Not cheesy duel-to-the-death scenes, but fights between a pair of opponents. And because I don’t have a whole lot of technical knowledge of kinds of sword and so on, I’ll just be talking about practical considerations.

1) Light.

I’ve read a few fantasy duels that mention the sun being directly overhead so as not to shine into either opponent’s eyes, or one fighter tricking another by running at him out of the setting sun. Most people seem to do all right with this, though I do recall giggling at a few scenes set at noon where the characters somehow had long shadows.

No, it’s the fights in darkness that baffle me. Will you please decide how much light there is and then stick with it? If this is absolute darkness, and neither of the characters have magic or natural advantages, such as cat’s eyes, that let them pick up faint ambient light, I fail to understand how one character “sees” to strike the other. Nor do I understand how one character goes from being blind to noting the blue colors of the other character’s clothing. (Perhaps fantasy clothing simply exudes a “Bend Reality” aura, seeing that it gets described many times in simple defiance of common sense). If the light is faint, from the moon or stars, the characters won’t be able to see as well as they will by sunlight, though there are certain situations, as with a full moon shining off snow, that will be better than others, such as starlight trying to beam down into a city filled with lamps and candles and magical glows. If a character moves from a dark area into a brighter one, then you can improve his vision. Otherwise, please stay consistent. None of this “it was so dark the enemy could not see him” in one line, and then “he blinded the enemy with the light flashing off his sword” in the next.

Other things to consider:

  • Someone coming out of a cave or other extremely dark area into bright light will take a moment to blink and refocus his eyes. Good time for an attack.
  • Looking directly at a fire or torch and then away into darkness is a good way to lose your night vision.
  • Sudden brilliance can cause afterimages, which could easily be the deciding factor in an otherwise close fight.

2) Footing.

So fighting on a bright sunny day on dry ground, such as grass or stone or trampled dirt, just won’t do. The assassin tracks the hero down in the snow instead, or the hero dramatically duels his faithless lover to the death on top of the castle wall, while rain screams down on top of them. The final confrontation takes place on a mountainside covered in scree. The hero comes on his old enemy as he’s fleeing through an autumn forest.

The ground is therefore prone to be, depending on the weather and terrain, slippery, wet, unstable—if they’re fighting on top of ice—prone to turning in the case of little stones, or just plain treacherous, as with dry leaves. It should not function to impair only the enemy. There should be things to step on besides the inevitable dry twig that is always turning up, proving that fantasy writers have learned far too much from James Fenimore Cooper. And it can have less than fatal consequences, such as by spoiling a hero’s strike just when it would have gone through the enemy. Skill plays a far lesser part in fights on this kind of ground than people might think.

Of course, to have your snow or ice or rain or scree or leaves but not be forced to let them decide the fight, there’s another practical consideration.

3) Weariness.

How long has your hero been fighting by the time an enemy catches up with him? An hour? Two? Ten minutes? The least amount of time will damage him against an opponent who’s fresh. Superhumans like Corwin of Amber can fight for hours without stopping, but that’s because they’re superhumans, and Zelazny at least detailed the way Corwin got back in shape.

A tired protagonist will be more likely to drop her sword, to miss if she’s throwing knives or shooting arrows, to not be able to stab with her spear. Then there’s what happens if she kills her enemy, but another one is coming up on her, and she needs to yank the weapon out—more strain for the shoulders and back and arms. Her sweat will be rilling down her face, getting in her eyes, getting all over her hands and making her grip slippery. Any armor she wears will weigh down on her. Previous wounds will tear open, and add the distractions of pain and blood loss. Her movements will grow less coordinated. An enemy’s blow is more likely to get through, and be more likely of the kind that will do lasting damage, such as numbing her sword arm. If she’s exhausted, her sight will start blurring, she may get headaches, and she may lose control of her emotions, which could result in extravagant gestures or screaming matches. All good consequences, all good ways to add detail without resorting to the simple and bland “she was tiring,” and all good ways to make a fatal mistake.

Keep in mind that fighting is extremely hard work. These situations where people go on fighting for ten hours should only happen to a) extremely experienced soldiers who b) have no choice. Fighting for ten hours when you have a safe place to retreat and time to nurse your wounds is incredibly stupid.

4) Objects.

I mentioned in the nitpicking rant how objects seem to appear and disappear as fantasy authors lose track of them, get immersed in other aspects of the story, or add them in for “color” and forget that they should still be there, not having legs to get up and walk away, when the color is done. Nowhere is this more obvious than when a pair of opponents go at each other hammer and tongs and the area is suddenly clear of obstacles.

Consider the stereotypical camp in a forest clearing, with a fire in the middle of it and the protagonist’s gear piled on one side. There’s a stream flowing nearby, doubtless. The area is down in a little hollow to shelter her from the wind. Her horse is tethered to the branches of the tree. She has her bedroll all spread out when the assassin leaps out of the trees, and he chases her around in a broad circle.

