Characters, Politics, Fish, and You
Let’s talk about politics. Specifically, your characters’ politics, how you position them, and how they/you express them.
If your immediate thought was “My characters don’t have politics”, you’re wrong. Your character, if in a contemporary, votes, and if they don’t vote, they’re making a decision not to participate. They will have a view on how much tax they want to pay and what it should go to. They will have an opinion on gun control or Brexit or parking restrictions on their street or how much they pay for health care. As for historicals…well, the Regency was one of the most turbulent political periods of Britain’s history, a prime minister got assassinated, there was ongoing popular revolt and incredibly severe laws against sedition, and absolutely everyone had Views about the Prince Regent. No politics? Don’t kid yourself.
And I haven’t even touched on issues of race, class, gender, religious freedom, disability, and sexuality. Name me a human society in which those aren’t relevant.
All of that is politics. Everyone has politics. If you think you “don’t have politics” that probably means the politics happening around you are the sort that suit you, in which case you’re a fish not noticing water.
“Okay, my characters probably have politics, but I don’t want to get into that,” you might say. Fine, but politics are a facet of character just like everything else. They might not be at the forefront of your plot, or a topic of conversation. But you’d struggle to write an entire novel about fish in which water played no part at all in informing the plot, character, or setting.
Politics can affect character implicitly or explicitly. You can show us what the MCs think and how their histories inform their attitudes which inform their personalities. You can show us how they interact, especially from positions of difference: how ready they are to challenge themselves or hear new views.
This can be explicit. My Society of Gentlemen Regency series is exceedingly and overtly political, in settings and dialogue and plot. But the reason it worked as a romance series rather than a lecture tour is that the politics made for some hellacious conflicts.
In A Seditious Affair, Silas Mason is a working class seditionist while Dominic Frey is a committed Tory who works for the Home Office, and their book is set around a (real) conspiracy to assassinate the Cabinet, because let’s not muck about. Dominic and Silas in particular are about as impossible a pair to get to the HEA as I have written. Because of the huge political gulf between them, I had to dive deep into their personalities to show what did work between them, what brought and held them together. I used the politics to drive the love story and the external plot together: you could not take out the political bits because the political bits are all about the romance.
But that’s far from the only approach. Compare, say, this from Band Sinister. Guy, a fearful and sheltered country gentleman, has just been introduced the Murder, a hellfire club.
Raven opened his mouth. Penn said, mildly, “Every man is entitled to his beliefs.”
“Yes, any man has a right to his beliefs, and a duty to question them too,” Raven retorted. “If you don’t take out your beliefs for washing now and again, they’re just bad habits.”
That started a discussion among the company in general, greatly to Guy’s relief. He ate and drank and watched his tablemates as the conversation swerved like a drunkard in the road. They went from the need to abolish the offence of blasphemous libel and separate church from State into a discussion on the system of elections. Martelo and Salcombe argued that every man over the age of twenty-one should be entitled to a vote and representation in the House; Raven and Street suggested women’s opinions should be canvassed equally; and Corvin spoke, with languid wit that might even have been seriously meant, about the desirability of abolishing the House of Lords. “After all,” he said, “I have a seat and a voice there, and you wouldn’t put me in charge of the country, would you?”
It was beyond argument, for Guy: he couldn’t begin to formulate answers to questions he’d never even considered asking. He just listened, in a slightly wine-flown haze, to a debate that felt like some sort of lengthy hallucination, each proposition more destructive and extreme and simply not done than the last.
This, then, was a hellfire club: a debating society for alarming ideas. Guy could well understand why one would need a private room; a zealous magistrate could prosecute some of these opinions if aired at a public meeting. But this was Rookwood’s home and thus, since he was an Englishman, his castle. The Murder could say what they wanted in their own company, and Guy, who hardly ever said what he wanted, had nothing at all to offer this meeting of lively, informed, well-travelled people saying unimaginably bizarre things. He simply watched and listened, with the sense of being caught in one of those fiery upheavals that Salcombe said had made the world.
