A Few Things To Know When Writing Rebellions & Coups

Table of Contents

You're probably looking at years of chaos and violence - likely perpetrated by the rebels as much as anyone.

Fiction tends to make rebellions into quick and tidy affairs with little to no blood on the rebels' hands. Some stories might even give you the impression that rebels do practically nothing but hide out in secret bases waiting for someone to drop from the sky with a new weapon or intel that lets them finally take action and actually do something. (Quite frankly, it's a little disturbing just how passive rebels in fiction can be.)

Real rebels certainly don't sit around and wait for a massive stroke of luck to come their way - because odds are, one never will. They get out there and do what they can. This can mean things like trying to infiltrate the enemy with spies, trying to keep goods and supplies from reaching the enemy (whether through direct interception or by sabotaging shipping routes), and trying to seize control of strategically valuable locations and getting their own people running things. But since the guys in charge aren't going to just roll over and let the rebels do whatever they want, what you're likely to end up with is a long-term conflict. You might even be looking at decades of urban violence in towns and cities they're trying to take control of.

Unless the rebels strictly use non-violent means of resistance, it's certain that they will at some point spill innocent blood. Innocent people do usually happen to live and work in strategically-viable places, and it's impossible to make sure they'll never get caught in the crossfire.

The agents of the government will not all be oafs.

Fiction often portrays agents of the government (for example, military forces) as being relatively oafish compared to the heroes. Even if they're talked up as being tough and skillful, once they actually face off with the heroes they're usually thwarted pretty easily - meaning that the author genuinely believes that the rebels will somehow be so good that the government's people will look like oafs by comparison.

In reality, the government's people are likely to have much better training and much better equipment than most of the rebels. They're also more likely to be better fed and to have better health care.

Think about it: a healthy, well-fed militia with new and well-kept weapons directly facing off against a bunch of underfed people with inadequate medical care largely armed with damaged, outdated, or makeshift weapons? Does it really seem so likely that the government's people would always be so easily thwarted?

Something else to consider is that if the government has been facing off against the rebels for any length of time, they've had plenty of time to learn their tricks and adjust their own tactics accordingly. The addition of one more bright and plucky farm kid isn't going to make a whole lot of difference.

The rebellion probably won't be centered in one location.

If all you know about rebellions comes from watching Star Wars movies, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the rebels are all going to keep themselves to one location when they aren't actively out on missions. Sure, this kind of thing worked for Robin Hood and his Merry Men, but they were only fighting against a local bully, not trying to liberate an entire galaxy. A rebellion that's working on a large scale will most likely operate in multiple cells in different locations (which, incidentally, means that whoever they're fighting against won't be able to wipe them out in one fell swoop!), and many of the rebels will be trying to live ostensibly ordinary lives as they do what they can to secretly further the cause from there. (And the rebellion will likely need people in these positions, as they can help them secure supplies, gain intel, and such.)

Rebellions and coups won't make it without support.

Rebels with a 0% approval rating aren't going to get very far. No one is going to willingly assist or cooperate with them along the way, and if they try to force people to help then these people are likely going to fight back or ask the government for help defending themselves. And if by some unlikely chance they actually overthrow the government and declare themselves leaders, they're going to run into the same problem: nobody is going to cooperate with them or try to help them out; if anything, they're just going to fight them.

Rebels would need to act publicly and continually to gain and hold the respect and support of the people, and they certainly wouldn't hurt themselves at all to make allies in other countries. To these ends, they will need political and persuasive skills, which absolutely includes diplomacy and negotiation. (And for these reasons, a secret organization that operates behind an iron curtain of secrecy would not get anywhere fast!)

They're going to need a lot of supplies - and a lot more than just weapons and armor.

Especially if they're going to be in this for the long haul and if they're going to live in and maintain their own bases!

