Let’s start with your character’s background: “Prodigies” don’t generally go over well with military bureaucracies. Fundamentally, militaries tend to be insular. They dislike people coming in and telling them they need to do something different and there’s a real tradition of, “it was good enough for me, in my day, so it’s good enough for the boys,” mentality. Officers that step out of line from that have a habit of getting sidelined, decommissioned, and in some cases even court martialed.
So, here’s a question: is your character a prodigy in the sense that they’re racing up the chain of command or are they a prodigy in the sense that they’re a maverick thinker? Remember, these are mutually exclusive choices. Below is a discussion of both, so think them through before you pick. (If you haven’t already)
If your character is racing through the chain of command, then they will have an inflexible outlook. Their primary objective will be training their troops in what they were trained to do, in the exact same way they were trained, or (at the very least) as close as they can get to what their instructors taught them.
This means, for the inflexible soldier, that we’re talking training on rifles and shotguns, basic military hand to hand, knife-work, bayonets, and urban combat. Yes, the American Military still drills in bayonet charges even though the last time they actually used a bayonet charge was in 1896. Militaries change slowly, glacially slowly, they continue to add new techniques but retain a heavy focus on what worked in the past as I mentioned above. Unless your character has a background in other types of training (which is very unlikely given their age), they won’t be training snipers or any of the other stealth focused specialists. They’ll stick to the basics of what they know will work and what they’re comfortable with.
If they’re a maverick thinker, then you’re going to need to decide where their prodigious skill is. In an excessive oversimplification, pick between: strategy, tactics, operations or logistics. You’re looking at creating a commander, not a specialist, so making them really good at hand-to-hand or specific weaponry is out. I mean that.
Strategy is your goal (likely). If your character is trying to hold a city against an invading force, then their strategy might be fortification and entrenchment, luring the invading force in and exploiting the environment, or some other method. Remember, strategists use others to do their fighting for them. They are more valuable off the battlefield than on and rely on others to command small groups away from home. If you’re looking to create a “Leader of Men” in the sense of your character leading them onto the battlefield, then the strategist is out. (Michi Note: an example of good strategists in fiction is John Sheridan from Babylon 5)
Operations covers the smaller steps necessary to realize a strategy. If the goal is to fortify the city, then operations will cover getting the building materials, taking and holding areas that are vital to keeping control of the city, or protecting the civilian population. They are good at conservation, leadership, social interaction, managing bureaucracy, and the distribution of manpower for both non-combat and combat. An Operations specialist can fight, but like the strategist they are more useful off the battlefield than they are on it. (Michi Note: an example of good operations specialists is Keladry of Mindelan from the Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce, especially in Lady Knight.)
Tactics are the front line decisions. “Take that building,” “get some suppressing fire over there,” “take out that armor,” and so on. This is a character that is good for leading small guerrilla units and planning around single action events, they aren’t great at seeing the long game but they’re needed on the front lines instead of at the rear. They are excellent at working with a small fighting force and seeing the openings the enemy leaves or managing openings created on the battlefield. If you choose tactics specialist, remember that you’re going to have to create other characters who can manage the responsibilities behind the lines while he’s off fighting. Tactics specialists are good at leading small units, not large ones. (Michi Note: Really good tactics specialists are hard to find in fiction because they are harder to write, it’s easy to dumb it down or confuse it with strategy. Sam and Fiona from Burn Notice are both tacticians and very different kinds, so you can see the difference between a military approach and a more guerrilla fighting style, compare with Michael Westen, who is a strategist.)
Logistics is all about procuring the resources you need to continue fighting. Usually this is involves locating, scavenging, and wrangling from a variety of sources the food, munitions, and other equipment your soldiers need. Unlike the other three, this is something a lot of officers pawn off onto subordinates, so it’s possible your character has no real familiarity with it. Logistics could be his weakness, in fact, and that’s something to keep in mind. That said, given the way the military treats people who don’t fall into line or exhibit an annoyingly unusual level of skill, it’s not unreasonable for your character to have been shuffled into logistics as a punishment. Remember, the military punishes individuality and exceptionalism. It does so quickly, efficiently, and with a surprising amount of viciousness. A character skilled in logistics will often be cunning, good with money and resource management, must have good social skills, and a surprising knowledge of the underlying idiosyncrasies to running a military force that most of the other specialists may overlook because these things were always provided for them. Like the strategist and the operations specialist they will be most useful behind the lines. (Michi Note: because authors often overlook the importance of logistics, there aren’t a lot of good examples. One though is Radar from M.A.S.H.)
