Understanding Military Ranks - The Art of World Building
Oct 192020

Using ranks makes our armed forces more realistic. The simplest approach is to use a standard naming convention from Earth. It’s familiar and already understood (especially by those in a similar military branch here) while creating the necessary and believable structure that would likely exist. But we can also strike out on our own, carving out specific roles and their associated ranks. Renaming existing roles creates the sense of another world, but the audience won’t know what we mean without some minor exposition. If we choose to rename them, it might be wise to keep track of what they’re normally called for our internal world building files. Preserving the rank name lets us research more about them should we need to later.

The following chart lists ranks in order of highest to lowest and compares the titles of similar ranks across the army, navy, and air force.

ArmyNavyAir Force
Commissioned Officers
Field marshal, or General of the armyFleet AdmiralMarshal
GeneralAdmiralAir chief marshal
Lieutenant generalVice AdmiralAir marshal
Major generalRear AdmiralAir vice-marshal
Brigadier generalCommodoreAir commodore
ColonelCaptainGroup captain
Lieutenant colonelCommanderWing commander
MajorLieutenant CommanderSquadron leader
CaptainLieutenantFlight lieutenant
Lieutenant (first)Lieutenant junior gradeFlying officer
Second LieutenantEnsign or midshipmanPilot officer
Officer cadetOfficer cadetFlight cadet
Enlisted Grades
Warrant officer or sergeant majorWarrant officer or chief petty officerWarrant officer
SergeantPetty officerSergeant
CorporalLeading seamanCorporal
Private or gunner or trooperSeamanAirman

Figure 6 Military Comparison Ranks

Aside from those in the military (or their loved ones), most people have a limited understanding of or interest in relative ranks. Authors need to navigate this ignorance during storytelling. What the audience most needs to understand is who is higher and lower in the chain of command during a scene, not what their day-to-day responsibilities are; the audience can infer major duties from a scene involving the character carrying out some duties, such as during a battle scene. Ranks don’t accomplish this because most of us don’t know what something with a given rank does. So why do we care about rank? Because soldiers refer to each other by rank in dialogue.

If we’re writing a story that is heavy on the inner workings of a fictional military group we’ve invented, then we’ll need to invest more time in working out duties. This can also be easier than researching all of these ranks and trying to determine what they do. When I’ve investigated this, I’ve often come up empty, which is why there’s no chart listing every rank and its responsibilities. This also changes from country to country, meaning we have leeway to invent. Plausibility is the bar to get over; we are inventing a fictional group, not correlating it exactly to Earth military. Obviously, we don’t want to call an army private a general, and we should form a sense of hierarchy, but beyond that, little is needed by most world builders.


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