Formula Fiction?

The problems with writing historical military fiction are many-fold.

Time, for example. Nowadays, we really have little comprehension of how long it took people to travel from place to place. You can work it out roughly, of course, based on the speed a man or horse walks.

But what about a sailing ship? A simple trip across the Channel might take from a day to more than a week, depending on wind and tides.

And these affect the characters in your novel if, as in many plots, the story is woven around real historical events. Which, of course, must take place where and when the accepted record insists they actually did.

But the real issue with military historicals is the characters themselves. Especially in action/adventure stories.

Problem is, early society was highly polarised: a few ‘haves’ plus an awful lot of ‘have-nots’. Move this on to the 18th/19th century military and you have, well – exactly the same.

That’s why in this type of story  so many main characters are officers and, most usually, gentlemen. Rank and file soldiers and sailors were…the invisible workings of a machine. Individuality was drilled (or flogged) out of them by necessity. Armies on both land and sea needed large bodies of men to stand, unflinching, in the face of cannon and musket fire, sometimes at point-blank range. And they had to remain at their posts unless ordered otherwise – by a superior. The only individuals capable of any independent thought or action were the officers.

So you have Hornblower and Aubrey; Sharpe, Steele, Rawson and Morgan. All commanders of men: all capable of zig-zagging through a steadfastly linear historical event-line. And it’s that zigging and zagging which forms the bones of a novel. Which is a story about people, not events.

But every good main character needs a companion; a device as old as literature itself. A Patrocles for Achilles; a Jeeves for Wooster. Someone sympathetic to the hero, but also very different.

Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin

The companion must be someone useful, too. A ‘helper’. If you’re going into battle, you probably want a soldier by your side rather than…a playwright, for example.  Or at least someone carrying a weapon.

A doctor might be useful, as Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey found with his companion, ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin. But it’s difficult to invent a non-military type who can still, realistically, get involved in the thick of the action.

So Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe has Sergeant Harper. They’re similar, in that they’re both soldiers. But they have very different characters.

Patrick Harper and Richard Sharpe

And the non-commissioned-officer-as-companion theme has been followed by a number of other authors of land-based stories. It’s easy to see why. A sergeant’s authority, though at a much lower level, still brings with it a certain degree of independence. Nowhere near as much as his officer, but still enough to be of use as a plot device. Plus he’ll probably be an asset should his officer get into any scrapes.

Which he will. Or at any rate, in the type of stories we’re talking about, he should do.

Some authors have successfully written lower-class main characters. John Boyne’s John Jacob Turnstile becomes an officer’s servant, as
his only alternative to jail, in Boyne’s first-person novel ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. But because, as a servant, the character is privately paid and not part of the ship’s company, he effectively remains detached from much of the day to day activity going on around him. Consequently, he has no ‘companion’. And the voyage wasn’t strictly a military operation. Not quite the same, then.

Are there any alternatives? Two officers would be fine. Personally I prefer to see a conflict reflected from both sides of the coin, if you will. Officers’ privileges protected them, to a degree, from many of the rigours of a campaign. When I read a battle scene I want to find out how the private soldier fared, too. But two enlisted men? I don’t think it would work.

One of each it is, then. After all, Napoleon said, ‘Good sergeants make better officers’. (Unlike the British, Napoleonic France promoted men on merit). The problem is, most of Boney’s better fiction was published in the Moniteur. (Joke for
Napoleonic buffs. Ha, ha.)

I guess that’s why a lot of writers follow the same well-worn path, many not even bothering to look for a ‘twist’; something new or a bit different. If the thing works, don’t mess with it. You could argue that imitation is a sincere form of flattery; perhaps you think it’s just plain laziness. But since most action/adventure stories are based on the ‘Hero’s Journey’ plot anyway (think ‘Star Wars’ for a contemporary example), you might expect a writer to at least try to bring something new to the genre.

Which is what I did: try, I mean. Whether I succeed will, ultimately, be up to the readers. That’s you lot!

Thanks for reading.


~ by cavalrytales on June 15, 2011.

2 Responses to “Formula Fiction?”

  1. Excellent post, Jonathan. The one exception I can think of is Julian Stockwin, where Kydd and Renzi both began their careers before the mast (Kydd a pressed man, Renzi a volunteer). Even they ended up commissioned by the fourth book, and we’re promised in the blurb that Kydd will end up an admiral. An interesting twist to the formula.


  2. Shame I’ve not read any of those – I never graduted past my dad’s Hornblowers. He was the seaman – I get seasick in a kayak.

    Roman historian Adrian Goldsworthy has started a series featuring a gentleman volunteer in the Peninsula, ‘True Soldier Gentleman’ being the first. You’ve probably seen it. I’ve avoided it so far as it seems a bit too close to home.

    At least it’s an attempt to be slightly different, though I suspect his hero will end up an officer – with a friendly sergeant. A middle-class Sharpe? We’ll see.

    And thanks for the undeserved compliment.


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