Image: Matthew Loffhagen
What’s a fantasy story without a truly amazing weapon? The kind of no-holds-barred cool armament that inspires your reader to swing their arms round in the privacy of their home, imagining they’re actually getting to wield the ‘one sword’, ‘enchanted bow’ or ‘pot-bellied-pig cannon’ of their dreams? Nothing, that’s what, which is why in this article I’ll be talking about how you can set about picking the right weapons for your fantasy characters and, once you have, how you can get readers to obsess over them.
I’ll take a look at how you can invent new weapons that work for your story and how drawbacks and limits can make a weapon feel truly epic. Before that, though, it’s time to talk about what your character’s weapon says about their personality.
Fantasy weapons have personalities
Humans love to personify items. We name our cars, swear at our computers and, if a child falls down, it’s not unusual to see their parent smacking the pavement in a show of retaliation. Weapons are no exception, and even readers who have only ever encountered weaponry in fiction will have a definite idea about the ‘personality’ that weapons possess.
We’re the only species on Earth that observes ‘Shark Week’. Sharks don’t even observe Shark Week, but we do. For the same reason I can pick up this pencil, tell you its name is Steve, and go like this… <snaps pencil> …and part of you dies, just a little bit, because people can connect with anything.
– Dan Harmon, Community ‘Pilot’
And it’s not just the weapon that your reader has figured out – it’s the character who uses it. Already ‘understanding’ the personality attached to a weapon, your reader will take that weapon as a huge clue to the nature of its wielder. This means that unless you’re prepared to put in a lot of work to change your reader’s mind about one particular weapon, a character’s choice of weapon has to be connected to their personality.
That’s not to say that the weapon should dictate the character. Usually, it’s a far better idea to think about how you want a character to be seen and arm them accordingly. Remember, also, that your readers haven’t applied some arbitrary characteristics to your weapon – though the ideas attached to specific weapons may seem strange, they usually come from some facet of the weapon’s use or its depiction in culture. Thankfully, this means that the weapon you instinctively want to give to a character will probably be the right one.
I’ll talk in more detail later about how to take real-world weaponry and adapt it to suit your story, but keep in mind that it’s almost always a good idea to start with a weapon that really exists. You may want to make it unique to your story, but basing it on the framework of something that’s seen real use means you’ll have a pool of genuine information to draw on when describing how it’s used.
Because of this, understanding the assumptions surrounding different weapons is useful for all fantasy authors. They may be traits you want to subvert, but knowing what they are is the first part of that process. Below, you’ll find a reference table of common fantasy weapons and what your reader will probably think of them. It’s not a complete list (that would be nearly impossible), but it covers the most popular fantasy weapons and should give you an idea about the underlying traits that define a weapon in the reader’s mind.
The rules of combat
Before referring to the table, there are a few general rules that should inform your choice of weapon. First of all, understand that the reader already has an idea of how a fight ‘should’ go. This tends to be based on three qualities that are appended to pretty much every weapon on the books:
Of course, in the real world, most weapons require a high degree of skill to use effectively. It’s also true that most weapons require both skill and strength. Despite this, readers will tend to group fantasy weapons into one of these categories.
Unfortunately, centuries of story-telling has established a few rules about how these categories work and interact. Again, you don’t have to stick to these rules, but your reader will expect you to do so – if you want to break away from them, I suggest an early passage in which they’re shown that the rules don’t apply; a signal that things will work differently in your story. So what are these rules? Well…
Skill beats strength
In readers’ minds, skill is earned while strength is a lucky accident. Accordingly, they’ll believe that skill is more worthy and ‘should’ triumph over strength. Where strength wins out it’s usually impermanent – a huge guard knocking the hero unconscious, only to be bested later.
