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Representation in Writing

I want to talk about representation. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Mike, you’re a white, cis/het, male. Writing about representation is probably a really bad idea. I hear you. Bear with me just a minute.

The idea for this post came from a series of tweets by Justina Ireland where she talked about how ridiculous some of the arguments about representation sound when you take the emotion out of them. She then tweeted several comments about comma usage, and applied the same thought process people use when talking about representation. It was a little tongue in cheek and a bit humorous, but she also made a point.

I want to try to do something similar. I want to remove the emotion from the discussion, so maybe we can for a minute just focus on writing craft.

I’m a soldier. I have been my entire adult life. I write about soldiers. Today I’m going to talk about how writers represent soldiers in their books. Let me be very clear. I am NOT trying to equate the representation of soldiers to representation of other groups. Not even remotely. But by talking about soldiers, I can focus on how representation works without the extra baggage we all bring to other types of discussions. Yes, it’s a metaphor. I’m writing about soldiers. Apply it how you see fit.

Why am I doing this? Because I can. I can point out that a writer poorly represents soldiers, and specifically how they do it, and odds are pretty good that nobody is going to get offended. I’m not saying anything about the writer other than ‘hey, I don’t think you did a great job with that character.’ The writer can take that for what it’s worth and try to get better, and that’s that. It’s nothing personal. People might disagree with my feelings about said character, but I’m less likely to get attacked than others who regularly speak out on the topic.

There was a critically acclaimed movie a few years back called The Hurt Locker. It won an Oscar, and people hailed it for its realism. I tried to watch it. It was so ridiculously *not* realistic that I had to turn it off half way through. It was set in Baghdad in 2005. I was in Baghdad in 2005, so I have a different perspective. Even though the movie was popular, I can give my negative opinion on it, and people accept that. Maybe you liked the movie. Maybe you’re thinking ‘Oh, well, he lived it, so he probably knows better than I do.’

Think about that for a minute.

Let me also be clear that I don’t speak for all soldiers. I’m just one man, and these opinions are my own.

With all that said, here are my thoughts on representation of soldiers:

I’m not giving you the benefit of the doubt. If you’re a non-soldier and you’re writing a book about soldiers, I’m immediately skeptical. This is not your fault. There are just so many poorly written soldiers out there, and that’s a fact of life that you’ve got to overcome as a writer. In fact, I’m so skeptical, I probably won’t read your book. I won’t read it because when you write a chapter where you’re trying to accomplish five things, I see a hundred tiny details that you got wrong and it’s simply not enjoyable to me. There are exceptions. Jay Posey wasn’t a soldier, but in OUTRIDERS he really gets soldiers right. And even then, I wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t first seen an interview with him where he talked about how he wrote soldiers. And that’s how it goes. If you’re a non-soldier and you’re writing a book about soldiers, you’ve got to prove to me why I should read it.

All poor representation is not created equal. Sometimes your poorly written stereotype soldiers aren’t harmful, they’re just not good. We’ve all seen the two-dimensional soldier character. He’s super fit, hyper-disciplined, rigid in his thinking, and just like a hundred other cardboard cutout soldiers in a hundred other books. It’s not really a negative stereotype, so it doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s just weak writing. Good characters have depth. Are there soldiers with those traits? Absolutely. But you’ve chosen the simplest, least interesting things and it makes it seem like you think all soldiers are that way. You may not intend that, but that’s what I see.

Sometimes, though, your representation *is* harmful. For example, say you’re a popular writer and you write an ex-soldier with PTSD. He lashes out at everyone around him and gets violent in inappropriate situations. Now say that a hiring manager for a business read your book, and that character is in her head. The next day, a veteran walks in for a job interview. What’s she thinking about that veteran? Maybe consciously she knows that what she read is fiction and she can divorce that from reality. Maybe she can’t. Maybe she doesn’t even know that she’s subconsciously going a different direction in her hiring decision.

You could argue that PTSD is real, and you’re just writing realistic characters. My counter to that would be that PTSD is extremely complex and manifests in a hundred different ways. Are you sure that you’re the right person to tell that story?

Even when you’re writing what you think is a positive character, you might be doing harm. What if your book becomes famous, your character iconic? Maybe you write Rambo. Not First Blood, the second movie, where he’s a super soldier, and for years real soldiers get compared to that caricature. You probably didn’t mean it, but representation can carry a lot of cultural weight.

My opinion carries more weight than yours. I’ve spent my entire adult life in the military. If you haven’t served and we’re having a discussion about soldiers, most rational people are going to listen to what I have to say about it over what you have to say, no matter how much you may have studied. That’s not to say that your opinion is worthless. Your thoughts have value, especially if you’ve put in the work. But it’s the difference between talking to the college professor and talking to the person who read the professor’s book. If you persist in arguing with me about something I’m clearly more qualified to talk about than you are, I’m eventually going to dismiss you.

