I thought since Monday was Presidents’ Day in the US, I should tailor this post toward the political. And as I’m not one to discuss politics in a business setting (although my family and I have heated debates), this would be the perfect time to discuss the genre of political fiction.
Fiction, when done correctly, helps us make sense of the world around us. Therefore, politically-themed fiction should help us make sense of war, trade embargos, terrorist attacks, immigration, government coups, voting debacles, scandals, etc. Look at the Civil War novel Gone with the Wind, the WWI novel A Farewell to Arms, and the WWII novel The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank, just to name a few stories with political themes. These stories give us a picture of their respective wars, but more importantly, context with which to understand them.
And just how do we achieve this context? I’ll give you a hint—it’s not by excessive description of battles and death.
Gone with the Wind isn’t about Sherman’s March; it’s about a girl struggling to overcome the aftermath of that march.
A Farewell to Arms isn’t about the crushing defeat of the Italians in the Battle of Caporetto; it’s about a man searching for love amidst the horrors of war.
The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank isn’t about the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands; it’s about the tragic life of a young girl in hiding during those years.
We get historical context through character development in fictional works. (Agree? Tweet it.)
So many of the novels dealing with today’s tragic events focus on the horrors of war. They become military thrillers. And I love a good thriller; don’t get me wrong. But except for the exhilarating and terrifying journey they take me on, I’m left with no message, no commentary. No understanding of the conflict, no comprehension of how it affects me or the world around me.
Political fiction, successful political fiction, has to help make sense of the conflict and the resolution. (Agree? Tweet it.)
How do Gone with the Wind, A Farewell to Arms, and The Diary of Anne Frank differ from today’s political thrillers? They focus on the characters, which ultimately gives us a context with which to process the historical significance of the wars.
Good fiction, regardless of the genre, is driven by characters.
- Who they are before the inciting incident.
- How they react to the changes in their lives.
- How they behave in the climax.
- Who they become in the resolution.
Plot-driven fiction is exciting, but still needs character development to work. Character-driven fiction is compelling, but still needs a viable plot to drive the action.
In fiction, character and plot are difficult to divorce, even when one takes precedent over the other. Both must be strong for a story to be a success.
But in political fiction, we’ll never understand the complexities of events, and the results on our lives, if we don’t delve deeply into the characters and let them relate their stories. One small slice of a person’s experience in a great conflict can tell us more about the situation than an overarching picture of the whole thing.
Are you working on a political novel? Is it character- or plot-driven? Do you see the difference between the two? What are your goals—an action-filled ride or a psychological commentary on the event? You have to have solid answers (and reasons for them) in order for your novel to work. Spend some time thinking about that.
Do you enjoy reading (or watching) political fiction? Do you have a favorite book or film? How did it make your list? Let’s talk about it.
Very nice article with some excellent points, well made. I strongly recommend checking out the novels of Robert Cook (http://robertcooknovels.com).
He has a wonderful series with excellent, well developed characters and I really think his stories speak volumes about our current state. I just finished reading Pulse and it really should be considered a must-read among fans of political thrillers. Absolutely brilliant stuff.
I am not a political fiction person. I prefer thriller, mystery and fantasy. And political fiction needs to be highly recommend before I consider it.
I like a good political story, but it really has to be character-driven to get me excited. If I’m not mistaken, you liked John Jakes’s Kent Family Chronicles. There’s a lot to be learned about politics in that. (That is, if you will allow war stories to be categorized as political fiction, which I do.)
This is a fantastic post, Staci! I rarely read political fiction unless it comes highly recommended (I read a lot of political non-fiction in an effort to better understand what’s going on around me). Too often novels and films lean too far one way or another – they become a soapbox for the author or film maker. The books you mentioned are great examples of political fiction done well. Most people probably haven’t even thought of Gone With the Wind as a political novel. To your list I would add Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys, The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Each casts light on the political machinations of WWII through the eyes of young adults and children. What makes them special is that the authors remain true to the unbiased filter of the young. As a reader you understand why they’ve found themselves in their circumstances but the characters are merely struggling through the cause and effect created by the world at large.
Thank you, Missy. I know with your focus on Wounded Warriors you probably have strong feelings about this topic. Another author who handled this quite well is John Jakes. His Kent Family Chronicles was simply wonderful.
Two films that I have seen recently are Unbroken (the story of Louis Zamperini’s capture during WWII) and American Sniper (Chris Kyle.) Two vastly different men and eras. In both cases, I was drawn to the character.
I am particularly fond of WWII era films (I admit that I rarely read historical fiction.)
My husband and I planned on going to see American Sniper. We haven’t made it yet. But I can’t wait to see it. And I’m glad to hear that (in the movies you mentioned) the character drives the story. I think that makes it easier to relate to both the story and the situation.