Military Identifiers - The Art of World Building
Sep 282020

The identifying marks of the military are on clothing, items, skin, buildings, and vessels. Consider the impression the group wants to make. Some example options are listed and grouped to create a brand:

  • Noble, proud, strong
  • Bold, intimidating, forceful
  • Elite, precise, elegant
  • Covert, deadly, efficient

Choosing colors for our military group can be challenging. It is therefore best to go with no explanation or with something obvious, like silver for steel if favoring blades. Black suggests stealth and nighttime operations, or those in space. Red is obviously for blood. Gold, silver, and bronze can suggest wealth and elegance. A good source of ideas is to research flags of Earth countries and find the explanation for the colors, then leverage these. Rationalizations only matter if someone’s really going to care about the color choice; few in our audience will. However, military members will be taught the significance and can think about this during a scene.


Armed forces both protect and conquer. A symbol can inspire ferocity from its members or a willingness to sacrifice themselves for an ideal. They can intimidate opponents and impact their morale. Sometimes it takes a reputation to go with these symbols. Consider their sophistication. Expert swordsmen have more refinement than those who bash people; their symbol can reflect a fighting style. Education matters, too; if ordinary people can join and find a calling, perhaps a symbol reflects a universal appeal, whereas a highly trained group might want to appear elite.

Animals and weapons of war (especially one that group is known to use) are frequent symbols. If we’ve invented animals, we can leverage their reputation. Using Earth examples, what comes to mind for a lion, snake, eagle, or horse? Symbols that require explanation are less powerful, so if we’re using an animal the audience hasn’t seen, show it and establish its reputation before revealing it’s part of a symbol.

Symbols of Acceptance

Medals, pins, clothing, armor, weapons, and transportation can also show that someone is a member of this military group. However, the purpose of medals and pins are often to denote rank, whereas clothing signifies membership. A uniform is often head-to-toe, but in fantasy, it may be less comprehensive. We sometimes show them wearing their own attire but with an item like a cloak to denote service, as if uniforms don’t exist, possibly due to limited manufacturing.

Militaries have requirements for armor and weapons, the style of which can reveal service, though this assumes mass production more likely to be found in SF but not fantasy. Either genre can cause symbols to be added. In fantasy, just as clothing might not be supplied, weapons or armor not be provided for some soldiers so that they’re using their own. In addition, a soldier might own something unique that they might not be allowed to use, whether it’s weapons, armor, or their own steed, because uniformity is encouraged. Getting special exception can be problematic if others resent it.

For transportation, if they require something to do their job, like a highly trained animal, they may be given this. It still belongs to the military, who is responsible for its stabling and care when not in use. Do they form bonds with an animal so that it’s considered theirs despite this, or are they expected to use whichever one is available? People are sometimes sentimental about ships, which have their quirks, but these almost always belong to a military, sovereign power, settlement, or wealthy privateers due to sheer cost.


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