Writing Excuses 15.13: Using Elections in Stories
Key Points: Don’t make the outcome of the election the climax of the story! Election day is anti-climactic, just waiting for the votes to roll in. Do use elections as a background that affects your characters’ lives. Do use the fun, quirky people in the campaign. The candidate, with or without spouse, is arrogant and emotionally fragile. The campaign manager is counselor, manager, has plenty of experience, and is willing to put some spin on it. They also have a deputy. Next is the communications director, a people person who interacts with the press and social media. They have to balance responses and how does this make the candidate look, will it persuade people to vote for the candidate. Again, they may have a deputy to help. The finance director tells the candidate who to call and how to ask them for money. They’re accountants who know how to schmooze. Finally, the field director knows the statistics and how to manage volunteers. Volunteers have time but no money, and go out to knock on doors, call phones, or whatever you do for this selection. Donors have money but no time. Volunteers and donors can be kooky and eclectic and strange. Know what the stakes of the election are for your characters, on a personal and societal level. Think about how elections are run, across history and across geography. Think about what your characters have to do to schmooze, and what are the consequences of schmoozing and the election.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 13.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Using Elections in Stories.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We have special guest Daniel Friend. Thank you for coming on.
[Daniel] Thank you for having me.
[Brandon] You have been running or part of some political campaigns…
[Daniel] That’s right. So the reason I want to talk about elections in stories is because I’ve been involved in a lot of them. Normally, I’m a science fiction and fantasy editor, and I don’t see nearly enough elections in stories considering how often and how important they are to our own lives. So, in 2012, I actually worked in the Utah County elections office during the Presidential campaign between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. In 2017, I was the communications director for a US congressional campaign in Utah. In 2018, I ran for the Utah House of Representatives as a candidate. Lost, but that’s okay.
[Dan] Well, then you have nothing important to say.
[Daniel] We’ll see.
[Daniel] This year, I am reprising the communications director role for a third-party US congressional campaign. So I’ve been around elections a lot, and they’re a very strange little world that not enough people know about. There’s some really cool things that we can do in stories with them.
[Brandon] All right. Well. Take us on that trip. You pitched this episode to us. It sounds really interesting. You actually have an outline. You’re way more prepared than…
[Mary Robinette] We have ever been.
[Brandon] Yes. So let’s go through it.
[Dan] Well. Mahtab.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. Mahtab.
[Dan] We’ve got to give her props.
[Mary Robinette] Fair.
[Daniel] Well, I’m glad I can be second in something. Besides just a vote.
[Mary Robinette] [garbled… reminder]
[Daniel] So, the first thing… I want to start out with how not to use elections in stories. Because there’s a really big pitfall in thinking that the outcome of the election is the climax of my story. That’s the most important thing that’s going to happen. But, don’t do that.
[Brandon] Why not?
[Daniel] Because elections are inherently anti-climactic. It’s a very strange thing. Because if you’re working in an election, you’re going out every day and you are meeting strangers and you’re working so hard. You’re putting your heart and soul into this thing that is really important to you. At least presumably. Then, at the end of the day, all that work you did boils down to hundreds or thousands of other people making a decision about you. So when election day comes, that’s actually the most laid-back yet high strung day of an entire campaign.
[Mary Robinette] Right.
[Daniel] Because there is nothing left for you to do. You’re sitting there, biting your nails about what’s going to happen, and you are completely powerless. Now, you don’t want to have a character be inactive as your protagonist. On election day, despite all the activity that they’ve done up to that point, they’re just really sitting around, watching TV, waiting for those results to come in. So, make sure that there is something going on in your climax other than just what’s the results of the vote.
[Brandon] Right. I didn’t really grasp this until you said it. But now I can totally see that the last day is the most boring day, with a really nice exciting moment at the end of it.
[Dan] I’m trying to think.
[Daniel] Or a soul crushing disappointment [garbled]
[Dan] I’m trying to think of stories about elections. I remember there was a movie with Chris Rock and Bernie Mack years and years ago. They got to that point where there is nothing left to do, and they showed that moment where he was sitting around bored. He’s like, “You know what, I’m going to go drive people to work.” So he got a bus and he went… They had him doing something during that period.
[Daniel] Another example is I just finished watching the season of Parks and Rec where Leslie Knope runs for city council. Now, that isn’t exactly a great example because they treated it like a U.S. Senate campaign.
[Daniel] There was way too much money going on in that race for a small town city council. But…
[Brandon] That’s the joke, right?
[Daniel] That is the joke.
[Howard] It’s Parks and Rec.
[Daniel] So do use it for… As a good example of what people do to each other in campaigns. Don’t think that a city council race looks anything like it. That’s U.S. Senate and above.