This rule can be used to the author’s advantage, and a victory of strength over skill automatically feels unjust. This was the tactic used by George R.R. Martin in A Storm of Swords when he depicted the battle between the ‘Red Viper’ (skill) and the ‘Mountain’ (strength). Early scenes illustrate the Red Viper’s tactical thinking, showing his selection of weapon as a deliberate counter to his opponent’s abilities:
‘We are fond of spears in Dorne. Besides, it is the only way to counter his reach. Have a look, Lord Imp, but see you do not touch.’… The last two feet of [it] was steel: a slender leaf-shaped spearhead narrowing to a wicked spike. The edges looked sharp enough to shave with.
In the end, however, the Red Viper gets caught up in the righteousness of his victory, and the Mountain dispatches him while crowing about previous misdeeds. The unfairness of pure strength defeating preparation and skill is used to heighten the reader’s disgust for the Mountain.
Stealth becomes much less effective when detected
Stealthy weapons are effective in fiction, but are expected to become drastically less effective when a character knows they’re coming. This is best exemplified by the throwing stars, or shuriken, often used by ninja characters. These are deadly, thrown blades that appear almost silently, but often you’ll see a hero swipe them out of the air, or dive to cover, after spotting the ninja’s approach.
In terms of reality, spinning blades don’t become slower or less deadly because you saw someone throw them, but again this is what the reader will expect. Likewise, seeing the glint of a sniper’s scope is almost a guarantee that the hero will leap out of the way in time. Readers tend to believe that if an attack is stealthy, then that’s a sign that it isn’t effective enough when used outright.
This is quite a useful assumption, as it allows you to naturally turn the tables in a fight. A character using a stealthy weapon might be winning until the hero gets a bead on them, but after that point the reader will accept that they’re less effective (even if their weapon has been incredibly effective up to that point). Again, however, this can be reversed – the reader will be genuinely shocked if the hero sees a stealthy attack coming and still falls foul of it.
Pressure enhances skill
Most of us know that while a little pressure might spur us on, putting someone in a life-or-death situation isn’t going to provoke their best performance. Not so with ‘skill’ weapons, which become more effective when it really counts. This comes from the reader’s belief that skill is noble and deserves to work when the chips are down.
This is lampooned in Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, where the heroes understand that the rules of narrative guarantee that a ‘million-to-one’ shot will work, but that more favorable odds may paradoxically work against them. Panicked, they set about making their chances even worse in order to guarantee their victory.
Nobby put his head on one side. “It looks promising,” he said critically. “We might be nearly there. I reckon the chances of a man with soot on his face, his tongue sticking out, standing on one leg and singing The Hedgehog Song ever hitting a dragon’s [vulnerables] would be … what’d you say, Carrot?”
“A million to one, I reckon,” said Carrot virtuously.
If you don’t want to abide by this rule then you’ll have to work against it – if a character is under pressure and their skill is flagging, be sure that the reader understands that it’s getting harder for them to fight. Neglecting to do so can lead to a character failing the reader’s expectations, and they may wonder at their skill, or deservedness, rather than just accepting that the situation became more difficult.
The big table of fantasy weapons
The table below contains the assumed personalities of many weapons found in fantasy settings. I’ve also included the skill/strength/stealth classification they tend to receive. Be aware that this is based on more than their real-world use – a bow, for example, tends to be seen as skillful rather than stealthy, based on its prominence in pop culture and historical portrayals. For the first few entries I’ve also included firearms which are perceived in similar ways. The types of firearm we see in fiction tend to be mapped pretty directly to melee weapons (a shotgun, for example, tends to be written with the same personality as an axe) – this may be useful information when deciding on the fantasy variants you want to include in your story.
The axe or hammer is usually the province of a brute, though not necessarily one who’s mean-hearted. The Lord of the Rings established these as the perennial weapons of the dwarf. Many wielders of these brute-strength-based weapons specifically enjoy battle.
Remember that these weapons rely on leverage and strength, meaning they’re more effective with longer handles. Many writers enjoy the aesthetic of the short hammer, as wielded by the Norse god Thor, but forget that they’re poor weapons – Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, only has a short handle because its creation was sabotaged. In terms of modern weaponry, shotguns share this personality.
