Ooh, the propaganda rant! Here we go.
I should note that I would not personally use the word “propaganda” itself in a story set in another world. It’s one of those terms, like “feminist” or “atomic,” that jerks me out of the fantasy and convinces me I’m reading something written with a twenty-first century mindset. (I concede I may be oversensitive. Hell, I have the same problem when a heroine with earth magic talks about “loving the environment.”)
But the techniques can make for a cracking good plot.
1) Context, context, context.
Most evil guy propaganda would not sound convincing to me even if the opponent was shouting on about all true believers turning into wooden spoons when they went to heaven. It’s too blunt, the equivalent of a demagogue getting on the platform and spouting, “I am evil! Hear me roar!” and still gathering hundreds or thousands of followers.
But in this case, I think it’s less the words than the context. If an author can show me why the demagogue’s potential followers have gotten desperate enough to believe that the local religious minority is the root of all evil, then I’ll accept most changes of heart. (I still do wish that in cases like that, the religious demagogues would accuse the minority of crimes beyond ones that Christians accuse Satanists of in our own world, as the rhetoric can be time-worn enough to remind me of another, radically different context. See above re: my oversensitivity to the language).
What drives people to listen to demagogues in the first place? Hunger. Plague. Rumors of war, or outright war. Fear. A pre-existing context that sets up a binary world, as happened in the Cold War: “You are with us or you are against us.” Terrifying occurrences without an explanation, which in a fantasy environment could be engineered by mages. (See point 4). Threats that an ordinary person can’t counter or fight. The seeming collapse of long-cherished traditions, those damn kids and their rock-‘n’-roll. One segment of society deciding they want the same rights as another, please and thank you, and most often right now. “Plausible” rumors that don’t prompt the government to action quickly enough. All sorts of things.
Propaganda finds a natural home in such places and at such times, and the more it builds on other propaganda (see point 2), the more it can be used to create a new context, one where it doesn’t seem to be a message emanating from a single source, but just a self-evident truth, part of the very air and water.
2) Have “piggyback” propaganda.
Fear may end up turning in a direction that has nothing to do with where it began. What’s important isn’t so much that the propaganda corresponds exactly to reality as that it answers fears and proposes a course of action to “solve” them. And in such an ambience, it’s going to be pretty easy for, say, a fanatic to convince people that tearing down the nobles’ houses will relieve the famine, without ever saying such a silly thing aloud. He doesn’t have to. His own propaganda is riding the moment of change and terror caused by other problems.
This is a good flashpoint to counter Yet Another Unfortunate Tendency of Fantasy Novels with: the depiction of anyone who believes what the demagogue says as stupid and evil. The fantasy portrayal of large groups, especially those groups that the protagonist stands outside, is not complimentary. Of course the mob goes wild in the face of something utterly unconvincing! They’re stupid and evil! It is up to the heroic individualist hero to stop them! Or: Of course the rebel group has never gotten anything accomplished! They’re stupid and evil! It is up to the special spunky heroine to turn them in the right direction! (This extends like a poisonous root system through many aspects of fantasy, I think, up to and including the fact that the foremost crime of many “evil” societies is usually their denial of individualism, and many villains have no personality at all. Someday, I may do a rant just on this).
But when you have piggyback propaganda, you’re not faced with showing your audience a stark choice between the unrepentant, heroic solitary person and the mindless mob driven mad by fear. You can show how a person can be led, quite naturally, to believe that his everyday problems are controllable in X way, even if X way is something he would reject without the controlling fear. And that’s the point, of course, the reason why it’s equally stupid to blame people in fantasy for believing a demagogue (as long as the overarching context is compelling enough). They can’t step back and view the situation in rational, objective terms. They’re too busy living inside it.
With enough practice, you could even show a protagonist falling under its sway.
3) Consider the effects of propaganda on your hero/ine.
