In Christina’s Portrait, I developed a minor character who is someone I fundamentally disagree with, but someone who is sympathetic. This character, Ray Davis, is the brother of one of my main characters, Noreen. He proves to be important because he brings my other main character, Benicia, closer to Noreen. Ray had to be more than a punchline to a standup comedy sketch. I took away Ray’s stereotypical characteristics, including a Gadsden Flag and a gun rack. Then I brought out more of his personality as a family man. The introductory scenes are more about Benicia’s reaction to him:
We stopped in front of his door. It had one of the wreathes you’d find at Hobby Lobby with woven branches, blue and white checkered bows, and pastel hearts. I assumed Ray was married. No guy with a Ford F-150 would pick out one of those on their own.
Maya took her mask out of her purse. “Should we?…”
I grumbled, “If we wore those, he’d kick us out.”
Agustín looked over his shoulder towards me. “You said he was a nice person on the phone.”
I exhaled hard. I didn’t want to take the time to explain to him why that Trump bumper sticker bothered me so much. And I didn’t want to blow this interview after we came all this way. If I wanted to be taken seriously as a videographer, I had to be impartial. Even when it hurts.
I was pleased with the changes I made to Ray when I sent the manuscript out to beta. By making him a more sympathetic character, it made the story work better. But with everything revealed about the former president recently, and the potentially worse things that may come, can I still write a Trump voter as a sympathetic character?
Many of the principles I followed in developing Ray still apply. Political beliefs are only one aspect of a person. People vote for politicians for different reasons. Developing well-rounded characters, no matter how minor, is crucial to storytelling. A single stereotype can sink an otherwise well-crafted story. (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, anyone?) My moral position of making Ray sympathetic also still applies. We need to see the humanity of people we disagree with, especially with those enmeshed in his cult.
And yes, it is a cult.
Cult leaders control their followers several ways. One of them is isolation. They may use physical isolation, such as moving them to a compound or even another country. Mostly, they use psychological isolation. They convince them the cult is the only place where they can find safety and goodness, and the outside world is evil and out to destroy them. They must avoid all contact with outsiders, including their own family.
Another thing I’ve noticed about cults is they often engage in practices to repel outsiders. These can include offensive symbols and flags, strange clothing, and bizarre rituals. When outsiders react with disgust, it furthers the cult leader’s narrative that the outside world hates them. And outsiders give up on reaching out to cult members because they are so offended by these behaviors. They assume cult members are just crazy and not worth saving.
The Cult of Trump has genuinely dangerous people. Our justice system should not hesitate in prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law, including the former president. But there are many who just got sucked into it and don’t see a way out. Therefore, we must never give up on seeing their humanity as well.
I think about my visits to Germany in 2013 and 2014. We like to believe the Holocaust was a unique event, a product of a uniquely evil leader and some unique inherent flaw within the German people. We should realize by now that anyone can get swept up by some charismatic leader who gradually convinces us to believe increasingly awful things. The way to break this spell is by maintaining our humanity. By showing them the humanity in themselves, they can see the humanity in others. If Germany can learn from their past to become a more humane, progressive, and multicultural society, so can we.
This is why fiction is important. It can show the humanity of people who are different from us and offer a vision of a better world. One of the best services we as writers can do for society is to create sympathetic characters we disagree with.