We all need to do our writing apprenticeships. We all have to make a living while we write our books. Have you considered trying one of these writing jobs?
Honestly, with this, I’d say dig into existing settings and see what they’ve used.
Warhammer 40k comes to mind. The setting dials itself up to parody, but a lot of it underlying logic is actually surprisingly well thought out, and there are a lot of bits you can take inspiration from.
The quality of the tie-in books waffles pretty wildly between completely unreadable and some of the best tie-in fiction I’ve ever read. The Caiaphas Cain novels (by Sandy Mitchell) are a pretty good introduction to the setting, and should give you some ideas. I’m not a huge fan, but Dan Abnettt’s Eisenhorn novels are also a good look at the setting, though you might need to do some outside referencing on a 40k wiki.
The tabletop game itself is expensive as hell to get into, but, you should be able to find some of the army codices cheaply in used bookstores. Those should give you some ideas of what you could outfit your characters with.
As a bonus, 40k does have some fairly good justifications for melee weapons in a distant future setting. That said it is supposed to be a Dark Age fantasy world in space. And there’s a lot of material you’ll probably want to filter out; it IS still a fantasy setting, psykers are Mages, Eldar are Elves, Necrons are Undead, Daemons are demons, and Orks are… well, Orcs. But it could still be useful for giving you ideas.
I’d also recommend looking at GURPS. GURPS isn’t a conventional RPG, so much as it’s a toolbox for the GM, and while I’ve never been a fan of the system itself, the research that goes into the average GURPS book, makes them invaluable research tools. I’m not sure if Space, Ultra-Tech, or High-Tech is the book most suited to what you’re doing, but if you can find any of those used, you’ll should have some top notch material to work with.
If you haven’t already, I’d spend a lot of time studying Animal Kingdom or National Geographic documentaries. No one does it better than Mother Nature, after all. Pick the animal traits you want to focus on for each of those characters: lions, male lions fighting other male lions have a habit of getting up on their back legs to fight. They claw at and grasp their opponents in hugs while sinking their teeth into the other male lions mane. There are a fair number of examples out there of different types of lizards using the tail thrash (think tail blades and run with it) effectively against enemies. Ostriches are very vicious fighters, they kick with their powerful legs, leap into the air, and stomp their enemies with big, clawed feet.
The possibilities are pretty much endless. Heck, if you have television and National Geographic or Animal Planet, I’d spend most of the day watching whatever they put on it.
This is a little more pricey but if you can find Werewolf: The Apocalypse and the supplement Changing Breeds books by White Wolf then I’d recommend it. These books are built around helping design characters with a more feral outlook (and claws!). The other changing breed supplements in the series are great, but pretty much all the Old World of Darkness stuff is out of print. So, when I say pricey, I do mean it. But they covered: werewolves, weresharks (Rokea), werecats (Bastet), werecrocodiles (Mokole), werecorvids (Corax), werespiders (Anansi), wererats (Ratkin), werefoxes (Kitsune), werebears (Gurahl), weresnakes (Nagah), and werecoyotes (Nuwisha).
If none of that appeals or you can’t get your hands on it, YouTube has some great videos to check out. I’d also suggest checking out Parkour and other forms of free running to help give you ideas for the human half. Some great games where you can simulate free running without having to try it yourself (for the personal touch) are the original Assassin’s Creed and of course, Mirror’s Edge.
Other than that, establish setting rules early for how the characters can be killed. If each one needs to be killed a different way, depending on their animal variant, then research it and keep track. Try to pick specific animals to pattern the character’s fighting habits off of, decide whether they work with those habits or against them, and try to learn as much about those animals as you can.
Also, beg, borrow, and steal from any other material dealing with your subject matter. Sometimes, we get our best ideas when looking at what others did first. The more sources we look at, the better the material we turn out.
