Silly career change


Well-Known Member
Mar 2, 2016
Dear all,

I have a character who is a military character who mid story, say half way through is told by their faction that they'd like the character to stop shooting things and be their political representative at election.

This is the start of effectively a terrorist group trying to dearm and so on, so it works from the perspective the organization doesn't have any politicians so it's not ridiculous that the protagonist is untrained and there are reasons for why they're a good choice.

But effectively what im asking is what do I need to do to make that transition, understandable, plausible and not stupid.
As a matter of interest have you done any research into groups which have both paramilitary/terrorist and political wings? Frankly, this is such a loaded subject that I really think you need to have either lived in a place where terrorism has been a feature of life for some time and you know all the ins and outs of the political arguments on both sides, or you have done a lot of research.

Anyway, I'd have thought the non-terrorist wings arise first since it's only when moderates can't achieve their goals by argument that they turn to the bomb and bullet. Thereafter the two wings co-exist in tandem, albeit with different names, with the organisations themselves declaring their complete separation one from the other while the authorities (and everybody else...) treat them as de facto exactly the same body eg ETA. Off the top of my head I can't think of a terrorist organisation which has started with terror which then negotiates with the authorities, turns political to achieve its ends and disarms. I don't think the Red Army Faction had a political wing as such, but although they purported to disarm, I don't think they actually turned political in that way (but I'm happy to be corrected by those who know more about them) and in fact I'm not sure what their aims were beyond trying to overturn the political structures of society and kill a lot of people.

Terrorists don't tend to disarm and turn to politics alone for no good reason. So are they losing support of their financial backers overseas, or other terrorist groups who help train them, or simply those whom they purport to represent if they're eg an independence movement? Are they losing the "war" against the state with most of their members dead or imprisoned? Is someone in government sympathetic to their cause and giving out vibes he'll help if they disarm? Is there a general swing of support for their aims from the mass of the population?

As for former terrorists becoming politicians, can anyone pin an actual murder on your main character? If they can, that's going to make life difficult unless he's served his sentence (eg Nelson Mandela -- and it helps if he then also renounces violence) or there is amnesty for all terrorist activities committed by the organisation. It's easier if there's no proof of murder only widespread suspicion, but even then, there will be a lot of antagonism towards him, particularly by the relatives of those he's killed.
Hi Judge

Thanks for the comprehensive reply.

My day job, i'm a parliamentary assistant to an MP who does a lot of work around extremism, so there is definitely an element of my story which is about bringing a personal experience of politics into a fantastical world.

In my initial point I was deliberately vague as I was more interested in the career shift, rather than critiquing the setting.

However, if the answer is atleast in part ensure that the ground work on the factional pre-building has been done well to be able to give the context as to why the faction themselves are disarming, which in turn enables the character to represent that jump.

The issue now is portraying that without endless "as you know terrorist A"
the organization doesn't have any politicians so it's not ridiculous that the protagonist is untrained and there are reasons for why they're a good choice.
Okay, but you need to know what they are (if you don't already) and need to communicate this to the reader well enough that they believe it, too. Also, because they don't have anyone already trained or with experience of a political role, it doesn't mean that anyone will do, so there still needs to be a reason why your character is a natural choice for that role, something that sets them above other potential candidates. That, I think, will be important in establishing the believability of your character's change in occupation/role. Some options for that could be:-
  • the character's standing within the organisation. If, for example, he's viewed as a hero for leadership in warfare (i.e. known by the rank and file) they may want someone who the rest of the group can relate to
  • perhaps the character made a speech after or on the eve of a military encounter and this resonated with others
  • he/she has become famous/infamous for their exploits, perhaps even to the point where they have become the main person people think of when they think of the organisation. This could happen before the book begins, or could happen as part of the plot
  • perhaps the character was "famous" outside of the organisation before joining (e.g. from a well-known family). For example, depending on the world this takes place in, a prince, son/daughter of lord or infamous hero/villain might be add a veneer of respectability/notoriety as the organisation changes its outlook
  • perhaps the organisation needs a particular type of person or someone with a particular trait to counter their political opponent's leadership. For example, perhaps there's only one person who can unsettle the opposition leadership's master tactician - an old enemy from school/the only person who ever defeated him/got one over on him/her - and that one person is your character
The reasons why the group is de-arming will also be important in terms of believability, but isn't something I know enough about to comment on directly. I should think though that the closer your story-world is to the real world, the more believable the reason(s) will need to be, but even that's essentially guesswork.:unsure:
Since you'd said there were reasons for him to be a good choice of candidate, I didn't see the terrorists' choosing of him as a problem. So when you spoke of wanting the "transition" not to appear stupid, I took it to mean the larger transition of militancy to politics, not the smaller one of him putting the gun away, which has been done plenty of times before by all kinds of fighting men for all kinds of reasons (and talk of a "career shift" seems a bit odd to be honest -- terrorism isn't actually a job after all). And, of course, the US election proves you don't need someone who is "trained" in politics to win. You simply need someone who connects with the voters.

