Here’s the rant on training fighter heroes. For most of this, I assume that the character in training is your protagonist. It doesn’t have to be so, but I’ve read one too many books where a character went from novice status to expert status in a simply ridiculous way, and that makes me focus a lot of my advice on the subject.
(Just a note: Will answer comments on the previous rant later. Right now, my hands are hurting badly and I’ve still got 1300 words to go for the day on my short story).
1) Vary the learning and teaching styles.
Almost every training scene I’ve read—whether it’s a private fencing lesson, a quick-n’-dirty attempt to get peasant fighters up to scratch, or an armsmaster in a medieval world instructing several noble students—has the teacher making a visual demonstration of the move on air or on a dummy, and then challenging the student to imitate the move. Most of the time, the student does it perfectly, or, if she trips up, will do it perfectly at some crucial moment in the future. (See point 6).
It gets a wee bit boring. It also forgets that people have very, very different ways of learning and teaching. Some students would learn better from a verbal description of the move, an actual demonstration on another body that can fight back rather than a dummy that stands still or air that presents less resistance, a drawing, a breakdown of the move into its component parts, or discussion of what the move is meant to accomplish. Some will need to learn a different style of fighting altogether, because of physical limitations (see the next paragraph). Sure, you could argue that the armsmaster doesn’t have enough time to train every single student in a different style, but if he’s being paid well enough and has only one or a few students, or if he’s training the future savior of the world, he would damn well make time. It’s extraordinarily silly to me that authors insist on showing a bullying teacher and adults who have no sympathy with the student, when the whole point is supposed to be that the teacher and student, together, will produce results—results which, in a fantasy book, are more than usually important. If no one else is clever enough to amend the situation, then the protagonist will have to be, rather than giving up and then unexpectedly mastering the move in the nick of time.
Then there are physical limitations. If your protagonist has trouble with her eyesight, visual sword instruction could well be a problem. If she’s missing an eye, double the trouble; her perceptions of the world will be altered, and she now has a blind side. (One character Simon R. Green writes about is missing his right eye, and though his weapon used to be the sword, he switched to the axe to compensate). Some students will be too small to swing the massive broadswords, too delicate to shoot the great big longbows, and/or too short to effectively use really long weapons. Some protagonists will have old wounds, large breasts, or different centers of gravity. Work it all out as cleverly as you can. It’s one thing to fudge some details or change them because this is your fantasy world; it’s another thing altogether to write about a protagonist as “willowy” and “under five feet” and then describe her swinging a three-foot broadsword for hours.
2) Vary the student/mentor relationship.
It’s very, very easy to slip into the usual ‘naïve protagonist’ + ‘big, gruff, crusty experienced soldier’ stereotype. Once again, as with purely visual training, sometimes it makes sense, or the author can create interesting variations on it, but I’m really sick and tired of seeing it everywhere.
Try using a mentor who is younger. Say your protagonist is twelve, and wants to go off to fight in wars by the time he’s sixteen. (See point 3). His teacher doesn’t have to be a thirty-five-year old man who refers to him as “youngster” and has gray in his beard and “corded muscles.” He could be a young man of twenty-five who also started training at twelve and remembers more of what it was like to be that age. Such a sparring partner would also be more likely to perform whatever maneuvers the sparring demanded of him; older soldiers have lived longer lives in hardship, and are starting to slow down.
He could be older. A man who’s forty or fifty will be less able to perform everything that a younger fighter can, but he’ll know much more about survival, and he’ll still probably be able to best a novice nine times out of ten. (See point 3 again). If secrecy is an important factor, he may even make his living out of teaching, and it won’t seem unusual for him to take on a protagonist as a student, the way that it would for a mercenary at the height of his career to suddenly stop adventuring and just concentrate on training one child.
Try making her a woman. If the world is absolutely generic medieval, this may not be possible (although there were still women who dressed up in men’s clothes and fought even then), but a lot of fantasy authors set up societies where men and women can fight as equals. Why not have a woman teaching the protagonist to fight, then? I don’t know. Probably because it’s harder to picture a woman as the gruff and crusty stereotype—she can’t even have a fringe of graying beard on her face, for God’s sake!—or because when fantasy authors start thinking about mentors, their minds still automatically make the leap to a wise old man instructing the student. I’ve heard a few complaints that a woman teaching a young man to fight is at a disadvantage, because women have different centers of gravity and thereby different fighting styles than men. I would politely smile and ask why it’s all right for young women to learn from gruff old male soldiers, then. Once again, it would make more sense to have both mentor and student adapt, rather than insisting on the first thing that comes to mind.
