Ravencon Panels (I actually DID do): Swords Not Required

Note:  As I was writing this blog last night, I learned that the print edition for the anthology World’s Enough, Fantastic Defenders, in which my story “A Gun for Shalla” appears, had appeared in print on Amazon.  This was a bit of a surprise for me, even if I knew it was SUPPOSED to be released soon (I was told the book launch would be at Balticon, which is next weekend), because I was expecting at least one more communication requiring my response before it was released.  But, hey, it’s out!  There are several good stories in this anthology in addition to my own, so buy your copy, today!

And now on to the regularly scheduled (and delayed for an evening) blog….

When I saw this panel on the long list of possible Ravencon panels, I was quick to pick it.  And, it turns out, it became my first panel (as a pro) ever.

Now, if you haven’t read my books you might not guess it (after all, I have a series I’ve called the “Law of Swords” series), but I frequently use weapons other than swords in my fiction.  So I was quite ready to discuss the topic…

And then I was made moderator.  While I could pick which questions to ask the panel, time management issues meant I couldn’t answer them.  I wasn’t really disappointed (I got all kinds of interesting discussion based on the questions I posed), but I do want to give my own answers to my “questions for the panel”:

I.  Why are Swords so compelling in fantasy fiction, and which of those characteristics would you recommend when considering a different type of weapon for your main character?
There are many reasons swords are a great weapon for the main character of a sword-and-sorcery style fantasy series (beyond just, well, the word “sword” is used in the genre name).
1. For one thing, it is the iconic weapon of the middle ages (though it probably shouldn’t be; the iconic weapon SHOULD be the English Longbow, or the horse-mounted pike, or… well, several other options which would have been more commonly and effectively used by the warriors of the middle ages, but because they were the weapon of choice for symbolical reasons during the crusades; after all, the cross guards used in the swords of the time made them look like crosses).  Most sword-and-sorcery fantasies are set in the middle ages.  So, it just makes sense.
2. Tactically, swords are equally good offensively and defensively.  My fellow panelist (and Ravencon Literary Guest of Honor) Chuck Gannon brought this up and discussed it extensively.
3. Swords have been used (are still used, though mostly ceremonially, today) for thousands of years, though for long stretches of time they were more of a secondary weapon.   Outside of some style differences, a “sword” is a fairly universal thing; if you are writing a fantasy, it doesn’t matter where in the technological timeframe you set your fiction, a sword of some sort would be available.  This wouldn’t necessarily be true (for example) of a handheld crossbow, or many types of throwing weapons used (theoretically) by ninja, or other more exotic types of weaponry.  And we know they have really be used in combat, unlike, say, the military flail.
4. Now, this is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” thing, but swords are popular for writers (or movie people) to use as a weapon because their use is already popular enough that people can easily visualize how swords work.  It’s almost impossible to grow up without being exposed to some sort of sword fight in movies or television, and while I’ve heard on occasion that the style of sword fighting used in movies isn’t historically accurate, people will be able to picture SOME kind of sword fighting as you write your fight scene.
So, to sum up, some of the characteristics that might be useful for you to consider when choosing a weapon for your character are:  Symbolism, effectiveness both offensive and defensive, does not appear out of place in the technological timeframe of your fantasy, and the audience understanding how it works.  We’ll touch a bit on some of these in the next few questions, so let’s leave it there for now.

II.  Different weapons have different “best use” characteristics — bows and arrows are better used at range, ninja tools are best used for the assassin type, spear-and-shield are best used in group tactics, and so forth. Does the choice of weapon you give your main character affect their personality, and if so how?

I really should have asked whether the weapon “affects or is affected by” their personality when I asked this at the convention, because you might not decide on a weapon until after you’ve finished designing all the other aspects of your character.  Regardless, the weapon you choose to arm your character with can easily shape or be shaped by the character’s personality.
If your character is a pikeman (spearman, part of the shield wall, whatever), you had better be able to get along with your fellow soldier or you aren’t going to live very long; while you can apply some other polearm styles to a spear and use it successfully, they really aren’t intended for one on one fighting.
If your character is using assassins’ tools, they (or their trainer, if they’re still learning how to use them) probably have some significant secrets in their background.
If your character is using a bow and arrow… well, they either need a secondary weapon for close in fighting (most commonly a sword or dagger, as seen by Legolas in the Lord of the Rings and Robin Hood in most versions of his tale.  It doesn’t have to be a sword, however; in The Kitsune Stratagem, I gave my male lead a bow and arrow with a modified version of a ninja tool for close range fighting) or they need to hang back from the center of the action.
I could go on, but I think you get the point.  The tactics required to use the weapon, the style of combat suggested by the weapon, the range of the weapon, and so forth all make differences in how you expect the character to behave.  If they break the expected behavior, you have to justify that.  So, if you have an anti-social spearman, you’re going to have to justify that.  If your character is an assassin who blabs out everything about his life at the bar every week, you’re going to have to justify that.  Well… you get the idea.

III.  Certain archetypal fantasy races have weapons they’re expected to carry — a significant plotline in my Law of Swords series came about because of an argument I had over whether Dwarven Axemen made tactical sense or not. If you give an atypical weapon to your fantasy race character — for example, a heavy warhammer wielded by a stereotypical high fantasy elf — how much explanation do you think is necessary?

You know, I spent a lot of time answering OTHER moderator’s questions with “it depends,” it is fitting I need to give that answer to one of my own questions.
If all you’re doing is giving your Dwarf a nice sword, or some kind of ranged weapon, or something of that ilk — something that you would expect them to be able to handle, even if you were expecting them to have an axe or a warhammer — you don’t really need to give any explanation.  On the other hand, if you’re giving, say, a zanbatou to a hobbit, you need more of an explanation than the Rule of Cool.
But you might WANT to explain why your characters are being armed with atypical weapons.  There’s a reason you picked those weapons, right?  If it’s anything more than a whim, don’t you think your audience might also be interested?

IV.  No-one thinks twice if your magically-inclined characters decide to use a small twig — also known as a wand — in battle, even if small twigs were never used that way in real life combat. Do you think — IN FANTASY — that you can get away with inventing a completely original type of weapon for your non-magical characters?  If so, what cautions would you suggest authors consider when inventing these weapons?
An admission:  I asked this question because I did this, myself (sort of) in The Kitsune Stratagem.  I took a real life weapon, a ninja tool (though a variation that was typical of the legend rather than the accepted historical form), and altered it to be a little more portable.
So, obviously my answer to this question is “yes,” I do think writers can get away with inventing original fantasy weapons.  But I think they need to be careful:  Don’t throw your readers out of your universe by making too complicated a weapon, or something too anacronistic.  If no other society in your world is using gears, having someone carry around a clockwork-powered repeating crossbow would throw your reader out of place.

And that’s how I WOULD have answered my own questions.

Edit:  Comments closed due to too many spam attempts.  If you would like them re-opened, please contact me.

2 thoughts on “Ravencon Panels (I actually DID do): Swords Not Required”

  1. > If no other society in your world is using gears, having
    > someone carry around a clockwork-powered repeating
    > crossbow would throw your reader out of place.

    Does it? I like Bianca from the computer game Dragon Age 2 and 3 😉

    (Mind you, the fact that it is a named and unique weapon proves your point ;))

    1. I’d say the precedent for gears in that world is established by the various sealed doors in the Deep Roads that are operated by gears. Might be something of a nearly-lost technology, but the Dwarves in DA do seem capable of at least repairing some of their old nearly-lost technology. The unique part of Bianca is miniaturizing those gears so that they’re small enough to fit into that weapon.

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