In Politics in Writing: Part One we examined the ways in which settings build certain types of political environments. We looked at how it provides an important reference point for moral and social questions, and creates the institutions that govern how characters interact with one another, not to mention the ideologies that prop up these institutions and attempt to tear them down. In this article, we’re going to look at another important aspect of our literary Capitol Hill – the character, and embark on a foray into the world of Personality Politics.
Human beings are political animals, an observation which doesn’t require any real explanation. We invented politics, and even when we appear disengaged from it, that can be interpreted in many political ways. This fact of life is almost impossible to escape, and it goes without saying, therefore, that characterisation plays an important role in defining the political direction of any work of fiction.
By their actions, the characters of your novel will change their world, and how they go about changing it will be influenced by their worldview. This worldview is in turn influenced by the setting, but its existence is fundamentally independent in many respects. Humans have the capacity to exercise logic and intuition, which is why society continues to advance intellectually. Society may have a great influence on the individual, but society is also made up of individuals, and they do not think like robots. They’re capable of critically analysing what they see around them, and learning from mistakes made in the past.
Thus politics has the capacity to create a number of interesting conflicts both between the individual and society, but also between individuals themselves. These conflicts can be portrayed as “live action” or metaphorically and symbolically, and the choice between the two falls down to the writer himself. However there are a number of important caveats which everyone would do well to observe.
Characters give readers important personal insights into the issues that affect the world, and this remains the same regardless of their position on any given issue. We live in a world of Personality Politics, where vice and virtue cloud our political discourse, and this is much the same in the world of characterisation. Every choice you make in building a character will send out a message to the reader, and not necessarily the one that you intend.
“Nobody is perfect,” it is often said. This may be an unprovable absolute, but by a process of logical exclusion, it’s safe to say that the population of morally perfect individuals is quite small and possibly even extinct. Nonetheless vice is scorned, and particularly strongly when it affects those in high places. This is not merely a feature of mass politics, but something as old as humanity itself. If it became known that a King slept with prostitutes, do you think that his subjects would be impressed? Probably not – assuming prostitution isn’t viewed differently to how it is in modern times.
Ad hominem may be looked upon with disdain in debating circles, but it is undeniably effective. Unsurprisingly it’s common in fiction for characters who espouse particular values that the author approves of to behave more virtuously than those who’s values the author holds to be suspect. Whether this is an entirely cynical exercise is subject to debate.
Firstly, there is a genuine fear of alienating the reader. If a character’s bad habits should invoke such disgust that the reader ignore what they have to say, then a lot of hard work is wasted. Secondly, there is a valid characterisation problem – actions speak louder the words. If the President of the USA is truly well meaning, then why won’t he stop cheating on his wife? Assuming of course, he shares traditional views of marital fidelity.
The opposite concern is also true. By giving villains redeeming qualities, the writer may legitimately fear that their ideas and methods could gain respectability. Yet however great these concerns are, there is another equal one – the creation of a Mary Sue or her “evil” and thoroughly unlikeable counterpart. Whether you like it or not, your characters cannot continuously occupy one extreme or the other of the moral platform, and it is up to ensure that this does not harm the message you are trying to put across.
Like everything else in writing, it’s all about balance and presentation – Clinton may have been a womaniser, but other aspects of his presidency might make up for these (to employ this overused euphemism) “indiscretions”. Hitler through his veganism may have cared a great deal for animal rights, but does that mitigate the murder of six million Jews? I doubt even Peta’s finest could sell that one.
Am I advocating moral relativism? Not exactly – rather that all fictional characters should be well rounded, but in political writing, this is especially essential. Make them flawed, but explain those flaws and never lose perspective. Constant and consistent goal setting should allow you to avoid the worst of the bumps along what is an admittedly rocky road.
And welcome, or welcome back, everyone! For those completely new new-comers, Hortorian shut its doors on August 20th 2011, after a broadly successful one and a half year run. The reasons for its closure are many – hacking, drama, slowly declining activity – but above all, I needed a break. Hortorian had accomplished a lot, but the end of the road had been reached. Afterwards, I vowed not to run another forum again.
And this vow is one that I’ve technically kept. Hortorian is back, but this time I’m not in the one in charge. In fact the only reason I’m writing this opening post is for nostalgia’s sake. This isn’t the only difference between the old and the new. The gulf between the staffing team and the membership is going to be abolished, and we’re looking for newer and more innovative ways to showcase our art and writing.
This is pretty much our content hub, where articles about art, writing, the universe and everything will be published. Hortorian has a dedicated content-writing team, to provide you with everything form the super-serious to the witty.
The Hortorian Coffeehouse is pretty much our community forum, and the choice of name is pretty significant. The goal is to provide a friendly, laid-back atmosphere where writers and artists can network and share their creations. Although rules regarding content and respect apply and will be enforced, there is no formal moderating staff.
ReWrite is the biggest single development in this new incarnation, though it’s yet to be publicly released. I can’t tell you much about it yet, because the developer is a convicted serial killer who’s escaped death row, and will murder me in my bed if I breath a word.* But trust me, it will be cool!
I really hope you enjoy this new incarnation! A lot of work has gone into it, and as with all evolving projects, a lot of work still has to be done. But right now, I’m off to grab a mug of tea from the Hortorian Coffeehouse! You’re more welcome to come for one too!
