So you have decided to write a fantasy/science fiction story (sometimes it is hard to distinguish the two, I am looking at you Anne McCaffrey) involving war, mighty armies, and impressive battle scenes; but there is a problem, you don’t know anything about the military, its organization, tactics, strategy, or the history of warfare. Some writers—Christoper Paolini springs to mind immediately—when faced with this problem will simply just wing it. I find this to be completely unacceptable, from both the prospective of a military history buff and an army brat. To help remedy the problem I have created this little starter kit to help any prospective writers out.

Now there is one important question you have to answer when writing your story: what is the national policy of the country/countries engaged in the conflict? You must answer this when telling about your fictional war. Bear in mind that there are five key elements that affect a country’s national policy. First is the country’s political leadership. Carl von Clausewitz—the Prussian version of Sun Tzu (whose book On War I would recommend you pick up and read if you want to write any type of military fiction)—defined war as continuation of politics by other means. Why do your country’s leaders want to go to war (saying they’re evil is not acceptable)? What do they hope to gain? More land, resources? Do they have an ideological agenda? Is it a preemptive strike? If you can’t answer these questions, I want to kindly suggest you stop writing and start thinking of answers instead.

The second is the economic status of the combatants. Wars are generally very expensive, you would be surprised how much money it can take to outfit a simple infantry battalion of a thousand men. Trying to maintain a large army, navy, and air force can easily bankrupt a country; which is why most countries tend to have a small permanent force during peace time and a larger reserve force that is inactive most of the time (Note: if you are writing a story set in medieval times, the countries during the time period have no concept of strategic reserves). So here is another set of questions for prospective writers to answer: How strong are the respective economies of the countries involved? How do they plan to finance the war? Higher taxes, taking out loans, looting conquered territories?

The next one is the size and condition of the military forces. How large is your army, what kind of equipment does it have, how well are the soldiers trained? These items are very important when designing the flow and ultimate outcome of the war. Take for example the Aztecs and the Spanish; the Aztec armies outnumbered Cortez’s Spanish expeditionary force by a considerable margin, but Cortez’s men had much better armor and weapons, not to mention they had horses and the Aztecs didn’t. If you don’t realize how much of a difference horses can, make please stop writing and do more research. Yet, superior weapons do not necessarily guarantee victory. Germany during WWII had the best weapons and equipment, but still succumbed to the Allies’ superior numbers and industrial base.

Also take into consideration the population of a country when deciding how large the army is. That is one of my biggest complaints with the Eragon books (I have a list of other complaints, and believe me it is a fairly long list). Paolini’s pseudo-Germanic wannabe Middle Earth country has at the most a population of ten million. Odds are its population smaller, somewhere around four to six million. And it apparently maintains a couple of field armies over a hundred thousand strong all the time. No, no, no, no, and for change of pace, NO! There is no way it should be able to support an army of that size, much less two or three, for any length of time.

Why, you ask? Well, lets look at what kind of manpower King Galby has to draw on and what hints are dropped in the books (there are a couple, believe it or not. Surely an oversight on Paolini’s part.) Note that for the sake of argument I am going to assume the country has a population of ten million, a nice round number. Our first clue is when Arya makes this wonderful little announcement:

Do not pamper me, human. Elves train both their men and women to fight. I am not one of your helpless females to run away whenever there is danger. (Eragon, pg. 477)

So now we can reasonably assume that Algaesian Empire does not use female soldiers. Fair enough, most medieval countries didn’t, but we have to factor that into Galby’s potential manpower reserves. Let’s say that women make up somewhere between forty-seven to fifty-three percent of the population and already you see the Algaesian Imperial Army’s pool of recruits has been cut in half. Next we have to weed out the people that are either too young (below the age of fourteen) or too old (over forty-five) to make effective soldiers. Making an educated guess, I figure that is somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five percent of the population. That pool of recruits just keeps dwindling, doesn’t it?

Now, let’s factor in people who are not physically fit for military service (five to ten percent), people who have skills or jobs that are vital for the civilian sector and are therefore exempt from military service (about two percent, give or take), outlaws and other criminals (also about two percent), draft dodgers (around one percent), slaves (I don’t know how widespread slavery is in Algaesia, the slave percentage of the population could be anywhere from five percent like medieval England to forty percent like Byzantium) and a few other things, like disease, that are entirely unpredictable. The end result is that the Algaesian Imperial Army has a pool of potential recruits of somewhere between two hundred to three hundred thousand.

