As my neighbors south of the border celebrated their independence day, revolution was very much on my mind. Not just because to the nature of the revolution that led to American independence, but also due to current events. Over the weekend I was amazed to see pictures of the latest rounds of protests in Egypt, larger and more impressive than ever before. Someone noted that it was the largest revolutionary gathering in history. (The protests in Brazil might give them a run for their money though.) And all this after the traditional media wrote off Egypt with pithy narratives about the inevitable failure of the Arab spring.
Egypt has shown true democratic backbone, and while the outcome is still in doubt I am impressed. We could use a little of that here in Canada, methinks.
All of this brought revolution to my mind. There are few actions that encompass conflict in the modern day more thoroughly than a revolution. When systems, beliefs, and states fall apart a revolution is the result these days, more often than an invasion. It is a topic that every modern writer should consider.
I often muse that the one truly successful trait of modern Democracy is that it harnesses the forces that give birth to revolutions, giving citizens the chance to oust governments and force change on a regular basis. And while political parties and other groups may exploit and attempt to control the system these efforts can only bottle up the people for so long. All of the clash and rhetoric with less blood, I guess.
Revolutions are great fodder for Modern Fantasy. They have much of the action of a war story, the politics and intrigue of a thriller, high-minded rhetoric, and deep, dark cynicism. A tale of revolution can be one about individuals caught in the tide of change or about those trying to pull the strings or lead from the front. The revolution can be inspiring and heroic, or bloody and ultimately doomed to fail. A revolution can also be an excellent backdrop for a novel, providing the kind of chaos that can act as a catalyst for a story with a more intimate focus.
What are some common scenarios for revolutions in fantasy?
1) Magic for the People!: In pastoral fantasy, especially those set in the middle ages, magic is the province of the learned.What if there was some sort of equivalent to the enlightenment, which began the spread of literacy and reason to all, with magic? The conflict between the common magic-users and the great and mighty aristocrats of sorcery could be very interesting.
2) Vampires, yo: Almost every tale with a Vampire protagonist has some sort of conflict between the younger, more modern Vampires and the older generations leading to a revolution of sorts.
3) Oppressed mages seek freedom: This is a common use, the latest version of which we can see in the Dragon Age series where magic-users are considered dangerous and subject to terribly harsh rules. Robert Jordan’s male power user’s were “gentled” due to the taint on the male side of the power. The idea is that magic-users are restricted and inevitably seek to use their power freely, and thus a revolution is born. Gavin does lean this way in Bloodlust at times.
4) Mages rule, until…: A mystical aristocracy strikes me as an interesting idea. It makes perfect sense if magic-use is inherited and the power structure is feudal. In this case the people find some sort of equalizer that brings them on to equal footing with the mages which slides into revolution. Mages make great villains.
5) Magic versus magic: Maybe some types of magic are banned, while others flourish. This creates a conflict between the various types of magic which can lead to an uprising t against the oppressive force. The side that wins gets to determine what magic is acceptable. I could see a great book in here about advocates of Dark Magic rebelling against the light or vice versa.
6) Class Warfare: Class warfare is the go-to catalyst for revolutions of all types. Fantasy offers plenty of racism, class-hatred, and grit for this sort of scenario. Class warfare in a fantasy environment would likely play out similar to the way it does in the real world.
Regardless of the scenario, revolution offers a writer an exciting backdrop or a great central conflict. However, crafting a believable, interesting revolution for your fantasy world requires a great deal of work. Simple revolutions tend to come off as trite commentary on real world politics. In a Fantasy revolution it is best to ground the act with deep world-building. Here are some things to consider:
1) Revolutions seem to explode suddenly, but often simmer for a s long time. People who are willing to get up and revolt often have a long list of grievances, built up over some time. The revolution often seems sudden because some event triggers it. What is this trigger?
2) Most societies have other ways to address problems, and other avenues to channel anger and desire for change. We have the courts and elections, for example. It would be hard to imagine a full scale revolution while both of those function properly. What mechanisms have broken down in your world? Have the elders been corrupted? Is the oracle broken? Have the the gods abandoned men? Has the King gone mad and started a crazy war?
3) Who tries to take advantage of the Chaos? In almost all revolutions there are self-interested bastards who will try to take advantage. They might use the revolution as cover for dirty deeds or they might try to steer it into placing them into power. Either way figuring these folks out makes the revolution way more interesting for a reader.
4) Who gets screwed? I covered this in a previous blog post, when a system fails people will often search for scapegoats. The same is true in a revolution. Some group will bear the brunt of the anger and will try to deflect blame.
I could go on… Revolutions are a fact of life in the industrial age, and seem to be getting stronger, if less violent (so far), in the information age. I’d love to see more works in the Fantasy Genre that deal with this kind of dramatic and traumatic event!