This rant is on political fantasy—ideas about achieving it, caveats, problems with it. You know, all the usual things.
A quick definition: I think of political fantasy as fantasy that is primarily concerned not only with intrigue, but with political power and the consequences it has in the lives of the characters. I wouldn’t count a fantasy where the hero becomes king but just has to wave his sword around as political. Nor is a fantasy where the politics are a tiny bit in the larger whole. Most of the points I make in this rant are going to have that perspective on them, which will probably explain any oddity that results.
1) Political factions should have a reason for existing.
A moment, please, before you kick me down the stairs for being Captain Obvious.
It’s probably the overplotted nature of much fantasy politics, but sometimes I don’t know why certain factions exist. The author posits them as enemies to the heroes, so they must oppose something the heroes want.
Er. What is it?
Even if you intend to use the faction mainly as a source of convenient assassins and sneering bad guys, you need to know why they’re there. After all, they probably didn’t form just when the heroes arrived at the castle; they have established spy networks, names, meeting places, and methods of operating. So they can’t exist just to kill the heroes. What are they doing? What do they want that the heroes don’t want? What do they benefit from that the heroes are intent on destroying? What do they wish was in existence that the heroes would give anything to prevent? (I do think it’s valid for political factions to act against heroes who may be a threat in the future. But in that case, the goal has to be even more concrete. None of this “the hero might possibly decide to upset the slave trade because he once spoke kindly to a slave, so we will spend all our gold hiring foreign assassins to kill him” shite).
I often think that elements of a story can be built up from listening to either the setting or the plot. The author can create the world beforehand and then weave the plot from interactions of certain groups and people she knows are already there, or she can know that she needs a group of bad guys and create one to fulfill the role. Political factions are one of a very few elements that I think need to be built more from the world than the plot. You need to know what internal reasons they have for existing. If you rely solely on plot-inspired reasons, you’re much more likely to end up with “dark evil sneering traitors who, of course, are there because the hero needs someone to fight,” and “shining figures of light who, of course, are there because the hero needs support.” And that’s not the way to make convincing politics.
2) Risks and chances need to be justified.
Authors often favor mysterious smiles and knowing glances for their characters involved in politics. Nobles who are keeping secrets from the hero drop cryptic remarks. People who would have every reason to keep their conversations private have them out in the open where anyone can hear them, and without checking for spies first. Traitors act suspicious and shifty-eyed the moment anyone asks them a random question.
This is fucking stupid.
This time, the answer as to why can be found in the story itself. The author has given the characters something dangerous to hide, such as buying up votes in the city council. She has made them good actors, so that they can conceal this. She has made sure that the hero is the kind of person who would punish such corruption if he could find it, and that his reputation is well-known, so the politicians know exactly who they have to beware of, and why.
Then she makes the characters drop hints, and act indistinguishable from poor actors, and try to attack the hero in incredibly incompetent ways that can be traced directly back to them.
No making the villains stupid so that the heroes can triumph.
If you do this, it is flat-out cheating, not politics. If you make characters tip their hands when they would have every reason to play their cards close to their chests, you must justify it.
There are all kinds of reasons better than the usual ones (that the villains want to tease the hero, or that they’re blindly arrogant) for doing this. Here, have five:
- The character knows of the plot, but is on the fence and wants to get in good with both sides.
- The character wants to launch the hero like a guided missile at other politicians who are actually enemies of his; he’s using the hero as a potential fall guy.
- The character is hoping that the hero will give him more money than the people trying to buy his vote right now.
- The character senses a potential ally and is trying to make the hero part of his own faction without tipping his hand too badly.
- The character is part of a third faction, neither the hero’s nor the bribers’, and this is the first overture to form a coalition.
There. Now go make the mysterious remarks and knowing smiles and riddles make sense, instead of just fucking stupidity.
3) Compromises will be presented in many shadings.
This means more shadings than “benefits the heroes= good” and “benefits the villains= bad.” Also, it means moving beyond the simple lesson that compromise is necessary in politics. Yes, I know that. I would like to read a political fantasy that shows it in action instead of just repeating it, please, and also makes a stab at demonstrating the acceptable and regrettable and unacceptable and neutral parts of compromises.