Anyway, if the terrorists don't have anyone better to stand for election within their ranks, then it's either him or they seek someone outside. Have they thought of looking outside the organisation? Would it be feasible? If they did have a political wing before the militant one as is usual, then it's strange they don't have someone with better political skills -- have they all died, or is no one willing to stand?

If they do have someone better -- ie someone who has political skills, is used to negotiating, is a good orator who can get people behind her, or is simply seen as a safe pair of hands -- then it's more problematic why he's chosen. Gonk's bullet points are all good ideas, but to make it seem plausible to me that he is chosen, you need to know why no one else has been. It isn't only his merits or history which are important, but that of everyone else who is or might have been picked if he wasn't around.

Also, your story's political system is relevant. Why will they have only one political representative at election? Is there only one candidate from all parties, or are they only contesting one seat, or is it a presidential style situation? Different political environments may require different skill-sets from potential candidates, as do different voting populations. If the only voters are sophisticated urban liberals, a brash candidate with no policies but a lot of skill in winding up an audience might have less chance. Conversely, a woman candidate is less likely to succeed in a world where there is no female suffrage. Is there a lot of money swirling around? If your candidate is independently wealthy, or can access funds, that might be a deciding factor.

Then there's the cultural make-up of your nation/world. Are there ethnic or religious or caste groups which always vote for their own? If so and he's a member of the largest, or a member of a group which isn't at odds with the largest, that might be crucial.

And, of course, does he want the role? Is he prepared to learn enough of politicking if he doesn't know it already? Is he fixated on terrorism as such -- ie he enjoys actually killing people -- or is he a reluctant murderer who is driven by a sense of justice or outrage? Does he kill guilty individuals as an assassin, or does he blow up pubs and leave secondary bombs to catch innocent people who are running from the first set? Those last couple of questions don't affect the plot as such, of course, but they will affect people's reaction to him, and not only the voters and media within your world, of course, but also the readers of your book.

Basically, to make his shift from terrorist to politician believable, you have to make the entire situation believable.
Of course I come to this with all my baggage and background, apologies (I'm Northern Irish). We have politicians here who have made the step from terrorist to politician, most noteably the likes of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly (and I don't include, for instance, Ian Paisley - as he was never formally linked with a terrorist group, but that's a nuance for the writer to decide: what is terrorism and where does it begin?)

Of the two above, McGuinness is the one who most made an impact as a politician whereas Gerry Kelly (a North Belfast Sinn Fein politican) remains firmly in his own area, by and large.

So, to look to McGuinness. Why did he make the successful transition - and, to the extent that both sides of the peace process believe his passing away has put things back for peace - and how?

Well, firstly - the conditions were such that there was more chance of achieving the nationalist aims through politics than the gun. So, that's the first thing that would convince me. Not some pie-in-the-sky change of heart. Terrorists believe very strongly in their cause. Killing - or the thought of it - has already not put them off. So the storyline of some action suddenly changing their heart or some external force making them see the error of their ways would have to work hard to convince me. But a shift in the politics or wider world to allow them to achieve their stated aims by a different means would.

Secondly - there needs to be a place where that person can feel able to find their place. Ironically, in NI, it was two hardliners going into power today that worked: McGuinness and Paisley had a genuine connection. So make sure I believe in the relationships created and why. I don't think anyone knows why that relationship worked - except, perhaps, they were both pragmatic about what needed to be done.

