Here, the heroes are soldiers, and the values portrayed are nearly always pure black and white, good and evil. The Second World War is the most popular background for novels of this nature, perhaps because the Nazis were so inexcusably evil that the reader can easily draw lines between the protagonists and antagonists. This simplicity of moral judgment is necessary, because a war story requires so much killing: if the reader is not comfortable with the clear-cut assignments of guilt and virtue, from the very start, he may be revolted rather than entertained.
By leaving your villains somewhat shrouded in mystery and giving only your heroes well-rounded personalities, you can contribute towards this black-and-white situation. Your heroes should be intricately detailed, with faults and virtues, hopes and fears, so the reader sympathizes with them and wishes them well; at the same time, your villains, in the war story, should not be shown to have a good side, but should be powered by an overwhelmingly evil motivation; greed for money or power, revenge, or even sheer insanity. If you show the villain with his family, or in a moment of deep personal torment, he is instantly a "gray," not a "black," and his death becomes more complicated than it otherwise might be; he begins, at that point, to retard the progress of the war story.
In the war novel, the protagonists are sent as a commando unit into occupied territory, there to accomplish some objective such as the destruction of an enemy gun implacement not vulnerable to air bombardment (The Guns of Navaroneby Alistair MacLean), a dam (Force 10From Navaroneby Alistair MacLean), a bridge, or a command headquarters hidden from aerial attack. Their every movement is an invitation to discovery, and their survival owes as much to wits as to skill with weapons.
Ideally, the war story should have one chief protagonist surrounded by as many as four or five accomplices who are only slightly less important in the reader's eye. In the deadly atmosphere of a war, it is only reasonable to expect that some of the protagonists will die. By beginning with a large enough group, the author can whittle them down with effective death scenes and still allow the main hero and two or three others to survive.
(If you will recall our discussion, earlier, of the sword and sorcery fantasy novel, you will see two evident parallels between that form and the war story. In both the war novel and the sword and sorcery novel, the forces which generate the plot are perfectly black and white, good and evil. And, in both, the hero's suffering is often shown, not from his own wounds, but from his reaction to the loss of close friends and comrades.)
Warning: In the war story, it is rare that all of the heroes are killed off, and it is also undesirable. Because the reader does see the values in black and white, he wants to see the rewards properly issued, as well. If you absolutely must let your heroes die, all of them, you should make certain that their deaths are heroic and that they have accomplished all of their objectives. If they die and fail their mission, too, the reader will be ready to begin his own war on you!
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