During the days of "Wooden Ships and Iron Men", midshipmen were apprentice officers. Most midshipmen started their naval careers at the age of 11 or 12, working on various ships while they learned seamanship, navigation, and the other skills an officer would need to lead a ship full of men. Most were the younger children of the landed gentry. In terms of authority, Midshipmen were considered the lowest ranking of all the officers on a ship, but regardless of age were treated as officers by the rest of the crew with all the responsibilities and authority that comes with it. (Ordinary seamen, on the other hand, might be as young as 7 or 9 depending on what sort of job they entered, such as The Cabin Boy—although not necessarily, as a man could enter the service as a seaman at any age.)
The word "midshipman" derives from the term "amidships", referring to the portion of the ship in which they lived and slept. During the 19th century training of naval officers in both the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy changed toward formal schooling in a naval college as opposed to an apprenticeship aboard ships, and the term "midshipman" changed to indicate an officer cadet.
The Plucky Middie is thus a special kind of Child Soldiers commonly seen in rousing tales of the sea. This character will be found serving on a tall-sailed Man-o-War alongside the stouthearted crew, sailing into adventure. His existence allows the creator to combine a coming-of-age story with a period naval adventure. Plucky Middies are always, well, plucky. They always show tremendous initiative, and braver than brave, and though they endure hardships like bullying and bad food, they always rise to the occasion and sometimes find themselves in charge.
They seem to be quite prone to dying tragically, often to provide Collateral Angst for other characters over their untimely deaths.
The trope is perhaps the result of exaggeration by Victorian authors, who knew of course that a large part of their audience would be teenage boys who sucked up naval adventure stories as quickly as they could. This is likely the reason for a lot of romanticized portrayals of Child Soldiers in general.
- Koby from One Piece. He wanted to join the navy ever since he was abducted by pirates when he was young, and once he did, is more than eager to do any of the hard training or chores. He's been promoted since then.
- Noonan, the father figure from Hitman got into this situation in WW2. It provided a tragic backstory because naturally, when the ship got into trouble, he was tossed first into the lifeboats.
- Tom the Cabin Boy from Captain Pugwash is the only member of the crew who actually does anything.
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World featured plucky Midshipmen Blakeney and Calamy, who look to be about twelve and fourteen years old, respectively (and the former serving as the trope picture). During the climactic battle, Blakeney is actually in command of the ship at one point and leads a boarding party of adult sailors in a boarding action. Calamy is given the mission of freeing prisoners, gets a Heroic Sacrifice moment, and is promoted to Lieutenant posthumously. (He died an acting third lieutenant, and his status at death would have been recorded as such on the ship's muster.) Subverted with Hollom, who is nearly thirty and has no hope of further advancement due to his incompetence and lack of leadership qualities. He commits suicide by jumping off the railing with a cannonball.
- Used in the film of Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. in which a plucky midshipman gives Hornblower (Gregory Peck) and Lady Barbara (Virginia Mayo) the opportunity to be parental, and then he dies tragically.
- In Alexis Carew, the title character's grandfather talks Captain Grantham into taking her aboard his ship as a midshipman for political reasons.note She spends the first book a plucky middie tasked with a variety of responsibilities aboard HMS Merlin, before spending the second book struggling to even survive her new, horribly sexist and lash-happy CO Captain Neals. Neals is ultimately Reassigned to Antarctica for his abusive conduct to his crew, and Alexis is promoted to lieutenant.
- Played with in the Aubrey-Maturin saga. Some of the middies start out inexperienced, but prove themselves and rise up the chain of command, as in the cases of Pullings, Babbington and Mowett. Others, like Blakeney, are more known for causing trouble such as swallowing the ship's grapeshot.
- Mostly averted in the Bloody Jack series. Since the first book focuses on the Ships' Boys, the Middies are more a foil for the bravery and wit of the protagonists. One of the Middies is a violent bully who targets our protagonist, as well as the other Midshipmen. One of the other Middies more of less earns the epithet 'plucky' after Jacky fires him up with pep talk and teaches him to fight dirty, and he eventually takes on his bullying shipmate in a fair fistfight. Since the place of 'plucky child crew-members' is being occupied in the story by the Boys, the Middies don't get story action besides this. However, since the best of the Boys are promoted to Midshipman rank by the end of the book, they they themselves eventually qualify for this trope.
