Writing Exercises on “Keeping Power”

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

This exercise is meant to apply to concepts of this post, which discusses a flexible model for quickly sketching out the key political conflicts in your setting—focusing on who the ruler must keep happy in order to stay in power. If you like the exercises below and want to use them, first read the linked post and then come back.

  1. Spend five minutes thinking about your setting, then list all the kinds of people who have any influence at all on who the leader is. Are they powerful generals? Wealthy merchants? Priests? Voters in a democracy? Voters in an oligarchy or stratified society? Nobles? Regional governors? Board directors or shareholders of a corporation? This is the selectorate.
  2. Of all those people, what is the minimum level of support a leader would need to stay in power? How many different ways are there to put together such a support coalition?
  3. What could a leader offer his/her coalition members to keep them loyal? How could the leader threaten them?
  4. If a coalition member is disloyal, how easily could the member be replaced by the leader with another member of the selectorate?
  1. If the selectorate is unhappy with the leader, how easily could a new support coalition be built behind someone else?
  2. How might policies that favor the support coalition harm people outside of it? (For example, taxing the populace and giving a subsidy to coalition members.) How might potential policies to benefit outsiders harm members of the coalition, and thus be rejected? (For example, building a port that would make grain cheaper, when your supporters are rich landowners who sell grain.)
  3. How could new classes of people join the selectorate? (For example, women gaining the right to vote.) Who would benefit from such a change?
  4. How could existing classes of people lose their place in the selectorate? (For example, a democracy becoming a dictatorship; or powerful religious leaders being displaced by a religious purge.) Who would benefit from such a change?
  5. What might change to allow the leader to need fewer supporters, or to force the leader to seek more supporters?
  6. Looking at all the possibilities for conflict that you listed above, which has the most resonance for the story you want to tell?
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Coming Soon: “The Wand that Rocks the Cradle”

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Sorry for the radio silence recently! You’ll be happy to know that it’s because:

  1. I’ve been mailing out the paperback books to Kickstarter backers of The Odds Are Against Us and, of more general interest,
  2. We’re getting ready to launch another Kickstarter for the next anthology!

This one is the “Family” fantasy anthology which we announced back in December. I am pleased to reveal that the anthology’s title will be The Wand that Rocks the Cradle: Magical Stories of Family.

We have a great lineup of authors for you, and the stories will take your breath away. You’ll be able to pre-order your copy soon, along with all kinds of fun bonuses; so if you want to know when the Kickstarter goes live, sign up here and be sure to check “Fantasy Fiction.”

Editing this collection is so much fun! I can’t wait to get it into your hands.

More on Making This Editor Happy

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After I had finished making selections for Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, I wrote a post discussing some of the recurring patterns in short stories that did not make the cut. And now that selections have been made on two more anthologies (official announcement coming soon!), it seems a good time to expand that list. (I am proud to say that this time, every author did get personalized feedback—which apparently is not common these days.)

Variations of the “And” Plot

In an “And” story, something happens, and something else happens, and something else happens… but each event seems meandering. There is no progression from one episode to the next; and no buildup to a theme’s culmination.

This time around, there were a few subspecies of the “And” plot that deserve special note:

  • Wish Fulfillment: Again, not all wish fulfillment is bad necessarily. Harry Potter begins with wish fulfillment: neglected boy is suddenly told he is special and goes off to wizard school. The danger with a wish-fulfillment plot is when the author gets caught up in all the nice things happening to the protagonist, and avoids providing a real plot or conflict. The author is in danger of shying away from true obstacles, which seemingly get in the way of all the nice things happening to the characters. Done well, wish fulfillment can launch a story and make it cool, or it could even be the culmination of a story—but in between, there had better be serious conflict, drama, opposition, struggle, and in a word, plot.
  • Revenge Fantasy: Strictly speaking, this is a kind of wish-fulfillment story, but with the focus on all the suffering meted out to the protagonist’s enemies. Again, this had better be the culmination of a well-constructed plot, or it will simply be boring and lurid.
  • Passive Characters: In this type of story, the protagonist is basically a bystander. Problems are resolved via Deus ex Machina, as the protagonist stands around impotently and drifts from scene to scene, the better to observe all the exciting things that other people are doing to other people. (This is distinct from a “Watson” viewpoint character, who is not actually the protagonist but serves as a narrative device to observe the real protagonist.)

