Being a Better Writer: Politics

Oh dear, what have I done? Why did I ever even write this topic down? What was I thinking? And then I picked it?

Actually, it’s not that bad. Some of you readers may have had similar reactions to seeing this topic, considering what it could discuss … and let’s be honest, that is a topic I could discuss, and likely will at another time.

Just not today. No, today’s topic of politics isn’t going to be involved with the real-world, thankfully (because that’s a mess). No, instead I want to talk about the politics in your book. No, not those “social politics” of the theme and whatnot. Not that at all. That’s the other topic, the one most of us dread because it’s so overblown these days.

No, I want to talk about the political sphere of your story. The politics in your story, that the characters are part of. Not the reader.

Now, because I’ve seen this topic broached before at conventions, writing classes, and the like, I can imagine what the average response is to this topic. Either a confused expression (fairly common) or a deadpan,  bored look coupled with the thought “Well, my book doesn’t involve politics or anything like that, so I’m just going to zone out” (which is equally common, in my experience). But … you’re wrong. If you’re thinking that right now, you’re wrong. And here’s why.

Almost every story, no matter the subject, will involve politics of some kind. In some way, from some angle. Politics will be there.

Still shaking your head? Okay, let’s look at the example of the classic fairy tale story of a prince going out to seek a princess to marry, usually saving her (or being saved) in the process and coming back to a “happily ever after.” Pretty standard, we can find variations on this type through every culture on Earth. Is it political, however?

Yes, actually. It is. Why is the prince off looking for a princess? Political maneuvering for the good of the kingdom in securing an alliance with a neighbor. Why is he trying to prove himself (or the princess herself)? To show that they will be good rulers after the fact.

“Okay, okay,” you might be saying. “But what about something else? What about … a character drinking in a dive bar? Wasting away the hours? That’s not political, right?”

Well … almost. Except for the fact that the dive bar exists, and likely has rules and laws concerning things. Crud, the main character may be in said dive bar because the other establishments close earlier for legal reasons. For all we know, he’s there to be directly involved with politics, either openly by meeting with a political representative, or subversively by meeting with some under-the-table dealers.

What about a werewolf story? Turns out, those can be political too. Read one short story (a really fun one) where a werewolf moves into a new town, only to get picked up by animal control under a draconian leash law, leading to his wife bailing him out of the shelter and expressing a desire to fight against said leash law.

Right, I can hear some of you coming up with counter-examples from here, so let me pull everything back together. The point that I’m making, and one that is sort of an intrinsic fact of life, is that for any sort of stable social system to exist, someone must have laid some sort of framework. And with that framework, politics exist. Boom.

See, when I say politics, I don’t necessarily mean the sort of politics many of us think of, with the double-speak and the political parties and whatnot … though it certainly can mean that. No, what I’m referring to is a system of sorts that whatever world you’ve established works within and around.

See, no matter what sort of world you stitch together, no matter what the magic, the setting, the characters, the technology, or any number of other elements, there will be some sort of political process at play, either behind the scenes, or in the open. And that process will in turn have some sort of effect on your story.

This isn’t a bad thing. Far from it. Realizing that your story, really any story, is going to have some sort of political process at the very back of it can do wonderful things for your story by providing all sorts of avenues for new information. Take, for example, a crime thriller, with a grizzled detective tracking down a criminal. There are laws all around how they can and can’t do their work, as well as procedures that the society they live in has established. Each one of those provides an avenue for the story to move in one direction or another, to bounce from place to place. Does the character respect those laws? Or do they dislike them. Do they change? Why?

This is part of the reason a lot of authors like to make their antagonists politically powerful. In many cases, it makes for a good way to twist the world around the protagonist, either through the existing political structure, or by manipulating it (such as when someone finds their path blocked by bureaucracy). An antagonist with political power can pull all sorts of very real strings against a protagonist and be completely legally safe doing it, making them that much more of an obstacle for our protagonist to overcome. Such a challenge comes with questions, too, since the protagonist can choose to ignore said obstacles at the risk of reprisal from society itself.

The point I’m getting at, I feel, is that too often writers, especially young ones, put their stories in a political “void” where politics and law happen only as needed, and this just plain isn’t real. Politics, laws, and the interplay between the two (as well as the people who make them) aren’t something that appear in life only when they become directly relevant—though it often may feel like it. Rather, politics, laws, and the like more often shape the directions that our lives can take, even if we don’t think about it. And so it should be with our writing: Even if we’re not writing a story that is about anything political, we still need to be aware that the politics of the world we create will still shape that story by virtue of existing. Laws, practices, who’s in power … All these things will be influences on our story in one way or another. Which means that we do need to consider them, even if in the broadest sense of making some vague notions and assumptions.

Okay, enough said about that, perhaps. You’re painting the mental image, I hope. Don’t set your stories in a political vacuum. Which brings us to the other aspect of this that should be brought up: what to do when the political background moves to the foreground.

See, it’s one thing to have a political vacuum (which you don’t want), and another to have a story with the structure and everything in the background, where all it does is indirectly influence a characters actions. But what about a story that becomes more direct, where the characters themselves are directly involved with politics? What do you do then?

Research. And this is where things get complicated. And messy. Because politics … they’re kind of like a mangled ball of yarn. All over the place, and full of confusing knots. And if the politics of the world you’re building aren’t … well, you’re going to need to work out how.

A good starting point then, as terrifying as this may sound, is learning about different forms of government, along with political theory. Learn about political parties, political maneuvering, how governments work to provide the same or similar services in each case (because the methods will often be different from one government to another). Learn about the inherent flaws and advantages of different forms of governance. Read up on corruption, upsets, and changes made to different political structures over time.

But as you do this, don’t forget the human aspect. If not for that, most forms of government would likely run at least somewhat steadily without issue (note I said most). But the human aspect keeps things fluid, keeps things interesting. People move within politics to shape politics.

Once you’ve got a decent handle on different forms of government and how they worked throughout history, you can start to lay the groundwork for the backgrounds and politics of your own stories in greater detail, which will allow you to make a world which seems that much more real to the reader. You can mix and match different styles, policies, and forms of governance with your characters to create a system as stable or unstable as you wish.

Now, a note here. You don’t have to explain every little thing about the politics of your world. You don’t need to try and build the perfect government. Believe me, you won’t succeed. Besides, your story likely doesn’t call for it. Like any tool in the writer’s toolbox, the politics of your world are a brush you can paint with sparingly, or in thickness, but never as the only brush. Simply one tool among many.

So you can build a decent approximation of how things work and let reader’s minds fill in the gaps, provided what is given allows logical steps in the right direction. And given how tightly intertwined your story is with the politics of your world, those gaps can be larger or smaller. However, unless you’re trying to write a treatise on governance, you should let them exist. Just make sure you’ve given enough that curious readers can think “But what about … Oh, no, that makes sense.”

Now, look, there are still probably some of you who are thinking “But do I really need this?” And again, I’d say yes. Regardless of personal feelings on the matter, the fact of life is that we interact “politically” with a lot of what we do. Whether it’s paying license fees, taxes, or making our voices heard in a political matter, we’re influenced by politics in many ways. Moving to understand those ways can then, in turn, be reflected in our writing, which in turn makes the machinations of our stories that much more believable.

Again, politics don’t have to be the front-runner in your works. But they should be something that is there as one of the background systems that establishes a bit of context for your world. Don’t let your story exist in a political “vacuum,” where politics only appear to exist at all the moment they become relevant. Understand that they will form some of the world around the characters instead, and work to capture that to the scale you’re writing towards.

It’s messy and convoluted … but if you get it right, your work will be all the better for it.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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