This is the rant on revolutions and civil wars. I have a lot of ideas about them. I am going to try to convey those ideas without babbling on for a ridiculous length of time.

1) Under “grievances,” see “deep-seated” and “long-simmering.”

Because the power necessary to want to topple a whole society really should come from strong emotion, not because the Duke of Whatthefuckever got up cranky that morning and decided to pull a coup for the fun of it.

Fantasy revolutions can start because of the same kind of society-wide problems that started the French Revolution, but that’s actually relatively rare. The same goes with civil war, where a deep divide would seem necessary to split the country in half, but isn’t always naturally present. Instead, authors have political cabals plot to start revolutions and introduce grievances and problems artificially.

Well, okay. But then I want the cabals to have their own strong reasons for pulling such a risky and high-stakes maneuver, rather than pursuing the tamer paths of politics. (Remember when we discussed fantasy politicians settling grievances with knives all the time, even though authors had set up story environments that made that stupid? This is cousin to that). “Because they’re Evil” is not enough of a reason. Show me what grudges or power-trip issues they’ve got that reconcile them to this path.

Also, see point 3, because that can fuck up a neatly planned change in power but good.

2) Sparking incidents DO help.

Too many times I’ve read a sentence like the following: “Afterwards, no one could say what started it, but suddenly the crowd was a mob, and the revolution had begun.”

That might be true in real life, but fiction is not real life. You, the author, have a say in what sparks this revolution or civil war—what causes the chaos to spread instead of staying confined, or what makes the government declare war on whatever faction or part of the political entity is arguing with them. And if you’re using a cabal to start it, then you’re presenting the beginning, at least (point 3 is waiting in the background), as part of a deliberate strike, not a random one. You have to know what that strike is, and why it, of all the possible weak points the cabal could have picked, is what kicks the matrix to pieces.

Knowing what sets the spark to the tinder helps readers to get a clearer picture of the society and its issues, helps to set up sides, helps to show the planning of the cabal if it should exist, and can provide some pretty good drama all by itself and add to the spreading sense of a whole society getting a good shaking-up. Sure, I suppose you could start the revolution totally randomly, and it might be something you want to do because of viewpoint constraints, but I think a clear picture of the sparking incident is the better choice, especially because that one-time commitment to randomness often contradicts the neat plans the author’s laid elsewhere.

3) Theory, meet practice. Practice will now screw you over.

“Planned revolution” or “planned civil war” is usually an oxymoron once it gets going. The exception would be the quiet coup where a few nobles shoot the king and one of them takes over as the new monarch, but in that case immense numbers of people are not involved, and the nobles are really practicing a change of power, not a change of policy. There’s far fewer opportunities for chaos there.

But if the revolution or the civil war gets out into the streets, the states, and the battlefields, good luck getting it back. The prospect of change fills the air with bright mad possibility. People embrace the opportunity, lash out, try to survive, try to defend a small place or group of people they hold dear, die, follow demagogues, become converts to new political causes, express old hatreds, discover rare heroism, and abandon each other. (See point 5). And all of those actions spread their own reactions. For example, one person’s survival may mean looting the heavily guarded home of another person trying to survive, and of course the defender will react as she sees appropriate. And many people become notably less concerned about things like whether killing this one enemy will stain their immortal soul when this enemy is armed to the teeth and trying to kill their children for the small scraps of food in the house.

Writing revolutions and civil wars are glorious exercises in chaos, the chance to step into internal war zones. Having everything proceed exactly the way the cabal predicted it would is pretty boring.

4) “But you should at least meet us on clear, flat battlefields where we can see you coming.” “No.”

Revolutions and civil wars are different from “ordinary” wars in that all sides have a home advantage: basic familiarity with the land, the layout of the cities, and usually the language, the culture, the religion, and other aspects of society that may prove impenetrable barriers to a country invading an alien land. That means that battles can takes place in cities as well as on clear, flat battlefields where the two armies can see each other coming. The armies may race each other to get the best battlefields, or send scouts ahead to make sure they can secure the high ground, a water supply, or other necessary advantages. The biggest “battles” may actually be skirmishes between clearly demarcated boundaries (especially if one part of the country tries to secede and the other part is more concerned with protecting its own integrity than reclaiming the separatists). There may be small, sharply planned strikes where they will do the most harm, such as against granaries and armories, rather than random stealth attacks. Or they may be random stealth attacks, as half-crushed revolutionaries vent their frustrations the only way they know how. A lot of the raids will probably affect perfectly ordinary people, because while the armed sides will need weapons and grand symbolic gestures, they’ll also need food, clothes, and labor.

