm learned what it was to kill. What tournament fight could phase him after that? Perhaps the German knight’s ruthless precision lets him repeatedly counter Francois before he can put his greater power into play.

Or perhaps Francois bowls him over with raw physicality despite Wilhelm’s greater skill, or perhaps Francois by nature is a humble man and aware enough of his failures to become an expert despite his poor training partners. If it’s this last, there’s really not much Wilhelm can do; an equally-skilled opponent with physical advantages will generally win. Then again, perhaps Francois drank too heavily the night before (a humble man can still have bad influences for friends, and is more likely to be swayed by them), and is fighting a hangover as much as Wilhelm!

You can see now how the two knights’ personal histories alter the likely shape of the fight, which ultimately brings everything full circle back to who they are as men. Yes, spectacular upsets do happen, but they’re incredibly rare in reality. This is another of those huge problems fantasy developed because, hey, let’s put the moral of the story before the substance! You can have upsets sometimes, but only when they’re genuinely going to provide the best story. And the truth is that they almost never do; like I said, fantasy has subsisted for too long on turning the rare into the inevitable and the near-certain into impossibility.

My goal here isn’t to point you towards a single universal answer, but to stop you seeking exactly that. And, as odd as this may seem, many of my best story moments evolved from the principles I first developed for writing fight scenes: whether fair or not, everything that happens flows from the rules of the world. Does Francois sneer, or offer Wilhelm a hand up? Does Wilhelm accept it, or pull him to the ground?

I don’t know. But whatever happens, it’ll be decided by who each knight is in that frozen moment when Wilhelm first plunges from his horse. That part was never in doubt: Wilhelm didn’t get to practice jousting enough to have a chance. What won’t decide the outcome is me saying “I THINK WILHELM SHOULD BE HEROIC AND ALMOST WIN A FAIR FIGHT AND FRANCOIS SHOULD BE EVIL AND WIN BY CHEATING BECAUSE I ENJOY GERMAN CULTURE MORE THAN FRENCH CULTURE.”

While it’s true that I enjoy German culture more, that’s a really goddamn stupid reason for Wilhelm to be a better fighter. If I’m reasoning things that way, the people I like better will always win, and not the kind of gritty, skin-of-their-teeth wins that will have readers roaring applause.

I’ll mention one more problem we’ll run into again and again with more refined fantasy fights. I touched on this last time, and the truth is it simply hasn’t been done. There’s no expectation among writers or readers to try this kind of thing, and that creates resistance against it. You can see that resistance in authors throwing out the poor advice I covered in my previous article. But as I said: it hasn’t been done. The truth is that there hasn’t been a concerted industry effort to write fight scenes the way we do magic, which is what I’m advocating. Until then, none of us know whether this can work or how to accomplish it.

And until we know, I vehemently disagree with the assertions that because it hasn’t been done, it must not be viable. My gut tells me they’re wrong. And my gut is fed on a steady diet of martial arts and the study of warfare in pop culture as well as history, which means it has far better instincts about the missed potential of fights than my counterparts. Maybe this whole ludicrous experiment of mine is doomed to crash and burn; fair enough. But we don’t move writing forward by doing the same things everyone else is already doing.

This isn’t even close to a comprehensive list of problems, but it’s enough. It’s enough to go on with. I could write an entire book purely about the useless and/or problematic internal conceits of fantasy literature. Hell, someday I probably will.

But for now, this is enough. Next time we’ll get to know the hedgerows better, and start figuring out how to break through!

(If you found this post enriching or simply enjoyed it, then please leave a like, share it with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon!)

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