Historical upheavals and gut-wrenching personal conflicts aren’t the only kinds that keep readers turning the pages. Almost as important are small-scale conflicts— for example, political differences between friends or lifestyle differences between relatives.
Internal inconsistencies—especially, self-delusions—are always useful to make your characters more interesting. The madness of King George and the eccentricities of Louis XIV are what make them entertaining. Had they been even-tempered and logical rulers they would have presided over happier constituents, but they would have been boring to read about, even in biographies, and just about impossible to reconfigure as plausibly amusing characters.
We don’t want to read about normal people with ordinary lives. We want to read about wild-and-crazy statistical outliers—explorers, pioneers, geniuses, one-in-a-million talents, lunatics. The business world gushes not about steady-at-the-helm managers but about market disrupters whose inventions and enterprises cause human culture to re-organize itself. No one wants to read about a career computer programmer who spent years dutifully writing miles of code, but millions of people will flock to tell-all books about visionary dropouts like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
But interesting characters don’t have to be captains of industry or Olympic champions. They may be as simple as neighbors with a running feud, its origins long forgotten, as in the tale of the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Capulet and Montague families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They don’t even remember why they are fighting, but the feud gives purpose to their lives, while providing them with opportunities to reconsider their behavior—maybe even to ponder its consequences and to renounce the magnetic attraction of blind stupidity.
Internal quirks make for fascinating characters: reluctant heroes and charming villains. They consistently find an eager audience. The James Bond spy franchise always features such villains—twisted geniuses out to conquer or destroy the world, but who cultivate rare orchids or have a special fondness for kittens. Any characteristic that humanizes them makes them more appealing to readers. Heroes that are 100% good are simply boring. So are villains that are 100% evil. The gray area where they meet is what draws our focus. It’s your literary gladiatorial arena.
The quirk of self-delusion is a reliable platform on which to base humor and comedy. Consider this fictitious opening: “After he retired from the aerospace industry, Uncle Harry and Aunt Joanie had lived in self-imposed squalor. From the street, their house appeared to be a normal middle-class residence, but inside it was a disaster zone of deferred maintenance and botched repairs. Joanie nagged him constantly about things that needed fixing, but Harry was too proud to call experts. He insisted that he could do it all himself, but despite his engineering credentials, he didn’t really know how to handle a screwdriver. He couldn’t have replaced a light switch if his life depended on it.”
This sort of premise is the basis of Souvenir, a wonderful stage play by Stephen Temperly. It follows the career—if she can be said to have had one—of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite who imagined herself an opera singer and interpreter of classic art songs. Jenkins performed throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, with her accompanist and loyal friend Cosmé McMoon, who knew that she had a terrible voice but never found a way to tell her. Jenkins’ vainglorious tone-deaf performances made her a laughingstock of New York society, but she was so deluded that she took the laughter of audiences as approval. As is made clear in the play’s touching dénouement, Jenkins was probably incapable of hearing her own voice, and heard it as she imagined it sounding.
Souvenir is also a cautionary tale about how willing people can be to indulge the vagaries of the wealthy. An old British adage puts it this way: “Madness in a workman is eccentricity in a lord.” Wealthy and powerful characters have a lot more leeway and enjoy more forgiveness than do secondary and minor characters, which partly explains their eternal popularity in literature. It has always been thus, in art and in life.