Doris Lessing's interest in politics began in the 1940s while she was living in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She was attracted to a group of "quasi-Communist[s]" and joined the chapter of the Left Book Club in Salisbury (now Harare). Later, prompted by the conflicts arising from racial segregation prominent in Rhodesia at the time, she also joined the Southern Rhodesian Labour Party. Lessing moved to London in 1949 and began her writing career there. She became a member of the British Communist Party in the early 1950s, and was an active campaigner against the use of nuclear weapons.
By 1964, Lessing had published six novels, but grew disillusioned with Communism following the 1956 Hungarian uprising and, after reading The Sufis by Idries Shah, turned her attention to Sufism, an Islamic belief system. This prompted her to write her five-volume "space fiction" series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, which drew on Sufi concepts. The series was not well received by some of her readers, who felt she had abandoned her "rational worldview".
The Good Terrorist was Lessing's first book to be published after the Canopus in Argos series, which prompted several retorts from reviewers, including, "Lessing has returned to Earth", and "Lessing returns to reality". Several commentators have labelled The Good Terrorist as a satire, while Lessing called it humorous. She said:
[I]t's not a book with a political statement. It's ... about a certain kind of political person, a kind of self-styled revolutionary that can only be produced by affluent societies. There's a great deal of playacting that I don't think you'd find in extreme left revolutionaries in societies where they have an immediate challenge.
Lessing said she was inspired to write The Good Terrorist by the IRA bombing of the Harrods department store in London in 1983. She recalled, "the media reported it to sound as if it was the work of amateurs. I started to think, what kind of amateurs could they be?" and realised "how easy it would be for a kid, not really knowing what he or she was doing, to drift into a terrorist group." Lessing already had Alice in mind as the central character: "I know several people like Alice—this mixture of ... maternal caring, ... and who can contemplate killing large numbers of people without a moment's bother." She described Alice as "quietly comic[al]" because she is so full of contradictions. She said she was surprised how some of the characters (other than Jasper, Alice's love interest) developed, such as the pill-popping and fragile Faye, who turned out to be a "destroyed person".