After a two-week baby break, I've managed to scratch out a bit of time for blogging again. (I wrote this one in a notebook while the baby slept on my lap and I gradually lost all feeling in my left arm.) So I thought I'd continue my series of posts on fantasy clichés with one of my favourites: the gratuitously uneven fight.
All fantasy fans enjoy a good battle, whether between individuals, groups or armies. And we also like seeing our heroes overcome the odds. There's no tension in a duel if the protagonist is by far the better trained and better armed. The Lord of the Rings wouldn't have been the same if the mighty hordes of Gondor had been facing Sauron's tiny ragtag army. We all appreciate a good underdog. Trouble is, it's easy to take this desire to weigh the scales against our characters too far.
An author's thought process might go like this. Say we have a swordsman being set upon by a bunch of thugs in an alley and fighting them off single-handed. Obviously there has to be more than one thug to give the scene its edge – let's make it three. But then, even your half-decent swordsman can defeat three antagonists without breaking a sweat (or so some fantasy would have us believe), so make it five. No, ten. And it would be more impressive if the hero was incapacitated in some way, so let's give him a wound. And take away his sword so he has to fight with a knife. And hell, why not blindfold him as well?
At some point, this stops being impressive and becomes ridiculous – first, because it's completely unrealistic, and second, because if the protagonist is so damn good that he can fight off ten men wounded, weaponless and blindfolded, then he's no longer the underdog. He's pretty much invincible. And invincible is boring.
I'm not advocating getting rid of the unequal fight. They're fun to write and fun to read. But authors have to tread a fine line when constructing them. It has to be physically possible for the hero to triumph, while still being an extreme enough situation that the reader gets that sense of awesomeness when he does – and, of course, the outcome has to be close enough to the wire that next time a similar problem arises, there's still tension in it. This may all seem obvious, but achieving that delicate balance between dull and laughable is easier said than done.