Welcome back readers! No news this week, we’re just diving right in! I felt that with the United States celebrating Independence Day this last weekend, today’s post topic felt timely. Though it wasn’t inspired by current events. This topic has been on the list for several months, inspired by a combination of commentary on various book and writing locales online as well as some very public statements by a gaming company on the nature of politics and stories (statements I disagreed with, personally).
So then, with no further ado, let’s jump in and talk about politics and writing. This is going to be a rather involved post, and as well, I suspect, somewhat controversial, because as of late culturally the idea of talking about politics has become fairly divisive in and of itself. Or to put it bluntly: Many seem to only think politics should be spoken about as long as what’s being said supports their position (no matter what it is) with as little friction as possible.
Which is kind of a genesis of sorts for this post. See, today we’re not going to talk about how to write political intrigue in our stories, nor how to write a book that focuses on politics and governmental drama. Not at all (besides, you approach that like any other topic: lots of research). No today we’re discussing the idea of having “politics” be something in a story at all.
You may have heard this statement before from someone in person or online, or at least a statement akin to it: “I don’t like politics in my story. There’s no need for them. [Creator] can just make a story without politics in it.”
Yeah, this is a popular phrase being parroted around these days. If you haven’t heard it, count yourself lucky, because any following discussion devolves into madness, usually quite quickly. However, this commonality of this statement does raise a legitimate question: are they right?
Here’s the answer: no.
Okay, that’s far too little of an answer. Let’s dive into this since this very likely is something that many young or starting writers have worried about, as it carries a lot of controversy these days. First, let’s take it as is. As in, we’re going to look at some definitions and provide some explanation as to where this new mantra is going wrong.
Then, however, we’ll look into why it became a mantra anyway, and what the people parroting it really mean. After which, we’ll get to the main course at last: putting this whole topic into practice with your writing.
Okay, so starting with why this mantra doesn’t make a lot—or really any—sense. Let’s define the word “politics.” Politics, according to one quick dictionary search, is “activity associated with the governance of a country or other area.” The definition goes on to also define politics as “competition between groups for governance in said area or country for leadership” as well as “referring to the governmental sympathies or beliefs of a person.”
Alright, so it’s a little broad (curse you English!) but at the same time, can you imagine writing a story without any of that conflict in it?
Yes, I said conflict there because “politics” is something that is innately steeped in conflict. This, however, does not make it bad. A parent debating with their child and working to enforce bedtime is conflict, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be shouting and screaming. It can merely be an area where both parties disagree. And the parent holding the card of “I own this house, so I’m the one who sets the rules?” That’s politics. They are actively governing an area: their home.
And what is one of the five basic elements of a story, if you recall our post on dumb ideas? That’s right, it’s conflict. Two opposed ideas, people, concepts, whatever. Without a conflict of some kind, there is no story.
Politics of any kind, then, are natural fits for writing, because any array of politicking in any story is going to introduce conflict. Or rather, many forms of conflict are innately going to be political.
Don’t believe me? All right, let’s drop some examples here. Recall the definition of politics dropped above, and then look at these story prompts. Which of these is “political?”
- A group of kids who disagree how to use the clubhouse they just built together.
- A parent couple attending a school meeting to discuss the arts education provided by their child’s school.
- Two parents discussing how to best deal with the loss of a job.
- A new adventurer joining a party and trying to find their place in it.
- A cargo hauler in space dealing with the friction between two nations as they ferry cargo back and forth.
If you answered “All of them,” then congratulations, you’re correct. Each one of them has political connotations and/or interactions. In the first one, the politics are between the kids over who has control of the clubhouse. The second, between the parents and the school leaders over what goes on at the school. The third between two adults trying to figure out what to do about the loss of a job (because there will be sacrifice, but from who?). The fourth between the members of the party as the newcomer changes the balance they already had, and the final one … Well, that last one is ripe for all kind of politics.
See, in their own way, each of these stories involves conflicts that are political. They’re based in conflict (and remember, conflict doesn’t have to be bad) over what happens in a place, group, or setting. This is why you hear things about “church politics” when referring to the social standings of people who associate with the social activities and circles of a church group, for example, or “office politics” when discussing the social groups of an office. Each of those groups can (and almost always is) be quite political in nature.
Now, I want to note something yet again. This idea, that so many things are political, is not inherently bad. Nor is the concept or actuality of conflict. Life grows out of conflict. Achievement comes out of conflict. Two people having a rational debate and exchange of ideas is a conflict, and from it can come new understanding.
