Characters with the Power of Drama

I am reading, or rather listening to, The Lying Life of Adults. It is a departure from what I usually read, but I was interested in it because it is read by Marisa Tomei. I’m about two-thirds through it, and I’m enjoying it very much.

There is a whole cast of characters, and each one of them has their own motivators. Among the female characters, those motivators originate from their own unresolved inner conflicts and hypocrisies. (Most of the male characters mainly exhibit different strategies to obtain sex, and very few of them are conflicted about it.) Thrown together, the conflicting motives create an endless chemical reaction of drama. As the characters change, the drama churns into still more variety.

Up until now, I think I’ve always thought of characterization as something to give characters some flavor. To change “boy meets girl” into “quiet, intelligent boy who likes computers meets adventurous, artistic girl who likes classic cars.” Sure, you can even use one of these characteristics to aid the plot. The girl saves the day by rebuilding a carburetor. And indeed, much of the fiction I read does precisely this. The personalities of the characters have little to do with shaping the story or even making us like them.

In this story, the personalities of the characters are the story. The drama isn’t created by external events, but by personality conflicts. Each of the characters are interesting in their own right, but putting two of them together and writing the worst case scenario for their interactions creates drama. It creates the story. With a dozen such characters, the story practically writes itself.

(This story isn’t just great because of how the author creates the story. She is very good at writing the protagonist’s inner dialog, telling of her coming of age, and showing how her world is revealed to her. It’s quite good.)

I need to try this in my own writing. Instead of imagining a character with flavor, lacks, and kryptonite, I need to imagine a character with unresolved internal hypocrisy. And then several of them.