[Mary Robinette] You’re making me think about Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly, which is all about this political campaign that is going on in the background. It is… None of the characters are directly involved in the campaign, but their lives are being influenced by everything that’s going on around them. It’s… You’re right, it’s fantastic in that way.
[Daniel] That’s an excellent way to use elections in a story, is to have this thing that is really going to affect your characters’ lives happening in the background, and to what extent do they pay attention to it, to what extent do they understand that this is actually going to matter to them? Do they get involved or not? So, to use elections as a vehicle for telling interesting stories, doing it within an election campaign is actually a great idea, because there are so many fun, quirky people in a campaign. Everybody in a campaign is automatically a little bit weird. Because they are willing to take a job that’s going to last for a few months, and it does pay decently for those few months, but then after that, you’re out of work, and you either have to move to another place to get a new job, or you have to do a completely different kind of job, which is what I’m lucky enough to be able to do. They’re really just a little bit kooky because they’re not just getting involved like, “Oh, I’m going to donate.” “Oh, I’m going to have a yard sale.” They’re actually putting their 40 hours a week or more into this. So I want to just run down the cast of characters within an election campaign and tell you a little bit about why they are going to be fun. So, the most obvious person is, of course, the candidate, the person who is running for office. Whether or not they have a spouse is also going to be a big deal, because candidates’ spouses make a huge influence. But the candidate is going to be arrogant. Arrogant enough to think that they can win. And yet also emotionally fragile. Candidates are always needing reassurance from somebody that they’re doing okay, that they can actually win, that this is worth all of the time and effort they are putting into it, because everyone is so invested.
[Howard] It sounds like writers.
[Dan] I was going to say, the TV show Veep, in the season where she was running for President, they did that beautifully. That combination of just absolute bullheaded arrogance and complete fragility. So that’s a good example to look up.
[Daniel] Yes, it is. Now, the person who is most often going to be helping the candidate feel better about these things is the campaign manager. Besides being the psychological counselor for the candidate, their main job is to manage. Now, campaign managers tend to have lots of experience under their belts. They tend to not really… Like, they want to make sure that they’re supporting someone that they like, but, there also very willing to spin things, to color the truth a little bit. That’s part of the job. So, campaign managers tend to be interesting that way. Under… They also usually have a deputy to help them when they’re not around. The next job is the communications director, which is what I know the most about because I did it. Communication directors are usually a people person, because they have to interact with the press. They have to figure out social media. Beyond them, you have the finance director.
[Brandon] Wait, wait wait wait. What makes communication directors weird?
[Dan] Yeah, you skipped over that.
[Daniel] Oh, now I have to tell you something weird about me. Communication directors are the people who have to think about how we are going to persuade people to vote for you. What’s the message? So they kind of have to get into other people’s heads. They like this. They think of it as really, really fun when somebody drops something, like some insult on Twitter, and they get to respond to it and really burn the other guy. Yet, they’ve also got to balance this with how is it going to make my candidate look. They’re always the ones who want to get the zinger, the “Oh, yeah, gotcha!” But they’ve also got to be really careful. How well your communication director balances those things or how well they don’t, makes a really interesting character. Now, when I tell you these things that the person should be good at, a really interesting thing to do in a story is make them not so good at one of these things. Now, in the real world, your deputy should cover for you. I’m not the best at social media. My deputies do that really well. But what if in your story, they don’t have that deputy for whatever reason, and they have to fail really hard at something that’s really important.
[Howard] It’s interesting to note that when you describe the communications director… I mean, I have years of corporate experience as a marketing guy. I realized, oh, that is squarely in the middle of the marketing wheelhouse. Squarely in the middle. All of the skill set of marketing, whether or not you think marketing is evil, that is where it fits. It’s just that the product you are marketing, the message that you are marketing, is… It’s this weird sort of flexible undulating brand that is a person whose brand will necessarily change during the course of the campaign.
[Daniel] Yes. That is all very true. Just to give you a real life example in me, I was told the other day that I’m really good at writing fundraising emails. Which is something I have never aspired to be.
[Mary Robinette] I’m just making a note of that for my own [garbled]
[Brandon] Let’s pause here for book of the week, then we’ll come back to the rest of the roles. So. Our book of the week, you were going to pitch at us…
[Daniel] So, every year, there is the Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium in Provo, Utah, that is a wonderful conference. I’m sure it has been talked about multiple times. Now, last year, they started having a benefit anthology that keeps prices low for students going to this. I’m in that first benefit anthology. My story is called Launch, and the benefit anthology is called Trace the Stars. So, it’s available on Amazon. All of the stories in there are fantastic, I’ve read every one. The reason I want to bring this up is because the next benefit anthology is already opening up their call for submissions. The topic is A Parliament of Wizards. If you don’t think elections go into that, well, I’ll just tell you, I’m going to write something for it. We’ll see if it gets in.
