Cult of Personality
The first use of the phrase “cult of personality” appeared in a letter written by Karl Marx to German political worker Wilhelm Blos on November 10, 1877. This term describes a leader’s magnetic power to engulf and inspire their followers.
These devout followers hang on every word, and their loyalty grows with each speech. This term is not limited to politicians and may apply to business leaders, teachers, actors, sports figures, and musicians. Some notable examples include JFK, Martin Luther King, Joseph Stalin, Juan Perón (Argentina), Mao Zedong (China), The Kim family (North Korea), and Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines).
What is going on in the minds of the followers? It combines star-struck and success appreciation (factual or fabricated). People like winners, especially if they are good-looking and speak well. Leaders craft speeches for maximum reaction and practice before speaking to fuel addiction. The result is loyalty, fanaticism, and the acceptance of atrocious actions.
I wanted to examine this topic from a different angle. Developing a fictional character with a cult of personality is difficult, and I can provide a perfect example. In his famous speech, JFF said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Those powerful words still resonate and continue to inspire.
Let’s pretend those few precious words were not in a famous speech. Instead, the fictional character Jack said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” It is a good sentence, but not inspirational for the reader. “Get out there and work!” would have been a more effective sentence. What is the difference? Leaders require time to be accepted, and the loyalty they inspire does not translate to plain words.
Readers must build a character in their minds. That is far different from watching a magnanimous person inspire and achieve solutions. To develop a cult of personality, our minds need a connection to reality, and a character does not have the qualifications. What about a movie character? They certainly have an advantage, but even an over-the-top character like Luke Skywalker comes nowhere close to JFK.
How about this? Let’s use AI to make an interactive AI character that is programmed to inspire readers. They could give rousing speeches, connect with the reader’s tastes, react to their visual signs, and advise. Would readers become engulfed with this character? Probably not, because it is a one-on-one interest and is pissing the “cult” aspect. In a cult of personality situation, people talk about what they saw with each other, amplifying the effect. When combined with change (success), this further reinforces the effect. That cannot happen with a solitary book.
Can an author simply state that “Sally is a leader with a cult of personality” and then let the reader fill in the blanks? I suppose, but I would consider this a lousy character description. Readers need to be spoon-fed details over many pages until they have a complete mental picture. An outstanding leader like JFK can give a speech and achieve ten times the connection.
What if this were not true? If we take this illogical premise forward, people would become addicted to books. While great for authors, this would most likely mess up society. However, it would probably be better than the horrific side effects of drugs. Would there be excessive hospital visits for paper cuts?
I continue to find unwritable topics fascinating, and a character with a cult of personality would qualify. If I could only get such a fanatic following for my books…
You’re the best -Bill
August 23, 2023
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