Battling Battles: What Makes Writing Combat So Challenging?

Writing an epic fantasy is super fun. There are magical forces to conjure up, heroic characters to mold, cities and landscapes to create ... and, eventually (womp, womp), a battle to write. 

Some fantasy writers, to be sure, love to write battles. For them, the whole story has been building up to this height of conflict, when bad guy meets good guy and the fate of Middle Earth is on the brink. But, I gotta tell ya, I loathe writing battles. I found myself wanting to have all the warring action happen off stage.

Why do I so dread to write battles? Several reasons come to mind.

1. The war is not the true test of the protagonist. Maybe it's because she's a woman, or maybe it's because her journey is more about maturity than courage. Either way, the protagonist in my fantasy makes difficult life choices off the battlefield, and, although the effects of those choices reveal themselves in combat, there are other ways that her character arch can be demonstrated.

2. The upshot is more interesting than the process. Totally a personal opinion, but we all know what's going to happen in a fantasy battle, right? Bad guys will outnumber good guys, good guys take the win by the skin of their teeth. The real question is: Who dies? Who survives? Is there a new king? What was destroyed? What is reborn?

When watching action movies (a dangerous pastime, I know), I always know there will be several opportunities to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water. Chase scenes, face offs involving throwing guys through walls, figuring out how to dismantle the bomb ... whenever these stock segments begin, I am guaranteed at least five minutes of downtime. It's not that I begrudge the scenes being there, I just don't need to watch them. And this is, in a way, how I feel about the battle scenes in fantasy novels. Fun to get the gist, but, I can skip the stuff about how the portcullis was raised and the barracks overtaken. Does that make me a fantasy scrooge?

3. Too many characters, too little time. Fantasies are chock-full of characters. That's what we love about them! But, now that all those characters have been written, they all have to show up in the same place at the same time! Yikes. In any given battle scene, I've got at least 20 characters to keep track of. Some of them have never met before. Some of them have complicated story lines and need to have a satisfactory wrap up (fight the nemesis, die with dignity, save the true love, etc.). Others are fun, sidelines characters that need mentioning, but where to put them?

4. I don't know nothin' 'bout fightin' no enemies! The characters I am most intimidated by are the formidable warriors (at least, I have set them up to be so). Now they've really got to deliver on their badassery. Shall I draw on my experience to evoke the nail-biting, breath-taking, blood-spewing skirmish required of me? Why, certainly! After all, I did study classical voice, musical theatre, improvisational comedy, Catholic theology ... wait a minute.

It's a struggle. Sometimes I just want to write, "Then the king did something super awesome that you would totally expect him to be capable of but it's very satisfying to actually see him do, and ... and ... he threw down his enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside!" Basically I just want to steal lines from the LOR movies and hope no one notices.

Quippy dialogue? Sweet metaphors? Endearing character traits? I'm all over it. Weapons and fight choreography? I've got to dig a LOT deeper.

I don't think all those yoga classes are helping.

When it comes down to it, though, it would be unjust to skirt the battle. Readers want to see the struggle. Good stories see the dark before the dawn. Characters stick with us when they have the chance to prove themselves. And, even if we know who will ultimately claim victory (unless you're reading a George R. R. Martin novel, apparently), more than a few surprises can unfold in the heat of battle. I do my best to take all this into consideration.

Still, the task is a daunting one.



What do you think? Should writing battles be easy? How can a writer expand her experience to include a little more 'to-the-death'? Share your thoughts!