Writers in the Storm

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June 9, 2023

What Fiction Writers Can Learn from Coups, Part I

by Piper Bayard

One of the most common elements of fiction writing is some type of faction vs. faction conflict, whether we are writing about a change of regime in a local PTA, a kingdom, a modern republic, or interstellar empires. The writers who nail this type of conflict are the ones who understand the questions that impact regime changes of all kinds and the tools that achieve those changes. Today, we will look at the big questions that must be addressed with a coup, whether fictional or real. In our next article, Part II, we will dive into specific tools that both countries and fiction writers can bring into play when dealing with state vs. state/faction vs. faction conflict.

Who Wants to Throw a Coup and Why?

Governments exist to protect the interests of a dominant social group. This is true whether we are talking about an HOA board or the government of a large and vital nation. Foreign countries support governments of other nations that have aligning interests. Foreign countries also often subvert the governments of other countries when those governments have interests that do not align with their own. People and nations want coups when they are seeking some kind of radical change in support of their own interests.

Coups are nothing new. For example, there are cuneiform records of Assyria’s Sargon II invading the kingdom of Manna in the late 8th century BC and placing a puppet king on the throne. In response, the king of Assyria’s main enemy, Urartu, sent instigators to Manna to create civil unrest and support for a king that would be more favorable to Urartu. Many modern-day equivalents can be found in the Cold War.

Bottom Line: Coups happen all around us, all the time, from our local organizations to the leaders and governments of countries.

An Important Point About Throwing Coups

Successful coups are not just about deposing a leader. Whether they be against PTA presidents, HOA boards, state dictators, or administrations, coups are only worthwhile if there is someone or something better to take over. That’s because if a government is deposed without a rapid, organized replacement, a power vacuum is left behind, and chaos will fill it.

If our characters are like Littlefinger from Game of Thrones, and they see chaos as a ladder, power vacuums are just the ticket for our stories. Most of the time, however, that is not the case. That means that our protagonists can’t just be against the leader of the status quo, they must be for someone or a government that has something better to offer. Otherwise, the tyrant is overthrown, and our characters are left in a “what next” state that will inevitably devolve into chaos.

One great fictional example of an overthrow without a viable replacement is in the series 3% out of Brazil. Spoiler alert: I’m going to be pointing to the end of the series.

In 3%, we see a society where 3% of the people live well while the other 97% live in abject poverty and misery. At the end, a small group destroys the 3%. Then, rather than replace the rulers with a viable government, the resistance leaders call a big meeting and say that all of the citizens will decide everything together. . . . Right. . . . Because no one needs to go home and cook dinner tonight instead of learning what a sewer system is and what’s necessary to keep it working. That arrangement is neither a functional replacement government, nor is it a satisfying ending to a story.

Bottom Line:  A successful coup, whether getting rid of a tyrannical HOA board or a Fidel Castro, is not just about what our insurrectionists resist, it is about what our revolutionaries support.

What size is the organization or country?

Is this a small organization or country, or is it a large one? That is critical to what tools are used to achieve the coup and how long it will take to do so.

Small, Local Groups

Queen Tiffany of the PTA
Queen Tiffany of the PTA

I’m going to keep picking on the PTA because it is representative of pretty much any small group with a small administration, whether it be a dance club, a pottery studio, or . . . a PTA. The process of a coup in an organization is a microcosm of what happens with country coups.

Like small countries, coups within groups tend to be rather rapid because everyone knows everyone, everyone is familiar with the resources, and opposition is usually between cliques of would-be leaders. For example, PTA President Tiffany and her cronies, who want to spend all of the money on a carnival, might face opposition from prominent parent Madison and her cronies, who want to spend the money on STEM tutors for the kids.

The biggest differences between a PTA ouster and the overthrow of a small country dictator is that generally no assassinations or foreign countries are involved with the PTA, and propaganda campaigns tend to take the form of gossip and social media rather than coordinated print and mainstream media.

Bottom Line: Local group ousters can be as hostile as the overthrow of dictators, employing many of the same tools and driving divisions just as deep, but they are almost never as violent. Then again, it could make an interesting read if they were. Just saying.

Small Country Coups

Small, stable countries with low corruption, such as Iceland, are not especially vulnerable to coups. On the other hand, small, unstable countries with a high corruption index are quite vulnerable to coups. That’s because corrupt leaders are open to influencers, both internal and external. Also, where there is more instability and corruption, there is less loyalty, and, therefore, populations are less likely to resist coups.

That said, popularity of a dictator is just one factor, and there are some exceptions. For example, North Korea is not as susceptible to a coup even though Kim Jong Un is brutal to the North Korean people. In his case, he has also been extremely successful at indoctrination, and that is critical to his maintaining control.

Small countries tend to have more rapid coups because those with power and resources all know each other, and they are often, though not always, related by blood and/or marriage. They know who owns which politicians, who owns which political parties, who is tight with the banks, who is tight with the corporations, etc. The moving parts are known quantities. Think of coups in vulnerable small countries as extended, frequently violent family feuds.

Remains of a small country dictator.

To keep a small country coup realistic and successful, the deposers must kill the deposed leader. Deposed leaders in small countries are generally executed during a coup in order to put any conflict over who should be in charge to rest immediately.

If the deposers are smart, the deposed leader is dead before they notify any foreign allied countries of the coup. That’s because, while many allied governments are secretly thrilled when the dirty work gets done without their fingerprints on it, they will feel obligated to publicly refuse support for a new regime committing an after-coup execution.

