Writing Speculative Fiction: A Nerd's Guide
Sword and Sorcery: Flashing Blades
"Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one." -Terry Pratchett
Today I'd like to cover a genre of fantasy I am increasingly fond of. It's also known as other things, such as thud and blunder. There's a few related genres, such as low fantasy and heroic fantasy, so I'll clarify what I mean. Sword and sorcery generally involves a single hero (or anti-hero) dealing with monsters, bad guys, and often "smaller" in scope. A sword and sorcery protagonist may be more interested in living from job to job than saving the world from the evil overlord (although he may be drawn into larger plots or seek out powerful foes for his own reasons).
Related to sword and sorcery is "thud and blunder," a heroic fantasy genre focusing more on personal combat and a single individual. Unlike "high" fantasy, magic and the supernatural are more likely to be uncontrollable and mysterious forces. Wizards, likewise, are more often power hungry crazies than protagonists. Deus ex machinas, personal combat, elaborate/pseudo-archaic prose, and brutal fights are trademarks of the genre. This column will freely use sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy as mostly interchangeable terms, but there are differences. Sword and sorcery is generally more about action and fighting, while heroic fantasy may have more characters from a wider range of backgrounds and more 'intellectual' tone.
Relevant TV Tropes entries include Heroic Fantasy, Thud and Blunder, and Low Fantasy.
History: The first "true" sword and sorc story, though, is held to be Lord Dunsany's "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth." Settings can range from pseudo-historical lost eras (called uchronias), such as Conan's Hyborian age. Some have a classical era inspired setting (such as the so called sword and sandal genre). Others use a vaguely medieval European styled setting. Fantastic elements may also be restrained, overlapping a bit with low fantasy. There's also the "Dying Earth" subgenre, where magic has returned as technology falls to primitive levels. Likewise, "magic" may simply be forgotten technology. The works of Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun," Paul MacAuley's Confluence trilogy, and the Zothique cycle are examples. Related is the wuxia genre, which often parallels themes in heroic fantasy, but with Chinese culture, traditional weapons, and martial arts.
Noteworthy Writers: I'd like to name some of the more famous figures here. One of the most noteworthy figures is a fellow named Robert E. Howard, the famous pulp writer. He created Solomon Kane, Kull the Conqueror, Red Sonja, Conan the Barbarian, and several other icons. He often communicated with Lovecraft. Even Tolkien read and enjoyed his stories. Aside from Howard, Michael Moorcock did his own deconstruction turned series, the Elric Saga. There's also Leiber's "Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser" stories, about a barbarian and thief adventuring duo. Despite being a male dominated field, CL Moore created the first female fantasy character, Jirel of Joiry. The furthest roots of the genre, however, go back as far as there have been heroic epics, from the Iliad and Odyssey to the Norse sagas. There's also Imaro by Charles Saunders, a black protagonist in a fantasy counterpart of ancient Africa. The least conventional setting I've personally read for a sword and sorc novel is "Sunset Warrior" by Eric Van Lustbader, set in a post-apocalyptic bunker were conflicts are settled in ritualized duels, but later expanded to a pseudo-Asian fantasy world. The series' writing was mediocre at best and characterization nonexistent, so that killed my interest faster than Conan could split a skull.
Guns: One thing sword and sorcery writers and fans often have mixed feelings on is gunpowder and its related weaponry. My view is while the advent of the gun changes warfare, they have long reload times, poor accuracy, and a bad habit of blowing up in a user's face. Any savvy fighter would realize it is still a good idea to carry a melee weapon for backup (just as was done historically). The "melee combat" aspect is still present there as well, as a character would have to get in close once their own weapons are emptied or miss. Ships and wilderness environments present environments where there's plenty of chances for getting up close and personal, such as pirate raids and guerrilla warfare. Firearms existed with melee weapons for centuries, and served in an auxiliary role in Song Dynasty China alongside crossbows and conventional archers. Black powder could easily appear, though, as who doesn't like a good explosion now and then?
Magic: The degree of magic and blatantly supernatural elements also can vary widely, and is arguably the dividing line between high and low fantasy. Generally, the supernatural aspects are largely confined to dark corners of the earth, and thought to be myths by most people in the world (or at least unworthy of investigating further). Those that know otherwise tend to be mad, ruthless cultists of dark gods or deranged power-mad occultists, par for the course in the genre. Who doesn't like a necromancer and skeleton army now and then? You could also mix it up by having mundane threats, such as diabolical warlords, hungry creatures, or ruthless brigands, mistaken to be supernatural (or have the real thing appear just when a smug villain reveals their secret)...
