Facts for fantasy writers: weapons and armor

Everyone probably knows at this point that any writer of contemporary fiction who gets facts about guns wrong in their stories will receive a lot of email and comments and reviews letting them know exactly where they made mistakes (even if it’s the person making the comments who has it wrong). On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of comments about non-contemporary fiction — or at least fiction containing ‘old-fashioned’ weapons — to the effect that ‘readers don’t know and don’t care’ if the author botches a description of sword combat, or calls a bracer a gauntlet, or has a character wearing mail without anything underneath.

Trust me, some readers will know and will care if you get that stuff wrong.  As with all things, it is better to leave it out, be a bit vague, than to get it blatantly incorrect.  Here are a few of the more common (from my own reading experience) errors that pop up when medieval-ish weapons and armor are involved:

— The narrow channel down the center of a blade is NOT called a “blood groove.”  (Unless the POV character is a modern teenager who has good reason not to know any better, use of the term blood groove is likely to make me throw the book across the room.  Characters may be forgiven for ignorance; authors must get their facts right.)   The correct term is fuller’s groove, and it’s there to lighten the blade without making it weaker.

— Do NOT assume that sword fighting styles were the same everywhere in centuries past.  There were differences in technique between Italian and German — why would you expect there to be no differences between Italian and Japanese?  Or Japanese and Indian?  (Simply the differences between materials available for making the weapons and armor would have caused significant differences in fighting styles.  Environment plays a role, too:  fencing developed for fighting in narrow city streets, without armor.  Good for a duel, even one to the death, but not so good on a battlefield.)

— Those wide blades on medieval weapons?  They were NOT made that way because using more metal showed that you were wealthy (could afford more metal).  Steel produced back then was inferior to modern stuff.  It was brittle and weak and had to be thicker so it would be less likely to break (although it often did anyway).  On the other hand, modern steel is, by volume, heavier than medieval steel (take two pieces of the same dimensions, and the modern one will weigh more).

— Fiction writers MUST stop using that old “THAC0” nonsense (from the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG — stands for “to hit armor class zero”) for writing fight scenes… *shakes head*  It’s a fact, friends:  A person in metal plate armor is actually easier to hit than someone in leather, because all else being equal, the person in plate cannot move with as much agility; it’s simply more difficult to get through the metal armor — for most weapons — to damage the wearer. [long rant about the irrationality of certain game engines deleted as irrelevant to current topic]

I’m thinking of making this a more-or-less regular topic, if there is enough interest.  Not specifically weapons and armor, but all sorts of “facts for fantasy writers.”  Stuff about daily life prior to the end of the Renaissance (since the majority of non-urban fantasy fiction seems to be in low-tech settings), technology and culture and the foods people ate and what they wore (so we won’t have any more mistaking a kilt for a kirtle, yeah?) and anything else I can think of or that people ask me about.

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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6 Responses to Facts for fantasy writers: weapons and armor

  1. Mei-Mei says:

    LOL haven’t thought about THAC0 in a while…I can’t imagine anyone using this unless literally writing a novelization of a game using that system.

    I do plan on being deliberately vague with these concepts in my writing, as I have very little knowledge of them. It might be fun to do more “hands-on” research, but I wouldn’t know where to start.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t caught anyone making an actual reference to the game rules, but I have seen a lot of writers using it as an excuse for some character in heavy armor to move around and literally never get hit by any weapon in a melee even though characters less encumbered are getting thwapped left and right. Especially when I’ve been asked by the writer to give feedback and advice (“Mercenary Proofreader,” after all), I’m gonna comment on stuff like that… and they usually respond with some variation on ‘But that’s how it works — heavy armor keeps you from getting hit!’ Um… No, it doesn’t. It just keeps you from taking damage when you are hit. I can move a lot faster in a 3-pound suede jerkin than I can in my clone’s 35-pound leather scale armor, but I’d MUCH rather be wearing the scale if I get hit with something. 🙂

      As for “hands-on research”… If you don’t need true historical authenticity so much as a little bit of experience in what it feels like to wield a sword or move around in armor, you could try to find a good medieval LARP group near you and give the mock combat a try, or just talk to someone who has done that. (Signs of a good LARP group: Everyone is wearing appropriate garb instead of modern, mundane clothes; everyone who participates in the armed combat is wearing armor — not necessarily because it’s needed AS armor, but because it looks cool.) Some of my own hands-on knowledge about armor, at least, comes from having made the stuff once upon a time. (I should post photos… Hmm.) Reading a bunch of facts is useful, but it doesn’t tell you how it would feel for your characters to do those things.

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  2. Pingback: “…all your life and mine…” | North of Andover

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