Breathing Life in Characters Part 1: Politics and Society

One of the things that makes or breaks any story are the characters involved in it, but creating great characters goes beyond individual personalities and delves into the experiences and social contexts of the world that they live in. In short, your characters should be opinionated.

Creating a living world is necessary for characters to be truly vibrant, and one of the best ways to do that is to look at current events and issues that characters are likely to engage themselves with. It is important to remember that in places where there is total agreement there is also little interest to be found: everyone agrees that the invasion of orcs is going to be problematic for the stability and sovereignty of the kingdom in the long run.

It is characters who have meaningful opinions in circumstances where there may be disagreement that are interesting. Consider the matter of royal succession; people may support the son of the Queen from before her marriage to the King, or her husband’s half-brother. One may be an idealistic reformer, and the other might want to maintain the status quo. Having characters align with one or the other fleshes out their personality; people who align with reformers may want the best for the common man, but some might prefer to maintain the status quo and retain their own personal wealth and status out of a sense of duty and loyalty.

When dealing with this sort of issue, it is important to remember that if you are going to demonize a faction they still need to be believable. Human sacrifices are rarely supported for the sake of human sacrifices, but a society that believes that the sun god demands a beating heart to be ripped from a captive’s chest from time to time in order to keep the world from plunging into eternal winter will likely find a way to justify the practice.

Furthermore, most political issues do fall into a dichotomy, as a natural consequence of human thought processes, but there are scales of acceptance; militance, passive support, and apathy. This essentially gives five approaches to any particular issue.

Having a rift between militance and passive support is important. Let’s look at a hypothetical example:

The Emperor of Rome wants to open up trade with Queen of Carthage. The empires that have expanded from both cities have been at war since time immemorable, and both societies view each other as morally depraved, though some sensible members of both believe the most heinous allegations to be hollow propaganda or outright slander and sensationalism:

  • Militant supporters of the Emperor might point out that the Emperor has Rome’s best interests in mind, and take to the streets to garner popular support among the plebeians for such a course of action.
  • Passive supporters of the Emperor think that this trade deal could be good, and while they aren’t willing to publicly support such a dramatic change of relations with Rome’s historic enemy, they aren’t offended by it and look forward to new Carthaginian goods.
  • People who are apathetic may either have a conflicting opinion; liking trade but being suspicious of Carthage, or may simply not have heard or thought about the deal.
  • Passive supporters of blocking trade with Carthage think that such a course could be risky and retain grudges against the nation for past wars against Rome. They may also believe that the trade will work out to benefit Carthage more than Rome, being a potential risk.
  • Militant opponents of the Emperor’s deal may bribe the Senate to rein in any potential deal, or sabotage ships at the dock so that any trade with Carthage would have to involve a tremendous overland journey. They may even plot the Emperor’s assassination if they feel strongly enough, or seek to replace his advisors so that he will see the error of his ways.

Considering large-scale political issues is a great way to begin to engineer characters without requiring much resolution. While most people and characters will be more than a simple list of political views, having characters who have political opinions allows you to easily create reasons for factions to form. It helps you create characters off the cuff as well; if you need a minor character to react a certain way in a certain situation, or even just to have a certain element of context, political circumstances give a great conversation topic; a character who says “Long live the king!” earnestly feels more alive if you can explain who he believes is the rightful king.

Not all political issues need to be large-scale, however. A great way to make factions feel alive and give an added measure of realism is to make each faction have one or two little internal political squabbles. This could come down to something as simple as characters’ chosen evening haunts: one pub might cater to upper-class citizens and have a certain veneer of respectability, while another might have more cheaper fare and a more festive atmosphere. Alternatively, politics often revolve around other characters; members of a church might have opposing views on a new pastor, or militia members may have distrust of the county marshall after a series of tactical blunders.

As you come up with these small opinion pieces, be sure to integrate them into the world as a whole, using them as a basis for further expansion of your setting and giving reasons for them; why is there a new pastor? Have the two competing taverns of a town been around for generations? Are they both owned by the same landlord? Why has the Emperor begun to seek trade with Carthage—does he fear a barbarian threat, has he run the treasury dry, or does he seek to end the long-standing enmity between two nations?

You don’t need to answer all of these questions, but as you answer, write things down. It will help you form a framework for expanding a world into a believable realm for adventure and intrigue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *