Conflict provides you with a stage upon which you can enact almost every type of drama you can imagine, so it is a very useful tool in writing.
Many fantasy novels, particularly those in a series, are grounded in a world where there is a long running war. It adds excitement and drama to a novel when there is regular conflict, as it can be used in many ways to spice up your plot and to act as a change device for your characters. But you need to win your battles before you win the war, and a good battle scene (be it large or small) can make or break your novel. You need credibility in your description of each battle for the reader to “believe” it and feel the power and pain of what should be an extremely heated and emotional scene in your book. After all, people are fighting for their lives in a battle, not just the cause behind it!
Start by looking at real battles before you create a fictional one. Understand the dynamics of the people who were fighting: who were they; why were they willing to die; who led them; what forced them into battle in the first place? Also seek to understand the dynamics of the battle: how did each side approach one another (face-to-face, siege, aerial, sea, guerrilla); what was the terrain like; what tactics did they use; which strategies were successful and which ones failed; what was the weather like and did it have an impact; what weapons did they use; was there any treachery that forced the result; were mercenaries used?
Some fascinating battles can be found across the internet and in books where you can start to get a grip on how battles were actually fought. I’ve listed a few below:
- Battle of Bosworth (last English civil war battle between the houses of Lancaster and York) – this battle had it all – hand-to-hand combat, heroics, treachery and the last stand of a king.
- D-day landing (Allies vs Germany) – already delayed by the weather this extraordinary battle used everything the allies could throw against the Germans to finally start pushing them back; paratroopers, amphibious vehicles, thousands running across the sand.
- Battle of Clontarf (Irish vs Vikings) – Brian Boru’s ultimate battle where he hoped to not only bring the celtic tribes together under one king but also oust the “strangers” that had invaded almost 2 centuries before; the Vikings. The battle started with the landing of the Vikings and moved across the landscape of Clontarf. Thousands died, and although Boru won the battle, he was slaughtered afterwards by a lone Viking.
- Battle of Waterloo (France vs England) – this battle fought with canon and musket brought the final defeat of Napoleon and the end of the Napoleonic wars. It was a break down in communications and poor leadership that eventually led to the defeat of the French.
- Battle of Thermopylae (Greece/Spartans vs. Persians) – this was one of those ancient battles that when you read about it you wonder whether it was true or not, but this one is truly amazing where a relatively small army defended a narrow pass from the invading Persians down to the last man.
- The Ancient Battles web site also has detailed descriptions and downloadable animations showing how a number of different battles were fought, which can be very useful for forming the details of your story’s battles.
Most of these battles marked a turning point in history where nothing was ever the same again for the people and countries involved. It’s always worth considering what would have happened had the opposing side won, what would life be like now, especially if you head down the road of speculative fantasy for your story.
But the key thing to remember when adding a battle to your novel is that it will drive change in your plot. Characters will fight and die, chaos will eventuate, blood will be spilled. You can’t have a battle and not have things shift significantly.
However, as I’ve mentioned before, this is fantasy and you can add different elements to your battle to really get the action moving in unexpected ways. Again, I would strongly recommend reading battles already written by fantasy authors to understand how they approached this, such as Raymond E Feist’s Riftwar series, George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, J V Jones’s Sword of Shadows, Terry Brooks’ Antrax series and Wilbur Smith’s Egyptian novels.
Describing a battle is really tough, it’s something that takes a lot of time to master to make it exciting and page-turning. Don’t rest on your laurels once you’ve tried writing a battle-scene, go over it repeatedly until you’re sure it’s convincing.