As a veteran and author, I’ve read simplified advice warning that just changing a character’s gender doesn’t accurately portray soldiers who are not traditionally male. One reflex is to add too many feminine characteristics and subtract too many masculine ones.
Many events and experiences cause soldiers to lose traits attributed to femininity and acquire those attributed to masculinity. The degree of change varies from soldier to soldier.
Military jobs require quick action and suppression of other actions that might interfere with completing tasks. Regardless of gender, soldiers perform the same jobs and have the same responsibilities as any other soldier.
Part of the role of basic training is to forge a personality capable of working when other people are trying to kill you. When writing soldiers consider the following traits that seem common in the population. Does your character have them? To what degree?
- Competitiveness – competition is used as early as basic training to foster teamwork. A soldier’s team is the best team. Nothing anyone does can convince them otherwise, even outscoring them. Something about their team makes it always the best.
- Self-awareness – they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. When not deployed, soldiers practice and test their skills in preparation for the next deployment. They know the areas they excel in and the areas where they need improvement.
- Problem-solving – making snap decisions in the field leads to the ability to evaluate and act on limited information.
- Persistent – skills and training are repeated over and over until a soldier gets it right. They complete a task until it is done, even if it needs to be repeated. Failure is often not an option.
- Dedicated – they are loyal to and responsible for every member of their team, even the ones they don’t get along with.
- Lively – lessons about the shortness of life come at a young age. They live life to the fullest and have a quick, genuine laugh.
- Stoic – stoicism comes in two forms: emotional, and physical. Giving into emotional weakness could impair a soldier’s ability to function under pressure. Soldiers prepare for the fact that they may have to fight injured. Some soldiers won’t even go to the doctor unless ordered.
- Hyper-awareness – being deployed in a foreign country creates a distrust of surroundings and other people.
- Accountable – everything soldiers are given is signed for, even their food. Losing or damaging the equipment without reason is punishable. The loss or damage of any equipment needs to be explained upon returning from deployment for most equipment. Weaponry loss or damage requires almost immediate explanation.
- Practical – soldiers rely on economy of action. Superfluous acts waste time and can cause failure. Attire and appearance are appropriate for the circumstance. Imagine wearing makeup when your bath comes from a canteen. Short breaks, treating tasks as urgent, and marching gives us an aggressive stride. Even off duty, we often avoid restrictive clothing.
- Appreciative – working in a job where your personal time is of the essence creates recognition of the value of other people’s time. Don’t be surprised when soldiers or veterans thank you multiple times for the same favor.
Unless a task requires a soldier to be undercover, they will be in uniform while on duty. Examples of being on duty include; being deployed to an operation, being on base for training and base support activities, evacuating people and formal military events like passing chain of command.
Training for and being deployed to the first Gulf War changed me dramatically as a person. Boot camp stripped away behaviors and replaced them with ones suitable for survival. The continual training covered those raw layers and cemented the new behaviors. Deployment reinforced the importance of security, brevity, and awareness. One of the other soldiers in my final unit told me, “You’re like a guy, but with boobs.” He genuinely meant it as a compliment.
Our drill sergeants in basic training urged us to embarrass the male training companies by being better than them. The drill sergeant taught us derogatory cadences to sing when the units passed and insisted that we had to sing louder than them.
The drill sergeants ridiculed anyone who cried or wanted to go on sick call (see a doctor). As training went on, less of both happened. I became the first example of my boot camp class by asking to go on sick call the first full day. I twisted my ankle a little after waking. The twist wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t allowed to go to the doctor until I was limping and had a sprain bad enough to require a cast for a month.
The physical training stressed the importance of strength. Most of the soldiers in my unit lifted weights. Before entering the service, competition didn’t interest me at all. I let everyone else win because I didn’t care. In the service, I used competition to hone skills. I found someone who lifted slightly more than me, worked to surpass them. When I lifted more than the original person, I found someone else to compete with at lifting weights.
Frequent trips to ranges desensitized us to weapon fire. As a squad leader, my M16 had a grenade launcher on it. I loved the sound of firing grenades. Thhuuuump! From the time I went on lock down for deployment, to the time I returned, my M16 was with me at all times. I even slept with it at my side. Anyone who lost their weapon faced punishment. A private in my unit who melted his M16 was demoted.
