As of this post’s writing, Canada is in the grip of a polarizing and tight political campaign for the selection of our 42nd federal government. At the same time, Australia has turfed her fourth prime minister in two years, and Europe roils with difficult decisions around the Syrian refugee crisis.
In other words, unless you are more ostrich than human, chances are you’ve recently been required to form opinions on governance and leadership.
While politics are inescapable and might seem to be a distraction from the work of writing, I submit nothing could be farther from the truth. Nestled in the world of policy, megaphones, and attack ads are important, non-partisan lessons we can take to the page.
The Story-like Quality of Campaigns
Take a moment to think back about the elections which pulled you in and kept you riveted throughout. Chances are they featured one or more of the following:
An easily encapsulated, intriguing premise—aka a high-concept campaign.
To give a few hypothetical examples, Can a man become prime minister in a matriarchal country? Should our nation make it a priority to colonize Mars?
A high-stakes conflict with an undecided outcome.
The most engaging elections present outcomes with stark and weighty contrasts. Secede from the larger country or stay? Shift the retirement age to 70 or abolish social security altogether? Change to one official language or retain bilingualism?
But for voters to stay engaged, it’s not enough to present highly divergent roads. Nail-biting campaigns occur when the party we root for—our group protagonist—inhabits the underdog position. They have an outside chance of winning but it’s going to be a wild ride. So give them a nearly impossible task with a soupçon of hope, and watch voter engagement rise.
A choice between two mutually-exclusive goods or two equally nasty bads (a dilemma).
What if you were forced to decide between a robust economy or the colonization of Mars? (Your mileage might vary, but I think both options are cool.)
When It’s All about Character
What about the elections which don’t involve big questions or enormous stakes? Those occasions when, despite the parties’ efforts to paint the choices in black and white, the options are pedestrian and the platforms nearly identical? (Varieties of meh.) What then holds our interest?
We might be persuaded to follow a campaign if we’re invested in a politician’s personal outcome. If there is something about their character which engages.
For instance, as with our fictional protagonists, political leaders aim to display a number of heroic attributes—those which invoke admiration. (You’ll notice politicians often choose titles which makes them sound larger-than-life: deficit-slayer, union-buster, diplomacy-whisperer, etc.)
At the same time, and especially if they claim superhuman traits, they also take care to reveal everyman qualities—characteristics which invite empathy and connection. They are human beings with human vulnerabilities. They bleed like the rest of us. They weep. (If male, they are permitted to clear their throat, then allow the escape of one manful tear.) They cope with family illness, suffer business losses, wear untailored shirts, swallow draft beer. (Note: one aspect where politicians diverge from fictional characters is that any true “weakness” must be relegated to the past, at least insofar as the public is concerned.)
Finally, they might be intrinsically fascinating. Perhaps they are charismatic. They have a worldview or way of expressing themselves (voice) which is unusual and absorbing in its own right. Perhaps we have glimpsed an internal conflict—are they the addict or the statesperson?—and wonder which aspect dominates, which will show up at the next televised debate. Whether we are spellbound with horror at the approaching train-wreck or hoping for their triumph, their personal struggle enthralls.
Campaign Introductions and the Role of Backstory
In many ways, political events resemble the opening chapter of a new book within an established fiction series. Politician X has only a short period of time to gain the attention of new voters, earn a modicum of respect, and orient them to the challenges of the upcoming campaign. At the same time, Politician X must offer fresh and exciting narratives to the party-faithful.
Deft campaigns manage to balance forward action and backstory. I rescued babies from the jaws of lions in ‘02. Now let me show you how I’ll use those skills to tame our [insert your choice of frustrating political institution].
What do we think of politicians who endlessly trumpet their past credentials? Even if we are kindly disposed, their opponents will scent blood and frame them as has-beens, people-of-yesteryear. So as within our fiction, backstory in political campaigns is best dispensed in minimal doses and only when required to drive the present-day narrative.
Mystery Writers Rejoice!
Confused about how to use red herrings in your fiction? Elections are superb places to learn about distraction techniques. Watch a dead body drop in politics—an inconvenient court case about corruption, let’s say—and observe skilled campaigners divert attention away from the guilty party.
One tactic uses volume—a burst of positive plank releases, for instance. Maybe a number of fiery, feel-good speeches. It’s the solution to pollution is dilution remedy, which relies on our brain’s capacity to juggle a limited number of ideas, and to displace one negative impression with a fire hose of good.
Another relies upon quality. The easiest of these is to raise the emotional temperature by projecting even greater blame onto another party. You want to talk about dirt? My opponent once claimed he was the Messiah.
Either way, before long, only the most determined and intransigent voter remembers to link the political dead body and murdering politician in a causal manner.
All Political Campaigners Are Nascent Fantasy Writers
We could carry on examining fictive techniques used within the other genres—thriller writers will appreciate the use of ticking clocks to ramp up tension, for instance, what with election-day countdowns and the timers within debates.
Literary writers will enjoy the regular appearance of unreliable narrators, and learn a great deal about subtextual cues.
But in the end, it is the fantasy writer who most stands to benefit from studying political campaigns. Let’s begin with the regular use of fantastical what-ifs within the political realm. e.g. Imagine this country if you were governed by compassionate, competent, and wise human beings. What if we truly made the environment a top priority?
To support such fantastical elements, politicians craft a world with its own culture and rules, then work to maintain intrinsic consistency. For examples of political world-building, consider:
- The unique form of magical calculus known as Budget Math.* In this system, $0 – $3 Trillion = a surplus.
- The use of politico-speak. For instance, the term my worthy opponent—typically uttered in tones of deep irony—is not an honorific but, rather, equivalent to the Southernism bless your heart.
- Then there’s the regular invocation of supernatural elements, such as the ghosts of political-leaders-past. Depending upon one’s point of view, these specters might be of the inspiring or terrifying variety.
Finally, as with any fantasy novelist, once we buy-in to a politician’s version of the world, they do everything they can to keep us residing within the fictive dream. At least until after we vote.
Now over to you, Unboxeders. I’ve missed many examples of how political campaigns resemble fiction, and how their study can yield or reinforce important writing lessons. Keep the conversation non-partisan, but keep it going, yes?
*My fingers first typed this as Budget Meth, which would explain a few things.
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