Riots & Rebellions Part 2: Revolutionaries

Whether an attempt at revolution succeeds depends very much on who is fighting it and what their goals are. Can they convince others to follow them? Do they have the skills to lead or are they a good enough judge of character that they can choose others to lead for them? What is motivating them? Is there a limit to how far they are willing to achieve their goals? All of these are important things to think about when plotting your world’s next great uprising.

Leadership

Not every revolutionary needs to be charismatic, but it certainly helps. So many uprisings come down to a single moment, a spark that sets off the rest of the powder keg. Your character either needs to be someone who can capture and channel that energy or have someone willing to take the stage on their behalf. Lot’s of people look back at George Washington as a great general but he actually didn’t win that many battles. Rather he excelled in picking good generals to advise him, getting people to work together, and keeping their moral up. The revolutionaries you design should have their own failings just like he did.

Whatever their brand of leadership may be, make your to leave room for them to make their share of mistakes. Make your character an brilliant planner, or a charismatic speaker, or maybe just someone who is too stubborn to give up. But also give them failings, bonus points if these failures are very public. Put your characters through the wringer and make them prove to the people that they deserve to lead the revolution.

Ideology

Revolutions are often preceded by decades of debate, philosophizing, unrest, broken promises, and even failed revolts. Competing ideologies are bound to spring up amidst all of this disagreement. Your characters may find themselves forced to work together with opposing factions in order to bring down the current regime, leaving pesking details like who will be in charge for later.

There may also be a fair number of martyrs in your setting’s revolutionary history. To your characters these martyrs might be serve as memories to rally around of a painful part of history that people are afraid of seeing repeated. These memories of failed revolutions can range from lost battles in the field and dissolution due to infighting to overzealous investigators guillotining everyone. A lot of this may not make it into the final story, but it makes for good worldbuilding and can be useful for figuring out how your characters will interact with their world and with each other.

Circumstances

You’ll need to decide very early on what your character’s background is and make sure that it is consistent with the cause they are fighting for. Their past should contribute to their motivations and why they want to see the current regime brought down but that does not mean their goals at all need to be noble. Some might become revolutionaries because they want glory or riches for themselves. Your revolutionary could just as easily be an army officer who was passed over for promotion or a foreign merchant who would rather see those annoying tariffs go away.

And what about revolutions that come from the top down? Say an altruistic monarch in your setting decides its time to implement a constitution. Will the country’s elite go along with these changes or will they fight to keep business as usual? Will the populace rejoice or will they suspect ulterior motives? Most people just want to keep food on the table and their families safe. They might well distrust someone who rocks the boat to much, even if they have good intentions.

Limits

If you are writing a story about revolutionaries then it’s probably safe to assume that you have them fighting for good cause, but how far are they willing to go for this cause? Is no price too high for the sake of the revolution, or are there some lines they simply will not cross? Better yet, is there a difference between where they say the line is and what they actually do?

You may want their adherence or lack thereof to influence their success. Making a choice that goes against their normal values may alienate supporters. Otherwise, your character refusing to do something that goes ‘too far’ might cost them an important victory. Values that limit their actions may drive a wedge between them and their allies who may come to see their morals as an obstacle in the way of their goals.

Vision vs Outcome

You should keep in mind what your revolutionary thinks is their end goal. Say they succeed in toppling the old regime. What will they do then? Do they want to lead the new government and build their ideal world or would they rather retire and let others carry the torch.

A revolution’s reality often does not live up to its promise. How will your character react when other revolutionaries have other ideas, or when they find themselves contradicting their beliefs for the sake of victory. Conflict requires hard choices and those choices might not always be the most appealing to your character’s moral compass.

Finally, if the revolution prevails will your character have the skills needed to build their envisioned future?

Riots & Rebellions

Revolutions can be an essential part of your narrative. Your story could begin with a coup, as happens in Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, or the story could lead into it with factions coming together and tension rising as the plot progresses. The revolution may also be in the distant or recent past, and can be the reason your setting is on the path that it is. Revolutionary rhetoric can shape your the worldview of your characters and their motivations. Fears of another rebellion or factions who feel like the last one didn’t go far enough can be great sources on conflict within a setting.

Breaking Point

One thing that you will have to decide quickly is what circumstances provided that catalyst for your revolt. At what point did things get so bad that the people decided that they had no choice but to rise up? Were there negotiations leading up to the revolt, and did one side not agree to terms or did someone decide that the terms agreed upon were not enough? Finally, was the revolt planned? A well-coordinated coup might be planned over months or years, or fighting might break out almost spontaneously and force both sides to prepare for a conflict they hadn’t yet prepared for.

This breaking point should also tie into the demographics of the rebellion and its scope. Coal miners rioting against decreased wages or worsening conditions will have a very different set of concerns than noble landowners trying to get out of paying the taxes they owe to the king. This sets up different ends goals for the conflict and the scope of change they want to see. The coal miners want a change in working conditions, while the nobles want a change in leadership.

