You can’t make this up: Trump as a fictional character

A novelist looks at Trump as a fictional character

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published August 5, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Former president Donald Trump | Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the US Capitol in Washington D.C on January 6, 2021. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Former president Donald Trump | Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the US Capitol in Washington D.C on January 6, 2021. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It's a good thing, rather than bad, when work you produce results from failure. That's how it happened when I wrote my first novel, "Dress Gray," beginning on Memorial Day in the summer of 1977. I rented the first floor of a house on High Street in Sag Harbor, New York and shoved one of the twin beds in the guest bedroom up against the room's north wall, hauled in a wooden desk chair and a folding 4 by 8 table, set up my IBM Model D electric typewriter and tore open a ream of typing paper and put it next to me and sat down and started writing.

I wrote every day in that little spare bedroom from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. By the middle of June, I had completed 200 pages, which I handed to my editor over dinner one night. The next day she called to tell me they were "great, keep going," so I did, completing another 200 pages by the end of August, which I also handed in over dinner and was rewarded with the same praise and prompting. 

The only problem was, I didn't know where the novel was going. I had never written fiction before, so I was just writing blindly, hoping for the best. By the time Labor Day weekend rolled around, I had some serious doubts about the work I had done, despite the encouragement I was getting from my editor at Doubleday.  That Saturday, I went to bed and woke up in the middle of the night having completely sweated through my sleeping shorts, t-shirt and sheets.  I staggered to the bathroom and took my temperature.  It was 102—something.  I took some aspirin and managed to get back in bed and kept sweating, getting little if any sleep. 

I had come down with some sort of flu, or a very, very bad cold.  I was sick all day Sunday, ministered to by my girlfriend, who fed me chicken soup and bathed my head with wet washcloths.  Sunday night, my fever peaked at over 103.  I lay in bed not knowing whether I was awake or asleep, hallucinating moving images that looked like waves in the ocean.  In the middle of all this, I came fully awake and had what amounted to a terrible vision that everything I had written over three months was shit.  That was the word in the vision:  shit.

By the next morning, the fever had broken, and I was feeling better.  My girlfriend went back to the city on Labor Day afternoon, and that night I walked into the guest bedroom and took all four hundred pages I had written and moved them from the left side of my typewriter on the table to the twin bed against the wall.  I gave myself a weak bucking-up, allowing that not everything in that stack of paper was shit; there was good stuff I could use. 

Then I tore open a new ream of paper and aligned it atop the hundred pages left from the first ream, took a sheet, rolled it into my typewriter and started writing:

Ry Slaight was walking punishment tours on Central Area when they told him.  Each cadet told another as they passed, marching at attention, M-14 rifles upon their shoulders.  Area regulations required silence, so the news swept across the area like a hot wind, a ripple of whispered air, until it reached Slaight, who was marching in and out of a little piece of shade, down at the western end of the area, near the stoops on either side of the First Class Sallyport, a vaulted passageway through the barracks.

"They found a body up at Lake Popolopen this morning," said a voice.  The cadet spoke out of the side of his mouth, eyes straight to the front.  It was hard to know who spoke.

"They know who it is?" asked Slaight, who had about-faced and was marching next to the guy who had whispered the news.

"Some Plebe," said the cadet matter-of-factly.  "Don't know his name."

That was the first page of 600 which I pounded out over the next four months, finishing sometime in December.  Typing brings back such memories.  I remember that night I started writing a brand new manuscript of the book. I remember realizing that my idea that I could pull stuff from the old manuscript turned out to be wrong.  I never even touched those 400 useless pages, that massive mistake I had made as a writer. 

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But most of all, I can see those images in the same way I saw them as I wrote them, in my mind's eye, as they say.  I learned two things writing that book.  I learned that telling a fictional story is a tactile experience:  you live inside the story you're telling in a way that is as close to real as real can be. You walk into the rooms you're describing; you can feel the pavement of sidewalks you run down; you can hear the sounds of traffic rushing by.  And I learned that living in the world of your characters, you come to love them, every one of them, heroes, villains, lovers, enemies, passerbys, cops, criminals.  Even characters you preternaturally hate in the real world, you must have empathy for, in order for them to have the inner life that is as important to characters as the world they live in and the actions they take – the plot, in other words.    

