I believe you’re looking for guerrilla warfare.
It should be noted that while guerrilla warfare crosses hairs with terrorism, and can engage in similar tactics, they are not the same. When a true Resistance movement gets up and going, eventually the guerrilla warfare side and the terrorism side come together but the two serve very different purposes.
If you want to write a more organized military type story that has actual engagements with an enemy force and participates in hit and run tactics, who have an actual base or territory they retreat to, who have compounds where people train, and are transitioning toward becoming an actual army, then you should be looking at guerrilla warfare.
Terrorism is a bomb in a popular cafe that goes off during the lunch or dinner rush, it’s gunning down a multiple police officers in coordinated strikes, it’s blowing up the train train tracks, or a plant joining an enemy military and shooting up the inside of a barracks. They are different and come with very different mind sets. The terrorist is much closer to a spy. Their goal is to be indistinguishable from the rest of the civilian population. They don’t wear military gear, they don’t put on camouflage before going on a mission. Their goal is to engage in psychological warfare against a government body by terrorizing the civilian population. Their targets will predominantly be non-military, they are meant to disrupt and make safe havens no longer feel safe. Again, the goal here is to instill fear. It’s not to have shootouts in the middle of the street, though they probably will (and will also be gunned down).
This is easier to work with when dealing with an occupied territory, where there are two separate and distinct cultures. Terrorism becomes much more complex when it happens within a single culture or ethnicity and there is no easy way to distinguish one from the other.
I really suggest watching The Battle for Algiers as your crash course on terrorism and counter-terrorism, it’s effects and how it works. It’ll cover all the bases from all the different sides and, when it comes to this kind of sociopolitical conflict, there are a lot of sides. They’re all pretty ugly. It’s based around events surrounding the French colonization/occupation of Algiers and the generation of international pressure which lead to them eventually abandoning the country.
You get the added benefit of the specialist counter-terrorist head explaining the structure and how it all works from the perspective of having used similar techniques in the past themselves as they are ex-Maquis and heroes from World War II who ran the French Resistance against the Nazis.
You get the overarching view and the personalized character view, which will help you to understand the psychology and threats at play.
Terrorism and Guerrilla warfare
Some things to remember:
How dark do you want to be?
Really. This is a real question, writing a Resistance is not for the faint of heart. One of the failures in the recent crop of “Dystopia” or really “bad future scifi” books is that they soften and romanticize. They don’t really manage to communicate the true horror of living under these systems and, worse, they skate over the brutality in such a way that people believe revolution is easy or safe.
This is one of the most disturbing kinds of warfare. There are no good guys or bad guys here. The waters are murky. Collaborators and traitors are everywhere. You cannot trust anyone. All your friends will die. At best, it’ll be quick. At worst, if caught, you’ll be tortured, disappeared, and left to rot in a hole as they carve away pieces of your humanity day by day.
Resistance fighters and terrorists aren’t going to be much better or any more heroic. Whatever their intentions, they kill innocents. Actually, there are no innocents. There are no non-combatants in this kind of warfare. Everyone who stands by the ruling government is an enemy, even those who do nothing. And from the perspective of the terrorist, those who do nothing are the worst kind of people.
Revolution is a bloody and terrible business.
There are a few cases of peaceful revolutions throughout history, but they are not the norm. Look to the bloody ones and the failed ones. Rebellion only transforms to revolution when the majority of the populace can be convinced to rise up, fight and win by virtue of sheer overwhelming numbers against all but impossible odds. For a revolution to succeed, everyone must be willing to put their life on the line and die for it. That’s a tall order.
As this is another long post, I’m putting the rest under the cut.
Some event in their life causes them to seek this path out.
YA novels and fiction are really the only ones who have this dropped on them and allowed to join with no questions asked. (One of the weakest aspects of Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice series is the god cheating for the heroine.) This is not a life someone gets forced into. Tricked or brainwashed from childhood? Depends on your point of view. The Resistance is a life that is chosen and sought out as much as events in the character’s life lead them to it.
Similar experiences are what build the necessary bridge of trust between people in a highly stressful and high stakes world where paranoia and betrayal are rampant. You can’t trust someone who hasn’t seen what you’ve seen or hates the way you hate. They won’t go far enough. In the end, you can’t trust them to do what must be done.
By and large terrorist organizations recruit from among the disenfranchised, and more particularly the brutalized. They are fanatics and fanatical, they’re looking for those who hate, not just those who dislike. To harm others in the way a terrorist does requires a very specific mindset and the ability to perform what are often terrible tasks with no questions asked. The Resistance needs them to be believers, ones who don’t question or want to know more beyond what they’re given.
