Many business stories ring false because their characters just aren’t believable. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert explores the idea that some real-world leaders are so outrageous that their stories come across as cartoonishly implausible.
Writing believable characters in fiction is darned difficult. Not impossible, just difficult. If an author doesn’t understand what ‘normal’ looks, sounds and feels like for a specific occupation or environment, the scenes that he or she writes with that character will ring false to anyone who had first-hand experience with the character’s attributes. This is why young writers are advised to ‘write what you know’ first, so as to master the mechanics of plotting, dialogue and tone, saving characterization for later. Writing about an occupation or an environment that you have no clear understanding of runs the risk of alienating or even angering your audience when that character comes across like a lazy pastiche – or, worse, as a Mary Sue.
Of course, authors rarely have the luxury of writing only scenes that they’ve personally experienced. If this was an ironclad rule, we’d never have any science fiction or fantasy stories. After all, no one’s alive today has ever been a Renascence swashbuckler… or an elf. That’s not necessarily a problem, so long as an author has mastered the art of drawing complex, nuanced and internally-consistent characters. Readers can tell when a character is well-thought, and has been drawn from at least some measure of either personal experience or applied research. They’re also forgiving of small mistakes.
This is why David Drake’s military fiction resonates strongly with me: Drake learned soldiering as a combat veteran with the Armoured Cavalry. I learned it with the Mechanized Infantry – the cavalry’s big brother. So, when Drake writes about the horror, confusion and desperation of armoured battles, it comes across as consistently true.  Contrast that with celebrity author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, where his female lead — Lisbeth Salander – completely fails to resonate as a believable character.
To be fair, most of the book and film critics adored Lisbeth; most, but not all. One of my favourite local critics acidly quipped that Lisbeth Salander was the product of ‘…a middle-aged white guy trying to guess what an edgy, sexy goth girl might be like without ever having met one’. I concur with that position. As a cyber security professional and as a writer, I felt that Lisbeth was so obviously constructed from pop culture hacker stereotypes that her character couldn’t be taken seriously. The first time that I came across a paperback copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I read two random pages and set the book down in disgust because of how cloyingly Lisbeth was written. 
This problem applies to non-fiction writing as well. This is why the characters in many business stories don’t ring true: business books, movies and case studies attempt to portray real people and real events, but many business stories employ clumsily-fictionalized versions of real people and places. Professionals who have actually worked in the environments featured in supposedly-biographical portrayals instantly recognize when a person acts in manner inconsistent with their role, status or motivations. Pseudo-autobiographies are the worst when it comes to this. Business school publications are also likely to fictionalize their characters so that they come across as either glorious heroes or dastardly villains… rather than as believable human beings. Complex characters get ignored in favour of tropes and recognizable archetypes.
This often happens because writers have agendas. They have a point to make, and need their characters to avoid sending mixed messages. The temptation to ‘spin’ people and events to help drive home a core message is extremely tempting. All writers are vulnerable to this pressure. It takes experience, restraint and discipline to keep portrayals of real people fair and accurate.
The trouble is, some real people are so bloody ridiculous that any written portrayal of them comes across as implausible. Their terrible behaviour, self-destructive tendencies, poor decisions and indefensible positions seem more like the antics of two-dimensional cartoon villains than of real people. And yet… what’s written is often exactly what really happened.
As an example, consider Major Bob. This woman was a beautiful case study in horrible leadership practices, but Bob as a character just doesn’t ring true. A reasonable reader would scoff at her; no one would ever be so childish and nasty. And yet… everything that I’m writing here really happened. I witnessed it all, up close, and even I still don’t completely believe it.
The story takes place in Korea in the summer of 1991. I’d volunteered to serve a six-week overseas ‘internship’ after I graduated from Army ROTC Advanced Camp and got posted to Korea.  I was assigned as a ‘Temporary Third Lieutenant’ to a signals (communications) battalion in the heart of the capitol. In theory, I was supposed to shadow a platoon leader for six weeks in order to gain insight into what I’d (supposedly) be doing after I was commissioned. Unfortunately, the unit I posted to didn’t have any actual companies or platoons to serve in. This unit was only responsible for television and radio broadcasting. They had a small administrative HQ in Seoul and equally small outposts scattered all up and down the peninsula. They should never have been assigned an intern.
Major Bob, the battalion commander, was a mid-career Signal Corps officer with about ten years’ service under her web belt. It was clear from our first encounter that she’d never been mentored on leadership. She had no ‘command presence’. She didn’t exude authority. Instead, she came across as flighty, distracted and tetchy. Bob had no idea what to do with me. I was posted to her unit for six weeks, but she wasn’t interested in getting me involved in battalion activities. She actually seemed annoyed at having me foisted on her, and intimated that she didn’t much care what I got up to so long as I stayed out of her way. I suspected that I wasn’t likely to learn anything from her.
I later learned from one of her junior NCOs that Bob was supposedly carrying on a long-term illicit relationship with her S-3 (Operations) officer.  That theory explained why the two of them (a) rarely ever showed up at the office, and (b) could almost always be tracked down at Major Bob’s quarters during duty hours. The two officers’ overly-friendly public behaviour lent credence to the troopers’ suspicions.
For my first two weeks in-country, my ‘duties’ consisted of sitting around the HQ with nothing to do. Literally nothing. I’d go to the camp snack bar mid-morning for doughnuts and coffee, read the day’s copy of Stars & Stripes until lunch, then fight to stay awake all afternoon before departing at three. A pair of junior NCOs were posted to the HQ building with me, and they were just as bored as I was. The two sergeants answered phones, ran errands and watched television. Major Bob only ever showed up for about 15 minutes each day to check her messages, then disappeared. Our standing instructions were to call her at her quarters if anything urgent (like a TV signal outage) happened. Otherwise, we were all to leave her alone.
