John Green: Writers Need to Get Political

The general election is on November 6. Think writers are above politics? Think again, says John Green—author of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska, among other books you already know and love. Check out John’s post below—then scroll down to ask him a question!

john green photo by ton koeneWriting fiction is an inherently political activity, because people—even imaginary ones—do not live in vacuums. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, Nick never mentions who’s president, but the novel only exists and makes sense in a political context. Gatsby takes place in an aspirational age, where everyone might be rich (which is why, presumably, income tax rates on the richest Americans were never lower than in the 1920s). Also, vitally, alcohol is illegal—and never in American history was there a stranger or more vigorous political campaign than the one that led us to amend our constitution to outlaw liquor. From Twilight to Romeo and Juliet to The Little Mermaid, no work of the imagination is truly apolitical, because the world and our hopes for it are always part of our stories. Just as you cannot be a good citizen without considering the implications of policy decisions, you cannot be a good writer without being aware of the political milieu in which your story plays out.

For several years after I turned 18, I did not vote. I found politics boring and divisive and thought the entire affair a waste of my time. I was going to be a writer, and the great writers (I thought) transcend the minor quibbles of their historical moments. Writers focus on the big questions; politics, I thought, is about the small questions. Here’s an example I often used: There is one candidate for President who thinks the richest of the rich should pay 39% of their income in taxes, and another who thinks the richest of the rich should pay 32% of their income in taxes. One of these candidates is portrayed as a business-hating wealth redistributor; the other as a corporate fat cat who hates the middle class. Real writers, as I figured it, need not concern themselves with such rhetoric; I would devote myself to asking the big questions.

But the big questions—about our environment, our responsibilities to one another, our rights as citizens—are political questions. And in the end there was nothing high-minded or noble about my political disengagement; it was mere laziness.

Just as we have a responsibility to tell the truest stories we can tell, as writers we have a responsibility to participate in our governance. For those of us over 18, that means voting. For those of us under 18, that means volunteering, cajoling the adults we know to vote, and lobbying those adults on behalf of our candidates. I think you will find, as I have, that writing is not the opposite of politics after all: They are both ways of trying to apprehend the world as it is, and to imagine the world that might be.

Got a question for John about politics, citizenship, or fiction-writing? Ask your question in the comment section below. We’ll be sending him the best ones—and he’ll be answering them here on Figment at a later date!

63 thoughts on “John Green: Writers Need to Get Political

  1. If you could nominate anyone in the world, dead or alive, for presidency who would it be and why?

    What characteristics do you think make a good president and/or leader?

  2. And really… Dystopian’s, the most recent trend in YA, are a good example of obvious politics in writing. Politics being part of the central plot and all. Government and how people can make a difference when they are focused enough.

    Have you ever considered writing a Dystopian? Your books have their own brand of desolation and wangst, but have you ever considered taking it to the edge?

  3. I have read Looking for Alaska and Paper Town, and I really want to read The Fault in Our Stars (I think you’re a fabulous writer, by the way). In Paper Towns, I realized my favorite attribute of your writings, and that is that you do not answer the big questions, but you point out their existence. In Paper Towns, this was pointed out to me when you are talking about perspectives. Are we all connected in the earth like stems growing through the soil, or are we all singular, connected by strings. Margo Roth Spieglemen believes in the strings. What do you, personally, think?

    I’m also Joining NaNoWriMo, have you ever done it, and is there any tips you can give about writing?

  4. First off, you are incredible and also my writing hero. If you answered any question of mine I would absolutely flip out. SO, anyway, getting to the point: Where do your characters come from? They’re like onions (yes, I did just make a Shrek reference). There’s always another layer. Do you combine a whole bunch of people from your life, or do they just pop into your head like that?
    By the way, you made me hate unicorns.
    DFTBA,
    Erin

  5. By the way, to the people above asking about NaNoWriMo, if you look on his YouTube channel (Vlogbrothers) you’ll find a few on writing tips and on his expedition of NaNoWriMo a few years ago. Plus, his videos are awesome in general.

