Imagine a world where politics meant solving important problems rather than receiving approximately one million fundraiser emails. That’s the magic of fiction! This week, we’re all about political conflict, whether that means feuding aristocrats or nation-wide elections. We discuss how to give them stakes, why power is so important, and also why eugenics is bad, for some reason.
Generously transcribed by Elizabeth. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is:
Oren: Alright everyone, I’m gonna tear down the triumvirate structure of this podcast because if there’s one thing the Mass Effect games have taught me, it’s the danger of putting too much power in the hands of exactly three people. The Quarian admirals, the Earth Defense Committee, the council, there’s always three of them, and they’re always the worst. That’s the big political message of Mass Effect. It’s fine with putting lots of power in the hand of one person; Shepherd, specifically.
Chris: [laughs] As long as it’s me. [laughter]
Oren: Or Admiral Anderson’s probably okay too. Or the Turian king, whatever – I forget what his rank is – but not three people. That’s the wrong number. It was such a weird pattern too, and at one point I thought it was gonna be four people with the Quarians, but then it was like, no, actually one of them is recusing herself because she’s too involved in the case. So it’s down to three, baby, and they’re, of course, terrible at making decisions. [laughter]
Chris: If you want a committee, I feel like three is the minimum number.
Wes: Bare minimum for sure.
Chris: So if you don’t wanna add too many characters and you need a voting committee…
Oren: That’s what is going on actually. And, you know, it probably keeps your voice acting and animation budget down.
Chris: It is discouraging how many stories have an essential lesson in them that’s committee: bad, single person: good. It’s like, okay. Even if the hero is a perfect ruler, which is silly because they’re one person, they’re not gonna live forever.
Oren: Look, stories aren’t really big fans of checks and balances or diffusion of power, because your hero should have all of it.
Wes: Anecdotally, I remember in the comics for Marvel’s What If, of course in that comic run, Captain America gets shot and dies. But there’s the What If where Tony is being shown all these what ifs and it’s the what if he were honest with Cap, and it’s when they were setting up the powered people registration thing and Cap was mad about that violation of privacy. So the what if was Tony’s solution to that was just putting Captain America in charge of all of it. Which is exactly what we’re talking about. It’s like, oh, well surely you can’t corrupt him, and he’s honest and you know, maybe he’ll never die or suddenly the ice will catch up with him. I don’t really know. But, yeah, this obsession with the solitary hero is too simple and boring,
Oren: Which is why today we’re talking about political conflict and I guess my first piece of advice would be don’t do eugenics. [incredulous laughter]
Wes: Was that a risk, Oren?
Chris: Yeah. Yeah.
Oren: Weirdly, a lot of fantasy stories and some sci-fi stories engage in this. Either indirectly or sometimes more blatantly with the idea that one bloodline is superior to others, and that’s basically eugenics, is what that is.
Chris: A lot of fantasy ends up being pro monarchy, and that’s a way in which it’s often pro-monarchy is it will emphasize the superiority of a specific bloodline. I mean, just starting with Tolkien, right. But even Wings of Fire, [laughter] which we’ve been reading through right now, we have a dragon character, a young dragon who basically decides that she needs to be a leader of her people so that she can get them to do something that’s really important. And then after she becomes leader, it’s then revealed, oh, don’t you know that you were really from the royal bloodline all along? It’s just like, why did we do that? That was completely unnecessary. It’s just to give the main character this feeling of genetic superiority. I feel like we could do without that at this point.
Wes: Is that playing into some kind of misguided chosen one notions? Oh, any of us could secretly be royal.
Chris: I think it’s wish fulfillment, right? The idea of being inherently superior or inherently special if we wanna put a little bit nicer frame to it, being inherently special and nothing can ever take that away because you’re just that way from birth. It’s an attractive notion, often. It’s not a great notion, but it can be attractive from a wish fulfillment perspective.
Oren: Iin that you have secret qualities nobody has seen and somehow haven’t manifested, and that don’t come from boring things like your quality of life and your educational opportunities. So it is absolutely a wish fulfillment thing and not all wish fulfillment is bad. But this particular kind of wish fulfillment is bad. Don’t do it.
Wes: Because that’s basically just setting up a political statement that some people are better than others, inherently.
Oren: Yes. And I’ve seen some people who will be like, well, why does it matter? America doesn’t have kings, so it’s not like anyone’s running around saying we should have kings. And it’s like, no, but there are lots of people in America who think some people are just inherently better than others.
Chris: There are also, of course, monarchists in other countries. There are also countries outside of America. The other reason why it’s bad.
