Fightin’ and Writin’: Embattled Characters

A perennial favorite of the Writer Track panel is “Fightin’ and Writin’”. The 2016 version was presented Friday at 10PM. Panelists included moderator John Robinson, Kevin Dockery, Michael Livingston, Allen Johnson, John Ringo, Chris Kennedy, and David Afsharirad.

Robinson kicked off the panel by asking the participants to introduce themselves. Afsharirad is an author and edits the Year’s Best Military and Adventure science fiction series for Bain. Ringo writes military science fiction and spent four years in the US Army Airborne. Dockery, the coordinator of the Armory track, writes military history and fiction, with 19 books on Navy SEALs. Ordnance is his specialty. Livingston, the author of the historical fantasy The Shards of Heaven, is a professor at The Citadel. His specialties are medieval history and speculative fiction. Johnson is a screenwriter and a member of the Historical European Martial Arts group the Palmetto Knights. Kennedy is a former naval aviator and elementary school principal who writes bestselling fantasy and military science fiction.

Robinson asked the group how they handle individual versus mass points of view in large battles, conveying both without confusing the reader. Ringo suggested focusing on what’s important to the story. He noted that his heroes are usually at the level of lieutenants or captains or lower in science fiction and “sword swingers” in fantasy. Scenes with characters at higher levels in the chain of command convey the overall picture.

Dockery said his work focuses on special operations units, which are small and deal with individual combat on a personal level. “No matter how big the battle, the individual tells the story,” he said. He doesn’t use a lot of higher-ups.

Livingston said there’s no one way in writing. The author may use multiple perspectives or may let staging, where the character is on the battlefield, inform what the character and the reader know. “All battle is individual battle,” he noted. He suggested reading primary sources for information on mass battles.

Working in film, Johnson said, offers a different perspective. In a novel, the words on the page are the end product, but a screenplay is a framework on which others build. Screenwriters must compact as much emotion as possible in a small space. All fighting must be goal-oriented, and anything that takes away from the goal will be cut. He added the hero’s goal and the antagonist’s must be mutually exclusive.

Kennedy seconded Johnson’s points and said that he writes from a couple of perspectives. The actual fight is at the individual level, as readers want to know what’s going on with the character. The battle has to matter and the reason it matters has to make sense to the overall story.

Citing David Drake as a good example, Afsharirad said a battle can be done effectively with the “grunt’s eye view.” It’s about the character doing the job, though it’s possible to pull back and show bigger stakes.

Robinson asked the panel to how to handle pitting an unarmed character against an armed opponent. Citing a confrontation between US forces and the Taliban in an Afghan village, Ringo suggested having both sides run out of ammo and complained about the characters on the show Supernatural having guns knocked out of their hands so often.

Dockery agreed that there are occasions when one uses up everything. His personal favorite example is a Gurkha who ran out of all his weapons and beat his final opponent to death with the tripod of an empty machine gun. In spec ops, he said, it’s rare to switch to hand-to-hand, but it happens when a situation is fluid, as when people are bumping into each other in the dark and can’t easily tell friend from foe.

Lewis added that it all comes down to staging and that examples of such events can be found in history. Johnson noted that those interested in medieval and renaissance bladed weapon combat have rediscovered manuals from the period on how to use those weapons but also include information on unarmed combat. Medieval and renaissance martial arts also included hand-to-hand fighting.

Kennedy agreed that combatants wouldn’t immediately use their rifles on running into someone in the dark but added that the choice has to make sense in the story. “Nothing is more scary than being close to someone who wants to kill you,” he noted.

Picking up on Kennedy’s comment, Afsharirad said so many fighters, especially in movies, wind up in such situations because they’re so primal. He seconded Livingston’s point that there is a lot of history to draw from for big battles. Ringo recommended the part of John Keegan’s The Face of Battle about the fighting around a farmhouse at Waterloo, which resulted in high casualties because the soldiers got close and couldn’t or wouldn’t withdraw. Kennedy added, “You literally can’t turn away from an enemy at close range.”

The next topic was whether the panelists considered one weapon or fighting style better than all others. Ringo said modern combat required multiple skills so the fighter has the right skill or tool for the moment. He noted that the katana is designed to cut flesh, not steel, and bounces off plate armor. He concluded that there is no perfect sword.

Dockery said there’s always a better weapon than the one in hand. “When in doubt, nuke the sun and make them start over,” he advised. His personal rule is to be competent with anything he uses, though not necessarily expert. The very sharpest blade, he said, is the oldest, obsidian, which can be made extremely sharp though it’s brittle and easily broken. Every weapon has its application, and the user must be aware of that in the story.

Livingston said there’s no “best” weapon in the period of the Hundred Years War and that the best weapon of all is the brain because someone who knows more can do more. “But you also have to factor in dumb luck,” he noted.

Johnson added that which weapon is best is situational and the writer must know what is appropriate for the story’s time period.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.