Why isn’t she falling in the fire, or trying to kick hot coals up in his eyes? Why doesn’t she trip on the bedroll? What reaction is her horse having to all this? Does he try to rip free of his reins and run? If the clearing is down in a little hollow, and she’s retreating before the assassin, then he’ll be forcing her back over a slope. Does she go absolutely smoothly up the slope? Does she stumble? Does she try to gain the high ground and use it against the assassin? If her sword’s on the other side of the fire, why the fuck isn’t she working towardsit instead of away? If she winds up on the bank of the stream, does she hop it, snatch a stone from the riverbed and throw it, get knocked over by the enemy’s blade and crack her skull on a rock and die?

You need to develop a visual sense of the character’s surroundings when you’re writing something like this. It’s practical, showing the reader you haven’t forgotten about all the terrain that you took the trouble to describe in the excitement of the fight. It’s eventful, providing unfortunate things to happen to your protagonist. And it’s clever, because an experienced fighter should be looking for any advantage she can. If that’s in a stone or the ashes or her warhorse’s hooves, so be it. The assassin might not let her use them, but she should be trying, and for her to try, they have to be there.

5) Sound.

Yes, there’s the long conversation that the hero and his enemy tend to have—inexplicably, to my mind, when they’re both lathered and mortally wounded—while dueling it out. But what about the rest of the world around them? Why is a battle only noisy until two people meet in the middle of it, whereupon the screams of the wounded and the horses and the clang of armor and the sound of blades and the thunk of weapons in flesh go silent?

Yes, intense concentration can make the world go away. But there are better reasons for it. Perhaps the character can hear nothing above the sound of blood in his ears, for example. Perhaps they’re in a quiet place—though that wouldn’t prevent him from hearing his blood rushing, or his enemy’s breathing, his own, the sound of their feet in the dirt, and the clash of blades. Perhaps there are sounds still coming in from outside, but the character hears them instead of really listening to them.

Consider the value of sounds as weapons and distraction tools. If someone suddenly shouts “Gotcha!” from over the villain’s shoulder, he might not turn, but he might well flinch, and there goes his arm, and there goes the hero’s sword through his throat. If there’s a loud rumble from the hill above them, both hero and enemy might have to find a different place to throw their death-party. And if your hero pauses long enough to hear a bird suddenly sing, it might place your reader squarely in the world in a way that a purely silent duel won’t.

6) Wounds.

Yes, they rip open, and yes, they bleed, but they don’t seem to do a whole hell of a lot else—unless it’s the hero inflicting them on his enemy. The hero’s wounds never trouble him until the enemy’s safely dead and he can collapse.

Oh, piss on that. They should be troubling him, even though he might be skilled enough a fighter to ignore the pain. More considerations:

  • Things get stuck to wounds, like cloth and hair. If the hero makes a sudden movement and pulls his shirt away from his recent whip scars in the middle of battle, after said whip scars have already broken open, there could be trouble.
  • Wounds have more effects than just the initial blast of pain. If the enemy strikes the hero’s wrist, he might not force him to drop his sword, but what if he opens a cut? Then there’s blood running over the hero’s hand and fingers, and making his grip slippery, though he might have anticipated this and worn gloves or have the kind of sword hilt that will make it not matter.
  • Wounds piled on top of each other hurt like hell. The enemy hits the hero’s wrist once, and a second time, and a third. Will the first time make him drop his sword? Maybe not. The third? A much better chance.
  • The location on the body can cause unique problems. Head wounds bleed a lot. Someone breaking the protagonist’s nose likewise bleeds a lot. A broken jaw is going to prevent the protagonist from calling for help. Kicking a man in the groin is the old standby, but if your protagonist is facing a female opponent and can strike her breasts, that will also hurt. A broken limb is going to be clumsy and heavy and hard to drag around, even if it’s not the hero’s sword arm. Shattered ribs can slip and pierce a lung.
  • Blood loss weakens. A major, major wound should have almost immediate consequences, like slowness, dizziness, and inability to remain on one’s feet.
  • Not every killing has to be handled by stabbing an enemy through the heart or cutting off his head. Both take a lot of strength, the one to get past the ribs and the other to get through the neck. Throat, groin, and femoral artery are more plausible locations, particularly if the opponent isn’t wearing armor there.

7) Comparing opponents.

A large opponent will not always be slower than a small one. Yes, he could be, but it’s also going to depend on what wounds the smaller person’s taken, what the ground’s like, how much weight the smaller person is carrying, and so on. Large men and women can be quick, too. And it’s not so easy for a small person to jump up and slit the throat of a larger person

Consider the relative merits of the weapons. An archer has got a swordsman beat flat-out, unless the swordsman has a shield and a pair of extremely fast feet. (And one hopes the archer would be smart enough to shoot from ambush if he had a chance). Throwing knives is difficult, particularly if the person throwing the knife hasn’t practiced very long, and better as a distraction than the cause of a fatal strike. A knife has the advantages of being small and light, but to stab, say, the throat, a knife-fighter may need to get in extremely close. If an opponent is fighting two-handed, the author needs to keep track of both weapons. A shield or sword-breaker is going to be bad news for weaker blades. A whip, properly wielded, can strike much further than a fighter may think at first. And, finally, don’t assume that your protagonist knows all about a strange weapon the first time she encounters it. If it’s similar to one she knows, she has an excuse, but I am tired of these heroines who “instinctively know” the moves to counter a halberd when they’ve never even seen a halberd or anything like it.

Likeable characters are next, I think.