Rebellion –- When Defiance is Only the Beginning

As behavior changes more swiftly than personality, growing up is often a matter of establishing new patterns to layer upon a consistent baseline. The self-focus and poor impulse control of youth is tamed by external awareness and self-discipline. Our passions focus into goals and responsibility for the people and things we value. And yet… Somewhere deep down in many of us, smothered under etiquette and the fear of consequences is the instinct to chase our desires.

I believe that it is this instinct that draws us to empathize with and admire rebellious characters. After all, reading is an emotional exercise that allows us to experiment with experiences that we would avoid in our own lives. While many people yearn for change, they are reluctant to face the consequences of trying and failing. Open rebellion is the most extreme form of these desires, so reading about characters in that situation serves as a dry run for our own, smaller scale changes and challenges.

As a writer, I love the rebel archetype as those sorts of characters tend to believe fiercely and be incredibly active. They drive plots forward and force everyone around them to react to their actions. As such, they tend to make excellent protagonists and unpredictable antagonists. Organized rebellions often draw conflicting personalities together into a crucible. Additionally, the archetype is incredibly flexible in the ways it can be executed.

Even though rebellion against a government or some other oppressive Big Bad is the most common sub-trope of the archetype, a rebellious character can be working against any restrictive situation or force. For example, I have read compelling stories about characters struggling against the momentum of their own beliefs, expectations, and plans. Additionally, the struggles and consequences of rebellion are excellent catalysts for character growth. A rebellious nature can lead the character down a darker path or into a brighter future, often both in the same story. Either way, change is imminent. Finally, typically only one party survives an outright violent rebellion. In so doing, they have a free hand with writing the history of the conflict. Only in fiction can a reader be exposed to both sides and get a true accounting. By flipping the perspective from antagonist to protagonist, rebels can transform from violent radicals to noble crusaders.

In order for a work of fiction to be a true emotional exercise, the struggles and choices faced by the protagonist must be more significant than those faced by the reader. As such, I have found it essential to ensure that a rebellious character’s Crusade is not only significant to their world, but also meaningful to their development as a person. The rebel archetype is classic because it is effective and empathetic. However, true rebellion is a process, not a static state. For the reader to be satisfied with the archetype, change must happen on both sides of the rebellion.


2 Responses

  1. Queue says:

    When you have a more limited perspective, you almost always see the rebellious party as those fighting for “good” or “justice”, and typically as the primary viewpoint protagonists (Star Wars, Brandon Sanderson, Brian McClellan, others). Can you think of any good stories where the protagonists/group “in the right” are the established power?

    • Nathan Barra says:

      I’ve been wracking my brain Queue. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson comes to mind. In this case, the rebels become the establishment and have to defend their gains. All sorts of interesting grey area questions. Parts of Lois McMaster Bujold’s VorKosiverse fit your question, especially the time after Miles becomes an Imperial Auditor. By then he is the government facing off against rebel groups (see Komarr), and criminal counts (via A Civil Campaign). Eve Dallas from JD Robb’s In Death series is another example of a protagonist in a position of power relative to the antagonist. As a murder cop, Dallas is part of the established government. A fourth, murkier example are the characters from SHIELD in the Marvel movies and rhe Agents of SHIELD TV show. Despite being a shadow organization, SHIELD is shown to be a government sanctioned operation in Captain America 2.

      However, I think the main reason we usually see the rebels as the good guys is because of our penchant for sympathising with the underdog. It’s easy to villify the bigger, more powerful force. In addition, it is easier to plot struggles when the protagonist is the weaker party. I could go on about the Underdog Archetype for… Well… 500 words. Would you like me to write a post on the thought Queue? I’d be happy to if there is interest. 🙂

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