Being a Better Writer: Building Politics for Your Setting

Hello readers! Welcome back to another episode of Being a Better Writer! There’s no weekend news (or rather any you didn’t already know past Episode 10 of Fireteam Freelance dropping), so we’re just going to dive right into things and get down to it!

Last week, if you’ll recall, we talked about politics in writing and how the “keep politics out of fiction” movement is based an erroneous idea of what politics actually are (or “is” in the case of writing). If you’ve not read that post, I do recommend reading it before starting today’s post, as if someone heads into this one without a grasp on what “politics” actually means is likely going to find themselves confused and annoyed. So here’s the link to Politics and Writing. Once you’ve given that a read, you’ll be set with the foreknowledge for today’s post.

Those of you that are already caught up, good on you, and let’s dive in!

So, you’re sitting down to write your story. And you’ve already got your mind on political elements playing a part in the conflict. Maybe you’re writing about a small town in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe your protagonist is a young king dealing with other kingdoms.

In either of these cases, it’s clear that politics will come into play in some way. The small town, for example, is going to have ordinances, bylaws, zoning, and even social dynamics between the various people and their “class” (be that economic or some other divide). The kingdom, on the other hand, is going to have plenty of questions about how to rule, what rulings to make, how to interact with the neighbors, etc. How do you write about such things?

Actually a better question: How to write about such things in a real manner? No, wait, even better?

How did I get to that point in the first place? For some, it may feel like I’ve skipped a step, going from “Let’s write” to “here are some of the politics to write about.” So before we dive into anything else, let’s clear up how things moved from point A to point B. How did I jump from “here’s the setting” to “here are some political primers?”

Simple. Remember last week? Politics are ‘the activity associated with governance for an area or location’ and ‘competition between groups for that governance.”

In other words, I looked at that setting (small town, kingdom) and asked “Where will the conflict come from?” with regards to that governance and competition.

This may require some research. If, for example, you’ve never lived in a small town and seen “small town politics” (a very real thing) at play, then I would advise doing some research into what makes small town politics happen. But with any setting you’re writing where politics are going to come into play, asking yourself where this conflict will come from will give you a great starting point. Conflicts of a local constabulary office, for example, will be different than the conflicts of a cutthroat business.

Let me clarify something really quick: What you’re looking for isn’t necessarily active conflict, but potential conflict. You’re asking yourself “Where”  the conflict may come from, not determining that it will.

That comes next. Once you’ve got the “where” down, it’s time to ask the next question: Why?

See, politics aren’t something that happen whether or not anyone is involved. Rather they happen because people are involved (actively or not). A small town, to go back to one of our first examples however, doesn’t spontaneously have political conflict over a zoning law out of nowhere.

No, that conflict arises because people believe differently about it.

In other words, if you’re aiming for political elements to feature in your setting, you need to look at the drivers behind them. If a town is experiencing zoning conflict, why? Who are the people on the various sides of the debate, and what do they hope to accomplish or gain from it?

This applies to all level of politics. People (or rather, characters) don’t just idly hold ideals, beliefs, or opinions for no reason. Maybe they want a section of the city zoned for commercial development? Or don’t want the ruling royals to invite a certain merchant company to do business in the city? Why? What’s their motive? Is it just that the believe strongly in something? Are they operating under misinformation? Are they attempting to abused the system in their favor? Are they okay with that? SIDE NOTE: A stunning amount of people are okay with abusing the system in their favor, the idea being that it’s a “perk” of the position they’ve acquired, and since “everyone else would” they might as well to make things “fair.”

In other words, political differences don’t just come from nowhere! They come from people. Your characters. So not only do you need to identify where potential politics may arise, but you then need to explain why they do.

Bonus though: This has the effect of fleshing out your characters and giving them more depth. Why does a character believe the way they do? Asking yourself this will lead to looking deeper into motivations and beliefs of each character, which in turn will can give them more depth and dimension for the reader.

Granted, the usual rules still apply. There have been stories hamstrung, for example, by having characters take political actions, stances, or movements that disagreed or were at odds with other parts of their personality but with no acknowledgement or recognition of the incongruity. Which isn’t to say that there can’t be reasons (just look at how much dirty money US politicians take from lobbyists before suddenly changing their “opinion” on a topic), but that if you have a character acting contrary to what you’ve set up elsewhere, you’d better address it.

