In Chapter 13 of The Blade Bearer - buy it now , you won't regret it - there is a scene where Will, Markham and Rayne save an innocent peasant from some nasty soldiers. This involves a short and fairly brutal fight in which Will (our narrator and a jolly good archer) shoots some of them with arrows, Markham (a knight) lays about one or two with his sword, and Rayne (a sorceror) casts a type of energy bolt spell.
I originally wrote the scene to break up a long spell of travelling. A friend of mine once said he had no interest in the Lord of the Rings movies because, 'Why spend almost three hours watching some people go for a walk?' That stuck with me, so I wanted to make my characters' walk fairly perilous. The encounter was also an opportunity to show the reader how lawless certain parts of Aeoland were becoming, rather than having characters point it out. And that was about it for the reasons why.
When I went back to the novel and started editing I realised that this fight was actually a waste of time. It was intended to inject some excitement but, apart from breaking up a travel sequence and imparting some simple information, it served no purpose. Nothing was different after the encounter was over. It hadn't moved on the story and it certanly hadn't affected any of the characters. This is usually where the writer has to make that difficult decision: do they remove a scene that doesn't need to be there, no matter how much they like it.
Instead of just cutting out the scene or editing it down, I stepped back from the screen and thought about what purpose this fight might serve. If the scene had to argue against being edited out, what would that argument be? The answer lay in what the fight did to the characters, how it changed them or made them think differently. The most profound effect was on Rayne, a theoretical practitioner of magic who had barely stepped outdoors in his life never mind killed someone. What would this do to him? It's unlikely he'd just shrug it off. So Rayne had to come to terms with taking someone's life, even if that someone was a villain. Having Rayne troubled by what he'd done then presented an opportunity for Will to show his more compassionate side, showing concern for what Rayne's act had done to him and, in so doing, reveal to the reader a little more about what motivates Will. For Markham it was easier. He sees very clearly that Will is a much better archer and he doesn't like it. I didn't emphasise this too much in the story, but I'm glad it's there. A constant theme in the novel is Markham waking up to not being quite the big shot he thinks he is. This encounter gave me a chance to give that bubble another pop.
So, yes, I know it's obvious to any seasoned author, but this taught me a simple and memorable lesson. Fights can help with story development because they are inherently dangerous and we need risk to make the plot work. But where fights really make your story sing, is by offering a short intense way to develop your characters. Threat forces choices, and choices display and develop substance in your characters.
There is a lot more to the role of fighting and action in fantasy novels. I'll return to this subject again.