I’m sure there are other variations, all subtler than this. A good one is to think of the mentor’s personality first, who he is outside this situation. It’s my experience that people don’t transform completely when they step into the teacher role; they carry a lot of who they are into it with them. If you imagine the teacher first, and then imagine what he would be like as a teacher, it can help you avoid good ol’ gruff and crusty.
3) TTT= Training takes time.
This is the part that bothers me the most about protagonists who’ve never picked up a sword in their lives, but jump into being experts who can best their teachers, the Dark Lord’s lieutenant, or even the Dark Lord himself in a few weeks or months. (It’s been a while since I saw a story that made the protagonist better in mere hours or days, thank whatever gods you believe in). Learning a sword is more than just visual demonstrations of moves. It’s learning balance, learning to read your opponents’ emotions, learning what little tricks will increase your chance of survival—see point 4—learning how to care for your weapon, learning how to estimate what different fighting styles there are and the best way to counter them, learning how to deal with sudden setbacks like a wound, and I’m sure plenty of things I didn’t cover.
Learning to ride a horse doesn’t just involve jumping on one’s back and galloping around. Horses have different gaits, different requirements depending on breed, different personalities, different skills. A protagonist may be able to fearlessly ride her pony at home. That’s a very different thing from riding a fully trained warhorse; it will be looking for signals that she can’t provide. The very size can throw her concentration, perhaps fatally, never mind the subtler aspects. Riders often practice for years before they get good at it. I have seen protagonists who’ve never ridden, or have only ridden donkeys and ponies, getting perfectly comfortable on a warhorse in three days. The most the author mentions is aching muscles and saddlesores—“but the soreness went away.” It makes me roll my eyes every time.
I see absolutely nothing wrong with starting the story when your protagonist is already fully trained. Perhaps they could be, hold on to your saddles, adults already, or teenagers who have trained to these skills from small children. (Why the hell most secret heirs have such inactive childhoods, for example, is puzzling. They have to save the world! Get them some training while they’re still young, why don’t you?) The fascination of having an inexperienced protagonist is seeing her mature over time. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of people who turn from inexperienced to experienced without doing the growing up. Rein in your haste and remember: TTT.
4) Show the protagonist learning some other tricks.
This person is supposed to save the world, right? Right. The mentor, wizard, soldier, band of sidekicks, or whoever’s come to fetch her knows that, right? Right. They have the teachers and the safe place to train ready and waiting, right? Right.
So why the fuck does she get trained in just one skill?
They train her in fighting with her magic, and that’s all they do. Or they train her to handle the Mystical Sword of Power, and that’s all they do. They apparently never foresee that there might come a time when the limits on her magic—you better have limits—have slammed down, or she loses the Mystical Sword of Power or gets too tired to swing it. (Well, of course they don’t; the author would never let such a thing happen, so they don’t have to foresee it). So what’s she going to do then? Run before the goblins, or lie in a rubbish heap and hope she doesn’t get discovered, or get captured and carted off to the dark fortress, where she’ll probably rally to wield that one skill one last time?
Most of the time, yes, that’s exactly what happens. I want to know where all the heroines are who, too tired to wield their swords, or having stuck it in a body and facing another enemy, can still draw their knives and give a good showing. I want to know where the heroes are who, since they can wield the power of all four elements, don’t automatically give up in despair because they’re not near a fire, but instead tighten the air around their enemies’ necks and choke them to death. I want to know where all the protagonists are who know how to take care of their own damn horses, build their own damn fires, tend their own damn wounds, just in case they get separated from their other party members. We hear that the people training these protagonists are planning for the worst, but most of the time, it doesn’t fucking look like it. It looks like the protagonist is a little wind-up toy who’s supposed to walk along one track and do one thing—probably a thing that she shouldn’t have become that experienced in after the abbreviated training she’s had. I bet you the author excuses it with that “instinctive talent” bullshit. I gave you my feelings about that in the previous rant.
