Welcome, fellow writers (and readers, mayhaps?) to part two of my writing advice for better high-fantasy armies. We’re currently standing amidst a canvas sea; you’ve seen its like often enough, no need to describe the tents themselves. There are no camp followers because this isn’t that kind of fantasy army. Instead, please stand clear of the Quartermaster Corps’ bustle, armies march on their stomachs and this is quite a large army.
Don’t look in on the healers’ tents; the mages are drained, the herbalists are out of poultices, and shot and ball do harm to make a crossbow weep. The surgeons have leaned too much on the others in the past, so best not watch.
Ah, here we are! A company mess tent. Rather empty today, only seventy or eighty where there are benches for two hundred.
You may notice Deinhard, with his gruesome burns, shattered nose and left eye socket rebuilt from arcane steel, is refusing even to look at you. This is because Deinhard has survived long enough to see his unit suffer 300% casualties for this war, and he is completely certain you will be joining that dreary percentage on the morrow. Don’t take it personally, this happens quite commonly to soldiers who aren’t fighting The Last Battle (For Real This Time, the Prophecy Says So) to save the world of Tropesia.
Deinhard is still here. Deinhard does not need a peppy young queen to inspire him, or lofty promises for a triumphant victory which fly against reality’s blood-spattered leer. Deinhard endures because after everything he’s seen, everything he’s done, everyone he’s lost, he refuses to let it all be for nothing.
You may be starting to think Deinhard is unrelatable, and that’s no fault of yours. An obnoxious heaping of speculative fiction advice has lied so hard about what constitutes relatability for so long that most of us have ended up believing it. What happens to you, my fellow humans, when you’re down? Who picks you up when you feel like you can’t go on? Do you get a hyper-inspiring speech from a friend who would definitely die for you, most likely a biddable one who also happens to be a love interest?
Alright, fine, if you’ve got a good romance going then you probably do. Lucky schwein (no offense). Or more accurately, you do sometimes. Because even if you have a wonderful partner, a lot of the time it comes down to you, and you alone, pulling the will to move forward from a reserve you never knew existed. There is no last desperate push, no final victory. Your life is a blanket woven sometimes from finest gossamer, sometimes from rough cotton and all too often from rusty, serrated steel-fibers.
Are you seeing my point? On the dark days when you push forward anyhow, you are your own Deinhard. You’re a real person, and most real people don’t get (unjustifiably) godlike heroes dropping from the sky to pick us up; we have to pick ourselves up. For that moment, you become the grim, towering old soldier in his fading uniform coat and scarified bandoliers.
Let’s flip this around: most high-fantasy good-guy armies function as unmotivated everypeople who exist primarily as a platform for the author to show how fucking cool their heroes are. These are the very last kind of people you should want fighting against any kind of ancient evil. Okay, fine, it’s a literary device, I get that, but think about the worldbuilding and thematic implications here. You have reduced tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or even millions of sapient beings into (largely) helpless props so that you can establish how vital the main characters are.
So instead of doing that, consider this: an army always has its own identity. Armies happen to be pretty damn big, though, so you’re best advised to start with smaller, famous or infamous units and flesh some of those out. Do that enough, and you’ll get a pretty good idea for the military culture of the country you’re working on.
This isn’t a complete list, but it’s a good start: ask yourself where the unit sprang up (country, region, their cultures, climates and geography), why it was created, its early battles. These things will give you its earliest version. This stuff should be fun. I mean, c’mon, you’re making your very own group of ass-kickers!
Next, think what’s happened to them since, whether warfare’s changed meaningfully since their origins. If, say, you have a bizarre world where knights are trained to fight in organized formations, the sudden appearance of gunpowder weapons could wreak psychological havoc on a whole division! Lastly, once you know their overall reputation, identity, and purpose, ask what’s happened to them within the last few months. Has there been a sudden outbreak of peace? If it’s lasted long enough, they may be losing their edge.
Are they in a war that’s going badly? That’ll never have cheerful effects, but it may not affect them negatively the ways we’d expect. German resistance in WW 2 reached its most fanatical when most career soldiers realized the war was lost for sure. Why? Because the tradition of the German soldier made many of them psychologically unwilling to betray the Fatherland in its darkest hour by surrender. You can already start to see how these things not only reflect on the army as a whole, but even on the culture your warriors hail from.
I’ll tell you this much, I’ve seen very few moments in fantasy as tragically awesome as Eomer, convinced the Rohirrim are about to lose, starting to sing with battle-lust, tossing his sword in the air and catching it. Tolkien was 70 years ago, he shouldn’t still be outgunning the bulk of authors this badly.
Let’s come back to Deinhard. Deinhard does not know King Cosen Dreicher or any other member of high command personally. As far as the readers are concerned, Deinhard is not directly relevant to the plot, and I probably won’t ever name him. But once I know about Deinhard, I can decide what kind of unit he’s in. What dread formation is worthy of such a man as Deinhard? Well, he’s a platoon leader with the 3rd Line Guards division.
“Guard” in this context means the exact opposite of what it does in the civilian world. A city guard is an average person with some training and gear who keeps the peace, basically an underpaid cop; a Line Guard is an elite soldier in an elite formation, trusted to press home ’til victory or death long after lesser soldiers break.
Deinhard’s job is to organize forty to fifty fellow unfortunates as a subset of their regiment, the 49th Guards Regiment. They march headlong in straightbacked ranks against hails of gunfire; generally they win. Theoretically, as an elite unit, they’re only supposed to be engaged at the crucial moment of an especially hard battle. But during the current campaign, the commander of Deinhard’s army has been forced to commit the Guards in three separate battles to salvage something from encroaching defeat, and they’ve gotten mauled a little worse each time.
Doesn’t matter, they’re the 3rd Guards. Death before disobedience. Their black coats are sunset orange within, crimson trimmed, and topped with plumed sallet helms. Their breastplates, reinforced by magecraft to stop bullets, are mirror-polished midnight blue, with special care given to highlighting dents, pocks and nicks. The regimental standard depicts two hands snapping a sabre-blade between them, bloody palms be damned.
That’s it. More details will always give your forces a stronger feel, but you don’t need more than this. Number, nature and standard have already made the 3rd Guards more interesting than 90% of their competition. Except, there is a teensy problem I’ve introduced by fleshing them out, which we’ll get to next time. This is where even authors who include armies with identities tend to fall flat:
All the stuff I just mentioned? That has to meaningfully affect the plot.