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July 05, 2010

Obama, Designated Hero

One of the cardinal sins of inexperienced writers of fiction is their tendency to violate the rule "Show, Don't Tell." Instead of giving the reader or audience a chance to see the character's attributes, the writer has the narrator or another character or (in the worst case) the character himself, tell the audience about his attributes. More than that, usually, if the audience were never told about the supposed attributes of the character, they'd never know from his or her actions.

A subtrope of "Show, Don't Tell" is the designated hero. This is where the writer tells us who we're supposed to be rooting for and it's a good thing too, otherwise we'd never figure it out.

Politics has much in common with fiction. Here's the Economist's attempt at a designated hero:

Note the headline: "Obama v BP". The hero is alone, but not giving up. See his lowered head, his obvious heartache as he turns half-away from the sight of the offshore rig. Don't miss his rolled-up sleeves, his arms akimbo. The hero's not done yet.

Needless to say, the accompanying article is vomit-worthy.

Here's the original, un-doctored photo:

Oops. Not so alone, is he? Oh, and his head's not lowered, he's just looking at debris. And he's not shying from the gut-wrenching sight out in the ocean, but just turning toward that woman talking to him. Actually, he kinda looks like a doofus. Hey, maybe pretend to be listening to her, huh? A little eye contact, maybe?

Many violators of the Designated Hero rule run into the same problem. Their hero is an awful, frivolous, and empty person. You end up having to tell the readers to like him because if you don't they'll assume he's the bad guy.

The Economist has the same problem when writing about the President. In fact, he's done more to frustrate efforts to protect the Gulf than anyone. His drilling moratorium will cause more damage to the region than the BP spill itself. In fact, he hung the Gulf states out to dry while he had another round of golf.

Hence, Obama becomes the designated hero. He's the good guy because they say he is, not because he's done anything heroic. And, paradoxically, the fact that he's the (designated) hero means we're supposed to overlook his patent flaws. His lack of humanity. His inability to get anything done without six months of polling first. And his spiteful disregard for the designated villains.

Because that's the flipside. If this story has a hero, well, it has to have a villain. BP takes that role in the Economist piece, but the Republicans are not forgotten.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 12:35 PM

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