    Here’s a video about it:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCTO91aBFXk

    And one a few of my favorite on writing tips:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXbGFyNXLwA

    His voiceover in this one is about NaNoWriMo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiTEh0LOJYU

    And here’s some other good ones on writing:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XcfCEUXtiE
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nyhv80HDSj4

    DFTBA :)

  6. Do you have any tips for someone looking to try to actually get their thoughts down before writing a story? I am trying to actually plan out my story before I write it, and so far I only have an outline, and character descriptions, what else will help?

    Also, do you know of any good writing warm ups that can help when I am trying to describe things? I always seem to forget how to describe things when I need to.

  7. If you had to select any one of your characters in any of your books to be president, who would it be and why?

    Which character do you think would be the least ideal for presidency?

  8. Hey, you guys! If you have questions for John Green you should ask him on Twitter and maybe he will answer them on a Question Tuesday! Also, John Green once did a NaNo novella, it’s called Zombicorn and it’s available at DFTBA.com.

  9. How do you think the USA could be in better hands? What do you look for in a president more than anything? If you were president what would you try to do first?

    And are there any tips you can give for young writers? To express themselves in their writing? What best gets teenagers published?

  10. What do you believe is essential for a person to be a good leader? Why?
    In what ways do you agree or disagree with the men who wish to be President of the United States?

    (DFTBA!!!)

  11. On the subject of voting – I am 20 years old, and so are most of my friends. However, an alarming number of them refuse to vote, because they don’t believe in the politics of any of the candidates and because they believe that their vote would have no importance in the greater picture anyway, even if they did care enough to vote one way or another. I keep telling them that it’s part of their civic duty to make an informed decision, but I can’t convince them to vote, no matter how hard I try. They remain obstinate that politics are simply not their realm. What would you suggest I tell them?

  12. Mr. Green,

    How do you manage to incorporate political details into your writing without making the plot entirely based upon politics?

    Also, what in politics do you think makes it worth writing about? Many people are tired of everything politics these days.

  13. How can you add politics to your writing without making it ABOUT politics?

    P.S. I absolutely LOVE The Fault in Our Stars! It seriously changed my life! :D

  14. When you’ve completed a long piece of writing, and are looking to write a sequel or continuation, how do you motivated yourself to start writing again? And how do you fight the desire to not go back and edit?

  15. Hey John, I wanted to know how dedicated you were to writing in highschool and college. Did you know you wanted to be a writer then?

    Best wishes!

  16. This may be a little out of place, but I’ve been wondering for a long time about your answer to this question: What do you think about manga, graphic novels, and comics as methods of storytelling?
    Also, what’s up with the writer’s notebook? Have you used one before; do you think it would be helpful to others to use them?
    And who the eff is Hank?

  17. So, did you write any of your novels with a political theme in mind or did politics just come into being organically within the story’s framework?

  18. Do you outline?
    How do you find time to write when you have school/a full time job in the way?
    What is the political situation in Nepal?

    Finally, I want to thank you (and Hank) for Nerdfighteria. You have no idea how much it means to me.

    DFTBA!

  19. Hello John. I have started to find out what in life I love to do. I have many of them but one is indeed writing. I was wondering how you got out there in the writing world. What were the steps you took to get out to the publishers and make your dreams a reality? This maybe the possible career that I want to take for my life. I have started writing my story on figment with little traffic. My friends have given it great praise though. Thanks for reading and keep up the fantastic work!

  20. Dear John Green,
    I figured this would be an open letter of sorts. I wanted to thank both you and your brother, Hank, for doing vlogbrothers(this is partly because I have no YouTube channel and I feel my voice is drowned out in the ning), however, you probably heard that before and I won’t trouble you with it. The thing is Why influence other people, We all have very good processing systems and for someone liberal living in a Conservative state I’m done with the conforming ads of republicans are in the right and “Obama Care” is a plague on America and if you’re telling someone to vote for someone you like just because you can’t doesn’t mean anything in the large scheme. You’re manipulating the system and isn’t that wrong in some way? Also do you have any advice about dystopian politics, even though you don’t usually write it?
    Thank you Again,
    K.C. Sofian

  21. Often I find that taking a political side forces me to chose between two undesirable candidates, neither of which represent my worldview or my vision for the future. I would not want to vote for someone just because they are a marginally better alternative to the other guy. How should I carry out my political responsibility when my beliefs are not being represented?

