Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy Characters with a Military Background (Television and Film)
From Achilles to Zordon of Eltar, characters with military backgrounds have populated our literature and pop culture. In Science Fiction or Fantasy, the wars these characters fight are (generally) fictional, but often serve to inform about real-life situations. The characters we have chosen represent a breadth of soldiers, from veterans to those still fighting for their cause. Some are villains, some are heroes, but all are complicated and endearing, drawing us into their respective narratives.
(This list is based on strength of the character, not competence in military career.)
Jaime Lannister proved his merit during Robert’s Rebellion, when he sacrifices his reputation to kill Aerys Targaryen, saving Kings Landing and earning him the moniker of “Kingslayer”. And while he is an impressive solider—arguably the most impressive in the series, his real value as a character comes from his complicated and controversial relationship with his twin, Cersei. His actions, even in war, are usually dictated by a need to impress his sister. The show never really lets you like Jaime (attempted murder of Bran and rape of Cersei come to mind), but it never really wants you to hate him, either. He is a broken man, tormented by his sister’s psychological manipulation and the horrors he has seen in battle. Whether his final note will be one of a hero or a villain is unclear, but either way, we can’t wait to see what Jaime will do next.
Admiral Bill Adama’s military record is long and stories before the events of Battlestar Galactica begin. Following the Cylon attack, Adama runs his ship with sense of urgency, as a man who is both desperate for the war to be over and one with the knowledge that militaristic strategizing is what he does best. He is a bold and adventurous commanding officer, who pushes his soldiers to constantly improve, even if he doesn't always adhere to procedure. His stern yet gentle presence was instrumental in ushering in the new golden age of science fiction television, and for that we salute him.
Sarah Connor is a solider without an army— on a one-woman mission to stop the future Kyle Reese described. Her experience of being hunted in the first film makes per paranoid, volatile, and most importantly, hell-bent on stopping the Skynet uprising. While not military in a traditional sense (that is to say, she never undergoes basic training or deployment), Sarah Connor establishes and builds the human resistance to the terminators, thus making her the only person on this list to truly lead their own army. This Mother of the Rebellion kicks ass, takes names, and knows her way around high-powered weaponry. Without her, humanity would be doomed.
Zoë fought on the Independence side in the Unification war, serving under Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds as his Corporal. Despite the horrors they face at the Battle of Serenity Valley, Zoë is able to maintain strong relationships (unlike Mal). Despite her tendency to follow Mal’s orders, she has little problem telling him when he is out of line, proving strong and fearless at every turn. Even though the war is over, she uses her experiences there as a model for how to treat those around her. Those on her side are firmly under protection— those who cross her best watch out.
Due to the Doctor’s long life (lives?), it seems inevitable they would get wrapped up in a war or two. The greatest of these is the Time War, a conflict between the Daleks and Time Lords. We never see the genesis of this great fight, but we know how it ends— he locks his home planet in a pocket of time, causing the Daleks to annihilate themselves. His memory is then altered, leaving him to believe he destroyed his home planet. The effects of the war are most evident in the 9th Doctor. His rapid fluctuations between goofy and furious, his detachment from others, and his fear of causing any harm at all make it clear he has been through something traumatic, though the show takes its time in revealing the specifics. The doctor is an unconventional solider, but a solider nonetheless. Their perennial distrust of those in the military serves as a reflection of their own self-hatred and fear having to go back.
Éowyn, the niece of King Théoden, was determined to fight in a war with a pretty strong “No Girls Allowed” policy. After being refused multiple times by her uncle, she disguises herself as a man and joins the march on Mordor. In the Battle of Pelennor Fields, she rides with her uncle’s company towards the Witch King of Angmar, leader of the Nazgûl. Along with Merry, she is the only solider not to flee. The exchange with the Witch King is worth including, if for no other reason that it’s one of the most memorable in the movie:
Witch-King: Feast on his flesh.
Éowyn: I will kill you if you touch him!
Witch King: Do not come between the Nazgûl and his prey.
[The Fell Beast attacks, and Éowyn cuts off its head with two strikes. The beast falls, and the Witch-King rises up and attacks]
Witch-King: You fool. No man can kill me. [He grabs her by the throat] Die now!
[Merry stabs the Witch-King in the calf, causing him to collapse in pain. Éowyn rises, pulling off her helm]
Éowyn: I am no man!
[She stabs the Witch-King in the face, and he reels back and shrivels into nothing]
Not only does she have a will to fight to save her world, she proves that she has skill and cunning. She is an impressive warrior, and a compelling female character in a story that largely lacks them.
Captain America began as the thin, sickly Steve Rogers. During World War II, the Strategic Scientific Reserve experiments on the young solider, turning him into the superhero we know and love. After he sacrifices himself for his country, he is frozen in the ocean for almost 70 years, before he is recovered by S.H.I.E.L.D. As a man displaced in time, he often serves as comic relief, but proves more than once he is a capable and honorable soldier. Captain America often places his principles before practicality, and his extreme loyalty to his friends gets him into trouble more than once. Cap’s disdain for anything resembling fascism harkens back to his time at war, and dictates many of his modern-day actions. A truer hero is difficult to find among all 95,000 characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When he first enters the plot of The Walking Dead, Abraham Ford comes off as a cruel and unfeeling survivor. What is revealed, however, is that he is a former US Army Sergeant, suffering from severe PTSD and suicidal ideation after the death of his family. While he can be reckless and hostile at times, he has a lighter side: providing thoughtful insights, assistance, and a good sense of humor. Abraham’s search for meaning in life manages to not come off as cliched, as Abraham really is a man who has lost everything. Abraham's steeled face as he awaits Negan’s bat, as well as his iconic final line (“suck… my… nuts”) are a perfect final note for a strong (if short-lived) character.
Whether he is seducing alien women, defying the laws of physics, or making loud, syncopated proclamations, Captain Kirk entertains and engages at every turn. He began his career by beating the unbeatable Kobayashi Maru test by reprogramming the computer, and continues to use that sort of out-of-bounds thinking as he commands the Enterprise. Captain Kirk is, perhaps, not the best captain. While he protects his people fiercely, he is often the impetus for the trouble. He is arrogant, quick-tempered, and has a… complicated relationship with women. Shatner provided a performance unlike any seen on American television before: campy and sincere, brilliant and goofy, with a deep anger suppressed by a desire for discovery. We can’t imagine Star Trek without Kirk’s smirk.
Let’s be clear: Xander never served in the military. But his experience of being a solider for one night in “Halloween,” proves incredibly useful later in the show, as he keeps his military memories. He is able to steal and assemble a rocket launcher to defeat The Judge, and properly design the explosive that blows up the Mayor. Xander’s military memories fade with time, but his strength as a character does not. Xander is flawed but deeply caring, and he soon realizes he isn’t the Zeppo at all; he’s the Tigger. He may be a bit destructive and obnoxious, but no friend will bounce higher than Xander.
From the moment he majestically swoops on screen, Darth Vader announces himself as the hands-down-coolest character in movie history. The cape, that khooh-phuur breath, the James Earl Jones voice: it all works. Vader is perhaps the worst commander on this list— he kills people because he’s angry, he overlooks major flaws in his plans, and he doesn’t really have any competent people working under him. Still, he has a relatable angst, and a satisfying redemption story. His impact on pop culture is so profound, that not a single child over 6 hasn’t tried to mimic his voice in a rotary fan. He is #3 on AFIs best villain list. Anakin Skywalker may be an annoying wimp, but even that can’t dilute the concentrated awesomeness that is Darth Vader.