Characters Who Know Too Much

One of the challenges of writing from the perspective of Caedmon (and why I’ve avoided it until now) is that he is too smart. He is supposed to be a master strategist and a reservoir of calm. He is the opposite of my preferred protagonist, Magnihild. She is a Viking stereotype: passionate, aggressive, loyal, and believes that courage is the most important thing in both life and battle.

Steve says that you cannot fight yourself out of a bad strategic situation, no matter how courageous you are. That’s what Caedmon believes as well. He picks his battles. Where Magnihild rushes in with her sword at the ready, Caedmon believes in maneuver, in diplomacy, and in ‘soft power,’ though backed up by the sword when necessary. Caedmon is way, way smarter than I am. He’s even smarter than Steve. Which makes him hard to write.

One of the corrections Steve made to my Viking fleet tactics was to say, “No experienced commander is going to count the ships at this point. He knows how many ships there are and he knows the types. Also he doesn’t think of them as just ships. He thinks of them as longships and roundships. He knows exactly how many of each there are, what their capabilities are, and where they are.”

I protested and said, “But the battle is changing and this is in the middle. How can he know at this point?” I am quite attached to the visual I wrote and am defending it. I don’t want to change this.

“It is his job to know,” Steve said. “He has to maintain situational awareness at all times so that he can plot future actions.”

“Wait! Wait! Are you saying that he is memorizing the battlefield as if it is a chess board and that he knows where all the pieces are and can project where the enemy is likely to move? Even though the ships and sea are in constant motion, people are dying around him, and the weather is inconstant? And you’re saying he doesn’t need to count?”

“Yes. That’s his job,” Steve emphasizes. “That’s why we talk about friction and the fog of war for battles and not for chess games.”

“But that’s seriously difficult with chess games. I can’t even imagine what it means in battle.” Yeah, I’m whining. Even though I like to believe that genius can live anywhere, it messes with my mind to realize that commanding battles requires a level of chess master genius as the ticket to admission and that still more is required after that. If the commander can’t handle this, people die. So the stakes are literally life and death.

My next intellectual leap is the realization that people we consider military geniuses (Alexander the Great, Napoleon, etc.) are beyond my intellectual reckoning completely. This makes me uncomfortable. Luckily I’m well into the story already or this would send me off to find another protagonist.

Steve reassures me that this is why staff are important in battle. Because the cognitive load is so high, it requires teams of people to be additional minds and eyes for the commander. And that’s another thing I missed in my write-up of the scene: the value of the other people on the ship. They’re more than just warm bodies with swords.

As a final gift to me before he gets back to his own work, Steve describes something he calls the Boyd Loop or OODA Loop. Named for American fighter pilot and Air Force strategic thinker, John Boyd, it is a way of thinking about tactical and combat operations. The faster a commander can implement this loop, the surer he is to prevail. Ideally he will be acting while the enemy is still deciding.

OODA stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act.

Observe, figure out what is going on.

Orient to the action and the enemy, constantly revising your mental models and processing the information you have observed. I have reduced this down quite a bit. If you want to bend your brain into pretzels there are lots of discussions of this aspect of the OODA Loop on the web. Also, Steve says that while Boyd wanted to view the OODA Loop as a sort of grand strategic process applicable broadly, it is really best applied to tactical situations. Once again, those of you who want to argue strategy with Steve will have to buy him a drink. A good drink.

Decide what you are going to do in response to the enemy’s present and likely actions.

Act quickly and decisively.

I will be going back to the story today with new eyes, thinking how Caedmon would approach this, and bringing additional characters into sharper relief, recognizing that their value is critical as well.

I know that this has been a longer and more technical blog post than usual. I often use my blog to think and not just report on my progress. If you’ve come this far with me, thanks! If you are laughing that I didn’t already know the OODA loop, well, what can I say? I feel a bit silly that I didn’t think this through before and didn’t know it.

May all your OODA Loops cycle quickly. Be well, friends!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Yup, basic chain of command from the military. The generals, which your character probably would compare to, have visibility of the entire theater of war. They’re the ones who are receiving intelligence and reports on enemy movements and know where their own troops are.

    Chances are, your character is not going to be a nice person. Most of the generals I’ve heard about have terrible reputations with the people they work with. It absolutely wouldn’t surprise me to have him get bad news and take it out on the nearest person (that’s happened to me from a senior government official). They have a big problem with being so high up in what they need to know that they can be fooled by bad advice.

    1. That’s really insightful. I think of Caedmon as a good guy, but he is all ice and determination. Thinking about him through the eyes of people he commands is interesting.

      There is an aspect to military leadership that also commands loyalty, if not love, right? Alexander the Great was famously loved by the men he commanded as was Pompey the Great. Julius Caesar’s troops loved him. Without the adoration of their troops they couldn’t have accomplished what they did since part of what they accomplished was in opposition to the Roman Senate.

      Now, I wonder whether there is something of a love-hate relationship between great military leaders and their troops.

      Also are there differences between modern warfare (where the generals are behind the troops in safe redoubts) and ancient warfare (and modern naval warfare) where commanders lead from the front?

      It seems to me that there is a qualitative difference between “Follow me into victory” and the derisive epithet for Patton, Blood and Guts, which my father always said meant “Our blood, His guts.” By contrast, in that same war, Rommel led from the front and was famously beloved by his men. (Not defending Nazism here, just questioning styles of leadership in war.)

      The modern example of leading from the front is Israel where commanders used to lead from the front (and may still, I haven’t kept up). Yitzhak Rabin was so beloved by the men he led that he was propelled to victory with a powerful voting block of military people who voted for his party with him at the head as Prime Minister. His ability later to bring Israel to the negotiating table with the Palestinians and Arab nations and sign the Oslo Accords was made possible because of his reputation as a great military leader, beloved of his troops.

      I’m interested in your insights.

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