If that concerns you, then remember this quote by Wilson Mizner: “When you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.“
And finally, on the subject of realism: so long as you keep yourself honest and write within the rules you’ve set up for your setting, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. On the subject of practicality: if they’re in some type of death match situation or worry about someone else killing them when they’re in the middle of a clash with another character then keep their fears in mind. Ask yourself: what is their objective? How are they going to get it? How can they do it with only a few people noticing them? What are the impediments? What are the risks? Is it more trouble than the reward?
Keep what you know about the scene and plot out of the hands of your characters and everything should be fine. Characters like to cheat, especially when their lives are on the line. Don’t let them.
othersidhe said: BTW all of this post is good for advice on writing characters whom are in the same situation as the original anonymous poster.
Ha! Yeah, life is pretty good for character building. Honestly though, I actually recommend the “Do It Yourself” approach first and foremost. It’s hard to write experiences we don’t have and even building off someone else’s isn’t the same as our own. Our blog is about supplementing that, but everything Stark and I write and do is through our own biased lens.
I’m sorry, the focus of the blog is fight scene writing advice, not fighting advice.
There’s a really simple reason for this: you can’t teach someone how to fight by talking about it. Sooner or later, you need to be there. A lot of hand to hand training depends on muscle memory, get that wrong, and you’re screwed.
The only way that’s going to work is if you go out, find a dojo or school, and start taking lessons. Many four year colleges offer Karate as a physical fitness requirement, so if you’re planning on going off to college this year or next, you can start there.
If you’re not, Karate schools are all over the place, if you’re in a larger metro area you can probably find Krav Maga, Jujitsu, or any of the dozen other martial arts that bill themselves as “self defense” forms.
But, actually teaching you just isn’t something we can do in this format. I’m sorry.
Starke is right, training for fighting is a very hands on experience. For a complete beginner, you really need an instructor there to correct bad posture, fix your stance work, and adjust your punches and kicks. This isn’t something we can do by remote, or frankly that you can learn from a video. This is why I get so irritated with the self-defense videos that occasionally float around, it isn’t that the information in them isn’t good, it’s that a raw beginner won’t get what they need from them. Combat is no good unless you practice.
However, if learning martial arts is what you want to do, whether it’s for self-defense (you’re seventeen, you may be going off to college this year or next) or just because you’re interested, then I can give you some advice on how to get started (and how to convince your parents to pay for it, if you can’t yourself).
1) Spend some time researching different martial arts styles online before you approach your parents with the idea, if you decide to start when you’re eighteen then legally it’s not a problem, but your parents will probably want to be informed anyway. Know what you want (and how much it’s going to cost) before you ask, be as informed about it as possible. If you can, try to find some different schools in the area that support the style you want to learn and visit them with one or both of your parents. Spend some time talking to the instructor (have a list of questions ready) and chat with the dojo students after class (they’ll be in a rush before class). Decide for yourself if this is a learning atmosphere that will fit you. Since you’re seventeen, you’ll probably be in the adult class in the evening, so check to make sure your class schedule will fit with the school’s hours. Because you’re a minor, your parents will need to be present to sign forms with you if you decide this is what you want and having them get to know the school’s instructors will give them another reason to pay for your lessons if you can’t afford them yourself.
2) If you take Starke’s advice about physical fitness programs at your college then disregard this. So, you’ve found your martial art but you haven’t visited a dojo yet with your parents or your guardian. I don’t know them, so I can’t give you any specific advice on temperament, but here are a few options that I know have worked for other students of mine and their families in the past:
a) The self-defense reason is a big one, as a young woman you’re going off to college or in your final year of high school, where you’ll be alone without your parents or guardian possibly for the first time. Any parent would feel uneasy about this with their children, but it’s hard for girls. I know I worry about any future daughters I might have and I don’t even have kids yet. The threats you could face in college are a real, honest reason to want to learn to protect yourself and one your parents can probably relate to (if they’re good parents who worry about your safety). By doing the ground work yourself, you show them how serious you are about it, which puts you in a better position than just saying “I want to learn how to fight”.
b) If this is your last year of high school or you’re going to a college that’s close to home, suggest taking lessons as a family bonding exercise. I know a lot of parents who signed up with their children or their teens (and who kept practicing long after their kids stopped coming). It can be a great, stress free way to get to know your parent and them to know you. If you don’t think it will appeal to your parents and you have siblings (who are of a similar age and you can convince to go with you) then recruit them to help gang up on your parents. It’s easier with two, especially if you have research to back you up. (This is not how my brother and I did it, I started and then my parents thought the school was so good that they enrolled him, but my mother used it as a sibling bonding exercise. I can’t say it worked, but we both got to third and fourth degree respectively, so who knows.)
