More than once, I have seen someone on Twitter ask a question like, “Real-world politics in speculative fiction: yes or no?”
The answers to this question are just as divided as the answers to every other question on Twitter. Some people think that fiction writers have the obligation to “speak truth to power” or to promote some righteous political cause in their stories. Others insist that fiction is a place where we ought to be able to escape the partisan political battles of the real world.
Surely there is room for both approaches. Writers just have to understand who their audience is.
If you decide that you’re going to “get political” in your fiction writing, I think that there are better and worse ways to do it. The least effective way happens when a writer puts “good” opinions in the mouths of the good characters and “bad” opinions in the mouths of the bad characters. When I read novels or watch movies that do this, I find myself taken out of the story by the cartoonishness of the approach. Instead of writing a story, the writer has built a platform from which he or she can preach to the rest of us.
I prefer an approach that respects the intelligence and freedom of audiences, and acknowledges that people come to hold different political opinions for lots of complicated reasons and from a wide range of different experiences. That’s why I take the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone as a model of how to “do politics” in fiction writing.
If you don’t know that play, it’s a story of civil disobedience. After a bloody civil war in the city of Thebes, King Kreon decrees that instead of receiving a proper religious burial, the body of Polyneikes will be left to rot and be eaten by animals. This fate condemns him eternally, since it means that he cannot pass into the afterlife. Kreon makes this decree because he sees Polyneikes as a traitor, and honoring him with a respectful burial might encourage more traitors.
Antigone, the sister of Polyneikes, is infuriated by Kreon’s decree. She says that her first loyalty is to her family (and to the dead), not to her king or to the city. More importantly, she believes that Kreon’s decree violates the moral law of the Greek religion, so she resolves to give her brother a proper burial.
It’s hard to read or to watch a performance of Antigone and not root for the title character. It’s also hard not to see Kreon as the Bad Guy. But Sophocles is too good a writer to give us a story so simple as that.
He gives Antigone room to make the best version of her argument for civil disobedience, but he also makes sure that Kreon gets to have his say. As I tell my college students when I teach Antigone, I am very much #TeamAntigone—but I have to admit that Kreon makes a persuasive argument for the position that he takes. The city keeps people safe from the storm of the world, and the city will fall apart if it honors traitors and those who violate its laws.
In other words, Sophocles allows his audience the freedom to make up their own minds about whether Antigone or Kreon is right. Moreover, he doesn’t make Antigone unambiguously heroic or Kreon unambiguously bad. Antigone has her flaws, and to some readers, she is downright self-righteous. Those same readers often see Kreon as a king who is just doing his best to maintain order. (To those of you who have read or will read my novel The Way Out: yes, one of its main characters is partly inspired by Antigone of Thebes.)
If you simply make your Good Guys representatives of whatever your preferred political position is and put the political views you hate in the mouths of your Bad Guys, there’s a good chance that you’re not writing fiction, but instead a political tract (e.g., Ayn Rand’s novels). I’ve read a lot of fiction, and I’ve read a lot of political philosophy. I love both. But if you confuse the two, what you produce probably won’t be good fiction or good philosophy.
When one of my characters is about to express a political belief with which I personally disagree, I have to be careful to allow them to make the best argument that they are capable of. They may be “wrong,” but they’re wrong for a reason—and that reason can’t be because they’re stupid and evil and therefore say obviously stupid and evil things. Otherwise, I’m not respecting the freedom of my readers. I’m not trusting them to make up their own minds about whatever the character says.
Stories are not tracts. They’re not essays. They’re not manifestos. They are narrative representations of life, and life is messy. It’s complicated. It’s filled with imperfect people who mostly come to their opinions honestly and through a long, complex series of experiences. It’s filled with people who hold their views not because they’re Evil or Saintly, but because they’re convinced that they’re right. If a story is going to be good art, it has to be true to that reality.
Post Script: One of the better (or at least more interesting) examples of politics in fiction that I’ve seen recently was in the film Knives Out. During a scene in the middle of the movie, several of the characters debate U.S. immigration law. One of the characters represents a stereotypically “left” view of immigration, and another speaks for the stereotypically “right” view of it. They verbally spar for several minutes, and each of the other characters falls in line behind them.
Normally, I’d find this kind of thing in a movie a little off-putting—like somebody has changed the channel from a movie to a presidential debate. It takes me out of the story. What saves the scene in Knives Out, however, is that the characters on both sides are all assholes who ignore the real situation of an immigrant woman sitting in their midst (and each side tries to use her as a pawn for their own position).