Oren: I kind of struggle with this, like, oh man, if I have a fantasy story and I show a monarch being cool, have I endorsed monarchy? And I sometimes have struggles with that, but I feel like we could all agree a base level would be to not establish that the royal lineage is superior to other lineages.
But the reason I actually wanted to talk about this topic was that I saw an article in The Independent, which for some reason now only exists in Yahoo. I couldn’t find the actual Independent version of the article, maybe because it was taken down because everyone yelled at it. But it was a critique of House of the Dragon which claimed that it was boring because everyone is equally evil. And I don’t know if that’s true or not. I have no opinion on House of the Dragon because I haven’t watched it. But it claimed that in Game of Thrones it was different because the different claimants had different political ideas. And you could tell that Westeros would be different based on which one of them won. And I don’t think that’s true.
Wes: What are you talking about? You don’t remember the lengthy speeches about the policies that they’re going to enact once they eventually take the throne? [laughter]
Oren: I’m pretty sure that the only significant political difference between any of the Westeros characters is that if the Starks win, the North will be independent. But even that doesn’t suggest any difference in style of governance, right? It’s still gonna be a king. Your king’s just gonna live in a different castle.
Chris: Speaking of which, the North will be independent and the north is the place that benefits the most by not being independent.
Wes: Yeah, for real.
Chris: They’re the ones that need support from the rest of the kingdom. So, if anything, you’d think it’d be the South that would wanna split off.
Oren: No. See, that’s just realistic because the places that get the most state funding are always the places talking about seccession.
Chris: I mean, outside of the United States?
Oren: I have no idea. [laughter]
Chris: I mean, I assumed that was just a factor of where the political divides are in the United States and they happen to follow upon those lines, but it would certainly be interesting if that was a universal mechanism and messed up.
Oren: You could argue that Daenerys actually has political differences from the Westeros characters because she’s doing her white savior thing, but that’s not what’s happening for most of the story. Most of the Iron Throne fight is between a bunch of nobles who will, as far as we can tell, rule in basically exactly the same way, and both the show and the books depend on their personal charisma and how we feel about them as characters to invest us in that conflict, not their political goals. And clearly that works for a lot of people. They’re very popular.
But this is something I’ve thought about a lot as I write fantasy and read fantasy manuscripts, is that if possible, I think you wanna try to do better because you don’t want your readers to realize that, hey, this whole epic fight where thousands of people are dying is because of personal beef between two nobles. Like, if we went to war with Canada because Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau got into a fist fight, that would be pretty weird. I don’t think any of us would be super into that.
Wes: But it’s historical, Oren, and I mean, if we know anything about Game of Thrones it’s that it’s real! So that’s very real. [laughter]
Oren: It’s very real. That’s a fair point. There are, and there have been, and definitely still are. lots of places, and I’m not gonna say the US is even immune to this, that have giant wars and other political conflicts because of the personal desires of the leaders. It’s not like that doesn’t happen. If we see that for what it is, we would typically classify those people as villains. If someone’s motivation is like, I plunged my country into war because I personally wanted to marry that princess, and you spelled it out like that, you’d be like, mm, you sound like a rude man.
Chris: I mean, I would also point out that these instances are probably less common than people think, just because war is costly. So usually people wouldn’t want to go to that greater risk and that great expense unless they have something a little bit more significant and substantial to gain and return from that. It’s an investment they want a return on.
Oren: This could be perfectly realistic. You could have a political story in a feudal-type setting where two branches of the same family are fighting over who gets the throne, because that will get them lots of money, right? And power. And that’s a perfectly realistic thing that happens all the time, especially in feudal societies. But if you made that your story and then you expected your audience to cheer for one of those families, you might have a problem. You might not; you might be able to obscure that that’s what you’re fighting over, but if your audience realizes that, they might be like, maybe the good guys should just surrender, because I don’t know if it’s worth getting thousands of people killed over who gets the royal tax income
So I’m just saying if you’re gonna have a big conflict, and unless of course your story is about the pointlessness of these big conflicts as they’re just being fought for the personal gain of a select few or what have you, you may want to see if you can build in bigger reasons for this fight to happen.
Wes: I remember your note about these people becoming villains makes sense. I remember in the nineties, the Merlin movie with Sam Neill and Helena Bonham Carter. Basically Uther is after, I believe it’s Lady Igraine. Anyway, Uther is waging war because he really wants sexy times with the future mother of King Arthur. Merlin goes along with it despite the political cost because yes, he tells his talking horse, the end justifies the means. So we get Arthur by allowing something terrible to happen, and probably don’t do that either. It’s fantasy. You don’t have to. [laughter]
Oren: I mean, you’re leaning very hard on the audience accepting that Merlin’s prophecy is correct and that this setting will be better off with Arthur in it, and it will be worth this giant war.
