November is election season (wait—you knew that? Silly us!). And yet, even as real life politics is hitting its yearly peak, people are tuning in to fictional stories about politicians. From mysteries to romances to literary novels, characters who are politicians show up with such regularity that it’s more than just coincidence.
Have you ever wondered: What is it about politicians that makes them proliferate like bunnies in the pages of books and on nightly TV shows? Why doesn’t our collective interest in fictional politicians abate?
Learning why politicians work in popular narratives can help you understand a bigger and more pressing question: How can I write characters who are more compelling and more memorable?
The Craft Of Characterization: Why Readers Vote For Fictional Politicians
Politicians are larger than life. Many readers enjoy characters who live lives that are bigger, bolder, and more intense than their own peaceful, normal lives. And politicians fit the bill. While readers are arguing with themselves about whether to reach for diet soda or regular, politicians are arguing with themselves over a bill that will help one community to the detriment of another. Larger-than-life conflict is an effective way of keeping readers glued to the page.
Politicians are powerful. Characters who are powerful are inherently interesting. Politicians make choices that resound for decades if not centuries. When a politician makes a decision, entire communities are affected. Hence, when you write a political character, you write a character who holds the fate of other people in his/her hands. And that can be gripping reading.
Politicians are passionate. There is a time and a place in fiction for characters who have no drive, or no personal interests, no deep, pressing urges. But political characters can be passionate believers in causes just and unjust. They are willing to take risks, to go the extra mile, to offend, and to inveigle. Whether readers agree with their positions or not, it’s passion and dedication that can make them such interesting characters to hang around with.
Politicians can appeal to us for their realness. Despite having larger-than-life problems, fictional politicians can appeal to us for their realness, their humanity. The man who just authorized an attack on a village cries when he finds a sick kitten on the side of the road. The woman who is immutable as stone in her office will do anything her kids demand. It makes for compelling characterization that audiences can’t seem to get enough of.
Politicians make great bad guys. People who have power make good bad guys for obvious reasons: power + evil = a recipe for plotting fun. Plus, politicians can be diplomatic and slick—trained to manipulate. That means even the most menacing of characters can appear likable to the protagonist, and readers really dig characters they love to hate.
Politicians make great underdogs. Don’t you just love stories about characters who fight against the political and corporate machine only to win the day at the last moment in the name of ethics? So do we. So do a lot of people. Hope is a tremendously powerful thing in fiction and in real life.
A politician’s failure is public, not private. When some characters fail to reach their goals, they feel sad in their hearts. They quietly sulk. Boohoo. When politicians fail to reach their goals, everybody knows. Some people are disappointed in them; some jeer and laugh; some throw a parade. Writing a character who is political means writing a character who has instant public pressure—and that makes for page-turning plotting.
A politician’s change of heart has enormous consequences. Emotional growth is normal and healthy in us mortals; people change their minds. But when politicians are in the throes of character development, their change can have public repercussions. Again, high stakes make for gripping drama.
So how about it? Is there a political character in your future? If not, don’t worry. The elements that make fictional politicians so compelling are present in other characters too. Doctors, lawyers, relief workers…lots of people life in high-stakes situations.