Happy 4th of July to my American readers! Happy Monday/Tuesday to everyone else!
Today is America’s Independence Day!
This has me thinking about how patriotism (or lack thereof) can be used to passively build your fictional world. In fantasy and dystopian YA (my favorite genres), we often see our main characters clashing with a totalitarian government (okay, we usually , almost always see this), but we don’t really get to see how they feel about their country.
Hunger Games is actually an excellent example of characters dealing with both a corrupt government and a horrendous national history. Panem’s creation is just as much a problem as it’s current President and the fight is against both.
Snow Like Ashes also takes national pride into account (it’s easier here because the kingdom was overthrown by an outside force, so the characters are fighting for their country and their government). This book does what I talk about a little later on and defines each kingdom by a few attributes. As long as you’re not getting too Star Trek and limiting whole peoples to a few traits, it can be an easy way to paint the picture of a country and its citizens.
In something like Throne of Glass or The Young Elites, while the characters are up against insanely corrupt regencies, there is very little talk about national pride. Of course, they certainly don’t need it–although, when helping to overthrow a regime for personal reasons, this can be an interesting juxtaposition against national pride that informs the reader about the character.
National pride can help define a people through their own eyes. It lets the writer attribute a few characteristics to a large number of people that can shape the narrative of who they are and where they come from. We spend so much time on our characters’ backstory, yet how they relate to their national history is so rarely discussed.
So, how can patriotism help us with worldbuilding?
How characters interact with their government
Let’s step away from characters fighting evil government institutions (as fun as they are to read) for a moment and consider how characters interact with their governments in other ways. Patriotism will likely extend to some form of support for a founding document, existing administration, or national history, all of which may be encountered via the government.
Your characters may have political beliefs that drive them, or they may work for a government they find is antithetical to the country’s foundational ideas, or they may have a day off because of a national holiday and this gives them the time to carry out that super-secret CIA assassination they were planning to do.
Passive, seemingly harmless interactions with government can add rich details to your world.
The government as a character
When the government is an active force in your story, it is either acting with or against what its citizens would consider a patriotic agenda (sometimes it’s acting against and it makes it look like it’s acting for and then they label it something patriotic just to confuse average citizens). Look at your own country for inspiration–each political party sees patriotism differently.If they think the current people in power are lazy, no-good, sons of [insert your world’s insult here] then the actions of those people will provoke their sense of patriotism!
Maybe patriotic imagery is re-purposed as propaganda. I always think this is a great way to make the world seem large and encompassing. V for Vendetta does most of its setup through propaganda imagery and they do it splendidly.
Patriotism as character development
Finally, having patriotism as an internal trait or motivation can be used to paint the world through a certain viewpoint. Maybe your character went to war and has returned with the same solid patriotism that got them to join up in the first place. But, upon return, the national leader (a king, a president, a sultan, etc.) or even the people themselves don’t seem to be similarly aligned. That will drive internal and external conflict that deeply affects your character and shows us how that country works.
Maybe you just need a good reason to set off fireworks (also a nice cover for your character’s super-secret assassination plot)!
Do you know of any stories including patriotism where you wouldn’t really expect it? Have you incorporated patriotism into a story before? Leave a comment below and have a great day!