(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr. Find out more at my newsletter.)
Raise your hand if you ever had someone tell you that they want people to “keep their politics out of books/comics/games/tv” and so on. Now, put it down. I can’t see it, so it didn’t help.
But despite the fact that I can’t see if you raised your hand, I’m pretty sure you did, if only spiritually. It’s a plague of modern media (at least as I write this in 2019) that people complain about politics in their hobby media. Complaining seems to be it’s own form of media, which is quite an overload of irony, but i digress.
If you, like me, have been curious about this phenomena, you’ll notice most of the complaints are not about politics in general, but certain kinds of politics. In short, most complainers are people not against politics, but against politics about anyone not like them, and politics that might disturb their sense of the world. I could go into the various demographics of this but let’s go to the idea that politics can be left out of media.
It cannot. It is impossible.
Politics is about how humans interact, make decisions, conflict, identify, and so on. If your story involves people there will be politics, even if its of the smaller personal kind.
Politics also is about how we understand the world, from hard-edged ideologies to general assumptions. We all drag those into our works – if we’re aware, they become informed decisions from our lives. If not, well . . . you get the idea.
Politics will be in everything, even if they’re awful ill-informed politics.
Because I’m a fanatic for good worldbuilding, I feel confident in saying every work of fiction created will have politics. It’s just a question of they’re thought out, explored, extrapolated, and understood by the author. Any attempt to leave them out is a failure of creativity – because they will be there, they’ll just be unexamined.
Let’s give an example. I’m going to take a common genre/trope popular in anime and videogames. Isekai – the whole “person from our world sent to another.”
Specifically, let’s go super-tropey. We want to do a story which has the usual generic Demon Lord attacking a fantasy realm, and people from our world for some reason are yanked in to fight him. If you’re not familiar with this setup, you’ve somehow managed to avoid wide swaths of anime, manga, and some video games.
At the same time, how can this simple setup involve politics? It’s sort of escapsim/wish fullfillment slathered on top of tropey but fun fantasy.
So let’s see why it’s political.
First, let’s talk the Demon Lord. Just how does one being become a threat to this entire planet? How are his armies arranged? Why is he followed? Why is there only one? Yes, even when you’re designing a generic Demon Lord you have to ask questions that verge on the political – how is his life and armies organized to even be a threat?
Now, as this is a fantasy world, the fact there’s a Demon Lord tromping around immediately brings up supernatural politics. What are the various gods, deities, other demons, ancient wizards, and so on doing to stop this Beelzebubian Bozo? I mean, you’d think they’d get involved. In short, to design a world like this in detail you have to give some thoughts to . . . supernatural politics.
On top of all of this there’s the regular people caught trying not to get killed by the Demon Lord. Why are they threatened? Why can’t they stop him? How are their societies coping – in fact, what societies do they have? Their politics, pre-Demon Lord and current require some fleshing out to make sense of this all.
Once we figure out this world, you have to then figure out just why people from our world end up in this world fighting evil. I mean be it a goddess or some crazy wizard or the Currents of Destiny, “let’s throw an office temp at the Demon Lord” is not the soundest plan out there. If any people (or human-like gods) were involved in this decision, hopefully they had a good reason and worked it out with their fellows – in short, politics.
Before your hero or heroine even ends up in the first adventure in a story like this, you have a huge amount of political questions to ask. We might not think of them as politics because they don’t involve the various parties and politicians we know, but they are political. They’re the politics of the world you created.
Finally, once your hero(es) and heroine(s) arrive, how does the world recieve them? Are they ready for those that will save them? Have they been burning through chosen ones like someone with a big bag of chips? How did any recent heros/heroines do and are people ready to trust them?
All this doesn’t even deal with other fantasy politics. Are there non-human sentients like elves and dwarves? Do species crossbreed? How do people cope with various generic Fantasy Monsters? WHere do all these damn dungeons come from? You get the idea.
Now one could ignore these questions and the others generated by this discussion. That’s a decision – a political one to avoid the repercussions of one’s worldbuilding choices. A save-the-world fantasy Isekai that goes by the beats is a political act – the act of excluding extrapolation to hit a series of chosen beats. Those beats are . . . political, because they reflect certain tropes and assumptions. They’re just not thought of.
Politics will be in your media. If you embrace it, you get great media. And if you decide to take things in a certain direction, at least you know why you engineered it the way you did (I’m a big fan of exploring tropes by taking them to certain extremes that make sense). It’s good writing, it’s good worldbuilding.
Of course doing this may force you to face uncomfortable questions. Which may just lead to better writing . . .