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Story Combat Realism EXTRA--battlefield errors from The Battle of the Five Armies

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I promised my next post on combat realism would be on long-term effects of combat. But coming off watching The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies last night, please allow me to insert some comments on ways the movie botched showing combat realistically.

Someone could easily answer that in the genre of fantasy, combat doesn't have to be realistic. That may be true, but I think writers should at least know what is realistic in order to be able to use realism if they so choose. Unrealistic combat scenes in movies muddy the waters of what really is and is not possible, so writer may genuinely think something is realistic, when it it isn't. I hope to offer a bit of clarity.
By the way, these comments will reference some specific events in the story, but won't commit any real story spoilers, nor comment on the overall story. So, listed from the worst on down:
1. War mounts plow through ranks of infantry.Look, a horse or war elk or whatever can knock a man in armor standing fi…

Spheres--A Fantasy Story World Based on a type of "Scientific" Magic

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Taking a break from my Combat Realism series of blog posts for a bit, I've decided to share a concept for a new kind of fantasy story.

The kernel of the story idea came from Francis Godwin's 1638 book, The Man in the Moone, in which a Spaniard flies to the moon in chariot drawn by geese. Of course geese can't fly to the moon because there isn't air for them to breathe along the way. And even if there was air between the Earth and the moon, the distance is so far--roughly far enough to equal going all the way around the planet Earth in a circle ten times--the geese would never have the energy to make it all the way. (Of course Godwin was not writing with the lack of atmosphere or true distance in mind.)

"But what if," my mind was wondering, "What if there was a fantasy world in which you really could fly a goose-drawn chariot to another planet? What would that story world be like?"

I immediately seized on the notion that gravity would have to be dif…

Story Combat Realism Part 5--Evil as a System of War

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David Grossman's On Combat (as well as his earlier work, On Killing) has largely inspired my blog post series on combat realism, though I'm not delivering the exact same conclusions, nor putting things in the same order he did.

When he discussed the factors that make it easier to for a human to kill another (for almost all human beings are naturally adverse to killing members of our own species), it struck me how a certain combination of factors have defined some of the most terrifying militaries that have ever existed on the face of Planet Earth. These factors define armies that rightfully should be called "evil," a distinction Grossman never talked about specifically. These factors include:

1. It's easier to kill if an authoritative leader is telling you to do so (psychologically, this relieves individual guilt). Let's call this the "Nazi mentality"--"I was only doing as ordered."

2. It's easier to kill if you are with a group of people…

Story Combat Realism Part 4--the Barbarian Way

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Last post I gave ancient and medieval examples of what I could have simply (but boringly) called "the professional warrior." The examples I gave were by no means identical, but they all shared in common an emphasis on long, disciplined study of war and weapons and hard training, on maintaining a code of conduct, and on staying as calm and level-headed as possible on the battlefield.

There's another warrior tradition of note--the barbarian warrior. There are commonalities and overlaps between barbarians and the pros (and even what it is meant by the term "barbarian"), but what I'm marking here as the fundamental difference between them is how they fight. The barbarian, whether a real one of history or fictional analogues, doesn't see any particular value in maintaining a level head in a battle. Not to say all of them are out of control at all times, but they do not specifically train to maintain calmness. Instead they rush into battle in a frenzy of rag…

Story Combat Realism Part 3. How to Train a Samurai, Spartan, or Knight.

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At the end of my last post of this series that deals mainly with the psychological factors of combat, I noted that Spartans, in spite of battlefield courage that implies they are natural-born warriors, were in fact the product of superior training. Note that this kind of highly-trained fighting professional is a different sort of fighter than found in warrior cultures who emphasized battlefield rage. This type of elite training was not just a characteristic of Spartans, it was also true of a number of other renowned warriors from times past, including samurais and knights.

To take the last first, the conventional training of a knight began at age 7, when he became a page. Pages served knights in their company, but also learned to ride and fight with wooden swords and blunted lances. They practiced horseback fighting while riding piggy back and were continually exposed to weapons training. At age 14 a page became a squire, who now trained with both wooden and sharpened weapons, who co…

Story Combat Realism Part 2--The Fearless Elite

I ended my last post with the following statement: "...in writing battles, it should happen sometimes that characters feel overwhelmed and surrender. Or run. Or if they don't, there needs to be something special about them that accounts for how they differ from what is in fact normal for human and nearly-human characters."

