Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the sixteenth chapter, “How to Write a Political Story Without Falling on Your Face.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
What We Write About When We Write About Spaceships
How to Write a Political Story Without Falling on Your Face
Every story is political, whether it’s about police brutality or boat-racing.
We use narratives to create our sense of shared reality, and a heuristic for the way the world works. And our assumptions shape every aspect of our writing, whether those assumptions are “you can always trust people in authority” or “meritocracy is a lie.” Every book or short story excludes some details and incidents, and highlights others. Plus as we’ve discussed, every author has an ideal reader in mind—and that imaginary consumer’s level of privilege will shape each of the story’s choices.
A lot of our most pervasive genre labels don’t describe the stories themselves, so much as the affinity groups they’re intended for. (See “literary fiction,” “romance,” “young adult,” and “urban“—which, come to think of it, could all be used to describe the exact same book, with a different cover and text treatment.) But that’s a whole other essay.
Once you admit that your story is political, then you can choose to lean into it. And for my money, the most thrilling and entertaining stories are the ones that own their politics proudly. (Don’t let anybody sell you any false dichotomy between “political” and “fun” storytelling!) But at the same time, it’s important to think really carefully and deeply about the messages you’re including and the assumptions you’re making. And the story has to come first, natch.
Thanks to the internet and especially social media, we’re way more aware of the political meaning of stories than ever. We’ve all gotten accustomed to a torrent of think pieces, podcasts, tweets and memes dissecting the meaning of stories. (I may have helped to contribute a little bit to this torrent myself, and I regret nothing.) Some of our hottest debates, among activists and actual politicians, revolve around TV shows, movies, and books. Case in point: the new director general of the BBC decided its comedies should become less left-wing, in response to conservative complaints.
In November 2016, I was working in a TV writers’ room. The day after the election, we all straggled into work and gulped down instant oatmeal in the breakroom, trying to make sense of what had just happened. And then we sat down around our conference table and set about trying to figure out what all our carefully constructed plot points meant now, in this very different version of reality. Everyone in that room knew that our story had just changed dramatically—even though the actual incidents and moments were exactly the same as they were the day before.
History has a way of rewriting fiction without changing a word, which is why we talk so much about stories that have aged badly. The only thing you can do is to try to examine your story carefully—and try to avoid falling into some of the biggest failure modes, like clunky metaphors, crude allegories, and rusty tropes.
Climate change is here, and it’s real, and I really believe that we need to be including it in our stories about the present and future, even if it’s just in the backdrop or part of the worldbuilding.
But when people hear me say “we need to write about climate change,” they often picture something like Captain Planet: a delightful-yet-kludgy lecture in story form, in which polluters are literal cartoon villains. Or something where people stand around discussing tipping points and carbon sinks and snail habitats. Whereas my favorite climate stories are more like Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City, or Princess Mononoke—rich, intense, with characters and worlds that feel urgently alive.
Similarly, a lot of people got their ideas about political allegory from the original Star Trek, in which black-and-white bodypaint and Vietnam-war parallels are used to deliver overly simplistic messages about the dangers of racism and proxy wars. That kind of allegory, in which the blue cat people stand in for real-life indigenous people on Earth, is hard to avoid even if you’re unaware of it—but this is one case where being aware of what you’re doing is no defense against making a huge mess.
It’s worth reading this great essay by K. Tempest Bradford about androids as an allegory for the “other”—and how this takes on a very different meaning when Black creators craft stories about androids who look like Black people, rather than the Extremely White androids that we see most of the time.
It’s also easy—consciously or otherwise—to fall into a metaphor, in which a character goes through an unreal experience that ends up providing an analogue for real experiences. For a while there, fantasy stories were full of people becoming addicted to magic (like Willow in Buffy), and at its worst, this often turned into a way of dramatizing a simplistic and judgmental view of real addiction.
It’s easy to stumble into creating a metaphor about crime and punishment, or about rebellion and order. And television, movies, and other media are full of half-baked metaphors for disability, abortion, terrorism, and other issues that affect real people’s lives in the real world.
Another failure mode is the thoughtless thought-experiment, like, “What if we sent all the left-handed people to live on a space station and forced them to learn backwards writing?” A good thought experiment allows us to see a choice, or an ethical question, or something basic about human nature, more clearly without all the clutter that real-life situations impose–and often, the “answer” is not easy or obvious. But a bad thought experiment just feels like a bunch of pieces being shoved into place to force us to reach the conclusion the author wants us to reach.
And then there’s tropes. We’ve all gotten way more trope-savvy in the past decade or so, and everything that can possibly happen in a story has its own trope name—which, in turn, has helped us to realize that tropes are everywhere, and inescapable. When we complain about tropes, what we’re usually complaining about is a harmful metaphor, or thought-experiment, embedded within the trope’s nucleus.
