Tag Archives: Karen Traviss

Why We Need to Write the Military Right: Part Two

A guest post by Karen Traviss.


If you missed Part One, you can find it here.

So why does fiction influence us so much when we know it’s not true? Our guard isn’t up, so we’re not expecting to be told anything. In fact, we’re open and receptive because we want to immerse ourselves in the story. It gets under our radar much more effectively than news or earnest information campaigns, and if it’s powerfully emotional as well, then it really sticks. Humans are pretty hazy about facts and our memories are frighteningly malleable, but we can almost always recall emotions even when suffering from dementia. The basic rule of PR sums it up: the public might not recall what you said, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel. Our emotional memory is hard to erase.

In the absence of personal experience, the brain takes what data it can get – even bad or irrelevant data – and tries to form it into a pattern that makes sense of the world. That’s why we started telling each other stories in the first place, to explain a world that baffled and frequently terrified us.

The penetrative power of fiction makes PR folk put great effort into getting causes and products worked into TV shows. It’s not a modern phenomenon. Getting ideas across under the cloak of a story has been with us for centuries. It gave birth to culturally-embedded fiction like the world’s longest-running radio soap, The Archers. From Uncle Tom’s Cabin, credited with influencing opinion on slavery, to raising awareness about cot death via TV soaps, fiction straddles the blurred line between the real and the unreal, and it can have positive outcomes.

But it can also be negative, and that even has a name these days – the CSI effect. I first came across the term in a conversation with a police officer who thought the TV show gave juries a false expectation that evidence was infallible and clear-cut, wrapped up neatly by the end of the episode so to speak, and that they struggled with the inevitable ambiguity and margins of error. One told me that even some his colleagues have unrealistic expectations of forensics because they’ve been influenced subconsciously by CSI. By contrast, it’s hard not to love the Swedish cop show Wallander for its less glam reality; the detective asks if a security camera image can be enhanced to grab a tiny detail, and the technician tells him the recording just isn’t high-res enough to do that.

I’m not saying that all fiction has to be documentary in nature, because if its was, most books or movies on the SAS would be 400 pages of blokes hiding in a muddy hole and observing stuff before departing entirely undetected, with perhaps one page of a thirty-second firefight resulting in a small pile of bodies. Nobody would pay to read that. We accept that fiction is a distilled and stylised perspective. Sometimes reality itself – like Operation Chariot, the extraordinary 1942 commando raid on St Nazaire – is just too impossible to pass the fiction test and needs to be filed in the Department of You Couldn’t Make It Up.

I’m not saying that fiction should become propaganda, either. It’s not fiction’s job to avoid examining things that unsettle and offend – it’s often society’s safest way of doing it. But the licence to offend is conditionally granted for telling basic truths. Portraying all soldiers as unthinking, brutish thugs who bully civilians, which seems to be a recurring theme in shows from the BBC’s Dr Who/ Torchwood/ Sherlock stable, bears no resemblance to the many hundreds – perhaps thousands – of service personnel I’ve met over the years. That’s the kind of stereotype I object to and that I feel percolates into the consciousness of those who have no benchmark in the real world. It smacks of the worst kind of social demonization, too, because it seems to be aimed at the working class who make up the core of our army.

But the BBC trails far behind Hollywood as a purveyor of bad data, so let me wind up with a quick and highly opinionated suggestion of what good military storytelling should look like, based on three movies.

The worst war movie I’ve seen is The Hurt Locker, which I judge harshly because it acquired an inexplicable reputation for authenticity despite some of the dumbest and most unreal behaviour imaginable. (Don’t take my word for it. Ask someone who’s done the job.) If it hadn’t set out its stall as realism, I would have ignored it as just another so-so movie.