*May or may not be true. There really is no way of telling who someone could be on the internet, is there?
It is often considered a dangerous folly to throw politics into ones writing. Anyone who indicates their wish to go down this path will often be confronted with the spectre of Atlas Shrugged, as a dire warning of the potential consequences of such intellectual meddling. Of course those who are revolted by Ayn Rand’s objectivism are also likely to have read Orwell’s Nineteen-eighty Four, a book which both challenges the mind and raises more questions about authoritarian regimes and the relationship they have with their citizens, than it answers. In spite of this (or perhaps because of this), Nineteen-eighty Four is rightly ranked among the best novels of the twentieth century.
This series of articles will attempt to clear up some of the misconceptions about the false dichotomy between politics and fiction, and explain how the two are invariably connected. For as long as man is a political animal, then his art will reflect this simple fact. Even the most apolitical of stories will have some form of statement to make, even if it is as banal as “the world is virtually a utopia, and all I need to do to fill this gap in my life is to find a lover, and have a few healthy children.” Whether this statement is valid or not is open to question, yet its implicit championing of the family and the importance of love and procreation as a means to finding happiness makes it political, if uncontroversial.
Politics in Writing: Part One – The Setting
The setting of any story is important for a number of reasons, and is something which all authors should take special care to develop. It creates a cultural context for the story, providing the reader with an important point of reference. This encompasses everything from the values, customs and traditions of the society, and to the state itself and the world at large. This complements the character’s own values and goals, and how he or she expresses it. If the main character of a given story is a vegan who volunteers in an animal rescue centre, then it would prove enlightening to know how common vegetarianism and volunteerism are.
Firstly, the setting forms the basis for all the established institutions within the book. Institutions matter because they govern how individuals, groups and communities interact with one another, and provide another important frame of reference. Is the government a democracy or a monarchy, or something else? How do local communities organise themselves? Does organised religion exist? What form does the family unit take? Does mass education exist? Who’s standing up for needs of the working classes? Who’s standing up for the self-made men and women, who’re being taxed out of existence to pay for the great unwashed? Maybe the institutions able to deal with the challenges, of the day and need to be torn down in a French-revolution style bloodbath!
Of course no story has any overriding obligation to concern itself with answering all or even some of these questions, but the very existence of institutions within society ought to be at least recognised by its author. More on this will follow in point four.
This brings me to my second point: the importance of ideology as a point of reference. Ideologies partially derive their legitimacy from the perceived failures and successes of the institutions in managing the world. If it wasn’t for unequal wealth distribution and poverty in the early capitalist system, we wouldn’t have communism. If it wasn’t for the failure of the nobility to take advantage of the industrial revolution, we wouldn’t have capitalism. So we see that when an ideology appears deficient in solving the problems of the time, it will be either modified or replaced. These struggles happen on a daily basis: the liberal who supports gay marriage, for example, subscribes to a particular ideology, as does the conservative that opposes him. The social democrat, who proposes in universal healthcare as a means of improving equality and social mobility, is opposed by the liberal, who proudly champions the free market.
And now we come to my third point: the means by which ideas (and by extension, ideologies), once created, are expressed, shared and destroyed are perhaps a more basic consideration. The print revolution and the spread of literacy indirectly led to the Protestant reformation, and the wars of religion. More recently, the Internet is often cited one of the main driving force behind the Arab spring.
Technology isn’t the only factor at play here though. There are also cultural considerations – some cultures may place a great importance on rhetoric as a means of persuasion than others, newspapers might be boycotted for their invasion of the private lives of celebrities, the Internet might be a gigantic pornography network, and books might only be the preserve of the introverted, academic elite. Yet in the end of the day the principle is the same – ideas originate somewhere, and must be spread for them to have any impact.
Now, once these ideas are disseminated, we get to my fourth point – what response, if any, do they provoke? This relates to my point about institutions as well, since our judgement of new ideas is influenced by our experiences within the established order. Perhaps members of a family will debate Karl Marx’s latest writings over dinner, or perhaps these debates will take place in the local political party or trade union. It is also possible that existing institutions will be abandoned in favour of 1960s style mass protests, strikes and sit-ins. Another relevant consideration is how the establishment view these new ideas, and how it reacts to them? Will it respond with dialogue, repression, capitulation or a hostile stand-off?
What I have presented so far may seem complicated, and one may be inclined to dismiss it as the sole preserve of political fiction. Yet escapist fantasy literature is strewn with evil, brutal empires, which commit acts of torture, murder and genocide on a regular basis. We’ve seen spy thrillers in which the “good guy”, an employee of liberal democracy, heroically thwarts the evil designs of a repressive (and probably communist) autocracy. Stories in which young adults seek to gain independence from their parents are also invariably political, given their portrayal of the family in the face of an inter-generational struggle.
Though politics might not be the main over-arching theme of many novels, it would be wrong to assume that their settings are free from value-judgements, expressed or implied. To those of you who wish to avoid controversy, the important lesson here is to identify these value-judgements and to ensure that they do not offend your target audience. For those of us who are more adventurous, we can expand upon these normative judgements through use of narrative and character development.
More on this to follow in Part Two: Characterisation