What about politics?

On July 20, 2013, Elisa wrote, What about politics? I’m a Republican and conservative, and I feel pretty strongly about my beliefs. It’s not like I’ll get all over someone for being Democrat or a socialist (I know and like plenty of them), it’s just that I really believe in what I am. Anyhow, the libraries are SO full of socialist writers, and socialism is getting pretty popular and one of my characters is very conservative. And very opinionated. Even more so than me! And I’m worried that she’ll step on people’s toes and make them mad. It’s not like some writers don’t do that to me, but some people are a lot more sensitive to people who don’t agree with them than I am. I don’t want to change Mahala, because she’s just herself and changing her would make her someone entirely different. She just wouldn’t be my beloved character being different; but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. At the same time, changing Mahala would mean changing my story, and also it would mean that I’m watering down my beliefs. I hate it when other people do that. I don’t want to be a hypocrite by doing it myself. What am I supposed to do?

I don’t usually write about politics here – or anywhere, except in occasional emails to my Representative or Senators. But something political came up in the new book, Stolen Magic, which is set on the mountainous island of Lahnt, no place on our earth. I’m not giving much away to tell you this (and it does tie in to Elisa’s question):

In this world there are brunkas, short, helpful creatures whose senses are sharper than humans’. High Brunka Marya is in charge of the Oase, where the brunka treasures are kept. One of these is the Replica, a sculpture of the island, which always sits on a pedestal. If it’s taken off the pedestal for a length of time, a volcano starts to bubble. If the Replica is off for long enough, the volcano erupts, and the mountain and everyone on it are destroyed. Marya’s main responsibility is to keep the Replica safe, but she’s very polite and doesn’t use her powerful sense of hearing to eavesdrop on people’s conversations, although some may be plotting to do evil. Masteress Meenore, the dragon detective, thinks she’s foolhardy, to put it mildly.

When I wrote this, I wasn’t thinking about domestic spying in the news in this world. But when I reread it, the connection jumped out. In real life I’m confused about the subject. I certainly don’t want another terrorist attack, but I feel strongly about a person’s right to privacy. Masteress Meenore, however, isn’t confused. IT is sure that preventing a mountain from exploding trumps politeness (privacy). Marya takes the other position, but her voice in my story doesn’t carry the same weight as Meenore’s. He wins the argument.

I’m certainly not going to change ITs opinion because people may see the politics and disagree. I’d have to change ITs character to do that, and, in the second book, it’s too late for that. Plus, I don’t want to. Like Elisa’s Mahala, Masteress Meenore is beloved by me. And I don’t think I have to make the dispute fair. I don’t have to even my story out so that Marya’s position is equally valid. This is a novel, not a playground, for example, where fairness truly is important.

Like Elisa I’ve read and enjoyed books that put forth a political ideology. Ayn Rand’s novels (high school and up) and the science fiction of Robert Heinlein (some are for children, others definitely not) spring to mind. And sometimes, especially with Ayn Rand, I’ve been fascinated by her arguments, although she stacks the deck in their favor as she works out her plots–which I think is a flaw. As for Heinlein’s books, I just get into the plots and don’t care.

But even though I’ve liked tendentious (a great word!) books, what I generally like about them is the plot, the characters, and the voice. Story and strong characters are what count with me. Just as I’m not fond of an obvious moral, I don’t relish having a point of view repeatedly thrust in front of my nose, whether I agree with it or not.

Uh oh. I think I just worried Elisa all over again. Let me be specific. Suppose Mahala is intensely political and sees everything that happens through a current events lens, I’m okay with that if she’s interesting. Let’s imagine that she’s babysitting her little brother Camo when he spills his milk at breakfast, and she says something about dairy subsidies (a subject I know nothing about, if there is a dairy subsidy). Camo asks what a subsicky is. Mahala takes a quarter out of her backpack and puts it in his chubby hand. “Let’s say Mommy and Daddy give you a toy subsidy.” She looks at the ceiling, figuring out how to explain. “That means they would pay you–“ She looks down again and sees his fist in his mouth. Where is the quarter? His fist, when she extracts it from his mouth, is empty. So is his mouth when she persuades him to open it. What does she do next? It will be her fault if anything happens to Camo. Now we’re off into the story. If she thinks about one of her political heroes and how she would act in a crisis and it works out perfectly and the reader has a moral to swallow that’s much bigger than a quarter, I’m not happy. But if her interpretation leads her to do something truly goofy and the story gets complicated, then I’m delighted, especially if Camo survives–since I’m a wimp!