So then, what’s the real debate here? If conflict is a basic part of a story, and most conflict can easily be political in nature, what’s the big disagreement, and why are so many parroting the phrase “I don’t want politics in my story?”
Well, it’s because they’re talking—albeit in a loose manner—about the last bit of the definition we looked at above, to whit “referring to the governmental sympathies or beliefs of a person.” In just about every stretch imaginable (and we’ll talk about that in a moment). However, because of the stigma and lack of understanding these days around what “politics” actually are, many people say it while sliding back into the two prior parts of the definition.
After all, “everyone else” is saying it.
The result is that people are calling for the removal of “all politics” from stories of any kind, making the statement without a single regard for how broad of a demand that really is. When their issue is really rooted in one of two things, both aptly summed up.
- I don’t like things that disagree with my politics.
- I don’t like reading soapboxes.
Unfortunately, these can both go hand-in-hand, or they can strike separately. But it make reacting to “I don’t want politics in my stories” a nightmare, as people who state it may mean one of those, both, or even have moved into a possible third that grows out of those two, that being—
- Politics bring conflict, and conflict is bad, so all politics need to go.
—which just muddies the water further. However, luckily for me in writing this post, those who hold that last opinion are not open to being disagreed with (that’s conflict and it’s “bad”) so there’s little point in my wasting effort here. Instead, I’ll just refer those of you that are conflicted about it (hah) to the above talking about conflict and politics. Now, let’s tackle those other two in order.
First, this rejection of any politics that aren’t in line with the readers. I want to make something abundantly clear here: That is not the fault of the writer. This one is on the reader. If someone contacts a writer saying “You need to write more things in line with my political views” well, see last week’s post. A writer is free to write what they want.
However, and here’s where things get tricky for a lot of people, not writing what a select reader would prefer is not the same as not writing soapbox literature, which is a line of good writing all writers should consider. It’s also, fittingly, a topic that this site has covered a number of times. Worse (and once more), this again gets muddy because many people who will disagree with “politics” in books because of point #1 will readily defend and embrace a book that is at fault with point #2 because they’re fine with soapboxing as long as it is in their favor. Preaching to the choir, in other words.
Worse still, many will insist that such a book preaching to their own political leanings is not political. Because, you know, it agrees with them. No conflict, so therefore no politics.
If by this point what some of you may have gathered from this is that a lot of people are pretty selective or even downright biased in how they approach “politics” in books. And that’s correct: A lot of people are. Which again muddies the waters, because whether or not a book has “politics,” as well as whether or not that’s “okay” depends entirely on the person making the judgement, so different people will have different stances on whether or not the same book is “political” or not. Sands, sometimes they’ll make declarations about the books being “political” based on whether or not the author agrees with their stances, regardless of the book’s contents.
Yikes. There’s a silver lining though. It is amusing to note that by laying out such a judgement over the territory of a book (or in some cases whole swaths of books), these individuals (and groups) force actual politics of control in a hypocritical manner.
Yikes, what a mess, right? So then, what can we take away from this? Or better yet … What can we do when writing our works with regards to politics to keep our own work from falling into this mire that so many people have been swept into?
Well first, we can understand what “politics” means. That’ll give us a wider perspective on what we’re writing and whether or not it does involve something political.
Then should we shy away from them at all? Of course not! However. this isn’t a free shot to do whatever you want. For starters, you don’t want to soapbox. Again, see the other posts written on that topic linked above for further depth on that, but soapboxing is extremely limiting as far as an audience is concerned.
But that’s a don’t. So what about a do for when you’re writing things that are about politics? Well, here’s a really good one: take it seriously, and examine the sides through your characters.
Remember, if you’re writing something political in a story, be that a PTA meeting or a story about government leaders in a civil war, those characters are not you. No matter who they are, they believe in their ideas and goals, and should behave accordingly. Or rather, you should write them accordingly.
I’ve seen books fail at this before, when they’ve written two opposing ideologies, only to have the one the author agreed with be superior in every way to the one the author didn’t agree with, and then show this by having the characters who “believed in” the opposing ideology waffle like a wet paper bag when challenged by even the most basic conflict despite being supposedly important and intelligent enough to have long-ago arrived at that conclusion.
This doesn’t have to be soapboxing, No, this can be strawmanning (setting up a weak ‘opposing view’ just to batter them down), or even just an author choosing not to put as much effort into a character they disagree with because they disagree with them.
