Military Fiction Writing Tips #1

Being in the military gives me a lot of insight into the day-to-day operations of the military. Makes sense right? So although I’m in no position whatsoever to give tips on writing in general, I do have enough expertise on the military to help people if they are writing military fiction. Since I really like science fiction, and there’s a lot of military sci-fi out there, I figured I’d make it military sci-fi related, but this stuff could probably relate to writing military fiction in general. After all, the future will probably be very different, but many of the problems will remain the same. So here we go:

  1. Have one of the characters be an absolutely useless individual. Everyone who is in the military is an athletic stud, completely disciplined, and does the right thing at all times, right? Negative! Unless you are in special units, for instance the 75th Ranger Regiment or Special Forces, you’re going to have some real shitbags in your unit. Even Special Forces units have problems with dudes getting out of shape after a while. Seems that a lot of them figure they’ve proved themselves in the past and now they can just relax. So too can it be with your characters in a military fiction or military sci-fi story. This is especially true if your characters are in a non-special military unit in a volunteer army or especially in a draft army. Armies comprised of draftees will especially have this problem. See: Vietnam War. Armies full of regular people who wanted to do something special will invariably have individuals who failed to adapt and either got out of shape, complain too much, commit crimes out in the civilian world that limit their ability to actually carry weapons in the military (this actually happens), refuse to follow orders, constantly disobey orders, do drugs, commit sex related crimes, and actually murder people, both while deployed and in garrison. So if your story is about an elite force of handpicked individuals, then sure, have them all be perfect. However, if your characters are a bunch of regular individuals, add some realism by having one of them get arrested for having a house so filthy that it counts as child endangerment. Trust me.
  2. Don’t have your characters know how to use every piece of equipment in the military. In the military, people have specialties. They frequently know these specialties very well, but they don’t really have to know much beyond what their job is. A bad example of this in military science fiction was in one of the Aliens vs. Predators movies. In the movie, one character not only knew how to fly a helicopter, but they also knew how to drive an armored personnel carrier. This isn’t necessarily impossible, but it is unlikely. Being able to fly a helicopter is of course, a hugely complicated task that requires over a year of training to be able to do correctly. Being able to drive an APC is far less complicated, so much so that we have the most junior Soldiers be APC drivers in the real world. However, its not as simple as turning the keys, putting it in drive, and driving away. The startup sequence alone can be a bit complicated. I actually once had a Soldier mess up starting a vehicle. He instead triggered the engine compartment fire extinguisher. He was not licensed on that particular vehicle and thus didn’t know how to use it. There are a huge number of different kinds of weapons, radios, vehicles, night vision devices, and lasers in the military’s equipment inventory. Not everyone is going to know how to use every piece of equipment, nice though that would be. This will be especially true in science fiction, for as technology advances, so will the complexity of the equipment the military uses. Radios are complicated, don’t forget that.
  3. Equipment doesn’t work all the time. First off, weapons jam, especially if they’re automatic weapons. If you’re writing military sci-fi, you might be able to explain this away, but in general, if you are not maintaining the equipment and cleaning it frequently, the weapons will jam, usually at the worst possible time. This is especially true if the environment is humid or sandy. Additionally, sometimes equipment doesn’t just jam, it actually breaks to the point where it is not available for the mission. If the equipment is broken, it will have to be turned-in to someone who actually knows how to fix it. Individual soldiers may be able to solve small problems with their equipment, but the more broken the equipment is, the less likely they’ll be able to fix it themselves. This could have detrimental effects on whatever it is that you’re having your characters do. The problems of maintenance and weapon malfunctions are not going to go away as we move into the future. If anything, as equipment becomes more advanced, it will require more and more maintenance. If you are trying to describe the rigors of military life for your readers, make sure to include the huge amount of maintenance they do on a regular basis just to keep it running.

There you have it, some tips for writing military fiction and military science fiction. Just remember, not everyone is a hero or even a good soldier, not everyone can work every type of equipment unless they’ve had training on it, and equipment doesn’t work all the time. Hope this helps anyone who is writing military fiction or science fiction. If you’ve got particular questions about military life that might help your writing, be sure to ask in the comments!


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