Look, martial arts are something you can start at any age, I’ve seen everyone from twelve year olds to cancer survivors earn their black belt.
I don’t know if that answers the question, but I hope it helps.
For a lot of authors, there’s a frustrating hold to the old adage “the best defense is a good offense”. There’s an overwhelming amount of material that focuses on just force on force. Thus, fight sequences in novels end up less like the Matrix and more like when you have two action figures being mashed into each other. It all ends up feeling rather plastic and fake, especially when the reader stops and tries to envision it in their mind. If you’re not careful, fights can end up feeling very mechanical and are often anatomically impossible. Even when they are, the fight sequences often make little sense. The human fighter takes too much damage, they get every lucky break (as in they don’t break anything), the body positioning is all wrong for the strike, the fight goes on too long, etc, we’ve all seen it.
Often, the problem is that the author is thinking too much about how to do damage, how to prove their character is badass. They end up with un-moderated aggression at worst or at best, a character who never defends and for all intents and purposes doesn’t even seem to know how to. This isn’t bad if you are creating a character who is supposed to be an all-out aggressor, who can’t control themselves or their fighting style (such as most street fighters). If you’re trying to create any other kind of character, however, then…oops.
So, in this article, we’ll be talking about why blocking is important to your writing, your fighting characters, and your fight scenes, the principles of blocking, how to implement blocks, and some of the different kind of blocks that exist.
Why is blocking important?
I’ve said this before, but in the real world fighting relies on strategy, tactics, making use of basic body mechanics, and trying not to get hit. A fighter needs to be able to protect their vital areas like their head, their stomach, their groin, and well, any of the soft parts of the body with important organs. Blocking is part and parcel to surviving a fight. It is part of showing not just your character’s skill but also their control and their fighting education. The first response of a trained character when encountering an attack is to dodge or to block, not to attack. The attack is secondary, a counter to the first attack after they have negated the chance of injury. Attacks are what allow your character to win fights, blocks are what allow your character to walk away at the end of them. So, let’s get a little more in depth.
A character who blocks is one who has accepted the idea that they can take damage.
As writers, we control everything that happens to our characters. Sometimes, what hasn’t occurred to us won’t occur to them. This happens a lot in action oriented stories and instead of a character coming off as knowledgeable, they sound arrogant. Often, this arrogance is unintentional on the part of the author, mostly because they’re thinking in gaming terms. Their protagonist is level twenty and the person they’re fighting to get information from is level 6, obviously said person can’t hurt them because they’re so low down the totem pole.
No. Every fight is dangerous. Every fighter, even a wild and untrained one leaves the opportunity for something to go wrong and for them to get themselves injured. If your character is in a setting with guns, then anyone can grab a gun and shoot your character. If your character is in a fantasy setting, then the would be attacker can always leave and get more friends or their family can report your character to the city guard or the Watch for brawling. Unless your character is someone like Superman (and even if they are), any fight they enter into is one where they risk physical harm to themselves. They can die; even a grand master can be killed by the lout with the knife on the street if they aren’t paying attention.
Getting hit hurts, but getting it in the arm hurts less than a concussion.
This one should be self-explanatory, but like I said above any fight is dangerous and there’s a chance that any hit can get lucky. The better the individual your character is fighting against, the higher the stakes get. If they can’t defend themselves from damage, why should your audience believe they can dish it out?
Blocking will let your character manage to control the fight against weaker characters without hurting them.
