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.
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
I like to lecture people. I do. I like to pretend that I’m wise and and that my opinion is something respected. So this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to write an article and post it. This is what you’re going to do: You’re going to sit there and read it, dammit. My advice has value!
Something that I find to be common among the Preachers of the Internet is that when giving writing advice, they give pretty much useless advice. Why? Because they give advice on how to be creative.
This doesn’t work.
The creative process is a highly individualized process. I am, in a nutshell, a creative pluralist. Do you usually have everything planned out before you write? Or is it something you’re going to do because you received advice like that? I mean, if you like to spend a whole lot of time plotting it before hand, and that makes it easier for you, great.
But if you have to FORCE yourself to plot, well… I would suggest you try writing by the seat of your pants. Take me, for instance. I do a little bit of a mix. I spent about a year and a half crafting the mythos for something that I write on occasion (Pillar of Heaven, for interested parties) before I had any idea of where I was going with it. I would come up with plots every now and then, but none of them held any weight. But when I came up with a basic premise for the plot- the beginning and the end- with a few twists, I pretty much stopped plotting. I got a basic idea of what I was going to do with a few characters, who they were and whatnot, but my background-work stopped there. Ever since, I’ve been writing as I go along, with a general direction kept in mind, going off on whatever tangents and creating entirely new characters because, dammit, I want to! (Of course, make sure that you have an idea of what purpose they’ll serve, too.)
Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. When you get everything set up before hand, it’s a game of dominoes, essentially, except that you have to make sure you keep writing. It tends to produce a neater, more cohesive narrative. Prematurely polished, you might say. Writer’s Block is more of a “I don’t want to write”/”I don’t know how to write this particular part” than a “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing”. Of course, it contains elements of “I don’t know what to write”/”I don’t know how to write this particular part” as well.
On the other hand, writing by the seat of your pants can produce a whole lot of dead ends. What you do is you go off on tangents and introduce new elements and characters and locales as you go along. Yes, that’ll make the writing process a sort of excitingly-spontaneous, “I don’t even know what’s happening next!” thing. And, on the other hand, it’ll make polishing a chore. There will be a LOT of fat you’ll have to trim, asides and tangents that didn’t work out. But quite a few people don’t like to work that way, meticulously working everything out in advance.
At the risk of sounding/being hypocritical, I think it’s best to TRY to retain an idea of where you’re going. If you lack direction, it’s probably going to show and your work will come out as a jumbled mess. So, if you can, understand what your work is, and try to figure out how it’s going to end, and then try to get there. The journey does not beat the destination, nor does the destination render the journey without meaning. Both are equally important.
Moral of the story? When writing, do your own thing. Do whatever you can to get the writing on paper. Because if you’ve succeeded in writing something and finishing it, you’re already better than most of us, so bully for you. No, you don’t have to do it the way sponsored by the author of this article. If I said you did, I’d be defeating my own argument (a somewhat counter-productive activity, in my esteemed opinion). If you DO do it the way I do it, don’t be an ass. Don’t say that your way is the one, true way because when it comes to bringing forth creation from the bubbling primordial soup of the mind, the only way is the way that works for the individual. And that goes for you too, Guy-Who-Can’t-Seize-The-Moment.
An alternative explanation for why I like to write this way is possibly because I’m just incredibly lazy. Knowing myself, this is not an unlikely theory. This blog article? Pulled out of my rather large butt.
I bid you pleasant mental images, reader.
In this series of articles, I’ll be giving my rather-respectable opinion on how (I believe) that characters should be presented in fiction- currently with a focus on prose- and how to make presentation work in the constraints imposed by the media.
To start, let’s talk about dialogue.
It’s something that I find to provide the most fuel for criticism and/or nausea in a work of fiction, professional or amateur.
First, I’m going to start off with a recommendation. If you want to learn what REALLY good dialogue in a novel/written form looks like, go to the library or bookstore and find yourself a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. I think it won an award or something. For some reason. Point is, this book will help me communicate several things absolutely necessary to what I’m trying to say as it taught me what strong dialogue is.
It’s also one of the few young adult novels that doesn’t make me want to commit suicide. But I digress.
