(~8 Minute Read)
Writers, whether for scripts or other fiction, make a lot of mistakes with depicting military members. Sometimes to the point that it gets so obnoxiously cliché or romanticized that it is hard to watch or read. We’ve all seen the Army private going through the ‘coming-of-age’ to callousness in killing. Or some Tom Cruise flyboy doing whatever the Hell he wants in a jet with only a slap on the wrist and some wildly plot armored circumstance to make his actions necessary. They are laughable at best, cringe inducing at worst. They are about as tired as is tolerable and it is time to look at remodeling the stock of these characters.
You know you have a real problem when Wikipedia has a stock list of these characters.
This list has been robbed from so heavily that it has become pervasive in public thought over the military members themselves. One would think that to be an enormous problem. I think it poses quite a bit of opportunity.
Everyone knows battles in war movies and novels. Warzones and firefights are mechanical in writing. The reader realizes the strain and tension of their beloved MC pinned by some bunker to a fate unknown. But they can also see you still have 200 pages left in your book, so the character probably will be just fine. That’s tension lost, and at that point you’re just going through the motions that will likely resolve in a few friendly deaths for drama and the struggle main character dealing with the pain. Yeah, yeah…been there, done that. How about we try something a lot different.
Let’s write a story that’s main focus isn’t guns blazing with R. Lee Ermey articulating obscenities in the background. Let’s look at building the military member as a dynamic character. The opportunity we can find is in depicting them as the odd sub-culture that they really are. So, here is a list of what to look for when creating these characters to prevent you from feeding the Hollywood cliché machine.
1). Military Culture is its Own Animal.
First, let’s kill something that has been rolling around for a while from article writers that just doesn’t sit well with me: military members are just people. Sorry friends, they really really aren’t. They come in as regular people, likely a bit on the patriotic side. But when they get through the grind of basic or bootcamp and enter the world of the larger military, they are forever changed. Not into a machine, but into something a bit outside the mainstream.
What most people miss is that the American military is a conglomeration of cultures formed into an amorphous mass that the government tries the form fit into their own box but fails.
Complicated? You're right.
Think of it in a simpler way. How about you take a couple of military members that have been in for a while, we’ll say an always-in-boots Texan, a New Yorker who says “Facts B” and “Dead-ass” every five minutes, and a former gang member from LA trying to recant through religion. Next, we’ll have those three training a boot from Minnesota who spent his weekends boating and fishing competitively. They’ll mold that guy over time into a boot wearing, “dead-ass” speaking, church on Sunday attending punk who still boats and fishes any weekend he gets the chance. Stick all these cultures in a room every day for long hours on end, they’ll meld.
Now, I’m sure you’re saying boot camp is supposed to break that down and build them up with specific values. You’re right, it is supposed to. In some respects, it is successful. It will instill a fear of authoritarian retribution, a toughness in spirit that let’s them work through immense physical stress, and a commitment to each other. But it doesn’t turn them into the order following machine, and it does quite a number on their mental health. We’ll get to the comedy of that, because it is at the heart of military sub-culture.
When you’re attempting to develop such a character, base the character’s actions on where they came from first and foremost. What that means is that they had goals and lives before the military that led up to that point. And as far as I’ve seen, those goals were rarely just to get signed up for the military first. Maybe it is different on the officer side, but from an enlisted perspective they usually ended up there from other parts of their lives not working out. In fiction, these goals don’t need to be directly said and set in the writing, but they can be the groundwork behind the character’s decision-making processes.
To effectively start writing a military character, set their background in the non-military environment. Sure, some do want to join with all their heart, but write to yourself why that is. What makes them so adamant about subjecting themselves to that sort of hardship for so long? And keep in mind, most kids who spend all primary and secondary school in junior military programs get to bootcamp and drop out. It never is what they expected it to be.
When you’ve got who they are before the military set, think of who they encountered daily after they’ve been in. This determines a good portion of what their military personality will be.
2). Their Comedy is Incredibly Dark, with Good Reason.
No. The reason is not the threat of death. At least not in peace time. It’s the understanding of the constant misery that comes with the job and knowing how much longer they have left to endure it. Four or five years for an initial contract is actually a pretty long time. They make it through boot camp and the absolute irritation of those places and find they still have most of that time left.
Think of that. One to three months of absolute misery and irritation in initial training, then coming out to a greater military service to find that everyone finds them utterly worthless. If you’re looking for self-esteem growth, you won’t find it there.
So, they drink oftentimes, and make a whole lot of bad decisions. Then they drink some more. Those bad decisions make for their best comedy. Narcissism and masochism are staples in military humor.
Take for example a hungover boot who forgets his tools out on the flight line for the third time that week. Queue an ass chewing from higher, which always brings joy to everyone else. Then comes a laundry list of painful tasks for said boot to slave over to the point of crying and failure throughout the day. Everyone will likely watch, setting out lawn furniture in Okinawa to see the poor bastard soaked sweat running from jet to jet, stumbling across the airfield in delirium. They’ll remember their own moments of this pain and love it.
Then they’ll all get together that night and drink it away as a family, joking and telling stories of their own moments.
Self-deprecation becomes the standard as they endure the struggle. That struggle they come to love. It’s a downward spiral of drinking and smoking into oblivion day-to-day, only living for the chance to persevere over the pain next day. They know most the tasks they’re doing are just training exercises that don’t matter. Doing all these incredible feats of endurance and long hours, sometimes seven days a week, for something that likely will be meaningless.
