"THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF FIGHT, PART 2"
Ladies and Gentlemen, back in the day when a unit of a thousand spearmen charged into a phalanx of pike... well, the spearmen got skewered. But that's not my point. My point is that battles rarely led to the death of more than half of the combatants. Often not even a quarter. If you're in a military unit and twenty percent of your buddies get killed, what are you going to do? Run. Surrender. But probably not keep fighting. In fact, you might run even if no one gets killed. Imagine facing off against a renowned foe, and they're charging you on horseback, their ranks spanning the horizon, their hooves shaking the ground... RUN!!! Morale is tremendously important in a fight, and ends as many fights as the weapons themselves.
This is often even more true outside of warfare. Imagine what happens in a typical movie when a street gang goes after the protagonists, or a group of robbers breaks into a house, and one of them gets killed by the staunch housewife. What happens? The others get mad and press the attack. Another dies, and another, and still they pursue our heroes with relentless determination, down to the last man...
Real live people who see someone they know get killed right beside them end up with a brick in their pants. Unless they are Marines or trained mercenaries or high on crack, they run. Maybe grab the injured and run, but they run. And maybe even if they are trained mercenaries, they run. Come on, think about it: a team of assassins goes after their target and one gets killed. If you leave that body behind, more troubles could fall on your head than you can count. The show is over. Snatch that body and run, and live to fight again another day, if your employer doesn't shoot you in the head for screwing up.
There are exceptions, of course, but please make it believable. Rigorous training, extreme passion for a cause, fighting to save the life of a spouse or child--sure, now I'll believe that someone will keep fighting. But that doesn't explain why the street hoods don't run away, or why the army of orcs fights to the last... orc. I'm not asking for every fight to turn into a rout. Just having it happen once will win you lots of believability points.
VII. Thou Shalt Not Allow Heroes to Skateboard On a Shield Down Stairs Whilst Shooting Multiple Arrows or Other Egregious Breaches of Physics and the Audience's Suspension of Disbelief Such as Kicks That Send Opponents Hurtling Ten Feet Through the Air and Through a Wall.
Are you sensing any anger here? Okay, so the scene in Lord of the Rings when Legolas skateboards down the stairs loosing arrows is fun and cool... sort of. But what you might not have heard as you were watching is the splintering sound of the wall between your immersion in the fiction and the real world as it cracks into pieces. When you're on the fiction side of that wall, you're invested in the stakes of the story and you're not thinking about whether or not things are realistic or believable--because they are. You're not thinking about the fact that it's all a story. But when Legolas skates, you smile--even though the horrific battle and potential loss of life isn't a very good time to be tickled at the carnival-like antics of our favorite elf. You're back in your own flesh-and-blood sitting on your couch (because you are, naturally, watching this for the fifteenth time on DVD).
Supernatural strength and speed is one thing. Applying it inconsistently--or worse yet—granting it to characters in a real--world, non-fantasy/SF setting--is another.
Speaking of which, I am sick and tired of kicks that send opponents flying through the air, often to smash into--or through--a wall. Physics, folks. The force necessary to send someone flying through the air is simply beyond the power of any kick. If you did kick someone that hard, they'd fold in half, not go flying. What really bugs me is when a punch to the face sends them flying, as opposed to the midsection. Imagine for a moment that the disher-of-damage here actually has the strength to send someone soaring like that. Suppose it is Superman. If he hits you that hard in the face, I would consider the following results believable, and no others:
(1) Your face implodes.
(2) Your head snaps back so sharply that your neck breaks.
(3) Your body flips over... but pretty much in place. See, your head is at the top of your body. Smack a heavy object hard enough on the end and it spins.
Hmmm... none of these three results are quite like bodies in the movies, are they?
I won't even get into the aggravation I experience when the victim of a blow like this gets up and charges back into the fight.
VIII. Thou Shalt Not Allow Ridiculous Proliferation of Insta-Kills
The human body is a paradoxical combination of toughness and fragility. Yes, if an assassin plunges a knife straight down behind a victim's collar bone close to the throat and jerks sideways toward the shoulder, the severed subclavian artery will bleed the victim out incredibly fast--unconsciousness in a few seconds and death soon thereafter. A bullet between the eyes can send someone to the hereafter in an instant.
People have survived things like having their heads impaled with a metal pipe, getting stabbed fifty times, or falling from a ten-story building. So while I won't cry foul at one or two "insta-kills", I lose my suspension of disbelief when the protagonists put down foe after foe with a single bullet or sword-slash, each of the victims falling to the ground motionless the instant the blow is received.
Then the primary bad-guys miraculously take multiple bullets and sword-blows. Grrr...
