Missed Opportunities: Weapons and Their Bearers

While sifting my thoughts for the next Wheel of Archetypes article the way a smith tries to find usable iron in a heap of rust and tin, it’s occurred to me to start this series for ideas that I feel don’t get enough attention in media. And, because it wouldn’t be my blog if we didn’t go immediately to implements of violence, we’re going to start with the potential for a weapon to reveal or enhance the mood and character of the one who carries it.

I say “implements of violence” but in truth this goes a bit beyond that. Of course, in order to properly represent weapons in your fiction, you can’t have them not be weapons. But as I practice swordfighting more intensively and all the prior days of training start to really stack up, I’ve become more aware of the way I interact with each of the blades in my collection and the way those interactions reveal something about myself. As much as I try to be an interesting person, I don’t think I’m generally very successful (views per post: around a dozen. The Internet has spoken!) These little tics of sword-handling are arguably one of the most interesting things about me, and I think it’s a shame we don’t see them too often in our imaginary sharp-thing slingers.

I don’t just mean elementary touches such as drawing a sword and threatening someone with it. That’s just an expression of intent. An expression of character is that, having drawn his rapier in threat, the rogue duelist Philippe d’Mare starts using it to make flamboyant gestures. Why just flick your wrist when you can flick a four-foot sword instead? Pedant’s aside: true rapiers, as opposed to small swords and *gastric discontent* fencing foils, are actually about the same weight as medieval longswords, with blade lengths of up to 46 inches. And I mean blades with two edges and a center ridge, not a steel bar with a point on it. This makes them surprisingly imposing weapons when viewed side-on.

Back to the example: taking a rapier off center-line to wave it through the air and yammer at the person he’s accosting says a great deal more about Philippe than just holding it point-on does. Philippe is a duelist, not just some stab-happy bandit. He’s handled this sword, as his father before him (he explains, whipping it from side to side) since he was seven, when it was taller than he was.

Now, here’s where you might see sense in a lot of my past griping about the importance of representing historical man-dicers correctly. A rapier is not a good cutting sword for the exact same reason that it’s an exceptional thrusting weapon. It has a long, narrow blade with significant taper and a heavy guard, putting most of the weight near the hand. There’s little weight or material per inch of blade length so there’s little to prevent it darting through a man’s vest and shirt and straight into his heart. Or, put another way: there’s little weight or material along the upper third of the blade where most cutting happens, and even a very sharp rapier needs a strong cut indeed to do more than nick the other person badly. For the purposes of cutting, a rapier is like a four-foot knife, and just as cumbersome as that sounds. Philippe knows all this, but if the reader doesn’t then it doesn’t make much difference that he does. If they do, however, they’ll realize some things.

First, and most important: the only way a rapier is intended to kill is with a thrust. A cut to the neck or face might do it, but only if it’s perfectly aligned. Philippe has taken his rapier off center-line. He cannot thrust without bringing it back in line. In order to gesticulate wildly, he’s put his sword in a position where he might have to rely on a cut with it to defend himself. If Philippe is doing this, three basic possibilities arise: either he’s just not that good (boring), he doesn’t see the person he’s threatening as much of a challenge (jackass), or he’s so good that it doesn’t matter where Philippe has the rapier. Even an average swordsman can bring his sword back to center line in the blink of an eye; he’ll have learned that because he needs to move it quickly to block, cut, thrust and counterthrust from various positions. Regardless what his reasons, we now know that Philippe is A. Flamboyant and B. Arrogant. These are fairly cliche traits for a swordsman, which is why we’re starting there first.

When you identify yourself as (user_profession_entry), it’s assumed that you’re good at every relevant aspect of that thing. A good swordsman isn’t just good at swordfighting (though anyone who’s bad at it doesn’t deserve to call himself a swordsman); if you look at the order of his day’s activities, I promise you “put on sword” comes immediately after dressing himself. If there’s bathing involved and depending on his lodgings and/or paranoia, he’s liable to take the weapon into the bathroom with him.

