Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Politics – for some, a fun subject capable of sparking intense, interesting debate. For others, a dry, dull, and confusing thing that your friends fight about when they’re drunk. As anyone who’s read a headline in the past few years will know, we live in politically divided times; in the US especially, politics is downright nasty, with good old intrigue usurped by insults, conspiracies, prejudice, and violence.
In this sense, modern political fiction finds itself at something of a disadvantage: ‘stranger than fiction’ is a phrase that has been thrown around by pundits and citizens alike to describe particular political events over the past five years, and indeed, certain current political situations do read like heavy-handed grad-school fiction. If a reality TV star became the president in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, we’d roll our eyes; if the entire Russian government resigned at the behest of the Russian president in a Tom Clancy novel, we’d buckle ourselves in for some classic Red Scare shenanigans.
So, how is political fiction supposed to keep up? Well, there’s absolutely room (and some would say a need) for good political fiction. By ‘political fiction,’ I mean both fictional narratives built around political intrigue and dystopian, sci-fi, fantasy, historical, and literary fiction that explores political ideas or theories. But what separates the good stuff – by, for example, the George Saunderses, Robert Harrises, and Ursula Le Guins of the world – from the didactic preaching of the Ayn Rands and Upton Sinclairs? Let’s take a look.
Rule #1 – Political fiction is still fiction
One thing that first-time writers of political fiction often get wrong is the assumption that all they need to do is write about politics. They’ll pick a topic they feel strongly about – say, their right to clean their car with a hose during a drought – and they’ll dive in, thinking no more about the plot or characters or setting beyond framing the hero as an honest man who just wants to care for his car and the evil government forces as bullies whose only goal is to stamp out this simple freedom.
There are, obviously, lots of problems with this. For one, the plot – our hero rails against a government that’s basically just being mean for the sake of it – is trite and simplistic, and its characters and entities are merely hollow stand-ins that allow the author to crudely present their political opinions. No; for political fiction to be engaging, authentic, and believable, it has to be about something besides just politics.
Think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – yes, it’s about the dangers of authoritarian, theocratic governance, but it’s also about the protagonist, Offred, searching for her estranged child and husband. It’s about what happens to love when you occupy a society that doesn’t value it, as evidenced by the grim relationships of even the powerful oppressors. Or take Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which is simultaneously a wildly militaristic, pro-nuclear text lauding the benefits of a monolithic world government and a coming-of-age tale in which heroic sci-fi soldiers fight aliens.
Similarly, it’s worth thinking about the scope of the issues you’re discussing. While it’s good to stay relevant, choosing concepts or vocabulary that only exist in a single historical moment will tie you to that moment, and they tend to pass out of relevance quickly. It’s also possible to dissuade otherwise interested readers by insisting on language they don’t yet understand, aren’t comfortable with, or simply don’t associate with enjoyable fiction. You can write about ideas like classical liberalism or gentrification just by demonstrating and exploring them in a compelling way – the terms themselves are perhaps the least important part of the discussion.
Indeed, the most enduring political fiction criticizes the values, assumptions, and power dynamics behind policies and perspectives rather than the policies/perspectives themselves. In Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel about the rise of a fascist president, Lewis doesn’t spend his time on the specific circumstances surrounding the 1936 election run-up; instead, he writes, ‘Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on’ – something that, instead of being specific to the social circumstances of his moment, will remain relevant forever.
At the end of the day, good political fiction has to be good fiction. This means – and I can’t stress this enough – avoiding didacticism. Don’t tell your readers what to think; don’t even answer questions. Pose questions.
Political opinion isn’t enough to carry your novel. Things have to happen, structure and pacing have to be considered, the setting and context have to be developed, the writing style has to be compelling, characters have to be engaging, drama has to occur – readers have to have a reason to care. Remember: your political opinions and philosophies aren’t inherently interesting to anyone but you. It’s what you do with them that has the potential for great narrative.
Rule #2 – Characters are better than lectures
I don’t need to tell you that engaging characters are hugely important to successful fiction. No-one wants to read about boring, unconvincing mannequins and, similarly, no-one wants clichéd pawns who exist only to play out tired, 2D stereotypes.
Good political fiction varies a little from other forms of fiction (particularly genre fiction) in that it typically eschews black-and-white notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’; instead, it recognizes that each individual character is both protagonist and antagonist. Each has their own motives shaping their behaviors and relationships, whether they’re Cicero or Pompey in Robert Harris’ Imperium or Bernard or John in Huxley’s Brave New World. This is partly why Ayn Rand’s political fiction is so tiresomely bad – characters are heavy-handed reflections of political archetypes as perceived by Rand, meaning they’re appealing only to those who already think like Rand does; she’s preaching to the choir.
Relationships between your individual characters are going to form the meat of the drama in any good work of political fiction. Yes, noble struggles against oppressors make for great climaxes, but it’s the abstractions that sit behind politics – humanity, passion, struggle, compromise, will – that make it a compelling subject to write about in the first place. And these abstractions, of course, can’t be present without characters to embody and experience them.