A terrorist is not just someone who hates and wants vengeance against one person, they are someone who hates an entire group and believes they should all suffer. The people are ultimately indistinguishable. They believe that in hurting these people, they will make the world for theirs a better place.
Hate and the willingness to act on it in a way which harms others are the defining qualities of a terrorist.
This is why terrorists predominately recruit from amongst victims and prison populations. Your terrorist will have some sort of tragic backstory which lead them to hate the group they’re targeting. It’s going to be defined by some feeling of powerlessness. Cruelty creates a terrorist or a Resistance fighter. They may have been idealistic once and they may still be, but the cold harshness of the world they live in has transformed them into someone who is fiercely practical and driven to inflict their suffering on their enemies.
When they were younger and before the serious government crackdowns, they were part of a protest or march only to be rounded up, blindfolded, stuck in the back of a van, driven to some remote location, put up against a wall to watch as all their friends were shot. They don’t know why they survived, but they haven’t forgotten the sight. Soldiers laughing and joking by the vans, sharing a cigarette as their fellows put them up against a wall and put a gun to their head. Forced them to listen as their friends begged and pleaded, even as the rat-a-tat-tat of rifles went off one by one.
It wasn’t kindness that saved their life that day. No, it was cruelty. They were too pathetic.
A military commander took a liking to their mother or father or other sibling one day when traveling through their town. Another family member tried to stop the commander or soldier from taking them, they were shot dead while your MC was forced to watch or hid.
The character was grabbed by a soldier in town under suspicion and taken to be interrogated. They did nothing wrong and they knew nothing. Yet, no matter what they said, the soldiers refused to believe them and, in the end, they were thrown into a hole to rot. Five years later…
A character from the wrong side fell for a girl/boy who was part of the dominant/oppressive class. Both were very young, they met with them several times in secret but were eventually discovered. After being beaten or shot by the girl/boy’s family members/rivals, they were arrested by the authorities and tossed into prison.
These are just some suggestions. It’s important to remember that this character’s backstory is not going to be any more special or different from those other characters they run with. Everyone they know in the Resistance will have a story similar to theirs. Some will be kinder, some will be far worse.
The key to remember is this: abuse creates abusers, terror creates terrorism. Violence is a cycle. What you do unto others will be done to you. An abusive government creates terrorists and terrorists create abusive governments. They feed each other, round and round and round again.
This is where so many stories about rebellion and revolution ultimately fail. Every person your characters hurt will create someone who is like them, until all that’s left is a mirror and an ugly reflection staring back. Recognizing that violence and terror do not create better worlds is the first step toward breaking the cycle. You need more than violence or an expectation that once the fighting stops everything else will take care of itself.
It won’t. Destroying a system that is unjust and evil does not mean a better one will automatically take it’s place. Without question, all someone takes with them is the lessons that their pain, their abuse, and their hate taught them. They will become their abusers and create a world where the same injustices are committed in the name of their righteous hate.
“The only way we will be safe is after they’ve all been exterminated.”
You can’t fix the world by killing unless you’re prepared to kill everyone, and then all you get is genocide.
Women are not uncommon in Resistance movements.
They’re actually very common as support, as fighters, and (depending on the culture in question) as leaders. There are many famous female resistance fighters and leaders, so if you’re imagining a scenario where there are no other women then you may want to rethink it. Old women. Young women. Mothers. Daughters. Wives. Widows. They’re all there and all have very important roles that contribute to the Resistance’s success. (This is also true of old men and children.)
One of the ways Resistance movements work is by exploiting the societal norms and expectations in order to move freely. Depending on the culture in question, women are a vital part of that. In Battle for Algiers, you’ll see at least one woman as part of each four man resistance cell and who act as the primary means and are shown as the primary means of planting weapons/arranging dead drops/moving the weaponry past police and military checkpoints.
Why? It’s not actually just because women are “more distracting”, “less suspicious”, or “more pure” (though these are sub-reasons), but also because in Algerian/Muslim culture it is taboo for a man (especially a foreign man) not of her family to touch her. It would cause the soldiers at the checkpoint more problems to stop and check a woman than it would to stop a man. The soldier doesn’t want the headache or the riot that might ensue, so he lets them pass through.
Sexism will be exploited. Cultural norms that must be respected by the occupying force in order to keep the peace will be exploited. The weaknesses in both cultures will be used and exploited.
