I recently wrote an article on How to write strong fight scenes. I mentioned in that article that things are a little different when you are writing about battles and wars.
So I decided to put together this tutorial about things to consider when writing them.
When you are writing a war or battle first make sure you plan where it’s going to take place. Land can be tricky, and it changes during a battle.
Image two giant armies amassing on a huge field. Infantry and cavalry alike, all decked in battle gear and heavy armour.
The pound of thousands of feet, men and horses alike. How do you think the ground will look? Grass torn and flattened, turned to mud especially if the weather turns and it begins to rain or sleet.
Are there hills or mountains? Has one army taken a higher ground, dug a moat or added spikes of wood to protect their area?
Are there forests around them, have the trees been burned by one army to keep the other from using the wooded area as shelter? Has an army begun to plunger the wood to make weapons large or small, carts or forts?
Different landscapes mean different methods of attack. If your armies are desert folk do you think large wagons with wheels could be used?
No, the sands will make that difficult – even horses or oxen may not be wise, whereas camels could be the chose for cavalrymen and equipment brought on sand-sledges rather than carts.
What about on a tundra? Armies on a polar land would have to be kitted out to deal with those environments, they would have to be very sure-footed as it wouldn’t just be the enemy who is the risk, one slip of a foot and you could lose your life.
Think about large areas of water frozen, allowing crossing to occur until the weather changed and they thawed.
By thinking about the location first, you can get a feel for the “lay of the land” and decide how each army would have to deal with it.
Many who die in battles and wars are not killed outright. You can die from your injuries, a broken rib can puncture a lung and you can slowly drown in blood.
Exsanguination (bleeding out) can occur, a wound that did not kill instantly can be hard to patch especially if an artery is hit. If it is not bound and treated quickly, you can bleed to death.
All injuries leave a character open to infections such as septicemia (blood poisoning), gangrene (where body tissue dies) etc.
How do these infections attack a body, can your character survive if treated? Are their medical people in your army to treat them? Are their natural remedies, for example, plants that can purify blood and cleanse wounds?
Would your character survive if something more radical happened such as amputation? But even this can be dangerous because amputation can put a person into shock if no sedation is used, even stop their heart from the pain and fear. In which case do you have something to put them out, dull the pain etc.
What about accidents? An army of infantry moving forward, what if the cavalry panic if they are attacked from the rear and push forward too fast.
Infantrymen could end up getting crushed, crush injuries can be devastating and again cannot always kill instantly. Would members of the army be left dying slowly in the mud?
Could your characters be captured by the enemy? Would they be executed as a warning to others? Would they be tortured for information or treated as animals for cruel pleasure?
Any of these points would, as normal, need to be researched so you can understand the details. Remember injuries are not just about physical issues, a person’s emotional and mental stability / reactions can change when suffering an injury.
Also do think about how those injuries (if the character survives) will affect the person, their quality of life, abilities etc.
An army needs resources – the main ones you might think of are armour and weaponry but they will, of course, need food and water – for themselves and for any animals they use (horses / oxen etc) and medical supplies and equipment.
If your battles / wars are in more modern times and you have technology that moves, you would need to think of fuel – whether coal, wood, petrol or any other, you cannot expect an inexhaustible supply.
Even if your machines run on wood-burning, a forest is only so large and once all the wood is used – you would need to find new sources.
Not all food can just be picked, if your army is large they would need to bring food, maybe it would need to be rationed. What about rats or other pests, would the food need to be guarded so it doesn’t become tainted or encourage pests?
If food supplies ran low would people start to steal it, even kill for it?
Are farms and harvests commandeered? Livestock stolen by soldiers or maybe bartered for? How would this affect the villages and towns that rely on this food normally? Would it cause rebellions? How would the army deal with this?
If they bring their own, are they also bringing livestock? Does this slow them down? Is it risky, dealing with say a herd of cattle who could possibly panic and stampede?
You certainly wouldn’t have soldiers tending such animals so that means civilians to look after the animals but then again that’s more mouths to feed.
If your army has animals such as horses or camels etc then you need to bring resources for them too. The grass is not just the only thing they can live on and clean water is also needed. Not just for drinking but for cleaning wounds.
A good general will plan the battle – will consider the location they are meeting upon and will think about a water source. Don’t forget, it has to be fresh water.
