How can I make better soldiers when worldbuilding a fictional story?
Having read a lot of war fiction, seen a lot of war movies, read a lot of books about Soldiers and war, but having never written a book about these things, I will throw my two cents in:
Soldiers are cut from different bolts of cloth. The United States Military is an incredible example as the geography covers multiple time zones, is made up of almost all geographical environs, and different places to live and grow up. It is the best example of a non-homogenous military in the world. Soldiers from a small country are more likely to have the same “life experiences” and have a more homogeneity of “life”.
But, In the US military TODAY, you will have guys and gals from all over the country; some from the streets of New York, the farms of the Midwest, the rust belt, Southern California, Alaska, you name it—all in the same unit! This is where some writers foul up because unless they are looking at things in terms of plot devices, they aren’t thinking of the individual who is at the table. They tend to distill that Guy/Gal X “has spent their entire life in special forces…blah blah blah” and build their characters to that. They almost always “talk” the same, say the same things in the same way…part of that is training and environment…
The truth is some Soldiers came from broken homes, high society, a good home, on a farm, were part of a gang, traveled the world, were abused, had a knack for skill Y, etc. Some speak two forms of English: Bad English, Hick English, high English, accented English, half English, you name it. Some speak multiple languages, some know computers, some know guns, some know cars, engines, mechanics, an tie knots…
It is the innocuous things about the individuals that make the Soldiers of the world building more believable. Despite a person coming from the south side of Chicago, they might have learned or changed their way of thinking, but that “baggage” is still there and may make them view a problem or situation differently.
Does the person blow into a rage at the smallest provocation? Is s/he a quiet contemplative? Did s/he learn how to pick locks for some reason when they were younger? A secret penchant for “knowing” computers? Never shot a weapon their entire life, handed a weapon at a range, and found that they had an innate ability to hit the target quite accurately? Went to college and got a degree but decided to enlist? Went to a service academy but did something wrong and became enlisted? Received a field promotion to officer? Resigned commission to become enlisted? A runner? A sloth? Reformed alcoholic? Doesn’t drink? A financial whiz? Woman- or Man-izer?
Why does the kid from Midwest Kansas know how to pick locks? What caused the gal from New York City to know anything about growing or planting things? Does the guy or gal have a best friend that they experienced something with that makes them have an “I am not leaving without him/her” or “I am going back into the den of <insert bad guys> to rescue him/her attitude? Or is the person a sociopath, pathological liar, gesticulate profusely, hometown high school sports hero…in bowling? Was the person close to thier Mom, their Aunt, their Granpaw, the neighbor next door who showed her how to work on cars?-
Frequently, these “background” things only come to the front out of no where to move the plot…and sometimes it is quite noticeable, and while I wouldn’t put the book down, sometimes it is irritating.
Special Operators are highly trained in a variety of military skills. But they have lives and experiences which also add to their “personality” in the story which gives direction on how they will view a situation or solve a problem that will be unique.
The background doesn’t necessarily have to be exposition, but can be shown through actions of the person first, then exposed or fleshed out later.
Realistically, there is no “run of the mill” Soldier who does everything that is required when he/she has to do it. A Combat Engineer will know about explosives…a Signaler will know things about radios, computers or transmission…a pilot will generally know how to fly one or two types of aircraft, a scout will know more about hiding and reporting, a sniper will know about Coriollis effects, a tanker will know about fuel consumption and movement, a Doctor will know about their specialty. Rarely will you have a person in real life that knows things deeply across seven or eight different difficult skill sets.
It becomes unrealistic when the “go to” answer to “knowing” something is “in 15 years of special operations, s/he had learn how to fly a 4-engine aircraft and became a sniper and learned how to fly helicopters and was a boatswainmate and learned how to disarm a nuclear bomb in between going to an 8 year medical school to become an expert on viruses”…yeah, basically a Google-Soldier that knows what they need to “know” when they need to use the skill.
What epiphany makes a guy/gal make the ultimate sacrifice when they were an arrogant prick during the entire story? Was it a person’s upbringing that made them always protect the weak? Is there some quirk of personality like Thanos taking Gamora under his wing as her daughter but in the same action wiped out half of her planet’s population?
The unique quirks of individuals help a reader or watcher become more invested in the character which impacts them when something good or bad happens. You could take Barnes from Platoon or Bill Paxton’s “cowardly” character from Aliens or Bambi’s mom…
Make them unique. Have them approach the situation militarily but spice it up with their character’s life background. We have very few poly-deep skill people, but we do have folks that know a couple, three or four skills real good; not every skill whenever it is needed. That makes the story better.
There was a book I read a while back and the story was around one guy as the main character for about half the book and then, in one scene, abruptly, almost out of nowhere, he was killed…and another guy mentioned in passing and along a sub-arc was thrown in my face as the new main character. I put the book down for two or three days because I had become emotionally invested in the first guy…but I picked it back up and finished the book and was very satisfied because I thought it was a pretty good book.