Yes, you have to. And none of that, “Well, what my heroine believes has nothing to do with propaganda” business. Yes, it does. Unless she somehow developed her ideas entirely in isolation (and if you really think that’s reasonable, please go straight to point 5, do not pass Go, do not collect $200), she’ll still have taken influence from the people, events, pre-existing context, and media around her. That will be her propaganda.
None of this exiles the propaganda from being beautiful, compelling, incisive, and even true, though hopefully not an absolute truth. It does mean that your heroine is not an island, or an eagle perched above the world. She’s just as much down in the muck and mire as any of them, caught in the net of attitudes and beliefs running all across the world.
How does it affect her? That’s up to you to decide. You might have her learning differently at the end of the book, in which case you’ll want to make sure that she has reasonable opportunities to question—pretty hard with an absolutely brainwashed heroine. You might want to show her falling into the trap along with everyone else, in which case pay attention to your context and show why that propaganda would be personally appealing to her. You might have her on the outside not because she’s just that special, but because her goals or her fears differ from the ones that the common propaganda is meant to call on.
Deciding your protagonist’s background in this matter, just as everything else, can be great fun. It’s certainly more interesting than just assuming that she’s too clearheaded to ever be wrongheaded.
4) Did somebody say magic?
For some reason, despite fantasy authors’ tendency to use magic to blast away enemies and grant mystical communions to their heroes and do other Dramatic things, it’s relatively rare as a tool of propaganda. And I can’t think of anything else other than “why?”, really. I mean, come on. Your protagonist needs a neat symbolic demonstration. A lightning bolt falling from heaven and charring his pontificating enemy to bits is one hell of a neat symbolic demonstration. Or he has to have his subjects shut up and quit questioning his wars. Call on the dreamweavers, who insert messages into sleep that the average person is powerless to resist.
I suppose an author may think magic is too “pure” to be “tainted” that way. There’s no reason that you have to make the magic inherently evil. If you take up the position that magic is just power—one that a lot of authors state, but few actually follow through on—then surely someone can use it for mind-controlling ends as well as easing nightmares. And if magic is divided into good and evil, this seems like a natural purpose for one of the villains to dream up.
What are some advantages of magic as a tool of propaganda?
- It increases the context. Propaganda magic isn’t a pretty thingamabob that’s there for pure ornamentation, or to make the protagonist look good. It interacts with the politics, science, and motives of the characters.
- It can be damn near untraceable, and thus scarier. If someone changes his mind, is there a way to be sure that it was the result of a telepath’s meddling?
- It can build on the principles of science—psychology and sociology, for two. Hey, it would be something different from all the physics-based magic systems.
- It can add intricacy and depth to the story. Magic that can be used for only one thing isn’t very interesting. Double-edged magic raises ethical conundrums. Do you train mages in the use of it, while emphasizing all the while that they shouldn’t use it, or do you try to lock up the genie in the bottle?
- It’s a good tool for the empathic, manipulative sort of villain. (See point 7).
Use other means, by all…um, means. But don’t forget that this may be the perfect place to bring in that intricate system of magic you’re so proud of.
5) Your heroine understands the power of symbolism. That’s great. Where did she learn it?
There’s propaganda outside the heroes, there’s propaganda that affects the heroes—and there’s the propaganda that the heroes employ. Even the most taciturn protagonist can break out into a speech about the power of the past, carefully held at sunrise, and get people to go along with him.
I just want to know where the protagonists got the mental equipment to know the symbolism and how to employ it, that’s all. Particularly if they have no formal education and have never seen anyone else use this particular rhetorical flourish or highly charged image. How did they know it would work?
Formal education is only one possible answer. Perhaps the protagonist, for whatever reason, is one of those people who can draw back from the common context, see the patterns in it, and make up new patterns that will affect people. Perhaps he or she observes other demagogues at work, is even the family member or apprentice of one. Perhaps he or she is a bard, a priest, or a member of a different class expected to know the power of oratory and imagery. Perhaps he or she uses the symbol in all naïveté, sees the effect, and keeps repeating it without really understanding why everyone now trusts her. (I admit I’d like to see more of that last. Protagonists who suddenly start explaining things in terms of Freudian theory when their world has no basis for it make my eyes cross. Also, I hate Freud).