Many temporary shelters cropped up for people fleeing Hurricane Katrina. The soldiers on my base maintained and supplied a temporary shelter for civilians evacuating ahead of the hurricane Katrina. When on premise, the expectation of all soldiers, even officers, was to be in uniform and behave with the knowledge they represented their service and their unit.
My unit spent a few weeks on the road advancing from Saudi Arabia through Iraq. Our vehicles doubled as our homes and workplaces. I think I was on the road from mid-January to the end of February, but I lost track of time. By the end of the advance, we smelled very pungent. Makeup felt like grime after returning.
I felt unsafe the entire time I was in the Middle East. Even ally countries had people who didn’t want us there and despised us. No matter the country, enlisted personnel took turns on round the clock guard duty watching for suicide bombers. After the deadline, we fell asleep and woke to the sound of mortar fire. For a couple of weeks, we lived in our chem suits in case of biological or chemical attacks. I never regained trust of open spaces or strangers.
When writing soldiers and veterans, make layered characters. Incorporate traits ingrained into their personality from their service. Many of those traits are the same regardless of gender. This post is not meant to be used as a primary source of truth. The contents are too generic. Use the post as a tool to help you get closer to writing realistic soldiers and veterans.
Related: Writing Military with Women
Luckily I had a geologist up my sleeve when creating the story of a dragon snoozing in a copper mine. A friend of mine with a degree in geology had worked in a geology-based field. I plied her with coffee and wheedled her secrets from her!
The technology in this story correlates to roughly what existed in the 11th to 13th century. A portion of the tale occurs in a volcano turned mountain containing natural copper veins.
Q: Could the mountain have a forest on it?
If yes, what is the minimum span that would need to occur for conditions to have a dense forest at least at the base of the mountain?
A: Yes – Depends on the rest of the composition of the mountain. Standard mountains where copper exists requires hundreds to thousands of years for a luscious forest to form.
The trees would be mostly coniferous trees; Douglas firs, hemlocks, cedars, and pines.
Q: Could there still be warmth, even slight warmth in the mountain.
If so, how far down?
A: Yes – at least 9km miles down (the crust is 10km thick at the ocean) if the cavern is at sea level.
Q: Could natural copper exist in this mountain?
If not, is there a metal that could?
A: Yes, it can. Copper can form in volcanic mountains depending on how the mountain is created. If the mountain is like the volcanoes on the west coast – intrusive (inside) magma deposits – you can find copper and other minerals) in vein deposits. The veins form when the rocks in the middle of the mountains break because of various pressures (happens naturally) and those cracks and spaces fill with the deposits of your choice (depends on the chemistry of the lava). This kind of extraction requires a mine like you are talking about to be created to go into the mountain and receive it. They did this a long time ago, so your timeline works as well. I would recommend you use this type of “rock building.”
Another way copper deposits can form is through basaltic lava flows – extrusive (outside of the volcano). This volcano would be similar to the Hawaii Island volcanoes. The lava is rich in all sorts of minerals, but they are TINY. In the cooling process, similar mineral structures grow around each other but in smaller deposits. The way to gather these deposits is through open pit mining and then melt them down to extract all of the minerals separately (this is based on my VERY limited knowledge of mining PS).
Q: What gem could exist here too?
A: With the intrusive way of mining – yes. You can get gold, iron, silver, and lots of gems (emeralds [mineral name: Beryl], rubies and sapphires, but not diamonds though – those are a special kind of gem).
Q: I picked obsidian because it looked like it could work, but I’m happy with any gem.
A: Obsidian requires extrusive volcanoes as it’s volcanic glass that cools rapidly. Obsidian deposits form in the layers of basaltic flows over hundreds of thousands of years that volcanoes erupt. Its harder to get other types of mineral deposits with extrusive deposits.
Iron is VERY commonly found with copper and gold if you are going for accuracy
Copper prefers to bond with itself and other minerals.
Q: Could the metal and gem both be found in the same large cavern?
A: Yes because the chemical makeup of the magma is ever changing as is slowly cools.
One additional note was that the metals would be on the surface of the cavern, but the gems would be inside the walls.
Q: Were wooden beams used to reinforce mine shafts during the period where my story takes place?
A: I’m not sure – I want to say yes as it was how the Egyptians kept their small spaces open while they were building tombs and that was a LONG time before the time frame of your story.