Wes: Well, you’re also like, obviously Arthur is gonna be a much better king than Uther because the bar is just sub-zero. It’s just incredibly low.
Oren: Or you could go the opposite direction, I guess, and do the BBC Merlin show where Merlin’s goal is to keep Arthur from becoming King at all costs. For most of the show, for some reason, it’s like, no, we can’t let Uther die because Arthur’s not ready to be king.
Wes: [mockingly] He can’t do it!
Oren: And it’s like, what are you talking about? He’s as ready as he’s ever gonna be. What are you waiting for?
Chris: There’s no way he could be worse than Uther, so…
Oren: What are you talking about, Merlin?
Wes: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, obviously when we have political conflicts, especially fantasy stories, it kind of boils down to just ultimately a variety of demagogues. Is that fine? I mean, I know on our factions podcast [No. 380], we really did kind of want there to be more of a figurehead and still a person representing more complicated interests. But we’re probably not gonna get into a lot of political discourse. Maybe we could, but I mean, you’re running a real risk there because nobody on the campaign trail spends a lot of time talking about actual policies because it’s quote unquote boring.
Chris: You have to find a way to show it rather than tell it, so somebody’s not just having a monologue about all of their policies. I would pick something, you know, one issue to bring to life. Maybe something that’s big and obvious like an infrastructure project, or a political alliance with a neighboring kingdom – something that matters a lot and that could be divisive – and focus on that.
Wes: Like in that episode of The Witcher, about how Nilfgaard actually gives people beer and food. Ignore everything else, but they will feed you.
Oren: Or that Nilfgaard gives the elves basically their own little client state. There’s a lot of weirdness in the politics of the Witcher, but an empire being like, hey, so we wanna conquer this area and one thing we might do is offer some kind of benefit to the oppressed people who live there if they’ll fight for us; that’s a thing that could actually happen. There is precedent for that. Of course, there is also precedent for people using the fear of that to justify horrible atrocities. Like, well, we have to kill all the elves before Nilfgaard offers them a place to live. That sort of thing. So it’s messy, but it’s not wrong. And if you’re prepared to take that on, you could definitely do that.
Chris: One thing that is fun to see is also infighting at any particular faction. I think a good example is actually Zuko versus Commander Zhao in Avatar. They’re supposed to be on the same side because they’re both working for the Fire Nation. Capturing the avatar is something they’re both supposed to be doing, but instead they get in a competition with each other to capture Aang and get credit for it. If you have a very aggressive faction that is into punishing and rewarding people a lot for their accomplishments and puts ’em in competition with each other, you could have that kind of infighting, which I think adds a little more nuance to it. It’s interesting.
Oren: You definitely run up against the great give and take of, on the one hand, I don’t want my political factions to seem like monoliths. On the other hand, I don’t have infinite time for infinite complexity of breaking down all of the sub factions and their sub factions. So I think we will come back to picking one or two things that matter and use those to give a greater impression. Because you can’t show everything, but you can show one thing, and if you show why it matters, then readers can imagine that it applies to other areas as well.
Chris: Yeah. With politics, you definitely have to pick and choose your battles cause it’s just too complicated.
Oren: One thing that you definitely need to keep in mind with political conflicts – you need to keep this in mind with everything, but with political conflicts in particular – is who has the power, And this is a thing that I see a lot of stories mess up, because they assume that who has the power will roughly translate to who has the strongest sword arm or who is the best at making friends in a personal setting. But that’s not necessarily how that works. If you’re at the level of politics, you’re talking about big groups and power will flow from a lot of different places. The most direct is gonna be military power. Do what we say or will kill you. That’s not the only kind. But if someone has military power, you’re gonna need to think real hard about whether anyone else can stop them with something other than equivalent military power.
A story that kind of has that problem, we’ve talked about this before, is A Memory Called Empire, which has the big evil general One Lightning, and he’s got his big army and he’s gonna take over. But then the emperor who he was gonna overthrow reads a really cool poem on TV and then does a self human sacrifice on himself. And it’s like, all right, that’s neat, but I don’t think that’s gonna stop One Lightning and his army of people who were already going to overthrow the empire.
Chris: Yeah. I will say there’s other forms of power besides military might, even in politics. There’s legitimacy as one thing. Again, it depends on what the balance of power is between, for instance, the military and the public and specific figures. Some people are gonna be more indispensable than others, so there could be a lot of different levers to pull, but I agree with that.