- Even though she doesn't keep the formal rank long Jacky herself combines Plucky Middie with Plucky Girl by taking command of two separate ships when all of the deck officers are absent or incapacitated. In the second case the crew chose her over a superior (but supernumary) officer, even though she was technically under arrest for piracy at the time.
- The Bolitho series is long enough that many middies under the main character go on to become captains under his command decades later. One, his nephew Adam Pascoe, eventually takes over as series protagonist some 20 years after he first appeared at the age of fourteen.
- Arguably the Trope Maker: "Casabianca" a.k.a. "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck". It's been School Study Media for generations, to the point of becoming a Stock Parody. The poem is about the 12-year old Giocante Casabianca, the son of the commander of the French ship Orient, who refused to abandon his post without his father's orders even as the Orient burned in the Battle of the Nile. He died when the magazine exploded. This had such an effect on the enemy British that they didn't forget it for years—the poem was written in 1826, an entire generation later.
- In Cloud Atlas, there is an eager young lad serving aboard the ship in the first/last section. He has just signed on to the crew and while not an officer, certainly seems to be an homage to this character-type. Then he gets raped by the first mate after passing out during his initiation for crossing the equator the first time. He kills himself as a result, the protagonist doesn't take it well, but nobody else on the ship seems to care.
- The Honor Harrington series, being Horatio Hornblower IN SPACE!, often features Plucky Middies In Space. Due to the Prolong treatments that retard aging, they usually even look like the teens that were taken into service in Hornblower's time, further cementing the homage. A handful show up as main characters:
- Honor Harrington herself, in the short story "Ms Midshipwoman Harrington".
- Abigail Hearns, the first native female Grayson officer, in the short story "The Service of the Sword".
- Helen Zilwicki, Paulo d'Arezzo, Ragnhild Pavletic, Aikawa Kagiyama, and Leo Stottmeister, in The Shadow of Saganami.
- Horatio Hornblower: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, although Hornblower was 17 when he became a midshipman. Later in the series he serves with a number of younger Plucky Middie types, but they don't have a good survival rate.
- There are a couple throughout out the Kydd series, including Bowden, who later goes on to be signal midshipman at Trafalgar, and Luke Calloway, who's promoted from before the mast.
- Leviathan: Deryn Sharp loves her ship very much. Unlike most middies, her ship might love her back.
- Larry Niven's The Mote in God's Eye features three plucky midshipmen in space. They discover the evil conspiracy behind Motie society. And die heroically trying to escape with the information.
- David Drake's RCN series, being Aubrey-Maturin IN SPACE!, has several of these. Some, like Vesey, survive and rise through the ranks (she ends up being Daniel Leary's first officer for much of the series), while others are killed off at various points.
- The Safehold series takes place in a setting where Weber can use the original version of this trope. Midshipman Aplyn is eleven years old at the Battle of Darcos Sound.
- Seafort Saga: Midshipman's Hope is all about this trope; not just the protagonist, but his fellow midshipmen, play a pivotal role in the story and become men. In the background, they may join the navy at age 13 and be sent on long-range space voyages at 14.
- Emily Roland from the Temeraire books. While she only made midshipman (or rather the dragon-crew equivalent, midwingman) in the latest book she starts as one of Laurence's runners and is later promoted to ensign.
- Note that she is being explicitly groomed for command, to take over as Excidium's captain when her mother retires. This informs many of Captain Laurence's choices when he would rather keep her out of the line of fire.
- Doctor Who: In "Voyage of the Damned", Midshipman Alonso Frame has just qualified and is on his first tour out. He ends up being the only crewmember to survive besides ship's historian Mr. Copper, and manages to survive being shot in the gut and keeps the ship in orbit for as long as possible, ultimately playing a major role in preventing the starship Titanic from crashing into Earth before the Doctor can get to the bridge.
- Horatio Hornblower, as mentioned above, includes a few of these. The mini-series adaptation has mostly older midshipmen who are supposed to be in their mid to late teens. The following are the most prominent Middie characters.