With a younger prodigy, you’re actually restricting yourself quite a bit compared to an older, more seasoned officer in their thirties or forties. The older officer has had the necessary time to pick up some unorthodox approaches to all of these areas, while a prodigy needs to focus. We often ignore the value of experience in our culture, but youth and talent are not equal to age, skill, and a knowledge of fighting gained through real world practice. Remember, an older soldier has had time to practice and hone a wide variety of skills, while a young officer, even a seasoned one, will have had to focus their training on a single point. Talent means nothing against practice and command experience.
For looking at writing an unconventional military officer, I’d suggest the Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium novels by Sandy Mitchell and Seasons 2-4 of Babylon 5 (Michi Note: Skip 1 as it has a different main protagonist). In particular the early Cain novels can teach you a lot about leadership in combat as well as some basic social engineering and management of interpersonal conflicts within the regiment.
Now, I’m going to cover some other possible backgrounds, just to explain what they are and what they represent.
Military Intelligence: this one might sound cool in theory, but these guys aren’t military spies. There are no James Bond’s to be had here, this is strictly a desk job. The reality is that Intelligence Officers work to collect and analyze any information they can get from a very safe space behind enemy lines. They have no authority or influence over combat, beyond what they can decode, and have no say in how that information is used. They also have no experience in using it. (Michi Note: This is not the droid you’re looking for.)
Special Forces: Again, cool in theory, but in reality they’re not really that useful from a character building perspective. Special Forces Operators are just troops with very specialized training. So all you actually get is a flag to say how cool, special, and badass your character is, without actually giving them any useful combat skills, tactical skills, or leadership skills. They’re really good at being set on a target (by someone else) and killing it. That’s about it. There’s nothing here that you won’t get normally by saying the character is ex-military, from a story standpoint, Special Forces protagonists are pretty worthless. (Michi Note: They are also overused as fuck, please do yourself a favor and avoid the cliché.)
Again, your character is going to be training his forces in basic hand to hand and rifles (not handguns) or shotguns because of the ease at which they will learn the skills quickly. Military training is all about providing simple, practical, easy to use skills that can be learned within a few weeks or months instead of years. For an example: take a look at the Marine M.A.P. episode from the now defunct Human Weapon, (you can find full episodes of the show on YouTube) there’s some really good information to be had there as Marine trainers show some basic techniques that will be pretty easy for you to write, along with some basic military history and the general attitudes of the military in general and military training in particular. Explore the history of the Military, with a focus on military tactics versus guerilla warfare; much of what you want to work with already exists in the history books. I would suggest a focus on both the Army and the Marines for your character.
It’s also important to remember that just because your character is skilled at one aspect of military life, doesn’t mean they’ll A) be good at everything and B) good at instructing. Define early, for yourself, what his weaknesses are so that you can challenge him with them. Remember, training isn’t about height or weight; it’s about being able to convey information clearly and concisely to others. A good teacher keeps their focus on their trainees and off of themselves.
Characters that have come out of the military are defined by their need for structure, unity, and discipline. This puts them at odds (even today) with civilians, who value freedom and individuality over conformity. You have a great opportunity for tension in the ranks present in your story simply from the difference in background and outlook. Keep in mind that a character who has been constantly punished for his individuality by his superiors will be less likely to give up the structure to which he has become accustomed. If he’s a career officer then his time in the Military defines who he is and how he sees the world. If he’s leading a resistance then a part of him will be at odds with his own training, thus creating internal tension. These decisions are never easy and thus it’s your responsibility to him to make it not seem so. Many people, especially exceptional ones, join the Military because they believe in the message, the system, and the cause. It’s hard to give up those beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. (Again, we both suggest Seasons 2-4 of Babylon 5 as required viewing for dealing with military officers who turn against their own out of a desire to uphold the morals they’ve been sworn to protect.)
I think this covers your question, but if we’ve missed anything feel free to remind us. As always, our ask box is always open. Happy writing!