One of the very funny things about Wings of Fire right now is that we have a scenario where we have these queens that are fighting over a kingdom, and then they have their allies who are queens that are ruling a kingdom that’s not divided, and it acts in a couple of the books like the queens who are still squabbling over a piece of a kingdom somehow have more power than their allies. But that doesn’t make any sense because the allies who are supporting their claim for the throne not only have an intact kingdom, so that would make them more powerful, but also the needs usually go in one direction, right? The queen that’s trying to claim a throne needs her ally more than an ally needs her, generally.
Oren: This is like if you had a story about the Korean War and acted like Rhee Syng-man outranked Harry Truman. It’s like, no, Harry Truman is the one who is making sure that Syng-man’s little dictatorship doesn’t fall apart. Truman gets what he wants in this scenario.
And with that story actually, in particular, it’s definitely a personality thing where the story assumes that Burn and Blister, who are the two cool evil queens, would be in charge because Burn is good at fighting and Blister is real smart, even though they only have like 10 supporters each, whereas their allies have entire dragon tribes. But then it assumes that Blaze, who is the incompetent one who doesn’t know how to do anything, that she wouldn’t be in charge, even though she has her most of her own tribe behind her. That one’s a little more realistic. You can imagine that if she doesn’t really know what she’s doing, that she would be subservient to her ally, who also has a large force. Iit’s the other two that don’t make any sense.
Wes: I’m trying to think about, besides military power, there’s the money, but I’m wondering, can you have enough political power? Because you are basically the bank, but I feel like you also have to have the army. We brought up Westeros earlier, and the Lannisters had Casterly Rock and the gold. The kingdom was in debt to the Lannisters, so that afforded them a lot of political power. A much better story would be somebody else learning that the gold mines had run dry and they actually are broke, and letting all the other nobles know about that, but they never did that anyway.
But at that point, I don’t know if you’re dealing with conscripted soldiers or not, but if you can’t pay, that makes sense, but if you can pay but you’re not the one that’s fielding the army, then how much power do you really have? Can’t the army just come invade you?
Oren: It depends on context, right? Politics is super context sensitive. I have seen stories where you’ll have a rich dude who will be like, okay, army man, you do what I say or I won’t fund your army. And it’s like, okay, but all of your money is in a vault under your house. We could just come take it, right? So in that context, that doesn’t really make sense. But if you’ve got like, hey, so we are bringing you gold from across the ocean from a country you can’t get to, and you need our gold to pay your soldiers. And if we give the word, the gold stops coming, you can’t pay your soldiers, their morale drops, and they start mutinying, then yeah, that person is absolutely gonna have a lot of influence. Or if you’re in a modern setting, which is much more complicated and extreme wealth doesn’t usually rely on stacks of gold in someone’s basement, that can make the situation even more complex. At that point you have to probably simplify it.
Chris: I will also say that depending on where your political conflict takes place, you could have political conflict without warfare. In a much more stable system where nobody wants to resort to getting the military involved, and that’s a worst case scenario for everybody, and money, then, is important, or it’s between money and positions of influence or power, right. And it’s almost like a competition between the rich people who fund political campaigns and the politicians over who has the most influence, for instance.
Oren: And you can set up other dynamics, right? You can have the one person who has lots of money but is really unpopular, and sure, they could pay for PR campaigns, but that’s not like a one to one, I put in $1, I get one popularity bonus, right? So they could be at odds with someone who does not have a lot of money but is really popular, either because they’re a really good public speaker or maybe because, gasp, they’ve actually done good things and people paid attention. That’s also possible, I know we’re all cynical, but… [laughter]
So you can get into infinite complexity here, but you should just figure out what it is and then be able to present it in a way that isn’t super complicated so that your readers can hopefully understand. And you can have more complexity if you set expectations properly. You might not get the best results if your story opens with a big, exciting battle and then the rest of it is explaining trade policy. That might not be the greatest, but you can have some balance there.
Chris: Another one is competition between the monarchy and the church. Again, they, a lot of times, have a reciprocal relationship, but they can also have tensions. Then this question is, which one is more important? The monarchy probably controls the army, but the church has the most cultural legitimacy in many of those cases.
Wes: And if your church has created the monarchy with the divine right of kings, then we get back to the start of this episode with problems of bloodline, et cetera, et cetera.
Oren: You can decide things, like how religious is your setting? How literally do people take religion? Do you wanna mirror the period of European history when being excommunicated was a really big deal, and if that happened to you and even if you were a powerful king, you would be in huge trouble because people were genuinely very religious and if you were excommunicated that basically just put a giant target on your back. But then as you get further forward and power moves away from the church and towards the state, being excommunicated, ehhh, less of a problem. You can just kind of deal with it. Just set it up and support it properly, and then that should work fine.
