Politics, Personality and Process: Activism in Fiction

If you feel strongly about a topic, should you incorporate politics in fiction writing? The choice is deeply personal, but here, Nina Sadowsky makes a case for taking a stand in your work.
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If you feel strongly about a topic, should you incorporate politics in fiction writing? The choice is deeply personal. Here, Nina Sadowsky makes a case for taking a stand in your work.

By Nina Sadowsky

Am I the only one who’s a little on edge these days? I don’t think so. The news cycle lurches us from one disaster to yet another scandal and then back again in an endless loop. Outrage is everywhere, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum.

The polarized and frankly nasty tone of modern life affects virtually everyone. I know childhood best friends who no longer speak to one another, siblings who can’t enter each other’s homes. I check my email or the news in the middle of my writing day only to discover myself yelling obscenities at my impassive screen, my shoulders lifted, my ire high. Whew. Even thinking about my often out-sized reactions makes me tense.

I began to wonder how this constant state of siege was impacting my writing. Shortly thereafter, I read a fascinating piece in the Guardian about how the 2016 election impacted the fantasies crafted by romance novelists. Certain tropes, like the “emotionally remote controlling millionaire,” suddenly didn’t play the way they used to in a world before Trump, #MeToo and #TimesUp. This article made me realize I wasn’t alone. How could I be? Everybody’s nerves are jangling. Writers’ nerves are jangling right into their keyboards.

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Novelists like myself use crime fiction to explore and process society’s ills; with the reassurance that usually, in the end, justice will out. In part, I write to reassure myself of the same, because as we all know, in “real life” the good guys don’t always win. In fiction, I can control the outcome. I can find the light in the darkness.

My first and most important step in writing, choosing a theme, requires me to take a stand. I begin by identifying the particular aspects of society I’m interested in examining. Next, I clarify my unique perspective on those questions. Third, I ask what I want my readers to take away from this exploration. Throughout the process, I am open-minded—aware of and excited for surprising and joyful discoveries that may counter my original assumptions.

[Online Course: Writing the Thriller Novelwith William Bernhardt]

I explore a wide range of themes in my work including moral ambiguity in our rapidly changing and increasingly complex world, guilt and redemption, the damage lies can inflict, and the effects of mental illness and domestic abuse on families. I examine society’s dark side: looking at the toll of human trafficking, illegal arms trading, and the evil that can be done behind the concealing curtain of the darknet.

I marry these themes with characters to propel action. Catherine, the heroine of my novel, The Burial Society, is my braver, more badass avatar. Driven by haunting guilt and desperate for redemption, she devotes her life to providing safe, new lives for abused women and children, whistleblowers, threatened witnesses and the like.

As an advocate for sensible gun reform, a cause for which I’ve donated both time and money since I became a mother, I made Catherine a woman with distaste for guns. She refuses to use them in her unorthodox work, which sometimes puts her at risk, as the forces she’s up against often have no such compunctions. But the beauty of my fictional world is that I can always shield her from the bullets, finding ways in which her smarts and skills can outwit the most dangerous weapon.

She’s wish fulfillment for me, equipped with talents and resources I don’t possess. She’s also possessed of a flexible moral compass that allows her to determine when breaking or subverting the law is in the interest of the greater good. Catherine’s able to skirt the law in order to transport endangered people into new identities and safe second chances, while my efforts are restricted to lobbying my representatives, marching in protests and donating my time and money to causes I support.

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As a mother of a gay child, I have written more queer characters across the spectrum, influenced my daughter’s advocacy. These characters are not defined solely by their sexuality or gender identity, but instead these traits are facts of life for these characters the way they are for countless people.

Sometimes my process takes me places that surprise me. For example, I would have described myself as more of “hippie” type than a “law and order” kind of person. But inspired by current events and the luck of an introduction to the now-retired former head of the FBI Undercover School, I’m currently crafting a character that is an FBI agent. This character reflects my deep respect for the men and women of that institution and their commitment to put the law of the land above personality and politics.

I’ve also had to dig deep into ideologies I don’t support personally in order to create characters reflecting worldviews that are not my own. While I can’t say I’ve had my opinions often swayed, seeing the world through different perspectives does give me empathy and compassion for people who think differently than I do. My hope is that my readers find their own perspectives challenged and widened.

While my politics and personal experiences have always influenced my writing, something shifted after the 2016 election. Since November 2016, I’ve felt a bit like I’m in a forest fire armed with only a water pistol. Much of today’s events seem to lack common decency or morality. The rancor between Americans is shattering. We debate everything from the relevancy of the constitution to what constitutes a hate crime, all while the world seems to spin ever faster.

In response, I’ve expanded my advocacy efforts, built on a platform of kindness and mutual respect. I want to listen and build bridges across harmful national divides.

Right now I find the world a confusing, oftentimes scary, always challenging place. Forging my path, I find my passions for advocacy and writing inextricably intertwined. I feel obligated to speak my truth as an individual and to reflect those truths as an author. As I root for kindness, decency and a safe world for my kids, my characters take no prisoners in their paths to make the world a better place. I can no longer be content to just let a character reflect my opinions on gun control or remind myself to be inclusive in the worlds I create. I have to take a stand. I have to do more. In my life and in my work.

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Ballantine published filmmaker Nina Sadowsky’s debut thriller, JUST FALL, in March 2016. She is developing a TV series based on the book with producer Mark Canton. Sadowsky has written numerous screenplays and produced many films including perennial favorite “The Wedding Planner.” She also teaches script development and producing at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Her second novel, THE BURIAL SOCIETY, was published by Ballantine January 30, 2018 and she has just concluded a deal to make the thriller the first of a three book series.

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