Insights of the Writes III: Political Intrigue

Hi everyone! Welcome back to the third post of Insights of the Writes. So far, we’ve covered Story Style and Character through Prologues and Morally Grey Characters respectively, so now, we’ll be talking about World through Political Intrigue!

Political intrigue (specifically court intrigue) is one of my favorite elements of a story. Think extremely clever characters who work to control power and influence the world in various ways. Political intrigue serves so many functions—it can advance or hinder character development, steer the plot forward, and give the readers a really intricate insight into your world’s true nature.

Because political intrigue isn’t always necessary to a story, as it most often works best with science fiction and fantasy, I will pose a few questions to you that will hopefully help you figure out if political intrigue is necessary to your story. Then, I will talk about how exactly you can craft compelling political intrigue. Finally, I will use a case study, again from Avatar: the Last Airbender.

First: Is Political Intrigue Right For YOUR Story? Here are the questions to consider.

  • Think about the external plot of your story. Can political intrigue guide it? Add hidden layers? Manifest as a subplot?
  • Think about where your main character is now, and where you want them to be at the end. How can political intrigue, notorious for either warping characters or helping them reach their full potential, help your character grow?
  • Think about your world. What time period is it? What does your world treasure? What is the nature of your people? For example, if your world is a developing colony, fighting a revolution, or emerging from the ashes of one, it might be good to feature political intrigue. Even if your world focuses more on language, culture, and folklores, those can become tenets by which political intrigue operates.

Next: How Can We Craft Good Political Intrigue?

  • Show how your character shapes political intrigue and how political intrigue shapes your character.
  • Show how political intrigue has been integrated into your world.
  • Show how decisions made by your character or others have been influenced by political intrigue, and how these decisions will advance the plot and/or be the downfall or rising of your character.
  • Show how your character shapes political intrigue and how political intrigue shapes your character.

A servant will lead a different life and have a different worldview than a noble. Similarly, a minister will have different duties and codes that bind them compared to an emperor. A character’s social standing is drastically impacted by political intrigue, whether they inherit their parents’ titles or do something that lowers their rank. In political intrigue, assume that most characters are conniving against each other, always battling for the most power. So, what caused your character to be a target of deceitful actions and how will they respond? This would be an instance of political intrigue integrated well in a story.

  • Show how political intrigue has been integrated into your world.

This is especially manageable if your character is privy to what goes on at court. If your story is about a revolution and your character is a spy for the opposing side, the information they gather at the court of their enemies could well turn the tide in their favor. This is more typical, concerning strategies, armies, distribution of supplies, etc. But political intrigue can also serve other purposes in your plot, from dealing with issues in health care to finance to education.

  • Show how decisions made by your character or others have been influenced by political intrigue, and how these decisions will advance the plot and/or be the downfall or rising of your character.

As I said earlier, main characters usually receive the brunt of wicked plays. So, moving forward, revenge would be a common and understandable example of a motive for your character. Against who, this could change with the whims of the plot. But what’s important to remember is that the results of political intrigue will be a part of who your character is, and this must show through the decisions they make. When political intrigue is a factor, your character has to do quite some of the driving. Rather than always being victim of others’ actions, they have to take the upper hand. It’s how power in stories works. If there is a power vacuum, it needs to be filled up—and your character will need to take part.

Political intrigue’s effects are usually damaging to characters—in stories, rulers can go mad from pressure, or their ideals could have changed drastically once that crown was put upon their heads. But it can also be a way for your character to challenge themselves like nothing else, and reach their full potential. It would be good to embed flashes of who your character will become through political intrigue throughout the narrative as well.

Finally: A Look at How A:TLA’s Dai Li Served as Good Political Intrigue.

  • To be honest, what really stood out to me about Avatar: The Last Airbender was the use of the Dai Li in the second half of season 2. CBR defines them as the following: “As the secret service of Ba Sing Se (a vital city in the Earth Kingdom), the Dai Li are a group of agents who work to maintain the power behind the Earth Kingdom throne, regardless of who’s sitting in it. It could be the Earth King or Queen, a powerful minister, or even an invading Fire Nation Princess — the Dai Li are drawn towards strength, rather than illusions of nobility and grandeur”.
  • The Dai Li were a welcome twist, and I found those Earth Kingdom episodes to be the most interesting in the entire show. From Joo Dee to how they were a large part of the season’s climax, the political intrigue of the Dai Li and their role in the Earth Kingdom served the plot in incredible, unpredictable ways.
  • While I can’t really say the Dai Li were the best example of how their actions influenced the backstory of a character, they drove the plot forward on multiple occasions, whether it was their capture of Appa (…I miss that sky bison) to their warping of Jet to their willingness to serve Azula.
  • They were also crucial to the functioning of the Earth Kingdom (seeing as the king himself was pretty unconcerned about his kingdom), so their roles in the world were already well established.

Political intrigue is a really hard topic, as there are so many factors involved. So I hope this post was able to cover the ice and hopefully break some of it. This post was probably the most difficult one I’ve written for this blog series so far 😅 so if you have any questions about political intrigue at all, please feel free to talk to me in the comments.

17 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this – good political intrigue is one of the hardest things to write in my opinion. And the episodes concerning Be Sing Se were some of the best in the show. The dai li and Long Feng were downright creepy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Jan! Writing scenes with political intrigue is definitely hard (so many factors to consider!) but so rewarding!! Aw I’m glad you also enjoyed the Ba Sing Se segment, Joo Dee creeped me out most lol. Thank you for commenting!

      Like

  2. Eleanor ahh I’m really sorry I have been busy and late to everyone’s posts and will definitely catch up with the other Insights of the Writes soon! But I loved today’s discussion!

    For me political intrigue was equal to just some form of politics in the story which I enjoy, so thank you for opening my eyes and showing how it is more than that with it not just being excellent in setting up the world, but also tying in with the characters!

    I truly liked reading about the point of political intrigue as a motive, as well as it damaging the characters, I do agree it does pave the way for a character arc well!

    This was so well written as always, thank you for such a thoughtful post, Eleanor! 💖

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh you’re good Cherelle! Thank you so much for taking the time to leave your lovely comment 💕 you’re too kind!

      I’m so glad this post was insightful! One of the beautiful things about writing is that everything just connects, so I was hoping to also highlight these connections with this series!

      Political intrigue is definitely such a great way to impact the character’s motives, and it’s always interesting when it causes them to spiral downwards, setting up a character arc marvelously, as you said!

      Thank you so much, I hope everything’s going well! 💕

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You did such a great job explaining political intrigue, Eleanor! I loved the example that you did with Avatar: The Last Airbender! Fun fact! My car is named Appa, bcz you gotta love Appa!
    And I love all of the points that you made and the questions you added! Great job!
    *hugs
    -kaelyn 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Kaelyn! I’m glad, I wasn’t sure if my points came across clearly or not hehe. Aw that’s so cool, Appa is a perfect name for a car! Appa was one of my absolute favorites too 😊 Thank you again! *hugs back*

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ofc!! Aww no, you did awesome, sista! And yeeess I love my Appa!! 😀 I sometimes say yip yip when turning the ignition hahaha!! And yeees!!
        Ofc!
        *hugs
        -kaelyn 😛

        Liked by 1 person

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