What does a compromise give both parties? Coalitions in real-world politics don’t often stay as stable for as long as they do in most fantasy settings. A small faction may have to make an irritating deal with a larger faction for just one thing that they want, but then another small faction gains in power and offers them more. Off goes the smaller faction to join with the other small one. And if authors are really intent on showing characters as experienced politicians, then they’re not going to have people in the larger faction standing around and stuttering about how that isn’t fair.
How will the compromise make the characters look in the eyes of outside parties? There could be a problem if a country signs a treaty that surrenders a part of its land but a large group of guerilla troops refuse to stop fighting and recognize the new border. There could also be questions from people who vote the politicians into office, or exercise other levers if the politicians aren’t elected (threats of rioting, strikes, withdrawal of monetary support, reneging on contracts, and so on). Saying “compromise is necessary” doesn’t mean jack-squat if the compromise immediately stirs up more opposition than it quells. Then the country or the faction or the politician has to try to make compromises with those people in turn.
How trustworthy are the people involved? It frankly amazes me that some rulers or council leaders have advanced as far as they have in fantasy, unless they’re outright criminals who don’t mind using open bribery and intimidation. So everyone knows that the queen sacrifices small children in her bedchamber at night and would kill the kingdom’s nobles as soon as look at them, and they hate her more than they fear her, yet they trust her to keep her promise to fund a new park for children? Something is, well, not right there.
Let’s see more of the characters actually taking practical aspects into consideration before they make promises to each other.
4) Displeasure can be expressed in more ways than just assassins and poison in the wine.
Entirely too many fantasy authors, I am convinced, are in love with Renaissance Italy and the idea of death among grand merchant families. They leap to death swift as thought, when it would make more sense for the politics not to be so cutthroat. Murders can be traced, they stir up the desire to trace if they look like murder, they arouse excitement and attention, they take time—particularly if, say, the lord dies suddenly and the person who takes over is not experienced in politics—that can affect people other than just the murder victim’s family, they put other groups on the defensive, and they encourage suspicion and distrust and subtle undermining of the group suspected as well as fear. Yes, perhaps Fantasy Family A would be reluctant to cross Fantasy Family B if they suspected that B had poisoned Fantasy Family C, but I bet they would also resent them and dislike them and not be at all receptive to offers of alliance from B, too. And if they were allies with C, then they’ll probably have business or political interests that are affected by the deaths. It’s silly to assume they’ll just cower when Fantasy Family B walks by.
So don’t embrace death like a long-lost lover unless you can give the characters really good reasons for wanting to use it. Assume that the characters the villains want to murder would be more useful alive—most of the time, it’s true—and then go from there. How could Fantasy Family B take revenge on Fantasy Family C for a slight without killing them?
Lots of ways:
- Refusal to vote on or otherwise support causes that Fantasy Family C comes to them about supporting.
- Demanding an apology. If the slight was accidental, this would make much more sense than just assuming that Fantasy Family C would never apologize. The “Sorry” could, of course, take the form of money or information or political support for one of Fantasy Family B’s own schemes.
- Tracking C’s interests and subtly getting in the way of them.
- Getting C in trouble completely legally, such as being able to prove or “prove” that they’re traitors to the king.
- Spreading damaging gossip about C.
- Watching for a weakness and taking advantage of one the moment it appears. Perhaps C’s family head makes a stupid remark, and while it would ordinarily cause little harm, it does an enormous amount because of the way that B’s family head spins it.
- Moving into a high position, perhaps by doing an enormous service to the country, and using that to lever other factions or families into hurting C.
- Hurting people attached to C. C’s family head and children might be sacrosanct, but burning down a business that C’s family head has promised to protect? That’s a pretty strong “Fuck you.”
Many fantasy politicians are a contradiction in terms: emotional enough to stick a knife in the heart of whoever’s insulted them, yet thriving in an environment where the author insinuates rigid self-control is best. Revenge served colder, in the name of politics rather than revenge, would solve the problem.
5) Class is quite often going to matter more here than in other arenas.
Most fantasy societies are hierarchical, and money or birth or magic or race or gender in various combinations win certain characters power and influence. So it’s a natural consequence that they’ll get favored for certain appointments, that they can unite to prevent the advancement of someone they dislike, that prejudices will exist towards those who lack whatever it is that puts them in power, that children and other relatives of the powerful will be treated more leniently if they’re involved in crime, and so on.