Like “bury your gays,” or “the smartest man in the room,” or “manic pixie dream girl,” to name a few big ones. These tropes stack the deck of the world, to show that some lives are worth more than others, or to confirm some stereotypes. It’s easy to let tropes push you around—this is the part of the story where the female character always gets captured and needs to be rescued—rather than making them work for you.
Like I said, just being aware that your story has a political meaning won’t save you from falling into any of the above failure modes. It’s going to take a little bit more effort to build something complex enough, and human enough, that the political meaning is both visceral and emotional.
Make it messy
Allegories and metaphors will show up, no matter what you do. A war story is always going to remind people of actual wars. Fictional slavery will always remind people of real slavery. A tale of colonizing other planets will inevitably end up commenting on the history of settler colonialism here on Earth. Once you accept that inevitability, you have an opportunity to examine more deeply what you’re saying, intentionally or otherwise, about these real issues. You can also run the story past people for whom these issues might not be purely theoretical, like sensitivity readers. (We’ll talk more about sensitivity readers soon.)
And then? Try to make your story so messy and human that it lives in people’s heads and hearts, and they obsess about these characters and these situations—rather than seeing them purely as stand-ins for some real-life counterparts.
I worried endlessly about the witches and the mad scientists in my novel All the Birds in the Sky, because I could see how the conflict between them could easily turn into a Gene Roddenberry-style allegory. The bad version would have included witches who despise all technology and live in treehouses, eating nothing but lichen, fighting against scientists who wear excessively-starched white tunics and goggles, and only speak in jargon.
That’s why I went to such great lengths to complicate both sides—like, the coven-leader Ernesto is a huge fan of his microwave oven, and all of the witches obsessively use the latest gadgets. (And in a deleted scene, they do karaoke.) When I was a teenager, I spent a summer living in a Buddhist temple in Taiwan with my best friend, and we were startled to see all the nuns toting cellphones and getting around on motorcycles, because we had some image in our heads of ascetics who’ve forsworn all modern appliances—and I think that was in the back of my mind when I was developing my witch characters.
And meanwhile, the mad scientists are just regular hipsters, who sometimes engage in a lot of magical thinking.
Weirdly, I found that the less clear-cut and simplistic the differences between the two sides were, the easier it was for me to buy into their conflict (and the allegory about science and nature at its heart) when it came to a head. And meanwhile, I tried to keep the story narrowly focused on the messy relationship at its heart, between Laurence and Patricia, so that the story seldom felt like it was about a war between magic and science.
When I think about the worst examples of “this stands in for this” in speculative fiction, there’s often an oversimplified world or one-dimensional protagonists in the mix. The closer the story is to the real experience of being alive and trying to make sense of a confusing world, the less likely you are to end up with a “Frank Gorshin declaiming in body paint” situation.
And just like with emotion, details matter. If we can feel a character’s itchy collar and smell the wet paint in their newly refurbished office, then we’re more likely to buy into the reality of their situation instead of seeing it as pure metaphor.
And at the same time, the more you nail down the details of how things actually work, the less they’ll be prone to follow metaphor-logic rather than story-logic. The mark of a truly terrible allegory is that the facts change to suit the meaning, rather than the meaning coming out of the facts. If you decide halfway through your story that anybody who gets a paper cut from the Cursed Broadsheet will have an evil finger, then we need to learn this before it becomes a thing. And we need to understand why people are still reading this rag, in spite of the “evil finger” problem. (I’m betting it’s the recipes. It’s always the recipes.)
Messiness and consistency sound like opposites, but they go hand in hand. Humans will bring our own individual neuroses to a consistent world, and a reliable set of constants will enable more variation at the margins. But we’ll talk more about worldbuilding next week.
When you realize that your story contains political signifiers, you can go in two different directions, or possibly both at the same time. You can sharpen those likenesses, until the meaning is unmistakable and salient—like, my mad scientists in All the Birds in the Sky are clearly “about” technological hubris and the notion that we should abandon a doomed Earth for other planets as soon as possible. But you can also add more fuzzy edges and outliers and exceptions and quirks, until they’re less clear-cut. If you can manage to do both those things at once, then you’re ready to party down.
Here’s a bit of an exercise: imagine a character who stands in for something. Like “predatory capitalism.” You probably just imagined a hedge-fund manager, or maybe the guy from Monopoly. Now try and think of ways that this guy can be both a better representation of that concept, and also a living, breathing individual human. Like…what if this person wears special glasses that put a dollar-value on everything he looks at? But also, he’s obsessed with saving endangered birds, and he plays in a ragtime band on the weekends, and he craves super-garlicky eggplant all the time. Just for fun, you can try that with some other concept, like “Environmentalism.” Or “Karens.”
One of the hallmarks of living through a historical nightmare is that it’s easy to feel like the real world is becoming some kind of exaggerated metaphor, or thought experiment. During such times, we need starkly political fiction—but we also need the kind of resilience and hope that come from stories about real people grappling with tough situations.
“All stories are political” is just another way of saying, “All stories are about people living in society.” And that means that the more real and messy the people and the society are, the better the politics will be, as a general rule.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.