On War in Fiction: Complex Simplicity

I would guess that most of us who decide to take up our metaphorical pens these days to write fiction have probably never been in an actual war.  (That includes me, of course.)  Less than 1% of the population of the United States ever serves in the military in any capacity.  That said, it is interesting then that war and conflict are featured so prominently in so much fantasy and science fiction.  Don’t get me wrong; I think that’s a good thing.  I would much rather we have to stretch to understand that subject than that we know it too well, but it does present a problem:  How do we write believable stories that involve war when we really know so little about it?  The answer is (and hopefully will remain) that we must learn by proxy, from the experience of others.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand and thereby dispel the corresponding misconceptions about war.  I hope you find them useful!


Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.

–Carl von Clausewitz

Red Sonja: Apparently all it takes to keep warm and lead an army is a metal bikini.

War is simple.  Everyone can do it.  Just ask anyone who has ever played a game, watched a movie, or read a book.  All you have to do is speak a few inspiring lines and send your soldiers to attack the enemy’s very clearly open and unguarded flank.  You win the day without losing any soldiers (well, maybe a few, but no one with a last name), and you have a big party when it’s all over.  Hopeless farm boys can lead their people to resounding victory in the face of overwhelming odds when the professionals have given up. Attractive, daring, and yet obnoxiously feminist female leads can strap on revealing body armor and suddenly turn the tide of a campaign.

And then there is reality.  In the world of the real, war is messy, confusing, and difficult.

When we form our ideas about war based primarily on fiction or even some popular history books, what we are seeing is something that has been greatly simplified.  Simplification is, after all, the job of each respective type of author.  In a work of fiction, whether a computer game, movie, or novel, people want a relatively clean progression of the story to a climax and then to a satisfactory sense of closure.  We expect the same from history, except that historians also have to somehow pare down a massive conglomeration of seemingly random bits of information turned up in their research into something coherent enough to make sense.  If either type of author fails to deliver, people won’t read what they write.  In order to stay relevant (and employed) oversimplification is often a must.

That means that many of the depictions of war that we’ve been exposed to are deceptively easy to understand.  We absorb a few axioms (true enough in their place) and based on that we think we “understand” what it takes to be a good soldier and a good general.  The end result for us as authors is that we often have our characters produce unrealistically complex plans to be perpetrated on unbelievably stupid opponents by completely unqualified soldiers.  The only reason we get away with it is that people let us.

It may be simple to say, “You must maintain the initiative!”  but what does that mean?  Is that accomplished by attacking the enemy now or by maneuvering to a better position?  Speaking of positions, everyone who’s anyone knows that a good general will, “occupy a position of strength and wait for the enemy to attack.”  But what makes one position better than another?  Why is this one good and the other bad?  “Hit the enemy where they’re weakest and don’t expect it.”  Makes sense.  But how do you make those 500+ people over there with empty stomachs and sore feet to march there?  How do you even know where to send them?  Who will give them directions?  Do they have arms and ammunition?  How about shoes?  Will the weather permit it?  On and on it goes.

The general principle is that it is very easy to make an “unbeatable” battle plan on paper.  The ideas that go into it are often straightforward and well-proven in history.  Making it happen is much more difficult, so much so that often even a “simple” plan is too complex to make happen in the real world.

People have debated Washington's status as a general for centuries now.  He had a steep learning curve, but he adapted and won.

People have debated Washington’s status as a general for centuries now. He had a steep learning curve, but he adapted and won.

For a first rate example of this, look no further than George Washington.  When Washington was appointed commander of the Continental Army, his fame in the colonies was widespread, but his command experience was quite limited.  In 1776 he set up a “good” defensive line in New York, and was thrown out of it when the British found a road the colonials didn’t guard.  Later, at the Battle of Princeton, Washington worked up a beautiful plan that called for three separate columns of troops to converge on the British garrison from different directions at dawn, catching them by surprise and destroying them.  Brilliant–if it had worked.  In reality, his troops were tired, hungry, and (most importantly) inexperienced.  No one was where they were supposed to be, the attacks went in one at a time over the course of the day, and the outnumbered British fought Washington to a draw.

It took Washington time to realize how complex war really was and then to compensate for all the potential problems.  As authors, our job is easier.  Here are two points to consider:

  • Complexity in execution is good!  Well, it is if you are an author interested in writing the best war scenes you can.  Very few things work the way you expect them to in war, and there are always roadblocks.  Think of all the trouble you can cause your characters, and all the directions from whence it can come.  Of course, that is an opportunity as well as a frustration.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and tossing some complexity into the mix gives both you and your characters a chance to shine.  The more a character must overcome to be successful, the more we will admire him or her.  The more we admire him or her, the more we will admire your talent as a writer.
  • Keep it simple, keep it safe!  Ok, I’m ripping off Peter Jackson’s Gandalf, but it’s true.  While you should never lose that sense of complexity, when you start thinking of brilliant war plans for your characters, keep the ones you want to succeed as simple as you can.  A plan doesn’t have to involve forty different steps performed simultaneously in order to be brilliant.  It just needs to be fresh, subtle, and unexpectedly effective.

Of course, some of this is dependent upon our goals and our genre.  For instance, I don’t think anyone expects a “realistic” depiction of all of war’s frightening detail and nuance in a book aimed at children.  The key is to be aware of what the reality actually is…and then we’ll have a better idea of how and when to diverge from it.


Next Week–“War is Hell and you cannot refine it.”


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on February 8, 2013, in Brian Melton, Fantasy, History, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, War, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on American Musings and commented:
    Found this interesting. Some good points. There is always a gap in what Americans think they know and really know. This holds especially true in trying to portray books and movies about war. Lantern Hollow’s next article is on war being hell. We look forward to it.

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