Characters battling it out is a common occurrence for a lot of novels, at least the ones building up to that result. And that’s what this article is going to be about, how to write an epic battle that both fits into your narrative, makes sense, and is fun to read, which is some of the core stuff that makes up good writing. The main types of battles we will focus on is character vs. character, group vs. group, and character vs. group. Group in these scenarios could mean either a collection of people working together, or a whole entire society, we will be sure to tell you which one we’re talking about at any given time. And now OFF TO BATTLE!, oh wait, no, we actually mean, ON WITH THE ARTICLE!
Lets start by defining the basic types of battles.
Character Vs. Character
Character v. character refers to one on one combat between two people, simple enough, right? Kinda sorta, but not really, because one on one doesn’t mean that they are the only ones battling it out in an area, it just means these two specific characters are fighting each other. You could have a situation where two rivals single each other out in a group v. group setting, but remember to build up why they are singling each other out instead of helping get rid of the others before ganging up on the final rival. There is also the battle where it’s just the two by themselves, this is often a more serious battle with higher stakes because there is no one there to help the fighter which your reader is rooting for. This battle can help finish off an epic character arc, or it can start off one, it just depends on how you use it. There’s also the type of battle where the characters are pitted against each other by force, like being put in a gladiator ring, which could also apply to character vs. group.
Its also important to note that the character can be anyone, as long as it’s relevant, it doesn’t just have to be the showdown between protagonist and antagonist, it could be side character vs. antagonist, or even creating a rival for your side character that they want to defeat. But remember to have a few character perspective shifts if you want to have a one on one battle between characters, because if you go for most of the book in a singular perspective then suddenly shift just to show this singular battle between a side and whoever their fighting, it can be jarring for the reader and throw them out of the book for a bit.
The main use of this battle is more for personal character development, where you can show how a character reacts when brought into battle. It could show vengeance if the one they aim for did something to them in the past. It can also show how confident they are in battle, by showing if their running and screaming in fear, or showing off and playing with their opponent, which could be a fun area to put a character in their place. These battles, if done well, make for good ending to your climax of the story, but the winning of a battle doesn’t make for a good place to end the book entirely, usually in the falling action you want to show the consequences(both bad and good) of winning. And it can also be an interesting story to show the end where the character doesn’t win, making your audience wonder what happens beyond the immediate consequences.
So to sum up, character v. character is a battle where two people focus on each other to battle, even in a group v. group setting. And these battles can be more personal and designed for character development, but this doesn’t meant this is their only purpose.
Group Vs. Group
As mentioned in the beginning there are two main types of groups, the collection of 2 or more people, or a bunch of people united under a government.
The more government based type of group often refers to wars between two differing factions, but it can be about two groups fighting each other through political battles, which if done wrong can bore the audience, which is why it’s usually a good idea to add some action outside of the political battles.
The type of battle between two groups of two or more people are often used as smaller conflicts that lead up to the finale, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be used in a final battle. If you’re story is showing off how your characters need to come together to finish off the antagonist then that’s a great way to show unity in a final battle, and if they’ve been messing up most of the time before it can hit even better. The small group type of battle can also be used in a similar way to the governmental based one, where two differing groups are fighting over something, like some kind of magical McGuffin, or maybe you have something more like a gang, fighting over territory and power.
There is also a few ways you could do a smaller group of people vs. the government based group, like having a group of rebels working against a corrupt system, or having the small group come in and take over the cities government. the latter example of a smaller group is most often used as an antagonistic force, but it’d be interesting to see one where they weren’t. This type of battle can be used as an allegory for the real world, but expressed through a fun tale, and if you are going the allegorical route don’t just shove the hidden message into the face of the reader, make it subtle and there for those who look for it. Focus on making a good story first, and a hidden meaning second. But if you just want to write a cool story with a battle between the smaller force and the larger one without some kind of meaning that’ll be just as good, if you write it just as good.
The most prominent theme of the group v. group types of battles is power, power over a territory, power over a people, and sometimes power over the McGuffin. There are a few examples where it’s more good versus bad, such as Lord of the Rings, but there does seem to be some to be a representation of power in most of these. Even if the small group is trying to fight someone just to be the good guys then they are usually fighting someone who wants power in one way or another.
