Next to unstoppable space wizard and smuggler, the soldier is one of the more popular characters on Star Wars RP sites. Given that war is a pretty big thing in Star Wars (for kark's sake, it's half the name), this probably shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, the percentage of Force users to the rest of the galaxy is minimal, and you can hardly expect them to die in their own wars, am I right?
The problem is, the list of writers who write soldiers and the list of soldiers who write doesn't have much overlap, and the media portrayal of military personnel vacillates between wildly inaccurate to actually kind of insulting. Even the movies, games and shows that set out to do it right rarely succeed on more than a technical level. When it comes to personality, they settle for either the grim badass, the irreverent joker, or the killhappy psychopath.
Reality is decidedly more muddled.
It's impossible for me to cover all the nuances of writing a soldier in a single blog post, or even a series of them. So I'm not even going to try. Instead, I'm going to go over a few tips and tricks that should give folks an idea for how to go forward in their own writing.
The most important thing to remember is that, unless you're writing droids, soldiers are people. They're hard men and women doing a hard, dangerous, and often thankless job, but at the end of the day, they're people. They laugh. They cry. They cut up and joke and try to handle the horrors of what they've seen and done as best as they can. This, more than anything, gets overlooked. A soldier is not some emotionless robot programmed to eat, sleep, and kill.
More often than not, they're regular men and women who volunteer for the job with little idea of what they're actually getting themselves into. The purpose of training is to take that person and beat them down until they fit the desired template. It changes them irrevocably, sometimes for the better and sometimes for worse, but it doesn't strip them of their humanity, however much the head cases in charge wishes it would. They still have hopes and dreams and fears, and because nothing bonds people as closely as surviving the same near death experience, they often feel more comfortable talking about it with their fellow soldiers than they ever would with their civilian friends or family.
Because of the bonding of shared hardships, units will often develop their own cultures. An infantryman, artilleryman, and combat engineer might all be part of the same army, but each branch will have its own history and traditions. In the US Army in particular, you'll find a vast difference between different specialties. I'm an artilleryman by trade. When me and my buddies get around infantry, we like to give them hell for being big dumb bullet sponges who have to see an enemy to kill it. They like to give us crap for being a bunch of REMFs who sit comfortably on the base and blow stuff up at a distance. It's a good natured rivalry for the most part. We know we all have a role to play, and when it comes down to it, we've got each others' backs.
With that culture comes a unique sort of language that is 70% swearing and 30% impenetrable jargon. I really can't stress the profanity thing enough. As General Patton once said:
When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them double dirty. It may not sound nice to some bunch of little old ladies at an afternoon tea party, but it helps my soldiers to remember. You can’t run an army without profanity; and it has to be eloquent profanity. An army without profanity couldn’t fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag.
On my old RP site, the idea of a profanity filter was discussed. Unlike Chaos, which seems to be able to pick the letters out of words, JvS required each individual word be inputted directly, and even the slightest deviation could fool it. I was overseas at the time and volunteered to collect as many permutations of the popular dirty words as possible.
In one day, I wrote down over 70 variations of the F-word, 84 separate uses of the S-word, and literally hundreds of permutations of damn, hell, and queen. I explained to my buddies what was going on the next day, and they enthusiastically volunteered to help as much as humanly possible. Needless to say, when I turned over my results, the programmer threw up his hands in frustration. If you can't fit the F-word or its SW equivalent into a 15 word sentence more than 8 times and still get the point across, you might want to consider giving up.
If the swearing wasn't bad enough, the acronyms are damn near impossible to get right. We come up with acronyms for everything. I've taken the liberty of linking a brief and certainly not comprehensive list. You'll note that about three quarters of it is made up of profane phrases shortened for the sake of convenience.
With the profanity comes the blackest humor this side of a coroner's convention. When your whole job involves killing other human beings at great risk to yourself, you tend to become a wee bit calloused to the idea. Subsequently, most military humor is about things that should never be joked about under any circumstances whatsoever. If it's not that, it's talking smack about the various branches of service. Since I don't feel like getting banned for relaying the one I heard last weekend involving a grandmother, oral sex, and a horse, I'll instead pass along an example of the latter.
So a soldier, a sailor, and a Marine were all out camping one night. The sailor looks over at the other two and says "You know, you guys might get all the credit, but we sailors are the toughest sons of bitches ever to live. Just last week, I shot a pirate in the face."
