Being a Better Writer: What Should My Characters Be Doing in a War or Battle?

Welcome back writers … to a bit of an odd topic, I’ll admit. Even now, looking at the title floating there above my text box, I can’t help but note how strange it is … But at the same time, I feel like there’s some value in this one. So, today, we’re going to talk about it.

Is this an odd way to kick off Topic List #22? Well, we’ll see. Sometimes Being a Better Writer discusses strange topics, topics that most other writing advice columns or YouTube channels don’t touch. I think this will be one of them. To those of you that are new to Being a Better Writer, either post-LTUE or from another part of the web, I’d say to stick around, because while this topic looks odd, I think there’s value in it, and you may be surprised what arises from it.

So without any further ado, or without hitting the news from last week or anything else that’s going on, let’s talk about today’s Being a Better Writer topic. Let’s talk about what your characters might be doing in a war or battle.

Hit the jump.

Now, Being a Better Writer isn’t any stranger to talking about warfare. We’ve spoken about it before. We’ve talked about it in a general sense, with writing different types and perspectives of warfare. And we’ve written about writing action scenes from time to time, even recently. There’s plenty to dig through with that tag of “combat” or “battles.”

But today’s post is going to range a little further from that. Today, I don’t want to talk specifically about writing action scenes as a subject of “How do we do them?” but rather more in the context of “should we be doing them, and what kind of action should that be?”

To illustrate what I mean by that, let’s go with an example from a popular pastime: Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D. D&D is one of many popular tabletop roleplaying games, and in it combat is a common occurrence. Players choose a class, build a character, and then engage in chicanery around a table as hijinks ensue.

Now, here’s the thing about D&D: It encourages—almost requires, really—characters to be specialized, with strengths and weaknesses. This encourages players to work together to overcome the challenges placed before them. It also, quite often, leads to the aforementioned hijinks, as the players decide that their best choice for a stealthy, sneaky operation is a paladin in full plate—not quiet or unobtrusive at all—who can’t lie to save their life.

What I’m getting at is that quite often in D&D games you’ll see a scenario arise in which player characters are either jumping into voluntarily or pushed into doing something their character is very bad at. Full plate warriors trying to noisily sneak through a courtyard, for example, or frail bards or thieves finding themselves up against monstrously muscled foes. It’s funny, and fun, and a good part of the joy in the game is the players getting themselves into—and hopefully out of safely—these scenarios.

Now, skilled players who are thinking things through will often find ways to play to their strengths and avoid entering these scenarios in the first place. Which is, depending on the “DM,” or game master running things behind the scenes, a solid and fun way to play.

I know. You’re wondering how this relates to the topic. We’re just getting there. See, a common trait you’ll see among newbie players is the idea that “my character is the hero of their story, so obviously they should be right there in the thick of it.” So the DM warns the players “You see a large group of heavily armed men escorting their prisoner to the camp” and rather than thinking “Well, they sound dangerous, maybe I should sneak into the camp later and sneak this person out” they instead think “I shall take my knife and lack of armor and stab these heavily armed warriors to death!” They then initiate combat.

Probably a pretty poor idea, right? Though it may lead to some hilarious hijinks, it’s also a pretty questionable idea, driven largely be the thought process of the player being “I am the hero of my own story, so clearly I cannot lose.” And depending on how merciful the DM is feeling, well …

In any case, what does that have to do with writing? Well, what would you think, as a viewer of this tale outlined above, if the players were told of this individual that needed rescuing, and the one who was asking them to do it said “Hey, why don’t you thieves charge these warriors head on with a loud battle cry?” It’d feel a little odd, right?

Welcome then, to a lot of adventure books I’ve read over the years—and I’m sure you have as well—where the protagonist is, for whatever reason, put right in the thick of things for a battle or other encounter that they have very little business being in.