Now I can just people going ‘HA, HA, you just contradicted yourself lulz!!’ But we’re not done yet. You see, this pool of recruits is also used to supply other important Imperial posts like the Imperial Navy, the local town watches and constabulary, border guards, bodyguards for important Imperial officials, prison guards, so on and so forth. The end result is that the Algaesian Imperial Army would be only able to support a field force of around forty thousand to seventy thousand men. And I realize I have gone off on a tangent and I apologize. Still, keep this example in mind when designing your fictional armies.

The next factor in your fictional war is geography. It can often play a decisive factor in a number of ways. For example, one of the reasons France became the leading nation in Europe during the Middle Ages was because the mountain ranges and bodies of water that make up its borders made it difficult for large armies to invade. A more recent example is that the People’s Republic of China would just love to invade Taiwan, but its navy lacks the capacity to move a large number of troops across the body of water that separates the two countries.

The last factor in a country’s ability to wage war is its national will: how the people feel about the war, their leaders, and how far they are willing to support them. The US lost the war with Vietnam not through military defeat, but because the American people refused to support it any longer. And here is where the Eragon books run into another major problem. According to the narrator, the common people hate King Galby. So how is he able to continue fighting the Varden? He should be having desertions from his army left and right, people refusing the call to muster, people should be refusing to pay taxes to finance the war, etc… Yet, we don’t see this. There is word to describe this kind of oversight: pathetic.

Another important part of wars authors tend to ignore is logistics. Logistics is the fine art supplying the army in the field; soldiers can’t fight without ammunition, food in their belly, or boots on their feet. You want a prime example of how important this is, take a look at the Confederate Army towards the end of the American Civil War. In fact, there is a saying that you should memorize here: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. A one hundred thousand strong army should have a large and well developed supply train. I could go into another tangent on Eragon here, but I have already done that enough. And that, ladies and gentlemen, should be enough to get you started on the right track.

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  1. Morvius on 31 October 2008, 08:50 said:

    Very good article! I love it! I needed something like this! I was wondering, normally how many people can there be in kingdoms? I am still trying to work out a scale for my lands and currently there are quite a few kingdoms on it so the scale I am using is quite big and the land itself is very big also.

    Exactly how big is Galby’s army in the books anyway? And in LoTR, didn’t Rohan have around two thousand cavalier (based on the movie I think)? I never thought of Rohan being that big but exactly how big is it again?

  2. Morvius on 31 October 2008, 09:08 said:

    Oh wait sorry my mistake. Ignore the comment about Rohan. I made a mistake about the values.

  3. Private Widdle on 31 October 2008, 09:46 said:

    Excellent article! I agree about tactics-for-amateurs – many of the worst-written battles (by otherwise good authors) have been a series of isolated little combats. No sense of the overall picture, no sense of grand tactics (other than to just ‘kill, kill, kill’) and not even a thought given to the momentous task of moving such numbers around in the first place (I suppose ‘magic’ is a useful grease to Clausewitz’s laws of friction).

    In answer to Morvius’ question: assuming the film was true to the book, Rohan had six thousand horsemen riding to the Pelennor Fields (at least, they had ‘six thousand spears’ – I’m assuming it wasn’t six guys carrying a thousand spears each). I think I remember the King saying that with more time, Rohan could have gathered ten thousand.

    I think geographically, Rohan was roughly the size of Gondor (but with more green open spaces), though with a less-dense population. I’m guessing the reason they could gather so many troops was because their military was still along the nomadic tribal lines (Mongols, Huns, Goths etc) where every man (even the ones who supported the military machine: blacksmiths, fletchers etc) was required to be a warrior in an emergency. This would cut down on the wastage – the Muster of Rohan always struck me as something of a ‘Nation In Arms’ anyway (much more so than Gondor, which I think would maintain a more ‘business as usual’ approach, even during such a cataclysmic war)

  4. Jeni on 31 October 2008, 10:05 said:

    Excellent article, and of course, the age-old adage: An army marches on its stomach.

    Ooh, apparently courtesy of Napoleon. Hah, you learn something new everyday. :)

  5. Rhaego on 31 October 2008, 13:03 said:

    We needed this article. I always wondered why I enjoyed some author’s large combat, and I skip Paolini’s.

    Now I have the answer; some authors take in the logistics, Paolini took in the tactics (barely).

