A Disjointed Collection of Thoughts on Realism Versus Utility in Fictional Combat

You may be hoping this post will be amazing, since it would have to be in order to justify the length of its title. A title which hilariously implies my thoughts are ever not disjointed. I… um… well, I’m sure some people will like this.

It’s occurred to me that I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about what makes sense in a fight versus the way fights are portrayed in media, but I haven’t really gone into why I consider it important. I’m also hoping to keep things civil this time, but you know me: I could fly off the handle and absolutely lambaste someone for having the wrong handguard on a katana at any moment. Brief digression, the right handguard is whichever one you find to best guard your hands, probably without encasing them in solid metal spheres. But maybe you’re a robot with detachable hands, and in that case I’d like you to leave swordfighting, because you’re probably made out of steel anyway and steel cannot cut through steel, thus making you a cheater. This seemingly drawn-out tangent, as per my usual time-wasting, now brings us back to my actual point. I’ve heard one definition that realism consists of what is technically possible, and if we’re discussing movies and television, then an action is clearly possible because the actors are performing it on-screen. I don’t agree with this definition, but I think it takes us in an interesting direction.

Exhibit A, the Yamato, a ship which actually existed but offered very little utility.
Exhibit A, the Yamato, a ship which actually existed but offered very little utility.

After all, how do we judge something on its plausibility when I’ve got a seven-foot tall white dude from a frozen hellscape smashing orcs with a warhammer the size of a goat? I mean, I wouldn’t, because ‘barbarian from frozen North’ is a prominent entry in the overused fantasy character hall of fame, but if I did it’d be hard to say what makes sense for him to do. Hell, how am I supposed to guess what a bunch of cyborg samurai are actually capable of when they’ve speed, strength and reflexes ten times those of ordinary humans? Am I saying they have ten times the ability of ordinary humans, or ten times the ability of Olympic athletes? I don’t know! Cyborgs don’t exist here! Yet. I mean, we’re getting close. But even now, if I wanted to and was a much better writer than I have any reason to believe I am, I could just tell you that they were made from a highly-resilient, mold-proof, energized form of Gouda cheese, and if I spun it well enough you’d roll with it because literature.

This is why I like to look at fighting in terms of utility. Not just whether something can work, but whether it works well. This may sound at first like it’s going to lead to a lot of ‘samey’ fights, but trust me, there’s plenty of variety in practical people-pulverizing techniques. The way Western and Central Europe taught saber fencing was quite different from how Eastern Europe, Russia and co. taught it, and all of that was different from the way Indian masters taught the use of the tulwar, which is still effectively a saber. And if you think this sounds like researching it is difficult, remember that if you’re an author you don’t have to actually replicate the movements. Hop on Youtube, look up a style of fighting that sounds interesting to you, and consider how you’re going to describe it. Can’t describe a fighting style? Might want to work on that. Your book is mostly about a small-town cafe owner in Alsace-Lorraine who only studies rapier fencing as a hobby? Might want to consider whether that trait’s doing anything for the plot.

Back to that utility thing, though. The problem with taking no cues from historical ways of using a weapon is that those people knew their shit. Johannes Liechtenauer and Fiore dei Liberi didn’t spend decades mastering, codifying and writing down exhaustive, elegant ways to wield the longsword just so you could ignore them to the point of not actually knowing what a longsword is. If you know what a longsword is, wonderful. If you just thought of a one-handed arming sword, a very moderate shame upon you, sir, madam or person of alternative gender pronoun. I’ve been over that microscopic non-issue and so have many others. What I’m saying, in my roundabout and needlessly condescending way, is that you have not had decades of your own combat experience, supplemented by centuries of fighting done by others, to figure out how a sword might best be used to render another living being into a corpse. There is no shame in this, because we as a species do not fight in that barbaric, uncivilized manner anymore. Instead, we use guns, which allow a five year-old boy to kill a twenty-five year-old trained soldier, because clearly the most humane way to kill each other is the one which makes absolutely every individual characteristic less important than the accuracy and stopping power of one’s explodey metal-projector. That sounds like a topic I’ll be exploring later.

