It’s probably not news to you that one of the biggest challenges in writing is creating authentic scenes, settings, and interactions to make the words on the page feel real. Sometimes, particularly with fantasy, this challenge is made smoother because of how alien the situation is to the reader. After all, they’ve never met a real dragon, so how would they know how they should behave?
In contrast, the obstacles mount higher when you’re dealing with very realistic settings and characters, ones that your audience will be familiar with. One of the toughest things to write authentically portraying the military.
Many service members are voracious readers, and they are keenly aware of misrepresentations that happen in literature. Hopefully if you’re writing military fiction you’ve done some thorough research, but if the military only has light involvement in your story, here are a few of the major things to be aware of so your work doesn’t get called out.
1. “Don’t get misty, Francine.”
2. Don’t Misuse Acronyms
That’s DMA, or “Dima” if you’re in the military. This is a common problem for mediums that use audio, like films is the use of acronyms. The military uses a lot of them. It’s as much a joke to them as it is to us.
What happens a lot in movies is character spelling out acronyms, when in reality, acronyms are spoken phonetically as often as possible. This is for the simple reason that Fob (as goofy as it sounds) is faster to say than F.O.B.—and when lives are on the line, you say what’s faster to say.
In my experience, military scenes in writing tend to have kind of the opposite problem, where acronyms are completely absent from places where they would normally be used. It’s understandable, because generally we as writers outside the military aren’t going to be acquainted with the second language that is military acronyms.
It’s worth looking up some common ones, though, and if your character is using acronyms in dialogue, do your best to translate them to a phonetic equivalent.
3. “Don’t get cocky!”
The last issue we’ll talk about isn’t limited to military characters by any means, but they’re often the ones who bear the burden of this cliché: the Mary Sue. Very often, in every form of media in which there’s some sort of token military character, they become a juggernaut of talent and ability, able to shoot the wings off a fly at five hundred feet while flying a helicopter upside down in space.
Don’t fall into this trap. In real life “having military training” means the same thing as any other profession in the world; they’re trained as specialists in one particular role (which hopefully they do well) and have little to no experience in other roles, so consider what role your military character is meant to fill and apply their due weaknesses everywhere else—or be sure to prepare a reason for their skill in other fields.
Keeping these things in mind will help you deliver authentic feeling military characters and scenes, enough to satisfy both military readers and your civilian fans!
Thanks for reading, and if you have additional suggestions for making military writing feel real, don’t hesitate to share in the comments.