1. Emotion: Emotion is key. This goes on back to the boring blow-by-blow. There has to be some emotion, be it fear facing an opponent you know you can’t beat, triumph as your enemies flee before you over fields of red, pain as you take a shield to the nose, despair as you think of all those you’ll leave behind. Another thing is, war changes people. Violence can turn even the best among us into murderers. That adrenaline can be a high you don’t want to lose. You are the reader’s window into these feelings. You need to show all sides of conflict, including the sadness of death and destruction, and the flip side of that coin, the siren’s song of that adrenaline.
2. Description: There is a fine line you must walk. You need to give enough description for the reader to be able to easily visualize the conflict, but it can’t be an info-dump, if that makes sense. I like to try to balance blow-trading with, again, emotion. Try to avoid thoughts as much as you can if you need to break up the action, because you don’t have time to think. It’s all about reactions. Things come too fast and you’re too high on adrenaline to process anything, really. You brain simply doesn’t work that fast. People learn how to fight well be conditioning those reactions, not with brains that go on hyper-drive. Conscious thought stops. The “lizard brain” and muscle memory are what keep you alive and breathing.
3. Realism: This ties back in to the whole Olympic gymnast thing. Your characters are not doing back flips down the battlefield, nor are they vaulting over strikes. It is not possible. It comes across as ridiculous, and it leans too heavy on the idea of invincibility. Everyone gets nicked from time to time. There’s always the one guy you don’t see coming until he’s sticking that rather pointy dagger in your spine. Also, if someone whacks you upside the head with the flat of their blade, you will see stars. If you’re lucky, that’s what you’ll see. If you’re not, you’ll black out and you’ll be dead. Some blows you can’t shake off right away, and some you can’t shake off at all.
4. Research: Do your homework. Study the fighting style you’re portraying, even if you created it, because there’s always someone who will give you crap for inconsistency. If your character is Russian, but she fights like an American, there’s a problem (Ooh... there’s a plot... and a Burn Notice reference!). There are different styles for different times, and different tactics for different situations. Romans liked to stab people with short swords. Greeks preferred spears, but they were fine with slashing at people with swords. In the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong were outnumbered and outgunned. Therefore, they used guerilla tactics to outsmart everyone else, and they kicked butt. Study the principles of warfare. Study the people you’re working with. Are they cautious or bold? Do they strike to kill, or only to incapacitate? Do they aim to make their enemies suffer, or only to warn? It all plays a part, and the more you know, the more credible you sound. Now, there are exceptions to the rule, and some people are just really good at what they do, and sometimes, what they do is not considered normal. It’s fine to portray the exceptional, but not everyone is some sort of war god.
5. Effects: When you intentionally hurt another person, you are not the same. Something inside you dies—for most people. For others, it feels like they just came to life. That’s why we have so many serial killers. They live for the thrill. Also, some people are too good, too young. You see this in sports all the time. Some people are born amazing, with astonishing natural talent, and it takes very little formal training to make it blossom. When that happens, the kids lose their chance to be anything else. The world sees the blessing, but they pressure the kids so much with it, it becomes a curse. Also, they don’t know what to do with it. It makes them reckless, irresponsible, arrogant, and—in their eyes— immortal and unaccountable. They don’t respect their gifts because they didn’t earn them. They forget what life was like without it, because it’s all they’ve ever known. When it’s all gone in an instant, the world stops making sense to them, and life no longer has meaning. They become what their skill made them. They know that, and they’d rather die than see it go like that. The young soldiers become so accustomed to the violence and the destruction, it means nothing to them. It means nothing to tear a family apart. The power blinds them. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.