Scott Adam’s recent post suggesting Trump may be using screenwriting principles to engineer his campaign, got me thinking – can a Presidential candidates be evaluated like screenplay characters?
Much of the language used in politics is similar to storytelling. If media is about creating narratives, then how likable political characters are could have a direct impact on their campaign.
This has nothing to do with whether or not Trump or any of the other candidates would make a good President. In my first post on what makes likable characters, I said Ebaneezer Scrooge is a likable character, but I certainly wouldn’t vote for him. This is just a thought experiment, to see if screenwriting principles apply to political narratives.
What Makes a Character Likable?
- Unfair Injury
- Just Plain Nice
- In Danger
- Loved By Friends And Family
- Hard Working
To be likable, a character only needs a majority – 5 out of 9 traits.
Test this list on your favorite film characters and see how they score. Try it on anti-hero characters you like. Try it on characters you don’t like. So far I haven’t found a popular film or television hero it doesn’t work on.
This list explains why seemingly mean or “unlikable” anti-heroes are so frequently featured in modern media. Most people don’t consider Trump “nice” – but neither are the anti-heroes that populate HBO shows and dark R-rated films. Nice and likable are not the same thing.
How Likable Is Trump?
I’m going to start with the skill, because I think courage and unfair injury may be a bit more complex in Trump’s case.
- Skill – Yes. Trump is an incredibly skillful business man.
- Funny – Yes. Trump frequently rebuff’s his opponents with funny lines, like telling Megyn Kelly he’s only made fun of Rosie O’Donald, or saying to Jeb Bush “more energy tonight, I like that.”
- Just Plain Nice – No.
- In Danger – No.
- Loved By Friends And Family – Yes. Trump frequently appears with his family, all of whom support his campaign, and are attractive and accomplished in their own right.
- Hard Working – Yes.
- Obsessed – Yes.
That alone is 5 out of 9 – enough to be a likable character. But what about the last two – Courage and Unfair Injury?
Initially, I thought no on both of them. Trump seems driven more by ego than courage, and he had no unfair injury growing up. However, when Trump began his campaign, he was attacked by the media and written off by them. Trump has frequently complained that the media and the Republican establishment have not treated him fairly.
There is a screenwriting principle that if you’re going to have an edgy or morally ambiguous hero, you need to have an even worse villain who is even more unlikable. Ex: Batman might be a dark knight, but the joker is completely insane.
In the media, Trump has his worse villain. If you buy Trump’s narrative, the media and political establishment’s treatment of him constitutes unfair injury, and his standing up to them and their political correctness requires courage. So –
- Courage – Yes. Standing up to media and political establishment.
- Unfair Injury – Yes. Unfair treatment by media and political establishment.
Did you catch that? The media has actually made Trump more likable.
You don’t need to buy this interpretation to consider Trump likable by the other criteria, but it’s not a stretch to say that the media has become so powerful and so unlikable, that being attacked by them and standing up to them will raise any candidates profile.
If that idea causes too much cognitive dissonance, try imagining the opposite. What if the media loved Trump, and Trump was able to passively ride their support? Wouldn’t that make him less likable?
How Likable Are The Other Candidates?
Again, I remind you – being a likable screenplay character doesn’t make someone a good choice for President. Ebaneezer Scrooge is a likable character. But being likable certainly doesn’t hurt. Compare Trump to the candidate the Republican establishment has been pushing for – Jeb Bush:
- Courage – No.
- Unfair Injury – No.
- Skill – No.
- Funny – No.
- Just Plain Nice – Yes.
- In Danger – No.
- Loved By Friends And Family – No. His family has given little public support, his mother has said he shouldn’t run, and he’s losing in his home state.
- Hard Working – No. “Low-energy.”
- Obsessed – No.
Yikes! The best you can say about Jeb is that he isn’t intentionally mean.
What about Ben Carson?
Admittedly, I know less about him then I do the other candidates, but we’re evaluating the candidates like a movie character. You don’t know every little thing about a movie character, only what happens when the cameras are rolling. So take this not as an evaluation of him as a person, but as a character in the media.
- Courage – Maybe, but I haven’t seen it.
- Unfair Injury – Yes. Growing up black in Detroit likely put him at a significant social disadvantage compared to the other Republican candidates.
- Skill – Yes. Neurosurgeon.
- Funny – No.
- Just Plain Nice – Yes. Even Trump says he’s a really nice guy.
- In Danger – No.
- Loved By Friends And Family – Yes. Loved by his community.
- Hard Working – Yes. Again, neurosurgeon.
- Obsessed – Doesn’t seem like it. Retired as neurosurgeon at the height of his skill.
So again that’s 5 out of 9 – unfair injury, skill, just plain nice, loved by friends and family, and hardworking. Carson is likable by movie standards.
Where he could stand to improve is being funnier and more courageous. Carson seems very serious and soft spoken in every appearance I’ve seen him make. If he got people laughing and was willing to stand up to powerful interests in a public way, he could be more likable by screenplay standards.
Storytelling Principles Apply to Politics
So Jeb Bush 1/9, Ben Carson 5/9, and Trump 7/9 on the screenplay likability scale.
Doesn’t that reflect where they stand in the polls right now?
Screenwriting and storytelling principles go way beyond movies. They actually determine who we choose as our President.
By the way, if you like deconstructing the news and seeing behind the media’s narrative, you may also like the short documentary I made, My Dad & The Drudge Report.
Read More: What Makes A Character Likable?