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Causes of civil wars in fantasy worlds

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by bluedude21, Nov 11, 2012.

  1. bluedude21

    bluedude21 New Member

    I'm currently writing a story where the antagonist starts a civil war to overthrow the present ruling order. I need to ask, what would be powerful enough to cause people to start a civil war? I've considered a magical explosive going off in a government building but perhaps that might not be enough to cause a full blown magical civil war. Help anyone?

    The ruling classes there are two fractions Mages and Common(warriors, blacksmiths) people but the ruling order is neutral and the antagonist is a mage.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  2. FatCat

    FatCat Maester

    All there needs to be is enough tension between the factions to make a war plausible, so I would think it's not the trigger, it's the build up. With that in mind, almost anything can set off a conflict, so yes, I think an explosion would definitely work.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  3. MadMadys

    MadMadys Troubadour

    I had a similar situation where I had to start a war between two sides but that was sort of the plot of a whole book rather than just a small part.

    How I worked it was by going at it from several angles to make the war more believable to the reader. One side has some war-mongers in charge, is building a navy to keep themselves occupied, and has some long standing beefs with parts of the opposition. The other side doesn't have a real problem with them but is clearly fearful. Things progressed towards war by cloak and dagger sort of operations where one side was seemingly prodded by the other until there was an assassination of a key figure (who is held in high regard by soldiers in the navy/army so if they're calling for blood then that's a lot of motivation) along with a kidnapping.

    Of course all of this was secretly orchestrated by a third party for their own ends but I thought a series of events leading to one big one is more sensible for starting a war than just one big one.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  4. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Besides your climactic trigger, you want to build the impression that it isn't just one thing causing the war, or if it is it's one thing that's already had a lot of effects. The people need to look around and already see a lot of signs that the world's against them, that it isn't just one problem to fix or one enemy to stop.

    For ideas for the trigger, and probably some of the symptoms of the buildup, a few are:

    • which of these power groups is older, and does that mean as the other group rises in influence one or both can be caught doing devious things to get/retain power? or has one or the other started wars in the past, and is still under suspicion for it?
    • a beloved member of one class is killed suspiciously, and/or embarassed or arrested
    • a magic accident, or a widely used spell/talisman with a defect, causes damage -- and/or tighter laws limit magic's study and use "for public safety"
    • magic fails to solve a problem (drought, disease) and people demand mages do more -- and/or laws "draft" mages for a certain amount of public service
    • anything to do with the Hostile Neighbors; who's accused of treason?
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  5. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    The civil war in Tunisia was touched off by the death of a single man, and he wasn't even murdered. He committed suicide.

    In Libya and Egypt, the government change was caused by the revolt in Tunisia.

    Inciting events can be almost anything that expose the underlying tensions that actually cause the civil war. What is most unjust about the current rule? Where are the people most abused? What recourse did they have other than war?

    Generally speaking, if you don't want to get too in-depth with the history and the culture, the simple "oppressed lower classes" bit is easy to play out. We've seen it over and over again in the world, so nobody has any reason to doubt that it causes wars.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  6. johnsonjoshuak

    johnsonjoshuak Troubadour

    For my story, I established a history of neglect by the ruling king. And then he orders his nobles to sail their soldiers thousands of miles away to fight a war that will have little direct effect on their well-being.
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    The trigger can be anything. The important part is the set up. What's the dividing line? What's the history behind this dividing line? What puts the two sides in conflict and what are the events that build things to a point of tension where one thing (the straw that broke the camel's back) can trigger the civil war?

    A singular point of conflict and tension is like a firecracker. If it goes off it may cause damage but not a whole lot. If you want the civil war you're going to have to find lots more firecrackers and bigger ones, so when they go off all hell breaks loose. So for the most part, it doesn't matter about what lights the fuse, a match, a lighter, a flint, a sparkler, two keys sparking off each other... etc.

    If you set up the tension in the conflicts right, something as simple as spitting in someone's face or making fun of a persons hat could trigger a crap storm of civil war.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  8. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Look to real history. Using history as a loose framework lends the imaginary turmoil greater believability. Many wars have started with the death of a person or two.. Even world wars.

    George Martin based his Fire & Ice books on the War of the Roses. The book has, at it's core, a civil war brought on by the deaths of a few prominent characters.
    Gurkhal and S.T. Ockenner like this.
  9. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    I agree with Penpilot, there needs to be an entire underswell of dissatisfaction to be tapped before any single act could start a revoloution. So look at the Arab spring and you'll see that while a man may have committed suicide, he was only the match that lit the fuse. Underneath that you have dissatisfaction with the government, poverty, a feeling of powerlessness among the people, coupled with tyranical authoritarian rule. If these things weren't there the suicide would just have been another tragedy.

    It would also help to have some sort of organization there. People who in time will become the backbone of the rebellion - rebel leaders and so forth. At the start though they may simply be a bowling league for example, where members get together and gripe.

