The Writers' Group 8,388 members · 48,445 stories
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There are a number of ponyfic authors who do political scheming effortlessly, like GhostOfHeraclitus does with stories like Whom the Princesses Would Destroy or Carabas with Moonlight Palaver. Needless to say, the world of non-pony has notable standouts in that regard also, from Game of Thrones to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series.

In these kinds of stories, there are multiple strong characters who want certain things to succeed or fail, in various degrees of explosions or knives sticking out of certain backs, and with varying degrees of honesty about their goals. (even honesty to themselves, see Chronic Backstabbing Disorder)

So, how do we write them? How do you make the blood flow down the page as the reader feels for each of the chess pieces, sees them fail, succeed, die, love, betray, and feel the shock of realization as they uncover more twists to the plot at knifepoint?

I mean there’s always the classic approach: Make a main character who is thoughtful, kind, and somebody the readers will really love. Then do horrible, terrible things to them. (Robert Jordon’s approach, I believe) Or the George RR Martin approach. (He’s rumored to ask people when they meet “Who’s your favorite character?’ then quietly hmm while making a note to himself after the answer.)

But that doesn’t get to the gamesmanship question. Vast wheels are turning in the plot that the main characters don't see directly, and other characters are lying to them, which can really scramble the reader’s comprehension.

How do we pick those points out so the reader is both partially informed and curious about what is coming up next, putting together the puzzle as they read and occasionally turning it upside-down to see it in different context? How do we show somebody who squelches the protagonist at one moment and helps them up the next, and still make those actions logical in context. Well, there are a few tools I’ve seen used quite well.

Gradual Reveal: For example, in The Shambling Guide to New York City the protagonist is an unemployed travel guide writer who is hired to write a guide to NYC for… different tourists. In Men in Black, the reader/watcher already knows the plot is about aliens on Earth so what better to start off the movie than by an INS stop. In Bujold’s Shards of Honor, it starts with just the two main characters stranded on a planet, and grows into a full interstellar war.

KISS: By keeping clear daylight between any two groups, you prevent the muddy mess of trying to pick out who is what. This is why movies use accents and uniforms, while writers use distinct speech patterns. If two sides are at war, that is easy, but if they are supposed to be allies, or worse, family like in Knives Out...

Empathy: There once was a boy who lived in a cupboard beneath the stairs. Go ahead, try to hate that character. Realize that every character in your story (who is not a psychopath) has a reason for what they do, and that reason should be something a reader can empathize with. Victor Freeze and his tragic wife. Batman and his lost parents. Even Justice Lord Batman has serious motives. Evil just for evil’s sake is not very compelling. Doing evil to attain a greater good can grab at the reader.

FYI: This blog post was triggered by a review on the movie Knives Out, which I had not seen and only vaguely understood the idea behind. The idea that some people routinely turn life-and-death activities into little power games as a matter of their upbringing was a step outside of my regular mental view of the world. (I’ll admit the most game-y thing I’ve written is in The Traveling Tutor and the Royal Exam, where the Griffon Emperor is poisoned during a diplomatic dinner.) I’m a gamer, but not a gamer. To be specific, I play Fantasy Role-Playing Games all of the time, but I don’t play social games like office politics or for that matter complicated real political games, so I’m not perfectly at-ease with the process.

So, discuss among yourselves and tell us what tools in your toolbox you prefer to use and how your favorite authors arrange their own chess games. I’ll just be sitting here, taking notes.

HapHazred
Group Admin

7141755 This isn't fiction, but the shenaniganery I have had to pull in the lab to get what I want as a PhD (a minnow in a pond with some very large fish swimming about) isn't even funny. Academia can be cut-throat.

Ultimately the only time I truly trust someone is when I know that, in order for them to get what they want, I have to get what I want. I don't mean in a 'trade' scenario, but in a 'if I win, they also win' kind of way. Because in academia there are always double motivations, with exposure, funding, a name on a paper, classic power struggles, inter-university and organisational differences, and very rarely, actual scientific curiosity playing roles, it's generally pretty crucial to accurately identify what exactly is currently motivating someone and how to work efficiently.

It's not life and death stuff, but especially with funding on the line, people's jobs are very much at risk, particularly postdocs, since their existence in the organisation is tied to funding. Between bad management, cooky professors, and incompetent PhDs (hello, by the way), it's easy for things to get wrong, and often a lab is competing against dozens of other labs, and if they get to a development first, you can bet they're the ones getting that sweet, sweet funding, not us...

Naturally, despite being fully aware of what goes on around me, I always seem to find new and innovative ways to fuck things up. It's good fun.

I've been adding bits of this to a story I'm currently working on, even, where the main item in play is nothing more than public perception, because the side that looks like they are the most developed and high-end is the one that is going to get funding to enable themselves to persist. In the story, it's a battle between the Wonderbolts and a new laboratory that has developed a jet engine plane... very simplified compared to the stuff I bear witness to, but still a conflict nonetheless with a battleground very far removed from the usual fights and stuff I typically see in fantasy.

My strategy is to split perspectives between two characters, one of whom is very emotional and operates non-intellectually, and another who is very calculating and devious who tends not to consider emotion much at all. Obviously neither character is an extreme, and naturally have their own nuance and moments of both emotion and cold logic both, but it allows me to very simply show the mover and the moved in the equation. We'll see how it turns out...

7141755
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It's helpful to keep in mind the principle of proportionality. How important is the end goal to the various characters involved, vs. to the world at large. There's a strange tendency for humans to ascribe an inverse personal importance to certain matters depending on how important they are to the world at large.

There's an old saying in the academic world: "Infighting in academia is so vicious, because the stakes are so low." Or, to put it more succinctly, it's all about Ego. The more world-involved a goal or threat is, the less ego is involved. The stakes are simply too high, to nebulous, to overarching to allow for much personal association. The individual gets lost in the mass of humanity affected. Whereas the smaller the goal, the more one is able to personalize it, and invest it with one's sense of self-worth or self-importance. I'm sure everyone has either had or observed a moment where a person took a ridiculously hard-line stance over a truly petty issue; and attempted to justify it by saying "It's the principle of the thing," rather than the material outcome, that was important. That's not true, of course, because it's not a principle at stake, but the person's ego that is on the line. It's not enough to be right, everyone else must fully acknowledge one's rightness, as well as their own error.

What makes a supervillain, IMO, is how much of their ego they invest in their machinations. Even on a world-affecting level, they're still able to personalize the issues involved in a way that ordinary people do not. Same with the shadowy conspiracies; it's not the eventual goal that is their biggest motivation, but the process, the destruction and/or humiliation of their enemies. Ego is what drives them, either individual or group ego. That's why instead of taking the most direct, rational, effective approach; they engage in elaborate, complex, multi-layered schemes. It's not enough to be in accomplish one's goal, one must also be clever about it.

Games are all about cleverness, about showing off, impressing or intimidating others.

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Pratchett (no surprise) put it best with the functioning of the wizards in general. Dead wizard's boots...

If you want to talk politics, the strategy that's more important than it was over a century ago, is information control and optics.

It doesn't have to be overt either. There are many cases of news articles that very subtly start poisoning the well with deceptive use of words and trying to paint a picture that isn't reality. You can fool a lot of people because you are a "trusted source", but you also have to maintain the optics with continuous lying in order to maintain the deception.

Why else do you think so many people are accusing others of being "Nazi's" and saying there's millions in the United States today, when reliable statistics state they're maybe in the low 10s of thousands at the best of times in the last few decades? In a country with over 1/3 of a billion people? Information control and optics.

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