4.21.2020

The Problem with Politics

To your possible disappointment, but more likely relief, this post does not concern which pigs should apportion the slop. Rather, it addresses the earnest writing outcomes about this national pastime. Any author who believes that the emotions engendered by yelling at a TV reporter can propel a novel in the same fashion is sadly deluded. As Tom Clancy observed, “Fiction has to make sense,” whereas politics doesn’t, at least to one half of the population at any given time.

Journalists who turn to fiction are the most common practitioners of the political novel. Many times they have covered the Beltway and are privy to the dealings of its insiders. Since they don’t know how to write a novel, they tend to fall back on what they know: inside dope that makes headlines. How is it, though, that the unending conflicts between, say, the House Speaker and the President—so entertaining in real life—seem oddly mawkish in a story?

The lack of morality can’t be the reason. In real life, voters are outraged because their moral principles are so often flouted by elected officials. As for fiction, morality is one of the guiding principles of drama. So where is the disconnect?

A novel forms its own universe. An author picks certain characters to embody certain qualities, and then designs a plot that, through the author’s chosen conflicts, reveals the right and wrong ways to live. Yet depending on the author’s lodestones, those ways can be wildly divergent. What matters is the moral compass of the lead character(s). That is the logic that determines what is right or wrong.

It is also true that received wisdom is not nearly as compelling as hard-won wisdom—that is, what the character endures during the course of the book. While their milieu may be instructive in some minor fashion, the wisdom far more often comes through the conflicts with other characters. To survive, politicians must manipulate the vote count—but where is the drama in the conflict with faceless masses?

That is why politics is an unsatisfactory source of drama. Once the moral imperative is directed at a crowd, it is diffused by its lack of a true target. To succeed, a president needs to develop a relationship with chosen targets in order to engender any more than skin-deep interest. It is true I dislike how my tax dollars are wasted, but reading about it in a story puts me instantly to sleep.

Exercise: At the start of writing a political novel, first pick out the characters, not the situation. How can you build core relationships between a few chosen cast members that will tap into the emotions that we all feel toward people that we grow close to? When one character violates the moral pact that he shares with one other character, now you have moral failing that counts.

“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.