Regardless, if you’re going to have your protagonist showing off her special people-convincing skills, show how she got them.
6) Work within the limits.
One reason propaganda is so effective in our own world is the number of people that can see it, and how hard it is to completely exile the media carrying it from our lives. Turn off the television, there it is on the computer. Turn off the computer, you can still read a magazine or a newspaper. Avoid those, and you can drive past billboards exonerating you to do/say/believe/think one thing or the other. There are always books; there have been books for hundreds of years. And, of course, the casual conversations of people around you can be laden with ideas that are not originally theirs but came from some particular message-bearing medium, and the person who goes to work or school and then comes back home will be around many people in a single day.
In a fantasy world with no television, no Internet, no magazines or newspapers, rare books and a low literacy rate, and where many people stay within a small radius of home for their entire lives, propaganda is going to have to work a bit…differently.
For one thing, know the physical limits. A demagogue standing on a stage and shouting at people in a village square isn’t going to have the advantages that someone doing the same thing in a perfectly tuned auditorium to a captive audience will. Words will get lost, people will get bored and wander away, and it might start raining or snowing. There are ways to get around this—have the crowd pass the message back or your mages channel the air so that the words go where they’re supposed to, speak inside a church instead, build an awning—but they’ll need to be mentioned, and shaped and crafted by your setting.
Second, build on preexisting context. Christianity did this pretty successfully. Instead of attempting to change deeply-rooted pagan beliefs anywhere it went, it adopted gods as saints, adopted rituals while changing their rhetoric, and often modified its demands, especially when the new converts were a long way from the center of religious power. And, of course, it also helped that Christianity had missionaries willing to travel in the first place. The stay-at-home impulse won’t do much to get the message spread.
Third, simplify. If your speaker has come to preach the doctrine of equal human rights and is constantly referring to cities that his audience has never seen, books they’ve never read (and couldn’t afford, and possibly couldn’t read), and people they’ve never heard of, they will not be as interested. Have him cut to the chase and anchor his message to local situations, and there will probably be more interest.
Adapt. Modify. Play. You can still tell an effective story with propaganda at its center even if you don’t have all the media we’re used to carrying it.
7) War can be fought with words.
Here’s where the diplomacy parts of politics get underrated again. Authors may start out with words, but they hurry their protagonists on to swords—and magic—as swiftly as possible. Negotiations turn sour, mysterious assassins attack without pausing to talk, and those people who do make speeches are self-evidently bug-eyed freaks whom no rational protagonist believes. (An exception is extended for protagonists who have to make the Grand Speech to rally support just as all hope is lost).
Yet this impulse runs side-by-side with a love for Machiavellian plots and manipulative villains and politicians. Come on. Why couldn’t the villains, plotters, and politicians use propaganda to get their way?
Granted, perhaps this propaganda is a means to an end; the villain uses it to stir a war, not to fight one. But it’s still there, and it has its part. Go look at famous advertisements like Rosie the Riveter from World War II. No, the advertisement by itself didn’t get the job done, but it did help persuade an awful lot of US men that it was all right for women to leave the house and get jobs while men were fighting overseas, and it helped persuade an awful lot of US women that it was all right, even patriotic, for them to take those jobs. (This caused A Problem that the men hadn’t foreseen when they came back and the women left the jobs, but, well, kind of didn’t want to. Twenty years further on, this was one of the contributing causes of the US feminist resurgence. I encourage you to use propaganda that turns around and bites the hand that feeds it like this. It’s amusing).
Done right, a villain who uses words is still really scary. Let his propaganda sink in and become part of the context, and it can seem as though the heroes are trying to fight multiple faceless, unstoppable enemies who melt into rumor whenever they confront them—and already have outposts inside everybody’s heads.
Propaganda-centered fantasy would be a great way to write about messages and even give them without writing message fantasy. I’m surprised that more people don’t use it.