Some “Tristram of Lyonesse” lines again, with Swinburne talking about things that really matter:
Nor haply may not hope, with heart more clear,
Burn deathward, and the doubtful soul take cheer,
Seeing through the channelled darkness yearn a star
Whose eyebeams are not as the morning’s are,
Transient, and subjugate of lordlier light,
But all unconquerable by noon or night,
Being kindled only of life’s own inmost fire,
Truth, stablished and made sure by strong desire,
Fountain of all things living, source and seed,
Force that perforce transfigures dream to deed…
For the record: I don’t think that big battles are the only way to have a good climax to a fantasy book. But a lot of people do it, so here’s some advice on ways to improve it.
1) Have a rational reason for choosing a battlefield.
I’ve read several fantasy books where the good guys pick one place, and that’s where the battle happens. Not because they ambush the evil guys there, not because they lure the evil guys into a trap there, but because they sit there and wait and the enemy comes to them.
Fantasy villains do a lot of stupid things, but I would lose my faith in humanity if I thought the authors sincerely believed they would attack their enemies on their chosen ground.
If you really want the battle to happen in one particular place, shaping the geography so that it must is your best bet. If the only place that armies can really maneuver for hundreds of miles is the big flat piece of ground near the evil guy’s mountains, then yeah, choose that. But if there’s another big flat piece of ground several miles away that offers a better position to the Dark Lord, why wouldn’t he choose that? Why go marching into the middle of a bloody good guy camp that they’ve had hours to set up, singing and with banners flying?
The situation is a little different in siege warfare, where the mobile side does have to go and attack the enemy sitting in one place. However, unless there’s something particularly urgent about having the city knocked down at once, there’s no reason for a besieging army to assault the walls. Just put a ring around the city or fortress so no one can get out, watch for sappers and reinforcements, shoot down messenger birds, and wait for people in the walls to start starving to death. A wise, patient enemy won’t mind such a siege, given the cost in lives to take the city or fortress while its defenders still have food and hope.
Bottom line: Have a rational reason for choosing your battlefield, please.
2) Do not have people attacking uphill without some acknowledgment of how hard it is.
The army dug in on the higher ground always has the better position. The enemy attacking uphill has to run, often wearing armor and carrying heavy weapons, so that they’re already tired by the time they get there. And if the dug-in army has arrows or pikes or javelins, hello shish kebab.
I’ve seen books where an attack uphill actually fit in with the author’s pattern of making stupid villains, but I’ve never understood it when the heroes attack that way. There’s sometimes a weak excuse offered of “Well, they won’t come to us, so we must go to them.” Not uphill, you idiots. Get aerial troops to fly in and drop stones on them. Attack other portions of the army first. Or just wait. Perhaps the enemy will get bored and impatient and make a mistake. Why go charging in and losing lives when you don’t have to?
3) A lot of war is waiting.
The fantasy author understandably gets impatient and wants to cut out a lot of the waiting, but there should be some mention that it’s happened. Having a final battle happen immediately after a series of smaller ones makes no sense (unless one side has a completely fresh army to throw into the fray, in which case it would make a lot of sense to tackle a half-defeated enemy). The exhaustion of even several minutes of swordplay is severe. Imagine fighting for several days, then dashing a short distance- most of the time- and fighting again. Who would do that? Author-controlled imbeciles, of course.
Another weak excuse is sometimes offered to compensate for this: “If we don’t attack them right now, they’ll slip off and regroup.” Yes, and if you attack them with sweat pouring down your faces still, you’ll die. Several days will give your heroes time to rest, and call for fresh reinforcements, while still not giving the enemy time to melt away like shadow under sunlight.
4) War is brutal on every side.
It amuses me vastly that so many authors can give their heroes the exact same tactics that the evil guys use- especially big ambushes and luring them into traps- and yet they take time to note that, oh no, those wonderful virtuous shining heroes don’t resemble the bad guys in any way! These ambushes are moral, because they’re for the greater good!
Get over the preaching.
I think the only place moral discussion of tactics has in warfare is when the heroes are formerly sheltered, or naive, or innocently religious people who have to go through this horrifying epiphany about the way the world works. It’s not appropriate when the heroes are just making plans for an ordinary, everyday maneuver against the bad guys. I’ll cheer heroes who do what needs to be done, especially if they notice the horrific cost of it afterwards. (They might be killing their enemies, but lives are still lost). After the war is the appropriate place to mourn lost things, like morals. I will hiss and spit and throw fruit at heroes who wring their hands in the middle of war and decide that, well, these tactics are awfully similar to the ones the bad guys use, but we must be different, because the author said so!
No one should be able to go through a war and remain absolutely unstained in moral character. It’s annoying when the author tries to make it so.
5) Don’t solve the battle with a deus ex machina.
