Five Rules for Avoiding Political Controversy

               I usually try to keep politics out of my stories. By politics, I am usually referring to current political issues regarding policy issues. Unfortunately, politics often now includes social issues that go beyond justice, civil liberties, or the use of tax revenues. While some of these social issues may be subsumed under the banner of political rhetoric, they sometimes can be important issues to include in a story. In my view, these issues are those of personal identity and personal autonomy that should not be restricted or controlled by society unless there is a clear indication that such beliefs actually harm other people.

               I’ve long been an advocate of caveat emptor. The reader is responsible for making the decision to read a book. One problem with reading a book, however, is that the reader might not know what the content is until after they read the book. That’s why I believe reviews of a book are critical – other readers can inform a prospective reader what the book might contain.

               I also believe the author has a responsibility to identify portions of the book that might offend or hurt a potential reader. Of course, this might put an undue and unfulfillable burden on the author. One cannot anticipate every single thing that would offend a hypothetical reader.

               Given these caveats, I believe that it is appropriate for a writer to include some references to politics in one’s story. As an example, in my Hot Dog Detective novels, Mark MacFarland is a social conservative in some areas of his life, somewhat liberal in others. He supports the Second Amendment…yet he’d prefer that only the police and the military have guns, or more specifically automatic high magazine long rifles. Most of his beliefs are shaped by his experience being a cop.

               So I have adopted a short list of “Five Rules for Avoiding Political Controversy” to follow when I decide to put political content into my story.

               Rule 1:  Use only content that would be applicable to any political party. In The Morose Mistress, MacFarland must help someone who was dating a Senator who was murdered. The Senator in the story happens to be a Democrat, but he could just as easily have been a Republican. The only Colorado Senator I’ve met in person was a Democrat, so in his honor, I made my victim a Democrat.

               Rule 2:  Feel free to discuss values, but avoid taking a position on whether the reader should support those values. Both Pierson and MacFarland are members of the NRA, but at no point do I tell the reader that he or she must support the NRA. To me, membership in an organization like the NRA is a factoid that helps describe the character.

               Rule 3:  Keep things balanced. I try to show people of different ethnicities, nationalities, races, and religions in my stories, but I try not to focus too much one just one group. While MacFarland, Rufus Headley, and Cynthia Pierson are white, there are a lot of characters of other races throughout my stories. If anything, I try to replicate the social tableau that I observed when I lived in Denver.

               Rule 4:  Don’t generalize. I write about characters who commit crimes, tell lies, hide information, obstruct justice, and just generally behave in a bad way. But I try not to generalize from those specific individuals to a whole group of people. When I do that (for example, when I discuss the homeless children that MacFarland meets at his hot dog stand), I base them on the homeless children I learned about who attended the homeless shelter mentioned in the series.

               Rule 5:  Don’t exaggerate. I try to avoid using hyperbole and exaggeration in my descriptions and treatment of groups, issues, problems, or solutions. One of my biases is that all behavior is individual. Even a person caught up in a mob still acts as an individual, and must be responsible for their individual actions and decisions. I apply this to my victims, to my suspects, and to my murderers. At the end of the day, they are all individuals, not stereotypes.

               Some stories need to be political in nature. Dystopian societies in the future would be meaningless without a lot of “politics.” When writing about social justice issues, the writer needs to take a political stance. In many of these works, the author definitely wants to take a political position and speak to a specific political audience. If this is the story you need to write, go ahead and write it.

               But if you want to appeal to a wide, general audience, as I do, try to keep politics out of your stories. And if you do include anything that might be perceived as political, consider applying my Five Rules for Avoiding Political Controversy.

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