Every year, when the US’ independence day rolls around on July 4th, my thoughts naturally turn to revolution. And no, that’s not because I think we are due for a rebellion, or that we even need one. As a narrative device, though, revolutions are hard to beat – particularly in speculative fiction. Yet, as so much of the current harvest of lackluster dystopian YA suggests, they are also hard to pull off. So what makes a fictional revolution effective? Why do we feel for Enjolras in Hugo’s Les Miserables, for Florian in Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, or Jack Sperry in Morrow’s City of Truth?
Revolution as the Aristotelian Crucible of Significant Action
Revolution is a perfect tool for unifying characterization, plot, the story’s underlying political/philosophical themes, and expressing all three through the same significant action.
At the general, thirty thousand foot level, revolution explicitly pits two opposing ideologies against each other. Baldly stating thematic logic halts any story’s forward momentum (*cough* Atlas Shrugged *cough* ). But by representing that thematic logic through the concrete and significant actions of characters in the story, we can transmute logos into ethos and pathos…which together form the engine that drives the story. Consider Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which explicitly pits the Loonies’ libertarian ideals against the more collectivist values of Earth. While it can be argued that Heinlein is politically heavy-handed in the text, his political themes do not obstruct the story’s momentum.
Closer to the story itself, revolution enables us to test the characters we care about. In Hugo’s Les Miserables, for example, Marius Pontmercy faces an impossible choice between two “right” options: whether to follow the woman he loves, or to join his friends on the barricades. Revolution forces characters to consciously choose the values they will fight for. Suzanne Collins forces similar choices on Katniss Everdeen in Mockingjay, where the heroine must decide who she believes, who she values, and who she brings into her life. When characters face such choices, they concretely evidence their agency. And a revolution forces such choices on its participants.
At an emotional level, revolution has the capacity to put ethos in direct conflict with pathos, and thus to heighten the tension derived from the characters’ agency. The choices that Marius Pontmercy and (to a more diffused degree) Katniss Everdeen face are poignant because they dramatize the conflict between their values/beliefs, and their personal desires. By the time each revolution comes about, we as the reader are fully invested in the character: we want them to have their cake and eat it, too. But when the author puts the characters’ ethical values in conflict with their personal desires, we end up on the edge of our seats, biting our nails to see how our beloved characters will choose. This imbues the resolution – whatever that resolution might be – with a significant degree of catharsis.
And the greatest advantage that revolution confers is that the same concrete action – the act of rebelling, the battles, etc. – can dramatize conflict at all of these levels simultaneously. It provides great narrative economy, and enables significant emotional density in the text. But the effect can also fall flat, particularly when the background to the revolution is flubbed.
Recipe for Revolution: It Must Simmer and Mix
Because of revolution’s myriad dramatic advantages, it is a tool that authors reach for quite often. Especially with the popularity of dystopian YA, it seems like every other book I pick up features a determined heroine forced to lead/spearhead/personify a revolution. In and of itself, that isn’t necessarily bad. But to be effective, the world-building has to make such a revolution plausible.
The roots of every revolution go back generations, and it is never a clear-cut case of right versus wrong. Whether it is the American Revolution, any of the myriad French Revolutions, the Russian Revolution of 1918, or the more-recent Arab Spring, revolutions take time to simmer. When faced with hardship, most would-be revolutionaries will grit their teeth and bear it until their oppression finally becomes unbearable. There are good evolutionary and sociological reasons for this, but if we forget this fact in our world-building then we risk undermining the inevitability of our plot device.
Consider the background to the recent Egyptian revolution: the division of Egyptian society between privileged elites and the poor masses, the scarcely-checked powers of the police, the restrictions on free speech and concomitant limitation of political rights, and the de facto hereditary nature of rule were issues that Egyptians have wrestled with going back at least to Egypt’s time in the Ottoman Empire. And yet, revolutions throughout Egypt’s history have been rare, typically spaced out by one or two generations. A similar pattern is observable across every nation that has rebelled (at least as far as I can see, but I’m not a historian so I might be missing some counter-examples). What matters from a narrative standpoint is that revolutions do not foment at the drop of a hat. The demographic and social structures must be in place for a spark to fall on dry tinder. This level of world-building does not need to complicate or weigh down the story. Instead, it can be used to add a degree of verisimilitude that deepens the reader’s engagement with the characters and their problems.
Similarly, historical revolutions are never as clear-cut as future independence day celebrations like to make out. Each side in a revolution features individuals of laudable moral character, fighting for what they believe in. This can be narrative gold, precisely because it paints in stark relief the choices that our characters must make. But ignoring the messiness of true revolution is a tremendous narrative risk: by making a revolution entirely one-sided, we eviscerate its ability to express deeper political/philosophical themes and risk its ability to generate dramatic tension. This, I think, is the hardest trick in building a fictional revolution because of the degree to which it ties into point of view. It is difficult (though not impossible) to humanize the “oppressive regime” when the only eyes through which we perceive it are those of a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary.
The Counter-argument: Revolution as MacGuffin
There is, however, a counter-argument to what I just said: Star Wars (the original trilogy, not the poorly written
fan-fic prequels that followed). In A New Hope, the Empire’s oppression is implied and expressed with great economy. The audience does not see the Empire’s heavy boot: we are told that it exists, and because our characters take it for granted, we do as well. No attempts are made to humanize the Empire, to justify the Emperor’s policies, or to present the stormtroopers as anything other than faceless, gun-toting oppressors. So if Star Wars ignores my advice above, why does it (the original trilogy, again) still work? Because the revolution is not used as a unifying device.
The revolution and the Rebel Alliance’s victory over the Empire are not the climax and natural conclusion to the story. It is not used to unify the disparate character arcs, or to represent the thematic discourse of the story. The real climax and the story’s real narrative arc centers on the more personal concerns of Luke Skywalker on the one hand, and Leia Organa/Han Solo on the other. The revolution is merely a colorful backdrop to their personal stories, and it is treated as broadly incidental. The rebellion is to Star Wars as the Civil War is to Gone with the Wind: setting.
The original trilogy works because the actors earned our engagement, and because their characters’ personal stories are compelling enough to take and maintain our focus. The revolution is neither needed for their stories, nor is it used to dramatize any aspect of the conflict. It is, to some extent, the thematic and structural equivalent of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin.
A Revolution Every Day
Revolution can be a powerful tool for unifying the strands of our storytelling, but like any such tool it requires solid work to establish its foundations. Without laying the groundwork for a revolution, it will fail. And if it is intended as a unifying element in the story, then it must maintain its plausibility and depth in order to achieve the desired unifying effect. In such cases, sacrificing the revolution’s depth will similarly sacrifice the story’s depth. If, however, the revolution is just a Cool Event that Happens independent of the story’s underlying thematic tension, then attempting to shoe-horn depth into it (as those aforementioned prequels do) will derail the train of story.
But enough about fictional revolutions for now. For those of you in the US, I hope that you have a wonderful 4th of July, that you stay cool despite the massive heatwaves (and power outages) sweeping the nation, and that you enjoy some great BBQ and awesome fireworks. Happy Independence Day, everybody!