The Pen Versus the Sword – a FantasyCon Panel

Posted: September 17, 2014 in writing
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One of the most exciting panels at FantasyCon, and one with a very eager audience, was ‘The Pen vs the Sword’, on combat in fantasy fiction. On this panel were…

  • Adrian Tchaikovsky – writes fantasy, fights at the Leeds Armoury for research, also does live roleplay
  • Juliet E. McKenna – writes fantasy, does aikido, used to do live roleplay
  • Fran Terminiello – writes fantasy, does 16th and 17th century martial arts
  • Clifford Beal – writes historical fantasy, used to do full armoured combat, now does rapier fighting
  • David Thomas Moore – fantasy writing, moderating on short notice

I’ll try writing this one up as bullet points, see if I get more in than with my last panel writer-up.

Bad sword fighting in fantasy

  • FT: Fighting that’s artless – real western fighting was and is an art and a science.
  • JM: The idea that you can just pick up a sword and fight. Complete novices often tear their own ears in the attempt to fight, and that bleeds a lot.
  • JM: Long fights. Most sword fights last two or three strokes.
  • CB: Using one weapon’s technique or terminology for another.
  • AT: Not taking account of armour – fighting someone with armour requires a completely different approach.

Best sword fighting in fiction

  • JM: Old samurai movies, like Seven Samurai.
  • JM: Game of Thrones books – less the nuts and bolts than the attitudes of the fighters.
  • AT: K D Parker – technically good stuff.
  • AT: Abercrombie’s The Heroes for the sense of the chaos of battle.

Fighting in its social and historical context

  • FT: Rapiers were very much fashion accessories.
  • JM: Swordplay’s survival in Japan was down to the ban on gunpowder weapons.
  • CB: Many wearing rapiers for fashion didn’t know how to use them.
  • JM: Fighting well requires day in day out training to build muscle memory.
  • AT: Old fighting styles can be invalidated by technological change.
  • JM: Fast technological change means skills get lost in two and a half generations.

Planning a fight scene

  • FT: Context is key – battle or duel? What’s the regional etiquette?
  • JM: Less is more on details.
  • AT: Have the fight’s pace and structure driven by the characters’ personalities.

Other odds and ends

  • JM: Someone can have a non-survivable abdomen wound and still fight for twenty minutes – taking out their ability to fight is what counts.
  • FT: The locked crossed swords thing never really happens for more than a second – there are lots of ways out of it.
  • CB: In full armour heat exhaustion is your enemy.
  • FT: Swords are a last resort weapon – would rather have a spear.
  • Someone recommended reading English Martial Arts by Terry Brown.

The panellists did a demo afterwards, which I missed, but here’s a video someone else took of it:


This panel contained a lot of practically useful information on writing fights in fantasy and historical fiction. Anyone have any other guidance on this, or good sources to check out?

  1. glenatron says:

    Sounds like really good stuff. There are some interesting pieces on a more general martial arts topic over on Charlie Stross’ blog currently.

    One thing I think has helped me in terms of the larger view has been the live roleplay – once you have taken part in a few battles you start to understand how little effect individual martial prowess has on a battlefield and how much effect organisation, co-ordination and preparation have. Also the actual confusion of not knowing which of the lines surging past you is actually on your side is surprisingly common and I would guess that there would have been many battles in earlier periods where people on the same side were not in the same colours and the same thing would have happened.

    • Funnily enough someone mentioned the whole LRP massed battles things – I think it might have been Adrian Tchaikovsky – and it reminded me of one of your comments here before. That chaos can be pretty overwhelming, and I dread to think how much worse it would be with the clanging of steel weapons and the hooves of horses thrown into the mix.

      • glenatron says:

        It’s bad enough when there is a freaking war rhino.

        • Was that the battle you got killed in? I am so freaking jealous! The pictures make it look amazing. I would sacrifice a hundred of my characters for that kind of cool. Though in fairness I’ve sacrificed many characters on the three-way altars of boredom, stupidity and ‘you what would be cool?’, so that’s not saying much.

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