Now naturally, this isn’t it. I’ve chosen some fairly basic examples thus far, but I hope you understand that this can go a lot of different directions, you just need to think on those two things (where and why) and expand that into your setting.

For example, say you’ve got a setting with human and non-human species mixing in a trade city. Might building regulations exist that make things better or worse for a particular species? One could write a whole story out of a fantasy political divide in a trade town over a requirement suggested by a member of the city nobility that all doors should be at least tall enough for the tallest species population in town and how that divides people for various reasons (and there can be plenty of reasons, such as “does this apply to homes” or “who is going to pay for this?”).

In other words, looking into politics for your setting kind of requires both knowing a lot about the setting your story takes place in and the ability to look at it with an inquisitive, questioning, curious outlook

But there’s something else to this as well, something very important you’ll need to acknowledge and cultivate in order to really successfully create any sort of political realism in your story: perspective.

See, if you sit down and come up with a character who holds opinions and is working to see their vision or ideals come too fruition against someone who holds differently … then you need to do the same for the other person with the different views. This may not mean you agree with them, but you still need to work out the chain of logic on the opposing side as well.

Too many creators make the mistake of not doing this. Some use excuses such as “I don’t want to know their justification” or “It’ll make me feel uncomfortable.” But those are excuses. Just because someone looks into something does not mean they agree with it, even if some of the characters in their works do. We’ve spoken about this before on the site: author morals are not character morals.

Worse, if a creator does not take the time to work out or determine why a character on one side of a debate or stance has the convictions they hold, such a character is like a ship without a rudder: They might look impressive, but lack any sort of real direction or impact. The more they’re used, the more questionable their motivation will become because they don’t have one. Worse, this may cause the creator to have them take actions that actively work against their own motivations … because the creator doesn’t understand them.

This shows up a lot in books that address contemporary US politics, and it’s absolutely one of the reasons why those books end up only appealing to the choir they’re preaching to. Few of them are interested in even looking at the beliefs and the whys of their “opponents.” They just want to show that they’re wrong.

Don’t do this. You can write a book that doesn’t agree with ideals you don’t like, but at least takes the time to understand them and show why characters do or don’t agree with them. And such a work will have more human characters than one where one side or the other is simply an ideological punching bag.

Your antagonist may want to crush the world beneath their iron grip, but why? They can still be wrong insofar as a creator and their characters may be concerned, but they believe they are right, and will ave their reasons for doing so.

Look at both sides, right or wrong, to get your motivations.

Now, one last thing: Because you can do all this, should you? Well …

Yes and no. It’s up to each writer and creator how “tangled” they want the politics of their story to be. If you want to write a story about someone who mostly keeps out of it, then you can do that. However, this is not a free card to ignore the politics of the setting. They don’t have to have some vast impact on the plot, but they do have to exist as part of the setting itself. Maybe your story’s protagonist doesn’t care that Director-General Almest and Councilwoman Utio have been feuding back and forth over an orbital expansion for almost five years … However, the setting definitely will have felt the impact of that feud and everything with it. And even if that’s in the background to the character … it’s still a part of the world that should be thought about, if briefly.

Another way to look at it is through use of an old joke line that I’m not sure of the origin of. “You don’t care about politics? Well, that’s fine, but politics cares about you.”

This is true in real life as it is in fiction we create. Our character may not be involved in the political machinations of the setting, but they absolutely will live under them and be affected by them. Follow them or not, they will be there.

Now, in a way, this does give a creator two choices. Politics can be part of the characters and plot, or they can be part of the setting. Either one is fine … but whichever it is, it should be developed and given some thought.

Phew! I know that may have either seemed like a lot or, depending on what you were looking for, very little. To the first I say “just work at it, and you’ll figure it out, like most other things in writing.” To the latter “I can’t write your story for you. I can offer guideposts and direction for you to take the steps on your own, but you’ll have to take them.”

But hopefully with this in mind, from thinking about where politics may come from to why causes and ideals would be carried out, or from looking into those beliefs and ideas to see how they may function, you’ll start to see the cogs of your own world come together.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Building Politics for Your Setting

  1. Thorough, and succinct – suddenly my comprehension of politics, stories, and conflict is upgraded two quantum levels, and clarity has ensued. Already knew most of this, but had not articulated. Thanks!


  2. Politics in worldbuilding serve as a kind of source of infinete conflicts… kind of like in the real world.


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