Food and clean water are absolute necessities. Medicine and hygiene products are also incredibly important - otherwise, illness and infection become serious issues. Likewise, cleaning and sanitation equipment and supplies are also important. Everyday hardware and tools can't be overlooked, either - they need something to do those home base repairs with, after all. Clothing and equipment to make or mend them are important, too. And money is almost always very nice to have, since it tends to make it easier to get all these other things.

Of course, it's also very likely that rebels will always be running short someplace. Being rebels, it won't often be easy for them to secure everything that they need, and certainly not in as high of quantities as would be optimal. It's possible that they might be able to steal some supplies (but that might make them very unpopular if they do it too much, or steal from the wrong people), and it's possible that they might receive covert help from individuals or even other governments unwilling to risk joining the fight openly. (But of course, those who help your rebellion out need actual reasons for it - and remember, most people realistically aren't going to be willing to help merely out of the goodness of their hearts or out of some high-minded idealism. They need to see something in it for themselves or have a reason to agree with what they're doing, too.)

Not everyone is going to want to support or join it for the same reasons.

Sure, you'll have your noble idealists who just want to secure peace and freedom for everyone (or whoever they think are the "good guys"), but this is going to be far from everybody.

And of course, there will be people who are in it mostly because it's a relatively easy opportunity to grab power and gain influence for themselves. (There are always a certain number of people who will choose to be a poor and persecuted somebody over a well-off and comfortable nobody.) These people are a menace in their own right: they are the most likely to become tyrannical autocrats and dictators should they acquire the power they crave.

There are also the ones who join with vengeful motives. Should they rise to power, these ones are the most likely to treat members and supporters of the old government with extreme cruelty and sadism, which of course will likely incite rebellion against themselves if not promptly stopped.

And then there are those who are there because they just feel they have no real choice. Maybe they're criminals with nothing to lose (in which case, they might not be the best people to be around - they won't all have earned their death sentences just for illegally rescuing puppies, after all), or maybe they just see no other option for survival.

If any of your protagonists are in or join the rebellion (especially when young), it's a good idea to stop and think: What's to stop them from ending up with a bad bunch and accidentally end up supporting the next tyrant? Who's to say they can pick the good people from the bad? Much as young people might like to think they can sort out the good ones from the bad ones, judgment of character is a skill that must be developed and honed like any other and is never entirely foolproof. Young, lonely idealists dissatisfied with their lives or the state of the world are also among the most vulnerable to these traps.

Finally, some people will assist and support the rebellion for purely economical reasons. Merchants might sell goods to them under the table just for the profit, or other governments might lend assistance because those in charge of the rebellion are more agreeable trade partners.

Actually overthrowing the government creates a whole new set of problems to deal with.

Some people seem to be operating under the belief that once their heroes overthrow the government, almost everyone is going to be grateful and will happily pledge their loyalty to the new leadership.

In reality, many people (especially those who never suffered that badly at the hands of the government) are likely going to be angry at the rebellion for wreaking a lot of chaos and havoc they never wanted to deal with in the first place. Sure, maybe the government wasn't that great, but they weren't the ones who started that fight that got their kids killed in the crossfire. Maybe they had some harsh rules and punishments, but it wasn't they weren't the ones who made them worry whether their homes and shops would be smashed and raided for supplies.

Then there's the question of whether the rebels actually have any real ability to govern. Noble dreams and pure intentions or not, with no real ability to govern, the country is most likely going to fall into complete anarchy and chaos. This might actually be worse than being ruled by an evil government. Sure, maybe those guys you hated so much are gone, but so is relatively functioning health care and education, safe and efficient travel, and food and supply security. Electricity, running water, reliable communications, and law enforcement can no longer be guaranteed. Sure, maybe those things aren't all that great under the rule of the government, but stop and imagine if they were suddenly gone altogether. Suddenly, diseases and injuries that could be treated at home become life threatening, and anything that would ordinarily require hospitalization becomes threatening. Malnourishment and violence ensures that even more people become injured and sick. Asking anyone for help suddenly takes days or weeks. These conditions can persist for years, especially under the rule of a regime that just can't get its act together or values high-minded romantic ideals over practical solutions.

