You know you are reading fantasy because everybody is a suicidal lemming with no self-preservation instinct. In fact, you know you are reading modern fantasy because everybody (especially the bad guys) cares about his survival as much as the random pin-headed monsters that populate video games: “Oh, look, here’s that guy who has killed hundreds of [insert enemy] like me. Let’s attack him! I’m sure this time will be different!”
Knowing that the writer of a story is drawing most of his (probably unconscious) inspiration from movies or video games —worse, that he is not aware of that and believes he writes “realistically”— has been for a long time my #1 source of reading wrath and frustration. And there’s hardly a better place to see that in action than when characters are trying to murder each other, and since I’m talking about fantasy & adventure stories here, that seems to happen quite a lot.
Picture this scene, which I’m sure you have read many times: badass hero is surprised by a numerically superior group of thugs, monsters, whatever. And they charge at him. And he sometimes charges at them too, then swords clash and so on and so forth, but he eventually he kills them all. But more enemies appear, and they charge (and die) too. Everybody keeps charging… to their deaths. It’s no different in many movies of course. Apparently, the optimal strategy for infantry, hand-to-hand combat is to scream at the top of your lungs, run headlong like a maniac while only wielding a sword, and never stop charging.
That struck me today as I was reading the beginning of a book that was on my to-buy-and-read list. The book seems to be OK enough, but there was one scene that has to be mentioned: The Main Character is accosted by the obligatory chapter 1 bandits and he manages to kill two in a gruesome but effective way. What do the others lowlifes do? Well, two of them “looked at each other in horror [because of the gruesome kills], screamed and charged as one.” At that moment I had to put down the book because my brain was unable to process what I had just read.
So imagine this: you see you pals being butchered, a third of your squad, and you look in utter horror to your surviving friends and… you both charge? And keep in mind that the guy you are attacking seems to be better armed, he wears armor and a long sword, while you are a pair of crummy bandits armed with crude swords or cudgels and your armor is just the stench of a long-weeks living in the forest.
So… why would you charge? Why would anybody? Why not grab rocks off the ground and throw them at the main character? Or you could just flee. After all, you are into this banditry business because you want easy money, right? Just flee and live to pilfer another day. Of all the things you could do, why charge, and especially against someone you are terrified and who has a longer and better weapon?
Well, because they are not real people, they are enemies, low-level NPCs whose purpose, almost like in a video game, is to die so the protagonist can show off his prowess or skill. Hardly anybody in modern fiction, and especially fantasy books, is real. They are NPCs from some grindy RPG, a source of experience, or perhaps like mindless enemies from your average FPS video game. And everybody keeps charging all the time like lemmings!
And here’s the problem, aside from the suicidal tendencies already explained, charging makes little to no sense for someone fighting on foot. Yet every character does it. Why? I put my money on movies (because it looks cool) and games (because it gives a bonus to your attack and it’s how you close in on the enemy anyway.) But if you think about it, by charging, as in running towards someone, you are just asking to be killed: you develop a lot of momentum, you have shitty maneuverability as you run in a straight line, you become an easy target, it’s hard to coordinate hand movements and running, you can’t actually attack very well while running, you can’t gauge distance very well as you approach your target at full speed, and the reach of your weapon will most likely suffer for those and other reasons. Meaning, that the defender can just hold his ground, stick out the pointy end of his sword or spear, and let the charging fool impale himself.
Nobody charges in real life unless you are trying to scare the opponent away and stab him between the shoulder blades while he flees. Most animals, unless they are the equivalent of a tank (e.g. rhinoceros) don’t charge either, they approach slowly, try to flank their victim, and then they pounce; they only run if they are pursuing fleeing prey. And if you watch any video of people fighting IRL, whether its professional fighters or street thugs slugging it out, I doubt you’d see many chargers. Most people hesitate, look for an opening or weakness, and then they strike.
And here’s the thing, not only character keep using a suicidal strategy, usually against enemies that could easily dispatch a running moron going headlong, they do it all the time, to the last man, even when losing, against someone (the main character) who has already shown he can kill dozens like them.
A lot of fights in fiction seem to have the fatality rate of being nuked, and then being hit by an asteroid just to be sure. Ironically, I believe this is done for two opposite reasons: One, to make it look hardcore, badass, grimdark, or something along those lines. The second, I suspect, is that many writers don’t want their heroes and champions of good and virtue leaving a trail of alive but wounded and maimed bodies, and who wants to read about the logistics of prisoners and wounded men anyway (or worse, executing prisoners) so… the writer just kills everybody off (or it’s assumed everybody dies.) Of course, the problem is that the only way to kill everybody is if nobody flees, nobody has any sense of self-preservation, and everybody attacks the main character like the monsters from Doom or a similar game.
So, if you happen to be a writer or are thinking about writing something with a lot of action, and assuming you care about making me happy, keep these points in mind:
A) The people, savage animals, and monsters the main character may fight probably want to die as much as he or she does. In fact, one might assume most villains don’t even want to be injured and are less prone to heroics than, well, the hero.
B) Bandits and other low-level scum don’t fight to the death. Rarely anybody does.
C) Your character doesn’t need to slaughter an entire tavern full of truculent drunkards or bandits just to prove he is a good fighter.
D) You should only charge like a madman if you really are a madman, fighting on horse, you are well-armored compared to your opponent, or if you bring a knife to a gunfight and you happen to also be a madman (because you want to close the distance and stab the guy as soon as possible.) Otherwise, your characters should act like they are somewhat hesitant to get an entire foot of steel into their duodenum. Unless we are talking about the undead, of course. Skellies can charge mindlessly.
E) And even if you charge headlong, there’s no reason you should do it when you clearly see your opponent is better, when you are losing, or when half of your pals are dead. Speaking of which:
F) If half of a unit, gang, etc. are down, there better be a good reason to explain why the others are not already running for their lives.
G) You are writing, not playing a video game or an RPG where enemies are just obstacles to be mowed down. And if you happen to be playing an RPG, remember that God and Gary Gygax intended you to play rolling morale checks anyway. Those scrawny orcs are certainly not going to fight to the last greenskin.