The bow is a celebrated long-range weapon generally used to indicate a particularly noble type of heroism, and often a connection to nature. This is partly due to its depiction with heroes such as Robin Hood and Legolas, but also because of the claim that in real life, soldiers would choose a bow over a crossbow because they felt the latter offered an ease of use that was unworthy of chivalric values.
The closest relation in modern weaponry is the sniper rifle, though the connection is less cut-and-dried than with earlier entries. In fact, many fantasy stories set in the modern day simply use a more high-tech bow, such as in Susan Collins’ The Hunger Games.
For various cultural reasons, these weapons are associated with underhand and unfair attacks. If, however, the author stresses the accuracy with which they’re used, or they’re given to a particularly compelling character, they can be changed to a ‘skill’ weapon that usually denotes spirituality and studiousness.
Their modern counterparts are uzis, seemingly small weapons which produce a barrage of bullets.
Since these weapons appear innocent, they often indicate a hidden or rarely used degree of skill. Wise or wry characters tend to use sticks and staves, referencing their hidden depths. Characters such as Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Matt Murdock from Daredevil use weapons which appear to be walking sticks, but become something more threatening when needed.
Nunchaku are often made of wood and non-bladed, making them seem less dangerous than other weapons. Narrative satisfaction therefore demands that they’re more effective, and again they often indicate remarkable skill.
Knives are seen as the choice of the sneaky, backstabbing villain, but can be presented as skillful if the author highlights the delicacy of their handling.
Poison is seen as so unfair that it’s the sole province of underhanded or evil characters. Readers hate poison so much that they hope it will go wrong, as it does for Laertes in Hamlet.
Crossbows have a strange personality, as they seem to mark the point at which people perceive weapon design to move past what’s obvious to the layman. Consequently, they’re treated as a small device which smart people can use to great effect.
This definition stretches to many fantasy weapons, and is the default understanding of things like wands and devices with a sci-fi feel (though this can be changed, as I’ll discuss later). They’re a little apart from other weapons, and so this is what the reader will expect of its wielder – the typical crossbow-user is smart but kooky, and might even be described as ‘strange’
More ‘modern’ variations include lasers and electrical weaponry (such as electrified batons) – devices capable of a lot more than may be initially apparent.
Shields see an almost baffling underuse in fantasy narratives, despite their near-necessity in real battle. Writers seem to dislike writing about them, and so they’re often only a permanent feature for armies or battalions. Consequently, they have a vaguely villainous air of uniformity. The hero will often be stripped of a shield before the fight begins in earnest.
Owing to this perception, it tends to be smaller shields (especially ‘bucklers’) that possess a more heroic personality. These tend to communicate that a character is an underdog – their shield serving to show that they’re actually under-protected.
Owing mainly to the fact that they’re difficult to write about, spears and flails tend to see short-lived use in fictional combat. As mentioned earlier, they give the combatant reach, something which readers tend to see as a form of cheating unless the author directs them otherwise. These weapons therefore tend to paint characters as sneaky or weak, and again are often used for groups of enemies, giving them a sense of uniformity.
Tridents have particular associations with ruler deities (Poseidon and Satan, for example) and gladiatorial combat – they are an arrogant, overbearing weapon often indicating a character has gained undue control over others.
[bctt tweet=”Check out this big list of #fantasy #weapons and their personalities in writing” username=”standoutbooks”]
Fitting fantasy weapons to your world
The table above should give you some ideas about choosing the right weapon for your character, but once you have that as a basis it’s time to start fitting the weapon to your world. This may be something simple, like deciding that it was made by a legendary craftsman or a rare material, or a more complex reimagining such as turning swords into lightsabers or axes into psionic exoskeletons.
Building an original fantasy weapon around the personality of an existing weapon is beneficial because it allows you to understand the narrative ‘rules’ you want the reader to accept. You can ‘map’ new weapon systems to the reader’s existing understanding.