Wes: You just do that. Easy. [laughter]
Oren: Easy. Another thing: you should always think about motivations, but in particular in political conflicts because those can be harder to explain than personal ones. You really don’t wanna end up with a Rings of Power situation where – spoilers for Rings of Power – Numenor hates elves, maybe, for some reason, and it never explains why!
Wes: They’re elves, Oren.
Chris: It’s so frustrating.
Oren: And there’s a scene where one Numenorian goes, the elves are gonna come and take our jobs.
Oren: [incredulous laughter] And it’s like, what? There’s no context for this. It’s like an American right wing politician being like, the Norwegians will come and take our jobs. I mean, sure, if you establish that there’s a lot of anti-Norwegian prejudice for some reason that maybe could work, but just outta the blue, it’s so random.
Chris: Right. But also, where does the anti-Norwegian prejudice come from? Not that prejudice is logical all the time, but usually you would assume that people would have to encounter the Norwegians before getting all heated over them.
Oren: No one on Numenor has seen an elf for a really long time or had any particular bad things that happened that they could blame on elves.
Chris: They were previously allies, so where does this come from?
Oren: And then suddenly there are people cheering when the queen is like, we’re gonna help the elves. And it’s like, are there factions? Are there pro- and anti-elf factions in Numenor? Please give me some context.
Chris: Everybody just suddenly changes their mind as soon as the queen gets the resolve.
Wes: Well, there’s the really big, boy, we gotta get off this island faction. It’s like, yeah, I’m so bored here you guys. Let’s go check out the mainland, which is basically the story of Isildur. [laughter] Yeah, that’s a fun one. And then of course it would not be a Lord of the Rings show without some kind of king that was promised. Gotta have that.
Oren: We need the Promised King. We need just a little bit of eugenics, you know, a little bit.
Chrsi: And some jewelry.
Chris: That always gets passed down the family, never gets lost, never gets sold when somebody’s desperate, just is always there.
Wes: One of the bigger sources of political conflict in that show though, is definitely what Elrond’s doing with Durin to try to secure some more, specifically mithril, for spoilers that we’re kind of talking about, and there’s quite a lot at stake there for the offers that the elves are making because I suppose their lives depend on it, even though they would just be – gasp – mere mortals, like the rest of everybody else, which is basically the take that Durin’s dad has on it, which is, eh, whatever, they’ll just die. It doesn’t matter.
Oren: I really wish I understood better why Durin’s dad, Dad-Durin, was so against mining for mithril. Because they mentioned briefly mine safety and I’m like, is that not something that you could solve by going a little slower?
Chris: I’m trying to figure out whether he can tell there could be a balrog if they dig deeper.
Oren: Yeah. Does he know about the balrog?
Wes: See, that’s such a question because that was such a – he basically said, oh, we can’t get too greedy and dig too deep, which is exactly the quote from the actual book, but there’s no suggestion that he would know about the balrog. The elves should be the only ones that know about the balrog that made the mithrill in the first place with that god fight or whatever.
Oren: Yeah. Maybe he doesn’t know specifically about the balrog. Maybe he’s just researched and discovered that bad things tend to happen to dwarf mines that dig below a certain depth. I’d also accept that. I would love to know something. Please.
Chris: My concern is that we have Dad-Durin being like, you don’t understand, we have to let all the elves die, because that’s the natural way of things, and if we try to prevent that and dig too greedily and too deep, something bad will happen to us. And then he’s proved right by the storyline. [laughs] Yes, we should just let all the elves die. That’s definitely the right thing to do there.
Wes: Because Durin’s not only doing right by his friend Elrond, he’s also securing a pretty good deal for 500 years. Talk about mutual prosperity. Anyway.
Chris: It would be nice to know not only what Dad-Durin’s concerns are about mining for the mithril, but is there something really big he has against the elves where he actually just wants them to die? Context.
Oren: All right. Well, with that final call for context, we are about out of time, so I think we’re going to have to end the episode for today.
Chris: If the Mythcreant podcast has helped you with one of your creative projects, support us on Patreon. Go to patreon.com/mythcreants.
Oren: And before we go, I wanna thank a few of our existing patrons. First we have Callie Macleod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. She has definitely had things to say about politics in the past. Next we have Ayman Jab er. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com, and we’ll talk to you next week.[closing theme plays]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening, closing theme: The Princess who Saved Herself by Jonathan Colton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?