War in fiction – setting up the conflict

If you write fantasy or science fiction, more often than not at least one of the conflicts involved is military in nature. Wars heighten the stakes, make it easy to set up parties against each other on a grand scale and bring some action to the page.

While writing war seems daunting in a realistic setting because “there is just so much to reasearch”, especially fantasy autors often seem to award themselves more of a creative liscence. Which, in my opinion, you shouldn’t, because it takes away a lot from the potential of the setting and the credibility of the conflict. Putting some effort into the set up not only makes your world immediately richer and feeling more real, it also will help to improve your overall story.

The most important bit is to know your setting. If so far, the only thing you know is that it’s some place not here, that has magic and a slightly medieval feel, go back to the drawing board. You don’t need to know every word of their constitution (if they have one) and the exact set up of the treasury (again, if they have one), but there are a few things that you should have a very good grasp of before you set two or more nations up in a war against each other. (If you WANT to know all those things about your world, go ahead! World building is fun!)

Those three questions should get you started:

#1 Why do your countries go to war?

One party being led by an evil overloard who wants to rule them all is not going to cut it. Wars are long, expensive, and unless there is a really strong motivation to gain something that is vital to one parties national policy, going into a war, wasting money and material as well as human resources makes no sense. Especially not, if you think about warfare back in the middle ages and early modern times, which quite often are mirrored in fantasy settings. (That is not to say the same doesn’t apply to a more or very modern setting. War remains expensive and propaganda to garner support amongst citizens is everything. While in a more modern setting, other, non-fighting parties might profit from a war and are less dependend on the outcome – think the weapons industry – those questions remain valid in any setting.) So think about what they want. Give them a good, solid reason. Resources? Land? Ideological agendas like spreading a political system or a religion? Figure it out.

#2 What kind of war can your country afford to fight?

If your country is small and not very well off, it will probably not have a standing army. If your country is opressive, people will find ways not to heed the call to arms or desert. If your country is humongous, there will be cultural and maybe even language barriers between the soldiers from different regions.

All those things inform the kind of war that your country can go into and what problems the army will have to face. If they have a lot of resources, they can engage in long, drawn out fighting. If they don’t, they might aim to deliver one decisive blow. If their army is falling apart before the war has even started, there might be no war to speak of.

Setting matters. You can’t have an exessively poor country with opressed citizens but a massive, well working army made of said citizens. Unless you make it so. If that is what you want, set systems into place. Have being a soldier be the highest paying job. Have it be prestigious. It needs to provide a benefit for the individual who goes to war to do it, despite the fact that the system he or she lives in is utter shite. A footsoldier then cannot be constantly looked down on. He needs to be valued. He needs to earn enough to support his family. There needs to be a system in place to benefit his family in a way even if he doesn’t return. Always figure in basic human behaviour. Ask yourself: why would they do that? It’s an especially important question in war times, when for many, the only goal is survival.

#3 Does there have to be a war at all?

You’ve gone over the first two questions. You know what your countries national policy is and what kind of conflict they could afford. Now is your moment of truth: will war get them there? War isn’t always the best solution. Think about alternatives like guerilla attacks to wear down the enemy. Think about diplomatic ways. Think about economic solutions. Maybe the other nation needs something your main country has? Readers love cunning characters as much as they love action. If your novel does not have war as a main theme, see if there are other ways you might get the same results. Your characters might surprise you with ingenious solutions.

Now, how do you get from thinking about those things to building your actual conflict?

Maybe you have answered the questions with ease. But maybe you haven’t. Maybe you are willing to throw it all to the wind. Don’t. Because history is here to help you out. You see, if there is one thing that humanity excells in, it’s fighting each other. If you look into any history book about any era, you are likely to find more conflict in it than anything else. I’ve already stated the importance of the question “Why would they do that?” and I’ll do it again. History helps you to find believable answers, because people in similiar situations have already done it.

Think about your setting again. Lets assume, because that is often the case, it’s leaning towards medieval. Look at what history has to offer:

  • You want invading armies, fierce enemity over the right to rule and a conflict that does just not want to seem to end? Look at the 100 years war.
  • You want war within a country wiht two parties, both with a claim to the throne, splitting the country into factions, with lots of betrayal and death ? Look at the war of roses.
  • You want constant struggle for power in an Empire divided into small, semi-souvereign states? Look at the Holy Roman Empire.
  • You want an ideological war? Look at the crusades.
  • You want two brothers fighting for their throne in the shadow of a much larger conflict, alternately throwing their allegiance in with whatever party will support them against the other? Look at Enrique Trastamara and Pedro the Cruel in Castille.
  • You want a foreign nation taking over a country, imposing on it it’s religion and ideology and talk about how cultures find ways to subsist or melt together into something new until the country manages to take the land back bit by bit over hundreds of years? Look at the 700 years of muslim rule in Spain.

And that is only what I can think of on top of my head in Europe because that’s what I know. If you can imagine any sort of conflict, it probably in one way or another has already happened.

Important side note, because diversity rules:  If your background is in a different culture, I highly encourage you to dig deep there. We are having so many representations of medieval, european settings, but there is so much more. Don’t restrict yourself just because it’s what is already out there. I know Byzantine has much to offer. As does the African country. Asia. History didn’t only happen in Europe. It’s just what I know and am familiar with to a degree that makes me comfortable adapting it without turning it into mere decorative elements.

I’m not saying go and copy every battle, every move the warring parties have ever made. What I am saying is, look at what they wanted. How they justified it. What the strength’ of their armies was, which tactics they used. What problems did they run into? How well was the war accepted by the general public? What did the war do to the country? How did it change once it was over?

Look at all those things, and you will get a feeling for how to set up your own battles. It will help you to understand what war does to a nation. How a certain type of conflict feeds into the politics but also the everyday life in a country.

It will also give you pointers as to what your characters would most likely be doing. It might change your plot a little, but I can promise you, it will do so for the better.

One last word: If your world has magic, FIGURE THAT IN! Magic changes everything. Or, at least a lot. It might change the odds. Small army with a bunch of badass magicians against bigger army without any magic whatsoever? They might be more and still not stand a chance. Maybe it even plays into the reason for your conflict. Take into consideration that magic is not only a means to get your characters out of tight spots, but also might be the very reason they are in one.

Now who’s ready to plot a war?


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