Then there's the very real possibility that the supporters of the old regime will start a rebellion of their own. This is especially likely if the new regime doesn't actually treat them any better than the old one.

"Cut off the head" is not as useful a strategy as one might think.

It happens sometimes that people expect a small group of rebels should just be able to go in and slay the evil emperor, wicked queen, or whathaveyou, and that's it! Everybody's troubles are over! The good guys can take over and make everything better now! However, in reality things would most likely work out very differently, if this was the extent of their strategy.

Realistic best case scenario: There is now a power vacuum with no clear rules for succession, leading to remaining high-ranking members and supporters of the regime jockeying to fill it. If the matter isn't sorted out quickly, it can lead to extreme instability, even anarchy, which may not be sorted out for years.

Realistic worst case scenario: The regime has a plan of succession in place just in case something like this happens. Whoever is in line for leadership takes over. Little to nothing changes.

"We'll cut off the head!" is one of those times where the question "and then what?" really needs to be asked. Do the people in favor of this strategy just expect that the people will just give them unconditional power because they're clearly so awesome or righteous, or because they're members of the right bloodline? Since when does that ever actually happen? Do they really just expect that the rest of the government and its supporters are just going to flee or give up, allowing the rebels to just step in and fill the power vacuum with no challenge or contest? When does it ever work that way?

And as it is, people typically don't take power because they've destroyed the leader; they destroy the leader once they've already taken and secured power. Actually killing the leader tends to be done for different reasons: to make a political statement, to demoralize one's opponents, to make sure the leader can't rally a counterresistance, and to punish the leader for whatever acts the rebellion deems criminal. And all this might mean that if your rebels are supposed to be the good guys, they might find themselves facing the heavy question of what they are going to do with the leader they just seized power from.

Nonviolence can be very powerful.

Obviously, nonviolent means aren't going to be feasible in every case, but there is increasing evidence that nonviolent resistance can sometimes be more effective than violent resistance. Because no weapons are used, costs are lower. Because people need not be able to fight, more people can participate and can use a wider range of tactics. And even if one act of non-violence does not immediately yield results, it can inspire others far into the future. Non-violent resistance has been successfully used for hundreds of years and can take many forms.

There are only so many ways a rebellion or coup can end.

1. Total defeat of the rebellion. The regime crushes the rebellion utterly; everything carries on as usual.

2. Deposition of the current leadership, but no change in regime. The rebels succeed in destroying the leadership, but thanks to the government being set up for fault-tolerance, new leadership is appointed and everything carries on as usual.

3. Dissolution into anarchy. The rebellion's efforts destabilize the country, leading to years of strife, hardship, petty dictatorship, and competing factions jockeying for dominance.

4. A new tyranny. The rebels successfully overthrow the government and take over, but are actually no better than those they overthrew. They might even be worse. This is especially likely if the rebellion is led and supported by people who make torture, execution, forced hard labor, and other extreme methods their go-tos for dealing with problems. It's also likely to happen if the rebellion is lead by people who oppose knowledge, higher education, or self-determination, and believe that everyone must be kept "equal" by making sure no one can become too smart or successful. (What tends to lead to a positive outcome is trying to ensure that as many people as possible have an opportunity to obtain high quality education, and are given the best possible shot at becoming successful - preferably with a safety net if they fail through no fault of their own.)

5. Resumption of local autonomy. This only applies to countries held under the control of an empire. If an empire is successfully driven out, then it's possible for the countries' leaders to resume governance, assuming that the local government remains more or less intact. (Of course, whether the local government is actually good is another matter.)

6. Transition to civil rule. The rebels overthrow the government and replace it with a democratic system. The possibility of a tyranny arising is severely diminished due to power now belonging to many, rather than a few.

To recap!

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