  6. SubStandardDeviation on 31 October 2008, 13:14 said:

    Great article. So many factors go into an epic battle scene beyond the battle itself…

    the People’s Republic of China would just love to invade Taiwan, but its navy lacks the capacity to move a large number of troops across the body of water that separates the two countries.

    And here I was thinking they had so many people that if they wanted to, they could just march across the strait like army ants.

    people refusing the call to muster, people should be refusing to pay taxes

    Seriously, the Empire phails at bureaucracy. The only way I can assume the Empire is run is that Galby is a one-man Mongol Horde, except he can’t even be bothered to kill and loot onscreen.

  7. Virgil on 31 October 2008, 15:39 said:

    Galby’s armies apparently stretch for miles at length, on the Burning Plains.

  8. SlyShy on 31 October 2008, 17:50 said:

    The arrival of several tired villagers on a boat turns the tide of the battle. Oh, what fun.

  9. stridingarch on 31 October 2008, 17:59 said:

    Let us not forget one other minor detail, and that is leadership. With a ruler who has apperently been in absentia for long periods of time, who exactly is running the ship? Murtagh is a relatively recent arrival. While we are given this complex breakdown of various leadership elements within the Varden, after the fall of the Forsaken a void in leadership occurs. Did Durza run the whole thing? No field commanders, nobody worth opposing the brilliant Varden commanders? With as much effort as he has put into inner turmoil, some development here would seem necessary. Galbatorix plays no active role to date, Durza turned out to be insignificant, Murtagh (maybe the most interesting character in the whole series!) is largely ignored. We are left with a horde of giggling conscripts who feel no pain, but apparently didn’t like the man who made them that way but still gave up everything they held dear so their families would be cared for (somebody watched “Minority Report”). A hero is typically defined by his ability to overcome adversity. So far, well defined adversity is lacking.

  10. Rhaego on 31 October 2008, 18:24 said:

    Eragon expresses concern about killing humans for about…three paragraphs in Eldest.

    I don’t know much about war, but most people are wrecked for life after mercilessly killing hundreds right?

  11. SlyShy on 31 October 2008, 18:35 said:

    Also. Right before the battle, he has a one page rant about how unfair it is he has to kill a rabbit to eat. Then he kill 100,000+ empire soldiers. Fun beans.

    I’m not really sure why they fought the battle on a plain. That might have been useful if either side has a large cavalry force, but if I had been the Varden, I would have picked much more favorable terrain.

  12. Rhaego on 31 October 2008, 18:37 said:

    Like raining down arrows on the umpteenjilliathousand Empire soldiers from the top of a mountain, hill, or other landmass?

    That would be silly.

  13. TheGeneral on 31 October 2008, 20:59 said:

    Good point stridingarch, I forgot about that one.

  14. Morvius on 31 October 2008, 21:39 said:


    Ah, we need an article talking about the moral quandaries one faces during war and killing. I think it really starts affecting them after the war. But during war itself…I guess for the soldiers it is all just “survival” to them and what ever their motivations are. (Protecting their family etc.) If not won’t everyone be breaking down after one battle?

  15. SubStandardDeviation on 31 October 2008, 21:47 said:

    Addendum, or, “Skip to the good stuff”:

    When people talk about “war stories”, they don’t usually mean stories about the war itself – they refer to the personal experiences of the soldiers who fought the war. 300. Gettysburg. Saving Private Ryan. You know ‘em. War stories, the ones that get told over and over again, tend to be about individual heroism and determination against overwhelming odds. You don’t see many epics emphasizing how the terrain at Thermopylae restricted the Persians’ available tactics, or why Lee’s offensive strategy forced him to use suicidal tactics when outnumbered, or how ordinary Americans worked to build all those landing craft at Normandy. You don’t write great fiction about logistics. Writers of action-adventure fiction know this, and they, too, like to write stories about brave heroes who can defeat five orcs with one swing of their mighty thews. Then they up the ante from squad-level to country-level conflicts.

    I believe this “war story” mentality is why a lot of fictional war scenes are from the “hero’s” perspective, or at most, from the field commander’s. Let’s face it, even if you did do the research, nobody wants to read a fifty-page lecture about your fictional empire’s economic mobilization and troop deployments. Unfortunately, this causes a lot of writers to either give scant consideration to national policy, or ignore it altogether, which is why we get silliness like a 100,000 man army in a medieval country the size of Arizona.

