War - What is it Good For?
By Stephen Zimmer
Conflict is one of the most critical elements of a compelling story, and there are few better contexts for bringing conflicts of all kinds into a story than war. Wars provide an environment in which characters of all kinds develop, are tested rigorously, and ultimately go through their individual arcs to destinations that are for the better or worse.
In the genres that I write in, such as fantasy, wars are prime components of a great many of the most successful stories and franchises of all time. From the epic clash with Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to the struggle against the White Witch in Narnia, to the trials of the mercenary company in Glen Cook’s Black Company novels, wars have long provided fertile ground for storytellers. In fact, one of the first major works of western literature, the Iliad, is centered around a large war that becomes the catalyzing force for the events that form the amazing story told in the Odyssey.
By their very nature, wars introduce great degrees of chaos and upend the status quo in a story setting, allowing for a wide range of scenarios involving the various characters appearing within a novel. In the greater conflict, key characters are pitted against each other, whether that takes the starker shape of a clear villain-versus-hero dynamic, like a Voldemort against a Harry Potter, or becomes part of a much more complex maelstrom involving flawed characters and sudden shifts in the conflicts, as readers of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire are well used to.
As the characters and armies move against each other in a fictional war, action, intrigue, and all manner of things come into play, some very intrinsic to the genre. Not the least of the latter, and one of the things that I have the most fun with, is when genre authors bring creatures and other non-human entities into the mix, as important pieces of the fictional war.
Often, the use of non-human creatures in the wars of fiction serve a decided purpose, such as when practitioners of dark arts in a Robert E. Howard Conan story conjure up some otherworldly menace to tilt the balance of a war. Also frequent in the conflicts of fantasy literature, the non-human entities form the “manpower” for one of the sides in a war, whether that might be the Trollocs in the Wheel of Time Series, the Orcs of Middle Earth, or something like the Ur-Viles in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
The utilization of creatures in a war instantly demands effective world-building on the part of the writer, in terms of integrating the creature, and perhaps an entire culture, into the story in a way that is ultimately believable to the reader.
I can relate strongly to these kinds of elements. In my own writing, I have many instances when a creature is serving a specific, powerful function for one of the sides of a conflict. For example, I have some large, flying, reptilian beasts called Darroks in my Fires in Eden series that have been harnessed with large platforms, fitted with a system of chutes that allows for the dropping of great numbers of heavy stones from the sky upon an opponent. The way these Darroks are used significantly affects the story, spurring some of the more emotionally charged scenes in the first novel of the series.
I also have larger populations of non-human entities taking different sides in the war depicted in my Fires in Eden series. There are the subterranean creatures called Unguhur, who get drawn into the massive conflict raging in the world above them, and resist the forces of the Unifier. Fighting for the Unifier’s side, though not entirely at ease about it, are the Trogens, a brawny, dog-faced warrior race that make use of flying steeds called Harraks in battle. Both the Unguhur and the Trogens serve as the basis for subplots in the series, provide for many action-heavy scenes, and contribute strongly to the conflict present in the novels.
As in the case of the Darroks and the Trogens upon their Harrak steeds, creatures can influence the kind of tactics used in a battle. Of course, an author has to be careful when introducing the more fantastical elements, as the more gritty the realism the more likely the reader will suspend disbelief.
This is why Glen Cook’s Black Company series is so well-received by readers with a military background. While it is in a fantastical setting, and involves supernatural arts, the characters within the mercenary company exude a high degree of realism. Glen’s masterful portrayal of the various personalities in the Black Company and the realistic ways they interact and experience the world help to sell the more fantastical components of the story. A modern day solder is highly likely to find themselves discovering reflections of those they have served with among the members of the Black Company.
As you can see, wars can bring a lot to a story, and provide for rich character and plot development, with genre fiction able to take advantage of even more options with the usage of non-human creatures and entities. If only we had a world to live in where the only place war existed was in fiction.
About the author
Stephen Zimmer is an award-winning author and filmmaker, whose literary works include the epic urban fantasy series The Rising Dawn Saga, as well as the epic medieval fantasy Fires in Eden Series.
The Exodus Gate, Book One of the Rising Dawn Saga, was Stephen's debut novel. It was released in the spring of 2009, with The Storm Guardians following in 2010, and The Seventh Throne in August of 2011.
Crown of Vengeance, Book One of the Fires in Eden Series, was released in the fall of 2009, with Book Two, Dream of Legends, following in December of 2010. Crown of Vengeance received a 2010 Pluto Award for Best Novel in Small Press.
~~~~~~~~~~Spirit of Fire - Book Three of the Fire of Eden Series
A maelstrom of war engulfs lands resisting the designs of the Unifier to bring about a new order, of a kind that has never existed within Ave. Battered by a massive invasion force from Gallea, the tribal people of the Five Realms and their Midragardan allies are being driven eastward, towards the sea, while the Saxan lines are wearing down ever thinner on the Plains of Athelney.
Time is running out quickly, as an ancient creature of legend soars through the skies with a brave young Saxan. They carry the desperate hopes of two realms sorely beset by a voracious enemy.
Diabolic entities conduct a great hunt, as a malignant darkness deepens across all of Ave. Exiles from another world must gain refuge, or find themselves ensnared by the long reach of the Unifier. The very nature of creation itself stands in the balance.
It is a time when the honor and fortitude of many are put to the test, and terrible prices are paid for resisting great evils. It is also a time of awakening for many, old and young alike, some of whom may yet discover the spirit of fire that lies within.
The third installment in the Fires in Eden series, Spirit of Fire is richly imagined epic fantasy with a diverse ensemble of characters that offers a new world to explore for readers who enjoy large-scale tales along the likes of George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Steven Erikson, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Thank you Stephen for a really insightful post. So, what does everyone think? Do you like wars in your novels? Which is the war you remember and cherish the most? For me, the epic battle in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is something that has not been eclipsed by anything till date!