I’ve written other posts about giving offense in stories, so anyone who struggles with this might like to look at the giving offense label on the right. The post of November 11, 2011, is especially on target.

I’ll end with Elisa’s worry about becoming a hypocrite. Art is where we have to be true to ourselves. When we’re tiptoeing around a subject, when we’re being oh-so careful, we are stamping on our creativity, and our ideas are likely to shrivel. Instead, let them rip and roar with power.              

Here are three prompts:

• You were probably expecting this: Tell the story of Camo and his sister and the swallowed quarter. Bring politics into it.

• Your MC is a volunteer for a candidate who supports an issue that is more important to her than any other. She witnesses the candidate acting despicably, corruptly, unethically – but in a way that has nothing to do with your MC’s cause. What does she do? Write a scene or the whole story. Mix it up with complex characters and plot twists and no easy morals.

• In one of my poetry courses we’re starting off with the poems of Emily Dickinson. When we read this one in class, I thought, Wow! This is fantasy! And I thought of the blog. So here’s the poem (numbered, because she didn’t give her poems titles), which is in the public domain for anyone to fool around with, and the challenge is to turn it into a story:


I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

In case you’re confused, then – is the end of the poem. Dickinson ended a lot of poems ambiguously and with a dash.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. From the website:

    I recently reread Writing Magic and the section on POV to see how I could make it work with my own story, but I didn't find anything.
    My story is in 3rd person, but I wanted to try it in 1st person. I really love being in my MC's head, but it's also hard because then I can't let the reader know what some of the other characters are thinking as well, and that makes it really hard on me. Do you have any suggestions for me on a way to compromise?

    Ideas, anyone?

  2. Rebekah-
    1. Have more than one protagonist
    2. Don't let the other characters take over as protagonists, but let them speak for little snippets. I've read some books that switch over to other characters at the beginning of chapters, usually in italics.
    I don't think you need to worry about people connecting the Replica to domestic spying. The similarities may be there if you're looking for them, but they don't jump out at me.

  3. I don't know if you have really done this, but I would also like to know if any other readers have. At the moment I like writing Steampunk Fantasy, and so I was reading some. I have come across a book names Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger. I love how she has made a connection which gives the book humor although it is mostly serious- when she goes to finishing school, they are not only taught etiquette but also how to finish everything (assassination and the like.) I was wondering if anyone would have any tips on how to make a twist like this- or more how to come up with one.

  4. Rebekah, (love that spelling and name, by the way:) )
    Maybe you could write from a sort of close-up/omniscient third person, where you are in your MC's head much of the time, but can also let the reader know what the other characters are thinking. I haven't tried this, but it could work!

  5. From the website:

    I have a problem.
    So, my problem is that when I write in third person, I don't think I get into my characters' heads enough. I talk about their actions, their conversation, and their instincts, but not their thoughts. Or if I do get into their heads, I often jumble up their thoughts, confusing both myself and them.
    On the other hand, when I write in first person I'm afraid I'm showing their thoughts far too much, giving too much sarcastic commentary and showing too many of their likes and dislikes.
    Ideas? I would be extremely grateful.

