Well, gee. With a title you can plainly see, I wonder what this week’s topic could be about?
…That’s right! It’s POLITICS! One of the jobs it is acceptable to deride as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, right up there with lawyers and your childhood dentist!
But what do huge executive decisions have to do with WRITING? Well, let’s take a look, shall we?
So, my homeland Malaysia had its 14th General Elections. After 60 plus years of rule under a single political party, during which more and more steps were taken to grab tightly onto their power as they went on, the people voted them out and the opposition in. What was expected to be a shaky victory due to all sorts of cheating (gerrymandering, manipulation of rural citizens, importing of illegal immigrants, stealing of ballots, etc.) ended up as a landslide victory for the opposition.
And it is with this event fresh in my mind that I have decided to reflect on the role of POLITICS in stories. No, not necessarily political characters, nor politics as hamfisted analogies, but POLITICS themselves.
For starters, let’s get a rough definition going. Politics are pretty much the decisions and arrangements regarding a large group’s directions. Usually it has to do with a NATION and its governance, and the most obvious impression of politics is “Things the rulers decide”. However, it can also apply to large organisations such as businesses or groups. Naturally, a lot of these decisions lead to MESSES, because no story covers “A day in a utopia where nobody has any problems.”
Trade agreements? Politics. Declarations of war or peace? Politics. Implementing a policy to register and neuter a certain species? Politics. Letting go of employees to account for poor business and costs? Politics of business.
Within a STORY, politics tend to appear as background info, giving some info about the world at large. Some of it is just dressing to explain the situation like “Our story follows a KNIGHT in the service of a country that is always at WAR” that gives you a background while the rest follows situations and characters. However, other times, the politics provide IMPORTANT bits which can become the SUBJECT of the story, such as “This story follows a group of mercenaries caught up in the HUGE POLITICAL INTRIGUE of their king’s court which they MUST UNRAVEL to survive.”
Problems of Public Perception
Now, here’s the thing. Typically, readers and audiences of most types of media see politics as…something boring. Unless the story is focused on being realistic/historical/political, it’s generally seen as the least exciting and most unnecessary part of the plot. Kind of like the terms and conditions people never read while just clicking “I have read the terms and agree to them.”
And in a sense, this idea has some basis. Politics tend to cover boring (but vital) details of the world, which are not very entertaining to watch. The senate’s decisions about the price of herring may be responsible for sparking the Fish Head Civil War, but readers would be more interested in the action of the war without actually caring that it was started over something so mundane.
This was the case for much of Star Wars: The Clone Wars during its run: There were a fair number of episodes covering the politics of the war and the state of the Senate which Palpatine was manipulating, and they quite often spelled out that the politics gave VERY important reasons for the episodes (e.g. we can’t interfere in neutral systems, the Senate is discussing a ceasefire, etc.). But at the end of the day, much like with the Prequels, most viewers wanted action and adventure, which led to a lot of debates over those episodes. No matter how important it is, the fact remains that audiences are more entertained by adventure than parliament.
Another trait of politics in stories is that they also cover things at a LARGE scale; even at low-level politics within an organisation, politics are not easy to relate to unless they personally affect characters. And true, some people ENJOY large stakes and scales of stories, but that tends to be if they’re LOOKING for it. Meanwhile, both in fiction and in real life, we find it hard to care about politics except when it covers something very close and dear to us. So an uninformed voter might not care about who they elect into office or the state of their nation…but they WILL care about personal issues like having food on the table or the right to bear arms.
So those are the traits of politics: They often provide a background, and can offer potential stories and important reasons for the plot. HOWEVER, they are also seen as boring and hard to relate to (unlike characters or ideas), and generally, they’re usually accepted only when an audience is LOOKING for or EXPECTING them. Basically, when you read Game of Thrones, you find the politics of King’s Landing to be one of the BEST parts. But when we expect the Care Bears to literally defeat evil with positive thinking, it may be VERY unwelcome when they discuss Care-A-Lot’s latest fiscal report.
However, even though that is the NORM, don’t dismiss them so quickly! Although giving audiences what you promise is one of the most solid styles of writing (and even if you surprise them, the surprises fall within the right genre), politics are also popular for WORLDBUILDING.
As audiences grew more detailed and writers explored more and more implications of scenarios, stories and settings which were previously only focused on the events and the characters soon started to explore the consequences of the settings. Dragons were not just villains, but economic disasters which destroyed vast swathes of land and sources of income. Said dragon would then severely weaken the kingdom’s standing in the geopolitical arena, leaving it open to its neighbours. And let’s not even speak of the various political disasters that happened when valuable heirs were swept off their feet by irresponsible vagabond adventurers.
Sure, none of these might actually be relevant to the ACTUAL story of the wandering stranger on a journey of self-discovery. BUT added details can help make a world feel more realistic and alive. Or, at the very least, by giving the world MORE PROBLEMS, a writer inevitably creates more opportunities for interesting writing.
Therefore, although it might not be advisable to make an ENTIRE story about the Kingdom’s diplomatic troubles and fiscal responsibilities, exploring that detail can open new avenues. From the banter with the peasants and court officials talking about being the laughing stock in the Fantasy United Nations, to turning the princess’ snubbed fiance into a plot hook for the sequel as he seeks revenge on the hero who stole his bride.
Playing The Game Of Thrones
With that, we now have a crash course on how politics are basically seen in fiction! How ARE they applied? What examples can we observe and pick apart for our own usage?