And, of course, everyone who dies in a revolution or civil war is coming from the remnants of a once-unified group, rather than from an outsider force.

5) Have all the sides you want. Sides for everybody!

Civil wars with just two sides are certainly possible, although I think there will probably also be neutral parties, fence-sitters, and outside parties (see point 9). I find it harder to believe with revolutions, since so many of their actions don’t take place on battlefields. If the original cabal collapses, then there’s no guarantee that the people who immediately succeed them will remain in power for long. (See the French Revolution for a very pointed example of that process). And there will also be the neutral parties, fence-sitters, and outside parties, some of whom are going to be non-soldiers whose services the people competing for power still want.

My point: if the process fractures, it doesn’t need to fracture into just two halves and then never move again. Feel free to stir in as many political factions as you think you can comfortably handle. Some ideas:

  • Oppressed groups who see this moment as the prime one for claiming back some of their own lost prestige and safety (it doesn’t have to be the oppressed group that may have begun the revolution).
  • Converts to the political causes who become more popular and charismatic leaders than the original ones, and form their own factions of followers.
  • Visionaries and artists who guide the revolution, or at least attempt to.
  • Religious groups, who may be trying to make new converts or trying to protect their own, or both at once if they can.
  • Outside merchants and speculators daring to try to come in and take what profit they can.
  • Powerful families and others who establish sanctuaries and guarded fortresses and would like to preserve as much of the old status quo as possible.
  • The newly powerful who want change to go so far and no further.
  • People who really are heroes or think they are, and are in there trying to do humanitarian work.

If the author isn’t aiming for a panoramic work, but a small and personal story in the midst of a revolution or civil war, it’s probably best to keep the mentions of political groups vague. But limiting the sides to two, one clearly Right and one clearly Wrong, feels like a cheat in this kind of situation. Surely, if the society’s split in half, that doesn’t mean half the people in it are evil. Explore, and you might find problems under the surface that indicate those sides aren’t as stable as some observers would like to believe.

6) Show many different kinds of broken bonds.

I do get tired of lovers or family members fighting on opposite sides, because those are usually the only kinds of bonds that authors look at. Also, if you really want to make the hero’s lover a traitor, give her a better reason than because she’s Evil, okay? It deprives you of all the internal bitterness and tension that goes along with writing a conflict like this, and makes it indistinguishable from an outside invasion.

But, just as lovers might part ways over political differences, surely friends could do the same. Surely neighbors could—and that’s dangerous in a unique way, since someone on the other side of the city can’t shoot a crossbow through your bedroom window. Surely a part of a city might become militarized or barricaded, and those in the middle of it who don’t share the beliefs of that neighborhood have a tricky line to walk. It’s even worse when suspicion and witch-hunts come marching. (See point 7). Foreigners in the middle of all that tension would be especially vulnerable targets, and that would create diplomatic incidents.

A revolution or civil war that doesn’t respect romantic and familial bonds is not going to respect any of the others, either. Think of every possible connection a person could possibly have. Then imagine all of them torn asunder. It’s acutely painful, and it shows a society bleeding from more wounds than if the protagonist finds he has to fight his brother and his wife, but everyone else he knows is with him.

7) Physical violence is only the edge of oppression.

It’s horrible, sure. But imagine that, rather than being axed the first day that revolution broke out, you lived in a place where the threat of the axe was present every day. Months and months and months of mind-numbing terror, of people spying on you, of witch-hunts for those who didn’t believe as one particular faction did, of random irruptions of cruelty over something else entirely taking whatever permanency you had left from you, of sudden death all around you, of food shortages and sleep shortages and thefts and coercion and no guarantee that you could protect the people you loved…

If your fantasy society is at war with itself, all of these are possible consequences, growing more probable depending on specific circumstances (food shortages could easily happen when an opposing army blocks the roads or burns crops or attacks granaries). Blood can flow, but it doesn’t have to be the protagonist’s blood in order to affect the protagonist. Nor do you have to use only physical violence if you want to win a reaction from your audience.

I think authors of revolutions and civil wars would do well to adopt those consequences. The internal strife that just takes secondary characters in carefully orchestrated death scenes and leaves random bodies lying in the street on occasion has too few teeth.

8) People argue politics in other ways than reasoned debate.