  6. Mrs. Levine, great post! I meant to give my thanks earlier, but never got around to it, my mom hogs the computer a lot. I really like some of your suggestions. I've sort of given up on not making people mad. I just hope that anyone who reads this particular story will read any of my other books that get published first, before they read this one, and before they totally reject me and my other works and send me angry e-mails. Oh well, can't please everyone. Might as well please oneself! 😉

  7. I have the same problem I absolutely CANNOT get into my characters' heads while writing in third, I'm same as you. I can't shove myself into their heads, so I tell the story through their actions. So I write in first most of the time. When I write in first, I try to tell more through their actions then their words and thought, but, because I naturally write their thoughts, I get a more even mix, and then I edit as I go, and cut out the extra snarkiness, and add or take out some of the unnecessary movements and action. I find that better for me than trying third, because I WILL write too much action, not enough thought. Or I will write too MCUH thought and the story is incoherent. Hope I was able to help a little. Any other comments will help me as well, so I'm all ears. (Or eyes. this is on the computer after all.)

  8. Finally finished a short story! YES! Crowds cheering in my head! Um, anyway, I would like to enter it into a short story contest, but I am having trouble finding one. Does any one here know of one? Thank you in advance! (If you don't know of one, that's fine. I will figure it out eventually.

  9. Thank you all! No, Bibliophile, it's not fantasy, and I will probably only submit it for contests. I've been reading a lot of LM Montgomery's short stories lately, and so I kind of based my writing off of her. It's basically (be prepared, this will probably sound REALLY silly…hopefully it isn't quite so when you read it, but I don't know) about two people, Lucinda and Arnold, who have been dating for twenty years, but Arnold is too shy to propose, so Lucinda makes up her mind to MAKE him propose…even if it is horrible, I am proud of myself for finishing! (You know, NaNoWriMo concept.) And thank you, Mrs. Levine, for the link! I think that will prove very hopeful. But I do have a question. Most of the contests there are sponsored by colleges; is it implied that the contestants have to be over eighteen? Thank you all again!

    • Sounds very LM Montgomery-ish. I read her short stories, too. When you see a contest that interests you, I suggest you click through to the submissions guidelines. Age may not be an issue. Good luck!

  10. Hello Gail!

    My name is Rachel and I’m a senior in high school. I met you a few years ago at the Tucson Festival of Books, and I've been a fan of yours since I first read Ella Enchanted in elementary school.

    My school is giving each of the 25 seniors in my grade the opportunity to do a senior research project. I’m planning on writing a novel while researching the publishing process and the changes it has undergone in the last few years. I know Ella Enchanted was published in the 90’s, so I’m interested in learning about your experience with the publishing process.

    I’d really appreciate your help. I've taken a Creative Writing course at my school, founded the Creative Writing Club, and am the head editor of our art and literary journal. I’m very interested in writing, and I’d love to interview you about your experience with the publishing process. I’m not sure how to best contact you, but I can contact your agent.


  11. Allison Yaffee says:

    Hi Gail!

    My name is Allison and I’m a recent graduate from Rutgers University.

    Ella Enchanted was and still is my favorite book to this date. Over the years, my political ideology has morphed, and it was during my freshman year of college that it suddenly dawned on me how political Ella Enchanted really is.

    Some of the themes in Ella Enchanted (like taking personal responsibility even when someone else is at fault for your misfortune) are so powerful that they have actually inspired me to write a non-fiction book. The specific example I gave just now about responsibility is incapsulated in one of the book’s mantras “no big magic.” No big magic actually serves as the basis for the book I’m writing.

    There is so much I would like to ask you, but I’m not sure how deep into politics you would like to delve.

    I currently am reading Atlas Shrugged and it is one of the best books I have ever read. This book, like Ella Enchanted, also addresses taking responsibility and doing something even when others are at fault. I am very curious to know if Ayn Rand had any influence on Ella Enchanted and if so, which parts?

    If my book ever does become something, would there be anyway we could connect and dissect Ella Enchanted further?

    I hope you are doing well during these times, and I really hope I have the opportunity to hear your thoughts on this!

    Best wishes,


    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Hi, Allison,

      I’m delighted that ELLA ENCHANTED is important to you. I wasn’t thinking about politics when I wrote it. For big magic, I was thinking how careful and cautious one should be about one’s power. I enjoyed ATLAS SHRUGGED too, but I don’t agree with the conclusions that Ayn Rand draws.

      Good luck with your book!


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