I might not be able to explain what you did wrong. Sometimes I just know there’s something off. There are so many things that go into making a great character, I can’t always put my finger on it. When you read someone like Jack Campbell (who served in the Navy) there are dozens of little nuances in how his military characters relate to each other. They’re so minute sometimes that you don’t even notice them, but the sum total immerses the reader in a world that feels real.

If you only write one soldier, the margin for error is lower. If you have a group of soldiers in your story and they’re all well-rounded with different strengths and weaknesses, I’m likely to forgive you for the one that’s a little flat and maybe a bit of a stereotype. If you only have one military character and he’s the bad guy, complete with every negative stereotype out there…yeah, not so much. I stopped watching Supergirl in the first season because of the ridiculous way they portrayed the four star general character. He was rigid in his thinking, unable to adapt, and basically stupid. Sorry. No thanks.

What you think you wrote doesn’t matter. It’s about the reader. The reader gets to interpret what you put on the page any way he or she perceives it. I have no idea what motivation the Supergirl writers had when they wrote that general. Maybe they just needed a minor antagonist for a couple of episodes and they got lazy. Maybe they think all soldiers are stupid. A hundred different soldiers could watch it and all see it a little bit differently. That’s their right.

Just because I think something about a book doesn’t mean every soldier will. My opinion is valid, but it’s not the only one. Just because I say The Hurt Locker is unrealistic doesn’t mean every soldier thinks that. Yes, I was in Baghdad in 2005, but so were 30 or 40 thousand other soldiers who have their own experiences. We’ve all had different experiences that inform our opinions. I’m an officer. I probably see things different from enlisted soldiers in a lot of cases. An infantryman probably sees things differently from a supply specialist. But at the same time, if another soldier tells me something is good or bad, I’m more likely to listen. Because even if we’ve had different experiences, we’ve still got a lot in common.

There’s a big difference between books that include soldiers and books about soldiers. Earlier I mentioned that I’m skeptical about books about soldiers written by non-soldiers. That doesn’t mean you can’t include soldiers (or veterans) in your book. It’s a matter of degree of difficulty. To write a story about soldiers, you’ve got to get a thousand things right. There are details upon details, all of which need to mesh or it doesn’t work. If you’re just including a soldier in your book, the number of things you have to get right drops significantly. Write a three-dimensional character and do some research that doesn’t come from a movie, and there’s a good chance you’ll get it right.

Just because I don’t like your representation doesn’t mean I don’t like you. I’m judging what you put on the page, not your worth as a human being. If you write soldiers poorly, I’m not saying you hate the military. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. What I’m saying is that your book has issues. That’s it. I know it’s easy to take criticism of our work personally, but it’s not personal.

Those are my thoughts. Perhaps you have your own. Let me try to address some of the most common ones I see whenever people discuss representation.

I’m an author. I can write whatever I want. Yes, you can. I 100% support your right to do that. And I’m a reader. I can read whatever I want, and I can tell other people whatever I want about what I read. And if I do, you should accept that. It’s like arguing with reviews. Don’t do it. It’s unprofessional.

I want to represent soldiers better. Will you read my book and help me? Probably not. I’m sorry. Remember how I said I’m skeptical? Yeah. Still am. And even if you’ve done a relatively good job, you’re asking me to critique a book, which takes a lot of time. I have my own writing and my own critique partners competing for my limited time.

But you could make the soldiers in my book better. Yes, I probably could. And for my critique partners, I do. I’m not currently looking for more critique partners – I’ve got great ones already.

But you’re a soldier. You should want better representation of soldiers in books. I do. That’s why I’m using my time to write them. That’s why I support other soldiers who want to write. That’s why I buy and promote books that do it right.

It’s not fair. I want to include these characters, but if I include them and they aren’t right, that’s also bad. Right. Writing is hard. Life isn’t fair. Look, it’s good that you want to write, and that you want to get things correct. And as a writer, I know that if there’s a story in your head that’s eating at you, you have to write it. But at some point, you have to ask yourself if you’re capable of writing that specific story, or if you might want to write a different one and come back to this one when you’ve got more answers. That’s hard. Self awareness is a tricky thing.

You didn’t give me any answers. I still don’t know what to do about representation. That’s the thing with complicated issues. Nobody can give you the answers, because they’re different in every specific situation. You’ve just got to keep working at them, continue to learn wherever you can, and try to do better.

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18 Comments

  • K Eason says:

    How do you feel about far-future/fantasy soldiers/militaries? Same skepticism? Genuinely curious.

