Killing Characters, Part 2: The Demise of the Foot Soldier

This article is the second in a three part series dealing with the demise of characters in fiction. Part One may be read here.

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Following last week’s post on the believability of a character’s demise we come to a seemingly inconsequential point. In fact, this detail has been taken so lightly of late that it has almost been forgotten. This is the demise of the foot soldiers who serve either the good or the bad side of a fictional argument.

At first blush, this seems to be a ridiculous subject to consider. Who cares about the nameless so-and-so’s who die in the clash of armies or the initial alien invasion? They are no more important than the backdrop of a play or the matte paintings used in old films to imply that the characters are actually in or near a particular place. They are there simply to provide setting for the play, so why should the author give them any attention?

That is an interesting question, both due to the lack of interest it expresses in proper setting and because it holds life quite cheap. After all, in a real war, are not all the men on the front lines real people? Do they not have friends standing beside them? Do they not have families – fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, children, aunts, uncles, etc. – who will look hopefully for their return from the front? Or, in the case of an alien invasion, will said relations not be frantically searching to find out if those they love have survived the disaster? If this is what occurs in real life then why, in the name of realism, would an author treat the foot soldiers in his fiction any differently than they would be treated in real life?

Again, we circle back to the argument about Dack’s sacrifice in The Empire Strikes Back. War is hell, as is combat. In both cases, hardly anyone dies peacefully or happily. How can such a death be defined as “brave” when it is so horrible? Part of the problem comes from the modern tendency to mistake “brave” with “easy,” “peaceful,” or “happy.” As myriad tales of my youth never ceased to remind me, courage is not the absence of fear but rather the triumph over it. It follows, therefore, that courage is also not easy, peaceful, or happy. More often than not bravery may be defined as the practical application of one’s attention to a risky task that can – and often does – expose a person to the danger of instant death.

From Sands of Iwo Jima to The Patriot and Hacksaw Ridge, films have shown men on both sides of a conflict running straight into enemy fire. Some have to be pushed into it, for obvious reasons; to charge into a hail of bullets is to risk death. To rush ahead willingly therefore takes a great deal of courage, since any second could be the soldier’s last. The same is true for all other military servicemen as well.

That is a type of bravery hardly recognized in current fiction. When foot soldiers are mentioned at all in modern tales, they are often treated as inconsequential cannon fodder. Some authors simply show them dying during the course of early battles because, short of killing a tertiary character earlier than necessary, they cannot think of a way to shock the audience to make the point that “war is hell” as quickly as possible.

Similarly, when current writers use this tactic, they often employ it tediously. Modern movies, television shows, and books tend to completely neglect the humanity of the nameless foot soldiers who die during a fictional battle. They do not let the camera linger on these men overlong or show the protagonists watching an unknown fellow soldier mourn his anonymous friend. Rather, they treat them as disposable chess pawns that have no significant impact on the heroes, the story, or the audience.

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Contrast this attitude with the original Star Wars’ depiction of Rebel losses throughout the trilogy. From the first film to Return of the Jedi, the camera never fails to remain on a fallen Rebel’s prone form for at least a handful of respectful seconds. Some of the most memorable scenes in Empire Strikes Back are those of Rebellion fighters falling under the AT-ATs’ relentless assault. Luke’s valiant attempt to pull Dack’s body from their crashed snowspeeder, not to mention his expression when he sees the AT-AT step on it, are also impressive. For all the problems they cause the story and the fans, even the Ewoks’ dignity as sapient beings is recognized when members of their tribe die during the final confrontation on Endor in Jedi.

If Star Wars has a flaw in this area, it is that it does not extend this courtesy to the Imperials very often. Captain Needa’s demise in ESB is probably the most sympathetic Imperial expiration in the film trilogy, but it is easily topped by Vader’s redemptive passage into the Force. While this may have been done to imply that service to the Empire stripped one of their humanity and left them dead in spirit, it remains something of an oversight on Lucas’ part.

The original Expanded Universe writers were happy to fill this gap. Baron Soontir Fel in the Han Solo trilogy skates near insubordination to remain behind after an Imperial rout long enough to pick up as many surviving TIE pilots as he can. And during his first written appearance, Stormtrooper Kyle Katarn shoots a Rebel soldier who killed one of his compatriots. Without concern for who will hear him, Katarn states aloud that his fellow trooper “…was a person, too.”

Zoids: Chaotic Century does this as well. Though the series does not dwell graphically on death, characters do pass away during the show’s run. In episodes thirteen and fourteen an Imperial officer named Marcus leads the Empire’s attempt to capture the Republican fortress of Cronos. But the base is a trap and, due to his arrogance, Marcus’ unit suffers heavy losses when the fort automatically self-destructs. The first moments of episode fourteen take the time to show nameless Imperial soldiers aiding their unknown, injured fellows reach medical aid.

