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.