Lessons I’ve Learned While Writing: How to Mention Politics In Your Story Without Being “That Guy”

James’s Note: This is the start of a new feature for the Blog. This will be a series of articles about all the things I’ve learned on my journey as a writer. I’m by no means an authority, but hopefully you’ll at least enjoy hearing about what I’m learning along the way.

(Tldr: If you’re going to put politics in your story, make sure that it is an organic part of the storyline, that the politics belong to your characters, not you, and try to be as nonspecific as possible. The broader the better.)

Everyone wants their story to have a message. That’s a wonderful thing. The problem is, when dealing with any kind of sensitive topic, like politics or religion or the like, it’s really easy to come off sounding like a pretentious, preachy jerk.

Well, here are a few ways to avoid annoying the crap out of your audience.

  1. Make sure the issues belong in your story.

If you are writing a romance, issues about sexuality, morals and even race can make a lot of sense. Something like the right to bear arms or capitalism probably doesn’t.

Make sure you’re telling a story, not taking time out from the story to give a lecture.

  1. Make sure the politics belong to your characters, not you.

No one cares about your opinion.

I know, that sounds harsh, but it’s true. Even if you’re a famous writer, the only people interested in your opinion are the people who already agree with you. You’re not changing anybody’s mind.

Now, what can change people’s minds, is a well-written story that introduces them to new ideas. 

If you’re going to talk about important issues, make sure you do it by having your character interact with those issues and showing their feelings.

There’s a ton of examples of this. Star Trek did it really well. But it was never Gene Roddenberry telling us what he believed. 

It was Kirk or Picard telling us about the values of the Federation. It was alien races presenting their philosophies which might be weirdly appropriate to modern day issues.

Same thing with 1984, or any other dystopian future novel, up to and including the Hunger Games.

They talk about the issues of their own world. If that happens to reflect our world, that’s for you to decide.

In my Witcher Man series, many of the characters make social, political, and philosophical statements. They talk about conformity, oppression, government, and morality.

Those aren’t necessarily my views, they belong to the character. If they happen to reflect my own view, well that’s for you to interpret too.

As my wife, Sharon Gray, has remarked, don’t stop the story to yell at your audience.

  1. The Less Specific You Can Be, the Better.

In a lot of writing groups, I see amateur authors kicking around the idea of writing about 2020 and its elements.

I get where they’re coming from, but this is a terrible idea. If you write about very specific events, your writing will become dated pretty fast.

Just look at a lot of Stephen King’s novels. Some of them managed to be fun nostalgic 80s stuff, but a lot of them are just incomprehensible to anyone who either wasn’t alive at the time, or isn’t really well read on the time period he’s writing about.

Not that historical fiction isn’t a thing, but that event that is going on right now that you think is so important will probably be completely forgotten.

Take the Arab Spring. It was a huge event when I was a young adult, everyone talking about how it was going to change the world, or at least the face of the Middle East. It was on the news constantly and even featured a cool video of a guy running over people on a camel.

Now, I bet you’ll have to Google it to even know what I’m talking about.

So, if you want to write about current events, keep it broad to increase the appeal.

Don’t write about coronavirus, write about pandemics.

Don’t write about black lives matters, write about characters experiencing racism.

You absolutely should write about Murder Hornets. 

Murder Hornets are awesome and I’m still mad we skipped them in our 2020 apocalypse bingo.

If you do this part well, your writing will be surprisingly timeless.

In Discworld, Terry Pratchett talked about police, and how they should do their job. He even talked about how they handle riots and the like.

Now, I bet he had some specific riots from England in mind when he wrote that. But he didn’t talk about that, he just talked about what makes a good policeman.

 As a result, if I read you certain sections of his work, you would swear he wrote it today.

I’ve actually been experiencing a little of this with my story, Witcher Man and the Case of the Guillotine Society.

It features oppressive governments, civil unrest, the morality of rising up against tyranny, and even mentions giant killer hornets.

Sounds like 2020 right?

I wrote all those elements like four years ago.

But I wasn’t talking about current events, I was talking about real philosophical issues. 

And hornets.

That’s why certain parts of Mark Twain’s writing can be read today and sound like he was telling the future.

It’s because as long as you’re talking about the broad human experience, stuff really doesn’t change.

  1. This last part is just my personal style, but I submit it for what it’s worth.

Outside of my stories, I try not to talk publicly about my personal political positions. At least not in any way that is tied to my platform as an author. Small as it is.

Some of that is because people really don’t care about my opinion. Waving a flag to indicate my position isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.

Some of it is because my work, hopefully, has a broad appeal to lots of people who may or may not agree with me politically.

Once, Michael Jordan was asked why he didn’t speak out more politically.

He said because both Republicans and Democrats buy his shoes.

Hopefully, I handle issues in my story fairly enough that my own political position isn’t just glaringly obvious.

Although, I do use some phrases, like the non-aggression principle, that if you Google them, will probably give away my position.

But that’s just me. Stephen King, Larry Correia, and a bunch of other writers sure like screaming about politics.

And they are a lot more successful than me, so what do I know. 

So, that’s one way to talk about politics in your stories. Not saying this is the only way to do it, but it ‘s certainly the way I prefer for authors to handle politics in the stories I read.

At the end of the day, write the story you want to read.

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