This guest blog post comes from Joshua Hood. I’d normally summarize a guest writer’s bio in my notes before the article, but Hood’s background is too extensive to outline here. Read the bio at the end of the article. Let’s cut right to the chase, because Hood has some excellent tips for writing about the military in fiction.
10 Things Authors Get Wrong When Writing About the Military
by Joshua Hood
Following the release of my first book, Clear by Fire (Simon & Schuster), I received hundreds of e-mails asking the same question: “Why is it so hard to write about the military?” My response is simple: Writing about the military isn’t the hard part. It is writing accurately about the military that is difficult.
1) Making Every Character a SEAL
Close your eyes and imagine that you are at the local bookstore. You walk in the front door, and the first book you see is a military thriller. The cover has a soldier standing in front of bright orange flames and jet-black smoke. In the background there are helicopters doing gun runs, and above it all a tattered American flag is waving proudly. Your fingers shake as you flip the dust jacket open and start reading. “In the blackest black ops book of all time, ex-Navy SEAL Johnny Blaster is…..”
Modern fiction is character driven, and authors know that their protagonist needs to be the baddest dude in the world. So, most of them take the easy way out, and pick a Navy SEAL. It makes sense right? They killed bin Laden after all.
For me this is a cop out. It’s like going into Baskin Robbins and finding out all they have is vanilla. The military is full of badasses, so to avoid being vanilla, hit the Internet and find something original.
2) Equating “Special Ops” with “Special Forces”
You decide to take my advice and find something original. You have to have a protagonist, and after some research you decide to use the Green Beret. The first thing you write is: Special Ops soldier Johnny Blaster earned his coveted Green Beret….
You almost nailed it. “Special Ops” and “Special Forces” are not interchangeable. There is a subtle but distinct difference between the two.
“Special Operations” is like a catch-all. This article from Havok Journal lays out a good definition:
Special Operations, or sometimes referred more accurately to as Special Operations Forces (SOF), include any unit that falls under the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Naval Special Warfare, Air Force Special Operations Command, Army Special Operations Command, and Marine Special Operations Command are all included under this umbrella.
On the other hand, the term “Special Forces” refers specifically to the Green Berets, who are the Swiss Army knives of special operations. They are the teachers, the guys who go into a foreign country, meet with the locals and build an army. If the character isn’t part of the Green Berets, don’t use the “Special Forces” term.
3) Misplacing the Chain of Command
Now that you have your main character, it’s time to flesh him out. You want him to be in charge, so you make Johnny Blaster a colonel. Now the first scene reads as: Special Forces Colonel Johnny Blaster ran into the house, guns a blazing.
We have a problem. Imagine that you work at Target and it’s Black Friday. You’re new, and when you get to work your supervisor says, “Hey, the CEO told the district manager that we are running a sale on flat-screen TVs. I just found out, and we need you to get them from the stock room.” This is called a chain of command. The CEO wants to sell some TVs so he tells all the regional managers, and they tell the store managers, and they tell the supervisors. But do you think any of them are going to help you stock the shelves?
That’s how it is in the military. If you have rank, and you find yourself in the middle of a gunfight, something has gone terribly wrong. A colonel is the wrong rank for a character running into gunfights. A sergeant, on the other hand, might be a better fit. Here’s a list of ranks by military branch to help you.
4) Choosing the Wrong Specialty or Base
OK, I want Johnny Blaster to be an enlisted guy. So now what?
If you choose this route, which is my personal favorite, you are going to have to pick a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) for ol’ Johnny.
In the Army, an MOS is designated by a number and a letter. For example an 11B (11 Bravo) is an infantryman. Since I know his MOS, I also know where he went to Basic Training, which in this case would be Infantry Basic Training at Fort Benning, Georgia. After basic training, soldiers go to another school called Advanced Individual Training (AIT). In the case of our 11B, he would stay at Fort Benning.
But let’s say we want Johnny to be a medic (68W). We change his name to Doc Feelgood, and because of our research, we know he went to AIT at Ft. Sam Houston in Texas. Since he is a high-speed kind of guy, we send Doc Feelgood back to Benning for airborne school.
Now your head is starting to hurt, so you decide to use some artistic license and write: Doc Feelgood was sent to the 85th Airborne Division at Fort Livingroom, Iowa. I can tell you what is going to happen next. Your editor might or might not catch it, but when the book comes out, some keyboard commando is going to put you on blast, and call you mean names on Amazon.
5) Writing “Tactical Shopping Lists”
This is one that I am guilty of, and I have since learned to avoid the issue. In Clear by Fire, I figured I needed to be spot on with my gear and weapons. So I wrote things like: He took a knee on the hot pavement, and was glad he was wearing his Crye Precision assault pants. The sun beat down on his Ops Core helmet, and he could feel sweat underneath his MSA Sordin’s. Despite his Hatch assault gloves, he could feel the heat coming off his H&K 416.
I learned real fast that I wasn’t impressing anyone with this esoteric knowledge. In fact, most readers ended up skipping over these sections because they had no idea what I was talking about. Being authentic is important, but if you get caught up in the weeds, it might seem like you are writing a tactical shopping list.
