This month, I’ll be handling something that’s sort of a continuation of both the subjects I’ve talked about before. Going forward from last month, I’ll be continuing to talk about how worldbuilding ought to be used in storytelling – but I’ll be focusing in particular on the subject of the worldbuilding we discussed as the topic of the month before that, namely that of a fictional society’s military, although a lot of what I’m about to talk about could just as easily apply to some extent or another to any of a fictional society’s government, or even other communal institutions.
As I mentioned last month, a creator’s worldbuilding efforts should be focused on the parts of the setting which the story uses the most. Obviously, if a military organisation exists a story, then all of the surface-level requirements of creating that institution’s material description apply – where does it recruit? If they have uniforms, what do they look like? How many of them are there, and so on. However, if a military organisation plays a central role in the story, then it’s also important to determine what kind of role they play in a narrative sense, because that’s going to help you focus on which parts of that institution’s internal workings you need to focus on worldbuilding the most. In my opinion, there are three main roles that a fictional military can play in a story: as a setting for characters to act within, as a plot device to impose changes on characters, and a character in its own right. Each of these roles requires different emphasis in worldbuilding, although none of them are mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible for a fictional military organisation to fulfil all three roles, especially in a story set entirely set within that organisation – in which case, the worldbuilding support for all three roles will need to be there as well.
First of all, I’d like to begin by reminding everyone that an army is a society in its own right, one with its own culture, codes of conduct, internal beliefs, and structures of power intended to protect the host society and its own power structures from expected external (and sometimes internal) threats. In a society with a separate professional military, these societal features exist in ways separate and sometimes entirely alien from the host culture. In societies with a non-professional military system, where all able-bodied citizens are expected to self-organise for mutual defence, these societal features are often incorporated into the base assumptions of the host society itself. In either case, that means if you are using an army as a backdrop for your story – for example, if part or all of your major characters exist as members of a military institution – then it’s important not only to create these traditions and ways of thinking, but to make sure that they are given the appropriate importance, and to make sure that they work on a practical level.
Armies in our world don’t have things like parade drill and codes of discipline and immense bureaucracies to ensure that frontline troops and their supplies go where they’re supposed to for no reason. These things exist because they are necessary for an army in our world to build the discipline and cohesion needed to fight effectively in the sorts of wars which they are expected to fight. Every fictional society’s own defensive institutions ought to exist for the same purpose, and if warfare in your setting is different from how it is in ours, then that needs to be taken into account as well.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that every fictional army needs to have perfectly-suited institutional cultures which make it function like a highly-effective well-oiled machine. What it does mean is that said institutional cultures should be portrayed as having a reason for existing, and that if they don’t exist, the other parts of the setting should engage with that appropriately. If your fictional society’s army doesn’t take the cultural obligations of fulfilling its intended purpose seriously, then nobody else should take it seriously either – including its enemies. If you need an army to discard or disregard institutional elements which are required to make it effective in its given role for storytelling purposes, that’s fine so long as you are aware that the lack of those elements will make it ineffective. It is perfectly acceptable to portray an army as incompetent or disorganised or dysfunctional on purpose, but that means that the other elements of the story have to treat it accordingly.
In contrast, the use of an army as a plot device doesn’t necessarily need a detailed setup of an army’s internal culture, but it does very much require a creator to determine how that army is regarded and interacted with externally. Whereas as a setting, the army is a collection of constraints and backgrounds which allow the characters to act within it, the army as a plot device is more like an elemental force of nature, one which sweeps through the story, changing the existing circumstances of the characters, be it as a benevolent force of rescue or assistance, or a malevolent one of deprivation and destruction.
Thus, the characters who are telling the story through their points of view don’t see the army from the inside, but from the outside looking in – or rather failing to look in. Barring characterisation which gives them a particular insight, they’re less likely to see the internal workings and logic of the army as they are the collection of outward appearances which that army is known by. Thus, it becomes less important to establish why an army does something and more important to establish their outward appearances. Do they have uniforms? if they do, what do they look like? What weapons do they use? How are they seen by the people around the viewpoint characters? Are they a force to be welcomed or feared? What stories are told about them? What rumours swirl in their wake?
It’s important to note that none of these impressions have to be accurate. Even within military organisations themselves, people in one part of the organisation often have a very distorted view of other parts of their own institution. For those on the outside – especially if the army in question belongs to an entirely unfamiliar host society – their own apprehensions and assumptions might be entirely wrong. Medieval Europeans believed that the Mongols were vast in number, even when the Mongols themselves were often heavily outnumbered. In the 18th century, First Nations fighting with or against the French and British thought that European-style linear tactics were the result of a contempt for death – while European observers often accused their indigenous allies of cowardice for refusing to adopt those same tactics. Cultural prejudices, time, unreliable sources, and the simple distorting effect of imperfect methods of communication means that people from different groups don’t understand each other anywhere near as well as they might think, and how your characters perceive an army-as-plot-device (or an any other sort of outside institution as plot device) should say as much about their own biases, assumptions, and sources of information as it does what they are perceiving.
The third and final sort of role which a fictional army can play exists somewhere both in between, and outside of the two previous categories: that of the army as a character. What this means is that the story treats the institution not necessarily as something which the point-of-view characters are inside of, but is something which they will begin growing familiar with either as a result of their backstory, or over the course of the narrative. Think, for example, the role of the police in detective and superhero stories, or councils of wizards in some high fantasy works. The institution becomes a constant presence in the story, with point-of-view characters constantly interacting with its representatives and systems – which means that both the point-of-view characters and the audience themselves will have to have some understanding of that institution’s inner workings explained to them, both for the sake of comprehension, and to demonstrate a long-term societal relationship between the characters and the institution itself.
This sort of relationship isn’t all that different from one where a point-of-view character meets a new individual character and gets to know them over the course of the story. They might begin with preconceptions based on outward appearances and prejudices, but as time passes, the point-of-view character (and thus, the audience) gets more of an insight into who they are, what their goals are, and what their motivations might be. Institutions can be subject to the same practise, and in the case of armies, such a relationship is capable of carrying a narrative arc on its own, be it the tale of rebels against an increasingly familiar enemy, adventurers becoming increasingly trusted allies of a local government, or even that of an aspiring member of that institution, looking to prove themselves so they can become part of it.
Of course, this means that the creator has to keep track of both the internal workings of the institution and the way it’s perceived externally – much like with an individual character. The depth and strength (or lack thereof) of a point-of-view character’s relationship with an institution, as with an individual, can be conveyed in much or little stock they put in erroneous perceptions of that institution, or in how knowledgeable they are of that institution’s inner systems and cultural mores. In short, a point-of-view character who builds a relationship with an institution like an army over time might start thinking of it as a plot device, and eventually seeing it as a setting. The ability to control the progress of this sort of progression is a powerful tool in the hands of the creator, allowing them to walk the audience through the whole process of moving from the former to the latter, and in turn investing the audience in both the point-of-view character, and in the institution they are interacting with.
As a final note, don’t forget that these are mostly just guidelines. While I’ve obviously put a lot of thought into how to tell stories set in and around fictional armies, I’m also a single person with relatively limited life experiences, which – rather crucially – doesn’t include military service. When it comes to storytelling theory, I will always recommend getting other opinions and finding other sources, ones who might have a more formal background in creative writing or who have the relevant lived experiences.
But in the meantime, I’ll try to do what I can, and hope it helps.