Your characters are going to die.
Resistance movements have a very high turnover rate, which is to say that their members are constantly killed and caught. This is a main reason why information in terrorist organizations is highly regulated and segregated. This is necessary to the survival of the organization, so that if one cell goes down then the others can keep working. When it comes to breaking down the organization, it’s like trying to play whack-a-mole and is nearly impossible to get a clear picture.
If your character is a grunt, then she won’t have any access to any of the important names. She’ll have to survive years and prove her utter devotion before she’s allowed access to any part of the bigger picture.
This is very much a “you know what you need to and no more” kind of game. Trying to seek out more than you’re allowed can lead to being killed or suspected as a spy and they will suspect that she is a spy in the beginning just out of habit. In the Resistance life, you survive via paranoia and suspicion. Trust will get you (and everyone you know and care about) killed.
These people do not share information.
Resistance movements survive by keeping information very tightly contained. Someone in the field who knows what they movement is planning next is more dangerous to the movement than to the enemy.
If someone is captured, you’re not getting them back, and everything they knew is now in the hands of the enemy. They might not break under questioning, but how can you really trust them not to?
This means the actual cells should not know who they’re working for, what they’re working towards, or what the other cells are doing. If they know anything beyond what they are supposed to do at this moment, getting captured means the movement has lost far more than one disposable soldier, all of their current plans have been placed in jeopardy.
The people who do the planning, who know the big picture, and understand the full context of what’s going on will never be the ones setting bombs, or kicking down doors. They are far too potentially dangerous to set them anywhere that the enemy could potentially know they exist. This includes letting defectors anywhere near the leadership.
Never trust a traitor.
Defectors are useful as (dubious) sources of intelligence. But, they pose a singular security risk.
They can tell you everything they know, or they will tell you what their bosses want the movement to know.
You can’t put them in a room with field operatives you intend to keep using, because, again, if they’re captured, then the enemy will know who jumped sides, assuming they don’t already.
You can’t put them in a room with the movement’s leadership, because the defector might be biding their time, waiting to go home, and share everything they learned.
So they have to be handled delicately. You need to look at the information they give skeptically. Keep them safe and secure away from the fighting. And, with everything they say, “trust, but verify.”
For a defector, there is no path to heroism. They’ll never be trusted by the movement (at least not until long after the war is over), because they could be a double agent, and unless they are one, they can never go home.
Their job is to tell the movement what they know; and then relocate to someplace out of the way and secure (good luck finding both of those together) and waiting for the end of the world.
Even though resistance movements need manpower, defectors are too much of a risk to field. Because, if they do turn out to be double agents, they can scuttle all of your operations, and take the movement apart, given the chance.
This isn’t traditional warfare. Sabotage is the name of the game.
So, you don’t have the numbers or the manpower or the skill or the equipment to meet your enemy in the street. Maybe you’re training an army across the border in some nearby country that doesn’t care about your presence, maybe not. Either way, you’re not in a position where you can take and hold territory like a traditional army. You have no way to free villages, even outlying ones. No way to drive your enemy back or out. You’re limited to harassment, assassination, and sabotage.
You can do a lot with those as a writer, if you’re creative. However, it’s really worth stepping back and thinking about it.
Remember the Humanity
It’s horrible. So, what? Why should anyone care?
It’s easy to get caught up in the violence and the hatred, but what makes such bloody conflict hurt is the humanity of everyone involved. Characters need to remain sympathetic, even your villains. The minute characters turn into cardboard cutouts of clearly defined good and evil, you’ve as the writer have lost.
What makes a monster a monster is their humanity, what makes them sympathetic are their family connections and their levity. What makes them a person, what do they care about,
Serious business all the time isn’t realistic. People are people. They are short sighted. Greedy. Foolish. Silly. They have families. They have people they care about. The hatred that defines a terrorist is a two-way street. The soldier on the end’s backstory can be just as tragic, they have also suffered and they suffer from the terrorists actions. The true tragedy of revolution and rebellion is that everyone is suffering, but they are all the cause of it. If violence exists, it’s because we perpetuate it with our actions.
An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.
People do terrible things and they do wonderful things.
Ignorance. Indignity. Humor. Emotional connection. Grumpy elders. Idiotic superiors. Friends who make terrible jokes. Gallows humor.