Okay, it’s not for no reason. We know the reason. The battle is exciting! It’s where the action is! Who cares that our protagonist doesn’t know how to swing a sword or reload their rifle! They need to be right there! In the thick of it! Because that’s where the action is, and nothing could be greater than our protagonist either A) fumbling their way through a battle in which they really have no business taking part, or B) displaying sudden, masterful competence and emerging from the battle to the astonishment of all involved!

Now look, I want to stress that BOTH of those outcomes can have valid reasons in story to occur, and are not inherently bad. In fact, there’s a wealth of story opportunity with those two variations that can be given both solid reasoning and properly set up to make sense. For example, perhaps the one coordinating this big battle wants the protagonist dead, so they insist that they head into the conflict with full knowledge that scenario A will result, because they want them to be a corpse for whatever reason. Suddenly that fumbling through the battle can become a tense scene of terror.

Or perhaps our character is quite skilled and trained, and it’s been hinted at every bit of the story. This can be as straightforward as ”’the chosen one,” it can be explained earlier that they’ve actually been working their way toward this day, or any number of other reasons that can catch everyone off guard and lead to our protagonist emerging victorious. From Star Wars to Lord of the Rings and beyond, there are many, many ways we can make those scenarios work.

And yet … I’ve read plenty of fiction where no such effort was taken, or explained, or even logical. Sometimes there was a handwave at least to acknowledge that the protagonist shouldn’t be in the situation, but sometimes not. The protagonist was just shoved by the plot into the battle, or war, or what have you because that’s where the action is, so clearly that’s what is interesting. But what I’d like to encourage us to think of today, writers, is to ask ‘Is it?”

Okay, let me give you a scenario to explain what I mean. Let us for a moment hypothesize a YA fantasy story in which our protagonist is a young thief who has discovered a plot against the king. Their nephew is about to rise up against them, take control of the castle, and use the royal family’s lives as bargaining chips to get the army and guard (which they have subdued important elements of in the castle to aid in their plot) to stand down and accept the new rule. Yes, it’s a little sloppy for a concept, but most of us have read a story like this.

Our protagonist, our young thief, sniffs out the plot after stumbling upon it, informs the loyalist captain of the guard, and the race is on to save the king and his family, complete with a clash against the nephew’s forces.

Now, in a generic fantasy story, and one that makes the issues seen above, the following would result; The writer would think “Now I have to show this battle between the loyal guards and the traitors, so I’ll have the captain issue the thief a sword and send them right in with the guard! Danger! Intrigue! They’ll barely survive! Awesome!”

And sure, that leads to action and peril … but is it really the best choice? Or the logical one?

“But!” you may say. “We want a tense climax! Wouldn’t it be turning down the tension if our protagonist isn’t right there?” Well, perhaps. But could you place the protagonist somewhere more logical, and still keep that tension of the climax? What if we tweak our finale just slightly so that rather than shoving our protagonist into a battle they’re not suited for, the success of that battle involves them using their skills in another way? What if, for example, the loyal captain informed his men that they were outnumbered three to one by the nephew’s traitors forces, and they’d need to make their stand carefully. That his plan was to engage them in battle in a well-known square that marked the edges of the old city, and to keep from being overrun, and to keep from being overrun and have any chance of protecting the king, they’d need someone to close off all other avenues to the king, warn the palace guard, and then in a specific order sneak into gatehouses across the city and cut the ropes to drop the gates so that the nephew’s forces were split and disorganized.

How would that utilize the skills of our protagonist? Suddenly, they’re sneaking over the palace wall in the night, delivering a message to the king of what’s going on, perhaps past guards they’re not sure they can trust. Then, as the captain makes his stand in the square, our protagonist is sneaking around the edges of the battle, trying to remain unnoticed and fighting against the clock to sneak into gatehouses and drop the gates so that the traitor nephew’s forces don’t overwhelm the loyal guard and seize the king before loyal reinforcements arrive from another city.

They’re still in the climax. They’re right there, watching the battle and playing a very key part of it. But they have a reason to be. And can use their skills, that the story has built up, in a way that makes sense and lets them shine.

