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 . . .
With 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 http://www.defense.gov/about/insignias/enlisted.aspx for enlisted ranks and http://www.defense.gov/about/insignias/officers.aspx 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 http://www.jargondatabase.com/Category/Military.
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?