A similar scene occurs later when Marcus’ superior, Major Karl Shubaltz, leads an attack on a separate Republican base nearer that nation’s capital. Here he must watch his own troops decimated by the heavy guns of a Gojulas, the only zoid of its kind that the Republic has as the last line of defense for their principal city. By episode’s end Shubaltz orders a retreat, telling a protesting Marcus, “You don’t understand a thing. There’s no point in fighting anymore.” Looking at the smoldering remains of his infantry pilots and their zoids, Shubaltz adds, “I order a retreat. No commander would stand by and watch his army be annihilated!”

We know none of the men who are burning in the funeral pyres with their zoids. Yet the images and Shubaltz’ words combine to show the writers’ respect for these unnamed soldiers, an admiration that the audience is called upon to share. These combatants are to be lauded for their brave effort to fulfill their duty. Shubaltz’ regard for the lives of the soldiers under his command also invites the audience to appreciate the dire responsibilities and consequences men face in times of war.

One of the series’ best moments comes some installments later, when Marcus eventually gets himself killed. After taking the Republicans’ abandoned final stronghold, Marcus charges straight into the base with an infantry detachment. Shubaltz, suspecting another trap, tries to call him back. Now that they share the title of major, however, Marcus openly defies his former commander and continues forward.

Shubaltz’ warning proves prophetic when the heroes manage to awaken the volcano that powers the Republican base. Marcus’ men are forced to retreat as the magma’s energy makes their zoids’ combat systems freeze, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Marcus receives a desperate last-minute call from Shubaltz, who tells him the volcano is going to erupt and that it will destroy the base. “Get out of there, now!” he adds.

Marcus refuses to leave and is killed in the ensuing eruption. Since the man has been nothing but a thorn in his side throughout their time together, one might expect Shubaltz to be happy that he is gone. But the latter does not glory in his loss. Rather he salutes the dead before withdrawing his army from the base. He later reports that Marcus met with an honorable end, excluding the fact that it was the latter’s own vanity which led to his demise. Though Marcus was undeniably stupid, craven, and wicked, through Shubaltz the writers gave him the credit he deserved as a fellow officer and human being.

As an aside, this scene illustrates another area of lapsed understanding in modern fiction. Not everyone on the “evil” side of a conflict is equally iniquitous. There are, in fact, differing ranks of wickedness just as there are greater and lesser echelons of goodness. Marcus is not a good man, something Zoids takes care to make clear. However, when compared to the main villain in the series, his is a decidedly lesser tier of vice.

Marvel’s The Avengers follows this pattern, too. Loki is undoubtedly evil, and the film does not shy away from this fact. He threatens to conquer Earth, steals the Tesseract – a relic even he, an Asgardian, cannot hope to fully fathom or control – and kills for the sheer fun of it. He enjoys setting friends and allies against one another, sowing chaos wherever he goes and laughing at all of it. Yet even his worst acts before and after The Avengers cannot compare with the vile works of Thanos. Loki is bad but his vices are much less when set alongside the Mad Titan’s. As mentioned, there are gradients to evil just as there are tiers of goodness.

To return to the main point, one of the areas where The Avengers shines is by demonstrating the different levels of heroism inherent to human society. At the top are the Avengers themselves, the best examples of human valor in this fictional universe. Then there are the SHIELD agents and sorcerers, who live in the shadowy realms of espionage and magic. Here they protect the world from the monsters – human or not – who do their work by the light of the moon, away from prying eyes.

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First responders and soldiers, while unaware of their shadowy compatriots, share this tier as well. One of the best moments in The Avengers is a conversation that takes place between two police officers as they attempt to cope with the alien onslaught. A deleted scene from the film shows the younger office being killed in the line of duty as he tries to save a waitress. This woman is later rescued by Captain America from a bank the Chitauri attempt to destroy.

The heroism demonstrated by these fictional first responders and soldiers is remembered in Avengers: Age of Ultron. On returning to the newly rebuilt and renamed Avengers’ Tower, the team flies past a statue set near the base of their home and fortress. Rather than immortalize their costumed rescuers in stone, the city residents designed the sculpture to recognize the sacrifice of the firemen, police, EMTs, and soldiers killed during the Battle of New York.

Placing the statue in front of Avengers’ Tower is not an in-universe accident, nor is it an obsequious addition on the part of the film’s writer, Joss Whedon. The statue is there to remind viewers that there are different levels of heroism. While we would all like to reach the Avengers’ level, there is no shame in narrowly missing that mark. Champions such as the titular protagonists do not stand on thin air; they stand on the shoulders of the heroes who make up the pyramid of bravery. First responders and soldiers are among those in the second tier of human courage.