I’ll be honest. It looks bad when your fifteen year Special Forces/Mercenary badass protagonist is beating the village bully boys into the ground. Even if they are bullies, in a narrative context there’s no reason for your character to become a bully by bullying bullies unless that’s what you want them to be doing. It’s not okay for a stronger character to bully a bully, even when that bully bullied them when they were small and weak. If a hero is what you want, then you can’t have them taking revenge or beating up characters that the audience knows are weaker than they are. It looks bad and it sends the wrong message. Figure something else out, force on force just creates more force and more bad blood. What your character does will ripple outwards beyond just the fight and their negative attitudes can have negative effects on their circumstances.
Remember, the message you’re putting out matters. So, be careful.
The Principles of Blocking:
Blocking is how to take and redirect hits so that the fighter doesn’t die. On a strategic level, blocks create openings in the opponent’s guard by foiling the attack they committed to. So let’s talk about the places on the body where the kinetic force of a strike can be fairly easily disrupted.
The goal of a block is either to redirect the force away from the body, disperse it over a wider area, or take it in a place that will matter less to your fighting ability and let you keep going. Different strikes require different blocks and there are a multitude of different blocks that can be applied to different strikes. If that sounds confusing then congratulations, you’re halfway there.
So, you don’t want to take the force that’s being applied, but to disrupt it. This means that catching the fist or taking the fist with your hand directly is pretty much out. This is the sort of thing that looks cool in the movies, but is actually pretty idiotic. Your character doesn’t have time to deal with the resulting bruise on their hand or broken bones. They’re going to need that hand for punching and blocking.
The goal of a block is to identify the point of power in the strike such as in the hand or the ball of the foot and stop it by moving further up the body to the vulnerable places. Some of these places are:
Cross-Block: The cross-block is basically where you use the opposite side hand (matching your right to their left) to either catch or redirect the strike away from you. This is commonly taught to beginners and young children because it’s easy to learn and doesn’t go against natural instinct. Remember, your brain is cross wired to opposing sides. It’s more natural to block a right side strike with your left side than it is with the same side. If your character is self-taught and they block at all, these are the ones they’re most likely to use. Cross-blocks are more difficult to use against kicks.
Same-Side Block: This is when your fighter blocks a hit in mirror to their opponent, a left is met with a left and a right with a right. These blocks are commonly seen in boxing to take incoming straight strikes by pushing the hands downwards and away from the face. The hand can also drop to defend against kicks by catching the shin or hooking the arm under the knee. A same-side block is trained and it takes less time to execute than a cross-block. However, it takes time to replace the body’s natural protection instinct and difficult to mimic without a lot of practice.
Knee Blocks: This is a common block against kicks like the roundhouse, less useful against the side kick or the front kick. The knee comes up and pushes out against the force of the other kick, usually at the shin or the opponent’s knee.
Elbow Guard: The elbow guard is when you tuck your elbow up into a triangle shape and press the inside of your arm against your head. This is another block from boxing used to protect the head against curving strikes like the roundhouse punch, hooks, and haymakers. The fighter will usually also tuck their shoulders up and tighten against the blow by exhaling outwards.
Blocking with the shin and the forearm: In traditional martial arts forms like Shotokan Karate and some of the others, it’s common to have students block strikes with their forearms or their shins. However, it takes a long time to build up the bone density to be able to take those strikes and because the bone is so close the surface of the skin (unprotected by muscles) it can hurt to take strikes there, students who do often develop a habit of flinching before the hit lands, which is an opening that a clever enemy can exploit. So, the forearm is a great place to take hits, so long as it’s not bone on bone contact or it’s something they’ve gotten used to in their own training. If it is, then make sure you say so somewhere in the text.
Blocks and Counters: It may surprise you to learn that most martial arts have as many blocks as they do attacks, in fact most of the early technique chains that are taught involve blocks and the follow-up counters. They train the students to think about not just what they are doing in the moment, but what comes after. In the second form taught in Taekwondo (or at least the second one we taught in our curriculum), the base technique chain that held the form together was upper defense, front kick, punch. The upper defense used the forearm to block downwards strikes like a knife hand or a hammer fist to protect the head, then a front kick to the chest in retaliation, followed by a punch landing in a front stance to the stomach as the finisher, then you turn and do the same for the other side.
