Try to think of an epic fantasy that doesn’t include weapons. I bet you can’t. Every fantasy I’ve ever read has brought weapons into the story, and in this post you’ll learn the difference between a rapier and a claymore and know the ins and outs of adding weapons to your story.
Let’s go over these basic points:
- Types of weapons
- Weapons in time periods
- How to include weapons in a story
- The dos and don’ts of fighting with weapons
- Magic-infused weapons
- The production of weapons
1. There are many types of weapons out there. The most common weapons I’ve seen in a fantasy story are swords, bows, and daggers.
Swords have many types, including:
- Longsword (estoc, claymore; basically a very long sword up to 110cm)
- Arming sword (a sword fit for a knight; double-edged with pommel)
- Zweihänder (German origin; huge two-handed sword up to 180cm long)
- Broadsword (English origin; a slim common sword)
- Cinquedea (Italian origin; short sword and also considered a long dagger)
- Backsword (single-edged, one hand grip with a knuckle guard)
- Rapier (slender sword mainly used for thrust attacks)
- Cutlass (Caribbean origin; has a hilt guard, is short, broad and often curved)
- Smallsword (evolved rapier; is light and one-handed)
- Sabre (large hand guard; curved and single-edged)
- Viking sword (double-edged, straight blade; not limited to Vikings)
- Hunting sword (a 25 inch hunting sword; single-edged)
Bow types include:
- Shortbow (as the name implies, a short bow)
- Longbow (often the same height as the archer to allow for full draw)
- Recurve bow (the bow’s tips curve away from the archer)
- Composite bow (this bow is made from more than one material)
Dagger types include:
- Parrying dagger (used with a single-handed sword for parrying; slim in build)
- Hunting dagger (German origin; 25 inch, double-edged)
- Dirk (Sottish origin; long and used for thrusting attacks)
- Cinquedea (long dagger or short sword; heavy blade)
- Stiletto (has a needle-like point; very slim; used for stabbing)
- Knightly dagger (common dagger used by knights)
- Baselard (dagger or short sword)
Often in high fantasy, a weapon will be given a name and a description without being classified as one of these types. You may do that if you wish; I’ve done it in the past, and will continue to do so in the future, but those adding real world history into their stories should stick to proper names.
2. Knowing which time period each weapon is from is key.
Middle Ages (11th to 15th century)
- Viking sword
- Knightly dagger
- Composite bows
- Recurve bow
Renaissance Era (16th to 17th century)
- Parrying dagger
Modern Era (17th century onwards)
- Hunting dagger
- Compound bow (uses mechanical aid to function)
- Hunting sword
3. Time to add weapons into your novel. Remember what I’ve been preaching in past posts about subtlety. No one wants to read about every guard’s weapon (unless they’re a weapons enthusiast, but let’s assume not everyone is).
A good writer can implement a weapon into the plot without distraction from the story. You’ve all read passages in high fantasy that span the whole length of a page (or two pages) concerning this one weapon, and then later on this weapon is about as irrelevant as a rock. If you describe a weapon in detail, make sure that weapon is vital to the storyline. Make sure that weapon is the cause of some great war or the key to reuniting a kingdom. Or at least the hero’s chosen blade that s/he always uses. Don’t write in an amazing sword and four chapters later lose it in a river.
So how do you write weapons in without annoying the reader? The easiest way is to revolve a plot arc around the weapon. A character reveals a secretive blade to our hero and s/he is amazed by it–so amazed s/he has to go into detail about it. Or our hero is shown the dagger that just killed their entire family; obviously the weapon’s image will be burned into their memory.
If you don’t want to kick up a big deal about a weapon, include the description of a weapon when a character is introduced for the first time, has changed clothing, or is preparing for battle. Maybe you have a character who is fascinated with weapons. It would be an easy way to describe them without drawing a reader’s attention away, because the character is always talking about the next best sword or bow.
Weapons can also be hinted at throughout writing. The moonlight reflected off a polished dagger. The snap of a bowstring is heard. Swords clang in the settling dust of the battlefield. A man is sitting by a fire with a whetstone clicking against steel. Every time you hint at a weapon by way of sound, feel, sight, or touch you remind the reader of its presence.
4. Fighting with weapons can be tricky if you aren’t familiar with how they work. Let’s all think about action movies, where swords make that sharp noise when pulled out of their sheath. Tip: Swords don’t actually do that. They make a faint, sort of wooden noise. If there was a metallic sound going on (i.e. metal in the case), it would damage the blade.
Let’s revisit my post on “How NOT to Write a Fight Scene“. Fighting shouldn’t be written slowly, and characters shouldn’t be conversing with each other during a fight. The occasional taunt from afar or when a character has overpowered their opponent is okay, but a steady conversation just won’t do. In real life, fights move fast. People get out of breath and are too focused on surviving (or winning) to bother with speaking. The same should be applied to epic fantasy writing. Don’t look at a fight scene as an opportunity to draw out a character’s back story.
Remember to be realistic when fighting with weapons, too. Each weapon is different and fighting will be different for each. Long swords will overpower short swords. Bows will break against heavy weapons in close combat. Daggers are often secondary weapons. Fighting styles differ, but rapiers are best used for thrusting attacks and stilettos are best used for stabbing. Claymores can overpower opponents with their weight, breaking flimsy shields. A longbow has the power to knock a man off his feet even from a distance.
Don’t make a weapon stronger than it actually is. Broadswords aren’t going to be invincible in a fight. Every sword can break; every sword loses its sharpness over time. Don’t give your character the ultimate weapon. It just isn’t fun to read about.
5. High fantasy often brings in magical weapons. I love magic swords, but it’s good to remember–as I said above–not to go too crazy with them. Don’t give a character an unbeatable weapon. No one wants to read about that.
When writing a magic weapon, think about it carefully. You need to establish where it draws its magic from, what sort of power it is capable of, and which powers are immune to it. A Morgul-blade in The Lord of the Rings eventually turns to dust after stabbing someone and leaves a shard inside its victim. If the shard is not removed, it travels to the heart and turns the victim into a wraith. This is an example of a magical weapon that is powerful, but not unstoppable. Try to write your magical weapons in a similar way: powerful, unique, but has a catch.
6. Which weapons are used in a novel depends entirely on what resources are available in that part of the world. If your kingdom is rich with iron, then swords will be mass produced. If there are no trees, however, bows would be out of the question–or they would have to be shipped in from other kingdoms and would be extremely expensive. You must also decide which people get to use which weapons. Can anyone carry a weapon? Or are they prohibited by the king to be used by commoners?
Add your own thoughts on weapons in high fantasy novels below! Let me know if I’ve forgotten important details.