Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Too Opinionated: Should you allow your characters to make blunt political statements?

Anyone who knows me well knows I've been involved in politics for quite a while--and I'm very passionate about it. If a fence post has a different opinion, I'm liable to argue with it.

But, I'm also a writer--and a fiction writer at that. I realize that while my opinions may be appropriate if I'm writing an editorial to a local paper, it may not be so appropriate in my novels.

For the most part, the books I read give few, if any, political opinions in their pages. There are exceptions and there have been statements in the pages of the novels I've read that have turned me off to the author. There are other authors that will occasionally make a statement I disagree with, but because the story is so well written--and it's not the main thrust of the story--I will allow it, gloss over it, or grit my teeth as I read the section, and be happy when it's over. Sometimes it's not so much political, but has to do with worldview (I, for example, am a Creationist, so have problems when certain authors refer to evolution in a be-all, end-all manner.)

When writing fiction, one generally needs to remember the reader is not into reading a book vocalizing strong political opinions just for the sake of vocalizing them. If, however, the context allows for it, my feeling is that it can be allowed, as long as it's kept to a minimum and not allowed to turn into a bash-party on whatever-it-is your character is against.

There is something else to consider, however.

Having political statements in your writing can easily date your books. I see this most in political thrillers. I've read several Tom Clancy novels, and one of my favorite authors is Vince Flynn. With Clancy, what may have seemed very current ten, twenty years ago, now seems like a fictional historical account. And, when Flynn wrote about Saddam Hussein years ago, now you read it and go, 'Wait a sec--didn't they hang him?' It doesn't seem as urgent when the character they're hunting was a real person and you know he's dead!

The same goes when opinions are clearly stated. Remember the illegal immigration debates of a few years ago? What about last year's fiasco with high gas prices? While some people may still keep them at the forefront, more than likely your reader has gone on to other things and is not likely to remember them.

Another great example was a reference I read in a friend's work-in-progress to H. Ross Perot, the presidential candidate in 1992 & 1996. While I knew who he was because of my background, how many other people would? Especially in ten more years? The line seriously dated her work, even though it was just one or two lines.

Something else to consider, since I do write some futuristic novels, are what may be the end result of the current debates? Or, if you're writing a story set in the 22nd Century, what are the hot button issues then? They probably won't be arguing about gas prices or Muslim extremists then (though you never know!) Perhaps it's genetic engineering, rights of androids, whether we should send people past the outer rim of our solar system.

With that in mind, I do encourage you to add a few bits of color by making an opinionated statement or two. Just try to not make it too "current" (like the illegals or gas prices). Certain topics are up for perennial debate over the past few decades: 2nd Amendment, abortion, death penalty, and I personally feel they always will.

But, if you do make a blunt statement I may disagree with, warn me beforehand so I can be sure to have some chamomile tea, okay?

Until next time,



Tamera Lynn Kraft said...

I write historicals. What is really fun is casting the political and social norms of that time because history repeats itself so often. Although the topic may change, so often the worldview and morality behind it is something that makes it's way into the political climate of today.

Liberty Speidel said...

:) Yeah, that's fun! When I write my sci-fi stories (since they're in the future), it's fun for me to come up with topics that could be current at that time for my characters to make comments about.

Do you read period newspapers to see what were the hot topics of the time?

Dave Kissling said...

Great article, Liberty. Politics, like preaching, should be kept to a minimum, something that has been hard for me to master. I write science fiction, mostly adventures on other planets, and racism is a big topic of my premiere book, "Savage Worlds." Aside from briefly comparing one alien freedom fighter with Martin Luther King, Jr., the politics in it are made up, but based on what I've seen in real life. Thank you for writing the article.

Jane said...

How many of you have read Ayn Rand or Issac Asimov? now there are classic sci-fi's that make political statements that carry into today's worldview. - From Facebook's comment - Another resounding YES!, too many of those who do express opinions don't have spiritually or morally correct standards before they opine..J Pike

K.M. Weiland said...

Great article. Love the pic!

I have no problem with authors stating their opinions strongly - so long as it works within the context of the story and so long as isn't dogmatic or preachy. Behold the Dawn, my Crusade novel, takes place at the end of the 12th century, in the midst of overwhelming spiritual blindness and the increasing decay of the Catholic Church. In other words, most of the characters (even the "Christian" ones) living in that time period had worldviews with which I profoundly disagree. It was interesting to try to write from their viewpoints, without betraying either the historical setting or my own values.

MeganRebekah said...

I've always thought that this was one (very minor) reason that attributed to the success of Harry Potter. It was both present time and yet removed. Familiar and yet completely different.
Someone reading it 30 years ago would be able to relate, just as someone reading it 20 years from now would be able to relate.

Liberty Speidel said...

Thank you all for chiming in.

Megan, you made a good point. Though, I haven't read much Harry Potter (I started the first one, but couldn't get into it{, it seems to me that 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' kind of had a similar vibe.

And, Megan, thanks for signing up as a follower!

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