THE ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY (AMENDABLE IF NECESSARY)
First, strong characterization. Know your characters. You should know them intimately. Or at least try to. But at the very least, make sure that you get a FEEL for your character and it should just go forward from there. Isolate what traits that a character holds that apply to the way they communicate. Take, for instance, an example from The Chosen. In the first part of the novel, the main character and a boxer are sharing the same room in a hospital, and I found their conversations to be extraordinarily enjoyable. The writing communicated the boxer’s strong accent not through vague association/description (“…”, he said with a Bostonian accent) but through phonetics- modifying the words and the flow of the words to make it sound like someone talking with an accent in your head, and it worked wonderfully. Furthermore, whenever he gets in a conversation, he usually finds some way to redirect it towards the way his manager screwed him over in the past. This helps communicate his inability to move forward because of his fixation on a past event that he thinks ruined his life. What did we learn here: Verbals tics, accents, figures of speech, speech patterns that reflect the character, and you need to understand that there is more than one response to even the simplest questions. Know which response that your character will give.
Second, if you’ve seen how I like to do dialogue, I enjoy presenting dialogue in a way that’s conducive to its flow. When two people are talking, I do my best to minimize prose and only indicate who’s talking when it’s absolutely necessary and to prevent confusion. That dialogue flows really well, and it’s not wooden. It looks and sounds like an exchange between two persons. Why? Because I do my best to focus on the words themselves, what’s being spoken. Prose and dialogue can work against each other, which is why dialogue tends to work best in visual, active media, such as television, movies, and video games, where both setting/visuals and dialogue are communicated to the audience simultaneously, taking advantage of both a person’s capacity for hearing and for viewing (should they possess those faculties- it is unfortunate that there are people who may only possess one or neither of these). This is the advantage of audio/visual mediums, in which visualization is mostly prefabricated by the author (considerably more-so than in writing). That being said, written creative works have their own advantages that audio/visual media lacks (and vice versa), but unnecessary, may be covered in a later article, and ultimately tangential- which brings us to my next point.
To prevent a conversation from feeling wooden, make it organic, dynamic, flexible. There’s no “set-topic” to the conversation. Conversations are constantly naturally derailed by two or more personalities in dialogue with one another. Remember this: characters are dynamic. They are not simply talking heads disseminating information and bad one-liners unfit for the prose. A natural conversation is a mix of forced command/informative exchanges and stimulus-response. In other words, a conversation may start with a goal in mind, but responding to one comment or statement may bring to mind in a character an association that will bring them to a tangent. See, going off topic- when it happens, where it happens, how it happens, and in what direction it starts going- not only helps you show who the characters are, but it also reveals the dynamic between them. A great character dynamic, be it chemistry between a character and their romantic interest or the charged exchanges between protagonist and antagonist, involves each character bouncing off one another in a conversation. Bouncing off one another, going on these tangents, these are what make conversations fluid. It’s what differentiates a real conversation from two monologues with talking points spliced together into a dialogue.
That said, keep in mind that there ARE structured, wooden conversations. Terse, unimaginative, to the point. Words practically stolen from Matty (Heyo!). But recognize that if your work’s dialogue is filled with those kinds of conversation, your audience isn’t going to be amused. At all. Only use these wooden conversations when necessary.
Now I’m going to go ahead and contradict my second point. This point is probably personal preference. (Alliteration, let’s go!) But I like movies. I like a dramatic presentation- a stylistic panache. Something I’ve found that is extraordinarily helpful in regards to making the presentation of a character compelling and draw you in is how their words are juxtaposed with actions. Not “This is how he/she talks, this is how he/she acts.” More like what they do while they’re talking. It makes what you’re writing more… Cinematic? Example:
“What’s it mean? You get used to things?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
The man retrieved a cigarette from a pack in his jacket pocket, placing it between his lips as he fumbled with a lighter.
“Like killing?” He asked, the odd question punctuated by the snapping of his lighter and the ignition of the cigarette. “Like smoking?” He mumbled to himself bitterly in a quiet tone, rolling his eyes.
“I beg your pardon?”
Now, for the same example reduced to a non-example:
“What’s it mean? You get used to things?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Like killing?” He asked. “Like smoking?” He mumbled quietly to himself.
“I beg your pardon?”
I’m personally of the opinion that the first excerpt is considerably more interesting to read. Not only do the actions described give you insight about the character, but they also give what you’re reading an interestingly-visual component. You can essentially create a sort of feeling usually found in a visual medium and transplant it into the written. However, it must be used conservatively, I think- this point has to be balanced with Point #2. A mix of pure dialogue and pure action. When you successfully combine both, you’ve got really compelling writing. Usually.
That’s it for now. On my next article in this series I’ll be going into detail on how to construct or use slang and euphemisms to give your characters cultural identification, make them something the audience can relate to and lifelike, and to flesh out a mythos as a whole.
Until The Next Blue Moon,