Writing Heroes – Bernard Cornwell


Bernard Cornwell taught me how to write battles.

There. We’re done. Next blog.

Okay, we can’t really leave it at that, can we? Bernard Cornwell is the creator of Richard Sharpe. Yes, that Sharpe. Sean Bean’s only significant role that doesn’t see him dead before the end credits roll. Chosen Men! and more Yorkshire-inflected utterance of the word ‘bastard’ than you can shake a mug of well-brewed tea at.

Over the Hills…

For those still in the dark, Sharpe rose to inescapable popularity as a series of British made-for-television movies that ran from 1993 to 2008, with dead-man-walking Sean Bean in the title role and an array of British talent in the supporting line up. Brian Cox, Elizabeth Hurley and Pete Postlethwaite all do turns, to mention but three familiar names.

(For those who actor-spot, it’s a goldmine. Sharpe’s Sword is ‘the one with Solomon Kane, Redvers Fenn-Cooper and Marvin the Paranoid Android’. Sorry, actors. My brain typecasts at will.)

A blend of adventure serial and historical fiction, the TV series follows the titular Richard Sharpe – a commoner raised to officer’s rank, but never accepted – across the killing fields of the Peninsular Wars. Heroism, derring-do, romantic liasons and righteous anger abound. I’ve heard it described as being to Napoleonic soldiering what James Bond is to spycraft, and that’s probably about right.

If it seems strange that I’m leading with the television series, rather than the novels? Well, that’s how I discovered Sharpe. Wednesday evenings slathering paint onto an unfortunate array of Eldar with Sharpe’s Company on in the background. It wasn’t until much later that I crossed paths with the novels.

The Eldar of the mid-90s were incredibly judgmental and forever pointing at one another. Probably because they’d been covered in transfers to hide a shocking paint job.

…and Far Away

Cornwell started writing Sharpe in 1980, in circumstances that seem suited to one of the many doomed side characters in the series (having become engaged to an American, he wanted to move to the US, and needed a vocation that didn’t require a work permit). Fortunately, said decision didn’t find a tragic, poverty-laden end in a filthy garret. By the time Sean Bean first donned the rifleman’s green jacket on British screens, his alter ego was the star of twelve novels, and Cornwell had another nine to his name (a mix of other historical tales and nautical thrillers).

It’s hard to say exactly why Sharpe was so popular on screen and off. I think, as for a lot of entertainment, the answer’s different for different folk. Sharpe’s a rogue with a heart of gold. A survivor. An underdog. A hero. The history he interacts with is always portrayed in an accessible, tangible fashion. It doesn’t necessarily put him right at the heart of great events, but he’s always nearby. (As, of course, is the fate of a hero in historical fiction, as Cornwell admits in his exhaustive afterwords which labour to present where he’s veered from accuracy in order to craft a compelling story).

And having Sean Bean give a face and voice to your protagonist certainly doesn’t hurt. As Cornwell himself once said “…maybe Sharpe’s greatest stroke of good fortune was meeting Sean Bean.”

A Matter of Scale

But I came into this talking about battles, and about battles I shall talk.

The Peninsular War was a huge, sprawling campaign, with battles sometimes involving hundreds of thousands of men. Pretty much every Sharpe novel features a pivotal clash, be it Badajoz, Vitoria, Toulouse or even Waterloo itself.

Balancing the grand sweep and personal stakes in conflicts on that scale is a tricky proposition. You want the reader to understand the narrative’s place in history, and how the fate of nations hangs in the balance, but that’s all for nothing if Sharpe’s attempt to clear his name, reclaim his captaincy, rescue his love interest, take revenge on the odious antagonist, etc. falls by the wayside.

Cornwell balances an omniscient narrator’s perspective with that of his characters (normally Sharpe), smoothly switching between the two as the situation demands. You always know the sweep of the conflict, but you never loss sight of Sharpe’s place within it – even if his goals are not always in line with the British army’s overall strategy. You smell the gunpowder smoke, see the columns on the march and hear the musket volleys. You visualise the formations jockeying for supremacy, the shape of the battlefield shifting… but you never lose sight of Richard Sharpe and his band of chosen men within the din.

There’s meticulous rhythm to writing of this kind – a web of cause and effect that keeps the narrative flowing as the stakes rise on both micro and macro level. Get the balance wrong, and the tempo stutters and it all falls apart. Too much focus on the wider battle, and the reader loses his or her emotional connection. Too little, and the protagonist could be grubbing around a hundred miles from the French drums for all the consequence.

Other Works

Cornwell went on to employ this formula in other settings, notably the Starbuck Chronicles (American Civil War), The Last Kingdom (The end of Danelaw and the founding of the English nation) and The Warlord Chronicles (the Dark Ages/Arthurian myth). These are all, to one degree or another, darker than Sharpe, but they share a common style and a love of sprawling battles that never loses sight of the personal.

I’ve talked about the Warlord Chronicles before, and I shan’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say, it’s still one of the finest series I’ve ever read. Sharpe is where Cornwell’s influence over me began, but Enemy of God (the middle book of Warlord) is where it coalesced.

That’s why Bernard Cornwell’s one of my Writing Heroes.


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