We all like a good fight, right? Especially when the people involved are wizards. From Dumbledore vs Voldemort to Yoda vs Palpatine to Willow vs Bavmorda, a good magically-powered duel can be exciting, dangerous, and visually stunning. It can also have a lot of differences when compared to more traditional martial arts (i.e. anyone fighting without magic).
I’d like to discuss some of the principles I find helpful in writing a magical fight scene, using examples from my upcoming novel, Contamination, which is currently in revisions (and will be released next year as the sequel to Manifestation). I was inspired to do this after reading some posts on fight styles, written by Kat Loveland. She wrote a blog post about using fight scenes to develop your characters, and another on showing emotions and motivations during a fight. They’re both excellent reads, and I definitely recommend checking them out (and following her blog for more updates, since she has two more posts in this series coming up).
To touch on a couple of points Kat raised in her post, before I move on to the magical stuff, I’d like to quote a couple of lines that do a pretty good job summing up what she was getting at. One is when she discusses different fighting styles, and she cites Jason Bourne as an example:
Jason Bourne is an assassin, plain and simple, his entire existence is get in, kill, get out. As a result there is no hesitation, no flair, no fancy movies just fast, efficient violence.
This is something to consider when it comes to the personality and goals of your character. Kat makes some comparisons that show why one fighter will be quick and efficient, while others might have reason to draw out a fight with fancy moves. These types of details can really tell you a lot about a character’s personality.
Another quote from her second post touches more on the emotions of the characters in a fight scene:
Ideally the reader is drawn into both the life and death drama of the physical violence but the internal drama that the characters present as well. There is no exposition going on yet you feel what the character is feeling, fear, rage or the need to prove that you are worthy and gain respect.
This shows another side of a fight scene, the way it can tell you about what a character is feeling in the moment of the fight, or how they feel when they have to kill someone.
So how does all this relate to magic? Well, just like a character’s physical fighting style (quick and efficient vs showy and elaborate) can tell you things about their personality, the way a character uses their magic can tell you about them as well. And there are a few questions you might want to ask about how your character’s personality dictates their magical strategies. I’d like to explore three aspects in particular, and I’ll share an example for each one.
1. To Fight or Cast Spells?
Not all wizards are strictly limited to using their magic. Harry Potter fought the Basilisk with a sword, a Jedi will alternate between a lightsaber and force powers, and even Gandalf pulled out Glamdring the Foe-Hammer when it was time to face down some foes with brute force. So if you have a character who can use both magical abilities and physical combat skills, which do they prefer?
Sometimes, this decision can be one they make based on necessity. Most genres show that magical abilities tend to be draining, leaving the user exhausted if they overuse their powers. In other cases, a character might find themselves cut off from their powers in some way (such as in The Wheel of Time, when Aes Sedai can shield others from the source of their powers, leaving them helpless). A character who can draw a sword and defend themselves physically will have a backup for when their magic fails. While another character will draw their sword first, and resort to using their magic only as a last resort.
Here’s an example of Jeremiah Pritchard, one of the main protagonists in my novel, fighting with both physical and magical abilities:
The men coughed and gagged on the smoke and fired blindly at him, their shots flying wide over his head. Then one of them rushed through the smoke, half-bent over and coughing. He rushed for the door, seeming not to see Jeremiah through the smoke.
Jeremiah whipped the butt of his rifle in the man’s face and knocked him back. The man fell backwards and slammed into the ground. As soon as the man hit the ground, Jeremiah pulled the stun baton from his belt and slammed the tip into the man’s stomach. The baton crackled and send out sparks as it unleashed its charge into the man. He shook and trembled on the ground, then went limp.
Another spray of gunfire whipped past Jeremiah’s head. A burning sensation built up inside of him. His hands shook and he felt the light building up inside of him. But when the shadowy figure rose through the smoke, Jeremiah didn’t reach for the light. He dropped the stun baton, raised his rifle, and fired a quick, clean shot that caught the man in the neck. He dropped to the ground in a heap.
Another figure appeared at Jeremiah’s right. The man raised a shotgun and fired it right at Jeremiah’s head from point-blank range.
Jeremiah’s arms flung up on reflex, and with them came the light. A silvery-white field of mana erupted before him, crystallizing into a solid barrier. It deflected the shot, though the crystal buckled and cracked under the impact.
Jeremiah let the light dissipate as he rushed at the man. He used his rifle to knock the shotgun aside, then he swung his fist at the man’s head. The man crumpled under the blow, dropping to his knees. Jeremiah rammed the butt of his rifle into the man’s jaw and a loud crack filled the lobby. The man slumped to the floor, blood dripping from his jaw and the shotgun falling from his limp hands.
As you can see, Jeremiah uses his combat skills first, his magic second. That’s because of his greater confidence in his military training, as opposed to his uncertainty about his magical capabilities. He’s the sort of person who only uses magic as a last resort. He doesn’t trust it, and he doesn’t want to rely on it.
Will your character rely on their combat skills first, and save magic for emergencies? Or will they break out the spells right away and go for broke?