Scale: Heroic fantasy often focuses on a single hero (or antihero) rather than an epic battle between good and evil. They often have a background that puts them in conflict with the world at large (or at least serves to put them in the line of danger often). Morals are likewise gray, such as two corrupt nations vying for trivial gains while their own people starve. For example, Glen Cook's "The Black Company" deals with a group of mercenaries working in service to various arcane overlords and other clients. Michael Moorcock's Elric starts as a ruler driven into madness and tragedy by a demonic sword, sinister plots, and foreign foes. And let's not forget Conan acting as a mercenary and adventurer for hire. Perhaps your protagonist is a guerrilla for a country or cause long since fallen, waging a futile war but still making a difference when it counts (or not). Perhaps he or she fights against a cult hidden in the shadows, or maybe seeking freedom from a corrupt empire. (There's not many democracies or republics in sword and sorcery, interestingly enough...) Instead of being a fated hero, your sword and sorcery hero might instead be a rank-and-file grunt who got lucky (or unlucky) before striking out on their own.
Challenges: One issue is that sometimes, such a hero can feel "over-powered" or almost Sue-ish. There are a few ways around this. One is to have devious foes who avoid direct confrontation (say, picking off the hero with a unit of archers, wizards, musketeers, or the like). Or even if your hero is nigh-indestructible, enemies could target the friends/family/loved ones of your main character. The hero can't always be there to protect them, after all... Still, having a sword and sorcery character with a love interest who doesn't end up betraying them, dead, or worse would be something I haven't seen yet. Another issue I've seen is giving your main character some kind of character development, to show how their lifestyle and constant exposure to violence and danger affects (or does not) them personally. Even if they're hardened and stone cold, what motivates them? Even a non-intellectual character can be rather clever and vicious (read some of the Conan stories if you have any doubts). For example, say we have the cliche premise of a warrior seeking to depose a corrupt king besieging his home city. While he might've fought bravely on the walls, he knows that taking the war to the enemy could leave his foe unprepared. So, he slips out by sea to a neutral port city (lots of adventure potential there). From there, travels to a disgruntled noble and tries convincing them to start a revolt (or just make some opportunistic land grabs while they can). The enemy king must leave the siege in the hands of less (or more!) competent officers while he attends to domestic issues. This allows our hero a moment to return and help wage guerrilla warfare on his home city (unsure of if his old friends or family are still loyal to him or collaborators). After this, he resolves to finish the fight for good, and leads an assault on the enemy king's castle, seeking a final confrontation with his foe (perhaps having to contend with their escape attempts or bribery attempts). And after that, then what? Does how does he take to peace, or perhaps he seeks adventure elsewhere, or he feels nothing from an ultimately hollow victory?
Example: I've recently taken my own stab at sword and sorcery (no pun intended). When I was brainstorming, I realized I wanted to try out a rather unconventional setting. Most sword and sorcery tends towards medieval settings, but I wanted to try a more "modern" historically-inspired setting. While some heroic fantasy writers avoid post-gunpowder societies like the plague, I think that the relative crappiness and unreliability of early firearms can make for a fun additional element. If you've ever fired a caplock, flintlock, wheellock, or matchlock weapon in real life, you'll know what I'm talking about. Besides, stereotypical pirates need flintlock pistols and blazing cannons for their ships.
Now, there were still places that had yet to come into contact with Europeans, mostly in the Pacific. Specifically, remote Pacific islands held Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian cultures that had yet to experience colonialism firsthand. Perhaps the most famous group of Polynesian warriors were the Maori of New Zealand, who were assisted by Europeans who joined them (bringing knowledge of foreign cultures and firearms). The Maori adapted readily to the early firearms of the period, having honed their warfare skills in the Musket Wars in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The Treaty of Waitangi theoretically gave the Maori equal rights as British subjects, although this is a matter of much controversy to this day (and did not stop years of New Zealand Land Wars). However, as a language, Maori went from the brink of extinction to the second official language of New Zealand.
So, instead of using a medieval European-based hero, I decided to use a Maori warrior as the archetype for my main character. He's exposed to foreign weapons and religion when a deranged cult slays his war party in a volley of musket fire, and becomes embroiled in a covert war between Lovecraftian gods. Along the way, he faces rival colonial powers exploiting his land, voyages with a gang of pirates, and faces human and monstrous foes. It's set in a fantasy world based on New Zealand during the Musket Wars, rather than the historical setting, so I could have a bit more creative freedom regarding events.
That said, I wish you luck on your own thud and blunder adventures. Don't be afraid to try new things, like unconventional settings, cultures, or characters. Give us some drama and conflict, but don't forget a memorable character is what keeps us coming back. Whether you aim at mindless fun or a more somber look, I wish you well. May you crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.