For what it’s worth, many citizens of smaller countries actually expect deposed leaders to be executed. For example, when Piper’s law professor was at a bougie cocktail party in Costa Rica when Nixon stepped down, and one prominent guest asked the professor when Nixon would be executed. The guest was quite surprised to be told that is not the American way of doing things, and that ex-presidents, including Nixon, simply retire to estates in sunny locations and get book deals.

If we have a publisher that rejects stories where the good guys actually kill anyone, which seems to be the popular trend, it is also viable for the deposed leader to escape to voluntary exile. We’ll take a look at a delightful story about a Soviet-backed Central American dictator who jumped ship to voluntary exile during the Cold War in Part II.

Bottom Line: For a coup in a small country, that country must be unstable with corrupt leaders. What we don’t want in our books or in real life is for the deposers in small countries to take the deposed dictator prisoner, as then they are stuck with the sticky wicket of either keeping the former dictator alive while their supporters are scheming to set them free and back on the “throne,” or killing the deposed to the public displeasure of the world and being labeled a murderous, illegitimate regime.

Large Country Coups

A coup in a larger country can take months to decades of groundwork, depending on the foreign interests involved. That’s because there are more players and more pieces to coordinate. This groundwork will include everything from purchasing politicians and prosecutors, to long-term propaganda campaigns, to instigating prolonged chaos that climaxes with a heavily influenced election. We’ll take a closer look at these groundwork tools in Part II.

Fall of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 9, 1989

Regimes with communist traditions, such as Russia and China, play the long game and are patient enough for decades of investment in coups. Western countries, on the other hand, tend to fluctuate more in their politics and not be as sustained in their efforts at influencing foreign countries.

Deposed leaders of larger countries might be executed or exiled, depending on the nation and whatever foreign nations are backing the deposer. However, these days, the deposed are likely to be defeated in a heavily influenced election and then relentlessly discredited through long-term propaganda and criminal and civil lawsuits. They may even eventually be jailed. Gradually, they slip from the public view, and they are only remembered by the new regime’s version of them and their deeds, while much of the population remains unaware that a coup has taken place at all.

Bottom Line: Successful coups in larger countries require more groundwork and coordination, and the deposed leaders are not necessarily executed.

What factional conflicts do you have in your stories? What questions do you have about coups?

About Piper

Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers. Please visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard, or at their email, BayardandHolmes@protonmail.com.

*All pics are purchased from Canstock with clear copyright.


Though crafted with advice and specific tips for writers, SPYCRAFT: Essentials is for anyone who wants to learn more about the inner workings of the Shadow World.

“For any author, this is the new bible for crafting stories of espionage.”

~ James Rollins, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Demon Crown

6 comments on “What Fiction Writers Can Learn from Coups, Part I”

  1. Hi Piper!
    I always find your articles educational. My stories don't involve factional conflicts, at least for now.
    While reading your post the Mafia came to mind, which led me down the rabbit hole to find a story about the Mafia, Castro, and the Kennedy brothers in the 60s.
    Lots of intrigue.
    Thank you for giving me more to ponder!

    1. Thank you, Ellen! The Mafia is a great place to look for factional conflict.

      Just a fun fact. An especially interesting period in the US was just after Joe Pistone came out as a covert FBI agent who had infiltrated high levels of the Bonanno crime family. Once he was out, mafiosi started seeing FBI agents around every corner and started whacking lots of their own out of paranoia. Lots of despotic dictators have done the same, such as Stalin.

  2. Using a PTA is a flawed analogy because it is a 501c3 nonprofit and has rules in place on the individual level, local level, the state level, and the national level. And on top of all of that, there are IRS regulations in place. If problems happen, there is a plan in place via the bylaws at each level. The budget has to be transparent and approved at the beginning of the year, just like any other 501c3. The monthly budgets have to align with the annual budget. A carnival would be a fundraiser to raise money, using money for tutoring is a separate expenditure. Apples and Oranges.

    The same for an HOA. It is a nonprofit and regulated by the state, and there are federal laws in place for some things and IRS regulations for others. If the state finds a huge breach or fraud, the state can assign an overseer. It's required to by law. Again, an HOA has legal documents with declarations and bylaws which spell out what is allowed or not allowed, all members in good standing have to be treated fairly, and the bylaws have to be enforced appropriately. Budgets have to be transparent.

    In both cases, the bylaws have spelled out a legal way to deal with members who are not compliant or officers not abiding by the bylaws. It would be really hard to have a coup in those types of organizations.

    1. I would respectfully disagree. Just because there are rules in place and everyone is following them, it doesn't mean that a competing faction can't overthrow an existing regime, be it PTA, HOA, or the government of a country.

      For example, my own HOA board got the bit in its teeth and started wielding the strictly-written rules in ways that were perfectly legal that had the entire neighborhood up in arms. Using the rules and regulations, we lawfully demanded a special election and tossed every one of them out in favor of a board that leaves people alone except in the most egregious of violations. Took us about four months start to finish.

      Factions can be overthrown within frameworks of rules, installing new regimes with new ideas and ways of doing things. The competing positions about how to spend the PTA money was an arbitrary example.

      1. What you described was not a coup d'etat by either party. Self-correcting (special election) a board which got off course (abuse of power) was built into the structure.

        1. Thank you for your interest in the topic. I'll keep in mind your arguments so that we can address them should we devote a book to Coups and Conspiracies.

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