Remember in times of war, armies have been known to taint or poison water supplies so their enemies can’t use them.
Could this backfire and leave them without any if their own supply dries up? What about civilians, are they suffering from this? After the war is over, is the area or water still tainted?
Has the army salted the earth so the civilians of their enemy can no longer grow food and so they starve or cave into the armies demands?
There are so many little things you need to think about, everything interconnects and these extras are what help to make your writing stronger, to develop.
Skilled & Unskilled characters
~ Trigger Warning for Sexual assault ~
An army needs soldiers with skills, those with hand-held weapons, those skilled at using machinery such as cannons, catapults, trebuchets etc.
A good army will also have farriers (for tending the horses when they need shoeing), blacksmiths (for working the forges and fixing weaponry) and medics (for tending the injured), engineers for fixing machinery.
The general or another leader will need tacticians to advise on strategy, messengers to communicate with their captains.
For large armies, they are usually made up of groups of soldiers each led by their own captain or major (whatever hierarchy system you wish to employ – again if you are thinking of using an existing one such as the military, learn the different rank levels so you get them right).
You may needs scouts who move alone, risking their lives by getting close to the enemy to plot movements. What about spies (intelligence officers) infiltrating the other army, reporting back? Informants, the local militia that an army can exploit, bargain or bribe for assistance.
In times of war, an army will be built up from those who have already served and new recruits. These can be men / women who are drafted or maybe tricked into joining. Do they recruit or force those with little education to be frontline men who are no more than cannon fodder?
Maybe you have older soldiers, not really used for fighting but instead as trainers, teaching new recruits. After all, if a war breaks out, you have to learn quickly and you may need all available hands even though unskilled and untrained to fight.
Another aspect that few think of is prostitution, yet our world’s history is riddled with prostitution huts being set up for fighting men.
Even in the second world war, there were prostitution camps in Germany and “comfort women” in Japan, women and girls forced into prostitution.
In this kind of situation, these women would have queues men outside their rooms/huts. They would be raped (after all, these will not have chosen the profession) day and night.
- Would your army do this to stop the soldiers from attacking villagers?
- Is it considered good for the morale of the men?
- Would these women have a say?
- How would their life be, servicing so many men?
- Would this increase the risk of illnesses such as pox?
- What about pregnancy, injury, or even just the sense of worthlessness, being treated as property to give others pleasure?
- What would happen if they tried to escape?
- Also, there might not just be women and girls but young men and boys also abducted or coerced into satisfying soldiers’ sexual hunger.
In such a situation would they be paid? Most likely not, merely kept with food and water.
A battlefield is not quiet. Whether you have the explosion of cannons and guns, the clang of sword metal, the twang of bowstrings, thunder of hooves and the pounding of feet.
Shields can be crashed against each other, some armies have drummers, keeping the beat of their marching men.
Catapults throw rocks and rubble when they hit there are more noises – broken carts and machines, walls and buildings collapsing.
People don’t die quietly, they scream and cry and kick and spit and wail. There will be the roar of anger or fear or encouragement.
Even when the fighting stops when each army (if they do) withdraw – as sometimes can happen during the night. You will hear the crackle of fires, the nervous murmurs of troops, the walking of patrols, creaking of wood.
Don’t forget scavengers, dogs and birds who will skitter among the festering dead and fighting over the flesh. The cries of the sick and dying in their medical tents.
There are a hundred different sounds that can come from a battlefield, think about them to develop your scenes.
Time & Mentality
Learning history is good for battle scenes. They rarely end quickly. Months, years even centuries. Learn from other countries – a famous one in England was the 100 years war. Think about that, that war spanned two generations.
- How long will yours last, how does time length affect morale?
- How does it affect the mentality of those fighting – maybe some soldiers did it for honour, for their country – after 10, 20, 30 years has this changed?
- Are they less patriotic and more bitter, disheartened?
- Would it cause a mutiny in the ranks?
- Are they more sure of their fight?
- Have they seen both sides?
- Would there be those who commit suicide as the only way out of the constant fighting?
- What about desertion and if so – is there a punishment for this?
In a large and bloody battle, soldiers could be dying in the hundreds.
- Does that mean generals would need to find more?
- Would they release hardened criminals from jail to serve in the army?
- How would these people do?
- Would they relish their freedom, would they fight with honour, would they try to flee or even join the other side?
