How to Write Compelling Battlefield Tactics: 3 Things to Consider Before Your Characters Grab Their Swords

You know how you have a couple topics that you’ll pick apart when you see other writers writing them wrong? Me. This topic. I’ve seen too many writers consider battle just to be a huge clash between opposing forces and not consider even the tiniest little bit battlefield tactics and strategy.

Now, I’m not a military historian. This is me, a fictional writer, noting some general trends and wanting to share it with others who might be interested in the topic.

Also, I will be focusing strictly on land battles. If it’s drama on the high seas you’re looking for, then check out John Keegan’s four historical cases in Battle at Sea or (if you’re more interested in medieval-style sailing and want a fictional account) John Flanagan’s Brotherband series. If it’s aerial combat you want, Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward is fantastic.

When I think of battle tactics, it helps me to consider different types of battles based on the main unit of organization.

1. Individual

This is when you take a group of individuals and throw them at another group of individuals. The result? A bunch of one-on-one combats. Think Vikings, Samurai, or medieval knights. This is perhaps the only level of fighting that you can get away with little to no battlefield tactics (although I wouldn’t advise it).

What are the conditions that lead to such a style of fighting? The first is obvious – lack of knowledge. Perhaps those fighting have only just come together, or perhaps the knowledge of coordinated fighting styles has been lost through the ages. Alternatively, maybe those fighting are few, but strong – think superheroes.

Here’s another important condition: Limited access to ranged weapons.

Seriously. Once you add ranged weapons, that changes the entire battlefield. There’s a reason why the Battle of Agincourt made history. Individual combat may still persist, but you as the writer must give at least a modicum of thought to battlefield tactics once you add guns or arrows.

Insert my problem with Marie Lu’s Skyhunter (screeeeeeam). I aim to do a full book review later (there are some good bits, particularly the main character), but for now, I’m focusing specifically on her tactics. Or, more accurately, appalling lack thereof.

So, her MC* is part of an elite group of soldiers trained by her country to hunt monsters sent by the evil empire. These monsters hunt via sound, therefore she primarily uses blades, which absolutely makes sense even though guns are shown to exist. In fact, the squad-level tactics (see part 3) shown in these portions of the book are quite good.

What killed me was the pitched battle that occurred between the evil empire and this elite group in the middle of the book. Basically, as in the style of individual battles, each side ran screaming at each other despite the fact that they had guns.

Okay, okay, I will save all the other things wrong with this book for my eventual review, otherwise I will never get to my other points.

For a positive example of the incorporation of ranged weapons into individual-style battles, take a look at John Flanagan’s fourth book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, The Battle for Skandia. It’s a great example of how a small number of semi-trained archers can significantly impact the course of a battle.

Because here’s the thing – you might be a rag-tag group of individuals who prefer to fight your battles one-on-one. But if your enemy is fighting as a unit, you’re in big trouble…

2. Legion

The Romans didn’t build an empire by accident. Nor did the Persians, the French, the British….

Anyway, organized combat units have existed for a long time. Why do authors (@ Marie Lu) feel the need to revert back to individual-style combat when legion-style conflict is significantly superior and has existed for literally thousands of years?

*deep breath*

Okay, so what are some conditions your world needs to meet to have legion-style combat?

  • People. Obviously, if you have 40 people and the enemy has 400, you can’t beat them in a head-on fight, whether or not you’re organized.
  • Training & Time. The entire point of the legion was that it was a group of people trained to act as a single unit. That skill doesn’t sprout over a single night – it takes time and lots of training to instill it.
  • Hierarchy & Communication. Someone’s in charge and people have to listen to him. He also has to communicate his orders to his people, which means he has to know who his people are (aka uniforms). The Romans used voice command, but don’t forget about wireless communication, telepathy, or trumpets to tell your troops to move left or right.
  • Ability. Specifically, everyone has to have roughly the same ability. If you’re dealing with a bunch of people with vastly different superpowers, then it’s a bit of a waste to say “point and shoot on my command.” Now, that doesn’t mean you throw tactics to the wind. It just means you’d be better off organizing into squads of people with similar abilities. The anime Log Horizon is a great example of strategy in this type of world.

If you can succeed in training a large group of people to act as a unit, then you’re in a good place.

However, even the most powerful and technologically advanced army in the world will have to change tactics if no other armies will meet them in a pitched battle.

3. Squad

Funny enough, history has demonstrated that if your conventional army is too powerful, then people will simply adopt a different strategy to fight it. Harrying, insurgency, sabotage, and terrorism are some examples. Now, whether you’re the one adopting these strategies, or you’re trying to counter them, you might want to consider making the squad your primary mode of organization.

Maybe your squad is just two people, as in Skyhunter. Maybe it’s a team composed of individuals with specialized roles/tasks. But what’s the benefit of fighting as a squad?

As mentioned earlier, one of the primary reasons for this choice is if you’re fighting a significantly larger foe. A squad’s small size is perfect for covert stealth missions.

Alternatively, maybe you’re hunting down the insurgents. You could shell the entire town, but the locals probably wouldn’t appreciate that and you’d be down one town. Organizing into squads lets you make yourself a smaller target, but also provides flexibility to each unit to chase down the insurgents as they find them.

Lastly, as previously mentioned, maybe you have a low number of highly-skilled individuals, aka superheroes. You don’t have enough to make a legion out of them, but even some tactics are better than none, so you might consider organizing them into squads.


As you can see, I have a lot to say on this topic. And I haven’t even gotten to talk about technology, artillery, trenches, and terrain! Not to mention air-power. A single dragon in a medieval conflict would destroy the balance of power!

To summarize my main point, consider the type of society you have and figure out what would be the most effective way it would organize its people. Don’t pull a Marie Lu and have your big evil empire choose to engage a tiny nation in an individual-style conflict when you have guns. (But also like, you can genetically modify humans but you don’t have the technology to make artillery? Okay, okay, I’ll save that for my review.) Hopefully this article provides a bit of a guide of how to start. If you disagree or have questions, let me know in the comments!

*Main Character

One response to “How to Write Compelling Battlefield Tactics: 3 Things to Consider Before Your Characters Grab Their Swords”

  1. […] you’ve read my previous article on battlefield tactics, you’ve probably realized by now that I just can’t leave the topic alone. So here’s another […]

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