Op-Ed: How to write political fiction when the daily news reads like dystopia
I’ve spent my career thinking about how to tell the truth. I worked for a decade as a press critic at the Los Angeles Times, ran think tanks that study the news media and wrote a slew of books about the ethics of reporting and editing and the responsibilities of nonfiction.
Then a few years ago I began making things up.
I started writing political thrillers about Washington. I work hard to make these books plausible and revealing. And inevitably, people pose the same question: How can you possibly write fiction about politics when the news itself reads like dystopian fiction?
The answer, as comedian Lily Tomlin once said about politics, is that it’s impossible to be too cynical; it’s just hard to keep up.
Fiction, at least good fiction, is supposed to get at what’s true in a way nonfiction can’t. To invent stories that tell the truth about politics in Washington — which is to say, to tell stories about moral leadership in public life — I’ve had to keep redrawing the characters, making the situations more drastic and going darker into the human psyche. Or the stories don’t ring true.
It’s remarkable that one political character does not work on the page: Trump feels too predictable and too recognizable to be compelling as fiction.
The inner lives of the people in my invented world have become more fevered and filled with doubt. To fend off the bad guys, the good guys must do things that come closer to the moral edge. And to be believable, the villains have become stranger and more ruthless.
When I started writing fiction, around 2008, a number of my characters were veteran lawmakers who would play tough for the cameras. But in private — after they had done their best to get their way — they would count heads, face reality and make a deal.
These characters were amalgams of real people, of course. And the real-life lawmakers who inspired them were complex people whom I had covered as a journalist. As I worked on my first novel, however, nearly all of the real-life lawmakers retired or passed away.
By late 2015, as final edits were being made, many of the characters seemed anachronistic. The idea that two lawmakers might lock horns one day, then lock arms to co-sponsor legislation the next, no longer felt plausible.
Their pragmatism had to be scrapped. Now the characters needed to fear they would be “primaried” if they made a deal. Some had to be replaced altogether, substituted with younger politicians less interested in legislating and more interested in being president. Many of these new lawmakers abhorred the moderates in their own party more than they resented their opponents across the aisle.
The book’s theme was the importance of facts: how they still mattered in politics, despite how much some in Washington place a higher premium on perception. The theme still worked, and I still believe it’s true. But it became harder to make the case believable.
By mid-2016, I had started working on a new novel, this one about how politics was badly broken. The story involved thoughtful conservatives and liberals who felt confounded by a system that did not allow them to have complicated ideas or buck party orthodoxy.
But while a broken political system is no small matter, it started to feel insufficient. The book had to be about a bigger crisis: whether the government itself could survive.
New characters had to be added, ones who a year earlier might have seemed absurd. There were internet entrepreneurs in the Senate who wanted to “fix” politics the same way they’d reinvented industry. And shadowy billionaires funding campaigns with dark money to exercise control over government.
There were elected officials hacking their rivals’ emails. And congressional hearings so dysfunctional, people on both sides had no interest in the facts.
Machiavellian politicians were not just conspiring with ideological talk show hosts. Now, to be plausibly scary, they were planting false rumors on conspiracy websites and then commenting on them to ferry the lies into the legitimate press.
Something else changed, too. The people behind the scenes now felt like the most compelling characters. Not long ago, we might have dismissed them as staffers, apparatchiks or bureaucrats. Today, they are considered resisters or enablers, their struggles moral and existential.
One reason for this is that public figures in front of the cameras rarely talk these days like real people. They occasionally evince what sound like authentic thoughts, but their words feel pre-tested and acrylic. And that makes us doubt our politics even more.
A good deal of fiction, particularly thriller fiction, takes real situations and tweaks them, just a little, to examine the logical implications of where we are heading. The best fiction then throws interesting characters into those situations and explores how they react.
So it is remarkable that one political character does not work on the page: Trump feels too predictable and too recognizable to be compelling as fiction. Readers wouldn’t look beyond the real thing to see much more. And ultimately what’s interesting about Trump — if one were to invent him — is what he says about the rest of us.
Fiction is also different from real life because the stories come to an end, and we are left to contemplate their meaning. Maybe that’s why people keeping asking how anyone could write political fiction today. When you read the news, it’s hard to know the end. Or the meaning.
Tom Rosenstiel, who will appear at the Los Angeles Festival of Books on April 14, is the author of “The Good Lie.” He is executive director of the American Press Institute and a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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