For example, in a magical universe you may want to have different disciplines of magic, or specific spells, that behave in different ways. This is the case in the Harry Potter universe. Here, spells which directly affect people are ‘strength’ weapons, spells which only kill or injure are ‘stealth’ weapons and spells which affect the environment tend to be ‘skill’ weapons.
While some characters use blunt-force spells such as petrificus totalus (a paralysis curse), protagonists tend to use non-aggressive spells such as accio (for summoning items) to creative effect. These creative spells tend to have the personality of a sword – they show a greater skill, triumph over ‘strong’ spells, and suggest the characters are noble.
This could easily be translated to types of magic in a fantasy setting. For example, affinity with nature would be based on the personality of the bow, necromancy on the personality of the knife, spiritual possession on the personality of the axe, etc.
These frameworks are familiar to readers, and so adding a few indications of how a weapon should be perceived will help them immediately understand how your weapons work. Of course, you might want to play with the established rules, but starting out by making them clear will help your reader understand what’s going on, and appreciate when you do something clever.
Remember, also, that these ‘personalities’ need to intersect. You wouldn’t have a group of all upstanding, noble characters – it would be boring – so don’t have a group of people who all use swords. The central warrior trio of The Lord of the Rings are Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, who are most commonly associated with a sword, a bow and an axe respectively. Even if you’ve translated these weapons into psychic abilities, types of magic, or even mounts (sword, bow, axe/horse, eagle, rhinoceros), variety is essential – not only does it stop things getting boring, but it gives you more narrative options later on.
Power has a cost
I’ve talked about general weapons in fantasy, but it’s a genre which also has a proud heritage of very special weapons. These are the one-of-a-kind weapons like Excalibur, Ice, Gungnir, the Sword of Gryffindor, the Vorpal Sword and Roland Deschain’s revolvers. While these weapons tend to possess the personalities of their more general representations, they may also be characterized by the methods through which they are made or obtained.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when creating such fantasy weapons is that power must come at a cost in order to be narratively satisfying. A hero cannot simply happen across the greatest sword in the world – they have to earn it or pay for it later.[bctt tweet=”A hero cannot simply happen across the greatest sword in the world – they have to earn it” username=”standoutbooks”]
This can occur in many different ways. In the Star Wars movies, for instance, Jedi knights are charged with extensive training to master a lightsaber, and are required to build their own rather than be armed by someone else. Warcraft’s Frostmourne is incredibly powerful but gradually erodes its wielder’s sanity and humanity. The Sword of Gryffindor can only be summoned when in desperate need, and even then only when it’s deserved. Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride wields the six-fingered sword at the cost of his father’s life, and in the Harry Potter universe you can claim another wizard’s wand, but it will only work to its full potential if you won it fairly from its owner.
The power or quality of a special weapon needs to be held in balance by an equal drawback or cost. It could be difficult to obtain, it could only be available to specific people (though this can feel insubstantial if not handled carefully), or it might take a great deal of training to use. These two qualities work together to make the weapon feel special – an all-powerful sword that the wielder simply finds on the ground might be effective, but the reader won’t want to hold it in their hand.
Of course the important thing is that the reader feels there is a drawback, rather than exactly what that drawback is. In Death Note, the protagonist possesses a notebook which will kill anyone whose name is written on its pages. This weapon is incredibly powerful, but has such exacting rules that it actually feels limited – an exact name and the victim’s appearance must be known, and misspellings and hesitations can negate the effects. These limits are paltry given the weapon’s power, but since the protagonist frequently encounters enemies who mask their identities, it feels like an acceptable balance to the weapon’s power.
Communicating limits and drawbacks will make the weapon’s power feel justified, legitimizing its special nature to the reader. This can’t be done through lip-service – you can tell the reader that a weapon is made of a supremely rare substance, but if they don’t believe the hardship that went into getting it, it may as well be made of tin. Drawbacks aren’t the only necessary feature of a truly great weapon, though…
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity
In order to appreciate a fantasy weapon’s power, or even its usefulness, the reader has to understand what it can do. There are a host of fictional weapons which act as sword-gun-handgliders, and they fail to excite readers because they focus on doing many jobs rather than nailing one.
