As a preface – it’s not my intention to take any specific side on the Ukranian conflict in this essay. I have very strong and distinct opinions on the situation and I don’t think sharing them on the Internet is useful so don’t worry, you won’t be getting them here. However I do like to study current events and try to derive lessons for fiction writers from those events. There is a lot of fiction surrounding the war in Ukraine right now which makes it a rich source of insight for the astute observer.
The first lesson comes from the fascinating idea that a conflict in Ukraine was either allowed or provoked because propagandists needed a distraction from increasing questions about COVID vaccinations and regulations. I find this fascinating because it illuminates the first misconception nonwriters have about fiction – that the foundation of storytelling is a brilliant idea. It isn’t. Writers have inspiration everywhere. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t have a list of stories to write twice or three times as long as what they’ve actually written.
If propagandists want to distract from something, they don’t have to invent something to hype up, they just have to look around a bit and find something shiny. By the same token, a writer doesn’t have to find a brilliant ideas to create a good story. Ideas are in abundance all around us.
Our second lesson from the Ukraine is about perspective, and is inspired by the tale of the Ghost of Kiev. For those unfamiliar with this urban legend, they tell of a Ukrainian pilot so skilled and so dominant that he shot down five or more Russian pilots over the skies of Kiev in the first day of combat. The victories of this legendary pilot were trumpeted by the government of Ukraine and many news outlets. And they were almost certainly just that: legends.
Some pilots do become aces (fighter pilots with five or more confirmed kills) in a single encounter but they’re quite rare and usually in very chaotic, target rich environments. It’s not impossible for such a thing to happen but the skies over Ukraine haven’t offered good places for it at any point of the war. What’s far more likely is that the Ghost of Kiev was a pilot who shot down one or two Russians and was observed by multiple people, who’s accounts were taken as separate stories rather than multiple accounts of the same event. This is pretty common in wartime situations and rarely ever gets sorted out later.
The lesson – differing perspectives can turn the same story into different stories. First, keep in mind that your audience is going to read a far different story than what your wrote. That’s just part of the game, kid, don’t let it get to you. Instead, enjoy their perspectives and the stories they read and learn what lessons you can from it. You can’t craft a story people will love if you don’t love how they listen to that story. Second, your perspective on a story is going to be very different from anyone else’s. Don’t worry too much if your idea isn’t original or if you think it’s been done before, originality isn’t as important as skill and craftsmanship, and if it’s really a story told from your perspective it will be different enough to stand on its own. Third, remember that your characters see the world from different perspectives, too. Don’t let their take on the story become homogenized but rather give them all their own ways of looking at things, to the point where they could almost be talking about different stories. That will keep your narrative feeling authentic.
Finally, remember propaganda is targeted at an audience. Some people will eat up propaganda, some will listen along with it but question some of what they hear and some will reject it outright, regardless of how much of it is true and how much is spin. Generally the two extremes are the smallest parts of the audience reached but it’s those already predisposed to believe it that propaganda really targets. They’re the ones that share it and really buy into it. You should target your audience the same way.
Tell stories for your very dedicated audience, the people who love what you do and share it, rather than the questioning masses or your harsh critics. Unfair critics will never be won over, they’re predisposition to hate you comes from them and not you. The moderately interested group tends to be won over by the enthusiasm of your diehard fans, you can’t gain their interest by catering to them. If you try, you’re more likely to offer a watered down product that doesn’t get your point across and doesn’t do what they want well enough to hold their interest. Accept their partial buy in and hope they’ll dig deeper with time.
And there you have it. Three lessons writers can learn from propaganda, with no political grandstanding thrown in. Great stuff! Now go buy beans and rice, the nuclear winter is coming and it’s gonna be a cold one. At least the diaries you write by candlelight will be fun and interesting reading when alien archaeologists find your skeleton hundreds of years from now!