The Marine laughs. "Oh yeah? That's nothing. Last week, I shot three terrorists in the face, took a machine gun from a fourth and beat the guy to death with it. You seamen ain't crap."
Both the sailor and Marine looked over at the soldier, who just shrugged and went back to stirring the fire with his dick.
Yeah, that just happened.
While the rivalry between branches might be intense, it doesn't hold a candle to the rivalry between officers and enlisted.
Enlisted soldiers make up the bulk of any military. They're the ones who do most of the fighting and most of the dying. Officers are, in their own minds, the ones that run the show. In reality, things are a little more complicated.
Enlisted personnel can be broken down into three groups: cherries/boots, senior lower enlisted, and NCOs.
The cherries, or boots if you're a Marine, are the new guys. They're fresh out of training and still give a good goddamn about all that motivational crap. They know just enough to be a danger to themselves and others, and are generally annoying as hell. They might be motivated as all get out, but no leader actually trusts them to do the damn job without intense supervision.
The senior lower enlisted are you E-3's and E-4's that have been in for a while, but aren't in leadership positions. They'll make up the bulk of most units. In the Army, they're jokingly referred to as the E-4 Mafia. These bastards have made laziness an artform. They will never run when they can walk. They'll never walk when they can ride. They'll never stand when they can sit, they'll never sit when they can lay down, and they'll never stay awake when they can sleep. They're masters of delegating work to the new guys, and when you need to find one, they're freaking ghosts. They don't give a damn about the Army. They just want to do their jobs and get paid so they can go out on the weekend and make questionable life choices. However, when the manure hits the air circulator, they're the fiercest fighters you could ever imagine. They might not give a damn about the Army, but they'll do anything for their buddies, so long as it doesn't involve extra work.
The NCOs, or Non Commissioned Officers, are often referred to as the Backbone of the Army. While the officers might technically be in charge, it's the NCOs that make the place run. They tend to be older, more experienced, and some of the most savvy and world weary people you'll ever meet.
The grizzled NCO is a bastard, but there’s no better bastard in the world. He’s seen it all, heard it all, and done it all. He’s had more cigs, dip, beer and whiskey than any man should, all while running more miles and carrying more weight than any man could. His body only hurts when he wakes up, when he goes to bed, and all times in between. He’s gruff, unfeeling, and seems to exist only to work. And he lives this life for one reason and one reason only: he knows he’s the best chance of bringing his troops home.
The military life takes its toll on the human body, and the NCO has been around longer than most. As a personal example, my knees and ankles are beat all to hell, my hearing is shot, and if I don't get a steady supply of nicotine, it's pretty much guaranteed that someone is going to die. But I'm not going anywhere any time soon, and my guys trust me to get the job done, the poor bastards.
Officers, on the other hand, are few in number. Though they technically lead, they're generally not well liked among the lower enlisted. Sergeants can form a good working relationship with them, but a good officer is a rare thing, and bad ones are a dime a dozen. New Lieutenants who don't listen to their NCOs and who try to run things themselves usually don't last very long. My current platoon leader has suffered more verbal abuse from myself and the other squad leaders than any three screwup privates, and has on at least one occasion been physically booted out of my truck. Side note: I wear size 16 boots. At least the privates went through basic training, as opposed to taking a few classes in college for the free ride scholarship. The higher up in rank an officer gets, the more disconnected they are from the life of the average soldier. As I said before, they might give orders, but it's the NCOs who get stuff done.
There's one other aspect that has to be discussed when talking about soldiers, and that is vice. Most recreational drugs are strictly forbidden, but alcohol and tobacco use are rampant. Teetotalers tend not to last in the military. I didn't start drinking or smoking until I enlisted. Now, I can consume as much nicotine in a day as most lifetime civilian smokers will in a week, and the only reason I'm not a full blown alcoholic is because I can't afford it. The life of a soldier is extremely stressful, and without the pressure release provided by alcohol or the calming effect of nicotine, most of us would snap. Though smoking is always a popular option, chewing tobacco is also prevalent. In the US, it's hard to find folks who dip outside of the South, unless of course you're in the military. It's terrible for you and disgusting as hell, but sometimes the light and smell of a cigarette is just too dangerous.
So there you have it folks. This entry is by no means comprehensive, but it should give you a better idea of what you're working with. As always, if you have any questions, you're free to either post them below or shoot me a PM.