Using the Military Correctly in Your Fiction

In honor of Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day this week, we wanted to bring you a special guest post on how to believably use military characters in your fiction. So we enlisted Marcy’s husband to help us out.

Chris Saylor is a former Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve. For five years, he served as a Combat Engineer with the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, with which he deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Take it away Chris . . .


military characters in fictionWith the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military characters or former military characters have become increasingly popular in fiction. But for writers who haven’t been in the military, getting the details right can be a challenge.

Getting them wrong can destroy your book’s chances. Some estimates suggest that 20% of the current US population either is in the military or has served in the military at some point—and that number doesn’t even include their friends and family. If you get it wrong, people will notice.

Understanding how to realistically write military characters is important for historical fiction writers, thriller writers, science fiction and fantasy writers (knowing our military system helps you invent new ones), mystery writers, and even romance writers. So what does it take to get it right?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing about fictional military stuff:

Get the names of the members of each branch correct

Marines are not Soldiers, Soldiers are not Airmen, Airmen are not Sailors, and Sailors are not Coast Guardsmen. Each member of the military is proud to have earned their respective title, so use their titles accordingly.

When speaking generally about members of a specific branch of service, remember that members of the Air Force are Airmen, members of the Army are Soldiers, members of the Coast Guard are Coast Guardsmen, members of the Navy are Sailors, and members of the Marine Corps are Marines.

Use correct rank designations

If you ever watch A Few Good Men (in which two Marines are on trial for murdering a fellow Marine who complained about his working conditions aboard the Guantanamo Bay naval base), the two Marines on trial are not called the same thing every time. Private First Class (PFC) Louden Downey is referred to as Private several times, and Lance Corporal Harold Dawson is several times referred to as Corporal. Neither of those uses is correct in terms of the Marine Corps. PFC Downey would always be called Private First Class, PFC, or simply Marine. LCpl Dawson would always be referred to as either Lance Corporal or simply Marine.

A good place to find US military ranks is for enlisted ranks and for officer ranks.

Correctly describe military equipment and activities

Also in A Few Good Men, you see military inferiors being blatantly disrespectful to their superiors, Marines saluting indoors when not under cover or under arms (wearing a head cover or armed with a weapon), and military members easily losing their composure and destroying their military bearing.

Being disrespectful to superiors causes dissention in the ranks, a breakdown of the military discipline that is necessary to complete a mission or achieve an objective, and can actually get the disrespectful person hauled in front of a court martial (military court) and, eventually, put in confinement/sent to prison.

Marines and Sailors don’t salute indoors unless they are under cover (for example, a Reserve unit conducts a formation inside on the drill deck because the weather outside is too poor for a formation, so they’re all wearing their covers) or under arms (armed with a rifle, pistol, or ceremonial sword).

Bearing is one of the most important things a servicemember can have, and is related to military discipline. A person who loses their bearing is a person who loses face in front of his or her peers and superiors. It’s an admirable quality for a person to be able to hold a good “poker face” no matter the situation.

Correct terminology matters

I also tend to see military weapons referred to as guns (they’re rifles or weapons, not guns); boats referred to as ships, and vice-versa (a boat in naval terminology refers to a submarine, whereas a ship refers to surface vessels, like aircraft carriers); or combat personnel using the wrong hand signals. A good–though not always 100% correct–resource for this is

Use military dates and times correctly

The correct way to write military dates is in a YEAR/MONTH/DAY format. For example, September 5, 2011, would be written as 20110905.

Make sure you’re getting military time correct, too. Anything from one minute after midnight to one minute before 10am would be written as (for example) 0930. 10am to 12pm would be written as (for example) 1030. For anything after 1259, you would write it the same way, but add 12 to whatever the time is, so 1pm would be 1300. The only time that this does not apply to is exactly at midnight, which is written as 0000, though is often said to be 2400.

Someone who was in the military wouldn’t say, “I’ll meet you there at 7:30 tonight.” They’d be more likely to say, “I’ll meet you there at 1930.”

What questions do you have about how to correctly use the military and military characters in your fiction? Have you seen some of these mistakes before in movies or books?

