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The Flip Side: When Memoirists Love Their Characters a Little Too Much

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

I wrote last week that I'm criticizing war memoirs as pieces of art, comparing them to the great works of war literature like The Things They Carried, All Quiet on The Western Front, or Catch-22. And compared to the great war novels, the modern memoir just doesn't feel as real.

Case in point, most war memoirists looooooooove their men, often to a literary fault. It makes for bad writing. Don't get me wrong, I want every PL and CO to love their men; to do otherwise is probably a crime, or horrible leadership. But if you are writing a memoir, make them human. Every Soldier has flaws just like the rest of us; to write differently is to ignore reality.

War memoirs tend to lie by omission. They highlight the good qualities of their fellow Soldiers and ignore the bad ones, creating one dimensional characters who don’t seem real. If people are defined by anything, we’re defined by our faults. No one remembers Gatsby for his looks, Holden Caulfield for his wit, or Ahab for his boating prowess.

(We can, of course, ignore Jarhead from this discussion, because Swofford tries to make himself, his dad, his brother, his family and the Marine Corps look as bad as possible. This could be called the Augusten Burroughs method.)

One Bullet Away

Fick's memoir, One Bullet Away, started off really well: his characters were realistic and human. His Drill Instructor, Sgt. Olds, felt real to me. A fellow recruit, Dunkin--an over-weight, under-achieving dropout--well, you feel as if you knew him too, and your disappointment at his inevitable failure is palpable.

But Fick loses this clarity when he gets his own platoon. He loves each Marine, and can’t write a negative word about them. By pure numbers alone, someone in Fick's platoon must be lazy, incompetent or an ass. Whether it is pro-athletes, Senators, or Rhodes Scholars, give me any group of 20 people, and one of them is insufferable.

Constant positivity also leads to boring character descriptions. Example: in One Bullet Away, Team One leader Colbert is described as a "blonde, cerebral San Diegan, known as 'the Iceman' for his cool performance." Compare this to Evan Wright's description of Colbert from Generation Kill, "They call Colbert 'The Iceman.' Wiry and fair-haired, he makes sarcastic pronouncements in a nasal whine that sounds like comedian David Spade. Though he considers himself a 'Marine Corps killer,' he's also a nerd who listens to Barry Manilow, Air Supply and practically all the music of the 1980's except rap...He collects vintage video-game consoles and wears a massive wristwatch that can only properly be 'configured by plugging it into his PC.'" The first description is boring, the second fascinating.

The Unforgiving Minute

Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute has the second most over-the-top character descriptions of modern war memoirs (see below for the grand prize winner). One soldier looks “like a bulldog,” another has a “chiseled jaw” and arms like Popeye, someone else has the look of a guy who "walked straight out of a John Wayne movie," and another looks like a Humvee. It reads like parody.

This positivity even extends to Mullaney's antagonists. When one of his Soldiers refuses to shower for weeks on end, Mullaney doesn‘t trash on him for stinking and living in filth. “I applaud his dedication.” No, you shouldn’t. And you should write about how the platoon probably ridiculed him for weeks on end.

Joker One

Joker One opens with a list of the "Main Characters," describing each man with details such as, "a feisty personality and can-do attitude" or " a quiet intellectual" or "best -shot" or "inhumanly strong." Only one Soldier is described negatively--as a narcoleptic, which probably couldn't have been omitted. Not only do these descriptions not help--they don't create real characters--but it isn't even that useful as a reference.

Lone Survivor

(To read all of our “Lone Survivor” posts, please click here.)

Lone Survivor has the worst character descriptions I've ever read (and I mean this for the entirety of literature, including both finished books, unpublished books, and books authors imagined but never wrote). It opens with eight pages of the most syrupy sweet, straight from a Ludlum thriller, Hallmark Movie of the Week descriptions you'll ever read. Sentences like, “I never met one person with a bad word to say,” or “he was smartest and best trivial pursuit player I ever saw." He even mis-characterizes people, like when he writes "we had a very tough man in the White House.”

Lone Survivor also has the single worst character description I've ever read, which we wrote about here. If anyone ever argues with me about Lone Survivor, that's my trump card I'll point to and say, he wrote that.


As Michael has told me, the bond with your men is stronger than civilians can imagine. Even for the people he hated downrange, when he saw them two years later, it was water under the bridge. Together, a platoon faces death. This makes for great relationships and a great army.

But poor art.

One comment

I was listening to a podcast on writing that debunked the idea that you have to “write what you know.” I instantly thought of memoirs.

Memoirists are people writing about what they know. Because it is something they know, it also happens to be about people they are close to, and hence why they love characters.

Eric brought up lone survivor. Its funny because the most realistic, best characters are the locals who kidnap/shelter Luttrell, because he doesn’t love them like he loved his team they are the most real people in the entire book.