The experience is so complete, so immersive, I found it difficult to live in the real world around me.  My mind would wander into the barracks at West Point as I sat at a table of friends in the middle of a busy restaurant.  I kept a reporter's notebook in my back pocket and made notes throughout the day before I sat down to write at night.  Having finished writing at 4 a.m., I awoke in the middle of the night dreaming entire scenes in the book, complete with dialogue, and wrote them down in my notebook before going back to sleep. 

The experience was the same with my other novels.  I loved it, every time – living in these worlds created not of real places and real people and real conversations, but rather inside my own head.  It was all fiction, all fake, all made up, but the stories and the characters were as real as a person sitting next to you in a car or on a sofa or across a table. 

How you do this is with love for all of it, for the story, for the places, for the arguments and the fights and the lovemaking and the excitement…and even for the boredom and the bad guys.  You love them too because they are so real to you, and they are yours.

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So the question is, how would you do this as a novelist with a character like Donald Trump?

In order to tell a story with him in it as any sort of character – a businessman, a politician, a father, a husband, a lover, a criminal, even a man across the room in a disco or restaurant…in fact, as anyone at all? I asked myself this question, because I am intimate with the act of creating fiction and writing novels, so I wondered, could it be done? As a novelist, could you love Donald Trump the character in your story enough to write him?

I have written several characters who could arguably be described as psychotic in each of my novels. Murderers, whom I have written into some of my books, even though they may not fit the medical definition of psychotic, have to be at least a little crazy to think they can get away with it, because that's the nub of criminality: thinking right from the start that I'm the one who will get away with it.

If that doesn't fit the character of Donald Trump, I don't know what does. He's perfect in that way, isn't he? 

Well, yes, but maybe a little too perfect, as it turns out, because even with bad guys in novels, the characters must have what they call in Hollywood a story-arc.  They start out one way and they turn out another way. Bad guys get worse, for example. There is a time before a killer commits a murder that he or she hasn't killed yet. They are brought to that point, or they bring themselves, with motive that comes from what they do or what is done to them and how they react to it, and they can transform from within themselves with delusions they cannot contain or dreams they cannot fulfill or resentments they cannot resolve or hatreds they cannot overcome.

That sounds like Trump, too, until you realize that he's got no arc.  Look at any photo of him.  He is outer-directed in every one of them.  Even in a famous photo taken of Trump and Melania in a nightclub not long after they met, his arms are around her, but his eyes are scanning the room like radar discs, as if to make sure that he's noticed.  Melania, stunning-looking, is just a prop.  There's no love in the photo.  All he can do is say, look at me.

In fact, with Trump, motive is either beside the point or impossible, because motive has to come from somewhere, and there is no place within him or within his story for motive to originate.  It's even hard to think of his having had bad, abusive parents as a motive for his emptiness and cruelty.  A good example is the time Trump infamously made fun of a disabled reporter for the New York Times, standing on a stage moving his arms awkwardly as if they were damaged and speaking in a way that he thought sounded as if he had a speech defect.  Where did that come from?  Where indeed does his cruelty come from in general?  His bullying as a businessman who didn't pay bills he owed to the little people who did work for him, or the political bully we see practically every day, seems to have sprung to life fully formed.  There is no arc from bullying schoolchildren smaller and younger than himself to bullying everyone and everything around him today. The Republican Party he has bullied into submission is just another kid on a playground to him.

When it comes to empathy for a Trump character, where would it come from?  When love for his children and his wife isn't apparent, where is it, that inner thing that compels a person to give up that part of himself which love for another requires?  It's nowhere to be found.  He doesn't even bother to try to act like he loves those close to him. 

Donald Trump is that rare exception to the rule, no man is an island.  He is an island, and thus as a character for a novelist, he is unreachable. You can write about Trump as a reporter, but from my experience as a novelist, you can't make this shithead up.

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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