The Dreaded P Word

Apologies for having a rather truncated blog post this week – owing to a kitchen knife injury to a finger requiring stitches I’m a little less ‘keyboard able’ than usual….Although there’s always the craziness of the dreaded ‘P’ word to keep me distracted…and by that, of course, I mean politics.

As a general rule I can’t avoid at least some politics in my writing – history tends to be enmeshed in the politics of the day, but as another general rule I tend to leave out (overtly at least) my own political ideals and opinions in my books (I figure readers don’t want to hear them but would rather immerse themselves in a historical period). But politics shapes indirectly (and sometimes very directly) all the characters in my work – which can be a challenge when many of the political ideas espoused in early 20th century England are an anathema to modern sensibilities. However, I believe that well-crafted characters, placed in an appropriately explained historical situation, help illuminate the politics of an era far more so that a non-fiction history book  ever could.

That being said, I’m sure many  writers try to avoid injecting obvious ‘politics’ in their novels. No one wants to alienate a sizable portion of their readership after all, and usually a book’s  characters can display a range of values and attitudes to encompass contemporary (as well as historical) political thought. It’s hard at the moment, however, to avoid the dreaded ‘P’ word as the current election cycle is on our news 24/7 (or so it seems!).

So I thought I’d check in with the TKZ community to see how you tackle politics in your writing – do you avoid injecting your own political views and opinions in your books? Do you consider a character’s politics during their developmental stage?  I  find it  both interesting and challenging to explore a range of opinions and political/social beliefs when creating my characters, but obviously, as a historical writer, I also have to reflect the times I’m writing about. There are many social issues that were viewed quite differently in Edwardian and WW1 England for instance and I try to respect the era by making sure I encapsulate (as best I can) the mood, politics and social conditions of the time. What about you? what’s your view and experience of the dreaded ‘P’ word in your mysteries (both as a reader and a writer)?


18 thoughts on “The Dreaded P Word

  1. Mostly I avoid politics in the big ‘P’ way, e.g., in one novel I have one character make a subtly disparaging remark about her mother’s support of the Tea Party. That’s it, but I think it points, in part, to the ways that the character and her mother have a troubled relationship. I hope it reveals character.

    I think it’s almost impossible for a writer to hide his or her voice, and a big part of voice is the writer’s attitudes about life and social and economic issues… and that’s the way an astute reader can figure out for which political party the writer is more likely to cast a vote.

    But to have a character spout off about Politics? I think it’s generally a no-no, although it’s not grounds for rejection. In fact, in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s THE ENGLISHMAN’S BOY, winner of the Canadian Governor-General’s Award, one character, a movie director, does just that… and I think that’s a major flaw in the novel. Otherwise I loved it.

  2. I prefer to avoid it. It’s far too polaraizing a subject, and anyone watching the news or social media feeds–it seems to do nothing but initiate flame wars. People don’t pay attention to the facts. Back in high school, when learning about the levels of writing, from the concrete to the abstract, our teacher used politicians’ speeches as examples of the highest levels of abstraction –that is, their words had no concrete meaning. I guess it stuck. I don’t preach religion in my books, either, although I might have a passing reference to someone going to church, or having a Shabbat dinner.

    As a reader, I don’t like politics-based books. If the blurb says something like “political thriller” I give it a pass.

  3. Interesting question. Had it come up only once really. In our last Louis Kincaid book, we have a nefarious politician (wow, there’s a stretch). And I wrote a chapter in which he goes to a meeting of the Republican Governor’s Assn. In rewrites, I changed it to a neuter meeting because I realized my own bias was showing needlessly. His political affiliation had absolutely no bearing on the plot so there was no reason for me to make a point of it.

  4. My last protagonist came from a very conservative medium-sized city in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is a state where the number of people who go to church two or three times a week is detectable in statistics, who vote for the conservative candidate whether Republican or Democrat, who support putting the original 10 Commandments in public places, and who voted to end state prohibition despite having the Southern Baptist vote to defeat it.

    When I have written about California . . . well, you know. Depends on whether the character lives in the cities, Orange County, or places of militia.

    So I really don’t mention the specific politics of the story characters. Call it stereotyping if you must, but it’s pretty easy to pick out the politics of my characters.

  5. This question roiled the sci-fi/fantasy community when the “Sad Puppies” traditionalists took a stand against a publishing establishment that enforced heavy-handed “message fic.”

    Not that politics should be taboo in any genre — but there’s a human tendency to praise works that promote a particular ideology, no matter the quality of the writing. For a sad but laughable example, check out the short story “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love.”

  6. To me avoiding politics is impossible. So much of history is shaped by the decisions of politicians, usually but not always leading to bad results. Since I write historicals, everything I write touches on the politics of the time. Not typically in the in-your-face sense of an outburst of one of my characters, but because that character in that historical setting, as we do now, has to live life according to how a politician has affected him/her and those around them.

    And from a conflict standpoint, there’s no one who generates conflict better than a politician, so I don’t see why as writers we’d WANT to exclude this source of conflict from a work.

  7. Thanks everyone (just at specialist getting stitches looked at so bit delayed in replying this morning). I do think it can be a delicate balance between including politics as a necessary part of life (particularly in historical fiction) and not alienating readers by making them think they’re being subjected to a political rant in a book:) Interesting point about a writer’s voice, as I’m sure my ‘voice’ in all my writing can’t help but be influenced by my own personal beliefs and ideals. No surprise, I guess, that all my heroines tend to be feminists:)

  8. I tend to leave politics out of my books, Clare. In one book, I had Margery in the ER and doctor ask the standard questions to test if she is oriented to time and place. “What year is it?” the doc asks and Margery tells him. “Who’s President?”
    “I didn’t vote for that idiot,” Margery said.
    I didn’t mention any name, but I got hate mail that said, “How dare you insult President George Bush.”

  9. My first two novels were set in the early 1700s and the only politics were tangential references to the War of Spanish Succession. So not a problem there.

  10. It’s delicate. My current WIP (influences in Friday’s column responses) involves the President and one of her top aides, and has scenes in the White House. However, their party affiliation has no bearing on the story or action and is never mentioned. Read into it what you will. It’s still a political thriller, but the emphasis is not on politics or political intrigue. That would just be boring.

  11. IMHO writing that feels “preachy” regarding a particular political stance should be avoided. However, if the setting and context is political (say a mystery about a murdered Supreme Court Justice) or the core essence of a character is political (think Madam Secretary on TV), politics have to play a role. What if a killer is motivated by politics–an animal welfare activist, for instance who blows up a resarch lab? The politics surrounding those issues have to be part of the story. Politics always need to be in service to the character, setting or plot.

    I don’t mind politics in novels–done well, politics can add juice, texture and realism to a story.

  12. What I object to most is slipping 21st century political stances (and/or correctness), into 19th or early 20th century settings (or even earlier historical storylines) .

    True, there may have been some who were ahead of their time but not that far ahead…

  13. I tend to leave politics out of my writing, but on occasion I may have a character expose a policy or an injustice in s subtle way. Most recently I wrote a foreign politician along the same vein as Dick Cheney and posed an interesting (unanswered) question to readers regarding how far a politician should go to “force his extreme agenda” on the people of his country. It’s one thing to police criminals, but who watches out for those in charge if they cross a line? The character was thought-provoking.

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