- Would their own side turn on them for their past convictions?
Maybe these criminals would see the non-criminal soldiers behaving as criminals, raping and looting and killing innocent people – this would show a flip to what one would expect.
But then again, you cannot expect anything in war because it tests a person in ways never imagined.
- Who is fighting in your war?
- Where people drafted or did they choose to volunteer?
- Are those skilled in weaponry or strong from manual labour, forced to take up arms?
- Are several tribes forced to group together fight an enemy?
- Are all those above a certain age expected to fight?
Depending on how your soldiers are brought into the war, what do their families think?
- Are women and children left behind?
- Are women drafted leaving the children to be raised by the elderly?
Always think about dynamics, ways to build up characters, conflicts, tensions and ideals.
If a son volunteers to go to the army, maybe he sees it as following his father or maybe he sees it as an adventure.
Does he mother feel the same, is she worried or maybe she doesn’t believe in the cause they are fighting for?
If a daughter is drafted, does her elderly father complain, does he try and stop them taking her and in doing so get beaten, arrested or maybe even killed?
Do people lie about their age to get in? Fake medical conditions to get out?
Soldiers are not the only casualties in a war, there are other victims. Innocent people are killed, whether an area is raided or bombed or just trampled through.
People can be used as human shields, hostages or just get in the way – for example, a man refuses to give soldiers access to his livestock.
Rather than waste time, they beat or kill him to take his animals. He refused because he has a family to feed – now his family has an injured or dead father, either way, he may not be able to provide for them.
There are often raiding and looting. If a town is seized by the other army, those innocent people living within it are “fair game”, women and children raped and murdered or sold into slavery.
Men treated as entertainment and maybe even forced to fight rabid war dogs at the laughter of the soldiers who see these people as nothing.
An army can cause many problems, water can become tainted or even dammed off for their own uses without thought to who else would need it.
Forests and fields razed to stop the enemy using them, again without thought or consideration to others who might live of these lands.
If a specific wild animal is hunted by an army (example – deer) what does this do to the other wildlife? Do wolves who relied on the deer for their pack start to attack people? Are they starved or do they move on, do they attack livestock?
Are there mass graves for the dead? Are they piled and burned to prevent pest or infection from spreading? Are they shipped home for their families to bury? Are they treated with disrespect by their enemies by being hung or skinned?
Winning & Losing
(And drawing) depending on how you write it. Decide on an ending to your conflict (if you want it to end), what would happen to your soldiers on both sides and indeed those in charge.
- Are there generals or monarchs?
- What would happen to them on the losing side?
- Would they be executed to disillusion the troops?
- Would they be released or forced to kill themselves?
- Would soldiers be given a chance to serve in the winning army, almost as slaves or would they all be butchered?
- Even on the winning side, what about the people injured or mutilated?
- Those captured and tortured, would they be freed or maybe just lost, never to be found?
- Would a soldier who served for decades be able to adjust back to civilian life?
- What about his/her partner or family, have they moved on, suffered at the hands of their enemy, died from something or are unable to cope with their partner’s return?
Battles/Wars are more than just the actual fighting, often they are smaller fights and battles that are part of a larger war.
Remember research is important, ask yourself questions on how it will be and then work on the answers.
The Mental Toll
We know about PTSD now, but in the past, we didn’t understand the gravity of this condition.
Those who survived, even unscathed physically would still likely carry inner scars and horrors that chase them as they try and return to their normal lives.
How would this manifest? How would others see these reactions? What is your world like? Is it progressive enough to understand the mental and emotional impact of the horrors on those who lived through it?
~ ☆ ~ ☆ ~ ☆ ~
NB: The plans of women and cats often go wrong… last week I was off work and planned very heartily to re-establish myself as Awesomely Organised and in Control. That failed…miserably.
However, I did make a pledge to myself that I would get this tutorial up today (despite having a shitty day at work and wanting to curl up and watch cartoons to cheer myself up).
Hence I uploaded Battles and Wars tutorial. However, after I wrote this I came up with some more thoughts that I had missed… I scribbled them down on a piece of paper which then managed to get swallowed in the vast paper wasteland which is my study/craft room/writer’s den/cat-free zone.
*grumbles* So, please do check this tutorial again when I will hopefully have located the paper! When I have… this message will be removed – if it is still here… then I have not yet discovered it.