This is a subject that’s rather been on my mind lately, since I wrote one rebel hero and, in my current novel, a woman who wishes the rebels and the status quo would all just get drowned together (in the immortal words of Mark Twain about James Fenimore Cooper’s characters). The vast majority of fantasies are about people rebelling against an evil overlord or a usurper or some aspect of the world as it is. So here are ways that I think they should be handled, combined with irritations about the way they often are handled.
1) Create dynamic rebel leaders.
If you have a rebellion that’s bound together by a leader’s charisma and courage, remember to actually invest him with the charisma and courage. I’ve read fantasy stories where the author, intending the hero to become the new rebel leader, invests the former one with all the charisma of a wet rat and all the courage of a damp log. There’s no explanation for how the group held together or won any victories at all before the hero got there.
What makes the rebels stay with their leader, instead of turning him out and finding a new one, or becoming many little splinter groups? They may have good motives for rebelling in the first place (although see point 2), but they’re doomed if they don’t also have someone who can weld them into one unit, come up with plans to make sure they’re not taken at once by their enemies, and wield power that will bear them through losses. It doesn’t have to a wild-eyed fanatic; it can be a calm strategist, or a powerful mage who offers them hope in the future, or an orator who binds them with his words. There can also be a council or group or pair of leaders. But there shouldn’t just be a slot for the hero to slide into.
Nor is the rebel leader who rules by brute force alone, a thug, really a good idea. Once again, it begs the question of why the other members of the group, who are always author-controlled perceptive enough to recognize the hero’s value as a leader right away, have stayed with him. He may be able to make himself scary, but almost certainly the rewards of staying with such a person are outweighed by the rewards of turning him in to the powers that be. Someone who cared more about their skin and sleeping without fear of a slit throat would have done it long ago.
If you do want to write a hero who becomes a rebel leader, I think it’s best to have him come in at the start of the actual revolt, rather than introducing him into it when it’s been going on for months or years. That means that the group’s tactics and grievances have a chance to form around him, rather than him thrusting out someone already in place in a power struggle that the group can hardly afford.
2) Why are these people rebelling?
Most of the time it’s not that hard to come up with a good motive. Intolerable conditions can be found in all matter of circumstances: rule by an undeserving elite, famine for the lower classes while the upper class feasts, people taking one segment of society too much for granted, new ideas being introduced that prompt social change, a matter of economics shifting and bringing in money from new quarters (or imposing higher taxes), unhappiness with a particular king or church or way of life, and, yes, if you must, persecution of a Speshul Group like witches or the members of one particular religion. In fantasy, there’s also the matter of magic, which perhaps takes the place that technology holds in our own world. There were revolts by workers in our nineteenth century who feared that machines would take their places. What about farmers who fear that earth mages will replace in them in the fields?
Given all that, it’s hard to imagine fantasy authors inventing paper-thin motives for rebellion, but they manage it. Revenge is a favorite one. Someone sees her family die, and she runs off and promptly joins a hard, dangerous life of guerilla warfare for years for…
That’s the part that’s usually not explained. The heroine somehow learns that the evil queen was behind ordering those soldiers into her village, again usually through paper-thin contrivances. So she becomes a rebel against the queen, and uses her magic to kill the soldiers. But wouldn’t it make more sense to just use her magic to attack the queen directly? Most fantasy heroines seem powerful enough to do that. If she can make the ground shake and dump a whole bunch of soldiers off a cliff, it seems she should be able to do the same thing to a vital section of the queen’s palace, especially when Evil Queenie doesn’t have magic herself.
Or perhaps the person who sent them wasn’t the queen, but a mage hiding out in the hills. The heroine joins the rebels because the rebels are in the hills, and uses her magic to kill the mage’s friends and hurt him…
Because that’s just what he did to her family.
Wait. Something’s not right there.
Revenge is one of those things that gets the double-standard treatment a lot in fantasy, and as a motive for joining a rebellion, it’s not the greatest. Now, a lot can be done if the author is willing to recognize that the revenge-driven person is falling into the same darkness that claimed her opponent’s soul, and works with it. But usually that doesn’t happen. We’re supposed to applaud the character’s apparently good and direct revenge, even as she goes about it through the most circular and indirect means.
Come up with rebels who have reasons to be in a rebellion, rather than simply hunting down and killing an enemy.
3) Inject some pragmatism.
One favorite trick in fantasy stories of rebellions is for the rebels to have some marking—a drawing of a particular animal, a slogan, a symbol—that they leave when they win some victory or kill someone. It can work, in situations where the author is portraying the rebellion trying to emerge into the light and work their way to victory.