Well, from what I have observed, although different politics are handled differently according to a story’s needs and construction, here are the general ways they can play out:
- Distant politics: This is politics as merely a background for the story, but without actually getting involved. It could be described in detail or vaguely, but whatever the plot is, it has nothing to do with it. In other words, flavour text. For example, a story could say “There is an ongoing civil war between 10 factions” but instead focus on idyllic life in a village unaffected by the war. Of course, even if the plot has nothing to do with the background info, it might still show up in passing, because writers try not to waste whatever they put into stories. Heck, even KNOWING there’s a war that doesn’t show up can influence how the story is seen, such as making it a message of “Peace good, war bad.”
- Politics as the cause of the plot: This is when politics don’t feature much, but they are there as an IMPORTANT cause of the plot, quite often why characters are in conflict with each other. A good example for that would be the original premise of Star Wars: There’s an evil Galactic Empire, it’s crushing freedom and hope, it’s trying to crush the people fighting against it. And you may not see the politics behind Palpatine’s Empire until the prequels, nor would you see any Senate politics doing anything when everyone is too busy fighting and adventuring for their lives. BUT the politics are presented as a MAJOR cause; even when Luke never enters a political office or Senate chamber, he’s STILL fighting the Empire as part of the galaxy’s political struggle. I mean sure, you could argue that the WAR itself represents politics in action, but that doesn’t change the fact that you still don’t see much of the policies and bills passed in offices leading to this situation.
- Politics as THE plot: As in, your characters are ACTIVELY taking part in the politics of the world, and it is presented as a major, CRUCIAL part of the story. The politics are not just a big reason for the events, they are IN YOUR FACE as THE PLOT, and your characters are involved in making decisions about a large group’s direction or getting caught up in them, trying to deal with it. Game of Thrones is probably the best example of that, though you can also look to its more classical predecessor of Lord of the Rings. Even when it was mostly a tale of Good Guys going against Evil, Politics played a major part in some of the plots because the good guys had to FIX the problems in two different kingdoms before they could get anywhere.
So there you have it! Some examples of politics in plots. And despite having a reputation as dismal as that of attorneys, they can prove to be an interesting source of storylines and world details. And much like how TV shows about lawyers are a thing, politics can prove more entertaining than expected. The navigation of winding interconnected plots often captures the interests of people…so long as they have a good connection to it through characters.
But what about OUR politics? How should we go about making it for ourselves, in ways that are more than just copying and pasting whatever I’ve elaborated on above? Well, I do have some tips for how to get started on that:
- Read up on ACTUAL politics in the news and history so that you can get it RIGHT. Making it entertaining is one thing, but if you make it seem so unrealistic as to be INCOMPETENT, enthusiasts WILL jump on your back for it. Learn about things like when backstabbing is actually seen as an acceptable risk, what sort of negotiations go into an alliance, that sort of thing. Or heck, write what you know based on your OWN homeland’s politics.
- If you’re not quite into doing all that real world research (especially if you’re making your OWN world), then just find a story that DID do the research. Look for something known for its exciting political plots; even if you don’t grasp the structures of what they did, you’ll often get good examples of political CONCERNS that you can reuse, as well as how characters deal with it. Again, like in Game of Thrones.
- And the simplest thing to do, setting aside research, for when you want to build deeper layers to your world: Think of the CONSEQUENCES. Whatever you think of as a plot hook, move one step forward and think of things like “Okay, how would that work out?” So if you wanna throw in a dragon, how badly does it hurt the country’s economy? If you have a royal family, do they have all the regular features like lines of succession and political marriages? If you’re making a culture that decides their ruler based on a contest to see who is the strongest, how does THAT nation deal with disputes or relate to its neighbours?
These should be good tips for giving you MATERIALS, building blocks for your story. The more you put together in your mental map of your world, the clearer the picture of what sort of story you wanna make and how detailed you can make it. But as always, remember to consider: What do YOU want to make, and what will your audiences expect you to DELIVER?
Because at the end of the day, although it’s a fun exercise to come up with the intricate political marriages in your fairy tale with ogres and fairies along with the trade pacts which make the dwarves the most influential race in the world, none of that actually MATTERS if it’s not the story YOU want to tell. If you just want to make a fun buddy cop adventure, politics could just be an unnecessary detail that takes away from your mood, forcing its heavy-handed SERIOUS COMMENTARY in the middle of your lighthearted banter.
Similarly, though it’s a common symptom of creative writers to LOVE building worlds and to think everything they make is the best thing ever, there’s no point to it if none of it is what the audience signed up for. Sure, by all means, all power to you if your story is ACTUALLY about a political aide observing the actions and changes of the court. But if you present your story as HIGH ADVENTURE to SLAY THE SHADOW DEMON and EARN ALLIES ALONG THE WAY…it’s going to seem REALLY out of place to your readers if you make the party go through the immigration bureau of the foreign land they’re visiting, and it’s an entirely TOO realistic nightmare of 5-hour waits and convoluted applications. And it’s naturally going to be even worse if you make your story one big hamfisted political analogy that preaches AT your audience.
But hey. Sometimes, interrupting high adventure with realistic processes can be hilarious. And sometimes, those realistic processes can lead to a DEEPER world. That’s when “the princess is stuck in a political marriage” becomes “the princess is stuck in a political marriage with a longtime ally responsible for supplying the magic and resources the kingdom needs.” Then the story is no longer about “Free the princess! Down with the patriarchy! Ra-ra feminism!” but the moral dilemma of “Do you sacrifice one person’s happiness for the sake of everyone else?”