I struggled to find something useful to do. The NCOs were no help, because they didn’t have anything to do themselves. One of the lieutenants agreed to let me tag along with him on a remote base resupply run, but that adventure only lasted for a day. I pestered Major Bob for a way to contribute, but she didn’t have any ideas. Eventually, I annoyed her enough that she stuck me with some administrivia: she tasked me to finish drafting an overdue re-write of the battalion’s Nuclear, Biological, & Chemical warfare (NBC) Standard Operating Procedure.
I relished the challenge and dove into it, eager to make a difference. Unfortunately, the only way that I could gather the change data that I needed to complete the draft was to interview the battalion’s NBC NCO – an overweight and lazy Staff Sergeant who rarely ever came to work. I spent three weeks trying run the man to ground, and learned that he was absent from work nearly as much as Major Bob was. His office was either dark and locked up, or else he was ‘too busy’ to talk with me. For context’s sake, an NCO doesn’t get to refuse an officer’s ‘requests’ – even those from a Temporary Third Lieutenant. The sergeant was blatantly insubordinate, but I had no legal authority over him. I begged, pleaded, cajoled and barked at the sergeant, trying to get him to give me ten minutes of his time, and he simply refused. ‘I’m too busy,’ he said. ‘Come back in a few weeks.’
Fuming, I asked for help from Major Bob. It was her project, her staff and her requirement. After all, if she wanted the work done, she needed to order her NCO to cooperate. I had to lie in wait outside Bob’s office for a week and a half, badgering her (as politely as I could manage) on her path from the front door to her private office to help me help her. She told me that it was my problem that I wasn’t succeeding. She also chastised me for ‘bothering’ the sergeant while he was doing ‘real work’. I asked her what ‘real work’ he was completing when he was only present for duty 20 minutes per day on alternate weekdays. Bob angrily threw me out of the building.
I finally gave up on the both of them when my last week in-country rolled around. I talked one of the supply clerks into letting me borrow his office PC, then spent 15 hours reconstructing the NBC SOP by re-typing it from scratch. If I’m honest, that was one of my favourite memories from Korea: sitting in a Quonset hut late into the night, feverishly typing, all while torrential rains slammed the leaky old structure. I finally got the product completed around 10pm, printed the draft, wrote the file to a floppy disc and dropped the whole package in Major Bob’s inbox.
She never looked at it. Go figure.
48 hours before I left Korea, Major Bob summoned me to her office and informed me that she was disappointed in my performance. She complained that I hadn’t contributed anything useful to the unit mission, and accused me of having a ‘bad attitude’. She issued me a written performance report that rated me abysmally low. In it, she accused me in it of being ‘incapable of multitasking’, and of ‘not possessing a sense of humour’. I was stunned speechless. Later on, I came to understand that she was probably projecting her own insecurities and self-loathing onto me. After all, she didn’t know me at all – she had made no effort to get to know me. I was just another skinny soldier in cammies, indistinguishable from all the other nameless soldiers that she’d never cared to learn about.
That terrible personnel evaluation didn’t hurt my career any. When I got back to home station, my battalion commander read the ‘no sense of humour’ accusation, and commented that Major Bob must have been either an idiot or a tool. He advised me to ignore the experience and move on.
To be fair, I actually learned a lot from the Korean internship, specifically how not to run a medium-sized business. Bob had been an excellent role model, in that she helpfully illustrated many of the self-destructive traits and behaviours that our leadership instructors had cautioned us to avoid. Bob was emotionally disengaged from her mission and from her people. She avoided both her physical workplace and her responsibilities. She ignored problems rather than face them. She didn’t hold her people to account for even basic performance standards. She was arrogantly careless in concealing her own violations of regulations from public exposure. She left her organisation adrift. Worst of all, she engaged in acts of both blatant favouritism and petty abuse with her key staff. All of these attributes drove the junior members under her command to disengage from the unit mission as well. In her own way, Bob did more long-term damage to her battalion than a North Korean artillery barrage ever could.
I appreciate that Major Bob’s story seems implausible. Her real-life antics come across as an amalgam of various ‘pointy-haired boss’ horror stories, all rolled unrealistically into one placeholder character by a lazy writer. I get that. I was there, and I still can’t believe that this joke of a commander was real. That’s probably why I unconsciously waited for more than 245 columns before I was willing to try telling her story. She just doesn’t come across as a believable villain. But… it all really happened. I didn’t need to exaggerate or distort anything in the telling.
Maybe that’s why fiction writers like Larsson feel free to write characters who don’t in any way resemble real humans. Maybe they’ve had a few experiences with cartoonish impossibilities in their own lives, and realized that the world is quite a bit less rational than they’d expected it to be. So, why not make your female lead a stunningly beautiful, sexually charged, fiercely independent, iconoclastic, world-class hacker who possesses avant-garde fashion sense, grandmaster spycraft skills and an eidetic memory? Sure, it’s so utterly implausible that no one should ever take the character seriously… but, then again, Major Bob really existed. If there’s room enough for Bob in this Dilbertian nightmare world, then maybe there’s room enough for Lisbeth too.
 I urge everyone to give Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers stories a try.
 Your mileage may vary; if you liked Stieg’s work, good on ya. Enjoy.
 The program was called Cadet Troop Leader Training (CTLT), and it was (for all practical purposes) a corporate internship with a goofier dress code.
 Homosexual conduct was an ‘instant-out’ violation of US military regulations back in 1991, but most field soldiers didn’t give a damn about it. Discrete off-duty romantic escapades were ignored. Only the religious fanatics and scheming snakes in the ranks ever made an issue out of it.
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.