7 Tips to Creating a Fantasy Army in Fiction: Add More Than Swords

Lord of the Rings

You might think it’s easy to simply plop an army into a story and watch the soldiers clash in the background.  Well, it can be done that way, but that prevents you from doing some world-building.  You can learn a lot about a world and its kingdoms by the military forces that exist in there.  So, it’s a good idea to put a little more depth into these creations and here are some semi-serious tips to help.

  1. Uniform uniformity is important.  Bandits and a mercenary force can have a variety of looks, but an organized military needs some commonality among its members.  This is because your rank and file soldiers have probably been given the same gear with only a few having unique looks.  It’s the officers that might stand out with flashier weapons and armor, but even they might have a common theme.  This can show the smithing culture and technology that exists in the kingdom as well as direct the tactics that they will use.
  2. Study some real world military systems to get an idea about how such hierarchies work.  This really helps with knowing how to use the ranks and lingo.  Call an army leader an Admiral instead of a General and you’ll get lectured.  Only way out is to make it clear that your world uses the terms in this way.  That means you can’t use them interchangeably.  A great source for this would be to talk to a veteran or someone who is currently serving.  You might get more info than you expected.
  3. It’s always fun to create some unique forces for the army.  This can be a humanoid squad of specially trained soldiers or technological wonders.  The former can be useful for heroes/villains that are pushed as threats that go beyond your basic enemy.  The latter really only comes into play with large scale battles and sieges.  Consider the environment that the army operates in for the most part to help.  Can’t have war elephants in the arctic, but you can have mammoths.
  4. Remember the size of the army.  They can’t march through an area without leaving a sign of their passage.  You can see them coming from far away as well because you have hundreds to thousands of soldiers. Stealth is not an army’s strength, so don’t have them suddenly appear.  I mean, it could work for humor if a hero wanders out of a tent or hotel to find themselves surrounded.  Then again, they still see the army and it was only them being unaware that led to the incident.  Doesn’t really work this way without author intervention or magic.
  5. Flags.  Can’t have a fantasy army without flags.
  6. People talk about armies in fantasy worlds, so create some rumors or facts to help give the reader a sense of their reputation.  This can reveal information about the rulers as well.  Maybe people fear the soldiers or think they are champions of peace.  Perhaps they are proud of never losing a battle or some other kind of record.  It’s your choice on how much you show here, but just consider how we respond to our own military and work from there.
  7. If you put a lot of work into designing your fantasy army, try to use them for more than a quick scene of carnage.  As tempting as it is to build up this amazing military force and then have a hero or villain crush it, you might regret making them a throwaway gimmick.  First of all, the ‘one destroys many’ thing has been done, so it won’t have the shock value that you expect.  Second, you can find more to do with them such as an extended battle or potential allies.  In the end, this is the author’s decision, but it’s one that should probably take more thought than is usually given.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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27 Responses to 7 Tips to Creating a Fantasy Army in Fiction: Add More Than Swords

  1. Great post, Charles. I like the suggestion of using the army in more than one story. After all, that is a lot of work not to mention the cost of feeding and maintaining them.

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  2. L. Marie says:

    Excellent tips, Charles! So practical. You are so right–this is a great opportunity for world building. Questions I usually ask: If important people like kings or princes go into a battle, how are they positioned? Who are the flag bearers? I can’t help thinking of grand sagas like Lord of the Rings and Braveheart. I also think of real world wars where every able bodied man was dragged into the army. Some couldn’t afford a full uniform, but still needed to be identified as being on one side or the other. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

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  3. Great post. The world building opportunities alone were worth the price of admission. I expected it to devolve into chain-mail G-strings. (Oops, it did.)

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  4. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from Charles Yallowitz via his Legends of Windemere Blog with 7 Tips to Creating a Fantasy Army in Fiction: Add More Than Swords

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  5. V.M.Sang says:

    Some food for thought here. I’ve currently got a war to fight, so thanks. I must get my army equipped and the blacksmiths slaving over hot forges creating weapons.
    But already the enemy has infiltrated a couple of cities and their surrounding duchies. Need to get my generals waking up quickly.

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  6. You’re right that flags are important to a fantasy army. The heraldry says who’s in charge and where they come from. If the army has more than one unit, banners give basic identification. Other flags can be used to signal over distances. Very handy indeed.

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  7. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

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