It is an old aphorism in writing that the truth is often stranger than fiction. If you were to invent the character of Donald Trump in a novel, you might be accused of being unbelievable.
One of the aspects of the craft of writing I tend to explore is the anti-hero, or the antagonist that people like. There is no hiding my dismay at the country, not necessarily at Donald Trump. But, from a purely clinical perspective, from a writing perspective, what is it about someone who spouts racism, misogyny, religious intolerance, and xenophobia that is so appealing? In other words, what if Trump were a fictional character — which to some extent he is, given his “reality” TV background and self generated myth. As a fictional character, what is so interesting about him? Why would someone like him on the pages of a book?
In every instance of a “likable” anti-hero in fiction one thing stands out: humor.
I’ll start with two TV shows — because let’s face it, just as nearly half of American’s don’t bother to vote, most also don’t read books–Blacklist and House of Cards. The actors, James Spader and Kevin Spacy, are both really good at comedy. Not slapstick comedy, but dark observational comedy that comes near the truth. In both of these shows, they play people willing to murder, manipulate, lie, cheat, and spy to get what they want. Yet, one still finds them compelling and roots for them. They do want they want, not what society tells them to. They protect their own and thumb their nose at the establishment. When they talk to the camera — in House of Cards — breaking the “fourth wall,” it is always for a rather humorous observation. In Blacklist, Spader does not talk to the camera, but he comes close. His pithy observations are directed as much to the audience as they are to the character. The dialogue is used as a method of talking directly to the audience.
If he were not soon to be president, Trump would be funny and an interesting fictional character. I dream of being able to create a character like that. One that is extremely flawed, an antagonist or anti-hero, that people like and want to succeed. One that can rationalize every evil act in such a way that the reader buys into it. But, I think if I were to create a Trump, no publisher would buy it. Too extreme. Not believable. No one would believe it.
In fiction, such as in Blacklist, the Reddington character “tells it like it is.” That is why the audience likes him. To get things done, he ignores the law and manipulates the government. We love it. Even when telling it like it is turns out to be a lie. For Reddington, the “ends justify the means” and we buy into it. When told that he is a lying SOB, he shrugs and smiles and we like him more (Trump could learn a thing or two from Reddington. Don’t bother arguing back.)
While American’s no longer read novels, they certainly continue to read fiction, wrapped up in the guise of a new “news” site. The amount of false news put out in 2016 was staggering, all funded by advertising. If you visit it and read it, it gets funded. It is part of the new age of fiction. Fake news. Fake issues. Made up people who run for president. Stranger than fiction, it’s real life fiction that leads to real life issues.
Perhaps that is the real reason Trump won the election–Americans love fiction, in small doses, Tweeted, or in fictional news form. It’s a great character. We want to see how the novel ends. Unfortunately, there is no editor.