Hey writers! I know it’s been ages since I put content out, but I’m hoping to return to sharing more advice with up-and-coming fantasy writers. I’m considering branching out from sort of the overall mechanics and tricks of the trade for fantasy writing into tips for writing specific tropes, plot points, and character archetypes. Today, I want to talk about building a war.
One of the most common plotlines in fantasy is the brewing of a new war. This war has most likely been building for a while, and it is your job to bring your readers right into the pivotal moment where all hell breaks loose. Between planning for war, gathering soldiers and supplies, and fighting in large magical battles or long drawn-out sieges, you may have a lot of ground to cover. My most recent book was my first venture into writing a fantasy war, and I want to share my best writing tips from that experience.
#1: Your war needs a clear purpose and a clear cause.
In order for a war to be worth fighting for, there has to be an underlying purpose and a clear cause or set of causes. Why do people go to war? Sometimes it’s because one land wants to take another land’s wealth or resources. Other times, two differing religions or two nations with strong nationalistic ideals can’t coexist beside each other. Whatever reason you choose, you have to build that reason into your worldbuilding. The history of the two sides that you are working with has to show the building blocks. Nothing in your world should happen spontaneously. Every event is rooted in someone’s past or some nation’s past. Also, make sure your reason is big enough. For your war to be believable, its purpose has to be something that people would be willing to die for.
#2: War affects everyone
No matter what walks of life your characters come from, you need to be able to show your readers that everyone is affected by war. From the highest government officials to the poorest peasant in the village, none of your characters are immune to war and its costs. Whether a character survives the war or not, they will be affected. Perhaps a friend or a colleague of theirs dies. Maybe their home or farm is burned to the ground during a battle. The effect could be positive too: your character may step into a leadership position that changes their life forever. War affects everyone, so do some research on potential consequences and assign them to your characters accordingly.
#3: Know how to structure your war.
During my research, I learned that there are two main elements of war that you will likely be writing about: open battles and sieges. Here is what you need to know. In an open battle, one side always wins, and the other loses. Even in a draw, there is usually a clear side who has taken the most damage. Battles often only last for a few minutes and can really only go up to an hour or two at the most. Open warfare is extremely costly, and each side must agree on that cost in order to go to battle, which is often the lives of their men.
Conversely in a siege, the conflict can last days and days. One force, knowing that they are outnumbered or low on resources and weaponry, falls back to a stronghold where they can prepare to defend. This can reduce their disadvantage of fewer soldiers. The more powerful force then surrounds the stronghold and begins the siege. Although this type of warfare can be very slow, it can be a great way to build tension and anxiety among your characters. In a strongly written war, there’s a good combination of these two types.
#4: Writing a battle means maintaining many elements at once.
There is this beautiful complexity to writing a battle. Although battles only last a short period of time, many things are happening at the same time. When I read battles in my favorite fantasy books, I have always found them to be chaotic and confusing at times, but still cohesive. It’s important for you as the author to guide the reader through the chaos. One of the best ways to do this is to set key points throughout the scene that you can follow like a roadmap and build the chaos up around it. Doing this will keep your reader glued to the page without losing them in the details.
When you’re in the midst of the chaos, make sure you’re still keeping the fundamentals tight. Your plot points should move in a logical format, your world should feel full of detail, and most importantly, your characters need to have and show emotion at every turn. Don’t let the basics slip while you deal with the many, many details.
#5: Momentum and morale are essential to victory.
On both sides of a conflict, everyone is dead set on victory. That means that in between battles and sieges, other major steps should be taken to achieve that goal. These can come in multiple forms, but I would say the major two categories are momentum and morale. On the momentum side, your heroes could be traveling across dangerous territory to form critical alliances or gathering supplies from nearby villages and recruiting people to the cause. In terms of morale, perhaps your protagonist goes down to the barracks to speak to the soldiers personally and give a grand speech or a large holiday ball is thrown to boost morale during a ceasefire. But don’t forget: the villain’s side will also be making these kinds of steps. It could be interesting to showcase both sides.