It’s election year in the U.S. and there’s almost no getting away from it anywhere. One of the things I hear over and over is people complaining about the polarization, how nasty the ads are, and so on. All the drama is, of course, a gold mine of material for writers, but stepping back a pace and considering it all in the abstract is equally worth doing. Because American politics provide textbook example after textbook example of something most writers absolutely should not be encouraged to do.
As near as I can tell, no one on either side of any issue in this election wants to admit that the other side even has a point of view, let alone actually consider it for a few seconds. And while this may be effective in politics, it tends to make for pedestrian writing, at the very best. At worst, ignoring “the other side” (whatever side that may be) results in fiction that’s didactic, preachy, and only enjoyable by people who already agree with the writer’s position.
Even if the number of people who agree with a particular stance is large (and thus the presumed audience and sales will be equally large), not considering the other side of the argument – and treating it, and the people who hold it, seriously – is nearly always a prescription for a second-rate book.
The reason is that obstacles that are too easy for the protagonist to overcome are almost always boring to read about (unless they’re a deliberate parody, e.g., the hero’s dreadful battle wound turning out to be a paper cut). Too-easy victories imply that the problem wasn’t really that bad to begin with. A protagonist who spends an entire book slaughtering paper tigers isn’t going to qualify as a hero for the reader, no matter how many medals the folks in the book pin on him.
And all that applies just as much to political, intellectual, and moral arguments in fiction as it does to physical obstacles. If Sleeping Beauty’s prince was faced with a neatly trimmed, foot-high “hedge” that he could step over instead of with an impenetrable forest of briars, it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable a story. If the protagonist of the story never doubts her purpose or her moral position, and always has an irrefutable answer for the weak and flimsy objections and challenges raised by her misguided and/or evil-and-corrupt opponents, it starts to look as if she’s in the proverbial battle of wits with an unarmed opponent – obviously, nobody even halfway rational, smart, or sane would ever take that other position.
Yet “everyone is the hero of their own story” – and that applies as much to the corrupt, evil, stupid antagonist as it does to your favorite main character. I know a number of writers who pay lip service to this idea, but who can’t seem to deliver when it comes to really understanding the antagonist’s view and portraying it without a secret sneer (which never seems to be quite as secret as the writer ought to have wished). I’m not really surprised by this. Putting oneself on the other side of an argument is hard, especially if one is passionately involved with one’s actual beliefs on the subject.
I don’t know any easy way to learn to do this. One has to make a deliberate, conscious choice to look at things from an unfamiliar (and usually extremely uncomfortable) angle…and one has to keep making that choice, noticing whenever one starts slipping back into thinking that no reasonable person would ever think that way or do that thing. Sometimes, it is easier to start with something that one isn’t quite so passionate about, something that doesn’t hit one’s personal hot buttons quite so hard. Other times, one simply has to change one’s plot (and/or the character of the antagonist) so that he doesn’t do that thing, think that way, believe that nonsense. Still other times, what works is to take the “opposite” viewpoint and give it to the hero (and not just to convert him to the “right” side at the end!), or do an ensemble cast story in which every one of the “good guys” has a different, not-altogether-palatable slant on whatever the question is.
In the long run, seeing the other side clearly, and being able to see (and, ideally, understand, and maybe even to some extent sympathise with) the reasons why the antagonists might think that or behave that way, is vitally important for anyone who wants to write realistic antagonists. And if it has a little real-world application as well, so much the better, I say.