  22. What I like about writing is that you can turn anything into a story, any thought, any memory, no matter how big or small. what I love is the story of how I came about finding your books. The first time I heard about you was in my SOSE class because my SOSE teacher is such a big fan of your’s he uses your vlog brother video’s to teach us:) During that time I was reading a book called “Perks of Being a Wallflower”. I enjoyed it so much I went on to amazon (of course) and funnily enough there was “Looking for Alaska” and “The Fault in Our Stars”. It didn’t take long to join the dots that you were the same guy. So of course I went out and bought both “Looking for Alaska” and “The Fault in Our Stars”. I read them quickly and then funnily enough my SOSE teacher asked if he could read them to:) So I wanted to ask, What is the story behind you finding your current favourite author, because this stories how I found mine.

  23. There have been many wonderful questions so far, I’m not sure what to ask! Perhaps….
    What inspires you the most before, during, and after the writing process. Do you tend to listen to certain music when you’re writing, or eat ton of peeps, or hole up and not see the sun for weeks? Do you follow a schedule if writing a certain amount a day? (Like the aforementioned NaNiWriMo, which I’m taking part in as well). And after finishing something, what is your favorite way to ‘recharge’ before starting something else?

    Wow, it looks like I had more to ask then I knew! DFTBA! Live long and prosper an’ all that :D Dita

  24. Thank you for writing this piece on Figment! I too attempt to write to answer said “big questions” in my writing, though I have yet to actually succeed. >. The stuff the internet age can accomplish. It’s amazing.

    I’m going to vote, and I’m going to be reminding all my friends to vote too.
    DFTBA.

  25. Hey John,
    I think this is something a lot of young writers face. I am 19 years old, studying social sciences and international affairs in Canada. A few months ago I began to see the importance of adding political aspects to a story to give it more depth and intensity.It’s also a fantastic way to share my personal beliefs on certain issues in society that we all face.

    I’ve also found it interesting to gain inspiration from what’s happening in the political world, especially since I am really interested in international affairs. For example, I wrote one story about the conflict with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

    Here’s a problem though… sometimes when I try to add a political element to my stories, because I’m no specialist I’m afraid of sounding like a total idiot. What if someone who understands the situation reads this story and picks out details that are completely mistaken.

    Can you write about things you really don’t know and still sound professional?

    For nanowrimo this year, my pirate-girl from my 2010 nano is about to find herself stranded in the colonial America. I’m not even American… can I pull off telling a story like that while knowing so little about this situation?

    Thank you for considering my question.

    Thanks for this article. God bless!

  26. This is very well put! As someone who writes (which is why I’m on this website, obviously) politics is something that is really important in books, even if it isn’t the focal point.

    However, I’ve been toying with the idea of a story that strongly involves politics/the government. I’m kind of worried about how realistic it would be, if it would be too much of a stretch, and if I would seem like I’m forcing my opinions into the world too much. I realize that you haven’t written any particularly government-related novels, but what advice do you have for this? Assuming you have tried to write stories based around politics, have you found it to be hard?

    Thanks :)!

    ~Lauren

    P.S. Also, I’m very proud to call myself a Nerdfighter!! I even started a Nerdfighteria group on this website. DFTBA, dear sir!

  27. Do you believe that a democracy is the government system that is closest to ideal, or do you think that an/other system/s is/are better (even if they haven’t ever been implemented/are not currently implemented)?

    And, to second Sammie C, who the eff is Hank?

