Q&A: Weapon Preferences and Specializations versus Signatures

Would it be feasible to have a character that’s bad at fighting with a sword and doing hand-to-hand combat, but is skilled with using a bow and arrows? I’m asking because I’m not sure if being a good archer has any crossover with fighting with your fists, for example, in terms of skills needed. Or would this character be good at all three of them if she just practiced? Is it realistic that she could just have an affinity towards using the bow?

The concept of the signature weapons rather than comprehensive fighting styles is a fictional creation, usually you see them in anime and in video games. To use a bow doesn’t mean you can’t fight with a sword or an axe or with their fists, and, due to the changing nature of the battlefield or the situations they might find themselves in, it would be inadvisable for them to ignore close quarters combat. Even if you’re character was simply a hunter, they’d have a wide ranging skillset with various weapons, including the creation and setting of traps to knives and, possibly, even spears depending on the type of game they hunted. You don’t go after bears and boars with a bow.

One thing to understand about the medieval bow if you plan to have a character use one is that the weapon itself requires a lot of time to set up. A bow is not like a gun, you don’t just pull it out and start shooting. You’ve got to keep it oiled and carefully wrapped so its not exposed to the elements, you carry the bowstring separately so if you’re traveling and didn’t plan to use your bow then it must be restrung. You will also need to either go get your arrows after use, find a fletcher, or make them yourself if you’re not part of a military unit which will provide them to you (and even then, you still want to retrieve them.) The general use for the bow in your standard military was as artillery. They were the cannons before there were cannons. Archers also carried a sidearm in either a sword or axe in cases where the enemy broke through the front lines. At those times, they’d be required to fight in close quarters.

As a writer its important to learn the distinction between “preferred” and “can’t”. This character may prefer to fight with a bow, as a sharpshooter and at range, but combat specialists develop a wide array of skills so they can change out as needed. This includes fighting in hand to hand, fighting with swords (these two crossover), axes, spears, and other weapons.

If you choose to go with a character who only uses a bow and nothing else, then you have a character limited by their positioning who can’t fight in crowded rooms without finding higher ground (and can’t fight past enemies to get to higher ground), who can’t survive an ambush, who has to run and keep running until they put enough distance between themselves and their enemies, who will have difficulty fighting indoors or in places with poor visibility, who may face difficulty fighting at night, who is limited to a specific set of circumstances and does poorly in every single other one. This is a character without any self-defense skills, who is reliant on others to keep them safe when things don’t go according to plan or when they run out of arrows. They also lack the means to create advantageous circumstances for themselves while under threat, which limits their long term survivability.

Every character is going to have preferences for weapons they like to use, and things they don’t like to do. It’s like being told to eat your veggies when you just want to eat fruit, or that you have to do push ups when all you want to do is parkour. Some people prefer fists to kicks, some people prefer standing grappling or joint locks to groundfighting, but you have to learn them all in order to prepare yourself for a variety of situations. If you play shooters, you’ll notice the soldier characters carry a variety of different weapons from assault rifles to SMGs to handguns. That’s not counting the countless other weapons you can choose based on the situation you’re about to walk into. This is so they’ll always have a usable weapon when the situation, scenario, or battlefield changes. You don’t want to lose crucial seconds using a weapon poorly suited for the environment you’re in when a fraction of a second can cost you your life.

Remember, in the combined legends of Robin Hood, his standard kit includes not just a bow but also a sword. We have the legends of his fight on the log with Little John with staves. He might not be better than Little John at using a staff, but he’s trained to fight with one.

Martial combat and weapons work are skills. You learn to use them. Usually, when we’re discussing talent, we’re discussing people who have better than average coordination and great physical mimicry. There’s almost no gap between seeing a technique and applying it. That’s the talent. Your character’s affinity may not just be natural, but learned if she had parents who worked with bows and she grew up around archers. The bow would always feel more natural because she started learning to use one when she was five instead of fifteen.

It’s also important to remember that preference doesn’t always relate to talent. Your character might find learning to use a bow comes more easily to her or she has an “affinity” for it, but likes swords better. At the end of the day, the weapon you like better is the one your better at using because you invest more time into it. A character who uses a bow, might take their hand to hand training and get decent at using their legs for self-defense so they can defend their weapon as well as themselves.

Many writers use talent as an excuse to avoid explanation. Regardless of whatever you plan to write, you should learn as much about the subject as you can. There’s also this idea that you can only train in one thing and that there’s no crossover or blending. Learning to fight hand to hand or with a sword and learning to shoot a bow is no different than learning to shoot and learning to ride a horse. They are two separate skillsets which can be combined, so you can shoot a bow while riding a horse. Otherwise known as mounted combat.

At the end of the day, being a martial combatant is about having a diverse skillset encompassing a very large swath of possibilities in order to prepare for a variety of situations and eventualities. Fighting inside a castle is very different from fighting inside your local village full of houses with thatch roofs. Fighting in a forest is different from fighting on a plain. Fighting an opponent with a spear or staff is fighting a swordsman, or someone with a dagger. Fighting an opponent with a sword and shield is different from fighting someone with a single sword.

Combat is a form of problem solving. There’s never just one way to solve a problem, and you’ll never solve different problems the same way every time. If you choose to do so, your enemy will constantly be developing new ways to stop you and your solution will eventually be countered by new techniques and new technologies. The goalposts are constantly moving, even for characters who are the literal best at what they do.

Don’t hem your characters in, even if they prefer one weapon over others. Let them specialize, but don’t create a one trick pony. This gives you more options to when it comes to constructing scenarios and fight scenes for your characters. You’ll be able to plot a course of action reflective of both your narrative and your characters.

-Michi

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