Hi! I am about to embark on a major writing project where one of the characters has military and spy training (he’s a former combat medic who joined forces with a clandestine government spy ring after he retired) how can I write him to be believable and not over the top like James Bond.
Research research research! James Bond is highly romanticized for the sake of entertainment. If that’s not what you want, I’d suggest the following 4 points:
1. Research the real-life areas of the military with which your character has associated.
If your references, terminology, jargon, and historical data are correct, your character will be lent an air of legitimacy. This will depend on the country for which your character served (and whether it’s an existing country or one that you’re making up).
Here are some useful links I tracked down for the US:
2. Read first hand accounts by soldiers who served in the same conflicts as your character
Here are some highly praised historical nonfiction books about each of the major American wars. How these wars are portrayed in these stories may inspire your character’s portrayal of his past.
Of course, these are just one example from each war, but there are many. And new works are coming out all the time, especially about Iraq and Afghanistan.
Patriots: The Men Who Started the Revolution, edited by A. J. Langguth
A collection of letters by some of America’s most famous founding fathers and heroes, with explanations.
The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived it, edited by Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean
Another collection of letters. This is a whole set of books commissioned and published by the Library of America, broken down year by year, so it’s got to be accurate!
World War I
(All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is a novel told from the pov of a German soldier, but is an extremely famous book and the author actually did fight in World War I so it’s accurate, as well. May be good if you want a “fictional” example.)
World War II
Here’s a list of the 5 best World War II memoirs from The Wall Street Journal.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Pretty much the definitive war memoir when it comes to Vietnam.
The Coldest War: A Memoir by James Brady
Here’s an NPR piece talking about some of the most “unfiltered” novels about the Iraq War.
No Easy Day by “Mark Owen”
…is that really controversial book that came out September about the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. Figured I couldn’t mention Afghanistan and not put that book on this list. Plus could be useful if you need to recount missions?
I’d also suggest reading some espionage/spy fiction. That may be a little over the top for you, but it emerged as its own popular genre around the turn of the last century, so it’ll probably inform your work more than you’re consciously aware.
3. Have a veteran look over your work
I would also suggest talking to former soldiers who were in conflicts or areas of the world where your character fought. Is your character’s background description accurate? Do the skills he possesses match what someone with his background would know how to do?
I always say that the two pillars of fiction research are reading up and talking to people, but veterans are more difficult since they often don’t want to talk about their time in the service, and we should respect that wish.
4. Imitation is different from plagiarism—and in writing, it’s okay!
Study some of your favorite non-“over the top” ex military men from literature. What makes them more believable and subtle? Notice how they talk about their histories and how they use the skills learned in combat in their present day lives. I couldn’t think of too many off the top of my head (if you can, followers, let me know) but here are some (many of whom are former-soldiers-turned-spies):
- John Watson from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
- Jason Bourne from Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity (and series)
- George Smiley from John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (and series)
blacksyte: Great work on your post: Yeah Write!: How to Write a Believable Spy and or Military Veteran (Resources). I’m a espionage/adventure writer myself and I thought this was excellent. Some extra points and notes: You have good US references for spy histories, but to be honest, the CIA stories are really boring and dry compared to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) or Mossad (Isreal). Also, though George Smiley did serve in WWII in some capacity it is hardly elaborated on, not mentioned in TTSS.
If anyone has anything to add to this post, please send in an ask!
This post will be added to the Advice page under the heading Research.