Cry over corpses because it’s all so horrible, then laugh over the same ones because you’re glad to be alive. Stare stoically and be accused of being unfeeling or uncaring. Write the soldiers who are desensitized to violence and the ones who aren’t. The guy who shoots a man in the head three times, but still can be found reading dime store romance novels back at base. The kids who hang around in the back, pack lunches, carry bombs, fix gear, carry rifles three times too big for them, and worship the Resistance fighters. The ones who are so proud that they can accurately put a stone through a window at sixty paces with a sling from a moving vehicle. The women and men who boil their own leather from their shoes to feed them because they’re starving. The dreams of what they’ll do when it’s all over.
You’ve got to ground your story in your characters, both major and minor. Character deaths only matter if you put the work in to get the audience to care, characters only matter if the audience cares about them and their world.
Death without context is meaningless in fiction and shock value is worthless, you will be numb to it by the end. Humanity is what elicits an emotional reaction from your audience and makes these stories fascinating.
Never forget it.
References and Resources:
It should be noted that the vast majority of resources on this list due to their non-fiction nature could be triggering depending on your history, so approach with caution. In any case, it’ll probably be disturbing. If you are a teen or a minor, please check through this list with your parents or guardian before pursuing.
The Battle for Algiers: it’s black and white, it’s in two different languages (neither of which are English), and you still have to watch it. I say it’s required viewing for anyone who wants to write anything regarding terrorism/rebellions/revolutions. Watch it. Watch it again. Watch it a third time.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I don’t recommend this for any episode dealing with the Maquis because it doesn’t quite work. However, I do suggest watching the episodes specific to Cardassian and Bajoran conflict because they’re a good introduction. Specifically, pay attention to Dukat, in the early seasons, and Kira Nerys. The episode “Cardassians” in the second season particularly for dealing with fallout and consequences.
Babylon 5, Seasons 2-4 specifically but, most importantly for the Narn and the Centauri (this is their central conflict), Earth Gov and the Nightwatch, the PsiCorps, and Number One in the Mars Resistance. Do not watch this one out of sequence. Don’t do it. You’ll get completely lost. I can’t say any more than that because it’s spoileriffic. Watch it. Watch it to the end of the fourth season for the closed arc.
Trickster’s Choice/Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce. This one is very well done, especially for the YA genre. I’d list this more under “baby’s first revolution” because, for everything else it does very well, the kid gloves are on and, despite the dark undertones, everything is clean and resolved fairly easily. It’s for teens, so that makes sense. If you want to stay on the lighter side and cleaner side of revolution, I’d recommend this over the Hunger Games.
Good Morning, Vietnam with Robin Williams. (Most of the older movies about Vietnam, actually.)
Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi, because understanding people is very important to writing these kinds of stories. This is an answer to the “why don’t people fight” question, rather than why do people do it. Understanding why people didn’t is just as important as grasping why they do.
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. I usually recommend this for spies, but yes. It’s a good introduction to spycraft, which will be helpful for understanding covert ops.
Dawn by Elie Wiesel, the story of a young Jewish freedom fighter assigned to kill a British officer as reprisal for the death of a Jewish prisoner and is haunted by his experiences in the Nazi death camps.
Night by Elie Wiesel. This is the one Elie Wiesel is famous for, it’s an autobiographical account of his experiences in the Nazis internment camps during the holocaust.
Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogators Dark Journey Through Iraq by Tony Lagouranis and Allen Mikaelian. This is a book about torture and interrogation used by the American military during the Iraq War. It is not a pleasant read, but it is an incredibly helpful one if you want to do anything with this subject matter.
Research: Resistances and revolutions. The French Revolution. The American Revolution. World War II, the Maquis and the French Resistance, and the German Resistance. The Middle East and the American/Iraq war, especially regarding terrorism, torture, and Abu Graib. The conflict between Palestine and Israel. The conflict between the British and the Jews in Israel. Invasions of Vietnam from China, to France, and finally the US.
It doesn’t really matter where you start. History is full of what you’re looking for in all shapes, sizes, cultures, and horrors. Start somewhere and try not to get discouraged. History is full of oppression, nationalism, colonialism, destruction of cultures, terrorism, guerrilla warfare, of countless nations, all across the world. There isn’t just one narrative that’s easy to understand, but many divergent ones. It’s a dark journey, but understanding is key to success.
The one thing you shouldn’t be, though, is ethnocentric. The faster you realize that this is about people, specifically people in power rather than certain kinds of people from certain ethnicities, the happier and saner you’re going to be.
However, if you are in the mindset of “only these kinds of people would ever…” congratulations, you’re well on your way to understanding where this kind of oppression and conflict come from.