In my last post, I looked at whether Trump and the Republican Presidential candidates are likable by screenplay standards. In this one I’ll be looking at the two major democratic candidates – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – and evaluating if they would be likable by the standards of a screenplay.
I reminder readers that this has nothing to do with whether or not any candidate would actually make a good President. In my first post on what makes likable characters, I described the stoner leads from Pineapple Express as likable, but I wouldn’t vote for them. This is just a thought experiment, to see what political narratives look like through the lens of screenwriting rules.
What Makes a Character Likable?
In my first post on what makes a character likable, I laid out Eric Edson’s criteria from The Story Solution:
- 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.
Let’s see how the candidates stack up.
Is Hillary Clinton Likable by Screenplay Standards?
I’m going to come back to skill, but the others are pretty clear:
- Courage – No. Hillary hasn’t made any stands that require courage in her party.
- Unfair Injury – No. Hillary has establishment support.
- Funny – No.
- Just Plain Nice – No.
- In Danger – No.
- Loved By Friends And Family – No. There are hints Bill Clinton doesn’t fully support her.
- Hard Working – No.
- Obsessed – Yes. Hillary is clearly obsessed with political victory.
Skill should be an easy one for Hillary, given her history of skillful political maneuverings. However the recent email scandal shows a lack of skill.
It would actually be worse for Hillary if her email server was an honest mistake rather than an attempt to illegally hide her communications, because an honest mistake would show a lack of political and technological skill.
Hillary would actually be more likable if she positioned herself as a Frank Underwood style power-hungry politician who had the skill to hide her misdeeds from the federal government. Right now, it just looks like she doesn’t even have the skill to keep what she considers a non-issue from becoming a major news story.
But even if she had skill, Hillary doesn’t meet the criteria to be likable by screenplay standards. That may partially explain why despite having massive resources and political connections, she is losing in every poll to Bernie Sanders.
Is Bernie Sanders Likable by Screenplay Standards?
I’m come back to courage and unfair injury, because I think they may be a bit more complex in Sander’s case.
- Funny – No. Sanders is pretty serious.
- Just Plain Nice Yes. Sanders actually said he was tired of hearing about the email scandal of his biggest political opponent, and sought common ground with the students who disagreed with him at Liberty University.
- In Danger – No.
- Loved By Friends And Family – I don’t know anything about his family, but I’ll say yes here, based on the massive support he has from his community.
- Hard Working – Yes. Sanders has been working on civil rights issues for decades.
- Obsessed – Yes. Sanders has been been working on civil rights issues for decades.
Not bad – 4 out of 6. But what about Courage, Unfair Injury, and Skill?
I initially I might have said yes on Courage, since Sanders has positioned himself as the guy willing to stand up to the big banks, and turned down donations from interests he doesn’t want to be beholden to. However, Bernie failed to stand up to #BlackLivesMatter when they shut down his speech in Seattle pushed him off his own stage.
Tell me, does Sander’s body language strike you as courageous here?
You could argue by giving them the stage, Sanders was being Just Plain Nice, but Sanders was already nice. No one would have thought him otherwise if he’d told the activists to wait until his speech was finished. An image like the one above makes Sanders look like he lacks the courage to stand up to powerful interests of any kind.
- Courage – No. When put under pressure, Sanders folded.
You might think Sanders political positions are courageous, but he hasn’t demonstrated those through action yet. I don’t have a photo as vivid as the one above showing Sanders being courageous. When it comes to storytelling actions and images matter more then words. We have to see the character do something brave, not just talk about it.
For Unfair Injury, Sanders has no early disadvantages to overcome, however like Trump, the media has consistently refused to cover him and covered him unfairly when they do. This graphic which made the rounds on social media sums it up well:
When the media describes Sanders and Trump as outsiders, they never define what they are outsiders to. Sanders has been in politics for over thirty years, and Trump is a billionaire. Neither of these men are outsiders they way you and I are. What they are outsiders to is the media and political establishment. Like Trump, the media has made Sanders more likable by their unfair treatment of him.
- Unfair Injury – Yes. Sanders has been mistreated by the media and political establishment.
Note that Sanders would not be likable by storytelling standards, if he wasn’t made an outsider by the media. The media actually made Sanders likable.
Whether or not you believe Sanders has Skill depends a lot on your political beliefs. The biggest criticism of Sanders proposals is that they are a socialist schemes which won’t work. If Sanders can demonstrate that his proposals will work, and that he has the skill to pull them off, he’ll be significantly more likable.
I won’t claim to have the political insight to know whether or not that is the case. However, unlike Trump, who has shown skill and business, and Hillary, who has shown some previous skill in politics (though not in her recent scandals), Sanders hasn’t demonstrated his skill yet.
- Skill – I’m going say no for now, with the possibility that Sanders could turn it around.
If I was advising his campaign based on this list, I’d tell them to throw significant resources behind making people believe Sanders is a master of political accomplishment, and seek out ways to demonstrate courage in the public’s mind.
Still, at five out of nine, Sanders is likable by screenplay standards, and significantly ahead of his primary competition.
Could the Candidates Win Against Trump?
The comparative liability of each candidate by screenplay standards matches the polls.
The media has repeatedly said Hillary will win and the party should just skip the debates and give the nomination to her, but every time they do, they actually just make Sanders more likable.
Based on this theory, a Trump vs. Hillary matchup would mean a landslide in favor of Trump. Sanders stands a fighting chance only if he can demonstrate some serious skill and courage before the vote.
However, Trump is systematically working to improve his likability. Expect him to work to demolish his opponents likability as well.
Remember, a candidates likability has nothing to do with whether or not they would make a good President. However, storytelling principles have a direct effect on who wins the election.
How we tell stories actually determines who becomes President.
Many thanks to the kind words Scott Adams shared about the my last post. It was inspired by his writing, so if you enjoy these posts, you’ll love his blog.
When you’d like a break from excitement of politics, perhaps you’d like to visit a meditation center? Fortunately, my old zen group is trying to build one in Los Angeles right now. You can learn more about it, and donate here.
Coincidentally, I edited the video for their campaign.
Read More: Is Trump A Likable Character By Screenplay Standards?