These battles can be more impersonal to the reader, and can serve as a way of showing the absolute destruction of fighting. But it can be more personalized if you follow a character through the battle, showing how this affects the character both in the moment and moving on, allowing the reader to latch on to the character even more.
Character Vs. Group
This type of battle is less seen, and that’s because it can make a character seem far to powerful, or delusional, which it usually does, but that’s why you need to add more to your character than just being able to take down a small group of people or even a whole society.
Lets talk about character versus smaller group first, the character being able to take down a group of people could be anyone that is believable able to people like the protagonist, antagonist, or even a side character. This type of battle can be a show of strength, or even a show of strategical thinking, it depends on how the character thwarts the small group. But if this is all they have to do when a pair of bad guys comes in, then you need to start thinking about giving the character weaknesses, not stuff like their too nice, or they’re far to attractive, no, you need actual stuff to drag them down, something that allows for conflict to actually form around the character. Because otherwise the conflict that you do throw in can seem forced and contrived. If the villain is shown as the strong one(either mentally or physically), then you have to have your group try and work up to their level and solve the power imbalance in a satisfactory way.
When doing a character versus a whole entire society, that is usually a little bit to far out of mind for most people. It can be an awesome mental image of a singular being taking on an army, but it has to be somewhat realistic, at least realistic to what you’ve set up so far in your world. If you have some kind of magic that can take down a whole city then there needs to be drawbacks, or something that keeps whoever can use the magic from using it, like a strong distaste for killing, but the course of the story forces this outcome upon them. Or maybe its like Avengers: Infinity War, where the good guys try and stop the bad guy from destroying their civilization with some McGuffins of ultimate power. You could also have non-magical take overs, where a character is working their way up in society, just to make it crumble, or maybe skipping the middle man and just assassinating the ruler and taking over from there, but that one has to be set up with some kind of rule stating that if you kill the ruler you become ruler, or something like that. There’s also the angle of an ancient story where someone takes over an entire society using some kind of something or other, but that can be a cool bit of worldbuilding and could even set up a plot where a character wants whatever the ancient being had.
This type of battle is more to show the absolute devastation that you’re character can wreak, or it can show a really deep and flawed character that is conflicted on their powers of absolute destruction. But the main thing to overcome is having a character that’s to powerful and doesn’t seem to earn what they do, which is unsatisfactory to an audience.
Implementing the Battle
So now that you understand the main types of battles, and their basic uses you’re ready to start implementing them, but you can’t just throw in a random battle in the end and call it good. Foreshadowing a battle to come is the best way of preparing the reader for a fight, and one way to foreshadow that is through setting up the tensions that will eventually snap and start the battle. But just because you’re setting up the possible conflict of battle doesn’t mean that it’s going to make any more sense to you’re reader. Let’s say you’re writing a love story about two teens in high school set in our own world, and with no special conditions, now lets say that you have been teasing the idea of an all out war, and then comes the war and your audience is confused. Now have a story between two factions of opposing opinions that forces a conflict between them, you then hint at the tensions building up that could lead to war, then you have a big fight and the audience is satisfied. The difference between these two stories is the war being a satisfying ending(never mind the other numerous differences), and that’s because a story between two high school teens should not lead to war, and a story of two factions can lead to a war. So you have to have a battle that makes sense for what type of book your writing. Lets imagine the teens story again, except this time instead of hinting at a war, you hint at a conflict the girls dad, and the girls boyfriend, and then you have a confrontation between the dad and boyfriend, which works far better than a random war.
There’s also the type of story that hints at a battle, but a bunch of characters are trying their hardest to prevent this outcome, and if they succeed that’s up to you, but if they do it can be a good way to show how people change, but if they lose it can show their remorse in having to fight, or even bringing worse consequences than just a battle, possibly even an “I told you so,”moment.
So to say this in short, when implementing a battle make sure it fits the type of story your telling, and have the battle foreshadowed.