Sure, reasoned debate can happen, especially in those places beyond the reach of the conflict’s worst ravages. But some people just don’t debate that way. I’m always amazed when the author has a revolutionary who prefers direct, violent action burst out with a two-page speech of oratorical mastery at the height of the plot. I mean, why would this woman be trying to persuade the villain whom she thinks is wrong and dastardly to listen to her? Wouldn’t it be more her style to stab him with a dagger, the way that she’s done to everyone else in the book?

Other people just won’t have the time or the mental coherence to debate (see the rest of the points in the rant). Others will prefer a straightforward “Join me now or die!” style. And in some cases, though the character is certainly capable of debate, it wouldn’t make any sense to do so, or the author can’t put it in gracefully. So we switch to other methods.

What methods?

Demonstrations. Strikes. Protests. Rallies. Massacres. Building barricades. Meetings. Secret educational plans (it’d probably be quite a revolutionary act to teach a slave or servant to read). Kidnapping people and holding them for ransom. Incendiaries. Assassination attempts on carefully picked high-level targets. Symbolic gestures. Art. Theater. Political cartoons. Petitions. Boycotts. Rescues. Jail breaks. Spreading the truth. Chants. Songs. Reporting on traitors. Blockading ports. Declaring independence.

All of these are as much a part of fantasy’s heritage, I think, as sword-swinging epic battles and rational debate. Fantasy can include anything it damn well pleases, in this world or out of it. And having a revolution or civil war that only includes sword-swinging epic battles and rational debate is possible, but so is having one that includes all these other things, and plenty I haven’t named.

9) “Ooh, chaos? Big bucks for us!” say other political entities.

A country explodes in civil war. A part of it secedes. One of the first things that the separatists do is apply to other countries for recognition of their independence.

And the other countries sit back. And smile.

Outside political entities can aid a side in a revolution or civil war in numerous ways—selling them weapons, bringing them food past blocked roads and ports, giving them actual soldiers, training them, recognizing their political independence, making speeches on their home ground “condemning the atrocities in ______,” buying their products, receiving refugees, acting as negotiating parties for them in their disputes with the opposite side(s). There is also absolutely no universal law that says other political entities in a time of revolution or civil war will only help one side, or that they won’t come in and try to make as much money as they can off suffering and human misery, or that they won’t aid a struggling oppressed group or a bunch of separatists for their own reasons, or that they won’t say, “Get involved in your mess? Fuck off.”

I’ve said before that I’m tired of countries acquiring an evil reputation based on their having an evil king. I also roll my eyes when the author shows a country helping the opposite side to the protagonist’s in a revolution or civil war and claims that said country is therefore Evil. If nothing else, keeping the border quiet and keeping peace at home with a little token assistance is a rational reason, and if the opposite side to the protagonist’s looks like the winning one, then the country would probably make the reasonable assumption that this side is the one to aid.

Yeah, you can certainly have characters perceive another country as Evil for what they’re doing in this internal conflict. But only extremely silly authors make their characters’ perceptions match objective reality, so that anything they think is Evil really is Evil, and anything they think is Good really is Good. Behind that, have political reasons worked out for why the country’s doing what it’s doing. It makes your world into a much better place if the country revolves around itself and not the protagonist’s opinion of it.

10) You can write with some other message than “Revolution never truly changes anything.” Really.

I was impressed as hell with this one when I encountered it in 1984, because I’d never considered it before.

I read 1984 when I was 13. Now it’s 13 years later, and I’m a little tired of seeing every fantasy with a revolution or civil war spout it as if it were new.

Beyond saying that revolution never truly changes anything, explore the implications. What does it mean to say that? If the characters are aware of it, why did they launch a revolution in the first bloody place? Why do civil wars in the real world usually mark major changes in the structure of society, at least for a little while, rather than everyone just stepping back five or ten years and resuming their “natural” places? And how do people live and cope in a world where they realize that their much-beloved idealism has flaws in it?

Even more than that, what would a revolution that truly changed things look like?

This is fantasy. I’m really the fuck tired of authors just repeating banal lessons over and over again. “Opposites attract.” “Revolution never truly changes anything.” “No one is all evil or all good.” (The last one gets violated all the time anyway). Go beyond that. Start exploring the implications; take the lesson as the beginning, not the end, and write a story that shows what happens when characters are aware of and reacting against it, rather than just trudging down another path that will teach them something the audience is already aware of. Or set up a situation where the lesson is not true, and people who act by its assumptions will fall flat on their asses. Paint something new.

One more rant, and then time for another poll again.

And this was a one-parter. Yay. *collapses*