An untrained or self-trained character may be able to block, but it’ll take them a lot more time to counter. They, like most of the population, will be more likely to believe in force on force as opposed to defend and counter. It’s actually one of those all-important distinguishing traits between trained and untrained. Remember, just because your character blocked their hit the first time doesn’t mean they won’t try to hit your protagonist again if your protagonist gives them the crucial few seconds of recovery.
Feints: Your character’s block can also create openings in their guard if they move to block against feint, such as the Taekwondo combination of a backhand and right punch. It’s not common for characters who don’t know what they’re doing to use feints.
I’ll be honest, blocking relies a lot on timing and while there are natural reactions the body exhibits to being struck or threatened, most of those aren’t actively useful without a lot of guiding, shaping, and practice with partners. The tenents are fairly easy to grasp on a conceptual level, but are difficult in actual practice. Until then, your character is pretty much flailing at whatever object managed to get caught in their peripheral vision.
How to Implement Blocks in Your Fight Scenes:
For a character who is trained, blocking is going to be second nature. Their body will be prepping before the strike starts (Michi Note: Refer to our FightWrite: Watch the Whole Body post) and their body may actually start reacting to just about any movement that comes towards them, including someone coming in to pat their head, stroke their cheek, or hug them from behind. Their brain may not catch their body before it has time to catch up or may stop halfway, if you’re looking for humor. Blocking for them has been trained as an instinctual reaction, one that replaced some of their old untrained instincts. So, don’t worry if your character seems uncool if they start the fight on the defense, that’s pretty normal for someone being attacked.
Try to think about your character’s bodies and the strikes you’re having them perform, try to visualize the attacks in your mind before you put it on the page, if it helps sketch it out in an outline format first of what you want to have happen and then try to implement it in your story. Don’t worry about it coming out perfect the first time, everyone edits and rewrites. If writing fight scenes is new to you and you don’t have any real background in combat, it may be hard in the beginning. That’s okay, you’re just learning a new skill and everybody falls on their face the first few times. Track your progress and celebrate when you improve.
Some things to keep in mind:
Dodging is easier to write, because it doesn’t disrupt the flow of combat as much and is easier to visualize. However, dodging is tiring. Fighting is also tiring, your character has a limited amount of stamina, so only have them dodge once or twice, this is why blocking is important.
Blocking is pretty much always reactive. Your character is reacting to another characters action. Then, they take action themselves by attacking. It’s easier to write a block if you know what your other character is planning to attack with, this will also give you the opportunity to think about and work with your protagonist’s opponent. If you get to know who they’re fighting and what that character favors in their style then writing the fight scene is actually lot easier.
Start thinking about the mechanics of your own body and how it all functions together. If you can break apart how the body works then it’s much easier to break apart a strike in your mind and to write it as part of the scene.
Other helpful articles on this blog: FightWrite: Watch the Whole Body and FightWrite: The Art of Stepping
No. You don’t actually learn any of that in a basic self-defense course. You won’t actually learn any of that in any self-defense course unless your character is actively studying a martial art. The reason for this is that self-defense focuses on three major objectives: deterrence, stopping power, and escape.
The stuff you’re asking for is the stuff they teach in martial arts courses or in general combat training. And while it could be vital, it’s mostly superfluous for what the student actually needs, what they have time to learn, and how to keep them from ending up in jail on charges of assault and battery, even if it was done in self-defense. Please, try to keep in mind that fighting in self-defense doesn’t actually get you off on charges with the police, your character will be liable for any blows they land and any injuries their opponent sustains. So, the answer to what does a self-defense student learn is actually: not much.
What does self-defense teach?
Escapes. These are completely pre-cooked technique strings that you can’t break apart unless you are martially trained.