6) Misrepresenting Stealthy Kills
How many times have you seen or read the following: Johnny Blaster silently snuck up behind the sentry. His forearm encircled the man’s neck like a python choking a pig. Blaster lifted the man off his feet and, with a quick jerk, snapped his neck.
First off, unless you are a ninja, it is really hard to sneak up on a sentry, especially in full kit. Second, it is almost impossible to break someone’s neck this way. This also goes for cutting someone’s throat. For the sake of the squeamish I’m not going to go into this one, but needless to say, unless you intent is to have your protagonist looking like Carrie in the prom scene, just use a blood choke.
7) The Infinity Mag
I assume everyone knows the difference between a magazine and a clip. A magazine goes into a rifle or pistol and contains a finite number of cartridges. When these run out, you must reload.
8) Making Characters Out to be Superman
Unless you are a paratrooper, then it’s probably arthritis.
One thing I always avoid is making my characters Supermen. Jason Bourne, who takes a hammer to the back of the head, gets shot in the leg and still manages to chase down the bad guy, is an example of what I’m talking about.
No matter how tough you are, or what training you have, getting hit in the face hurts. A human body has both limits and needs. Your protagonist needs sleep, food, water and time to heal.
9) The One-Shot Kill
We’ve all seen this one: Johnny Blaster fired, hitting the man in the chest. The bullet dropped him like a bag of concrete.
We know that Blaster just shot the bad guy in the chest, and unless he is using a .50 caliber Barrett, it is going to take more than one shot. This particular bit of “voodoo” is straight out of the old Westerns, where the good guy and bad guy are standing in the street, getting ready for the duel.
In real life, it doesn’t work that way. Go ahead and use a rule I call “P for plenty.” Give the bad guy a healthy dose of lead poisoning, unless you want him to get back up.
10) Depicting Military Characters as Rebels Within Their Organizations
Americans love rebels. I think it has something to do with their problem with authority. While this works in most milieus, it typically doesn’t fly in the military. So if your protagonist has an attitude problem, and likes to punch commanding officers in the face, remember one thing: It is hard to save the world from jail.
Joshua Hood is the author of Clear by Fire (Simon & Schuster) and a decorated combat veteran who served five years in the 82nd Airborne Division. He conducted combat missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom as a team leader with the 3-504 Parachute Infantry Regiment. As a squad leader, he deployed with the 1-508 Parachute Infantry Regiment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. While in Afghanistan, he was decorated for valor in Operation Furious Pursuit, a battle that would become the subject of award-winning artist James Dietz’s portrait, Into the Heart of Darkness. Hood continues his Search and Destroy series with Warning Order, which comes out June 28, 2016.
He is currently a member of a full-time SWAT team in Memphis, Tennessee, and has conducted countless stateside operations with the FBI, ATF, DEA, Secret Service and U.S. Marshals.
15 thoughts on “10 Things Authors Get Wrong When Writing About the Military”
This is awesome, thanks so much!
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A pretty informative article with several useful links for writers. Thanks for sharing.
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Solid write up Josh. This guy definitely knows what he is talking about. And if you haven’t read Clear by Fire, please pick it up. It’s a phenomenal read and I was privileged enough to have read an advanced copy of Warning Order, his next book and his writing only gets better.
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“Being authentic is important, but if you get caught up in the weeds, it might seem like you are writing a tactical shopping list.” Or, are getting endorsement payouts from the brands!
Nicely done and some great info for those of us not steeped in the military.
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Can I use the names Doctor Feelgood and Johnny Blaster?
Run that one by Motley Crue.
Reblogged this on Author Sean T. Smith and commented:
This is a good article. I’m going to buy this book!
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One shot one kill… go back to ammunition that has some stopping power.
The Battle of Top Malo is a classic 5.56 -v- 7.62. Royal Marines who were hit once were instantly out of action whereas Argentinian marines took several rounds from M16s to put them down.
If you don’t have military experience of your own to fall back on in your writing, this post is the next best thing. Bookmark this and refer back to it whenever you’re using military characters in your story.
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Thank you, Anne! Agreed that this post is immensely useful.
I see it written time and time again with the BUD/s classes having 50% to 80% attrition rates? Some of the graduating classes are huge 60-70 people. I also have been told by buddies on the teams that some times the best student in the class ( best runner, swimmer, academic etc) for no reason rings out. This is after hell week, usually in 3rd phase. When asked, their reason is simple; this isn’t the job I am looking for. They either go to flight school or do their time and get out. Many of my friends in the teams state the SEAL’s life style wasn’t what they thought it would be. Many do their time and get out. I think this is life in general, we tend to embellish a little bit. It sells magazines and books.
This article was incredibly helpful in my editing. Thanks!
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A Clive Cussler book referred to the British army as the Royal Army! No such thing. We have a Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force, but it’s just the Army! An editor should have spotted this. 🙂
I would add that things differ between branches as well. Things that apply to the Army may not be the same for Air Force and Navy.