Radical Optimists

Shortly after The Orange One became President of the United States, I saw a comment characterizing the opposition to Trump (a group which runs the gamut from George W Bush to actual anarchists) being a bunch of bored, privileged ‘Che Guvera wannabes’ who simply wanted an excuse to run around creating chaos. This characterization of revolutionaries or rebels as adventure–seeking first, ideologically driven second, pops up regularly in fiction, particularly in historical pieces or fantasy novels concerned with the overthrow of the Evil Empire. (The idea that people risked their lives and livelihoods on a lark is something that particularly bothered me about Waverly).

But this characterization falls apart when one looks at the actual events of history. As it turns out, the average rebel operative is less like this:

black-bloc-1and a whole lot more like this:

chessclubmom

Revolution is a risky, resource-consuming endeavor, so a critical mass of people are not going to jump in until the cost of the status quo exceeds the cost of change.

Revolution or resistance are also acts of profound optimism.  Committing oneself to radically changing the status quo , often at great risk, requires faith that your cause can prevail, even in the face of multiple setbacks.  If one or more of your characters is a true believer, you will need to show their joy and passion for their cause, as well as their grievances.  Let them stand for something as well as against something.

The other crucial piece of making your rebels realistic is to make the stakes personal. High political and philosophical  rhetoric makes for good speeches and propaganda, but people leap into risky endeavors because something personal is at stake. A destructive, dictatorial government that does their evil behind closed doors may inspire some outrage, but a government that snatches people’s basic rights or material security will have the masses in the streets.

One of the best ways to write characters living through a revolution is to turn to history.  Human being have been resisting corrupt and violent leaders all over the world throughout recorded history. Pick some historical examples that bear strong resemblances to your setting, and use them to help you sense-check your plot or come up with ideas.

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