Stuck for a Plot? Try reading Machiavelli

image credit: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As it’s only had a few views I’ve re-cycled this post from 2018. If you’ve read the post already, many thanks. You belong to a small and exclusive group of supporters!

I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer to my blog today with some insights into the writing of Niccolo Machiavelli.

Actor, writer and teacher, Michael Murray was born in Stepney, East London. He trained for the stage at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Under his Equity name, Michael worked for many years as an actor and voice-over artist. His career also encompassed teaching, writing and directing. Michael is a Drama in Education specialist and holds an advanced qualification in the teaching of drama: the A.D.B. (Ed). He also has an M.A. in Education.
Michael is the author of:
Magnificent Britain 2012
Julia’s Room 2012
Learning Lines? (A Practical Guide for Drama Students and Aspiring Actors) 2014
A Single To Filey (A DCI Tony Forward Novel) (Amazon Bestseller 2015)
Leefdale 2018.

Michael is also my other half and I’m delighted he agreed to my posting this fascinating article.

“The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) is essential reading for ambitious politicians be they cabinet ministers or parish councillors. It’s a sort of handbook for those who aspire to absolute power and is full of advice on how to obtain it and, more importantly, how to hang on to it! The book establishes the notion of the perfect ruler (the eponymous “prince”) and describes by a series of maxims how such a state of perfection might be achieved.

Machiavelli, who knew the Medicis, was a civil servant and diplomat in the Italy of the Renaissance; he therefore had many opportunities to observe the strategies of powerful autocrats. That is why, in “The Prince” his precepts for aspirant rulers are justified by examples and anecdotes not only from antiquity but also from his own time to demonstrate the successful application of his axioms. He also adduces plenty of anecdotes and examples to illustrate the folly of those who have failed to heed the dictums he identifies.

This might suggest to some that “The Prince” is rather dry and academic but it is rescued from this by the clarity of Machiavelli’s thought and his literary skill: also by the wonderful stories he presents to demonstrate the virtues and follies of the powerful individuals who have either heeded or disregarded the fundamental principles he has discovered. These stories provide profound insights into human nature, particularly in its rapacious aspects, which is why, as a writer, I find them so compelling. They and the maxims also provide marvellous sources for plots, particularly plots which involve complex cause and effect and paradoxical outcomes: or plots involving people who are leading or ambitious to lead organisations of some kind. However, it must be stressed that the circumstances Machiavelli describes can be extrapolated to almost any genre or context and are not confined only to the political.

Take one example: in “The Prince” Machiavelli makes the general point that those qualities which might seem to a prince desirable and likely to increase his popularity could, in the end, turn out to be his ruin. Whereas, those qualities which on first consideration appear undesirable to him and would seem to threaten him only with unpopularity, ultimately could turn out to be beneficial. Machiavelli then asks if it is better for a prince to have a reputation for generosity or parsimony. He suggests that if a prince wishes to be considered generous his generosity has to be clearly seen and therefore he must be excessively prodigal. But this will probably result in the prince squandering all he has and he will then have to claw back from the people everything he can by excessive taxes and draconian measures. This will produce huge resentment in the populace and will earn the prince the reputation of a rapacious miser. Worse, he will not have the wealth to defend himself or his country against attack. Machiavelli therefore suggests that a prince shouldn’t mind initially acquiring a reputation as a miser because it will allow him to avoid unduly oppressing his people with unbearable taxes, exacted from them by force, perhaps, and also making himself and his country defenceless. When the prince can afford it he will then be in a position to be generous to his people and will become popular.

Such a scenario could be applied to many contemporary situations: the Lottery winner, perhaps, who through guilt and a desire to be popular, ignores the strictures of the more cautious and buys all his family and friends luxury houses and expensive cars, only to demand them back when he runs out of money, and instead of being loved becomes loathed. Or the example could be applied to the parent, who in a desire to make themselves popular with their children, gives in to all their demands for material things, becomes indebted to loan sharks and ends up being unable to feed the children and has to resort to selling off all of their precious possessions.

So, if you ever run out of inspiration I suggest you download a copy of “The Prince”. It was first published in 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death, yet it is surprisingly modern and readable.

Details of all Michael’s books are on his Amazon Author Page.