Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Writing combat, part the second

More questions from my workshop, and more thoughts on why they matter.

How can you tell someone is a sword fighter? This one was phrased in the Sherlockian sense. What would give away a swordsman to an informed observer. My answer involved looking for the muscles in the forearm and wrist that have to be developed to control the sword, physical stance and confidence, visible awareness of surroundings. There are lots of other good answers and other avocations that will share many of the same traits, dancers for example. My fencing improved significantly in the window when I was both unofficially TAing a stage combat course and taking modern dance because there was a lot of overlap in skill sets.

In the workshop description you mention the physics of swordplay and that a rapier is always going to beat a broadsword—why is that? So I talked about the time-to-target issues of a weapon that is already extended in front of you and very close to your strike point vs. one that need to have a good swing for full effectiveness and is thus several feet at least from the strike point. A thrusting weapon is simply faster than a swinging weapon. Then we discussed the history of weapons as a history of technological innovation and development and how advances in weapons drove advances in armor and vice-versa. And also how things like improved steel making technology and the introduction of gunpowder or the long bow changed things.

Who owns swords and other weapons? I was particularly pleased with this one. Weapons are often expensive and depending on where you are in history they can be very expensive. The socioeconomics of weapon ownership is something any fantasy or science fiction writer should take into account. If, for example a sword costs a year's earnings for a peasant, and the owner is not a rich noble, how did they get the sword? How does its cost affect the way they treat the blade?

At root these and other questions are all about making your writing believable, and I'll talk a bit more about that in my next post, since I've already used up a lot of words and my alloted non-fiction writing time. In the meantime, does anyone have any thoughts on the subject of weapons in writing? Problems they've been having that they want to share? Anything like that?

12 comments:

Sean M. Murphy said...

I think the one problem that springs to mind immediately for me is the issue of having anacronistic weapons. There are times when having a weapons that is from the past can be acceptable, (i.e., using a sword in a starship) but there need to be very carefully thought through by the author and well-established in the story, either socially or in the personality of the character. Why should your electronics chief come up swinging a short sword when a blaster is faster, more deadly, and can reach farther? Are they afraid of punching a hole in the ship with the blaster? And so on.

Far worse, though, is the anacronism of having futuristic weapons in the past. Even when this is in the nature of the story (time-travel, alien invasion in the past, etc.), it is very hard, in my opinion, to tell a story well when the weapons in question--and their associated cost/benefit ratios--don't equal up. It makes for a very uneven playing field, and for a reader, at least for this one, it can feel like walking across a marshy meadow, never sure whether what you are stepping on is a hummock or just a pile of dry grass concealing a mud-filled hole--very up and down.

Muneraven said...

When it comes to weapons in fantasy books I think a lot of writers drop the ball. And I am NOT a weapons expert. But there are an awful lot of books out there with characters who pick up a bow or sword and magically just know how to use it. Yes, there are worlds where every schmuck on the street has a fine sword strapped on. Lots of heroes with gigantic two-handed swords whirling over their heads who never, ever get skewered by some little squirt with a pointy stick (damn now there's a scene that would be fun to write).

I greatly appreciate a character who struggles to learn to use a weapon. I also like characters who NEVER get good at combat, or at least certain forms of combat. And cheap crude weapons are underappreciated in fantasy. Not enough non-magical staves, and not enough clubs, scythes, and simple knives.

More rock throwing, says I!! (LOL)

Douglas Hulick said...

Actaully, a broad sword can beat a rapier quite handily - IF the person using said sword knows what they are doing. (I know you know this, Kelly, but I feel the need to expound and get all sword-geeky :).

Especially with the earlier weapons, there was a lot more to the combat system than just the weapon itself. Most of the medieval combat forms I have seen built up from a base of unarmed combat, and then inserted various weapons that followed the same physical principles. So, for the person with the broad sword (or dagger, or long sword, or...) against a rapier, it would be about not playing the rapier fighter's game, not just in terms of the physics of range and tempo/speed, but in terms of base combat philisophy. With a long sword, you are more than happy to get in on someone and grapple, since that is where half of your game originated. So, let the thrust come, deflect it, and then wade on in. A simplistic example, but I've seen people do it with simulators - it's a hoot.

As for other weapons, I am with you and muneraven: economics and effectiveness are widely ignored in a lot of SF/F writing when it comes to weapons. Quarterstaves and clubs, for example, are two of the simplest weapons out there - find a tree or a sapling, whack off a bit, and you're in business. Yet they are both extremely effective, especially if you understand how they are supposed to work (not just "swing it at the other guy"). A lot of staff work comes from sword fundamentals, which means a good staff user can beat the crap out of a cocky swordsman, since they know the same basics. Likewise, having done a bit of Irish cudgel work, I can tell you that I would more than likely turn and go the other way if I saw someone actaully taking a stance with any kind of club. That's one brutal weapon. Remind me to tell you some stories about 17th century Irish "recreational violence" some time.

Pole arms are given short shrift in fantsy lit, too. There's a reason they were the most common weapon issued to the Papal guards, city militias, early Tudor musters, and so on - they worked very well. Put a group of men armed with halberds or Englsih bills against a group of swordsmen, and you often have some very worried swordsmen.

