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What Are the Different Types of Political Fiction?

By Bobby R. Goldsmith
Updated May 23, 2024
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There are several types of political fiction, and they take many forms, including novels and short stories, movies, television shows, and plays. The tradition of political fiction can be traced back to ancient Greece, with some of the first plays revolving around the political machinations of the gods and the mortal kings they sought dominion over. In contemporary terms, there are four distinct types of political fiction: historical fiction, alternative historical fiction, contemporary political drama, and contemporary political thrillers.

Historical fiction dramatizes some element of the past, such as a war, a natural disaster or a strictly political event. The narrative of a piece of historical fiction often places fictional characters of ordinary status into well-known events, mingling with and influencing the political figures of the time. Historical fiction works best when using the narrative to suggest an altered understanding of history, such as the machinations of the fictionalized characters having been left out of the official story. Prominent examples of historical fiction include Carter Beats The Devil, which incorporates the death of President Warren G. Harding into a story about an actual 1920s magician in fictional circumstances, and Against the Day, a novel that takes extended fictional liberties with many of the political figures of the World War I era.

Alternative historical fiction is similar to historical fiction but is distinct in one crucial way. Alt-history fiction speculates about how historical events might have turned out differently than they actually did. For example, Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain is the first novel in a series that explores how history unfolds following a Confederate victory in the US Civil War. Philip Roth's The Plot Against America describes an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election, dramatically altering the second half of the 20th century.

Contemporary political drama is the dramatization of political events that may or may not involve real political leaders. This type of political fiction explores the inherent drama of various types of political events, such as a high-profile congressional confirmation or the parliamentary process for a contentious initiative. Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing is an example of political drama that uses the conflict of political events to create the conflict and tension in a story. Contemporary political dramas take place in the present, and there is usually no incorporation of historical events into the narrative.

Contemporary political thrillers are similar to political drama, with one important distinction: thrillers involve a mystery or a problem that risks subverting the prevailing political order. In a political drama, the process is the story, while the subversion of the process is the story in a thriller. Political thrillers often incorporate elements of detective fiction, in which the main characters are in the dark, attempting to piece together the truth in time to save the day. Ralph Peters' novel Traitor examines a political-military industrial complex that is willing to kill in order to secure funding for the development of the latest Air Force fighter plane. In Tom Clancy's The Sum Of All Fears, political events lead to a potential war of the US against the Soviet Union, and the protagonist must overcome political hurdles to prevent the outbreak of hostilities.

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