In storytelling seminar after storytelling seminar, I have heard one writing concept repeated. People come first.
- If you want to create a series readers clamor for, create a breathing character they love and can relate to.
- If you want your story to come to life, create a character readers make their friend.
Character-driven story has dominated plot-driven story since about the time of Jane Austen and the Romantics. What most writers don’t realize is that the people-first mentality dominates in every other field where storytelling is important: law, advertising, nonprofit fundraising, and most importantly politics.
Now you may remember we had an election not so long ago. It was kind of disastrous for conservatives, and a lot of people are wondering what went wrong. I think I know at least part of the answer.
Both sides were telling a story. In Obama’s story, the hero was Everyman, the ordinary folks of the special interest groups: the woman who could not get birth control, the young American illegal immigrant who’d been brought here as a baby and could not get citizenship, the college student who just needed a chance. In Romney’s story, the hero was, er, fiscal responsibility? Sometimes Romney? It was hard to tell. For the most part Romney was telling a plot-driven story, and those kinds of stories often do not invite sequels.
When I worked at Goodwill Industries of Kentucky, my wonderfully roguish boss and known raconteur Dick Westover taught me something terribly important about storytelling: if you want people to sympathize enough with your cause to give you money, you have to make your cause about people. You have to create engaging, real stories about real people that will make potential donors want to help them.
Say what you will about Sandra Fluke, she was a real person. There were girls who empathized with her, and who were willing to vote in a way influenced by her story. Other characters in Obama’s story included:
Obama himself, the black child of a single mother, which is today’s equivalent of the son of a poor sharecropper. Never underestimate the power of a seeming underdog, and black Americans in our national stories are always underdogs. Obama had two autobiographies, and even people who had never read them knew stories from them. This made him more real, no matter the veracity of the stories. When you’re creating myth, truth doesn’t matter.
Michelle Obama, playing the role of the virtuous wife. Also black, which has power in the American story world. She bolstered the shining image of Obama the hero, making it easy for women to put themselves in her spot and feel the same way. The way she has been treated in the press and by publicity outlets like talk shows turned her into the heroine of a romance novel, and that has power.
The Voter, as a savior of all these social programs for Americans. The sad fact is that while humans love helping other humans, they want to do it in the easiest way possible for themselves. Over and over, Obama and his campaign told the American voter that they could help other people, just by voting for Obama.
There were also villains, and generally they presented themselves serendipitiously. Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin presented themselves at perfect times with boneheaded public statements that were easily twisted to imply statements about women that were not meant. Occasional comments by Romney were slanted to imply that he did not care about the poor, making him the clueless Marie Antoinette of the piece. The desiccated political corpses of Karl Rove and George Bush (sorry, guys) were dragged from their graves and paraded through the streets again.
The media, of course, helped tell this story. They prefer the liberal genre to the conservative genre already, and it was easy for them to wax poetic about their favored story. It wasn’t evil. It was human. It was what storytellers do.
This is why I reject any idea that some of the campaign attacks were strategically organized by the campaign. Storytelling, while the finer points need to be taught and practiced, comes naturally to people. We tend to see the world in the shape of a story. When reporters were presented with facts, they naturally worked them into the story that had already been developed for Obama, and since they were partial to Obama’s story to begin with, that shape became the foundation for what they reported. Thus, Republicans became villains.
Where in Romney’s campaign was this so well-shaped? His campaign was about ideas, not characters. He was reticent in telling his story, although it was a damned good one. He did not have an autobiography. His biographies were relatively poor sellers. Republicans were more likely to purchase books bashing Obama rather than pick up a Romney book. We did not have a hero to look to and inspire us. We were only given ideas and villains. These things do not motivate people to act.
Republican candidates, from this point forward, need to craft stories for themselves. It’s not hard. Most trial lawyers learn how to do this, as do most people running any successful nonprofit fundraising campaign. Additionally, they have to not be afraid to bias that story in their own favor, to create villains that live in the imaginations of the American people. Once we had that: Reagan standing against the Red Peril, the villain Khrushchev, even Gingrich with his Contract with America. We need not just heroes, but candidates who do not shrink from being larger than life, mighty characters in their own captivating stories.
2012 proved it’s not the best man who wins. It’s the best story.