I’m not saying that the author needs to agree with the character, nor that simply because an author writes a character expressing an opinion, that character’s opinion is automatically “correct” in any way. What I’m saying is that the good author will write the character who believes in something or holds it as a part of their character being true to that character.
For example, let’s look at one of my own works. As an author, I do not agree with everything the character Carlos Rodriguez says or does. Rodriguez firmly believes the bombings he’s carried out on Pisces are justified, even with thousands of civilian casualties. While I can agree with some of Rodriguez’s ideas and motivations, I don’t agree with all of them. However, I wasn’t writing me when I was writing Rodriguez. I was writing Rodriguez, and Rodriguez firmly believes that those actions were justifiable in the greater picture of things. Thus, while I don’t agree with some of the decisions the character made, I still let the character make them, as they believed in them, and that made them all the more real.
How do you do this, even when it’s something you may not agree with? Well, you’ll have to seek to understand their view, which means knowing your character quite well. For complicated topics, this can be quite tricky and in-depth. You’ll need to work out why the character holds such a belief or ideal, why they’re in favor of it, and why common opposing viewpoints haven’t swayed them. I can’t be really any more specific than that, since every situation is going to be different, but think through why your character holds the beliefs that they do.
Now, a brief note about characters with flawed beliefs: That’s fine. You can have a character with flawed beliefs. People have them all the time. And like people, some characters may refuse to change them. They can be stubborn, or double-down.
Some can also compromise (personally, this is a facet a lot of modern fiction seems to lack, especially with regards to anything “political”), and that’s another angle you’ll have to look at. What concessions might a character make, be they the ruler of a country or a bake sale, in exchange for something else, and why might they do it?
Now, one last bit of warning: Characters that fold. Sometimes a neat story arc can be one character changing their thoughts and ideas when exposed to new information. Seems natural, right? Absolutely! Nothing wrong with that.
However, something can be wrong with it if the only goal was for the author to point and say “See, look how much better this ideaology/group is! This character gets it! Why don’t you?” It’s a kind of sideways soapboxing that’s more a mix of author going for a “message” combined with a “straw man.”
For example, I once read a novel that was quite political and did this, and was utterly annoyed by the end. The premise was that the protagonist was a member of one of the two primary parties in the US (I won’t specify which one, but people’s guesses should be amusing). However, they were working as a member of the presidential party for the opposite party. Their reasoning? I kid you not, it was ‘This person is actually so far in [protagonist’s] direction, they may as well be a member of that party. They’re really only in the other party because that party is dumb enough to vote for them.’
Oh, it got worse. Naturally, the nominee’s party turned out to be corrupt (you’d never see anything like that in the protagonist’s party, of course) and attempting to play dirty, and at the end when all is revealed and the nominee wins, they undergo a sudden change of heart, all their thinly-expounded on ideals broken away in the course of a single conversation, and they proudly proclaimed that protagonist’s party was right all along, but the party they’d previously been in was backwards but easily swayed for votes … Or some such nonsense. I kind of stopped paying attention once that climax hit.
The character was a sideways soapbox, their entire point to be ostensibly a dedicated member of one US political party, only to suddenly “see the light” and swap over to the other party, because of course that party is right. A strawman mixed with an author driving home their own message of what party they clearly thought people should always follow. A way to tell readers “Here’s what you should do” without “telling” them while pretending that it was just “character development.”
The problem? I never read another book by that author again, as at the end of the day it was still a soapbox, and I wasn’t interested in that. Nor was I interested enough in the rest of the story to take the preaching as it came.
So, let’s recap. Politics in a story is a wide range, far wider than a lot of people mean. As a result, most conflicts are going to involve “politics” of some kind, whether or not you think of them as such. Readers who oppose “politics,” meanwhile, are often concerned with one of two things, either not wanting to read anything that disagrees with their personal opinions, or not wanting to be preached at. Or they’re just broadly pushing back against the idea that “politics=conflict and conflict=bad.”
However, while writers can’t do much about the stubborn willful blindness of “I don’t want anything that disagrees with me” there’s plenty that can be done to avoid soapboxing while still presenting compelling characters that have their own political opinions and ideals. Each character must be examined carefully and their motivation understood, but the result? It’ll be a character that feels like a real person, with opinions, ideas, and beliefs. Three dimensional, rather than flat two-D or worse, one-note.
It’s a lot of work on an author, and may require some extra mental flexing to see things from other perspectives … but at the end of the day, that’s worth it.
So good luck. Now get writing.
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