There are three important Tim O'Briens in the story: Tim the Soldier, Tim the Writer, and Timmy the Kid. They're all the same person, but it's important for you to keep the three separate, so we'll do the same. Let's start with Tim the Soldier.
Tim the Soldier
Tim the Soldier is kind of a mess at first. He never expected to go to war in the first place. He was Phi Beta Kappa in college and had a full scholarship to graduate school at Harvard when he got drafted. He went to the war because he was embarrassed not to. Most of the men in his platoon—Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Kiowa, Azar—have been in Vietnam for a lot longer than he has, and he doesn't want to seem weak in front of them.
We don't hear this stuff chronologically, mind you: we get it in bits and pieces. (This is something that we'll be taking up with Tim the Writer in a few paragraphs.) In some of the stories, we don't even know that O'Brien is there, but assume that he is, because, well, he's the one who wrote the book, right?
Eventually, though, O'Brien settles in and becomes something of a nonentity. He's the guy who listens to everyone else's stories. He's the guy who watches Azar's antics and Henry Dobbins's random kindness. He notices the way the light moves in the trees and the grotesque and awesome beauty of napalm. But, in all that noticing, we sure don't learn much about his personality. Heck, he doesn't even mention himself and what he carries in "The Things They Carried"!
In fact, he's only an active participant in three war stories: "The Man I Killed," "In the Field," and "The Ghost Soldiers." In "The Man I Killed," he can't look away from a young man he killed with a grenade. In another—"In the Field"—he inadvertently causes the death of Kiowa, his best friend. And in "The Ghost Soldiers," he gets sucked into a quest for revenge that begins to symbolize the war itself. If Tim the Soldier were a real person, he might actually be a little scary. But Tim the Soldier is not a real person, despite the fact that he shares the author's name. He is a fictional character, invented by…
Tim the Writer
Okay, so we may have exaggerated. Tim the Soldier does have some elements of truth to him, and he wasn't completely fabricated by Tim the Writer. But we wanted to whack Tim the Writer on the head with a guava fruit the first time we read "Good Form," so forgive us if we're a little sensitive on the topic.
Tim the Writer is forty-three years old, and he's writing a series of short stories about his time spent as a foot soldier in Vietnam. It's not until we get to the story "Good Form" that O'Brien lets us know that every single other part of the book—every character, every event, and even facts about Tim the Writer's own life—are, um, invented:
"Daddy, tell the truth," Kathleen can say, "did you ever kill anybody?" And I can say, honestly, "Of course not." Or I can say, honestly, "Yes." (Good Form.11-2)
(Even in the story "Good Form," where he's supposedly coming clean about how much he's made up, he claims to have a daughter named Kathleen. The real-life Tim O'Brien does not have a daughter, let alone one named Kathleen.)
But hang onto that guava for a minute. Tim the Writer has reasons for inventing everything, and those reasons are pretty compelling. We talk about them a lot over in "Themes: Truth" and "Themes: Literature and Writing," though, so we're not going to repeat ourselves here.
We do, however, want to talk for one second about how Tim the Writer treats Tim the Soldier. As we said, Tim the Soldier only takes part in three war stories—one, "The Man I Killed," is about giving a face to the faceless dead. The second, "In the Field," is about the culpability, both universal and personal, of every person in the death of a good man who was drowned in a sewage field. And the third, "The Ghost Soldiers," is about getting sucked into the vortex of hate and madness that is war. All of these stories are about (among other things) taking responsibility for the horrors of war, about forcing responsibility upon yourself even when it would be so easy to pretend you're above it all.
And the way Tim the Writer named Tim the Soldier "Tim" in the first place? We don't think it was just to mess with us. He's forcing responsibility onto himself.
Timmy the Kid
Finally, there's Timmy the Kid. Timmy the Kid is nine years old when the love of his life, a girl named Linda, dies of cancer. Timmy's mostly important because in him, we can see the beginnings of Tim the Writer.
Timmy deals with Linda's death by making up stories about her. Not only does he daydream about her generally, but he thinks up specific stories inside his head and uses them to bring her back to life. It's how he deals with the fact that she's dead. When he tells those stories about her, she's alive, giving him advice, reassuring him, or even just going ice-skating with him.
Later, Tim the Writer uses The Things They Carried to do the same thing for his friends who've died in Vietnam. And in that way—see "What's Up with the Ending?" for more on this—Timmy the Kid is able to save the life of Tim the Writer.
All Together Now
We meet Timmy at the end of the book, in "The Lives of the Dead," when there's this sort of glorious mix of Timmy the Kid, Tim the Soldier, and Tim the Writer going on. Tim the Soldier is in Vietnam, trying to cope with his first combat victim and, eventually, with the bodies of his comrades. Timmy the Kid is desperately dreaming up stories to bring Linda back to life. And Tim the Writer is sailing over all of it, weaving everything together with words and using Timmy's stories to make O'Brien's Vietnam come alive.
So, how do you feel about the Tims by the end of the book? Some people feel betrayed by the way Tim O'Brien twists the truth, and they can't get over it. We know that you might be feeling that way, but we urge you to try to get past it and see an intelligent man profoundly (and not surprisingly) damaged by war who is attempting to pay respect to his comrades the only way he can... by telling stories.Timeline