They’ll teach things like: how to get out of holds, clinches, and chokes. Knees to the groin, then grab the head and ram it into the knee. The forehead slam into your opponent’s face. How to make a fist without dislocating your thumb. They’ll teach you how to drop your weight if your grabbed from behind in a bear hug. They’ll teach you throws, usually the most basic ones. You might be familiar with this one: grab the wrist and toss them over your hip. They’ll teach you wrist releases. Ground fighting (kicking from the ground and basic strikes) and ground escapes (the shrimp and twist), but nothing fancy. As in, no chokes, no arm breaks, and for the most part no jiu-jutsu style grappling. The basic self-defense student wouldn’t have the flexibility for most of it anyway and usually lacks a practice partner to make it effective.
If your self-defense teacher is competent, they’ll generally dedicate a portion of the time to talking about predator and prey behavior, how to avoid dangerous situations, and what to do when you get mugged. Different teachers will give different answers.
What they won’t teach:
No wrist locks, no joint breaks, no conditioning, no stretches, none of the stuff built around creating a better fighter. They don’t need that, self-defense doesn’t teach you how to win fights, it teaches you how to get away from them. In fact, self-defense training doesn’t want you fighting at all unless it’s necessary.
They also don’t teach weapons, unless it’s a special course. No knife disarms and no gun disarms. The advice I got from my self-defense instructors were: “If they’ve got a knife or a gun, give them your wallet. The money is replaceable, you’re not.“ The only time they advised against doing what the attacker said was if they wanted you to get into a vehicle, because if you do, you’re going to be dead anyway. Don’t get in the car.
The droid you may be looking for:
1) That said, I really do recommend you looking up Michael Janich and Stay Safe Media. His stuff is a little more advanced, but it’s a very good example of what you can get out of a martial arts style that’s billed as self-defense. The bite-size chunks that are available on YouTube really are worth the watch and they’re very educational, they go into what you need and with visual examples. He’ll have techniques and different exercises that you may be able to incorporate for your characters. When I have the money, I actually intend to get his videos. He’s got some really great advice on how to keep yourself safe. So, really, look him up on YouTube.
2) Check out Aikido, Jiu-jutsu, Taekwondo, Muay Thai, and Krav Maga. Aikido is often billed as self-defense style, I don’t personally find it practical but a lot of people do. It’s going to have the spiritual element and the focus on balance that you may be looking for. It also puts a primer on techniques that will not injure the opponent. Taekwondo with it’s focus on balance and precision, Muay Thai’s practical brutality, and Krav Maga as a fighting form are also worth looking into as common self-defense styles. Jiu-jutsu is where the really solid joint locks, throws, and arm breaks come from. This will fill out your education in the places where the others might be lacking.
The thing of it is and I’m going to be bluntly honest here: the training you get from a basic self-defense course and the training you get from martial artists who teach martial arts billed as self-defense courses is utterly different. Each comes with an individual mindset and the two don’t cross-thread. It’s frustrating I know, but like I said in response to your first question: self-defense training isn’t The Karate Kid, where the student learns martial arts from an old master over the span of a few weeks and months in order to defend himself from bullies (bullies who happen to be training in the same martial style). Though, cliched as they are, both the original and the remake may actually be helpful to you in that respect.
The only things I’d add to that list are staves, spears, pikes, and… well, guns.
The thing is 1600s Europe was rapidly heading into an era when the firearm was the primary weapon on the battlefield. Matchlock muskets had been around for, about, 150 years, and 1610 saw the introduction of the flintlock, so depending on what part of the seventeenth century you’re using, these could be a real weapon in your setting, or just an expensive, rare, novelty.
These weren’t accurate weapons, the rifle was still over two centuries away, and smoothbore firearms usually just put a bullet in the general vicinity of where you’re pointing. This is what led to the massed musket infantry formations firing in volleys.
The key here is “fantasy.” That alone gives you a lot of latitude to play with the world, and change the assumptions of how it functions. If your culture is based on some perpetuation of the Vikings, then, you’re looking at a mix of longswords, and axes. For ranged weapons, you’d either be looking at bows, spears, or (if you want to make them a part of your setting) early firearms.