    TLDR: more or less agreed. FWIW, I think people have greater and lesser tolerances for margins of error. Like–I get powerfully irritated if people call ship bulkheads ‘walls’ and rifle magazines ‘clips’ but it won’t make me put down a book. Flimsy female characters with no agency, though, yep. Book down. Shallow world-build? Okay, if it’s in service to a genre. Otherwise, out the door so fast there’s smoke.
    (By no means an exhaustive list.)

    • Far future SF or fantasy I’m able to give it a bit more leeway, as long as the system you build for yourself makes sense. For example in your books ENEMY and OUTLAW where your armies are based somewhat on a Roman model with how they interact with the political system, everything works. Your soldiers exist inside the political structure you built, and they naturally adapt. Plus, when you’re working with fantasy, then I’m relying on you for the details instead of pulling them from my own experience. When you build your scout unit and give them certain characteristics compared to other units, or you compare the 6th to the 1st, I buy it because you sell it well. The closer you get to modern warfare, the more I already have a picture in my mind, and the closer you have to be to that picture.

      As for the levels of things that make me wince vs. make me quit, I think you hit it on the head. It goes to what I said about just poor detail vs. harmful.

  • David Pearce says:

    I agree. The same thing happens to me when reading or watching stuff that involves attorneys. Sorry. Not going to watch “Matlock.”

    Stereotypes anyone? The sleazy lawyer. The crusader. On and on.

  • Autumn says:

    Excellent metaphor and sound reasoning. Thanks for taking some of your limited time to write it.

  • Kim says:

    Thank you for writing this and thank you to Justina Ireland for inspiring it. My husband’s been in the Navy for 21 years and for 13 of those years we’ve been together, and even though I’ve had 13 years of hearing shop talk, I still don’t stand in his shoes every day to understand the hundreds of details, the words said and not said, the body language, the history, the unspoken expectations, judgments received and given, etc, but I do have a much deeper appreciation and respect of what it is like to be in the military.

  • I’ve been lucky enough to talk with many people in the military who were usually more than generous with their advice and criticism of any military characters I created. Similarly, they looked to me to critique their work. And after a while we both just sort of became equal writers, CP partners. Now I get upset when others (i.e.: employees, publishers) respectfully see my friends as soldiers, or ex-soldiers, yet don’t encourage these vets to wear different hats as well while they transition out of military life –as in, writing doesn’t have to be therapy for a vet (or it can be, but how about the writing?); writing doesn’t have to be cathartic but can actually be this guy/gal’s art form in its own right; and if a soldier doesn’t want to, don’t push him/her to share details of service, please.

    While celebrating those who redefine stereotypes that frame their daily lives–a worthy and popular cause these days– I fear perhaps we inadvertently minimize an equally important job of seeing people beyond what he/she can tell us about their primary experiences and perspectives. We’re all about parity when it comes to breadth, with little understanding of moving together towards depth. And isn’t this also a kind of odd, lazy, reductionism? I write respectfully, and as a big fan of your blog, so please do accept my apologies if this comment 1. doesn’t make much sense due to clumsy writing or 2. offends. I surely don’t mean to give offense.

  • Katherine says:

    The “my opinion carries more weight than yours” section makes me sad that the same isn’t true for marganalized groups, though it should be. The same way a solider is the expert on soldiers, POC, persons with disabilities, etc, should be seen as the experts on their own lives, yet so often folks turn to the outsider as the expert.

    I love your answer to the “will you help me? question(s). Yes. Yes, all of that.

  • Jonathan Peto says:

    You tackled representation in a very interesting and impressive way. Thanks for taking it on and giving me something to think about. (I was a soldier but can see how you might close one of my manuscripts after the first chapter! I’ll have to give that and some other representations some more thought.)

    I’m not sure that everyone tweeting on the issue concurs with all your points, but I wish they did.

  • Roslyn Reid says:

    I’m glad to hear somebody besides me didnt get “The Hurt Locker.”

  • Anthony says:

    Thank you for this. Removing the emotion helped me get my head around my own thoughts regarding the same topics (no, not soldiers 🙂 ) and what I can do, versus what I should do and all that.

  • Eric Shepard says:

    There is one huge difference between representation of soldiers and representation of marginalized groups. If I don’t know much about soldiers, I can just leave them out and no one will notice or care. The same is not true of marginalized groups. Leaving them out opens a writer up to a slew of criticism. So while I think this an interesting post, I also think it has limited value. Writers like you and me (white, male, straight) have to learn to write outside our own experience.

    • Yes, I agree. It’s a limited comparison, especially in the way that you mention. I think everyone has to learn to write outside their own experience, to some extent. There’s no substitute for continued work and growth.

  • Mark Engels says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and timely insights on such an important topic. I especially like your going above the call to address thoughts on the minds of readers like me. Read myself in more of them than I’d care to admit.

