Enough with the Obsidian Swords!



One of the things I told myself I was not going to do with this blog was use it as a soapbox. I have one of those blogs already, but sometimes the things I’m passionate about are completely writing related.
I’ve written before about the importance of maintaining a narrative that your reader is willing to  suspend disbelief.  I’m going to talk about another part of that now. One of the things I enjoy reading and writing about are weapons.

Every good fantasy hero needs a good weapon. And between all the things that have existed and our imaginations, the realm of possibilities is endless. I don’t care if you want to use a tried and true weapon, or anything that ventures into overdone and cliche. There are reasons people will pick up book after book involving a special sword–readers like it. One of the few absolutes with writing is that nothing is new. Everything has been done before, and all we can do is put our own spin on something. But for the love of the written word, stop making weapons cool just for the sake of it.

Just like flat characters, if you have a weapon that is not fleshed out, it’s going to be hollow. Not only that, but readers are going to have more trouble suspending their disbelief and every time that is interrupted, you risk losing them.
Books, games, and movies all tell stories, but books, unlike the latter, do not give the reader a weapon to look at, so simple visual appeal is not going to carry as much weight. Here are three things to consider when creating a special weapon.

  1. The origin.
  2. Why the wielder has it.
  3. Importance of role in the quest.

A good example of a special weapon done well is Tolkien’s Sting. He offers an origin that explains the special properties, the reader is there when Bilbo discovers it and when he passes it to Frodo, and it plays several important roles, both with it’s ability to glow in the presence of goblins and orcs, and with its superior quality and sharpness.

The examples of special weapons done poorly sometimes seems endless. I will pick one that bothers me particularly–obsidian swords. Like any respectable fantasy writer, I am always on the look out for interesting weapons, so the first time some mention of obsidian drifted to my attention from some ancient culture documentary, I was in a hurry to look it up. It’s much sharper than steel, the volcanic origin is always a plus, and, I think we can all agree, it looks awesome. About thirty seconds into a google search was enough to find out it doesn’t work for a sword, though.
Obsidian is volcanic glass. It is many times sharper than steel, but it is also brittle and prone to shattering. There is a reason Aztecs made their macuahuitl the way they did.  A sword of solid obsidian, if it could even be made, would be pretty worthless in any kind of defense. Solid obsidian blades do not get much longer than about six inches and those are for cutting, not things requiring force.

If you’re not familiar, this is a macuahuitl
Macuahuitl 2

Obsidian does have a lot of myth and lore around it, and the superior sharpness opens it up to a lot of possibilities, you see a few of these with ‘dragonglass’ in A Song of Ice and Fire books, and the Game of Thrones show. George R.R. Martin takes the time to fulfill those three steps for keeping the special weapons meaningful to the story.
Too often, I see people use the excuse, “this is fantasy,” as a reason to disregard any semblance of rules. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t work like that. If you casually drop in the story that a character ran one thousand miles one day like it’s normal because, hey, this is fantasy anyway, I am probably going to stop reading the story and avoid anything else you write. You’re going to need a sound explanation for that feat.
Things have to be plausible even in fantasy, and a sword made of obsidian just isn’t unless you offer some explanation as to why it defies the usual properties–and like the person running one thousand miles, it’s going need to be a good one for me to go on with the story.

Fantasy readers like special, impressive weapons just as much as fantasy writers. Do everyone the service of putting the same thought and detail into those weapons as you do a good character. It will only make the story better.