Nihilism

Yet again, the grimdark emo plot makes an appearance. It seems like many authors believe that fiction ought to be depressing and to reiterate the meaninglessness of life. This often leads to flabby stories in which a series of bad things happen, with no real theme or point.

A useful contrast would be HP Lovecraft. His stories were unrelentingly grim, of course; but they were not truly nihilistic, to my mind. Rather, in the Lovecraft mythos, human experience was approximately trivial in comparison to the vast ancient powers who battled over the cosmos. On some level, meaning still existed; it’s just that humans rarely mattered!

And this does not mean that grim, depressing stories are verboten. But they need to have a point. The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, or Old Yeller were all grim; but the grimness was in service to the story, not its focus.

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So there you have it. The recurring theme of all of these entries is that stories, in my opinion, ought to have conflict over important stakes. The conflict need not be big and pyrotechnic; small vignettes can also be good. But it has to illustrate something that matters. At a time when we have literally millions of books to choose from, a good story needs a reason to demand the reader’s time. Tell a story worth reading.

“The Odds Are Against Us” Gets Some Love

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Our recent anthology, The Odds Are Against Us, just got a glowing review from James Reasoner, an incredibly prolific author of Western fiction. (Seriously, he’s written over three hundred and fifty books!)

He writesI backed the Kickstarter for this anthology, and now that it’s been published and I’ve read it, I’m glad I did. It’s an excellent collection of military fiction, some with contemporary settings, some historical. I’ve always liked war stories, and these are very well done. My favorites are…

Oops! I guess we ran out of room on the blog or something. Oh well, I guess you’ll have to click on over to Reasoner’s blog to read his favorites, huh?

And don’t forget to buy your copy!

OAAU Final Cover

Writing Exercises for Social Orders

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This exercise is meant to apply the concepts from this post, which discusses the tensions between wealth and power and how they end up shaping the entire structure of society. If you like the exercises below and want to use them, read the linked post first and then come back.

  1. Spend five minutes and list all the forms of power—loosely defined, for our purposes, as both the ability to harm people and break things, and the ability to force other people to do what you want—in your setting. Fighting ability, magical power, or command over a band of robbers count; what else?
  2. Spend five minutes and list all desirable goods in your setting. Money or valuables count, but so would fame, social status, immortality, attractive romantic partners, et cetera.
  3. For our purposes, let’s define all of the above as “wealth.” For each relevant type of wealth, how might someone use different forms of power to get more wealth? List as many possibilities as you can.
  4. Likewise, for each type of power, how might someone translate different forms of wealth into more power?
  5. Now, imagine that centuries pass in which powerful people try to gain wealth, and wealthy people try to gain power. List at least five scenarios for how the society might end up looking. If a given group of people became stronger over time, who else would be threatened? How might they react? Who would win? Imagine as many possible social conflicts that you can, vary the outcomes, and list them all.
  6. Of all the ideas you’ve listed, which have the most resonance for the story you want to tell?

Writing Exercises for Stories with Foraging Bands

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

This is meant to accompany this post about egalitarian bands and this post about class conflict. If you like the exercises below, read those posts before working through them.

Let’s say you have an idea for a story that involves a society of people who don’t have a fixed home. Perhaps they are wandering cattle-herders, or perhaps they forage for roots and berries in the jungle, or perhaps they are wandering space-gypsies who survive off of volatile gases harvested with ramscoops. In any case, these exercises should help you flesh out your idea consistently, and understand how it can drive conflict and story dynamism.

  1. Spend a few minutes and list five possible reasons why your band chooses not to have a fixed home. (You don’t have to use all five in the actual story. Brainstorm.)
  2. What forms of wealth might be different between people? Try to list at least three. Does a given form of wealth tend to be dissipated over time, via feasting or gifting or divisions between heirs or another means? Or does it build on itself?
  3. What special status might someone in the band (or some family) have that others do not? Try to list at least three, remembering that not all special statuses need be in the same family. (For example, one family might be chiefs, another might be shamans, another might have the hereditary right to guard the Sacred Hospitality Blanket, and so on.) How might such status be gained or lost?
  4. How does the band handle internal conflict? Are there mechanisms for doing this? Would conflict threaten to tear apart the band? What is at stake?
  5. Why might outsiders come into conflict with your band? List five possible reasons. (“We raid their settlements and take slaves and plunder” is an acceptable reason! So is “They want to wear our sparkly purple skin as trophies.” What else?)
  6. Why does having a wandering band fit in this story? What aspect of such a band fits the theme or the conflict?

Suggestions for more? Let me know in the comments!

New Release: The Odds Are Against Us

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I’m pleased to say that Liberty Island Media, our publisher, has just released The Odds Are Against Us for Kindle! Check it out!

Plus, if you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, you can read the book for free!

The paperback edition will be coming soon, and I’ll let you know when it does. We’re very excited to finally get this fantastic book in people’s hands. Enjoy!

If you like the book, please help us out by leaving a reader review on Amazon. It only takes a few sentences to tell people what you liked about the book, and it makes a big difference. Thanks!

Conflict in Politics and Fiction

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

What is politics? And why does it matter for fiction?

If you were to google “politics definition,” many of the dictionary entries focus on the mechanics of running a government or a society; these are not wrong exactly, but are not terribly useful. When we say “office politics,” for example, what we mean is often the exact opposite of a smooth-running office!

Early political scientists, when they were in a pedantic mood, might have used a definition like this: “The authoritative allocation of scarce goods.” This is not very good either, but it does focus our attention on a few points:

  • “Scarce goods” implies that some people will get less than they want, or do without entirely. By definition, some people will be unhappy with the “authoritative allocation,” and want it to change.
  • “Authoritative” highlights the importance of authority, the sense that some people or some commands ought to be followed. In other words, a key part of politics is about leadership and obedience, and how that comes about.

But this definition seems sterile. We are given an image of some central bureaucrat sitting in an office and punching numbers into a calculator, thusly to apportion out the chocolate ration. Yet politics is about more than material goods (or even status, which is also a “scarce good” of a sort; but see below). So the definition is often modified to include “The authoritative determination of values.” Here we get into more interesting ground:

  • Rather than focusing on what we want, “values” instruct us in what we should want.
  • Often, this gets to the core of our identities as people. The stakes are thus very high.
  • When two different people disagree on values—say, whether cocaine use is a personal matter or a harmful vice—often they are proceeding from very different principles, which prevent agreement altogether.
  • Without a way to authoritatively settle the question, such disagreements are thus likely to persist for a long time.

Still, this definition assumes that there is a way to authoritatively determine values, and have them stick. Sometimes it can happen, for example in a unified theocracy; but very often, people who disagree with the authority’s values will deny that the authority even has the right to impose them. Religious wars are but a single example; the conflict between Capitalism and Communism would be another.

Notice that both examples also involve “the allocation of scarce goods”; and in many cases, one’s choice of values is heavily influenced by whether you will benefit from them. Of course peasants will want redistribution of capital, and of course industrialists will want state protection of property—whether or not either side could defend its position on moral grounds (and perhaps they can). As they say, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Values direct behavior, but they also justify behavior.

Which brings us to Lenin’s Trotsky’s cynical definition of politics: as “the question of who and whom.

In other words, politics is about which actor or group of actors can enforce its will on another group. This needn’t even be about who gets more “scarce goods,” though that often plays a role. Rather, it’s about power—in the worst case (as Orwell so bleakly depicted in 1984), power for its own sake. Policy analysis, discussion of values, appeals to shared humanity or morality or whatever, all of these things are mere rationalizations for the will to power.

This also brings the role of conflict to the fore. Conflict was implied in the other two definitions, as we saw; but Lenin gives it center stage. Politics, for Lenin, is unending conflict.

A full definition of “politics” involves aspects of all three, but conflict remains at the heart. And that is why stories involving politics can be so powerful in fiction.

Authors are constantly admonished that stories must be about a conflict; the protagonist wants or needs something, and must struggle to get it. Political conflicts thus make for a compelling setting for stories, by definition. And each dimension of politics can add another delicious layer to the story. Conflict over possessions, or conflict over status, or right and wrong, or personal beliefs, or even about sheer will to power—as Milton’s rendition of Satan put it, it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven—all of these things can interact and build off each other.

A clear understanding of politics can provide another tool to creating strong stories. And perhaps, with luck, truly insightful stories can improve our politics in real life as well.

Warlords and Frontiers

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

We’ve previously discussed how a government’s control over territory is not a given; states have to spend great effort to project power and build institutions of rule. Frequently, a state’s rule is not absolute; far from the core of its power, state control diminishes even in areas that are nominally under its rule. In border areas, the reality of daily life might involve balancing off the claims of two states, neither of which can fully enforce its authority.

That does not necessarily mean that no one rules. Politics abhors a vacuum. Often, the true authority in a contested or peripheral area might be a criminal boss, or a local bandit, or warlord. Crime bosses and bandits are common fare in fiction, of course. Less frequently discussed, but potentially more interesting, is the warlord.

What do I mean by “warlord”? Let me answer with an example:

During the continuing civil wars in the Congo, the Kivu region of the country was wracked by violence and a severe breakdown in civil control. Instead, political power often devolved to the closest military force, whether government, rebel, or local militia. A typical brigade commander in FARDC, the Congolese military, had the benefit of military rank, which entitled him to a salary, logistical support from the capital Kinshasa, and formal legitimacy; but he would also have informal status in the local power relationships of his area, having de facto control over the local bureaucracy, extracting extra taxes from the hapless civilians, and using military force to control rich resources like bauxite mines or logging operations.

His loyalty would be very much for sale, notwithstanding being an officer for the government; he often collaborates with local criminal networks or directs them himself, using his troops and their logistical abilities to solve problems for the criminals. He will often play both sides in the civil wars, throwing in with one or another of the feuding insurgent groups, often with the full knowledge of Kinshasa. However, the central government puts up with the commander’s unreliability, because even when he is enriching himself and building his own independent power base, his troops still keep the local violence tamped down—and the government lacks the power to replace him or his men with someone more loyal. The status quo is bad, but it would be far worse if the commander were to openly break with Kinshasa and become a direct threat.

What distinguishes the warlord is a combination of three things. The first two are capacity for violence, and the claim to politically represent some constituency. A mafia boss uses coercion, but generally for economic goals; corrupt politicians may seek power and status, but generally within the existing formal framework of their state. But if we look at our Congolese example, we see a third element as well: nominal submission to a distant authority along with practical local autonomy. Warlords exploit gaps in official control to gain power and status, and then use that status strategically to cement their power.

I’m using the term “warlord” in a particular way here, following after Ahram/King 2012. They define a warlord as someone who stands at the intersection of legal and illegal, or of two state or cultural regimes. From this position, they can arbitrage between the advantages of each side, in a way that someone fully committed to one side cannot. 

They cite as an example the Shan warlord Khun Sa, who began as a militia leader for the Kuomintang on the border between Burma and Thailand in the 1950s, but later broke free from them as his forces grew in power. He branched out into opium production, and secured semi-official status from the local government by fighting his fellow Shan rebels.

Khun Sa repeatedly switched sides over the next decades, sometimes calling himself a Shan nationalist, sometimes working with the Burmese government against local competitors; and he often sought Thai patronage as well (and gave hefty bribes to Thai politicians), as the political winds shifted and his opium operation grew. (At his height, Khun Sa controlled some 70% of the heroin production in Burma, with an army of over 20,000 armed men.) In addition, the Thai government tolerated Khun Sa because his forces controlled over a hundred miles of the volatile border region, and served as a buffer against revolutionary forces operating from Laos and Burma. In 1987, when the Burmese were taking American money for “anti-drug” efforts against Khun Sa, the warlord was actually cooperating with both Burma and Thailand to build a major highway through his territory. Later in life, he “surrendered” to the Burmese and disbanded his army, and in exchange was allowed to transform his wealth into legitimate businesses such as real estate and ruby mining.

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The concept of a warlord can be incredibly fruitful in fiction. A warlord character can play the role of ambiguous obstacle and sometime ally of your heroes; often such characters become fan favorites. More generally, the warlord is the natural consequence of settings where government control is tenuous; the presence of a warlord highlights the limits of official control. Questions to ask: What specific, local advantage does the warlord have over the government, and over rival warlords? What resources does the warlord control, and what relationships protect those resources? What would induce the warlord to change sides?

“The Odds Are Against Us,” coming soon!

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I am pleased to report that my first anthology project, The Odds Are Against Us, is nearing publication by Liberty Island Media. We even have shiny new cover art! Behold:

OAAU Final Cover

More details forthcoming as they get nailed down. After we launch, I also plan to do a post comparing the experience of working with a small press versus self-publishing my other anthology, and the pros and cons of each. So stay tuned!