    However, there is NO excuse for having a pitched battle when it would make no sense – for either side – to have one. (Idiotic commanders may be an exception, if there’s a reason they haven’t been sacked.) Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. (The Art of War, III.2.) I’d like to see more stories that learn from this.

    @ Morvius
    This is why we have something called ‘boot camp’. The Japanese during WWII is a good example.

  16. Morvius on 31 October 2008, 22:49 said:

    Exactly how big is Arizona anyway? Sorry, but I do not take Geography (I take History). I am having a lot of difficulty in deciding a scale for my continent. Yeah, the battle itself is important but stuff like logistics shouldn’t be left out either. Of course endless descriptions about logistics isn’t going to help th book.

    Anyway, there should also be a article on governance. Like the various posts in the government (ministers and all that). I was wondering…does the Minister of Economy/Finance/Coin handle expenditure on military stuff also?

    Hehe “mighty thews”.

  17. SubStandardDeviation on 31 October 2008, 23:44 said:

    You can find approximate measurements of Alagaesia on the former Anti-Shurtugal site here.

    As for governance, it depends. What I expect would happen is:

    • The people in charge of actually supplying the Army report their intended expenditures to the King. (“Sir, we would like a new weapon/fleet/division/war. It will cost X.”)
    • The people in charge of the budget (be it a Parliament, Finance Minister, etc. but usually not the Army people – too much to manage) decide how much is allocated, if any. (“No, we will not support your ludicrous project.”)
      • Depending on the political system, this decision may or may not stand. (“I’m the King and I say we go!”)
    • Then it’s up to the Army department to actually (mis)spend the money. (“We don’t really need to buy that much steel/coal/ammo/laser energy. No-one will notice if I keep this bit for myself…”)

  18. Zahano on 1 November 2008, 04:03 said:

    Good job. Needs more stuff that is not directly correlated to Inheritance.

  19. SlyShy on 1 November 2008, 12:05 said:

    Eh. ImpishIdea is a writing site, not an anti-site. When people use Inheritance, it’s for the purpose of illustrating a point, not to bash Inheritance.

  20. Zahano on 2 November 2008, 01:36 said:

    I know. That is exactly what I mean. Give us more details. What the hell are we supposed to if we have a navy? Is having an airforce always a good idea? What kind of fantastic creatures do you reckon would make good cavalry troops?

  21. Zooty on 16 November 2008, 18:45 said:

    Great article :) Concerining the number of troops available, in a science fiction setting what freedom do you have with the percentage of the population capable of fighting if they’re specifically conditioned for warfare from birth and their society has a strong focus on war because of its necessity to their survival?

  22. Rand on 16 November 2008, 19:57 said:

    “ A more recent example is that the People’s Republic of China would just love to invade Taiwan, but its navy lacks the capacity to move a large number of troops across the body of water that separates the two countries.”

    That’s interesting. I never knew that.

    Other than that… fantastic article. Will use sometime.

  23. SallyB on 22 December 2008, 15:00 said:

    Very nice article.

    I agree with Zahano, a broader base of examples might be helpful, possibly some positive examples as well as negative and real-life ones. Out of curiosity, have you read any of the following: Farsala trilogy, by Hilari Bell; Inda (and sequels) and Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith; Protector of the Small quartet, by Tamora Pierce. (All these are fantasy books I’ve read that deal fairly intensively with military strategy; they might be of interest if you haven’t read them, and I was wondering what you thought of them if you have.)

    An issue you didn’t bring up, but that might be relevant: I remember reading at some point how in some cultures, especially feudal ones, either all or some of fighting roles were the sole province of nobility. Have you run across this anywhere, and if so, do you know anything more about it?

  24. Zahano on 22 December 2008, 15:27 said:

    I call bull on that last point. Nobles can’t be the only soldiers because:

    1. There are nowhere near enough of them to create a decent army anywhere. Peasants/Muzhiks/Third Estate are ALWAYS in the majority in society, which leads to
    2. Nobles are expensive and therefore cannot be just thrown into battle like mobs of moronic muzhiks. Nobles are too expensive and skilled to be just used as cannon fodder. Send in peasants to take the brunt of the attack and have your professional soldiers just take out those like themselves.

  25. Elberik on 9 January 2009, 21:33 said:

    More examples of good and/or bad armies would be helpful, as well as some more info on geography. How does a battle in a mountainous region differ from one which takes place in flatter, wooded area. I have read many books (Eragon being on of them) where the auther does not seem to take the geography into consideration.

