Politics in Fiction

By Janice McCaffrey

I attended the Virtual National Historical Novel Society Conference in June 2021 and had an Ah-ha! moment in the workshop given by Samantha Rajaram and Carrie Callaghan which they called Identifying the Politics in Your Writing. I’ve added and in your reading.

What are the politics they refer to? The online Oxford Dictionary says: Politics are the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power. (I added the bold). With that in mind the presenters asked, Who has the power? How did they get the power? How do they keep the power? Do they share it with anyone? If so, who? How do the people with power feel?

And on the other side of the coin. Who doesn’t have the power? Why don’t they have it? What can they do to get it? Why do they want it? How do they feel about not having it? If you can’t identify the person or group with the power, pay attention to the important resource they jealously guard—money, control, love, magic—and you’ll find that whoever owns that holds the power.

Power and who has it can be looked at from a macro perspective, for example who rules a country, society, organization. As well as, from a micro perspective between fewer people, clubs, congregations, families, and couples.

These concepts show up in all areas of our lives in all societies and groups. When you’re in a group of two or more sit back and observe how they interact. See if you can identify the power struggle(s) going on. Do the same when reading or writing a novel. To quote Rajaram and Callaghan, “Acknowledge and utilize the power dynamics [we see or live, and subtlety include them] in our writing.”

Another interesting workshop was called Sharpening the Blade with Julianne Douglas, Mariah Fredricks, and Karen Odden. Their handout asks, “What are the big events that all the characters will have in their collective consciousness that could cause widespread anxiety or excitement?” A couple examples would be a world war or New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Readers will be able to identify the emotions of the characters because we’ve all been introduced to wars and the big party. I recently read a novel that took place in 1941 Europe that had one Jewish character in it. As soon as I understood those three facts, I automatically became anxious and worried about the character, fearing, from my knowledge of that time and place, what the future might be for that person. It kept me reading.

These authors also asked us to perceive what political, economic, legal, educational, and social conditions would create or limit possibilities for our characters. As we write, but again, also as readers, look for these influences. And remember good writers don’t spell it out, they leave it for us readers to figure out. Which we’ll usually do through our emotional reactions that mirror those of the characters.

Both workshops gave me insight to put into action as a reader and a writer. To all five of you presenters, Thank you!