The point here isn’t what Guy or indeed his love interest Philip Rookwood think about any of these specific propositions: we don’t find out. The point is that he’s being submerged in a tsunami of new information and thought and also ways of thinking that he finds at first terrifying and them world-expanding. Which is a foreshadowing of the sexual awakening he’s about to have (albeit in rather more detail because romance, ahaha). The political discussion here serves to tell us the kind of person Guy is at the start of the book, and hint to us that he’s yearning for more; it also indicates the deep divide between him and Philip in terms of attitude to life, experience, willingness to conform. Guy is unthinkingly conservative; Philip is consciously (self-consciously) radical. Their romance is among other things a process by which Guy opens his mind, and Philip comes to understand and respect the values Guy does hold on to.
Politics, like everything else, is character. But it’s also potentially a wonderful source of worldbuilding. I set my Will Darling Adventures in the early 1920s. You can populate that world with flappers and nightclubs and Bright Young People, and indeed I put in a lot of that. But it gets a lot chewier if you put in the context too. (The Bright Young People were unquestionably a bunch of privileged twats who should have been first against the wall at the revolution, but they were also a specific reaction to a political situation: an entire generation of young people with heroically dead older siblings they couldn’t live up to, facing a world their elders had made a bloody mess of and opting out.)
The politics of the time inform the world and the characters, main and minor. The upper classes have been hit by death duties, often several times in a few years, and their power is slipping, which drives a lot of the plot. The country is full of resentfully jobless demobbed soldiers like Will, who would probably be quite small-c conservative if people didn’t keep pushing him into extreme situations (whistles innocently). Women are holding on to the opportunities they had in the war and looking for new ones: Maisie, a black working class Welshwoman, is doggedly claiming a place in a white privileged men’s world, while Phoebe, a Bright Young Person, is solidly upper class but probably the most radical character in the book as she skips gaily over boundaries of class and gender that Will smacks into face first. And the extreme politics of the time leave real scars: Kim, an aristocrat, had a catastrophic flirtation with Bolshevism followed by a ghastly disillusionment post Revolution, all of which is character and plot crucial.
A delve into politics—which we could also call ‘what’s going on and what the characters think about it’—provides huge opportunity for building character and world alike. It doesn’t mean MCs delivering lectures or undigested infodumps. It just means thinking about how your characters exist in the context of their place and time, and showing that.
Consider the water your fish swim in. Then you can decide how clear or turbulent you want it to be.
Yes. I got convinced that the personal is political by, amongst other influences, reading Spare Rib.
Plus belief that silence on an “issue” means you support the status quo. Which I really don’t.
My T shirt with the extreme trouble quote was admired, and I pointed out that it was often me that was the extreme trouble. No one disagreed…
Writing as Liz today, rather than FaceBook Emma.
Yep. The personal is absolutely political, and you have to be pretty privileged not to notice that.
Ah, yes. It took me years to realize that everything is political (particularly art) and that there is no such things as political neutrality. Neutrality often means upholding the status quo, and therefore it’s really conservatism.
I only write fanfiction, but I have a pretty good idea which way most of my characters vote (or would vote if they had the right to). How could I not know? I make the decision based on the characterization presented in canon, but then it informs the way I write them on so many levels, even if I don’t mention politics at all.
Not exactly politics, but sort of related, and it popped into my head the other day as I was waiting in a very long line in a chronically understaffed pharmacy belonging to a chain that has overextended itself and is now closing stores like mad: thank you for that scene in one of the Magpie books in which Crane explains how to spot when your department is being low-key shut down and you are being deliberately overworked and set up to fail. It’s the sort of thing that’s so obvious after it’s happened, and so hard to notice when it’s happening to you.
I write contemporary big-city romances in which the majority of characters are queer or POC or both. They have politics, for sure. Not always 100% congruent with my own, because they are not me. But the characters are experiencing real life, and real life is shaped by politics – here in the U.S. many things vary from from state to state, e.g. whether you can adopt a child or get a particular form of contraception. It would be disingenuous, at best, to pretend none of that affects my characters.