  • While protesting increased bread prices, someone throws a rock at the troops called in to keep the crowds under control. The troops respond by attempting to disperse the crowds and several people die. The rioters now shift their focus to occupying neighborhoods and government buildings.
  • After losing yet another election, the leader of the opposition realizes that the ruling party never meant for fair elections in the first place.
  • Not wanting to risk their lives in what they see as another pointless attack, soldiers at the front stage a mutiny. The war-effort is now at risk of failing if the government cannot reach an agreement with the mutineers.
  • In order to pay his debts, the local lord raised the tithes owed to him by his estate’s serfs. Life is already hard on these serfs and they know that this increase will leave them close to starvation.
  • Wanting expanded civil rights and a constitution to limit the powers of the king, the people go out to the streets to protest, effectively shutting down the capital and trapping the king in his palace.

Leadership

Leadership of an uprising is important because it determines the public face of the movement and its objectives. Establishing clear lines of communication and being able to efficiently utilize resources in the face of what is likely a much better equipped adversary will have a huge role to play in a rebellion’s success or failure. A charismatic leader can attract more recruits and convince potential allies to take the movement seriously.

Forming coalitions that result in multiple leaders may give the rebellion the strength it needs to be successful, but several factions united only in their desire to see the old king overthrown will likely cause problems down the line if the leadership is divided between moderate and radical ideologies.

  • After deciding that the kingdom needs a new ruler, the rebellious nobles gather to elect one of their own to lead. They pick one who had blood ties to the throne, giving their movement some appearance of legitimacy.
  • Hearing of riots in the capital, the leader of opposition returns from their years of exile to lead the revolution. They find that new rivals for control of the movement have risen to prominence in their absence.
  • Realizing that they lack the resources to win the war on their own, the leaders of the opposition make an alliance with a group of disgruntled army officers who bring their troops and expertise to the side of the rebels.
  • The rioters succeeded in overwhelming the local garrisons and now have control over the city but lack a clear path forward. Several prominent citizens step forward with competing visions for the revolution.
  • Deciding that victory now is more important than ideals, the leaders of the rebellion invite a foreign ruler to join the conflict. Some in the movement worry that this new player is not as sympathetic to their cause as they claim to be.

Response

Once the rebellion begins, the existing government will have to decide on its response. For a monarch there are essentially four basic actions they can take; concede, abdicate, suppress, or do nothing and hope it goes away. There are pros and cons to each of these responses and what action the monarch takes will depend on how secure they feel in their position.

  • Unsure of the army’s loyalty, the king’s advisers convince him to abdicate in favor of a relative who they believe will be able to rule more effectively.
  • After several weeks of protest, the king relents and agrees to grant the people a constitution and a representative legislature.
  • Realizing that the rioting is confined only to the capital, the king calls in the army to put down the uprising. After several days of fighting in the streets the city is left in ruins and rebels are either captured or scattered.
  • Not wanting to shed his own people’s blood, but also not willing to give up his authority, the king gives contradictory orders to his troops and his stance on the matter seems to change from one day to the next. This allows the protesters time to coordinator their efforts and strengthen their position.
  • Unable to rally a force large enough to put down the rebellion, the king looks for foreign allies willing to lend their armies to the defense of the regime.

Aftermath

So the war has been won, or the riots put down, or a constitution granted…what next? If the rebels win they’ll have to form a new government and prove its legitimacy, if the king granted a constitution they will have to grow accustomed to the new limits on their authority. Have the results of the uprising led to a bright future for the country, or set it up for another crisis in a few years?

  • Although they have been granted a constitution and a legislative body, reformers soon realize that the assembly has been designed to serve in an advisory role and its actual powers have been limited. Discontent begins to build again.
  • After brutally suppressing the rebellion the government cracks down on the underground newspapers and secret meetings that led to the revolts in the first place.
  • After several weeks of fighting the leaders of the peasant rebellion have all been killed or captured. For the rest its a return to life as normal, although the lord now realizes the danger to himself that comes with raising taxes and lowers them to their pre-revolt levels.
  • With the help of several nobles the rebellion was won, now the elites who assisted in this victory expect to receive their rewards. As titles and lands are handed out to them, the people begin to wonder what exactly they had been fighting for.
  • The opposition party has overthrown the king and seized power. They come into government expecting to make broad reforms but soon realize that the country is deeply in debt to foreign creditors. Lacking confidence in the new government’s ability make payments, these creditors attempt to collect what they are owed before the new regime goes bankrupt.
  • Fearing a disruption to the established balance of power, neighboring nations move to contain the rebellion, putting forth a distant cousin of the deposed king as the new heir. Worn out from the fighting, the revolutionaries are now forced to prepare for a new conflict.
  • Now that the war is over the provisional government must decide when to hold elections. Some within the council want to hold elections immediately before their rivals have a chance to gather support. Opposition to this results in a deadlock, and some begin to lose faith in the new government.