Of course, this raises the question of what heroes make up the first level of the Heroic Pyramid. If the Avengers occupy the top while the firemen, police, EMTs, the military, sorcerers, and SHIELD fill in the middle section, who resides in the initial phase? The answer is none other than the most overlooked foot soldier in modern fiction: the ordinary citizen.

It is often – and rightly – said that charity begins at home. So, this author would contend, does courage. As Bernardo O’Reilly eloquently explained in The Magnificent Seven, settling down to raise a family is no mean feat. Those who choose this path carry a great deal of responsibility throughout the whole of their lives as they must care for their wives and children in a dangerous, ever-changing, and largely uncertain world.

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Taking such an immense commitment to heart is courage made manifest, but there are ways for even this strength to show itself outside of the everyday necessities of family life. In Rio Bravo, John Wayne’s answer to High Noon, the lead character occupies both the middle and upper stages of valor. Sheriff John T. Chance is an officer of the law who could just as easily stand beside and hold a conversation with Captain America. He also insists on holding the murderous brother of the most powerful man in the territory confined without the help of the townspeople.

Given the nature of his enemy, this makes sense. Nathan Burdette, the murderer’s wealthy brother, is a dangerous man. Intent as he is on ruling the territory through money and fear he cannot afford to let Chance’s defiance stand. If he succeeds in outflanking the sheriff there will be repercussions both for Chance and for those who stand with him. Thus the lawman seeks to mitigate the possible consequences the townsfolk may have to face should he fail to hold Burdette.

But in a near-comical turn of events, the ordinary citizens deny him his wish. Again and again they offer their help in holding Joe Burdette confined until the Marshal arrives. When rebuffed, they find ways around Chance’s obstinate refusal. At the very end of the film the sheriff has more help than he wants in bringing the Burdette brothers and their hired guns to justice.

Rio Bravo is a classic example of what motivated, normal people can accomplish when there is need for their courage. Having their bravery honed through everyday matters such as paying the bills, taking care of their children, and building a life, they will fight to protect all of the above when the need arises. And when they do their valor will give new heart to the champions they admire.

This is why Iron Man lists Phil Coulson as a member of the Avengers. This is why Bernardo tells the boys to admire their fathers as they stand up to the bandits in the finale of The Magnificent Seven. Heroism travels through the world in a cycle. Like the rain that comes from the ocean to the sky, to fall on the rivers which in turn take it back to the sea, it replenishes itself in the small acts of courage that promote great feats of valor.

It is wise for future writers to avoid neglecting this necessary cycle in their fiction. Heroism does not occur in a vacuum; it has a beginning, a seed from which it grows. And if that seed is to reach its full potential, it needs to be nurtured and cultivated. For that to happen there must be more than colossal heroes, super or otherwise. There must be soldiers, first responders, doctors, spies, and warriors who face shadows older than humanity. Most important of all, there must be mothers, fathers, and ordinary citizens determined to protect themselves and all they hold dear.

Look for this cycle in your own works in progress. If it is not there try to find ways to slip it in. As the above examples show, this will not be hard to do. We are surrounded by everyday moments of courage, enough to fill thousands of novels. The only needful thing is that we notice them. 😉

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at Her stories have appeared in Cirsova’s Summer Special* and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth,* and her poetry will appear in Organic Ink Volume 2 this December. Order them today!

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2 thoughts on “Killing Characters, Part 2: The Demise of the Foot Soldier

  1. Another great entry!

    Homer, of course, is the gold standard for reminding people of the humanity of the average soldiers. Nearly every man – Greek and Trojan – that he shows being killed is given a brief summary of who he is, where he came from, and whom he’s left behind. He makes you feel the impact of every spear thrust and arrow shot.

    Tolkien did this to a lesser extent as well, though his battle scenes are much less detailed and he tends to put the list of the dead at the end rather than giving them dramatic battlefield death scenes. At the end of the description of the Battle of Pelenor Fields, he comments on how many men “named and unnamed” fought bravely and died bravely in a thousand individual fights all around the field. Not to mention, of course, Sam’s thoughts about the dead Haradrin soldier.

    Appreciate your including the poster for Zulu, which also does this extremely well. Speaking of the courage of the foot soldier, there’s a scene in that movie where the Zulu soldiers advance in range of the British guns and then just *stop*. The Boer advisor explains that the commander did this to study the British firing capacity. The insane courage of the Zulu hits you hard just then.

    Anyway, looking forward to part three!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Killing Characters, Part 3: The Case for the Death of the Main Antagonist | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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