Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Don't Copy That; soldiering up your fiction

by Jolie Mason

Contemporary military life has a sound to it, a feel to it, everyday, all the time. Just like any other job, it becomes a part of a person, and, therefore, it is a key component to any military based storyline and characters. That being said, there are common misconceptions about military speak in entertainment media. This is primarily because most of us know only what we see on television. Granted, they are details that those outside the military might not notice.

So, if your readers don't notice, why does it matter? Because the difference is there in the details. Genuine military details create a genuine world that readers can immerse themselves in and enjoy. All the rules have a purpose and a context, and writing them well makes the situation feel real and explains your characters in a way you can't do without them. In any military institution, future or present, there are going to be protocols. The fun for us is that we get to invent them or re-invent them. First, let's go over some common errors in realism.

Copy That.

In today's military circles, this has become sarcasm. Comm chatter does not include this phrase. Ever. If it did, a soldier might get busted for insubordination. Nope, it's good copy or bad copy, or just copy. This phrase indicates the receiver can hear the other end of the conversation, and that's all. The phrase copy that has become a Hollywood joke to military personnel around the world. To indicate an order has been received, the most common phrase to use is acknowledged.

Don't move, soldier

This is a protocol that could conceivably be found in almost any military where seniority of rank is a factor. When a conversation with a superior is finished, it's not over till the fat lady sings, or, in this case, till the junior officer has been dismissed. They stand there and wait.

In a similar situation, a soldier doesn't just run up to a senior officer and start babbling details either. This is a completely Hollywood invention for dramatic effect. Even if the world is ending, aliens are invading and a rain of plasma fire is falling from on high, a junior soldier should wait to be acknowledged. There is a practical reason here. Command HQ is gonna be a busy place in a battle, and the human brain only processes so much information at a time. Military institutions tend to know this from practical experience. Five people shouting information at a commander is not nearly as efficient as waiting to be told to speak and getting the information one important snippet at a time, allows commanders to process and make quick decisions.

Left or right?

Neither. Soldiers don't use directions like this. There's a reason that is so very obvious, but no one ever thinks about it outside of military situations. Right? English words tend to do double duty or be very imprecise.

When giving a location, soldiers use directions; north, south, east, west. They speak in distance traveled to reach a destination, and they don't use the word right when what they mean is correct. These speech patterns become ingrained in a soldier so that, even after service, you'll notice they may not revert to civilian speak.

Back to the future

When writing future fiction, authors are bound to play with the protocol. It's three hundred years from now or another planet, and there will be some license to be taken. The world you build will determine your military protocols. For example,  a private merc group or ragtag bunch of rebels is less likely to have fixed military protocols for chatter. A centuries old regime is more likely to follow older protocols like the ones we have today.

In her Hell Squad series, one of the things Anna Hackett does so brilliantly is blending military and law enforcement into a cohesive group, even though they all come from different professional backgrounds. She has soldiers, marines, SEALs, intelligence, and SWAT all coming together to do a job and save humanity. She doesn't write comm chatter as a copy of today's military, but, out of necessity, she has to build on all of their experience to make it work.

The best method when writing any institution is to consider their motivations, just like you would any individual person's motivation. Those motivations inform their protocols. As frustrating as it was during my time as an Army wife, the protocols we had to use were born of traditions and necessities that pre-dated myself. Acknowledging that made it easier to deal with red tape. Surprisingly, it makes writing military protocols and characters easier as well.

In the Behind the Scenes productions attached to the Firefly television series, Joss Whedon describes the ship, Serenity, as the tenth character. It's a fascinating insight, and it made me change my thinking about writing environments. He saw the ship as more than a set, but as an interactive character. The same could be said for any setting. When you look at it this way, a space station, a military institution, a science lab all have a purpose that informs the way the characters interact with them just like they interact with each other.

Contemporary source material is available to help inform us in our military speak. The US Army has a handy radio operator's handbook called “FM24-19” that is public domain and is the definitive book on current military comm protocol. Gaming is actually a useful source, but it has the same Hollywood information we do. Therefore, a writer has to be careful what game design sources they use for inspiration and information. Battlefield 3 by Electronic Arts has some of the most realistic military interaction I've heard to date.

Let's face it, building your own army from the ground up is one of those things writers just love to do. It's as close as any of us will ever get to world domination, and you know we would if we could. Whether you're writing a space empire or an apocalypse, the key is to understand the job your characters are trying to do, as much as you can, without leaving for boot camp.


Jolie Mason's blog Future Fairy tales

Author of the 47th Lancers series.


  1. Very informative read. And you know, you can always tell a great writer by the way they make all of this unnoticeable as they tell the story.

  2. Great post, Jolie. I really enjoy reading books with authentic-sounding (and acting) military characters.


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