Q: Would it be possible for the dragon to cause a cave-in of the tunnel he used to get into the large cavern to make it so people wouldn’t easily find him?
A: Yes, it just depends on how broken up the rock is structurally.
Q: How would he cause the cave-in?
A: He’s clumsy and disturbs the precariously positioned rocks that have already been broken up over the natural pressures. It’s known as “rotten” mountains.
Q: How would he undo it when he wanted to leave?
A: Good question – usually you can’t. I would recommend having two release tubes/venting shafts. One the dragon can destroy and the secondary being a “secret” one that people don’t know exists.
Q: Is there a more straightforward way to ensure his privacy while he hibernates that hasn’t occurred to me?
A: Secret secondary vent shaft thing that the humans never found.
- The presence of water is necessary for all of this to happen.
- At some point up the side of the mountain, the vegetation will cease to grow making a sharp demarcation line.
- Three different ways to form mountains
- Intrusive made by lava flows – big crystal structures, granite, explosive eruptions
- Extrusive are lava flows on lava flows – Hawaiian islands there are rocks – won’t have crystals
- Rocks smashed together – Himalayas pressurized metamorphosed granite, not mined; except for countertops.
One of the things she geeked out about was the how copper changes to glossy, bubbly shapes called popcorn when heated and cooled in its veins. I told her about basic dragon first aid and its heating element.
Thank you Julie for taking the time to explain rocks to me.
If you suffer from an insatiable desire to consume tales of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, Minneapolis boasts multiple recurring speculative fiction reading events showcasing talented authors. Their stories transport listeners to other worlds, worlds with humor, terror, or frighteningly realistic corollaries to today.
The monthly Speculations Reading Series at DreamHaven Books selects a book a month nestling the audience among tempting shelves full of stories. Authors read from the book, and are available for signings of the books. In January, the series switches up the format with a round robin reading open to speculative fiction authors in attendance.
The Not-So-Silent Planet: A Speculative Fiction Open-Mic invites speculative fiction authors to read from their works in an open mic format, and sprinkles two or three special guests readings into each event. The monthly events occur October through March in Kieran’s Irish Pub.
WordBrew curates a dozen local authors annually to read a few minutes of their works to a live audience. After the readings, they hang out, to connect with new fans, and the authors to sell and sign books.
The Not-So-Silent Planet and Wordbrew represent excellent opportunities for fans to experience a variety of authors and genres all in one event. The Speculation Reading Series offers extended time with an individual book. Find your next favorite author at one of these events.
Welcome to the untidy corner where I toss my random thoughts and crib sheets.
My suggestions for writing military women originate from experience I share with under two million women in this country. While perceptions and social interactions in the military can be related to gender, the work and some of the traits can be gender agnostic. Even though I point out traits and experiences that can be similar for military women, remember that soldiers and veterans are still individuals with a unique personality.
The barebone notes I capture from MinnSpec workshops target attendees of the workshops for use as a memory aid. If based out of the Twin City area, consider attending the workshop events to obtain more detailed information. MinnSpec hosts two workshops a month, one in Minneapolis, and one in East Saint Paul. Sorry that ESP stands for East Saint Paul and not extrasensory powers.
The remaining posts contain random musings unrelated to writing.
I left the 4th Street Fantasy panel In Consideration of Smashing Things, and What Follows ruminating over a couple of topics that felt incomplete. Listening to the remaining panels and speaking with other members provided me with insight about the writing of violence, training, and agency.
One of the questions asked was how to relay people’s thoughts and feelings in the moment of violence of the type they trained for repeatedly. My response to the question from the Smashing Things panel is that you can’t. You can’t afford to be in your head at that moment. The reason you train repetitively is so that you have muscle memory and don’t think.
In software design, people often approach with a problem and an idea of how to solve it. Phrasing the question as “How do you relay what the character is feeling in the moment of violence?” is a leading question that provides the solution. However, knowing what the character is feeling isn’t the underlying problem. The desire is a symptom of knowing something is missing from the story. The reader wants a rich, layered experience.
Max Gladstone answered how to provide the experience in the Rebuilding the Mystery: Rejecting Rules for Magic panel. One of his examples dealt with the impact of being truly named. He set up the knowledge of naming beforehand so that when the naming happened, the reader understood the weight. Explaining the dangers prior to an event gives the reader better understanding of the experience when the dangers do occur.