The very best film is the agonisingly real Kajaki, a meticulously accurate recounting of a real incident in Afghanistan that dispenses with most cinematic convention and feels like a being a helpless bystander on the spot, watching the disaster unfold around you. Warning: it’s not an easy film to watch. Harrowing doesn’t begin to describe it, but you’ll be glad you saw it. It even portrays private security contractors in an honest and unsensational way, the only movie I’ve ever seen that’s avoided the “out-of-control mercenaries” stereotype.

Between those two extremes, but far closer to Kajaki, is the underrated Battle: Los Angeles, which is decently realistic in its depiction of urban ops despite being apocalyptic SF, although the barely-visible aliens could just as easily have been a human enemy. The Marines conduct themselves like Marines, and the minor technical errors (most of which I missed) don’t detract from the overall excellence. I’m indebted to a former US Marine for recommending it.

Get those three movies on DVD, or however you source your film entertainment, and watch them carefully. If you know a vet or someone serving, buy them a few beers and a pizza and watch them together. You’ll have one of the most educational conversations of your life.

Remember that there’s no such thing as too much research. I come from a naval city and the military world has been part of my working life to a greater or lesser extent for more years than I’m prepared to admit, but I still have to do my homework every time I write. I also make sure that I run my manuscripts past friends who’ve seen front-line service.

There’s a lot of small detail and technique to writing authentic military fiction, of course, but that’s a topic for another day. You need to do your homework on the language, the procedures, and the hardware, which will vary enormously; one size doesn’t fit all. But if you’ve got the heart of it right – what soldiers think, feel, do, and worry about, and the relationships they build – then you’ve kept faith with those who do the job for real, and that matters. You may well be shaping civilian attitudes to remarkable people who they’ll probably never encounter in real life.

So we owe it to our troops to make sure the voice we give them in our stories is an honest one.


Footnote: if you’re wondering if it’s really that easy to implant false impressions in sane, intelligent people, this is one study of many that shows it’s a breeze. http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/01/very-easy-to-implant-false-crime-memories.html

About Karen Traviss:
New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss is a former defence correspondent and has also spent way too much of her life around politicians and police. Going Grey, the first in her new techno-thriller series, is out now and the sequel, Black Run, will be published this summer. Website and newsletter sign-up: www.karentraviss.com Twitter: @karentraviss

Why We Need to Write the Military Right: Part One

A guest post by Karen Traviss.

preview_concept_Black Run copyNobody wants to be the guy who said Krakatoa was east of Java. As storytellers, we know we need to get detail right if we tether our stories to the real world.

I had a colleague in my TV days whose early novels, written in time snatched between shoots, involved a trip to a certain building in Europe to settle an argument with his editor about how many steps there were in front of its main doors. It mattered to him; I understand that compulsion. I’ll spend an entire day doing research that ends up as one line in a novel. And even if you set your story on an alien world or in a fantasy universe, there are hard facts – human behaviour, physics, or just a consistent world – that mean you have to do at least a minimal amount of research. It might not involve doing obsessive surveys of public buildings, but it has to be done. Mistakes aren’t just embarrassing; they can also derail your story if a key plot point you’ve relied on turns out to be impossible.

In our quest for technical accuracy, though, we can overlook more fundamental authenticity, the stuff that can shape and distort opinion in the real world. While misplacing Krakatoa is annoying, it isn’t going to influence what the audience feels about serious issues. But feeding people a steady diet of stereotypes and errors about a topic can embed an attitude that people carry with them into their real world opinions. That affects a lot of different groups, but it’s especially true of public perception of the armed forces.

Like it or not, fiction does seep into the public consciousness through constant exposure, and once it’s there, it’s hard to filter it from reality. It takes root where people have no personal experience of a topic to tell them that the fiction they’re absorbing is factually wrong, and it creeps up on even the smartest people. I’m not talking about using daft phrases like “Over and out” (which is meaningless, as “over” is the opposite of “out” in radio procedure) or having characters call sergeants “Sir.” I mean the fabric of what it means to serve and to fight – the attitudes and experiences of the soldier.