One type of "something special" I'm going to discuss in this post. It turns out according the the book On Killing, the biggest stressor human beings face in combat is killing other human beings. The sequel to On Killing, On Combat, actually puts more emphasis on the danger of being killed, but both things haunt the human mind, largely based on the human ability to feel empathy. To feel the suffering of those we humans kill on the one hand--and to witness friends and colleagues being killed on the other, while feeling their pain as they pass on (and then worry that we are next) form the primary causes of battlefield psychological trauma. N…

Story Combat Realism, part 1--Flight, Fight, or Surrender

Especially in epic fantasy stories, human beings or demihumans like elves or dwarves are often portrayed as fighting to the death with a disregard to danger. Creating larger-than-life struggles is part of the appeal of epic literature, but an author should be aware of the behind-the-scenes psychology of that is normal to be able to grippingly and realistically portray the abnormal. Because it happens to be the case that people don't usually fight until the death--they fight until the surrender.

Many people are familiar with the so-called "Fight or Flight" response, a state of stimulation by danger that can alternatively cause a person to fight or to run away. But as documented in the book On Killing, when fighting members of their own species, not only human beings, but all social animals in creation have a third response--to surrender.

So wolves in a pack fighting to be the dominant member of the group--the "alpha"--don't usually fight until one is dead, b…

7 Ways to Deal with the Problem Magic Poses Christian Fantasy Writers

First off, what is the problem with magic for Christians? Or sorcery? Or witchcraft? (Are all of those things even the same?)
An entire book could be written on this topic (perhaps I'll do that someday) but to keep this as brief as possible, the short reason this is a problem is the Bible has nothing good to say about the practice of magic (neither does extra-Biblical Christian tradition). No translation of Scripture will record the 12 Disciples watching Jesus walk on the water and say, "Wow, that was magical!" Nor is the mana falling from heaven in Israel's wilderness wanderings described as some kind of powerful spell that Moses used, nor even is his rod described as "magic," even though Moses had the power granted to him by God to turn it into a serpent at whatever time he chose. No, the Bible describes events like these as "miracles," or "signs," or "wonders."
On the other hand, when the Bible talks about "magic"…

The Breen-Boussh Connection

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Boussh costume of the sort worn by Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi
A Breen soldier from Star Trek Deep Space 9


Interstellar cross-time transdimensional ethnographers have unraveled an unexpected fact. The Breen, best know for the Romulan saying, "Never turn your back on a Breen" and third-rate villains (in the opinion of some) as allies of the Cadassians and Dominion against the United Federation of Planets in the Dominion War, apparently at one time discovered a secret gateway to "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away."

Available evidence suggests the gateway (or wormhole) interlinking Breen space with the Galactic Empire actually landed Breen troops into this far-removed galaxy in the early days of the Galactic Republic. The community of Breen, unable to locate Hoth (a world reported to be like their own--their helmets contain a refrigeration unit to keep them cold), underwent a number of cultural and physical adaptations allowing them to better survive…

Two Characters Interviewed

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Our scene is a tent, someplace dusty, with wind blowing hard outside. I sit across the a wooden table from two men also seated. One I recognize from Colony Zero, the other from Medieval Mars.

What are your names?My name is Simon Chang. Thus says the first man, his openly blind eyes roaming across the room, his broad Asian face adorned with a wide smile.
The second, a lightly built man with close-cropped blond hair and a thin blond mustache, glances nervously at Chang before answering. M-my born name is "Evan." Though by the grace of God, I have become a rider for my Lord Pederson, the Govnor of Mons Ascraeus. So I am now called, "Sir Evan."
What one word best describes you?Chang replies, his arms crossed in front of his simple brown tunic. One word? That's difficult--but I would say I am "faithful."
The full plate armor of the second man clinks slightly as he shuffles on his wooden chair. I-I might have said the same thing. But since it has been said, I w…