Politics and Fiction – Oil and Vinegar?

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…

Until now.

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?

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The image at the top has nothing to do with the article, but it is cool, huh ;)

42 thoughts on “Politics and Fiction – Oil and Vinegar?

  1. Pingback: Politics and Fiction – Oil and Vinegar? – Thoughts outloud

  2. Mark Wolfe

    Politics in fiction can be done we’ll; Psycho-Pass the Anime comes to mind instantly. Or philosophical questions like Death Parade and Death Note with the big league heavy hitters like Naruto and Bleach. Or say like in Supernatural where they were mostly in the occult and supernatural realm underlined with the question of free will. Or like in this post:

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  3. Writing Sparkle

    I enjoy learning how others write and the rules you outline are great. I just removed a number of sections that were important for me to know about my characters and story but not the reader; it was advancing the story. As for politics, I am not a huge fan but if it is important for the character and story and is well written then…

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I also like seeing how others do things or think about them. We are all different but we can all learn from each other. I still have problems deciding how much backstory the reader needs and how much is just for me. Havign a political bent to the story is being human, but coming straight out and talking about politics is, well, a bit more problematic.

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  4. Robin

    Reading the comments and answers to your question was really interesting. Some of my favorite books of all time are political in nature (Frank Herbert’s “Dune” immediately came to mind. Octavia Butler’s “Parable” series, as well as some others whose authors were already named in previous comments). I think art should be political or at the very least thought-provoking. Everything else, I think, is entertainment or amusement (and that’s okay, too, because there are times we need some entertainment, amusement, or escapism). But, that’s just my point of view as a reader. I do like what Toni Morrison had to say about it (“The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”).

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      The more I think about it the more I realize that even in pure entertainment and pure escapism, the author will almost always have a point of view that can be read as political. Also, looking back, I have written some very political stories, as political as anything mentioned! The big question with this book is that I have two characters, one I’ll label “liberal” and the other “conservative” that argue contemporary politics. i want it true to life but I don’t want to push away readers. It is odd how a story line can be pure politics and everyone is fine, but if people in the story talk politics it is taboo…. And, yeah, in many ways I can agree with Toni Morrison on that.

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  5. Paula Light

    I think anything goes in fiction, as long as it belongs to the story. I wrote Switching Positions, a spoof romance novel, deliberately to infuse politics into a romance. But normally I keep politics out. Same with religion, unless it’s relevant, which it was in my novel Ghosted. A Catholic girl was not going to have an abortion, which isn’t how I feel, but it was about HER. Et cetera. It’s a good problem to wrestle with when writing!

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I have written fiction that make strong political points, but I kept “political language” out of it. With this, I have two characters having all out political arguments on issues you hear every day, and I am trying to be very realistic. So, yeah, it fits the story, but… It is interesting to have a main character with a different viewpoint than your own, though I am not sure if I’ve gone as far as your catholic girl..

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Yep, I took that photo – I was playing with a zoom lens.

      It is hard to totally avoid political ideas, but we usually don’t think of it that way. I just wonder about pushing that boundary and putting it out in the open.

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      1. willowdot21

        Your are and photography are always interesting Trent.

        As to politics I have learnt not to say too much overtly as I get my head bitten off. But if I simply allude to things I get away with it. 💜💜

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  6. Resa

    The image is very cool! It is oil and vinegar to me. Oil and vinegar do not mix, but together they taste great on salad.
    All of the books you mention that are political, have become classics. Why? I believe it is the history of anything, that intrigues people in the future.
    Yes, they were controversial in their day. From today’s viewpoint, we can read them, and not be threatened by those politics. After all, they are from the past.
    So, a question to ask yourself might be; where do I think society is going to be in 50.. 100 years? Will the politics in your book be relevant in the future, of course in that “it’s from the past so I am not threatened” way. At this point the book will have been made into a movie, or become a classic to scholars, who will pass the knowledge on.
    Satire is a winner 100%. Humour is an art form that should not be held to political correctness, even if it is entirely scathingly political.
    I have enjoyed the odd non-fiction book that is political. #1 for me is “Red Notice” by Bill Browder.
    Bill is responsible for getting the Magnitsky Act passed in the USA. Canada and other countries followed.
    It’s a true story that rings somewhat of fiction. There might be some leads in there, as to writing a politically charged fiction.
    Okay, Trent, I’ve over yakked!