Rule #3 – Do your research
Like historical and legal fiction, your political fiction’s quality will depend to some extent on how well you research your topic. It’s very difficult to write convincing political fiction without being politically fluent yourself; a Washington drama is going to fall at the first hurdle if you have no idea how American politics works, how power is brokered, and what the various ceremonies and procedures involve.
This is true even if you’re writing about politics indirectly; yes, obviously research is vital if you’re going for a House of Cards-style Machiavellian race to the bottom, but it’s also vital for understanding how a society is bound together and, more generally, what power does to people, how they handle it in their relationships, how they fear its loss, and how they’ll use appealing ideals to justify their possession of it.
Think of George Saunders’s ‘brad carrigan, american,’ a short story about a man who lives in an increasingly nasty American sitcom. When fully grown sheaves of corn suddenly start sprouting from the walls of his living room, Brad suggests to co-stars Doris and Chief Wayne that they pick it and send it to the Philippines, where dozens of children have just been killed in an explosion at a garbage dump, where they were digging for food.
Doris and Wayne don’t respond well. Doris cries and says, ‘I don’t see why you always have to be such a downer, Brad,’ while Chief Wayne has a more cohesive take:
‘Brad, to tell you the truth, there are plenty of houses with lots more indoor corn than this,’ says Chief Wayne. ‘This, relative to a lot of houses I’ve seen, is some very modest indoor vegetable growth.’– George Saunders, ‘brad carrigan, american,’ In Persuasion Nation.
Saunders, understanding how rhetoric, moral justifications, and ideals can be put to use in order to defend and maintain power imbalances, is able to cuttingly satirize them, but only because he spent so much time studying American political thought, America’s relationship with media, its underlying assumptions about itself, and the ways in which politicians and voters justify isolationism. Agree with his points or not, there’s no denying that his satire is precisely aimed at his intended targets.
Other examples are plentiful: George R. R. Martin painstakingly researched the Wars of the Roses to craft a convincing political landscape in A Song of Ice and Fire; Ursula Le Guin read up on anarchism and capitalism to make The Dispossessed work; and Orwell, a democratic socialist, studied political theories from capitalism to Stalinism in order to make 1984 convincing. In order to write about politics convincingly, you need to know about politics, both the facts and the theory. Without research, your writing will lack nuance, authenticity, and those wonderfully observed moments that make fiction great. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should shoehorn facts, statistics, and technical details into your fiction; let facts serve your story, not the other way around.
A fun way to get started is to Google/Wikipedia a big historical event – say, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – and try to put yourself in the headspace of those making the decisions. Consider internal and external pressures, the question of time, your own role as an official belonging to a proud nation state: what would you do? Who would you turn to? What do you need to know?
Of course, research can pose its own risks unless you make sure to use informed, reliable sources. It’s a consistent truth of the human condition that we’re more likely to accept sources that agree with us as unbiased, even when they’re not, so be sure to read widely and actively seek out the most reputable sources for views you don’t hold.
Rule #4 – Consider realism and absurdity
As evidenced by the George Saunders short story I referenced above, political fiction doesn’t need to be starkly realistic. Indeed, hyperbole and exaggeration can be excellent tools to explore and communicate political ideas, especially in short fiction, where you don’t necessarily have the space to build up to a poignant Grapes of Wrath-esque moment of human vulnerability, compassion, and futility.
Saunders is one master of this (his short fiction is full of unquestioned absurdities; ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ presents a suburban America where the latest household fashion involves stringing immigrant girls on clothes lines that, through ‘painless surgery,’ run through their ears, while The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil describes the annexation of Inner Horner, a nation populated by inhuman conglomerations of objects), but deliberate absurdity is a staple of many postmodern writers.
So, should you throw realism to the wind in your own fiction? It depends; it’s difficult to involve absurdity without also adopting, on some level, a comedic tone, and while comedy can work excellently in works of political fiction and satire, it won’t work for every book, especially works that are otherwise straight-faced in their subject matter and plot.
Additionally, absurdity really does work best in shorter political fiction due to that form’s de-emphasis of character and the greater emphasis on a particular dynamic or event. Absurdity lets you dive in without having to worry about relying on exposition for world building (always important in political fiction), initial character development, or scene setting – instead, you shout, ‘Corn growing out the walls!’ and jump right in, no explanation needed.
Political fiction is a difficult thing to discuss (let alone write!) due to its sheer breadth. Both A Game of Thrones and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists are technically works of political fiction, and yet the two novels have very little in common. What does bind them, however, is an interest in the way humanity organizes itself and the ways in which societal power is wielded, defended, denied, and exploited.
So when you’re trying your hand at your own political fiction, remember, first and foremost, not to tell your readers what to think. Instead, read books, watch documentaries, talk to people. Try to occupy different perspectives. Pay attention to your characters and avoid good/bad binaries. Make sure you have a plot and that the events of said plot are, on some level, emotionally potent. And maybe, just maybe, throw it all away and have a loving grandmother and grandfather tear each other to shreds over a bag of Doritos. Damn it, Saunders!
Who are your favorite writers of political fiction? What great tips do you think we’ve missed out? Let me know in the comments, and check out How To Manage The Politics Of Your Writing and How To Get Away With Using Real People In Your Story.