Politics are a staple of the fantasy epic. They are part of what drives the battle scenes, dictate the course of the story, and provide a large portion of the twists in worldbuilding-heavy stories. They’re also pretty darn hard to write since they require a lot of planning and careful execution.

Politics are delicate. So, what do tense, twisty politics require?

  • Stakes: Politics are, by nature, rather slippery. What is at stake is subject to change as people’s true motives become clear. However, it is important that file000599085317something be at stake at all times, and that each reveal raises these stakes. By the end of the story, the main character should stand to lose more than they did at the beginning. And the reader should know this.
    • Eleventh hour plot twists are not an exception to this rule. Do not expect your readers to slog through 500 pages of “so what?” to get to the big reveal at the end. Even if you intend to flip everything on its head when the big conspiracy comes to light, the reader must firmly believe that something is at risk leading up to that point. 
  • Winners and Losers: If someone wins in politics, someone else has to lose. The reader should get a glimpse of what happens to the people who fall short so they know that the risk is real. If there is no failure chance, there is no tension.
    • Again, this cannot wait until the end. I do not mean that you should show the main villain getting their comeuppance. I mean that you should show what happens to both heroes and villains who fall short, especially where treachery and backstabbing is involved. (Why? It makes your traitors more despicable if readers see the damage that they’ve done. It also lets everyone know what could happen to the heroes should they trust the wrong person.)
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    Frankly, it’s not even my own horse.

    Personal Risk: Unless the reader is already invested in the setting, war is a vague, far off event. It is difficult to care about nations. But it is easy to care about people. Make the politics personal and see to it that each important character has some skin in the game, whether it’s a matter of pride, financial investment, or personal relationships. This is especially important for character driven stories

  • Competence: Not everyone has to be good at politics. In fact, it’s more realistic and more compelling for the characters to be at different skill levels. (Hyper-competent villains against a fish-out-of-water protagonist? Bring it.) But somebody does have to be competent. Especially the villains. A villain’s effectiveness is limited by their competence. If no one knows what’s up, we’re left with 600 pages of ineffectual flailing. And that just hurts.
  • Subtlety: Subtext is your friend here. Don’t feel the need to put everything on the surface. Political environments are fun because they are one of the few places in fiction that characters are expected to deliver more lies than truth. This lends itself to more subtle forms of deception and subterfuge, partly because you can’t get away with heavy handed evil overlords and card-carrying villains.
    • Subtlety counts double for individuals. One of the worst ways to undercut a manipulative character is to have them claim to be a master manipulator. Aside from the fact that people tend to be skeptical of direct characterization (once they claim to be a master manipulator, they have quite a bit to live up to), but it also ruins the manipulation. If someone goes around talking about how manipulative they are, is it likely that anyone will ever trust them again?

Writing Like a Boss: Complexity

Complexity is a balance. Too little and it’s easy to see through. Too much and things become convoluted and contrived, not to mention difficult to keep track of. One of the best ways to deal with this is to create factions with broader interests, and then to flesh out individual interests within those factions.

So it’s me versus him, her, them, you, and that guy in the green.

How many factions? I’d recommend starting with three. One faction means it’s all in-fighting, which undercuts the faction’s competency.Two factions means that there’s a power dynamic, but with fairly clear cut sides. It’s an us and a them. Three factions means there’s a force that can swing the balance of power. This is where the politicking can really start. In fiction, odd numbers are beautiful because, unless you intend to tear something apart, you cannot have an even split. A third faction can break deadlocks, take advantage of the conflict between the other two, or use another faction as a puppet. It can be an ally, a bigger enemy, or an inscrutable force with its own goals. Three is where the dynamic gets interesting, but it isn’t so many that readers can’t keep track or that the sides become indistinct.

Photos courtesy of morguefile.