Hi, Story Nurse,
I just outlined a romance novella and I’m trying to figure out its setting. It’s basically contemporary, with the obvious AU-ness that comes along with a functioning fantasy-genre-style system of magic—but who won in 2016? Has that election even happened yet in this ‘verse?
Can I write a simple fluffball escapist-fantasy romance set in the present-day US without addressing US politics directly? Like, am I capable of it? Separately, is it ethical to make the attempt? Is it ethical to not make the attempt?
How can I portray my protagonists sympathetically if they live in the present-day US and do not at least make a lot of sincere noise backed with some effort about handflappy?
But how do I focus on my actual plot—which is political only in the way that personal emotional journeys about minority religion and queer sexuality, both in counterweight to queermisic Catholicism, inherently are—if my characters are spending so many of their non-employment waking hours being actively political & stuff?
—Artist-Activist Butterfly (they/them)
Dear Artist-Activist Butterfly,
This is a great question that I think a lot of writers are struggling with right now, because we live in a very politically aware and active time. When so many of our own waking hours are taken up with thoughts about political activism and power dynamics and related anxiety and stress, it can be hard to remember what fluffy stories even look like.
I encourage you to take a step back and consider this problem through a historical lens. There have always been political and social challenges (especially for minorities), and there have always been fluffy stories that gloss over or steer around those challenges. If Regency romance authors can write happy bouncy funny stories that completely ignore or barely nod to the American and French revolutions (as recent to the Regency as the Vietnam War is to us) and the Napoleonic wars, you can write happy bouncy funny stories set in 2016 or 2018.
Here are a few options for how you might portray your characters as politically aware and engaged without it overwhelming the story:
- They do activism that doesn’t directly intersect with politics, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen or doing lay leadership with their religious organization (if they have one) or letting a trans teen crash on their couch after she’s kicked out of her house. This builds sympathetic characters and shows them living their political ideals, which frees you from having to reflect those ideals in frequent activism.
- They donate money rather than time. Make one mention of monthly donations, and then move on to the focus of your story.
- They talk about taking time off from activism to rest and recover.
Or you can just not mention it. I don’t think you need your characters to be ostentatiously political for them to be sympathetic. I’m sure you can think of any number of real people you like even though they aren’t deeply involved in activism, or their activism happens where you don’t see it. Your readers—who are presumably looking for a fluffy story—will likewise be perfectly happy to enjoy the aspects of the characters you put on the page, and not stress about the rest.
One thing that will help is keeping the scale of the story small. If it only takes place over two days in a cabin in the woods, it’s reasonable that politics wouldn’t be hugely relevant to the characters’ lives during that time. If it takes place over six months in a big city where there are frequently protesters in the streets and every bar has five screens showing CNN, or on a college campus where current events are frequently discussed and student activism is common, more political intrusion would be expected.
You can also write your alternate universe to be alternate enough that the election went a different way. If this setting has always had magic, there’s no reason to think history would have run the same course as it did in our magicless universe. Diverge from reality as much as you like.
As you observe, there are ethical arguments to be made both for and against writing fluffy stories that handwave politics. I’m personally in favor of you writing the story the way you want to write it. There’s room for all kinds of stories, and no shortage of people writing works that are explicitly political and emotionally heavy. I know many readers who are really eager for fluff right now because they’re so stressed out by politics and need a break now and then. Write for those readers, and for yourself.
Any novella needs to leave things out. It’s only a novella! It can’t contain the universe. Draw the lines where you need to in order to tell the story you want to tell.