Political Fiction, Part II

If you, the writer, can't keep human nature in mind when writing about politics, don't write about politics!
I have told this story elsewhere but it bears repeating.

Great altered fairy tale: Cinderedna!
One of my favorite things to do, even before I became a writer, was to play around with fairy tales. I started doing this as a pre-teen. I would wander the house imagining what would happen to a fairy tale if I made all the villains into heroes and all the heroes into villains--or all the male characters female and all the female characters male (the latter runs havoc with an historically accurate Cinderella, BTW).

While getting my B.A., I took every Creative Writing course I was allowed to take--and then got permission to take a graduate level Creative Writing course. For the peer-reviewed short story "final," I took the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, changed the heroine to a prince, and altered the curse. Instead of not being able to touch a spindle (can you imagine the damage burning all the spinning wheels in a country would do to its economy?!), my prince was cursed to never be able to pick up a sword. Since he is a member of a war-like culture, this curse makes him a liability and reduces his ability to lead.

The prince is plenty ticked off by all this and some of my favorite pieces of dialog between him and enchantress that cursed him concern the nature of freewill and the right to fulfill one's destiny or purpose.

The problem with the story was the enchantress, the person who cursed him. Why did she do it? Originally, I had her purpose be ultra-idealistic and noble: I'M AGAINST WAR!

Judith cutting off Holofernes' head
The problem with giving my character such a motivation was (1) I am myself something of a hawk; I don't automatically oppose war no matter how unfeminine that may seem (I've always thought the mindless political assumption--by mindless political people--"There would be no war if women were in charge!"--was stupid beyond belief. Anybody ever heard of Queen Boadicea? Or Hatsheput? Or Queen Elizabeth? Or the Amazons [even if they were made up]? In any case, there never was an agrarian, female-run, peaceful utopia way back in the primitive past--despite what lazy 1970s anthropology books may claim. The exercise of power through violence may be a male prerogative due to patriarchal systems; it isn't exclusive to males.)

Of course, writers can and do build characters who feel differently from them, but it's difficult, especially if the writer wants--as I wanted--to create a balanced tension between two characters.

(2) The second problem with giving my female character an idealistic and abstract motivation is that it was idealistic and abstract. People can have such motivations but they tend to be subsumed in real life by mundane considerations (like, hey, I have to eat!). They are also extremely difficult to write about plausibly--without making the character TOO good or TOO sweet.

Tolkien's text makes clear that it is Galadriel who
staves off Sauron's incursion against Lothlorien.
Even Galadriel and Gandalf have emotional and psychological considerations that make them "human" and approachable. Galadriel has to protect her territory; in addition, she is curious about the world, invested in exploration and discovery. Gandalf is irascible--even after becoming Gandalf the White--and invested in motivating kings and stewards to particular actions. (Regarding what makes a Tolkien villain and hero, see my latest Tolkien Post.)

Eventually, I settled for giving my female character a far more self-centered motivation: all of her previous lovers died in the country's ongoing wars. She curses the prince as a baby with the deliberate intention of making him her lover when he is older, a lover that won't die young.

I still didn't agree with her, but I found--once I gave her a clear, human, self-interested motivation--that I could write her sympathetically. Which is the whole point. The story became "Madeline's Lover" and can be found on my fiction page.

More about politics and fiction to follow!


FreeLiverFree said...

In my experience when people write political fiction what they tend to do is assign ridiculously evil motives to people they disagree with. You support a strong military so you want war. You support gay marriage so you also want to legalize bestiality and pedophilia.

So basically, I'm restating what you just said. What think is that a lot of people who assign evil motives to people they disagree with do so they can make themselves (in their own mind and to people who agree with them) look good. You are so evil therefore I am so good.

It's a lot easier than actually living an ethical life.

Gene Wolfe created a war like female race in The Book of the Long Sun. He did this to put the lie to the whole women are more peaceful than men. Interestingly, he had the Amazons showed up in his Soldier series and in a forward argued for there existence.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I agree with your analysis! The tendency for people--and writers--to "assign evil motives to people they disagree with" is one reason I've never seen Avatar. (Although I'm sure that visually, the movie is captivating.)

It's also the reason I roll my eyes when people compare an everyday politician to Hitler as an expression of their immense outrage. Hitler was an evil thug. Although some American politicians are corrupt, most (even the ones I dislike) are merely flawed. Avoiding that reality for the sake of the outrage fails to address the human errors inherent in all social endeavors, especially politics.