Military Fiction

This is Chris


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11 comments on “Using the Military Correctly in Your Fiction

  1. I like the fact that military veterans are finding their way into so many novels. Like any other writing, the author must get the details right. first, to honor the military the way it should be. and two to gain credibility.

  2. Great post with some great information! Very useful for writers! Thankfully, I come from a military family — both parents are Marines, 1 grandfather was Marine AND Air Force, the other was Navy, and several aunts and uncles were also Air Force — so I know a lot about the military and I can always ask them tons of questions about things I’m not familiar with. It always drives me NUTS when people talk about the military or have character with military background in a novel and it has no basis in reality. That is one thing that will definitely make me put a novel down.

    I also spend a lot of time with my mother laughing together about the stupid things people do in movies when its obvious they have no idea what the military is actually like. The inaccuracies and downright stupidity is so sad it’s funny.

    So, thanks for making it easier for people to get it right.

  3. Good post. As a retired Sailor (for some reason the Navy capitalizes this word now), I can say with certainty almost every piece of military fiction has laughably incorrect information. So much so, in fact, that much of it becomes almost unreadable.

    A couple of things stood out. First, while subs are boats, so are smaller water craft. Also the Navy uses the 07 NOV 11 format for dates quite often, and I would say it’s probably the most common date usage, at least for the Navy. But as for usage of military time vs. 12-hour time, I’d say it’s a good 50/50 split or better in terms of regular use. If someone says to report to work, they’re going to say, “Be there at zero seven,” but if they’re talking about meeting up after work, they’ll probably say, “Pick me up at eight.”

    Of note, we’re real people too. I see so much out there that portrays military folks as rigid conformists to unmovable, unthinking doctrine and dogma. Many times you’ll find similarities with other professional organizations and corporations, because that’s what the armed forces are – organizations of professionals and experts in their field. And we’re not all weapon-toting infantry, either. I’d suggest looking over a list of occupational specialties and ratings to find out the wide variety of job titles covered before writing about any of them.

  4. Wow. I loved this post Chris. Thank you for the tips and the links. I am writing a novel about a man in the Canadian Army. I did a lot of research on the internet and in books but have still felt afraid to present it. I am sure there are word choices like “guns” that I would easily make the mistake with.
    Do you think the Canadian Army would have the same kinds of terminology as the US? I haven’t found much on the web to help me make that distinction.

  5. Jodi, I would talk to a Cdn CF member if your book is contemporary. If this is more of a historical piece, maybe contact the local legion to see if there’s someone from that service branch you could talk to, or a local military museum (I know there’s the Radar Museum in London, and a RCAF museum in Trenton…). I’ve found recruitment offices helpful. Larger cities with recruitment offices would probably have military family resource offices also who could point you in the right direction. Maybe (just guessing here) you could try a CF base – they would all have public relations people to field these kinds of requests who might help you set up a phone interview or something. Most CF members are more than happy to talk to writers because they want their work to be portrayed accurately.

  6. OMG! This is a great post! I played Joanne Galloway in a community theatre production of A Few Good Men and before we even started rehearsals we had to know who outranked whom and how to properly salute, yadda, yadda, yadda. We spent hours perfecting our salute. I was surprised that I was pretty highranking in that production and I got to work with an almost entirely all male cast! That was good times for me.

    I appreciate the links to look up the appropriate stuff. You guys rock!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  7. Huh. Both my parents were career NCO Air Force; I grew up on Air Force bases, and I’m not sure I ever encountered ‘Airman’. Of course, nobody used ‘soldier’, either. Maybe I was in too deep to see a general external term? Sergeants and Tech Sergeants and Master Sergeants and pilots, etc.

    My brother the Marine, of course, insists very firmly that he isn’t a soldier. I suspect the rivalry is a lot more firmly ingrained there than it is in middle-aged maintenance crews and office workers.

    Even given my family, I don’t feel comfortable writing about the real world military from any perspective except that of an outsider, who will probably be forgiven for not accurately capturing and describing all the details.

  8. Great post! I think I’m with Chrysoula. Even with my father having been a Captain and my grandfather a General, I wouldn’t ever feel comfortable writing from any perspective other than from the outside. My grandfather even tried to get me to enlist! Especially after my high school testing came back high on the military side. LOL

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