I don’t think it works as well when the rebels are supposed to be a secret, conspiratorial group. They kill someone who’s their opponent, and then on the body leave a marking that points straight to their identity? (For example, a snake symbol left by a rebel leader whose name means Serpent).
The usual explanation is that the rebels want to put fear in their enemies’ hearts. In that case, the better trick would be to a leave a symbol that’s not so easily identifiable, and make themselves true shadows. Let their enemies spin complicated and confused theories about them rather than handing them the keys to the mystery gate.
Similarly, the dramatic speech to the evil defenders of the status quo, or letting a group of soldiers go disarmed so that they can tell the ruler of the rebels’ glory? Dramatic, yes, but not necessarily effective. If the evil ruler has a teaspoon of gray matter in his head, he’ll memorize the rebel leader’s appearance and be on the lookout for it again. Similarly, a party of soldiers could easily include a skilled tracker who might be able to lead the way back to the rebels’ den. Either could be death for a group who wants to remain secret and in the shadows.
Decide from the beginning what your group’s modus operandi is, and then pick tactics that fit it.
4) Be prepared to keep track of spies, contacts, and informants.
A lot of fantasies spin tales of rebels who live a double life. By night, they work against the evil empire; by day, they’re ordinary citizens, or scribes of the evil empire, or even high-ranking nobles who look for important information and pass it on.
This can work, but it has the same peril as other fantasies with mystery and intrigue at their heart: the author can start dropping threads, and making the characters know things they shouldn’t know, or learn too much by coincidence, or let them walk out of situations where they should have been trapped.
Spying is, and should be, perilous, especially if the evil empire has spies of its own, mind-reading magic, and so on. Unfortunately, in too many fantasies the author wants the aura of danger without ever letting anything bad happen to her characters. (Just like the way many fantasies treat “uncontrollable” magic, really). Let a spy come close to being caught, especially if she’s continued for a while without a mistake and gets overconfident. Let someone figure out that it’s very odd, isn’t it, that she leaves her home every full moon night for two hours and returns at the exact same time, every month. Let someone at least try to follow her; some spies never get followed despite an utter lack of precautions, which bewilders me. The rebels shouldn’t be so superior in the spy department that the evil empire’s agents never suspect anything, or I’m going to question why they didn’t win a long time ago.
Also, take note of realistic motives for spies as well as for rebels. If they simply pass along information, they might not be deep into the rebellion—in fact, they might have been kept ignorant for everyone’s protection, including their own—and might not believe in the same deep ideals the rebels do. If they only meet with their contacts, they might not know the ultimate destination of their secrets. And if the evil empire comes along and offers them a sweeter deal, or just tries to hire them without knowing they’re spies for the other side, why wouldn’t they become double agents? That’s another thing most fantasies lack, as well. The spies working for the rebel side are always right, and if they turn to the evil empire they’re dirty traitors. There seems to be a distant lack of cynical, observant people who just want money, even though being a professional eavesdropper would seem to breed cynicism like nobody’s business.
5) Keep up good relations with the neighbors.
I’m sure that villagers who are trying desperately to make a living from the land just adore rebels trampling through their fields and yelling at them about how they should fight the evil queen.
One thing that guerilla warriors need is a good knowledge of the land, and the ability to disappear into it effectively. That advantage goes to nil if the people who live on the land, farming it or hunting it or otherwise occupying it, don’t like them and willingly give their location away to the evil queen.
Here is another reason not to have a teeth-gratingly stupid or offensive person as the rebel leader, or as the liaison with the villagers. After two minutes with some of the people the authors put in their rebel groups, I’d march straight up to the evil queen’s palace and betray them, too.
On the other hand, it’s possible for a relationship between rebels and villagers to work out. If, say, the rebels rob the queen’s soldiers and then spread the money around in the village, or give it away freely, then the villagers are much more likely to make round eyes at the searchers and shake their heads. “Rebels around here? Nope, nope, never seen one.” Or perhaps the rebels help them with their farming, foraging, hunting, or child-raising. They can’t plot forever in smoky rooms, after all, and as well as increasing good-will with the villagers, it could help with their cover. “That man is Rebel Leader Bob? You must be joking, Officer. He’s Robb the Half-Wit, who comes in every morning to chop our wood.”
There’s really no reason to make rebels Speshul and the villagers stupid. They can and should share what’s safe to share.
A second part on this tomorrow. I have a lot to babble about on it.