Let’s face it, intrigue is fun: it creates cerebral rather than physical conflicts, gives the audience a chance to match wits with the characters, and leads to some of the best sneaky maneuvering and one-liners a fictional setting can allow. Then it gets tangled up with politics, and things get really interesting; a politically skilled antagonist is one of the most devastating of all, able to act with near impunity due to the strength of her reputation—as long as she’s shown to her best advantage. So how do you show that a character is skilled in politics without having her telegraph her real intentions too early?
First off, the ability to think and to plan several moves ahead. A really good political character isn’t just looking at the immediate, obvious effects of her action; she’s also looking at the most likely effects of those effects, and at the more indirect effects of the action. The more of her goals she can set in motion with one single action, and the more obvious it is that that was her plan and not a mess of fortunate happenstance, the more impressive she is. For extra credit, she should be able to recognize not only the actual effects of her actions, but the effects on her image; there’s something impressive about a character who can be firmly in the questionable zone but know how to come out of it looking like a hero.
Then there’s the ability to hold things back. While we expect good politicians to be good liars, I find the scariest political characters are the ones who never actually lie, but still manage not to tell you everything, either by playing on the most logical conclusions that can be drawn from what they did say or just figuring out how not to make it glaringly obvious that they’ve left out a detail or two.
Being able to read people also helps, particularly if the character can do it both quickly and accurately. One of the greatest strengths of a good social character—not a requirement for a good political character, but it helps a lot—is the ability to figure out how her audience is reacting to what she’s doing or saying, and modify it accordingly, and that rarely works unless the character has a good sense of her audience’s reactions.
Last, there’s the ability to incorporate everyone else’s traits and tendencies into her actions. For a good political character, everything and everyone is a weapon—she can exploit her rival’s distaste for her, use an enemy’s threats to the public to her advantage, maneuver a secret to be learned by just the right person to make it explode in her favor.
Any plot works better when the character behind it looks like she can actually pull it off, but for political characters in intrigue plots, clearly showing that they have skill and not just luck isn’t just important—it’s vital.