By EFMingo on Jan 23, 2021 at 8:10 PM
  1. EFMingo

    EFMingo A Modern Dinosaur Staff Supporter Contributor

    Nov 10, 2014
    Likes Received:
    San Diego, California

    Developing Military Characters in Literary Fiction

    Discussion in 'Articles' started by EFMingo, Jan 23, 2021.

    (~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.
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2021


Discussion in 'Articles' started by EFMingo, Jan 23, 2021.

    1. Iain Aschendale
      Iain Aschendale
      Well said, and I would add in (or amplify) the dark sense of humor extending to a seemingly casual attitude towards injury and violent death in everyday conversation. I think there are a couple things that lead to this.

      First and most obviously is the training and indoctrination. "If I die in the combat zone, box me up and ship me home. Pin my medals upon my chest, tell my girl I done my best." Marines are reminded several times a week that their job (even if they're admin guys in Hawaii or whatever) their job is to cause violent death and on the flipside, they may well die violently. Statements that would lead to an immediate trip to HR and possibly arrest are just daily conversation and appropriate management technique.

      That was a gentle correction on maintaining appropriate work attire, and I lived it. And then when I got out and moved back to the civilian world, I got some pretty severe corrections from management on how to address my coworkers etc.

      But the second thing is (and this one is a little controversial) without the draft I think there's a certain darkness to the people who join up. Maybe it's just a Marine and perhaps Army thing, but you are signing papers that relinquish your freedom for the next three years at an absolute minimum, in a job where being ordered to die a violent death is a known possibility. No one really knows what military life is going to be like until they're sitting in the company area at 0530 waiting for a formation that won't start until nine, but "normal" people don't sign up for this sort of thing. If you have universal service you'll get a wide range of personality types to hammer into the damascus steel of your organization, but in a volunteer military I think there's something different at the core.

      My 2 yen, thanks to @EFMingo for an excellent article.
    2. Xoic
      Reminds me of the beginning of Moby Dick, where Ishmael explains that people who signed on for 3 to 4 year long whaling voyages where the ship will never put in at any port are generally people fleeing problems on land, up to and including being wanted for various kinds of crimes. And of course, convicted criminals often get the choice of prison or the Marines.
    3. EFMingo
      They actually dont do this anymore i believe. Its quite a bit harder to get into the Marines than it has ever been. Still, not as hard to get into as the Air Force though.
    4. Iain Aschendale
      Iain Aschendale
      I had insanely high scores on the ASVAB but the Air Force recruiter took one look at me and realized I would not be a good fit, quotas be damned.

      OTOH the Army was running this motivating campaign around 2006 or so:

      EFMingo likes this.
    5. SapereAude
      Writing as a veteran (a Vietnam veteran, in fact), all I can say is that you're wrong. Military people are people. We ("they," since I am no longer one of them) are individuals. We meld into an operational unity to accomplish the mission (and, we hope, to survive). We don't become someone else in the process.

      Some are. Most aren't.

      I don't know what military you're talking about here, but it doesn't sound like the American military. I know people my age who served during Vietnam, I know people who served twenty years after I did, and I know people who are currently serving. Your description doesn't fit any of them. It correctly applies to a few malcontents, but not to the military as a whole.
      EFMingo likes this.
    6. big soft moose
      big soft moose
      So you didn't see or do anything in basic or in vietnam that changed you, at all? You were exactly the same person when you DEROS'd as the day you arrived? If that's so all i can say is that you were one of the lucky ones.
    7. EFMingo
      First off, I would like to thank you for your service. I too served, but much more recently and not during the war time that you did (though the War on Terror was present for most of my enlistment).

      But on the latter parts, I'm in line with what was said just above my post here. Everyone who entered the military changed when they were in and left, even those who didn't see any combat. The environment forced them to grow in different ways, not all positive either. I'd be quite surprised with anyone who could go through Vietnam and truly not change. All of my military friends, both still in and out, changed immensely and they'll be the first to admit this. But I guess that's a more subjective statement than anything.

      Also, I was a Marine, so the forced change was quite a bit more heavy-handed than not. That place is endless screaming and coping in different ways, so people come out that grinder not quite what they were, or entirely different. I went there specifically to change myself and succeeded at that.

      This may be a result of sample size, but I know quite a few people in the modern American military who I lived with day in and out through multiple deployments and this is how it was. People often counted their enlistment by the days left until they EAS'ed, or they constantly refered to it in various ways as a prison sentence. In many ways it was. But I guess the point I failed to mention up there properly is that despite this sort of morose joking, a lot of them loved it, myself included. That's where the masochistic and fatalistic nature of the system and its humor comes into play.

      But experiences are experiences. A lot of things changed over the years, and a lot didn't, but malcontents aren't the only ones like this. Very very few are reenlisting in the modern military to the point that it is a recognized major problem. This sort of prison sentence mentality is part of a larger issue. You may have experienced one thing and been told by others something that matched it, and you may be entirely correct in your instance, but I've found quite the opposite. It's always been a bit more than just a job. It's a lifestyle that follows you even when you left it behind.
      Iain Aschendale and Lifeline like this.
    8. SapereAude
      Basic Training was -- and is -- a mind game. Anyone who realizes that has little trouble coming through it relatively unscathed. It's the military's way of trying to get a bunch of people from diverse backgrounds to work together as a team. I played three sports through high school and college -- the mindset was somewhat the same, but a lot more intense in Basic Training. In reality, it's not that different from fraternity hazing. (Yes, I said that. Seriously.)

