So despite the fact that I have never written a political drama ever and am possibly the worst person to advise on this topic, I will try my best. Now let’s assume that this novel already has—well, all the things that make a great novel. Solid dialogue, character development, memorable scenes, etc. These transcend all genres. But I think the best specifically political dramas (kings, house of cards, the west wing, even comedies like veep or in the thick of it) are motivated deeply by their view of human nature.
I mean, it makes sense in a philosophical way, you can’t begin to talk about how people are governed, how you constrain them or liberate them, unless you have an idea of how people work, at their most basic level. Most of the great political philosophers begin their treatises by talking about what people are like. how we get from point A (the individual) to point B (the state), what psychology makes the whole greater (or lesser, or just different) than the sum of its parts.
And I think a political drama, when set up well, does the same—albeit less explicitly than Rousseau or Locke.
You have to ask yourself: in a good political drama, where does the excitement, the interest come from? In Kings, it comes from Silas (power-hungry, spotlight-hungry, divinity-hungry Silas) refusing to cede ground to David, when the essential grasping humanity of William Cross or Jack or Rose comes up against this unmovable divinity. In the West Wing it’s idealists, thwarted; in House of Cards it’s fascination with the way that Frank Underwood plays on people’s desires, in order to sate his own desire for power.
(even political comedies work this way—Veep considers most people to be basically idiots, and that’s funny, how these idiots rose so high; in the thick of it considers people mostly self-interested, self-aggrandizing, brutal, and that’s funny too. It all evolves from what you consider the spark of humanity to be)
I wouldn’t even consider Political Animals a good political drama, for precisely that reason. It had nothing to say about its characters except that they were a collection of traits, with hidden scandals that did not proceed from their natures but just…functioned as desperate grabs for attention. (thirty days under the borgias wrote political animals better than political animals ever did, and that was before the show aired)
A good political drama—like a good drama—says something about its characters, about what drives them, about what drives people. And what drives people drives governments, because they are composed of people, at their hearts. No one loves a political drama because it extrapolates on the red tape.
That’s my advice for writing a good political drama. Don’t ever forget, in your clever plotting and narrative machinations, that you are writing about people. You are writing about what makes us come together in a public space and declare ourselves more than the sum of our parts.
And what comes after.