  28. Hey John! I’m a huge fan of yours.

    What do you suggest to a young writer that wants to get their work out in the publishing industry before they turn 18?

  29. John (gaaahhh you’re actually reading my question!)I have something political! (if you wanna read the really bad drafts search for Sharyn Berman’s Pink Laces) I want to take it to the next level. How?

  30. John,

    I have a million questions for you, but one of the biggest, I believe, is this: what are some of the most important “big questions” to you, and why?

    Also…are your socks matching? (I’m sorry, but I’ve always wanted to ask you that. I really don’t know why.)

    Best wishes!

  31. John, I have read each and every one of your books and they are incredible. Thank you for the opportunity to delve into the subliminal worlds you have given to us.

    I live in Australia, but I am far more involved in the US Election between Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney. However, I am also quite interested in all the background behind the Australian Government also. Tumblr and the internet have opened my eyes to the deep and difficult world of politics in ways watching the news never could, but my family and friends have also convinced me to share particular views.

    Do you believe that media has more of an effect on our view of politics, or our relationships with family, friends and acquaintances?

  32. FTL
    Also, I remember Hank’s video about voting on your channel and I was wondering if you agree with everything that he says, seeing that you took a several year vacancy of votes?
    Thank you.
    -Nerdfighter out-

  33. Hi John Green!
    I’ll try not to go on (too much) about how in love I am with your books. I was just curious, do you think that, in most books, readers can accurately guess which political party any particular author is a member of by the way that they write? I personally love to make guesses about this when I am re-reading a book because it’s a rather interesting thing to look for. Much more interesting, I think, than reading Catcher in the Rye and your English teacher insisting that the ducks in the pond are not a symbol of anything and that I’m forcing information that isn’t there. I digress. Have you ever done it? (I’ve decided I’m going to re-read Will Grayson, Will Grayson and see if I can make a guess on David Levithan’s political views.)
    Thanks,
    May.

  34. How old were you when you first started writing Looking for Alaska? Did you start it with the intention of it becoming a novel, or did it start out like all of the other half-written stories/excerpts that I assume all writers have on their computers?

    As a young, aspiring writer I often look at most the things that I have written thus far and realize that most of them won’t ever actually become anything significant. They will just be unfinished word documents, forever saved in my computer or pages in my notebooks that will never be read by the public. But, it’s a shame because some of the “excerpts”, or bits of stories I have written, are pretty decent. I’m pretty sure if and when I ever write a novel it will probably not make it in there.

    Thanks,
    Maddie

    P.S. I realize that there is more than one question posed in this message/comment, and if you only choose one I would prefer the latter of the two at the top to be chosen (if at all possible).

  35. Hello Mr. Green,
    How do you find the inspiration that you build your stories upon? Are these past experiences in your lifetime that you morphed into a fictional scene or did you read a newspaper article one morning and decide to create a story from what you read on the cover page?
    I am a big fan and I look up to you :)
    Thank you, Kimberly

  36. John Green I am just going to say it right now- I love you.
    My friends think it’s creepy, that a teenager has a ‘celeb’ crush on a married, middle aged man, but I do not allow it to change my mind. <3

    Oh, but about politics- No, I cannot vote, but I think I'll start actually researching those who are running now. XD

    Though I would have absolutely no problem researching if you and/or Hank ran for president… Like, seriously. Do it. Get rid of the pennies. Make the awesome changes that I know you can. <3 Decrease world suck, increase world awesome.

    Question time-
    1. Will you marry me?
    2. Will you PLEASE do Nanowrimo next year? No one cares if it's terrible- if you write it, Nerdfighteria will eat it.
    3. *is unoriginal* How would a teenage novelist *cough*13*cough* go about writing a publishable book?
    4. Can you make a video telling more about your hilarious college life?
    5. Legend of Korra or Avatar the Last Airbender?
    6. Marry me? Again? Please?