Isn’t it just more interesting to write competent, clever, flexible people who approach a problem from several angles, rather than just hammering at problems with one solution over and over again, or pulling something out of their asses when the author needs them to?
5) Integrate magic with the fighting, if you’re going to.
I’ve read about a lot of societies where the fighters are supposedly trained to handle “both swords and magic.” Then we see them in battle. And they’re alternately flinging fireballs and stabbing with their swords.
That’s not interesting. Why should it be interesting? It’s no different than using a sword with one hand and a knife with the other. Show the ways in which magic could be used to actually improve the physical aspect of fighting, or to inconvenience one’s enemies. That would be interesting.
If the protagonist is being trained in both using a weapon and using her magic, I want to know why. Yes, I said that I think it’s useful to train her in more than one skill in point 4, but authors often make a big fat hairy deal of how time-consuming both fighting and using magic is, without explaining how the protagonist then manages to learn both at once, or why she has to. It comes out as just another attempt to make her Special. That’s different from a protagonist learning to light her own damn fire, which doesn’t have to take place at the same time she’s swinging a sword, and which most people can learn, besides.
If you can show the fighting and the magic intertwining, becoming something neither is on its own, then we get neat stuff. Perhaps the protagonist hums a certain song as she fights, which both guides her sword strokes and calls up magic; the resonance of her body as she sings the song then guides the magic into the blade, and when it strikes home, it does more damage. Perhaps the protagonist’s mystic gestures are actually the ones made with her sword, and it’s important to learn control because a sudden wild swing can spoil the whole spell. Perhaps the protagonist, by virtue of having steel in her hand, can affect the enemies’ steel with sympathetic magic and make their blades shatter or grow hot when they near her. Think of stuff. Then your character can be a unique fighter/mage, rather than just someone who has more skills than she’ll ever need.
And that brings us to point 6.
6) Cheating is not interesting.
Fantasy authors tend to fudge when they’re training their fighting protagonists. If their research has told them that something is difficult, then they’ll invent a convenient bit of magic or culture or psychology to get them past it. “Well, she doesn’t have to train for years because her fighting teacher is immortal, and he loaded his memories into her head, so she knows all the moves.” “She can wield a broadsword because she’s secretly part giant. Yes, even though I said she was small and willowy and her wrists are really thin.” “Well, she wears glasses, but they’ll never get broken in battle because it’s considered dishonorable to swing at someone’s face.” “She suddenly mastered the move she never could before because she realized that her true love loved her.”
These all make it less interesting, because they’re doing three stupid things. First, they’re taking you further and further from common sense, and running the risk of making your created world sound stupid. You’re telling me that a fighter who wants to win, who wants to kill his opponent, would never, ever swing at someone’s face? You’re telling me that every fighter in the world cares about this, even the dishonorable grimy mercenaries? Fuck. Remind me never to read anything set in such a stupid world.
Second, they’re playing the “having your cake and eating it too” game—wanting two things that cancel each other out to exist in the story. The heroine is small and willowy, getting all the half-elven beauty, but she’s also secretly in possession of half-giant strength. Not that this ever comes out until later in the story, when the author wants it to. Not that it makes sense why the heroine would look completely like one of her parents, get only one feature from the other, and be able to have that feature without the bulging corded muscles that would be necessary to contain it. Way to screw things up just to have everything perfect.
Third, they look like what they are, shortcuts to avoid work. Your heroine doesn’t have to train for years; she’s just an instinctive expert with an immortal teacher. I’m so happy for her. Never mind that she’s just become superhuman and invulnerable, apparently, and thus all tension has exploded. It’s more important that your heroine doesn’t have to train for years. And that discovering the move just in time because of the power of love—so the whole fate of the world hangs on a silly psychological accident. Way to toss character development, training, the heroine’s personality, and the Dark Lord’s skill out the window.
Stop cheating. It’s stupid. It reduces fantasy right back to the level of, “It’s fantasy, so I can do anything I want to!”
Hmmm. This came off sounding like a list of frustrations with young fighter characters.
Well. It is.