Launching this Sunday(I have an Army drill, so it'll take a while :p Thanks for the examples, please give a few more if you can
Creators often like to emphasize the importance of a military character by giving him a high rank. This is understandable, since one's first thought when seeing a character of high rank is that he must have gotten that far because of his merits, and there's a certain amount of Truth in Television
to it. Since, for example, battlefield commissions and promotions have been given to soldiers who've distinguished themselves for great deeds and exemplary service, giving a character a high rank means they must have done something to earn it, right?
However, writers can take this too far. WAY too far.
Over-ranked Soldier refers to a character whose rank is, quite simply, impossible for him to possess. The character's rank is so high, it breaks the audience's suspension of disbelief
. While the creator might just mean to use the character's rank to show his importance to the work, it shows the creator did not do the research the plausibility of the character possessing said rank.
This trope manifests in certain ways:
- The character is too young: Improbable Age as it applies to the military. Quite simply, it'd be impossible for the character to possess the rank at such a young age. Even the most prodigious soldier still needs a certain time in service to possess certain ranks, and some ranks are only attainable after a lifetime of service and excellence. Oh, and the character being an Ensign Newbie does NOT justify this. After all, it's ENSIGN Newbie, not ADMIRAL Newbie.
- The character is too disruptive: The Military Maverick will always be an attractive character archetype to audiences, since we tend to root for guys with guts and attitude. However, this works best with characters who are, at best, in the low officer ranks, where he spends more time in the battlefield than in the war room. The armed forces frown on disrespect to the chain of command, and would not give a high rank to such a disruptive soldier, no matter how much of a badass he is. In fact, the soldier's antics would more realistically result in a demotion instead of a promotion.
- The character is too incompetent: Another character type that is common in military media is a soldier who is high-ranked, yet is actually quite sucky at being a soldier or leader. Think of it as the military version of a Pointy-Haired Boss. In humorous media, this is all well and good, since it's just part of the absurdity of the setting, but in more serious fare, it makes the viewer wonder how the hell he got that far. This is aggravated by the fact that rank is partly merit-based, so a soldier that sucks at a low rank will STAY at a low rank.
- The character is actively dangerous/insane: This is a tricky one to deal with, because a character's lack of stability could be a sign of post-traumatic stress, which is completely plausible and sadly all too common, but this refers to a character who's obviously unstable and the chain of command doesn't do anything about it. If the character develops instability throughout the course of the story, it's completely plausible as long as it is addressed. If the character's instability is a regular part of the character and it is not specifically addressed in the work, it's this trope.
- The character is not respected by his subordinates: Any soldier who attains a high rank gets there both by his merits and the merits of the soldiers under him. A soldier whose subordinates subvert his authority at every chance they get will not reach a high rank, because not being able to lead limits his advancement. Common in humorous media, and animosity between high-ranked soldiers and subordinates does happen, but when it is to an extent that the higher-ranked soldier is disrespected and made to look a fool, it breaks plausibility.
One thing to note: this trope does not refer to rank outside of the traditional structure followed by most of the world's armed forces. Honorary ranks, ranks based on privilege or self-granted ranks do not count. A nobleman given a high military rank because of his high status, as unfortunate as it might be, is completely plausible, as is a 33 year-old revolutionary leader who is granted the rank of General by his fellow rebels(i.e. Fidel Castro). This trope is specifically about characters in fiction, within traditional military structure, that have a rank way beyond the realm of logic and possibility.
- In Metal Gear Solid 3, Ocelot is a Major. At 19 years old. If one charitably assumes that he rose in rank in the least amount of time required to hold said rank, he would have enlisted at around 4 years old.
- Jeanne Francoix/Dana Sterling of Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross/Robotech: The Masters Saga begins the series aged 17 and ranked a Sergeant Major, later being promoted to Lieutenant. While the promotion to Lieutenant based on merit is plausible, her initial rank of Sergeant Major is most definitely not, and is even more outrageous than Ocelot's rank. Both because of her age AND her attitude to authority, it'd be totally impossible for her to hold this rank.
- Sergeant Ernie Bilko is a Master Sergeant, which is plausible according to his age and responsibilities, but the fact he keeps this rank without being demoted because of his antics borders on divine intervention.
- Lieutenant Pete "Maverick" Mitchell from Top Gun. The stunts he pulls during training make it a miracle he even gets to fly in combat, let alone not be demoted.
- Miranda Keyes of the Halo series is a Lieutenant-Commander. She is competent, she does her job to the letter, the soldiers under her trust her explicitly, and she always keeps a level head on her shoulders. At the time of her death, she was twenty-seven years old.
- Stargate Universe gives us Ronald Greer, a Master Sergeant in the US Air Force at the age of 20. For reference, he can't have enlisted until he was 18 and Master Sergeant requires a minimum of 16 years of service.