On Politics in Fiction Writing

More than once, I have seen someone on Twitter ask a question like, “Real-world politics in fantasy novels: yes or no?” The answers to this question are just as divided as the answers to every other question on Twitter. Some people think that fiction writers have the obligation to “speak truth to power” or to promote some righteous political cause in their stories. Others insist that fiction is a place where we ought to be able to escape the partisan political battles of the real world.

But surely there is room for both approaches. Some folks pick up a novel (or watch a movie, or read a comic book) in order to think about some important real-world political question. Other people really do want to “escape” for a while and don’t want politics to encroach on that blissful respite. Some people like a little bit of politics in stories. Others want a lot. It doesn’t have to be one way or the other. Writers just have to understand who their audience is.

But if you decide that you’re going to “get political” in your fiction writing, I think that there are better and worse ways to do it. The least effective way happens when a writer puts “good” political opinions in the mouths of the good characters and “bad” political opinions in the mouths of the bad characters. When I read novels or watch movies that do this, I find myself taken out of the story by the cartoonishness of the approach. For me, this way of writing always comes off as preachy and manipulative. It says, “Obviously, good people can’t possibly believe in X because that’s what Dr. Sinister and his Minions of Evil Bent on Global Destruction believe!” Instead of writing a story, the writer has built a platform from which he or she can preach to the rest of us.

I prefer an approach to politics in fiction that respects the intelligence and freedom of audiences; stories that acknowledge that people come to hold different political opinions for lots of complicated reasons and a wide range of different experiences; an approach that depicts the diversity of people and thought that we find in the real world.

That’s why I take the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone as a model of how to “do politics” in fiction writing. If you don’t know that play, it’s a story of civil disobedience. After a bloody civil war in the city of Thebes, King Kreon decrees that instead of receiving a proper religious burial, the body of Polyneikes will be left to rot and be eaten by animals. This fate condemns him eternally, since it means that he cannot pass into the afterlife. Kreon makes this decree because he sees Polyneikes as a traitor, and honoring him with a respectful burial might encourage more traitors.

Antigone, who is the sister of Polyneikes, is infuriated by Kreon’s decree. She says that her first loyalty is to her family (and to the dead), not to her king or to the city. More importantly, she believes that Kreon’s decree violates the moral law of the Greek religion, so she resolves to give her brother a proper burial.

It’s hard to read or to watch a performance of Antigone and not root for the title character. It’s also hard not to see Kreon as the Bad Guy. But Sophocles is too good a writer to give us a story so simple as that. He gives Antigone room to make the best version of her argument for civil disobedience, but he also makes sure that Kreon gets to have his say. As I tell my college students when I teach Antigone, I am very much #TeamAntigone—but I have to admit that Kreon makes a persuasive argument for the position that he takes. The city keeps people safe from the storm of the world, and the city will fall apart if it honors traitors and those who violate its laws.

In other words, Sophocles allows his audience the freedom to make up their own minds about whether Antigone or Kreon is right. Moreover, he doesn’t make Antigone unambiguously heroic or Kreon unambiguously bad. Antigone has her flaws, and to some readers, she is downright self-righteous. Those same readers often see Kreon as a king who is just doing his best to maintain order. (To those of you who have read or will read my novel The Way Out: yes, one of its main characters is partly inspired by Antigone of Thebes.)

To me, the approach that Sophocles takes is the best way to handle difficult or contentious political questions in fiction. If you simply make your Good Guys representatives of whatever your preferred political position is and put the political views you hate in the mouths of your Bad Guys, there’s a good chance that you’re not writing fiction, but instead a political tract (e.g. Ayn Rand’s novels). If your primary goal in writing a story is to argue for a particular political position, you should probably write a political tract instead. I’ve read a lot of fiction, and I’ve read a lot of political philosophy. I love both. But if you confuse the two, what you produce probably won’t be good fiction or good philosophy.

What this looks like practice for me is that when one of my characters is about to make a political statement (or any other kind of statement, for that matter) with which I personally disagree, I have to be careful to allow them to make the best argument that they are capable of. It would be tempting for me to say to myself, “Okay, character X is a Very Bad Person, and this thing that he’s saying is a Very Bad Thing, so I’ve got to make sure that when he says it, it sounds as dastardly and evil as possible! And it has to sound stupid, too! Because only a stupid, evil person would believe it!” But if I do that, I’m not respecting the freedom of my readers. I’m not trusting them to make up their own minds about whatever the character says. I’d much rather let the strength or weakness of whatever X says speak for itself. And maybe I’m a weirdo for feeling this way, but as a reader I find it insulting when writers feel the need to speak down to me in that way (even when I agree with whatever position they’re pushing).

There are probably moral reasons to take the approach to writing that I’m suggesting, but I think that it’s important for artistic reasons, too. Stories are not tracts. They’re not essays. They’re not manifestos. They are narrative representations of life, and life is messy. It’s complicated. It’s filled with imperfect people who mostly come to their opinions honestly and through a long, complex series of experiences. It’s filled with people who hold their views not because they’re Evil or Saintly, but because they’re convinced that they’re right. If a story is going to be good art, it has to be true to that reality.


Post Script: One of the better (or at least more interesting) examples of politics in fiction that I’ve seen recently was in the film Knives Out. During a scene in the middle of the movie, several of the characters debate U.S. immigration law. One of the characters represents a stereotypically “left” view of immigration, and another speaks for the stereotypically “right” view of it. They verbally spar for several minutes, and each of the other characters falls in line behind them.

Normally, I’d find this kind of thing in a movie a little off-putting—characters standing in for Left and Right or Democrat and GOP. When it happens, I usually feel like somebody has changed the channel from a movie to a presidential debate. It takes me out of the story. What saves the scene in Knives Out, however, is that the characters on both sides are all assholes who ignore the real situation of an immigrant woman sitting in their midst (and each side tries to use her as a pawn for their own position).