That’s what today’s post is about: Looking past the obvious “But action!” answer to our stories and looking for ways in which we can integrate our protagonist(s) into the climax that utilize their skills in a natural and fitting manner, especially if our story may involve a battle or even a war.

Not every character needs to be—or even should be, if you’ve read the post on writing warfare linked above—on the front lines of a conflict. Maybe our character is better utilized making sure the supply lines are intact. Or caring for the wounded. Or running messages to and from the front.

The point is, often I think writers—especially young ones—get tunnel vision with regards to the action and especially the climax of their story. They have it in their heads that action is the way a story must end, and that their character must participate, even if it doesn’t make much sense for them to do so.

Sands, some readers have this mentality. I have encountered a reader who disapproved of the climax to Axtara – Banking and Finance, not because of the peril that occurred, but because in their mind the protagonist should have been a heroine of violent action … despite that not meshing at all with the protagonist’s character, who instead makes a verbal stand for herself.

But as with Axtara, sometimes it does not make logical sense for our protagonist to be diving into battle with seasoned warriors, deadly mages, or experienced space mercenaries. But that doesn’t mean our story will be bereft of a climax or even action. There are many aspects to, to take from this post’s title, a war that can be riveting, stressful, and climactic. A character can struggle to put their medical skills to use saving the life of a key figure. Or can be a scout on the edges of war, trying not to be caught and relay valuable information to a general.

We can look elsewhere other than the generic “fight” at the end of our stories, or even during. We can use tense moments that utilize our characters skills, put them in an influential position that still has impact, but keeps them true to their character.

Sands, we can even have a climactic battle where there only goal is to survive during it from point A to point B. Sneaking, running in a panic as things explode around them … There are so many possible ways for our protagonists to be involved with a climax that keep them in character, so why not do so?

Okay, so what now? We’ve discussed all this, so what’s the takeaway? What impacts your writing from this?

Well, thankfully, this is one of those concepts that’s pretty easy to dive into an apply. Just … think of your character. That’s it. Think of them, and what skills they bring to your story, then think of a climax—or even a regular action sequence inside your story—that will allow them to stay true to the skills you’ve represented and use them in clever ways.

Don’t just hand your protagonist a sword and say “go get ’em!” Think about what sort of scenario they’d be best suited toward, or would be challenged by. Think about how they can use their skills to contribute to a danger, a threat, a foe, or a challenge. Then let them!

Your stories will be better for it! Your characters will feel more alive. And if you do end up in a situation where your character is handed a sword and shoved into combat with a “go get ’em” (which can be a fun “I have no idea what I’m doing challenge”) you can then have them consider how to use their skills in addition to what’s just been shoved on them to survive or maybe even escape.

That’s it. Ultimately, this post is just “don’t throw your characters headlong into generic combat.” Consider who they are, what skills they have that may be better utilized elsewhere, or in another fashion. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have characters that charge headlong into battle—suited for it or not—but that you’ll be keeping your characters consistent with how they and others see them, as well as what their talents are.

Yes, it may require a bit more work on your part. You may have to reconsider a final showdown, or what role a character can play in it. It will take more work.

But you’ll wind up with a story that lets that character show their strengths, show who they really are, and use those strengths in way that is impactful, rather than gaining some new skill at the last moment or just setting aside a portion of their character for a sword duel or some other action piece that doesn’t really make as much sense.

And that? That’ll deliver a memorable finale and keep your character’s skills and depth strong.

So don’t just go for a generic action climax. Look at what your character can contribute, and work that in. It’ll be for the best.

Good luck. Now get writing!

Oh, and don’t forget that you can leave questions and comments below, or that Being a Better Writer and Unusual Things is kept advertisement free thanks to the donations of our Patreon Supporter crew: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Miller, Lightwind, Boomer, Piiec, Wisehart, and Taylor!

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