    Example- The battle at Farthen Dur in Eragon could easily have taken place in an area identical to wherever the battle in the Prince Caspian movie was.

  26. Hornblower on 10 November 2011, 19:24 said:

    Overall an excellent article, but I do have a small query: why did you assume Alagaesia had such a small population – even in the mediaeval era, China (for instance) had a population of 53 million people (in 754CE.)

  27. Aerone on 11 November 2011, 19:33 said:

    This was very interesting and a very good article!
    My question (And this is coming from a very ignorant person when it comes to war, so excuse my stupidity) is when and how do they fight? When I imagine a war, I imagine combat, swords, dragons (At least in my case)ect. But they can’t fight 24/7 and it would be extremely hard to fight when its pitch black. I know wars can go on for decades, so how do they decide when to stop and rest or something? I highly doubt they sign some truce that says, “Yeah.. lets stop and take a break, than pick this up again in the morning…”
    I apologize again, since this seems like something that should be obvious to me, yet I simply can’t think of an answer.

  28. Tim on 22 March 2012, 09:02 said:

    “Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics”

    This isn’t actually true. It’s “soldiers talk tactics, generals talk logistics” and it doesn’t mean logistics are better than tactics. The reason a general studies logistics is because it’s his job to plan the war, so he determines when to attack, where to attack and in what number, and his ability to move men and supplies is his main concern in deciding this.

    A soldier in the field, on the other hand, uses tactics (which are how you attack) to fulfil the objectives of the general’s strategy. It doesn’t matter how much weaponry, ammunition, fuel, food and other supplies you have if nobody uses them effectively once they get there.

  29. Tim on 23 March 2012, 05:17 said:

    How does a battle in a mountainous region differ from one which takes place in flatter, wooded area.

    Put simply, it doesn’t happen. Much like a swamp, you can’t build many things up a mountain that anyone’s actually going to need an army to attack, and if you do the army will just cut their supply lines which are exposed and vulnerable due to being on a fucking mountain. If an army goes up there the other will just go and attack stuff that’s actually important like cities or wait for them to come down.

    The only time mountain combat will really happen is in a modern setting where it’s much lower-intensity and you might find things like radars or bunkers up there that are worth attacking. The ideal there is ‘use aircraft,’ but if you can’t do that then you’ll be humping SF teams up there with sniper rifles and light mortars.

  30. Tim on 23 March 2012, 05:29 said:

    My question (And this is coming from a very ignorant person when it comes to war, so excuse my stupidity) is when and how do they fight? When I imagine a war, I imagine combat, swords, dragons (At least in my case)ect. But they can’t fight 24/7 and it would be extremely hard to fight when its pitch black. I know wars can go on for decades, so how do they decide when to stop and rest or something? I highly doubt they sign some truce that says, “Yeah.. lets stop and take a break, than pick this up again in the morning…”

    Actually, that’s typically exactly what they had; IIRC in classical warfare the army’s commanders would usually watch over the battle from a distance and send runners to give orders to formations, and when they couldn’t see anymore they’d order their troops to retire to camp since neither side could fight effectively in the dark. You then might have people try to sneak into the other camp and murder someone important, but you wouldn’t draw up into lines of battle and formations again until people could see what the hell they were doing.

  31. Alex Brown on 1 September 2014, 13:52 said:

    Thank you so much!

    I am working on a war in my book and I have NO IDEA where to begin. This gives me an idea of where to start… But I still have no idea what I am doing….

    Do you have any ideas on where I could go to get more information (Greco-Roman inspired society vs Persian inspired society)

  32. Paddy Oldfield on 24 June 2016, 07:25 said:

    You have fair criticism of the size of Alagaesia’s army. However, there are two large factors you didn’t take into account. King Galbatorix was conscripting on a massive scale in order to have an army, and was forcing them to swear oaths of loyalty to him in the ancient language. If you swear an oath in that language, the magic will force you to keep your oath. However, the dumb thing is that he barely needs his army. And he just lets everyone trample around his kingdom when he actually wants it to prosper. He could have destroyed the entire Varden force on his own, without an army, and probably without even using magic. His dragon could kill them all within an hour.

    Then there’s the fact that he knows Surda supports the Varden, but can’t be bothered to conquer it when he could easily. He could have won that war before Saphira was even born if he had just gotten off his arse.