I have three general rules that I use when writing fiction, particularly longer form fiction. I mean, there are more than three rules, but I want to talk about these three interrelated rules today.
The first is that if it doesn’t meet the needs of the story, it doesn’t belong. I just read about a cool discovery on Venus. Needed? Nope, it stays out. I discovered the meaning of life. Needed for the story? No. Use it elsewhere. There are grey areas, of course, but usually they can be justified. For instance, in fleshing out my characters, Bob might be an extreme astronomy nerd, so he starts a conversation with, “Did you hear about what they found on Venus?” instead, “Hi! How are you today?” This tells you a lot more about Bob than it does about Venus.
The second rule is that the author needs to stay out of a work of fiction. The author seems to intrude in older fiction all of the time, but it doesn’t settle well in modern works. The author (me!) can feel strongly about something, but it stays out unless it can be worked naturally into the story. If I, as the author, just write in “Nazis are bad people,” it is jarring, but I can have, “Bob read Frida’s post and discovered she was a Nazi, and Nazis are bad people.” This is something Bob is thinking, not the author, so it isn’t jarring. Unless you previously liked Frida.
There are, of course exceptions, but, dear reader, I will not go into that, only state that for every rule there are exceptions, and that in writing, as in every art, knowing how and when to break the rules is part of what sets “good” apart from “OK”.
The last, which is connected to the first two, is to keep politics out of it.
A work of fiction should not be a political treatise and trying to make one risks offending half of your audience. Of course you also risk the other half saying, “No, that’s a lame way of saying it! With allies like this, no wonder the other side hates us!”
OK, let’s see, I think Gulliver’s Travels is a great book and it is 100% political satire. Oh, and then there is To Kill a Mockingbird, which is one of the most political books ever written. Of course I like Steinbeck, perhaps America’s king of liberal fiction. And I am reading a Dickens book right now, and you don’t get much more political than that!
OK, this is a rule that is often broken.
And let’s take a look at life. When I leave work and stop getting into my arts, it seems that 90% of my world is surrounded by politics. Facebook is devoted to politics and Twitter is worse (I do not tweet!) The “news” is 80% politics, 100% on Fox News.
And think of the other taboo, religion. If you stripped every religious reference out of every book, there would be few remaining beyond a handful of pure sex, pure sci-fi and pure fantasy (the type with elves). It is such a big part of life that it seeps into most fiction.
So why not politics?
I think there are a few things – first, follow my rule about “does it meet the needs of the story”. A person is driven by politics, so it must be included, right? Also, don’t be preachy! Having a religious reference isn’t giving a sermon, so do the same with politics. Part of that is follow my second rule, you can have a character share their political view, but never have it come straight from the author.
As you may guess, my current Work in Progress (WIP) is filled with politics.
Several years ago I had an idea for a story. It started by revisiting the legends of my home town. But then…
At that time I had a few Facebook “friends” that were people that graduated high school with me, but who I had little in common with. In school, these people were in all of the lowest level and remedial classes. I am not being judgmental – I have real friends that took the same classes, people I like and respect. These people, the “Facebook only” friends, though, were being judgmental, very judgmental.
Anyone who held a political belief different than theirs was an idiot. They would go on long rants about how completely stupid some public figure or other was. These people were, of course, the world’s greatest expert on every subject and took every opportunity to prove it, and thus prove the utter stupidity of those people they hated.
And they hated. Oh, did they hate. Their posts were filled with hatred and anger. What was interesting was that they did occasionally post “feel good” stories, usually about pets, and then would follow them up with the most hateful posts you can imagine. And if someone called them out for their racism or hatreds, they would get angry and state in no uncertain terms that they were not the racist ones, and usually follow up with an even more hateful phrase.
I only put up with so much before “unfriending” these people. I do not put up with racists.
So the idea for this book changed into being about a person moving back into my home town after many years away. He is down on his luck and a friend takes him in as he gets established in his new job. His friend’s wife is one of those Facebook people I talked about…
So, I have been stewing on this idea for almost a decade now, starting even before I wrote my first book, The Fireborn. There were just some details that didn’t work, so I kept putting it off…
I tried to do it carefully. I made it set in early 2015, so pre-Trump era. I did not make the “political antagonist” (she is not the real antagonist!) as bad as the people I described above. I made sure there were no winners in the arguments, because there never are in political arguments. I had the people not thinking fast on their feet, stumbling with ideas that they’d know cold any other time, but in the heat of the battle, not so much, which, at least for me, is true to life. The main idea is that this is real life. It is also to add tension to the story beyond the “horror story” aspect of it.
I just finished a very rough draft, so I’ll let it ferment for a while before I go back to it. It is very possible I will have to shelve it. But then, on the other hand…
Anyway, I am not sure if it will see the light of day, but the entire political thing is, well, worrisome.
What do you think about politics in fiction?
The image at the top has nothing to do with the article, but it is cool, huh ;)