Here we can get into more subtle things. When he picks up his sword, does he lift it or jerk it upright and catch it at the point of balance? Does he sheathe it smoothly, his fingers ready to adjust for the slightest rasp of steel on wood, or does he slam it home with nary a second thought? Does he oil it with a strip of silk and patient swipes down the length of the blade, or by dumping half a bottle on it and letting gravity handle the rest? Does he tilt the sword as he passes by that merchant’s corner stall, or let it smack against the posts, and does he cringe or shrug when someone else walks into it with a clatter and panicked rustle? All these things show the difference between reverence for the blade as a partner in battle, and apathy towards a tool same as any other.

These rules apply to pretty much any weapon, I’m just using swords because (background images, anyone?) they’re kind of my shtick. Where this can all get much more interesting is that the things I just mentioned don’t necessarily have to reflect on the skill or ability of the weapon-bearer. They’re likely to, because dragging a sword’s edges against the inside of its scabbard will dull it and being unaware of a blade’s location relative to oneself is a serious handicap in a scrap as well as when navigating a crowded market. These are form issues, but it’s possible for a fighter to have immense competence in combat without having much regard for his weapon. In that case, his very apathy will be smooth; it’s with deft fingers that such a man buckles the sword in place without checking its angle of wear, and the rasp of its edge cutting its scabbard will be almost too brief to be heard. The key thing is that these bad habits become tarnish on otherwise polished ability, rather than ruining it wholesale.

A swordsman who’s gotten a little too attached to his weapon, on the other hand (not pointing fingers, but I hear this guy North has issues…), is likely to glare murder at anyone stupid enough to even breath near his blade without permission. A botched cut demands first a grimace and curse at his own ineptitude, then an immediate check for edge or blade damage. If he’s a bit unstable or has a temper, he might go so far as to cut his own palm before he calms himself, or hammer on his forearms because that’s clearly going to help them control the next swing better. Again, definitely not talking from experience. A cut from the sword’s edge while cleaning it, by contrast, is likely to draw a chuckle and smile. After all, a sword’s purpose is to cut (Chorus: Unless it’s a rapier!), so a cut given by one’s blade in circumstances where other swords would do nothing is a source of pride. If he’s had to miss or mitigate his practice, this type of fighter is especially likely to spend the rest of the day either sour or vaguely uneasy.

As for novices, they won’t just struggle with the basics of wielding their weapons, but of handling them all around. The novice spearfighter may tend to pick hers up by its end, only a few seconds later remembering to shift her hand to the weapon’s center. A newly-minted archer struggles to string his bow as well as shoot it, and he may forget to un-string it when the day’s practice is done. And regardless what the weapon is, regardless its use or appearance, the master will always stand out for his supreme confidence. For him every movement is more natural than breathing, from picking the sword up and putting it in place at his side, to drawing it and all that follows from a drawn sword.

When bored or otherwise cursed with too much time to kill, the more practiced fighters will think first of their weapons. If they’re not conserving energy–while waiting for a friend to get rooms at the local inn, perhaps–they’ll take the opportunity to make some cuts and thrusts, or take shots at a nearby tree. A hussar at the end of a long journey will choose to relax by slow strokes of his saber over a strop (after seeing to his horse, that is), the gunslinger by stripping down his prized revolvers to clean and oil them.

The more used they are to their weapons, the more all these types will default to having a hand on or near them. Beyond these examples, anytime someone’s handling their weapon, they should handle it in a way specific to them, and the times and places in which they handle it should match up. There’s so much generic kill-tool fondling in fiction, and every single generic instance is a slot for something much more interesting to clack into place.

Regardless whether we’re talking books, movies, video games or something else, touches like these are the difference between giving characters props and giving them weapons. Aside from having them use the weapons correctly, but we all know I’ve covered that one enough.

… for now.

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