For me, making your reader feel your viewpoint character’s emotions is key to great fiction. Your job, as a writer, is to put your reader in the scene with the character, living the story through the character’s thoughts, feelings, and point of view.
For battle scenes, though, some authors leave out a character’s thoughts or emotions, even sensory perceptions. They claim that is the reality of combat, and cite veterans who say they didn’t think or feel during a fight, they just acted.
My first reaction to that is: if they didn’t feel anything, why were they pumped so full of adrenaline? I’m no psychologist but I suspect, on a subliminal level, there’s a lot about the trauma of battle veterans won’t allow themselves to remember. There are plenty of examples, including a close friend of mine who was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor for an action he took in Vietnam. Until they read the citation, he didn’t remember any of it and swears to this day he doesn’t recall a moment of what happened. (And, yes, he suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)
My second reaction to the claim of combat realism is: fiction is not reality.
Bernard Cornwell, to my mind and countless others, is the best writer of battle scenes in fiction today. Now I don’t know the man, but from what I can gather he has never been in combat. Yet whether it’s Uhtred of Bebbanberg swinging a sword in a shield wall, Richard Sharpe driving Napoleon’s soldiers from a Portuguese hamlet, or Thomas of Hookton filling French knights full of arrows, you, the reader, will be by their side experiencing the battle as if you were there.
How does Cornwell do it? All his books start with strong viewpoint characters. Dissect one of his combat scenes and you’ll find that character obeying a pattern. Every line or bit of action in the battle is followed by a thought, a feeling, or—crucially and most often—an immediate sensory perception, in an almost one-to-one ratio. It makes his battle scenes both vivid and impactful.
Emulating Mr. Cornwell is one way to write a compelling battle scene. Or you could approach it from a different angle.
Film directors usually create storyboards for their combat scenes, planning each shot, then editing them together to build the action. You can do something similar. Try this: visualize your battle, and choose the four or five most crucial freeze frames of your fight. Analyze these mental pictures to find something people wouldn’t necessarily notice. What does your viewpoint character feel about that detail at that precise moment? Throw out the first, obvious feelings like shock, fear, and anger. For each step go to his/her deeper, secondary emotions—or even the third level, surprise emotions. Write each freeze frame with those details, then mold them together into the scene.
By focusing on less conspicuous details and unexpected emotions, your battle scenes become sharp and effective. Component shots make the action easy to follow.
With either Bernard Cornwell’s or the film director’s method of writing combat—or a combination of both—details and character emotions are essential. As they are in all fiction.