[Brandon] Now, this is for charity, right. So there’s no payment for the stories once they been picked up.
[Daniel] That’s correct. It is a benefit anthology to benefit students who are attending this writing symposium.
[Brandon] Excellent. All right, let’s get back to our roles.
[Daniel] All right. The next one is the finance director. This is the person who sits next to the candidate while the candidate is calling up people like Brandon and saying, “Brandon, can you give me $2700, please?” The finance director is the person saying, “This is how you ask. This is what you need to do.” The thing is, they’re usually only paid on commission. So their job is to bring in money so that they can actually get paid.
[Brandon] Wow. So they’re getting paid on commission to raise money for the political campaign. So a percentage of what you’re giving is going…
[Daniel] To the finance director.
[Daniel] For their services and figuring out who to call, figuring out how to ask them for money. Because if I just walk up to Brandon and say, “Hey, please write me a check.” I’m probably not going to get anywhere. The financial director is the person who goes, “I know that Brandon has enough money to give you a max donation, and this is the best way to ask him for it.” Whereas they’ll say, “Daniel doesn’t have enough money to give you a max donation. You probably want to get him to volunteer for you instead.” So the financial director is a very strange numbers punching kind of person. They have to have a weird mix of an accountant and someone who can really schmooze people.
[Dan] Well, someone who can read people, it sounds like.
[Mary Robinette] This is something that’s common in all fundraising. Most fundraising, except at some nonprofits… But most fundraising, you do get a commission for the amount of money…
[Brandon] I had no idea.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. My mom was a fundraiser for years. She is where I learned all of my schmoozing from.
[Mary Robinette] But it is this constant interplay of a political and financial conversation that you’re having.
[Dan] When I was raising funds to put together a scholarship locally… I built an endowment at one of the local universities. We would 100%, every person that we targeted, we research them and we figured out what’s the best way to approach this person specifically.
[Brandon] What did you determine about me?
[Dan] We said, “Hey. Brandon.”
[Dan] “I’ve known you forever. Give me some money.” It worked.
[Daniel] Sometimes that works. Finally, the last person in charge is the field director. This guy has to be really good with numbers, because he’s looking at statistics. This is the guy who actually figures out how many voters do we need to win this election? Where do they live? How do we contact them? Then he leads a team of volunteers to go out and knock on doors, call phones, do whatever you need to do. Go on the Galactic Inter-Webz and give them a holo-projection, whatever it is that works in your election. That person’s got to have both the numbers aspect and a managing aspect. Those don’t always come in the same package. Finally, you’ll have volunteers who are always kooky and eclectic and have more time than they have money.
[Daniel] You also have donors, who are exactly the same as volunteers, except that they have more money than they have time. So you can make them just as strange as you want them to be, and it will not be different than real life.
[Howard] That feels so incredibly safe right now…
[Howard] Because I have insufficient quantities of both money and time.
[Brandon] We’re almost out of time on this episode. Is there a last point that you want to hit?
[Daniel] Yes. Just really quick. Make sure you understand what the stakes of the election results are for your characters, both on a personal level, because either they’ll lose and nothing will change, or they win and everything in their life changes, and also on the societal level. What are the impacts to the society, based on who wins this election? Also, make sure that you take some time to look at not just how American elections are run, but also how elections across history and across geography have been run. You’ve got parliamentary elections where it’s based on what party gets a percentage of the vote. That’s how the seats are allocated. You have ranked choice voting, like you have in the Hugo awards, which we’ve all done. You also have very small electoral colleges, like in the Holy Roman Empire, where seven princes would choose the next Emperor. Each of those elections plays out differently. If you only have to schmooze seven people, that’s a very different election than if you’re trying to schmooze a Galactic community of several billion. So, know what your race is, if it’s local, if it’s provincial, if it’s national, if it’s Galactic or what have you. Then follow the consequences of that.
[Brandon] All right. What’s our homework?
[Daniel] So, your homework is to go out and volunteer for a political campaign that you support. It doesn’t matter if it’s local or national or what have you. Then go out and do whatever they have you do, whether it’s knocking on doors or calling phones or whatever. Then, when you get home, start writing down what you did. When your imagination takes off in a different direction, start writing that story.
[Brandon] So, this was a really awesome episode. I learned a ton. I can imagine that there might be people out there who are writing books about elections who might need a really good editor, and you freelance.
[Daniel] Yes, I do.
[Brandon] How could they get ahold of you?
[Daniel] You can email me at email@example.com. Daniel Craig Friend initials editor at gmail.
[Brandon] Awesome. Well, you guys, get out there and knock on some doors. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.