The sword is one of the most iconic weapons you can give your character. Unfortunately, this also means swords are very contextual; depending on your setting, your sword will say a lot about the character you give it to, regardless of your intent.
This post’s going to be a little different from our normal fare. Usually, when we’re doing a write-up of a style or weapon, we just talk about how you use it in combat, and how it behaves; with swords, we’re going to also need to talk about what they mean for your settings and cover some of their history.
That said, you should not be citing this for historical accuracy. I’m going to be condensing thousands of years of history into a very short primer. What this means is, I’m glossing over some historical idiosyncrasies. If you’re using an actual historical setting, and not an amalgam of an era, then you’re going to need to do more research on the people and weapons of that time.
Shortswords are among the earliest examples of the weapon, dating back to the Bronze Age. These started out as simple blades between 12 and 24 inches in length. The length of a shortsword was limited by the available forging technology. Early Iron Age shortswords were single bladed, while later ones, such as the Roman Gladius were double edged.
The shortsword itself lacks a lot of the subtlety and grace that we usually associate with swords. The characters were likely trained to use the weapon in tight formations with other soldiers, with a focus on chopping strikes. Duels between character wielding shortswords are more like writing knife fighting.
The Greeks, ancient Egyptians, and Romans all used shortswords as standard military weapons, supplemented with spears. If your setting is patterned off any ancient Mediterranean culture, the shortsword will probably be viewed as the weapon of a soldier or a veteran. There is a catch here, single bladed shortswords doubled as machetes in climates where they were needed, so depending on your setting there may be a distinction between shortswords that are tools and those that are weapons.
Longswords are dependent on more advanced forging techniques. The first longswords emerged late in the first millennium AD. By the 1100s they had evolved into the European longsword we’re familiar with. Unlike the shortsword, the longsword was, for the most part, rare and expensive in Europe during the medieval era.
As with most weapons, how your character has been trained will massively influence the way they wield a longsword. Most longsword combat you see in films is built off of dueling schools; which differs from most sword combat in the use of parries. Blade on blade parrying is very destructive to a sword. While this isn’t an issue for an aristocrat who won’t be fighting another duel this month (or was using a rapier), for a soldier or knight, it is a critical issue. Their training was to evade incoming attacks, rather than to block with the sword.
Most longswords are double bladed, allowing the combatant to rapidly reverse a hew (slash); this allows for rapid flurries of multiple strikes. Most combat with the weapon focuses on quick strikes, with as much efficiency of motion as possible. Wide heavy strikes have a limited place in combat, while spinning strikes (what you see from Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films) is almost exclusively an exposition technique.
Depending on your setting, a longsword can say a lot about who your character is. If your setting is patterned off of a Viking or Celtic themed era, then the longsword is a fairly normal weapon for raiders and warriors.
If you’re using a realistic medieval setting, then swords are very rare, and the purview of nobles, their knights, and the rare elite mercenary. If you’re using a variant of the standard medieval fantasy world, then the longsword becomes a sign of nobility. Giving a peasant a sword to subtly hint that they’re really the long lost true heir to the kingdom is, well, cliché. Even Star Wars does this, accidentally.
Unlike other swords, fencing blades began as civilian weapons. They doubled as a sixteenth and seventeenth century fashion statement, and a weapon for dueling.
Fencing weapons are one of the easiest to study, if you have an interest, the foil, epee, and saber are have all been preserved as sport styles. With a very important caveat: unlike most sport martial arts, fencing reduces its lethality by blunting the weapon, and armoring the combatants; the underlying style is still incredibly lethal. Remove the armor and the blade caps, and a fencer’s training is as dangerous as a practical martial style.
Fencing is where we get most of the blade on blade parrying from. Rapiers are, in general, much more focused on stabbing, rather than slashing, so the blade is, somewhat less critical than the tip.