After setting up the violence, and enacting it, characters react to it. The immediate response should be small and not debilitate the character enough to survive the situation (as long as the goal is for them to survive the situation). I have an inbuilt delay for strong emotions. Other veterans I speak to report this as well. One to two days later, the weight of situations can hit us. If possible, we will go to a private place and break down. Seeking solitude comes from being shamed about crying or taunted to cry.
During a discussion on basic training, I boldly asserted I hadn’t read a civilian yet who adequately captured the spirit of basic training. My stated purpose of basic training was to strip soldiers down physically and mentally to rebuild them as people capable of doing their job while others are trying to kill them. I questioned the value of having the basic training sequences. Fully capturing the extent of the transformation with words could be difficult.
After the panel, I prodded people for their opinions of the value of the training sequence and received the following reasons; to set up a future danger, to show competence, character development, and to show esprit de corps.
One misconception about basic training is that it is the only training a soldier receives. There are four types of training; basic training, occupational training, on the job training after arriving at a duty station, and continual training to maintain deployment readiness.
Experiences at a duty station are the most likely place where the real understanding of the dangers will occur. There soldiers learn the job they will do after deployment. Compare what people learn in school versus what they learn after getting their first job. Even in the same force, and the same job title, different people use different weapons, vehicles, and techniques. Consider John Appel who was on the panel with me. We were both Army, but as a scout his job had him advancing. My job required me to defend a position. The variety of vehicles used by people with my former job varied from none to trucks to planes to ships. The shorter duration of those incidents or training sessions also reduces the risk of generating infodumps.
Writing training isn’t necessary to demonstrate competence. The initial assault executed in Starship Troopers displays the characters’ capability to perform military actions.
Character development could occur at any of the levels of training. Think about what specific development your character needs to determine where it happens.
The sense of being part of a team begins in basic. However, shared experiences after arriving at a duty station or being deployed cement the bonding. Except for one other soldier, I never saw or heard from anyone in basic training again. Approximately 10% of my language training class joined me at the same duty station. Infantry units exist that train together for basic and vocational training and end up at the same base. A couple of scenarios could make a similar model difficult for other unit types; units with varied jobs, and units with specialized skills. In most cases, team bonding takes place at a duty station or while deployed.
The discussed goals for training scenes can all take place at duty stations. Basic training sequences still contain the potential for fulfillment of those goals. However, depictions of basic training carry a high risk of being disbelieved by readers with a military background. Decide who your audience is and the work you want a given scene to do.
Having only an hour for panels causes some topics to remain undiscussed. Authors often give soldiers incorrect agency or they introduce a theme I call, “Praise the Private!”
In books, soldiers disobey orders with no impact. Generally, soldiers do not have the agency to willfully disobey lawful orders. Soldiers receive punishment for disobeying lawful orders. They know the risk before choosing to disobey. Books often gloss over this when the soldier did something for the benefit of everyone, and it worked out. Even if a soldier did something necessary, that soldier should still receive some level of punishment. Soldiers who disobey orders understand the cost beforehand, decide to do it anyway, and then pay the price. The Black Company by Glen Cook contains an excellent example of this kind of agency. Croaker knows he is disobeying orders, he disobeys anyway, and Cook shows Croaker receiving the punishment.
So how is it that soldiers perform illegal acts or disobey orders without consequence? These acts are possible given environmental factors; ability to act in secret, being buddies with the figure in charge, or a figure in charge that doesn’t care. Listing all of the possibilities isn’t practical. When writing a character that disobeys orders without consequence, describe the environment that facilitates this result beforehand.
Another trope from books happens when a lower level enlisted (often a private) figures out something that no one else could have possibly figured out and saves the day. The overall commanding officers (often colonel or above) visit the private at his unit and shower him with praise and a significant reward. I used the pronoun he because thus far all books I’ve read employed this trope exclusively with men main characters. A commanding officer visiting a private at the private’s unit is to praise him personally is extremely unlikely. The private is more likely to get kudos from his team, and maybe a medal.
The small nature and intimacy of 4th Street Fantasy facilitates conversation and thought. Listening to panels and having discussions with other members clarified elusive thoughts. I look forward to learning more from the discussion next year.
Thank you everyone who put the con together and everyone who let me eavesdrop and absorb.