Another thing to consider in magical combat is a character’s ability to think on their feet and use what’s around them. Think of this as the magical equivalent of the way Jackie Chan fights in his movies. He tends to grab anything that’s handy and use it as a weapon, even if it means opening a cabinet door and slamming it in someone’s face. He’s not the type to make himself rely on a certain weapon or a certain style.
Magic can be similar. You don’t have to stick with one or two “signature” spells. Harry Potter, for example, tends to use expelliarmus quite often, so much so that his overuse of it becomes a plot point in the last book. But what if you have a character who can think on the fly?
Here’s an example of Tock, my golem-maker, showing how she can adapt to make use of whatever happens to be around her:
Tock screamed in unholy fury and started shooting. Mana channeled into her gun and charged the bullets up with unstoppable force. They flew through the air as blue streaks of energy and pierced the cop’s armored vest with ease. She emptied the clip into him, screaming pure murder the entire time.
The other cops fired back at her, and she threw her empty hand towards them. Their bullets flew with kinetic energy. She was an energy manipulator. If she could change her own bullets with kinetic energy, then she could drain it as well. The air between her and the cops began to glow and she robbed the bullets of their energy. They hung still in the air for a moment, unable to even fall as she robbed them of gravity’s pull. The glow faded and drew back into her hand as a compressed ball of kinetic force.
“Oh shit,” one cop said.
“You ‘urt my baby!” Tock screamed. She reached into her tool belt and pulled out a handful of thick screws. She hurled them with the force of a shotgun firing, the collected energy from the bullets channeled into them and magnified a dozen fold with the extra mana she charged into it. The second cop was pelted with glowing shards of metal that pierced his flesh and punched clean through the other side.
As you can see here, Tock breaks out the magic right away, something very different from the way Jeremiah fights. But she also doesn’t limit herself to the things you’d expect. She also smoothly switches from channeling her mana into a gun to channeling it into a handful of screws, using them as magically-propelled shrapnel. And that’s just a small example of how much she’ll think outside the box with her abilities. The more creative your character’s personality is, the more they can break from the norm when it comes to magical combat.
Will your character fight with a few key spells? Or will they adapt on the fly and never use the same spell twice?
3. Direct Combat or Ambushes?
Is your character the type to rush at their foes, hurling fireballs and lightning bolts from their hands? Or will they take on a more subtle approach?
Sometimes there can be merit to using magical abilities with stealth, like a ninja. A magic ninja. You might be faced with foes who are stronger than you are and have more experience using their magic. Or you might be outnumbered. Or you might have to worry about how long you can keep using your powers before your energy is drained and you can’t use them anymore. In any case, there’s always times when it can be a good idea to avoid a direct fight.
Consider this scene with my main protagonist, Gabby Palladino:
Gabby ran behind a bush and crouched down. With how dark it was, she hoped they wouldn’t see her. The heavy footsteps and sounds of breaking branches got closer, then the two soldiers emerged from the bushes. All Gabby could make out was vague shadows, barely illuminated by the moon.
“What’s that?” one of the men asked. They both stepped closer to where Gabby had been a moment before.
“Yeah, I feel it too,” the second man said. He leaned over and pointed to the ground right where Gabby had been crouching a moment before. He waved his hand over the area. “Something . . . some kind of energy. Like what we sense in each other.”
Gabby silently cursed herself. The mana pool was like a beacon in her senses, and no doubt in the senses of the soldiers as well.
The first man looked up in her direction and pointed. “There’s something else,” he said, “there.”
They moved forward, and Gabby froze in indecision. She could fight, or she could flee. I’m tired of running, she thought. She stood up and drew back the arrow she still held in the bow. She aimed low, letting her mana sense guide her as she targeted the invisible pool of energy on the ground. She didn’t want to kill these men; they were Northern Union soldiers. They were the good guys. She may not want to let them arrest her, but that didn’t mean she wanted them dead. She’d seen enough death.
She released the mana-charged arrow and let it fly. It shot through the air and landed in the ground, piercing right into the heart of the mana pool there. When the two opposing charges of mana—the one in the ground and the one in the arrow—collided, the energy erupted in a flash of light. Mana exploded and an eruption of dirt blew out from the ground. The two soldiers were thrown back, screaming. One smacked into a tree then fell to the ground, the other landed in a thick bush. Gabby could still sense the mana flows inside each man, so she knew they were still alive. She turned and ran to the side before they recovered from being tossed about by the explosion.
As you can see here, Gabby isn’t really a fighter. She doesn’t even go for the kill. She hides in the shadows, then strikes before her opponents know what hit them. Then she runs deeper into the woods before any other enemies approach. These are the tactics of a hunter or sniper, not a warrior.
Will your wizard kill from the shadows? Or weave illusions to deceive their foes? Or maybe even muddle their enemies’ minds and make them fight each other, ending the battle without the wizard having to set foot on the battlefield?
There’s many possibilities. And these possibilities say a lot about the personalities of any individual character. I develop each character’s style based on their personality, background, and experience.
So what about you? How will your wizard fight with magic?
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