This time, it’s on the other really frequent class of heroes.
1) “Natural talent” shouldn’t excuse training.
I’ve ranted about the teenage genius who picks up the sword for the first time and can miraculously fight his twenty-five-year-old mentor to a standstill. Um, no. And these days, most authors seem at least aware that a modicum of training with the weapon is necessary. However, they’ve found what is supposedly another way to get around it: having other characters exclaim in awe that the hero is naturally talented at the blade like other people are naturally talented at music.
The thing is, neither sword-fighting nor music are skills that just come the first time someone touches a sword or a harp. The sword-fighter still has to learn what balance of sword is best for him, how to hold it, how to stand, the various moves he’ll use against other fighters, how to fight when blood and sweat are running over his hands, dirty tricks against his enemies (though see point 2), and how to combine what instincts he may have with formal, conscious training until the whole thing does become unconscious. There’re probably other things, too, depending on what kind of blade he has, what kind of style he’s been trained to fight in, and what level of competency his teacher has.
I don’t care how much you want your character to be the best fighter in the world. Claiming he has to learn nothing because of natural talent is stupid.
2) Honorable fighters are overrated.
I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read where a fighter hero won’t do any of the following:
- stab an enemy in the back, or sneak up on a sentry and cut his throat.
- kick up dirt or throw water into someone’s eyes.
- feign an injury to make his enemy think he’s weaker than he really is.
- set traps in a chosen battlefield to increase his advantage.
- kill an unarmed opponent (never mind that the “unarmed opponent” may actually fight with a different weapon or know bare-handed combat).
- kill a woman or a child, even if that woman or child is on the opposite side and immediately threatening.
And, of course, the book’s “dishonorable” fighters, i. e. the ones on the enemy side, either don’t use these tricks or are castigated by the author in a “Tsk, tsk, tsk” tone if they do. And they never work against the hero, either, even when the hero should have been off-guard enough not to suspect them coming.
What the shit is this?
Fighter heroes, most of the time, are not mages, and do not have some mystical loss of power if they break the “rules.” The only exception I can think of to this is someone who was trained in a fighting system that does emphasize honor or the will of a god, and in real life, those had exceptions all the time. (Many of the “honorable” knights of the Middle Ages made their living by abducting members of rich families and holding them hostage for ransom). If the god itself comes down and punishes fighters who break the rules, then yes, that would be a good reason to obey them.
But even then, why those particular rules? In a society where both women and men can be dangerous or fight in armies, the rule against slaying a woman doesn’t have the basis that it does in our world’s idea that women are the “weaker sex,” and you’ll either have to come up with a justification for it—stupid, if the fighter hero happens to be facing a female opponent—or just drop it. (This is one reason why I never found Robert Jordan’s Rand a convincing fighter. He won’t hurt a woman, even one who faces and fights against him with dangerous blades or magic, even though he came from a village where women had some power and a ruling council of their own. Right).
The problem here is that the author, in playing by the honorable rules, doesn’t play by the rules that those ones imply: that the hero, if he’s forced to do the honorable thing and spare an enemy’s life or attack from the front or whatever, should have problems because of it. No, instead his enemies just aren’t good enough to challenge him, or they become converted to the side of goodness and righteousness by the hero, or somehow, even though he’s dragging an unwilling hostage across hundreds of miles, that hostage never manages to cause serious trouble. Ha. Imagine babysitting someone who really didn’t want to be with you, who would be dangerous the moment he got his hands on a blade, who has enough of a brain to resist the “side of goodness and light” babble, who will need to be released from ropes to eat and relieve himself, and who will be looking for a chance to escape when you sleep… By the end of the journey, the hero should be tired and irritable as all hell, not riding beside the hostage with cheerfulness in his eyes.
If you’re not going to have a practical fighter, you should have one in a hell of a lot of trouble, not just miraculously winning time after time.
3) “Age and cunning beat youth and stupidity every time.”
I wish I knew who said that quote; I’ve looked around, and can’t come up with an original reference for it. Oh, well. Just know I wasn’t the first one to say it.
This relates back to point 1 somewhat, the genius teenager, but there are times when the young hero of the story has trained with his mentor for a time, and then manages to best him. Six months or a year of training, against twenty or more years of experience.
Excuse me while I laugh my ass off.
The problem grows even more ridiculous when the mentor is someone who’s had longer than a normal human lifetime to train. If your young genius hero is fighting an elf who’s fought with the sword for three hundred years, then no, I’m sorry, but only the elf putting down his sword and baring his heart would be excuse for the hero to completely defeat him. Elves are generally represented as not susceptible to age, so there’s not even the feeble “Well, he’s just not as fast and strong as a seventeen-year-old” excuse. And yes, I do think it’s feeble, because it removes any mental component from the contest. It insinuates that the mentor, who has fought against hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different foes and actually seen in practice what the student has seen only in theory, wouldn’t be able to defeat a young man who has fought only him. If the mentor has a hundred tricks he hasn’t shown the seventeen-year-old yet, then I’m sorry, just being able to swing the sword around longer counts for almost nothing.
Not that many authors pay attention to that when creating their genius heroes, anyway.
4) I don’t care how good he is with his weapon, he still has to have physical limitations.
Fighting is hard work, especially with heavier weapons like broadswords, which many fantasy authors seem to favor. (I suppose it looks more impressive). The usual part where the hero and the villain duel for an hour with broadswords makes me snort, especially when they’ve fought other enemies before encountering each other. They should have collapsed from exhaustion, or from blood loss if their wounds were extensive enough, long before then. Unless your hero is deliberately putting on a show for someone, like his king, the goal should be to end the battle as quickly as possible, not stretch it out. Even if he’s fresh and his enemy’s not, every moment that passes gives his enemy another chance to wound him.
