Calling All Heroes!
Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, offers a writing master class in which he recommends penning your villain before your hero “because it is the villain who will make the hero heroic” (masterclass.com, How to Write an Unforgettable Villain).
As an author myself, I was thinking about Dan Brown’s advice when Senator Manchin went back on his word again, and derailed the Democrat’s entire climate-crisis agenda last week.
Typical news coverage portrays Joe Manchin as “a Democrat in a red state” and “a moderate democrat” CNN, July 15, 2022) who “continues to wield an unfathomable amount of power over the president’s agenda” (The Atlantic, July 15, 2022). I reviewed fifty news stories about him and they often mention his conservative state and his ‘moderate’ ideology as reasons why he sabotages his own party’s agenda. But neither ideology nor voter opinion has anything to do with Manchin’s sabotage.
Mainstream media stories fail to mention his huge financial stake in coal—a fossil fuel that makes him a very rich man. The man is, quite simply, using his senate seat to guarantee that he continues to enrich himself.
How? Manchin is a founder and major shareholder of Enersystems, Inc., which has earned him tens of millions. From a literary perspective, he is a villain hiding in plain sight. Enersystems isn’t mentioned in most of his media coverage and he is careful not to bring it up. He also receives more donations from coal, oil, and gas companies than anyone else on Capitol Hill—a rather striking fact that is usually omitted from mainstream coverage too.
His spending and lifestyle are remarkable, but often glossed over. His home when he’s in DC is an 11,000-square-foot palace worth $25 million. To get around town, he drives one of his eight luxury cars—including a Maserati Levanti, McClaren GT, and BMW X9. In addition to his Maryland home and a party houseboat on the Potomac River, he owns numerous residential properties including a palatial waterfront home on the Kanawha River in West Virginia, plus a three-story motor yacht worth $700,000.
How can a senator (salary $178,000 per year) afford such lavish living? He’s a coal baron who earns roughly three-quarters of a million beyond his annual salary.
It would be helpful if journalists and the media stopped giving his corruption a pass. For instance, instead of the typical headline, what about an honest one such as Wealthy Coal Baron & Senator Blocks Climate Bill that Threatens His Personal Profits. That would be 100% honest. The current coverage is not.
Dan Brown couldn’t write a better villain. Manchin holds the fate of our world in his hands and he’s willing to trade it just to avoid any compromise to his excessive lifestyle. Heaven forbid he might have to sell a sports car or, even worse, a yacht!
But here is the problem with this story: No hero worthy of the villain has emerged.
If I were writing this story, I’d be tempted to turn President Biden into the hero. What if he woke up tomorrow with a glint in his eye and a metaphorical sword in his hand, determined to do whatever it takes? Yes, I like that plot twist. Wake up, Mr. President! We need you to ride into battle for us! It’s up to you, our elected hero.
Or is it?
Imagine a novel about a vicious monster—say, a dragon who cleverly shifts form into a rich and powerful man. To stop him from destroying the planet, a team of bold young heroes track him to his lair, a houseboat on the Potomac River near the center of government, and bravely confront him from their flimsy little kayaks. The stuff of best-selling fantasy adventure novels?
No. Just another chapter in the unresolved story of Senator Manchin. The heroic effort by kayaking climate activists was just a minor news story. Eventually, the dozen or so protestors had to paddle back home. There just weren’t enough of them to make a difference.
The real problem is that the heroic savior is a myth. They make great protagonists in novels, but real-life crises require a lot more than one, or even a dozen, heroes.
We tell ourselves a mythologized version of the civil rights movement in which one heroic man (Dr. King) almost single-handedly overcame segregation, but of course it was actually a massive movement involving millions of activists who, often at considerable personal cost, sustained pressure for many years.
Why aren’t a hundred thousand protesters camped outside Manchin’s house and houseboat right now? What if we surrounded Manchin’s mansion 24/7 and refused to leave, like those sit-ins in the sixties? Even better, let’s recall the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that toppled an unjust government and produced a brand new constitution. With enough people, anything can be done.
This isn’t a writing master class, it’s the real world, where power and privilege trump individual heroism. Only a broad, sustained social movement will save the day—and the planet.
The other plot twist is this: Senator Manchin isn’t the real villain, apathy is. Ordinary citizens have to be prepared to be heroes again. It might not make much of a novel but it makes for one hell of a democracy when ordinary citizens stand up en mass and become the heroes the world so desperately needs.
Alex Hiam, the author of Silent Lee and the Side Door Key, teaches creative writing and writes fantasy adventure stories for teens and tweens from his home in the Brattleboro area of Vermont. Available through your local bookstore or Amazon.