    ~KJ

  37. Hi John!

    First of all I am a HUGE fan! I love every single one of your books and am eagerly awaiting a film adaptation for any or all of them. My question is, do you heavily outline your books? I have heard it really helps some writers, but I have tried it and I always get stuck. I have the major points like the main conflict and what will eventually happen in the end, but I don’t know how to really outline all of the stuff in between to have a better view of my plot line and have less a chance of writer’s block. If you have any tips that would be great!

    Thank you so much! :)

  38. Do you ever get really discouraged or just plain lazy and find it hard to get to writing? What advice do you have to people like that? and do you ever have a hard time thinking what to write about? How do you come up with your amzing books that change my life?
    Also, who the eff is Hank?
    :) DFTBA!! <3

  39. I thought writing is supposed to be for dreamers and as an escape of real life (like the song “Strawberry Fields” by the Beatles). How do you balance being realistic and a dreamer?

  40. Hi John!
    I am working on editing my manuscript right now in preparation for sending it to agents and publishers. My writing group says the pacing is too fast in the beginning-that the book jumps into the action too fast. How can I slow the pace down without making the scenes seem pointless or boring? Any tips?
    thanks so much!
    Megan

  41. (First of all let me tell you that I am a GINORMOUS fan of both vlogbrothers and your books) Where do you look for political truth, John? It seems looking left and right (No political term intended) that all politics are is party A yelling at party B YOU ARE A RADICAL IDIOT WHO ACTUAL WANTS TO DESTROY AMERICA!!! … Which isn’t true for either party.

  42. I was wondering if you’d give some advice to teenagers authors looking to be published? It’s always been a dream of mine to be a published author, and an even bigger goal that I keep in the back of my mind and don’t tell anyone about, is to be a teenage published writer. Other than the usual crud like, “keep trying” and “never give up” and “practice practice practice”, could you give me some actual helpful advice and tips? Thank you for being the best author EVER!

    Kylie

  43. Mr. Green,

    I have a friend who is completely unconcerned about politics. Actually she is disgusted with them because she thinks they are so boring. I want to encourage her to develop a political opinion because as boring as they might sound, the issues are decisive and will have tremendous impacts. I’ve been telling her that issues about student loans, food stamps, and unemployment will particularly affect her so she should be concerned. But she just rolls her eyes. How do I make her understand that these things affect both our futures and others’?

    On a side note, who do you think has been our best, most effective president in the entire American history?

    On a completely different note, you have written some brilliant books as well as done some splendid vlogs. And tell Hank I said hi. :)

  44. I find that a lot of nerdy people (speaking as one myself) find politics stupid. This includes one of my best friends who says she might never get involved because they’re stupid or messed up. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with it being a little messed up since Fact Check has clearly proven that they do lie quite a bit (look at the presidential debates). I think it’s important we help decide our country’s future. I didn’t even find myself interested in politics until this year because I joined student congress. I also know a lot of people that don’t know much about politics and simply go with their parents’ point of view. How do you think we can inspire people to get involved and form their own options?

    (Also I just discovered your vlogbrothers videos this week and I thoroughly enjoy them.)

  45. Whoops didn’t post this:

    On writing:

    How do you stick it out for the long run?

    I typically get distracted by other good ideas, or keep criticizing my writing (going back changing my mind, or rewriting over and over again)

    Secondly what is your option on self-publishing?

    Thirdly what do you think about pen names?

    Lastly how do you build up a network?

    Sorry that was really long!

  46. Hi John, it’s your ALA, NCTE, ALAN groupie! I wanted to thank you because I run a Children’s Lit e-mail list in the San Francisco Bay Area and I had two people ‘de-list’ (it’s okay I still have 1300 ‘listees’ so I’m not lonely) because I brought up politics and both said a children’s lit list is no place for that. I told them that literature IS political, and today I got the lovely e-mail from Figment and sent it out to my list. Thank you for your wise words, you said it so much better than I ever could.

    –Sharon

  47. John,

    What was your experience with writing submissions and rejections on your road to becoming a published author? Did you experience a lot of rejection?

    What do you think of the Oxford Comma?

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