The Pen Versus the Sword – a FantasyCon Panel

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One of the most exciting panels at FantasyCon, and one with a very eager audience, was ‘The Pen vs the Sword’, on combat in fantasy fiction. On this panel were…

  • Adrian Tchaikovsky – writes fantasy, fights at the Leeds Armoury for research, also does live roleplay
  • Juliet E. McKenna – writes fantasy, does aikido, used to do live roleplay
  • Fran Terminiello – writes fantasy, does 16th and 17th century martial arts
  • Clifford Beal – writes historical fantasy, used to do full armoured combat, now does rapier fighting
  • David Thomas Moore – fantasy writing, moderating on short notice

I’ll try writing this one up as bullet points, see if I get more in than with my last panel writer-up.

Bad sword fighting in fantasy

  • FT: Fighting that’s artless – real western fighting was and is an art and a science.
  • JM: The idea that you can just pick up a sword and fight. Complete novices often tear their own ears in the attempt to fight, and that bleeds a lot.
  • JM: Long fights. Most sword fights last two or three strokes.
  • CB: Using one weapon’s technique or terminology for another.
  • AT: Not taking account of armour – fighting someone with armour requires a completely different approach.

Best sword fighting in fiction

  • JM: Old samurai movies, like Seven Samurai.
  • JM: Game of Thrones books – less the nuts and bolts than the attitudes of the fighters.
  • AT: K D Parker – technically good stuff.
  • AT: Abercrombie’s The Heroes for the sense of the chaos of battle.

Fighting in its social and historical context

  • FT: Rapiers were very much fashion accessories.
  • JM: Swordplay’s survival in Japan was down to the ban on gunpowder weapons.
  • CB: Many wearing rapiers for fashion didn’t know how to use them.
  • JM: Fighting well requires day in day out training to build muscle memory.
  • AT: Old fighting styles can be invalidated by technological change.
  • JM: Fast technological change means skills get lost in two and a half generations.

Planning a fight scene

  • FT: Context is key – battle or duel? What’s the regional etiquette?
  • JM: Less is more on details.
  • AT: Have the fight’s pace and structure driven by the characters’ personalities.

Other odds and ends

  • JM: Someone can have a non-survivable abdomen wound and still fight for twenty minutes – taking out their ability to fight is what counts.
  • FT: The locked crossed swords thing never really happens for more than a second – there are lots of ways out of it.
  • CB: In full armour heat exhaustion is your enemy.
  • FT: Swords are a last resort weapon – would rather have a spear.
  • Someone recommended reading English Martial Arts by Terry Brown.

The panellists did a demo afterwards, which I missed, but here’s a video someone else took of it:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHQC_Ds5sTs?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

This panel contained a lot of practically useful information on writing fights in fantasy and historical fiction. Anyone have any other guidance on this, or good sources to check out?

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Andrew Knighton

Andrew Knighton is an author of speculative and historical fiction, including comics, short stories, and novels. A freelance writer and a keen gamer, he lives in Yorkshire with a cat, an academic, and a big pile of books. His work has been published by Top Cow, Commando Comics, and Daily Science Fiction, and he has ghostwritten over forty novels in a variety of genres. His latest novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, is out now from Luna Press Publishing.