Ah, the humanity of it all…and how to find it for your characters

In scene after scene, movie after movie, we see the villain fail. Why? Not because the story is plotted that way, we expect that. No, all too often the villain fails because the actor portraying him (or her) fails to find the character’s humanity. For the most part, actors playing “bad” people only play the negative elements of that person and the audience is stuck watching a one-dimensional character.

Why does this happen? As actor we have a tendency toward tunnel vision. The script tells us our character is “bad” and because we want to make sure the audience gets that information, we focus all of our energy on bringing forth the negative aspects of the character.

When creating a villain you have to remember the audience knows you’re bad because you’re doing bad things. And if you only play the “bad”, your behavior becomes predictable. When the audience knows in advance what you’re going to do, you lose the ability to surprise. Once that happens, your audience’s willingness to participate in the story you’re telling is diminished and they can’t/won’t completely engage.

How can you make sure this doesn’t happen? You have to find the humanity of your character, the good and the bad traits. Finding the humanity for the protagonist and the characters supporting him/her isn’t difficult. He’s fighting against the evil occurring in the story. However, finding the humanity, the good traits, for the antagonist and the characters supporting him is harder. They are the doers of evil but to ensure that they don’t become flat and uninteresting the actors portraying them need to include their humanity, so we can see not only the bad but also the good in them.

Hannibal Lector in the film Silence of the Lambs is a wonderful example. If Anthony Hopkins had portrayed him only as an evil person the audience would have grown tired of him long before the film was over. And there is no doubt that he’s evil – he kills people and then eats their livers with “fava beans and a nice Chianti.”  But he is also smart, articulate, funny, sophisticated, charming, etc.

In reality, no one is all bad or all good, either. Bad people do good things and good people do bad things. Another case in point is John Dillinger. A notorious bank robber and murderer, his life has been the subject of numerous screenplays. In spite of his crimes he was also beloved by the masses because he gave some of the money he stole from banks to the poor.

When you find the character’s humanity, you create a fully realized, multifaceted persona that keep us engaged, and in some cases, even rooting for your “bad” behavior! I mean who wasn’t hoping that in Bonnie and Clyde, despite of all the terrible things those two “bad” people did, that they would get away?

Even if you aren’t playing a truly evil person but rather someone who just did something wrong or stupid—the bad things are going to be written into the script. That’s how writers drive a story; they create conflict and that conflict generates tension. If somebody isn’t doing something “bad” there won’t be a story.  However, writers can be as myopic as the rest of us and often leave out the good qualities of the villain. It is up to us to find them.

Building a character is a delicate operation and all the aspects of that person, positive and negative, need to be explored and incorporated in your work.

So, what’s the secret? How do we do this? How do we find our character’s humanity so we can present a complex and engaging character? Remember the negative things are already written into the story: the crimes your characters committed, the mistakes they’ve made, etc. Your job is to come up with are Ten Positive Adjectives that help you describe your character. Ten adjectives that may or may not be immediately apparent in the script. Ten positive adjectives to help you flesh your characters out and make them real. You may have to dig deep but the digging is worth it. Actors playing Dillinger also need to find his good traits—he was cunning, courageous, generous, insightful, daring, etc.—and include those qualities in the role.

Finding and incorporating ten positive adjectives will keep you from falling into the trap that ensnares so many actors. As an artist you need to paint with all the colors, use all the tools in your toolbox and create a reality for your characters that not only makes them interesting but makes them human as well.

Got any questions about this post or any of the others? Let me know.

Acting – creating an active thought process that ignites an emotion that    provokes a behavior.”   John Howard Swain

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2 Responses to Ah, the humanity of it all…and how to find it for your characters

  1. This is so well stated, John. it makes something that could be thought of as only ephemeral truly doable.

  2. Sam Katz says:

    The “bad” character I remember Hopkins portraying with so much humanity was Captain Bligh in the third “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Film critics agree that it was the most fully realized of all the Blighs (including Charles Laughton and Trevor Howard), and showed Bligh’s thought process in doing what he did to preserve the Bounty’s mission and uphold British maritime law. The intricate and complex way Hopkins created and personified that historical character was amazing. Another performance that comes to mind is Robert Blake in “In Cold Blood.” Sadly, Blake actually did go on to kill his creepy wife … but perhaps because he was so sympathetic, he was acquitted! See how handy it becomes to be a great actor?!

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