Okay, enough about danerous shiney bits for now. Maybe I'll formulate a post on some sword combat fundamentals for writers down the line.

Kelly McCullough said...

Sean, yes, anchronism can be a royal pain.

Muneraven, I love this post. So many forget the issue of training time and what that means. I did several years of five days a week two hours a day martial arts training until I blew my knees out, which qualifes me as a talented dabbler. I was pretty decent, but the folks who are really serious about it regularly showed me just how much further I had to go.

Doug, absolutely. On the rapier broadswrod front I should probably have qualified that like this: in a duel situation with skill being equal, with no armor or shields involved, and plenty of room for maneuver, the rapier will win nine times out of ten. One the things I told my class is that I'd actually go after tha hands of the broadsword wielder first to try even more to maximize the physics advantages of the rapier. I also pointed them toward the final fight scene in Rob Roy in which a broadsword takes a rapier nicely and reasonably.

And a hearty yes to the rest of that was well. A stick in the hand of someone trained to use it, is one of the nastier weapons around, and cheap and easy to get rid of to boot.

Stephanie Zvan said...

And let's not forget the practical consequences of fighting. Western movies notsithstanding, most local citizenry and law enforcement do not embrace violence. The exceptions tend to be very stylized forms of combat that are clearly never going to involve the locals. Anything else tends to make you unwelcome 'round most parts.

Proving yourself tougher than the local tough doesn't usually get you loved by the populace. It just means they're more scared of you than they were of the last guy. And the closer they were to the action, the more any laurels are going to be tossed from a distance to land in the dust at your hero's feet. Most humans have the general awareness that violence is catching, at least once you convince them it's real.

Erik Buchanan said...

Excellent posts, and excellent responses.

The rapier-broadsword argument is one of long-standing (dating back to George Silver, English swordmaster, who claimed the English broadsword as the superior weapon over the new-fangled Italian rapier).

Also, people tend to forget that there is a lot of thrusting you can do with a broadsword, too. In fact,
Heronimo, and Italian rapier master was killed by an English Bully named Cheese (believe it or not) who used his broadsword in exactly that way.

One of the big problems in the debate is that people forget that rapiers were a civilian weapon, meant for wearing in the streets and dueling, while the broadsword was a battlefield weapon. Also, the broadsword was reaching the end of its useful lifespan for another reason: Gunpowder.

Which brings me to my pet peeve: Firearms and magic. Somehow, people always assume or give the magician the edge: They have a sixth sense, they can use their magic to trick the firearm's aim, etc. No one likes to think about the fact that a trained sniper, using a .50 caliber rifle,can kill someone quite successfully from over 1000 metres away without the person even hearing the shot, let alone knowing the sniper it there.

Anyway, that's my pet peeve. Keep up the excellent column.

Kelly McCullough said...

Erik, gunpowder did indeed figure into the class discussion as a major part of the reason armor and can-opener type swords were on their way out. I'm with you on the rifle, though I have to note that a .22 sitting on a .306 rifle charge, as is the case in a number of sniper setups, is also a heck of a magekiller. Doesn't have to be a big fat bullet, just has to be moving fast and on target.

Kelly McCullough said...

Steph, cultural response to weapons play, another good one. And something I've heard from you at other times should also get a mention—over description. It's too easy for a writer to fall in love with a magic sword or whatever and then go overboard on the descriptions giving the reader way more than they need at that time and slowing the action of the story.

Erik Buchanan said...

Won't argue with you on the .306. I just like the look of the .50 cal. Nice weapon. Also, it can shoot through the tank the mage is sitting in.

Stephanie Zvan said...

While we're talking cultural elements, one other thing we shouldn't forget is that there are several historical precendents for large portions of the population not being allowed to own weapons. For example, a weapon owned by a serf in a feudal society was generally a sentence to hard labor at best, death for the whole family at worst.

Oh, and another. Much of the socialization process is aimed at keeping us from destroying human life. I can't find the statistic now, but there was a fairly large percentage of recruits in the World Wars who passed their training beautifully and then found themselves unable to shoot another human being once they were on the battlefield. The US military has done extensive work to reshape their training to overcome this difficulty. While it may not affect your character, it is likely to affect someone they train with or fight alongside for the first time.

Laura Rede said...

I'm getting a lot out of this thread! One question that I forgot to ask in the combat workshop: historically speaking, would women have been allowed to study and use any of the weapons we saw in class? Are there any weapons that were considered acceptable for women?

Kelly McCullough said...

Steph, good point historically, though I'm not sure that it's one that's widely known. I suspect that you would both have to introduce and explain the idea to your readers in order to make it work since the convetion in F&SF is that soldiers and warriors fight and kill.

Laura-nope. Pretty much across the board women were not trained to fight until very very recently. There are exceptions historically, women who concealed their sex, women raised by unconventional parents to replace a lost son, and outlaws. There were quite a few women fighters among the pirates of the Caribbean though stilla distinct minority. On the other hand, it has become a convention of modern F&SF that women did fight and thus only a little handwaving is needed.