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!