(SF Signal originally published this guest blog post of mine on October 22, 2014. Since they recently announced that they’ll be calling it quits and taking down the site, I’m reposting the article here. Enjoy!)
Everybody loves swords. Writers and readers alike enjoy a bladed tale because of the mystique this ancient weapon wields. I’m a big sword lover myself. Last year, I wrote a blog post that went viral called, “Why I Hate (Most) Photos and Drawings of Women with Swords.” In the post, I outline my qualifications to speak on the subject, which include many years of studying stage combat with top Hollywood fight masters and four years in the art of Shinkendo. I’m also a veteran author and screenwriter, so I understand the challenge of balancing fantasy and fact when creating an entertaining story both for both fiction and film.
But too many writers and filmmakers are unaware of the realities surrounding bladed weapons. Most of what they know about swords they learned from the movie Highlander and in turn they propagate those fallacies in their work. That’s like learning about planes from the movie Flight. Here are a few facts about swords that, if heeded, could actually create better stories.
1. Warriors Training or Sparring with Sharp Blades
I know what the writer is trying to convey: they want to show that one warrior is a better fighter than the other before actually putting them in battle. So, if Character A cuts Character B in training, it shows that Character A is more badass. Or maybe it foreshadows that Character A will have a personal edge, so to speak, over Character B. This is extremely impractical in reality because sword edges are easily damaged. Even a good sword can get chipped when it comes in contact with another blade, effectively destroying it. (The same goes for unsharpened weapons, but I would be more forgiving of that scenario. In fact, many Western Martial Arts groups spar with unsharpened swords.) This is why the vast majority of sword-wielding cultures used wooden weapons for these purposes.
“It Is Known”
For example, the Song of Ice and Fire books and Game of Thrones TV series sometimes do a great job on this point. When the Black Brothers are training, they often use wooden swords (although not always). The books and show fail entirely on this point, however, with Arya. She has the most easily damaged weapon, yet she’s always training with it. Training in The Last Samurai is far more realistic. It depicts how the samurai trained with wooden swords called bokken or bokuto. Even today in Shinkendo we train with bokuto, saving our katana for tameshigiri (target cutting).
2. Folding Blades “Thousands of Times” While Forging
Thanks to Highlander, almost every nerd in fandom thinks that, for a sword to be “good,” it must be folded a bazillion effing times during the forging process. The truth is that the quality of steel can depend more on its source than the forging technique. Most steel can be homogenized and strengthened by a few folds at most, but it might not need any folding at all depending on the steel’s source.
I get into the details in my blog post, “George RR Martin and the Valyrian Steel Problem,” but it only takes a few folds to homogenize the worst steel. Which means Valyrian steel must be really crappy.
Create a Magical Special Sauce Instead
A sword of special strength and quality might instead have some kind of special sauce in the alloy. But if it’s a fantasy story, why not add some spells? Kira’s katana in the MTV series Teen Wolf has supernatural properties to explain its resilience. Or how about Michael Moorcock’s famous Stormbringer? It’s actually a demon that takes the shape of a sword. Why not create something imaginative rather than something based on a misconception?
3. The Self-Cleaning and Self-Sharpening Blade
A warrior must keep the sword blade clean to preserve the integrity of the metal, and whet the blade to sharpen it when it gets dull with battle. Yet few writers ever address the difficulty of doing this in a medieval military campaign, much less a zombie apocalypse. They just pretend that swords clean and sharpen themselves. I can understand leaving out this part as boring, but we see and read about characters resheathing their swords after a fight repeatedly without consequence.
The Truth About Body Goo
The reality is that it’s nasty to get body goo in your scabbard. The scabbard is very hard to clean, and even a little blood will quickly rust the blade. The warrior would carry special oils, cloths and other implements to clean his or her sword before resheathing it, which wouldn’t be until danger was long gone. Even if the warrior manages to keep it clean, extra items like a whetstone are needed to keep it sharp. And while sharpening a blade might not be rocket science, it takes practice to learn to do it properly.
Zombies vs. Butter Knives
This problem plagues innumerable books, graphic novels, films and TV shows. One of the most popular examples is The Walking Dead. Michonne is a problematic character in many respects, her lack of katana maintenance being one of them. While some argue she could have learned to use the blade through trial and error, there is no way she could learn about its maintenance that way. It’s hard to chop off a zombie’s head with a rusty, oversized butter knife, which is what she’d have in short order. An inability to properly clean and sharpen a sword should have serious consequences. In an apocalyptic story, finding supplies to maintain the blade should be as dire as finding ammunition for guns.
4. Drawing a Katana Strapped to the Back
It’s physically impossible to draw a katana from its saya when it’s strapped to your back.
Period. Full stop.
I don’t care if your character has Marfan syndrome or is a Samurai spider-squid-human hybrid. You just can’t. You’d be dead before you got it free. Even if you could somehow, you would quickly destroy the saya. As you draw a katana that is properly attached to your belt/hakama, you press the non-sharp edge against the inside of the saya at hip level or else the blade cuts into the saya on the inside. If the blade repeatedly scrapes the inside of your saya, you would very soon see a crack; the saya would then be useless. Even if you modify the saya (which is what they do surreptitiously in certain TV shows), that maneuver would not only be extremely difficult to achieve over the shoulder, it would be outright dangerous to perform near your face. (It’s also, of course, impossible to resheath the weapon.) If you need a character to store the katana on his or her back while traveling, fine. Just remember he or she won’t be able to use it.
Artists are the primary source of this problematic perception. They rarely research proper sword use. They think it looks badass to have two katanas crisscrossed in a halter on a warrior’s back, so that’s what they draw. Please remember that those are two damned useless blades. At the very least, that character is going to get kicked in the nuts before that blade is out.
Even worlds with magic and the supernatural should have internal logic. Many writers like myself research these things and try to get it right because we respect both our readers’ intelligence and our own. Yes, world building can be painstaking. But if everyone in your world had unprotected sex without ever getting pregnant, wouldn’t you have to explain that? Yes, you would. Similarly, you should explain why your sword doesn’t need maintenance, doesn’t get damaged during fighting, or needs five million “folds” not to suck. The answers could actually enhance your world. Personally, I think scarcity makes for much better suspense in a story. The threat of loss or damage means there’s more at stake, which is way more interesting.
Because what if it’s your character’s enemy who has a sword that never loses its edge? Wouldn’t he or she want to steal that sword and conquer its precious secrets?
That could make some good storytelling.