    Cheers, Greg.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  10. Son of the Roman

    Son of the Roman Scribe

    I think you could look to historical examples and figure it out, although you might want some sort of magical explanation just for the added flair. The Aztecs rebelled against their rulers due to foot shortages, the Jacobites disliked the new Protestant ruler, the Englishmen didn’t like Divine Right, and the Texicans didn’t like tariffs or Santa Anna. Any number of things can throw things off, but it partially depends of your world. I have found that in Precolumbian America, most rebellions had to do with foot shortages and/or a rift between the people and the nobles.
  11. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    Almost anything can lead to civil war if there's a reason for antagonism and if both sides have, or think they have, the means to enforce a desired outcome on the opposite side.
  12. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    As others have said, the trigger can be anything.

    What really matters is the simmering dissatisfaction of one class/tribe/faction/family with the status quo. Just look to history for any number of examples of civil war/revolution and you'll find a thousand examples.

    The French and American revolutions are really good examples. World War 1 also - the long simmering dissatisfaction of the Germans over the British monopolisation of trade and the gold standard can be seen as the root cause of a war that was triggered by an assassination, but the dissatisfaction can be traced back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and Britain and (much of) Germany were allies for most of that time.

    Indeed, a German sat on the British throne for most of that time (House of Hannover)
  13. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    Obviously, my last example wasn't a civil war but the principle is the same.
  14. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Inkling

    I agree with many who have responded...

    What most here are talking about is a slow escalation to a boil-over... the temperature ( the discontent ) has been simmering away for whatever amount of time. Dissension, derision, exploitation, injustice, moral indignation, negligence, dereliction of duty, oppression, bigotry, discrimination, sedition ...are all marks on the thermometer.

    I think we relate to this as a slower process is because that what is most common. Always taking the field by inches will eventually take the mile, you just have to be patient. Most people may not notice the movement at all, until it is far too late. Its a snowball effect, carefully accumulated. Get away with the little abuses, and eventually you will change the status quo to get away with overt powergrabs if you plan carefully enough. Test the waters... turn up the heat...

    And, of course, the beauty of conspiracy is that one hand does not always have to know what the other hand is doing... a masterful shellgame... keep your eye on the ball, sure, But did you even notice how the ball has changed over time? Now you see it, now it's something else.

    But, sometimes it's not about a upwelling, the slow rising mercury. There is another, more deliberate way to cause violent thermal reaction, the uprising, and that is chemistry. Carefully selected ingredients by those would be agents of change and the proveacutors, the players you should be paying attention to behind the curtain: propoganda, misdirection, actual or perceived abuses of power, deception, questioning the status quo..

    Anger isn't always a slow process, it's muscle memory: instinct, self-preservation, reactionary. If something is threatening suddenly -rapidly out of no where- and you sense it manifesting your peripheral vision or directly in front of you, your instinct is to meet the threat by fighting or fleeing.
    ( Think...sudden invasion by a foreign power, or tyrannical, draconian laws going into effect in the middle of the night, blatant corruption or treason: conspiring and cooperation with an enemy, ignoring a crisis.)

    What if the current or a modern President of the United States announced his or her intention establish an official National Church of America, abolish all other forms of worship under penalty of death, with plans to re-institute slavery, strip women and minorities of their personhood and Civil Rights, to re-instate them back into the legal property of white landowners? In today's climate, that is going to... not bode well (with roughly 2/3rds of the population). And if the people object, do we have the effectual means to peaceably stop it from happening.... history says... no.

    But if a President came to power, announcing those same exact plans during a period of "relative" civic peace and contentment... would the people think it could actually happen? Would they feel outraged and motivated to act and mobilize... or would they feel more stunned, concerned, dazed and confused?

    The greater social context of "a threat", current or plausible abuses, is very important; because if the threat doesn't feel imminently plausible, it's not taken as seriously or legitimate when it truly ought to be. By the time the general population realizes it is a real threat, it's often too late. The only recourse is insurrection, open civil war.

    Systemic corruption is also a fantastic way to create political and social unrest. If citizens feel that their leaders have sold them out, have failed to hold up their end of the "social contract", or are claiming power by unjustifiable/ antiquated means... leaders can be reminded very quickly that they are the minority, regardless of the means they (think they) have at their disposal. Especially when the loyalty of their so-called resources is questionable.

    If the US Dollar collapses in the outbreak of civil unrest, what do the leaders and elite actually have to offer their perceived resources? Food? Shelter... that won't last forever. Buckets of hyper-inflated paper with dead presidents' faces printed on them? That's cute. And, if you kill off everybody who is fighting your abuses... who will you have to lord over and serve you when the dust settles? If the bottom of the food chain collapses, those left are forced to eventually eat each other. Then, life changes forever for everybody, the Law of Unintended Consequences will prevail. Wash, Lather, Rinse, Repeat... some stains just won't launder out, no matter what lies you tell yourself.

    Power dynamics and resources can be shifted and re-shifted in a heartbeat. Because, ultimately, we're talking about the human heart, aren't we? ( A.I., alien overlords and supernatural forces of inhuman evil not withstanding. )

    And, threats don't always have to be corporeal or existential. Most people don't like their pocketbooks and their persons raped, their livelihoods (for whatever its worth) taken or taxed away, or the feeling that they have zero resources or representation. Oddly enough, humans rather resent being treated as disposable commodities and inanimate objects... who knew?
    Last edited: Jun 3, 2020

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