Realism in Battle
Okay, when we say we realism, we mean as realistic as fighting can get in fictional scenarios. But before we get to the truly fictional scenarios lets talk about books set in a world with no change, when two people fight they aren’t going to be using magic, they’re going to be using what they know about fighting. If you have someone with more training for fighting then it can be obvious that they’ll win over the one who has little to no fighting experience. But this can also be compensated by training vs. brawn, where ones definitely stronger but the other is more strategic in how they fight. But if the two characters are equally matched then you can have a match where it seems their both throwing punches, but no ones getting hit more than the other one. When fighting one on one you can get some basic injuries, like broken bones, bloody nose, a couple of bruises, but that’s to say you’re not fighting someone with a weapon like a knife or gun, in which case a chance of death is much higher, with slashes, stabs, and bullet holes. And getting beat can be easier if it’s just one versus many. And there aren’t many scenarios in our real world of person versus government, other than protesting by doing something illegal and going to jail, or protesting by yourself with a sign that reads, “WE NEED MORE OMELETS!”and being looked at funny.
Now onto the more fantastical types of battles, stuff like epic space ships, dark wizards, and superpowers. In these types of battles you need to come up with your own injuries for what happens when hit with a magic blast and/or laser, which allows for more freedom, but it should also be applied to some type of logic. Like in sci-fi you can actually research what happens with lasers and stuff running off of radiation, usually lasers are hot and radiation is just an all around bad thing. But with magic you fall into the territory of creating a magic system, which we have an article about that you can check out by clicking here, but to give a brief explanation, there are soft magic systems, and hard magic systems, where soft magic is less explained magic, and hard magic is magic based more on rules and set in hard stone. So when having magical injuries it would be good to decide what kind of magic system you’re story is using, like if a magic blast hits someone and they turn into a chicken, it can be a fun joke, but if you have a hard magic system that says you can’t transfigure people then that’s an inconsistency, but if it’s a soft magic system then it’s just a cool display of magic, as well as a funny joke.
If you’re having a fantasy/sci-fi war it would be good to show the types of weapons being used on either side, as well as introducing some aliens or giants trolls to help in the field. By showing how advanced and how even or unevenly matched these characters are can help set up expectations from the reader on how things should go. Are deaths going to be more instantaneous with big explosions and the aforementioned lasers, or is it going to be a lot more stabby stabby, maybe it’s even more archaic with the blunt force of wooden clubs and rocks. But if you have a war set in our modern era there’s a lot of research you can do on what weapons we had and still have, and the types of issues that could possible trigger a war in our own time. But in sci-fi and fantasy you need to find the cause behind a war, by creating opposing beliefs that with an additive of depth in the gray areas of both sides.
Word choice also helps with helping show the severity of wounds, or the fear of what someone feels when in battle, or maybe even the confidence they feel. Researching how burns, broken bones, bullets, and slashes are described, and maybe even interviewing people who have experienced such things. Draw from your own experience as well, use words that can convey how you felt, how the people you researched felt. By using words that properly describe wounds you add an extra layer of realism, and help get the reader even more immersed in your story.
The last thing that we want to talk about is the toll of a battle, even a small one on one can have a traumatic effect on someone, causing long term mental issues, and maybe even long term physical effects. But wars have a much larger effect on much more people, people die, and people have to live on after them. One side wins and the other loses, what happens now? That’s the question left after every fight. You need to show the true tragedy of what has taken place, show the sacrifice, show the consequences, show how the character has changed as a person. Ending with a war in a book that still has a sequel can be a great way to explore how battle has affected them mentally and physically in later situations.
Battles in fiction can be both a fun thing to write and also a very serious talk on violence. Battles shouldn’t be plopped into stories just because you feel battles are the only way to end a story, they should be hinted at, and they should fit in to the frame you’ve set for them. By understanding the 3 main types of battles you can get different effects from your reader and progress the story in different ways with each one. Remembering the realism of a fight can help the reader immerse themselves into your story. We hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and learned something new. If you have any thing you feel we should add you can comment on our instagram @allthewritinghq, we appreciate the feedback. See you all later!
Written By All The Writing HQ