- Horatio himself is unusually old to be a midshipman. He comes aboard the ship at 17 and has viewers wonder whether he's plucky. Good news! He is. He saves the day several times in the very first episode.
- In the inverse, Hornblower's rival in the first episode is a midshipman named Jack Simpson, a cruel, violent and petty tyrant who treats his men like servants rather than shipmates; he is the oldest midshipman on the ship because he consistently fails his examination for lieutenant (his best hope of advancement is an automatic promotion to lieutenant at the age of 50) and recacts by bullying the men under his command.
- Archie Kennedy is very go-hung in the first episode, looking forward to fighting the Frenchies! He proves himself a true Badass Adorable. He's later seen having serious doubts about his being officer material, but he's very good and competent, and he advances further in his naval career.
- Mr Wellard fills this role in the second instalment. Viewers sometimes like to joke that he appears to be the only Middie aboard the huge Renown. He has to struggle a lot, being tormented by their crazy captain, but he's shown to be capable and brave.
- In the third series, notably, HMS Hotspur has two midshipmen:
- Capable Charles Orrock, who plays this straight. He generally has it together, he's brave and dependable, and he knows his signals.
- Jack Hammond, an aversion, is rather incompetent. His motivation for joining the Navy is purely familial, and his admiration of Hornblower prompted him to serve on the Hotspur. He is shot and dies after one episode, just as he managed to redeem himself.
- Star Trek:
- Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In early seasons he was the Plucky Middie, before being given a field commission by Captain Picard and later attending Starfleet Academy. Ultimately, though, he dropped out of the Academy after a disciplinary incident on campus and ended up Walking the Earth as a civilian for a while.
- In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Nog chooses to become the first Ferengi to enter Starfleet (initially thinking this means apprenticing himself to Captain Sisko, who has to explain the actual entry procedures), and later returning to the station as a cadet. He's given a battlefield commission at the start of the Dominion War and finishes the series a full lieutenant and a seasoned veteran.
- Star Trek: Discovery: Sylvia Tilly is a Starfleet Academy fourth-year cadet stationed on USS Discovery. She's socially awkward but has a goal of becoming a captain someday, and protagonist Michael Burnham, who had been XO of USS Shenzhou before being dishonorably discharged for mutiny at the end of the Pilot Movie, gives her a few pointers. She graduates at the end of season one.
- Skewered by Ork Freeboota Kaptin Bluddflagg of Dawn of War II Retribution; Bluddflagg always refers to his Kommando Nob as "young Master Spookums" and treats him exactly in accordance with the trope, blithely ignoring that Spookums is a sadistic, bomb-obsessed eight-foot murder-machine.
- In Return of the Obra Dinn there are 3 midshipmen who all die heroically. One burns to death fighting a monster, one gets exploded fighting a kraken and the last one is stabbed to death while trying to warn everyone about a mutiny.
- The Royal Navy still has a midshipman rank, but most of their training takes place at the lower rank of "Officer Cadet" and is a bit less on-the-job; in practice, "middies" are more the Ensign Newbie. Literally, in fact; there's no longer an "ensign" rank between Midshipman and Sub-Lieutenant. The de facto minimum age of enlistment is also now 18 years of age, because all Officer Cadets are expected to have completed their A-Levels.
- George VI was this during World War I. He was promoted Sublieutenant in time to serve at the Battle of Jutland.
- Several famous naval officers had once been this, naturally enough, such as future admiral Horatio Nelson.
- There was a dark side which is seldom mentioned. This custom often ended up with youths being given a shocking amount of authority long before they were mature enough to handle it. While some became good officers, it wasn't unknown for them to be sadistic tyrants.
- Another dark side is what happened to Middies who weren't sufficiently plucky: Sent home in disgrace if they were lucky, marooned overseas or worse if they weren't.
- Not to mention of course the soldier part of child soldier; those 11 and 12 year old midshipmen weren't in any less danger of being maimed or killed by flying shot and splinters (if "splinter" is the right word to describe something six feet long and four inches thick with razor-sharp edges...) than anyone else on a warship, not to mention being just as exposed to the day to day hazards of a mariner's life on a tall ship. (That side is usually mentioned. He can't be plucky if there is nothing to be plucky about.)