Confession time here: I adore political fantasy. I love working out all the mechanics of complex plots, intrigues that at first seem to go nowhere and then sprout an end, the meanings of gestures and layered conversations, and what exactly the characters will do when their schemes succeed or fail. Politics is also, I think, a good place to have gray characters. The compromises most authors are willing to introduce mean that straightforward good and evil are less common, and a politician character might wind up making harder decisions than a general in the field (an overused and oversimplified situation in some fantasies), since his choices are less likely to be applauded.
The heart of some political fantasies is the council, when friends and enemies, representatives of the government and representatives of the protagonists- though the last two can be the same, and often are in the best political fantasies- meet and discuss matters. Or, in the best scenes, shout and argue and jump up and down with and attack each other over matters.
1) Give names to as many people as possible.
Obviously, an overwhelming amount of them can make your audience cry in confusion, especially if, say, half the names start with the same letter. But leaving them nameless, or using descriptions like “the silver-haired man,” “the older woman,” “the narrow-eyed old bird,” can encourage authors to demonize the heroes’ opposition. This takes half the fun out of a battle of wits, or a situation where the hero is trying to win something from the council that they really, really don’t want to give. Make the opponents people, and have the side you’re cheering for engage with them as people, and things suddenly become a whole lot more fun and interesting.
Vary the names as you need to. The one rule I would really suggest following here is not to make them all Lord A____ or Lady B____, and so on. Fantasy authors have a bad tendency to introduce a tumble of people at once and expect readers to remember them all in perfect detail. That’s twice as hard as it needs to be with names that are too similar.
2) Know exactly what each side wants.
You have to know, for two reasons:
- Sometimes it’s possible, in the complexities of working out a dialogue scene between several or many different people, to actually have some characters speaking against their stated interests. It’s one thing if the politicians are favoring an obscure course of action that will work out to their benefit later, but if they don’t want to give the hero any troops and somehow state that they’ll give him a thousand, something is very wrong.
- It takes a lot of the fun out of verbal sparring. Say the heroine is holding to a fee of one hundred silver coins per head because of the offenses that the government perpetrated against her people. What kind of politicians would her opponents be if they didn’t try tricks like “We’ll give you a hundred silver coins?” The boundaries between issues can shift and soften, but if they lose all clarity, then the reader may be left wondering why the council or the heroine appears to have given in, when the author didn’t mean them to do any such thing.
3) Use wit. Real wit. Lots of it. For both sides. Use it well.
Part of what makes written conversations fun to read is the banter and spark between characters. That can get magnified a hundredfold for a council scene where most of the participants are intelligent and comfortable with words, and have every reason to try to make people laugh or admire their cleverness; after all, that might distract them from asking uncomfortable questions, or win over the hearts of people who like cleverness.
Scenes like this often have problems, however. You, as the author, need to be on your feet.
Part of the problem is the same as number 1: in her haste to make the heroine look good, the author winds up demonizing her political opposition. They don’t get any wit at all. This is unfair. It also begs the question how they got into power in the first place if they’re thatdumb. Perhaps not everyone on their side is a good speaker, but the ones who aren’t would surely have the sense to find someone who is. They then deploy the speaker to crack a wry joke whenever the heroine looks like she’s winning. This could really annoy and fluster your heroine, which, from the point of view of her opponents, is a good thing.
Also, many fantasy heroes—and the people who write them—have not mastered the true art of the Witty Comeback. The heroine says something, her opponents say something, and the heroine says something witty. Instead of responding, even with a line that crudely mocks the heroine, her opponents just stare at her, dumbfounded and maybe awed by her mad verbal skills. I’ve read a scene like that in many a published fantasy novel, and it never fails to drive me batshit, no matter how much I like the main character. Especially, consider how it looks if the character has so far been portrayed as rather fumbling around words, or uncomfortable in politics. Why does she get to take everyone aback, often with words that aren’t all that funny or wonderful, just when she most needs to?
Use wit. Read published fantasy council scenes (one of the best is in Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium, but many of Terry Pratchett’s scenes between Patrician Vetinari of Ankh-Morpork and his political opponents are also good). Note the way that the author doesn’t give the victory to just one side automatically; the reader may suspect who’s going to win, but it’s not a case where the character can just lean back and be assured of his foes gaping at him foolishly. Picture the heroine’s opponents as circling sharks. She might drive them off once, but they’re going to come back, and maybe this time they’ll get through, especially if they scent blood in the water.
4) Have people interrupt.
One reason that fantasy council scenes can often be boring is that the author has imported Pastel Elrond Equivalent #23875434 to drone on and on and on and on about one of the main “issues” of the fantasy novel. Sometimes for paragraphs, sometimes for pages. It really doesn’t matter. The effect is often reader skimming, especially when he or she knows the information beforehand. (See point 5).
The simplest way to do this is to remember that there are other people in the council scene, with their own agendas, their own issues, their own thresholds of boredom or pain—hell, their own bladders and stomachs. Any one of those reasons, or half a dozen others, would give said people reasons to interrupt the droning person. If he’s about to reveal an important secret that would damage the reputation of someone in the scene, why not interrupt? I’m amazed by how many fantasy political villains sit there passively and take it. I suppose it’s possible they’ve been lulled to sleep by the droning voice and just don’t notice, but the author usually represents what the PEE is saying as vitally important, so they should be awake.