If you really don’t want to deal with things like this, may I suggest you make your society non-hierarchical? It’d be hard, but it’d be more plausible than the explanations that authors jam in about only good people ruling, or the way that characters raised in this kind of environment will exclaim with wide eyes about it being unfair. I understand that last when the author suddenly enlightens a privileged character who’s always been sheltered and believed the justifications that the high-class people make up. I understand it not at all when the narrative orients itself towards saying that life is objectively unfair and That Is Wrong and How Could Anyone Do This and How Dare The People In Power Favor The People Like Them. But then, I really don’t care for fantasy universes with a morality implanted in them that’s supposed to punish characters for “bad” actions and reward people for “good” ones. The hierarchical societies came to exist in that universe despite everything. You might want to fine-tune your history, author.
A hierarchy is going to influence the politics and have unfair consequences for someone. This might actually have gone head-to-head with point 1 for the Obvious Award, but I don’t see a lot of people realizing what it truly means. (There shall be more said on this in the rant about revolutions and civil war).
6) Magic can also do more in political fantasy than provide means of death.
Imagine how useful the ability to read minds would be in most fantasy political environments. Imagine that a mage politician could subtly influence votes. Imagine that a clerk could, when someone paid him the right amount of money, create an illusion of certain documents saying certain things that would get his new boss in trouble, and then remove the illusion when people come investigating. Imagine that a politician who knew that he would have to meet with a potential ally in dangerous territory could send an image of himself instead, one empowered to speak and act for him, but which would simply vanish harmlessly if he were attacked.
Not much to say on this point, really. Once you strip away the automatic assumption that of course politics is all about killing anyone who opposes you, then magic takes on other, more disturbing roles than glowing runes on an assassin’s blade.
7) Political fantasies involve a whole lot of other themes that most fantasies don’t dare touch.
If I want to be snarky, I could say it’s because those themes would explode most of the pretty little fantasy universes. And, most of the time, they would. The idealism that drives a good deal of high fantasy cannot coexist with a lot of the assumptions that political fantasy makes, which, I think, is why politics ends up playing such a small role in most high fantasy stories. (For obvious reasons, brutal and transformative fantasies are much more at home with politics).
First of all, themes of oppression, and what oppression really does to the minds and hearts of those living under it, and how hard it clings, and how hard it is to dig out. Some fantasies flirt with oppression, in the form of a minority persecuted by the government, but that persecuted minority is still perky and spunky and ready to fight back at a moment’s notice. There’s nothing of the grinding, grim reality, including despair and belief and self-hatred and self-betrayal, that real-world oppression tends to bring along with it. Actually deal with it, and you’ve got an evil more potent than most Dark Lords ever dream of.
Second, tarnished characters. I could do with more politician protagonists, who’ve had to make the hard choices that a hero swinging his sword at a dragon never contemplates—and neither do the squeaky-clean pseudo-politicians who come into a fantasy council and clean everything up the minute they’re elected. These are the people working inside the system, who know it and bear it and have done horrible things, too, in their time. Change is slow. Their own interests consume them, yet the necessity of compromise and keeping allies doesn’t just allow them to serve those interests wholeheartedly. They’ve got to keep an eye on people around them and understand how those people will react to whatever they say or do or express, while not being allowed the empathy that understanding normally brings, because some of those people will be enemies. These people would be truly gray heroes, living in a mucky present as well as with a dark past. I suppose it’s not a surprise that there aren’t more heroes like them—the primary requirement for many fantasy protagonists seems to be that they be Nice and Fundamentally A Decent Person Underneath—but I’m disappointed.
Third, interconnection. I’ve complained before that it seems as though fantasy groups in the same world act without a regard for each other. A church just declares itself the only true faith, and none of the other religions, which believe themselves in turn to be the only true faith, get upset. Or the persecuted minority achieves power and then, of course, never turns around and takes revenge on the people who oppressed them beforehand. In a political fantasy, though, you get to explore ripples and how compromises and decisions and votes affect people other than the immediate politicians involved. This can lead, done right, to the sense of a desperately alive world—not a very pleasant place to live, perhaps, but not Generica either.
And writing limitations on magic is next.