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks, re the image! I had a lot of fun playing with a zoom lens when people were dancing in a tent.
      After thinking about it, I have written some political stories and a few very, very political stories, but this is different – it isn’t making political points, it is two people with opposite viewpoints arguing. I can’t be one sided in it and I have to clearly define current issues to make it realistic enough, yet I don’t want to push too far! Creating a story to show my point of view is, in ways, easier than try to strike that balance of showing a very realistic political argument. I press forward with it, I will read a few non-fiction political books from both sides so i can do the arguments justice. I hope ;)

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  7. ephesians413

    I dislike politics nearly completely. It is so divisive (especially nowadays) and I do not know any politicians that are truly honest and working unselfishly for the people they represent. It no longer seems to rely on morality at all, but on power. Therefore, for me, some biographies or other non-fiction might need it, but no politics in fiction.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I understand – I hate being in political arguments or listening to politics on the TV. The thing is, pretty much everything humans touch is political, and, unfortunately, what those selfish politicians do effects millions of people, often in very deep ways. And talking just politicians is talking maybe 1% of politics in general. There are few works of fiction that don’t have a point, and the point can almost always be described in political terms. More often than not, whether you are reading pure escapism or gritty realism, the main themes in most fiction is political. That being said, few have the politics on the surface with contemporary political arguments out in the open, usually the point is made by the story itself. And I am sure when those political messages are out in the open like that, readers like you stay away. And maybe that is the majority of readers!

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  8. Marilyn Armstrong

    I think you keep politics out of the story if the story isn’t essentially political. And if the politics are not going to mean anything a year down the road. I think a lot of writing IS essentially political. Including science fiction which is often written to make a point about now by pointing at the future — or, as in time travel, to make a point about the present (and presumably future) by looking into the past.

    I suppose this depends on what you consider political. But politics or something of a political nature is also absolutely mandatory when you need to make a point — assuming that you are trying to do more than tell a story. How can you tell a story that does not contain minimally the politics of the time? I’m not even sure it’s possible. Every historical or sci fi or time travel or fantasy book I’ve EVERY read was making some kind of political point. I don’t actually see how you can avoid it unless you completely obliterate what’s going on in that time and place and how it relates (or doesn’t relate or is different) from the past.

    So while I take your points about whether or not it belongs in the story, I think the “no politics” rule is more wishful thinking than real. Politics, even when you are writing HISTORY are essential to making that time and place feel real. Or maybe we don’t have the same definition of politics because for me, if you don’t have some kind of moral center for a story, I can’t see why you’d write it. Unless you are Proust. Because pretty much every other novel I can think of DID have a moral point and the point was always political.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Politics, in one form or another, will always be in there, but it is how it is presented and, importantly for this story, how deeply it should dig into the divisive issues that shape politics today. That’s a little different than just having a moral or philosophical center to the story. If part of the plot is to have two people arguing about current American politics, I have to bring it to the surface, and that is where it gets tricky. And it gets much trickier when a lot of realism is used – for any “fact” out there, I can find as many people who dispute it as embrace it, and if two people do embrace it, they may have 180 degree different interpretation. So that is my problem here, I want to have a story where there is a realistic running argument between people with opposite political viewpoints. Like I saw, i might end up shelving it, but then, maybe not…

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Good point, Robbie, authors and artists often can exert a lot of influence, and it is a responsibility to use it wisely.
      Going through all of the comments, I have “crystalized” some of my thoughts.
      In ways all writing is political. Anyone reading my words should be able to guess my political bent and I make no secret of my sympathies, even though I never state them. On the extreme of that idea is Dickens whose politics is deeply embedded in his fiction, yet he never comes out says his position straight out – anyone can get it with him saying, and his work Si so great, everyone enjoys it, even people on the other end of the political spectrum from him.
      Others come straight out and tell you their political philosophy. That is much harder to carry out and be “universal”, like Dickens.
      What I want to do here is different from both of these and have the political arguments being part of the story.
      Anyway, interesting discussions on the topic.

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      1. robertawrites235681907

        Hi Trent, when I started writing A Ghost and His Gold, I quickly realised that there were three different POV on this war: the Boers, the British, and the native African. I wanted to create an understanding of the politics and attitudes of the time between all three groups and how this war hardened attitudes. This set the stage for the future of South Africa from which we are still trying to recover. I used characters to demonstrate the three POV and tried not to insert any of my own sympathies or views. I let the characters speak and express their thoughts. I hope I have achieved this successfully. It was not my intention to judge in this book but merely to inform and explain. What do you think about that sort of approach?