So you’ve built up your heroes and your evil guys and you’re having your battle in the thousands. Why do you then bring in Miss Destiny-Hair to dash some magical firestorm into the air and kill off all the evil guys?
Drama, maybe, but the drama of that is nothing compared to the absolute loss of drama from all the evil guys dying. I read fantasy books, especially long series, for just that buildup of emotion and passion and the knowledge that the heroes could lose it all. I dislike having it snatched away from me because the author wants her heroine to be the one who saves the day.
No eleventh-hour solutions. If you’ve set up a story where it’s obvious from the beginning that the heroine would be the one to take the Dark Lord down, then it will make sense. But it doesn’t make sense to use armies and a cast in the thousands and then betray your storyline for the sake of one cool magical moment.
6) Use a variety of fighters, and know where they’re best-placed.
Archers with longbows standing on top of a ravine’s walls and shooting down into the narrow gap can wreak incredible havoc. Those same archers on an open plain, without protection like stones to duck behind, are vulnerable to enemy arrows. And they should not go on shooting when the enemy forces and their own have blended in hand-to-hand combat. I don’t care how good they are; there’s still too much chance that their own soldiers would die in “friendly fire.” Archers are also not Legolas with his everlasting quiver in the LOTR movies. They run out of arrows, and have to scrounge around for them. When they do run out, they should either retreat or join the fight with other weapons, if they have the skill to use them.
Crossbows take time to load, and their great advantage is in puncturing armor. Your crossbowmen will need something to hide behind while they reload- a battlement, a boulder, another soldier, a horse trained to lie down. If it’s a situation where the enemy is charging the heroes’ armies not wearing armor, and moving very quickly, longbows make a lot more sense.
Cavalry that includes trained war-horses makes a devastating enemy. Untrained horses are likely to panic and flail every which way, bolting out of the fight or going down on top of their riders. About the only thing that can break trained horses are pikemen, or a ditch dug and filled with wooden stakes. The moment an enemy side wavers and breaks and turns to flee, the cavalry have won, and can ride them down like no one’s business.
If you have soldiers fighting with heavy armor and broadswords, they should be strong men. (Ordinary human women cannot wield a broadsword). They should also have shields, and they should use them- to defend themselves from arrows, to shield their bodies, to shelter other comrades. It’s amazing how many fantasy heroes apparently fight with every complement of a knight but the shield.
Magic should be used sparingly, where it’s really needed. I’ve read a lot of fantasies where the magic used was so wide-spread and devastating that I didn’t know how in the world the heroes’ own side had escaped death.
Aerial troops and sailors can make wonderful additions, and if the enemy hasn’t made provisions to deal with them, can cause a lot more damage than a simple charge of knights.
7) There is nothing wrong with weakening an enemy before the final battle.
The sneak attacks I ranted against last time would actually work here. Say the enemy has hired a lot of mercenaries. Why not go sneak in and steal the mercenaries’ pay, assuming the heroes can manage that? Say the enemy depends on a certain convoy of supply wagons for food. Go burn them, or steal them. Dump something in the drinking water to give the enemy soldiers the runs, or outright kill them. Set all the horses free.
These are tactics that a lot of authors aren’t adverse to using in other parts of the novel, but somehow, come the night before the final battle, the heroes are all anxiously praying to live, and no one does anything about weakening the enemy then.
8) Armies should not collapse instantly on the death of their leader.
The only way to get around this is to have the leader’s collapse be highly visible, like the fall of Barad-dûr that announced Sauron’s defeat. If the enemy leader is not magically linked to his forces like that (and really, it’s a silly thing to do, making all their power rely on his power), then his troops may not know he’s dead for quite a while. Communication in battle is confused and distant. Couriers may not be able to get through the lines. If the battlefield is wide enough, people won’t be able to see signals like waving white flags. Blood-crazed and vengeance-crazed people might fight on or try to get away, instead of just neatly surrendering.
Don’t overuse the magical communication or bout of mysterious knowledge bit, either. The hero who “somehow knows” that his enemy is defeated annoys me. If he just killed him, then yeah, I would say he knows, but having it happen at a distance and the hero just smiling with this mysterious wisdom… blarga.
9) Don’t let your heroes emerge unscathed.
Admittedly, some authors have a problem in the opposite direction. (Warning free of charge: Do not read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry series in public, unless you enjoy crying really hard and having people stare at you). But other times the heroes are still fine at the end of the book, the maimed limbs are healed, people who were thought to be dead miraculously return, and everything’s hunky-dory.
This is another way of cheating your readers and cutting down your own storyline. Why make the war so devastating, emphasizing all they could lose, and then have them lose nothing at all? If the heroes all survive the final battle, and the losses they should have suffered are reduced to nothing with platitudes or magic, then it comes to seem as if the war didn’t need to happen; the heroes were always going to win, anyway.