      Was I completely unchanged? For awhile, no. When I first returned from Vietnam I hated the United States. I went to graduate school in a larger city than my home, and I lived in a "fringe" neighborhood. During that period, if a car backfired on the street I immediately dove for the nearest cover because my first thought was "incoming!" That went away after a few years, and life returned to normal. My military service -- including a tour in Vietnam -- didn't turn me into a killing machine, a psychopath, or a sociopath. My younger veteran friends are the same -- we're just normal people. If someone didn't tell you we're veterans, you'd never guess.

      You seem to have a preconception that military service drastically changes people. I respectfully submit that that's the exception, not the rule. Those who are decent people before going in will (by and large) be decent people after they get out. Those who are sociopaths before they enlist will be sociopaths after they get out.
    9. Iain Aschendale
      Iain Aschendale
      I don't want to speak for Moose or EFmingo here, but as a peacetime veteran I know that military service changed me. It didn't make me into a killing machine or a sociopath, but I'm someone who is always early. When I went through my long hair and a beard phase post-RELAD, I worked police dispatch. When the cops met me they assumed I was some sort of deep-cover guy because of the way I stood and moved. I still stand and move that way, I'm told. I wince every time some Hollywood movie makes egregious mistakes like calling Marines "solder" or blowing customs and courtesies out the window. When I dress for a formal occasion, my suit gets all the attention my Class As did when I was a lance corporal standing inspection thirty years ago. I still spitshine my dress shoes.

      And I didn't even particularly enjoy my time in service, nor did I excel once out of my AIT. I counted the time to getting out, I was in a unit where "shitbird" was a term of respect, but I can almost always spot and bond with the vets no matter what service (or nation, for that matter) they come from. It's not about sociopathy or difficulty adjusting to civilian life (although I've mentioned that above), it's about the lifelong changes you experience.
      big soft moose, EFMingo and Lifeline like this.
    10. zoupskim
      Serving in the military is like being that android in the end of Blade Runner. The original one.

      I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Cobras popping flares over the mountains of Afghanistan. I watched targeting lasers trace their beams over villages older than America. All those memories will be lost in time.

      Like... beer... in a British Commando's house.

      Time to nap.
    11. EFMingo
      There really were a lot of outrageous or awe inspiring memories.

      I miss most everything about the military and wish I could have stayed in honestly.

      And Roy's speech is one of my favorites ever, and a great metaphor for this.
    12. zoupskim
      Allow me to man-splain the challenge military writers will have with writing military fiction. No, I'm not explaining what the acronyms mean

      My first unit was infantry.

      "Ah, infantry! I know that. Roughnecks and jarheads. Young guys with dip and M16s. Classic."

      No, there's 3 major types of infantry units: Mobile Sections, Line Companies, and Weapons Companies.

      "Oh cool. So mobile is trucks, rifle infantry are like in World War I, and weapons are guys with big machine guns. Cool beans.

      No, I was in a weapons platoon(lower case) of a Line Company(upper case). I was a Weapons Company machine gunner attached to a Line Company, but not actually a part of the Line Company.

      "Right right, so you were at least big guys with big guns, helping a bunch of little guys clear rooms. Right?"

      My first Team Leader was this short fat preppy boy from New York. My A-Gunner was a muscular Mexican 18 year old. I was the Gunner and a small white guy from the south without an accent. Fox may have had some meat heads, but the biggest guy we had was the Corpsman.

      "What is Fox?"

      Fox Company. They were a bunch of idiots. They shifted twenty guys from Golf Company into-

      " Wait-wait wait. What's a Corpsman?"


      "They're not called medics?

      I'm not a soldier, I'm a Marine YOU FFFFUCK!

      "So the ARMY has medics, and the MARINES have Corpsman."


      "... Wha-"

      Navy has Corpsman. Army has Medics. Marines have no one.

      "... Wait... what's the Army like?"

      Bunch of pussies, that's what.

      "Oohh, umh, we don't really say things like-"

      Fuck you. I was lead vic with the 240, we had 2 50s behind that, with another 240 bringing up the rear. Afghans had 2 F150s following us with RPKs on the hood.

      "Two Forty- vic- vehicle? What? I thought you were part of, but not a part of, a weapons company!

      Weapons Company.

      "Where did the vehicles come from?!"

      Are you stupid? American forces don't walk around Afghanistan. Everyone had trucks.


      During the workup. In country that shit doesn't matter.


      It's the military.


      Our Weapons Company, not weapons platoon, had 12 m240s, 6 50 Cals, 12 mk19s, 10 66mm mortars and 6 88mm tubes, a Sniper Section with long-barrel custom-bored-


      Don't worry, Snipers don't do shit, except when they killed 34 people at that well with the broken bucket. Our first of 3 platoon Sergeants was blown up in month 5 of 7.

      Last edited: Feb 16, 2021
    13. EFMingo

      My favorite explanation is still this:

    14. Iain Aschendale
      Iain Aschendale
      Army so fancy they get utensils like mallets for their soup. Lap it up, devil dog.
      zoupskim and EFMingo like this.

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice