This being November, I am once again participating in National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. Which of course has me thinking about one of my favorite topics, politics and fiction.
There’s a lot of “how-to” material for writers out there—how to write a compelling scene, create believable characters, and so on. But as far as I can tell with some random Googling, there seem to be few resources to help writers (especially fantasy and science-fiction writers) think about politics. As I’ve written about on this blog before, most writers have only a few mental models of how politics could work (fantasy medieval kingdom, evil galactic overlord, idealized democracy, and maybe one or two others); while there’s nothing wrong with any of these when handled well, the shortage of raw materials affects the kind of stories a writer can tell. As a political-science junkie, I find myself wishing for more variety.
What resources there are seem to view politics from the perspective of world-building, as an afterthought of things like culture and language. For example, Holly Lisle’s Create a Culture Clinic (which is otherwise a fantastic aid to fleshing out the richness of invented societies, and I highly recommend it) devotes less than ten pages to politics—and those are mostly asking checklist questions like “Who is in charge? How do they punish criminals? What rights are there?”
Missing is any discussion about what an author’s choices would mean for the story. Or, even more useful, what kinds of stories you could best tell in a given political system. Or, best of all, how the tensions within a given political system could give rise to powerful new stories. If I were a beginning author, I would want to start there—and once the plot is in place, then I would decide on the details that all the world-building resources deal with.
So it seems to me that there is a great need for a writer’s guide to politics in invented societies, and how to choose among political systems to help generate the strongest plots. But to write a guide like that, you would need to be an expert in politics who can cut through all the details and isolate the fundamental building blocks—the handful of key questions that are the key to rapid understanding. (As you can probably tell, I’ve been reading a lot of Timothy Ferris lately…)
As it happens, I am an expert in politics. And better, I’m an expert in Comparative Politics, which is the most interesting subfield within political science, if I may say so myself. And I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a long time.
What I’m envisioning is a relatively short e-book that would describe each archetypical political system before distilling it down to a single chart of features, showing the most important actors in the system, the key points of stress, and the story themes that this system is perfect for dealing with. For example, a communist dictatorship would be a good setting to address themes of the individual versus the state, or property and communal need, or privacy in the face of constant surveillance. A monarchy would be good for looking at questions of loyalty, honor, the role of divine right, and so on.
There’s a lot more, of course, but the key here is that in a very few pages, you could learn how to build exactly the political system you need to form the backdrop to the story you want to tell—or you could discover new kinds of stories that never would have occurred to you otherwise.
If this is something that you’d want to see, be sure to fave this post, and I’ll get right to work.