Mishandling political issues in your books can be a fatal mistake and kill your story stone dead. This is the first of several blogs I will do on the topic going into and throughout 2017.
I’ve seen it done well, poorly, in stories that should have avoided it and I’ve wished there was more in some stories that barely flirted with it.
In this hypothetical example, I decide to write a story about a private detective in Scotland being caught up in a IRA plot. Politics is going to be a big part of this story, how would I go about doing it?
- Get your facts right
You know what is worse than someone clumsily ramming political messages down your throat in a partisan novel? Someone clumsily ramming political messages down your throat in a partisan novel who doesn’t even have their facts right.
The IRA and whether the North of Ireland should be in the UK or Republic of Ireland is a charged issue, if I am putting them in a story, I better get this right. I would read up, watch any documentaries I could get my hands on, ensure that when I am referring to this, I get it right.
If I half ass it and write about how the IRA has existed for a few years and has the goal of overthrowing the current Irish government, anyone even vaguely familiar with the situation will know what nonsense that is.
Also, basing my entire understanding on one wikipedia article will give it a very general, amateur feel. It won’t be overtly wrong but it will be a pale imitation of the real issue. Really learn the nuances of a political struggle if you are going to put it in your story. If you can’t be bothered doing that or you feel it is getting in the way of your writing, maybe don’t include it. So, in this story rather than the IRA, I could make the villains a group of Irish criminals planning to kidnap and ransom a leading Irish politician visiting the country.
I don’t see this as a chore, it can be fun to learn about a political situation you previously knew nothing about.
- Be careful with broad strokes
When considering the most extreme fringe of a movement, it can be tempting to paint everyone who is a part of it with the same brush. No disrespect intended, the guy is a million times more successful than me, but when Stephen King tried to wade into political commentary he usually does this.
Some authors paint entire segments of the population as deranged lunatics simply because they disagree on some political issues. It can come across as arrogant, condescending and worst of all- stupid. You come across as a partisan hack screeching about things they barely seem to grasp.
Jeffrey Archer was a Conservative Member of Parliament but in his novels, there can be scumbags on both sides, Labour are still shown as having admirable people in the organisation. He doesn’t say they are all awful people. His books are more compelling for that.
To continue with my example, it wouldn’t be fair to say that everyone who is an Irish nationalist wants to blow up pubs and murder politicians in the UK.
- At the same time, villains can be villains
It is important to understand the struggle you have made part of your story and likewise to appreciate you can’t tar everyone with the same feather- but at the same time, don’t shy away from showing a terrorist group as exactly that.
For all I wouldn’t portray every Irish nationalist in my story as a manic, I wouldn’t hesitate to portray the IRA cell trying to commit the attack as ruthless. If you want, you can flesh them out, if that adds to your narrative but likewise I wouldn’t be afraid to show that a terrorist organisation can often to be full or ruthless, deranged people.
There would be a villain, the cell commander who doesn’t care how many people have to die to further his goals. I won’t try and act like he is sympathetic or rationalise it, what he is doing is evil and I am not afraid to say it.
In this example, don’t say every Irish nationalist is a secret terrorist but don’t act like the terrorists who are butchering innocents are all really great people.
- Don’t be too specific
I think the best use of politics in stories are accurate but not overly specific. Maybe you want to critique populism or the establishment’s demonization of populism, whatever suits you. This is far better than trying to specifically target the policies of politician A at this exact moment in time.
My example story would be critical of how nationalism can turn to violence and this has long been an issue with Irish paramilitary groups but I wouldn’t be as specific as saying “the 2016 policies of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams may be inadvertently encouraging extremist groups to take actions!”
It dates so quickly and only a year or two will be incredibly anachronistic.
As always, take this with a pinch of salt. I don’t want to lecture, I am making a few observations that might help your story.
I am someone very interested in politics (with the bank in the paper every other day, it would be hard not to), so I do treat including politics in your story as a serious matter.
On a lighter note…my Christmas tree came in third in the office contest. I’m rather pleased with that!