Thirdly, this is not a vacuum. There needs to be popular support for the change in approach - such as what the Good Friday Agreement delivered - and momentum. Your character will have to be a leader - they will have to carry a vision and need supporters. Without that being believeable you'd leave me behind.

And, I suppose, trying to make the terrorist seem like a misguided idealist would have many who faced terrorism chuck it against the wall. But those who like to believe in 'beautiful struggles' would lap that up, so I guess that's a choice for the writer.

One thing that does trip me up in your scenario though is that they are described as military and then a terrorist. The two are very different in culture, ethos, support and belief-systems.
Hi All,

Thank-you so much for the wealth you've given me to play with.

The best way of explaining the story is you have a high sci-fi human empire. There are other 'aliens', but within human space it's predominantly human. Human bio-engineering has got to a point where they have previously been able to make people, which leads to a 'bladerunner' eske scenario. But, imagine that the replicants are organised, and have significant areas of control, albeit small compared to the rest.

The story has a protagonist on both sides, and one of the key points is to demonstrate that the government can be both a lawful and benevolent administration or xenophobic dictators, while conversely the engineered people can be victims standing up for themselves or ruthless murderers.

These distinctions, I don't think are anything unduly new.

The protagonist in question, considers what she does to be a job, though she would consider herself a soldier rather than umm a terrorist. Her primary role is in servicing a highly placed mole within the administration.

Throughout the story, the mole itself comes out and is hugely well known and more importantly popular, which plunges the protagonist by extension into the limelight, which is a bad place to be as a spy!

Politics is very team focused, so a candidate stands maybe as the candidate themselves, but they would stand WITH their cabinet and that is often a central part of any campaign. So in relation to looking outside, the team would have representatives of human sympathizers who have thrown their lot in with the outlaws. But symbolically, the central candidate has to be one of them.

The transition arises when there is a section within the human administration who become more willing to negotiate for peace, which in turn gives an opportunity. (Though writing this, that makes it sound like the engineered people are just waiting around to be invited to be nice... more detail needed.

The publicity that the mole had received is by far the most populist recognition that the group had received, so any candidate would have to stand in a team with said mole. Which in turn leads to the protagonist being ordered by her superiors to lead this venture into politics. Partly because she is the only character who the mole listens to, but also that the protagonist has received moderate public interest.

There's aspects that I want to explore where an intelligence officer might make an outstanding politician, so themes such as being able to blend in anywhere and sound like a native, an appreciation and recognition of culture etc. But the long and the short of it is that the protagonist is doing it because they've been made to - which whilst they do the best they can, it doesn't necessarily fit their personality.

The protagonist who was born into a militant culture is as familiar with the militancy as opposed to whatever it is that they were actually fighting for. So there are going to be parts of the role which she does very well, and others which she does less well at.

So my action points!

1. Work on showing leadership abilities- so the protagonist is an officer and does lead, but I need to look at expressing more leadership rather than being in charge, / convey what others reactions are being lead by her.
2. Ensure that the political process itself is appropriate. The symbolism is that an alien is standing for office, but standing for supreme overlord seems inappropriate, standing to be a colonial governor, more so.
3. On both sides, there are people who don't actually know what the war was fought over and those that do. Give more though about making that distinction relevant, which in turn allows that cultural clash of civilizations to work better.

To me it sounds like your main problem is the "why?" Ie why the engineered people are suddenly willing to give up arms and enter the political arena. That there are suddenly some among the human government more willing to listen doesn't sit well with me. Remember apartheid continued for a great many years while some within government were willing to listen. And the FARC spent fifty(?) years fighting their war, while various members of the government were willing to listen. You need more. Maybe some pivotal event that changes the ongoing war. The FARC was losing their war and could see the end in sight which was their motivation. And apartheid ended when the opposition against it grew too large for the government to contain.

Cheers, Greg.
But effectively what im asking is what do I need to do to make that transition, understandable, plausible and not stupid.

Um, whatever it takes to make it understandable, plausible and not stupid. It's your story, only you can really decide what needs to be done.

This is going to be the same for whatever anyone comes up with to ask "can I write/do/have X?". The answer is "Yes.". Seriously. The only exception really is in romance, because there are certain things you can't do and have it still be a romance (unless you like really bad reviews and no sales), like cheating.

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