How do I know multiple insta-kills are so unrealistic? Think of any real-life account you've heard of war: there's a sickening parade of the injured. Men with missing limbs and multiple bullets in their torsos screaming in agony. Sometimes the human animal just doesn't want to go down. Sometimes a person can take a bullet to the chest. On a related note, police officers and witnesses to crimes frequently report being unable to tell when or if someone has been hit by bullets. Shooting victims don't fly backwards, and you often can't even see where the bullets hit. I'm not asking for zombie-antagonists stomping after protagonists on ankle-stumps, and I'm not asking for excessive gore. But if your story involves multiple deaths, make it believable--have some of them be slow. I'll leave the details to you and leave it at that.
IX. Thou Shalt Remember That Armor Works
...and that anyone trained in combat and likely to be engaged in it darn well knows it and won't leave it behind in foolish bravado or to avoid the encumbrance. A Renaissance knight was nearly indestructible. Swords couldn't pierce his armor, and there were no significant "holes" or "gaps" through which to slide a stiletto. In the battle of Nancy in 1477, Charles the Bold died only because he removed his gorget, exposing his neck. Other knights died because they wanted to see better and removed their helmets. But other than willing gaps like these, there were none in which to slip a dagger or slide a well-placed rapier. Why do you think weapons like the mace were invented? Stabbing through a knight's armor was exceedingly unlikely, but you could bludgeon him and have the concussive force still hurt him... except that underneath the curved plates was an aketon--a suit of thick padding designed to cushion such blows. An aketon alone could serve as respectable armor.
And by the way, forget that encumbrance thing. Armor was designed to allow excellent freedom of movement and the weight was evenly distributed. A trained knight could run, get up from a fall, mount a horse, and so forth with relative ease, and he didn't need a crane to get in the saddle (except perhaps in tournaments, when knights wore heavier armor to reduce the chance of injury and fatality).
So how did knights die, other than the fools who removed their armor?
They could get heat stroke--armor was hot. They could get buried in a pile of bodies and suffocate. But often, they didn't die at all. You'd knock him off his horse and beat him with a mace until he couldn't get up, or fight him until he was exhausted. Then you'd capture him and ransom him for lots of money or trade him for fellow knights captured by the enemy.
Even before the near-perfection of knightly armor, we had things like the bronze breastplate of the Spartan warrior. You weren't penetrating that, either. The Spartan had plenty areas not covered by armor, and notice that they still weren't dropping like flies. In real combat, as opposed to role-playing games, it's rather difficult to slash at someone's unarmored legs (for example). The over-extension necessary to make such a blow could get you hit in a more sensitive area. And in many cases, you'd be stabbing through a wall of overlapped shields, not facing an opponent in single combat.
The same applies to modern warfare, almost. Rifle rounds can certainly penetrate body armor, but the weapons an average cop or special agent is going to face aren't. Like a knight's armor, it's a little heavy and hot, but not overly encumbering. In other words, when cops run off without their body armor--duh. They're asking for trouble. Oh, and good luck with head shots. Aiming in a gunfight is difficult enough. Head shots against running, ducking, cover-taking opponents usually result in a miss, while the baddies unload several more shots at you.
The armor unrealism irks me most when ancient warriors charge off without their armor, or don't wear their helmets, which is common in movies only because it allows you to see the actors' faces. Armor works. Only a fool would choose not to wear it.
X. Thou Shalt Not Misconstrue These Commandments To Mean That Amazing Things Aren't Possible.
For instance, some people think that decapitations with swords in movies are hogwash. I read some history and seen some tests and simulations that demonstrate otherwise. It's quite possible, as long as it isn't going through armor. Same goes for severed limbs. And armor isn't impregnable, and weapons can be thrown; it just has to involve the right weapons in the right circumstances. A Roman pilum was a heavy javelin designed to be hurled at the enemy ranks, penetrating armor and shields. Note that they weren't thrown with pinpoint accuracy at a single opponent. They were thrown at ranks of enemies, where a miss was a hit, if you catch my meaning. Speaking of impressive missile weapons, Mongolian composite bows could shoot an arrow hundreds of yards—against practice targets with bulls-eye accuracy and against massed enemies with considerable effectiveness. Heroic feats are possible; many weapons throughout history were very efficient at their jobs. You can still have incredibly cool fights in your stories.
So, what are the rewards those who obey the Ten Commandments of Fight? Well, I actually wrote them for myself. I pledge to obey them. If I break them, it will be for good reason and with sufficient justification. I'll avoid thoughtless selection of weapons and imitation of Hollywood bullpucky. And I'll still have awesome warriors and kick-butt carnage, made all the more amazing by the fact that you'll actually believe it.
BOTTOM LINE: Make the conversion. Obey the Ten Commandments of Fight, and your battles will rage on in your audience's memory for eternity.
NEXT: Possibly... short stories versus novels and other questions of what to write when.