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          Actually, I really like that approach. With historical fiction, that is a great way to do it. And even in non-historical it is good way to do it – each character has their own voice and own motivations. You can work your viewpoint into the story line and into the characters, the problem is when it is obvious to the reader that you are the one doing the speaking.
          In some ways I am trying to do soemthign similar here – two characters have different political viewpoints, so I am trying to make what they say true to that specific character. I’m just afraid, since it is contemporary, that my own bias will be too apparent in their words, that I underwrite the viewpoint I oppose.
          I do have a novella that I want to release this summer that is super political, but I did it the old fashioned way in that my point is given by the plot.

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            1. trentpmcd Post author

              I do remember that there were one or two places in Nethergate when suddenly it sounded like Robbie speaking instead of the story, and, yes, I did mention it to you – glad you found it helpful! I think you posted on FB that A Ghost and His Gold is now on Amazon – I’ll look it up it up in a day or two – it sounds good :)

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  9. dprastka

    I Love this as I like to read how authors write. As a reader, as long as the politics or religion is important to the character and their pov, then I don’t mind and it can really flesh out characters I think. My opinion of course. I’ve had to block or unfriend a few folks like the ones you described… Just not interested in their rants! Very cool photo!

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks. I think I typically make a character more “liberal” or “conservative” by the little things they say and do, while here they are having political arguments and bringing up all of those points. Unfriend on FB can be your friend ;) Thanks – I do love that photo :)

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  10. Rebecca Cuningham

    I think the politics question goes back to whether it fits the needs of the story. If it fits the characters in the story, rather than simply the author’s point of view. The political question must be central to the fictional world, like burning books in F451. If it is the author speaking, rather than the characters, it will sound false. I’m sure you’ve created a character that embodies her political pov.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I guess there is that point about if the book is trying to make a political point, like F451 or To Kill a Mockingbird, or, like in my story, that it is part of what makes the characters tick and about that friction – it is more the dynamics of the politics than the actual content, though I do need to make the content real as well. Of course, in some ways any book makes some kind of point or another – it is hard to write and not have some philosophy to spill over.

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      1. Marilyn Armstrong

        I think what you mean is really more about avoiding rants, with which I agree — unless the ranting really is central to that character. it would be like reading “Inherit the Wind” and not noticing that it’s 100% politics, top to bottom. I think maybe a better definition of politics is probably the issue. More of where you draw the line and where the politics overwhelms the plot or the characters and/or derails the story. Side trips into non-essential stuff are always bad for books, political or vegetarian. Ranting — unless it’s part of the character’s character — is generally some version of derailment.

        Mostly, I think to make a book work, character have to be themselves. Whatever that is. Their beliefs — religious, political, artistic — are all part of it. You just have to find a voice that makes whatever he or she says seem reasonable to readers. I think, anyway, and since I’m a terrible fiction writer (but a GREAT fiction reader) — I can’t speak as someone who has managed to do it because I haven’t. My fiction is boring for all the reasons you mention and that is why I don’t write it.

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          Having rants is part of it, but I have read things where suddenly you can tell it is the author speaking, not the character. It doesn’t have to be a rant, just an opinion that is out of character either in how it is stated or in the content. If the author has soemthign to say, write it in such a way that it doesn’t sound like the author.
          In my WIP, ranting is part of one of the characters, and so the main character is in constant conflict with that ranting person. The basic story would work without, but I think the real to life conflict makes it more interesting. Hopefully others find it interesting ;)

          BTW, I have written some shorter fiction that are super political in the points they make on a lot of current subjects. My next book out will be short stories and novellas with a few of those political stories.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Rules are made to be broken, like the rule that you shouldn’t twist the telephoto lens while hand holding the camera ;) Thanks, I had no idea what photo to use, but really like this, so… and I guess it fits in that I was breaking the rules.

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  11. r.Douglas

    I don’t think it can be avoided, politics in fiction; given that politics now flows downstream from culture. That current, by nature, being rising tide anti-traditional, even to the point of flowing backwards to revanchism, just might muddle any world building or scene setting, and maybe even character and organic plot development if not at least nodded at.

    But I would avoid the run on sentence, which I never can, which is why you write books and I torture poetry. Good Luck Trent, and interesting post.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      lol, sometimes avoiding run on sentences is harder than avoiding writing about politics. One way to look at it is that life is politics and politics is life so it is impossible to write anything that is not political in some way. For a “general audience” book I’d at least like to try to avoid the in your face type of politics,but it isn’t happening with this one…

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