As to the topic at hand, however, there are multiple elements of a fight scene that utility plays into. First off, what kind of world is this? If it’s on the grimmer end of the spectrum, or perhaps even (gag) dark, you should consider a much heavier emphasis on historically-derived fighting. Because on the one hand, you can have two swordsmen smack their weapons together for three paragraphs before one of them is disarmed and stabbed in the belly. On the other hand, you can have two sentences in which a cocky sabreur takes on a veteran halberdier and discovers that a six-foot polearm designed to pierce or crush armor is not impressed by the thickness of a human skull. I would recommend this happen on a bright, sunny day in order to better juxtapose brutal murder with serene forest and chirping birds.

Seriously, look at this thing! That's three different ways of killing another human in the same one foot of length!

Seriously, look at this thing! That’s three different ways of killing another human in the same one foot of length!

On the topic of sabers, one of the most common ways of ending a duel between two sabreurs was a sudden cut to the sword hand, either crippling it or dismembering it entirely. Even in sparring matches, which don’t necessarily take place at full speed, this movement happens very quickly. And once your opponent’s main hand and weapon are gone, it’s not much of a fight. Especially if you cut off his hand a split-second after he buried his sword in your heart, which is entirely possible. If someone is absolutely determined to kill you even at the cost of his own life or health, it’s pretty hard to stop him. This is why sparring in pretty much all schools of melee weaponry negates double hits, unless one of them comes far enough in advance that the judges can safely assume the first hit would’ve ended the fight. Which also brings me to the other point about utility and historical sources: very few modern martial artists, whether from West, East or somewhere in between, have used their weapon of choice in a lethal confrontation. Most of them will cede authority in favor of the old masters on these grounds. The only way to know for sure that a fight technique works is to test it on other people, who will understandably be leary of such things in this day and age.

The reason I bring all this up is that these are all established, fully plausible and believable elements that I have literally never seen in a single novel featuring medieval weaponry. What I have seen are plenty of stagefights transcribed onto the page in a medium where you don’t have to worry about the safety of actors and a movement is less likely to be vivid if it’s needlessly complicated. Or I just seen extremely general terms used in spite of the fact that all those books were in English, a language so specific that it has literally dozens of words for any single concept. Generalities do not convey imagery, and a fight scene with no imagery shouldn’t exist in a novel where combat is a big part of the narrative. This would be similar to Stephen Ambrose decided that a vivid depiction of what happened to Major Winters and Easy Company in WW II was just too hard to execute. That book probably wouldn’t have been his first best-seller if he’d done so.

And again, these things are used so rarely in Genre Fiction that within the hundreds of titles I’ve read, I’ve never seen them once. Not once. Consider the etymology and other denotations of the word, ‘novel’: ‘new, not resembling something formerly known or used,’ ‘original or striking especially in conception or style.’ The word ultimately derives from the Latin novus, meaning new. And I’m sorry that got so stuffy; perhaps that’s why I have a hard time explaining these things to others. But now you see what I’m getting at, yes? You want your writing to stand out, and doing things differently from others will have to help. The closest I’ve seen is the term ‘stop-thrust’ in a series I read recently, which I’ve never heard used by a HEMA practitioner and seems to exist only in Olympic-style fencing. I imagine this is because, when trying not to die by killing someone else first, there’s not much point to a thrust that doesn’t stop your opponent.

You might say all this sounds like a lot of trouble, and of course it is. But so is everything else in writing. Do you just ignore the way people actually talk and interact because making your humans behave like humans isn’t always easy? Do you refuse to maintain a coherent plot because you’d have to think about how events tie in and how characters will react and drive things forward? No, because this would be a ridiculous way of approaching  an art with so much competition and so little certainty. And yes, I talk an awful lot about fight scenes, but there’s so much ground to cover and so little evidence I’m being heard.

But then again, if I was, I’d have way less to post about. So perhaps I should count my blessings.

One thought on “A Disjointed Collection of Thoughts on Realism Versus Utility in Fictional Combat

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