    Your experiences w.r.t. depictions of soldiers and warfare draws striking parallels to my own life. I’m a railroader and grew up around trains. I’ve been a railroader most of my adult life, working in several different crafts in a variety of capacities. Running trains, turning wrenches on rolling stock, laying track. Make my living now designing and commissioning railroad and rail transit signal & communications systems (and like you spend a lot of lonely nights in hotel rooms away from my wife and son.) Began my service climbing poles and digging trenches. Became a technician and shot trouble by my lonesome many a night at 2AM in the pouring rain/blowing snow before becoming a supervisor. Today I’m a licensed professional engineer employed by a large consulting firm overseeing big-ticket railroad and rail transit projects, though I make it a point get to the field often. Love the smell of strong coffee, fresh creosote and burnt diesel fuel first thing in the morning. I know how railroads *work* and how railroaders *think*, because this is how I feed my family.

    Which is why my friends in the business and I collectively refer to the movie “Unstoppable” as “UnWATCHable.” Just so happens I’m familiar with the “true events” the movie is based on. I was working for that particular railroad on the very day things went down. Also why I adore Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin in “Emperor of the North” to this very day. I know people like Shack and A No. 1!

    That said, I’ve read much work from writers who included scenes in their stories taking place aboard a train or in a railroad environment. When they ask me “so…what do you think?”, I go out of my way to educate them how railroads run, how the equipment operates, how railroaders interact with it and with each other. My goal is to educate and inform; I’m pleasant but adamant. And vociferous. Because after all, they asked *me* for my opinion in the first place.

    Sometimes it goes well. Other times not so much. Many appeal to me “but that’s not my major plot point! It’s not what my story is about!” Point taken, but I submit if you make the choice to make trains or railroading a key part of your book then you ought ensure you’ve depicted them correctly. And I don’t care what you thought, what anyone who isn’t themselves a railroader told you or what you read on Wikipedia. Because sometimes what *isn’t* said says so much more than what *is*.

    I know from my own experience people have put themselves in harm’s way after incorrect portrayals how modern railroads run, how contemporary equipment operates and how present-day railroaders work. Some have been hurt. A few killed. And I believe it my professional obligation to prevent future such incidents. Because the next first responder on-scene following such an event could well be me.

    MJE

  • Thanks for writing this post and I appreciate your opinions. You have brought up some very valid points. My first attempt at novel writing was a historical romance set during the American Civil War and my poor father-in-law (retired one star) answered countless questions I had. It was difficult writing because 1. historical is tough enough, but 2. historical and military is way hard. Needless to say, that manuscript was trunked a long time ago.

    I guess what I struggle with is if I only write manuscripts from my own life experiences (or my own lane), those stories would be pretty darn dull. How does a writer continue in the creative process, while remaining respectful of other cultures, races, gender identities, background, and not get blasted because the author isn’t part of that community? I don’t think there is a simple answer to that, but I would love to hear your opinion.

    CD

    • There’s a great article in the New York Times about it today. It’s hard. And I think it’s supposed to be hard. I don’t think we ever get everything right. But the best writers get more of it right.

  • Greg Scott says:

    Hmmm…

    Michael, I liked most of what you had to say. But I hope that if an author who is not already a critique partner with you asks you questions about being a soldier, you’d be willing to help out. This is not critiquing an already written book, it’s proactively trying to get it right.

    I’m an IT professional. Everything you said about your frustrations watching Hollywood’s depiction of soldiers also applies to my profession. Yet, I still suspended disbelief and enjoyed the Die Hard movie where the good guy muscleman teamed up with the good guy cyber genius to beat the bad guy cyber genius and musclemen to save the world. But I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that the premise and every detail in that movie was wrong. In fact, I haven’t seen anything out of Hollywood that gets IT right.

    I wrote a novel, “Bullseye Breach,” about how a fictional cyber breach really unfolds. I’ve seen enough IT Departments that I know how to get the details right. Book #2 goes farther – what if a nation-state really did launch a cyber-attack against the United States? I had to stretch way beyond my own personal experience for this, and I’m grateful to all the pilots and medical professionals who answered my zillions of detailed questions.

    If an author has questions about a IT professional character, I’m happy to answer them. I have two reasons for this. The first is selfish, you just never know where that networking might lead, and, second, I want to see stories that give my profession the respect it deserves. Michael, I hope you would feel the same way about your profession.

    – Greg Scott

    • I do critiques from time to time for people, usually by referral. But I also have regular writer critiques, pretty much year round. There’s rarely a time when I don’t have a project lined up. And really, this was a metaphor for other types of representation, and how those people might feel about being constantly asked to do work for free. It’s cool. We can agree to disagree.

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I am a Soldier and a Science Fiction writer. Usually I write about Soldiers. Go figure. I'm represented by Lisa Rodgers of JABberwocky Literary Agency. If you love my blog and want to turn it into a blockbuster movie featuring Chris Hemsworth as me, you should definitely contact her.

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