Fencing is also (probably) where we get the concept of dual wielding swords. As early as the sixteenth century, it was fairly common to pair a rapier with a shortsword or buckler. The shortsword was used to parry incoming attacks, rather than as an offensive weapon.
Fencing blades are one of the easiest weapons to justify training in, for a modern character. Fencing schools still exist throughout Europe and America. It’s viewed as an elitist sport and is usually in the domain of the rich, much like horseback riding in urban and suburban areas. It’s a very expensive hobby. (Michi Note: I looked into fencing once when I was younger, Stanford ran three to four week summer courses. For reference: it cost 400 dollars, this was in the late 1990s and didn’t cover the cost of the equipment. My martial arts lessons cost less than that to pay up for the whole year.) Part of this is because fencing is a very difficult sport to spectate; matches are fast, and the scoring is very complex. Most modern fencers are trained in styles that originated in the nineteenth century.
They’re also one of the easiest weapons to see some actual sword work with. A lot of old Hollywood films, used fencing coaches for all of their sword fights, so, there’s a large body of work out there. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good starting place. (Michi Note: the old swashbuckling films, particularly the Errol Flynn films that star Basil Rathbone such as Captain Blood or the Adventures of Robin Hood and the old Zorro movies are pretty great. But really, any of the old Hollywood swashbuckler films from the 1920s to the early 1950s.)
If you’re using a renaissance era setting, and your character’s family is wealthy (either because of nobility, or as a merchant or artisan), the Rapier, Foil, or Epee is a reasonable choice. It doesn’t carry as much baggage as a normal longsword would. This is the weapon of a fop who wants to pretend they’re a warrior, the weapon of a noble who wants the world to see his status, the weapon of an actual professional duelist, or some combination of the above.
Cavalry swords, like the scimitar and saber are long thin curved blades designed to be used from horseback. These are primarily slashing weapons. The blade is curved to avoid getting caught in an opponent while rushing past them on horseback. The crossguard is contoured with the same goal. These started filtering into Europe from the Middle East around 1200, about the same time the first firearms made their way into European warfare.
As European powers transitioned to using firearms as their favored weapon of war (roughly the 1400s to the 1700s), the sword, along with other melee weapons started to fall out of favor.
Probably because of the difficulty of reloading on the move, cavalry kept their swords. As with other combatants they would start with a volley of gunfire, but then switch over to swords during the charge. This disrupted enemy infantry, who were trying to reload.
Also, early firearms weren’t accurate; rifling wasn’t invented until the 1700s, before that it was incredibly difficult to hit specific targets, as the bullet would tumble randomly once it left the barrel.
This led to another significant change on who would be carrying a sword. If your setting is based on the Napoleonic era onward, the saber was the badge of office for a military officer, or cavalryman (or cavalrywoman). For that matter, the saber actually still exists as an optional part of an officer’s dress uniform in a number of martial services, and was a common as an officer’s badge of commission up into the First World War.
If your setting is an Age of Sail style world, then you’re looking at a variant; the Cutlass. It grew out of officers being given swords to indicate their rank, and wandered off on its own. It isn’t completely historically accurate to give all your pirates and sailors swords, but, because of the nature of boarding a ship at sea, cutlasses and pistols were common weapon choices. At this point, I’d say, you’re within the expectations of the genre, and have fun.
I’m going to point out a couple of those idiosyncrasies I skimmed over, before anyone asks. The longsword didn’t get more expensive in the dark ages, the economy of Europe changed, and the sword became comparatively more expensive. I’m not going to do a full write up on medieval European economics, I’m sorry. (There is a very good write up on D&D economics here: http://forum.candlekeep.com/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=10821 which can be applied to most medieval fantasy settings.)
The saber is, historically, both a fencing blade and a cavalry blade. Actually the introduction of the scimitar into Europe might be part of where the fencing blades originated from, I’m unsure.
Finally, there were longswords before the Vikings; they date back to the seventeenth century BC. They also were a vastly different weapon in combat from the longsword that evolved from the Viking Sword.