Well, this is somewhat later than I promised, but here goes.
6) Consider the rebellion’s catalyst event carefully.
What made people stop tolerating a regime that may have had tolerable points, or one that they had some other reason to obey—a divine right of kings mandate, for example—and become rebels? There’s often some event that people can point to and say, “That was it, that was what lit the fire.” Even if there are some smaller events leading up to it, people tend to pick one dramatic one and hang on to it in their minds. Before it, there were no rebels. After it, the rulers have something to fear.
Fantasy often doesn’t handle this too well, not necessarily because fantasy authors lack a sense of the dramatic but because they are too well-indoctrinated with twentieth- and twenty-first century standards. For example, a member of a persecuted group is killed. But if the group was already being persecuted, what was it about this death that set everybody off? The author either has to backtrack and explain what about that particular person was so special, something that most of them are reluctant to do, or introduce a strong, personable, and involving character and then kill her off, which they don’t want to do either. A death is most affecting when it happens to someone we know or come to know, though, not someone faceless. A person who is faceless needs special conditions to set off the mob, such as it being an extraordinarily public or messy execution. It can sometimes “just happen,” but if the reader doesn’t understand those circumstances, there is one unhappy reader on the other side of the book.
Another problem is that authors forget about lack of global communication in most fantasy worlds again. People a thousand miles away know about the death the next morning, and set plans in motion to attack the rulers. How? A coordinated system of rebel communication is possible, but whether they have a secret postal system, a Pony Express waiting to run and carry the news, or super-fast messenger birds, it needs to be accounted for.
Also consider why the catalyst event happened the way it did. The government has a popular rebel leader in its hands, and murmurs of discontent are stirring. Why are they going to execute her and make her a martyr? There are lots of possible reasons—fear, confusion, ignorance of how powerful the discontent really is, the feeling that they’ll “make an example” of her—but too often the fantasy author seizes on the flimsiest one, that the ruler is just a sadistic bastard. Right. Why aren’t all the prisoners executed that way, then? And why have people tolerated him as long as they have, if he does execute everybody that way? Again, you come back to the problem of making that death special in a realistic way.
7) If the rebels are outgunned, keep some sense of perspective.
The ruling government is often portrayed as rich in weapons, magic, money, stupid minions willing to die for it, and the support of most of the population. The rebels are poor in everything except spunk. And then they win.
The rebels have to get weapons from somewhere. Weapons cost money, and probably one super-secret armory stuffed with the magical blades of old is all the reader is willing to allow you. Then how are they going to train in time? How are they going to convince mercenaries, one often turned-to solution, to fight for them? (No, the heroine should not smile at the mercenary captain and melt his icy heart. Even if she does that, she can’t convince his whole company that way). If they despise a lot of the surrounding population, as super-sekrit speshul groups tend to do, where are they going to get the numbers to even make a realistic strike?
There’s a very, very simple and obvious solution to that, one well-represented in world history: bring in another country that doesn’t like the ruling government. The American colonies brought in the French government, which was willing to help because they weren’t just snuggling up to England. French weapons, troops, ships, and training made the difference. Yes, there was diplomacy and treaties to get it to work, which might be boring to represent in a fantasy novel (or at least more challenging to write than endless battle scenes). The process could be compressed in fantasy, and a lot of readers would probably forgive you for it.
Most fantasy authors don’t think of this, though. They just put Destiny on the rebels’ side instead. They’re fighting for the Flame Child destined to rule the world, so of course they’re going to win!
Have I mentioned lately how much I hate Destiny?
Okay. So you have Destiny, which you could relate to a guiding religious or philosophical vision. Do the rebels in bad fantasy convince other people of this? No. They just show up, the Flame Child does something nifty and stupid with magic, and everyone falls on their knees. Fickle, aren’t they? If they can shift their support from the rulers to the rebels like that, I don’t know that I’d trust them very much.
The underdog idea can be played very well. But it is not inherently a great one, and your heroes don’t deserve to win only because they’re outnumbered. Make sure they do have a reasonable way to gain some support and become formidable, or else that they engage in terrorist strikes, which can be effective but is abhorrent to a lot of fantasy authors.
8) Put some divisive politics in the rebels’ side.