Yeah, wounds are part of it, too. There’s a scene in just about every fantasy book with a fighter hero where he gets wounded, and then has to go out to battle while the injury’s still not completely healed. Percentage of wounds that pull open again: 10%, probably lower. Or they open, but conveniently and patiently wait until the fighter has killed his enemy and his adoring groupies companions have just enough time to get him to a healer. (See the healer rant for why this is a copout).
Depending on where the wound is located, it can (and should, if this is a fighter hero and not a mage hero) make it impossible for him to fight for a little while, and perhaps even permanently cripple him. A bite on the ankle may not seem like a lot to worry about, but it sure is if it hamstrings the fighter. He’d be able to hobble, at best.
Fighting is a violent profession. I know that seems obvious, but for a lot of authors, it’s not. The hero somehow endures all the violence with just a few plot-convenient scars or wounds—most often psychological, like the loss of a comrade—and with no sense that everything could be taken away from him in the space of a few heartbeats.
5) Don’t give your fighter the universal adoration and love of everyone around him.
If fighters are the rock stars of the fantasy world, it’s the difference between the groupies who loves the rock stars’ music and the ones who have to clean up the messes they make when they trash hotels. Whores might love your fighter because he pays generously. People he rescues from the [insert evil enemy here] will probably love him. The justice system has no reason at all to love some random stranger wandering around town and refusing to peace-bond his sword. Nor do barkeepers, innkeepers, noble employers whom the mercenary fighter betrays for “the greater good,” other fighters in competition with him, healers who are forever having to patch up wounds he made worse by getting out of bed like an idiot or inflicting violence on anyone around him, or people who just aren’t impressed by fighting.
It seems to me that far too many people in fantasy worlds are impressed by fighting, even in ones where mages have lots of gosh-wow powers that make a flashier and splashier impact than any one fighter could. So he hacks things apart with a sword. So what? Why should people who are plagued by enemies like ghosts, which a sword can’t touch, or mages who can tear apart your fighter like a fly, or artists, who usually value creation over destruction, stare in awe? The second silliest scene in a lot of fantasy novels with fighter heroes is the one where the protagonist goes into “a dance of death” and everyone just stares in awe. (The silliest one of is all is the one where he defeats ten enemies with a huge dripping wound in arm/side/shoulder/back/leg).
This is a case of transposing twenty-first century attitudes into a fantasy world. We don’t see a whole lot of people who still fight with swords, knives, axes, or hammers, so displays of that kind of prowess make us gape. If there are lots of impressive fighters around, your hero could easily become the focus of a dozen songs, but some other fighter might be the focus of another dozen. If the fighter lives among people who fight as a way of life—say, among knights in a typical medieval fantasy, or mercenaries or highwaymen in another—he should receive less notice and stammering awe than if he’s solely around peasants. And please don’t reduce his mentor, if he has one, to gibbering shock. The mentor might not have had another student as good, but he’s unlikely to be silenced by the sight of mere potential. (See point 3).
6) Always remember the limitations of the weapon in question.
Most fantasy genius heroes who become “the most powerful fighter in the world!!!1!” are trained with the sword. Others sometimes work with knives, axes, hammers, or bare hands. Whatever the type, the author presents the hero as, oh yeah, probably vulnerable to magic and poison, but no weapon can touch him.
I have two words for you: Ranged weapons.
Standard Fantasy Fighter 1 marches along in front of his army. He waves his sword and shouts at the enemy waiting silent on the hills. (In which case, he’s already stupid. Attacking an enemy on higher ground is something to be avoided if possible). And then, he falls silent, and, hopefully, dead of an arrow through the throat.
Yes, real-world fighters have a solution to this little problem. It’s called a shield. Most authors writing fantasy fighters significantly fail to have them train with one, either because they want them to fight two-handed or because, well, he’s the bestest! Those archers are just cowards!
Cowards who might be able to kill him from a hundred paces away. Just a reminder.
Crossbows are worse, because they can punch through armor, though they’re a bitch to reload. If the enemy has crossbows, you’ll have to explain how your fighter deals with them. And no, having him cut apart every quarrel in the air with his sword “because he’s cool like that” won’t work. Twenty crossbowmen firing at once at someone who’s been stupid enough to march along in front of his army and proclaim himself the one hope for victory are going to take him down if he’s without magic, and probably even if he has a shield. He just can’t catch them all.
Introduce guns and cannons and you have a big ol’ problem.
Other fighters will suffer similar limitations, of course. Throwing a knife is damn hard to do precisely; there’s a greater than average chance that it’ll just clang off armor or hit the enemy with the hilt, which won’t slow him down much. Axes are harder to reverse in the air than a sword, and hammers need a lot of power to wield. Bows take a lot of strength to draw, and if an archer runs out of arrows and doesn’t have a blade, he’s essentially helpless. Crossbows and more ancient guns, which are more likely in fantasy settings that do allow gunpowder, are, as mentioned, hard to load. This rule applies to all weapons. But authors who write fantasy heroes wielding swords seem to have a bigger risk of forgetting that a sword isn’t an answer to everything, probably just because there’s so many of them.
I have just realized that this will necessitate a rant on writing battle scenes at some point in the future, because so many points I thought of just didn’t quite fit having a fighter hero. Rants on thieves and assassins first, though.