It leads to recklessness on unheard of levels.
In your writing, this means a number of things for the character’s development. They are very likely to be a bit offensive in their language unless they have good reason not to be. The sarcasm in humor is damn near constant, to the point that people can speak entirely in sarcastic comments like “Best day of my life!” and have everyone know immediately that they mean the opposite. The dialogue is mostly joking, hiding a lot behind the words they say. Depending on first person or third perspective, the pain of the characters is often hidden, fissuring at critical times but sutured easily through this sort of dark humor.
Spend less time with the buddy-buddy aspects of the military speech and more with the violent and crass in-fighting and joking. It’s a difficult thing to understand, I know, but the military tends to work in opposites regarding emotional response. A great reference for understanding this is the series Generation Kill. It is set during war time, but it displays military humor very close to how it is.
3). Military members all have specific jobs.
On to something a bit more particular. And also done wrong so so so often. Every military member has a specific job they were essentially ‘hired’ for.
They are coded and a part of their career the entire enlistment. An AC-130 turbo-prop engine mechanic is only an AC-130 engine mechanic. A pilot of an F-18 is a pilot of only an F-18. You get the picture, I’m sure. Unless your character is in the Marine Corps, which gets a minor amount of infantry training before setting out on their real job, they are basically hired to do only that job. It’s like working for any company in the regular world. Well, any company that screams at you profusely for being five minutes early to formation rather than fifteen.
You can’t expect a refrigeration systems mechanic to understand complex multi-level building clearing, same as you cannot expect combat engineers to know how to perform wire repair on a seven-ton. Yes, they are used and abused for insane amounts of tasks and hours, but every job is different and very separated, even within the same unit.
Stop writing the gung-ho commander of all who can pilot a Huey while repairing the failing communications (always going wrong with that dusty old cliché) and firing accurately through bullet holes in the chassis. It doesn’t happen. Every one of these jobs requires tremendous effort and keeps the giant military machine moving.
Pick the specific job and stick to military character’s capabilities involving it. Remember, you can make a story out of damn near any character in the real world. The military is no different, other than the work toys tend to be more dangerous (and fun!).
4). Military Members aren’t Protected by the Constitution.
They safeguard its values but aren’t subject to its benefits. Military members give up their constitutional rights when they join. They fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice instead but can also still be charged in violation of the Constitution, though they don't utilize the benefits. This means a loss of freedom of speech, freedom of press, right to protest, and so on. Laying out negative opinions on the internet can get them formally charged. This is why you will hardly see military members posting anything about their work or the stress in their lives. It's simply illegal for them to.
So they bottle it.
And when others start complaining about their boss or their situation, they react negatively to shut them up. This is somewhat to stop the annoyance, but this is also what they do to protect people from getting in trouble. After years of living this way, it becomes a cultural aspect to them. They want to shut you down to protect you from incriminating yourself.
Also, you can't be a slob. It is illegal to look bad in uniform. You must follow regulations on wearing any and every uniform, including civilian clothes, and failure to comply leads to increasing punishments. There is no body positivity movement or acceptance. There is only the scope of the law, which you must obey. This makes modern cultural protests difficult for them to get behind. Not because they're against them, but because they don't fit the range in which they were trained to accept.
So, when writing these characters, don’t have them utilizing social media heavily, or protesting different things out loud. They can literally be charged as a criminal for disagreeing on a public media account with the President. That’s their Commander and Chief. The top of every chain of command.
You can, however, have them talk about political issues in standard conversations though. They’re no strangers to voicing their opinions loudly and constantly among themselves, but once a higher up comes in, the conversation changes. Be very aware of the audience of your characters.
5). Don’t Write Female Service Members Under the Male Gaze
If you’re a horror movie or story fan especially, you know what I’m talking about. It’s that pervasive tendency of mostly male writers who try to do various idealization female characters. These are the stories like Aliens, where Sigourney Weaver turns into what she ‘lovingly’ calls “Rambolina.” The powerhouse action hero that’s gruff and hard and losing clothes as the story moves forward. Slasher films love them too, if only to kill them sometimes.
In reality, female service members are everywhere and are put under mostly the same stresses as any of the males. It’s no different than the real world in that respect. That also means that they take on the same dark humor and narcissism that everyone does in that group, including settling scores through fights, talking trash constantly, and intense use of profane language.
Avoid objectifying them in the authorial sense, but you can in another military character’s perspective. Same works towards males, but it’s more of a problem regarding female member depiction. Service members will objectify the ever-living Hell out of each other but keep from unintentionally doing it as an author.
This also means spending too long on physical description that gets borderline creepy. It happens all the time. They’re wearing the same dense uniforms that the males are mostly, and those don’t help show anyone’s figure.
All-in-all, military character’s deserve a bit more work than the standard template usually dictates if you want to make them realistic. They’re an entire culture of their own, separated by the metaphorical boundary of civilian to service member. I touched on a lot of interaction and personal development items for them because they are the most inaccurate in stories and shows. Not everyone has PTSD and most never see any sort of combat, but their stories and struggles are interesting all the same.
Spend some time on them as people and know their limitations as a service member. Develop their personalities as a group. Service members influence each other’s lives both in work and out constantly.
And let them enjoy the suck.