Weapons are just tools, and tools are devices built for a specific purpose. Base your weapon around a specific purpose and it can excel, leaving it down to you as the reader to think up situations where it can shine.
One of the most famous fantasy weapons is ‘Sting’, the short sword used by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit and Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings series. Sting is an Elvish blade, and so of high quality, but its unique ability is to glow blue in the presence of goblins and orcs. This relatively minor feature is useful time and again because Tolkien writes situations where it’s beneficial to know these creatures are about.
On the other hand, a weapon which is too complex in nature can create plot holes or make it impossible for readers to appreciate what the weapon can do in a given setting. To a casual reader, this may appear to be the case in the Harry Potter series – characters have wands capable of many different spells. When chased, why would they not choose to fly off or turn into fish and swim away? In fact, the reader is kept up-to-date with most of the major spells the characters use (as mentioned earlier, it is actually the spells themselves that act as weapons), and so understands their capabilities and limitations.
The simpler a weapon’s premise, the more appreciable it is to the reader. For this reason, I suggest having one central answer when asked ‘what makes this weapon special?’ Perhaps it can cut through anything, perhaps it makes the wielder a fantastic swordsman, perhaps it gifts them with the memories of the slain, but that feature should be the only truly unique thing about it.
Thinking practically about fantasy weapons
As with any type of realism in a story, readers want to believe in a consistent fictional logic rather than that a weapon could exist in the real world. With that said, there are a few things to consider when attempting to write believable fictional weapons. First of all, and a constant bugbear to weaponry enthusiasts, is the knowledge that weapons are damaged through use. The more a weapon is used, the more wear it sustains and the higher the chance that it will break at a later date or become less effective. This is especially relevant when a weapon is ‘reforged’ – as with fixing anything that has broken, a reforged weapon is almost always weaker than when it was originally made. There’s no need to have weapons constantly breaking, but it can do wonders for realism to show characters caring for their weapons every so often, or have a character replace a mundane weapon that they’ve used frequently.[bctt tweet=”In fantasy fiction, readers want to believe in a consistent fictional logic.” username=”standoutbooks”]
Similarly, remember that all weapons use up a resource. Crossbows, arrows and guns fire material projectiles, while swinging a sword or axe takes energy. This is particularly important when altering weapons to create something new – spells have far more impact as a weapon if they exhaust the caster through overuse or only work in certain conditions. This is the case in Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga, where spells require ingredients, such as secrets or snow, to function. Showing a character reloading a weapon or commenting on how a long fight is weakening them can sell the idea that they’re using a real weapon.
Finally, remember that weapons evolve along with tactics and technological advancements. The way that battles work has changed over time as weapons have advanced – there was a time when guns were only good for a few shots before having to be used as melee weapons. Think about how the tactical realities of combat in your world would affect what weapons were available and how they have developed. It’s fine to base the warfare of your world around the weapons you want to see, so long as you do so believably. Frank Herbert’s Dune includes high-tech shields which deflect projectile weapons and explode when hit by lasers – consequently, his characters fight with archaic melee weapons such as knives, lances and crossbows. These fights are much more satisfying because they’re part of a logically consistent world.
To the forge!
Like characters, unique weapons can enliven a fantasy world and give it a special place in the hearts of fans. Choosing weapons for your characters can be a joy, and can be used to flesh out their personalities, and the world in which they live, so long as you think about what their weapons say to the reader. Hopefully the table above should help, but if you have any specific questions then let me know in the comments.
Now that your characters are armed, it’s time to see them use their weapons; check out Here’s How To Write A Damn Good Fight Scene for some great advice. Or, if you want to read more about the fantasy genre, check out our archive of fantasy articles, including How To Make The Magic Work for those who want to think a little more about the spells their characters can cast.[bctt tweet=”Everything You Need To Know About Writing Fantasy Weapons” username=”standoutbooks”]