Try this experiment sometime. Go back and look at your council scene. For how long has one character talked? And when other people talk, do they also do so in measured sentences, paragraphs of exactly equal length, and with more titles than sense? If no one at all interrupts, this is not a tense, simmering political debate. It’s Debate Club.
5) Summarize previously known information, for the love of God.
“The Council of Elrond” in LOTR is a long dang chapter, but at least the reader does not get a blow-by-blow account of everything that has happened to the Hobbits so far. That’s summarized, and so is a lot of information about the Elder Days and the Last Alliance that caused the Ring to be a problem in the first place. (Because Tolkien originally intended to publish The Silmarillion along with LOTR, he may have thought by this point the reader would know a lot about Elvish history anyway). The main focus is on information new to the reader, because it is new to the Hobbits: Gandalf’s imprisonment at the hands of Saruman, their options for what to do with the Ring, Boromir’s mission, and the choosing of Frodo’s companions.
This is what your fantasy council scene should do, and it doesn’t even have to be as long as “The Council of Elrond.” I can think of no reason pressing enough to go on for three or four pages recounting events that the reader knows about, because the characters lived through/did them before the scene ever started. New information, yes, or if there’s someone there with a new and startling perspective on what already happened, you could start the story and have that person interrupt. (Ooh, interruptions. See point 4). But not stressing of what your audience already knows should be stressed. Say, “Lady Kayli told her story, emphasizing the chase from Fire Mountain and the finding of the One Sword…” with a few more sentences if you must, and then move the hell on to showing the reactions, which should be more interesting.
6) Have things happen.
Done right, a council scene is not a quiet one of everybody agreeing, because why would they have to have a council if the course of action was self-evident? The leaders could just decide among themselves on what orders to give, and then give them, and everyone would carry them out obediently. (Ha). So people will be here with different interests, excellent reasons to oppose each other, and probably passionate emotions. Imagine hearing your city leader declare that you will march out and die tomorrow against an enemy that isn’t threatening your city, or issuing a punishment of everyone in your village for what just one person did, or deciding to give a hundred gold coins that could be used to repair roads and feed the poor to this random crazy kid with a glowing jewel. Wouldn’t you be a teensy bit upset?
Interruptions are great, but sometimes when they happen, authors just quash them with the Not-So-Witty Comeback. It is harder to quash someone leaping over the table at the hero in a towering rage. It’s also hard to quash flying arrows; a personal, ugly shouting match; two members attacking each other when the majority’s attention is turned elsewhere; someone having a seizure from the poison in their wine and dying; a character who keeps on giving your hero this really odd smile despite apparently losing; or the common people choosing that moment to try to enter the building and declare who they want for mayor.
Council scenes can be as good as battles or riots. Mix them with battles or riots, and they can get even more interesting.
But say you just want a battle of wits or minds. Then…
7) Use swift reversals.
Perhaps your hero has trampled through most of his opposition, and they’re agreeing to give him what he wants. Then up stands a woman your hero vaguely recognizes. With growing dread, he realizes that he recognizes her a little too intimately, as she proceeds to reveal the night the hero, drunk, tried to rape her and called her a whore. And she the daughter of a prominent nobleman!
Firebombs of a revelation can be great. Just like a speaker who cracks witty jokes to minimize their opponents’ interference, the opposition might want to keep someone who can tarnish the hero, utterly distract him, or switch the conversation in a new direction in reserve. There’ll be no need to use them if the discussion is kept on an equal footing. Ironically, many authors wind up with a need to use them, because the hero wins too easily.
If you don’t want to do this, pattern the conversation after a true argument, battle, or sporting event. Let one side say something clever and score a few points; then give the advantage to the other side. Perhaps your hero tosses his own firebomb, and the opposing politician rises coolly to his feet and declares that he never met the woman in his life, and what is the hero trying to pull? Seemingly sure victories can always backfire.
8) Learn how to ratchet up the tension.
Suspense in council scenes is important, especially if you’re building towards a grand vote, revelation, victory, standing ovation, what have you. This means that you can’t really take the easy way out—having the hero win by saying something none of his opponents can disprove or disagree with. Nor do you want jokes to ruin the mood. You want to keep on going. Everything is hurtling towards the grand moment.
In that case, carefully craft and sculpt the scene. Every little aside that could serve as a distraction, unless it’s a distraction that one of the sides is trying to use to calm the tension and failing, should be cut out. Every line that’s just there for someone to score points has to go. Every line that’s tired, old, or clichéd dialogue—“How dare you!” and “You’ll never get away with this!” are examples—should fall before your reaper’s scythe, or be recognized as silly and clunky by someone else. Shape the whole scene to point towards that revelation.
Such writing is great, strong, very powerful, and sometimes tragic in its consequences. However, it’s also easy to disrupt, and may take some writing to get right. Also, the point that inspires all the tension has to be worth the time and effort. I’ve read a very few fantasy books where I got to the point where the outcome of the vote (or whatever) was revealed, and thought, “Huh? That’s it?” or “They were worried about that?”
Next rant is on how to plot, I think.