Rebel movements often fraction because people in the movement have conflicting ideas about how to achieve their goal. Two people start espousing just slightly different variations of the movement’s leading philosophy. They become entrenched in fanaticism, the fights between their supporters become more and more bitter, and in the end you have two (or more) splinter groups fighting each other as much as the government, easy prey for the rulers to swoop down and eat.
Then there’s the monolithic rebel movement of bad fantasy, where everyone smiles all the time and worships the leader. Did you know that that kind of simple happiness and obedience is characteristic of some people who’ve had a lobotomy?
This is actually one of the few criticisms I have of Carol Berg’s Rai-kirah saga, which is otherwise a good trilogy, some of the best fantasy I’ve read. The rebels in the second book seem to worship their leader, Blaise, and follow him all over the place, and start shrieking the moment it looks possible that he could be in danger. That changes in the third book, when they come into conflict with different rebel movements with different leaders, but there are very few questions about or challenges to Blaise’s leadership even when he makes some questionable decisions. Try to avoid this. Leadership based on charisma can be powerful, but it’s also subject to change if the leader pushes too far, or if someone joins the group who is that kind of doubtful, picky, clear-thinking, disbelieving person that most governments dread.
9) Introduce at least one semi-sympathetic person on the opposite side.
So there are all these people supporting the opposing government. The author sets that up specifically so that the rebel heroes can be outnumbered.
Is it really possible that all the people supporting the regime are morons?
Yes, some political pundits might answer, but do that in a fantasy novel and you have a sucky message fantasy. Just as there can be many possible motivations for the mistakes the government made that sparked the rebellion in the first place, there can be many possible motivations for continuing to serve the government when the rebellion begins. Honest belief in a philosophy is one of the best, and easiest to portray (at least, given that the author often portrays complete belief on the rebels’ side), and one of the least-used. Try wearing the other side’s skin for a while, and see what happens.
Perhaps the rebels are hostile to whatever group this person is part of. If you have three groups in conflict, one majority and two minorities, and the rebel group represents one of the minorities, why shouldn’t the other one join the opposite side? That’s one that I can’t remember seeing used, either, except in the Rai-kirah trilogy.
Perhaps this person is worried about the possible consequences of the rebellion (see point 10). Rebellions are messy. Blood shed, lives spilled, and, in many real-world rebellions of the lower classes against the nobles, destruction of artworks, books, churches, and homes. A woman who has spent her whole life teaching in a music school might not like it when the rebels storm her school and smash up her harps—and her students.
Or perhaps the person on the other side is just, you know, human, and capable of being intelligent and understandable. Guy Gavriel Kay takes that route in Tigana, where Brandin of Ygrath is the “evil” sorcerer who conquered half the Peninsula of the Palm. He came down especially hard on Tigana, the province which killed his son, and used his magic to strip away their very name. And yet, when Kay takes the narrative close to him, he appears as an intelligent, cultured man with a high sense of humor. A lot of the readers like him better than the rebels who are trying to unseat him. (I do).
Good people do fight on the opposite sides of wars. It does happen.
10) Rub the rebels’ noses in the consequences of the rebellion.
That cost I mentioned a few paragraphs ago? Yeah, it should apply to the rebels too. It’s ridiculous when the enemy can destroy every village it marches through, and yet the rebels somehow only kill people who deserve it and never trample any farmland, never ever. They probably don’t even step on any bugs as they walk along, singing their world’s equivalent of “Kumbaya” and holding hands. Meanwhile, the ruling government’s minions seek out rare species of beetle and step on them deliberately, of course, while singing their world’s equivalent of Marilyn Manson songs.
Actions have consequences. Your heroes shouldn’t get excepted from that. To use a personal example, from the last novel I wrote using a rebel hero: he had to realize, when he tried to get help from the villagers of his country, what two years of being without his special group’s magic had done to them. They had relied on magic for everything from building houses to protecting themselves from diseases. Two years without it, and cholera had ravaged them, their houses leaked in the rain and they had no idea how to repair them, bones broke and they had to let them heal crooked, they starved because of lack of magically created food… and on it went.
The consequences might not be quite that bad in your own fantasy world, but the rebels shouldn’t be blameless.
Given how many possibilities stories focused on rebellions offer, I don’t know why so many people manage to shipwreck them.