Should that seepage worry us as writers? I’d say it ought to. If people are forming opinions on defence and foreign policy based on fiction, we should attempt to do no harm, and doing no harm requires some work on our part. The armed forces aren’t the only sector of society that can fall victim to “false memory” opinions, but servicemen and women are unique in that we expect them to be willing to die for us as a fundamental condition of their job. No other workers, not even police or firefighters, have to accept death as a definite possibility in the same way. So we owe those who serve a duty of truth.

A few months ago, I watched a TV discussion that was a perfect example of fiction shaping someone’s perception of what our armed forces should do in the real world. It was a round-up of the day’s news stories, with celebs and other non-experts passing comment. One studio guest was furious that nobody had deployed helicopters to rescue refugees in a war zone. She seemed unaware that in this particular case, the distances and conditions meant it wasn’t physically possible. She thought she knew what helicopters could do, and was no doubt sincere in her outrage, but nevertheless she was utterly wrong. The studio anchor was equally ignorant and the debate continued without any input from someone who could say, “Actually, there’s no way we can do that, because… “

So why did they think they knew the facts? Where did they get their unrealistic ideas on helicopters and logistics of evacuations? I’d bet my pension fund that they’d absorbed some kind of pseudo-reality from TV and movies without even realising it. It wasn’t because they were stupid. It was because they were human and the gap in their knowledge had been filled by the nearest available data, provided by years of watching impossible feats performed in movies.

Few civilians in the UK or North America these days have any direct contact with service personnel, however supportive we think we are of our troops. Our forces have shrunk over the years, and there’s no conscription. Soldiering has become the career of a relatively small number of volunteers. But a couple of generations earlier, things were very different. In World War II, every British family had a direct link with combat and its consequences. Either someone in your family was serving, or your friends and neighbours were, and as a civilian you were subjected to multiple air raids and years of strict rationing. If you compare British war movies from the late 1940s and early 1950s to modern ones, they’re much more technical; producers couldn’t get away with mistakes because their audience knew the subject. They’d served or they knew someone who had.

There’s now a growing disconnection between the military and civilian worlds, and it’s not been entirely discouraged by governments trying to head off objections to foreign wars. These days, with our omniscient Hollywood perspective, we think a soldier has the same perfect awareness of a situation as the camera, and so we think we know that they ought to have done. Civilians make judgements, moral and tactical, without any real awareness of what it’s like to serve, let alone fight, unless they’re prepared to put in time watching documentaries. But even then factual programming can be variable in accuracy. I’ve seen historians locked in bitter arguments over events that were taught to me as established fact. If we can’t even rely on history, then finding a gold standard for military authenticity isn’t easy.

The best we can do as writers is the same as the best I could do as a journalist; we can talk to the primary sources, the men and women who’ve lived through it. Even if they don’t agree on everything – and there’s no such thing as a definitive view of a battle – they’re the nearest to the truth we’re ever likely to find in this world. The detail will vary from country to country and between branches of the services, but there are some things that are common to everyone who’s served. Those are the truths we need to seek and portray.

I was a news journalist for 20 years and spent ten years in PR for government organisations, so I formed a detailed picture of where people got their information and what influenced their thinking. Now that I write fiction instead, I treat it like a hazardous material because I know it has real consequences. It’s sobering to think that I might have imparted more understanding of military life to my civilian readership as a novelist than I ever achieved in my time as a defence correspondent. It’s even more sobering to think that understanding has been based mostly on SF, where the technical detail can as unreal as you want to it to be. The reality lies in honest depiction of the mind-set, sense of comradeship, and basic soldiering skills that would be as familiar to a Roman legionary as they would to a space marine with a laser weapon.


Visit the Fictorians tomorrow for Part Two.

About Karen Traviss: KT
New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss is a former defence correspondent and has also spent way too much of her life around politicians and police. Going Grey, the first in her new techno-thriller series, is out now and the sequel, Black Run, will be published this summer. Website and newsletter sign-up: www.karentraviss.com Twitter: @karentraviss